Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I came back from the school board, drained of emotions and energy, hating my job and feeling like a failure. I walked into the school at lunchtime, and down the hall, eating an empanada I had bought at the stand outside, and by the time I got to the end of the hall I had 14 students following me.

“Miss K! How could you leave us?! Don’t ever do that again!”
“Where have you been?! It was so awful! We had to go to gym!”
“Were you trying to hide from us Miss K?!”

I laughed, and was suddenly filled with energy again. The little faces around me, all begging for attention reminded me of why I liked the job.

“Oh God! I was avoiding you guys!” I said, laughing.
“NO! Miss K you love us,” said MH, one of my favorite boys. “We’re going to follow you around for the rest of the day, you can’t get away from us!” he said, and then proceeded to do just that.
“Go away! I have work to do!”
“Naw – Miss K is the magnet and we are all just drawn to her,” he said, laughing devilishly, hoping that I would give him candy from my incentive box if he hung around long enough.
I laughed – like I always do. They make me laugh when they aren’t making me lose my voice – and on unfortunate occasions, I do both at the same time. In the middle of a horrific rant at them about their behavior, one of them will do something so ridiculous, so hilarious, that I will have to turn away from them to hide my laughter. As if I could hide anything from them…
“Ah! She’s laughing! She wants to laugh – look at her face, she wants to smile! Ah ha!” I take a deep breath and glare and whichever one of them is insisting on drawing attention to my lack of composure.

At lunchtime, my room is filled with the students, playing out their drama in my room.

“Miss K – what’s her name? The one with the straight hair and the light skin who just left?”
“Aw yea – Serena. That’s my girlfriend.”
“What?! She should dump you – you don’t even know her name!”
“No – we have only been going out since Thursday.”

MH and EB plan to dump their girlfriends. MH doesn’t like his because she wears the same jeans everyday. I have him look up ‘superficial’ in the dictionary. SR comes to my room and tells me about her ex boyfriends.

“Aren’t I too good for them!? Eew – they are so ugly!”

Another girl tells me about dumping her ex-boyfriend (another one of my students) because they went to the movies and he was trying to take it too fast – holding hand and kissing!

One girl covered her paper with “I love you J, I exist to love you.” Hearts and doodles. She gave it to me and smiled sheepishly, wanting me to know about her relationship, that she had spent all of one lunch period talking to me about.

It’s seventh grade, and it’s the same everywhere it seems. Even in the Bronx, where kids grow up too fast, they still hit one another as a way of flirting.

Sometimes I try to shut it out. My room is a mess of papers that the kids have handed in and made into haphazard piles. I have things to grade and projects to roganize and activities to set up.

Some of them waltz in at lunchtime like they own the place.

“We’re here to entertain you!”
“Noooooo – go away! I see enough of you!”
“No way Miss K! We make you laugh all the time! We’re here for your entertainment!”

And it’s true. They do make me laugh. All the time.

A New Dream

I don’t think that Obama is erasing racial tensions in America. I don’t think that there is an equal playing field. I don’t for a moment think that his election is the end of racism, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. But I do know that when I went into school on November 5th, outside of my windows the streets of the Bronx were resonating with the same chants of ‘Obama’ from 8am until I left school at 3:30. The teachers in my school were glowing and gushing and still tearing up at the memory of the night before.

“Yes we did, baby, yes we did!” the said, shaking their head that it had actually happened. My students waltzed in, chanting and screaming and holding newspapers. It took an extra 10 minutes to quiet them to get ready for class – and even then it was only because I had abandoned the idea of teaching about anything other than the election. They all told the same story of their parents sobbing with happiness. Several of them had been woken up in the middle of the night by their parents to go out in the streets and celebrate.

“My mom is saying that now even her kids can be president!” one of my students said.
“Yea! Mine too!” exclaimed the others in the room.

It is something that parents say to their children – you can be anything you want if you work hard. You could even be the president. But that’s not a dream that their parents had ever had for them. For my students – a dream was put on the table that hadn’t been there before, and regardless of how much racism and prejudice still exists – and it’s a lot – it means something big to have that dream on their table.


On the night of the election, I heard people screaming and chanting in the streets outside of my apartment in Chelsea.

“O-bam-a! o-bam-a!” came the cries.

At a bar across the street, people booed as John McCain gave his concession speech, and people cried at Obama’s acceptance. It was a beautiful thing – that feeling of pride that swelled inside so many people when he was elected. Suddenly it didn’t feel like there were 2 separate and alien Americas, and I wasn’t left with that alienated feeling that encompassed me when somehow the country opted for George W. over the democratic candidates. Maybe this is how the republicans have felt for the past 8 years – affirmed. To me the election was an affirmation of all that I love about the country, about our government, and about the ideals that Americans hold. I teach social studies, and try to excite kids about the brilliance of our founding fathers – creating 3 branches of government rather than one. The bill of rights, the constitution – they all laugh about how excited I get when I tell them about it. And yet it felt like something of a lie.

I talked about the balance of powers, and in the back of my mind I would be counting the instances during the last eight years when the executive branch has chipped away at the other branches. Talking about the president’s ability to sign and veto laws, I pictured the many signing statements that accompanied Bush’s endorsement of a law. I didn’t expect to feel hopeful or excited in any real way, in part because I was bracing myself for another loss and in part because I couldn’t imagine that anything could really change. But listening to Obama speak, it was as though we had a community organizer rather than a president – and I was filled with hope at the realization that a community organizer is just what this country needed. Barack Obama started as a community organizer, and I hope that that part of him doesn’t disappear. As Americans it is time that we, my generation especially, who does indeed consider activism to take the shape of the creation of a facebook group, take ownership over the country. Obama seemed content to acknowledge that the job has just begun, and that it was work that would require all of use to play a role in. Repairing our country is not something that can be done from the top down – and for all of the talk about democracy being a government of the people by the people, it seems like we the people have taken a back seat in the past couple of years. After 8 years of disillusionment, disappointment, and becoming a more cynical, jaded country than we used to be – we don’t need someone to give us directions. We need someone who will empower us, and make us stop threatening to move to Canada if it didn’t go our way.

