Making the Grade

by Ricardo Castillo in

Q:  I’m a librarian at a small elementary school.  Every week, classes come down one grade at a time to borrow books from my library.  A few weeks ago, I noticed that one of the books came back with obscene words and drawings scribbled all over its pages.  I immediately went to the teacher, and together we confronted the student who took the book out, but she swore that she didn’t write or draw in the book.  Since then, more books have come back scrawled in, but I have a theory what is going on.  I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but all the scrawls are in the same color pen and in the same handwriting.  I think one child is ruining everyone else’s books as a joke, and I think I know which child it is.  But although this is an educated guess, it is just a guess.  What should I do from here? 

A: The game is a foot (as Sherlock would say).  It sounds like you are dealing with a simple mystery, however a school is not a police station or court of law.  One does not have to prove a point of view beyond a reasonable doubt.  With a that said, no one wants to make an accusation and be wrong especially when the one being accused is a child.  My suggestion is to compare a handwritten assignment by the student that you suspect with the words written in the library books.  Ideally, see if the student wrote the same words in both their handwritten assignments and in your ruined books.  Obviously, the student would not have used obscene words in their assignments, but other more common words such as “the” or “is” may have been used in both places.  But even the obscene words can be useful in your investigation if you break them down into their individual letters.  Does both the student and the vandal write their “a’s” in the same way, for example.  By doing this, you can verify your suspicions.  Also, keep in mind that privately confronting the student about their actions should be enough to stop them from continuing to ruin library books.  Often when a student is confronted with probable realities, that individual backs off and ceases undesirable behavior.  Unfortunately, there is always a chance that even if you have identified the correct student and stopped them from writing and drawing in library books, that student may move on to another type of inappropriate behavior.  For this reason I recommend involving your school’s guidance counselor.  Counselors serve as a neutral party that are most able to remedy this impasse.  I also recommend using your position as the librarian to talk to all the classes about this form of vandalism and seek each student as an ally to prevent more books from being ruined.

Q: I am a high school guidance counselor, and I’ve finally met a student who is a real challenge.  This student is a freshman and loves to protest everything.  She protested us not serving an alternative form of milk (such as soy milk) in the cafeteria claiming the school was not sensitive to lactose intolerant students (and she is not lactose intolerant).  She protested three articles in the school newspaper about the football team (she claims us glorifying the sport also glorifies “brutality” and “concussions”).  She even protested when the secretary posted the honor roll list on a bulletin board with a blue background because she said using the color blue is “pro man” and “anti woman.”  She also has a blog where she constantly trashes the school.  And if we try to reason with her (such as telling her that soy milk is too expensive for the school’s budget), she just digs in her heels and twists around whatever we say to trash the school more in her blog.  None of us on staff think we can take three more years of this student, and everyone is look to me for the answer.  What should I do? 

A: Educators are frequently required to turn lemons into lemonade.  Since this freshman student’s thoughts are already being conveyed in her blog, there is little to be gained by criticizing her for her words.  I strongly suggest that you encourage her to join the staff of the school’s newspaper that way she can still be read, but different and even opposing points of view from hers can be presented.  In short, a point and counterpoint section of the school paper can air many thoughts and give the students at your school a lesson in fair and balanced journalism.  Instead of fearing the words of a teenager, let the teenager grow in her “journalism experience.”  Blogs like the one you are describing are often the products of individuals who feel that they have no other means to express their ideas.  By giving this student a way to express herself outside of her blog, you may find that her blog will not have the level of venom it has now and that you might even inspire a career path for her.  Finally, it is not unreasonable that some of this student’s views have some merit.  For the most part her fellow students will be the ultimate judges of her column.

Q: I’m a high school sophomore, and I’m sorry, Mr. Cooper, but I have a bad guidance counselor.  I know you’re one, and you probably don’t like hearing this, but, please, let me tell you what happened.  I was supposed to meet with him about my plans for college and career and things like that.  So I went in, and he wouldn’t even look up from his computer at me, got my name totally wrong twice and really wasn’t listening to me.  I asked him questions, and I always had to repeat them.  Then I told him that I think I want to be a newspaper reporter, and he just rolled his eyes and then didn’t give me any suggestions about colleges or classes to take now or anything.  All he said was I should write for the school newspaper even though I had just told him that already do that.  Then he just dismissed me.  My school has two guidance counselors, and I want to go to the principal and ask if I can have the other one, but I’m scared.  What if the principal says “no,” and my guidance counselor finds out I complained about him? 

A: Most schools divide the student body arbitrarily (one of the most common being alphabetically).  In my experience guidance counselors are amongst the best at their jobs in the field of education.  Sadly, however, most have very large workloads and have relatively brief time to communicate with their counselees.  You sound like someone who has a healthy respect for adults in authority and are respectful of the feelings of others.  These are good qualities, but at the same time you must not become intimidated to express when something is troubling you.  If you want to minimize the chances of being misinterpreted as confrontational, there is a simple trick: use “I statements” instead of “you statements.”  For example, rather than saying “you didn’t pay attention to me during our last counseling session, and you gave me bad advice” try instead “I am concerned about how our last counseling session went, and I would like to talk to you about it.”  If you in a respectful way express your feelings and why you feel the way you do, most of the time people will be willing to meet you half way.  So the first thing I would do is make an appointment with your current counselor and explain your concerns.  If afterwards you are still dissatisfied, request the procedure to have the other guidance counselor.  Majority of the time most counselors will be willing to “punt,” and you will be reassigned.  If you are still not pleased with the results, then seek an audience with an administrator.  To paraphrase an old expression, “the noisy (but polite) wheel gets the most grease.”  I’m sure your school will address your needs rather quickly.