Doing “How-To” presentations today…so far I have learned how to “throw switches on a low-rider truck”, how to put on fake eyelashes, how to make a variety of delicious baked goods (all of which I have sampled, thus gaining 400 lbs and counting), and in the most specifically titled presentation of my career, “How to Steal 10 Pieces of Candy and a Drink from Dollar Tree.”
I am going to be a real Renaissance Gal by the time this is done.
Today I gave my students T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” to chew on for awhile. There was much silence in my room during the annotation period. Then I told them to pair up with “someone smart” and talk about the poem for ten minutes.
You know what? They did it. They talked about that dang poem for ten minutes. They did not talk about the NBA playoffs or the NFL playoffs. They did not talk about who dumped whom for whom. They did not talk about Cinco de Mayo and how wasted they got. They did not talk about which teacher is an asshole and why.
They talked about T.S. Eliot. They talked about “…mixing/ memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” They puzzled through Madame Sosostris and her clairvoyance. They really hashed out, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden.”
It was amazing.
In fourth period, one of them even argued with me. “No way that was ten minutes!” He accused me of trying to trick them by not giving them enough time to talk about the poem. He was indignant. Righteously.
Then we came together as a class and they used words like “stanza” and “metaphor” and “connotative meaning.” They asked questions. In my last period, they even applauded a particularly astute answer one student provided to another.
And you know why? Cuz T.S. is some good sh**. They appreciated the depth and the ambiguity. They appreciated the opportunity to interact with something real. Several of them asked for a copy to take home.
Which reinforces my belief that what kids really need, especially students of color, students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, is to be treated like intelligent people. They need to be held to high standards. They need to engage with real literature. They do not need coddling and they certainly do not need teachers who give up on them, who dumb it down, who settle for the lowest common denominator.
Thinking about this I realized the most successful teachers I know are the ones who teach One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the “bad” kids or the ones who require their “repeaters” to do grammar every day. The science teachers who never give up on experiments, even in rooms full of juvenile delinquents. The history teachers who make all their classes read primary source documents from the Revolutionary War era.
Because sometimes it feels good just to think, to devote a portion of one’s day to the life of the mind. And all students deserve the opportunity to experience that feeling.
Yesterday we were doing a little spring cleaning in my classroom. I had given the students their portfolio folders and their most recent writing pieces to file in them, when a young man raised his hand and gestured me over to his desk.
I’m not gonna lie; this kid is one of my ultimate favorites. He is my favorite despite the fact that he is always subtly repping his gang (in blatant disregard of school dress code), a spot of blue on his belt, blue tips on the laces in his shoes. I have long suspected that he has a case of undiagnosed Asperger’s. There is just something distinctively different and loveable about his speech patterns when he tells me about how important family is to him, how unimportant partying has become. And I know I am his favorite teacher because I once told him how my boyfriend needed a new bike and that night he went out and stole one for me and brought it in the next day.
I had to decline, but I found it endearing.
So, this amazing young man calls me over and says, “Ms. S? Can we keep these at the end of the year?” He gestures to his portfolio.
“Of course,” I tell him.
He breaks into a beautiful grin. “Good, cuz my brother always says I can’t write essays. I am gonna shove this in his face!”
Yeah you are, buddy. Yes, you are. You go on, you beautiful crip walking, spectrummy, awesome human. You go on with your bad self.
“That’s what it’s for,” I tell him. Because any time this young man wants to shove his accomplishments in someone’s face, anytime he wants to take pride in his school work (for the love of all that is holy and incredible in this world), any time he wants to prove he can write, then this old white lady for sure has his back.
I recently watched the movie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I will undoubtedly read the book now and likely get extra copies to loan out to my students. I think some of them might really connect with aspects of the characters and the story. I know there was a scene or two that resonated for me, mostly those about the relationship between the young protagonist and his English teacher, Bill Anderson. Their bond begins on the first day of school, when they have this exchange:
Mr. Anderson: You know they say if you make one friend on your first day you’ll do good.
Charlie: If my English teacher is the only friend I make today, that’ll be sorta depressing.
But they do develop a friendship, after a fashion. And this does happen in real schools, too. As teachers we sometimes find ourselves in friendships with our students where we serve as confidants and mentors. Where we give them extra books to read, where they come to hang around our classrooms before and after school. Where we joke around with them and add them as facebook friends after graduation. They help organize our drawers and carry heavy things from our cars. And we give them little snacks and notice when they have new haircuts. And sometimes we talk with them about things that really matter. We listen. We try to help.
