Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Beautiful Christmas in the Ghetto

My Christmas was pleasant but fairly uneventful, except for one thirty-minute period. That period of time probably would have seemed uneventful to most people but to me, it was a beautiful Christmas miracle.

The kids that my friend and I work with, who have had such a hard, hard year, have been sort of MIA for the last few weeks. We've tried to take them out to eat and set up the times, only to have them flake. One of them changed his cell phone number so he was impossible to get ahold of.  And rude when we did get ahold of him. The other only answered when he wanted. They go through this sometimes, so I didn't think much of it, except to be a little annoyed when I drove across town to get them and they weren't there.  I have no idea if they're going to school or really anything else about what's going on right now.  I'm pretty constantly worried about them but try not to because there's nothing I can do.

We thought for a while about what to get them for Christmas.  They're 11 and 14 now, which is a hard age to buy for if you don't have much money to spend  (which I don't) and they're kind of in between toys and adult.  I wasn't sure that anything we got them would be received well.  We finally decided on McDonald's and In-N-Out gift certificates, because although that is not helpful to their health, it will make them happy.  And we take happiness where we can find it with these kids.  At the last minute, my friend got ahold of two remote-controlled cars and brought them along.  I was skeptical that the cars would be received well because I thought the boys would be in their "we're too grown and cool for that baby stuff" mode.  I was even more nervous because the younger kid kept texting us asking where his presents were so I thought it would be way overblown and he'd be disappointed.

We picked up one kid and drove him a few blocks to his auntie's house.  The older boy was there.  They are so tall now - the older one is almost as tall as me (and I'm 5'8") and the younger one is growing tall and slimming down.  They are also both heart-breakingly beautiful (I'd never say that to their faces!) with deep brown eyes that are hard to look away from.  It's easy to forget sometimes - especially with the older kid - when their faces look so hard, but they are beautiful children. 

The older kid came out of his auntie's house and said everyone was asleep.  We decided to do the presents right there in front of the apartment building in the ghetto in the dark.  The kids got the remote control cars and did what any brothers would do - started driving the cars into each other.  The cars went in the road  and fell off the curb and crashed into each other - and eventually the older kid realized he was trying to control the wrong car which led to all sorts of hilarity.  Then we gave them the Christmas cards with the gift certificates.  The kids read every word of the Christmas cards - I could see them moving their lips - and asked if they really got to get food from McDonald's and In-N-Out.  The younger one said "How'd you know I like McDonald's?!?" like we had just read his mind.  The kid's only been asking for McDonald's every time we saw him for the last four years...

Then, we gave the kids the gingerbread houses.  A friend had made them and bought the decorations, having a bunch of people over for a decorating party.  We had a couple of extras to bring to the boys but a dog (not mine!) ate those.  So, I decided to bring the decorated houses to the boys along with extra frosting and candy so they could make another layer if they wanted.

They took all the loot inside and a few minutes later, we got a text from the older boy asking if we could make a gingerbread mansion.  A gingerbread mansion!  That is not a tough mean kid from the ghetto waiting to go to juvie talking.  That is the kid I know and have known for 7 years.  That is the kid getting to be a kid - wanting candy and wanting to make a giant gingerbread house.  This kid - who has left me voice mails cursing me out more than once, who has hung up on me, who has told me to get out of his life, who has been arrested probably more times than I know about, who stole his mom's car and went drunk driving - texted me and said "Thank you for the gifts."  That thank you - which definitely didn't come because his mom told him to - meant more to me than any thank you note I've ever gotten.

Then he told me he was eating the gingerbread houses and could we please make a mansion gingerbread house.  I wish there was a good way to explain how happy that made me, and how beautiful it was to see him crashing his toy car into his brother's car and looking honestly content, happy, and at peace, just for a minute.

When he gets up tomorrow, he probably won't be thinking about gingerbread mansions.  He'll probably be worrying about how his mom will make enough money for food and if she's going to get drunk and if he's going to go to juvie and if his girlfriend is pregnant.  None of which a 14-year old should worry about, but all of which they very commonly do worry about, at least in this neighborhood.  But now I've seen the loving side of him again, even if just for a minute.  I think that will get me through another six months of his heartbreaking, justified anger and despair, because I know that he has good memories too, and that he knows that there are people who love him.

And I'll plan on helping him with that gingerbread mansion.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Difference 20 Years Makes - Guest Blog

Guest post from Matthew Goebel.  I'm looking for guest bloggers - if you have any opinions or experiences regarding education to share, please let me know!
 I live and work in the Bay Area of California.  I have a ten year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Kentucky where I grew up.  Recently I had the privilege of taking my daughter to and picking her up from her elementary school in Waco, Kentucky.  Waco is a very small town outside of Richmond, Kentucky, which isn’t a large town either.  Most of the area is rural.  Richmond has Eastern Kentucky University which doubles the population of the town when it’s in session. 
As I think back to when I was in elementary school I am shocked at how trusted I was to get to school, come home and do homework.  My mom and dad sent me off in the morning, rain, snow or shine to walk the 7-8 blocks to the school.  No questions asked, we were allowed onto school property and into the school.  Classes started at 8 A.M. and we were out of school by 3 P.M.  The same hike home and we’d do our homework then play the day away.  The silly thing is, we-meaning myself, my brothers and ALL of our friends did this very thing.  Five days a week, from mid August to the last week of May. 
The week before Thanksgiving week this year, I was staying at my parents’ house with my daughter.  Mom and  Dad live a good 15 miles away from my daughter’s  school, so there would be no walking to school for her.  (Her mother lives about the same distance in the opposite direction.)  Parents can choose to send their child to any of the public schools in Madison County.  If a child is going to a school outside the bussing district for that school it is up to the parent to deliver and pick up the child or get the child to a bus stop within the bussing district for that school.  My ex does just that, she drives my daughter daily to a bus stop inside the bussing district for Waco Elementary and then waits for the bus to arrive.  Then she picks her up from the same spot in the afternoon.
If you don’t want to do that, then you must be to the school by a certain time before class starts so you can “check in” your child.  What this means is at 7:20 A.M. I was in line (only of about 20 cars) with other parents waiting for the front doors to open so that I could let the school officials see my daughter get out of my car and enter the school.  There was a woman at the doors checking that every parent matched the child.  The car at the front of the line would let their child out after getting the confirmation from the school official that they had seen you and your child.  Then the next car in line would pull up to the front doors and repeat the process. 
 We didn’t have to be in that early if we really didn’t want to be.  We could have shown up at 7:40 A.M. and she could have gone straight to class instead of having a school provided breakfast of cereal and milk, a piece of fruit and maybe some OJ. 
Before I was even allowed to drop my daughter off at school I had to go after school was out to meet the principle, her teacher and the school officials who would be at the entrance to the school confirming my presence and there for taking custody and responsibility of my daughter.  I also had to have someone other than my daughter (and preferably someone they knew) say to them-Yes that’s her father. 
The afternoon pick up was much the same.  I got into line at 2:45 P.M. and waited until 3 for the doors to open.  Then all the children who were being picked up came out and waited for their parent to pull up so they could get in the car.  Once again, it was after visual I.D. that the child was even allowed to approach the car. It is amazing how unrelaxed we are after twenty years.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stuffed Animals

There are several much more serious stories I was going to share, but I'm not in the mood to be made sad tonight, so I'll tell you all about the stuffed animals.  This is a post that needs images so someday when I have or borrow a working scanner, I will add the photos.

