Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, "L.A. Unified board picks Richard Vladovic as new president. By replacing Monica Garcia with Vladovic, the LAUSD board signals the waning influence of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This begs the question: Are days numbered for embattled Superintendent John Deasy?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Diary of a Rookie Teacher Part 4

Stubborn Teacher Lines Up Against Willful Student, Failure Wins

This post is the fourth installment of a series that examines journal entries recorded by the author of Blocker's Blog, Mark Blocker, during his first year teaching for the Los Angeles Unified School District at now-defunct Henry Clay Middle School. These entries were written 12 years ago in 2001 and appear below with no editing or revisions. They are accompanied by his commentary written now after more than a decade planning and writing lessons, interacting with students from the mean streets of LA and the rural farms and ranches of California's central coast--and observing teachers and administrators with varying degrees of social and educational skills.

SEPTEMBER 20, 2001

Andrew Baxter (not his real name) is in my fifth period class--right after lunch. He is rather unkempt at that time from playing football: grass stains on his clothes, dead grass shards in his Afro. He arrives late. When he didn't have his materials I called his mother who told me he got jumped the previous afternoon.
He complains constantly and never does his work. I've sent him off twice to the counselor. (He likes that--it gets him out of the room and back outside for a while.) Today, I took the class to the school library where they were giving away discarded books for free. He stuffed many in his backpack. He pretended he was stealing some in front of me by concealing them under his shirt with great aplomb. (Other students giggled at his daring stealth, I smiled at rolled my eyes. Andrew enjoyed the attention.)
I watched him while he thought I wasn't looking. (Not because I wanted to prevent him from stealing. Hell, the books were free. I may have been a rookie, but I wasn't that bad of a jerk.) He was moving down the table looking at books. His face was that of wonder. It was relaxed. He was smiling and his eyes were bright, receptive. I hope life gives him opportunities to feel like this more often. He wasn't acting. He wasn't hard. He was Andrew Baxter the kid, and life wasn't so bad after all.

