Sunday, December 21, 2008

Good Fortune

Middle school is hard. You are growing and stretching and changing physically in ways that you can’t wrap your head around. You are moving at your own pace, and can’t quite understand why some people are so far ahead and others so far behind. You are experiencing every hormone that exists, all at once, and don’t know how to control or manage them. Everything that was familiar feels foreign, and kids react in all sorts of disturbing ways.

Across the country, the heinous way that middle school students (especially girls) treat one another is legendary. Kids are fighting with puberty and themselves, and are angry that they are alone in the experience, and so lash out at their peers. To make themselves feel more normal they degrade and demean the people around them. That’s a shared experience of many people in the country. In the Bronx, like so many things, it’s worse.

Take all of that, and add to it an environment that is already completely unstable and insecure and all-together nuts. Take poverty stricken homes, afflicted with abusive or absent parents, and huge language barriers, and add in adolecense and puberty, and you have the recipe for disaster. Which is what we face every day in my school– the perfect recipe for things to boil over into chaos and confusion. Add to that pot a little holiday spirit, and you have the hellish month between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This month has been difficult to experience, let alone to properly express. People say they feel most fortunate around the holidays – and it makes sense, because it is around the holidays that you take stock of the people in your life who matter and care about you, who you care about. You look at your warm home and your loving friends and family, and realize that that X-Box 360 isn’t the most important thing. Especially when you imagine life without all of those things that truly matter. But, it goes hand in hand, I suppose, that in order to feel fortunate, there has to be another end of the spectrum. After all, if everyone had those things than you wouldn’t feel lucky to have them. We rarely feel grateful that we have air, or clean water, because in this country those things are a given. But we pause and make a point of giving thanks for those other things, whicha re equally as important to our well-being and happiness, if not our survival.

For my students, the holidays highlight their misfortunes. For most of them, presents are not even a thought – they will tell me outright that their parents cannot afford Christmas this year. This month I have had interactions with ACS on three separate occasions. Once, because two brothers were being abused by their uncle, and on the two other occasions because two separate girls had admitted to having been raped by their two separate uncles. It’s a different family portrait than the one I am so lucky to have. They are louder and ruder and more disrespectful than usual. They are as pissed off as tey should be, surrounded as they are with the message that the world is joyful, and ‘tis the season to be jolly. And they are kids who don’t even know how to understand or express the dissonance that they must feel when they are constantly exposed to those media projections, and then look at their own life.

The emotions and frustrations of the students are understandably intensified, spilling over more than usual, and normally making a mess that it’s difficult to clean up. It’s hard not to take it all personally, not to be discouraged and disheartened by their bad attitude – especially when I walk past the Macy’s Christmas windows and scads of tourists snapping pictures of them every night on my way home. It’s hard to remember how different their world is – and yet they aren’t in a bubble that doesn’t set up expectations for the holidays. It’s unfair – that if they have to live they lives they do, which are hard no matter what, they should have to compare themselves at this time of year to all of the people around the country whose lives do not resemble theirs. Because no matter how resigned they sound when they tell me they won’t be celebrating Christmas, I still see a burning desire in their eyes when another child talks about what he wants or hopes to get. The desire is wonderful – a hunger for something – and yet soon enough they will become resigned to not having it, and lose the burn, and maybe that’s what it will take to feel fortunate in the holiday season.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holiday Show

Friday was a festive day at school. The kids had their Holiday Show, followed by a pizza party in my room for all of the 6th and 7th graders who scored above 80% on their much anticipated Unit Exams.

The Holiday Show was a festive and impressive display of these kids at their best. As impressed as I was with their efforts and talents, the most exciting thing was to see them impressed with themselves. I walked into the auditorium and one boy came up to me, towering over me and wearing his goofy Bronx-fashion conscious get-up that he wore every day (high top sneakers and skinny jeans and ridiculous black plastic square rimmed glasses), and excitedly told me that he had put up ALL of the decorations. There was tinsel and posters and streamers all over the stage and walls, and he was beaming in a way that for some reason getting a 100% on a social studies worksheet would never make him beam. On stage, my students marched out in the chorus, all wearing red. After school the day before they had all begged me to go shopping with them for red dresses, and, not sure about the legal implications, I declined. Now they were standing tall, feeling beautiful it tight sequined dresses, and lots of red feathers and spandex. They sang Christmas songs, and all of them danced and swayed right on beat. They looked great. The chorus teacher gave out a lot of solos, which made them brim with pride as their untrained voices warbled out over a crowd of their peers and teachers. There was choreographed, synchronized dancing (my favorite!) done by two dance troops – one of the girls and one of the boys. The boys ‘got lite’ and did break dancing, tumbling and spinning on their heads. All of the dancing was poorly choreographed, but the kids had a natural rhythm, and felt so good about being on stage, in the spotlight, that nothing else really mattered.

