Teachin' For America

Thoughts and otherwise on one particular Teach for America experience.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Hopefully the Setup for a Moralizing Affirmation of What I'm Doing

There is no getting around the simple fact that, for me, going to work on a daily basis is a maddening exercise in frustration. I leave school each day exhausted, wearied by a toxic combination of difficulties encountered in teaching my students in my classroom, a foully negative, demoralized school-wide atmosphere, and heartbreaking obstacles faced by my students outside of school.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

I Guess I'm Just Stuck With Castor Oil

     I’m sick.  I’ve got a pretty vicious cold that has me dragging serious ass around school.  I know I look bad because everybody comments on it.  And, as in most workplaces, I think, everybody has a remedy.  I got plenty of suggestions for down-home vitamins and minerals (and castor oil- yuck!) and plenty of recommendations to drink OJ and water.  One “remedy,” however, sticks out.
     A teachers’ aide came into my room today during one of my more violent coughing spells.  “You still got that cold?” he asked.  I nodded wearily in affirmation.  “Well, I got a remedy for ya,” he winked as he walked out of the room
     “Great,” I called as he walked away, seeing an opportunity to get on somebody’s good side.  “I’m all ears.”
     By the end of the day, having stored away the many cures already suggested, I had pretty much forgotten about the one yet to come.  When I went into the teachers’ lounge to use the bathroom, however, there was, and he was glad to see me.  “Ooh, glad you came in here,” he said excitedly.  “I gotta tell ya bout that cure!”
     Once again, I was all ears.
     “Can you take Nyquil?” he asked, naming one of my old stand-bys.  I nodded.  “Can you take Contac?”  I was pretty sure I had heard of this one but didn’t know what it was.  I nodded.  “Okay.  You married?”
     “Got a girlfriend?”
     (It’s complicated.) “No.”
     “Hmmm,” he seemed disappointed. “Well, here’s what you do.  Ya get ready for bed.  You take the Contac and you chase it with the Nyquil.  You got Nyquil at home?  You got Contac at home?”  I indicated that I could surely get my hands on some Contac tonight.  “Okay.  You put some extra blankets on the bed.  You take the Contac, you take the Nyquil.  Then- and here’s the key- you gotta have sex.”
     I can only imagine what my face must have looked like at this point.  “I’m serious,” he said.  “I ain’t kiddin’.  This been working for me for forty years.  Everybody I tell it to look all suspicious but then they come back and say, ‘It works!’”  
     Getting my wits about me once more, I realized I had to say SOMETHING.  “Well, I guess it takes a certain kinda woman to do that for you,” I said.  
     At this point, from reading his face, I realized he thought I was referring to a certain kind of woman.  “I mean somebody who really loves you,” I backtracked, “Who’ll let you cough all over ‘em.”
     “Whatever you gotta do, man.  It works. But here’s the thing- after you done, you can’t get outta bed.  You gotta stay under the covers. You’ll wake up feeling all better.”
     “All right,” I said, “Thanks.” I headed into the restroom to relieve myself and hide for a little while.

     As I was heading out of the building at the end of the day, away from kids and ready to crash- oh wait, I had to coach a soccer game- I ran into my friendly homeopath again.  “Remember,” he said, as we passed in the hallway, “Nyquil, Contac, and poo-poo.”

     Nyquil, Contac, and poo-poo, indeed.  Now I’ll feel like I haven’t got any skillz when I report tomorrow that I couldn’t try it out.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


I promise to post more this year. My first two weeks have gone very well. I hope to write more here as a way to get the juices flowing for my personal statement for law schools. We'll see!

Friday, March 31, 2006

But You Have To Live There To Get a Card

As you may or may not have noticed, it’s been a while. The job’s been hard, the job’s been fun, the job’s been touching and inspiring. Mainly the job’s been hard. There are, of course, countless things about which I could write at this point. Lemme see if I can come up with something good.

