Thursday, May 8, 2008

I Need to Invest in Some Tissues

Yesterday was the last day of the semester. Oh, you should've seen what a grand time I was having. My morning conferences were--dare I say it?--spectacular. Everyone had handed in everything they needed to hand in. Everyone had done really savvy jobs revising their prose and poetry pieces for their revision portfolio, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I felt like I could skip back to my office, where the last pink link was hanging patiently. There were only a few more hours until I could tug that thing down and paste it to my office door or my forehead or whatever. I was this close to doing any of that.

You can sort of sense where this is going, can't you?

After 2:00, my life became hell. My phone began ringing off the hook. Students were begging, begging, begging. Students were telling me they were going to be late, were going to be there whenever they could be, were going to be bringing incomplete portfolios. They wanted to know if that was okay. (NO.) But the next time my phone rang, it wasn't a student at all. It was a peppy and blond-sounding guidance counselor from one of the local high schools.

"I've called to discuss one of our students," she said. "I believe you had him in your College Writing class?"

Oh, had I ever. He was a super-young high school student who was taking college credits and trying to graduate early because, well, he hated high school.

"Yes?" I said, trying to keep the dread and doom from hanging itself up in the tones of my voice. But there it was, already unfurling itself like some long-folded dress that needed to have all its wrinkles steamed out of it.

"Well, he came to me in a panic this morning," the guidance counselor said. "He is under the impression that he is going to fail your class."

"Right," I said. "That's because I wrote him an e-mail last week that said he was going to fail my class. He tried to pass in a portfolio via e-mail--which I had not approved--and I haven't seen him in class for weeks."

"Okay," the guidance counselor said. "Well, are you aware that there have been an awful lot of problems on the home front for this student?"

"No," I said.

"Well, there have been," she insisted. "And this isn't like him. This behavior, I mean. He's such a sweet boy. He's no trouble at all."

"No," I said. "He seemed very sweet. When he came to class, of course."

"Well, he was panicked about all of this this morning, and he wanted me to do something about it."

"It's the last day of the semester," I said.

"Oh, I know," the guidance counselor said. "Trust me, I know. I told him, 'What do you think I can do about this for you NOW? I know I can work miracles, but I don't think this is one of them.' Still, I guess we were wondering if there was any hope that he could maybe get an extension. Maybe hand in his late work and get a second chance?"

I rolled my eyes into the back of my head. I took a deep breath. "He hasn't turned in a single essay since the first one," I said. "He is missing four big essay assignments, not to mention countless quizzes."

The guidance counselor was silent for a second. Then she dropped her voice low. "Ohhhhhhhh," she said. "Oh, well that's a whole different story. I didn't hear about any of that. So I guess an extension is pretty much impossible."

"I think so," I said. "I'm sure the department wouldn't be fond of the message that sends out to other students."

"Well, okay. Alright. I'm so sorry to have wasted your time. Really. I guess I'll go call his mother and give her the news," she said. "This isn't going to be good."

"If you have other questions, don't hesitate to call back," I said, but really I was thinking, Don't call back. Don't call back. Don't call back.

And she didn't. I took that as a good sign and moved on with the afternoon. But from that moment on my beautiful mood was spoiled. And the afternoon portfolio conferences proceeded badly. None of my College Writing students had proper MLA citation (despite two weeks of lessons and drills). And when I asked them, "Where's your Works Cited page?" they looked at me like I'd uttered a foreign language. I was feeling pretty lousy about myself when I heard a strange voice--a voice not belonging to any of my colleagues or students--saying, "I'm here to see Jess!"

Then a woman I'd never seen before stuck her head in my office. "Are you Jess?" she asked.

The student I was conferencing with spiked her eyebrows at me. I spiked mine right back at her, then turned. "Yes," I said. "Can I help you?"

"I'll wait," she said.

"I have conferences all afternoon," I said. "If it's something quick, I'd love to help you right now."

"Oh no," she said. "It's something that requires me to come in, shut the door, and sit down for a bit."

That sounded vaguely horrifying. Just who was this woman? The look on her face and the tone of her voice made me think I was two seconds from being bitch-slapped.

When she disappeared again into the hall, I turned back to my student and she kept talking about her portfolio, but I don't remember a word she said because I was panicked. I mean, seriously. Now what?

After my student left, the woman came right in and shut the door behind her. "I," she said, "am the mother of the high school student who just flunked your English class."

My head nearly exploded. Honest to God. I thought my brain was going to become too big for my skull, burst out into the stale office air in a rain of gray gelatain and blood.

"Uhm, hello," I said, because what do you say to that?

She collapsed into the chair by my desk. "Can I just talk to you about what happened?" she asked. I sat, too, and said she could. This was probably the wrong thing to do. I should've started by printing her a copy of the course syllabus. I should've pointed out my policies on attendance (mandatory) and late work (forget about it). I should've highlighted the number of essays her son had missed. I should've tallied the number of classes he'd missed. But instead, I let her talk.

