Saturday, September 20, 2014

Eulogy

Every teacher has a couple of students who make their way into the teacher's heart.  Many times, these are the most challenging students and other teachers don't understand why this particular student is so important to us, but then again, they have their own.  I've had a few who stand out in this way.  One was Frank.

Another former student, Roxana, has been volunteering for me this month.  She is now 21 years old and a senior at UCLA against all odds, and truly a wonderful, beautiful person who I am honored to know. We were talking a few weeks ago about Frank and wondering what happened to him, but agreed that it was probably nothing good.  when she came in on Wednesday to volunteer, she said, "Ms. Harris, what was Frank's last name?"

I knew immediately what she was going to say.  And honestly, this was a likely outcome for him. But I am heartbroken.

This article was what Roxana wanted to show me, and because she knows how much I love my "kids" even if they're grown, she wanted to tell me herself and not have me find out on the news.  I'm so grateful.  I told my staff that I needed some time to myself and, like anyone raised in Oakland, they understood.  They've all lost friends, family, classmates to this kind of violence.

Frank was, as one of my friends who volunteered in my classroom said, complicated and wonderful. I've written about him before, and if you have a minute, look at that post before coming back to get the whole picture.  We made a list of things I liked about him, which was way harder for him than you'd think.

I'd like to tell you about a few interactions I had with Frank.  When I was 24, I started teaching in Oakland.  I took over a first grade class in January, 2000, and I was totally unprepared for what I was facing.  Within the first 10 minutes of class, Frank had thrown a book at my head and I had to send him home.  The rest of that year was up and down for us but we built a relationship.  He was tough and other kids were scared of him.  But sometimes he would get in my lap and cry because he didn't know how to deal with all of his feelings.  He could knock over a desk and scream at the rest of the class and the next day I'd tell him I was going to come see his baseball game (it was T-ball but he wanted me to call it baseball) and his whole face would light up.  He'd get really mad at himself when he couldn't read something correctly.  He loved math and when I had to send him out of the classroom for being a disturbance, I'd send him to a class across the hall where the teacher would teach him multiplication and he'd say, "I'm smart!  I learned my times tables."

In second grade he got expelled, I believe, or else the school just "encouraged" his mom to send him to another school.  I am not sure if he hit a teacher or what but it was something along those lines.  For some reason he had to come back in third grade and I agreed to take him, as I was teaching third grade at that time.  I taught him the word "frustrated" and when he'd get mad, sometimes he'd still act out and sometimes he'd breathe really hard, turn red, and say, "I... AM... SO... FRUSTRATED!!!"  We got him a counselor at the school who he liked but it was not smooth sailing for Frank.  He told me that he got so angry he didn't know what to do.  And he had a lot to be angry about.

In fourth and fifth grade, Frank,who was very small for his age, would threaten and chase other kids. He would "flinch" (what he called pretending to hit someone) at them to scare them. He would really hit them. He had kids much bigger than him scared.  But occasionally, he would come in my classroom and say, "Ms. Harris, you've got to calm me down, you're the only one who can calm me down."  Sometimes I could and sometimes I couldn't.  Once, he was so upset that he was flailing his body around and he knocked me off balance.  He froze and started crying uncontrollably. I had to assure him I was OK and he kept repeating that he never wanted to hurt me.

I lost track of Frank for seven or eight years until this documentary came out.  He looked almost exactly the same but surprisingly calmer than I had ever seen him.  I emailed the producers of the documentary and got the phone number of the librarian at the juvenile detention facility to pass on a message to Frank.  I got a voice mail from him saying he was glad to hear from me, he hoped I was doing well and to call him back.  I had no number to call him back so I tried the librarian again a few times but never heard back.

A year or so later, I saw him on the streets of Oakland.  He looked at me and said, "Miss Harris?  You still have the same phone number?  I said I did and he said, "I'ma call you," and drove off.

I heard from a reputable source that he was trying to get out of the gang life and went to job training near the end of his life.  It breaks my heart that he couldn't get out and that it caught up with him.



Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Becoming Adults

A book I read a long time ago is called There Are No Children Here.  I'm fuzzy on the details, but it's about a rough neighborhood in Chicago, I believe, and the title comes from a mother who says that there are no children here - and goes on to explain how people who have seen and experienced the violence that her kids have aren't children anymore because you can't experience that and still be a child.

I see this with kids and teenagers in Oakland, a lot.  When I was teaching this was really obvious.  A six-year old told me once that he had to walk his five-year old brother home because "My mama says I'm grown now."  other kids were being raised by their older siblings or older cousins, who should have been in college, figuring out who they were, not raising difficult young children who had been abandoned.

In my new job, I'm seeing this a lot.  Our staff is mostly made up of teenagers, and many of them are the parental figures of their families.  One is responsible for getting his younger brother and sister to and from school and the afterschool program.  One is taking her little sister to test for enrollment in private schools because she (the older sister) is dissatisfied with the education being received.  Another dresses her little sister and does her hair every morning, and makes sure the little sister eats.  Somebody else is responsible for taking care of his niece and nephew who live with him.  It goes on and on.  I've never met any of their parents, and some of these kids were 13 when they started working for us.

