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26 WOW, THIS IS AMAZING!

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

Students walked through the front doors early one morning late in the school year, filling the hallways with noisy conversation. They laughed and argued and shouted on their way to the start of the day. But even the collective voices of hundreds of students could not drown out the mighty voice of English teacher Roslyn Stradford. Stradford was one of Manual’s most dedicated and energetic teachers, with a high-pitched voice that spilled through the closed door of her classroom every day. She was known for taking students in need of a formal outfit shopping and for answering e-mail questions from students late into the evening. She is one of the thousands of dedicated teachers who fill American schools. On this day, her advanced placement students would be taking their end-of-the-year standardized tests. She had spent months preparing them, engaging them in classroom conversations and hoping to help them earn scores that would allow them to move on to college. Her voice that morning, though, was louder and pitched even higher than usual as she nearly screamed into her mobile phone. She was talking to a student who hadn’t yet shown up, a student she’d worked with for countless hours during the past several months. She had told him the day before to be at school by 7:15 AM, and not a minute later, just to be sure he was sitting at his desk and relaxed and ready for the 7:30 AM test.

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12 I GET HIT ALL THE TIME.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

Dean Hoover was having one of those days. A day when her office was a nonstop burst of activity, filled with troublemaking students, perplexed parents, and enough drama to fill a few soap opera scripts. Shortly after nine o’clock, after Hoover dealt with a handful of other brush fires, a fifteen-year-old boy named Darnell walked into the room with his father, Bryan. Darnell, who had a smooth demeanor and a mild learning disability, was a frequent visitor to the office, and as soon as they entered he fell into a seat and leaned his head against the wall behind him. “Sit up straight,” his dad ordered.

The meeting had been scheduled so that Hoover and Jackie Sababu, the head of the school’s special education department, could talk about the trouble Darnell was causing. He received help from teachers assigned to students with learning disabilities but attended regular classes. And he was disrupting them constantly of late. Sababu said Darnell’s was a tricky case. He had a sweet and innocent way about him that masked much of the trouble he caused. He was friendly and apologetic, she said, a trait that had bought him a lot of leeway earlier in the year. Not anymore. He’d pushed things too far. His teachers were fed up. Darnell stared at the ceiling as she talked. “Look at her,” his dad said. “We’re going to have a long talk when you get home. He’s already on punishment until December.”

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5 I HATE THIS SCHOOL.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

I parked my car in front of Manual at about noon and walked toward the front door one day early in the school year. In recent days I had filled several notebooks as I wandered the school in search of column material, meeting dozens of teachers and students along the way. My initial column on the school, which I’d written the night before and had spent the morning polishing, would be running in three days. But there’s always another deadline, and my next one wasn’t far off.

As I approached the school, one of its doors crashed open. A man in a T-shirt and jeans barged out, his teenage son trailing him. The man was furious and mumbling to himself. As they walked, the boy, who I would later learn had been sent home for violating the dress code policy, meekly asked his father if he could drop him off somewhere.

I had already seen many parents leave Manual in anger. Actually, most who came into the school did so because their son or daughter was in trouble, meaning they invariably left irritated. So this wasn’t a particularly noteworthy scene. Not yet, anyway. That changed within a second. The man stopped and turned to his son with a face filled with fury. “I ain’t dropping you off nowhere, motherfucker,” he said sharply.

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11 WE’RE DROPPING OUT.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

Two boys stood in the main office on a Thursday afternoon, talking quietly to each other as their mom sat in a chair a few feet away. They were an example of the dropout epidemic that is devastating many American cities and the mind-boggling lack of urgency that can be found in far too many communities. The boys, brothers named Tyler and Chris, were sixteen and seventeen, respectively. They were Manual students, but only officially. They hadn’t been inside the school in a few weeks, and they’d shown up only occasionally before that. And they didn’t plan on coming anymore. Their mom, a single thirty-something mother of six, had driven them to Manual that morning so that they could formally drop out. They were intent on becoming part of the huge collection of Manual students who failed to graduate.

The brothers were waiting to find someone to talk to when vice principal Alan Smith raced through the room. He was heading from one mess to another but stopped suddenly when he saw the boys. He’d gotten to know them during the previous school year—largely because they were frequently in the office answering to one infraction or another. Their biggest problems had been an unwillingness to show up for class and an inability to live by the school’s strict dress code. Despite the problems, and despite their unwillingness to give school much effort, Smith liked them. He gave a puzzled smile. “Long time no see,” he said.

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21 I LIKE TO SOLVE PROBLEMS.

Matthew Tully Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

Among the hundreds of students who passed through Manual every day, some were impossible to miss. Students such as Jammyra, who seemed like the student body’s elder stateswoman. Or Jeff, the calculus student who walked the halls in his crisp ROTC uniform every Wednesday. Or Melissa, the freshman with the painful home life who seemed to cover it up with a smile and a handshake aimed at every adult she passed. Or Jessica, the special education student who had trouble communicating but had an innocent gaze that was hard to forget. Or, of course, the occasional gangbanger who menaced the neighborhoods around Manual and whom everyone in the school knew to avoid.

And then there was Raymond Rutland. The eighteen-year-old senior was perhaps the most conspicuous student of all. He stood out even when crushed among dozens of other students as he walked through the crowded hallways between classes. He looked like no other student. He wore his khaki pants high above his waist, like an old man would, with his belt pulled tight and his shirt tucked in deep and buttoned to the top. He wore his student ID clipped to his shirt collar at all times and his house key hung from a lanyard around his neck. He walked fast and with determination through the halls, always carrying a stack of books and a calculator. His head jerked to the side occasionally, and he twisted his hand in front of his face frequently. And when someone said hello, as teachers and fellow students constantly did, he was more likely to give them a thumbs-up than a few words.

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