I am very, very jealous of my fellow teacher Ms. “Teague”. She teaches sixth-grade social studies and communication arts and the kids actually listen to her. I’m talking sit-down, eyes-on-me, follow-directions-the-first-time-they’re-given listen. It’s remarkable when you compare it to the chaos that typically besets myself and my TFA colleague, Mr. “Prosten”, when we are reckless enough to get in front of a classroom full of children and demand attention. Her classroom management, as we call it in the biz, is wonderful, and of that I am jealous. Ms. Teague’s teaching in other ways, however, has a tendency to make me appreciate some of the things I might do right.
I’m pretty sure that Ms. Teague means well. She doesn’t normally put in the preparation I would in order to teach a great lesson each day, but she does show a very genuine concern for her students. I think she might even be a little worried about whether or not they’re learning. So she’s a step above some people I’ve encountered in my brief teaching career. I’m not questioning Ms. Teague’s teaching on a human, emotional, caring level. It’s just that she doesn’t really seem to know what she’s talking about a lot of the time.
My students, for a few months anyway, were joining Ms. Teague’s class for social studies. We’d troop in, they’d sit looking alternately confused, bored, and mischievous, and I’d walk around keeping them in line and doing my best to help them comprehend material that was way, way over their heads. Social studies class on Ms. Teague’s part typically consisted of guiding the students through a reading of a section of the social studies book followed by a busy-work type activity to hang on the bulletin board and impress the principal. Even this- interpreting the history of the world as glossed-over for sixth-graders- often exceeded her capabilities as a scholar. I would often sit back and enjoy the hilarity of her frequent inaccuracies, mispronunciations, and general goof-ups. And, being the vigilant blogger that I am (or is it just the condescending prick that I am?), I took notes in order to record some of the best to share with you.
The social studies curriculum spent a considerable amount of time focused on Africa. The spotlight was on its ancient history but some mention was made of its modern nation-states. As a bright student, “Martin”, was reading aloud to the class about modern Africa one day, he came across the name of a country he could not immediately pronounce. “Li- lib- lie,” he stammered, doing his best to sound it out. Now I’m not sure if Ms. Teague had not been paying attention to the reading or if she just wanted Martin to examine the word more closely, but she eventually asked him to spell the name of the country he was having trouble with. “L-I-B-Y-A,” he articulated, evoking visions of Qaddafi and Tripoli for those in the know; visions which apparently did not appear to Ms. Teague.
Doing her best to help a student in obvious need of an educator’s assistance, Ms. Teague lifted her chin in the air as she so often does when doling out a pearl of wisdom, looked down her nose, and confidently and helpfully pronounced, “Libraria.” If you’re hearing that correctly in your head it will sound like a country where there is no talking allowed and the citizens are at the mercy of a government made up of prudish ladies with sweaters on their shoulders and small reading glasses on their noses. Feeling unsure of my place in the classroom, I didn’t correct her. Much better, I thought, to let the kids believe there was a country in Africa where they could check out books than risk alienating my ostensible “co-teacher.” So I silently shook my head, chuckled, and got out my little notebook.

Coming Soon: Ms. Teague’s comment that finally made me laugh out loud, giving me away and forcing me to correct her!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bicycles for Humiliation

