Public Education at our Schools Once Again Stands to Lose from Budget Woes Next Year

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 64)

Governments have established virus task-forces, and job task-forces. Where’s the education task-force?

– Austin Beutner

In his address to families and educators this past Monday, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner noted the toll on public education posed by Governor Newsom’s proposed budget for the following year, which is said to contain nearly $7 billion in cuts to public schools in California following an estimated $54 billion loss in the state’s income and sales taxes due to these last two months of shutdown.

While the governor originally forecast almost $19 billion in losses for education over the next two years, he is now looking to direct nearly $4 billion from the federal Stimulus bill passed in late March to make up for learning loss during the crisis, which is particularly important for special education students, as well as for districts with large concentrations of low-income families such as LAUSD, where more than 80% of families are living at or below the poverty line.

The governor is also looking to offset the state’s revenue losses by reducing a number of increases in pension payments scheduled for 2020 – 2021 before the crisis, which can save up to $1 billion, as well as issuing up to $2 billion in deferrals or IOUs for 2020 – 2021, meaning that districts can count on being paid back for the money, though at an unspecified date.

These adjustments from the governor’s office account commit up to $7 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges in California despite the crisis, but still fall well short of rescuing the public education system.

The biggest cut would be in the local funding control formula by about 10% under the proposed budget, translating into a $6.5 billion dollar loss for public schools, and forcing districts to pick and choose between prioritizing instruction for English learners, unhoused students, students in the foster care system, and the many more low-income students enrolled on their sheets.

The reduced budget can also entail a shortened school year, more furlough days for teachers and staff, larger class sizes, and a hiring freeze for new teachers.

According to John Gray, president of the School Services of California consulting group, the last possibility of losing new teachers due to budget cuts, whom were already in short supply following the great recession, will lead to a repetition of this history in the years ahead:

Last time, we went up and down the state and dismantled public education piece by piece. We lost 40,000 teachers and they never came back because the recession lasted so long. They left the profession. [If this next round of cuts come to pass] yet again we’re going to just disillusion thousands and thousands of teachers.

In his own remarks, Beutner noted that such cuts could prove catastrophic to the hundreds of thousands of families like those at LAUSD, whose children’s dependence on schools should demand more support from the state’s resources, not less. In his view, failing to support students with the additional resources they need during this time and in the days ahead can prove just as damaging for their future as the coronavirus, yet the issue isn’t being treated with the urgency it demands.

Is it because the harm is silent and unseen, unlike the image of overrun hospitals? Is it because children don’t have a voice, or is it because so many of the families we serve are living in poverty and don’t have access to the corridors of power in Sacramento, and Washington D.C.?

This makes it critical for more families and advocates to stand for this public good, for how its loss can alter the course of too many lives for the foreseeable future. Or, as one mother said of what parents can learn to better support their families going forward:

Mainly we need to learn how to use a computer to support our children, and not stress ourselves out. We also need to have more patience because our teenagers are a little more stressed [right now].

J.T.

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How LAUSD’s Teacher Problem is a Moment of Truth for Progressive Future of California

Protestor on Soto Street and Whittier Boulevard; PC: Namekian Blast
Protestor on Soto Street and Whittier Boulevard; P.C: Namekian Blast

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – MLK Jr.

I: Standing with Our Teachers

This week national attention will continue following the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) over the bevy of tensions with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) called out in their five-day work stoppage at over a thousand K-12 public schools in the union’s first strike after nearly thirty years.

Demonstrations led by the union throughout the past five days have enjoyed broad support from parents, fellow union workers, and much of the public at large, but their most lasting effect will be the framing of UTLA’s struggle with LAUSD as a matter of ‘the soul of education.’ I would like to consider with readers the essence of education in Los Angeles by posing the following questions:

How is it that the second largest city in the United States, which is renowned globally for its film culture, sports teams, university and star-power, is unable to successfully matriculate less than half a million kids in Los Angeles each year? By extension, how is it that the state of California, known as the fifth largest economy in the world for a gross domestic product of over $2.7 trillion as of 2018, spends just a pinch above $10,000 per student at LAUSD and similar school districts under its governance?

