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When erasing an 'F' kept a kid in school

He should have been headed for summer school. Instead, on that closing day of school last year, Sam (as I'll call him here) was an emancipated man. Free to rip through rain-drenched marshland on his treasured dirt bike. Free to pound the explicit rhymes of Eminem, DMX, or Nelly into his hardened eardrums, while his mom was at work. And free to hit on his big brother's girlfriends when his brother wasn't around - his preferred pastime.

Summer school would have been an ideal fit for Sam - or, at the very least, a refuge from trouble. After all, he deserved it. And summer school - with its stark, stripped-down classrooms littered with weed-heads, quitters, and the familiar dazed and confused - deserved him.

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But, no. Sam was free - at least from my class.

At end of his freshman year, Sam's average was a low "F." A bomb. His "F" was considerably lower than those of the five other students who failed my high school civics class. But, unlike Sam, those students would be revisiting the Declaration of Independence and the 27 constitutional amendments, as well as the various duties and responsibilities of citizenship, in summer school.

I gave Sam a break. I passed him. All it took was my No. 2 pencil and an eraser.

"You're one fortunate kid," I told him sternly just after the last bell of the school year clanged, as frenzied teens ran down the hall screaming and dumping papers on the floor. "Don't you forget this. You best not disappoint me next year. I don't forget things like this!"

"Yes sir, thank you, I'm gonna work my butt off next year," he said, turning to join the excitement.

But the stern voices of my college teachers raced through my head: "Be fair to all your students ... treat them equally." "If a kid deserves an 'F,' give 'em an 'F.'" "Have the highest standards and stick to them - always."

I began to think that what I'd done was wrong. After all, I made the decision to pass Sam minutes before the grade sheets had to be turned in. I hadn't even wrestled with the decision. I started to think that what I had done went against everything - my better judgment, what I had been taught in graduate school, not to mention the school administration's policy.

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Halfway through the school year, Sam's grandmother had passed away. This trauma, he claimed, shut him down. He stopped doing homework and stopped studying for tests. His class time was mostly spent practicing his signature ("So when I turn NFL pro I can sign balls just like Terrell Owens.") It was agonizing to see a student fall apart so suddenly. He'd had so much potential. Despite mounds of encouragement, he just never pulled himself together after that.

But as I later learned, his grandmother's passing had little to do with the funk. A phone call to his mother revealed that Sam's older brother had "started the same stupid stuff right before he dropped out - for good. And Sam's been talkin' 'bout quitting. He's just like his brother."

But I knew better. And that's why I passed him. I had a dream of seeing him graduate from high school - one of those cliché teacher moments. I didn't want him to pursue his brother's example: Drop out of school, never get a job, sell and do lots of drugs.

In the few seconds before I erased his "F" and bubbled in a "D," my gut told me that if Sam failed my class, I wouldn't see him the following year. Call it teacher intuition. And, as unfair as it was, I didn't get the same feeling about those other "F's."

Fast forward a year: Sam is now completing my world history class. He has a high "C" average and seems strangely enthusiastic about school. One day earlier this year, he waited around after school to say, "Mr. Hoyle, you're a pimp. I'm tight this year, I'm handlin' my business. I love this class. My highest grade this year is in this class."

Translation: Thanks for helping me. I'm trying my best this year. I'm happy. Oh, and in his world, calling someone a "pimp" is a compliment. It's like saying: You're the man, I respect you.

John Christian Hoyle teaches world history and civics at a public high school in Buras, La.


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