All of which makes it very hard when we have to grade them. When they are off-task in class and we have to call them out. It makes it tough when our student/friends want to check their text messages in fourth period, or wear shorts that are just too short.
Because as much as we love these kids, and we do, they are still students and we are still teachers and sometimes that can feel like a betrayal to a student who has spent so much time cultivating a relationship with a teacher. That is why, even with the most likeable kids, even with the Charlies of the world, there has to be a line. Yes, I will lend you my favorite books. Yes, I will laugh genuinely at your jokes. Yes, I will talk with you endlessly about love and loss and life. I will even advise you about drugs and abortions, if you need me.
But at the end of the day, as a friend, the best thing I can do for these kids is make sure they get a good education.
Today I thought we should have a fun, non sequitur for a quickwrite. I asked the students the old standby, “If you could have any superpower what would it be? And would you use it for good or evil?” Most of the responses were standard. And then there was this one:
“If I can have any superpower I would like to have the ability to be smart and be able to know what I read. It would be good for me because I have trouble with that and it would help a lot. I need to understand what I’m reading to get all my homework done. I would use this superpower for good. It wouldn’t hurt/affect anyone.”
That kind of broke my heart.
And reminded me about why I got out of bed this morning and last and came back after spring break, even though it felt very, very difficult to do so.
If you are like me, you have been closely following the Supreme Court cases of the past week. Equality for all is something close to my heart, both as an educator and as a human. I believe in the idea of the Supreme Court. And I believe that even those justices whose rulings are most abhorrent to me understand the significance of precedent and are trying to do the right thing. I only hope they realize the constitution is a living document.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
With that in mind, I hope the Court understands that DOMA sends a terrible message about the rights of all and demoralizes and diminishes the humanity and citizenship of those whom it excludes.
For the young people who are only now grappling with their identities, with their hopes for the future, these cases could make a tremendous difference between the possibility of a “normal” future and the possibility of a lifetime of alienation and potential self-loathing.
If we are to remain true to some other great words by old TJ, we must sincerely remember:
“… all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
T.S. Eliot holds that April is the cruelest month. Eliot was clearly not a teacher.
March, as everyone knows is far crueler than April. Arguments can be made that it is, in fact, the cruelest of all months, though it is hard to make a case that it beats October. However, March is undisputedly tough.
Perhaps it is because it has 31 days. I would argue that anyone in the working world knows that one extra day is somehow inexplicably responsible for an entire additional working week. Months with 31 days drag indefinitely, and inevitably have a disproportionate number of Mondays.
Perhaps it is because March is close to Spring Break time, but does not actually contain Spring Break. This creates a phenomenon not unlike when one finally pulls off on an exit after having to pee for an extended period of time on a road trip. All of a sudden the need, the impulse, is exponentially stronger. Such is the case with the imminence of Spring Break. It has me dancing around in my seat, staring desperately out the window, wondering if I can hold on, if I can actually make it.
Perhaps it is because March marks the official onslaught of senioritis. A disease that somehow has spread to juniors in recent years. It is not looking good for underclassman, either. Maybe seniors feel spring’s gentle caress. Or maybe they have cabin fever from an interminable winter. Or maybe they are just a-holes. But March is when senioritis really takes hold. And the apathy is almost non-permeable.
Perhaps it is just me? Perhaps I am alone in this conviction? Perhaps it was brought on by the young woman who, fake eyelashes swishing, stood up in my last period class earlier this week and shouted across the room repeatedly, “What the f**k?!” at a bemused young man in the back row. Perhaps I became definitively certain of March’s cruelty when I found myself still at work last night at 6:30, having an impromptu parent-teacher conference. Perhaps I decided on March when we had our fourth faculty meeting of the week this week. On Wednesday.
Who knows? Any way you slice it, March has me thinking of another great line from T.S.:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Every once in awhile, a student who has never participated in class will raise his hand to volunteer. It can be very exciting. For example, I felt pretty thrilled on Monday when I called on the quiet young man in the back row to share his vocabulary sentence for the first time.
“Tedious. Sometimes English class is more tedious than anything else in the world.”
I was complaining of this to a colleague and she told me about a young man who raised his hand, only to ask, “What is it like not to be able to teach?”
Which makes me ponder, what do these kids think they are getting out of this behavior?
My friend, who is the registrar of my school, explained to me, “They are getting acceptance from their peers. That is what they are getting. They do not care about you.”
So, then I got all up on my high horse. Lamenting the downfall of American culture and whatnot. Like, why are today’s youth so backward with their priorities? And, whatever happened to respect? And, why do kids these days have no regard for their future? Etcetera, etcetera…
Then I remembered. When I was in the fifth grade, I decided I was tired of being bullied and socially outcast for being a “nerd.” And I decided to rectify the problem… by getting in trouble.
