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October 31, 2019
It seems inevitable. As Don Birnam* lost four days to his addiction, I have lost at least four weeks of September and five of October to mine. Not so much to substance abuse as Mr. Birnam, but the to the “easier path” of religious observance, family crises, the political storm in Washington, D.C., and working in an unbalanced way; all these frame the time gone by in accusatory fingers pointing at the things I have not done.
It is a sad truth: once something is chosen, something else falls by the wayside. For me, what falls away have always been the things I need to do most, the things that feed my soul, and I failed to choose them. Somehow fueling the body is easier than the soul.
Yes, it was all my choice, my decisions, this failure. I chose then. And I have to choose now. That definitely is inevitable. As I always hope, I’d like to think that making better choices is equally inevitable.
Another inevitability in my work is that some of my students will fail. Some choose to fail by dropping out of class. Whether they go on to take the high school equivalency test or not, we rarely find out. It can be as if those bodies that warmed our chairs and our hearts have simply disappeared into the mass of humanity that makes up Beaver County, PA.
Other cherubs attend a class or two because they are forced and go off to take the tests, with predictably mixed results. Whether they continue to try or give up, again is left for us to wonder.
Then there are the students who come to class. They take the practice tests. They refine their knowledge to have a better chance at answering some of the more convoluted questions on the test. They go to the testing center, take the test and they fail. Whether by one or two points or several, one subject or two, or as many as four, they do not achieve the numerical score needed. Sometimes the student “chokes” out of nerves or stress. Sometimes the rotating test questions do not follow the course the student focused so much energy on. Either way, the failure still wounds. Not physically, if the student escapes without a headache or sour stomach, but the wound is real and choices must be made.
Case in point: our Early Bird. She attended every class for six months. She studied, practiced, participated in discussions, and worked her proverbial tail off to prepare. Her practice test show she could pass, but only by a point or two. Still, she braved the math test and took the chance to fail. And she did.
“Seems to me she must have had brain freeze,” Notta observed the day we got the news.
“Or the questions were not on the topics we covered,” I said. “You know, they are never the same for any two students. One has a lot of geometry, the next one gets quadratic equations.”
“Don’t remind me,” Notta groaned.
We both spent before and after class hours re-teaching ourselves that particular topic in higher math. Nor did I wish to remind her of the chemical equations we had to learn to balance, since neither of us had taken a chemistry class. Ever. Such things were not considered requirements for college or even a decent job when we were that young.
“I swear, there’s too much for kids to have to know these days that doesn’t amount to a hill of red kidney beans when they go out to find a job,” Notta added. “How many of our cherubs can’t boil water or balance a checking account?”
“Or make up a budget and stick to it?” I said with a sigh.
“The muckity-mucks who decide what schools teach really fouled things up when they stopped teaching Home Ec. All these kids need some kind of life skills training, ‘cos the ones we see sure don’t get it at home!”
I nodded, but said nothing more. We’d had this conversation before. While I will state to my dying day that politicians and lawyers and even educators who have not been in a classroom in the last five years have no business whatsoever deciding curricula, let alone class size, it is an uphill battle that we fight one student at a time, kvetching all the way. At times, I wonder if the energy spent complaining couldn’t be better focused fighting the “muckity-mucks” on the political front; or even where it would influence them the most: their wallets. However, I have chosen not to do it, but to slog along and pray sense will out.
Our Early Bird came back to class the next day. She sat slumped in her chair. Her eyes were red and she did not have much to say in our discussions. Once we had the rest of the class doing independent work, I called her to my office.
“I blew it, Mrs. G,” she said. She sat in Notta’s chair, hunched like a sack that was light on the top. “I’m a failure.”
“It sure feels like that, doesn’t it?” I said.
“I can’t do anything right!”
“Really? How’d you get here this morning?”
“Stopped at all the stop signs and red lights?”
“Stayed reasonably within the speed limits?”
She grinned. “You know. Not so fast that I’d get pulled over.”
“Sounds like some success to me.”
“Sort of. But I do that every day. The test…I don’t know. I just…failed.”
“You didn’t know enough of the material they randomly chose to test you on to get a passing score,” I said.
“Right. And I paid for it. I mean, really, I paid $30 to fail.”
“I’m sure it looks that way. Feels that way, too.”
“But I shouldn’t feel that way?” A glint of hope flickered in her bloodshot eyes.
I sighed. “I think you have to feel that way to begin with. You worked so hard. We all know that.”
“And I still – “
I held up a hand to stop her self-reproach. “It happens. On these tests, in life, it happens. You can put heart and soul and money into something until you feel you have nothing left to give. Then the test comes, and it’s not enough. By somebody else’s standard, it is not enough.”
“It’s never enough,” she said.
“I know that feeling.”
“Did you ever fail, Mrs. G?”
I swallowed a bitter laugh. This was not the time for laughter. “More times than I care to think about.”
“How’d you handle it?”
“At first, badly. My parents didn’t tolerate failure in my school work. It was not even an option. So, the first time I failed a class – which was in college – I curled up into a ball and hid from the world for days. I think I hoped it would all go away like a bad dream. But it didn’t. And I had to choose. Would I give it all up, or fight back?”
“It took some work, and a lot of support from my friends, but I fought back. Took the class a 2nd time and passed.”
“That the only thing you failed?”
Now I laughed. “Hardly. I’ve had job failures, social failures; I’ve even failed myself by not living up to what I think I should be.”
Her eyes went wide. “You?”
“But…” she let the question ask itself in silence.
“It took a lot of time and a lot of bangs and bruises and tears, but I think I’m only just coming to a place where I can step back from the pain. I’m trying to learn from the failure and then decide whether to fight back or walk away. “ I looked at her with a smile. “And you have the same choice. You don’t have to decide today or not even tomorrow, but you will have to choose: fight back or walk away.”
“Oh, I’m choosing now,” she said, jumping up from the chair. “I like a good fight. You shoulda seen what I did to this girl who tried to take my boyfriend – “
“Let’s channel that into your math,” I interrupted. “Or maybe take something you find easier first. You know, build up to the math.”
“Yeah, I can take the Social Studies test. I’m good at Social Studies.”
“Let’s do the practice test and see.”
“Right, let’s go! I can get the laptop, if you can sign me on – “
And so it went. Our Early Bird was never one to sit still. And I know she will pass…in time.
It is inevitable.
*”The Lost Weekend.” Dir. Billy Wilder. Paramount. 1945. Film