I hadn’t slept in 30 hours. My husband and I are buying a house, and we’d discovered an error in our mortgage agreement at the notary two days before. We should have seen it much earlier, but in our housebuyers’ exhaustion and overwhelm, we hadn’t paid close enough attention. The next day, we’d learned that the error was irreversible because we hadn’t caught it in time. I’d been up all night with the mortgage documents, trying to determine if there were other mistakes we’d missed.
I’d just heard from the bank, and it seemed that everything else was in order. The impact of the error was not world-ending, but it was significant. The greater problem was my feeling of helplessness in the face of the grinding real estate/banking/legal machine that we understand so little about, and the failure of those who do understand it (notaries, mortgage specialists) to protect us from its vagaries.
I was feeling put-upon by the universe. I was also feeling like an idiot. I could have prevented this, if I’d paid closer attention.
Then Kalia walked in. I’d written her a few days before to advise her that she’d failed her most recent essay and that, although she’s entitled to rewrite it, it’s unlikely that she’ll pass her English course. So her appearance in my office was expected but not welcome.
Kalia was in my class last autumn as well. She failed, because she didn’t come to class. This term, she didn’t show up for the first two weeks, and then one day she appeared during my office hours. ”If I come to class now, can I still pass this course?”
I furrowed my brow. ”I don’t know.”
She stared at me blankly.
“Mathematically speaking? Yes, it’s still possible for you to pass. Our first essay test is next class; you haven’t done any of the preparation, but you’re welcome to try it. You’ve missed one quiz but no other major assignments. If you come to all the remaining classes, and hand in all the assignments, and do all the quizzes, and pass them all, then yes, you will pass.”
Her face broke into a beam, but I frowned and shook my head, and the beam froze.
“I don’t think you’re asking the right question,” I said. “Last semester you said, more than once, that you were going to make an effort and come to class and do the work, but you didn’t do it. This semester has started the same way. The important question is: what makes you think you’re going to do things differently now? What’s changed?”
Her smile transformed from pleased to sheepish. ”Yes. I guess that’s the question.”
“You can pass this course, Kalia, if you really do change your behaviour. If you don’t, you will fail again.”
Again, her face beamed. ”I will. I’ll come to class and I’ll do the work.”
But of course, nothing changed. She did show up for the next class, but she hadn’t bought her books and hadn’t done her homework. I stopped her on her way out and pointed out that just showing up and sitting in the room was not going to lead to success. She eventually did buy at least one of her textbooks, but her attendance was spotty at best. When she finally showed up in my office this Thursday, I hadn’t seen her in almost three weeks, except for a chance meeting in the hallway when she told me that she hadn’t come to class that morning because she “had to study for her psychology test.” Her overall average was 10 points below a pass.
“I want you to help me with my essay…” she began, but I raised my hand and stopped her.
“Did you get my message?” She nodded. ”So you understand that, as things stand, you’re not going to pass this course.”
“But we still have the grammar test and the rewrite of this essay,” she said. ”If I pass those, can’t I pass the course?”
“I don’t know,” I said. ”I haven’t done the arithmetic. I can tell you from past experience, though, that a student who has a 50% at this stage is unlikely to achieve a 60% by the end.”
She paused. ”Can you calculate it for me?”
I stared at her. I sighed. Then I opened my online gradebook and typed in some numbers. ”If you get a 60 on each remaining assignment,” I said, “you will get a 53% in the course.”
She deflated for a beat. Then she perked up. ”What if I get…”
“Kalia,” I snapped. ”I am not going to sit here and plug in numbers for you. I am also not going to help you with this essay right now. As I instructed you and everyone, you should bring the essay to class with you on Monday and we’ll work on it some more and you can ask questions. We have spent THREE WEEKS working on this latest essay in class, and you haven’t been in class for that work. So you failed. I’m not going to give you private tutoring on everything we’ve done because you couldn’t be bothered to come learn what you needed to learn during class time. We talked at the beginning of the semester about what you needed to do to pass this course. You haven’t done it. You’re welcome to do this rewrite and do your grammar test and see what happens. But I’m not going to re-teach everything I’ve taught for an audience of one.”
Here’s the interesting thing about Kalia. When I tell her off, she doesn’t become angry or defensive or upset. Instead, she nods, her eyes downcast, and smiles a little. ”Ok,” she said. ”Perfect. Thank you.” No sarcasm. Just resignation. She packed her essay up and left the office.
There are all sorts of arguments for why Kalia needs tough love, for why, no matter how harsh my response may seem, it’s really for her own good. She needs to take responsibility for her learning and fulfill requirements and deal with whatever’s preventing her from doing the most basic things she needs to do, or she needs to get out of school and come back when she can handle it. Coddling her is not going to help her. And so forth.
But none of these reasons are my reasons. I didn’t snap at her because it was in her best interest. I snapped at her because I was exhausted and she was pissing me off. I wasn’t doing it for her; I was doing it because if I had to deal with Kalia right then, I was going to walk right down to Human Resources and quit my job. And then where would my mortgage payments be?
Much like motherhood, teacherhood is held up to a terrifying amount of scrutiny in our society. There is an expectation that teachers will be a strange cross between automatons and saints, that we will unfailingly do what our students need us to do. (Here’s a post that’s been going around lately, detailing what that entails.) And it’s true that if we’re good teachers, we WILL strive to do that. We won’t always succeed, but we’ll do our level best. It’s our job.
There will come a day, though, when we just can’t. For me, Thursday was that day. I couldn’t do what was best for Kalia; I couldn’t even decide what that was, and didn’t care. I wasn’t capable of being a good teacher. I just wanted her THE HELL OUT OF MY OFFICE. If someone else had turned up that day, someone less infuriating than Kalia, I hope my responses would have been different. But one way or another, they would have been limited, because I was THIS FAR from setting fire to my desk, cancelling my last two weeks of classes and booking a plane ticket to somewhere far away, never to return.
I hope you’ll forgive me for this lapse; I’ve forgiven myself, and I forgive you for any day when this has happened to you. I don’t dispute that it’s essential for us to always, always do our best, whether it’s for our students, our children, our spouses, our friends. It’s just that some days, our best isn’t very good. That’s ok. A good cry and 13 hours of sleep meant that the next day, my best was a little better.
That won’t help Kalia, but honestly? I don’t know what will help her. Maybe my outburst was just the trick. If not, maybe someone else will know what to do. I could spend some time here scrutinizing my behaviour, as if it were a mortgage document, scanning every line for errors. I’m fully capable of such scrutiny, as you regular readers will know. But: no thanks. I dropped the ball where my mortgage was concerned, and there will be consequences, but the world will not end. Kalia will survive too, even if I failed her.
Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we have no idea if we got it right or not. We have to just keep doing what we do, and fixing what we can, and taking the consequences. And trying to get a good night’s sleep.
Image by Adrian van Leen