My school occupies the back half of a grammar school, the basement and third floors only. The teachers at the grammar school lock their nice warm bathroom on the third floor, so we dash down to the unheated basement every time we need to use the bathroom. Coming down the stairs yesterday, I was stopped by Kinya, a 9th grader I haven’t seen in my class for at least a month.
“Госпожа, why am I failing your class?”
“Because you never come to class. I haven’t seen you in over a month.”
“But, can’t you give me a 3 [the equivalent of a D, the lowest possible passing grade]?”
“How can I give you a 3 if you don’t do anything, if you never even come to class?”
“I come to class!”
“No, you don’t.”
“A few classes I’ve missed, but-”
“No, you’ve only come to a few classes. Listen, I almost never give homework. All you have to do is come to class and participate, and you don’t do that. That’s why you’re failing.”
“Well, sometimes I just don’t come to school!”
“Because it bores me.”
This conversation was going nowhere and I needed to use the bathroom. I left Kinya on the stairwell. Her classmate, Biserka was with her. As I came back up the stairs, Kinya entreated me with different tactic.
“Ms. D___! I didn’t mean that English class was boring! I meant that other classes were boring!”
“It doesn’t make a difference what’s boring. I don’t have any problem with you thinking English class is boring. If you don’t come to class, you will fail.”
Biserka was sitting on the stairs, laughing at Kinya’s desperation and her predicament. As I passed her I asked,
“What’s so funny Biserka? You’re failing too.”
How did I feel leaving them there? The vice director overheard us, and gave me a “You sure showed them!” little smirk as we passed on the stairs. And for a moment I was pleased that I could verbally smite teenagers на български, and tried to fool myself into thinking I’d just taught these girls an important lesson about consequences.
But I reached the top of the stairs deflated, because the truth is that Kinya is right. School is boring. And not in the character-building way that it should be, but in a maddening, wall-hitting way. Teachers write cryptic exercises on the board and students listlessly copy them into notebooks, with no explanation, synthesis or discussion, their notes never to be studied or even glanced at ever again. Every so often the teacher demands to see the inside of the notebooks, and the kids who bother to bring them open them up to reveal pages and pages of this copywork, each student’s notebook identical. When I ask students to produce English words or sentences on their own, without copying them from the board, they write a pseudo-phonetic gobbledygook of Latin and Cyrillic letters, still unable to distinguish individual English words after illegedly studying the language for eight years.
The end of my first term as a teacher approaches and I face the possibility of failing at least a third of my students. Some of them are merely names on the attendance roster, people I have never seen before, who may be married or enrolled in another school. Like Kinya, many of them seem bewildered by what I expect from them, which is nothing more than attendance, punctuality and a good attitude. Others, like Biserka, have no idea they even are failing and don’t seem to care in any case. On one hand, I glibly pass out 2’s, telling myself that high schoolers have plenty of personal responsibility, and it’s up to them to pass or fail a class.
But I’m haunted by the other meaning of the verb “to fail,” because to fail a student means not just to write them a failing grade, but to fail as a teacher to engage them.