Dear Teacher: I Quit
A teacher helps his students make fewer mistakes in their own lives by sharing with them some of his own.
“Mr. Barkey, will you give me a ‘D’?”
Kristen stood by my desk, palms pressed together in supplication and a look of earnest pleading on her face. I actually thought she might cry.
“Ahhh, what?” I asked, and she repeated the question and then added, “If I don’t turn in anything for the rest of the quarter, will that get me a ‘D’?”
Kristen is part of a triad of cute, bubbly, talkative tenth grade girls that I refer to in class
as “jabberwockies” and “giggle-monkey-whisper-fairies.” They talk a lot, but they do (eventually) finish their work and can be counted on to hand in their assignments.
We had only two weeks left in the first quarter of this school year and Kristen had an “A” in my class, so I told her that a “D” was pretty much impossible for the next report card.
Her shoulders dropped an inch and then she perked up and said, “Well, couldn’t you just give me a ‘D’ anyway?”
“Of all the questions I could have anticipated being asked today,” I replied, “that was not one of them. Now, why in the heck do you want a ‘D’ so bad?”
“I can’t tell you,” she replied, “or you won’t give it to me.”
“Well now, that sure motivates me to change your grade,” I answered, laughing. “Look, Kristen, even if I wanted to, your grades aren’t something I can just go in and muck around with just for fun. It’s not possible.”
At that point, her pleading got really desperate and I was beginning to wonder if she was going to cry for real. As much as the rest of the class was enjoying our little interchange, I didn't want it to get out of hand, so I told her to go sit down and get back to work. She complied, but proceeded to beg and badger me until finally it occurred to me what the real problem was.
“Do you play a sport?” I asked, and there was an audible sigh and several snickers from the rest of the class as the bone-headed teacher finally figured out what was going on. Kristen ran track. Kristen hated running track but was not willing to quit in the last two weeks of the season, hoping to avoid a confrontation with either her coach or her parents. So, clever girl that she is, Kristen figured out that if she received a "D," as dictated by school policy, she'd be ineligible to run.
Fortunately, I have some experience with quitting, having quit a few things in my day and having talked at least a half a dozen people (including myself) out of quitting back when I was working as a tree-planting crew leader.
I did not try to talk Kristen out of quitting. Instead, I advised her to face the decisions of her life and to avoid at all costs a misdirected attempt to resolve the problem. I babbled at her for about 10 minutes. I was feeling like I was repeating myself but was encouraged by her occasional, slight nods.
“You know what,” I finished, “I spent the better part of my relationship with my ex-wife passively hoping things would fix themselves, and we all know how well that turned out. Passivity is an illusion. Own your decisions.” She pursed her lips but nodded one last time and went back to her work.
I don’t know why I hadn't advised her to stick out the track season, and later that day wondered if maybe I should have. But the next morning when she sat down in class, Kristen said, “Mr. Barkey, I want you to know that I decided to stick it out for the rest of the season.”
I did a quick fist pump, pointed at her and, grinning, said, “Awesome. Now, quit yer yappin’ and get back to work.”
This is why I love teaching, and on the days when I become painfully aware of my own limitations and inadequacies—during the times when I am aware that I’ve missed another moment to connect or have failed to succeed in creating as positive, productive a classroom experience as I would have liked—on those days I remember students like Kristen who maybe, just maybe, will make a few less mistakes because I showed up and shared honestly from my own.
Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.