(This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly.)
Before I tell this story I want to stipulate that this is not some sneaky attempt to undermine school rules or discipline.
I should also add that I’ve changed the name and key details to protect my student's privacy.
This story concerns Oscar, one of my students. Oscar is fifteen years old. He is tall and gangly, with a short, wiry hair cut short.
His sunny disposition and playful ways make him seem younger than he is. Oscar’s most endearing trait is his generosity. In a school where it is cool to be cruel, Oscar’s good heart stands out.
Oscar has had a hard life. His father died violently last year. His mother is trying hard to support four children on the salary from a job that pays little more than minimum wage.
Oscar barely squeaked by last semester, earning a D in English. His grade point average is below 2.0, which might keep him from playing soccer—his most constant love--next year.
I have tried repeatedly to corral Oscar’s restless energy. I have pleaded with him to pay attention in class. Every day he would invent some new mischief to provide himself with entertainment, today tossing wads of paper towards a distant wastebasket, the next day drawing penises on the covers of magazines.
Most days school, and the printed word, have little appeal for Oscar. His writing bespeaks someone who has heard language without seeing it.
“Lenny liked catchup on his beens,” Oscar wrote (about Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men). “Him and George wanted to save there money to bild a house of there own.”
So when Oscar decided to begin doing his schoolwork, I was delighted.
His grade rose.
But then the Good Ship Oscar hit a reef.
A campus with only ninth graders is a very difficult place to enforce discipline. Without older kids as role models, and without younger kids to bring out the “big brother (or sister)” in our students there is no real restraint on their worst impulses.
We have a variety of rules to try to bring order.
Students can’t wear hats or hoods in the building.
Students can’t have food in the building.
Profanity is (supposed to be) forbidden.
And students must wear a lanyard around their necks with their student identification cards attached.
We do frequent “lanyard checks” to see that everyone complies with this latter rule. Despite daily checks large numbers of students refuse to wear the lanyards.
Each day I check one class. On average about 25% of my students aren’t wearing them.
As a result about eight of my students get a school detention each day.
Yesterday Oscar got caught in this snare.
“I just came from PE,” he told me, pointing to a lanyard minus the ID card. “I must have dropped it outside.”
Oscar pleaded and pleaded, reprising his explanation about PE.
Inwardly I was searching for some way to say to Oscar, “hey, I know you’ve been a model student lately. You’ve earned the right to have one transgression overlooked.”
But I couldn’t say it.
So yesterday Oscar, furious about this perceived injustice, didn’t do his schoolwork. And yesterday Oscar vowed he wasn’t going to do his schoolwork tomorrow or the next day.
Whether he follows up on his promise is still to be determined.
Citizens reading about this incident will generally take the hardline position. “Rules are rules.” Students must learn about consequences.
I also know that every situation is different and next time I might find some way to forget to put Oscar’s name on the detention list.
Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive.
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