So this year I’m teaching a couple of online English courses.
Oh right, hey, hi everyone, yes, it’s been, like, a year. Oops sorry. I graduated – got my BA in English. And then a few months later I thought it would be spiffing to go for my MA so I’m doing that now and as a result barely have time to write in my journal, let alone blog.
But this week. This week, this week of horrible wonderful emotional and intellectual reshaping and reframing and frankly feeling like I was simultaneously giving birth and being birthed because this week, where on top of the 250 pages of feminist rhetoric I was required to read for class (it turns out it’s not actually as dangerous as “they” had told me… except maybe for “them” and I was never one of “them” so I’m not worried about the feminism after all but that’s a different blog post), this week I had the first Zoom meeting with my husband and the divorce mediator and realized that it’s about to get real and I have to decide if I want to fight to keep possession of the house so that my three adult children have a place to live, or whether I want to let it go so that I can buy a small condo for my mother and I and who knows where the three adult offspring will go, THIS WEEK, one of my students decided to not show up for the Quarter Final.
Now, this is an online class, which means when I say he didn’t show up, he simply didn’t log in. Hardly as impactful as refusing to drag his behind to a brick and mortar classroom, but still. I did notice he wasn’t there.
You have to understand that this particular student only wants to talk about guns and being a Marine. I subbed for the Grammar/Comp I class he took as an 8th grader, and again a few times when he was a 9th grader. I know him.
Granted, he’s now taller than me by a foot. But I remember little William (not his real name). Puny William, who was younger than everyone else in the Grammar/Comp class and told stupid jokes and never got taken seriously.
But now he wants to be a Marine, which I think could be a great idea, if it’s not just compensation for the years that he was short, except for the fact that he has spent the entire quarter trying to pass off copy-and-paste Internet passages as his own work, and I don’t think the Marines would stand for that sort of behavior.
When I called him on that and threatened to tell his mother if it happened again, he didn’t reply, but two weeks later turned in, with his name on it, his older brother’s homework from one of my classes in 2017.
Which, frankly, he would have gotten away with if it weren’t for the fact that his brother used that particular worksheet to analyze a short story called “The Scarlet Ibis,” which I chose to not include in this year’s iteration of the Comp/Lit class. This year, I had them analyzing “A Jury of Her Peers.”
I mean, if you’re going to cheat, at least make sure the titles of the stories match.
So I told his mother. I explained that I would still accept the homework assignments in question if he did them honestly, with a minor ding to the grade for the resubmission. She thanked me and leaned on him and he immediately started resubmitting homework. It looked like we had turned him around.
Until the day of the Quarter Final, when he chose not to show up.
And then the next day he ignored the 0/67 I had given him as a grade and did the test on his own time, with no explanation for his absence or, “Gee, Ms. Muffy, can I do a makeup exam because I was throwing a temper tantrum the day of the final and now I see the error of my ways.”
He just figured he could do the test when he was damn well good and ready and I would accept it.
See, you have to understand, even a year ago, I would have accepted it. I would have been so eager to please that I would have said, “Oh, it’s okay, William, I understand you had a bad day, thank you so much for taking this test and submitting it.”
But for the past couple of months I’ve been taking a parenting class. Granted, my youngest is 18, so it’s possibly a little late to take one. But my kids are a little stunted and I’m worried about the 20 year old, who shows little tangible evidence that they will launch any time soon, besides the fact that they hoard dishes and glasses in their room to the point that we literally don’t have enough to go around at dinner time.
This parenting class, which is online and oh-so-COVID-convenient, is aimed at teens who are acting out and having behavioral issues. So it’s a little bit overkillish for my own kids, although some of the precepts are working for us and the 20 year old is finally doing the dishes when I ask. There’s still a ways to go before they realize they need to do dishes without being asked, but it is progress.
So even though the success with my own kids is only just the other side of the margin of success, I thought this parenting class might at least help a bit in when I’m teaching. And it turned out it did. It’s actually exactly what I needed to deal with William.
At any rate, I knew, when William didn’t show up for the final, that I shouldn’t go chase him down and beg him to come to class. I just let it go. And when he turned in his final a day late, I returned it ungraded and said, “I’m sorry, William, I can’t accept this because you did it without supervision and it’s a Final. If you had contacted me the day of the Final, we could have made arrangements, but turning it in a day late is not acceptable.”
Just like my parenting class told me to. Toss it over your shoulder and walk away. No arguments. No asking “Why didn’t you…” because that just invites excuses.
And just like my parenting class told me, he tried to shift the blame to me. He replied, “I guess imma fail English then.”
I didn’t reply. Partly because it was Sunday and for heaven’s sake, I get a day off, and partly because I had a giant lecture bubbling around my mind that was just bursting to get out and I knew this was not the time or the place to lay that lecture on him. And partly because my parenting class has taken me to a healthier level and I recognized the blame-shifting, and I didn’t even consider picking that up and claiming it, not for a minute. That’s his failure. I considered replying, “Yes, well, William, when you blow off a Final, you generally do fail.”
But I’m trying to be more gentle, even with people who clearly need a smack upside the head, so I waited a bit.
His mother called me. She’s awesome. She said, “I’d rather he fail now than when he’s older.” I wholeheartedly agree. Junior year of high school is an excellent time to earn an F. It gives you time to recover.
Because the stakes when you are 17 are so, so much less serious than when you are 25.
And then tonight, at 10:30 pm, I received a very remorseful text from him, saying, “I’m failing Comp/Lit. Is there any way I can like get help.”
And I replied, “Certainly. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
And then I did a happy dance around the whole house, because not only did I get through to this student, but my parenting class WORKED!
I didn’t people please. I didn’t codepend. I stood my ground and refused to pick up the blame.
This is a big deal. After 27 years of a marriage in which I picked up the blame even when it was clearly not my fault. I may have finally found my authority.
And even better, it worked. I didn’t have to acquiesce to the bully. It may strike you as odd that a 17 year old could bully a 56 year old, but this has been my life for so long, it almost felt normal. As I said, even a year ago, I would have played along with it and taken the blame. Except that this time I was on the lookout for bullies and I stopped this one in his tracks.
I wish I had words to explain how much progress this is for me. I used to be so submissive, if the parakeets were singing I would rearrange my schedule so that I could play piano later in the day and not interrupt them.
So this ignoring of the blame shift, this refusal to let the student seize control of how he took his test, this polite “Gee, I’m sorry, but I just can’t accept that even though I know that means you just earned an F,” this not responding to the email even though I had some angry words to throw back at him… this is progress.
This is victory.
And now to help William find his way to his own victory.