Carlton is an Algebra student of mine who I have a hard time imagining as an "at-risk teenager." He's bright, incredibly sweet, and has a good heart. If he wasn't enrolled at an alternative high school like mine, I would've never believed he lived a tough life or made really bad decisions from time to time.
Despite Carlton's past, he seems to have recommitted to school this year, although there are times when he will disappear off the face of the planet. His absence streaks last anywhere between two days to two weeks. When school resumed after winter break, I didn't see him for six consecutive school days. He wasn't traveling, nor was he in jail, he was just "buggin' out."
Carlton takes my class very seriously when he's present, and as a result, usually avoids eye contact with me when he returns from his disappearing acts. "Carlton! Heyyyyyyy mannnnnnnn, how's it... how's it going, buddy?" I ask with a gigantic smile. He knows I'm messing with him.
"Mista, stop playin'. I know, I know. Imma come by during tutoring, can you catch me up? I'm gonna feel mad lost, I know it." Carlton admits.
"Of course man, I'll be right here. And you should know, we have a quiz tomorrow."
"Nah, nah, you wylin' Mista. For real? Can I bring my binder home today to look through?"
I nod. Afterward, Carlton and I spent a good amount of time reviewing missed material. I'm always in awe of his ability to repeat statements I've made during class word-for-word. I knew he wasn't going to ace the quiz, but he was in a good enough position to pass. His memory allows him to fall behind days at a time and still catch up to a decent level. Some skills cater to bad habits.
The next day I reviewed some material just before the quiz. Carlton was quiet, taking notes. After the review, I instructed my students to put everything away except for a pencil and a calculator. I passed the quizzes out and could immediately hear pencils hitting paper and buttons being pushed on calculators. Music to my ears.
As I walked around the room, I noticed Carlton was sitting kind of awkwardly as he took his quiz. He seemed to be working on his quiz, but he was definitely hiding something. I pretended not to notice and made my rounds. Then out of nowhere, I circled back to Carlton. He was cheating.
On a half sheet of notebook paper, he had lightly written definitions of vocabulary words. All of a sudden, I felt very conflicted. Here's this student blatantly cheating (relatively) in my class. He should have to face some kind of consequence. Yet, a part of me didn't want to harm his effort. My students rarely cheat, and the ones that do are completely awful at it. They don't even make an effort to hide their wandering eyes. Carlton on the other hand, cares about his work. He cares about his quiz score. He cares about not getting caught.
I had to show Carlton that he couldn't pull this kind of shit in my class. I also had to do something to shock him, to show him that I got him, but that I also cared and would let him go this one time only. So, I snatched the piece of paper from his desk, crumpled it up, and ate it. Right in front of him.
I wish I had a camera to capture Carlton's face in that moment. He was dumbfounded. The rest of the class lost it.
"Yo, did that n**** just eat paper?"
"Deadass yo, motherfucka just caught Carlton cheatin' and ate his cheat sheet!"
"Mista, you crazy. You on some other shit."
In retrospect, I had no idea why I decided to eat Carlton's cheat sheet. However, what Carlton said next resonated with me, "Yo Mista, you coulda failed me, but you deadass just ate ma paper instead. I don't know how I feel bout that, but I know I ain't gonna cheat that way no more." Mission: accomplished.
When I think back to being a high school student, I don't remember daily lessons. Sure, I remember academic content, but that's also because I'm a dork. What I do remember most about school were the characters: the teachers and students who were a little off-center. Those people made coming to school enjoyable and most importantly, memorable.
It seems that in order to teach effectively at an inner-city alternative high school, one really does need an appreciation for theatrics.