I started being a smartass and a prankster and a general pain in the neck. I spent a lot of time in the principal’s office. I met my best friend there, even.
This strategy worked. I could keep getting my As (to keep my mom off my back) and still not suffer from being typecast as a nerd. Win win.
Not for my teachers, I guess, but who cared?
The point of this whole confessional moment is that societal values are not degrading. Kids are still the same. I am just not one of them anymore. And when I was, I was the worst of them. And I turned out okay. Or, at least I am paying my penance now.
It does suck when students assert their rebellious individualism by being mean to me. But it is really no more significant than that. The world is not descending into putrescence. It is merely asserting its natural order. In the end, we will all be okay. Even if it is tedious for now.
I know you Congressmen and Congresswomen are all very important. I know your jobs are very important. I know you are all really smart and really cool. In fact, I realize that you are all so cool and important that if we were both waiting for a drink at a crowded bar, you would always get served before I did. I get that.
But I have had ENOUGH!
Why ya’ll always gotta play us like we don’t even matter?
I just want to know… guys, why are education cuts ALWAYS okay? You talk about cutting other things with at least some level of seemingly genuine hesitation and reflection. For example: cuts to military spending? Everyone’s all, “Let’s think about this, man. Let’s give the Pentagon some discretion here.”
But, when it comes to cutting education? Uh, no brainer…Slice. Dice. Chop.
It seems like no one is even talking about it. With all the hoopla about The Sequester (do not even get me started on how that is a misappropriation of a word!) no one is out there shouting about education, despite the $3 billion in cuts we are facing.
So, here I am on my soap box. Ladies and gentlemen of the 113th Congress, please consider my plea? Could you pretty please consider the future of this country when you make policy and fix the cuts to education in your abominably named sequester cuts?
Because we have been living with austerity for a good, long while now. We have no fat to trim.
Sick of Sequestration
At my school we have homeroom. Each teacher is assigned a cohort of students for whom we are responsible. We are the primary contact for these kids: the primary disciplinarian, the primary cheerleader, the designated confidant.
A young man transferred into our school and joined my homeroom a few weeks into the second semester. He and I have not had a lot of time to get accustomed to one another. He is always polite, which is refreshing, but he has always seemed easily distracted, more likely to spend a period drawing than writing a persuasive essay. More likely to wisecrack with his buddies than to solve his algebra equations.
And he has a huge absence problem. He misses a day or two a week.
Not exactly a recipe for success.
So on Monday, I came in armed with a behavior contract for this young man. When he walked into my room in the morning, I said, “Hey Buddy. You have first meeting today.” We stepped outside. He would not look me in the eye. He seemed kind of depressed, but the student who has “first meeting” often looks a little depressed. I handed him the contract. I outlined what behaviors needed to change. His face stayed blank, his eyes downcast.
I asked him if he had anything he wanted to talk about. He said no. I said, “Do you want me to go away and leave you alone for a bit?” He mumbled something and nodded. I went away. I gave him some space.
I saw him twice that afternoon. Once was with a bunch of his pals, who were throwing a football around. He was just standing morosely behind them, hood pulled up. Another time was when he came into my English class. He did not participate that day. He just kind of sat and stared. And I let him. Because sometimes, that is what they need. And because, let me be honest, I was annoyed. I kept thinking, “Snap out of it, Buddy.”
And then he went home. And tried to kill himself.
I came in the next day to a folded note. His father had left a message. Part of the message said, “Dad thinks teacher can connect with him and would like her to contact him.” So, I did. I called Dad. And he and I talked. And I learned a lot about what was going on with this young man.
Yesterday he was back. And seemingly unruffled by the whole thing. A colleague overheard him openly discussing his attempted overdose with another student.
This makes me grateful. I am so glad he did not die. I am so glad he is back. I am even glad he feels he can talk to people about what happened. There is no need for him to carry a dark shame.
Because shame sucks. I ought to know. I am plagued by it. I am ashamed of myself for not seeing how desperate he was. I am ashamed of myself for walking away. I am ashamed of myself for the impatience I felt. I am ashamed that his father thinks of me as someone who can connect with his son and I was NOT that person. I was just kind of an asshole.
But, I always tell my classes, we can learn from our mistakes. And I am learning. I am learning that I need to remember to treat everyone like they matter. I am learning that sometimes students do need alone time and sometimes, the most respectful thing I can do is push a little harder, try a little more to get to the root of a problem. And I am learning to be grateful, for every second chance I get.