Update on a great kid

Remember Mohawk – from, like, seven years ago? Well, he’s a senior now. And guess what? I just found out that he’s a National Merit Scholar. His mom said he’s the first one from his high school in twelve years. I’m elated – and not at all surprised to hear this about him! This is hands down one of my favorite parts of my job. I love hearing about the cool, wonderful, and awesome accomplishments from all the cool, wonderful, and awesome students I’ve had over the years. It humbles me that I know I got to be a part of their journey.

 

And on a personal note, let me just tell you that this news made me cry because of the way it juxtaposes yesterday’s news. Finding out that one kid is pregnant and another kid is receiving awards of national distinction…Well, they’re just two really different things. And it feels weird somehow – and hard – to be a part of both of their stories.

Teach on.

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Beautiful Young Ladies

Yesterday I was filling in for another teacher when one of the math teachers who was just walking by came in to say hello. When he walked in, one of the girls from the back of the room jumped up, ran over, and gave him a big hug.

Girl: Oh my gosh! I’m so excited to see you! I just got out of juvie!
Teacher: Hey! That’s good news!
Girl: Yeah, I was there for a month. [Jones] arrested me.
Teacher: OK! Well I’m glad you’re back.
Girl: Me too! When I was there at first, I was in detox, and it sucked. It was, like, the second day, and my mom came to visit. I begged her to take me home, but she didn’t want me, so I had to stay there.
Teacher: It sounds like you needed to be there, rather than home, if you were in detox.
Girl: Yeah, I guess.

***

Today, I went into the bathroom and saw a girl I had last year coming out of the stall. But behind her, I noticed that the seat was up. The only time I use the bathroom with the seat up is if I’m puking…

Sure enough, before I was even done peeing, she was back in the stall, puking. I met her at the sink and asked if she was going down to talk to the nurse. She said no. I told her she shouldn’t be at school if she was puking. Then her boyfriend, who was at the bathroom entrance waiting for her, said, “It’s not like that.” Shit.

So I looked at this girl – 17, smart, troubled past, but motivated to make her life better – and just asked, “How far along are you?” Eight weeks.

The boyfriend is 20. He’s a womanizer. He already has a baby with another woman who he never sees. I specifically requested that he wasn’t in my class any more after I had him two years ago because of the way he spoke to me – flirtatious, full of innuendo.

So I talked to the girl a bit about pregnancy sickness. I made sure our school nurse and social worker knew. I told her I hoped to have her again next quarter when she takes English 11B. And I asked her to talk to me if she needed to.

Then I walked away, and I cried.

***

I want so much for these kids. I want them to be better, to do more, to grow further than they thought possible.

I want to fix their problems. Or help them fix their own problems.

It’s hard being a closet idealist in a world that is very, very real.

So you want to talk about your penis?

I have a kid in my class who I think is really awesome for an eleven-year-old. Except he’s 16. And he’s (probably permanently) stuck in that period where he thinks it’s funny to talk about his penis in public. He used to (as in: earlier this school year) get in trouble all the time for drawing penises on things, but now he draws roosters on things instead. Because, you know, penis—>cock—>rooster. Right. Probably I didn’t need to explain that, but I explained it to my principal too, and boy, you should’ve seen the way he looked at me like I was an idiot for explaining that to him. I was far more amused than he was for sure and it was totally worth it.

Anyway.

He is always – constantly – saying stupid things in class about sex in the same way that a rooster is a substitute for a penis. It’s because he’s really eleven, remember. And when he says it everyone rolls their eyes and I tell him to stop and we carry on with our lives.

But…

The other day in class I said something about going hiking and the kid says, “My girlfriend went hiking once. On my happy trail.” And he was all smug and proud of himself for his joke alluding to oral sex, nodding and looking around for approval. I put on my best facial expression of pity and said in my most pitying tone, “Only once? Bummer for you.” And then I went on with what I was saying beforehand. Or, rather, I tried to go on with things, but everyone was applauding me for shutting him down because a) I think they didn’t think I had it in me and b) he just sat there opening and closing his mouth like a goldfish and that, my friends, is truly an accomplishment.

