Teachin' For America

Thoughts and otherwise on one particular Teach for America experience.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


“Delilah” is my sixth-grade student with Down syndrome. She is quite low-functioning, but is also generally cheerful, helpful, and sweet. Her language skills are very limited. Most of her speech is nearly unintelligible and she, like Dontrell, relies heavily on context to get her point across. Her academic skills are similarly impaired. She is working on counting out loud to ten and being able to write those numbers in order. She can name most letters but does not seem to grasp any sound-spelling correspondences. She is a behavioral piece-of-cake but a real academic challenge. And sometimes she presents other challenges.
One of my administrators, sometime during our week of in-service, gave me a run down of kids in my class. “Delilah,” she said, “has Down syndrome. She has accidents.” I dutifully nodded my head and pretended that the sentence didn’t phase me. And it really didn’t. Sure, nobody wants to clean up euphemistic “accidents,” but as far as I was concerned, that would be part of the job and I was going to do whatever the job required. So I resigned myself to the prospect of helping a soiled little girl down to the nurse’s office or wherever it was that I was supposed to take her when she was soiled. I also wondered why that was the only bit of information my administrator chose to give me about Delilah, but I do my best to not analyze the decisions of administrators. You can go crazy doing something like that. What this says about administrators I’ll leave to my readers as I get back to concentrating on the story at hand.
The restroom, independent of any tendencies of my students not to make it there, is a frequent issue in my classroom. It seems that there is almost always at least one student who has to “use it.” I have truly tired of having kids raise their hands and inform me “Mr. Mobley, I gotta USE it!” “Use what?” I typically reply, a question that seems to travel directly to their bladder: after I ask it they always seem to put their hands in that region with a great deal of consternation and whinily intone, “The baaaafroooom!” This technique gets them nowhere.
Students at my school are not allowed to go to the bathroom without the accompaniment of an adult. The reasoning behind this rule is evident in the behavior of the children whose teachers break it. They run through the halls with reckless abandon, their hall passes apparently serving as tickets to use the halls in whatever way they see fit, for however long they see fit. They have races, yelling matches, and what resemble prize fights. That I am not allowed to close my classroom door to keep out these distractions is another issue that will have to be saved for another story in another entry. Suffice it to say kids just don’t need to be running around in the halls unsupervised.
So even when my students really, really “gotta use it,” they are not allowed to until the next of the two bathroom breaks we take daily arrives. This decision on my part is typically greeted with much wailing and gnashing of teeth on their part, but that all goes away once their tiny attention span moves on the nearest shiny object. Sometimes, however, I start to believe in the urgency of their claims when, many minutes later, they are still insisting that bladder detonation is imminent. This is when I tend to reconsider my hard and fast rule. Just such an occasion arose- and escalated beyond your typical “Gotta pee” fiasco- with Delilah the other day. See the above reference to “accidents” to get a preview of things to come.
Delilah asks me to go to the bathroom fairly often. It is one of the things she can communicate rather easily, so I think as soon as she feels the least bit inclined, she goes ahead and asks. It serves as a good way for her to feel good about getting her point across pretty much just as she means it. She also has a tendency to catch “me too” disease and have to go really badly immediately after someone else asks to “use it.” So I typically, despite the aforementioned warning about her accidents, don’t let her go. It had been nearly four weeks of class yesterday, and she hadn’t lost it on me yet. So when she asked, I knocked on wood and asked her to please sit down.
I barely noticed her doing the “I’ve really gotta go” dance at her desk. The bathroom boogie is a common occurrence in room 302 and I’ve learned to mostly take no notice of it. So when “Amani,” who is something of a-for lack of a better word- mush mouth, especially when she’s excited and speaking to quickly, urgently raised her hand and nearly yelled something to the effect of “Misbah Mobae, Debibah fibba haba dassiden,” it was not immediately clear to me what she meant. Her insistent gestures guided my attention to Delilah, who was now boogieing so frantically that it looked like she might actually be able to take her entire desk to the bathroom that way, remaining seated all the time. I addressed my investigative questions to Amani. “What?” I asked.
“Debibah fibba haba dassiden!” she repeated frantically. This time I gathered that she was warning me that Delilah was about to “have an accident.” So I did the only appropriate thing for a new teacher to do in that situation. I froze. I stared at Delilah and watched her do the toilet two-step for a moment. I tried to make eye contact with her to get confirmation of emergency status. She wouldn’t look back at me. “I tin she didi,” said Amani matter-of-factly. I hoped she was wrong and reluctantly gave up my momentum with the rest of the class to focus on Delilah’s personal needs.
