KN is a budding track and cross country star at my school. Furthermore, she is one of the half dozen or so students whom I have had the pleasure of teaching since the beginning of the year (i.e. across both semesters). Slender, petite and self-motivated, she exudes the vibe of a dedicated runner. That KN, someone who is from “a dead mother, and long lost father,” is able to stay on track (both literally and figuratively) is outstanding.
As with all adolescents, KN has changed dramatically over the course of the year. From her beginnings as one of the more unruly, disruptive students in my first-period class, she has evolved into a student who is as punctual to class as she is passionate about running (I’ve mentioned her ignited passion for reading before). In my frantic rush to prepare for classes each morning, I’ve been lucky to have KN come in early and chatter away about her most recent cross country race or track meet. As an avid runner myself, I’ve loved these conversations. In fact, they’ve made me wish I were still a high school cross country runner.
Last week, KN missed DC CAS testing (sidenote: thank goodness it’s over!) in order to travel to Philadelphia with our school’s track team to compete in the Penn Relays, one of the largest, and arguably the most prestigious, US track meets around. KN had been piping each day for the last two months about her trip to Penn Relays. She told me over and over how it was her “dream” to compete at Penn Relays. After discovering she was failing (an F immediately makes student-athletes at our school ineligible to compete) in geometry, her most intractable subject, she diligently came into school early and stayed after to work to bring her grade up. She ended third advisory with, I believe, a B. At the beginning of last week, she came in one testing morning and told me she was leaving for Philly. I wished her luck.
The Penn Relays occurred this past weekend. In a weekend sandwiched by stressful testing sessions, I naturally forgot to check the results until I read an article about how Usain Bolt was on fire. I nervously logged onto the Penn Relays website and found our school’s results among the hundreds of other competing schools. The results shocked me: of the two relay events in which our school–and Kayla–competed, we were disqualified in one and finished dead last in the other.
At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes. How could we finish dead last and not at all? But then I believed. I started to put the dots together. I knew KN had expressed certain frustrations about track at our school and how they weren’t doing the necessary training. I immediately suspected that something had gone wrong with the relay baton hand-off, since I knew that this was a crucial and highly-technical aspect of relay racing. I ruminated over my Sunday coffee.
On Monday, KN came in (early as usual) with a droopy, irritated facial expression. Before I had a chance to ask her weekend was, she burst into a diatribe about how terrible Penn Relays were. She confirmed my suspicion: our school had been DQ’ed for dropping the baton. Though I could accept a drop that happened as a result of human error, I knew that this was not the result of fate. Indeed, KN went on to describe how her coach had never made the team practice hand-offs. Even though they knew they were competing in relay races for the past few months, they had never explicitly practiced hand-offs in training. Instead, the coach emphasized endurance and strength workouts. This would be akin to telling pre-K students to practice scribbling randomly (presumably to increase the length of time they can write)–without showing them how to actually write letters–in order to prepare for a test that asks students to write their names: a clear lack of backwards planning (and/or common sense).
The ironic thing, KN, told me, was that the athletes knew they needed practice. When I asked her why she didn’t just go out with her teammates and practice, she told me that “it’s the coach’s job to tell us what to do!” Furthermore, “it’s not like I can just straight up tell my coach that she needs to make us practice this!” I nodded in agreement. I really was at a loss for words.
KN ended our conversation that day with a confession: “it was the most embarrassing moment of my life. It made [our school] look terrible.”
The unfortunate ending to this story is that KN came into my classroom yesterday and confessed that she had quit the track team. She could no longer deal with the “stupidity” of our school’s track team. She had given up.
I could not let her make this decision, of course. Given her talent, and given her previously-expressed goal of going to FSU on a track scholarship, she couldn’t, I told her, quit–not now, not ever. In response, she told me she had talked with her aunt and made a decision: “I’m transferring schools next year.” Those words are seared into my mind. She’s switching into a rival DCPS school.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from these conversations with KN, it is that classroom teachers aren’t the only people who set the bar for student achievement. That is, classroom teachers aren’t the only ones who can fail their students. The coaches, the instructional aides, the mentors–every person in the school community can and does shape the path that a student takes. When adults in the school community slip up in carrying out their responsibility towards their students, disillusionment and disenchantment with education can ensue.