A few years into teaching, I joined Freecyle.  For those of you who don't know Freecycle, it's a group of people in any given community who are on an email list to get rid of their old stuff and get stuff from other people.  It's a fabulous form of recycling. Somebody posted that they had a huge bag of stuffed animals in good condition to give away and I decided to grab it for my class.

I thought that some of the kids would like the stuffed animals, but I certainly didn't think they'd all be into them.  Kids grow up really fast in that neighborhood, and when you have six-year olds talking about how they walk to school alone because their parents say they're "grown," and how they're going to jump other kids, you certainly don't expect them to want a stuffed animal.

I laid out the stuffed animals on the carpet where we have storytime, and each kid got to pick a number.  That number determined the order in which they got to choose the toys.  These kids were so excited.  They didn't even fight about the order because they were so happy at the prospect of picking out a stuffed animal.

There were all sorts of stuffed animals.  Big fluffy teddy bears and lions, little fish, turtles, and cats, giraffes, everything.  Each kid had a favorite and they actually didn't fight.  There were a couple times where a child said "Oh, I wanted that one... but I like this one even better!"  Everyone named their animal and put it on top of their desk for the rest of the day.

The love for the stuffed animals kept up for a while.  Some kids took theirs home and slept with them and told me all about how much they loved them and took care of them.  Some kids left theirs at school to stay on their desk or in their desk and keep them company during the school day.  Sometimes they gave them to me to take care of for an hour or two.  Sometimes they took them out to recess.  If they were nervous about tests, the stuffed animal sat on the desk with them.

It was amazing.  These kids grow up so fast and so inappropriately that it felt like some sort of miracle to see this kind of childlikeness in them. Kids who routinely hide in the closet or the bathtub because "the gangs be shooting" loving and caring for a stuffed animal was really beautiful.

So, thanks to the anonymous freecycler with the Hefty bag of stuffed animals. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Things You Hope You Never Hear From a Third Grader

1. "My mama says I need to bring energy drinks to school so I can have more energy!"
2. "I don't need no Kleenex."
3. "I don't have a bedtime cause I'm grown."
4. "My mama says I'm only in trouble cause you don't like black people.
5. [looking at a display of an exploded meth lab] "Hey!  That's my uncle's house!"
6. "The pee just came out!  I didn't know it was coming."
7. "He WANTED me to hit him!"
8. "But it was only a little bit of a stick and I really thought it would go over her head, honest!"*

and finally...

9. "Teacher, I don't feel so good..." ... "Hey, look, I can see what I ate for lunch!  Cool!"

*Thanks, Linda!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Reflections on Public Education

I stumbled across this blog just when the author was talking about her frustrations with her son's teacher.  She has written some very thought-provoking posts, and I would strongly, STRONGLY recommend reading this one.  Please.  It is thoughtful and she has the unique perspective of being a parent of a public school student as well as a former public school teacher in the inner city.

Let me preface this quote that I am going to share with saying that I have worked with many fantastic teachers.  I know teachers who are extremely gifted, dedicated, respectful, and just all-around wonderful.  One of my eight principals was incredible (and continues to be incredible, just in another district).  Most of the teachers I know spend lots of their own money, bring the children food when they need it, spend hours and hours and hours of unpaid time on preparation in order to do the best for their kids.  And, to these teachers, the students ARE "their kids."

But.  Then there's this.

In the previous school year, most of my 3rd grade students had had a teacher who ate in class and then SLEPT on her desk. No wonder they all failed! Some of the kids confessed to me that they'd stolen money out of this woman's wallet while she dozed on her desk. I was secretly glad that they did so because I was so angry that such an incompetent, shiftless and immoral person could appropriate the title of "teacher".

I wish I could say that this shocked me.  But I've worked with a few of these.  One of them was next door to my classroom (out in the portable classrooms which are on the yard so people hardly ever come near them) and would shriek (and I mean shriek) at her students: "Why are you so stupid?!  Stupid! Stupid!"  She let them have PE all the time so that she didn't have to teach and took at least a day off a week.  The kids would come into my classroom and literally tell me that they felt safe there.

Another one ran a catalog merchandise business from her classroom when she was supposed to be teaching.  She didn't like standing up (she was also extremely unhealthy which could have something to do with it) and generally ate her McDonald's lunch at her desk during math time. The kids often had coloring pages instead of work to do.

Those were definitely the exceptions, but there was always someone like that.  There shouldn't be that kind of exception.

More common were the people who had started off as good teachers and got jaded and cynical.  Which is very easy to do and I think I would have gotten there if I had stayed.  It is so easy to start thinking that the parents don't care, that the kids won't succeed, that that you're fighting a losing battle.  It is discouraging to see kids drop out in middle school, parents drop off their kids while they are drunk (the parents, not the kids), and to be cursed at when you try to tell a parent what is going on with their children.

However.  I learned a lot during my time teaching in this particular neighborhood.  The first thing is that parents do care.  They do.  But often, they can't deal with their own stuff, much less their children's.  Or they're working three jobs.  Or they're struggling with addiction and can't be a parent.  Or they had a kid at 13 and never knew what to do.  But it is absolutely unacceptable for any teacher to say that a parent doesn't care.  You don't know what they feel!  I'm sure I've been guilty of it when I've gotten frustrated and I wish someone had called me on it.

Also, children of different colors are treated differently by many, many teachers and administrators.  I don't think most people do it on purpose and I'll write a post soon about that.  But - and I'm saying this as a white person - I think that the blog author is not overreacting when she sometimes expresses concern that her black male children are not being treated the same as other children, or aren't getting the same quality of education.  Ten years ago, I would have thought that was a paranoid reaction.  It's true.

In addition, the behavior described above would not be tolerated in many schools.  It shouldn't be!  But it is in the inner-city.  I can't think of another reason except that all children are not valued the same.  Whether their parents are addicts or not, on welfare or high-powered attorneys, Black or White or Latino or Asian, educated or not, the children are valuable.  I think most people would agree with that sentiment, but it is not acted upon.  I wish I could fix that.  Any ideas?

The purpose of this post is not to make teachers look bad.  It's a difficult enough job that I quit at age 32.  But parents and teachers absolutely must work together, have communications, and have high standards for each other as well as the kids.  All kids. I don't know how to implement that.  If you have any ideas, please let me know.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Two Steps Forward...

...three steps back.

