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Full Disclosures

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It’s halfway through the term, and students are now comfortable enough with each other and with me that they’ve started doing something I never know how to handle–they’ve started giving out personal (sometimes VERY personal) information about themselves.

The most common personal revelation by far concerns kids coming out to the class as gay.  This is seldom an actual universal revelation.  One student told the class that she was married to the woman she had been partners with for 15 years, meaning that although the class may not have had a clue, pretty much everybody she knows outside of class almost certainly already new.

These are by far the easiest kinds of revelation to handle.  I don’t have to worry that my married student is going to get into any kind of trouble for saying what she’s said about her private life.  Her behavior is entirely legal.  The only thing that’s likely to change in her behavior in the class is that she’ll be more straightforward about te examples she gives when she rights, not trying to disguise the exact nature of them.

What I find a lot less easy to handle are the revelations of things that are illegal.  I start every term off explaining to them that they shouldn’t use English class as a place to confess to felonies, but they do it anyway.

Some of this is about drug use, and that isn’t too bad.  I’m not going to turn them in, and if anybody else tried to the accusation wouldn’t get very far.  You’ve got to actually catch people using or carrying drugs to arrest them, and the chances that somebody else in the room would know enough about any classmate to give the police dates and times and everything else that would be needed is fairly slim.

The category of crime that gets me most jumpy is something else:  immigration status.

School is in a small central Connecticut city with a large Latino population, and like cities with large Latino populations elsewhere, it has a good sized subsection with immigration status problems out the wazoo and back again.  And because of that, the students in my classes are likely to be either the relatives of illegal immigrants, or illegal immigrants themselves.

I am told that this should not be the case, since undocumented imigrants can’t get into schools and colleges, which normally require copies of a birth certificate for admission.  In point of fact, it happened all the time, even before this last year, when the state legislature began issuing drivers’ licenses to undocumented workers and students.

Part of the reason for this is that Connecticut takes a let-’em-all-in attitude to immigration.  We took about 2000 of the children from Central America during the crisis at the border last summer.  The admissions people at the college where I teach tend to approach the problem with the attitude that there has to be some way to allow anybody who wants to attend school to attend, and they’re usually successful.

My ideas on what to do about the immigration problem are screwed around like a pretzel, but none of the pretzel parts gives me any problem with the admissions process here.  One of the things I like about this place is that we take all comers (open admission–only a high school diploma required, and sometimes not even that) and let them all take their shot.   The vast majority of our students flunk out or drift away, but we’ll always welcome them back, and every once in a while we have absolutely huge successes.

The problem is that being in this country illegally is a crime that is very different than other crimes.  In the aggregate, deportions are proportionately rare.  And general enforcement efforts are damned near nonexistent.  Particular enforcement efforts are something else again.  They almost always hinge on information provided by the general public.

And there is where I run into my problem.

I make a point of telling my students not only not to admit to felonies in class, but specifically not to blurt out their own or their relatives’ immigration status.  It doesn’t matter.  Such a revelation surfaces at least once a term, and sometimes it gives impetus to five or six more from other people, as if we were in an encounter group instead of a classroom.

And all it takes is one kid able to Google the proper phone number and make the call.

I have no idea is this has ever happened to any of my students or former students.  If one of their classmates did make the call, it would take long enough before the charge was investigated that they’d be out of my room and I’d know nothing about it.

The situation still bugs me, though, because it can be very dangerous–it is very dangerous.  My students come from every racial, religious, ethnic, and social group you can think of–yes, even from the rich-family went-to-expensive-prep-schools class.  They come with all sorts of different political and social ideas.  A yes, at  least some of them think that all illegal aliens should be rounded up and deported, en masse, right this minute.

So yes.  I’d be very surprised if none of my students ever had made that call.

And the proper course is definitely to discourage such self revelation as much as possible.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to see such self revelations coming.  In fact, it almost never is.  Kids rarely tell immigration stories on themselves when we are discussing immigration. In fact, for reasons that should be clear by now, I tend to avoid discussions of immigration.

