Sunday, October 27, 2013

Add It Up

"Well, you know, some part of this is they don't have their priorities intact," he said.  "They're spending moey on iPhones when they need to be buying calculators."

I looked at him, considered a moment, and instead walked away.  

I've learned not to engage.  I always thought to myself that if a guy like that saw what I saw every day, there's no way that he could think like that, but no. He works here.  He interacts daily with our children and our parents and he still believes in his rhetoric.

Yes, our children have cell phones.  They have to.

Once I was observing a math class that wasn't going very well.  The teacher was in his first year, and he had some real characters in the room.  One of the boys, Chuy, sat in the back row and took his cell phone out in the middle of the lesson.  I waited for the teacher to react.  He didn't see because he was busy coaxing a couple of girls in the front of the room who were talking through his lesson to try the next problem.  "I don't get this!" they were telling him.  "You don't know how to teach."  

And still Chuy texted.  In fact, he leaned over, showed his friend his screen, and started laughing.

I try not to discipline students in a teacher's classroom because that undercuts their authority, but this was too much.  I  stood in front of Chuy's desk and held out my hand.

"Aw, no!" he said.  "I didn't mean to.  I'll put it away, I swear."  Chuy liked to come and talk to me over his lunch breaks, and it was clear that he thought I'd let this one slide because he was one of my favorites.

Still, I held out my hand.  Even my favorites had to give up their cell phones.  Especially them.

But he wasn't ready to give up.  He looked down at his desk, saw his math work, and looked up. "I was just using the calculator.  See?"  He pointed to his math, but the screen flashed in the motion.  He wasn't.  He'd been texting jokes, and a goofy picture was on the screen.

I waited, my hand out.  Eventually he handed me the phone, I sat back down, and the teacher continued the lesson.

After school that day, when Chuy walked in, I was ready for him.  His grades were up on my screen, and I was counting the Fs.  

"I know," he said.  

Do you? I asked.

"I've already gone and got my work.  It's a long weekend, and I'll get it all done, I promise."

It was a long weekend, but we had a policy of not returning phones to anyone but parents.  His mother would have to come up to school for a discussion.

He pulled his books out of his bookbag and started showing me what he had done.  "I swear.  I'm going to do it.  I just ... I can't go home without that phone.  Not this weekend.  Not this one.  It's too long, and I need it."  He sent me a sidelong look.  "And also, I use my phone for a calculator.  So if you don't give it to me, I can't do my Math."

Stop playing, I scolded.

He straightened up.   "I'm serious now.  I can't go home.  Don't make me leave this building without that phone.  I'll have no protection on the streets."

Now, this is the kind of time when you look at a kid and you can see it in their eyes that they're not bullshitting.  Chuy needed that phone, and he was scared to go home without it.  He wouldn't explain why, either, just repeated that he needed it.

So, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I decided to give the kid a break.  I pulled his phone out of my desk drawer (it was rubberbanded to keep the battery on), and put it on the desk.  I need some promises, I said.


So I made him promise that he'd talk to his Math teacher before leaving to get his missing assignments, that he'd spend the weekend doing them, and that he'd check in with me on Monday to discuss his progress. "This is your life," I told him.  "You're running out of time to turn this around."  We'd been talking all week about applying to colleges and how important his junior year was.

"I know.  I promise.  I swear."  

"Do you pinky swear?" I asked, and stuck out my pinky.  The toughest kids in the world know what it is to pinky swear and won't do it unless they mean it.  

Chuy stuck out his pinky, and we linked.  I handed him back his phone, and he bounded out of my office.  "Peace out!" He yelled, just before slamming the door.

The next day, Chuy was shot and killed by somebody who lived on the other side of 47th Street.  He'd been walking home from the store because his mother needed something for Thanksgiving dinner and he went to buy it for her.  He had his phone on him when he died, thank God.  I'd have never forgiven myself if he hadn't.

So yes.  I can understand why a parent would choose to buy a phone before buying a calculator. 

Calculators can't dial 911.