For the last 5-7 years, this district has had a major focus on "new small schools."  These small schools were going to totally transform the district (and may have done that if they had been given a chance) by offering smaller classes and schools with more parent-teacher-child interactions, less room to fall through the cracks, more ability and special programs to meet students' needs, etc.  Sometimes it felt like small schools were being pushed and rewarded at the expense of us larger, more traditional schools.  It was hard to hear the district administrators say that they didn't have money for whatever particular program/supplies we needed when I knew they were spending a lot more to start these new small schools.  Many larger schools were divided up into small schools since that was considered to be the best model.

Now the district has decided that small schools cost too much money.

According to staff’s calculations, the minimum number of students needed for a school to “break even” on its fixed costs and teacher salaries is 317 for elementary schools, 476 for middle schools and 602 for high schools. And that’s assuming average class sizes are 27, 32 and 32, which is about six students larger than the current averages.

Twenty-nine of the district’s elementary schools (48 percent), 12 of its middle schools (71 percent) and 15 of its high schools (83 percent) are smaller than that — in some cases, by design.

All that time, planning, and money spent on making small schools the focus of the district and now we're going to un-small them?  Many of them haven't even been in existence long enough to give them a fair trial.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Off Topic: Travel Photos!

I'll get back to the education theme soon.  For now, here's what I've been doing with myself!  I'm not positive these links will work, so let me know...

Spain (Barcelona and Seville, mostly)

Morocco (mostly Marrakech)

England (London, Stonehenge, Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon)

The dog (just thought I'd throw that in there :) )

Friday, November 20, 2009

Another Tragedy

Another kid killed, possibly by mistake.

(link fixed)

Monday, November 16, 2009


One of the things I miss very, very much about third grade is the enthusiasm. You can get third graders (and younger kids also) excited about anything.

I figured this out during my first year of teaching, when I was joking with a student and said something about maybe making him wash my car if he didn't bring his homework and his face lit up. "Really? Can I wash your car??"

Not what I was going for. But it can be used for good.

Try it. Tell a group of kids it's time to clean the tops of their desks and they will find a million other things to do. But, if you say something like... "Guess what?? It's time to clean the tops of the desks!! Who wants to do it?!? You can use the SPRAY BOTTLE! And the SPONGES!!! But only THREE KIDS can help me!!!"

Well, now the kids are all raising their hands and bouncing up and down because they are SO EXCITED about cleaning the tops of the desks!!!

It works for many different things. These are the things that make me miss teaching!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sick Puppy

Lots of people have asked how Solomon is doing, so I thought I'd post the news.

Solomon has a mast cell tumor - a type of cancer really common in dogs. It releases histamines, which was how I found out, because he was scratching and biting at it. This particular tumor is way up on his thigh (the meaty part of his drumstick if he were a chicken) and hard to remove because it is large and there's not a lot of margin around it.

I thought long and hard about whether or not to do surgery or any other type of treatment. I had to think about the fact that he is about to be 10 years old (although a very young 10), what I am willing to put him through, and the cost. It was a very hard decision and I am sure people will disagree with me on both sides, but my plan is to do the surgery, once. I can't afford to have it done more and I don't want to put him through a lot of surgeries. I also won't do chemo or radiation - partly for money and partly because I don't want to put him through that. The surgeon said another option was to amputate his leg but again, I don't want to do that - due to money and suffering on the part of the dog. I'm sure he'd recover fine but I don't want to put him through the surgery and, again, I can't afford it.

Some of you know how very special this dog is to me. He's been the one constant in ten years and is a wonderful, wonderful dog who has a talent for making people very happy, even people who aren't dog people. It sounds super cheesy but the dog has really truly been a gift from God.

I have had some really good experiences through this last week. Random people waiting in the vet's office have promised to pray for Solomon. People have asked me if they can help with his vet bills. If that's something you want to do - the answer is yes! But I wouldn't ask anyone to do that. However, if you would like to hire me for Spanish lessons, tutoring, editing, or knitting, now would be a great time to do so.

If you pray, please pray that the medication will shrink the the tumor and make it easier to be removed, that surgeon will get it all and it won't come back, and that Solomon will recover quickly and completely.

Thank you all!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Another View of the Boys: Guest Blog

This guest blog is written by my friend "Walter" (he chose the pseudonym, not me!) who has been involved with the two boys I've been writing about for several years now.

I have known the boys for four years now. I met them through the author of this blog when we took them to the Exploratorium one day - that was the first time I had ever met them. The kids were very polite and very cautious at first. They didn't go far from us and watched us the whole time until we got to the Exploratorium and they started running around and playing with stuff. Then they started to loosen up and have fun.

By the end of the day that first day, they were smiling and having fun; getting to be kids. It was really neat to see them getting to be children. I was hooked. I said, "OK, we need to do this again. You guys had a good time, I had fun." Once they got to put off the hard exterior and be kids, I really loved who they were and that they got to be children. I wanted to do whatever I could to get the opportunity to be kids as much as they could under the circumstances.

We've done so many things with these kids now that I don't even remember. For a while, every time we would bring them home, they'd say "Thank you so much, that was the best day ever." Over the next four years, we took them to camp, horseback riding, bowling, to see the Blue Angels, rock climbing, hikes on the beach, etc. We watched them get older and we watched them grow in who they were and I was very proud of them. I still am.

In the last couple of years, "Jorge" and "Luis" have had an increasingly hard time with life, school, and their families. Their behavior has gotten to the brink of uncontrollable and certainly past the edge of unacceptable. They're pushing away from us hard and I think the reason is that it's too painful for them to have people in their lives who love them in a healthy way with good boundaries.

Earlier this year, they suffered an absolute tragedy, when they were witnesses to the murder of their 13-year old friend. Things went downhill for them fast and they began to push people who love them away from them. We're hoping for a big turnaround somehow. I'm hopeful that they are going to turn around fairly soon. I don't know how to fix it and I don't think anyone else can. Please pray.

I'm thankful to all the people who have given their time and energy to support this family. I'm happy I know them. I'm still very proud that there are these two good kids in there. I'm sad that right now it hurts a lot and I'm afraid that they'll never find a good way of letting that out. I see a lot of potential in both of them. I still could see Jorge being an officer in the Navy or something - he has this air about him of someone you can trust. He's just so angry. I think Luis is fantastic at art. He has a gift.

As much trouble as they're being right now, I wouldn't change any of the time I've put into them. They're worth it.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Gecko's Vacation

The gecko is visiting a sixth grade class this month. I went to talk to the class about gecko care and they seemed really excited. I hope that Tiger (the gecko) touches these kids in the same way he touched the third graders.

In honor of Tiger, here are some of the essays the third graders wrote about him during my last year in the classroom.

The gecko eats crickets. The gecko comes out to see us. The gecko has its peace. The gecko climbs on its rock. the gecko sleeps in his own home. The gecko plays outside and sleeps in the day. the gecko has stripes. The gecko is 3 months old. The gecko's colors are brown and yellow. The gecko is scared of other animals. The gecko is a baby.

Leopard geckos are found in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Leopard geckos are among the largest geckos. 8 or 9 inches. Leopard geckos can live in a aquarium or plastic sweater boxes. Leopard geckos need sand, newspapers, and exercise. Leopard geckos can hide in Rocks, hide box, and logs.

