Kid #11 – The perfect fallback for your average deliquent

The eleventh kid I hated wasn’t even in my class. He probably had what the professionals might call oppositional defiant disorder.

The most delightful element of his less than complex personality was his belief that if he disengaged hard enough, he’d be returned to New Zealand and work on his uncle’s sheep farm. If he showed the same application he was currently showing, to the sheep, he’d be lucky to find the sheep in the first place – let alone all the dredging, mustering, tailing, shearing, slaughtering etc.

He struggled a lot with simple tasks like sitting in a chair or holding a pen. He spoke a lot. However, to my knowledge the sounds of human words differ greatly to that of sheep; so inter-species communication was going to be of little use if he returned to the south island. I’m pretty sure being a sheep whisperer is not a thing; with the exception of Babe. But Babe was a fictional porcine creature, so that doesn’t count.

During my off-lessons the young lad would often come by the office and knock on the door. Usually when I was right in the middle of an exciting reading session of Two Weeks With the Queen.

“Excuse me sir,” he’d say.

“Why are you here again?” I’d splutter, sending flecks of instant coffee from lips – (I have written this last sentence for affect, not because I drink coffee).

“I was sent out of class again”.

“By who?” I’d enquire.

“I don’t know”.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? You’ve been in Year Nine for five months now! Go sit outside the office where I can see you”.

The last piece of rant didn’t happen out loud. The reality was I’d usually sit him down and try to complete some activity with him. He’d spend twenty minutes taking a lid off a pen and talking about his uncle, then it was onto the next class.

Not long after this mutual disinterest in each other had strengthened, I was asked to run a separate group with some of the “naughty boys”. There were only three boys, but one of course was the aspiring Farmer Brown.

We were set up in one of the side rooms of the school library. The natural daylight had been minimised by narrow windows, furnishings were minimalistic and I only allowed each student their reading book in the room. You must however remember the student struggled with chairs. So as per all the other classrooms in the school, this learning space also had chairs. It’s amazing how many times a person can fall awkwardly from a stable four legged seat when they don’t want to read page 54 of Tomorrow When The War Began. Perhaps it was the lack of woolly farm animals in John Marsden’s post-apocalyptic world that led to this. But again I would argue that, at the very least, straddling a stationery stool would be solid practise for rounding up sheep on a high speed bike. Yet this of course assumes the child had moved past his previous misconception that he may be able to adopt a comprehensible sheep dialect; and would merely negotiate the sheep into their appropriate holding pens. It was inevitable, one day, he’d be confronted with the proposition of doing some actual work while riding a bike to round up sheep and in an act of work-avoidance slide from the seat onto the burning hot exhaust pipe before falling under the wheel, where he’d be left with tyre marks across his chest.

It was at times when he avoided simple tasks, such as sitting, that Marsden’s dystopia – we were reading about – appeared an attractive alternative to the dystopia of the reading session taking place. The rest of the group weren’t much better than him. What with reading the book upside down, not knowing words and staring out the windows – that looked onto the underside of the tin verandah – it was any wonder we managed to physically open the cover, from the pages, in the first place.

The problem for these types of students is they are not learning how to develop a work ethic. They’ve developed a romanticised view of life on the land (or down a mineshaft, or inn a trade, or whatever the case may be) being easier than working a desk job where they may need to sit in a chair or write something.

Now I’ve watched a lot of McLeod’s Daughters – every episode in fact bar episode fifteen of the fourth series, which I forgot to set the VCR to record – and Claire McLeod and the subsequent daughters spent a fair percentage of their time sitting behind old Jack McLeod’s writing desk, completing paperwork and finding hidden chests containing old trousseaus and manacles. None of these tasks could have been completed without a solid understanding of mathematics and writing, nor without a committed work ethic.

Perhaps this young man could have learnt some sage lessons from the women of Drover’s Run and would have realised his own dreams of inheriting his uncle’s agricultural empire. Alas, Mcleod’s Daughters completed its eight year run in 2008 – two years before the boy entered my life. By this time I’d recorded over the tapes with episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.

Somehow things may have been different if he’d just taken a leaf out of Kid #4’s book and “calmed his farm”. Had this been done to his metaphorical farm, the actual farm he longed to work on may have been his.

That’s not to say he didn’t make it back to New Zealand. He may be there now with his tar pot in hand, waiting in demand.

But if I did meet him after a hard day on the boards of the shearing shed, I doubt I’d buy him a cold one down the pub.

Kid #10 – The kid who wasn’t there

The tenth kid I hated was never there.

For the first four months I taught him, I assumed he was a misprint on my register. Two months into teaching his Year 10 English class, I asked the administration staff whether he needed to be removed from the roll. I was informed he had been enrolled and the department were trying to track him down.

The department are trying to track him down? I thought to myself. How hard can it be? Is this kid the modern day Frank Abagnale of Year 10? Were we about to find him performing laparoscopic surgery at Royal Perth Hospital?

Yes, very, yes and no – respectively.

