Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Words Once Spoken Cannot Be Recalled

Et semel emissum volat irrocabile verbum. ~Horace

I wrote a number down on my hand today.  It was 038162.  I can still see it faintly.  I had a student who was suspended and I tried to enter a grade for her but she had been taken out of the system for the suspension and not put back in.  If you know your Goffman or Foucault, you'll know instantly that my student knew her number and repeated it for me without hesitation.  She identifies with that number and so do so many of my students.  It's how they pay for lunch.  It's how they see their grades and how they get into and out of trouble.  It dehumanizes them and quantifies their lives ala George W Bush and his No Child Left Behind.  It's also a convenient product of the technological age.  In some ways, the number affords my kids some anonymity and in others, it sanitizes their place in society.  You don't hug child number 44728.  You don't give a sweet valentines book mark to student #732914679.  But you do punish the heck out of the miscreant marked #16739428565.  Or was that "inmate"?  

Anyway, I emailed the counselor about the snafu and to get her put back in the system.  But the counselors are pretty busy right now, dealing with the emotional fallout of the death of one of our teachers on Monday.  

Yes, someone died.  No, it was not a natural or expected death.  No, I'm not going to come out and say it.  

Death is irrevocable, much like a word spoken in anger.  There is a saying in Arabic, or so I am told.  The word is "Talik" or "Tarik", and if you say it in quick succession three times, you are divorced from you spouse and it cannot be undone.  Some actions you cannot take back and some words, once they leave your mouth, will do the harm they will do of their own accord, with or without your apologies.  

So yes, today was a shitty day.  There was a bunch of crying in middle school.  More than usual for hormonal teenagers.  I hugged a lot of kids and dealt with difficult and quiet questions.  Sometimes, kids just wanted to come and sit in a safe place.  Four extra kids snuck into my 7th hour class and DID THE LESSON PLAN so that they could be there.  They weren't even my students.  Ah well. 

After ten hours of work, I got a text from a friend who asked me for a ride.  I've struggled with my feelings about even discussing him and don't do so very often.  He has not found sobriety, not stayed in a rehab.  But tonight he asked me for a ride and I haven't seen him in awhile.  So I went and picked him up. And we haven't spent more than ten minutes together in months, so I asked if I could buy him dinner.  Yes.  

So we had dinner and caught up.  He is not well. He is staying with a friend and doing the best he can.  I asked about him mom- the person in the world who he cares about more than anyone else.  Or so I thought.  She is not speaking to him. And neither is his family because of his sobriety. During dinner he casually said to me, "The thing is, that I annoy my family.  I just try to lay low. When I was in AA, it was the only time they ever liked me.  Funny thing is, that when I was in AA, yeah, that's the only time I've ever just hated myself."  

I thought about those words all the way back to the place where he was staying.  And I chose my next ones carefully. I just think there is enough suffering in the world without all of my judgments. My day was rough and I know that 90% of the world had a worse day than I did.  I said that if he was sober or if he was using or drunk or high, I did not care.  My friendship and love and care of him as a human is not dependent on factors such as what he chooses or needs to put in his body. I told him that I value him as a person, and I do truly enjoy his company. I'll be happy to visit or talk or hang out whenever possible, as long as he was straight during those times.  And I vow never to  make him feel like less than a person just because he has addiction issues.  

We are not a number. We are people. We are humans with emotions and needs and a desire for care and compassion. We should not be classified and sorted.  We should be seen. And heard. And when we need it, we should be comforted and spoken to with kindness.  

Because a word once spoken, a deed once done, cannot be recalled. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Yesterday, I took a group of 33 kids to the Oklahoma City Zoo.  I wrote a grant in September to take them and the Friends of the Zoo paid for the trip, including admission and the cost of the bus.

The kids didn't have to do anything special to get to go.  They were selected on the basis of their good attendance and lack of failing grades.  They averaged about a "B" on their report cards. They also didn't have any mark on their record regarding poor behavior.  It was truly a reward as they didn't know they were selected until we sent home the permission slips last week.

And what a delightful time! I took them as far around the zoo as I could in the time we had.  We took sack lunches from the cafeteria and ate in the courtyard.  The kids wandered in and out of the ice cream shop and the gift shop.  The zookeepers and attendants complimented them on their politeness.  Several bought small trinkets for their moms.

