Thursday, November 19, 2009


Carl and Jon are masochists. They love to be tortured. They follow a girl around the school all day, submitting themselves to her relentless taunting and torturing of them. They get beaten down and go back for more.

“Yo! Carl is a loser! His mother don’t love him!” she says
“Jon’s fat!” she shouts. She makes up a song and teaches everyone. It’s called “Jon’s fat” and Jon sings along, often doing the chorus on his own.

Boom, click, boom boom – jon’s fat
Boom, click, boom boom – he’s fat.
Boom, click, boom boom
Boom boom boom

He wants that taco bell
Pizza hut and burger king
Extra fries with onion rings

Boom, click, boom boom – jon’s fat
Boom, click, boom boom – he’s fat.
Boom, click, boom boom
Boom boom boom

And Chicken wings
Are so tasty, he said
But he once took
A monkey to bed

Boom, click, boom boom – jon’s fat
Boom, click, boom boom – he’s fat.
Boom, click, boom boom
Boom boom boom

“Why do you follow her?” we ask them incredulously. “Why do you want to be around that? You are so much better than that.” They eat lunch with Mr. M and myself most days, in his classroom, playing connect four while they tell us stories about their days. They shrug. There really is no good answer.

Carl has a history of masochism. Last year he flushed his own head down the toilet in an effort to make kids laugh. He allowed himself to be put in a lunchroom trash can and have ‘LOSER’ written in sharpie on his forehead. He marched around the room and the school, allowing everyone to see it and laugh at him. One day in the park, he took off his pants in front of a crowd and straddled a pole. He asks questions in ELA about getting pregnant from masturbating, and last week, when a kid asked him if he was a virgin, he confidently said, “my hand’s not,” elaborating when he was rewarded with explosive laugher, “neither is my pillow.” He cries easily, publicly, and often. He flourishes when he is given any type of attention, blossoms in the glow of laughter, even if it is at his expense.

This is not a stupid kid. He is one of the smarted kids in the grade. He scores high on state exams, reads on a 12th grade level, and loves to draw. He writes well, and reads beautifully, using voices, acknowledging punctuation and pausing for effect. This year, he is in a class where he is away from the people who tortured him in the past, and though he does still go looking for it after school, for the first time he is seeking attention in a way that is positive. He makes us all laugh – not at him, but because he is funny. Because he writes rhymes and raps and beats that are clever, and he performs them with confidence – after all, he’s been the center of attention for years. He is being given a stage, and on it he is finally getting what he longs for – attention – but in a good way.

Jon has never been given the time of day by a teacher. His squeaky prepubescent voice haunted me last year, never stopping, never on task, always trying to impress this girl, even as she put him down. This year, he is in Mr. M’s math class, and he is treated like a star. He is treated like a cool kid, and in turn, for the first time, he acts like one. When I see him he is polite and respectful. He behaves himself in class, and his scores are high.

These are two kids who have been talked about for years, teachers rolling their eyes and shrugging their shoulders while the kids tease them and laugh at them. They look for affirmation in any way that they can get it – and in turn have turned themselves into the perfect victims. But this year, as a result of circumstance, they have found themselves in classes which give them the opportunity to shine. And it’s amazing how they do. Makes you wonder about the other 300 students in the school, and what they would do if only they had the chance.


There’s an altered sense of propriety. They are so casual when they talk about their lives. I want to tell them that it’s outrageous, fascinating, absurd or damaging. I want them to know that it’s important. Book are written about lesser traumas, and yet these children nonchalantly recount the adultery, abandonment and assault that has defined their lives.

A sweet girl, Amy, is new to the school. She fell in love with a boy in class in the first month, before he broke up with her and she moved on to a bilingual boy who has a reputation for winning fights. They were caught after school one day, having sex in his apartment, and his mother came to school furious. The boy had already fathered one child over the summer, and she wasn’t prepared to handle him fathering another so soon.

Amy told me her story one day in advisory. She told me that no one had ever wanted her, that she’d never had a home. Another girl was talking about how she hated her father, and Amy said quietly that she didn’t hate hers, he just didn’t want her – no one did. When she was a baby, her young parents left her to be raised by her grandmother. This was a plan that worked, until her grandmother got a boyfriend who she would rather be with. She left to live with her boyfriend, leaving Amy with her uncle. For 6 years her uncle sexually assaulted her, until finally is was uncovered and she was removed from the home. This is how sexual assault is dealt with in the Bronx – take the child away – don’t punish the offender, punish the child. Amy has been in foster care, split up from her brother, and moving from place to place for the last few years. She says that she has no home – that she has lived in 14 homes and been enrolled in 7 schools in the last 2 years alone.

This heartbreaking story is told to me and a few other students in the advisory group, with an air of broken indifference. There are bestsellers about the lesser tragedies that have shaped their lives, and yet to most of these kids this isn’t even a story. People spend millions on lifetimes of therapy to recover from smaller wrongdoings, and these kids don’t even realize they’ve been hurt. They can play ball with the kids around them, one-upping one another.

G’s dad has 23 kids with different women and her mom drinks too much. A’s dad has 10 kids with 4 different women. They call him Harry, not dad. T’s dad has 7 kids and cheated on her mom her whole life until her mom left him. K’s mom was 15 when she had her, and dropped out of school. M’s mom was 14 and his dad is a dirtbag, he tells me.

It’s absurd. This isn’t group therapy, it’s 8th period, and these are just a random sampling of the students in the school. They are kids, and have no power over their own lives or circumstances.

They talk endlessly about why they don’t believe in marriage – why they’ll never get married.

