“How are your students doing with testing?” the man on the treadmill next to mine is a superintendent in Westchester. He’s a very nice guy, and the students in his district are also in the midst of testing.
“Pretty good,” I answer, and in my mind flashes a picture of Kiara, one of my students, with her head on the desk in a puddle of tears. “Most of them seem to feel good about it so far, but ugh, one of my girls just had a breakdown this morning during the listening portion.”
It’s my mistake. I should have left it at, ‘pretty good’, because that is all that anyone really wants to hear. But it’s just not the whole truth, and for some reason I felt compelled, as I often do, to present a more complete picture.
“Really?” he sounds concerned and surprised, “what happened?”
The second book of the ELA test consists of a listening portion, in which a passage is read aloud to the students twice, while they take notes. They answer a few questions about the passage, and then are asked to write an essay about some aspect of it.
“She just put her head down, she was really exhausted I guess, and she couldn’t focus while the passage was being read, she didn’t take a single note, and just gave up. Eventually someone told me and I was able to go to her and convince her to finish the reading comprehension part at least, but it’s a shame because she should have done pretty well.”
“Did you do any practice tests with them?” he asks this gently, not wanting to imply that I haven’t done my job, but perhaps thinking that it was something that hadn’t occurred to me.
“Yea, we did a month of practice tests – “ I want to keep talking, to explain about Kiara, to tell him that she’s a great girl but she spent the whole night before testing in the hospital, and then came straight to school, worn out from the experience and carrying with her concern for her family member. I want to explain that she has given up before, that she’s already planning to get a GED instead of go to high school, and that it’s hard for her to see the point in all of this. But I don’t.
Instead, I just shrug, and finish the conversation. “Sometimes the pressure of the actual day gets to them I guess.”
He nods, getting it. It’s nice when someone nods like they get it, and feels that they understand the situation. If only they actually did.
I am the man in Avatar, who traveled into the strange world of ‘Pandora’, and saw everything through the eyes of the outsider. He came back, and recorded his video diaries, describing what he saw. He was fascinated, intrigued, curious. But then, as time passed, the strangest thing happened. He stopped being an outsider. He became a part of their world, and when that happened, everything became a lot more complicated. It became much harder to communicate that world to his fellow outsiders.
When I started working in the Bronx, I was an outsider. I grew up in a town that bore no resemblance at all to the community that I traveled to every day. It could have been another planet that I was traveling to – or at least another country, but in truth, it was just a twenty minute drive uptown from my apartment. I saw things that were new to me, though I had always considered myself to be fairly enlightened. I took note of the slang and the styles and the food. I learned about the norms in the way that families operated – different from what I was accustomed to, as well as the expectations that my students had of themselves, and the unique array of challenges that they faced. I learned about these things, and I shared what I learned with people who had not traveled there.
At work, everything was shocking or funny or scary. Everything was a big deal, because I was a teacher, and I was working with kids, and things that happened to them mattered. Everything was important because they were important. Rarely did a day pass when I didn’t observe something worth recording, or taking note of. The crazy things that kids would say or do – the way that they would flaunt their indifference to my authority, or tease one another; the wild ways that they would act out – flipping desks, throwing things, banging their own heads against walls – all of these were stories to be told. I was an outsider looking in, and my language was still that of the community that I was raised in.
But, like that man in Avatar, eventually something shifted for me. I guess it’s the simple act of caring that transformed the experience. I cared from the first day, but I didn’t really understand. To truly care about a person, you have to understand them. That slow shift from finding my students amusing and charming and infuriating and lovely - to seeing them as full people, happened slowly, and without my knowledge. One day I just realized that they weren’t strangers anymore.
When the ‘others’ become people, you feel a responsibility to them that you didn’t feel before. The truth doesn’t change, but suddenly, there’s a need to portray it accurately, to show the whole picture. And the more you know, the more complicated the picture is, and that makes it much harder to paint. You want others to understand what you understand - to see the good in the story about someone doing something bad. To have the back story that makes something crazy seem more reasonable. You want them appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the resilience in the children, even as the stories that you tell paint them in an unattractive light.
Sometimes I think, ‘just shut up, Laura!’ because when I open my mouth to share something simple about work, I find myself blabbering on at length, while my audience’s eyes glaze over. If I start to tell a story, I now find I have to tell the whole thing, so that no one walks away misunderstanding these precious ‘others’. And no one really wants to sit through the whole story – it’s like hearing the family history of people that you have never, and will never meet.
And yet, the experiences, even after four years, are big, and real, and impactful. And it’s lonely to keep them to myself. When friends or family ask how I am or what's new, often, the stories about my work are the answer. To not share feels like withholding.
“Can you get brunch on Saturday?”
“No, I have to visit a student in the hospital.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry that they are sick.”
I’ve simplified it, made it palatable. Yet, I’m not going to that kind of hospital. I’m visiting a student in an inpatient psychiatric treatment center. And the back story is long and horrible, and a visit there is different than a visit to a hospital.
I know that I’m lucky to have gotten to this point – to feel like I really know my students, and to understand them. It makes me better at my job, and it means that I get much more out of it now than I did when I first started. But it makes me feel like a bit of an alien in my own life sometimes. My travels have been all consuming – admittedly I care a bit too much. I don’t let it go at the end of the day, and I don’t walk away from it all unscathed.
It’s exhausting to convey the simplest things about my day, and the little people that I spend it with, and feel like I’m not getting through. I feel guilty when I leave a people with a bad impression about my students. Often people shake their head in wonder at the crazy things that I tell them, as though they are all lost causes, and there is no hope. I want to convey the hope, but I also have to paint the sea of hopelessness that it floats on. But often, the sea is all that people see, and I realize that I didn’t paint the hope in a bright enough color.