07/02/2013 10:22 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Drop Out or Opt Out? Let's Not Cop Out

There is an epidemic in my city and probably yours too -- and I'm not too sure that the common core or any other standards are going to help: there are too many children out of school not doing much.

Perhaps it has always been this way and perhaps it just didn't used to be as noticeable.

More than 30 years ago I landed a job from a community college employment board to tutor and hang out with a ten year-old boy who had stopped attending the 4th grade.

He lived in a beautiful home on a street of beautiful home and his mother and stepfather seemed to really care about him and I became his friend and got him to do some school work. I thought he was just a spoiled brat who needed to toughen up. His stomach aches and weak limbs seemed to me an excuse to get out of what I had certainly wanted to get out of my whole childhood. But I never let on and even feigned sympathy with his stomach pains and accepted my payment. It was easier than my previous job putting unpainted furniture together in a hot attic and delivering it in rusty van with bad shock absorbers.

I forgot about that boy soon after I stopped being his teacher. I don't remember what happened to him. I don't even remember his name. And why should I? How many of us ever think about how many children just can't make it in school.

We call them drop-outs but a lot of them are more like opt-outs.

This past year I was assigned to home-school two teenagers diagnosed with anxiety and depression and I met several other teachers working with other students in the same circumstances -- unable to attend school for emotional reasons. Except that one of the students I worked with was ultimately placed in a school that was deemed appropriate to meet her emotional needs -- and the other student ended the school year in the process of being given such a placement -- and that made me wonder how many of our students are getting their emotional (or, for that matter, intellectual) needs met at our school and how many of them are just not quite miserable or disenfranchised enough to stay home.

My wife, who finished high school as quickly as she could (a year early) and then got three college degrees, still remembers how much she hated school. She remembers telling her kindergarten teacher what a waste of time it was. She told Sister Agnes, "I can do all this stuff at home." And the Sister had no argument. Just, "Sit down, dear, and be quiet."

I don't recall disliking school quite so early but I did grow tired of being told -- directly and indirectly -- to sit down and shut up, and I recall, in high school, opting out of my geometry class. I'd gotten distracted with a girl two seats over -- who I never got anywhere with -- and then fell behind in the class. The teacher never asked me what happened or made any effort to bring me back in -- not even when I asked if there was anything I could do -- and when I stopped going it was only the attendance office that made notice. This happened with other classes the next term and then a counselor told me I had a credit deficiency worthy of being assigned to continuation school. I found out there was a test that could give me a diploma without having to attend the last year and-a-half of high school -- and even if I hadn't passed that test I think I would have stopped going.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when I confronted a student at the school where I am now a teacher about why he was cutting his algebra class. He said there was no point in going. He said the teacher would fail him no matter what. I asked the teacher about that and he said, yes, Julio is going to fail. He is too far behind.

How many of us would show up to a job after we were told we weren't going to get paid?

Some educators ask themselves why a student should want to be in our classroom or in our school. But maybe not enough of us are asking that question enough of the time.

These, by the way, are not sufficient answers:

-- Because we say so

-- Because the law says so

-- Because you need an education to be successful

And if we are contemptuous of the question itself -- if we are subscribing to the sit-down-and-shut-up approach (and I know first-hand how challenging it can be to avoid it) -- then I suggest we ought not be the ones given the responsibility of educating children.

Children -- and especially teenagers -- need a real answer. They need to know that we have something real to offer them. They need us to give a shit about them. All of them. They need to know that we care if they succeed -- in the short and long run. They need us to understand what they are going through and help them care about their education.

Not because our school's academic performance index might rise and now because improved student test data might increase our salaries -- or preserve our jobs -- but because we want to empower them with knowledge and skills that might help them do something meaningful with their lives.

And if we can't do that -- because we are incapable or because we aren't given the resources -- or if we won't do it because it just doesn't matter enough to us, then why the hell should they care?