Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Some poor girl left a pencil case in my room. Unfortunately, the black fabric pouch was found, and of course, opened by an undersized 6th grader in my 4th period class. Eager, as always, for the attention and affirmation of his peers, and thoroughly uninterested (or perhaps aware of how unlikely it is) in the approval of his teachers, he delighted in publicly displaying its contents. Within seconds he was in the back of the class doing pelvic thrusts, some girl’s extra set of orange jockey underwear pulled on over his blue jeans. People were delighted, of course, and he paid no attention to my stern reprimanding when he saw that he had an audience for his antics. He dug deeper and soon pulled out sanitary napkins (pads) or various sizes, which had been stored in the pouch. He screamed with delight and danced and thrust around the room, sticking them to himself and to the orange underwear. By the time the assistant principal arrived to take him out of class, he had created an uproar, though of course he left class reluctantly, having to eventually be carried out by a security officer, all the while claiming that he didn't do anything.”


You watch 24, and eventually become numb to how many people Jack Bower mindlessly kills in his pursuit of protecting the president. On the Sopranos, you begin to really understand the necessity of whacking someone who is a threat to your operation. Even time travel comes to be a bit mundane on LOST. Just watching a weekly television show can shift your perception of reality, so it should come as no surprise that spending every day in the South Bronx can deeply alter mine.

The things that I tell people that make them gasp and cringe feel increasingly normal to me. The lives of my students operate under a different concept of reality – a different idea of what’s right and wrong. If you get in a fight, it’s a lesser offense to deck someone in their head than in their face. It’s okay to call someone a bitch, but it’s not alright to say shut up. If someone violates you it is absolutely not okay not to respond in kind, regardless of how inevitable it is that you will be getting your ass kicked. The colors you are wearing denote what gang you are affiliated with, as do the color of the rosary beads around your neck.

These are adorable, funny, smart kids who grow up in a terrifying world of violence and low expectations. I don’t spend time near my school after dark, and yet they live their whole lives there, talking about gunshots they heard in their building the night before with an unflinching acceptance of this as a part of their lives.

I live in a walk-up in Chelsea, and don’t feel guilty about my life. I don’t keep it a secret from my students that I live in Manhattan, and I don’t have any second thoughts about the choices I have made that have brought me to where I am. But it’s a different reality in Chelsea than it is in the South Bronx. When I am there, it’s as though my senses are dulled to the extremes that I confront each day. The cultural differences, the socioeconomic differences, the racial differences – they don’t stand out to me anymore. When I first began to teach, I remembered every encounter with these disparities clearly and shockingly. Now it is difficult for me to look back at a day and recall even a single one. This is how you get through days that are unfathomably sad or scary or disarming. You dull your senses and become a bit numb to it. You change your sense of reality.

But it is very hard to leave the South Bronx, where so many parts of me that matter in the rest of my life – my interest in politics and the news, the books I read, the clothes I wear, the education I’ve been afforded – are forgotten, and return to the world where all of the things that seem normal all day long are jarringly unacceptable. I sit on my couch and call parents to talk about their kids behavior, and they assure me that they are taking care of it and ‘beating the shit’ out of their kids. They say this to reassure me, as though it will calm me – and in truth, when I’m at school it does feel like the right thing for a parent to say. The worst is when parents say that they don’t know how to or can’t control their children. When I call from school, the level of anger in the parents voice, the promise that they will ‘take care of it’ feels like a relief: this parent cares a lot. But at home I hear the same words, echoes of the same promises, and I remember that I don’t support or understand corporal punishment. The defense that it is a cultural difference feels hollow and false, though I know it’s one that many people in my situation lean on in an effort to shift their reality. Cognitive dissonance has to be reduced when what you think and feel are different from what is real, so you change what you CAN control. You convince yourself that this stuff isn’t upsetting, that it is normal and necessary, and that it’s not a big deal.

People can do this. They can adjust their sense of reality, and they can do it almost subconsciously, without exerting any real effort. It’s what allows us to be resilient, to survive in a variety of contexts. But the hardest part of my day is making that shift, from one reality to another, and figuring out which parts of me I can’t compromise.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Help Wanted:

My students are smart. They can learn. They simply aren’t driven. My sixth graders can rattle off lots of facts about Egypt and Mesopotamia – they love answering questions and winning at trivia. They knew about what I am teaching them – but they don’t do homework, they don’t study, and sometimes they say ‘It’s not my day today, Miss,’ and put their head down. They are smart though. They really can get it – and I’m always so excited when we finish a unit and I know that they have really absorbed the concepts that I taught them. But then I look at their grades, both on tests and in the class, and they don’t reflect what they know. They don’t do homework most of the time, which makes it hard to pass the class, and on tests even the students who have demonstrated the most thorough understanding in class will fail miserably when put under pressure. They can learn, but they don’t understand the importance of work. They are intimidated easily by what they don’t know, so that if they see even a single word that they don’t know they will often give up. On an exam, their limited vocabulary impairs them, so that even questions that they know the answers to they will halfheartedly guess at rather than trying to figure it out.