It turned out he had been spending time with his aunts and uncles in Geraldton, a major coastal port city, 400 kilometres north of Perth. Presumably he had not been attending school up there; otherwise he would have been registered on the state school database. Nor did I imagine his aunts and uncles had been providing him with the necessary pedagogical environment to further his academic education.

Things would have been a lot easier if his family had at least scrawled on a piece of paper letting the school know he had metaphorically (or actually) “gone fishing” – no doubt a rewarding decision considering he was mostly absent during rock lobster season.

When the child finally turned up, sometime in May, the other students treated him like a spectacle. His mere presence was excuse for distraction. They of course wanted to ask all the questions adults were too polite to ask. Worse than that, he was given some god-like status for his ability to have thwarted the system for so long without repercussion.

Having no background information on the child at this point, and knowing he had missed four months of learning, I started him off on Monday with a series of short Year 10 grammar exercises. Even with the teaching assistant watching over him, he struggled to string much together verbally, let alone write it down. By Friday, I had worked him down to Year 6 work, which was still not much easier than drawing blood from a stone.

The following Monday he was gone again.

I never saw him again. Ever.

Truancy for any reason is bad news. Whether or not a parent has their own views on the school system as an institutionalised whole, is irrelevant. Truanting is bound to cause an unhealthy cycle of avoidance from any future life obstacles. Additionally staying at home seems fun for a while, but inevitably there’s only so many times you can watch re runs of The Big Bang Theory, before you end up with Sheldon Cooper’s social skills minus the science doctorates.

Additionally for the child I had in my class, the root cause of his transience across the state of Western Australia, was most likely due to his Aboriginal culture. Sure, the government bureaucrats will say it’s because the indigenous people have substance abuse problems, health problems, teen pregnancy, negative school experiences and the list goes on; but there is the ever undeniable displacement of the aboriginal people which caused the problem back in January 1788.

The Aboriginal children I’ve worked with, have been nothing short of enthusiastic. There is always a strong sense of family and community. Sometimes a family may take their children to a completely different part of the countryside for a family funeral or major cultural event that involves ceremonies lasting days or even weeks. The unfortunate thing is, in the now changed and modern world it’s not always practical to rely entirely on this structure for your children’s future. Time out of school may cost them their future. There needs to be engagement between the Aboriginal communities and the school systems.

The wise and unprejudiced Australian leader Tony Abbott placed student attendance officers in some of the most rural parts of Australia at the beginning of 2014. (Not before re-allocating funds from pre-existing attendance strategies in schools1). The West Australian journalist Angela Pownall outlined how in early 2014 a government entourage followed some of these attendance officers around as they politely knocked on each of the doors of each of the homes of each of the students in Carnarvon – a coastal town situated over 450 kilometres north of Geraldton.

When the officers attended the homes there was “no response at the first two houses”; “a Year 8 student’s father is getting ready to leave for work while his daughter is still in bed”, because the daughter was “up until the early hours playing on her phone”; plus officers “carry a megaphone, mainly so they can use its high-pitched sound to ward off unfriendly dogs”.

The problem is complex and the solution is not on this blog.

But next time I head down the jetty, with my fishing rod, I doubt I’ll invite the kid I taught for one week of 52 – I probably wouldn’t be able to find him in the first place.

1Local Action to tackle truancy, Angela Pownall, Weekend West – February 8 2014

Kid #9 – Fast food, moods and fones

The ninth kid I hated confused her father for a food delivery van. An easy mistake for any teenager whose mood would swing as easily as an arachnid hanging from a thread below an exhaust fan.

One minute she’d be the virtuous student, completing all her work, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, contributing to class discussions, helping to carry things and so forth. At other times you’d be lucky to get within ten metres of her without being hit by a spray of contumelious expletives. When she decided not to work, she would pout and erase her memory of anything academic. Often, her petulance would become so consuming, she’d be one step from regressing into a thumb-sucking ball of disgrace.

All of this changing between good and bad, was complimented by an ongoing truancy. The amount of sick days she was taking would put Ferris Bueller to shame. And where you may think it would be hard to hate someone who isn’t there, her absence made it all the more worse. The fear was ever present that at any moment she may return, revitalised from roaming the suburban streets of Perth with her goons for the past week. She would always arrive back with a stronger displeasure of the system, a bigger chip on her shoulder and, most importantly, armed with her mobile phone.

The phone would be my undoing.

Mobile phones are my kryptonite professionally and personally. During my second year of university I insisted on using the landline phones in the student newsroom for assignments. It was only after a solid three months playing phone-tag with the subjects of my soft news articles, I succumbed to the power of the portable handset. It was the early 2000’s. Flip phones were at their height of popularity. So, taking my ever pragmatic approach to phones, I unofficially adopted my parent’s Nokia 3210 as my own. (That little metallic red phone would serve me monochromatically for a further five years until it flew from my pocket onto the garden pathway as I jumped to retrieve one of my thongs from a roof gutter – but that’s another tale).

My point is, when it comes to phones, I hate mobile telephones second only to the soon-to-be-adult people who brandish them brazenly in classrooms around the globe. There have been stories of: teachers collecting phones in a bucket as students enter the room; the installing of devices that disable any network coverage within school premises; or, as one lecturer led me to believe, a school in South Africa collecting all the students phone numbers, forcing them to wear their phones on a lanyard, and then using an SMS notification system to text students homework and other general business, thus rendering the phones as fun as an Advanced Calculus textbook.

