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“Prom” was inspired by many surreal events that occurred at a Catholic high school where I taught once upon a time. Idealistic and young, with a brand-new master’s degree in hand, I joyfully signed a contract for an opportunity to introduce the masters of British Literature to seniors. My schedule included a plum assignment: AP English and Composition. That meant teaching the brightest students.
It was a rude awakening the first week when I stood in front of the class and stared into blank faces for five periods a day.
“Nobody wants to read any more,” the department chair explained.
Still enthusiastic, I thought video and audio would turn these complaining seniors away from lethargy and into lit connoisseurs. I brought in the film Brave Heart to illustrate the medieval period. Then I played tapes of Gulliver’s Travels while they read the text at their desks. Even with the help of technology, I could barely hold anyone’s attention without threatening demerits. Disgusted with the state of secondary education – my colleagues reported the same inattention, not only in English but in every subject – I marveled how these students managed to get into college.
Then I remembered my own chaotic high school days. Maybe things haven’t changed much, I conceded.
For the most part, I taught students who believed they were special, beyond adhering to academic – and behavior — standards.
As one student told me, “We are all wealthy, Ms. Fernandez.”
They were accustomed to getting their way, including grades they didn’t deserve. When I awarded a student a C for mediocre work, the department chair questioned why. She had consistently handed him As for the last two years. When the daughter of the dean’s assistant earned a D, even more acrimony was heaped upon me by a faculty lounge clique who spent their lunch hours trading gossip about students and teachers. They particularly loved to focus on student pranks.
The school boasted an impressive list while I was there, one with a horrifying consequence:
- Four boys wearing masks over their heads and carrying video tape recorders tucked under their arms smashed open the door to my portable, and in gang vendetta style, sprayed the room recording shocked and terrified faces as if they were using semiautomatic weapons.
- Five students wrote, edited, published and distributed an underground newsletter demeaning the principal and degrading the school with language beyond the scope of the dictionary.
- Two boys dragged my desk out of the portable and into the yard in my absence.
- At least twenty students spent an evening scrawling obscenities on the walls behind the gym.
- Tragically, at a football game, a group of cheering students piled on top of one of its classmates, breaking his spine and leaving him in a wheelchair for life.
As with many teens, they cannot see the consequences of their actions.
So it was with the students who set out to fire me. After months of haggling over grades, disgruntled members of my AP class — and their parents — demanded a conference with the principal to discuss my teaching style. At the meeting, heart jumping, I listened to my accusers: too much work and too complex assignments. Outside, another group of students came to my rescue. They asked the secretary to slip a letter to the principal.
The principal read: “Dear Sister, The students who are complaining have been bragging they are going to get Ms. Fernandez fired. They don’t want to do anything in class but talk and goof off. They are very disrespectful. Most of what they are telling you is simply lies. We don’t want Ms. Fernandez to get fired.” Ten students signed their names to the letter.
The dean coughed, the principal shuffled papers on her desk, and the parents looked with embarrassment at each other and at their children.
So with the help of student allies, I kept my job. That summer, unable to shake off disillusionment, I submitted my resignation.
Years later, I discovered I had touched at least one student: one of the seniors cracking jokes in class had been nevertheless awakened to the love of literature, had gone on to get a degree in English, and come back to the school as a teacher himself!
From my perspective today, I see the difficulties a private institution faces. If administrators don’t cater to parents and students, enrollment plummets. If students don’t enroll, funding dries up. Many parents are important donors, contributing with largesse to the building fund. And the yearly tuition is nothing to sneeze at. In business, they say the customer is always right.
“Prom” is part of a story collection entitled Through the Branches of the Guava Tree showcasing the lives of Cuban exiles.
Other stories from the collection:
“Summer of My Father’s Gun”
“The Button Box”