Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Sonia Sotomayor was raised in a Bronx Public Housing Complex.  She is Hispanic.  She is likely the next Supreme Court Justice.  I heard this story, and in my head I thought about how inevitably my dad would ask me if I had shared the news with my class.  I woke up early and found a dozen articles about it to bring to school, made a quick powerpoint presentation about the Supreme Court nomination system, and made a reading guide for them to fill out to help them attempt to read the articles. 


I wasn’t shocked by their reactions.  I had learned early on in the year that they tend to be ignorant to their own socio-economic situations.  They often insist that they are a part of the middle class, despite their actual status as members of the poorest congressional district in the United States.  Most of them are on welfare, and in this bad economy things can only look bleaker now than it did for most of them when I first tried to initiate conversations about poverty and the achievement gap earlier in the year. 


TFA often tells us that we should be illuminating the disparities and injustices that our students face by talking to them about it, but it’s challenging when they refuse to identify as members of a oppressed or neglected group. 


I tried desperately to make them care about Sonia – to make them feel a connection with her. 

“Miss – why you think we care about this?!  We ain’t poor like that.  I don’t live in no projects.” Says one student whose family is on welfare and who in fact is living in a shelter.

“I’m not Hispanic, I’m Dominican,” another asserts confidently.

“What – you think just ‘cause this lady is from we Bronx we should care?  She’s not like us!  And what’s the big deal about what she’s doing anyway.”

“Lots of more important people than that are from the Bronx,” they said, rattling off the long list of celebrities and musicians who are from the Bronx.  Most of them aspire to be professional athletes and hip hop artists, so these role models are better aligned to their ambitions.

I tried repeatedly to show them why this should matter to them, and found myself feeling like I was the crazy one for thinking that they had anything in common with this woman.  I was ultimately defeated, though I think I made a valiant effort towards reaching them.  I guess it’s a good thing that they are so confident, and have so much swagger, that they aren’t grasping for role models.  You can’t really blame a kid for not wanting to identify themselves as poor, disenfranchised, and unlikely to succeed.  

You Tight

Tight is not a good thing to be.  Tight means angry, frustrated, upset.  The kids feel triumphant if they can make one another, and most especially, if they can make me, ‘tight’.  They always give themselves credit for it – ‘Ah! You tight!’ they will exclaim when they see that they have upset you.  The things they do to make one another and myself tight are countless, and often surprisingly creative.

They  spend a lot of time making fun of one another for how poor they are. 

“Your mom is so poor, my mom gives her food stamps!”

They make fun of one another’s clothing and accessories and notebooks and pens.  If they ever ask for something or don’t have something, they are immediately called out for being too poor to afford pens, or pencils.  Several of them have a big reputation as thieves, and they will grab things off of my and other teachers desks and pocket them.  The kids always see this happen and turn one another in.  This is called ‘snitching’ and it is the worst of all crimes.

“Michael took your markers!”

“Michael, you so poor you can’t afford markers.  You always stealing, you're so poor!”

“Stop snitching – you a snitch!” And they both have lost, because while it’s not good to be a thief, it’s even worse to be a snitch.

Despite their apparent inability to afford school supplies, they do some to school with sidekicks (phones) and Jordans (shoes).  To me it all looks the same, but they can spot a fake from miles away.

“Get outta here with your nasty-ass fake jordans!”  everyone will turn to inspect the allegedly fake footwear, and the kids will think fast to come up with a comeback.  The other day one student was mercilessly accused of having a ‘prepaid’ phone plan, and he tried to defend himself.

“No – I got monthly!  I got a monthly plan, I ain’t poor!” 

In reality of course, they’re all poor, and some of them realize this more than others.  They argue about it and grow embarrassed, but maybe it’s best to make it a joke.  

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. M and I went to a baseball game of 2 of our students.  They had told us how good they were, and begged him to go.  On a Sunday morning, him, my sister, and myself all piled into the car to drive to the Bronx and watch 12 year olds play baseball. 

Upon arriving, one student saw us and shouted happily to the other, “Yo – Mr. M is here!”  We stayed for a short while, and watched them both get hits and field the ball several times.  At one point the coach made one of them do push-ups, and the other boy turned and smiled gleefully at us, to make sure we were watching.  We left before the game was over, but were glad we had come. 

The stands were empty.  It took me until almost the end of the game to notice it, but it did seem strange.  One of the ways to differentiate between games and practices when you are a little kid was always the audience who showed up for games.  Parents make friends with the other parents of kids on your teams, and every week some mom brings a snack.  Parents yell from the sidelines, cheering their kids on, and are there until the end of the game, when they can take them home.  At this game, there were zero parents in the stands. 

It struck me then, how important it must have been for our students to have us say we were coming and actually show up.  It’s easy to forget where the kids come from, and how challenging their lives are, and then little things like this will creep up on you.  One week a student comes in covered with bedbug bites, and reveals that he is now living in a shelter.  Another week a student is out and when they return they tell you they were at their mothers funeral; the guidance counselor whispers that the mother was a drug addict, or died of AIDS.  There are so many huge challenges that the students face, and tragedies that they encounter, that you overlook the small injustices that infest their lives.  A team of 12 year olds, filled with pride about their baseball skills, play for an audience of one another.  Their parents are probably working hourly jobs, or are at home with other kids, and it’s a fact that they don’t question or resent.  But from the outside looking in, it’s striking. 