After the show, all day, the kids came up to me asking if I had seen them. They looked at me expectantly, smiling hugely, asking which was my favorite, and then smiling and saying – ‘yea, I really liked that one too.’

It is amazing to see them care. To see them glow and feel proud and feel good at something. It was beautiful to see, and I felt so proud of them all for the work they had put into it and for the confidence it takes to stand up in front of a rude crowd of middle school students and perform. This was what we want for them – this is the feeling you want themt o have, that I spend so much time terrified they will never have if I can’t teach them to write a sentence properly. The holidays are a very hard time of year in Hunts Point, and it was a needed reminder for myself, as well as to them, of how good things can, and should be.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Problems I Can't Solve

All day long they come to me with problems.

“Ms K – can you help me with my math?”
“Do you know anything about science?”
“T is going to get into a fight after school with E, and he keeps threatening me too.”

Most of them, I can solve. In Social Studies – I can give them an answer, or at least make up one that’s convincing and logical. In other subject areas I can usually figure it out. I can call a meeting to mediate problems between the students, getting administrators involved when it is necessary. There are a lot of problems that I can solve – more than I ever would have thought I could.

And then there are those which I can’t.

C is a smart, beautiful girl. She is popular and energetic, and overflowing with confidence. She comes into my room every morning and gives me a hug before going to class. Last week she was moping around the school, and I kept her after class one day to talk to her.

“C – you’ve been moping around all week. What’s wrong? You don’t seem like yourself.”

“I’m okay,” she said, unconvincingly.

“Okay – well if you need to talk, you know I’m here.” As I finish my sentence her eyes fill with tears that spill down her cheeks.

“I just feel so neglected by my parents,” she says, her voice breaking as she turns into the 11 year old that she is.

“What do you mean?” I ask her. She tells me a story about messing up a money order she was writing for her mother, and her father calling her stupid and stopping talking to her. He hadn’t spoken with her for a week except to tell her how stupid she was. She complained that she was always in trouble with her whole family, and any time something went wrong they would blame it on her. It sounded a bit like a case of an eleven-year-old feeling sorry for herself, but it didn’t make it any less true or real for her.

“C, you know you are so so smart, and your dad cares about you a lot, he just was angry and tired, and probably said something that he didn’t mean.” She shakes her head at this, telling me that I’m wrong, and that truly he doesn’t care. He doesn’t’ speak with any of her older siblings, and will be glad when she is no longer around too. He’s always drunk and lost his job because of his drinking, she reveals to me. She has been sleeping in the bathtub to avoid the conflict.

Eventually I stop telling her that it will be okay or get better, or that her parents are not neglecting her and are in fact incredibly proud of her, because I realize that I don’t know. Instead I try helping her figure out how to deal with it.

“What do you do to make yourself feel better when all this is happening?”

Through her tears, she tells me that she goes into the bathroom and takes pictures of herself with her cell phone. Ah – that’s the girl I know and love. I laugh and give her a book, suggesting that it will help her escape, though it feels as inadequate as it is. This is a problem that I can’t solve – and I face a undred of them a day.

T has been in trouble every day this month, constantly getting in fights and cutting class and having his mom called. Today he comes to my room in tears, his tough boy exterior momentarily abandoned.

“T – what can we do to help you improve?” I ask him.
“Naw – I just hate this fucking school – they always be calling my mom. I want to leave this school.”
“Well what if that isn’t an option? Can we figure out other ways for things to get better for you?” He is one of my favorite students, with a ht head and a desire to be cool, but smart and fun when he’s not misbehaving.
“I don’t want to live there anymore!”
“Where?” He is distraught and seems irrational, ranting about this.
“With her! With my mom and my uncle. All they do is hit me.” He face crumbles and he puts his head down on his desk. I had spoken with his brother a week earlier, trying to figure out what was going on with him that had been making him act out so much. His brother had mentioned this problem that he had with his uncle, but I had never seen T so upset.