They eat insects, crickets, waxworms, mealworms, multivitamin. A shallow water dish is a tank with fish in it. Changed daily nears to changed some thing. His name is Tiger. He is geting biger. [This one has a picture of the gecko with a Christmas present labeled "gecko."]

El gecko esta muy chiquito y come crickets oye muy recio y cuando y lo quieren agorrar corre cuando comiendo se cansa y se acuesta a dormir. El tiene rayas marailla y negra.

When the gecko first came in, I was excited because I thought that we were going to play with him. But we couldn't yet because he had to get used to his cage until next week. Then we can reach down and pat him. Thats what the teacher said and she promised that too. The gecko can eat real live crickets. We can touch the gecko when everyone calms down.

The gecko is brown and yellow and black and it looks like a lizard. It likes to jump and the gecko looks like this.

My name is __. I am 8 year's old. I am going to tell a story about a leopard gecko. The geko eat's crickets It sleeps at day hunt at night. When you pull hard on his tail it will fall of an escape. Oh yah when you hold himp upside down he falls asleep.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Parent Factor

I've had several friends lately tell me that because of what they've heard about public schools, they don't want to put their children into the public school system. I have quite a few reasons for disagreeing, but one of them is that a small group of parents can make a big difference. If parents get involved, they will not be sacrificing their kids' education, but making a school much better. I'll write more about that later, but here's an article on the subject of parent involvement.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Elmo and Gang Signs

Tickle Me Elmo hands?

OK, whatever, I find Tickle Me Elmo vaguely creepy, but in this shot from the commercial, it appears that the thing to do with Tickle Me Elmo hands is to throw up gang signs in the 'hood? Except it's the 'hood with Elmo and big fluffy Elmo hands? Two of those kids definitely have the gang sign posture.

I have a picture of my first graders my first year of teaching complete with gang signs which I didn't realize until after the photos were developed. Freaked me out a little, as a 24-year old teacher. I'll have to find that one.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I'm going through about four years of writing and making sure links still work, editing, etc. Only, it's really slow going because I didn't realize how emotional is would still be for me.

Some of it I really miss. I miss beautiful, funny, intelligent students who are just starting to think critically like this girl. I miss funny stories with deeper meanings about how the kids think I'm black. I miss their amazing descriptive writing - how do you beat "My dog smells like junk"? Oh, and crackers sound like rocks when they break; have you ever noticed? I miss students being able to come into my classroom in fourth and fifth grade to visit. Or coming to visit from middle school or high school. I miss the incredible relationships that can happen with students' families regardless of all socioeconomic and racial differences only after they really really get that I love their kids.

Some of it is a relief. I'm not tired all the time. (Well, I am because of my cough, but it's different). I don't have my heart broken on a daily basis because of what the kids have had to go through. I'm not spending a ton of money that I don't have on school supplies.

But I'll never forget all of these things. I'll never forget the many times I've had to call child protective services and why. I'll never forget kids putting their heads down and saying "You can't help me, nobody can help me. I should just die." I'll never forget getting notes saying "Tricia couldn't do her homework because the gangs was shooting and we was hiding in the bathtub." I'll never forget kids asking me why their dad doesn't love them or why drugs make their mom forget she has a family. Or seeing the meanest, hardest, dirtiest, rudest kid in the third grade care for a rat in the way that the child should have been cared for.

And now I can't do anything to help those kids. I'm working with my two kids I work with, and I am not underestimating that. That is one tough situation and takes a lot of energy and perseverance. And I know I can't save kids - there's a part in the Bible where God says "I am the Lord and apart from me there is no Savior." I remember how exhausted I was for eight years and how very very sick I got at the end. But there are kids who need to be helped and it hurts my heart that I can't do more.

Everyone knows the sappy story about the little boy who goes walking on the beach after a big storm or something and sees thousands of starfish washed up on the beach. He starts picking them up and flinging them back into the ocean (except aren't starfish tidepool dwellers? Am I overthinking this?) when a cynical adult comes along. The cynical adult says something like, "There are thousands of starfish. You'll never make a difference." The kid says something like "But I've made a difference to this starfish."

Sweet. Heart-warming. But there are so many starfish left. And kids aren't starfish. The starfish, as far as I know, aren't suffering emotionally, even if they dry out and die. The kids suffer. The kids learn that they are unlovable, unworthy, and have no chance of success. They learn to hate themselves more than anyone else could ever hate them. And I don't think I've gotten most of them back in the water - maybe closer, but not all the way in.

That's why I write this blog. Maybe if people see how many starfish are still washed up, they'll help throw them back. Maybe people will see each of these kids as a person and think about how that teenage thug that looks scary with his hoodie and his pants down to his knees and his thug friends was a little boy, and maybe a little boy who asked me why his dad didn't love him. If enough people can see that, maybe it will make a little tiny difference.

Monday, September 21, 2009

But Those People Have Such Funny Names

It's always nice when someone else writes a post for me. So much less work than doing it myself.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Letter to a Juvenile Delinquent

Dear "Jorge,"

I've known you since you were 8 years old. You have always been a very special kid and there are many people who love you and want to help you. Your second grade teacher cares very much about you and put you in my class specially because she knew that you were a smart, good kid and she believed in you. You were the only kid in my third grade class who I gave my phone number to because I trusted you and I wanted to help you if you were in trouble. Both Mr. Smith and I love you like you were our own kid.

I know that you're really really angry right now and you feel out of control and like nothing is fair and like you're going to explode. You have seen some horribly messed up things and you had a lot of time when you were just a little kid and no one was taking care of you. Nobody should have had to live through some of the things you've lived through. We can't change that. But right now, there are people who want to help you and you won't let us.

Think about it - who knows what jail is like? Your friends or your mom? Your mom has been there and she's scared of you going because she knows how bad it is. And you know that both skipping school and not getting your court date are both things that will make sure you go to juvie. Staying in school and doing well is something that the judge might consider and let you off more easily.

And who knows what it's like to get a job as an adult? Who knows how important school is? I went to college and worked really hard and that's why I got to choose which job I wanted. Mr. Smith waited a little longer and tried to get good jobs but found out that he had to get more education to do the job he wanted. He worked hard and now he has a job that he likes and that you have said you would like. Your mom and grandma didn't get to have that kind of education and they want you to be able to live better than them when you are grown. I think that you know that too but you're so mad that you want to keep fighting us and not doing what we think is a good idea.

I am so proud of you when you make decisions that are good for yourself that will make your life better. You worked so hard at your new school last year and you looked happy and liked learning. I think you could do that again this year but you're the only one who can do it. When you make decisions that you know are bad and you know will hurt you, I am so sad. I'm sad not for myself, but because I want your life to get better, not worse.