It’s too late for me to relay my entire day. But what a day it was. I managed to spend nearly eleven hours at school without actually doing any teaching. By “teaching” I mean actual, direct, classroom instruction. Whether or not I passed on any knowledge whatsoever to anyone whosoever is debatable. But between the fighting children, the crying children, the children wetting themselves, the administration demanding that every child in the building write their deepest thoughts on the World Series, the administration demanding that all teachers “stop teaching” and make posters for our walls, and my ever-sinking attitude through all of this, I was ineffective today.
One moment that stands out, for good or for bad:
Today we had our monthly, school-wide “Bicycles for Success” program. Seems some rich guy who didn’t have a bike growing up donated a bunch of cash to our school in the hopes of sparing some of our kids from sharing his cruel fate. I sound disparaging, but it really was a noble gesture on his part. We apparently have enough money to give away two bicycles per month this year. The process to determine the lucky new cycling enthusiasts goes like this: each teacher keeps a “Bicycles for Success” chart on the wall of his/ her room. At the end of each day, each child who has followed the program’s 5 rules (come to school, be good, etc., etc., etc.) all day long gets a star by his/her name. At the end of the month each teacher submits the boy and girl w/ the highest star count to the administration, who choose the winners from this pool of eligible “nominees.”
My nominees this month were Dontrell, my boy with severe mental retardation, and “Amani” the mush-mouth. Amani was less than impressed by the whole thing, but Dontrell- who, for the record, tells me every Monday morning that he spent the weekend riding his bike- was goddamn excited. I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes envy his ignorance. However, if he had known today what I knew, we could have (mercifully) avoided the scene I’m about to describe.
I knew full well that Dontrell was not going to win the bike. It’s common knowledge among the staff that the winners will be chosen from grades 4-6 and K-3 on alternating months. Since a 4th-grader won last month, Dontrell, a 6th-grader, was ineligible. We are not to share this information with the kids, as it would considerably lessen the power of the bicycles as incentives for good behavior if they knew they stood no chance of winning. So Dontrell thought he stood a pretty good chance of taking home a shiny new two-wheeler.
So excited was he over his chances, in fact, that by the time the program rolled around, Dontrell was convinced that the bike was as good as his. He sat excitedly through the early part of the program (some very cute 2nd-graders singing songs and reciting poems), making sure to tap me on the arm, grin from one side of the gym to the other, and point to himself each time the words “bike” or “bicycle” were mentioned. I knew he was setting himself up for heartbreak, but I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I wanted him to be happy to be nominated, to appreciate the fact that the bike could be his. He deserved as much for his consistently good behavior. But I certainly couldn’t encourage his misguided confidence. “I don’t know…” I would respond each time he indicated that the bike would be his, raising my eyebrows, shoulders, and palms in a gesture that could not have conveyed less certainty. “There are a lot of other nominees.” The gesture had a much larger effect than the words, but I could still see visions of bicycles dancing through his head. But there was really nothing I could do.
Then came time for the nominees to come to the front of the gym. Dontrell was the first to make it there, had the biggest smile on his face of any of them, and was having a very hard time standing still due to his excitement. It was an unbelievably bittersweet moment for me as I watched him bounce up and down with a huge smile on his face because while I was happy for him and proud he was up there with some of his peers, I could see that he would soon be deeply disappointed. After they gave out the girls’ bike to a deserving 2nd-grader, they wheeled out the boys’ bike. Dontrell’s eyes became as large as soccer balls, his bouncing became much more animated, and I could tell that it was time for me to go stand by him.
So I made my way up front, taking my place beside Dontrell in front of the entire school. I was the only teacher up there aside from “Mad Melvin” (his nomenclature, not mine!), the gym teacher who had the distinct pleasure of talking up the bikes and giving them away. I gently rested my hand on Dontrell’s shoulder, hoping to provide preemptive comfort for his upcoming heartbreak. He bounced up and down and up and down, his skinny shoulder, smaller than my hand, softly tapping my palm. I waited for the moment of truth.
