Sunday, April 29, 2012

Towards a Better...

At my middle school, testing season is almost over.  Next week we will have make up tests and that's it for the year.  Things got thrown into panic mode since we were set to do paper and pencil tests for the 7th graders and at the last moment the state department said we had to do computerized testing.  We only have about 50 computers in the school and 500 students. It wasn't a nightmare but the counselor had never arranged this sort of thing before so we all suffered a bit.  Both the administrator and the monitor must stay in the room during testing and roamers are to come check every once in awhile to make sure that students are comfortable and that administrators don't need a break.  I really dislike having a room full of kids who have to pee for three hours and nobody comes to get them to take them to the bathroom.

Anyway, I am sure my kids did a great job.  I'm not allowed to see or to help or to look at test scores.  Likewise I instruct the kids not to talk to me about them.  However, it leaks out and sometimes in their exuberance, someone will brag to me about what they got.  I'm happy for them but also say they can't say those things to me. I think that the English scores will increase dramatically this year.  I'm in the English department and the main sixth grade teacher and eighth grade teachers really did a great job this year.  Those scores will follow us as well, wherever we go.

Speaking of going, my student intern is almost at the end of her stint in my school. Next week she is going to institute the poetry unit I asked her to create.  She has used my materials to come up with curriculum, written lesson plans and will institute them and assess at the end of the unit.  She is doing much better in the classroom and I feel comfortable having her there to help teach.  She thinks she is ready to go out on her own.  I hope so.  I've been teaching for that last however long and I'm still never as prepared as I want to be.  There is also a lot the kids throw at you and even when you are prepared, you have to watch your face and reactions.  So I've been thinking of some advice of my own for Title 1 public school teachers.

1. Don't take it personally.  Kids have it rough in public school.  Their home lives, especially those who live in poverty, are sometimes (though this is not the rule) challenging.  When they say or do ugly things, it's almost never about the teacher. When you hear ugliness, look immediately beyond the words to the child spouting them.  At all costs, avoid sarcasm.
2.  Not everyone who is poor is troubled.  Lots and lots of my students have happy home lives.
3.  My goals and values may not be their goals and values.  I am White.  The vast majority of the students I teach are either Hispanic or Black.  While we all have common American experiences, there are cultural differences and I do not have the right to make a kid feel bad because they realize from an early age that college is not for them. I do have a responsibility to learn more of my student's cultures and to pull those things into the classroom so that we can all learn better.
4.  That does not mean that I can give up talking about literacy, a better life, and college.  The fact is that as a 7-8 grade English teacher, I might be the last literacy educator they see.  This makes my job that much more important and urgent.  The buck stops here.
5. You know what my goal is? My goal is to be a better person.  That's why I teach. That's what it boils down to.  I want to look in the mirror every day and see someone I can be proud of.  How I go about teaching ties into that.
6.  My personal life has little place in my classroom.  My students know I am White and that I speak some spanish.  I tell them a little about growing up where I did, about the migrant children who became my friends and about Spanish lessons from 6-12 grade.  I tell them about my past teaching jobs, including the prison which fascinates them, and I talk about my dog and cat.  That's about it. If I am teaching curriculum and listening to their talk and their world and entering a realm that ultimately does not belong to me, I want to be as empty of a vessel as I can rather than a cup spilling over.
7.  Take the weekends off.  I know it is difficult.  Grade papers before you come home.  Set up curriculum and lesson plans on your plan period.  Do as my friend Bonner suggests and touch a door or some piece of the school as you leave and say "I am leaving this place" and do not come back until Monday.
8.  Laugh.  Tell jokes.  Enjoy these students because junior high is brutal and hormone filled and frightening.  Laughter is important and instructive and makes life easier.
9.  When you are wrong, say you are sorry. Publicly and with sincerity.  I apologize to my students when I get stuff wrong.  I take responsibility and get more respect for that than if I never admit mistakes.  This shows that if I can get better and be a strong person who is compassionate, then they can be too. It's a pathway and an example.
10. You spot it, you got it.  I stole this from an Al-Anon meeting (that's friends and family members of alcoholics).  When the kids were spending their lunch hours smearing food up and down the hallways and throwing trash on the grounds, I was dismayed and angry.  I decided that instead of some punitive action, I had a responsibility to teach compassion and responsibility.  I took an entire day and had the students write letters to Margarita and Griselda, who are our custodians.  I walked them around and we picked up trash.  We gave the letters to the ladies and made them cry.  I asked that if anyone saw people throwing trash or food where it shouldn't go that they speak up.  Now our hallways are mostly clear and the grounds look better.  Such a simple thing, really.  If you can, then do.

