National Writing Project

Encounter in a Convenience Store

By: Bill Connolly
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3
Date: 2003

Summary: On one those dark classroom days that escape few of us, a teacher may wonder, "Why am I here?" or even—thinking of his students—"Why are they here?" In this piece, a chance meeting leads Bill Connolly to meditate on these questions.

 

He said it in a sincere tone that aimed to convince me—and perhaps himself—of the truth. "I've come to realize that high school doesn't really matter," Eduardo said, his eyes staring straight into mine from behind thick, black-framed eyeglasses.

He didn't mean it as an attack on my profession or as an affront to my fifteen years in the classroom, so I was more saddened than offended. What Eduardo had said contained threads of truth, and yet he couldn't have been more wrong.

Here we stood—face to face by the beef jerky in a convenience store near the high school he and I had shared for a few years until he dropped out. He was taller and thinner, no longer a kid but still cursed by boyish looks that shaved about five years from his age. When you're twenty, that's not so great. Eduardo's voice still had the smoothly overstated tone of persuasiveness I remembered. It was the manner of speaking one would expect from a teenager who had spent most of his homework time on the streets.

I remember that voice and those eyes from numerous meetings in my office during his freshman year. As a part-time disciplinarian, I had suspended him numerous times for violations of school rules (primarily cutting classes). Back then, Eduardo would make direct eye contact with me and lie with absolute conviction. Although several teachers had seen him leaving campus, he would assert that he had most certainly NOT done so. It was a conspiracy, he would insist. It was rooted in prejudice against his Hispanic heritage or his skater clothes or his group of friends. Eventually, the calm, respectful demeanor of the accused would dissolve into a simmering anger and, sometimes, an explosion.

Eduardo and I had also shared a classroom a year after I returned full-time to teaching from my stint in the discipline office. It was in summer school, and he made passionate, eloquent pledges to mend his ways and attend classes regularly. But, unsurprisingly, these assurances went unfulfilled, and I ended up removing his name from the class roll.

It is the students like Eduardo who often haunt teachers' memories. We recall fondly our star students and the students who amazed themselves with their growth and newfound success. And, of course, we cannot forget the nightmare students who cursed us or managed to demolish a class we had been trying to build.

But it is the Eduardos in our teaching histories—those who just disappear, often leaving with their personal and academic lives in disarray—who cause us to wonder where they are and what they are doing now. At the same time, they lead us to question our own efficacy and even the ability of our entire school system to truly help all of the children.

And so my chance meeting with Eduardo provided a rare opportunity to find out what had happened in the four years since he had dropped out. I didn't even have to ask. He told me about the several part-time jobs he was juggling (pizza delivery, factory work). He revealed that he had recently received his GED. And he added that he needed to get a better job because he was going to be a father and was going to get married in a few months.

Here we were—two fathers, chatting in a store—and as he continued on in that calm, persuasive tone, he tried to do what I had not asked him to do: convince me that his impending marriage to the mother of his child was a good idea.

I was struck by the absence of certainty in his voice when he discussed his upcoming marriage. His eyes uncharacteristically wandered to the hot dogs rotating on the metal rollers, to the beeping cash register behind me. This was the same boy who had lied about cutting school with the firmness and conviction of a saint.

"I believe it's the right thing to do, and her dad thinks we should get married," he mumbled. We squirmed a bit, both of us uneasy, I think, with the lack of conviction he was portraying and the blank look I was offering in return. Perhaps it was my obvious ambivalence that moved him to finally deliver his thesis statement to his old English teacher: as he looked out over his future and considered the opportunities he had for his life and his new family, he pronounced—with all due respect—his high school years to be worthless.

I listened to this statement with an ambivalent respect. I have seen—and perhaps even contributed to—kids' failure to understand clearly the purpose of school, kids like Eduardo who have failed and been failed by the system. I have spoken with students who rightfully say that they had overcome high school, succeeding in spite of it. So I know the system is not perfect. And yet as I listened, I thought Eduardo failed to persuade even himself that the decisions he had made and was making were right for him. These decisions to cut class, to drop out of school, and now to marry the mother of his child seemed to be made on a kind of sleepwalk through life. The lesson Eduardo had not taken with him—and, to be fair, perhaps the lesson I and his other teachers had failed to teach him—was responsibility.

Some could argue that his decision to marry the girl shows just that, but if you had heard him explain it, you would have seen only the invisible shotgun pointed at this kid. What was most striking was his failure to connect his decisions as a young man—decisions he attempted to defend with such vehemence —with the lack of options open to him now.

When we said our goodbyes that day, Eduardo and I walked out of the store and back into our lives. I have not seen Eduardo since that day, but I assume his child is toddling around by now. I do wish the best for Eduardo and his life, but I can only hope that when he speaks to his child about the purpose of school some day, he chooses to say something like, "School can matter." Some years later, he may decide to tell his child not that "high school was a waste," but may say instead, "I wasted my years there."

I most likely will be at this school when that child is old enough to walk in our doors. In the meantime, I have a lot of work to do. There are others here now and coming soon who need to be shown (not told) that high school really does matter. And one reason it matters is that high school can be a laboratory to experience the pressures and the power that come with accepting responsibility.

About the Author Bill Connolly teaches at the Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, New Jersey. He is the co-director of the National Writing Project at Rowan University, New Jersey.

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