Jorge, you have so many people who care about you and want to help you. Your mom, your grandma, me, Mr. Smith, Ms. W., Mr. G., all the people at your school last year, all the people at your school this year, and all the people at camp this summer want you to be happy and be able to do what you want. That's a LOT of people wanting good things for you! You have had really bad things happen to you, but we really want to help you turn that around. Only, we can't do that when you fight us.

Can you please do me a favor? Can you think about who it is in your life who has been around the longest and showed the most that they cared about you? Can you not listen to your friends or even your girlfriend, just for a minute, but listen to the people who have known you since you were a little kid and always wanted good things for you?

Remember I said that once you start making good decisions, you can do things like choose your own school, get a job, and all the other things you want to do? We are waiting for you to make those good decisions every day. Your school has more help for you than almost any other school. Camp wants to pay for you to come back.

Please think about what you really want and call me if you're ready to start trying to change things and make them better. You know that I would do anything for you but I can't help you unless you start wanting help.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Oh, another example

I can't believe I almost forgot the best guilt-inducing story!

Well, first there's my personal one about being very very sick.

Then there was a coworker of mine. Really good teacher and experienced. She cared about her kids. When she'd have to take time off (which was rare) she was very well-prepared and made sure the kids had the best possible experience.

Her mother-in-law, with whom she was extremely close, was horribly burned in a house fire. The teacher flew back East to be with her, which was the right thing to do, especially as the burns turned out to be fatal. A pretty horrible way to die, and she lingered for a few days in massive pain. The teacher called the principal and explained the situation and how important it was that she be there for her funeral, and how upset she was. The principal assured her that nothing was more important than family and that she take all the time she need. He/she (don't want identifying factors! I've only had 8 principals, you might figure it out) was very sweet.

Two weeks later, the teacher got back. The principal came to observe her less than an hour after she got back in the classroom. Now, you teachers are already appalled. Right? A formal observation less than an hour after coming back from not only a personal tragedy but two weeks of the kids having a sub? Everyone knows you have to have at least a day to get the kids back to being used to you and get over being mad for you leaving. She asked him if she could reschedule and he said something about well, if she hadn't been out for so long... Compassion over.

I'm so glad I've visited some other schools and heard about good things so far this year. Schools like this make me not quite lose all my hope in this district.


I tore a muscle (coughing) in my side so this won't be long. But it reminded me of trying to teach on crutches. I sprained my ankle in my 5th year teaching and had to be put on crutches for a few weeks. I didn't get workers' comp even though it happened at school because it was my own dumb fault. I tried my best to teach on crutches (almost impossible to teach 3rd grade on crutches). I took as few days off as possible.

However, one should never underestimate the guilt trip potential of educational administrators. If you're sick and you take a day off, you are sometimes told to get better but more often than not asked if you're really sick and if you really need that time off. (people in other districts have experience with that or no?)

So, I tried to schedule all my doctor's appointments for after school but of course we had meetings. So sometimes I had to choose between missing school and missing a meeting (always miss the meeting if possible). Which then entitled me to a lecture about how I really needed to be committed to these kids. When, by the way, I was the (at that point) second teacher in seniority at age 28. Right. No commitment to the kids.

Also, the administration wouldn't help me with anything. I still had to teach PE on crutches (no matter that there were teachers who volunteered to do it for me). I still had to walk them across the playground (the big empty "playground") even though there were teachers and aides who would do it for me. And when I did take a couple of days off because I was experiencing so much pain in my arms and back from trying to do everything on crutches, I got another nice lecture.

Anyone else have experience with this or was this just my school/district?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Another killing in this city.

Which by the way, lasted one day on the front page. Really? I'm sorry to continue sounding cynical, but if this had been a white 17 year old girl it would still be on the front page and people would be shocked. But then, if Hurricane Katrina had hit a mostly white area, that would have been dealt with differently as well.

If it gives me any more credibility, up until I began to work in the inner city I would have been adamant that race had nothing to do with media coverage and that people didn't value black kids less. I think I was wrong.

I have advice for anyone who's going to tell me that race has nothing to do with media coverage and people don't value black kids less, or any version of of course she was killed, what was her family thinking living there (yes, people say that, like she deserved it).

My advice:

Don't open your mouth if you have no experience with it.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

He Ain't Supposed to Be in My Class

Actually, it was "He ain't posta be in my class," but that looks a little confusing until you read it aloud.

The segregation stories of today are about tracking. If you aren't in the education field, you may be unfamiliar with tracking. It can either refer to tracking kids by ability: the college prep track, for example, or by some other means, often language. The laws now on who can have their children educated in which language in California are very complicated and I don't pretend to understand them. Although I don't believe that Ron Unz, who started the instruction in English-only thing resulting in Prop 227 knows anything about elementary education or bilingual education. But I digress.

The school I worked at used to be severely overcrowded, resulting in roving teachers, and students without assigned classrooms. Only 3/4 of the school was in session at any one time, and 1/4 of the kids didn't have an assigned classroom, but used whichever classrooms were vacant at the time.

Not only was this a recipe of confusion and disaster (every teacher out there knows how important it is to have your own space, your own classroom, to set up the way you feel is best for the students. The other thing all teachers know is that teachers don't share well. At least, they don't share their space well. But I digress. See the link in the previous paragraph if you want to read the roving teacher rant.

The school was divided into four tracks. Track A was "Other Asian/sheltered* classroom," Track B was "English Only" (and somewhat irreverently called the "Black Track" - not PC but true), Track C was the Vietnamese language track and Track D was the Spanish language track. Fortunately, this system only lasted for my first year.

I would imagine that most people can see the inherent problems in this. After all, wasn't it over 50 years ago that the US Supreme Court decided that separate wasn't equal? When I pointed out to the principal that year that I was uncomfortable with the kids being segregated by race, she said, like it made sense, "They're not segregated by race, they're segregated by language!" Really? When was the last time you met a black kid who spoke Vietnamese?

So most of these kids had never been in a classroom with children who looked different from them, with the exception of the Vietnamese kids, who had some black kids in their track because there wasn't a high enough Vietnamese enrollment any longer. My second year of teaching, the kids were more mixed. There were still Spanish language classes and English-only classes, and sheltered classes, but all the kids went to school together. Furthermore, in the sheltered classes, there were usually a mix of ES and English-only kids. I got most of the Spanish-speaking kids whose parents didn't want them in a Spanish-language class because I could communicate with the parents.

On the first day of school, two kids walked in the door at about the same time. One was black - we'll call him "Mark," and one was Latino - let's call him "Fernando." Mark looked at Fernando and didn't say a word, but punched him in the nose. Hard. Blood got all over the classroom floor (a great visual for parents dropping off their kids on the first day) and Fernando cried. As I tried to clean up the blood (we'll talk later about why the custodians didn't clean it up), I asked Mark why he did that. His response? "He ain't posta be in my class."

I tried to understand - "Why is he not supposed to be in your class? And why does that mean you hit him?"

Mark answered: "He's Mexican. Ain't supposed to be no Mexicans in my class."

That was enough for him.

