“My most valuable experience as a leader thus far comes down to three kids who will sit down to take an AP English test next week.”
James Harris is an English teacher at Soldotna High School. He attended the Spring 2014 Talk Story, Write Story workshop in Homer.
According to the Syllabus
To describe my success as a leader, it would be easy to list awards and accomplishments. I have them: coaching a hockey team to the championship, receiving a teaching award from a nationally-ranked collegiate swimmer at the pool in front of an audience, helping my son reel in his first silver salmon. It would be easy to focus on the professional roles I’ve assumed in the last year: English Department Chair, Professional Development Liaison, Accreditation Leader in charge of teaching teachers, arguably the worst kind of students. However, my most valuable experience as a leader thus far comes down to three kids who will sit down to take an AP English test next week.
When I first walked into my AP class this year, I was shocked at how worn down the senior class looked. I’d last seen them on a daily basis at the end of their sophomore year honors course, 34 strong, when they handed me an old book with all of their signatures in it. I’d been bringing in rare signed books from my own collection all year long, explaining how one can tell the difference between a first and third printing. On the final day, a student brought in a hard copy first edition of Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels of 1993. The book was worth a quarter at most, but their pride in finding a true first edition first printing and the lengthy list of their signatures on the cover page earned it a spot next to even the most valuable books in my collection.
As the book sat there gathering dust over the next year, the class went off to a legendary veteran teacher to tackle 11th Honors. This teacher’s stoicism was as profound and overwhelming as the fifteen-page research essay they were responsible for composing. What I saw in their faces on the first day of their AP year was how a year of intense changes had changed their personal lives. Only 14 remained: one was getting ready to become a father, one was well on her way to becoming a mother, and one was about to again face the devastating impact of unexpected deaths on a family. I’d looked forward to overwhelming these kids with the classics; not only would they leave my class well prepared for the AP exam, but well-read and ready for life. I spent weeks agonizing over exactly how many pages of reading a night would be too much. But looking at their sullen faces on the first day of class, I understood that anything I thought I had planned was worthless.
Pregnancy is scary to everyone, particularly first-time fathers. Cole managed to keep his situation relatively quiet due to the fact that his girlfriend attended another school. Sarah, on the other hand, was sitting front row center and fighting to get comfortable in a chair undersized for her expanding belly. Many students in the class discovered her pregnancy at the same moment I did, walking into class after a long, relaxing summer.
Teen pregnancy carries a stigma, one that can prevent young girls from truly enjoying their pregnancy, something that is a true blessing and a singular life experience. My goal was to immediately neutralize this stigma, to let the girl know that we all supported her. This took an extreme adjustment in how I do business in the classroom. No longer would sternness and insane levels of expectation be effective teaching methodologies. She needed to feel un-judged. She needed her classmates to surround her as a family. She needed the white elephant in the room dragged into the middle and hugged so we could all get to the business of improving our lives through books. Throughout the school year I approached her as a proud uncle, ready at the drop to quiet the class to hear about the baby kicking, or trips to the Dr.’s office, or plans for the birth. We were learning from her, too.
The significant challenge was with the curriculum: the literature. There was no getting out of reading “A Modest Proposal,” so when that day came I immediately called out the awkwardness of reading a proposal for baby-eating aloud with soon to be proud parents. I placed extra effort on emphasizing Swift’s sarcasm, and by the end of it, both Cole and Sarah were laughing. As the months progressed, I often stopped class to be sure we had Sarah’s evacuation plan worked out: “Let’s get her right out the window here. I’ll take arms, Julie you get the legs.” We had officially embraced the white elephant, and returned to the heavy momentum and positive learning environment I’d worked hard to establish their sophomore year.
All of the students eagerly waited for Sarah’s due date, and Cole began to share his experiences as a new father as well. I even created an assignment ”requiring” him to bring her in and present on the origins of her name, Ophelia. He got an A and capped off his presentation by telling us all he’s hoping she’s a good swimmer. As the due date grew closer and Sarah began needing days at home for rest, the nurse and I traded updates for make-up assignments. Toward the end, the only assignment I gave Sarah was to come up with a great name.
Over the course of the winter break, two tragedies struck that continue to inhibit class morale. First, Sarah lost her baby. After hours in the delivery room, the baby suffocated in the umbilical cord. The class was devastated, and I felt a tremendous amount of guilt. I felt partly responsible for their devastation, that I had in some way heightened the misery of the event by overly-embracing her pregnancy. Everything I had done that first semester increased their expectations, and then their despair.
I spoke with the other faculty members and we put together a fund to raise resources for Sarah to take care of funeral expenses. I excused her from everything until her return, told her to take care of herself. We were all still dealing with the shock of Sarah’s tragedy when another student, “K.”, faced a serious life issue, and the morale of the class dropped even lower.
K. was not a typical A honors student, which is why I was so happy he survived 11th Honors to make it into A.P. He was a C honors student, my favorite kind. Unlike many AP students, K.’s interest in his coursework had nothing to do with attaining the highest GPA as a bootstrap to attaining admission into the most prestigious college. His interest, particularly in terms of literature, instead stemmed largely from an inherent need to understand the world. He chose to take AP English, not for scholarly recognition, but for a deeper understanding of literature, the world, and himself.
He is also sensitive, and rightly so. K. already had had a difficult life before entering my classroom. His father died in elementary school, and his mother, who was a dancer at the town’s only adult entertainment venue, passed away when he was a freshman. His grandparents raised him since her passing, and I had established a working relationship with K.’s grandmother. She attended parent-teacher conferences and we discussed K.’s often-misplaced assignments and emotional well being through weekly phone calls. She worried that he was acting out at times, because he was worried about her upcoming open-heart surgery. He did seem to be acting out. He fell asleep in class, missed assignments, lost books. I was preparing to set up an intervention team meeting for him when his grandmother called in tears to let me know his grandfather had suddenly, and unexpectedly, passed away.
That night, I sat at my desk and reviewed the syllabus. Death existed in every title, and all were required reading. When I returned to the class the next morning, both K. and Sarah were absent, but the atmosphere remained. Students did not want to read, and they surely didn’t want to write. So we didn’t. We sat and we talked as best we could about all that had happened and how to move on. I told them I’d be making changes to the syllabus, that we needed something a bit lighter, and assigned Huckleberry Finn.
When K. returned, he let me know he was living with friends, which I understood. The amount of death he’d experienced in that house was too overwhelming. We worked together to set him up with a counselor, to create a plan to get through graduation and move on with life. When Sarah returned, there were days of tears and days with none. I found new works to read, dispersed them. I focused on teaching analysis with a light approach. We read Billy Collins and abandoned A Farewell to Arms.
I began this year with a grand architecture, designed to march my students out of their teenaged lives and through a legion of classics. Had I stuck to that rigid idea of my role as a leader, focused on the lives in our books and not on the lives in front of me, I believe that I could have done real damage to the young people in my AP class. There were times throughout the remainder of the year when I feared that neither Sarah, Cole, or K. would graduate, let alone pass the class. Next Monday morning, the three of them will sit down to tackle the AP Literature Exam. I aspire to their diligence and courage, their own determination to not allow sorrow and loss to derail them on their path to the next chapter in their lives.