Sunday, February 26, 2006

Loyalty and Authority, Part I

Loyalty is a funny thing with my students. I'm not sure I totally understand the psychology of it, but I have a working theory based on my experiences.

When I first came to this school, I came in January. That class had been through 6 teachers that year - a teacher who basically had a nervous breakdown (panic attacks when he saw the school) and 5 substitutes. These kids were not about to believe that I was staying, and neither were their parents. It took about 3 years of the parents being mostly polite but distant, and the kids asking me when I was leaving before I noticed a shift. (Incidentally, the kids weren't asking when I was leaving because they wanted me to leave; it was more of an understanding that teachers came and went all the time - especially young idealistic white teachers - and they were simply wondering what the duration of my stay would be.

After a few years, I noticed that the parents (and by parents, I mostly mean mothers and grandmothers, but that's the topic for another post) were generally more friendly with me, started having conversations with me about all kinds of things, brought me food, asked me about my life, and just generally related to me more as if I was a peer and not entirely as if I was an educated privileged white teacher trying to "save" inner-city youth. It appeared to me - and I think this is right, but need to process it some more - that they had realized that I was not there so much because of educational ideals or a debt to society or anything else that wouldn't last, but quite simply because I love their children. Idealism will be squashed in this job, and people leave, but when you love a particular group of children dearly, it's much harder to walk away.

The interesting part about being accepted more into the community this is the authority I have with them and the loyalty they have toward me. I gave the example of the kid who told another adult (I still don't know who) "Don't nobody talk that way about my teacher!" I have seen kids who have no problem at all disrespecting adults, destroying school property, etc., reprimanding other students because those students dared disrespect me, and somehow that's different. They also back me up: "Oh, you better get in your seat, cause you know she ain't playing - she will call your mama..." "Girl, you know you don't talk to teacher that way!" The best: "You know she cares about you even when she mad and she only upset cause she wants you to get your education."

This gives me an incredible amount of authority - sometimes (although not always), I don't have to say anything, but can just give "the look" or count to three, or hold out my hand for whatever they aren't supposed to have, and the child will (reluctantly) do what he or she is supposed to. It's fascinating to me because I have zero street cred - I'm a white woman from the suburbs - except that I've stuck it out in that community. And somehow that makes all the difference.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

What Up, Blood?

The same student who stuck up for me and said that I was light skinded and not white was what we here in this neighborhood call ghetto. I mean, to some extent, most things around us are ghetto, but all the other kids called him ghetto. I had to tell him that he couldn't call me 'Blood' or 'Dog' as I was his teacher, and it was disrespectful. He did try hard to respect my wishes. We had a conversation that went something like this:

[student walks into the room, sees teacher]

Student: [kind of cocky] What up, Blood? [looks at teacher and says quickly]: I mean, What up, Dog? [now looking really flustered] I mean, what up, mama? [now totally embarassed] I mean, what up, teacher? [Student sits down and puts his head down, after having totally confused himself]

I guess it wasn't really a conversation, because I didn't have to say anything. It's tremendously powerful when you realize you can get the kids to do what you want with just a look. It's also something that will never ever happen without them having a tremendous amount of respect for you. It's a triumph.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I've Made It!

The custodian asked me to write him a letter of reference today and we started talking. Turns out he went to school here when he was a kid. He asked how long I've been here and I said this was my 7th school year (longest of any teacher here, sadly enough), and he said, "Girl, you the OG of this school! You seen it all!" (If you don't know what "OG" means, you lead a sheltered life and should get yourself educated here). Apparently some adult had said something about me and one of my kids spoke up and said, "Don't you be talking bout my teacher! Don't nobody talk about my teacher!" I figure if I'm upsetting the adults and the kids feel loyalty toward me, I'm doing something right.

I do feel like I've seen it all sometimes. I was thinking of things I could write about and my thoughts sort of went like this inside my head: "Well, there was my first year when I didn't have a classroom and took over for the teacher who had a nervous breakdown, but the teacher in my hall who went to jail for alleged child molestation kind of trumps that one... seven principals I could talk about, each with their own very odd styles, the 4th grader who had a probation officer... oh, and all the lockdowns, especially the one with the potential murder/suicide across the intersection from me... I haven't really touched on all the kids who were in my class when family members died... " and on and on! It's a really strange mix of tragedy and hilarity here (someone remind me to tell the story about the kid who kept calling me 'blood') and it always astounds me that the kids live through it and think it's normal. I mean, everyone says kids are so resilient, but there's enough here to break any spirit. I haven't yet figured out how anyone gets through growing up here and isn't addicted to something... anything to kill the pain and stop the craziness - or at least to feel like you have control for a while...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Kid's Eye View of the Neighborhood

The prompt for a writing test was to describe your neighborhood. Here are some responses. I've included all the mistakes the kids made...

