Decrepit classroom with blackboard in an abandoned school

Photo by Patrick Emerson, via Flickr

“M

an, I don’t know any of this stuff!”
It was Lamar, one of my fifth-grade students. He and his classmates were taking a reading assessment. Within minutes, Lamar had given up.

“Mister Schuma, I ain’t doing this!”

“Lamar, you need to be quiet while your classmates are testing,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll do fine if you give it a shot. No more talking.”

It was my first year as a teacher. I’d been trained by Teach For America, the national program that places high-achieving college graduates in low-income schools. I’d been assigned to a newly built K–8 school in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida. (To protect their privacy, the names of the people described here are pseudonyms.)

For a moment, Lamar seemed to have calmed down. Relieved, I returned to grading papers. Then I heard the sound of ripping paper. I looked up and saw the remains of Lamar’s test on his desk. “I didn’t know any of the answers anyway,” he declared.

I couldn’t remember what you were supposed to do when a student rips up the test. So I scolded Lamar—weakly—and put another test in front of him. I told him I would be communicating this little episode to his mother.

Not long after school let out, my classroom phone rang. “This Mr. Schumerth?” a woman’s voice asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “What can I do for you?”

“Let me tell you what you can do for me,” she snapped. “You can make the boy who keeps hitting my son stop. Or else I’m gonna come in there and do it myself.”

“Okay,” I stammered. “Can you tell me who your son is?”

“Lamar,” she said.

I couldn’t think of the particular bully she was referring to, but I wasn’t really surprised that someone had hit her son. Unfortunately, there were a lot of bodies bumping up against bodies in the school. Knowing Lamar, though, I also guessed that he’d played an active role in whichever incident his mother was talking about. In any case, it didn’t seem like a good time to tell Lamar’s mother about how her son had ripped up a test. As a first-year teacher, I still felt timid whenever I interacted with parents, like a child talking to an adult. “I’ll keep my eyes out,” I told her. She hung up before I could say goodbye.

In my training, I’d learned about the many studies that show that poor and black students tend to score lower on standardized tests. The achievement gap is even wider for African American boys like Lamar. Their high school graduation rates are below sixty percent. Too many of them land in the prison system.

As a new teacher, what could I do about it? I figured I needed to get more creative in my efforts to reach Lamar. One day at recess, I noticed him shooting a basketball by himself. After watching him clank a few shots, I strolled over. This had “teacher-movie scene” written all over it.

“You think you can beat your teacher?” I asked.

“Easy,” he said, laughing. “You wearin’ church shoes!”

I looked down. He was right. But I was still confident in my abilities to beat a fifth grader. I rolled up my dress-shirt sleeves and said, “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll play you to five, and if you win, you get to pick out of the prize box.” (Like many teachers, I had a box of toys and candy in my classroom, and I used it to bribe children.) “How’s that sound?”

He nodded. “Okay.”

“But if I win,” I continued, “then you need to start getting your work done in class.”

“That ain’t gonna happen, though,” he said, smirking.

“Do we have a deal?”

“Deal.”

I let him have the ball first. Like a hustler in White Men Can’t Jump, I stuffed his shot and took possession of the ball. I crossed over and made a layup. The next time he had the ball, I let him get a shot off, but it was nowhere close. I snagged the rebound and took the ball back to the three-point line. My shot bounced off the rim, but I tipped the ball in: 2–0.

Lamar was already realizing that he was outmatched. “You play basketball?” he asked.

“Well, not much anymore,” I told him. “But I used to.”

I let Lamar score a couple points, but our game was no contest. Which isn’t to say our “deal” turned out well. While Lamar could read fluently, I learned, he also missed a lot of school, and when he was there, he often refused to complete assignments. A line of zeros piled up next to his name in my gradebook. By the end of the first term, I felt like I couldn’t justify any grade for him other than an F.

On report-card day, our principal, Dr. Smith, delivered a pile of brown envelopes to my classroom. She was black, in her late thirties or early forties, and always worked late. She was usually friendly, but on this day, her face was stern. “Give them out at the end of the day,” she warned.

It sounded like solid advice. I thought I would use the report cards as a little carrot to dangle over my students’ heads. “If you behave this afternoon, you’ll get report cards at the end of the day,” I told them. Of course I couldn’t really withhold them, but to my surprise, the tactic worked. The talking hushed. Students sat up at their desks. Pencils scribbled.

When it was time for dismissal, I told them, “If you leave your area clean and line up quietly, I’ll give you your report card on the way out.” This spurred a flurry of activity among my students. They adjusted desks, picked up trash, erased the board, placed books on shelves, and lined up flawlessly: straight, quiet, keeping their hands to themselves. I wanted to take a picture just so I could remember the occasion later.

The decorum unraveled as soon as I handed out their report cards. They tore open the envelopes and browsed the contents. A few cried out happily and ran off with a smile. Others grumbled, “Man, you ain’t fair.” When I gave Lamar his envelope, he opened it and looked at his grades. The muscles in his forehead contracted, his eyes closed halfway, and he glared at me with a look of disgust. “Mister Schuma, I hate you! You a racist! I’m gonna tell my mama to switch me to another class!”