“Delilah,” I asked, “do you need to go to the bathroom?” She still wouldn’t look at me. At this point I began suspecting why she wouldn’t look at me. “Oh no,” I thought, teacher instincts going wild inside me, “She won’t look at me because she’s ashamed that she’s just peed her pants. It’s allmy fault for not letting her go. They said she had accidents. I don’t wanna clean up an accident. Is that my job? Where’s the nurse?” Delilah having still not looked up, “Charlene,” who long ago appointed herself Delilah’s official translator/ spokeswoman took over.
“Delilah, you need them clothes outta your backpack?” asked Charlene, revealing a detail about the contents of Delilah’s bag of which I had to that point been unaware. “Do you need to go change?” Delilah, however, would not even respond to her most trusted advisor (and occasional co-conspirator). She stared directly down at her desk, hands in tight fists rubbing up and down the area of her pants directly above her bladder. While Charlene continued to try coaxing a reply out of Delilah, I took greater notice of the situation. It did not appear that Delilah had in fact wet herself. What parts of her lower body I could see showed no evidence. There was certainly no smell. And her incessant wiggling and rocking made it look an awful lot like the still had to go to the bathroom. Charlene, the spokeswoman, in a very authoritative “no questions please” move, completely ignored me and began to get out of her desk, repeating her question about the clothes in the backpack. Delilah still wouldn’t look at either of us. I told Charlene to sit down and began to walk toward Delilah, knowing I would have to commandeer her attention if I was ever to get to the bottom of this.
By this time my other students had become quite excited by the prospect of Delilah having wet herself. Amanda was still yelling incomprehensibly. “Jermaine” was acting- emphasis on acting- as grossed out as he could, muttering things about “retarded” people. “Montel,” ever the helpful young man, was telling me calmly and with mild bemusement, “I think she peed herself, Mr. M. She usta do this last yer.” Most of the other students were just making their trademark, all-purpose “I’m upset by something” noise. The noise is of course impossible to reproduce with a keyboard, but if you can imagine someone feeling really grossed out, offended, in pain, and oppressed at the same time, you might have a rough approximation of how they sound. That is if you imagine it being in the comically high-pitched voice of an 11-year old: “Uuuuuuhhhhh.”
But there was little I could do about the other students at the time. I had to deal with the possibility of Delilah having wet herself. I’m not sure how, but Charlene and I managed to get her to pick her head up and admit that she needed to go to the bathroom. Eventually she stood up and I could get a good look at her lower body. I certainly didn’t see any evidence of an accident, but the insistence of the other students (particularly Charlene, who was making sure Delilah took her backpack to the bathroom with her) that she had in fact had one had me pretty convinced. So I asked her, “Delilah, did you have an accident?” She responded with a confused stare and went about opening her backpack. At this point I think she had become overwhelmed with all of the attention on her and was just concentrating on performing the simple tasks she felt were being asked of her. The open backpack was probably a response to Charlene’s yelling right in her ear about it. Delilah certainly didn’t seem to fully understand why she had it out and/or open. She also seemed very confused as to why she was standing up, bringing her backpack, and heading to the restroom.
But along she came, me the whole time asking her over and over again if she had had an accident, her giving no response beyond a confused stare and the odd unintelligible sound. We walked across the hall to the girl’s restroom- quite a pair I’m sure. Her backpack was unzipped and dragging along behind her on its long-since broken wheels. Her mouth hung open as it tends to do no matter what, mine hung open in disbelief at the utter confusion of the situation. I kept asking if she had an accident, if she needed to go change clothes. She kept failing to respond usefully. Finally we made it to the bathroom. “Okay,” I said, go ahead and go in. “Do you need to change clothes?” She looked at me and continued to walk into the bathroom with her backpack. “Go to the bathroom if you need to,” I said as she went into a stall and closed the door.
By this time chaos had broken out back at the room which had, or course, been a vacuum of supervision for a number of minutes. So I ran back and did my best to calm down the riled up class. But it was not to be. The mention of urine outside the body or the toilet had them all atwitter. I futilely reminded them to be quiet, gave up and rushed back to check on Delilah. “Are you okay, Delilah?” I yelled into the bathroom.
“ə,” she replied, one of her unintelligible schwa syllables. She didn’t sound distressed so I decided not to worry too much. Eventually that calculation was proven right as she emerged looking none the worse for the wear. Most importantly, however, she was wearing the same pants she had entered the stall with. She came out of the stall and gave me the same, confused stare she had been sporting before she walked into restroom. It was somehow less distressing to me as a teacher this time, however, as it was no longer accompanied by the “I gotta use it” dance. But it was also somehow funnier. I began to have trouble holding in my giggles. “What exactly were we all worked up about again?” she seemed to be asking. “Shouldn’t I be learning or something?” And to see her standing there in the bathroom, a girl with Down syndrome, cute as hell, her backpack (still full of clean clothes) beside her, mouth agape, putting things in perspective, made me feel quite silly. I couldn’t help but reflect on what exactly the hell I was doing there, what she was doing there, or who had convinced both of us that she needed to take her backpack to the restroom immediately. We stood like that for moment longer, me soaking up the silliness of the moment, her just waiting for me to give her a cue.
