Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Power of Music

The kids at our after-school program come from many different backgrounds, but they are all extremely under-resourced in different ways. We have a variety of refugee students and I've been learning a lot anout how hard it is to be a refugee trying to navigate the American public school system, along with everything else that's new.

We have a student from Congo, who came to America two years ago. I'll call her Elizabeth. I don't know much about her family because her grandmother (who might actually be her great-aunt) only speaks French and Swahili. Her grandmother has been very slow to trust us, which may be understandable given what she's been through and the fact that she can't communicate with us.

Elizabeth had no consistent schooling until she got to the United States two years ago, when she was put into a grade that she was too old for, because her skills in English and math were so low. The school she was attending did not give her any help and failed her at the end of the year, making her the oldest in her grade the next year by two years. She switched schools this year to the one we serve with our after-school program, which fortunately has more resources.

I went to a meeting with Elizabeth's grandmother, who had mistakenly thought that the school would be providing a translator (the school was under the impression that she was bringing a family member who could translate). The only part of the meeting that her guardian understood were the parts I typed into my Google Translate app and translated into French, but that was more than she had gotten at the previous school. We managed to get her some services for next year, and I think everyone is feeling more hopeful, although as I watched Elizabeth's elderly grandmother limp away with her cane to the two buses she has to take home, I couldn't help but wonder how she managed to keep things together for the family.

Later that week, we were able to participate in a choir performance with an Oakland-wide youth choir. Our kids were excited and overly active and bored and difficult as they rehearsed the day before and a couple of hours before the show. We knew most of the parents wouldn't come for various reasons: transportation, lack of English, etc., but we got staff and volunteers to come so that they could feel appreciated and proud of themselves.

The kids did great - they weren't sufficiently practiced and ready, they missed some transitions, they scratched their heads during their performances, and they sang with their hands in their pockets. But they were beautiful and they made absolutely beautiful music. They sang their little hearts out.

Elizabeth had said that her family was coming, but so did about half of the kids and most of them did not show up, so I wasn't expecting anything. However, at the end of the show, Elizabeth's grandmother pushed through the crowd and found me. We couldn't actually communicate with each other, but I said, "She sang so well, you must be really proud!" Her previously standoffish grandmother smiled big and hugged me. In fact, she hugged me several times. I introduced her to my boss and got another big smile from the grandmother even though she didn't understand what I was saying.

When she left, she turned around briefly and grabbed my hand. She squeezed it hard.

I am so grateful that love for a child transcends culture and language. That woman could tell that I loved her grandchild. She didn't need to understand me to understand me.

Friday, February 26, 2016

It's Harder For Me

When you work with children, you sometimes run across child abuse and neglect. I have definitely had to make more than my share of calls to Child Protective Services, and every time is really, really hard.

(Clearly this is going to be a hard post to read. That's part of my point but if you can't handle it, don't read further.)

Some calls are fairly straightforward: "I saw a bruise that looked like a pinch mark on the child's upper arm; when I asked him about it, he said that his dad pinches him until he cries whenever he doesn't do his homework." Then I fill out a paper with my information, the child's information, what I saw, etc.

That's an "easy" call. That's one where I don't think the child's life is in danger, I've seen evidence, and the CPS worker is probably not going to argue with me. It's not usually that easy, and even that takes a lot of emotional energy, because I care for these kids and want them to be safe and not be hurt.

Other calls are much harder. I didn't have to report the child who had a fork mark burned into his forehead - it looked exactly like someone heated up a fork over a stove burner and held it to his forehead, and that is probably what happened, but he was in someone else's class. It was a friend who had a young child in her class who had his hand held onto a stovetop burner as a punishment. I have had to make a few physical abuse reporting calls, but most of mine have been verbal/emotional abuse and/or neglect.

I had one child who was constantly being told by his father that God had made him (the student), "special," and because of that, he must be tested. The father explained that this testing would involve setting the child on fire. As long as he was in my class, the dad didn't act on it, but they moved and I don't know what happened. I reported this every time the child told me, and on one of the calls, the person taking the report began to cry. I don't think she probably lasted very long at that job.