His words stung, but I was prepared with a teacher-ly lecture: “Lamar, there’s lots of time left in the school year for you to—”

He was already out the door, his back to me, his hands over his ears. Running down the hall, Lamar flung his backpack onto the floor like cargo at sea. My colleague, Rick, was at the other end of the hallway. Lamar dodged Rick’s attempt to block his fifty-yard dash to the stairwell. “Stop running, young man,” Rick ordered.

Looking back, Lamar called out, “Fuck you!” and kept right on running.

I walked down the hall, picked up his bag, and brought it back into the room.

The next morning, I was on my way into the building when one of our administrative assistants stopped me. “Mr. Schumerth,” she said, “Dr. Smith wants to see you in her office.” Before she turned away, she mouthed, “Good luck.”

Dr. Smith sat at her L-shaped desk, protected by a fort of stacked books. Lamar stood between her and another woman I’d never seen before. “Mr. Schumerth,” Dr. Smith said, “this is Lamar’s mother, Ms. Wade.” We shook hands. Ms. Wade couldn’t have been more than a few years older than me. “Ms. Wade has come in this morning concerned about Lamar’s grade,” Dr. Smith went on. “Can you tell us what you’re seeing from him in the classroom?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m definitely having some behavior issues, but most concerning is that Lamar rarely turns in an assignment. He’s not doing his work.”

“He’s liar! I am too—”

“I told you to be quiet!” Ms. Wade commanded. She turned to Dr. Smith and me. “It’s pretty clear that there’s a personality clash going on here. I want Lamar switched to another class. I think he would do better with a black teacher.”

I wanted to defend myself, but Dr. Smith started talking before I did. “I think the better solution is for Lamar to start doing his work. Maybe we can find ways for the four of us to communicate better. Mr. Schumerth, have you been communicating these concerns to Ms. Wade?”

“We’ve spoken on the phone,” I said, unconvincingly.

Ms. Wade didn’t seem very interested in this plan. “If he can’t be switched, I’m gonna look into options at other schools.”

“That’s certainly your prerogative,” Dr. Smith said.

Ms. Wade got up to leave. Lamar followed her to the door. “He’s coming with me today,” Ms. Wade said.

With some perspective, I might have wondered about Ms. Wade’s own situation. Was she working two jobs, struggling to find work, taking care of several kids? What had school been like for her? Where was Lamar’s father? But it was my first year teaching, and those sorts of questions were too overwhelming to consider. My mental capacity was all used up. I was just trying to make it through each school day.

Lamar came back to my class and never switched schools. I never heard from Ms. Wade again. She stopped answering my calls about Lamar’s academic problems, and I quit leaving messages. Lamar was still failing reading and other core subjects in the spring. His scores on the state’s standardized tests had regressed from the year before. What else could I do, I thought, but recommend that he spend another year in fifth grade?

Dr. Smith called an after-school meeting to talk about the process of holding students in the same grade for another year. The other teachers and I sat surrounded by children’s books in the school’s dimly lit, blue-carpeted library. There was about a month left in the school year, and our attention spans were shot. Dr. Smith—perhaps recognizing this—kept hammering away at a single point: “It is our recommendation that you pursue every option besides failing a student.”

As she spoke, I grew uncomfortable. I knew that decisions to hold students back a grade could dramatically change the path of their lives. Children who fail early grades are more likely to drop out. But I was also uncomfortable with an educational system that let students who hadn’t done the work move on to the next grade. If we’re going to give grades, shouldn’t they mean something? Lamar was an extreme case, but he certainly wasn’t the only student I hadn’t reached to the degree I wanted to. I was planning to recommend that a few others—white and black, boys and girls—spend another year in the fifth grade.

“For those of you who insist on moving forward with this process,” Dr. Smith said, “grab the packet on your way out.” Several teachers stood up and reached for their bags before she even finished the sentence. Almost no one picked up a packet, and the few people who did tossed them in a trash can on their way out. (Teachers aren’t that different from students when it comes to completing “extra” work.) Nevertheless, I grabbed a packet.

That weekend, I spread the paperwork out on the floor of my apartment’s living room. My colleague Rick, who shared the apartment with me, wandered out of his room wearing swim trunks and a T-shirt. “Are you really going to try that?” he asked, looking at my pile. “No way that’s gonna work.”

“Yeah, maybe not,” I said. “But I’m going to see what happens at least.”

He grabbed a twelve-pack of beer from the refrigerator. “Well, a few of us are going to the beach if you change your mind.”

In retrospect, maybe I should have gone to the beach. Maybe I should have taken things a little less seriously. Instead, I spent the next several hours filling out all the paperwork: checking documents against each other, recording a percentage here, providing a qualitative description there, reading the small print, meticulously assembling the evidence to make my case. On Monday morning, I dropped the documents in Dr. Smith’s mailbox, knowing there would be a conversation to follow.

