In the past few years, I have seen much improvement in the District's public schools. The students entering the city's junior high schools are the best ever thanks to a stronger curriculum and effective administrators.
But the older students, passed into higher grades while mastering few, if any, basic skills are less fortunate. Their job prospects are bleak, and who knows what they may eventually turn to to escape or survive. Why can't they understand the impending ruin of their lives? Perhaps, as with the regulars at Harry Hope's bar in "The Iceman Cometh," it is a reality that they cannot bear to face.
As I registered to tutor a D.C. student earlier this year, I knew I wanted one of those younger students. I got K., 17, a high school junior who studied very little, instead. The tutoring program ran a basketball league and that, it was said, was what brought K. to the once-weekly, hour-long tutorial sessions.
He wore an expression of utter boredom, occasionally broken by a smirk I came to find exasperating. He hated studying. And then, a few weeks later, he showed us his report card.
He had an "F" in each course, and the final grading period had already begun. I took hours of my work day to talk to his teachers at school. He had attended some courses no more than five times. Some, he had not gone to at all.
It was strange to think of him coming to a tutorial session every Thursday night while not attending school. Perhaps, he wanted someone to make a commitment to him. Maybe no one had ever done that before. I decided I would give him that.
I went back to the school and worked out deals with each of his teachers. His English teacher, who told me I was wasting my time, prepared a packet of assignments and said he would pass K. if he finished them. The other teachers did the same. I tried everything. Some Thursdays I worked him over orally. "You can't kid me," I'd say. "I know you haven't been to class in weeks." There were nights when I called the woman who helped run the program, admitting that I thought I was somehow failing this kid, knowing that I really wanted to be relieved of him.
I bought him a subscription to his favorite magazine. He was to bring it in each week, having circled the words he did not understand. We did his assignments. I made a bet with him: $20 if he brought in notes from his teachers as proof that he had attended all of his classes for a week.
On one night, he broke down. He said he needed to know that I would be there for him. I assured him I was. He had allowed himself to feel fear and was asking for help. He was different after that. We worked together with increasing speed. He brought in assignments early. He was even jocular. I felt wonderful. I was helping him turn things around.
Weeks later, I called the English teacher who had said I was wasting my time with K.
"What are you talking about?" he asked. "K. came to class once in the last several weeks. He hasn't turned in any work to me."
It was stunning, devastating. I called the rest of his teachers and heard the same sad truth. I tried to fathom why a kid would come every Thursday night to work as hard as he did. He had done 12 English assignments, for example. He had not turned in any of them.
Thursday came again. I did not know what I would do or say. It was too late to make a difference. I walked into the session and, for the first time, he had not come. He never came back. At his school, he was officially listed as having dropped out.
At the end of the Thursday night sessions, announcements recognizing the hard work of some students were greeted by warm, supportive applause. K. never clapped.
I wondered about his absentee father, about the mother who never set foot in K.'s school. I pictured teachers giving him passing marks for work never done. I pictured a younger K. who knew no one was backing him up. When he found people who would, it was too late for him to believe. Too many people had failed him. We failed him, too, and he had failed himself.
Tomorrow, I will get a new student. My palms are sweaty at the thought of it, because it is sometimes someone's future that hangs in the balance. But, a codirector of the tutorial program cautions: "Sometimes their cup is so empty that we can only fill a little of it, and hope that someone else can do some more."age staff.