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A Superintendent’s Lament: Getting a Second Chance Helping

by William W. Lockwood - April 09, 2003

A story about "tacit to explicit" learning and the importance of conversation to the learning process.

As a former School Superintendent, I had to make some judgments that may have had an adverse impact on the lives of students. The decisions I made involving long-term suspensions of students inhabit my conscience to this day, some seven years since I occupied the position of Superintendent of Schools. Long-term suspensions may be as long as 90 school days. The student is afforded a quasi-judicial set of hearings that assures due process contained in the "equal protection clause," either in the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution or an equivalent amendment in the state constitution. In retrospect, the convenient rationale that, "I suspended habitual offenders of school policy for the 'greater good' of the entire student body," seems hollow to me now. Occasionally, I was able to gain a second chance to help a student that I had suspended. The following is a true account of one such opportunity.


When I was a Superintendent/Principal, at a rural school located in the mid lakes region of Minnesota, I had a series of experiences with a 16-year-old, junior in high school, Linda, and her middle-aged mother, Doreen.


Linda affected a defiant attitude toward most of the rules and regulations contained in the student handbook. She wore revealing tee shirts, tight pants, and sandals. During the frigid months of a typical Minnesota winter she would arrive at school wearing snow boots. However, once she was in the door she would quickly change into her sandals that she carried in what most students would call a "book bag." Frequently, Linda's hair was colored orange, green, and one time, pink with silver sparkles. She frequently bonded with mentholated cigarettes, and it was rumored that she used "Brown and Clears," a form of capsulated dextrin through most of her school day. She wore a various assortment of rings, on her hands, nose, and tongue.


Linda taunted some faculty members who, in turn, baited her into indiscretions. She called these teachers "meltdowns," a word she picked up reading a James Lee Burke novel while others studied Hamlet. A teacher in the History Department who asked Linda to explain to the rest of her class the strategies employed by the Union Army during the Battle of Bull Run precipitated Linda's last day as a student in High School. Although I never understood exactly what she said, it was clear that she spoke of the soldier's sexual encounters with large animals. The teacher immediately asked Linda to report to my office. Instead, she walked out of the front door of the school and into the car of her boyfriend who was awaiting her arrival in his rebuilt ’68 Camero. Linda had great timing.


I called Linda's home, and her mother Doreen answered the phone. I explained to her what had happened. The tone of her voice became muffled for a few seconds. As she returned to the phone, I heard a strong male voice in the background blurt out, "to hell with her."


When Doreen returned to the phone, I sensed some distress in her voice. She said she would be in the following morning. I asked her if there was something I could do to help her. I think she said, "See you in the morning," but, I couldn't really decipher the words because the same male voice I heard before was booming in background,  "dammed, stupid kid." The following morning, Linda's mother was assisted to my room by one of the very fine secretaries who had volunteered for "sensitivity training." the previous year.


When Doreen was introduced to me, I briefly shook her hand, but the handshake was long enough for me to feel her tough leathery skin and strength that seemed to be in contrast to her downcast eyes and shuffled gait. I asked her to sit in a chair to the right of my desk. Tears began tumbling from dark eyes, spilling over sallow pouches into her hands. She rocked back and forth, as she continued to cry on the chair placed just inches from my desk. I quickly gave her a tissue. Reaching back to my counseling background, I reached for one of her hands, thinking that rubbing one of them would help. She quickly retracted her heavily scarred hand.


Lamely, I recited the compulsory attendance laws of Minnesota. While looking down, she said, "Earl and me are going to let her live with my sister in Nebraska. As she got up and walked away Doreen said, "She'll be going to school down there." I never thought I would see either Doreen or Linda again. When Linda didn't show up to school for five days and the Guidance Counselor didn't report any requests for her transcripts, I sent out the state mandated "due process" papers via mail. It seemed to be ludicrous, but when the letters were unreturned, I issued a long-term suspension to Linda for ninety school days.


It has been my experience that when a School Superintendent signs a contract with a school district, he/she becomes obligated to tasks that extend beyond the school day and attendance at extracurricular activities. I was fortunate enough to define these activities for myself. I can't stand crowds, and felt uneasy at "pot lucks" that were more like cauldrons of gossip, So, I taught Sunday school and Adult Bible classes. I disdained collective societies like the Lions, Schriners, and Rotary-type Clubs, but I loved playing softball, and my playing was well received.


Perhaps the greatest gift I was able to give back to the community was teaching General Equivalency Diploma (GED) classes for adults. For several years, I shared happy moments with people from, as they say, "all walks of life."  Perhaps my best asset as a GED teacher was the ability to reduce the initial anxiety these adults felt when they first arrived. I guess I had finally found an area where I had more success than failure.


One afternoon while I was preparing "bids" for the August School Board meeting, I was more than a little astonished when Linda and Doreen walked into my office. Linda's hair was a natural brown, and her features seemed to have softened. She stepped aside and let Doreen do the talking. Wearing a fresh flower print and smiling, she said, "Dr. Lockwood, Linda and I want to take your GED class. My cousin took it, and she said it was the best thing that he done since joining AA."


I guess I stammered before I asked them to have a seat. Doreen asked, "Do you think we can qualify?"


