Yannick’s Debts

When Yannick walked into my office on Thursday, his first words were, “Miss, do you remember me?”

I did.  He’s in my Travel Literature class, but I hadn’t seen him in almost 2 months.  He hadn’t written any of his required blog posts.  He’d showed up to do his (half-assed) oral presentation, but had never submitted his bibliography.  The major essays had been due the day before, and I’d heard nothing from him.  I’d assumed he was gone for good, but that is often a foolish assumption.

“I’ve been away from school for a while,” he said.  “I’ve been having some problems.”

I gestured for him to sit down, and he explained.  He’d visited Academic Advising that morning.  He’d told them what was going on, and why he’d missed so much school, but they’d told him that there was no official remedy for his situation, because his difficulties were not medical.  His only hope was to speak with his teachers, see what he could do to complete his semester, and try to pass four of his courses, because he’s on academic probation and if he fails this term, he’s out for good.

“I’ve seen my other five teachers,” he said.  “Two of them say there’s no way.  The other three told me what I need to do if I want to pass.  So that just leaves this course.”

Yannick is a handsome and confident young man.  He reminds me a little of another handsome and confident young man I taught a few years ago, one who spoke with the assurance that of course you were going to do whatever he asked of you.  And people did, especially girls, who allowed him to cheat off their tests and, I heard, signed his name to attendance sheets in courses he skipped.  (He eventually failed my course for blatant, unrepentant plagiarism.)  Yannick’s air is a bit less presumptuous, slightly deferential but not obsequious.  It’s an effective air, but I’ve seen it before, and am mostly invulnerable to it now.

I outlined what the possibilities were.  He wasn’t going to pass his blog project, but there was still time to make up some missed posts and get something more than 0%.  His major paper was going to be late, but I accept papers up to a week after the deadline, albeit with a 5%-per-day late penalty.  His Mock Exit Exam would be the following week, and he needed to show up and do his best with that.  His in-class assignments grade was in the toilet, and that was not reparable.  “It’s not impossible, Yannick,” I said, “but frankly, I’m not optimistic about your chances.”

“But, you see, miss…do you want to know my situation?”

I gave a shrug that I hoped was nonchalant without being insulting.  “You’re welcome to tell me about it if you like.”

And then he proceeded to tell me about his father’s business.  The details of it were confusing, but the upshot seemed to be that his father had dug himself into a hole by importing cars, selling them at auction, but then getting behind on his payments and sales and accumulating debt.  The auction had finally seized their cars and, after some negotiation, agreed to accept a payment of $50,000 to cover the remainder, money the family didn’t have.  Yannick had been working 12 hours a day at the shop trying to help out, but now creditors had been calling and coming to the door, so they weren’t spending much time at home.  The family and the business were crumbling.

“O.K.,” I said.  “I understand that this is a difficult situation.  But you’ve been missing from my course for 7 WEEKS, Yannick.  There are 3 WEEKS left in the semester.  There’s no reason you couldn’t have called your teachers a month ago and let them know that you were having problems.  I have plenty of other students who have problems at home, and they’ve either tried to manage these problems differently than you have, or they’ve accepted the consequences.  It’s not impossible for you to get through, but I think, given the work you’ve done already, that it’s highly, highly unlikely, especially if you have three other courses you need to try to pass at the same time.  If you’re on academic probation, then you KNOW what happens when you don’t come to class and you don’t do the work.”

“Well, the academic probation, that was all me.  I just didn’t take things seriously.  But this, Miss, I’m not bullshitting you.  I can bring you proof if you want.”

“It wouldn’t matter.  Unless you’ve had a medical crisis, there’s nothing the documentation can be used for.  You just need to do what you can with what you have left, and hope for the best.  But there are absolutely no guarantees, and I have to be honest with you, Yannick – I don’t think you’re going to pass.”

“The thing is, Miss, you have to understand.  If I fail out this semester, they’re going to kick me out for a year.  I don’t want to spend a year doing nothing.”

I stared at him for a moment.  Then I said, “Of course I understand that this is difficult, but we have to be realistic here.  I’m not going to GIVE you the grades.  You have to earn them by demonstrating what you’ve learned, and you haven’t been in class to learn anything.  So we’ll see how it goes.”

Then we went over the guidelines for the remaining assignments, and he shook my hand, thanked me, and left.

When he was gone, I put my head in my hands.  For a moment I was angry, although that calmed pretty quickly.  Then I was just sad.  Really, really sad.