Unfortunately most teachers are not privy to such technological tricks – like buckets. Most dialogue with students is as follows:

Teacher – “Please put your phone away.”

Student – “But I’m messaging my mother.”

Teacher – “Please put the phone away.”

Student – “I’m doing it.”

Teacher – “Please put the phone away.”

Student – “I’m just finishing the message, otherwise my mother will worry.”

My naivety and own general incompetence with phones led me to believe until quite recently that this was the case. It was revealed to me by a parent, not many years apart from myself, that when teenagers say they are texting a parent, they are normally just messaging a friend in another classroom – or in a fit of lunacy, they are messaging a friend within the same classroom.

It had always seemed strange to me that parents would want direct contact with their child in the classroom, listening to the every whim and woe of their ungrateful offspring. Back in the day, you’d split your head open on a limestone paving stone and be lucky if a staff member had the foresight to send another student to the front office for the school secretary to flick through the lever arch of parent contacts and call home, only to have the phone ring out because your mother was down at Woolworths, and leave a message with your father’s secretary that he’d only receive in time for you to have bled out. They were the good old days, where a bit of miscommunication would go a long way.

Now students in the classroom have a hotline to home. In the case of the ninth kid I hated, she used this hotline as regular blackmail when she was having one of her hissy fits. A power play would unfold where she would act as though she’d get in her parents’ ears before the teacher would be able to give their version of events.

Now, while this would be the perfect situation to have known what I now know, about students bluffing who they were actually messaging, one incident stood out that made clear this girl really was messaging home when she said she was.

One lazy Thursday afternoon during English, ‘madam’ was kicking off as usual. It was still twenty minutes until lunch break, which probably explained part of the mood she was in. But then with one inconspicuous vibration of her pocket device, things really heated up. She pulled out the phone. She was asked politely to put it away. But she continued to read it.

“Sir, sir! My dad’s outside.”

“I can’t see him.”

“He’s in his car.”

“I’m sure if he needs to see you, he’ll do the old fashioned thing and let Ms Smith in the office know that he needs to see you.”

This placated her momentarily, until a few more messages were exchanged.

“He has my lunch sir.”

“It’s lunch time in twenty minutes, so you can have it then.”

“But its takeaway, and it’ll be cold by then.”

This was the point I looked out the window to see first hand the cause of this child’s social ineptitude.

Parked in the loading bay outside the school reception was a beaten up old car from the 80s with the driver’s door open and a man standing beside the car with holding two plastic carrier bags of steaming chicken and chips.

“Sir!” Her voice was becoming shrill. “If I don’t go now, my brother will take all the food and won’t give me anything.”

“I’m sure he’ll keep yours safe for you,” I responded, not entirely sure that her sixteen year old oaf of a sibling would be so generous.

Sure enough, I could now see her brother heading out to the car park, having no doubt given his own teacher some cock and bull story about going to the toilet. Unfortunately for the girl her honesty, and the classroom’s proximity to the car park, had not lent her the opportunity to bulldust me.

“I can see him getting both bags now,” she squealed.

“I can see him getting both the bags, now,” I muttered.

Turning back to the class, I demanded another two paragraphs from each student about the character development of Griff Price in the novel Two Weeks With The Queen; not before the remaining moments of Year Eight English were interrupted by screams of “There’ll be no chips left,” and “He’s going to eat all my chicken”.

When I finally dismissed the class, we entered the playground to find the older brother stuffing his face with the contents of both bags as the young girl had predicted. I approached him and requested he give the appropriate share of the food to his sister.

But in this confused new world of mobile telephonic machines, parental fast food delivery services and misogynistic older brothers; I couldn’t help but feel somewhat complicit in the dietary and emotional assault that had played out on this vulnerable young girl.

Perhaps if history repeated I’d confront the father directly, but if we met again in a major fast food burger chain I doubt I’d join them in a Japanese style ‘potato party’.

How to do roll call

You’re trying to do the class roll call and all you want is a “present” or “here” and you get one of these chestnuts:

“hi”

“what?”

“bonjour”

“huh”

“tutti” (Punjabi for shit)

“goodbye”

“ciao” (inappropriate in a teacher student situation in Italian as well as English)

“here” (delivered in a deep aggressive voice)

“here” (delivered in a moaning voice)

“[Insert student’s name]’s not here today” (delivered by a chorus of students)

“You’re saying it wrong”

“poobum”

“blergh”

“here” (delivered in a high pitched voice)

(long silence, followed by you assuming the student is absent and calling out the next name.) “Sir, Geraldine is here!” (You ask why she didn’t respond the first time and where she is now, because you can’t see her.) “She’s hiding under that pile of cushions while she finds her reading book”

“good afternoon” (when it’s 9am)

“good morning” (when it’s 1pm)

“good evening” (despite the fact you would have never qualified as a teacher if students were going to be present during this part of the day)

“what?”

“hi-diddly-ho”