By AS (living in a shelter):
My neighborhood it dark because all the lihgts are out i wish they ern't and some nights i hear gun shots and i hear exsploshons in the in side it is good all the light on and i am meetting new friends. it has trash all over the growed some time i pick it up it good to pick it up because you can help the ebdvirment. it has shady trees. It looks like a night mayor. outside sometimes it smells like poop

By JR:
People be getting noked out. On east 14th ever were. People do drugs and saleing them. They do it every where. People be rily bad. Because they do bad stuf. There pepole that they be mean to you. They do it all the time. People be sad they there. Fillings hurt. People scream to much.

By JS:
Loud guns and dogs. Clean homes. People and homeys. Smells like food and sausages and smoke. It is dirty sometimes it is quiet sometimes. Their is a lot of trees and their is a big big tree. it covers half of the neighborhood. Their is a lot of homes and their is a sewer beside us.

By YM:
My Neighborhood is very loud. I hear gunshots. You can hear cars. It smell like flowers and sometimes smells like garbge. We have scary cats. I run from them a lot. I have lot of Neighbors on our block. It is a lot of kids. Everbody is flamily. We all love each other. But my mom said she does not like is some time becuase there are shooting and she is scared. That is my neighorhood.

By AJ (whose mother is white, dad black - you'll see why I mention that when you get to the store part):

In my neighborhood some people are nice and some are mean. There are a lots of trees in my neighborhood. In front of my house people threw trash on the ground and my dad have to pick it up. Across the street there is a park and the park is brooken and we can't play on it. At night time it's quiet because people are asleep. I'm scared of the dark because everytime the light is out my brother scares me. My neighborhood is loud because there are guns, shooting, and there is dogs barking. Black people hangout by the store and my mom is scared because she don't like that store. My dad go there to get milk. People do donuts just to be funny and my family don't like it.

Oh, and the park being "broken?" I've asked parents - there's a nice park that the city put in for the kids in the projects - but you can't play in it because people have been assaulted and killed there. It looks nice though.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Praise the Lord, a Kid Got Helped!

I usually just refer to my class as a Special Day Class because I have so many emotionally disturbed children in it. (SDC is a class with a much lower student to teacher ratio for emotionally disturbed or learning disabled kids - more or less) . Of course, it's not really, because I don't have any of the support or benefits of Special Day classes. But one of my students just got placed in a counseling enriched SDC - SIX, count them, SIX kids in the class, and she gets pulled out for individual counseling every day.

Oh, and the social worker who decided this girl needed this program saw her on a GOOD day. I've had this child in my class all year with 18 others who need help. Thank God she got help - usually they don't and it took a lot of pushing from her parents, my principal, myself, and a lot of prayer from everyone I talked to. I think (and hope and pray!) she'll finally be able to succeed and feel good about herself. Keep this girl in your prayers, along with all the other kids who aren't getting any help.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dumpster Diving

OK, the promised dumpster story. I have a little bit of a habit of leaving things in places where they shouldn't be. And then not finding them again. Or something else happening to them. Last week, I had my wallet in a plastic bag from Walgreens, since I had bought something and just tossed my wallet in the bag instead of putting it away. Well, I took the thing I had bought out of the bag and (can you guess what happened?) threw the bag away. Not noticing that it was heavier than an empty plastic bag should be. By the time I realized this, it was after school. I went to find the custodian who told me that he had already dumped the garbage and I could have fun "going up in that nasty old dumpster."

As I walked over to the dumpster, I ran into 3 boys who were playing outside and really wanted to help. Apparently when you are an 8 year old boy, playing with garbage is a fun thing. Whatever. I told them they could help look through the bags if they got plastic gloves from the nurse. They ran and got the gloves, and as I was about to say that I would get in the dumpster and toss bags out, they all three jumped right in the dumpster with all the nasty old milk, beaming like it was Disneyland. I did find my wallet, and none of the boys' parents complained.

The picture is of a kid's desk which usually resembles a dumpster. We're trying to work on organization.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Reason For Exhaustion

I'm not sure if people understand why I am SO tired after work. And if one more person says, "But you get off at 3 and only work 9 months a year..." We might leave at 3 but it's to go somewhere else to do our work - for many people at the same time they take care of their own kids. And often we don't even get to do that - we have after school meetings, tutoring, home visits, etc.