I just loved watching their faces as they petted animals and as we slid down the slides together.  Since I'm at the zoo frequently, I narrated the animals we encountered, citing the punishment of Prometheus when we came to the vultures and never even stopping to breathe in the reptile house because I talked so much.  Then we had an hour long program on how to train animals with the education department and a demonstration with a prehensile-tailed porcupine. Back at school, we wrote thank you notes and talked about our experience. I wonder if I wasn't the one who was impacted the most.  Most of my kids don't have insurance of any kind and some have a parent who has been deported.  None of the politics in American life are their fault. They are the ones left to deal with it.

After school, these kids will go back to their lives of working on the weekends- most have jobs or do child care for their parents- and of not always having enough to eat. I can tell though, that these kids are loved.  Poverty does not necessarily equal neglect and my students, my children, my kids yesterday were complimented by the director of education. She said that a different group of students had been through earlier (I won't mention which group, but they were from Edmond), and that she would without hesitation prefer to have our group back any day. And that we were welcome to do so.

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion about politics with a conservative person. I love this person and ended up changing the subject to preserve the peace.  Yeah, that's how much I love my cousin.  I mean him.  I mean, this person.  :O I said that President Obama did me a favor when he put a cap on how much of my income could be taken by the student loan people.  He argued that when I signed the student loan papers, I knew what I was signing.  Actually, no, they do not give you that information when you sign the contract and most people aren't educated enough to research or discern that information prior to going to get their education.  Lenders take advantage of that fact at the outset.  But my uh, discussion partner differed, saying that in changing that law I was in fact hurting the economy.

So many others will get through college the same way I did.  If I didn't sign those student loan papers I would not have the skills or knowledge (or credentials) I have today.  In his mind, it's not an ass-raping, it's just good business.  But if people don't get student loans, they cannot go to college.  Fine, he said, then they don't go.  But I don't think he has thought that far down the line.  Those who cannot afford it are historically disenfranchised anyway and this would perpetuate the cycle.  He said I was a liberal and that I'd spend my life giving away other people's money.

Yesterday, I took 33 children with me.  The grant was only for 30, so I paid for the other 3 out of my own pocket.  The money I earn as a public school teacher in one of the poorest schools in the state.  I have no working technology in my classroom, save a chalkboard and white board.  I and my two English department colleagues are expected to save our school from being part of the state takeover which will occur if we don't get them passing scores on the end of year tests.  And for this I make less than $33k per year.  And I'll pay my student loans.  And I provide all of the things that the district does not. And I get to be a part a greater good, something bigger than myself. Yes, my salary comes from the taxpayers and I think it's money well spent since most of it goes right back where it came from.

You want a definition of liberal? That's liberal.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


It's been a minute since I last wrote- my apologies, but life has a way of getting in the way.
Many things are happening simultaneously. Some I can talk about, some I cannot.  But all in good time.

I am feeling better, more or less.  Since I got a doctor's note and moved from the perpetually-under-construction building into the perpetually-hot-cold-no-electricity portable building from 1975, I can breathe better and even headed off the last bout of bronchitis.  There are still some days when I cannot go to school and one day this week that I came home and went to bed.

Tomorrow we make good on the zoo trip.  I wrote a grant last year and got a trip to the zoo for 30 of my kids. I actually have 36 going and will pay for those six myself. Each of has perfect attendance, is passing all of their classes and doesn't have any behavioral problems.  It should be fun and I am excited to reward them for their efforts- most were completely unaware that they would get a reward.  This makes it that much sweeter. I did an internship at the Tulsa Zoo back in 1999 and had a blast in the herpetology department.  I do have a degree in biology and love to talk about animals.

My little lunchtime reading group has grown as well.  What started as 8 students reading Sherman Alexie's novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" has turned into 24 faithful followers as we sit and eat and read "The Hunger Games."  I picked it because the movie comes out next month.  I had a revelation on the way to work one morning.  I've started carpooling with Cathy once a week just so that we can talk and catch up.  Anyway, I was talking about ways to keep my kids engaged. Don't get me wrong, they like the book. There are 16 boys who are engrossed in a strong female protagonist because she can hunt and kill things.

Since there is a lottery at the beginning of the book and that lottery ultimately leads to our protagonist, Katniss, getting into the games, I decided I would have a lottery too.  Each time my students show up for lunch, they get another "tesserae", an entry into the lottery.  It stands for their participation in my group, in their investment in each other and in their membership in our little community.  You can get extra tesserae by doing extra projects or by writing about the book.  Everyone knows the rules and everyone is game to follow them.  Soon, I will draw five names and give five movie tickets to whomever is on the ticket.  One person could win them all. On the front of the bucket will go a saying, "May the odds be ever in your favor!", a catchphrase from the book. Since I do the word of the week, I have also added references to "The Hunger Games" into each example sentence I construct to demonstrate the use of the word.  For example, for the word "Ponder", I wrote "Peeta sat on the hickory log and pondered his next words thoroughly."

