Monday, August 8, 2011

Every single one

Warning: There’s a Bible reference in here. It’s not meant to be religion-inciting.

In one of the anti-dark YA arguments I read a while back, the writer claimed that dark YA was catering to a small minority of teens. I won’t get into whether or not that's true, because I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure how many American teens are struggling with issues like rape, self-mutilation, abusive relationships, etc. And if you consider that the majority of books in most Western or English-speaking countries is American, then it’s even less possible to collect data on all those teens.

I’d like to deal with something else that was not said, but insinuated in that article. The concept that it’s okay to lose some along the way.

Four years (or so) ago, before I came to Japan, I was teaching in the Barbadian school system. As I’ve said before, in Barbados we go to secondary schools (JHS+SHS) according to the marks we get on an entrance exam. There are 6 top schools, a bunch of middling schools, and then a few schools with students who really struggle with academics. I taught at 3 schools. 2 were in the top 6, one in the bottom group, and of course, I also went to the top school on the island. So I’ve seen a fairly wide range.

At the lower school, I went in expecting certain things, but there were still things that shocked me. One day, I had to deal with an incident of a sexual nature involving a girl, and two older boys, because a girl from my form (homeroom) caught them, and because the incident took place in my classroom. The Senior Teacher that dealt with the matter gave the kids a slap on the wrist. I freaked, because in my mind 11 and 12 year olds don’t do these things, and if they do, they don’t them in classrooms at lunch time. As a rebuttal, the Senior Teacher told me a story of a girl who’d grown up in an area known for prostitution (even though it’s illegal) and had arrived her first day of school with a price list detailing how far you could go for 25 cents or a dollar! The story only accomplished half its purpose. I understood what I was dealing with, but I didn’t agree with his so-long-as-its-not-murder-let-them-alone approach.

When I moved to the first top 6 school, I expected things would be different, and ended shocked by how many of the same problems existed. One girl had just come back to school from having a baby by a guy who used to try to chat to me when I was her age. In other words, this guy was older than me and she was 16. (In Barbados, 16 is legal, but most guys over 20 think it’s kind of ew.)

While I was in my stint at that school, a former student attempted an armed robbery, and ended up killing someone. And many of the teachers told stories about how bad he’d been in school. But during a conversation with the librarian, who was younger and less jaded, it occurred to me how much teachers ignored troubled students.

At the lower academic schools, they acted like certain things were a given and ignored them. At top 6 schools, they acted like there will always be a few to slip through the cracks, and ignored them. There’s this story in the Bible where the people are all “Jesus, Dude, why you be hanging with all dem unclean losers and shiz?” and Jesus is like, “Yo peeps, y’all ain’t messed up like dem. Pun a real, dey needs me like crazy.” Or something like that.

I feel the same way about the kids.

Firstly, I don’t feel that you should just ignore them/wait for them to get kicked out/nod knowingly after they become self-fulfilling prophecies. And secondly, I feel like the “bad” ones need us more.

There were 3 kids in a class I taught at one of the top 6. They’d all repeated a year. I was particularly close to one of them, and he used to tell me how X and Y teachers were against him. Sadly, I believe he was right. Everyone expected him to fail. So I made it my mission to make him succeed. I was only there for a term, so I can’t say we made leaps and bounds of progress. I left Barbados after that school year to come out to Japan, and when I went home for Christmas, he had quit school and was conducting a van. I can’t go into all of what that entails here- maybe I’ll do a Caribbean Context post on it later- but suffice it to say, that people who work on ZR’s and vans are generally thought of as undesirables and shunned by certain much of society.

Obviously, I can’t say for sure that he’d have stayed in school if I’d been there. But I can say that it’s not easy to even try to succeed when everyone thinks you won’t. When small successes are not met with, “Congratulations,” but instead, “Oh! You managed to eke by this time?”

I still worry about that kid. The fact that he quit school in a society where education – free all the way up to certain Masters’ degrees and Doctorates- means everything means that he’s potentially going to be working in that sector forever. Whenever or not he ends up in the criminal end of the spectrum, he’ll be judged as one. Because we let him slip through the cracks. As we do so many others.

Sex, criminal elements and education are just a few of the considerations. There are so many things that teens struggle with: depression, eating disorders, drugs. We can’t just write them off because they aren’t as close to perfect as we’d like. Who decides where the line is where we stop caring? Would they still keep to that line if it was their own child or sibling or friend who was falling below it?

There’s another thought that sticks in my mind from that conversation with the librarian. What if the person the former student had killed had been some relative of one of the teachers? What if they could have helped him, and maybe he’d have taken a different path, but now their favourite uncle was lying 6 feet under? Would it still be a lost cause in their mind? Or would they wish they had tried?

I’d want to know that I’d tried.

I’m not saying that anyone should bend over backward for people who logically don’t deserve it. But I don’t think we should go to the other extreme of purposely turning a blind eye, ear and every other body part. It’s okay if we lose some along the way. It’s inevitable, really. But it’s never okay to lose them on purpose.

It’s Monday, that’s what’s on my mind.


Dianne K. Salerni said...

Well stated, Claire, and as a teacher, I understand exactly what you mean. In fact, one student in particular springs to mind.

Losing even one hurts like hell, especially when you tried so hard to hang on to them. Losing them on purpose is unconscionable.

Aleeza said...

this is such a freaking thought-provoking post. i've thought about this topic so many times, and each time i get a little more confused...

i used to go to this huge middle school in houston (it was only for half a year, but still) and was SO shocked by how...delinquent this kids there were, especially since i'd just came from pakistan, where discipline is really strict.

and i really wished the teachers did more than just slap detention sheets on their desks when they'd done something wrong.

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