Usman is an adorable 10th grader originally from Pakistan, smaller than the other kids. He has huge eyes, straight bangs, and a lopsided smile, and whenever he sees me, he waves and says, “Hi Principal!” He also has an older brother, Saad, in 11th grade who now barely attends school, and is inches away from becoming a Code 39.
A “Code 39” is the code schools use for a dropout. Back in the first two years of our school’s existence, I remember when Code 39 wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. Now, we have more Code 39s than we’d like. We’ve started to watch for early signs of Code 39s, as in the case of Usman at our after-school Thanksgiving Potluck.
Usman was having a great time at the potluck, bopping his head to the tracks of Arabic dance music, Dominican bachata, and rap.
Over the din, Usman’s history teacher mentioned, “Usman wasn’t in class today. He told me he was sleeping at home.”
A few years ago, I would have thought, “He’s just being a kid.” But I thought of his brother Saad. Code 39s start with these little dis-engagements, little deals with oneself about missing an afternoon, missing a day, missing a week, missing a month.
I approached Usman. “You missed school today because you were sleeping?”
“No! No, I was sick, Miss.”
He seemed perfectly healthy. “Then you should have stayed home to get better. You can’t come to a party if you miss school.”
A few kids nearby paused their conversation, looking at Usman and me.
“Call my father!” Usman begged. He handed me his cell phone, which said, “Dialing . . . Papa.” I was taken aback by how touched I was by the word “Papa.”
His father seemed surprised that Usman had stayed home, and agreed he should leave the party.
“Miss, call my brother,” he begged, referring to his eldest adult brother. I called his brother. “Oh, Usman really was sick today,” his brother said. “My mother said he had a fever, so she kept him home. I’m far away, and it’s going to take me some time to get there. Can you let him just stay?”
I thought of Saad.
“He can’t stay,” I told his brother. “I’m going to have him wait in the lobby for you. He needs to come to school every day and if he wants to come to a party, he can’t miss school.”
I left Usman with a staff member in the lobby, and went back to the potluck. It’s a big deal to miss a day of school, and I wanted Usman and his family to know that. If Usman isn’t really sick, then he can’t afford a day off.
Maybe a casual fake-sick day is just a kid being a kid. And maybe it’s an early sign of a Code 39.
All the names of students have been changed.
Photo credit: originalgrammatique, Creative Commons License.