It seems to be working out well.  More and more students are getting into "trouble" with me and getting "lunch detention".  In the meantime, we talk about the book, predict outcomes, talk about characters and who we do and do not like.  It's great fun and I have 24 kids to have lunch with every single day.  Yes, that also means that I don't have any down time besides one plan period (all others are taken with meetings or tutoring), but those kids will always remember what we did together.

And so will I.

Speaking of tutoring, I have to tutor a group of 8 students twice weekly.  I'm supposed to have 8.  I have 16.  I'm "team teaching" with a social studies teacher but he doesn't know anything about teaching English. At first he didn't show up himself, just sent his kids.  I'm trying not to be bitter, but those kids won't get much actual help if I don't step up.  So I've thrown out the curriculum on this one.  If I have to give up my plan period, I'm doing whatever the fuck I want to.  We are reading mythology and fables, discussing tall tales and telling stories of our own. I'm enjoying it- this is what I signed up for. Literature, the basis of creative and critical thought.  The very same that is going away in the new common core curriculum.  My boss says good riddance- he only read informational texts and graduated (almost) magna cum laude at his (Mickey Mouse) college.  Neil Postman, Neil Gaiman and I all agree that he is an asshat.  And besides, those kids love coming to tutoring.

I guess they aren't the only ones engaged.  I am too. I love doing the things I do and being part of their lives. I'm pushing a few towards a choice alternative school that will push them towards college.  I am helping another kid out with a glove and some shoes so that he can play baseball. Because everyone needs to play baseball if they want to. If I had only the kids to think about, I'd stay here forever.

But tomorrow I'm going to the zoo and the sun will be out and I will have the sweet satisfaction that for several, their first trip to the zoo is with someone who can give a hell of a tour.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

I Thought I Was Here To Stop This...

This was going to be a blog post about how I am sick again with bronchitis-like symptoms and thank God and Cathy Klasek for antibiotics. I was going to write about how just being in the main building in school for 15 minutes and breathing that toxic air made me sick.

I was also going to write about how yesterday I broke up a fight between two of the kids who were going to class in the room next door to me and that I felt bad because one was crying when he found out that his mom was going to be called. He had been in trouble for fighting before and he just looked so young and helpless. I felt awful for not turning a blind eye. Both kids said they were just play fighting, even though they were both all read and bruised looking.

Then I thought that perhaps I'd post a rant about the CRT writing test my 8th graders have to take next week. How I can't read or write or do anything for the 70 and 90 minute writing prompts but stare at kiddos. I was going to compalin that my kids are not on a level playing field and that even though I've been severely thwarted in my efforts to help them learn grammar- which they need for the test- it's now become very clear to them that this is exactly what is needed. So I have a week to get them there. The five paragraph format? No problem. Writing it in proper English with well-developed themes? Not a chance. But if they want to learn to drive and get a license, they have to pass.

Maybe this was an appropriate place to think on paper about how well my 8th graders and I are getting along. How my first hour class asked me yesterday if they could just read for awhile. I said yes, of course. They seem to enjoy getting lost in a novel these days. I'm sick that it took six months to get here, but all of my kids seem to have found a groove with me.

But no. Todays' topic is a kid you'll never hear about again, except perhaps on the six o'clock news one day. A sweet kid that I will name Bobby. Bobby comes to school only sometimes and he always wears the same thing. When he shows up, the red rims of his eyes give away his fatigue. He's a night person, he says. He has fallen asleep in my class a few times and the last time, I walked him over to the In School Suspension office myself. "What are you going to do when I call your mom?", I asked. "What will she think?"
"She'll be sad. She don't need this." He sort of ducked his head.
"Yeah, I can't suppose anybody would. What about your dad?"
"He's not around." His eyes darted almost wildly.
I nodded. I know better than to ask where a parent is. The answer is usually one that breaks the heart- drugged out, absent, jail, dead, gangs.. the list is endless.
Jail. Bobby's dad is in jail.
I did what I always do. I cut him some slack. Maybe others would disagree with me, but you know what? I'm always going to err on the side of believing someone and giving them a chance. My top readers in class right now are two boys that I caught doing some ruly shit and they asked for clemency and got it from me too. Why use a sledge hammer when a nudge will do?
"I'll tell you what. I won't call your mom, but get more sleep at night. Ok?"
"Yes, ma'am."
He was awake the next time. He's a bright kid, Bobby. You'd like him. Quiet, clean cut. Handsome with such a beautiful dark tone to his skin and intelligent eyes. As a 7th grader, he is very popular with the 8th grade girls. Two of my 8th grade girls to be exact.

