Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Letting Go at Local Continuation School

J.P decided to spend the period drawing an illicit picture glorifying drug use. This and other antics of non-doing proliferated at the local continuation school where I worked frequently. J.P will figure more prominently in this segment, but before I disclose the account that ushered him into unwanted prominence, I must recap the trends and fallout of the Continuation school where I covered classes frequently.

Some students were dumped there following two years of failure and sloth. They had nothing to show for their time in school beyond discipline issues and poor grades. Then they came to the continuation school, an instution whose numbers would rise and fall depending on the amount of failure pushed out of the continuation schools.

Some students ended up at this schol because of legal issues. One young lady shared that a friend of hers had given her a pocket knife, an article which did not belong on campus. Caught with the sharp instrument, she and a friend were implicated and involuntarily transfered. Other students had transfered from as far away as Venice High School. Then there were the students who had just been released from juvenile hall, trying to get back into the legal rhythms of life, but not to great avail.

So, I was covering a home ec class, a makeshift program for Ms. B., a teacher who was forcibly moved out of her original class in the local comprehensive school. She had formed lasting bonds with colleagues, but in response to claiming retaliation for her position on growing concerns that troubled a number of faculty on campus, she received short notice that she would be teaching a set of classes at the continuation school for the next year.

"I have so many skills," she told me. "I feel sad that they are all going to waste." Indeed, all that she could assign students, pupils who showed up for only three hours a day to complete contracts.  included reading assignments from a child-care manual and individual projects outlining the gestation period of a baby in the mother's womb. She was a dedicatedhome ec teacher who was treated in so undedicated a manner, and all she could do for the time being was make the most of it.

She graciously permitted me to cover her class for two days while she attended an out-of-state conference. Two days of students sitting around and doing nothing -- behold the stagnation of this continuation school. Still, plenty of students were glad that I would be covering the class for the next two days. Most of them did not like Ms. B. (too bad for them)

The first day was slow then a pick-up into more students with less space. The third period was the largest classs -- fifty students on the roster! -- but at least fifteen of them did not show up, so at least everyone was guaranteed a seat. Since she did not bother with creating a seating chart, Ms. B and then I would content ourselves to contend with the talking and the disruptions to take role as best as we could.

For the rest of the day, I just visited with students. A few times, we could talk about issues of greater import to them -- sex, drug use, the media focus on hype instead of news -- but much of the time I sat at my desk and wrote in my journals while other students would just visit the whole time and do nothing.

In front of me, I had to contend with J.P and Art, two toughs who looked like members of a local gang (I was fully aware that gang-life was alive and latent on the campus). At one point on the second day, it sounded as if J.P and Art were discussing a drug deal. I wasn't too sure, did not want to jumpt to conclusions.

But J.P. chose to work on something else. With colored pencils galore, he depicted a whacked-out freak with teased hair smoking a long joint. In bold colors, the title on this makeshift paen to "getting high" read "Happy 420!" I could not let him get away with it. Quickly, I took him outside to ask him about the ridiculous drawing. The special ed teacher came by next to talk to a few students individually, but when I showed him the drawing, he lost his cool.

"What's this nonsense?" he shouted at J.P. "Are you crazy?"

"I thought that it was something that I should have an administrator look at," I commented on the side.

"By all means. I'll take the student to the office.

I started to get a little nervous. That was the first time that I had ever intercepted sensational material or exposed a controversy like drug use -- or a drug deal in a classroom. I was jolted further when the site administrator, Mr. A. came to the class.

"Excuse me, Mr. Schaper," he asked me, standing in the doorway while keeping an eye on the rest of the campus. "Could you tell me if the student you sent to me was doing anything susipicious?"

I began recounting to him the strange discussion that J.P. had engaged in with Art, it sounded like they were planning a drug deal. "I'm not too sure exactly what I heard," I then shared, "but it sounded to me like something bad was going on." Mr. A. looked more concerned than ever.

Needless to say, this site administrator was covering for the assigned principal, Mr. E., who in an unusual move was absent that day. I honestly do not know what was going on, that the full-time administrator could not be there, but I am sure that he would have handle the matter much better than this substitute principal.

I started to get nervous. Did I skimp on any credible details? Did I leave out anything important that might implicate this kid in something more serious. For  a few minutes, my mind was racing, fearing that perhaps I should have said more. A few minutes later, I ran up to Mr. A, articulating a more sinister picture of what I thought that I had heard. Reluctant and perturbed,  Mr. A told me,

"Well, if the kid is dealing drugs, then will get the sheriff involved, will make sure that he does not come back to campus." Those words haunted me. I did not intend for anyone to get expelled, but the overactived fears of one administrator triggered in me a greater panic, one that may have played fast and loose with the whole account of what I had seen and heard. Still, at the time I decided that it was better to be too cautious than careless.
The week ended with a wiff. I finished covering Ms. B's class for those two days, then came the week-long Spring Break.

