One week before the end of school, four school days before marks were due, she still hadn’t handed in any work. Not. one. thing. I’d known we might end up here because I’d taught her before. Now, the impending deadline made the reality undeniable: she wasn’t going to pass.
This was her second semester in my class because, after turning in next-to-nothing the previous semester, she had failed. Then her failure had slipped through the cracks, and she’d started the next English class, only to be “discovered” three weeks into the semester and forced to come back to my class. Separated from her friends, publicly humiliated, she had spent the week before the Covid 19 closure showing up late, refusing to work, and taking extraordinarily long bathroom breaks. I’d let her.
Why? Because I know her. She has no reason to trust adults and often barely earns her credits. When she was in grade 9, we’d connected a little after I kept finding her in the hallways. I couldn’t get her through the class she was skipping, but I could sit with her and listen, so I did. Last year, she and another friend, both Inuit, sometimes came to the Spec Ed room to work. She doesn’t have an IEP, but that didn’t matter. Together, we muddled our way through a History class she hated. As I worked with her, I realized that she had very few academic problem-solving skills and little willingness to play the game of school. So when I’d seen her name on my roster first semester, I’d known she would be a challenge, but I’d thought we would get through it. We didn’t. Well, she didn’t.
She had spent the semester being, frankly, difficult. She brought food and ate noisily, then left the wrappers everywhere. I don’t mind students eating in class, but there was something aggressive about this. Aggressive eating? I swear it’s true. I reminded myself that many students need to eat in class, and I politely cleaned her trash when she had finished. Then, she refused to comply with my seating plan. I don’t love seating plans, but the class was divided and I wanted them to work together, so I used often-changing seats for group work. When she wouldn’t move, I planned around her preferred seat. And, during our twenty minutes of daily reading, she talked incessantly. I found myself increasingly angry, so we did a problem-solving session which ended with a plan that allowed her and her friend several days a week to talk in the hallway during reading time. Anathema to my goals, but she swore that she read “all the time” at home and begged me not to call her parents to confirm. I didn’t love it, but I acceded; it was better than nothing.
I felt like I had compromised everywhere, and still she had produced no work. It was maddening. One of the only things she did last semester was write a thank-you note to a speaker, an Inuit man who came to share his culture – her culture – with our class. He was fascinating, and she listened intently. Her thank you was heartfelt and honest. She earned an A.
And now here we were, the end of the craziest semester I’ve ever seen and our second semester together. She had attended no synchronous meetings and done no asynchronous assignments. I had called her regularly, and we’d had some nice chats, but she never followed up with actual work. Still, we’d talked about the books she was reading – she loves Rick Riordan – and, eventually, about the fan fiction novel she was writing. No, she was not interested in sharing it with me: it wasn’t ready. Sometimes, she called me back after I left a message. (I’d unmasked my phone number early on because I suspected no one would answer if I didn’t.) She hated being stuck at home, longed for fresh air, felt stifled by her family, her situation, her “crappy” internet. She read all the time because there wasn’t much else to do. She missed her friends. She missed school. I laughed, “but you don’t do school!”
“That’s not true,” she said, “I just don’t do school work. It’s different.”
I spoke to my friend and colleague, Melanie White, who is my accountability partner in anti-racist work. “I feel like I’m failing her,” I said. “I feel like if we were at school, she might be passing. This whole system is stacked against her, and I’m just another person letting her down.”
Melanie was quiet for a minute. “Then pass her.”
Round and round we talked. If I pass her, am I telling her that she deserves pity? Or that she can’t do it? Will she think I have so little faith in her abilities that I will pass her with no evidence? If I don’t pass her, will she learn anything by repeating the course for a third time? Will she even bother? So many of these questions are, at their core, about me not her.
I left the conversation uneasy and undecided. I checked the curriculum document: in Ontario, credits are awarded when a student demonstrates the knowledge and skills mandated by the curriculum. Awarded. Mandated. So many words of coercion. In my heart, I knew that this child’s skills were at least as strong as many of her classmates’, sometimes stronger. The biggest difference was her lack of compliance. True, in class she only rarely talked about books or shared her writing, and true, she had only once done the classwork I assigned, but… Then, a niggle: no, the biggest difference was that she wouldn’t do the work. And then my brain circled back: isn’t that just compliance?
I sat with my discomfort. I thought a lot about Inuit ways of knowing, about systemic and institutional racism, about what it means to honour someone for who they are.
Finally on Friday, one week before the end of school and four school days before marks were due, I called her and left a message. On Monday morning, she called me back. We chatted about her latest read – a Riordan I’m not familiar with – and why she had decided to go back to the drawing board for her novel. Then I launched into it: “I needed to talk to you because I’ve been sitting with the question of how to figure out your mark for a while now. I feel like there’s a gap between what I know with my soul and what I have evidence for – school evidence. In my heart, I know that you can do all the English things – reading and writing, speaking and listening – more than well enough to pass this class. But my teacher brain knows that you haven’t really done any school work.” She laughed ruefully. “I’ve observed you enough to know that you can do this work. I want you to get this credit, but you need to believe that you have passed, that you are good enough, that this is what you have earned, not what you have been given. This can’t be a pity pass because I don’t pity you. This has to be about what you can do, not what you haven’t done.” I paused.
“Yeah,” she said, “I can see that. Like, I didn’t turn much in, but you know I like to read and write. Like you trust that I can do the work when I’m ready.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “I trust that you can do it. And you will have to do it because I won’t be your teacher next year. You’ll have to show someone else what you can do.”
We talked a little more about what mark she had earned and where she saw herself in terms of the curriculum and her own skills. We talked about the summer and how much she longs to see her friends, though her parents won’t let her right now, even with a mask.
After we hung up, I sat in the sun on my porch for a few minutes. I felt lighter – I’d made the decision – but I was still conflicted. Was my choice racist? I definitely allowed this child to pass with scanty evidence; I did not hold her to the highest standards. Perhaps I had sold her short. Anti-racist? I definitely thought about this child as a person harmed by a system designed to oppress Inuit and Indigenous people. I think I did the right thing, but I don’t know. I just don’t know.