A problem student becomes an unusual answer to prayer.
by Lonna Enox
I recognized the name as I glanced over the temporary roster for third period sophomore English. No! I spent a few moments in private ranting about the injustice before starting on a seating chart. Why did I always get the Shanes* in my class? Surely this once God could have answered my prayers.
As I wrote his name in a blank for a front-row seat, bits of conversation from the past two years in the teacher’s lounge floated by:
“I’m going to kill that kid if he doesn’t shut his mouth!”
“What? He can shut it? Are you sure?”
“Maybe I can catch some horrible virus and breathe on him!”
The statements hadn’t been serious, of course, but they reflected the frayed patience of dealing unsuccessfully with a challenging student.
Class numbers varied from thirty to forty, and class periods had dropped to forty-seven minutes. After dealing with the administrative duties, being interrupted by at least five important messages from the office or counseling center, and presenting a lesson, one seldom found five or ten minutes left to give individual attention. The Shanes did not wait for those five or ten minutes; they traditionally interrupted, harassed other students, made loud noises, and otherwise disrupted class.
When third period arrived, I braced myself by the door, greeting students with class rules and objectives sheets. The best way to deal with Shane would be to jump into the business of class. Slack time invariably promoted misbehavior.
He arrived only seconds before the tardy bell rang, an unrepentant grin of greeting for familiar faces in the class. Just before sitting where I directed him, he gave a sweeping bow to the room. Oh, God! I prayed silently.
Our first month together proved as trying as I’d imagined. Each third period’s final bell brought relief for both of us. During class discussions, Shane wanted to argue about politics, religion, and school rules anything besides the literature we had read. Consistently, his tests revealed that he had read nothing I had assigned. Calls home meant leaving messages on answering machines. Letters to parents received no response.
Although Shane’s appearance was unkempt and not especially stylish, the other students loved him and his errant behavior.
When parent visitation night arrived, five weeks into the semester, I waited anxiously for Shane’s parents. But they did not arrive. The next morning I asked about them, and he casually mentioned that his mother’s boyfriend had moved in with three kids of his own. That meant six kids in the three-bedroom house too many teachers to visit in one night. “Shane, do you realize you are failing my class?” I asked him. “Do you know this is a required class? Surely you do not want to attend summer school.”
He just grinned and danced into the hall.
When Shane failed to turn in an essay on the assigned novel, I decided to visit the counselor. Maybe he couldn’t read that well. Maybe he needed to be in a more “basic” English class. However, his scores soared well past his grade level.
During the next couple of weeks, our class began a poetry unit. I divided the students into small groups to read and discuss poems. Shane seemed unusually quiet. When I walked up behind him, I found his head buried in a science fiction novel. “I need to see you after class,” I told him. He rolled his eyes for the other students, who all laughed on cue.
“Shane,” I started as soon as he was seated, “I can’t believe you are reading that stuff and you have not read anything I have assigned for you.”
“I like reading this author,” he said.
“I’m sure you do,” I said, “but you need to read the classics to prepare you for college.”
“I don’t think I’m going to college.”
“You can’t know that at fifteen. Besides, our whole lives have references to classical literature. Why, I heard a line from Shakespeare on a sitcom the other day.”
“Why do I have to know that the line came from Shakespeare?”
“To impress your girlfriend?” I was clearly losing control of this conversation.
“Ms. Enox,” he said, “I don’t see any reason why you make us read all of that old boring stuff when I can read this. There’s a whole series. This is the third one, and I can’t wait to read the next. Why can’t I just take a test on this or something?”
“Because my choices of literature are better. Have you read any of them? How can you condemn them without reading them?”
“Have you read any of these?”
The question was unfair. “I don’t like science fiction,” I said.
“I don’t like poetry,” he answered.
He stood up and edged to the door. “Lunch,” he mumbled.
The next morning Shane was waiting for me when I unlocked my classroom. “I have a proposal,” he said. He handed me a sheet of computer paper with the following agreement typed: “I, Mrs. Enox, agree to read one of Shane’s books for each of the books/plays I ask him to read. I further agree to write a reaction paper for each one when Shane is required to write a paper.”
My first reaction was to shove the paper back at him and demand he grade the 150 essays I had to grade each week, clean my house, care for my children, and attend meetings and conferences besides planning lessons and grading other papers. As I opened my mouth, I looked in his eyes really looked and unbelievably heard myself agreeing to sign the contract. He was clearly surprised. “You sure?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “I care about you. I want you to pass this class. So I will keep to my side of this bargain. And I hope you care about yourself enough to do the same.”
Over the next several months, I spent many late nights making myself read Shane’s favorite books. My prayer life improved as I prayed often for patience. “You must be nuts!” the teacher next door said. “That kid is a pain. It wouldn’t be worth it.”
“Actually, that’s the good part,” I told her. “Shane has become a really great student in my class since we made this contract. I enjoy having him here.” She clearly did not believe me.
Truthfully, as I called Shane’s attention back to his assignment numerous times that day and avoided his chances to sabotage the class discussion, I knew what she meant. Maybe this science fiction reading had turned my brain to mush; he hadn’t changed so much, but I had. He just didn’t irritate me as he once had.
Another real change had taken place as well. Shane’s grades climbed when he made an “A” on the test for the first novel. “What did you think of your book?” he asked casually as he left class one day.
“Not bad,” I said. “But I’d rather read Shakespeare.”
Actually, the writer was rather good. His use of language, plotting, and characterization showed real skill. Only the subject matter eluded my interest.
Head of the class
Sometimes Shane came around at the end of the day to discuss both his literature and mine. Neither of us enjoyed reading the “other” literature, but we enjoyed arguing for or against various ones.
As the year drew to a close, Shane had risen to the top student in third period. Shortly before final exams, he stopped by for the last time. “Shane,” I asked, “do you still think my writers are boring?”
“Well, Mrs. Enox,” he said, “I still think my guy is best next to Shakespeare. That guy is really something, isn’t he?” Then, just before he left, he turned back. For the first time ever, he seemed shy. “You know, when I first came into this classroom, I was really dreading the year. You have this reputation, you know. I was praying I wouldn’t get you. But I’m not really religious, and God didn’t answer. Anyway, I guess I just want to tell you that for a teacher, you’re not bad.”
Then I knew why Shane had “arrived” in my class that year: He had been my gift and a reminder of why I had spent so many hours in that classroom. He had also restored my faith and boosted my spirit. We had both filled an emptiness.
And he was so wrong! God had answered both our prayers in His way.
* Name has been changed.