Before I could even try to think of a solution, or at least some kind words, a voice on the loudspeaker calls him to the office. He pulls himself together and walks out, another unsolved problem that I will take home with me.

I have to care, but I can’t care too much – because there are so many problems that I can’t solve. There are too many variables beyond my control. If I care too much I will go crazy, and yet how do you keep yourself from caring about these kids whoa re in your life more than any family or friends, changing you and opening your eyes in new ways every day?

Forgiving Them

They stole my sharpies. Another teacher had given me an 8 pack of jumbo sharpies, and visions of posters, and all star lists, and other fabulous activities danced in my head al weekend as I thought about those wonderful markers. Things like markers and tape are hard to come by and can be game changers in a classroom. I often get to fifth period and find that I don’t even have a pen, so other school supplies – staplers, scissors, markers and tape – are truly precious.

I missed a day of school, and when I returned my desk had been raided. The sharpies were gone, and the little thieves left the empty plastic package behind as a reminder of what I has almost had. Of course I questioned everyone. I grilled them on who had done it, and stalked my most likely suspects to the lunchroom, pulling them out into the hall to demand that they return them. I was a woman possessed.

Later that day, one boy took the tape off of my desk and used it to handcuff another student to his desk. It was not the right day to mess with my possessions.

“How dare you take something off of my desk? Have you no respect for other people’s things?!” I made the somewhat ill-advised decision to make an example of this boy, taking my chiding of him too far. I felt myself becoming ridiculous. It is, after all, just tape. And yet it felt bigger than tape. It felt, as so many misbehaviors feel, like a direct attack, direct defiance, direct disrespect.

Later I found out that this boy had been arrested over the weekend for jumping a subway turnstile in an attempt to chase down and knife someone. It goes without saying that he felt that I was overreacting.

I try to choose my battles. I give up some things in order to get others, and I know my students well enough to know which ones respond well to being yelled at, and which ones just want you to say ‘please’ when you ask them to do something. There is disrespect, and defiance, and rudeness, in a million ways every day – and it is often bigger than sharpies or a roll of tape. Perhaps it was just because this manifestation of those things was easy to attack – so concrete and direct. I went home furious – both at the students and at myself.

It isn’t rare to end a day in disbelief. How is it possible that students treat a teacher – an adult – another human being – in such a way? It is so easy to forget the good – to come home and write about the bad, and to tell funny stories about the things that they couldn’t have possibly really done – until they did.

And then, you have to forgive them. Every night – really every day at 3:30 – I have to fogive them. I have to leave school and let go of how annoyed I am at them, or how rude someone was in 8th period. I have to forgive them, and greet them with a big smile the next day, letting them know that with me they can always prove themselves, improve themselves, dig themselves out of whatever ditch they have dug. It’s exhausting to be angry – no doubt. Exhausting to hold on to resentments and arguments and injustices. But it’s very difficult to forgive – especially when the violators are not asking for forgiveness or admitting wrongdoing. And yet – it isn’t optional. It’s a part of my job. I have to forgive them, and treat them as well as I ever have.

And every time I need a marker, and I know that if I only had one I could really make a great poster and teach a great lesson, and no these other ones I bought aren’t as good – I have to remind myself to forgive.

No Shame

When I ask for a volunteer to read, hands shoot up. All around the room, faces cloud with disappointment when I choose one reader and the others have to wait their turn. For the thousandth time my students shatter my expectations. I assumed that those who were participating were the students who were confident in their abilities. When I was younger I would fall out of my seat trying to be chosen to read. I would look ahead and find the longest paragraph so that I could volunteer to read that one, carefully calculating when I should raise my hand if I wanted to be chosen for that lengthy section. Getting chosen for a shorter paragraph was a great disappointment. I was confident in my ability to read – prided myself on how fast and accurately I could speed through my paragraph, and was eager to show off my skill. In math, where I struggled, I tended to sit quietly in the back, praying not to be embarrassed by being called on for a questions I had no answer for.

Silly me, projecting my own experiences on my students once again. How could I possibly think that my life is in any way a model for what to expect for these kids. They shoot their hands up not because they are looking for recognition and praise, but simply because they are so desperately thirsting for my attention. I will call on someone and be surprised when they can barely stumble through a sentence. Why would they want to show off if there is nothing to show off?

