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Monday, June 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Mr. V" shows kids they matter with humor, patience, tough love

Seattle Times staff reporter

Four teenagers, heads bent over their paperbacks, follow along as teacher David Vinson reads the last chapter of John Steinbeck's "The Pearl" aloud.

It's three hours after Federal Way High let out. Twelve hours after Vinson arrived at school. It's so late that the custodian knocks on the door, wanting to empty the trash. Vinson, still reading, waves her in.

He stays because he promised: If students come, he'll read them the novel they're studying in his class. It's one way to show he cares — and that is often as important as his grammar lessons or vocabulary tests.

Much of the conversation about high school these days focuses on skills and knowledge: what students don't know, what they need to know. Students who are behind double up on math and reading classes so they can pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which, starting with this year's sophomores, is a graduation requirement.

But teachers like Vinson know success depends on capturing students' hearts as well as filling their heads. For many of Vinson's students this year, their hearts may matter more.

"I'm not helping you because you're not helping yourself," Vinson teasingly scolds Eddie, a thin, fresh-faced sophomore who earlier tried to claim he had done some work while waiting for Vinson.

Vinson knows better.

"It has to matter more to you than to me that you pass," he says.

"It does," Eddie protests weakly.

"No it doesn't."

Vinson — "Mr. V" to his students — leans back in his chair and stretches his legs way out in front of him. He's a big man who could be intimidating, but instead is warm, funny, personable. He jokes he can "smell" students' cellphones and exaggerates the way they bellyache at hard assignments until they have to laugh at themselves.

He's old enough to have a teenage son of his own but dresses young in T-shirts, khakis, cool rectangular glasses and diamond earrings — two in each lobe.

He's learned that serious messages delivered in a light tone are better heard.

When a girl forgets her assignment yet again, Vinson writes a reminder on her arm. When a boy's pants sag low, Vinson threatens to go out and buy the loudest, craziest belt he can find.

To sophomore Wilber Romero, who cut some classes: "Do I have to bring English class to your living room?" Wilber laughs. "No. No."

"You know I will," Vinson teases. And he just might.

Time to think

Wilber is one of the students who stays late to read "The Pearl." He's also one of three Seattle-area sophomores The Seattle Times is following this year as their class — the class of 2008 — took the WASL for the first time this spring. Students in the class started learning late last week whether they passed or need to take it again.

The other three boys in Vinson's room include Carlos, who's so shy he often stares at his toes even when talking with Vinson, who knows him well. Carlos' grades are mostly A's and B's, but he still comes for help after school every day to soak up Vinson's reassurance. Elmer, who needs to make up some work, is there, too. And Eddie. They are all waiting for Vinson when he returns from a meeting — except Wilber. Wilber strides in at 4:30 p.m.

Vinson throws him a book, asks where he's been.

"The truth?" Wilber asks. It's a rhetorical question. Wilber says Vinson always knows when he's lying. Wilber explains that he drove a friend to buy something she needs for the next day's talent show, then went to Wal-Mart, Jiffy Lube and home. In recent weeks, he might not have come back. But today he did.

As Vinson reads, he stops every few pages to ask questions. How has the pearl in the story affected the characters' lives? What have they lost because of it? He gives the four boys time to think, even though it's nearly 6 p.m., and their answers come slowly.

He's annoyed only when another teacher who stops by tries to feed them the answers. If teachers jump in too soon, he says later, it drains students' confidence, shuts them down.

He waits instead. As long as it takes. Too many times, he says, teachers will accept an answer of "I don't know," and move on.

Not Vinson. He won't even let students say, "I don't know." That's kidspeak, he says, for "leave me alone." And he doesn't let students disappear like that in his room.

"I'm proud of you for coming in," he tells Wilber as they leave. "Are you proud of you?"

"Yeah," Wilber says.

Breaking down defenses

Last year, Vinson taught classes in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at Thomas Jefferson High, where he wouldn't accept work turned in a day late, much less read to students out loud. This year, his first at Federal Way High, administrators asked him to teach a full schedule — five classes — of sophomores at risk of failing the WASL. It was a compliment to his teaching skills, but he knew it would be a challenge.