It was good I went to that game, because for me it really made me realize how important the intangibles of teaching are.  You can’t measure the impact of showing up every day and following through on the things you say you will do.  You can’t measure the importance of structure and stability in the lives of these kids.  You don’t set a measurable goal about how safe kids feel at school, and how much they trust you.  And yet, those are the real successes that are defining my first year as an untrained and under-qualified teacher.  Those are the reasons that I can convince myself to come back.


I have been dating a teacher at my school for several months now.  The students are behind it really – they are the ones who put it in our heads, chasing us around the school and insisting that it was a good match, and that we must be crazy.  The girls would sit me down and give me lectures about how I could ‘bag’ him.  ‘Bagging’ refers to dating, kissing, hand holding, and beyond, and is tossed innocently around at school.  They would swarm around me every morning, telling me that if I didn’t stop dressing like a grandma there was no way I would ever bag Mr. M, and that I should really wear my hair down more. 


“You’re playing too hard to get!” they would insist, “he’s going to meet someone else if you don’t do something now!”  They would be very specific in their advise to me.


“Go downstairs right now, and take your hair down in front of him, and say, ‘you look good today, mister,’ and then turn around and walk out real sexy.”

“You better send him a message with us or he’s going to think that you don’t like him.”

“We saw you walk by him in the hall this morning without even saying hello to him – why are you doing that, Ms. Klein?”


He’s a popular teacher – plays football after school with the boys, who idolize a stable adult male in their lives, and teases the girls who come up to my room to tell me how cute they think that he is.  One day, Mercedes, who frequently speaks about how much she hates her own father, came to talk to me.


“I wish Mr. M were my dad,” she confided, “there aren’t many guys like Mr. Mullen, he’s really special Ms. Klein.  You should marry him.  He’s a good person.”  At the time, of course, I already was dating him, and I smiled at her insights. 


For a long time while they were convincing us to date, we were already together.  We would play games with them, him saying that there was no way that he would date me if I kept playing hard to get, which sent them flying up the stairs to my room, begging me to relent in that game.  If ever they got close to figuring it out, we would deny deny deny.


One day a student stole my phone and read text messages from him.  His name is in my phone as Gavin, and she read them and asked who it was. 


“I know it’s not Mr. M,” she said, “because his name starts with a  ‘g’.”  For once, I was grateful for illiteracy.


One day we were driving out of the parking lot and a student passed in front of the car.  Her jaw dropped when she saw us, and she pointed and smiled triumphantly.  At school the next day she brought it up to him.


            “Stephanie, are you seeing things?  What are you talking about?  You show up to school twice a month and start hallucinating?” he teased her.  She came to me next.

            “Ms Klein, I saw you two leaving school yesterday.”

            “What are you talking about Stephanie?  I took the subway home from school.”

            “Why are you guys doing this to me?!” she groaned, frustrated to have been robbed of her moment.

            “Stephanie, I really don’t know what you are talking about.”

            “Well, Mr. M had a girl who looked just like you in his car yesterday.”

            “He What?!  I’m gonna have to talk to him about that!”  she smiled and nodded, glad that she could at least provide me with some information.

525,600 minutes...How do you measure a year?

In the beginning of the year, they have you set goals.  A barometer of your success, really – a way to keep track of what gains you are making.  So many times this year I have felt that I am taking one step forward only to take 2 steps back.  Often it feels like one step forward over a ledge I didn’t notice looming ahead of me.  Or perhaps the ledge wasn’t there until I took that step…


In any case, success is a tricky concept, and after a difficult year full of challenges and surprises and disappointments, it’s a little bit hard to know how to measure it.  I set out with the ambitious goal of 80% students mastering 80% or more of the Social Studies Standards for NY State.  This is a realistic goal, actually, and one which was given the stamp of approval by those around me who know much better than I.  I will be giving the final examination on Monday, and on that day I will be able to determine how much of my efforts this year have really been effective – or at least, I will be able to measure whether or not I reached my goal.  When it comes down to it – my efforts this year have been far less streamlined than that goal would imply.


Based on the review activities we have been doing in class this week, I do feel that I’ve probably reached my goal.  I have some superstar students who balance out those students who refuse to lift a pencil, and the majority of the class has tuned in enough this year to be able to answer the questions on the test.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the students were able to do well on the test, which covers material that I’ve drilled into their reluctant heads ad nauseum, all year.  But even if they get those scores – is that really a way to measure success?


I have an advisor who comes to watch me teach occasionally.  He gives me notice that he will be coming, and then arrives and sits quietly in the back, typing furiously on his computer while I struggle not to embarrass myself in front of him.  He ducks out of the room right before the class ends, and then emails his notes to me.  The notes record my actions as well as those of my students, and then he will make comments.  They will often highlight the students who I am missing – the ones who are sitting in the back and are not engaged.  It will show how pathetic my efforts to engage them are.  Especially at this point in the year, when my frustration with a year of slacking off and causing trouble has reached a boiling point, I tend to neglect those students who are adamant about being defiant.


Would he say I’ve been successful?  Through his eyes I am forced to examine my weaknesses and failures.  On any given day there are still kids talking back to me, kids out of their seats, kids punching one another, arriving late to class, talking when I am talking, not even writing their name son their papers.  And yet, even with disorder and chaos, most of my student have been able to learn.  I weight this against the other goals – teach respect, have good class management, etc. and it’s hard to see what wins.  


I do feel like I’ve learned a lot – I know how to teach in a way where they will learn, despite their best efforts not to.  But the learning curve was steep, and months wasted in the beginning of the year mean that I didn’t make it fully through the year’s curriculum for the 7th grade.


I feel compelled to end the year on a high note – thinking positively, and feeling good about the time that I spent with my students, but it’s difficult to find a way to measure that looks beyond the numbers.