A stroll down the public memory lane of California’s politics can tell us quite about how we arrived to this juncture.

II: Prop 13’s Legacy on Public Education

The year was 1978, and according to state department info, California was just over half of its current size at an estimate of 22 million people within its jurisdiction.

California was also a far whiter place to be, with just over 70% of the state’s population identifying as Caucasian. Latinos in the state made up just over 18% of the population, while Black, Asian and Native Americans each made up less than ten percent of the pie.

Public data also show that in 1978, about 55% of California’s 22 million residents were homeowners. As of the fourth quarter of 2017, of the roughly 40 million people in California today, the percentage of homeownership is actually the same, with 55% of the state’s current residents being homeowners. The rate alone says much about the power dynamics held in the state over the last forty years, but we will look at it later.

For now, all we need to know is that it’s amid these circumstances in 1978 that along came a figure by the name of Howard Jarvis, a businessman and Republican who described himself as “mad as hell” at property tax rates in California. Across a barrage of television ads and interviews in support of the proposition, Jarvis rallied about “a revolution” in California tax laws.

Prop 13 was that revolution, drafted to reduce the amount of property taxes that the state would be allowed to collect from homeowners and ‘commercial property’ owners or corporations by almost 60%.

Proponents of Prop 13 argued that it was a tax relief meant to disentangle home and property owners from unfair tax burdens each year, while opponents countered that the initiative would cripple public goods such as schools, parks, libraries, public transportation and other tax-funded goods.

On June 6th, 1978, despite repeated warnings from then-governor Brown and other civic leaders regarding Prop 13’s effect on the public sector, California home and property owners overwhelmingly passed the bill with nearly 65% of the tally.

As a result, over $7 billion worth of public revenue was taken right out of the budget for the following fiscal year. Needless to say, summer school for 1978, among other programs, was immediately taken off the schedule following the bill’s passage.

If a similar tax reduction were passed in say, June 2020, it would be the equivalent of $27 billion out of the budget, or over a seventh of the $209 billion budget proposed by incoming Governor Newsom earlier this year, which allocates nearly $81 billion towards funding for public education in California.

$27 billion taken out of public education in the 2020-2021 year would wipe out funding for over a third of California’s schools, immediately leaving nearly 2.5 million students with no access to a basic education as mandated under U.S. law.

But the most noteworthy effect of Prop 13 is its hold on taxes in 2019. For example, today a Californian who bought their property in say, 1980, pays the same property tax for their home or commercial space that they paid in 1980.

They can then lease out that space to a Walgreen’s or Starbucks–and again–due to Prop 13, pay the same taxes on the property as they did when Jimmy Carter was president. While this has been good for that owner–saving them tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars a year–what they avoid in taxes is money that never goes to support local schools, libraries, public transportation, and other public goods the surrounding population depends on.

Or, as Jennifer Bestor puts it in one interview regarding Prop 13’s tax rate for a certain commercial property in her neighborhood:

“We’ve got about 15,000 square feet of space. And it’s only paying $9,337 a year in property tax. I’m not an assessor but I would expect to pay about $75,000 or more a year in property taxes. Essentially, they’re getting a $65,000 free ride…that’s six and a half kids who could be educated for the amount of money that they’re escaping.”

Prop 13 has set the tone in California for more than forty years since passage. But the property taxes saved for home and business-owners are a major part of how the fifth largest economy in the world ranks 41st in the States on per pupil spending. Now, UTLA teachers beg the question of just how much Californians values a universal education. Although it’s not an outright contest of public education versus private property, Prop 13 makes the two issues inextricably tied.

