Monday, June 29, 2009

Leave Taking

The last day of school falls on a Monday.

Nothing should ever end on a Monday. That's why we have Friday's, so we can enjoy our weekend. At the beginning of the year the faculty voted to take a day off between the first and second semester, but now we have to make up for it.

We were stupid to take that extra day.

According the calender it's still a day for instruction. The students are supposed to be in school.

Grades have already been submitted, technology and books collected, most teachers have even packed up their supplies. Yet, it's an instructional day.

My classroom is empty. It's a relief, I have to pack up and finish paperwork.

I silently wonder if Grumpy will show up. He's one of my more troublesome students, a freshman who hates everything. His has three lines he recites like a mantra.

1. "Man, this shit is boring."
2. "This sucks."
3. "What time do we get out of here!"

In spite of this can't do attitude, Grumpy never misses. He hasn't been late or absent once. I don't know how a student can hate school so much and still find a way to be so punctual on a daily basis. I believe he was put on this Earth to test my patience.

At 7:29 the classroom is still empty. I find myself smiling. Good, I don't have to babysit anyone today.

Grumpy walks through the door. "Man, I hate this school!" he shouts, throwing himself down in a seat.

I grit my teeth as the bell rings.

I ask him to sit and be quiet while I pack up the room.

Grumpy looks around. "Where is everyone? What are we going to do today?"

"You are going to help me pack up."

"Man, I don't want to do that."

"So why did you come?" I ask.

"Because there is nothing to do at home. It's boring."

A few other stragglers filter through the door to see Ms. Garcia and Ms. Gaitan. Being in special ed I share a small classroom with both of them. The pair of them are leaving this year, and the thought I might never work with them again sours my mood. The only silver lining is that I get to take over Garcia's desk. There is more space and it has the teacher computer.

After four years and I've finally gotten dibs on the teacher computer. I'm moving up in the world.

"Hey Leiken, can I kick it here?" Bashful asks. I nod. Sure, why not? I like Bashful, if I had a classroom of students like him teaching would be a delight. As I rifle through my desk I uncover a lost treasure - a black pirate flag with the jolly roger emblazoned down the center. The second year I had it tacked up above my desk before the other teachers made me take it down.

I doubt I'll ever use it again. I ask Bashful if he wants it. "Really, I can have it? Wow! You are like the coolest teacher ever!"

"I know."

"Man, this class sucks. When do we get out of here?"

"Does someone need some attention?" I ask.

"What Grumpy needs is a hug." Ms. Gaitan pipes in. "Bashful, give him a hug."

Bashful puts an arm around Grumpy's shoulder's - he wilts, head darting downward towards the floor. He doesn't complain again for the rest of the period.

I spend the rest of the day visiting classrooms and wishing teachers luck over the summer. Some of the them I probably won't be seeing again. It's the pink slips. They don't have enough seniority, and older teachers who have moved into advisory positions will most likely be taking over their jobs.

Only the English teachers are being pink slipped, because everyone in an advisory position thinks they can teach English. It's BS of course. English is the hardest thing to teach, but because it's so open ended most people think they can wing it.

Our academy has a going away dinner at La Huasteca, a mediocre Mexican restaurant located in Plaza Mexico, the only decent sit down restaurant within a mile of our school. The service is terrible, the food average, the company sad. With the exception of Garcia, who is going to Harvard for grad school, no one else wants to leave.

Too bad they don't have a few years more seniority.

I feel like shit.

Towards the end of the day I spot Bashful with a group of his friends. "Hey Leiken!" he calls out from across the quad. "Look!"

He unfurls the pirate flag with his friends. "Arrgh!" they cry, giving me my patented thumbs up.

A small kindness is a powerful thing.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Graduation ceremonies are deadly affairs.

Somber and serious, filled with dreadful speeches direct from the rhetoric 101 factory. The traditional graduation song, "Pomp and Circumstance," is more fitting for a funeral then a celebration.

In spite of all the seriousness, the parents are always delighted. The predominately Latino crowd always seems a little perplexed by the entire ceremony, for many it's the first time they have ever been to the school. I'm always tempted to ask the parents where they've been for the past four years, but manage to control myself by keeping my jaw wired shut.

This year it's my fourth high school graduation. Teachers are not required to attend, and in fact most do not, but I never miss. I've put too much time and effort into the kids not to at least get one moment of joy out of seeing them walk the stage.

The first graduation I felt wistful, knowing that I would never see many of the students ever again. The second graduation I cried like a baby, but by the third I hardly felt anything at all.

This year I'm not sure how I feel. Nothing bubbles out, I don't feel particularly elated or melancholy.