What happened next was really just very, very unfortunate. As Mad Melvin did an excellent job of making the bicycle he was about to give away seem like the best thing in the entire world, he wheeled it back and forth in front of the line of nominees. Even though I was standing behind him, I could pretty much feel Dontrell’s eyes following it eagerly back and forth. The unfortunate part happened when, in the course of his pacing, Melvin stopped in front of Dontrell and I in a way and at a time that even I thought suggested my student was the winner. Of course he wasn’t. But the timely pause coupled with Dontrell’s hopeful ignorance was enough to convince him that the bike was his. “And the winner is…” crowed Mad Melvin, the audience of elementary kids eating out of his hand. Another timely pause was all Dontrell needed to make his fatal mistake.
Before Melvin finished his sentence and revealed the winner, Dontrell escaped my gentle, watchful grasp and strode proudly out to his new bike. His smile was huge, his gait confident, his arms raised in a victorious salute to bicyclery. He made it far enough to grab the handlebars and seat in an appreciative “Boy, I sure can’t wait to ride you,” kind of way before I caught him and gently pulled him back into line with the other nominees. “Not yet,” I think I told him, “They haven’t announced who won yet.” I could tell this hadn’t phased him (it was probably my saying “yet”) because as I placed a hand on each of his shoulders I could still feel the excitement pulsing from them.
He was also unphased by the uproarious laughter his premature declaration of victory and my hasty retraction had elicited from the rest of the school. A retarded kid mistakenly strutting around like he won a bike: comedy gold. Dontrell didn’t notice them laughing, but I did. I looked out and saw cruelty manifest itself in some of the cutest faces I had yet known. My tears nearly came before Dontrell’s.
“Some Other Kid!” cried Mad Melvin, finally announcing the name of the bike’s new owner. I’m sure I was too busy focusing all of my teacherly comfort into Dontrell’s shoulder to hear the name in the first place, let alone remember it now. Suffice it to say the name was not Dontrell’s. Once he had fully realized this fact, his tears came. He cried and cried and I couldn’t do anything for him but put my arm around him and let him bury his sad, wet face in my shirt. I don’t know if he was humiliated for having behaved like he had won or simply disappointed that the shiny new bike wouldn’t be going home with him. Whatever was upsetting him, though, was doing a good job. I felt sobs shake his head as it leaned against my abdomen. If only I had brought him close to me quickly enough, I might have avoided tearing up myself.
I have a feeling that most of the kids in the gym that day, when Mad Melvin announced the winner, had not taken so much as a cursory glance at the child whose triumph they were there to recognize. All eyes, as far as I could tell, had fallen immediately upon Dontrell, the unfortunate butt of their laughter. As funny as they had found his misguided happiness moments before, they now seemed to find his terribly obvious sadness to be the very zenith of comedy. They laughed and laughed as he cried and cried. After I’m not sure how long, I realized that Dontrell was not going to recover any time soon and that it was simply cruel to keep him up in front of the school so that they could continue to laugh at his expense. Unfortunately, the only way exit the gym was at the back and we were forced to walk through the crowd of hysterical students to reach it. Escorting the sobbing Dontrell out of the gym, tears came to my eyes as well.
We walked amongst the laughing children and I saw, painfully firsthand, the awful manifestation of the time-honored truism: Kids can be so cruel. I felt angry, I felt sorry for Dontrell, I felt like all of these little bastards should just shut the hell up. It wasn’t until we walked by my class that I felt truly sad, truly awful. My own students, Dontrell’s classmates, the ones in whom I had done my very best to create a sense of community and friendship toward their partners in learning, were laughing at us as hard as any students in the rest of the gym. They were pointing, guffawing, their little faces filled with glee at the expense of their fellow student. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t take it. How could the same kids who were so often helpful when Dontrell needed someone to cooperate with him in order to get his work done, who had spouted back at me my rule about always showing each other respect, who had wanted so badly to be nominated for the bike giveaway themselves, possibly get such joy out of Dontrell’s sadness? It was enough to make a grown man’s face burn, to make tears well up in his eyes, and to make him hurry out of the gym, dragging his student behind him at a quick pace designed for the benefit of them both.
We made it outside. We both calmed down. By the time we reentered the gym most of my students had managed to contain their laughter. I deflected their attempts to make conversation about Dontrell’s emotional reaction at the Bike Assembly for the rest of the day. I did my best to gently let them know that their actions had hurt more than one set of feelings. And I came to terms with a new understanding of Dontrell’s way of seeing the world, one much less envious of the “blissful” ignorance that had incited this awful incident. But I still find myself hoping it prevented him from gaining the understanding necessary to feel like I did when he was the butt of the joke.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Wanted: Teacher; Must be able to carry desks; Love for children optional but discouraged