III: Charter-School Growth

Currently, LAUSD is reported to hold over $2 billion in its surplus or reserves, which the superintendent and several LAUSD board representatives insist are meant to keep the district from bankruptcy over the next three years, particularly due to a growing pension deficit. Nevertheless, UTLA is demanding of the district a significant reduction in class sizes, more resources to schools such as full-time nurses, counselors and librarians, and last but certainly not least: a cap on the growth of charter-schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed schools that “compete with” LAUSD schools for funding.

It’s a significantly different set of demands than those of the last work stoppage by the union, when in the Spring of 1989 UTLA walked out on LAUSD under the leadership of organizer Wayne Johnson. In a recent interview conducted by the L.A. Times with the union’s old organizer, Johnson commented on the difference between his union’s strike and current struggle between UTLA and the district:

“‘UTLA keeps saying it’s not about the money. With us, it was almost 90% about the money.’”

What Johnson means is that most of the tensions between his union and the district centered on wages. But one can argue that it’s still about the money, although this time in terms of LAUSD’s expenditures over the course of the next ten to twenty years. Simply put:

Under the current trend of charter-school growth in Los Angeles, which tend to be non-unionized, contracted-out or ‘freelanced’ schools, LAUSD stands to see a significant reduction in costs for running schools over the long-term. This is because a school that offers no retirement benefits or health-care coverage is far cheaper to run than a school that’s consigned to exactly those benefits.

Supposed proponents of charter schools, like the Washington Post editorial board, argue that charter schools offer “options” to low-income students like those of Los Angeles. But this is an obfuscation of the facts. While it’s true that charter schools offer an alternative for parents to LAUSD’s often outdated and overly bureaucratized system, it’s also true that charter schools are sporadically based, stripped down versions of public schools that operate like different islands to each other.

That is, there is virtually no connection between one independently run charter school and another. This means that in the case a certain charter school fails to meet the needs of a certain student, parents are left with “options” for other charter schools that could function completely differently from their first choice, and which may be similarly under-equipped to meet the needs of their child, or even less so. For the Post to argue that this amounts to “options” then, is hollow and misleading. No wonder it’s owned by Amazon.

Moreover, the argument that charter schools merely “create options” ignores the fact that privately run schools funded by public tax dollars are fundamentally a challenge to the traditional model of public education as a profession for teachers and “a right” for students and their families. There is also thus far no convincing study proving that charter schools in Los Angeles are “on average” better than traditional public schools for matriculating students and their families.

Still, should charter schools bear the total brunt of the UTLA’s ire? One can see why the union would press for more regulation of charters for fear of job security, but are the schools in fact the existential crisis they’re often made out to be?

The fact is that LAUSD’s pro-charter board representatives have thus far refused to draw a line in the sand to relieve the teachers union of their concerns with respect to the growing privatization of the district’s finances through charter-school growth. Now, UTLA has pushed the issue by bringing a national spotlight to the discussion, and whatever extra leg of support Sacramento provides LAUSD as a result of extra public pressure will be by and large thanks to the union’s mobilization.

After all, if Jarvis’s “tax revolt” of 1978 showed us anything, it’s that there’s nothing like a good ole push for ‘revolution’ to stir things up with the status quo, in this case LAUSD and Sacramento’s under-funding of the public good.

Of course, Prop 13’s legacy would ultimately prove to work merely for one sector of the electorate, with consequences for future home and property owners alike. And as Wayne Johnson himself would concede, the gains made by his teacher’s union were largely gains to the benefit of just the teacher’s union. A subsequent set of questions thus emerge:

Exactly what are negotiations between UTLA and LAUSD supposed to accomplish? That is, will the gains be solely for the union to claim as it’s been in previous struggles, or are students, parents and other members of the community in fact a part of the ‘soul of education’, and thus a part of the solution going forward?

IV: The future of Los Angeles and Other Major Cities

Information regarding the costs of the failure to adequately educate young people has long been publicly available. A study released in 2006 points out the financial losses that accrue for the state following the dropout of a single high school student. Similarly, J.T. has noted that as recently as 2008, the graduation rate at LAUSD was only 48%.