When I really think about it, I feel like they are miraculous for even getting as far as they have a lot of the time. I have one student, JC, an attractive African American guy who is very popular and good natured who cannot read or write. When I try to help him, he needs help with the most basic tasks. I will sit with him for an entire period, spelling out every single word. He looks up at me questioningly when he needs to know how to spell ‘were’ or ‘are’ or ‘into’. If I was 14 years old, in the 7th grade for the 3rd time, and was nowhere near being able to read or write on grade level, I would be pissed off. I would be discouraged. I would give up. He is already affiliated with a gang, and only wears colors that are connected to that gang. The chances of him making it through high school seem slim, though not impossible, but just the act of working as hard as he needs to work seems unlikely given the outside pressures to give up. But he’s not angry, and if I go to help him, he lets me – which just causes me to lament the small amount of time that I have to give to him. He will do the work, and he could learn, if only I had the time and know-how to help him, but he doesn’t really have the intrinsic drive to make it happen. He’s already heading down a path, and doesn’t see why he wouldn’t want to be on it.

Another girl, GE, does her work, copying down notes and completing worksheets. She’s popular and pretty and has more than 2 outfits which makes her well dressed. She has a great sense of style and a lot of attitude. She’s a lot of fun, but she’s can’t really read or write. When I ask her to write an essay, the result is so completely incoherent that I don’t know how to begin to edit it. She needs so much help and yet she is popular, and has a good looking boyfriend, and doesn’t see the need. I ask her and I ask the boy to come to one-on-one or small group tutoring with me and they both look at me, confused about why I would do this for them. They weigh on my mind every day, and I wonder how I can change things for them, and most of all, how I can convince them that they should change. The girl wants to be a model when she grows up, and her family lives off of welfare, with her dad gone and her mom unemployed, making some money from babysitting for neighbors kids during the days. She doesn’t see how much she gives up when she stays out until 1am with her boyfriend instead of doing homework, or spends her time wandering the halls with friends instead of going to class, or sits on her phone and text messages when she should be taking the help I am offering her.

SV told me on the first week of school that she was having an A and B conversation so please see my way out of it. She walks through the halls calling the principal and pansy-ass little man, and telling the assistant principal to go fuck herself. She shoves kids aside who get in her way, and has a dirty mouth. She is my favorite. She adores me, and spends every free second that she has in my room.

She has 2 brothers, a 15 year old who is apparently in jail for a gun fight he got into last year, and a 16 year old who is involved in a gang and just got his first gun. Her parents are married, but her dad is in the Dominican and her mother has become a lesbian. She tells me, loudly and laughing that her mother spends all day in their project upstairs with her lover. She comes in, tired, and explains that she was up all night, because her mom brought home fried chicken at 3 am, when she was about to go to sleep. I ask her if she is the best behaved and she looks at me like, ‘please, you’re kidding miss,’ and says, “No, the one who is in jail was the best one.” She is smart, and she does work in my class, though like the other kids who are loud and obnoxious and attention seeking, avoiding work at all costs and seeking attention in any other way possible, she is fully uneducated and years behind where she should be. People can’t stand her. She wears tight, skimpy clothes, and hugh plastic earrings. She wears a rainbow belt with a buckle the size of my head, and she never goes anywhere without demanding the attention of everyone in a 50 foot radius. The teachers can’t stand her. She makes her educational failure a self-fulfilling prophecy, and yet I can’t stand the thought of her failing.

These are three students. There are 180 who I see every day, and at least 120 of them are in a position where failure is far more likely than passing. For all of them they are years behind where they should be, and they compensate for their academic deficiencies with attitude and bad behavior that alienates the people who would be able to help them. 120 students who are smart, 120 students who would learn, 120 students who don’t know how to; and 120 students that I’m afraid that I won’t have the time or the skills to help.


Keeping a straight face is essential a lot of the time. If I am laughing, it has to be on my terms. I have lost it four times this year, the first was then Hector stepped on the mouse, once was when the students ambushed me about loving Mr. M, once when there was fight in my room that seemed so outrageously ridiculous that my reflex caused me to laugh, and the most recent time occurred on Friday.

To be fair, I had taught my 2 toughest classes in a row, which required an hour and a half of angry, mean, strict me. It’s exhausting. Then I got a coverage, and had to fill in for another teacher, teaching one of the classes I had just finished with. It’s my CTT class, which means that there are 2 teachers in the room at a time with 12 special ed students and 12 regular education students. It’s essentially become a dumping group for all of the general ed behavior problems and the special ed socio-emotionally disturbed kids. Most of the students who are really cognitively low functioning get into other environments, so the issues that we deal with in this class are largely related to management.

I was in my friend Ms. G’s room, which has no windows, which makes the always enjoyable game of students turning off the lights in a classroom infinitely more entertaining to them and infinitely more infuriating to us (which, of course, only makes them enjoy it more). The way it works is this: we teach and give instructions, and walk around the room, monitoring student progress, answering questions, trying to keep kids on task, when suddenly the room goes pitch black, and you hear thumps as students pick up whatever is on their desks and hurl it across the room, usually in the direction of someone they had been plotting to get. We scream to turn the lights on, and by the time someone has locted the switch, people are diving back into their seats to avoid accountability for any of the mayhem that ensued in the dark.