I feel strongly that we are the guardians of innocence.  Our middle school kids are half child, half teenager and spend a good deal of time just trying to figure out what to do next.  When someone or something threatens their ability to do so, it turns me into a raging witch.  For instance, one of our students dropped out for three months.  His dad dis-enrolled him and took him to Texas.  When he got back, his mom came to re-enroll him.  Only he had gotten a gang tattoo on his neck in the intervening time.  He knows that in order to be part of our school, he has to cover that tattoo but chooses not to.  Every single time I catch him, I take him to the principal and he spends time out of class sitting, waiting for his mom to come bring him a turtleneck.  It's crazy.  But I have to do that- to keep gang symbols and tattoos and signs and graffiti out of my school.  It's not just my job, it's my moral responsibility as an adult and as a human to protect others.

In other news, I have bronchitis again.  My doctor will be so thrilled.  Last weekend I missed an important play in Oklahoma City and this weekend, I missed a great play here in Tulsa.  I simply had no energy to walk from the damn car to the theater to sit there for two hours without coughing my head off.  I'll go on Monday for a shot and some antibiotics and blah blah's the same story.  My job is killing me because each time I walk into the building, I inhale dust and mold and probably asbestos.  I'm hoping next year will be better and working, always working, towards a better world.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Safe Place

Yesterday, I asked an 8th grade student to carry a slim toad away from our portable buildings.  He or she had gotten into a classroom the night before and was stunned after being manhandled by 18 sixth graders and kicked by one of them.  Gently, the 8th grader picked up said toadling and asked where to put it.  I couldn't really think of anywhere.  In the soccer field there would be children running around after school. The pavement was no good because of hot sun, foot and car traffic and lack of moisture.  The dumpster might be ok but the fence line would only lead to the sidewalk.  We decided on the dumpster and let our hopping friend loose.

Today is the 17th anniversary of the bombing of the Arthur P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City.  On this day so many days ago, in revenge for the ill-conceived and badly ended standoff between the Branch Davidian church group and the U.S. Government.  Timothy McVeigh chose the Murrah building and Oklahoma City as an easy target. The Murrah building was a federal building and housed many beaurocratic headquarters for federal business in the city.  He filled a large truck with homemade explosives and detonated it, killing 168 people- including children in the daycare- and changed the course of Oklahoma history.  Oklahoma, the safe place, was under attack in an act of domestic terrorism. When it came to light that it was a scrawny white guy, a separatist, former military and an American, well, people were stunned. What had we expected, a non-White, non-English speaking, non-graduate of American school systems who held beliefs that were never critically considered?

Last Friday, one of our sixth graders stabbed another sixth grader with a pencil in the shoulder over a bag of skittles.  She had stabbed the victim before the day before but it did not break the skin and the little girl did not report it at the time.  This time, however, the pencil went through a sweater and a shirt and lodged in her skin.  And our alleged perpetrator was so rotten, disrespectful and belligerent that the arresting police officer put cuffs on her and took her past kiddie booking and to a juvenile detention center where she will remain until her arraignment.  Her mother did not go to see her and she is now in a position to get real lessons on how to become a criminal.  She is twelve years old.

