Thursday, June 09, 2005

Double trouble

Here’s what I remember about Ariel. When she came to class, she came late and sat in the desk closest to the door. Her thick, shaggy blond bangs hung down over her eyes, almost to the end of her nose. She dressed in layers of baggy things – sweats over sorority jerseys with the hood crunched up high around her neck. She wore wire-rimmed glasses that were barely visible under cascades of hair.

Ariel never volunteered a word in class. If I called on her, she’d shrug her shoulders and try to disappear beneath those bangs. If ever a girl wanted to be invisible, it was Ariel.

The first assignment in the beginning writing class is always due the second week of the semester. It’s the “Convince me you’re interesting” essay that’s meant to let me see what kind of writers (and people) they are. It’s also the one and only time they’re allowed to write in the first person, though many continue to anyway on all the assignments. I’m not sure some students really know what “first person” means.

Anyway, Ariel didn’t turn in her essay. Didn’t turn in the next one – an interview with an interesting person on campus – either. Or the next one – a short “spot news” story about a campus event. By the time midterm exams rolled around, Ariel had distinguished herself by being the only student in the class to have ignored each assignment. She also didn’t show up for the midterm. I asked the girls who sat closest to her if they knew why she was absent on test day. “Who?” they said. They didn’t even remember what she looked like.

After midterm, with eight weeks left in the semester, she continued to underwhelm. I tried several times to catch her eye at the end of the 80-minute session, so I could talk to her about why she was falling so far behind. But her spot near the door provided swift escape.

Now remember this is college. Unlike high school, we higher ed types aren’t supposed to nag students about their homework. We don’t brook excuses and have little patience with non-performers. It’s really not up to us to chase after those students who are failing a class to find out what’s the matter. If they want to ask for help, that’s different. But any student who has blown off every single assignment by the time midterm arrives is usually a hopeless cause. Better to save the energy for the ones who actually do the work. As many profs told me over the years, “Teach to the top five students in class, not to the bottom five.”

Toward the end of the semester, instead of writing more stories, they were to do oral presentations. Go out and report, using all the skills they'd learned to that point, but do stand-up accounts of the finished stories instead of putting them on paper. The class, some of whom were considering majoring in broadcast journalism, was enthusiastic. All but Ariel, who looked terrified as I wrote the specifics on the dry-erase board.

The day arrived for them to take to their feet and present their reportage. I expected Ariel to skip class, but instead, there she was in her usual seat by the door a few minutes before classtime, a first. She was dressed neatly in a slim beige suede skirt, beige boots and a dark brown cashmere sweater. Her hair was slicked back in a sleek ponytail. She had on makeup and earrings and wasn’t wearing her glasses.

“Ariel? Is that you?” I asked. The class seemed to notice her for the first time.

She just giggled and shrugged.

When I called her name to make a presentation, I was shocked to see her pop right out of her seat and take her place at the podium in the front of the room.

“My report is called `Adventures in Babysitting: How to Get a Part-Time Nanny Job.’”

I was astonished. She was talking. She was prepared. She had a thick stack of pink index cards in front of her and as she flipped through them, she gave a thorough and interesting report of the ins and outs of taking care of rich people’s kids in the high-dollar neighborhood surrounding campus. She even offered a "Top 10 List" of tips, including "Never, ever be alone with the dad."

“Good work, Ariel!” I said, joining the class in applauding her report. “You’re like a different person today.”

I thought maybe she’d emerged from her cocoon. Maybe it was possible for her to pass the class after all. Before she left the room that day, I blocked her exit. “Come see me during office hours Thursday and let’s talk about how you can make up those missed papers,” I said. “Can you be in my office at 10 a.m.?”

“Sure,” she said, smiling brightly. “I’ll be there.”

She wasn’t there. Thursday’s office hours came and went and so did Thursday’s class. Ariel was a no-show. On Tuesday, she slid into class late as before, dressed in her usual collection of haphazard gymwear. She looked hung over and kept pulling at her bangs.

Fast-forward to finals week. The last big assignment was another stand-up report, a longer one, multi-sourced. As each student presented his or her topic, the others were to act as reporters, asking questions to the student at the podium to see if he or she could confidently back up facts and figures. A practice press conference.

Once again, there was Ariel, early for the class, dressed in a smart navy skirt with a pale gray blazer and pink silk shirt. She had her hair in a tight chignon and her cheeks were lightly dusted with powder and blusher. No glasses.

This time her report was on Adderall abuse on campus and the rampant theft of prescription drugs from students by other students. She had her facts straight, her sources were strong and she gave everyone a well-prepared handout of statistics about the dangers of using other people’s prescription drugs. An A-plus job.

She earned another round of applause from her classmates. Amazing.

Days later as I totaled up the students’ grades for the term, I felt my stomach knot up as I flipped to Ariel’s grade card. Of the seven assignments, she’d done only two. She hadn’t turned in a single written paper. The only things she’d really made any effort to complete were those oral reports. Excellent work on those, sure. But I had no choice, given her failure to do anything else. I typed an F next to her student ID number on the grade roster.

I hate flunking a kid. These days you have to be damn sure they deserve to be flunked. I know profs who’ve had to go to legal mediation with students and their parents over grades of B’s and C’s. An F? You have to defend it with a paper trail longer than Woodward and Bernstein’s. There are memos in triplicate if a student challenges the grade. Meetings with department heads and deans. Students throw a fit if you give an A-minus.

But I was confident as I typed in that F for Ariel. Who could argue with it? Doing two of seven assignments, plus skipping the midterm, that’s a no-brainer.

Little did I know what lay ahead. I’d be seeing a lot more of Ariel in the future.

You’ll have to come back for the rest of this story.

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