Tough love

By Amy Page

Tomorrow can always be a better day, some people say. Lisa Laskey’s day changes by the hour. It’s nearing the end of fourth period at Blaine High School and everyone is getting restless—Laskey included. Some of her students are studying, but most are adding to the conversations that rumble around the room.

“Suki, study! Brandon, study!” she yells. Laskey, 47, walks around the room. Her straight brown hair stands out from the gray-and-purple attire she wears today. One junior jokingly kisses a glass-windowed door his friend is on the other side of. Laskey sidesteps in front of the door and pushes him back to his seat.

People consider Laskey on the front lines of education because of her willingness to teach “horrible teenagers”. That’s fiction, she says. High school is actually her favorite area to teach. It’s demanding but incredibly rewarding work.

“Most kids are good kids,” she says.

When she was around 20 years old, she decided she wanted to become an English teacher. She had a major in music because of her love of singing, but decided it wasn’t a practical career choice. At first, she wanted to become a teacher to have summer breaks.

“It was a very shallow reason,” she says. “Luckily it turned out it was a smart choice for a stupid reason.”

She goes back to her desk. Papers, pictures, and posters clutter nearly every part of her work space. On the corner of her desk there’s a mug labeled “Star Trek”, bloated with pens. The bookshelf next to her desk is equally stuffed with binders and books. Student photographs are littered on a cabinet behind her, most of them senior pictures given to her by her older students.

Finally the bell rings. Students rush out and new ones begin to trickle in for Advanced Placement (AP) Language class. This class is tougher to teach for Laskey because of the advanced texts they normally read, from founding documents to The Great Gatsby. To help them understand it, careful thought has to be put into her planning. Senioritis doesn’t help, though. To many seniors at Blaine High School, their last year should be their easiest.

“I don’t know who furthered that fiction,” Laskey says with a deadpan tone.

An AP student approaches her with an assignment he needs clarity on. He takes her explanation with a grimace, but nods. Once everyone takes their seats, the automated bell rings again and Laskey starts class with a vocabulary quiz. She sits on top of one of the hexagonal tables, her legs dangling a few inches off the floor, and reads vocabulary words from a book. At one point, chatter bubbles.

“I can give you a zero,” she says. “It would make it so much faster to grade your paper.”

The chatter stops. Laskey smiles and looks back down at her book. The next word is ‘cataclysm’.

“Fun to say, not fun to experience,” she tells them.

Her primary problem as a school teacher is that there are only 24 hours in a day. Grading, planning, conferences and volunteer trainings to better herself as a teacher take up much of her time. A common problem for school teachers is not having enough time to take care of themselves personally. To compensate, Laskey gets up at 4:45 in the morning to exercise. This means going to bed at 8:45 “like an old lady”, she says.

Next is a test. The room settles into silence as everyone works. Fifth period is turning out to be a lot quieter than fourth period today.  Laskey props a clipboard up on her knee and marks quizzes. She uses a purple pen that complements her clothes. The pen wanders the paper, occasionally stopping to make a check or a note.

Ten minutes pass. Some look up at Laskey expectantly. A girl soon realizes that she is the only person who hasn’t finished the test.

“Sorry!” She says, breaking the silence.

Laskey smiles and she tells her not to be sorry. Her classmates also reassure her it’s all right. She nods and goes back to finishing her work.

Laskey’s dry sense of humor makes her a favorite among high schoolers. She also cares deeply for her students. Blaine High School has a higher number of troubled students than most, Laskey says. If life is uncertain, it’s difficult to focus on an education.

Sometimes teenagers need an extra parent. Those students come to her classroom after school sometimes to chat with her. It may mean sacrificing more time, but Laskey will always put aside her grading and listens to whatever is on their mind.

“Kids may not care about an English essay due next week if dad is beating mom,” she says. “It’s amazing to have a human being trust you to that degree.”

She also finds it amazing when the people she has taught remember her. Sometimes she gets visits, phone calls and even comments on her Facebook page. They remember her fondly, and she’s happy to have a lasting impression on people.

She looks at her collection of student photographs. Some are still at school, but others have graduated and gone on to other things. It’s nice to look back.

“At least one of those kids would have dropped out if I hadn’t pushed them,” she says as she smiles.

After their test, Laskey starts a late discussion about the The Scarlet Letter, a book now on most students’ tables. She asks and answers questions with a smile and a laugh. Her students laugh with her.

Later in the discussion, a girl raises her hand and explains she had difficulty understanding a chapter. Lacking a book today, Laskey takes out her iPad.  The Scarlet Letter is on it. She follows along with her pupil and clarifies what’s happening as they go.

Before they can finish, though, the bell rings again. Their hour-long class had passed rapidly. Briefly, Laskey tells everyone what they need to do for tomorrow, and everyone packs up their bags and backpacks. Time to go home.

A single day will change so much by the hour, but Laskey is used to it now. Every day is different.

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