Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Defective Scanning

In which a parent shows a teacher how little he really knows

The Felix Chronicles, #16

I'm on my way to the copying room to scan some primary source documents to my pen drive, calculating whether I’ll beat the crush in the lunchroom if I can finish in five minutes, when I hear a female voice behind me: “Mr. Cullen?” A tall, elegant, coffee-skinned woman – black slacks, charcoal sweater, brilliant print scarf, hair coiffed in cornrows flecked with gray, approaches me, her hand out. “Roberta Jenkins,” she says. “Simon’s mom.”

“Of course,” I say, greeting her as if I’m anything but surprised and off-balance. "Very nice to meet you.” As soon as I say so I remember she also introduced herself on Open School Night. I remember Simon telling me on the Boston trip that he lives in Mount Vernon. Dad is a television producer and Mom runs some kind of foundation. I had assumed he was a working-class kid from the Bronx. Not an entirely implausible idea; his class buddy is Alfonso, who is always late in the morning because, as he explained to me on the trip, it takes him two hours to get to school by subway from Brooklyn. But a reminder that I still jump to conclusions in matters of race, among others.

“I just want you to know that Simon is having a wonderful year.”

Simon? The kid is an almost perfect cipher. “Well, I’m very glad to hear that.” Normally in this kind of situation, I can usually cough up something nice to say – “Well, he’s a real spark plug in class conversation”; or “He’s working real hard and in that last paper of his I really saw a spark”; or even “It’s a pleasure to have him in class.” But I don’t even have the presence of mind to lie, never mind scroll through my impressions of him.

Roberta rescues me. “We’ve had some lively dinner-table conversations, let me tell you,” she says with a chuckle. “Like that bit you did with the English lord. What was his name?”

“Lord Moretaker?” I ask, referring to a shtick from my repertoire.

“Oh, yes. Lord Moretaker. Really wonderful stuff. My sister is a high school teacher in East St. Louis. I bet she’d love to sit in on your class.”

I’m about to worry she’s doing more than making small talk here when her face takes on a quizzical expression that makes clear she wants to change the topic. As she does I suddenly see her son’s face in her features. He’ll never be quite as blank a slate again. “I was hoping you could help me find the college office,” she says. “I’m here for an appointment regarding my daughter. Her counselor is Harry. He seems convinced she should apply to Williams – I’m an alum – but I don’t know. She cares a lot more about volleyball than calculus, let me tell you!”

“Well, I imagine a little of both will go a long way in the college sweepstakes,” I say, thinking that as a legacy of color the child has two legs up already. I point her down the hallway and up a staircase.

“Thank you so much!” she says in departing. “Such a pleasure to see you.”

“Pleasure to see you again,” I reply with just a little accent on the last word, hoping she’ll pick up my recovery from my earlier mistake. If she does she’ll be too gracious to say so.

I walk away from the encounter troubled, even shaken. On the stairs to the copying room, I encounter my colleague Tess, and I’m about to relay the conversation, but decide not to, simply waving and continuing up the stairs. Tess would surely say – because she’d think I want her to – that the our little encounter just goes to show that I’m having a positive impact even on those kids who I don’t think I’m reaching. But I don’t really believe I am reaching Simon. And if I am, then I’ve probably passed up opportunities to do him some good, because I’ve written him off as a B grade student at best and focused on other kids – Susan, Beth, more recently Roy – whose engagement has been more obvious and gratifying. I’m also selling Tess a little short here, because I know she would understand what I mean, and maybe even say something authentically useful. But I’m just flustered and hungry now, and annoyed that the lunchroom is going to be jammed whether or not I do the scanning. Which I won’t, because there’s a note on the scanner that says it’s broken.

Sometimes I think one of the best things about teaching is the sense of mystery – the knowledge that testing and other quantifiable measures be damned, the art of learning is something that elides the command and control of educational administrators. But this is one of those times when the sheer ignorance and messiness of the enterprise comes home to me. There are kids whom I’m doing less good than I think. And maybe some I’m doing more good than I think. Then there are kids like Simon, who I suspect I never really will know. I’ve forgotten some of their names already.