I remember Andrew. He was defiant and non-productive all year, largely due to my lack of professionalism. I was the adult, the professional, so it was up to me to reach out to this defiant kid growing up in the mean streets of South Central LA. I, the king of nonsense to my friends and family, was trying to develop a reputation as a no-nonsense teacher; meanwhile, Andrew was trying to develop a bad-ass reputation that might enable him to walk down the block without getting beat up or shot.
During the year's first open house in October, a distressed, 30-something woman hurried into the room pleading, "I'm sorry...I am so sorry...I'm sorry..." Huh? I puzzled until I saw who was trailing her--a tearful Andrew who glared at me through narrowed eyes, his lower lip trembling. Obviously Andrew wasn't just blowing it in my class. This auspicious annual event where parents and teachers meet for the first time was no pleasant occasion for mother and son.
Andrew collapsed at a desk and buried his face while I proudly apprised mother of her young man's offenses: willful defiance, constantly wandering the room, talking over my instructions, foul language, sexual comments to girls, to name just a few. It felt good back then, but it should've felt like shit. Then, with great aplomb, I showed her the staccato tardy marks that followed her son's name in my attendance book, and the blank squares or zeroes in my grade book that led to an FUU in the final columns. Revenge, I thought. An experienced teacher learns it's a dish that leaves a bad taste and seldom satisfies.
"I'm so sorry," Andrew's mother whispered. She wiped a tear with a balled up tissue. Her voice grew agitated, "How can you explain this Andrew?"
"He's lying mama!"
"All your other teacher's are lying too?" Her response was met with silence and sporadic sniffing.
Andrew was busted. I wonder if he was banking on his mother not coming to open house, or if he lacked the foresight to see this inevitable outcome. I considered my own stupidity at that age, and mused about what must have been going through his mind as they drove to open house, wide-eyed and silent, Andrew searching the windshield in a frantic, fruitless search for alibis. Maybe he thought the teachers wouldn't remember the frustration he caused every day--after all they have more than 125 students. How did the pit of his stomach surge when he realized the bills for bad behavior would be payable tonight?
Exacerbating the problem was this: I was an asshole, too. Andrew was only 12, but I was a 43-year-old teacher albeit a rookie. I failed to reach out to Andrew as a man, and instead engaged in a standoff to see who would win this contest of will. This was my class. I was boss. He was the dumb kid. It was up to Andrew to knuckle under to my authority, I thought at the time. Well, he never did. My stubbornness wasted one living student's 8th-grade academic year.
I saw Alexander's potential that day in the library when he was enjoying himself browsing tables of books without having to put up a hard-ass act to impress fellow students. Sure, he joked about pilfering free books, but that was just an attempt at being funny. He hated the machinations of my classroom because he was In the last year of middle school and busy preparing to enter high school. Andrew was more interested in developing his "street cred" to survive the older, tougher kids at Washington Preparatory High School than he was in developing any scholarly prowess to ensure academic success. He just wanted to survive first; passing classes could come later. Many young people coming of age in the 'hood make that choice. Experienced teachers figure out ways to build channels to interact with difficult but bright students. Head-strong authority figures in urban classrooms are trees that bear rotten fruit.
Teachers working in schools serving tough areas need to be cognizant that they are competing with the streets: the surrounding underground economy and the organizations formed to run that system, and those organizations' consistent recruiting efforts to replace personnel temporarily imprisoned and off the streets or murdered.
I probably could have won a little cooperation from Andrew by pulling my ass away from the table at the staff cafeteria/lounge and venturing out to the PE field to watch him play football. He obviously enjoyed football and worked hard at it as evidence by the grass stains on his clothes and shards in his hair. I could have hollered a few whoops and clapped a little at his endeavors. Kids like to perform for their teachers outside of the stuffy classroom. They remember teachers who go out of their way to watch them do things they enjoy and do well. I could have eliminated those tardies by hanging around while Andrew and the other kids gathered themselves after the bell rang signaling it was time to head to class.
As a kid his age I collected football cards. I still do today. They don't cost a lot. I could have slipped him a Topps 2001 pack of 15 cards for a little more than a buck--a bargain when buying a student's allegiance. I suppose I could have presented him with a duplicate card from my extensive 1968 collection. Of course, that would only happen once I could ensure he was responsible and could sustain long-term cooperation. These simple, affordable gestures would have gone a long way toward letting Andrew know that the big, loud, graying white guy who yelled a lot wasn't such a prick after all.
So, unfortunately, the year ended with no change in Andrew's behavior. Did it mean a death sentence for his chances of graduating four years later? Not necessarily. Contrary to what you read in the newspapers, a lot of kids can have bad years and still pick up at grade level the next year. It depends on their ability to read and encode the words into information they can regurgitate on tests or preferably compare to their own experiences and remember as a truth. Success in school outside of math also depends on a student's ability to develop logical thoughts and describe them in coherent, academic paragraphs. Odds are, Andrew was a proficient reader or else he would not have been so interested in the free books he scooped up that day.
As I recall he selected biographies on professional athletes. It's interesting to note that he ignored the old, over-taught-in-the-ghetto novel, Sounder, set in the Great Depression when a young black boy wanders Alabama searching for his imprisoned father--and learns that a nice English teacher is his best friend. He probably scanned the teaser on the cover and figured it was all bullshit.


  1. This may be shorter than my previous comments, which were accidentally erased. Damn computers.
    I like the format of your blog. The fact that you kept a first year journal, and didn't revise it, and the contrast looking back with experience under your belt.

    I pictured you sitting on the bleachers with this kid, telling him you were known as the king of nonsense, showing some common ground without being fake. That's tricky as kids are such good b.s. detectors.

    There are words you used that made the reading more meaningful to me. The simple word one “living” student, subtly reveals info about the environment he was living in. “Trees that bear rotten fruit” makes me think of our history, and the song by Billie Holliday, Strange Fruit, again, suggesting more than just the current situation in isolation. I like the word staccato, which fits with the mind-set you had that first year.

    I suspect Andrew Baxter turned out okay. He shows a vulnerability in the Open House meeting, while still refusing to knuckle under. I like the way he overtly steals the free books suggesting maybe your opinion of him mattered more than he let on. I doubt if the frustration of teachers ever entered his mind. He may not have been doing his job as a student, but I think he was doing his job as a young pre-teen whose job it is to break away and find his own identity.

    What I liked most was your honesty about yourself in that first year, and the things you learned from the years following. You may not have succeeded as Andrew's teacher that year, but I think he managed to be yours.

  2. What she said. I can only add that this is my favorite post so far. I'm rooting for Andrew.

  3. Great job Blocker. I too often have these feelings of guilt as I look back on my first two years teaching.