It is strange, and surprising, and there is something incredibly wonderful about their unabashed willingness to struggle. They aren’t afraid of the judgment of their peers – at least not at this point. One student will whisper the correct word into the ear of a student who is struggling with a sentence, and the student will calmly accept the help, or continue to audibly work through the sentence until they reach the end on their own. Students are patient, reading along with the slow reader, while I silently panic that if I allow themt o continue reading at this pace I will lose the whole class. But I don’t. They listen, and the reader doesn’t lower their voice to a whisper or try to skip over the hard words. I say circle all of the words you don’t know, and they all shoot their hands up, eager to tell the class what they don’t know.

It’s so healthy! I always felt weighed down by the pressure to appear effortlessly good at things, and to feign disinterest in those things that were hard for me. Here, where they all struggle in some way, it’s not a competition for perfection. I planned to give lots of grandiose speeches to them about different types of intelligence, pumping up their confidence and putting salve on the wounds of being less good than their peers at any one thing. And yet I wasted my time in preparing that speech. I was thinking that these kids would have my own insecurities, when in fact they are largely immune to those, plagued instead by a set which I would never have dreamed of having. Most of them don’t define themselves by their academic prowess, and so they aren’t afraid to be vulnerable. They will tell you that they don’t know something, and dutifully write down the definition or answer in order to learn it for next time. When I tell them they have to yell, or stand up, or go to the front when they read aloud, they don’t put their hands down or avoid eye contact. Most of the time they raise their hands higher and wave them wildly, desperate for the attention, negative OR positive, that that chance in the spotlight will afford them.

It drives me crazy that they don’t define themselves by their academics, and yet it saves them. To be in seventh grade, reading at a first grade reading level is scary and discouraging. To feel ashamed of it would make overcoming it nearly impossible in a class of 32. In point of fact, the only thing that will make it possible for most of my students to succeed, is their willingness to fail.

Monday, December 1, 2008

In love with Mr. M

“Ms. K, we will be quiet if you write a love note for us to deliver to Mr. M.” S announced assertively. She’s the class president, full of confidence and swagger.
“Yea!” the rest of the class echoed her bargain.
“No – that’s not how this works,” I said, knowing fully well that with this class, one which was uniquely cohesive, this was exactly how it would work. “There will not be any love letters written during class today. We are learning about the explorers coming to America.”
It’s really a lost cause. The kids have been pushing this for weeks, asking me if I like Mr. M, a young, white teacher in the school who teaches 7th grade math. We share 100 students, and in the minds of that 100 there was romance blossoming in our dingy school.
“Ms. K – I think he likes you. I asked him who he would pick if it was between you and Ms. R and he said you because Ms. R is too serious!”
“That’s very nice, but I think that he is just messing with you,” I always reply, trying to kill the rumors.
“No! He’s cool – he talks to us. He said you’re pretty.”
Undoubtedly, he too has been pushed into saying ridiculous things in the interest of getting to the class material. I will often concede a small point in order to win my battle. They beg me to send him a message with them, and I’ll break down, “Fine – tell him I say hello.”
“That’s all?!?!”
“Tell him Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Ooooooooh,” they say, with a chorus of giggles that makes me roll my eyes and laugh at their ridiculousness. It’s largely a diversion tactic on their part – desperate to do anything to avoid learning about the Native American culture. But just a little bit of them is serious, and the two parts combined make them relentless.

