The Flying Bartleby Armbar Of Slack

Everyone knows that the adolescent brain is only 60-80% baked, like those baguettes you buy at Trader Joe’s that need to go in the oven for 20 minutes before you serve them. They’re sort of edible beforehand, but not very, and that is what makes teenagers (1) a total joy and (2) screamtastically frustrating. It’s also why God made summer school.

Let me ‘splain, in case you are over 35 and recall summer school as the fate of the intractably slow and/or criminal: Nowadays, most summer school students aren’t either — they invited the vampire in by resisting their regular teacher’s Herculanean efforts to pass them. It’s labor-intensive to flunk a kid in a core subject, especially an ostensibly-graduating senior — teachers give students 1,690,721 chances to succeed, and we document every missed opportunity/failure notice/call home/parent-teacher-counselor conference/emergency makeup assignment/alternative assignment/hoodoo conjure ceremony, etc. If the kid ends up with a 55%, there will often be pressure to round up to a D, especially if the alternative is another year of high school and he’s pushing 19 or 20 years old.

This is fraught: If I pass a kid with a 55% average, am I failing to do my job with integrity? Should he stay until he’s learned what he’s supposed to have learned? On the other hand, what is to be gained by digging my heels in and retaining him if he’s this much of a square peg (for whatever reason) at school? Isn’t it better, if he’s absorbed all he’s able or willing to learn, to let him go ahead and take on the world? A world where his manager at Burger King won’t bother to call his mom to see why he doesn’t feeeel like flipping the burgers today? Because maybe that’s exactly what he needs. Or a backpacking trip through Asia, or something. Too bad shoestring-budget travel isn’t a thing anymore.

Anyway. I have one student this summer — I’ll call him Curt GeGambals — who claims he failed English last year because he had “a bad teacher.” Heh. When he started failing my class, I picked up the phone and called his mom. I felt ridiculous even describing some of the assignments he’d skipped or failed — so simple!  so high-interest! so hippie-trippy-feely! and I could tell she felt ridiculous, too. And angry.  The tone of her voice, and his, were the soundtrack to a power struggle during which she has cajoled, pleaded, threatened, rewarded, and begged this kid to grow up, and he has chained his own feet together like a passive-aggressive Earth Firster. No redwood tree, just attitude. She was ready to cry. He was inert as clay.

During the entire phone call, Curt had an excuse FOR EVERYTHING. It was the most intricate, multi-layered, Byzantine, stonewalling, gaslighting display of cognitive dissonance I have ever witnessed. Very high-concept. I was forcibly reminded of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, when your instructor absorbs and deflects all your force back to you until you’re exhausted on the ground but he hasn’t broken a sweat. If Curt would use his fearsome powers for good instead of evil, he’d be halfway done with college and editing the Georgetown Law Review by now.

The best part was, he actually believed what he was saying. He had no shame of any kind. He is a Ninja of Inertia; a solid who flatly refuses to do a liquid’s job. Click on this recording, and you will hear the sound playing in my head while Curt and I spoke:

Q. Curt, I’m concerned that you’re not turning in any work. Your last worksheet was blank except for a drawing of a car. Please help me understand.

A. My work is in my bag, I think. I don’t remember about the car.

Q.  Curt, this happened less than an hour ago.

A.  Uh, I don’t really know what time it is.

Q. OK. Let’s move on to the bigger picture here. Do you want to graduate high school?

A. Yeah.

Q. Great! How can you accomplish that?

A. I don’t know. You’re the one giving the grades.

Q. I don’t give grades, Curt. You earn your grade. I just keep score. And I can’t do that if you don’t, for example, turn in your daily quiz so that I can grade it and record the points.

A.  —

Q. Curt? Are you there?

A. What?

Q. Let’s try this. Let me ask you a few of the quiz questions verbally. What is the basic plot of the novel “Brave New World?”

A. It’s, like, a lot of random words strung together. I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense.

Q. OK. Maybe you’re having trouble understanding the book.* Have you tried looking the book up on SparkNotes?

A. Uh, no.

Q. Please do that this evening, so we can try the quiz again tomorrow. Also, why didn’t you stay after class to speak with me about your  grade like I asked you to?”

A. “The parking lot is really crowded after school. Getting out ahead of the rush is my priority.”

That last one melted my face a little bit. His priority was getting out of the parking lot after class? Where the hell else does he have to be at 2:30 on a weekday afternoon in 115-degree heat? Beating the rush is a bigger priority than passing the class? The class he’s been sitting in for 7 hours a day for two weeks in order to get the credit and graduate? Are we in, like, negotiations here? Priority? 

You won’t be surprised to learn that Curt turned nothing in, not even the imaginary interview with an imaginary fictional character (of choice). He failed the class. My heart breaks for his mom. It’s easy to say that if he were my son, I wouldn’t put up with this crap. But. It’s just. Hard to extrapolate/untruncate/go to the ends of my thoughts (h/t FCM). Maybe motherhood, in its way, makes you a Sin Eater. Your child is your child, even if he fails himself in order to hurt you. Even if he’s cracked and there is no glue in the world strong enough. Even if something has gone terribly, even dangerously, wrong with him. You love him because you can’t stop. Because priority. 


*He’s not, btw. I was totally bullshitting when I said that; I thought he’d rise to the challenge or the bait or whatever. No dice.

3 thoughts on “The Flying Bartleby Armbar Of Slack

  1. He sounds like a sociopath and a pathological liar. Hell, I don’t know. Flunk his ass. Maybe being held back a year will motivate him. Or not. Wow… I’d lose patience fast with that line of bullshit. I guess I’d be a bad teacher… :/

  2. OK… and you know what else? I have dealt with sooo many dudes (and it is always dudes) like this throughout my life who skated through high school on lies and bullshit, and never read even ONE book (they admit this freely!) and are now managers and bosses and owners of businesses that somehow stay afloat. And I, who worked my ASS off to graduate high school with my class (even though I was in and out of mental institutions and abusive foster homes) am supposed to be subservient to sociopath dudes and enamored by their “charm” and they hold the power to offer me or deny me a job and a paycheck… UGH UGH UGH! OK… /rant

  3. Well, I *have* met kids (and adults) who were sociopaths and pathological liars, but this one is neither. He’s another thing(s).

    The thing with teaching is, even when you’re frustrated and losing patience, you truly want everyone to succeed. A lot! It’s when you DON’T get frustrated that you have to start worrying about being a bad teacher, because it means you’re burned out.

Comments are closed.