Wednesday, June 30, 2010


At the end of the year, the kids get yearbooks. The teachers get them too, and the child in me forces the kids to sign mine. Perhaps I just need that moment of affirmation, or maybe I am afraid that I’ll forget them one day. I loved my class this year. They were crazy and they aggravated me, but I genuinely loved most of the kids, and will genuinely miss them.

They graduated, and next year will go to various high schools around the city. Very few of them will be together, which makes them sad, and none of them will be with me, which makes me sad.

I met these kids when they were in 7th grade, and I had exactly 0 days of teaching experience. They were wild and crazy, testing me and pushing me and angering me every day. Last year, I would brace myself for their arrival in class, and count the seconds until they left. They were more than challenging - they were impossible.

180 students, 2 grades, zero experience or knowledge of social studies - I was in over my head. Perhaps if you put me in the same situation now, I would be better equipped to handle it. I’d like to believe so.

Last year was a year of growth - I started out overwhelmed, and confused as to why the kids were looking to me for answers. Eventually I realized that they thought that I was a teacher, and accordingly, I began to come one. Through trial and error, and failing in a new way every day, I eventually learned what it meant to teach. But it was a treacherous path and a vertical learning curve.

Last year ended with a sigh of relief, and a great deal of self doubt. Had I wasted a year of my life? Had I accomplished anything? Had the kids learned? How could I possibly go back in the fall? All summer my stomach clenched when I thought of returning, and when I eventually did walk back into the building, my throat closed up as I passed through the front doors.

When you are in it, you convince yourself that it’s not so bad. Last year, I spent a lot of time focusing on the good - looking at the small successes. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gone in every day. When you are in it, you don’t see the lessons, the growth - how much you have changed.

Before I started to teach, I ran into a guy I knew at a bar. He had done Teach For America, and I told him I was considering it. In his intoxicated state he was especially passionate - “It’s real. It’s the most real thing that you will ever do. It’s hard, every day, but it’s real, and the problems are real for you and for your students, so it’s okay that it’s so hard. It makes everything else in your life seem silly.” I was working for a job where everything felt slow and dull and abstract. I was sold.

The first year was brutally challenging, and brutally real. I learned about the kids, the community, the achievement gap, and about myself. It was the first job I had had, and the first moment of my life, when my time was occupied thinking of someone other than myself. And by looking away from myself for a moment, I learned a lot about who I am.

The first year that I taught, numbers and statistics became concrete. A second grade reading level wasn’t just a phrase - it was the difference between sounding out letters, and knowing a word. Literacy became not an abstract concept, but the difference between being able to understand what you read, teach yourself, expand your world - and being powerless to play a significant part in the world around you. The achievement gap stopped being a story you heard about; it played itself out as a tragedy in my classroom everyday. It was the futures that these kids didn’t even know to hope for, the dreams that they never had, and the inevitabilities that defined their lives. The communities weren’t a hotbed of stereotypes, they were a collection of stories, some sad, others hopeful, all ending up in a place where kids weren’t allowed to be outside after 6pm, and only 1 in ten of them would go to college.

The realness of this is what makes you go in every day. You don’t show up at a miserable job, where you make little money, get cursed at and threatened, ignored and mocked, just to fight for an abstract cause. The IDEA of the achievement gap doesn’t get you to plan a lesson and make worksheets that will likely end up on the floor. It’s the reality - the kids, the faces, and tales that they tell, and the future that you want for them more than they know to.

This year, I taught. I made many of my kids learn the curriculum, and hopefully a few things about life. They achieved great things, and left more ready for high school than they were when they got to me. This year, going to work wasn’t hard on most days. I stopped fighting the reality that this job had taken over my psyche, and allowed myself to talk about it wherever I went, whenever asked. The job is still a challenge, but now I see the rewards.

This class that graduated, was with me for my first two years. They watched me grow from a kid who felt more like one of them than like a teacher, into an adult who doesn’t doubt her authority. They introduced me to Mr. M, and pushed us towards one another, ultimately giving me one of the greatest rewards of this job - love. They taught me about slang, and sneakers, and hair weave. They taught me about responsibility, and patience, and a sense of humor. They taught me to pick my battles, and how to fight. They taught me to swallow my pride, to not take it personally, and to show love when I feel hate.

These were the most challenging two years that I could have imagined, and these kids were on the journey with me every day. They can tell you how things have changed, how I’m different now. They will say that I used to be cooler, or that I dress nicer now. They don’t realize how much more they learned this year from me than last year - to them, if a teacher keeps them busy, they must be learning. They don’t realize how much work it has taken to become ‘less cool’. They don’t realize how much they mean to me, and how much I worry for their futures.

Perhaps the fact that I cannot imagine what lies ahead for them is what inspires me to have them sign the yearbook. Perhaps it’s the fear that none of my dreams for them will come true. I think of their future as much as I consider my own - but have no control now that they have passed through my door. They will go to bad schools in bad neighborhoods. They will face pressures from boys, and gangs, and their own families and friends. They will have ample opportunity to get pregnant, or go to jail, or drop out. The statistic says that 1 in 10 will go to college, and only half will graduate high school. The real picture - that remains to be seen.

Here are some of the entries that the kids made in the yearbook - some are to Mr. Mullen as well as to myself:

To Mr Mullen
You are my dude to da death. best math teacher i’ve ever had no kidden. and you cool like ice. thanks for your support and help. u kept up with my shit lol. your pal, T

Ms Klein:
Ima miss your white self!!! Your awesome don’t get gassed*. Everytime I wanted to get you mad I would do things to erk you. I can’t spell so i’m not going to try to. I know you gonna miss me and mullen too even though he don’t know it yet. i’m going to come back all the time next year i promise. you and mullen better have a baby and a wedding by the time i finish high school. hopefully no one in your next class is better than 804. you and ms. j made 8th grade fun, and you from 7th grade. i’m gun accomplish my goals.
love, your little girl, s.m.r.
p.s. mullen + klein = all because of me - say thanks when you get married!!

Ms. Klein
you were one of my best teachers. i will miss you and please take care of mullen. Ms, remember life is just a game we all have to play, and you have to choose which side you on. if the kids give you a hard time call me. i love you.

*get gassed = get a big head or get full of yourself

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