I am missing one of my students for the rest of the year as well.  He (allegedly) brought a large amount of illegal substances to school with intent to sell.  Four other students were busted in the boys room smoking a Swisher Sweet with a large amount of cannibis in it.  Gone. Those kids are gone for the year.  I'm not sure why my students are dealing and taking drugs. I figure that reality sucks when you are a teenager and it must really suck to live and go to school in a ghetto with few prospects and teachers who often fundamentally dislike children.  We finally and temporarily replaced our deceased geography teacher. The new lady is nice and blonde and pretty and with sky blue eyes that make me think she might come from Edmond.  The kids have mostly been nice to her, and one drew her a picture which she put outside of her door.  Unfortunately it has gang colors and the drawing is actually of "the shocker" hand gesture.  If you don't know what that is, click here for an eye-opening explanation.  I couldn't find her today so I'll try again tomorrow. I heard one of the 8th grade boys (not my student) said some highly sexual things to her during class, poked a pencil into her lunch and left.  I really hope that is not true.

Students have been roaming the hallways in droves. I took it upon myself to stroll the hallways during classes.  Ok, it's trolling.  My student intern is now competent enough to handle teaching by herself so I walk around looking for kids ditching class. I catch about four per day.  It makes me cranky.  Yesterday, one of my gang-girls was conducting business with her boyfriend's cell phone.  She's really sweet and I like her. I suspect she probably compartmentalizes and gets to be a kid during those classes she attends and a "thug" when she needs to be.

In the meantime, we are doing the OCCT- Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test.  Awesome.  Along with the continued construction, how can we possibly hope to pass those tests?  Yet many of them are.  A good number of my 8th grade students either passed or got outstanding scores on their reading tests.  Next week my 7th graders are up and I expect they will surpass my principal's expectations but not my own.  I want better for them.

Yes, yes I do. I want better for my kids and I am frustrated and fighting mad.  What does it matter if my kids can think critically or read and write their asses off if the end result is not going to change?  Necessity trumps luxuries like novels and me and my little narratives cannot compete with the immediate relief of getting high. Sometimes I feel like a fool for even trying. The world, as illustrated by Timothy McVeigh, is not as trustworthy as it might once have been. My students are stunned toads with no safe place to go but dumpsters. At least there is food and moisture there, even if it smells.  All I can do is keep guard and provide hope.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Fair Health

I'm sure I've written about it elsewhere, but my workplace has been making me sick.  The school building is from 1920 and there is known mold and asbestos in the building.  On top of that, construction is underway to renovate the school and the district made the decision to leave the students and teachers in the building while that goes on.  Not what I would have done but my protests and those of the parents and teachers have gone unheeded and ignored or brushed aside with "We are working within acceptable parameters".  I have asthma, which has gotten progressively worse as time has gone on.

My doctor wrote me a note because of recurring bronchitis.  Between September and today, I have had more or less constant bronchitis with three rounds of antibiotics and several shots in the butt.  I'm not even sure what was in the syringe.  Maybe it was just placebo but it helped each time.

They moved me out of the building and into a shipping-container sized portable building manufactured roughly three years after the stone age.  The air conditioner and heater work reasonably well if you either sit on a block of ice or build a fire while using them.  But it's better than being in the building.  I still have to go inside the building to access the never-updated, one-seater ladies room with no light, no hot water and a ten cent Kotex dispenser above the toilet that does not have a lid.  Every one of my meetings is in the building, as is the office and the copy machines.  Almost inevitably, when I enter the building the dust and mold and things flying through the air gives me an asthma attack.  The exposure has most certainly induced the six months of seven months of chronic asthma and bronchitis.

I have wakened in the night with attacks- something I never used to get.  I'll just be talking or drinking something and the liquid will hit the back of my throat and induce an instant throat-closing episode. It's frightening, to be honest.  The last time I went to my doctor, he was not pleased.  I saw the nurse, who took me to the scale.  I turn around and do not look at numbers.  I gauge my weight by my clothing and how I feel.  Long experience also tells me that if I know my weight I will get depressed and immediately try to lose ten pounds. The nurse didn't really understand this and told me in a hopeful voice that I had lost weight.  And the doctor gave me 7 prescriptions just for the illness.  Inhalers- two steroid and one albuteral- antibiotics, cough syrup and a round of prednisone.