One way or the other, though, at the end of every term, I find myself wondering if some student hasn’t gotten himself (or his parents or his siblings or his aunts and uncles) into trouble because, in my classroom, he was comfortable with me.

Because that’s the bottom line here, the thing that keeps me jumping around.

If you’re going to teach students who have been largely “unsuccessful” in their previous academic lives, who are the ones who came out of high school convined they were stupid, worthless, losers, who struggled through English and algebra barely understand one out of every four words–

If you’re going to actually teach those people and not just pass them through the meat grinder one more time–

Then the very first thing you have to do is get them to relax.

They walk into your classroom encased in a defensive wall around them that would have been decisive at the Battle of the Bulge.  You’ve got to get that wall down before they’re going to be able to understand you–about to understand even something so minor as “put your name at the very top of the paper.”

That wall doesn’t always come down, but when it does it comes all the way down, ka-thunk.

Once the inhibitions are gone, they’re gone.

And students aren’t thinking of other students in the classroom.  They’re thinking about the teacher, and what the teacher will think.  To students, all but very bad teachers own their classrooms.  It’s the teacher and no one else that they concentrate on.  It’s the teacher’s opinion and no one else’s that they think will matter.

Only sometimes, that turns out not to be true.

If you’re looking for some kind of a grand resolution here, there isn’t one.  I have no idea what to do about any of this.  I don’t even know if anything can be done.

But today, I’m very depressed about it.

Written by janeh

April 1st, 2015 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Full Disclosures'

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  1. If I were the teacher, I guess I’d tell them that I consider *everything* personal they reveal as fiction. It is, after all, a writing class, no?

    So they can confess to multiple moving violations, shooting the last Tasmanian Tiger, stealing your fuzzy slippers, whatever, it is all made up. You’re illegal? Good one! I’m Spartakus!

    The fact that the students do become comfortable enough to let their guard down should feel like success. The motivation to confess is something else. I guess I wouldn’t have expected such openness, unless is it is written down and disguised as fiction. Clearly there’s a need there, one that isn’t being fulfilled elsewhere.

    Personally I think today’s immigrants are tomorrow’s taxpayers, if someone WANTS to live here, as an American, rather than just extracting money from the economy to send “home,” then we should let them. The export-them-all folks wouldn’t like living here if we have no foreign workers to do those jobs, they really wouldn’t.

    Lymaree

    1 Apr 15 at 12:51 pm

  2. The issue isn’t whether the teacher considers it fiction, but whether the situation the teacher is setting up allows the students to put themselves in a vulnerable position. And it does – but I don’t see any way around that, really, other than issuing warnings, which is tricky to combine with openness.

    That’s what happens when people try to form relationships – and it’s more dangerous for those who have been betrayed before and have therefore put up walls. Every time one of us decides – after careful thought, or on impulse – that we feel relaxed enough to open up with another human being, we run the risk that the other person will hurt us with that information. And when the relaxing or opening occurs in a group – well, the more people you have present, the greater the risk one of them will do something harmful with the information.

    I don’t think anything can be done about this. We each need to find a balance between trust and suspicion; between openness and self-preservation.

    Cheryl

    1 Apr 15 at 2:06 pm

  3. I may be getting a little callous, and I’ll do my general attitude toward immigration some other time, but as far as classroom confessions go, I’m a firm believer in Darwin.

    Every day someone drives a heavily-loaded vehicle onto a bridge or overpass clearly labelled with a maximum weight lower than his tonnage, drives a trailer (part way) through a tunnel or underpass clearly marked for a lower height, or manages to go down a cliff because he didn’t think the sign indicating maximum safe speed on a tight turn meant HIM. If someone who has been told in class not to mention his immigration status pays no attention to that because he’s comfortable with you–well, then, he’s just going to have to buy new fake ID or sneak across the border again like everyone else. And he and all the rest of us can just be grateful he wasn’t driving a car, dealing with weapons or high explosives or operating heavy machinery when he decided the instructions didn’t apply to him.

    If they ignored your instructions on how to write a bibliography, you wouldn’t feel sorry in the least–nor should you.

    robert_piepenbrink

    1 Apr 15 at 2:46 pm

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