On Friday, this happened 6 times in one period, which I had never experienced (my room has lots of windows, so I was caught off guard even by how thoroughly dark it got. Right before the 4th time that they lights went out, J took a pen of mine and broke it, emptying the blue ink into a water bottle. He smiled duplicitously and told me that the next time the lights went out he was going to send it flying, spattering everyone with ink. I managed to wrest it away from him, only to move on to averting the next potential crisis. On the fifth time, a staple was sent sailing through the room and shattered against the wall, which surprised everyone, given the real harm that the stapler could have caused. So when they went out a sixth time, Ms. G lost it and screamed in a voice I had never heard. When the lights went back on, people scrambled to their seats and I put my back to the class, hoping no one would notice my amusement. Of course not.

“MS K IS LAUGHING! Why are you laughing Ms. K? Awwww she’s laughing!” Of course this is all it takes for me to really loseit, and soon I have tears in my eyes I am laughing so hard, and my face is turning red as I struggle to calm myself.

I think it’s just encountering the ridiculous that gets me – those moments when I realize how unqualified I am to really manage any of the things that I am expected to handle. A child steps on a mouse and looks to me for guidance, missing the irony in the fact that the mouse wouldn’t have even remained on the floor long enough for him to step on it had I been mature enough to deal with it. Two kids twice my size fight, and I laugh at the idea of being able to separate them, or it’s one kid half my size with another who is twice my size and I laugh at the impossibility of a fight between an elephant and a mouse. Or I find myself in the dark for the 6th time in 45 minutes, and I can’t help laughing at the impossibility of determining the culprit, or modifying their behavior. I laugh, because if I don’t, I’ll lose it. If I dwell on how many answers I don’t have, or how wrong I am a lot of the time, I’ll cry. So, luckily, I laugh…even if it does at time undermine my already shaky authority…


There are 3 girls in the 8th grade who are pregnant, and two who had abortions. Ms. G is teaching about sexual reproduction, and has to hold herself back from pausing and saying “Pay attention! Don’t you want to know what is happening in your body! Aren’t you curious about how this happened to you!?” Sex is seeping out of the pores of these students. I remember middle school, when every word has some sort of innuendo attached to the point where asking to borrow a pencil or even saying the word ‘it’ would bring giggles to everyone around you. This is a different type of sexual tension. Their jokes are every bit as ignorant as ours were, but not nearly as innocent.

They live their lives on fast forward. The eighth grade dance is the last school dance for the majority of them, who will not have a senior prom, and many of whom may not even have a homecoming. Another teacher described it to me that the music goes on, the lights go down, and they start dancing. “The girls put their hands on the floor, their butts in the air, and the guys stand behind them and they all dance. Your job is to circulate and ensure that no one has sex at the dance.”

They give out condoms in the nurse’s office, which is probably prudent, though like all things it is abused at times. In class the other day, 2 students brought 40 of these condoms, with little foil packets of lube to accompany them. They wasted no time in laying this all out on the desks, and talking loudly about what a big weekend they have ahead of them. Of course, these are 2 boys who have been slated to be transferred out of our school into a District 75 school, which is fully special education in highly restrictive environments. But, for the moment, their socio-emotional disturbances are a blessing bestowed upon my class everyday, and I have to figure out how to address the misbehaviors of students who simply don’t care.

Me: Put those away.
J and R: Hahahahahahahaha. Alright Miss, chill out. Relax, relax.
Me: Seriously, put those away, this is not the place for those.
J and R: You want one, Miss?
Me: No thank you, I want you to put them away.
J and R: hahahahahahahahaha. NO.

I walk away and try to ignore them but they get louder and more disruptive, offering them to other students in the class. Finally I have to do what I had been trying to avoid.

Me: You need to give those to me if you can’t put them away.
J and R: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaw, oooooooooooh Miss – why? Mr. M doesn’t have his own!? (this allusion is to the fictitious relationship that I have with another teacher which has not lost the interest of the students even remotely, no matter how determined I am to make it un-fun to tease me about)
Me: (ignoring that ridiculous question) You shouldn’t have them in class, you aren’t putting them away, so I’m confiscating them. Give them to me.
J and R: Naw – miss – I don’t know if they are even the right size for him – hahahahaha (they crack themselves up)

I am biting my tongue to keep from laughing at their antics, which is all they want me to do.

Me: Give them to me, or put them away, or I am going to call the principal to take them.
J and R: Miss K – relax. Relax.

They don’t put them away, of course, and I go to call security, assistant principals, principals. Of course, no one answers, and so I have a fake conversation for their benefit with the dial tone on the phone: “yes, they are disturbing the class and being inappropriate, would you mind calling their homes for me? Yes, of course I’ll right it up.” They are pretending to ignore me. When I hang up and return to teaching, it is silent for a couple of minutes, and I think I won, until suddenly R springs up from his seat and shouts, outraged:

“I got ripped off, these are too small! I needed JUMBO and these are too small!!!!!!”

Lost. Again.