Saturday, September 20, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Becoming Adults

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

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

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

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

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

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