After dismissal, I heard Dr. Smith calling my name over the intercom: “Mr. Schumerth, please report to the front office! Mr. Schumerth, please report to the front office!” I detected a hint of annoyance in her voice, but maybe I was just paranoid. I grabbed my grade printouts, and on the trek to the office I rehearsed my talking points. When I arrived, Dr. Smith greeted me amicably and ushered me into a conference room. My Bible-sized stack of submissions was in her hand. “We’ve gotta talk about these babies,” she said.

We sat down at a table with pens and chocolates scattered on top of it. A dry-erase board filled with last names and grade levels loomed over us. The walls were plain and blue, looking exactly the same as they’d been when we’d first arrived in the new building back in August. Apparently this room was one of the few in the school where the students had yet to leave their mark.

The principal’s son, Devon, sat playing a handheld video game in the corner of the room. He was a fourth-grader, and I knew him from his after-school meandering. Every once in a while, I’d gone outside and tossed a football with him. “Hi, Mr. Schumerth!” he said, beaming.

“Devon, I need you to go find somewhere else to play right now,” Dr. Smith said.

“Yes, ma’am.” He obediently got up and left the room. Dr. Smith started flipping through the stack of documents I’d submitted. When she was done, she leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “Okay, tell me why you think these students need another year of fifth grade.”

“Well, they hardly did any work,” I told her. “Here are their grades.” I dropped my papers on the table, more dramatically than necessary.

“I’ve seen the data.” Her smile was gone. “Do you think keeping them in fifth grade will benefit them in the long term?”

“I have no idea. That’s sorta up to them, don’t you think?”

“Maybe. But don’t you think any of this is on you? You’re a first-year teacher.”

What she said made me feel even more defensive—probably not the best state of mind for looking inward. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes,” I said, shrugging. “But I didn’t refuse to try.”

“I don’t think you’re being very fair. These students are ten years old!”

“So are their classmates who did the work.”

“Well, I noticed that there were a few mistakes on these documents you handed in. I doubt my supervisor will allow these to stand.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Have you looked into summer-school options?”

“I’ll gladly send the paperwork home with these students.”

We sat for a moment in awkward silence. Finally, Dr. Smith said, “As you may know, this decision is ultimately yours. I can’t make it for you. If you stick with your decision, we’re going to be hearing from some angry parents in June. And it’s going to be me that has to deal with them, not you.”

“My decision was made when I turned in the paperwork,” I said, like a lawyer in a negotiation.

“Okay, Mr. Schumerth. Sorry this turned this into a debate. I feel strongly about this.”

“I understand.” Avoiding eye contact, I stood up and walked out.

I wasn’t sure how to feel after the conversation. By keeping a kid like Lamar behind, was I becoming just another “oppressor”? Dr. Smith certainly had a point about this being my first year as a teacher. Some of the mistakes I’d made ran through my mind. There were the relationships with parents I hadn’t handled so well. The mornings of waking up at three or four to create lesson plans after a night of procrastination and poor prioritizing. The days I’d skipped the planning altogether and winged it. The time before Christmas break I’d yelled myself hoarse. The referrals I’d written because I had no idea how to manage a classroom. The time and energy I’d spent on students who misbehaved, while ignoring the ones who may have wanted to learn.

Lamar and the other students Dr. Smith and I discussed did spend another year in the fifth grade. But that was only the beginning of the failing grades that were passed around the school at the end of that year. Our school received a “double F,” the worst score a school could receive, for our students’ performance on the state test. After the scores came out, Dr. Smith called a meeting to tell us she was being moved to a different school. A new principal would be taking her place. Our school had performed so poorly that the state was also requiring all teachers in testing grades—fifth grade included—to re-interview for their jobs before a panel of administrators and state officials.

My interview took place in mid-July and lasted less than five minutes. A few days later, I was informed I would not have a teaching position at my school in the fall. I would be moved to another school within the district. In the documentary Waiting for “Superman, a former school superintendent described this practice of shifting teachers around as “the dance of the lemons.” I was now one of the lemons.

It seemed like a game of downhill dominoes. Most of the faculty and staff could agree that our school was struggling to perform at a basic level. The hard part was figuring out who was responsible for the mess. Who was failing? Judging from their actions, I suppose the state blamed the district, the district blamed the school administration, the administration blamed the teachers. And I had blamed Lamar and his mother.

Now that some time has passed, I can see that all of us bore some responsibility for what happened that year. And while it was tough at the time, what troubles me years later is not the fact that the school let me go, but how quickly I had set myself against a student. How fragile my psyche had been, that I could be so easily thrown off kilter. How naively I had viewed failure, that I couldn’t fully appreciate its consequences. That was my problem, not Lamar’s.

Chris Schumerth is a writer who lives in Indianapolis. He has an MFA in creative writing from the University of South Carolina. His writing has appeared in Salon, the Miami HeraldRelevant Magazine, and Punchnel’s, among other publications. Twitter: @ChrisSchumerth | Blog: chrisschumerth.com

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