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.

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