*Sheltered classrooms are for mainly English language learners, and use specific teaching techniques for the students to have basic comprehension of the material.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Segregation in the Schools

I recently heard a woman interviewed on the radio. I forget her name, but she was part of the Little Rock Nine - the group of students who were the first black students at Little Rock Central High School and the subject of many protests and threats. I knew that the US National Guard was sent to protect the students, but I hadn't realized that the Arkansas National Guard was first deployed to keep them out of the school, until Eisenhower sent the US National Guard. I can't imagine what it must have been like to try to go to school and have one set of troops trying to keep you out and another trying to get you in.

But I can imagine segregated schools. Actually, I don't have to. I worked at one for 8 years. In California. In the 21st century. It wasn't segregated by law; it was what is called de facto segregation. Or to quote the students, "Ain't no white kids." They didn't mean just in the school, they meant ain't no white kids anywhere near. The city I worked in is extremely segregated. You have the flatlands, which are near I-880 (where the air is the worst because the trucks can go on that freeway), and the hills, which are usually above I-580 (no trucks on that one - heaven forbid the hills air should be contaminated). There are also the in-between areas, which I don't think have a name.

In the hills, you find white children, and a few Asians. There may be black or Latino families who live in the hills, but I've never heard of them. The schools tend to be mostly white, and there are very few children who don't speak English as a second language. And their test scores are much higher.

In the flatlands, you don't find white kids. You find black kids, Latino kids, and Asian kids (mostly Southeast Asian). I think my school fluctuated but usually had about half and half black and Latino kids - with some Asians. There used to be a much higher Vietnamese population but not as much now. But there aren't any white kids.

In the in-between areas, I think it's pretty mixed. I really only have firsthand knowledge about the flatlands, so that's what I'm going to stick to.

There aren't any white people. Except for social workers and teachers, of course, who usually don't last long. After I was there for two years, I was totally accepted because I had been there "forever." The lack of white people is so extreme that the following exchange took place when I was teaching first grade:

First student: There are three kinds of kids.

Me: What are the three kinds of kids?

First student: There's black kids, Chinese kids*, and Mexican kids**.

Second student: What about white kids?

First student: Silly, there's no white kids. There's only white teachers.


But the thing is, she was right. There were some very light-skinned Latino kids, who could pass for white but definitely do not identify as such. There were two white kids once; they were Bosnian refugees.

Same class - my first year of teaching - on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We were talking about the civil rights movement, etc., specifically desegregation of schools. One of the kids looked very confused and said, "But black kids don't go to school with white kids." She had never seen it.

I have two more stories for tomorrow on this theme.

*In first grade, to these kids, all Asians are Chinese. The funny thing is that I don't think any of the Asian kids at the school were actually Chinese. Cambodian, Tongan, Samoan, Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong... but not Chinese.

**In first grade, to these kids, all Latinos are Mexican. They were mostly Mexican, but there were also Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, etc.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Giving it to God (Or: The Truth in the Trite)

I'm hoping by writing this post, I'll be able to sleep tonight instead of staying awake worrying, which is what I do.

I'm worried about this family that I'm working with. The mom is doing so well - she's doing so much work (that is overdue, but better late than never) on repairing her relationship with her oldest child now living with her and on taking steps to get her papers to be legal in the US, to try and work out her kids' welfare benefits, to get her children's health and education taken care of, everything. And it's so much work.

She wants to work (she cleans houses) and can't find any work. None. I've tried and continue to try (she's a really good housecleaner!) but no one's paying for that right now. The promised welfare benefits are not coming and the social worker will not return calls. We've enlisted the help of a welfare lawyer, but that's going to take time. And time is what this family does not have right now.

Through the generosity of many friends and acquaintances as well as my church, the family's rent is paid through August 31. The social worker said that the benefits would be straightened out by then, giving her more money to work with, but that was before the social worker dropped off the face of the earth. Also, the mom was hoping to have work by then - and there's been no lack of trying - but that hasn't worked either. So the money runs out on August 31 and there's nowhere for them to live.

I want to fix this. They're a good family who are trying hard to make it and fix past mistakes and have had a lot of unfair obstacles in their way. But I can't. I can help them look for apartments, but she has no credit score. And even if they find an apartment, it will be a minimum of first month's rent and deposit, which will be $1600 at absolute minimum. I wish I had an extra $1600. But I don't.

I've done everything I can and this is where I have to give it to God, as trite as that sounds. There's a passage in the Bible (maybe in Isaiah?) where God says, "I am God and apart from me there is no Savior." If I believe that, it's time to believe it. God has provided so far - through my friends and family and church and random connections... and I have to believe God won't abandon this family now.

But I am not good at faith.

If you pray, please pray for a miracle for this family. If you don't pray - try it. no one will ever know and it certainly can't hurt. Thanks.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back to School

This is the third year I'm not going back to school. I thought about trying to find a part-time teaching job for this school year but nothing came up and I got a lot more copy editing work, so I'm putting it off another year.

I'm finding myself in that stage where I remember only the good things so I get really nostalgic about teaching. Until I remember how tired I was. How very, very tired.

Things I miss about the beginning of school:
  • The excitement of getting my class list
  • Thinking about and praying for my new students
  • Buying school supplies
  • Labeling school supplies (I don't know why that's fun, but it is)
  • Laying out school supplies in their desks
Things I don't miss at all:
  • Getting up early
  • Having more kids in my classroom than I am legally allowed to have.
  • Having the class list change 17 times in the first two days
  • Not having all my supplies
  • Being told that I should be using x book even though I never got x book
  • Being treated like it is my fault I never got the books I needed even though I asked for them repeatedly
  • Having to clean the classroom because it didn't get cleaned during the summer cleaning
Teachers, feel free to join in.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Nervousness About Camp

Some of the questions the littler boy has asked me. He's never been to camp; before and is a little nervous.

  • Do they have toilet paper?
  • Can I only go for one day?
  • Can I bring my DVD player?
  • Can I skip camp so I can watch my TV program?
  • Will they feed me?
  • Do they have Gatorade?
  • Are there girls?
  • Can I bring a chair?
  • Can I use your sleeping bag?
  • Does my brother have to go?
  • Are there bears?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

And.... Another Bad Decision

I had a lovely birthday dinner/dessert celebration tonight (birthday's on Monday) and was about ready to go to bed when I got a call. The 14 year old kid of the family I've been working with has been arrested. For drinking and driving. At age 14. (Barely).

His mom is, understandably, freaking out. She's been working as hard as she can to keep the family together. They have nowhere to live after August 31 and no money to find somewhere. She doesn't have a bank account or credit history so most places wouldn't rent to her even if she did have the money. She's a recovering addict trying to stay clean through both of her boys watching their friend be murdered, be in danger themselves, have to relocate, and deal with the anger/fear/guilt that comes from seeing a friend be killed. Now her oldest one is in bigger trouble.

I'm so angry at him, because he knows better. He took the car keys when she was sleeping and went with his cousin who was staying with them after the two of them had been drinking. He was driving without a license, at 14, while drinking, and drinking while underage. In a car that probably has no registration or insurance, and which his mom had just bought so that she could work and not be dependent on welfare. The consequences for this are going to be far-reaching.