In 2019, while the district is closer to an 80% graduation rate, the fact is that the vast majority of its graduating classes are not college-ready and thus less likely to obtain four-year degrees in the six years following the receipt of their high school diplomas.

Simultaneously, today there exist endless studies documenting the disparity between how much California spends on the imprisonment of its population versus what it spends on educating that same population; by extension, the ‘school-to-prison-pipeline’ is a far better known phrase to the electorate than it was just ten years ago.

It’s therefore clear to enough of California’s electorate that there’s a problem with these and other disproportions in the state’s spending, except that since time immemorial there’s been an economy to pay attention to: rent, taxes, gas prices, Twitter and Facebook, and on.

This is not to look over the steps that voters in California have taken over the last decade to reinvest in the public interest, however:

In 2012, Californians passed Prop 30, which temporarily increased sales taxes and raised income taxes on the wealthiest to support “emergency funding” for the state’s school system.

In 2016 and 2017, Los Angeles voters passed Measure M and Measure H, respectively. Measure M increased sales taxes in the county to develop more public transportation in the city, while Measure H increased sales taxes to develop services for L.A.’s homeless population.

In 2018, California fended off Proposition 6, sold as a “gas tax repeal” that sought to reverse a voter-approved tax increase to repair roads and infrastructure throughout the state.

But problems remain looming. 2018 in California was also a year in which rent-control advocates were soundly defeated at the ballot box when nearly 60% of voters rejected Proposition 10, which sought merely to give cities authority to enact local rent-control ordinances in response to California’s growing housing crisis.

This is of concern because as it should be clear by now, the issues of housing and the right to property are fundamentally related to the issue of public education in California. In an analysis of another challenge facing the district over the next few years, that of diminishing enrollment, writer Christopher Weber points out:

“The downward trend in enrollment is due to skyrocketing housing costs that keep families with school-age kids out of the city and the growth of charters — privately operated public schools that compete for students and the funds they bring in.”

Consider one more facet of this political battleground in the Golden State. At nearly 40% of the state’s demographics, today Latinos make up the largest ethnic group in California. Whites, meanwhile, at 37% of the state population continue to shrink in numbers. What’s also true, however, is that the vast majority of Latinos in California are not home or commercial property owners. Many of them utilize public transportation, play soccer at public parks, and check out books and movies at the state’s public libraries. It comes as no surprise to anyone, then, that nearly 75% of the students at LAUSD today are Latinos.

Thus, in 2019, demographically speaking, it’s no longer Jarvis’s California. But structurally, the system he and his contemporaries left behind still holds, creating our present dilemmas with regards to the public sector. Except that if there was any doubt as to whether we’re ready to confront this past for the future of the state, the past week should make it clear: the conversation on justice through education is not going away any time soon; it’s here to stay.

Or, as one Mr. Razo, of Telfair Elementary in Pacoima, recently noted to the L.A. Times:

“We have so many entertainment companies and professional sports teams,” Razo said. “I went to a Rams-Packers game and the ticket was $350. What if just 10 cents from every sports ticket sold went to public education?

J.T.

Better Late Than Never: Educating One Young Hyena in Los Angeles, Part I

Tokyo, Japan; Summer 2017
Tokyo, Japan; Summer 2017

It was 2007, or what was supposed to be my Junior year at John Marshall High. But like most students in the Los Angeles Unified School District that school-year — 48% according to official estimates — I wasn’t set to graduate on time.

Most of high school was a whirl-winding hayride for me, and “the race” in which I fell behind saw me slipping as early as 2004 when I was a Freshman on “B-track.”

At that time, LAUSD still had “track” or rotation systems instead of its year-round schedule, and as opposed to the more pleasant “A”or “C” tracks, “B-track” was supposed to be where “the trouble kids” were at.

But the differences were all the same to me as a Freshman. Almost as soon as I stepped through the gates at Marshall, I looked around — at the teachers and counselors and supervisors — and rolled my eyes. Like generations of teenagers before me at L.A.’s public schools, I felt at odds with them.