On Monday he stepped off of the bus to school with some of his friends and took off to a local fast food joint to get some breakfast. Guess they didn't like the breakfast offered by the cafeteria. Automatic suspension in a closed-campus junior high school. Today he stepped foot on campus again. It's probable that he rode the bus to school, hung out all day off campus and only came back to catch a ride home on the same bus. Why his mom wasn't watching him is anyone's guess.

If you weren't aware, that's trespassing and it's illegal. According to school policy, he had to be apprehended for such behavior as coming to school while suspended. And arrested.

So it came to pass that I stood with my mouth open saying his name without realizing it. He looked over at me and looked down. I think he would've crawled into his shoes if he could have. He was handcuffed behind his back and the officer took him into custody and escorted him to the police car.

I was reminded so strikingly of the time I worked in the prison. The guards would wait until class was over to arrest anyone who was going to be arrested because they didn't want to interrupt what I was doing. As long as we were in that classroom, they weren't just felons or numbers or yucky inmates with MRSA and aggressive disorders. They were people and they were my students. One sunny day I came into work after 2 days off and found that a transport was in progress. One of "my students" was in the office, waiting for his ride. Normally, they wore kahkis and polo shirts. This man also wore his long white hair in a neat ponytail down his back. He was very good at English and we had worked very hard on his math skills so that he could get into community college and take correspondence courses. This day he was in belly shackles. That's where they cuff your hands to a chain around your waist that drops to the ground. Your feet are shackled into it too. It makes people walk funny too, sort of a slow, shuffling sound. His hair hadn't been brushed and it was wild and stringy about his head. He wore an orange jumpsuit and flip-flops- a sure sign he had been in isolation. That's what they called "The Hole". I didn't know any of the guards- I was friends only with a few people in the education department as everyone else was very suspicious of teachers- and didn't say hello to anyone. But for a moment I met his eyes. And they looked ashamed.

The same shame I saw on Bobby's face today.

And it broke my heart.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Tale Worth Telling

Tonight is the second night of parent-teacher conferences.  Last night I got to tell about 15 families how well their kids are doing.  Their gaines are in reading, in the length of their writing responses and in their attitudes and behavior.  Too bad that these gains aren't what the CRTs will measure.  I saw a number of happy, smiling faces and parents surprised at how well their child is doing.  It was gratifying.  Then there was the one kid whose mom asked if she talked a lot.  Yes.  In fact, she is often disruptive.  Oh, well, she says that it's this other kid distracting her.  Yes, well then, I'll move you again and in two weeks I will call to follow up with your mom.  Problem solved.  Mostly though, it's the kids who you don't have problems with who show up.  They like stickers too, incidentally. One of the parents offered to bring me some tamales the next time she makes them.  I enthusiastically accepted her offer.  Yes, I'm a vegetarian. Yes, it's got pork in it.  Yes, I'm eating them anyway and she's putting "extra hot" on them. I don't care if my stomach gets upset and my ass catches fire. I'm eating them.  

I have an intern now too, brought to my by my university.  I asked for one. I think that more people need to be exposed to what teaching in the trenches is like.  There are days of beauty and despair here in the poverty-ridden inner city.  My kids might be hungry, and their clothes are not new or even in great repair, but they have bright eyes and a natural curiosity that can easily be channeled into critical thinking exercises and a love of literature.  We've got a one seat ladies room with no hot water.  There is dust in the hallway and noise from the remodeling construction going on.  When I came back from Christmas vacation, chunks of my ceiling had fallen onto a student's desk.   Despite having four copiers, it's a crapshoot as to whether or not any one of them will work on a given day.  I have a projector in my room and no way to use it.  Other teachers have Smartboards that they do not know how to use and one of our teachers has been MIA for over 2 weeks.  He just stopped showing up. I wonder about the story behind that.