“Ms. K – you’re eyes are so blue – they are JUST like Mr. M’s! You two would have such good looking kids! They’d have blue eyes and blond hair, and you could name them Stephanie….” For a moment they have me, ready to respond to this rather than push on through the reading. But I catch myself and call on someone to read. The student gets through a sentence before someone interrupts.
“No – wait – but seriously Ms. K. I’m not even kidding. I think he likes you. He told us! I’m going to tell him you said he looks fine today!” Shit. Now I have to respond.
“No – don’t tell him that – I can just walk downstairs and talk to him myself if I want to – no need to deliver messages.”
“Aw – you’re gonna tell him you think he’s looking tight today, aren’t you?
“Oh! Ms. Klein – are you going to blush?!? I think you’re going to blush.” And my stupid cheeks betray me, reddening on command. They collapse into laughter, and in my head I chant over and over to myself how silly this is. I don’t like Mr. M. I’m not embarrassed. I’m 23 and they are 12. But I’m blushing like a 12 year old and can’t seem to pull it back together.
“Stop!” I snap at them. “Mr. M has a girlfriend! And I am married!” Married?! What was I thinking with that! They all ask me daily if I have a boyfriend and I say no! Married?! I wish I was wearing my ring so I could at least move it to my left hand.
“You’re married?!”
“No – I’m engaged,” I feel better about this lie.
“Where’s your ring?” Naturally, this is the moment when they choose to be observant and look for clues. G-d forbid they did the same thing when we were reading Howard Zinn.
“I’m poor. No ring.”
“Oh.” They get that.
“So Mr. M and I do not like one another – we are not single!”
“So?! That don’t matter!” Ugh. Again they have managed to take me farther down a road than I ever meant to go and I am standing at the front of the class wondering how to get back to where I started and where I went wrong.
“Oscar – will you please read the next paragraph?” Oscar generally will demand the attention of his peers before reading, and I am counting on him doing this. When they continue to talk about Mr. M and I, I calmly remind them that the work will be done one way or another, turning into homework if it isn’t completed in class.
“Miss K – I’m going to tell him how you blushed and that you love him!”
“Fine,” I give in, tired of the game, and thinking that this will end it.
“OOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooooh!!!” The crowd goes wild in excitement. People hold up signs with ‘Ms. K + Mr. M = LOVE’ written on it. I roll my eyes to see how many of them have misspelled my name even in this.
“We’re going to tell him!!!!”
“Fine. But not until we finish the work!” The class reluctantly settles and we read through the page, filling in the blanks. At the end of class they dash off towards his room, and when I come downstairs later on, I enter the room sheepishly. He laughs.
“I thought that there was someone seriously injured from the way they ran into my room in a panic,” he says.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I winked at them,” he says, shrugging, as helpless as I.
“What did they say?”
Ridiculous kids.

Learning Lessons

I testified in my first suspension hearing at the school board. Across from me was JV, in the same bling covered hoodie that he had worn every day since I met him, his dark brown eyes averting mine, looking as innocent as they always did. My heart was aching for him – wishing that rather than teaching him a lesson like this I had been able to teach him a lesson in the classroom.

The swore us all in, myself, him, his mother and step father and the special education counselor who was accompanying me. They recorded it all, and asked me about the incident, how I had felt, how had said what. It wasn’t that scary once I was in there – but in the 4 hours I spent waiting for our case to be called I had sat shaking with the power that I suddenly had over someone’s life, feeling unqualified and inadequate. I read JV’s IEP (individualized education plan, which all students in special education have and which really all children deserve to have) and my eyes filled with tears as I read about his academic struggles and abilities. Nowhere in his IEP was there mention of behavioral problems – which in itself set his apart from the IEP of the other two boys who were being suspended. But what pained me the most was the paragraphs about his reading abilities and goals.

He has sat In my class every day and refused to do work. He acts up often, but can be calmed down. He needs a lot of attention. I often sit in the back of the room with him and try to engage him while the other teacher (his class is always taught by 2 teachers to ensure a 12:1 ratio) works with the other students. Generally when I do this, my goal is to distract he and his friend, RC, from their usual goal of disrupting the class in every ridiculous way possible. Im generally 30% successful if both are there – but when JV is there alone I can keep him occupied for the whole period. He is willing to organize papers, or staple packets for me. But when I ask him to write or read, he shuts off, becomes defiant and disruptive, and any relationship we had established through the period is lost. Other students will drop anything to write on the board or the overhead. JV will enthusiastically follow me to the front when I tell him I have a job for him, and then run away when he realizes that it involves literacy.

I had come to believe that he was illiterate. I couldn’t make him write – and I spoke with other teachers who had the same experience. Other students at least write when they are doing graffiti on my desks. He doesn’t even do that. Reading his IEP, I felt for the first time that I had truly failed a student. There was an academic goal that by the end of the year he be able to read on a 3rd grade level, and read 20 books on that level. He was described as creative and someone who enjoyed writing creatively. Who was that child? The boy who sat in my class was not the one who I was reading about, and I could only blame myself for losing him.

When I testified, he shook his head at everything I said, as though denying it. He was between his parents, and I had to figure that this was for their benefit. All I wanted was to end the whole mess, and start from the beginning with him. I realized that once he established himself as a behavior problem in my class, I treated him as such, rather than treating him as a student with challenging needs, as I did the others in his class.

In the end I guess it’s as much me learning a lesson as it is him. And at the end of the suspension, hopefully I’ll get another chance to do right by him, so that in his next IEP, his next teacher will read about his potential rather than his restrictions and limitations. I just wish I had gotten to read it earlier.