Monday, September 8, 2008
My students all know how much a bag of rice costs. They all recount their mother’s complaints about the recent increase in prices. I know that I am teaching in the poorest congressional district in the United States, with an average family income hovering around $300/week, and yet it is moments like these that drive that point home. I am teaching them about the economy, referencing rising gas prices – obviously there is a lack of cultural awareness on my part to be referencing gasoline in a city where so few people drive, in a community where most don’t have cars, and wouldn’t be taking vacations, regardless of the price of plane tickets - but the real issue for them is rice. They see the news about gas prices, and they get it – but it is when I talk about prices at the grocery store that I see it click in their minds, and they want to shout out about their own family’s struggle with the expensive rice.
When I tell people what I do, they seem to think that it’s a noble thing. They seem impressed by how altruistic, how unselfish it is. It’s ridiculous, really, to think for one second that anyone can do a job, let alone be good at it or happy in it, for truly selfless reasons. It is human nature to be self interested – it’s how we survive, and to me it seems almost coincidental that something that gives me what I want in a job at this point in my life has a positive impact on other people’s lives.
“Where the needs of the world and your passion collides, there lies your vocation.”
I like that it’s different every day, that there aren’t right answers, and that I get to interact with people (yes, they are still people, despite being under the age of 13 and still relatively uncivilized) all day every day. I love how consuming it can be – how much time and energy it requires to be truly good at it. It feels really good to have a whole huge part of my day dedicated to something other than obsessing over the minute and relatively inconsequential details of my own daily life. It’s an escape in some strange way. It’s so much more real than anything I’ve done before, and so much more interesting. And it brings me pleasure – the tasks associated with teaching, and the way that they look when they are actually interested in what I’m saying (which is rare, because though EVERYTHING I am saying is just overflowing with intrigue, they have to be able to hear me speaking before they can really become invested, and that, my friend, it a real rarity). I love the way that they listen to me when deep down inside I am still wondering who decided to give me power, and the way that they are each so different, and so simultaneously determined to be recognized as individuals while at the same time trying their hardest to just blend in. If I didn’t like it – I couldn’t do it – and that doesn’t make me noble, it makes me human.
We had to take courses on child abuse and negligence, learning all of the legal definitions and intervention strategies, as well as our own personal legal responsibilities. When you sign up to teach social studies, you think more about geography than domestic violence, and yet in this school I am always reading between the lines. They come to school every day, wearing light blue shirts and following their carefully mapped class schedule. Before they enter a class they must stand in straight lines, and all through the school you hear teachers yelling, “These lines are not straight! I need these lines to be quiet before you enter my classroom!” Inside my head I always get sarcastic: “Seriously? Is this hard? How many times have you guys had to line up TODAY let alone in your lives as students???/” They have notebooks to write down their homework in, and procedures for leaving the school, entering the school, answering questions, going to the bathroom. It is the epitome of structure and stability in the lives of children whose parents work 3 jobs and aren’t often home in the evenings, where at any moment something can happen that will shift their entire world – someone gets sick or hurt, and ends up without insurance in the hospital, or a parent loses their job, and someone gets in trouble with the law. These things are not uncommon, and they come to the school, through metal detectors and into our classes. They are learning more than social studies and science. Like all middle school students they are becoming adolescents, figuring out what type of person they will be, only it’s harder to do in this school, in this neighborhood, than in the one I grew up in. They have different influences and role models, and the future isn’t taken for granted the way it was with my friends. 50% of students graduate from high school, if they even make it past the 8th grade. So we are trained to look out for them in many dimensions of their lives beyond the schooling.
I teach over 180 kids – with about 35 kids per class. Generally good with names, time and again I find myself drawing a blank at a familiar face. In most classes I know the 3 or 4 students who are eager and participating, and the 8 who are trying their hardest to distract me from the lesson. The remainder of the students are lost in the ruckus, until they step out of line and I call them out:
“EXCUSE ME! What is your name? I do not like what you are doing right now, I don’t want to hear you talking unless you have raised your hand, and I have called on you!” I hear myself barking at the poor violating student. At this point, if I don’t know your name than you haven’t been one of my biggest problems.
It’s a million tiny battles every day.
There are those kids who seek attention, these are the easy ones, all that is necessary is to show them how to channel that need towards the class. Then there are the other ones – the power-seeking students, who stare me straight in the eye with their defiance of my rules, and then turn their heads to face away from me when I am speaking with them. The power struggles are the worst – the ones to be avoided, where even when you win you lose. I have to work on caring about whether or not they like me. I have to let myself care about them, without caring when they say that I’m mean or when they are angry with me. And for some, it’s work to separate how much I hate their behavior, from how I feel about them. And to not let the implications of every student living a life in which they can quote the exact cost of a sack of rice cloud my mind or my judgment when working with them.
Another poem that I thought was good:
“I live on an Avenue called Evergreen,
in the middle of the Bronx,
where the streets are mean,
hard to dream.
Where there is more bad than good.
Too much concrete,
No basket court,
Waiting for the day we get to leave New York.
Thank God for the library,
To be able to hide away in a book,
Away from what is scary.
The street where people die,
Cheat, steal, and lie,
Where good can never be seen,
My city, the Bronx,