For the past two weeks Ive been on a honeymoon of sorts.
Second semester at my high school has started, so our students are in new classes. Or most of them are. My senior English class, which runs all year long, is like a comfortable marriage by now, with occasional good-natured bickering and joking to keep things lively.
My two new classes, on the other hand, are like newlyweds. Were still getting to know each other.
Both new classes are elective creative writing classes. Most of the students are there because they had a hole in their schedule they needed to fill, not because they really want to do any writing. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on who you ask they do lots of writing every day, including personal journal entries that they read aloud to the class.
No other activity gives me more insight into my students. Although I caution them not to write about anything they dont want to share, they are surprisingly honest and in equal measure inspiring and heartbreaking.
Yet their stories arent unusual. In many ways, they reflect the common concerns of high school students all across the country.
Of my 53 students in those two classes, 32 live in poverty and eat both breakfast and lunch at school. Every morning when Im on duty in the cafeteria I watch them get off the school bus, go through the breakfast line for a bowl of cereal or a biscuit, and then eat while they look over their homework or study for tests. Nationally, 55.8 percent of students live in poverty and receive free or reduced-price lunch, according to the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
When I recorded my students contact numbers, I noted that the majority live with a step-parent or a single mother. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 35 percent of American students live in single-parent homes.
One of the most poignant journal entries so far was written by Lia, a young mother who is struggling to raise her two-year old daughter.
Im worried, Lia told me, that she will make the same stupid mistakes I did about sex and pregnancy.
Shes right to be worried. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one-third of girls under the age of 20 in the U.S. are pregnant, and 750,000 babies are born each year to teenagers.
Other students have written about their parents spending time in jail, of being victims of violence, of harming themselves with drugs and alcohol. Those, too, are national issues. Six million children are reported abused or neglected to Child Protection Services annually, a number that is surely underreported. And among junior high and high school students, almost 10 percent are estimated to be abusing drugs, both illegally and legally.
My students often write about the adults in their lives and about the ones who are missing. Ty wrote about losing his father in a motorcycle accident. Brandi wrote about surviving the car wreck that killed her mother.
Stresses dog these students
Ivey wrote about how she bounced between relatives after her mother died of cancer and her father was hospitalized for almost a year.
Justine wrote about how she and her siblings were adopted from another country and how her new parents later divorced, scattering their children to different caretakers.
Other stresses figure in their entries. One student wrote about watching the arrest of her older brother. Another wrote about her fathers alcoholism. A third wrote about her own short stint in jail for public fighting.
Yet here they are, sitting up in their desks, picking up their pencils when I tell them to write, reading their words out loud.
You have important things to say, I tell them. Such great stories and lessons to share. Now lets work on getting your words to paper.
They believe me; they cooperate. When I give them a long list of activities for each class period, they dont bat an eye. When I write along with them and read my journal entries to them, they watch me closely, a bit skeptically, but at least I have their attention.
I know its still the honeymoon, that they may start to drag their feet or openly rebel in the coming weeks.
But right now Im learning who they are hearing about their joys as well as their difficulties. My students are growing up in a rural district in South Carolina a district small enough to have a single high school but in the ways that matter, they arent so different from any other American student.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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