As we wind up this year, I've been thinking about last summer's awesome movie The Way, Way Back, and not just because it's about a fourteen-year-old on summer vacation. The movie starts with a long scene introducing Duncan (the aforementioned fourteen-year-old) as a kid who's just kind of, well, a shlump. His mom's boyfriend thinks so, and while we realize that this adult's criticism is way too harsh, you have to see his point: Duncan is sullen, introverted, and, apparently, completely nonspecial.
Over the movie--and I won't spoil the whole plot for you--Duncan finds a second home at a local water park, where he takes on a new identity as "Pop 'n Lock", the park's indispensable factotum and MVP. We see him going back and forth between "Duncan," still-awkward fourteen-year-old, and "Pop 'n Lock", master of every detail and every need in the park. Although Duncan gains a little confidence at home, his mom (and his mom's boyfriend) don't get to see any of his alter ego until ... well, I won't give it away. It's good.
The point is that I think we have a lot of students like Duncan, students who are mostly unremarkable, even substantially less than remarkable, at school, but who totally shine in some part of their life outside of school. This is the kid who is super-responsible and on-the-ball at her job at Starbucks; or who's a realistically-aspiring professional dancer; or who keeps track of two younger siblings and three cousins, does the grocery shopping, and puts food on the table every night while mom is at work. These kids are stars. But what we teachers see is the late homework assignment, the "C" quiz, the half-checked-in, half-checked-out stare at school. We don't see the stars.
More often than not, these kids are not middle class, and not white. One of the privileges many (certainly not all) white, middle-class kids experience is not having these kinds of burdens, or if they have them, they often know that they're as much assets as deficits, and that the student's job is to alert me early about the constraints and plan with me to work around them. They send us emails like "Hey, Mr. K, I wanted to give you the heads up that we have rehearsals every afternoon and evening for the next two weeks, so I might wind up one or two assignments behind. Can you tell me what I should focus on the most if I have to do triage?"
I think other students don't know that we care, and often don't think that we necessarily should care. Many of my minority students have an overt "no excuses" attitude, which is refreshing except for when there really are extenuating circumstances. Yes, if I'd known your sister was in the hospital all last week, I would have been happy to let you take Friday's quiz on Monday. But on the positive side, I don't think they know that we want to see them at their best--even if their best isn't what we see at school.
I don't have an easy solution for this problem. I think it helps to tell kids what we look for and want to know about, and if we coach them on the kinds of things that might qualify as reasonable exceptions. (A long time ago I stopped writing "late assignments will not be accepted" on my assignment sheets, and started writing instead things like "under ordinary circumstances, I won't accept this assignment late," with details that described some truly extraordinary circumstances.) And I think it helps to ask kids about what's going on in their lives outside of school. But the most helpful thing may be to remind ourselves, when we see a kid who seems like a Duncan, that more often than we might think, there's probably a setting in which that kid is really a Pop'n'Lock.