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?