At some point I snapped out of it, felt comfortable that she had not, in fact, had an accident, and walked her back to the classroom. The disaster having been averted, class resumed. We went on with our day. But that moment of silliness had somehow put a few things in perspective.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


I hid the comments from the "Failure" post in an effort to dissociate this blog from my actual identity. It would be nice if at least some google-fu was required for an outside party to know exactly who was writing what I'm writing. Email me if you're interested in seeing them.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


I really don’t know where to begin with today. So many things went so wrong in so many ways that it has left me a huge, tightly clenched, non-sleeping ball of fury and frustration. This is one of those times so many people who had been through the first year of teaching in an under-privileged school told me about. It’s one of those moments where I can’t imagine making enough of a difference to make my work worth it. One of those moments where I really, truly, and wholeheartedly do not want to go back to school tomorrow. One of those moments that make less dedicated teachers lose it and quit their jobs. One of those moments I always figured would come but never, of course, appreciated their gravity.

The older students at my school, the ones who know about such things, seem to think that I’m gay. A similar thing happened to me in LA this summer. I suffered a minor identity crisis, but have subsequently gotten over it. Overall, it has not left much of a mark on me. However, what is occurring at my school right now has affected me quite deeply. In LA some of my colleagues thought I was gay. They being tolerant people, however, didn’t change their treatment of me in any way because of it. So we cleared up the misunderstanding, had a chuckle, and moved on. But the sixth graders at my school call me gay like it’s a bad thing. And it hurts me on a slightly personal level, but much more so on a much higher level. I can assure them I’m not gay (though I haven’t, thus far had much luck in convincing them). It pains me, though, to imagine how I might feel if I couldn’t. Or at least if I couldn’t do so honestly. What has me upset is not the fact that students think I’m gay. It upsets me that they bring it up as though I should be ashamed of it. It upsets me that they look at me as I tell them that I’m not (I’m not, but it wouldn’t matter if I was, I always say) as if their decision on whether or not to accept my heterosexuality has other ramifications. As if, by telling them that I’m not gay, I’m telling them that it’s okay to respect me, that it’s okay to like me as a person. And I feel so lucky to be able to tell them honestly what they want to hear and feel so awful to think that there are people in similar situations who can’t.
It is my impression that the homophobia in my school- an elementary school- is rampant. By fifth or sixth grade, these kids seem to have internalized the thought that “gay” is a negative word. I can see in their eyes as they look at me and consider my affirmation of my heterosexuality a degree of judgment that should not exist. Let me give an example of the context in which these encounters occur.
I was in Ms. “Teague’s” sixth grade classroom with my five sixth graders who are currently pushing in to a gen. ed. class each morning. I go there to help them with their work, but tend to feel slightly useless and left out. So my eyes surely brightened when “Montel,” one of my brighter and better-behaving students motioned to me to come over to where he was sitting. When I arrived on the other side of the room, however, Montel was not interested in getting help with his work. “Mr. M,” he said, looking up at me with his charming, knowing smile, “he think you gay.” This is a perfect example where a child says something that takes me so off guard I have to pretend I haven’t heard him or her in order to buy enough time to formulate a response.
“What?” I asked, my mind racing and reeling. I was inundated with memories of this summer. I thought desperately of how I would have to react differently in this situation, given these were not tolerant colleagues- they were children who undoubtedly had very different ideas about homosexuality. I was overwhelmed.
“He think you gay. Tell ‘im you ain’t gay,” Montel intoned, looking to me for confirmation of what he had obviously been telling his classmate moments before. I think I managed to unconvincingly mutter that I was not gay. Then I got my wits (slightly) back and realized that that was not enough. I panicked again, knowing that this was an extremely “teachable moment.” I knew that answering to my own sexuality might be good enough to fix my situation. But I knew that I was obligated to do what I could for other people as well. I knew that I had to get the point across to Montel and his classmate that the implication in their speech and actions was wrong. I had to do it for their sake, so that they would not grow up in ignorance, hatred, and intolerance. And I had to do it for the sake of the cause of equality and tolerance, one in which I believe strongly but do not believe I have done enough (if one ever could).
So I got something out about how I was not gay but it would not matter if I was. Montel said something to the effect of “Told you so” to his classmate, proud his teacher was no fag. The other boy looked at me in such a way that I could tell he was not really believing me on either front. If I were a stronger person I would have pursued the issue, attempting to make a real difference. But I’m not, so I failed. I pretended that what I had said was enough and went back to finding ways to help my students with their schoolwork. I failed. I missed a teachable moment and let the kids whose lives I could have touched leave my presence without having grown.
