The Will to Win Divides a Class


THE CLASSROOM is in the basement of a century-old school, between a pool table and a pair of beer taps. There are telephones in the front of the room that ring at least once each class.

There is no budget for textbooks. Chalk and erasers are in chronically short supply. On occasion, I dip into my own pocket for purchases. At $8 per hour, that pocket is not very deep.

This is the world of teaching GED -- high school equivalency -- classes in The City That Reads. I teach in Pigtown, less than a mile from the $100-million stadium under construction at Camden Yards.

I previously taught in a private high school in Baltimore County. Nothing I experienced there prepared me for GED classes in Pigtown.

My students are a mixture of ex-criminals, abusive mothers and old-fashioned drop-outs. Many of my students are in class only because a court or agency ordered them to be.

We have four hours each week to master algebra, geometry, grammar, history, science, geography and virtually every other subject in the high-school curriculum.

That task would be difficult with perfect attendance; the absentee rate in my GED classes hovers around 30 percent each day. On Fridays the rate increases. On the first Friday of each month, when the SSI checks arrive, the classroom seems nearly deserted.

Why do so many students miss so many classes? All of my students live within a half dozen blocks of the school. There are some understandable absences, like meeting with a parole officer or taking a sick child to the clinic. But most absences are never adequately explained.

Even worse, a handful of my students have stopped coming entirely. Their places in the classroom are quickly taken by others. There is no shortage of prospective GED students in Pigtown.

I have a core of students, a dozen or so, who are hungry to improve their lives. They regularly attend classes, complete the assigned work and consistently improve. Teaching these students is a delight, far more challenging and rewarding than teaching in the plushness of a suburban private school.

I have often asked myself why some of the students in GED survive and others do not. Ability in the classroom is clearly not the answer; some of my less motivated students are also among the most academically skilled.

The students who do succeed seem to be those with longer vision. They understand that sacrifices in the short term -- attending class, completing assignments, -- must be made for the sake of the long term.

The other students, the ones who arrive late for class if they arrive at all, do not see this. They feel so denied of any possibility of improvement that the effort needed to succeed simply does not seem worthwhile.

I have come to believe that for the first class of each semester, we should stay out of the classroom. I think we should visit the solid row-house neighborhoods of Northwood and the new town houses in Harford County.

This, I would tell my students, is attainable. You may never park your Lamborghini in the driveway of a Roland Park mansion, but a good, decent life like this is attainable. It will not happen this month or this year. And it will certainly never happen if you quit trying.

This is my first year teaching GED. The emotional toll is at times so great that I am not certain there will be a second year. If there is, I will schedule a field trip like the one I just described; both the students and the teacher will need it.

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