Dropout dilemma: Video games, suspensions prove too much of an obstacle to finishing school

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 14, 2008

By Sarah Nagem
If Chris Taylor could relive his high school experience, he’d reinvent Chris Taylor.
For one thing, he says, “I would probably sell my PlayStation 2.”
Chris, who is 19 now, was a video game addict.
But that was only his first addiction. He started smoking cigarettes, then marijuana. He also turned to alcohol.
He suffered from depression.
And in the meantime, he became a father.
The issues finally piled up too high, and Chris withdrew from Salisbury High School in January.
At Salisbury High, teachers and administrators try their best to convince students to stay in school, says Dr. Windsor Eagle, the principal.
But often, it’s not enough.
“That’s the saddest part,” Eagle says. “Sometimes you do all you can do and still not make a difference.”
Graduation rates have long been seen as an indicator of the quality of schools and school systems. In the Rowan-Salisbury system, the numbers frustrate school leaders and hint at many students’ disconnect from the education process.
About 26 percent of students in the Rowan-Salisbury School System did not graduate last spring after four or five years of high school.
Chris was one of them.
‘Not typical’
But Chris doesn’t fit neatly into society’s definition of who’s most likely to drop out of school ó if there is a definition at all.
He lives in a pleasant-looking house on Ellis Street with his parents and younger sister.
The family puts an emphasis on education, although neither of Chris’ parents graduated from college.
His older brother excelled at Salisbury High. His sister, who is still enrolled at Salisbury, does well, too.
And Chris’ parents, who both work full time, have supported him at every step.
“This is not a typical dropout story,” Chris’ father, Phil Taylor, says.
At Overton Elementary, Chris says he made friends and formed relationships with his teachers.
“I could have easily been in an (advanced) reading class if I had wanted to,” Chris says.
Although he enjoyed school, Chris struggled sometimes. He had trouble focusing on the work, and he was impulsive.
During those early years in school, Chris was prone to “turning cartwheels, turning his chair over … doing whatever he wanted to do,” Phil says. “He’s still like that.”
When he was in the second grade, doctors diagnosed Chris with attention-deficit disorder. But his family ó and the school ó managed to help, and Chris kept up with the schoolwork.
He got suspended only once in elementary school, when he says he accidentally poked a classmate in the eye.
Chris’ behavior and attitude began to change as he got older.
“I got lazy in middle school,” he says.
He became more interested in reaching the next level on The Legend of Zelda game than doing his homework.
He often spent four to six hours a night playing video games, he says.
Phil and Chris’ mother, Gindy, encouraged him to rethink his priorities. They would take away his video games as punishment and keep him from seeing his friends.
“After a while, nothing really worked,” Phil says.
School became more of a struggle. His focus was on girls.
“It’s hard not to get distracted,” Chris says.
During his seventh-grade year, Chris says, he started smoking cigarettes, and sometimes marijuana.
At first, 12-year-old Chris smoked about two cigarettes a day.
Sometimes he stole cigarettes from his father. The marijuana came from his friends, he says.
The addiction to video games, cigarettes and marijuana, along with an increasing sense of apathy toward school and looming mental-health problems, might have doomed his chances for high school.
‘No other option’
Chris saw his older brother, Eric, who is 24 now, as a success.
Eric was in the National Honor Society, Gindy says, and he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a business degree.
Chris had similar hopes for himself.
“I thought that I was going to do a lot better,” Chris says. “I thought I was going to move forward and make things right, maybe even exceed my brother. But it didn’t happen.”
After playing soccer in middle school, Chris decided to continue playing his freshman year.
The coach knew Chris was smoking cigarettes and gave him an ultimatum: play the game or smoke.
“He decided to smoke cigarettes,” Phil says.
With soccer out of the picture, Chris tried his hand at acting. But he said the drama program was too cliquish, and he felt left out.
He maintained, though, his love of singing, and he participated in the chorus through four years at Salisbury.
Chris never felt real connections to anyone in high school.
“I don’t think anybody reached out to me,” he says.
Phil isn’t so sure. “Of course, that’s his perception,” he says. “I know that they did.”
Chris contemplates his father’s remark and concedes that a science teacher allowed him two extra weeks to study for the final exam.
Chris often fell behind in his schoolwork, and teachers made concessions for him, Phil says.
Phil and Gindy communicated often with Eagle and other school staff about Chris’ behaviors, including his smoking habit.
But Chris’ numerous suspensions for smoking on campus wore thin on school officials and his parents.
“I was up there so much I was embarrassed to show my face,” Phil says.
Eagle, who remembers Chris, says family support is vital in helping students make the best decisions.
The principal knew Chris was having problems, and he worked with the family.
Still, Eagle says, “I’m disappointed when any student drops out.”
Chris’ situation got worse two years ago, when he was diagnosed with depression and psychosis. Doctors tried to stabilize him with medication, Gindy says, but the process took a while.
She and Phil decided to withdraw Chris from school the first semester of the 2006-07 school year because of his medical issues. He participated in the school system’s homebound program that second semester.
The next year, his doctor said the routine of school would be beneficial, Gindy says.
Chris returned to Salisbury High.
“So we did that, and he kept getting suspended because he wanted to smoke,” she says.
He withdrew again, this time for good.
What’s next
Now Chris is enrolled in an online high school diploma program.
As was the case in school, he has struggled to remain focused enough to get the work done.
But he’s trying, Chris says. He pries himself away from his video games and gets to work on the computer in his bedroom, which looks like it hasn’t changed much since he was a kid.
The bunk beds with solar-system sheets and bedspreads Chris sleeps on are next to the Pack ‘N Play for when his 6-month-old son visits.
Dragon Ball Z and Roger Rabbit posters hang on the wall.
But in this childlike room, Chris has grown and undergone major changes ó physically, emotionally and spiritually.
He cut off his dreadlocks and is sporting a more clean-cut look these days.
He says he has stopped smoking cigarettes and using alcohol and drugs.
Chris has always gone to church with his family, but he says religion has become even more important to him.
He tries to convince his friends to change their lifestyles, Phil says.
And Chris is involved in the life of his son, although he and the baby’s mother are no longer dating.
Chris isn’t working. He has never held a steady job.
After he earns his diploma, Chris wants to attend Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and pursue a career as a therapist or a minister.
This not-so-typical dropout story isn’t over, the family says.
“It’s not a successful story yet,” Phil says. “Maybe a couple of years down the road it will be.”
Coming Tuesday: Statistics show most students who are going to drop out do it in their freshman year.
Online: You can discuss ways of preventing students from dropping out at www.salisburypost.com.