Anyway, there are two big reasons for the exhaustion. One is constantly being on the go. Teachers often don't even have two minutes free to go to the bathroom until the kids leave. (Hence the very high rate of bladder infections among teachers). I usually don't eat lunch until after school - we have a 30 minute lunch period and it's generally spent dealing with kids, getting the room ready for the next thing, making copies, getting homework ready... And we always have to be enthusiastic, fairly understanding, firm, and somewhat entertaining. That gets tiring!

The other reason, at least for me, is emotional. I know it's hard for people to hear about this kind of stuff, but if you can't hear it, you need to not read this because this is what my work is like. I've talked about some of the kids' problems - one of them just broke my heart yesterday. He has mentioned that his dad has threatened to do some things to him for which I had to call Social Services. And like most kids in that situation, when Social Services came to his house, he got in big big trouble. He says to me, "I want to tell you about what goes on in my house but you have to promise not to tell anyone." I told him that everything he tells me is private except if anyone's hurting him or if he wants to hurt himself, because the law is that I have to tell someone, we want to protect the kids, blah blah blah. Knowing that we're not protecting the kids because they'll probably get beat for telling, but it is the law. He said, "Then you can't help me at all and no one can help me," and put his head down for the rest of the morning. Later I found a crumpled piece of paper that had been a letter to me until we had this conversation and it started with, "My parents hurt me and they always do it..." If you pray, prayers for this child would be appreciated.

I know that's hard to read, so later I'll post the dumpster diving story which is highly amusing, to lighten things up a little....

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Romance and Logic in the Third Grade

One of my beautiful little girls here had an excellent question for me last year. She asked:

"When boys like you, why do they hit you and tease you and call you names and steal your stuff? Why can't they just say they like you?"

Then this is the kicker:

"And when do they stop acting like that?"

I had to break it to her that some of them NEVER stop. And that as adults, women often wonder about adult men why they just can't use their words and say they like you! (yes, I know I'll hear from a bunch of men - I'm sure you're the exception and always use your words and are frustrated by women's lack of communication. I'm just telling it from my perspective)

The same girl asked me once about Columbus. The conversation went something like this, and I have to say, I was very proud of her for the critical thinking skills she displayed.

Student: Why do we call them Indians when India is a different country?

Me: [some crap I can't remember about how Columbus got lost and thought he was going to India, so he called them Indians because he was assuming he was in India]

Student: [stares at me incredulously] They got named the wrong thing because he got LOST? [thinks for a minute] And where does he get off naming them anyway? Who said the white guy could name them??

Monday, February 06, 2006

Extreme Emotional Neediness

To anyone who thinks teaching is all about... well, teaching: here's the social worker/counselor part of my job. This is an extreme class, as I was the only returning third grade teacher and no one was sure if the other ones could handle the "challenges." But still...

AD: A beautiful little girl whose mother left her when she was a baby. She's being raised by her grandmother and great grandmother. She is one of the meanest little girls I have ever met because she's so miserable. She tells me approximately 17 times a day that she hates herself or that she wants to die. Sometimes she just falls on the floor crying because she is so overwhelmed. We've started a journal where she can write to me and I write back and that seems to help some - she partly just wants to be heard. The kids have started telling her when she is nice to them, which is great positive reinforcement. When I told her grandmother that she seemed sad and I needed to schedule a conference, her grandmother told me that she better not hear that come out of my mouth again or else, "I'm just fenna go straight off and you better have some people to protect you!"

AS: Recently became homeless and is so angry and worried that he is a constant problem and an explosion waiting to happen. He also tells me routinely that he wants to die, asks me to kill him please because he hates his life. His dad threatened to set him on fire but then said he was just kidding. This child is very very intelligent, and the smartest kids can definitely be the biggest problems if they choose to. He also has a notebook to write in. Sometimes it works and sometimes he still explodes and often takes the rest of the class down with him.

ST: Doing much much better! But at the beginning of the year, his line was, "You don't even want me in your class because I don't deserve to be in third grade." He had a thing about having had to repeat first grade and told me every day that it was proof that he was stupid.... until I told him that his epal had to repeat kindergarten and is now one of the most educated people I know. His dad just came home after being gone for 9 months. When I asked him where he was, he said "out of town." It was jail.

RT: A brand new student, so I don't know his story but he refuses to do ANYTHING, although he knows how. He just sits there and smirks. ALL DAY. I personally would think it would get a little boring, but he apparently disagrees.

SH: Officially classified as SED (Severely Emotionally Disturbed), she is in a "normal" class only because there's no room in the appropriate classes. She is often a very sweet girl (albeit with some severe learning problems) who talks about how much she loves me, her family, and her bunny. She's doing a little better now with using her words to express her frustration, but many times she still has meltdowns. And I mean MELTDOWNS. (The pictures at the top are of her handiwork). She rips posters off the wall, rips them in half, trashes desks, dumps books out of bookshelves, tries to stab people with scissors, and if it happens, the rest of the day is shot.