The authorities did check out the family, and I know this because the child handed me a note once, which just said that he couldn't talk to me any more because he was in trouble for telling anyone.

Another child, "Johnny," told me that his mother's boyfriend was scaring him. When I asked further, he said that the boyfriend wanted the mother to move with him to another state. She mentioned bringing her kids and he said, "If you bring your kids, I will kill them and feed them to my mother. I will kill them, chop them up, and feed them to my mother." The third grader overheard this and was understandably frightened. That was one of the only calls where I saw the result. CPS came to the school and talked to the child and the next week, his uncle came to me with tears in his eyes. He said he was Johnny's guardian now (as well as guardian to the younger sister) and that he had never had children but he loved them and he would do anything for them and would keep them safe. I really hope things turned out well for them.

Neglect is perhaps the hardest thing to report because it's tough to quantify. I've had to call on kids who are left home alone overnight, especially when they are young and having to take care of a baby sibling. I've had parents who won't take kids to the dentist for major problems - one child had a bleeding ulcer in his mouth and I had to send him home several days in a row because he was bleeding all over the classroom - even when I find them free dentists. I had one student who came to school (when she came - she missed about a third of the total school year ) reeking of marijuana every day. Her mother would not come get her when she was sick, EVER, and often wouldn't pick her up from school period.

I had to actually talk the person on the CPS hotline into taking my report, as she wasn't convinced it was a problem. This wasn't the first time - I had one time that the person refused to take a report because it wasn't bad enough. I asked him for his name and he said I didn't need that. I called back to talk to someone else and she said they only had one male staff member at the time so she'd pass it on to the supervisor.

I realize this is a hard job. I honestly don't know how ANYONE does it. The social workers working for CPS have a very high turnover rate and that is not surprising AT ALL.

I also realize that it's hard to hear about. I'm betting that a lot of people didn't finish reading this, so if you did, thank you. In my new job, I've had to make a few CPS calls, and they seemed to come all at the same time, making it hard for me. I love these kids and I worry about them, and it is exhausting to deal with this. I cry a lot after making these calls, and I get tired and achy and sick and irritable.

When friends ask how things are going during this time, I tell them. Things are really hard because I've had to make several child abuse reports. I get a few different responses.

One is the person who just doesn't understand and thinks it's easy to keep work and work and not be bothered by it after I make the call. I don't really know how to even talk to this kind of person and fortunately, I have few friends who are like that.

The second is the person who can't hear about it. They can hear "I had to make a CPS call," and then they tell me they can't hear anything else. It's too hard, they say. I have a really hard time with this. OF COURSE it's too hard. But if it's too hard for everyone, then I have to carry it alone. And that's much too hard. I am there every day with these kids and their struggles and sometimes their abuse. If I can't get supported, then I can't support the kids, and of course, things are hardest for them. If I can't get support, I can't keep doing this. It may not be fair, but when people say it's too hard to hear, I want to shout, "If it's that hard to HEAR, how do you think I feel being in the middle of it?? How do you thin k the kids feel who are abused?" Again, not super fair. But it's how I feel.

Fortunately, the third kind of response is the wonderfully supportive friend. I have friends who are really truly supportive, and that is very helpful. But sometimes not enough.

Monday, January 26, 2015


I have been fairly inactive on this blog but I wanted to update anyone who is still reading. 

I am working on a book.  It's scary and it's a lot of work but I really want it to happen.  I'll update here when it does.  That's progress; I didn't say "if," I said, "when!"

I am starting to write on education for AlterNet.  The first post can be found here, about standardized testing.  I'm trying not to read comments.

I continue to find my job extremely rewarding.  That blog can be found here.

I'll try to write more; if you want updates about the book and the other writing, you can check back here or follow me on twitter @bronwynann.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


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 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.