For six weeks, through some of the hottest days of summer, Mrs. Childs' English class was in session. The 19 students had failed senior English, mostly because they had not gone to class for various reasons--a death in the family, a job conflict or a baby to care for, the work seemed too difficult or the teacher impatient and unkind, or at the time it had seemed more important to spend time with a friend or simply to sleep.
"Me and the teacher, we couldn't get along," explained one member of the class, 18-year-old Jimmie Jackson. "She'd embarrass you in front of the other students. . . . She was making it harder and harder. She made me dread coming to school. She'd give you a day to do something. Like the Canterbury Tales. I had been absent on a Friday, and when I came in on Monday I had to have the Shipman's Tale read and a paper written about it. . . . She said she couldn't understand what I was saying in my paper. She gave me an 'F.' I said, 'Okay, I may as well not even try.' "
Last Thursday, the next to last day of summer school, Jackson couldn't stop smiling. He had received a 'B' on his term paper, which was about sculpture. "I know I can do well," he said. "I need a lot of support, people telling me I can do it." He said he wants to go to college now, maybe the University of the District of Columbia, maybe the University of Maryland. He dreams of becoming a lawyer or a sculptor.
One of his classmates, Terrence Purnell, who hurried each afternoon from Carrie Childs' English class to his job making ice cream at Swensen's, blamed his failing grade last year on his own poor attendance and a teacher with whom he did not feel comfortable. "Last year I was lazy . . . I just came to school leisurely," he said. "I had a job as a produce man . . . I got home late, and I got up late in the morning. . . . The teacher wasn't open. Until he walks around past your desk, you can't ask questions. I had a 'B' average 'til Christmas. Then I just felt loose. I just said, 'Forget it.' "
He missed only one day of summer school. "I have to be here," he said. "I want to be a computer analyst. . . . When I was little, my mother used to take me to work at IT&T. They had these computers where you type your name and address on a card and slip it through the computer and it just flies through. That turned me on, I loved it. I want to learn how to design computers and fix them."
Many of his summer classmates, who had stayed home while the other seniors received their diplomas at graduation, seemed to view school more seriously than they had in some time. All but two of them passed the English class, and with the exception of those two the students attended regularly, shared their thoughts and questions with others, completed the homework assignments, wrote term papers with bibliographies and footnotes. Last week, when it was over, they shared a sense of accomplishment. About half the class said they planned to try to go on to college.
Michelle Vines listed the words she had learned, along with their meanings: "Diffident--lacking in confidence; corpulent--a large figure; archipelago--a group of islands; ludicrous--laughable; inundate--to flood; permanent--long lasting; dormant--sleepy; archaic--old."
Vines, 18-year-old mother of a baby named Ebony, needs another credit before she can get her high school degree, and then, she says, she has a job waiting in the supply department at Suburban Hospital. But she also has a sweet, strong voice, a love for the blues and other dreams that she admits are perhaps unattainable. "I'd like to be a singer like Billie Holliday," she said. "I fantasize a lot. When I sing, I feel happy. It makes me forget about everything. Sometimes I wonder if I got up on the stage in front of a lot of people and started singing if they'd pay attention to me. . . . That's always been my dream, but I would never depend on it."
Michelle lives several blocks from Roosevelt and walked to the two-story brick school at 13th and Upshur streets NW every day. But for some of her classmates getting to class by 8:30 a.m. was in itself an accomplishment. Stacy Sanders had to wake up at 6 and catch three buses to travel from her family's apartment on Connecticut Avenue. Carolyn Talley went straight from school to a job at the Department of Labor, and when she finally got home, after 6 in the evening, she had her 11-month-old baby to look after and no husband to help. Talley has determination and plans.
"I couldn't go through with the marriage," she said, seated on the steps outside Roosevelt during the 15-minute break one morning. "He wanted me to stay at home, cook, take care of the baby. I want to go into computer science. I want to go to UDC. I want to give my baby what I never had. I'm not going to be on welfare, watching the soap operas on TV."
Childs' English class--like all the summer school classes at Roosevelt, which included 204 students and 14 teachers--was small and informal. And it was concentrated: four hours of English, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30, five days a week.
Carrie Childs, 44, is a staff resource teacher for the Title 1 program during the regular year. Formerly a music and English teacher, she returned to the classroom this summer for the first time in 10 years. "I wanted to feel comfortable," she said. "I wanted to get the feel of students today." She gave out her home telephone number and encouraged students to call her with questions and problems. She reviewed such things as how to make an outline, how to punctuate a sentence and structure paragraphs properly, how to use correctly such words as doesn't and don't, took and taken, began and begun.
Her class read aloud George Bernard Shaw's play, "Androcles and the Lion." In the poetry-in-popular-music session, they listened to Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" and "Three Times A Lady" by The Commodores.
The students were not afraid to ask questions that might make them appear foolish. No one laughed at anyone's pronunciation of one of the more difficult vocabulary words--verisimilitude. There were no pretensions in this class; everyone, after all, had flunked the first time around. On one of the last days of class, Childs told the students, "I sometimes wonder how you failed. Your responses indicate you have the ability."
At times, summer school at Roosevelt seemed almost like an evangelical revival, designed to reach the lost and the struggling. Childs' class motto was "I Will," posted on the wall in cutout paper letters. A school assembly had as its theme: "You can make it if you try." UDC head basketball coach Wil Jones taunted, charmed and cajoled the students, and, at the end, had them all on their feet in the auditorium and shouting his own credo for success: "If it is to be, it's only up to me!"
Last Thursday was a big day in the class. All the students presented summaries of their term papers. When Keith Bland had finished speaking about Frederick Douglass, Childs asked the class to applaud him.
"You have made tremendous progress this summer," she told Keith. He looked ill at ease with the unaccustomed attention and asked: "Can I get some water?"
The same day that Childs graded her students, she was being evaluated by the principal. Her rating: Outstanding. "I feel very very good," she said. "Especially about Keith. He was not writing a complete sentence when he came here. It was just marvelous to me that he could make all that progress."
The summer was not without disappointment. Michael Troxler, who a few weeks before had talked excitedly about joining the Air Force--like his next-door neighbor, whom he admires--and traveling to places like San Antonio and Seattle, learned from his friends and family last week that the leg he broke playing football two years ago probably will keep him out of the service. He said he has decided not to make an appointment with the recruiter. "Ain't no use now," he said. "I'll just go to work, try to find a job."
Some of Childs' students still need credits to finish high school. But most of the students who walked on Friday from the classroom with the orange carpeting and the "I Will" sign on the wall were ending their years in public school. Their minds had been filled with principles of English, with much talk about attitude, motivation and goals and, just the day before, from one of the speakers at the assembly, a 34-year-old football coach, a question that may stay with them as long and mean as much as all the rest:
"Where will you be at 34?"