Most of the kids have seen someone killed - whether it be a neighbor, friend, or relative. Most have had a family member in jail at some point - usually for drugs, sometimes for armed robbery or assault (or occasionally attempted murder or murder). I have had kids stay up all night because there were gunshots and they were scared. Or sometimes they sleep in the bathtub or the closet, because there's more barriers for the bullet to go through. I got a note once from a parent saying, "My child did not do her homework because the gangs was shooting and we was in the bathtub." Another child saw her grown cousin shot in the face and came to school the next day. She didn't stop shaking all week and at that point there were no counseling resources and of course her family couldn't help her as they were going through the same thing. Another child saw her father shot in the head when she was 6 years old - drug deal gone bad.

None of this stuff is in my job description, and much of it I can't even imagine dealing with at that age. And if I'm observed dealing with any of this and not actually teaching, I can be reprimanded for not helping our children to meet their academic standards. Can't change the schedule or the topic to deal with this, can't take class time to talk about their feelings, and if I have to call Social Services on a kid for abuse or neglect, the child usually ends up getting beat at home for telling other people the family business.

Add to all this trauma the fact that many kids come to school hungry, exhausted, in charge of themselves and their younger siblings from the time they're in kindergarten, and you can see some of the reasons we're what the President calls a "failing" school. (There are many other reasons that I will get into later). No matter if they're suffering from malnutrition, fetal alcohol syndrome, neglect, abuse, PTSD, if they speak English, if their parents are illiterate... I'd damn well better be sure they learn their parts of speech quickly or the president will impose sanctions (no kidding) or close our school. Because we wouldn't want to leave any child behind now, would we??

Saturday, February 04, 2006

I'm Not White, I'm Just Light Skinded

There are many many ways in which this neighborhood was a culture shock for me. I'm from the suburbs. I'm used to most people looking like me and talking like me. This neighborhood is a little different. Our school is about half black and half Latino, with a few Southeast Asian kids. (We used to have a large Vietnamese, Cambodian, Samoan, and Tongan population, but over the 6 1/2 years I've been there, they've mostly moved away). People sometimes turn to stare at me on the street - there's not a lot of reason for a white woman to be walking around in our neighborhood.

There have always been white teachers at our school. Conversation from my first year of teaching (first grade):

Student 1: There is every kind of kid in our class: Mexican, Black, Chinese. [the "Chinese" kid was Vietnamese]

Student 2: What about white kids?

Student 1: Silly, there ain't no white kids. There's only white teachers.

I thought when I started teaching third grade that the kids might have more of a realistic view, but after repeatedly being asked if I was black or Mexican, I had this conversation with a student. By the way, said student had two goals in life. He wanted to be either "a police or up in jail like my daddy. Because if you're a police, you can shoot the people who be messing with you and if you're up in jail you can have lots of friends who do whatever you say, just like my daddy do." Sadly, he's probably on his way. Anyway, the conversation went like this:

Student: Teacher, some kids was talking about you, and they was saying you was white. But I stood up for you and I said no you wasn't, you was black.

Me: You told them I was black?

Student: Yeah, I stood up for you.

Me: Do you think I'm black?

Student: Yeah, you's black. You's just light skinded.

Me: Honey, I'm actually white. Look at my skin color - see how light I am?

Student: You's white? You's not light skinded? [long pause] I'ma have to think about this...

What I've come to realize is that for a lot of the kids, it makes more sense for them to believe that I'm just abnormally light than to think there's a white person who cares this much about them and who they love. That is TOTALLY outside their concept of the world. It's fascinating - these race relations around here.

Note: Nothing in our school (except for talking about other people's mamas) can start a fight like skin color conversations. And yes, the way you pronounce it is light skinded. Also, "Teacher sprainded her ankle. My uncle passeded away." I've totally picked it up. My favorite: "I'm not fat, I'm just big boneded."


So, a few things have happened lately which have made me think about starting a blog (which I swore I'd never never do).

People ask me a lot about my job. They ask me what the neighborhood is like, what the district is like, if we're going to strike, what the kids struggle with, do I really think I should be paid more if I "only work 9-3, nine months a year" (don't get me started!), what I think about No Child Left Behind (again, don't get me started!), about the different cultures in the neighborhood, about what it's like to be a white teacher in a school with no white children...

Also, I have noticed a need to explain myself in this context, to explain what i see every day and help people to understand it, and just to process - and I'm an external processor. So I decided to try to write some of it down and hopefully it will serve a couple of those purposes.