Archive for September 11th, 2013

The stranger

Dr. Tea had a student in her regular (non-AP) junior class last year who was/is very bright and probably should/could have been in AP.  Of course it’s fine for kids not to take AP’s in absolutely everything; even if each individual course is an appropriate placement, the overall courseload might be too heavy, or more than the kid wants to take on.  Problem is, our curriculum is quite AP-focused (we don’t all love this, and there’d be a lot of support for moving away from APs, but realistically, this won’t happen until and unless some of our peer schools in the region do it first, or unless we get a radical new head of school or something similar changes), and that means that the kids of moderate to high ability do tend to get sucked into the AP classes, and by junior year that means that the regular classes are roughly the “bottom” 40% or so of each class.  Now, even our lower-performing students tend to be reasonably solid–SA is a competitive college prep school–but the pace of the regular classes might be a little too slow for some of the students who would be appropriately placed in AP but have chosen not to take it.

So, this kid–let’s call him Gus–was probably the keenest in the group, and developed a kind of joking relationship with Dr. Tea.  His parents speak a language that she speaks well, and that’s another bond.  He did extremely well in her class, and she grew to like him quite a lot, which is one of the reasons that she wanted to make sure he was in my AP Lit section instead of one of hers: she thought he’d learn more with someone he didn’t know as well and didn’t feel comfortable teasing and joking with.  So we got him put in my AP Lit, and although we couldn’t keep out of my section absolutely everyone I taught last year (since I had about 50 AP Lang juniors), we did manage to get the bulk of them into her sections.

Gus has been in my AP Lit for two weeks and is holding his own just fine, but he’s been popping over to see Dr. Tea and talk to her.  One day, in a frivolous mood, he and another student taped Cheez-Its over all the numbers on her classroom clock.   He asked her to write his college recommendation.

And then he asked his counselor if he could switch into Dr. Tea’s section.  We kind of saw this coming.  I get it, I really do.  In some ways it’s good, because her section is smaller and mine is full and this helps a bit.  I’m not taking it personally–if it’s personal at all, it’s probably more to do with the students in my class rather than with me: it’s a big, bright, talkative group, and Gus doesn’t stand out very much yet, although he’s made good comments and I think we’ve been developing some rapport.  But he clearly wants to be with Dr. Tea and I get that.  I think he might even want to show her that he can compete in the AP pool, now that he knows he can.  I would have been OK with the switch, except I knew that she didn’t want him to.

The thing that really swayed us both, though, and this is sort of ironic, is that another of his reasons for wanting to switch is that there’s another senior in Dr. Tea’s section with whom he’s becoming friends.  This boy, let’s call him Ed, appeared in this post–he was new last year.  As it happens, both Dr. Tea and I are especially fond of Ed.  He went to a big public school through tenth grade and is a pretty quiet, inward kid–not conditioned, as many longtime SA students are, toward the sort of white upper-middle-class confidence that helps them speak up in class.  A lot of kids seem to like Ed, but he’s shy and maybe a bit skittish.  He and I had a nice rapport, I think, but he was so successful in my class (he’s an outstanding student overall, and won a science award) that I felt he should really have Dr. Tea for a fresh eye on his work.

So we both liked the idea of Gus being in Ed’s section, and the two of them improving their acquaintance.  I suggested that Gus might actually have a different demeanor in the AP class, even with the same teacher, because it’s a more challenging group.  So he’s making the switch and we’ll see what happens.

But the interesting thing, to me, was the conversation that Dr. Tea and I had about it.  How is it, we said, that we’re the adults and they’re the kids–and yet there are unquestionably some kids who have such strong personalities, or who make such a strong connection with us, that we really don’t have as much control over the course of the relationship as we think?  I mean, obviously she didn’t have to let him put the Cheez-Its on her clock, but it’s also the kind of silly thing that seniors do sometimes, and Dr. Tea has many running jokes in her classes (disgusting foods are a recurring theme, particularly circus peanuts and other weird candies from the dollar store).  But sometimes a kid will just pick us out and decide we are special to them, and we can help steer the course of the relationship but we can’t actually pick the direction or the speed.  This happened to me last year with the student who came out to me last September, for example, and it looks to be happening with one of the editors of the literary magazine (an intense young woman who writes a lot), and who knows who else.

You need boundaries, obviously.  But you also need those boundaries to be breachable, up to a point.  You don’t cross certain lines–sexual ones, of course, but also you don’t criticize other faculty members, you don’t encroach on parenting territory, questions of a family’s values, or a parent’s authority–if you think you have to do those things, then there’s almost certainly a problem that is bigger than you can handle alone, and you need to get help with it.  With those boundaries in place, though, there are certainly some kids who want and need to get closer to you than others.  It’s okay to make that safe and possible for them.  But it’s also good to be able to talk it out with a colleague, to process what it feels like when one kid gets a little closer than the others, and to make sure that you’re handling things fairly and honestly.  I so appreciate being able to do that with Dr. Tea, and I’m honored that she can do it with me, too.