"Yes, I know you'll qualify, and I'd love to have both of you in my class." I said. I began to smile and told both of them that they had made my day. I guided them through the paper process that very day, instead of my common practice of waiting until the first class.


"Mom said that she would go and get her GED if I did!" For the first time in the three years since Linda's suspension, I saw a smile on Linda's face.


I had once looked at Linda's records and saw that a guidance counselor had administered the Slosson IQ test to her.  She had scored 140. As I thought about it, her manipulations to "taunt" teachers when she was a regular member of the school were skillful albeit somewhat self-destructive.


I noticed that in Doreen's application she had put down that she had been in school four years and one month. At first, I thought this was the time she had spent in high school. In fact, she listed an elementary school in Mississippi. I had never dealt with anyone with that sort of limited experience, but I made up my mind to try. The classes began in mid-September on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, three hours each evening. At that time the GED was self-paced, and the teacher acted as a guide, helping students over the rough spots until they felt confident enough to take a particular portion of the GED, such as the subject of history.


Linda and Doreen did quite well. Linda breezed by the subjects with ease. During the fourth week of the class, Doreen did not show up. Linda was still coming so I thought all was okay. By the time week five ended, Doreen had missed four class periods, while Linda had passed several of the areas needed to pass the GED. I asked Linda about her mom's absence, and she just said, "She's been real busy around the house." She went on to say that Earl had died the previous winter, colliding with a tree after he fell asleep in a drunken stupor. I asked Linda if it would be okay if I called Doreen. The GED class had met on a Thursday, and I called Doreen Friday morning.


In speaking with Doreen, I complimented her on doing so well in the GED program and asked when she would be returning. She said, "Well, I really did it for Linda's sake so she wouldn't be behind anymore."


My reply was, "Linda tells me you are thinking about dropping your studies. But remember, you made a pact with Linda that you would complete your GED with her. Are you having trouble getting into town because you live eight miles from the school on gravel roads? If so, I would be more than happy to come and get you."

Her reply was, "No, I can always catch a ride with Linda."


"Doreen, Linda told me that you are very busy, but you have been a good student," I said. "Within a few weeks I can probably get you caught up and back on the right track."

She paused and sighed for a moment. When she spoke her, voice had the weepy tone that I had heard when she first entered my office three years ago, concerning Linda's suspension. "Mr., I mean, Dr. Lockwood, I know that I just can never do multiplication."

 I said, "I noticed in your application, Doreen, that you dropped out after a month in the fourth grade."


"Yes, my mama had died, and all of us kids had to go into the cotton fields," she replied. "When I was in fourth grade, I just couldn't understand multiplication, and I never will so I don't think I will be back as long as Linda continues herself."


"Doreen," I said. "I promise you that I can teach you multiplication. I will do anything to accomplish that."


She said, "Can I come in an hour early and show you how bad I am at it?"


"By all means, come in an hour early and we will work together to get you to learn multiplication," I said.


The next GED class was Tuesday evening. For most of Monday and Tuesday, I met with the elementary teachers on an informal basis and asked them to show me some hands-on activities that they used to help students learn how to multiply. On Tuesday, at 6 p.m., I waited for Doreen's arrival. We were much more informal by that point, and once again she said, "Mr. Lockwood, I can't pass any multiplication test." Then she asked, "Can I pass the math part without doing any multiplication?"


"Doreen, give me a chance, let me show you how this is done." I set my manipulatives down on the table and began. I held up a flash card that read, "3 x 10 =".


Doreen's response was, "That's multiplication, and I have already told you I can't do it!"


"Please, just give me a chance," I replied. "Let's see what 3 multiplied by 10 means.  Keep the number 3 in your mind. I will set down these blocks in three rows with 10 in each row. Once I have done that, I want you to count all three rows."


Doreen counted all three rows. Her response was, "That's 30."


"That's right, you've done multiplication without even knowing it." I said. "Let's try another, how about 10 multiplied by 4."


As I was laying the blocks down, she stopped me and said, "Dr. Lockwood, is multiplication the same as 'times'?" She looked a little dubious.


"Yes it is, like sometimes we will say 10 times 10 is 100." I said.


Her reply was, "I can do times, and I have been doing times all my life. It's easy."

I was astounded that a woman of middle age had been held back all of these years by one word, multiplication.


This story has a "silver lining." Both Linda and Doreen went on to pass their GED. Linda went on to Alexandria Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota and received an associate's degree in floral culture. Doreen chose a 13-month program in floral culture and received a certificate for her work.


Linda is now the full-time manager for the owners of the year-round florist shop that contains a "hot house" that is more than a third of an acre. Doreen has retired, but she worked for six years as the assistant manager for the florist shop, working side by side with her daughter.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 09, 2003
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11151, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 8:34:30 AM

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About the Author
  • William Lockwood
    Northwest Missouri State University
    E-mail Author
    WILLIAM W. LOCKWOOD is an assistant professor at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville where he trains superintendents, principals, and other students seeking both their MA and EDS degrees. His research interests include in both qualitative and quantitative research. His most recent publications are: “Internship Policies and Procedures for Aspiring Principals,” 2002, Illinois Association of School Boards and “Friend or Foe to Equity: Missouri Hold-Harmless School Districts,” 2002, Illinois Schools Journal.
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