By Dulcy Dawson
It happened again last night. A text from a former student thanking me for being there for him during the time in his life that was not as pretty as it is now. Nate was a 5th year senior at a prestigious high school in the midwest. He was placed in my Special Education classes not because of any identified issue but simply because he had failed Senior English again. He could read and write very well. He simply refused to turn in all the work that was required because he did not see the point of it.
I have seen this so often over the years. I’m sure there is a fancy term for it but I call it the “Middle Boy Syndrome.” Once a boy reaches a certain age, they stop seeing the connections between relentless wrote practice, like vocab or math facts, and their everyday life or their future. An easy going kid will turn into a silently or outwardly defiant young man and begin to drive their parents and teachers crazy.
As a parent of one of these boys, and a teacher to many, I understand the frustrations wholeheartedly. Parents begin to envision their son out on the streets with no future because they are ruining their GPA which will in turn ruin their chances at getting into the best colleges and then will ruin their lives. Teachers feel frustrated with the defiance and refusals and sometimes feel that they cannot pass these kids. Even though these boys may be masters of the content, they have not met the requirements of the class, since they rarely hand in homework, and it would not be “fair” to give them a passing grade. School counselors sometimes feel that it is their job to tell these kids the “hard facts” and pass down a verdict at age 15 that they are headed nowhere in life if they do not “get it together.”
I have sat in countless meetings for these boys and I have watched the teachers throw their hands up declaring this one a lost cause. This confuses me. I never feel that way. You see, I have seen these boys once they are able to leave the place that devalued them. Let me tell you about a few.
The young man that I mentioned earlier decided to attend a Computer Technology school in California and then became a motivational speaker for at risk teens. He now works at a reputable computer manufacturing company in the midwest. This despite the fact that there were no computer classes offered at his school. You know, the one that placed him in special ed English because it was sick of dealing with his refusals to do homework.
Another boy, JT, immediately after high school, became a construction worker and eventually owned his own company. This despite the “shop” program at his school being cut.
Craig went to a community college and attended the radio broadcasting program. He now works for the local television company, is married, and has a daughter. His side hustle is his own wedding videography company. He recently sent me his Yelp reviews. It seems people really appreciate how talented he is. Craig’s high school only offered one communications class and he could not take it because he was placed in Special Ed classes that filled his schedule.
Erik joined the armed forces and has been trained in electronics. He did so well on the ASVAB test, he was was able to choose the line of work he wanted to do in the service. He will make more money than I ever will as a teacher. This is the kid that was encouraged by counselors to leave our college preparatory high school because he was not considered successful.
I have some male friends that did very well in school. They did what they needed to do to get the really good grades to get into the college they wanted to attend. It seems they made all the right decisions and academically made their parents very proud. They never gave their teachers a hard time. They graduated with their engineering degrees and landed the good job at the engineering company but they really are not any happier in their jobs than any of the young men I have mentioned. In the long run, they simply did not push any buttons or make any waves. They played the game of homework and school and found access to what they wanted or needed.
This access is a privilege that we deny these other boys who don’t, won’t, or can’t play that game.
I understand that we feel it would be easier if our “middle boys” would just do what they need to do but if you ask them now what they need they might tell you that they need connections and time to let it all make sense. Some boys, many people in fact, just were not ready at 14, 15, and 16 to declare that this all makes sense. Perhaps they hated the books or did not really understand half of what the teachers were saying or the purposes behind what they were being asked to do. They tuned out most of the time because their hormones really only cared about one thing. They loved their car or their new video game and could care less about the latest math theory.
More than anything, these students need TIME and a place where it is okay for things to not make sense just yet. With some more time to grow, explore, and mature, these students will turn out just fine.
Dulcy Dawson is a High School Teacher at West Hawaii Explorations Academy, a project based public charter school on Hawaii Island. She loves learning alongside her students and continues to be a life long learner. When not with her students, you will find Dulcy with her husband and kids or on a coffee date with a friend.