I'm furious with him and I'm worried and I feel guilty, although I don't know why. I can't do anything and even if I could bail him out, I wouldn't because I think he needs to know the consequences but I'm really really worried. And I'm worried about what the family is going to do with no job, no money, nowhere to live, no car, and now this to worry about.

If you pray, please pray for this family and this kid. They need help.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Decisions children should be able to make:
  • Which outfit to wear on a particular day (if parents have bought the clothes)
  • What to eat for snack (if parents have chosen the options)
  • Which TV show to watch (with parental approval)
  • Which sport to play
  • Which flavor of toothpaste to use

Decisions children should NOT be able to make:
  • Which guardian to live with
  • Where it is safe for them to live
  • Which school they are going to go to
  • Whether they should go to school or not
  • If they get a cell phone or not
  • If their mom gets a cell phone or not
  • If they should be punished or have any consequences for being rude
  • What their parents should buy for them
  • If they should go to counseling or not

Guess which set is the set of decisions that I've seen kids make over and over and over. And over.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Poison Oak

That's the nickname of the younger kid I've been working with, "Luis." He's been going to the science day camp program at Chabot Space and Science center, and it is incredible. He wasn't sure he wanted to go last week, and his brother totally flaked out. Poison Oak, however (it's fun to type that) made it, although a day late. He had a stomachache on Monday, which I suspect was an excuse to not try something new/nervousness. On Tuesday, he was really nervous but he went. When I picked him up, he talked the whole way home about how much he loved it and how he couldn't even imagine being mad because he was so happy.

On Thursday, Luis told me he wanted to go again next week. I told him that we didn't have the money (my friend and I paid for half of the camp and Chabot gave him a scholarship for the other half) but that he could go next year. However, the next day, the director offered to transfer the amount paid for his brother so that Luis could go for another week. He loves it. He loves the science. He loves building robots and learning about dinosaurs. He loves being called "Poison Oak." He loves his teacher. This is a kid who does not love easily. If it were not an incredible program, he would let us know in no uncertain terms.

How often do you get to see a kid from the ghetto enjoying science camp with kids who go to a variety of private schools? It's pretty awesome.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Do They Teach You in School?

I've been watching some old Weeds episodes (don't question my taste in shows, it's entertaining) and I had to share this quote:

Uncle: Now, what do they teach you in school?

Kid: How to pass the weekly standardized tests to get the school more funding?

Oh, I wish that wasn't so funny for being true.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Something Good in the District

I promised I'd include a link to the trip to DC that was taken by my new favorite middle school in the district. Sounds like it was a great experience for everyone involved!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

WHEN are We Going to Stop...

...teaching kids who aren't white that they are worth less than white kids?

If you think this isn't affecting children, or that I'm a crazy liberal who's making too much of it, I suggest you work with children of color for a year and then report back. In the eight years I taught at the school in the inner city, I heard countless - and I actually mean countless - instances of kids complimenting each other on light skin, lamenting dark skin and kinky hair, talking about "good hair," talking about wishing they were white, commenting on how much prettier white people are, how much more money they have, how it's better to be white, how the police would treat them differently if they were white, how the school would be better if they were white kids...

I wish they were wrong.

Monday, June 22, 2009

How to Outsmart a Teenage Boy

It's really rather simple.

The older boy I've been talking about, "Jorge," is currently in the habit of saying no to everything - things he has wanted to do, things I know he'd like, things he needs to do - everything that is suggested by someone else. So he is spending all his time sitting on his butt feeling sorry for himself. Which he has plenty of reason to do, but this is not very effective. Nothing has worked so today I decided to try a different approach. He has been wanting to earn money but now he says he doesn't want to do anything. Here's our text "conversation":

me: Hey, I have a dirty car and $10 for anyone who wants to wash it. Do you still want to earn money?

him: [no response. I am ignoring all adults. Whatever you have to say must be totally worthless and you know I am just going to say no.]

...two hours later...

me: It's OK if you don't want to. One of my neighbors has kids* who want to earn money. I'l just ask them.

...20 seconds later...

him: I never said I didn't want to

me: Oh, I was going to ask them now. Do you want to?

him: Yeah I do

WIN! And so simple. At least there will be one day this week that he is actively doing something out of his house.

Warren (my friend who is equally involved with these kids) and I are now plotting ways to get them to go to camp. Which they'll love if they go but "I ain't going. Oh well!"

I'm thinking something along the lines of "Since you guys don't really want to go to camp, I'm going to tell the camp that they can give the spots to some other kid who's been wanting to go."

I am predicting that will raise interest.

*There are no neighbor kids that want to earn money. I made it up and it was worth it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


It's been interesting to see how everyone is grieving Joshua. Well, actually, it's been horribly heartbreaking, but also interesting, in a way.

In the family I've been helping out with, we have very mixed reactions:

"Rosa," the mother, is being extremely strong for her kids. She hasn't had an easy life and hasn't been around for a lot of the raising of the kids, so they are - understandably - rebelling against her. She's doing a pretty good job staying consistent and enforcing rules, which is hard to do when you have a son who's bigger than you screaming in your face. My friend and I have been trying to help however we can - encouraging her to keep her authority, mostly, because she is the adult in the house and the kids will eventually learn that. Rosa likes the new place a lot but is worried about money (there's probably funds through August 31, then she's back to trying to find a place on just a few hundred a month - not easy).

"Jorge," or as well call him, "the big one," (he's tall and skinny, with a recent growth spurt), is just plain angry. He wants to kill the person who killed his friends. He talks a lot about what he's going to do even though he won't do it. "I'm gonna go and get me a gun..." "I'm gonna leave and not come back..." I'm not too worried about the running away because, as a friend pointed out, if he was going to run away, he'd run away and not text me three times in one day saying that he's leaving. He doesn't want to do anything. Free summer camp? No. Camping? No. Working for money? No. Going to Waterworld? No. All things that he wanted to do at one point. Probably right now you could offer him a trip to anywhere in the world, with a million dollars thrown in and he'd say no just to be contrary.

This kid also talks a lot. Not like a chatterbox conversationalist, but like lists of what he's going to do that's inappropriate/calculated to set people off. He's always been a little like this but it used to be that I could hand him food and make a joke about putting food in his mouth to have some quiet and he'd think it was funny. Now it's all violent and angry. And his answer to most things is just "Oh, well."

He's also really mad at us because we have talked to his girlfriend's mom (at the request of Rosa) to set boundaries for when she can come over (she was basically living at their house and driving their mother crazy). Also, for the first time in his life, there are consequences for his behavior and that makes him furious. He keeps asking us (although only in text messages, interestingly) to get out of his life and never come back. If Warren and I didn't have such a strong foundation of a relationship with him, I would probably give up and assume there's no hope. But I think somewhere deep inside him, he knows how much we both love him and hopes that we won't take him up on his demands to leave.