And I have lost weight.  When you can't breathe and you are coughing all of the time, it's difficult to have an appetite.  Besides, I walk a lot.  I mean a lot.  Maybe 25 miles a week on a good week.  I haven't run much since I got sick.  It sucks to go from running half marathons to having to walk for exercise and health.  Nobody thinks I look good this way.  I felt haggard and took a picture where I was shocked to see the bones on the front of my chest coming through. I didn't show it to Grey. I don't like that at all. It's not healthy.  So I'm trying to put on healthy weight and keep moving.  It's scary to think of purposefully putting on a pound or two. Scary to think I will overdo it with only 6 weeks to go before my wedding.

No.  That's not right.  That's not the scary part.  That's the easy part.  What's scary is how satisfying it was to hear the nurse say I'd lost weight.  It felt like an accomplishment to put on my clothes and have them hang around the hips and thighs.  The ghastly image in the mirror delighted the sick part of my brain that has been inundated with cultural dictum that thinner is more beautiful and more desirable.  It scares me that I won't actually try to put that weight back on.  The only way I know to combat this is to be honest, to say it, to not push that away but to deal with it.  It's the best thing I know to do.

The medicine does seem to be working.  I am now just down to the inhalers and a daily antihistamine for the allergies. I simply must stay off of prednisone for as long as possible, though at some point in my life I will have to use them again.  I even went running the other day, though I made it only a mile and a half before I had to stop.  It feels good.  Next week I will try going to zumba once more with my friend VP, and I will keep walking and doing yoga for relaxation.  I go into the building only minimally and it's better since the workers have switched to a different part of the building than the centralized two-story auditorium.  And last week, Grey and I went to a health fair and climbed the rock wall, then rappelled down. I'm afraid of heights but since Grey was doing it, I did it too and felt an absolute absence of fear.  Just like I feel most of the time I am around him without having to think about it.
Me and a Giant Phallic Symbol

I need to write myself my own doctor's note since I'm a doctor now.  Shut up, a Ph.D. is a doctor.  And besides, this one will be a William Carlos Williams poem, a song, a reminder to be good to myself. To not run ragged, to eat and sing and play and sleep and work and care and know when to let go. And to accept my body as it is. To stay in fair health.

Now, where did I put those barbecue potato chips?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Don't Look Down

Recently in the news was George Zimmerman, the man who shot a teenager named Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in a White neighborhood armed only with a hoodie and some skittles.  Zimmerman was on "neighborhood watch" and as such, carried a pistol.  Even in crazy parts of Oklahoma people don't just pack around pistols to walk around a neighborhood and make sure that nobody is up to mischief.  No, here in Oklahoma we build parks in the suburban neighborhoods to ensure that any registered sex offenders will be forced to move.  But Trayvon wasn't doing anything wrong.  He was just a kid.

Yes, I hear you, naysayers.  We don't know what actually happened.  But we do know some of what happened.  Full grown White guy.  Pistol. Unarmed teenager, meaning CHILD.  Death.  Oh, and he wasn't charged and may not be charged because of Florida's Stand Your Ground law. Which is bullshit. I also understand that perhaps Trayvon didn't have the best track record at school.  Alright, I'll give you that.  But you know what? Today one of my kids was busted with hundreds of grams of pot and arrested on intent to distribute.  And he's still a kid with innocence in his eyes and the mind of a 15 year old kid.  Today he is a kid I'd like to smack upside the head, but still, he is a child (and innocent until proven guilty).  And since Zimmerman may not face a trial or be arrested, I'm going to try him in the court of my opinion. I find him guilty of being the biggest racist jerkface in Florida.   Don't play like this isn't about race, because it surely is.