It’s a blue government, with a democratic majority in the Senate and the House in addition to our new blue White House . In two years, anything that has been going wrong will be easily pinned to the Dems, and that majority may slip. It’s not sad – it’s the inevitable cycle – the regulation that was built into our constitution. It’s why, after 8 long red years, it is possible to feel so much hope. But for today – everything seems to be as it should be.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Witches. Vampires. Ghouls. Ghosts. Dragons. Monsters. Zombies. Bloods. Bloods? What are bloods? In the Bronx, on Halloween, there are ONLY the Bloods, and there is nothing scarier. I left school trembling with nerves, my back in knots over anxiety for my own safety and for that of my students, who we sent out into the scary world at the end of the school day.

They all came to school – or rather, less than half of them came to school – on Halloween, all abuzz with their own nerves and stories about what had happened the night before and what was predicted to take place that day. Halloween was designated as initiation day for the gang, and in order to become a member, boys had to ‘slash’ the faces of 31 females. They came to school all talking about the girls in their buildings who had been attacked the night before, and warning me to be careful because it was expected to climax that night. There were warnings sent out to the teachers, the police, and all hospitals in the area to be prepared and cautious.

We did a rapid dismissal, letting them out 30 minutes before the end of the school day, with the intent of catching anyone who would be waiting outside the school for them by surprise. We instructed them to go directly home and lock their doors and stay inside – do not loiter, do not wait for a later bus.

Boo! Imagine really being scared. Imagine having that fear as a part of your life, becoming a part of you. That’s why people join these gangs – that fear that must get inside of them – lead them to seek protection and comraderie. It’s senseless, dangerous, irrational to join a gang – as everyone knows what it can lead to, what road it will take you down. And yet, what is more senseless then sending 12 year old girls, trembling with fear out into a world that’s so scary, where they cover their faces and picture being grabbed and slashed as some lost boys ticket into one such gang. It’s a senseless world that they grow up in, so is it any wonder that it leads to such things?

sending a message

It started when they spit on the door to my classroom, leaving saliva dripping down the small window, streaking the glass. I had kicked them out of my room, where they were loitering, avoiding the in-school suspension room which they were supposed to have been in. This was their retaliation, and it was both disrespectful and embarrassing, as it always is when those boys (RC, JJ, and JV) disrespected me in front of other students. At the time my classroom was full of my favorite students, who come and eat lunch in my room, and at this moment were frantically attempting to complete all of their past-due homework in time to get credit for it before the close of the grading period.

The next day it continued. My bulletin board was pulled down in the hall, and someone’s saliva was dripping down the plastic covering that had protected all of the work that had been hung. Saliva. Gross. It was like their tag – marking their territory, as dogs would, only with spit instead of urine. I wrote up both incidents, as I had been told to do.

Later, they came into the room while I was teaching and I shooed them away. They turned off the lights on their way out the door and slammed it behind them. In the afternoon, 2 of them dragged another boy, one of the few who was in special ed due to low cognitive ability, down the hall. He recalled being chased and tackled, and then dragged down the hall before being doused with water. He came to class and sat, shivering in the front row while we read about Columbus. I wrote that up too.

The last write up that I placed in the stack of incident reports that I handed in at the end of the day, told of the three of them entering my room in the transition time between periods, when I was alone in the room. They locked the door behind them, one boy pushing in the lock, and another flicking out the lights. They approached me and one said ‘Are you afraid Miss?’ I walked over to the light switch to turn on the lights, and RC pushed my hand away. I pulled the door open and ordered them out of the room.

This was not an atypical day. This was hardly an atypical series of events. These boys have spent the past 13 years getting away with things. They have spent the entire year prior to this moment receiving barely a slap on the wrist for their antics – which are likely done mostly for attention and some feeling of power, but which are nonetheless inappropriate and harmful. Nothing was out of the ordinary, except that this time action was taken. The principal put in for a superintendent’s suspension on the basis of my final incident report.

Now I have to testify to the events I wrote about at a hearing to decide the length of the suspension. The school is asking for a 90 days suspension. The boys all deny being there. I had to go in for a meeting with one of the boys and his mother, who said to me ‘this is his future’ and asked if I could swear with absolute certainty that he was one of the 3 boys who was in the darkened room. Immediately I doubted myself. And again I doubted myself when another boy tried to bring forward an alibi which fell quickly to pieces. I am obsessing over the minute details of what happened, tearing myself and my own story to shreds, when of course I know that I have no vendetta against these boys. I wouldn’t write a report on an event that didn’t occur, or mis-identify these boys, who pop into my room repeatedly every day.

My problem is this: if I truly believe that the only way that kids know what is right and wrong is if they are taught, and I don’t think that they have been taught that this year, how do I feel about this as the way that they learn. The school says that they want to send the kids a message – that they have to learn about what is inappropriate behavior. And I am feeling that it is a message that is too loud. All year, due to the lack of disciplinary structure in the school, they have been sent the message that there are no consequences. And suddenly the guillotine drops – and they didn’t really get any warning that it was hanging above them. 90 day suspensions are a serious message. I go back and forth on what these boys deserve – and then I wonder if this is really about me not wanting to have to take responsibility for it. There are incident reports that have been written by every teacher all year on them – and this is the one that they act on? I do know that they need a message to be sent. Is it really that I don’t think that the message is right – or is it just that I don’t want the message to be coming from me?