I returned to the campus for the next week, where I saw J.P. sitting quiet and brooding on the side of the room. He  said nothing to me. So, I had returned to the school the next week after, and J.P. had become bitter and sullen.

Just my luck, however, that I covered for Ms. B once again. J.P. and Art grunted at me, nothing more. But if I thought that everything from the previous week was at that point water under the bridge, I was greatly mistake. Yet the challenge that ensued opened up a solid opportunity for reconciliation, one which I had never accomplished before with a student, as my past history with student-teacher conflict ended in hurt feelings, frayed emotions, and fears of reprisal.

Quietly, I sat down at the teacher's desk, going over some paperwork, handing out packets for students to go over for their contracts/ Then someone started throwing paper wads my way. The first one just doffed and felll to the ground near my feet. Then a second one flew over my head. Quickly, I walked around some of the student desks near mine, and I saw nothing amiss.

As soon as I took a seat once again, another wad of crumpled paper landed at my feet. This time, I picked up the crumpled paper, unfolded it so that I could read over it. The crisp, blue lines of the paper contrasted uniquely from the rest of the sheet, an off-white tinged with a hint of brown. This sheet of paper must have come from an entire ream of paper. Slowly, I looked around at the same desks which I had visited a few minutes earlier. Behold, J.P. had a ream of paper just like the ones that had been thrown my way.

"Watch, out man, he's investigating!" Art chimed out. He knew what was going on, or so he thought.

"Step outside, please," I told J.P., calmly.

"What? What did I do?" he asked my pointedly.

"Don't worry about anything. I am not going to write you up, I am not going to kick you out. I need to talk to you."

J.P. grumbled a little, but he packed up his things and walked outside. I brought a chair with me, and I had him sit outside, next to the frame of the door so that I could keep an eye on the class while talking to him.

"Do you feel picked on?" I asked him.

"What am I doing out here? I didn't do anything wrong."

The papers that had been thrown at me suggested otherwise, but I was going to take a different line with this student.

"Tell me, do you feel picked on?"

"Well yeah, I mean, you have told me to step outside. Here I am"

"I am talking to you out here because what we have to talk about is no one else's business, unless you want to tell them what is going on."

He was not willing to sit and listen to me for the first few minutes. He was argumentative at first, but mostly, it seemed, because he was scared and upset. I continued.

"Are you upset about last week?" I continued.

"Well, yeah! I mean, now the principal and the security staff think that I'm a drug dealer, and I'm not. They even searched me and everything. You got me in trouble."

I conti nued, "Now, remembed. You chose to draw that explicit drawing glorifying drug use, and it was just your bad luck that you had a really jittery administrator on campus that day. But tell me, do you deal drugs or not?"

"Well, no," J.P. answered me.

"Then you have nothing to worry about, do you? I was once stopped, detained, and searched by police in Irvine because I was in the same area as a buglarly one night. I know what it's like to be accused of something that you did not do. . . ."

"But, Mister, now they think that I'm a drug dealer, and now I'm worried that you are going to kick me out a second time."

"Look, J.P., you have a clean slate with me. As far as I'm concerned, I do not remember what happened last week, and I do not care. You do not have to worry about me doing anything to you."

At that moment, his friend Art walked up to the door, and pointed at me fiercely, "You better not pick on my friend, man. I'm keeping an eye on you! You leave my friend alone."

I smiled, "You got it!" When Art walked back into class, I finished what I was saying to J.P. "See, I have a sense of humor! I don't hold a grudge. You have nothing to worry about with me."

I kept telling him to calm down intermittently. Just as I am writing now, as then, I make no record of his upset, but rather the present element, which was that J.P. had a clean slate with me. I am certain that was a new phenomenon for him.

"Alright then, J.P.?"

"OK, Mister." Then he went back inside, and I returned to my desk. Nothing more happened that day. No paper, no arguments, nothing.

Two weeks later, J.P. was taking a standardized test in the district office. I was proctoring that day. When he saw some of my drawings, he asked if he could take a look. I obliged. It was clear to me that we had reconciled fully.

Letting go was not as hard as I thought it would be. I did have to put aside some old ideas, like trying to fight my fear on my own, or trying to bypass the conflict entirely. Not talking for a week did not help that kid get over the consequence of being sent out for the day. Still, I am glad that I took the steps needed to let this kid know that rather than just reacting to his anger, I decided to let bygones really be bygones.

Letting go never felt so good, and the results were apparent to me.

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