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Failing my class and other follies

My students are a varied bunch. Some are engaged and love to come to class. They study and turn in good written work. Others don’t feel much one way or the other about the class or their educations. A few don’t have a clue. They come to class out of obligation. Their parents will kick them out of their houses if they don’t go to school. A few of my students work jobs and only know that the society has told them that education provides a way out of their current plight.

failing-studentThen, there are the hopeless cases. Last week, during a session of group work, I called one of the failing students to my desk. He’s a scrawny kid with thick glasses and dark wisps of beard and mustache. Outside of his facial hair, he looked like he was fourteen. He’s been sitting behind a nylon lunch box by himself to one side of the room all semester. He never took notes or talked to anyone. Whenever I asked him a question, he would look at me like I was a silly person and say, “I don’t know.”

He had been sitting with his group, silent and sullen, even looking put out when I asked him to come see me. He walked up and opposite me at the sizable podium with the computer and other “learning environment controls.” He looked very small. He had his shoulders forward in a defensive posture.

“Have you gotten my E-mails?” I said. Every semester before the drop date when students can get out of a class without a grade assessment, I send at least two E-mails telling failing students they won’t make it and it’s in their interest to drop the class.

“No,” he said. He looked at me like I didn’t know what I was talking about. He must have received the E-mails in his student account. But some students, particularly those who aren’t paying much attention, don’t check those accounts.

“Listen,” I said, “you are in a position now where you won’t pass the class, no matter what you do. I don’t have any of the three written assignments. Your test grades are awful. There’s just nothing you can do. Today is the last day to withdraw from the course. You won’t have a grade to count against your GPA, just a W that you can erase when you take the course again.”

He suddenly lost the smirk he’s had all semester. His superior demeanor disappeared. He seemed shocked and afraid. His eyes were open wide. His mouth hung open a little. He genuinely looked like this was all a surprise to him.

I wanted to ask him what the hell he’d been doing in my class or if he even realized this was college.

“I suggest that you take your things right now,” I said. “Go down to the student center and withdraw from the course. It won’t take but a minute. They won’t ask any questions.”

He stood there for a moment. I thought he was going to cry. He didn’t say anything. He plodded slowly back to his group and took up his computer. He sat there all through class. He didn’t contribute to discussion. He just sat there, looking self-conscious.

Regardless of his actions and attitudes throughout the semester, I could tell he was in a state of disbelief. I knew the fear he must have been feeling. What would he tell his parents? Where would he go during the hour and a half he’d carved out for this class? I’ve been in frightful places before. I remember once I got fired from a job and felt the weight of the world crash down on me.

I had the same conference with a student the next class period. The guy was a smart ass. He’s been coming late to class and skating around on the work of others. But he wasn’t going to pass and I told him so. He rolled his eyes and tilted his head back when I gave him the news. He looked like, goddammit, it’s happened again. But he, too, went back to his group and sat out the rest of the class, uncomfortable and self-conscious.

I genuinely feel for these kids, and that’s what they are, kids. They are 18, just out of high school. They don’t have a direction. Secondary education hasn’t prepared them. They don’t know what it means to be academic. Then, they have parents who will want to know what they did with the tuition money. Maybe they have student loans. But the student loan people demand their money back if a student flunks a course. They’ve already spent that money. They are on the hook.

Not everyone’s a lost cause. Four students that came to class today looked like they’d rather have brushed their teeth with sand. Among them was one who I had E-mailed about failing the class. I hadn’t spoken to him personally about getting out of the class before it counted on his transcript. He had skipped class the day I conferred with the other students. It was obvious that he hadn’t checked his student E-mail, or, if he had, he didn’t know what else to do with his time but to come to class. Or maybe he’s one of those special cases: A student who knows he’s going to flunk but likes to come to class anyway.

The four of them sat there, a little forlorn and anxious. What if nobody else shows up? one asked. Another leaned forward on his table, backpack clutched to his chest. He had the best demeanor of the bunch. He smiled when one of the other men (kids) asked if we were really going to have class.

I had prepared for thin attendance. Most colleges and universities take the whole week of Thanksgiving free. My college, however, chooses to convene classes on Monday and Tuesday. We only have three weeks left in the semester. Students are tired and looking forward to the end. When Thanksgiving week comes along, they skate for other environs. Many are off with family in other places. Some just use the short week as an excuse to stay at home and take a nap.

I admired the pluck of these four men. Three of them actually showed up expecting to learn something. I don’t know about the other, as he hasn’t taken a note all semester. Knowing that we would be few, I brought two films from the library: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Quit Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Bush’s War, a Frontline documentary about the Iraq War. They could choose between one of the great movies of all time or a film about one of the greatest mistakes the United States ever made.

Exciting stuff . . . for the history teacher at least. It would be a good break for students, too, who would rather be anywhere but history class.

But when so few people made it to class, I thought about those two students who looked so scared and out of place when I told them they wouldn’t pass. I considered the others who didn’t show up. I missed plenty of class and fucked around a lot in school. But I always made sure I ended the semester with a B average. I’d tried everything I knew as a teacher to get all of the students engaged, to interest them in the material I find so fascinating, even after 12 years of teaching the same stuff to countless students.

I joshed around with the guys a little longer, just to see if anyone else would show up.

“Nah,” I said. “Let’s go home.” They were jubilant.

The teacher in the room before me had officially cancelled his classes in anticipation that few would bother to come. The administration person in our department taped a “blue card” on the door stating there would be no class.

On the way out the door, I scratched out my colleague’s name and scribbled in my own. I was on my way home to take a nap.

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