Nine of my seniors are graduating, kids I've known since they were freshman. One would think I'd be sad they will no longer be part of my life.

Instead I just feel relieved.

The march begins and the seniors file out in blue and silver robes. Girls and boys wear the same colors at South East. The stands are packed as clusters of parents shout, blow air horns, and stamp their feet on the bleachers.

After the seniors file in they are subjected to a series of speeches not even fit for C-Span, but 4 years of high school has trained them well to sit and be quiet.

The first speaker is a former mayor of South Gate whose child is graduating, she's a squat woman who reads with about as much emotional depth as Chuck Norris. She makes references to South East's mission statement, standardized goals, and teaching standards. I'm guessing she used a rubric to write her speech.

I give her a 2.

Then out comes Flores, a school board member from District 6 who voted to let go 7200 teachers. She expounds about the importance of education and how school is the best way to succeed. "I have no doubt that someday the future president of the United States will be from this class!" she shouts.

She had better hope the future president isn't one of our teachers.

A grandfatherly old man takes the podium next, it's the superintendent, Cortines. He's the one who first suggested the layoffs. In April he claimed he would have to let go of 7200 teachers, then in May the number of layoffs dropped to 5000, then dropped further to 2000, until finally it reached a mere 500 by June.

Considering we're short staffed, I'm not sure why anyone has to be let go. Of course, I'm still wondering why he originally said 7200 jobs when the number was far lower.

Thirteen of the 500 teachers being let go are from South East, two of which I know and work with personally. They are dedicated, smart, and fierce when it comes to helping kids.

Too bad they don't have seniority. The longer you are in the system, the safer you are. Effectiveness, test scores, sponsorship of clubs: irrelevant. In LAUSD, it's years on the job that count.

Cortines begins by expounding about the wonders of education. The kids listen attentively, they don't care, it could be Ahmadinejad and they still would still cheer. Cortines thanks the teachers for their hard work, stating that South East has a 90% graduation rate and that 70% of the students that graduate go on to college.

I look over the seniors, there appear to be about 500.
An incoming class of freshman is over 900.

I'm told Cortines is now accompanied by a body guard after a group of 60 teachers getting laid off found his house and camped outside.

I look at my watch, over an hour has passed and we still haven't gotten to the names. I look over and spot one of my former students, Judith. She graduated in 2007.

"Hi, Mister!" she exclaims brightly.

She's currently studying to be an elementary teacher. She asks me about who is graduating and we trade gossip. "Whatever happened to Carlos?" she asks.


"Y'know, Carlos. He had dark skin, always wore plaid shirts."

I shake my head. I don't remember him. "I think he dropped out."

She asks about a few other kids. I draw nothing but blanks, I don't remember any of them. Judith is shocked. "But you used to teach them! They were in your room every day."

"I'm sure if I saw their faces I'd remember them." I lie.

Judith looks over the graduation. This year we have a huge jumbotron. "It's okay, but our graduation was better." she sniffs. "We were the first!"

Afterwords the principal speaks, and then we commence the reading of the names. Some kids are timid, shake the principals hand before nearly stumbling off stage. A few wave gregariously and hug him, others cry, one boy bawls like a baby.

The kids give him a standing ovation.

One of the boys blows smoke like's he's smoking a joint. The camera on the jumbotron spins away.

One by one my students graduate: Santiago, Vivian, Liz, Luis, Kathy, Jonathan, Lizette, Hector, Angel. I clap, but they can't hear me, their expressions are ones of stunned amazement.

Suddenly it occurs to me why I'm not more emotionally attached. It took me three years to realize it, but they're not my kids. I'm their teacher, not their parent. To the kids I'm important for only a short period of time, a comet passing in the night.

The ceremony ends with an impressive fireworks display. The class of 2009 marks our first graduating class that has attended South East all four years.

Good luck, kids. Good luck. I've done what I can, I hope it's enough.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Last Week

The last week of school is a hectic time as the school divides into two camps. The first camp is full of desperate students valiantly trying to finish assignments in a last ditch effort not to fail. They are the goof offs, the screw ups, the terminally lazy who under the threat of a deadline have finally decided to complete all their work in a reckless dash towards graduation.

For the seniors it's a hail mary.

The other camp are the students who have taken one look at their grades, assess the situation, decide it's hopeless, and quit.

One would think that this second group would just stop coming to school and make every one's life easier. But they don't. The students may have given up, but they come to school anyway. Home is boring, and the parents don't want to deal with them - not when they can squeeze one more week of babysitting out of the school system.

