Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Can't Say I Didn't Warn You



If you are a senior in high school for 2007-2008, this is the time for hard work and effort, or the beginning of a meltdown. The good students, the ones worried about their college resumes, are taking extra classes at local junior colleges, volunteering their free time at summer day camps and retirement homes, or getting a jump on studying for the final assault on the SAT. The other category is planning how to do the least amount of work in their final year of high school.

Teachers warn them every year. Beware of “senioritis,” a disease so rampant it rivals the plague in its heyday. Every year, I make the same speech to eleventh graders: make sure you do not get lazy, and make sure you really want to make the commitment to AP classes before you enroll for senior year. Of course, the warnings fall on deaf ears.

Seniors apply to the colleges of their choice between October and January. Acceptances are mailed out beginning in March. The letters clearly state that the student is accepted conditionally, with the condition being that the final grades received at the Admissions office in June are passing or above, and the student continues to demonstrate progress toward a diploma. If everything goes as planned, the student earns that diploma and enrolls in the college of his choice in the fall. Some students fail to comprehend this, and they quit working with as much as a semester left in their senior year. They end the year with deficient, or even failing grades, and the university revokes their acceptance. The result is a bright future flushed down the toilet.

As an AP teacher, I always marvel at students’ shortsightedness. I mean, really, these are supposed to be bright kids, yet every March, it is the same story. Some quit working because they have been accepted, but others slack off because they did not get into the school of their choice. They develop bad attitudes and decide to take revenge on teachers, their high school, and anyone else who might have had a hand in their rejection. The joke, however, is squarely on them. Quitting before the final whistle blows hurts no one but themselves, and therefore, blaming others for their own ineptitude is simply revealing more of their own deficient character.

In an article in the June 22, 2007 issue of The Los Angeles Times, writer Larry Gordon says that this lack of focus and laziness at the end of twelfth grade “can dump as much as two percent of an incoming class” at a good university. Some schools make allowances for special problems like illness or divorce, Gordon writes, and private schools may allow students who have deficiencies to take make up courses in summer school. But the bottom line is that to quit working after the application is in the mail is a recipe for disaster. UCLA, according to the article, expects to revoke ninety acceptances this summer.

This lazy attitude is often supported, or even fostered, by parents and occasionally, administrators. Repeatedly in conferences, I have heard parents say that senior year should be a time for fun and relaxation, a chance for one last party with classmates. After all, one parent said to me, they have been in school twelve years or more. They have earned it (emphasis mine). Administrators also are guilty of looking the other way. When teachers are faced with declining interest in the spring, disciplinary problems, and extreme acting out on the part of these nearly legal adult students, principals are often reluctant to “pull the trigger” and take away privileges and social events like Grad Night and prom. They know they will face a firestorm of protest from the students as well as the parents, so they cave. Yet the teachers are stuck in the classroom trying desperately to maintain order and finish curriculum to prepare students for college. Parents, administrators, counselors, even janitors, should support the teachers for the good of the students.

I have seen this rescinding of acceptance several times in my career, and I have yet to see a case where it was not deserved. In addition, I have also called the Admissions department of universities where my students have been accepted and retracted my letter of recommendation for a student based on performance and discipline in late spring. To have a student ask you in November to write such a letter, only to turn belligerent and disruptive in April makes such action imperative. I am a teacher who takes letters of recommendation seriously. I consider this “Jekyll and Hyde behavior” deceitful on the part of the student. I do not recommend students who are dishonest, pretending to be well-behaved until the letters are mailed.

Gordon quotes San Marino High School Assistant Principal Mary Johnson: “It’s a heartbreak, but in my own opinion, consequences follow actions all too infrequently in some students’ lives. And this is the real thing.”

Agreed. Real life most often does not include “do-overs.” This is something our culture does not do a good job teaching our young people. We are seeing the results all around us. If an actor uses a derogatory term for gay people, he apologizes and checks himself into rehab, then complains when he is fired. Worse, he pulls out the race card and claims the whole incident is a result of the producers’ racism. Paris Hilton has a meltdown because she must go to jail for her misbehavior and stupidity. Parents and friends claim she is being treated unfairly.

This is life. In life, one takes action. There are consequences for these actions, and we must live with the consequences for the rest of our lives. This used to be the most interesting part of drama and literature. How does one live with the consequences of her actions? In literature, the protagonist’s response to these consequences, and her ability to rise above them and redeem herself made her a hero. It is difficult to find one of those these days, especially in the high school classroom.

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