They didn’t know a thing about me, I thought, and yet they wanted to teach me.

But it wasn’t just that they wanted to teach me without knowing me; it was also that so many of the teachers I met seemed worn out by the subjects they were supposed to shepherd us into, and even resentful or downright hostile to me and my peers for being the students assigned to them.

I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but since the first day of class, while my teachers could certainly recite their subject, they had next to no idea why it was supposed to be useful to the students before them. This came off in the tone of their voices as they called our names on the roll-sheet.

One by one like a monotonous record, it’s as if every name they announced was another extension of the hour they had to put up with us; as if they were forced to be there just as much as we were. I could only slouch further into my seat as roll call went on.

Eventually, I knew I’d have to make a choice. I could either go to class and be miserable, or I could just find somewhere else to be.

Since teachers and students alike were so disinterested, I told myself, going our separate ways was the only natural thing for us to do. So I went.

In the mornings, I’d skip Health class and Math, link up with some of the handful of friends I’d made over the first few weeks at Marshall, and slither through the hallways with them towards an exit. When we’d come upon a short fence located just a small walk away from the restrooms, we’d jump it with lizard-like sensibilities.

Moments later, we would find a corner nearby, huddle so as not to be spotted, and use the time to chill and “chop it up,” or talk.

For a time, my chosen education was what I learned in these conversations, which were mostly centered around girls, “beef” or trouble with other kids, and occasionally, what we truly wanted of ourselves apart from escaping our classrooms.

We’d have these conversations in our adolescent voices, filling them with our “benign” adolescent ideas, but the dialogue we created in the experience still felt more genuine than any I could engage in with either my teachers or counselors at the time.

Around noon, when the bell for lunch would ring, my peers and I would jump the fence back to school for the day’s meal.

Following lunch, we’d just ‘coast’ through the last two periods of the day. And when the final bell rang just before 3:30 PM, we’d dash past the doors of our classrooms and race through the gates towards the street. I thought I was so cool.

Fast forward to nearly three years from those days though, and my goal wasn’t to get out anymore, but to get back in, as I found myself at Marshall in the dean’s office pleading with Mr. Cook give me a second chance back into the school.

The time since Freshman year had slipped past me as quickly as my body had slipped past Marshall’s fences. In less than three years, I ricocheted across four different high schools after being expelled from Marshall during my second semester for too many ‘truancies,’ “F” grades and other offenses.

The clock was ticking, and I could finally appreciate the fact of it, but the question between me and Mr. Cook in his office was clear:

Was it too late?

Seated in the same chair from which only two and a half years prior I’d stare down at an expulsion, I assured Mr. Cook that in fact it was not too late, and that I would “be good” for a second chance indeed. He looked at me then, and I returned his glance in kind.

At the time, Mr. Cook must have been approaching something like his mid to late forties, punctuated by the fact that he was in the early stages of a balding process, and which also showed in his calm demeanor as I made my case to him. When it came time for him to decide, Mr. Cook didn’t quite give me a smile, but there did form a look of resolution on his face; like when a person realizes they’re going to get rid of someone by giving them exactly what they want.

I was in.

I was given a second chance at Marshall in 2007 three years after wanting so desperately to get out. But there was a catch.

In the second half of the 2006-2007 school-year, I was behind on an entire year’s worth of credits, meaning that I was a Sophomore when I should have been a Junior, and that I would be a Junior when it was time to be a Senior getting ready for graduation.

The likelihood that I could graduate on time was thereby slim, but like generations of young people at L.A.’s schools before me, as the prospect of a basic education flailed out of reach, I took my chances.

After all, at that point, with so much time away from Marshall despite starting there, I was just happy to be back at my home school. I could sit in Marshall’s classrooms again, and this time, start off on just the right note.

When I first got back, I was re-entered into “A-track,” which was colloquially known as the track for “the smart kids” because it contained the school’s Magnet or advanced classes.