“No way. It’s not worth it. You should see what my mom goes through,” The girls all agree. As soon as you get married you just start getting hit. It’s not worth it. They speak from experience, but it’s another dream that they have lost. Another thing that girls dream of and picture for themselves that they long ago let go of. And they don’t even know that it’s a loss.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Taking It Personally

“Miss, you know you have love handles?” a girl is following me around the room as I hand out papers. She actually felt the need to rise from her seat and trail me in order to ensure that I hear her. I was actually feeling pretty good about how I looked today – for once – a dress that I couldn’t imagine revealed flaws to any extent that required that she point them out to myself and the class.

“Miss Klein, you hear me? You know you have love handles. That’s bad. They look really bad.” She repeated herself, determined to give me an eating disorder.

Later in the day, another one of my lovely students gets annoyed with me.

“Your face is ugly – all white and it gets red and you so ugly, miss.”

On, and on, and on.

“Shut up – why you always talking to me? You think I want to hear your dumb voice?”
“Miss – you did a bad job of explaining this!”
“Miss Klein, this is stupid.”
“You gained weight Miss.”
“Those pants are ugly, why you wearing those ugly pants?”
“Why do you think we need to learn this, why you teaching us this?”

I must have done something horrible to deserve this – karma wouldn’t allow this to be what my days are like unless I did something to deserve it.I took a boys ipod from him and he told me he would ‘deck me’, and he would ‘f-ing kill me’ and then, when we decided to be more realistic in his threats, he declared that he was ‘gonna call my sister to come wash you up.’ If someone washed you up, suffice it to say that you lost the fight.

Before I began to teach, my middle school swim coach and gym teacher gave me some advice. He had been teaching in a city middle school for many years, and I took his words to heart.

Drink every weekend.
Be friends with your colleagues
Don’t take it personally.

Drinking isn’t a problem, though sometimes it’s hard to contain it to the weekends as he suggested. And my boyfriend started as a colleague, so fraternizing hasn’t proved to be too painful either. But not taking it personally is always a struggle. I have to make an effort not to hear them, to rationalize their words. It’s not that they hate me – they hate their lives, they hate school, they hate that they are 14 and can’t read, they hate that this test is hard or that they have to sit still, or that they didn’t get breakfast. They hate their dad that left or their mom who is never home, or their little cousin who gets all the attention and keeps them up all night. They hate the kids with nicer clothes, and the cliques that leave them out. They hate – but they don’t’ hate me. So I put on my newly acquired ipod and tune out their words, hoping that I’ll forget them by tomorrow.

If They Didn't Learn It, You Didn't Teach It

There is an incredible satisfaction that comes from executing a good lesson. I taught them to use textual evidence and walked away feeling as though there was no possible way that they could have not gotten it. I expected a sea of perfect papers to flow over my desk. We did examples, we did corrections, we practiced. The reality that they only slightly grasped the concept, and that their execution of the skill was flawed, was difficult for me to wrap my mind around.

This is a pattern. I created and Oregon Trail game to teach Westward Expansion, and felt sure that I had hit the nail on the head in teaching it. In groups we formed wagon trains and took a fictional journey across the country, making stops, writing journal entries, overcoming obstacles. On the test, when asked where the Oregon Trail ended, most of them seemed for some reason that the trail had led them to Louisiana.

It’s frustrating, and my instinct is to blame them – they don’t listen, they don’t study, they don’t’ know how to learn, they have no interest in learning. When I learn, though, is when I turn it on myself, and on where I am lacking. It’s said in progressive teaching circles that ‘If they didn’t learn it, you didn’t teach it.” That seems rather intuitive, but accepting its truth is daunting. I DID teach it! I know I did! And I was creative and engaging and everyone participated and worked so hard on it – how can it be the case that I didn’t teach it! And yet, they didn’t learn it. And so I have to try again, in some new way that I didn’t consider before. They didn’t learn it, so no matter what bells and whistles I had going off, what I did, was not teaching. And as fun and easy and gratifying it is to blame the 30 reluctant learners in my class, it’s not particularly helpful in raising their scores on their state exams. So I have to look in the mirror, and, reluctantly, learn something.

Make An Effort

Make An Effort

Friday is test day. We have them for four periods in the morning – 4 straight periods in one room with 30 thirteen year olds. No breaks. No room. It’s a wonderful day – quizzes generally mean quiet, and after 4th period we are done for the day. But do not underestimate the challenge of keeping kids pent up and thinking for such an extended period. Often this day ends up as one of our most diffcult.

Today they start out with writing an essay to analyze a short story that we read. We read it as a class, covering the board with notes and ideas. The next day they sat in their groups with a list of 6 questions to talk about. These are their ‘book clubs’ and they are to analyze and thoughtfully discuss things we are reading. I give them 30 ways to start sentences and respond to one another respectfully. I give them the questions they can use to provoke thought. I give them 30 minutes with their friends to talk freely, as long as it’s on topic. Then the next day they write an essay. I use 3 of the questions that they already talked about the day before. I outline the essay for them, so they basically have to just fill in the blanks. They complain. They are confused. They don’t get it.

“I hate Miss Klein. I hate her to her guts,” says one girl who didn’t participate in the discussions the previous 2 days and now resents being tested on it.

I feel incredible satisfaction when I get a good essay. When I get one that follows standard format. We have tested their reading levels and revised and edited their work. I have taught them to cite sources and to provide textual evidence for all of the points that they make in an essay. And seeing that they get it fills me with pride. So as the essay tests came in, 2 full pages in their careful handwriting, filled with mistakes and white out but brimming with EFFORT.

Make. An. Effort. That’s all I ask. If you try, you will succeed, I tell them again and again. If only you will try. If only.