She's a nice person. Fired up for teaching.  Wants to save the world. I almost hated to disillusion her, except that I know once she gets over the bitter reality, she will find, as did I, that one really can make a difference.  It's small at first, and then will spread through the school and community.  The first afternoon, she was shocked.  She had a meeting in the morning and made it only to my sixth hour class. Having met me less than an hour ago, and watching me teach a class- and of course, my kids decided to be rotten that day- I could tell she was not impressed with my teaching skills.  I don't blame her.  From the outside, things don't seem like much.  Progress lies in the daily struggles as students gradually change their attitudes and grow as people.  I looked around the dilapidated classroom, housed in a portable building that looks like a train car long forgotten on public land.  It's a sky blue on the inside and I had just moved there from my old classroom on Friday.  Boxes were everywhere and much was to be done.  Yes, I can only imagine what kind of impression I was making, and what kind of impression my school was making.

I gave her a tour and introduced her around.  We went back to my classroom to discuss strategies and get to know one another.  I could see the skepticism in her eyes.  I could tell she thought that this was a very bad idea, that per haps there had been a mistake and tomorrow she would get her real appointment.  It's a third world school, in a mismanaged district and state seemingly bent on destroying education entirely.

It's also a great place to learn how to be a great teacher.

Over the last week or so, I have seen her go from disbelief to shock to depression and dismay, to a grim determination to make it work.

There have been many bright moments.  There was the first full day that she saw me teach and observed the range of how awesome and individual kids are, of how they wear their hopes on their sleeves and how fired up they get about learning sometimes.  She saw Debbie (pseudonym), my little fireball, discuss her ideas articulately and felt the regular hum of the classroom as we went about our day.  She was exhausted by the end of that day, and we still had another class and a meeting to go.  It's a marathon, not a sprint.  She'll get used to it.  She is getting used to it.

It was time for her to begin teaching without me there.  Interns have to teach for a full 3 weeks without the regular teacher in the classroom.  I left her in charge of my 2nd hour class.  My sweet kids, the ones who make me smile when all else fails.  One of the really heart-ful classes.  We went over the lesson plan.  We talked options.  I took my phone in case she got in trouble.  I went to the office.

At the end of the hour- during which I relaxed and caught up on email- I walked into my classroom to Debbie screaming at another kid because he'd called her a "black bitch".  The kid is screaming back and the rest of the class vehemently taking sides.  The poor intern was doing her best to deal with what had suddenly become a pack of rabid children.  "Outside", I said, as calmly as I could.  My kids followed me out, both teary-eyed. We talked and I calmed them down.  Then class was over and we were off to the next one.  My intern- nice as she is- needed a few minutes to herself.  I might have warned her of the perils of the first time teaching, that all wonderful and loving children can and will turn on a teacher who shows a sign of weakness. I taught the class and suggested she write out her experiences while they were fresh- even if they were painful.  She did, though she doesn't want to actually *read* it again for awhile.

Then, I asked her get back on that horse and ride.  I stayed right outside the door.  It was a sunny day and the kids didn't know I was there, but she did.  Invisible support is highly underrated.  I got to sit in the sun and read a book and she knew I was right there if trouble brewed.  I listened with half an ear.  Best not to look too closely the first day.  Seemed like all normal stuff.  It went better.  She breathed a sigh of relief (or perhaps she had just been holding her breath for an hour?) after the class. Admitted that she had thought perhaps this wasn't the school for her.  But middle class white kids in rich schools can be just as difficult- if not more so.  And my kids actively LIKE her.  Then our last class of the day.  She did fine and I stayed in the room.  I whispered a request to two of my kids to chill out on her behalf.  They did. Maybe she didn't need me to do that part, but I figured it couldn't hurt.

The next day, she taught my second hour class again.  Again, I stayed nearby, just in case.  Fine. It was fine. Again, I saw the sigh of relief and an exhalation of breath that perhaps she didn't know she was holding.  It's a good strategy to do pre-game strategy, teach without me interfering, and then do a post-mortem analysis.  It's really hard for me to not interfere. But I know she'll learn more from catching her own mistakes because she is self-aware.  And my favorite professor, my advisor from OU, is supervising her internship.

If she lives through this semester, she'll be able to teach anywhere.  And I for one hope that she lives through the semester.  The bright moments will come more frequently.

Speaking of bright moments, my little book club has grown.  My kids, who use the excuse of "lunch detention" to come eat lunch in my classroom, has interested more and more children.  Right now I have 21 students.  That's almost 3 times as many as I had when we started in November.  We are reading "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins.  The movie opens in March and I'm hoping to have it read by then.  The only rules to attending are that you cannot talk while I'm reading and you must clean up after yourself.  What they get in return is a fun lunch atmosphere with nobody yelling at them and a good book read out loud.  And what I get is better- satisfaction and a big smile for my afternoon classes.

And a good story to tell. Can't wait for the tamales.