And talk she did. She told me that there'd been all sorts of problems lately. That her son was a good kid. That he and his father didn't exactly see eye-to-eye. That they had to take the son away for awhile, get him away from the father. And then there were her health problems, and it was tough on the kid. He was such a good kid. Really, he was. He was misunderstood all through school. Kids made fun of him. He just wanted to graduate early, get out of there. If he didn't graduate this semester like he was supposed to, she just didn't know what he was going to do with himself. He'd done the work. Really, he had. It was all on their computer at home. She'd read it. She thought it was pretty good, too, but she wasn't the expert--that was my department. She didn't know why he hadn't handed it in when he was supposed to. After all, he'd done it on time. Really, he had.

Halfway through this, the mother started to cry. "Do you have a tissue?" she asked. She patted at her eyes. She frowned and blinked fast-fast-fast, to keep the tears back.

I looked around the office, panicked even more now. I had no tissues. None. What could I give her to cry into? And why was there a woman older than my own mother in my office, and why was she breaking down into a wobbly mess of tears? This was not how I'd pictured the last day of my first year at my new school. Not even close.

I finally found a box of tissues on my officemate's side of the room. I grabbed it, thrust it in her direction. I'd been two seconds away from breaking into the department party supply cabinet--which is stored in our office--and giving her a ream of napkins.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry. It's not you. It's just--all of this. My sickness. This situation."

That's when there was a knock on my door. "Excuse me," I said, and bolted across the room. There, looking through the windowpane, was one of my favorite students. I've had her for two semesters, and she knows me pretty well, so I was fairly sure I could communicate the situation to her with a well-executed look. I widened my eyes and pulled my lips into a tight line. It was an expression that said OH JESUS, SAVE ME.

I pulled the door open. "Hi," she said. She peered around the bookshelf and saw the crying mother. "OH," she said. "OH. Okay. Well, uhm, I was just making sure you were here for our conference. I'm early. I'll just wait outside until you're done."

"It'll just be a minute," I said loudly, hoping the crying mother would get the hint. "Are there other people out there waiting?"

"Yeah," she said slowly, even though there probably weren't yet. "Yeah, I think so. A couple."

"Okay," I said. "Just another minute. Really."

"'K," she said. She sent me a look that said, I'm right here. If you need me, I'm right around the corner.

And I thought it would all be over then, but it wasn't. I got another ten minutes of he's a good boy. Misunderstood. He needs a second chance. You don't understand what he's been through. He's usually not like this. Please. Anything. I'm begging you. Please fix this.

I was completely railroaded. She wasn't going to leave my office until she got what she came for, and I felt absolutely unprepared for having to deal with a situation like this. I'm not supposed to have to deal with mothers who come in and push-push-push for their kids' Fs to get erased.

I can understand a kid having a hard time and needing to get out of high school, but if he's not mature enough to understand that not handing in his essays and not coming to class is going to get him flunked faster than he can say adios, then maybe the whole graduating early thing should be rethought. If he was really, really, really motivated to get himself out of an unpleasant situation, he would've done everything (everything!) in his power to make sure he got out of it.

But I didn't know what to do. I was ridiculously uncomfortable. After all, there I was--a twenty-six year old instructor--and I was being manipulated by a mother older than my own. And as much as I wanted to stay strong, I couldn't. Just couldn't. I told her I'd look at his essays, if they were really done. I told her I wasn't promising anything, and he was going to lose substantial points for missing so much class and for not being able to show me a portfolio of revised work, but I'd look.

And then she finally left my office. She just tucked her tissue into her pocket and left, confident that she'd just gotten her son a second chance.

I hated myself in that moment. But even more I hated the whole game that had been played on my behalf. I called for my favorite student to come on in, and when she did she found me with my head on my desk.

"That looked BAD," she said. "I'm so sorry I interrupted."

"No, no, no," I said. "Trust me. That was the best thing you could've ever done. Ever."

And then she and I went through her portfolio piece by piece, and she had everything where it needed to be. Still, that wasn't nearly enough to tow me up out of the black cloud that had settled over me. And that black cloud hovered for the rest of the afternoon. My last conference of the day was with a girl who, like the son of the crying mother, was a high school student taking some college classes. She'd called to reschedule her conference earlier that day because she was off having fun on her senior trip. As she was telling me that, I was cracking open her portfolio and picking up her final research paper. It was one and a half pages long when it was supposed to be eight, and there was not a single citation to be found. "Well," I said, "you made some interesting choices today, didn't you?"

"Huh?" she asked.

"Well, you chose to go on the trip instead of choosing to stay back to work on this essay, which is thirty percent of your grade."

She frowned. "Yeah, I guess," she said. "But I want to let you know I really need to pass this class. I won't graduate high school if I don't."

I sighed. Outside, the sun was shining. There were probably birds singing. I wanted to climb out my window and lie down on the quad and ignore everything that had just happened. Instead I just snapped the portfolio shut and nodded. "Right," I said. "Great. Fabulous. Wonderful."


Jason said...

I had some goofery to finish this semester, but nothing like that. It makes me want to find the person who coined the phrase, "It's easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission," and choke them to death.

You'll be on vacation soon. They can't get you there.

Kristin said...

I don't even know what to say. Bless your heart...f*cking students and parents. What a crime.