This 18-year-old man was once a little boy.  He watched his father deal either underhandedly or extremely unwisely with his business.  Yannick watched his father make bad choices, and then try to weasel out of the consequences by accumulating debt and, eventually, staying away from his home and refusing to answer the phone.  And now Yannick, not just for one semester but for two, has made his own choices, and has ignored the consequences until it was no longer possible to ignore them, and has reached the point of trying to make those consequences go away by pleading with others to fix the problem.

How could I be angry about this?  Where would this boy have learned any other way of dealing with the world?

And then I thought about his father, and what kind of a father or mother he might have had.  And then I thought about all the bad lessons I might have taught my children, if I’d decided to have any.

The trouble with trying to be compassionate is that it doesn’t mean you can be easy on people.  On the contrary, I think – although I’m not sure – that the most compassionate thing I can do for Yannick will be to make him face the consequences of his choices, and recognize that they WERE choices.  I have no desire to punish him.  I certainly don’t think I should assume I know what’s best for him, or what will make his life better or easier.

But if there is one thing teaching has brought me to believe with all my heart, it’s that we all – students, teachers, parents, children, politicians, criminals, cats and dogs – need to learn the principle of cause and effect.  If you spend more than you earn, you will go into debt.  If you don’t go to class, you will fail your courses.  And if your family business is going to hell in a handbasket and you can’t go to school because you’re working 12 hours a day at the shop, then maybe a year away from school is exactly what you need.  Not that that’s any of my business.

I don’t know.  Am I crazy here?  It isn’t my job to un-teach the lessons he’s learned his whole life – it’s my job to teach him how to read and write about literature, and evaluate whether he’s learned THOSE lessons.  He’ll pass or fail on the basis of that and nothing else.  But earlier in my career, I might have been tempted to make allowances and exceptions.  Now, I don’t think that any more allowances or exceptions will do him any favours.

Image by Ashley Voortman

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13 responses

  1. …In not letting him off the hook you were also being kind to all the other students in the class, some who surely are also dealing with challenging circumstances and still managed to complete the work. Except when there’s a medical emergency or something like that, I always tell students that it’s my job to ensure fairness for everyone. Sometimes I say, “If you can come up with a way for me to give you what you want without feeling that I’m selling out everyone who played by the rules, I’ll consider your solution.” A couple of times, students have proposed innovative ways to have me make an exception (i.e. they do A LOT of extra work), and I’ve done it.

    • I totally agree, Amy, and if it comes to the end and he hasn’t passed but still wants to try, I might steal that line and run it by him! However, I think that if he DID come up with an acceptable solution, I’d have to offer it to everyone else in the class who didn’t pass as well. It’s a great trick to have in one’s pocket, though; thanks for that.

  2. I totally agree with you here. Those were HIS decisions although, maybe for him, he didn’t have much choices (couldn’t leave his dad, etc). Education is very important and he should have decided to focus on this instead of trying to save his dad. I understand he wanted to help his dad, but his story says more he wanted to save him. That’s sad, indeed, but we only can save ourselves. You did the right thing.

    • Thanks, Gen. I agree that the decision to step away from his dad would have been difficult, but there are other choices he could have made, too – for example, when he realized he was getting behind, he could have contacted his teachers right away and tried to work something out. I agree with you: we can only save ourselves, and sometimes that means accepting the consequences of our actions and learning from them. Thanks for your comment!

  3. You said, “I’m not going to GIVE you the grades. You have to earn them by demonstrating what you’ve learned, and you haven’t been in class to learn anything.” Brilliant. I have said many words to that effect many times but I may steal yours. They sound better than mine.
    You did the right thing.

    • Hey, thanks! It’s something I say to them over and over. “Why did you give me a C?” “I didn’t GIVE you a C, that’s what you earned.” “Why did you take off so many points?” “I didn’t take off ANY points; you earned a certain number of points, and those are the points I gave you.”

  4. I had a very similar moral issue recently when a little girl (9) refused to attend class. Her mother begged ad pleaded with her. At one point, the girl smacked her mother in the face. Once I found out it wasn’t “just me” she was avoiding, I saw it was a psychological thing. She asked me to sign off on 15 days of “independent study.” I always thought this was an oxymoron term. Without teaching, how can a child, for example, learn to reduce fractions? At any rate, the mother was angry at me but I would only sign off on a week’s worth of work. She needed to be in class. I know I did the right thing. Thanks for posting your vignette.

    • Wow, Damien – what a weird situation! I’m in no way opposed to homeschooling (or even “unschooling”) if it’s done right, but it sounds like this little girl needs something altogether different…

  5. Pingback: Timely Snow » Blog Archive » That time of the school year

  6. Pingback: Scrabbling for the Stone « classroom as microcosm

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