Sunday, May 1, 2011

Parental Investment

In my few months as a substitute teacher, I've learned to always bring extra pencils, because an astonishing number of students come to school with no school supplies. Often, they are wearing immaculate $100 sneakers and even flashing $10 and $20 dollar bills, but their little bookbags contain only junk food and paper airplanes. Since these kids are known to "forget" to return borrowed pencils, their classmates refuse to lend them anything, so I try to make sure I have a few pencils and extra erasers in my bag so they'll have no excuse not to do their assignments.
But it's so frustrating, because I know their parents have money for Air Jordans and Lil' Debbie snack cakes and  potato chips and weekly haircuts... so why not forgo that totally-unnecessary second honey-bun (or let your son's hair grow out for just one week) and invest in some pencils instead? Teachers -- and especially substitute teachers -- do not make enough money to provide the things that parents are supposed to take care of. Public education is basically free, so why can't these kids' parents set aside $5 dollars a month for the necessary supplies? Many schools in this district have little supply stores on campus that sell pencils, paper, etc. during homeroom, but of course most kids would rather use their pocket money to buy fun stuff like chips and juice. If a child can't be trusted to use his allowance to buy needed supplies, the parents should take away part of their allowances and make sure that their kids come to school prepared.
When I was in grade school, coming to class unprepared meant one of two things: either your parents were too poor to buy supplies, or they just didn't take proper care of you. Today, some kids wear it as a badge of honor that they can come to school day in and day out with none of the required materials and somehow squeak through by stealing or borrowing what they need.
One of the main conflicts that I have with some students in the morning is getting them prepared for the day. Last week, one boy in particular came to class both unprepared and unwilling to meet my half-way. I would have given him a pencil if he showed any signs of intending to sit down and begin his morning math practice, but he was belligerent with me from the start. When I had subbed for his class before, he had let me know in no uncertain terms that my haircut and my insistence on decent behavior were unacceptable to him, and apparently nothing had changed. After following him around the room, asking him to borrow pencil and paper from a classmate, asking him to sit down, asking him to focus on his work, he finally sat down and pretended to begin his math assignment. Then, when I saw him turned around and talking to his friend, I came to see what was wrong and get him back on task, but he blew up at me and said, "That's why you look like a man."
What a non sequitur! I wanted to say, "What does your inability to find a pencil and do simple arithmetic have to do with my appearance?" Or, "Sweetheart, I am more of a man than you'll ever be if you're 12 years old in the 5th grade and can't even keep up with a pencil." Or even just, "You jealous?"
But what came to my lips was a string of expletives, so I told him to get up and deposited him in the care of the "mean" teacher across the hall.
That shit-storm could have been avoided if that little something-something's parents had sent him to school with a pencil and some respect for authority, or at least taught him that a polite response and winning smile can distract from all but the most egregious misbehavior.