Today I had an extended text message conversation with one of the newer and younger staff members.  She had told me that she was failing two classes and pretty worried about it.  After work, she texted me to tell me that she wasn't sure what to do because her dad was going to be in town for one day only and he wanted her to skip school and work to see him.  She didn't think she should but she was afraid of disappointing him too.

There's no easy answers here.  It's easy to just be frustrated that she's being flaky and tell her she has to come or she's fired.  Then I take into account the fact that she's barely 14 and her dad, mom, and aunt are all telling her to skip school to see her dad.  I asked her what would happen if she missed more school.  She said she'd probably fail.  I asked her what would happen then.  She'd probably have to go to summer school.  She wants to be a nurse and she doesn't know if she can with bad grades.  We talked it through and she decided she wants to go to both school and work tomorrow but if she has a father pressuring her not to, I'm not sure if she'll still do the thing she thinks is best for her.

This particular young woman has seen violence and lost people to it.  Since I've known her (3 and a half months), she's been to two funerals for cousins who were shot.  I want her to get out of this and do what she and I both think is best, but how does she do that when she has to go against her own parents?  It's pretty discouraging all around.  I hope she can do it.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

An Extremely Overdue Post

I have a new job!

Well, I meant to write that in July.  It's been a little busy.  With a new job and all.

But I'll tell you about it!  It might, in fact, be the perfect job for me.  There's the slight matter of working for a non-profit and getting a non-profit level salary.  but aside from that, it's pretty perfect for me.

I think everyone reading this probably knows I'm a Christian.  I've never worked for a Christian school or organization, however, in part because I never wanted to only work with Christians or strictly with kids for Christian families.

I'm a public school teacher and worked in a quite difficult public school for eight years.  I loved the kids, loved most of the parents, had difficulties with the administration (most of the 8 incarnations of them) and hated the politics and testing.

Guess what?  I got a job at a Christian organization that hires and serves all children and youth in the neighborhood, not just Christians.  It's the kids I love to work with from public schools without the testing or politics.  I LOVE IT.

I'm in charge of an after-school program with 60 kids in elementary and middle school.  They come from Christian (Protestant and Catholic), Buddhist, and non-religious families.  Their families are from Nigeria, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras, Nepal, Laos, Thailand, China, Taiwan, and the United States.  They are being raised by moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunties, and combinations of all of those.

These kids area all being served by the public schools but I don't have to deal with testing, Common Core standards, or constantly rotating principals.

In addition, most of our staff are teenagers from the neighborhood, and I love working with them.  They are often raw and young and unprofessional, but they are wonderful and I am so privileged to work with them.

There are, of course, challenges to this job.  Finances are pretty tight and having young employees whom you can't pay a lot can be tough.  But I love it.

If you pray, please pray for me.  If you want to financially support us, take a look at www.hhministries.org or email me for more information.  Stay tuned for more information.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

This Makes Me So Happy

I asked a parent of a teenager I work with to be a reference and he forwarded me the email he wrote.  Here it is with only my name taken out.  I'm going to keep it forever for when I don't feel like I'm making a difference.


Let me share a few thoughts. B- has been my savior the last year. At one point we had tutors in my house 6 nights a week. We’re down to just B- these days as she is so incredible. She doesn’t do the work for my son but challenges him to find the answers himself. A couple of weeks ago he cranked out a 5 paragraph essay from scratch in one hour. And it was wonderful. You could read all about her on Yelp if I ever got around to writing something. She is kind, bright, cheery, and my son and I both adore her. He respects her and works with her so much better than he does with me. She monitors his work, his notebooks, keeps him on track and makes my life enjoyable. I really can’t say enough good things. She works with my son primarily in English but always is ready to pitch in for World History and Media.



Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Go Appreciate a Teacher!

My Facebook friend Brook, who said I could quote her, recently had this up as her status:


Just a quick bit of perspective. So, parents, do you really understand the amount of blood, sweat, and tears goes into being a teacher? Remember the last family vacation you planned, the frustration of trying to lock your family schedule down, the disappointment when plans fell through, the stress of trying to secure an alternate? Well, teachers deal with that EVERY day, only instead of doing it for a family of 4, they have to contend with the wants, needs, and sense of entitlement for families of 20+ from all walks of life, beliefs, and ideals. While you work your 8 hours and get paid for it, your child's teacher is working 10+ and there's NO overtime. Those field trips, parties, and events all take time to plan. The lessons and projects that keep you children engaged; when do you think all that work happens? During school hours? Don't kid yourself. Teachers do it on their time, for your children, because they knew, long before you give birth, that those people are our future. They are educators, parents, social workers, and therapists all wrapped into one and in addition to the task of mentoring your kids, they have to handle the needy personalities of the parents. The wants of an overprotective mother, or the denial that your kid really is the asshole everyone says they are, not the sweet angel victim of every social situation. They have to attempt to do damage control from addicted parents and try to prove there's another way of life to these kids. Most people take for granted what teachers do for their children and that's a travesty. As parents most of us would lose our shit if we had to put up with what teachers do everyday. Just acknowledging it.