But I can no longer dwell on this failure. I can’t even dwell on the encounter I had in the hall with another of Montez’s classmates, who, upon my now-formulaic response of “I’m not gay but it wouldn’t matter if it was,” reacted to my attempt to make the most of the teachable moment by laughing in my face and running away. Dwelling on that moment makes me bitter toward the child, which I know is wrong. So instead I feel bitter toward myself. It was my failure, not his, that the moment was wasted. I hope the next one won’t be.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


     My heart aches for Dontrell.  It breaks and bleeds on a daily basis.  Every morning when he spots me on the playground and cheerfully runs over to say a smiley, messy-faced, and nearly unintelligible good morning, I notice his unwashed uniform, his inability to keep his mouth closed and control his saliva, and his blissful ignorance that anything could possibly be wrong.  I notice his huge fucking smile and hope to myself that it will never go away.  Because if Dontrell ever learns what I know- or think I know- about him, he might not ever want to smile again.  If he ever realizes that the universe is dealing euchre and he ended up with all nines and tens, he might quit playing.  And as much as my heart breaks when I see him now, it won’t even be able to heal if he stops smiling.
     Dontrell is a young man with mental retardation who is quite low-functioning.  His communication is essentially limited to vowel sounds and gestures, so he relies heavily on context to get his point across.  When his point is not in his immediate vicinity and he is unable to gesture concretely, he relies on repetition and the intuition of his listener.  It’s frustrating for everyone involved.  I think this has a lot to do with why Dontrell can, at times, be very bothersome and demanding when he wants something or when there is a point he wants to get across.  While his points don’t tend to be outrageously sophisticated- he typically wants a Kleenex or to go get on the bus- they are certainly of a higher order than the sounds and gestures he is able to use in order to make them.  And that must be so, so frustrating.  I get frustrated when my blog entries turn out to be crap.  Dontrell gets frustrated every time he tries to communicate.
     But at the same time, he only rarely lets this frustration show.  He lives his life happily, patiently telling his clueless teacher over and over again what he wants or needs.  He cheerfully completes his mundane assignments, holding the pictures he is so frequently asked to draw over his head with a prideful smile.  They way he looks to me for affirmation strikes at the core of my teacher-being.  And I know that if he ever comes to the realization that he was asked to draw that picture because his teacher failed to come up with a more enriching activity for him, if he ever gets tired of having to ask seven times for a goddamn Kleenex, the smile will fade.  It will have to.  Who could possibly keep smiling while dealing with that much frustration?  I imagine what Dontrell would do if he were as aware of his disability as I fancy myself to be.  If instead of being proud of his drawings he became frustrated, like I am now, that he is not doing more.  If instead of simply trying again when I failed to understand him he simply threw up his hands and decided he would have to get what he needed for himself.  I imagine these things and I see a very unhappy young man.  One who might not be able- and would have no good reason- to look past the proximate problems of his disability to the possibilities of his ability.  And I am thankful that he is unaware.
     I am thankful that he is unaware that his mother is essentially illiterate.  I am happy that he doesn’t seem worried, like I am, that he will never learn to read either.  I don’t want him to wonder how it can be possible for a boy in his situation to do anything but be under someone’s care for the rest of his life.  I don’t want him to worry, as I do, that without support at home he will never be able to make any significant academic gains.  And I don’t want him to worry about the role his mother might be playing in keeping him from making those steps forward.  I don’t want him to know that a child with his cognitive ability born to wealthy parents would go to a school specially designed for teaching students like him.  I don’t want his heart to break, like mine does, with the weighty realization that he has been served a heaping pile of disadvantage on so many levels.  
Dontrell does not just have to deal with mental retardation.  His concerns go beyond just dealing with the frustration of being unable to get his point across.  There are other things to face besides arriving at school every day with a dirty uniform because poverty prevents its cleanliness.  He cannot focus only on the lack of help with his schooling at home.  These are all things I see, one or more at a time, in each of my students every single day.  And my heart breaks for each of them.  But my heart breaks many more times over for Dontrell, in whom I see so many more of these disadvantages.  In front of whom I see so many walls standing.  And by whom I am constantly relieved and continuously forced to reexamine my evaluation of what exactly it means to be disadvantaged.  
Dontrell’s heart doesn’t break every day.  He doesn’t worry about all of the things I worry about.  As disappointed as I may be that I have asked him to draw another picture today, Dontrell is still proud of what he has produced.  He eventually gets his points across, looks forward to going home to his mom at the end of every day, and can always be counted on to do his best at any assignment that’s given him.  I won’t say that his ignorance is bliss.  I can’t be sure to what degree his is actually ignorant.  But I will say that as much as my heart breaks for this little boy to whom life has given nothing but lemons, I am also happy every day to share his lemonade.