He's had to change a lot about how he teaches. The first time he handed out a short story last fall, many students refused to read it. So he decided to do whatever it took to get them to read, even if it meant reading aloud to them during class at the start. Early in the year, he was hoarse for days.

His classes are a mix of students. Many are immigrants from Mexico and Russia still mastering English. Some have bad attitudes, disruptive behavior, tough backgrounds.

Vinson grew up in Spokane as one of the few African-American students in his schools. He knows what it's like to be different. And in junior high, he says, his grades were high but he "lived" in the principal's office. Bad attitudes don't faze him. It's his job, he says, to outlast whatever defenses students put up.

"Kids," he says, "need to know they matter."

Wilber's dilemma

A few weeks ago, Wilber's attendance — never great — dipped to a new low. Early in the semester, he'd won a spot on the school's soccer team, which Vinson thought would motivate him to raise his grades. It did, briefly. But after one game, his grades slipped again. A little later, he quit the team. For a couple of weeks, Vinson rarely saw him.

When he returned, Vinson left a tough-love note on Wilber's desk. It said Vinson was disappointed in him. That Wilber owed his family more, his school more — himself more. Wilber couldn't look at Vinson the rest of the day. He came to class regularly for about a month after that. Then started cutting again.

He'd miss one class, then another, then figure it wasn't worth going at all. One day, at home when he should have been in Vinson's class, he says he's having a hard time caring.

His parents and some of his friends tell him to finish school, he says. Vinson left him messages on his cell, but he hasn't responded. He listens to them, though. In the most recent one, Vinson simply told Wilber he missed him.

"... and oh, man, I just started thinking ... what to do?" Wilber says.

He confesses he is so far behind that he doesn't think he has a hope of catching up.

His mother, back from the store, shoots him a sharp look.

"I told my mom: I'm going to school from now on," he says. "I told her that yesterday and then look at what I did today? I didn't go."

He says he needs to talk to Mr. V.

"He'll tell me what's right and what's not. He has something that I listen to."

If they fail, he fails

Vinson goes out of his way for many students. He buys Kit Kat bars especially for Carlos, gives students rides home, arranges for those who need eyeglasses to get them. Wilber vividly remembers the day Vinson showed up on his doorstep to make sure Wilber came to school.

The first thing most students say about Vinson is how much he helps them. Wilber says it all the time. Elmer, too. And Carlos, even if Vinson helps him most by insisting he can do the work on his own.

Vinson savors the successes, but says it's been a tough year. He laments how many of his students aren't making it — more this year than in all of his other 20 years of teaching combined. He knows that's largely because many students skip class a lot. Still, he can't help but feel that if they fail, he fails.

He recently joined a school committee that's looking at ways to improve attendance. He volunteered this semester to teach freshmen who failed most of their classes last term. Until the very last weeks of the year, he called parents every time a student cut his class — even if they never call back.

Any student who enters his classroom is his business. Like Edgar, who shows up one afternoon with Elmer's brother to wait while Elmer finishes a paper. Edgar brags about his bad grades, although he also says he plans to start anew in the fall.

Vinson seizes on that.

"Why not tomorrow?" he challenges. "Work on the new you now."

"I can't."

"Yeah, you can."

They keep bantering back and forth. Vinson tries humor. He pretends that Edgar is 39, has a teenage daughter, and is still in ninth-grade English alongside her. "I know," Edgar says. "It's crazy. I'm going to graduate some year."

All he can do

A few days later, good news. Wilber is back again.

He says he feels like another person — "one who cares." He returned, he says, because of Mr. V. "He told me I was worth it."

But the new Wilber is short-lived. A few days later, he's AWOL again. Vinson sighs. When Wilber does the work, he does well. But if he doesn't show up ...

All he can do now, Vinson says, "is remain loyal and supportive of him. Make sure when he's here that I'm glad to see him. And when he falls, help him get back up."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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