I've been doing this for five years now, and every year its the same as I work with students near a nervous breakdown in a valiant effort to get them to pass their classes. I'll spend hours after school helping them, I'll argue with their general ed teachers as their advocate, I'll debate with counselors, work out deals with the administration, I'll do everything short of get on my knees and beg.

Especially for the seniors. If they don't graduate in the 4th year, most of them won't come back for a 5th. Should I let them fail? After all, most of the special ed students in danger of failing goofed off most of the year, isn't failing the price they should pay, the natural consequence of refusing to finish assignments on time?

I don't know. Regardless, I try to help them through as best I can. This year it was three seniors in particular that made me sweat bullets. One does all his work, but never turns it in, then he loses the work, and had to redo half a dozen assignments.

That made me scream.

The second student blew off her freshman year, terminated a pregnancy, nearly got expelled for not coming to school, then decided she wanted to graduate. The last semester she was taking all core classes and adult school. We spent the last 3 days hours after school trying to get her to finish up.

Come graduation, she'll walk with the rest of her class - all at the small price of my mental health.

The third student works hard, but needs to be walked, step by step through every essay, every math problem, every answer. She has the work ethic, but processes things slowly, it's like trying to get windows to run on a commodore 64. Somehow she'll graduate - but by this time I'm suffering from post-traumatic stress.

If it wasn't for Garcia some of these kids would have failed.

On top of this are the simpletons who refuse to do any work, but continue to come to school to hang out. To them, the last week of school is one big party. While some of my students work harder then ever, others completely give up and do nothing but talk and disrupt the work being done.

The last week of high school is filled with irony.

It takes an eternity to finish.

But at least I get summer break.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Adult Education

Not everyone wants to graduate.

Hall and Oates even wrote a song about it.

A few would stay in high school forever, floating in the decision free womb of teenage adolescence for all eternity. The closer they get to graduating, the less work they do, all in the hopes of putting off the real world for just one more year.

In the world of Logan's Run, when you turn 30 you have to turn yourself in for "reincarnation." They call the ceremony carousel.

In the world of high school, you are exiled when you are 19 - but instead of "reincarnation" - you go to adult school.

In California, only special education students get a reprieve, they can stay in the public school system until they are 22.

John is one of my more bizarre students. He's got issues, and his issues have got issues, which causes me to have an issue with all of his issues. With John its just one big issue of Psychology weekly.

John has an alarming tendency to creep people out, especially his teachers. Most of the students just ignore him when he randomly pulls out ham and cheese sandwiches and starts eating them in class, or opens his mouth to gargle during a lecture.

When John believes he is being persecuted, and will run to my door to complain about his teachers.

"Teachers are bugging me. They bug."

"What happened?" I ask.

"They won't leave me alone in class. They are always asking me to do stuff."


"Stuff! They won't leave me alone."

"I'll talk to them."

"Thanks Leiken!"

Later I'll find out John is being "persecuted" because he refuses to pull out a paper and pencil, puts his head down and goes to sleep, or has ditched class twice a week for the past month. After I resolve what is happening, I'll talk to John a second time, whereupon he'll apologize and promise to behave.

We've gone through this routine every couple of months for the past 4 years.

This year he was on track to graduate, when suddenly he developed a severe case of "senioritis", starting back in September of 2008. John was suddenly incapable of completing assignments, finishing homework, answering tests, working in groups, writing papers, or completing anything else that remotely resembled school work.

Part of this is my fault. I told him he could come back for a 5th year if he needed to make up a few credits. I should have stressed this didn't mean he could take the entire year off.

Yesterday he showed up in my room during 4th block, probably ditching class to finish up work with me i.e: Leiken will give me the answers.

This is as good a time as any. "John," I begin, "we need to discuss your exit IEP."

"Yeah, my counselor told me I need only 5 more credits and I can come back next year to make them up."

I took at his transcript. He has to make up 3 classes, plus the 4 he is currently failing now, including English 11 which he is taking for the 3rd time. "John, you need to make up more then 5 credits. You've taken English 11 three times now."

"Yeah, but that's a good thing." he pauses, "each time I take it I learn more."

"You need to finish up in adult school."

John shakes his head. "I can stay here until I'm 22."

"You want to be here until you're 22?" I gape. "You want teachers to order you around when you are a grown man?"

"It's better then the real world."

"You aren't staying here until you are 22. You can finish up in adult school."

But John is adamant, determined to stay. The conversation does not end so much as peter out, I can't convince him to leave, and I don't have the power to make him leave. If a student in special ed wants to stay, they can stay until they are 22 until they graduate.

Most of the time they stay one more year, then drop out - there is no point to coming when all their friends are gone.

The problem here is that John doesn't really have friends. He'll stay to the bitter end.