I was teaching high school English. The school was having trouble with kids coming in late. A host of them would come to school fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes after the first-period bell had rung.
So the principal instituted a late-policy. Students who arrived after the bell had to first check in at the office to talk with the principal. By taking the time to talk with every student who was late, the principal felt he was building relationships. During the talk, the student would receive not only the principal’s advice and wisdom, but also a detention slip, followed by a pass to get him or her into first period. Teachers were expected to enforce the policy by never, ever allowing a tardy student to enter the room without a pass. The whole process on any given day could easily take up all of first period.
For me, first period was a credit-recovery course designed for juniors and seniors who had flunked English at some point prior. Many of them were in danger of flunking again. A lot of them were late to school pretty often, but when they did arrive, they wanted to work. The principal’s late-policy wasn’t helping them at all. My students knew it, I knew it, and none of us were happy.
I needed a solution, but didn’t have one. Fortunately, my students were more resourceful.
See, I had the good fortune of having a classroom on the first floor, with a window only five feet from the ground. Even better, the window was at an angle that was impossible to view from the front door of the building.
So kids who were late would get a classmate to distract me, then have two or three others pull them in through the window.
I didn’t notice, at first. When someone yelled, “Fight in the hallway!” I moved quickly into the hall, expecting to find a tumult of fists and limbs, but was met instead with perfect silence. When a student broke down and needed to talk with me away from everyone else, the hallway was the perfect place.
In either situation (and in many others), whenever I returned to the classroom, it would seem a little fuller.
It took me a good two weeks to catch on, and when I did I stayed quiet about it. I was impressed with their effectiveness, with the level of their cooperation and unity. I didn’t like the new policy any more than they did. More and more often I stepped out at just the right moment to get a drink of water from the fountain outside the door.
Because citizens in our country have the right to a free, public education. It’s a right that I believe is essential, and frankly ought to be added to the Bill of Rights; currently, it’s only in statutes at the state-level. But even in the law books it isn’t always listed as a right per se; instead it’s listed as the duties of parents. Like in my own state, New Hampshire. Consider:
I. A parent of any child at least 6 years of age and under 18 years of age shall cause such child to attend the public school to which the child is assigned in the child’s resident district (New Hampshire Statute 193.1, Duty of Parent; Compulsory Attendance By Pupil).
They’re called Compulsory Education Laws, and every state in the country has one. The first was introduced by Massachusetts in 1852, in An Act Concerning the Attendance of Children at School. The Act doesn’t make use of the term compulsory itself (the word compulsory first appears in the Oregon Compulsory Education Act of 1922), but instead states that
Every person who shall have any child under his control between the ages of eight and fourteen years, shall send such child to some public school within the town or city in which he resides, during at least twelve weeks, if the public schools within such town or city shall be so long kept, in each and every year during which such child shall be under his control, six weeks of which shall be consecutive.
What this all means is that in America, our children don’t just have the right to a free, public education. Instead, they have the right to a free, compulsory education.
Which, no matter how you say it, and no matter how important it truly is, never really sounds inspiring.
But I hope that the irony of the phrase helps to justify my decision to let students climb into school through the window. Who was I to judge their reasons for being late? What if they were taking care of a sick sibling? What if they were traveling a long distance because they’d been camped out on someone’s couch last night? What if they planned to skip school, then had a change of heart at the last minute? The inherent message of penalizing kids for being late, instead of just getting them into the classroom as quickly as possible, is Dude, if you’re going to be late to class, don’t even bother. Just stay home.
I suppose, if I’d been enforcing the party line when kids came to my window, I could have said something like, “Sorry, but you can’t have access to your free compulsory education at this time. Please enter through the front door and accept your punishment instead.” But as a teacher, I believe my job is to teach, not to function as an enforcer of rules. Especially if the rules are draconian, and happen to violate a child’s rights.
Would it be surprising if I said that attendance in my class went up as the year (and sometimes hour) progressed, and that it dropped for a lot of other teachers in the same building (and on the same floor)? Would it be surprising that my students earned more passing grades than students in other first period classes?
The situation came to a head in November, just before Thanksgiving. Word was getting around that Ludwig was letting kids into class late. The other teachers knew, and they didn’t like being made to look bad in front of the students. If their reputation was at stake, I might have suggested that those who had classrooms on the second floor obtain ropes and ladders in order to give students access to their free, compulsory education, which was being thwarted by the administration. But as luck would have it, the principal himself came into my room one day during my prep period. It had snowed the day before, and that morning two kids had climbed into the window. The principal said hello, walked straight to the window that the kids always climbed through, and looked out.
“Did you notice the footprints leading away from your window?” he said.
I hadn’t. “No,” I said.
“Looks like someone climbed out.”
“Take a look,” he said.
I looked, and saw the path from that morning’s climb. Of course, to my eye (and memory), the tracks clearly led toward the window, not away from it. Was the sun so bright that he couldn’t tell which direction the footprints were pointed? Was he baiting me?
“I’m sure you were out of the room when it happened,” he said. “But there’s no telling what these kids are capable of. Just keep an eye out for anyone trying to escape.”
I wondered if perhaps he might be more in touch than I realized with the pseudo-jailer/military stance he’d taken. But he was right, at least, about one thing. Neither he nor I could predict what the students were capable of.
That afternoon I let my class know that the principal had noticed the tracks. The next morning when I arrived at work, there were tracks in the snow leading to every first-floor window in the building.
I resigned at the end of the year, and no one ever found out about our little secret.
. . .
Benjamin Ludwig is an NWP Writers Council member and the author of Ginny Moon, which is about an adopted teenager with autism who plots her own kidnapping. It was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, and one of Amazon.com’s Best Books of 2017. A life-long teacher of English and writing, he was a fellow at the 2012 Summer Institute of the National Writing Project in New Hampshire. You can connect with him at www.benjaminludwig.com.