Sunday, June 16, 2013

# 51 C.T.D.

   Tonight is the eve of my first set of June exams. As I'm going through the familiar process of anticipating potential problems and solutions, I flip on the news for some mental relief. Then, I get distracted by a clip of Canadian astronaut Chris Hatfield, just back from his space station posting. He has two people propping him up because he has been away from earth so long his body can't adjust quickly enough. He looks exhausted!

   I think it's pretty amazing that this tin can called a space station, establishes an orbit, and then spends most of its time fighting the gravitational pull from earth. It almost seems like the station and the people in it are up there circling the earth like they're circling one big drain. Eventually, they have to come back, and even though a system to soften the landing has been achieved; my understanding is that the process is a pretty traumatic experience for all the participants. Now, I don't know why, but this news story makes me think of my school year.  

   For me, everything associated with the school year is a product of momentum. Each year is like a unique flight where the whole school is just orbiting the end of June. In September, we blast off from the tranquil world of summer, and spend about week or two establishing an orbit. Then we spend the rest of the year trying to slow down the swirl toward our destination at the end of June. Now, my common sense dictates that the momentum should start to decrease and we should coast toward the end, but it never feels that way.

    Instead, June becomes the month with the greatest demands. Outside the classroom, various arms of administration start to worry about the optics of graduation numbers, and look for favours. Teachers try to tie up the loose ends of the curriculum, mark summatives, prepare exams, and too often, worry about next year's timetable and/or job placement. During this period, teachers often become pawns in the politics of outside pressures, and are often subjected to innuendo, and subtle finger pointing during that process. In addition, many kids, who can be pretty short sighted, get anxious about marks, and suddenly develop an appreciation for the future.

    For example, on Wednesday at 8:30, I am just getting settled at my desk, and I look up to see one of my students walk through the door. I figure it must be important as I've never before seen him in the school this early! He stops at my desk, and says "How am I doing sir?" "Do you think I'm going to get my credit?" I've had this question presented to me a million times, and I always say the same thing, "I don't know. Let's look at what you have earned."

   Then, I open up the marks program, scan the entries, and check the attendance. I can feel this kid anxiously craning over my shoulder to stare at the screen. Then I close the window, sit back, take my glasses off, look at him, and say, "You have 31 class absences, 29 lates, several zeros for assignments, and tests missed. Your current mark is 39%."  Then I stop, look at him, and wait.

    He looks at me and says, "And so, what do you think sir?" I stare at him blankly and say, "Well, I think it is pretty safe to conclude, you are C.T.D.."  Then a puzzled look washes over his face, and he reluctantly blurts out, "What does C.T.D. mean?"  So, I explain, "It means, at this point, in this course, you are circling the drain."  Then his expression changes to one of shock and he says, "Is there anything extra I can do to bring up my mark?" I say, "Yes, you can get off your lazy ass, and start to study for the final exam next week."

    I can tell he doesn't like my diagnosis or the recommended treatment because his expression changes from shock to anger. Then in a monotone voice, I say, "You know lots of students are C.T.D., and most of the time it is avoidable. For some reason these people choose to reject the opportunities placed in front of them during the semester, I can only assume, because they want to get closer to the drain."  I do my best not to sound preachy or sarcastic, just matter of fact, hoping my bluntness will cause him to turn and walk away. However, I am also prepared for threats to "go to administration" or "tell my parents", pretty common coping skills now.  But to my relief, he just snorts a couple of times, and leaves the room.

   Similar to most modern public school teachers, I start to have second thoughts about telling him the truth. I think, I am probably going to hear about this from someone who wants to score some political brownie points. I'll be told I have been too abrupt, too direct, too blunt, too jocular, too negative, too something... .

   Two mornings later, and again, I am getting settled at my desk. I open up my mailbox, and sure as shit there is an email from the kid's mother. I sigh and think, pack your bags, you are going on a guilt trip. Anyway, I crack open the message, read it, and to my delight, it's positive. Mom is thanking me for "...setting her son straight".  This doesn't happen all of the time, but it does happen, and it's always good to know people are in your corner.

   Over the next couple of weeks, I will: proctor final exams, mark 80 or 90 of them ( I guesstimate they average five pages in length), enter marks, do promotion meetings, deliver bad news by phone, attend convocation, sit through several retirement speeches, wish graduates Good Luck!, and say good bye to many colleagues - and then it's over. June always leaves me mentally and emotionally exhausted. 

    By the time I make it home on the last day, I feel like I have landed, but it has been as traumatic as the take off. I have orbited the drain for ten months, and the mission has been accomplished. And you know, in spite of the fact I have made this same landing numerous times; I still feel like the inertia has hurled me right through the windshield of the landing craft, and I usually land flat on my ass. At this point I know I have definitely circled the drain, but not slipped into it.  It'll take me a few days to decompress, and then I'll consider doing all over again.