     You know, I sure am glad my kids are retarded and actually working to ensure they receive an enriching and worthwhile education is pointless.  Otherwise it would have been seriously fucked up this morning when my principal ordered me to “send [them] out” (to general education classrooms) and carry desks downstairs until lunch time.

     I really cannot believe the utter disregard (even, sometimes, disdain) this woman has for the children under her charge.  But it’s good that I’m worried about someone else’s fate in all of this, because if I was able to focus solely on myself, I would be getting pretty worked up over the fact that MOVING CHAIRS IS NOT A JOB FOR A TEACHER.  Last I checked the district still had a large enough budget to provide (courteous, hard-working, and much more than competent) custodial workers to take care of building maintenance.  And if my understanding is correct, these people are hired so that teachers might concentrate on educating the city’s children instead of maintaining the school buildings.  But maybe I’ve just got my priorities all mixed up.  I mean, after all, the new music room did need some desks from the storage room, I am an able-bodied young man capable of carrying them, and my children are special ed.  

     I’m very upset.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Case of the Hidden Dondom

     The day was shaping up to be like any other day.  Three boys had made their way to the line on the playground where all of the students are supposed to meet me every morning.  The rest of the Victors had straggled into the room at their usual, whenever-they-felt-like-it times.  By 8:25 I was only missing one, “Montel,” my perpetual latecomer.  Everything was going to be fine.  At this time I started the long, painful process of getting my students into a line.  I gave clear instructions, reminded those who typically straggle to hurry up, and wished, wished, wished for a calm, orderly, and speedy process.  It was probably my fault for just wishing for results instead of watching each kid like a hawk and demanding them, but my wish did not come true.  I had managed to get most of them moving toward the door when, from the very front of the amorphous blob they had formed in their best impression of a line, came the cry of my mush-mouthed tattle-tale, “Amani.”  “Ooooh, loo wha he dot!” she exclaimed, gesturing with little coordination in “Keifer’s” general direction.  “It in hi shoe!”  If my body language had conveyed my feelings at that point, I would have hung my head and shaken it in defeat, slumped my shoulders, and walked toward Keifer with every intention of shaking him until whatever contraband he was holding rattled to the floor.  I’m not sure what I actually did, only that I was able to keep myself from shaking anyone.
     “What does he have?” I asked Amani defeatedly.  “I hope it’s nothing that you’re not supposed to have, Keifer.”  Unfortunately, both my question to Amani and my statement to Keifer were intercepted and returned by my resident “motormouth,” “Charlene”.  
     “Mm hmm,” she said with both duty and glee in her voice, “It somethin’ he ain’t sposta have! It a…”  Instead of finishing her sentence, Charlene pursed her lips in a smile both self-conscious and self-righteous and looked wide-eyed around the room.  I was left to come up with what Keifer had from my own imagination until Amani broke my brief moment of introspection.
     “It a cah-“ she cried, cutting herself off before the entire word had escaped her lips.  While this comment and partial disclosure of Keifer’s contraband possession limited the possibilities somewhat, my mind was still racing in an attempt to guess what it was.  
     “What?” I asked, hoping to coax a clarification out of her.  
     “It tumtin’ I taint say,” came the mushy reply.
     I frustratedly shook my head and rolled my eyes and began walking toward Keifer.  I looked to the other students to see if they would be willing to share before I reached him.  Charlene quite naturally was more than willing.  “It’s a ______,” she said, indicating the blank by closing her mouth and moving her head forward as if she were saying a very important word.  Then she gave me undoubtedly the best line of the morning: “It’s a dondom, but switch it around.”  Goodness gracious.
     So it became clear to me that Keifer had a condom in his shoe.  This determination was based on the excitement the girls had shown upon seeing what he had as well as the reluctant and cryptic way they had identified it.  These cues also told me that it was a well established fact that Keifer should not have had a jimmy hat in school.  So I realized that Keifer’s possession of a contraceptive had now become my problem.  But it wouldn’t do to play out the incident right there, so I moved the class quickly down to their various general education classrooms, keeping Keifer with me.  Once we were alone I sat him down on a chair in the hallway.
     “Okay, Keifer,” I said.  “Take off your shoe.”  He very cooperatively took off his right shoe- the one I knew was empty- and looked up at me as if I would soon have no choice but to vindicate him.  “Keifer,” I said, “the other one too.”  At this command he dropped his head, let loose one of his trademark “Maaaaaaaaaan” whines, and roughly removed the sneaker from his left foot.  When nothing was immediately visible, I picked it up and turned it upside down.  To my disappointment and mild bemusement (but certainly not to my surprise), a crumpled up, red, Lifestyles brand condom dropped to the floor.  I sighed.  What could Keifer, an eleven year-old, sixth-grade boy with mild mental retardation, need with a condom- at school no less.
     Getting the answer to this question proved quite difficult.  Over the course of two discussions about what he had brought, Keifer fingered no fewer than three other boys as having been the person who “told” him to bring it to school.  I learned that he had found it in his eighteen year-old cousin’s bedroom, that he did not, in fact, know what its real use was, and that, apparently, sixth graders use condoms as neat accessories for fireworks.  That’s right: condoms and fireworks.
     Apparently it is quite a thrill to, as Keifer kindly described for me, place a condom on the business end of a lit roman candle and watch the sparks and rubber fly.  Keifer and I also discussed the fact that bringing a condom to school was not nearly as cool as he thought it was, as anybody can buy them at the nearest drug store or gas station.  I tried to emphasize that condoms were made with one purpose in mind, that it was an important purpose, and that to use them for other things was just kind of silly.  He seemed unconvinced, which leads me to believe that blowing a condom off the top of a roman candle must be totally awesome.