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Nail biter

December 18, 2009

This semester went down to the wire (actually, 5 minutes past), ending at 4:35 when I submitted my grades to the registrar’s office. It was a hectic, overwhelming week with over 70 of my own students to grade plus a handful of students belonging to my colleague, who left last week to take care of his ill father.

Normally I’m pretty unperturbable, but my nerves were frayed by the end of this week. Every time I sat down to grade a paper, a student or colleague would walk in with a question or request, forcing me to employ all the willpower I could muster not to lose my cool.

It was simultaneously a disappointing week and a fulfilling week, with a number of students handing in half-a$$ed and plagiarized assignments – or not handing in assignments at all – but with other students finishing strong, turning in stellar essays and/or completing a phenomenal number of math lessons.

Several times during the week I was shaken nearly to tears by students’ personal stories and struggles. Even though I know the reality of students’ lives on the reservation, hearing about their homes lives straight from their hearts never ceases to wrench my own. As much as I hate to know the detailed reality, it’s what keeps me going during weeks like this, when a teacher can’t help but wonder at times why on earth we do what we do. Why do we give our all when it seems like half the students don’t care? Why do we put ourselves in situations where we’ll undoubtedly be seen as the “bad guy” regardless of our noble intentions?

The answers to these questions are obvious to me after I return home every night and look out over the lights of Lame Deer in the valley below my residence: I love it here, and I love these people. But there are nonetheless instances when I think I’m crazy for being here, like yesterday.

Yesterday, a student of mine became upset with me because I wouldn’t sign her release form for her scholarship check; she hadn’t yet made satisfactory progress. She went to my boss with her complaint, who phoned me to find out the full story. In the background, I could hear the student pleading that she needed the money because she had no gas, no food, no money left to take care of herself and her son.

I could have signed the form, but then I would have been lowering my standards and expectations, which in the long run would do nobody any good. I was upset with the student for laying the weight of her predicament on me when she had put off her work until the last minute of the semester, but I was also upset at the situation. Part of the reason this student put off her work is that she is deathly afraid of math because she’s never had to learn it: the school system simply passed her along year after year, and now it’s catching up with her. I shouldn’t have to make a call between academic integrity and a student’s security, and she shouldn’t have to make up for 12 years of poor schooling in four semesters.

Today, she was in my math classroom all day struggling to finish up the last of her work so that she could obtain her scholarship check. At 4:15pm, fifteen minutes before grades were due, she finished her last webtest. As we reviewed her answers together to make sure she hadn’t made any simple mistakes (such as rounding to the wrong place value), she was shaking so visibly that I almost started crying. She was terrified that she wasn’t going to be able to get her money, which would have left her completely broke for the holidays, and my nerves were so shot by that point that I almost couldn’t take it.

Just as we submitted the test, the Internet cut out and the server couldn’t grade it; the questions and answers vanished into cyberspace never to be retrieved. I was relieved because I was able to give her the benefit of the doubt on a technical glitch; if she hadn’t passed, I don’t know what I would have done and I don’t even want to think about it. As it turned out, she’ll be able to sleep tonight, and so will I.

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