And no, he doesn't need counseling, even if he did see his friend murdered, because "I ain't retarded." Sigh.

"Luis," who we call "the little one," although I suspect he will end up taller than his brother, which would give him great satisfaction, is also angry. He's still young enough (almost eleven) that he has his little kid clingy moments. In the swimming pool, he wants to climb all over grown-ups like they're jungle gyms. I let him spend the night at my house one night as a reward and he loved it and played in the sleeping bag. He loves working the stick shift in my car. He can be really really sweet and loving.

Then he has his off days. Which are more and more often lately. On his off days, he's a monster. I hate to call a kid a monster, but I really can't think of a better word. He throws things, kicks things, screams in his baby sister's face, and is mean to everyone. Whenever anyone tries to talk, he yells "NO!" no matter if they're talking to him or not. He'll get quiet when everyone else is quiet and the minute anyone talks, he yells again. Sometimes it isn't words, it's just yelling. He laughs hysterically if someone trips and says he wishes they fell. He says he's going to do mean things to his three month old sister. He kind of howls. He threatens to go back to his grandma's house (where we think the gang members are waiting for them). He screams that he doesn't care. Oh, and he's not going to counseling either. (Although if his big brother would, I'm sure he would in a minute).

However, both of these kids have apologized sincerely (and I know them) to me within the last week. Granted, it was only about three minutes each, but I think there is something there. Regardless, no one is giving up on them - we've known them too long and love them too much.

As for me, I'm still waiting for it to hit me that one of our kids died. Ever since I started at that school and saw the area, I've been worried about when a kid I knew would be killed. This is the one. I didn't know him super well, but I spent time with him the week before he died. He messed around and got in trouble and didn't do school well, but he was smart and funny and loved his family fiercely. And another kid killed him and I don't even know why. But I'm still not really feeling anything. I don't know if it's still shock or if it's the fact that I've been so busy with the other kids or what, but I would have expected to feel more sadness by now.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Guns and Lockdowns

(I thought about including an image of a gun on this page, for visual interest, and I couldn't do it. Just couldn't.)

The kids I've been talking about in my last few posts are a little more stable, at least in terms of their living situation. Again, thanks to everyone who helped financially - you may very well have helped save these boys' lives - no exaggeration. Again, these are the kids who witnessed the murder and had to be relocated because the police (who I just love SO MUCH - is the sarcasm reaching you through the computer?) showed them off to the suspects so there are plenty of threats of retaliation to go around. Then they treated them like they were the criminals. But I digress.

They are in an apartment now which is bigger than ones they've lived in before and - while not in an affluent area at all - are not in danger. I think they're talked into counseling - and thank goodness, their mom and grandmother are 100% in favor of it. I worry about them - the older one talks about getting an AK-47 and shooting anyone who bothers him. He tends to say things for dramatic effect, but still. The little one - when I told him he gets to go to summer camp (yay! Post about that soon.) tried out my sleeping bag. He asked if the other boys would help him if he needed help putting it back in the bag. I said I thought they would, and he said, "If they don't help me, I'll just shoot them."

I understand that this is probably normal for kids who saw their friend shot and killed three weeks ago (can one use "normal" in that sentence?) but it is really hard to hear. Fortunately, I don't think these two have any access to guns and I actually think they're smart enough not to use them if they did, but it is definitely on their mind. And these are loving boys - not nearly as hardened as many in their schools.

To show a little bit of what the kids at my school (I haven't worked there in two years and my last set of kids just graduated from fifth grade, but I still think of it as my school) talked about in their graduation speeches.

First of all, fifth graders are just funny when they are doing public speaking. One of my old students gave a short speech about going to middle school and was apparently quite nervous, as most of her speech came out like this:

"Andnowthatwearebeingpromotedfromfifthgradewearegoingtomiddleschoolandwewillhavetoactlikelittleadults withoutthekindofhelpweareusedtofromourteachershereinelementaryschoolwhentheyhelpusallthetime."

(that's hard to type)

The speaker that almost made me cry though, was the next one. Her topic was elementary school memories and she was listing ways that she and other students could tell that their teachers cared about them. Along with "teaching us" and "helping us when we don't know something" she added something I've never heard in an elementary school graduation speech. She said something like "Another way our teachers show that they care about us is they don't let us go to the bathrooms or in the hall when there's shooting."

Now, I know exactly what she's talking about. At least once a year each year that I was there, we had a lockdown. A lockdown is when there's a threat and the teachers have to lock the doors, close the curtains, turn off the lights, and get the kids in the center of the room, if possible. There were plenty of times when I didn't even know the reason for the lockdown, but some I do remember were a parent running through the school with a gun (custody battle gone bad, I think), a high-speed chase of a bank robber over the Bay Bridge that ended in front of our school, and an arson/attempted murder-suicide thing at a carburator shop or something like that a block down the road.

Lockdowns themselves have a number of problems. First of all, since we changed principals so often, there was never an accepted procedure for any emergency action. Fire drills are pretty much the same from one school to the next, but we never got earthquake drills or lockdowns down. (Or bomb "treats" as one memo we received stated. "In case of a bomb treat...") Sometimes it was a series of bells, sometimes it was announced over the loudspeaker that it was a lockdown, and sometimes the current principal would use some kind of cute code intended not to freak out the children. One year it was "Mr. Keys has entered the building." Get it? Keys? Lockdown? That was the year all the kids asked if it was Alicia Keys' dad.

Then there are the logistical problems. The doors only lock from the outside, so you (the teacher) has to open the door and go in the hall to lock it - which is not ideal if you've just heard that there's a man with a gun running through said hall. I used to keep my door locked and just make everyone knock on it when I was in the portable classroom all exposed out on the yard. The principals always got mad at me, and I always did it anyway, after the first lockdown.

Then, you have a bunch of freaked out kids who have no idea what is going on and all need to do two things immediately: call their moms to make sure their moms aren't dead, and pee. We resorted to having kids pee in the sink a couple of times during long lockdowns - I had a blanket that someone would hold up and I cleaned the sink really well after. And I'd pass around the cell phone while we tried to keep doing school in the dark.

However, the thing that made me want to cry about this little girl's speech was the sincerity in which she said it. Just like another kid might say they knew their teacher loved them because she took them on field trips, this one knew her teacher loved her because she wasn't allowed in the hall when there was shooting. That's how much of an accepted part of life it is. And none of the parents reacted. I mean, imagine if someone had said that at an upper middle class graduation! No, these parents just nodded because they too know that it's one way the teachers take care of their kids. After all, the parents have taught their kids to get in the bathtub or the closet when there's shooting. I learned that my first year.

Finally, the kids - Jorge and Luis - I've been talking about before... right before their friend died, they found out their dad was arrested for possessing a handgun. I'm not sure, but I think he was a felon and therefore is not allowed to have a gun at all, but he's convinced the kids he didn't do anything wrong and they are full of righteous anger about him being locked up. Also, he'll probably be deported back to Mexico after he serves his time.

Amazing what a few inanimate objects can do to kids, even kids who have never even touched one.