I was originally a B-tracker when I started at Marshall in 2004, but on A-track in 2007, I did just what was needed: getting to class on time, turning in my homework and assignments, and otherwise keeping a low profile.

There was only one problem: I didn’t know or very much like any of the A-track kids, placing me in the bizarre position of being back in a place I knew from before but without any of the actors who originally made it familiar.

The trouble was, A-track kids usually came from the uppity sides of town like Los Feliz or Atwater Village, and it showed in their lingo; they spoke in much “cleaner” or complete sentences than me and my friends and therefore lacked any sense of coding or subtlety for good measure. Or, as my friends and I would quip mockingly:

“[They were] like, totally, dude.”

At the same time, since the A-track kids all knew each other, they invited each other to one another’s house-parties. I’d never known any of my old friends to have houses, which seemed like weird extravagances to begin with, but then when the A-trackers would talk about them in their totally complete sentences, I only felt more out of place.

As the months went on then, although my academics on A-track got me off to a strong start back at Marshall, I lobbied my mother to help me get back to “B-track,” where the lot of my friends from the old neighborhood were.

I figured that being back around so much of the old crowd wouldn’t prove to be that much of a challenge, but once I got the chance to see for myself, it wouldn’t be so simple.

In the fall season at the start of the 2007-2008 school year, in what was my second semester back at Marshall, I returned to the B-track rotation.

My schedule subsequently turned into a mixture between two types of classrooms. In one period, I’d find myself with students who were right on schedule with their graduation date, and in the next, with my old peers again, most of whom were not set to graduate on time.

Apart from graduation though, for me personally, it was reassuring to be back in classrooms with students who knew the same corners of the neighborhood that I did, and who walked into class with the same gusto; it was this very familiarity that I was looking for when I asked Mr. Cook to let me back in to Marshall to begin with.

To no one’s surprise though, when my old peers and I found ourselves reunited again, we’d make a blast of it. Not in each and every class where we’d cross paths again, but just in the ones that met the right conditions.

In English class, for example, where we’d have a different substitute teacher every three days because our actual teacher was constantly dealing with health problems, my friends and I ran circles around the subs with the age-old antics: spitting paper-balls at one another, writing letters to the girls, and unifying against most of the subs’s agendas.

As it was in Freshman year, if substitutes came in to establish authority over the class, my peers and I weren’t having it. But unlike in our Freshman days, rather than resenting our subs and making our way to the fences, this time it was my friends and I who simply laughed them out of the room.

By contrast, when it came to Geometry class, I still joked around with the few of my peers who sat in the room with me, but ultimately chose to get with the program as I knew I couldn’t afford to retake the course later.

In my Programming course, where I had none of my old friends alongside me, I was in the top tenth percentile of the class.

I had different types of performances then, but because I opted to joke around with my old gang in classes like English, my strong start back at Marshall was still fractured.

Two months into the 2007-2008 school year then–which was by then also supposed to be my last at Marshall–I was still not projected to “catch up” on enough credits graduate on time.

And soon, the two types of performances I was putting up since returning to B-track would have to come to terms with each other. This would be no clearer than in a History class that belonged to Ms. Hart.

Ms. Hart was an older Jewish woman with curly gray hair in the History department at Marshall. There wasn’t much that was extraordinary about her as a teacher, but like so many of the disinterested types from my Freshman year, she was clearly just not a big fan of her job.

Only later would I see why. Classes like History at Marshall were a traffic jam, with some 30 or more students to the room.

There were also virtually no Teacher’s Assistants for History, and since it was a subject riddled with events and timelines that seemed to speak little to the present moment, it was easy to derail lessons into debate about what actually was and wasn’t important for students to know for U.S. history.

By then, it also must have been Ms. Hart’s tenth year with the subject–if not longer–and so she had plenty of reason to be exhausted.