What is disgusting is the way the story was immediately spun to make Trayvon Martin look like a bad kid, showing photos of someone else flipping off the camera with his face superimposed next to the big face of Zimmerman, who looks the epitome of responsible citizen.  When did we let our media get so far out of hand?  Why are responsible journalists not standing up to this sort of sensationalism? It seems that our sheepish republic more often than not blindly follows the mainstream media.  And are we going into another McCarthy era?

If so, I am totally fucked. Maybe we should avoid mainstream media outlets and read aljazeera English or the Daily Mail.  Or just lesser-known outlets like this one.

Speaking of court and my sometimes questionable judment, I've been called to jury duty. I have never had to do it before, but I am a registered voter and it is my duty to serve as a voice of reason if that's what is called for.  I'm pretty sure that by posting this blog post, I can get out of any trial that involves racism or police officers or fear of persecution.  That should cover it. If I were somehow kicked off of the jury, I could then go back to my school and finish testing like I'm a good teacher.  But even if that doesn't happen, my kids will still do well on their CRT's.

The tests have everyone on edge.  I've got my first hour class for the entire morning and have provided a rich learning environment filled with Apples to Apples, chess, checkers, art projects, books, puzzles, games and sudoku. That helps immensely. However, the rest of my student's day is disrupted.  Their schedules are not familiar and they do not want to buckle down and do the activities I have set out for them. I dislike being extra firm.  I found myself raising my voice to one of the construction workers who was smoking on school grounds.  It was embarrassing for him, I'm sure, but also embarrassing for me as my students saw and heard me ball him out.  I almost felt sorry later.  Almost. 

On top of that, the administrators have decided that I only get one break a day- last period.  So I work all day and have one plan. Other teachers do not have a planning period at all.  Only it's not working out like that. I'm having one plan every other day as I am covering for others.  They do not know where to send the extra students displaced by testing.  During one class I taught this afternoon, a knock came at the door and 6 students stood there, saying that the principal instructed their class to come to me.  They must be mistaken, but as it turns out, he had.  I eventually got it straightened out but had to go find the principal myself as he claimed to be too busy to deal with me.  He and all of the administrators were eating lunch and he got beligerent with me.  Yes, in front of others.  I try to not take that stuff personal- he does it to everyone.  But I did walk out in the middle of his tirade. I'm sure that made him happy.

In the midst of all this, I need to find serenity.  Peace. Beauty. 

I've been planting.  I have a little container garden on my front porch this year.  It's cute and mostly edible and attractive and relaxing to putz around in.  The weather is wonderful for dog walking and so Big and Tobey and I take a stroll almost every night.  That's such a stress-relieving activity as Big is so well-trained and used to this behavior that he sticks by me and we just enjoy each other's company. Tobey is still figuring it out and has finally stopped running away when I let him off leash.  He's starting to come reliably when I call him.  His actual owner can get him to do anything, but he's sort of listening to me now too.  And I'm learning him too.  He's a good dog.  And the wedding plans are coming along.  Invitations are almost ready and Grey and I are not too involved.  Cathy and Charlotte are pretty well managing everything. That part alone makes it fun. I got to job about a mile and a half yesterday too, before I couldn't breathe and had to finish the last half mile with a walk.  It's a start.  Not like the marathon shape I used to be in, but hopefully it will improve.  Last weekend we went to a health fair and climbed a rock wall.  We both made it to the top and rapelled down. Now that was cool. I'm a not-really-into-leaving-the-ground kinda woman.  But it was on my terms so I think it was ok.  I just didn't look down.

Maybe sometimes you need to not look down.  Maybe sometimes you just need to not freak yourself out. Don't shoot. Don't panic. Don't take Fox News seriously. Don't overthink the CRT.  One thing you should make sure of though: You should definitely not smoke at my school.

Looks like George Zimmerman has been arrested and charged with 2nd degree murder.  And Trayvon's parents are calling for peaceful protests and belief in the justice system.  I hope they know how much of the country wishes they could hug them right now.