Wednesday, September 24, 2008


David Blane is hanging upside down in Central Park. The doctors say that he could go blind due to the prolonged rush of blood to his head. He’s challenging himself. On a blog, one woman wrote that she would like him to try being a single working mother of three kids on welfare – that’s a challenge. She has a point….

In the moments when I don’t want to wring their necks, I’m actually beginning to really like my students. It happened fast with some, those who were sweet and wanted to help clean my room and get extra tutoring. But the others – the angry ones, the sad ones, the loud ones begging for attention – those ones it is taking longer with. And it’s hard because those are the ones who need it most.

Shanika, who told me a week ago to C my way out of her A,B conversation, now has begun to talk to me, confide in me, stay after class for help – so I feel like I handled the situation well. I called her Aunt, got background information about her, gave her a list of assignments, offered to call home any day that she did well, and asked her how she was every single day. And somehow – it did crack her rough, tough exterior ever so slightly. So that’s one girl, who maybe I found the answer to – who maybe had just the right amount of need and vulnerability close enough to the surface, who maybe just got sick of being screamed at, or tired of misbehaving, or maybe her mother just scared her a little. Or maybe I’m speaking too soon…

I know that the solution is not to yell and scream and get them in deep trouble. I see the way that they respond to a little bit of extra attention – a tiny bit of proof that I care. And yet so often I am seething with frustration at whatever antic they pulled off in class that day that it is nearly impossible to see past it. But they are the ones with the real challenges. David Blane is just being irresponsible, playing with one of his five precious senses for the show of it. That’s not so impressive. Alex, who gives me a hard time every day, and then wrote me a story about his life that made everything feel crystal clear, knows what a challenge is. My students in foster care, my students whose entire family is in another country, who haven’t seen their parents since they were 3 or 4 years old – they know challenges. They deserve little gold stickers every day just for showing up. And then they show up and they wear their anger at the raw deal they got dealt on their sleeves.

And the reality, sadly, is that for the most part, they don’t even know how raw a deal they got. I tried to tell them about the achievement gap – dilute it enough that it would be understandable to them, talking about injustice and disparity and class – touching on the role that race plays in all of it, and how perpetual the cycle is. I told them that the federal government looks at projected high-school drop out rates when it is deciding how many prisons to build. I tell them to be angry, and I’m dramatic and angry myself, looking out at the sea of faces, only half of whom are projected to make it through the twelfth grade. You have to work hard. That is my message to them – again and again – You Have To Work Hard – harder than you should have to! And then they start to raise their hands.

“I think I’m middle class – maybe upper middle.”
“Yea – that’s not really about me.”
“I have money!”

How, seriously, do you argue with that? No. You don’t. You are poor – the poorest of the poor and you should know that so that you know how much better you could have and deserve to have, and you should know that so that you feel inspired to work harder and want it badly.   

But I can’t say that – I can’t take away that part of their self-image. So I say, okay…well….it’s still a sad reality, even if it doesn’t apply to you personally, and I thought it was important that you know about it.

I don't want them to wind up resentful and angry - but I want to somehow raise the bar for what is considered 'normal'.  I look at their diagnostics (the tests that I give to them now, to see what knowledge they are coming in with, and to make it easier to gauge growth at the end of the year). On the diagnostics are all of the things that they should have learned in the years past. What planet, continent, country, state, and city do you live in? They know that they live on the planet earth. Aside from that, not a single person in any of my 6 classes, grades 6 and 7 got the rest right. For the capital of the United States, someone put Oklahoma, and several kids thought that Alabama (as opposed to Albany) was the capital of New York – the state in which they actually reside. Most people got less than half right, and so when I plan my lessons for the next week, I teach them everything on that test which they got wrong. 

“You are not where you are supposed to be! You need to learn this so that you are not embarrassingly behind the other kids when you get to high school. You need to learn this so that you can get to high school!” It never sinks in. And how to you pound into someone who feels happy and content that they should be hungry for more. I feel like a little black rain cloud raining all over their parade.

They make me laugh with their ferocious little personalities, and their desperation to assert themselves. I gave them a test to see what type of learner they were, introducing the idea of multiple intelligences to the class after hearing far too many “you’re retarded” insulted flying through the school. Convincing them not to say it, that it is as bad a curse word (and it’s cursing, not swearing, as I’ve been repeatedly informed) seemed like a losing battle, so instead I introduced the idea that everyone had a different intelligence, and was good at different things. It is a series of personal statesments, and you mark the ones that are true about you and then add up the sections to see where you scored the highest. Miss smarty-pants Carola scratched out “I like myself most of the time” so that it read “I like myself ALL OF THE TIME”. Another girl marked “I like most people” as true, but only after making a note: “except one person!”

Slowly, I am starting to like them. I like the most misbehaved, who smile sheepishly after class when I call them out on it, and the girls, ripe with attitude and horomones who ignore me and refuse to make eye contact after class, but then miraculously improve the next day, not wanting to acknowledge that they are doing it to show any degree of deference to me. I’m starting to like the boys who fight in my class, for their utter inability to control themselves, and all of them for their predictable instinct to point their finger immediately towards another student (the TRUE perpetrator) anytime that I call out their name to correct their behavior. They make me raise my voice a hundred times a day, and make me give speeches I can’t believe exist inside of me, and that I generally can’t believe I have to make. I throw my hands up in frustration and I roll my eyes and I lose my temper and snap sarcastically at them sometimes. I’ll mock the ones who are the most ridiculous, when I am trying to show them which behavior I want them to stop, and they laugh when they recognize themselves.

“Genisis, put away that newspaper and start filling this sheet in.”
“AAAAAAwwwwwwww but Miiiiisssssssss!”
“I di-n’t do nuthinnnnng!!!!!!!!!!!”

And then I look at some survey they filled out, and at their birthdates, in 1995, and I remember that they are little kids. Despite their size (often much larger than me) and their attitude that sometimes makes me tremble, and their anger that fills up the air around them, they are kids. Kids with real challenges. Kids who should scoff at the likes of David Blane.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, good one. I'm starting to like them too. Thx. xxx