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EDUCATION | FROM THE FRONT OF THE CLASSROOM

Belated Words of Wisdom From Seniors Could Help the Class of 2004

September 10, 2000|CHRISTINE BARON

Recording senior grades on the scanner sheets last June was a depressing task. Far too many students scraped by with barely passing grades or grades far below what they were capable of achieving.

But we're not just talking about letter grades here. There's many a student who works his heart out in a class such as Algebra II, for example, and gets a C. But it's an honest C, a C born of giving it his best shot.

With a few exceptions, the grades I recorded were not anyone's "best shot." They reflected apathy, boredom and a wasted education.

Shortly before graduation, I had the same seniors write about what they would have done differently if they had their high school years to do over again. Reading their comments, weeks after they had left, was informative and heartbreaking. I decided to share them, hoping that some of this hard-earned wisdom might reach this year's incoming crop of freshmen and their families.

* If I had just done my homework, turned things in on time, and looked over my notes before a test, I would have had nothing lower than a B.

This simple statement, repeated in various ways by almost every student surveyed, is proof of just how little it would have taken to do better. The No. 1 reason for not putting forth such minimal effort? Laziness. Well, now it's going to be nothing but work to make up for what these students should have done in high school.

* Once I got behind and my grade began slipping, I couldn't fix it.

Another typical comment, but one that's simply not true. It's almost never too late to "fix it" if a student is willing to put in the work. Most teachers hate to see a kid fail and will go to great lengths to help turn things around.

* I now wish I'd taken some more challenging classes, but I didn't want to work that hard.

This sad refrain showed up on more than half of the papers. No matter how often you tell a student that a B in an Advanced Placement class looks better than an A in a regular class, many tend to take the path of least resistance. No one is suggesting that students unrealistically push themselves beyond their capabilities, but taking a harder class in an area of strength is a good gamble. For one thing, they will be surrounded by motivated students, a worthwhile experience in itself.

* No matter how much I wanted to do well in school, there was always a party to go to or someone to hang out with.

Making their social life their top priority seems to have done in a lot of high school students. Again, no one expects teenagers to live a monastic existence, but there can be a balance. How much more fun would Magic Mountain be on Sunday if all the homework was completed on Saturday? It seems basic common sense to finish work before play, but no one seems to have pointed out the benefits of delayed gratification.

* Once I knew I could go to a community college no matter what my grades were, I basically quit trying.

This frequent comment was particularly frustrating because it shows a misunderstanding of the nature of community colleges. Yes, there may be some "late bloomers" out there, but the sad fact is, few students are. Slackers in high school simply become slackers at Orange Coast or Los Angeles City College. Setting one's sights high is never a mistake. It's called keeping your options open.

* I wish now that I'd had a plan for my future. I just sort of let things happen, figuring everything would work out somehow.

Well, it didn't. The person who wrote this failed English and did not graduate with her class. One of the defining differences between successful students and everyone else is their ability to visualize themselves in the future. Even if they're not crazy about every class they have to take, they realize it's a means to an end. It is the result of very specific decisions.

* A lot of the stress I went through in high school was my own fault. I was always trying to keep from getting a D in something.

I think this final comment is particularly telling. So many low-achieving students have told me that doing well is "too stressful," that they want to have fun in high school. But surely, scrambling to stay out of academic trouble all the time can't be relaxing, and having parents and teachers constantly on one's case is anything but fun.

Granted, these fine insights have come too late for the students who wrote them, but it's not too late for the Class of 2004 or for any high school student still willing to get his or her act together.

Fourteen-year-olds tend to roll their eyes when parents and teachers try to give similar advice, but maybe they'll listen to their peers. Take one of my senior girls, for example, who said: "I put nothing into my education, so now I have nothing to show for it."

Does anyone want that as a commencement statement? I don't think so.

*

Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at educ@latimes.com or (714) 966-4550.

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