It is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I'll tell you, some of us live for that week.  Most of the time, we get blame (from parents, administrators, government, and society as a whole), pity (from people who make three times as much as us with the same amount of education or who don't have to scrub marker and snot off their clothes every day), scorn (especially true for teachers who aren't parents, often from family/acquaintances/parents of students who pull out the highly insulting "well, if you had kids, you'd understand x, y, or z.").  

We go into the professional knowing all this and we all have reasons that it's worth it.  Those reasons all have names, such as Stephanie, the incredible student I had in third grade who is seeing her dream of going to Howard University manifest itself after years of hard work.  She not only makes me proud to be a teacher - I would pay her whole tuition if I was able to because she'll be such an incredible investment.  We don't go into this profession to be appreciated, but we also are often not prepared for the amount of blame, ridicule, etc. that we have to deal with.

Brook, it's parents like you that help us keep going.  I'm no longer in the classroom but still teaching.  Whether or not I ever do go back to the classroom, I will never forget the feeling of going into the last stretch of the school year, with the kids acting crazy, the classrooms overheating because they act like greenhouses, trying to give standardized tests when you want to actually TEACH the kids what they still need to learn because so much of your time has been wasted testing, madly planning field trips and end of the year activities, and dealing with parents who think you should be spending all your energy on their one child.  It makes a huge difference to just have this acknowledged, so thank you to everyone who's appreciating their child's teacher.  Please know that the teacher loves your child and would do anything for them, even when they're destroying the classroom.  

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Lessons on Equality

I take my Little Sister to a lot of kid-friendly events and she knows a good amount of my friends and family now.  When a friend was moving to another state and a party was thrown that included children, I brought her to that too.  On the way there, I realized that I hadn't told her something about this friend and wasn't sure how she'd react.

As a teacher, you learn to navigate the tricky waters of students' families' views, prejudices, and beliefs.  If you tell a child that what their mother or grandmother believes is wrong or prejudicial, you're probably fighting a losing battle, as this is what they've grown up with and most likely internalized.  I've found it better to get them thinking for themselves, and have managed to fight some fairly entrenched prejudices, mostly racial, by doing this.

I thought about this as I prepared to have this conversation with my Little Sister about this friend.  I thought I was going to have to talk about whether or not you agreed with someone's "lifestyle" (kind of a terrible word but commonly used), it's still important to treat them with respect.  I thought I was going to have to explain why I actually had friends who were gay, as I was pretty sure my Little Sister had not had much interaction with people who were gay.  I thought I might have to explain how homophobia is similar to racial prejudice, and how it was important to treat everyone equally.

I was underestimating her.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: I forgot to tell you that this friend we're saying good-bye to is gay.  You might hear someone talk about how he's going to live with his boyfriend and I wasn't sure if you knew any men who had boyfriends or women who had girlfriends.

Her: I saw two men kissing once.  I didn't like it.  [long pause]  I don't like seeing anyone kiss, even if it's a man and a woman.

Me: That makes sense.  I think that's a normal feeling.  You don't have to watch anyone kiss.

Her: Is he nice?

Me: Who?

Her: Your friend who's moving.  Is he nice?

Me: Yes, he's very nice.

Her: OK. Then I'll like him.

That was the end of the conversation.


After the party, as we were driving home, I asked her if she had had fun.

"Your friend helped me with my Jeopardy game," she said.  "He was very nice.  He was the first gay person I've ever met."  Then she went to sleep.

I didn't need any of my explanations.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Power of Community

Today I get to write about something encouraging.

A few months ago, one of my former students' families had a house fire.  Everyone in their family got out OK, but they lost everything.  EVERYTHING.

His fourth grade teacher who is still at the same school (I had him in third grade) found out and told me and our best volunteer ever about it.  Between the three of us and our friends, we managed to get the word out and get donations of furniture, clothing, gift cards, and money, people to move stuff (including two professional movers), and basically enough furnishings to fill up a 4 or 5 bedroom house.

When we were moving stuff in and since, the student's mom has expressed gratitude to me and the other teacher.  What I told her is what I'd like to share here: it wasn't me.  I can't speak for how the other two people got their donations but I just asked my friends.  My friends (and acquaintances, and in some case, friends of friends) just gave.  They gave furniture and clothing and money and time and gift cards to a family they had never met only because I said they needed help.

It still, even after seeing it happen before, astounds me that people would give (especially money) to people they didn't know, just because I said they were people I cared about.  It amazes me that people are willing to write checks to me, trusting that I'll use it for what the people I said I would and not for myself (don't worry, I did).

It's easy in teaching where I taught to get discouraged and assume that no one cares.  And I've seen plenty of examples where people actually don't care or think black/Latino/poor children or anyone who lives in a particular area are so different from the rest of us that it's easier to kind of dehumanize people sometimes than to do something to change inequality.

However, in this instance, I was encouraged, and reminded that I know some pretty awesome people.