But along came me and my peers like a pack of young hyenas, and all we saw in her weariness was a green light for our coordinated folly; even if we were in the later part of our teens at that point, and even if we could still graduate if we “just put our minds to it,” the fact of the matter is that most of us didn’t want to hear about graduation because we were resigned to the prospect of not graduating.

That’s where the complication lied; even though I identified with so many of my peers being behind on credits, replete with the antics of it all beside them, I still personally believed that I would somehow manage to graduate just in the nick of time.

Sure my grades were mixed since I’d gotten back to “B-track,” but even if I joked around like it didn’t matter to me, there was a resounding belief within me that I could and would still make it happen somehow.

I’d feel good then as I’d walk into Ms. Hart’s classroom with a mischievous smirk on my face, ready to rile up some rowdiness.

At two months in her class, I showed her that on the one hand I was capable of any of the assignments she gave me, just like when I was on A-track. But on the other hand, I also showed her that I was even more prone to getting carried away joking with my friends at the expense of the lesson plan; a true B-tracker. This contradiction would only get me on her bad side.

Ms. Hart’s class took place during fourth period, and I remember the one late morning when I got to our classroom early and she wasn’t in yet; I kicked my feet back on the desk, hollered at ‘my boys’ as they made their way in, and prepared for another hour of joking around with class.

A moment later, when the bell rang for fourth period to start, Ms. Hart walked in curtly, scribbled a few instructions for an assignment up on the board, and took a seat at her desk.

She then pointed at the board without saying a word; it was her way of telling us that that she wasn’t the one to clowning around with that day.

When I registered this, I made a half-hearted attempt at abiding by her request, but my effort didn’t last long. Within some ten minutes, I crumpled up a piece of line paper down to a tiny paper-ball and set my sights on my old friend a few desks away.

Brian nearly always got a kick at even a hint of disorder in class, and the sound of his laughter was usually so contagious that it nearly always served as the spark which lit up the rest of the belly-aching throughout the room.

I then flicked the tiny paper-ball towards Brian, which patted against his cranium and floundered across the floor. His infamous cackling proceeded to bellow out, and predictably turned the other heads of the class in our direction.

But this time, Brian was hardly at the outset of his laughter before Ms. Hart’s eyes shot up from her desk and fixed their gaze on me with laser-sharp focus. Ms. Hart then proceeded to march towards my seat, and I gulped, knowing that one way or another: it was coming.

Ms. Hart would go on to call me out on that day. About how I never took anything seriously. About how life wasn’t just some big joke. And about how she actually knew just why I was such a clown.

By then I was used to hearing the first two statements from her, but the idea that she suddenly knew something about my character was different.

Maybe she had discovered some part of me that perhaps even I didn’t know about at that point, and so her words both perplexed and engaged me.

I asked Ms. Hart then, half in curiosity and the other half in a type of defense:

“Well, just why am I such a clown Miss?”

It’s then that she slammed me with it:

“It’s because it’s clear to everyone that you won’t be graduating on time.”

For a moment I was astounded at the certainty in her voice, and unsure if I could trust what my ears had heard. So I asked Ms. Hart just what she meant by what she said. That’s when she repeated from the high tops of her lungs:

“IT’S OBVIOUS TO EVERYONE IN THIS CLASSROOM THAT YOU’RE A CLOWN BECAUSE YOU WON’T BE GRADUATING THIS YEAR.”

After months together, she had finally gotten my full attention, even if it was only by hurting me that she could do so.

I didn’t say anything to Ms. Hart for a moment, choosing instead to just shrug off her words until I could finally muster,

“Okay Miss, if you say so.”

But I remember going to lunch that day feeling broken.

Ms. Hart hung me out on a limb in front of everyone, and suddenly the gravity of being a year behind on my credits weighed in on me like the tagging or writing on the walls that filled so many of the school’s restrooms.

It didn’t look good, and if I didn’t do something about it fast, Ms. Hart would be right, just as Mr. Cook would be wrong for allowing me back in to Marshall in the first place.

Only then did it dawn on me that I had a choice to make, yet again.

J.T.