Today my AP Lit seniors entered my classroom exhausted, sick, or both. We stared at each other for a few minutes. As the mother of two teens and a high school teacher, I witness firsthand the effects on students of our testing culture, our early start times, our competitive roads to higher education.
Mariah entered class with bags under her eyes, and slumped shoulders. She was exhausted from having worked until 11 pm the night before. Erick, our student body president, was still recovering from a state convention where he contracted the flu.
Kaila arrived to class by placing her books in the corner of her desk, folding her arms and putting her head down–she also worked the night before and had another shift that afternoon. When the bell rang and I took attendance, several students began to prepare to take our weekly AP Literature practice essay test.
Stop, I instructed.
Jaylee’s eyes widened. Mia raised an eyebrow. Why? Kris asked.
I looked at each of my students and decided to follow my instincts. It’s 3rd quarter, I said. This is the hardest time of year no matter what grade level, and for teachers too–but especially for seniors.
I just want to know how you are doing, I said.
What happened next, I will never forget. The students seated in the back moved to seats located near my desk. Mariah and Dani sat on the floor near me. Erick sat on his desk and announced that he had just been accepted to NYU. He stated this news as if he was ordering off a menu. When I asked him how he felt about such a prestigious acceptance, he responded that he didn’t really know. He is the first in his family to attend college. New York is very far away from Arizona. I haven’t really had time to process it yet, he said.
I noticed how his classmates responded to his news with positive affirmations, but also very gently. They were being sensitive.
Are you sick of being asked about what you’re doing after high school? I asked.
They responded in a crescendoing chorus, Yes!
For the next 55 minutes, I listened. I permitted them to share their stress about not letting parents down, about not being able to afford college, about wanting to get out of Arizona and see the world, about classes they were struggling in. I listened to them sweetly tease one another and even permitted them to take out their cell phones so they could share their favorite vines and videos. I giggled with them.
I broke the rules and let them eat their snacks. I responded to their questions which covered everything from what I was like in high school to how I parent my two teens. I didn’t address one single standard. And it was magic.
I think provisions in curriculum and college acceptance must take into account the whole student. Not just math and English aptitude. Not just extra-curricular involvement. I wish teachers could be consulted beyond a simple one-page letter of recommendation about their students. I wish colleges and universities had time to interview every applicant.
I was an average student in high school, but I’ve gone on to accomplish some extraordinary things as a teacher and writer. Even at the age of 18, I had a sense of my own possibility. I know, I am also an idealist. It’s true. I see potential in students who have been written off because they don’t meet the current definition of educational success stories.
My AP class is mostly comprised of students who have never taken an honors course. Their improvement has been remarkable. Perhaps they won’t pass the AP test this spring. The numbers will indicate gaps and areas where understanding failed. But I will know. I will know just how ready these young adults are to contribute to their communities, to take risks with grace and humor, and how excited they are to change the world. I will know because I took one day to simply listen.
When the bell rang at the end of our 55 minute class period, I watched with pride as they made lunch plans and smiled when they vowed to catch up on their reading. Mostly, I noticed something that I find myself seeking out in my own son and daughter the older they become; there were elements of childlike wonder and joy in my students’ demeanors.
To read more from Jess Burnquest:
Jess Burnquist earned her MFA from Arizona State University. She writes and teaches high school Creative Writing and English in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area where she also resides with her husband, their teenage son and daughter, as well as their three-legged dog, Skipper.