And then the next day, he gets up to this sign I have in my room pointing the way to Neverland and makes the sign point right at his crotch, again looking around smugly, waiting for high fives and guffaws of male approval. I looked over and laughed hysterically, right from the belly, with an open mouth and everything. I said, “Oh my gosh, that is the most ironically appropriate joke you’ve made in perhaps your entire life!” He looked confused. I said, “Neverland is where Peter Pan lives. It’s where children go and never grow up! It’s also the name of Michael Jackson’s ranch!” And I’m still laughing this whole time and then he just sits down and stops talking. Other students cheered again.

Today, I said, about something (obviously, because it was during class in front of a dozen teenagers) not at all about sex: “It just feels really big.” So the kid said, “Heh heh, it feels really big,” and used his elbow to bump the elbow of the boy next to him, who just sat there staring at him like he’s an idiot. So I say, “Ugh, stop pretending like you have ever in your life had someone say that to you,” and went back to whatever else I was talking about. He just sat there quietly. The rest of the class commented that the score this week was 0-3 and that they’re really enjoying how easy it is to shut him up.

Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.

Somehow, my class started talking about Pottermore while I was taking attendance. They were comparing houses and traits and so on.

One girl asked, “Hey, Ms. H, have you taken the quiz? What house are you in?”

I said, “It should be pretty easy to guess which house I’m in.”

Another girl spoke up with authority: “She’s Ravenclaw.”

The first girl asked, “How did you know that?”

“Because she said it was obvious,” she responded plainly.

Poo-tee-weet?

Last year when I taught Slaughterhouse Five, it was difficult to help students take all the notes they would need to take – and then keep those notes straight so they would be able to access them at the end of the novel for our big project.

This year, I arranged for the English department to purchase books for my students. Each student received their very own copy of the novel to write in and mark up and highlight and sticky note…and then take home at the end of the unit and keep for ever and ever. I was so, so excited for them. They were so, so surprised, and, most of them, really appreciative.

Well I had this girl. Great girl. Sad story. Issues with mental illness, problems with homelessness, off-and-on drug use. Collapsed social network and nonexistent adult presence. She’s been in and out of school my entire three years here (because of the aforementioned issues). She started strong in my class last quarter, but then things got rocky and she stopped coming every day. Then she just stopped coming altogether.

Yesterday, I saw her in the hall. She ran up to me and said, “I love that book! I finished it and then I read it again! Twice! I’m going to start it again this weekend! I love it so much! Thank you for buying me a copy! I’m so glad I took it with me when I left!” And then she ran on and caught up with her friends.

I don’t know all the demons she’s wrestling with. I don’t know how OK she’s going to be a year from now or ten years from now or even tomorrow. But knowing that she has Kurt Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim to keep her company makes my heart swell and my eyes leak. I wish that she, too, finds peace on Tralfamadore.

Starting Class

Today I started class with these directions:

Today, everyone should be finished writing their EOC paper. If you’re not done yet, then that’s where you need to start. Everyone else who is done will move on to pages 13 and 15 in your packets [gesture to the list of directions on the board]. If you don’t yet have a partner for these pages, let me know and I’ll set you up with someone. The directions are on each sheet, but they are both identical to what we did earlier in the week. And remember, everyone’s paper is turned in the same way, so to find your partner’s paper, just go to the document where you gave me the link for your paper – the document I shared with you Tuesday. Your partner’s paper will be there too.

When you’re done with that, let me know and I will give you the next step for our writing process today.

Then, a few minutes later:

Me: Boy 1 says he’s done. Is anyone else finished and ready for a partner?
Boy 2: I am.
Me: OK. So you two are going to read each other’s papers and complete those pages in the packet.
Boy 1: What pages?
Me: Pages 13 and 15.
Boy 1: What packet?
Me: The orange packet. The packet we’ve done all of your EOC work in all week.
Boy 1: I don’t have that.
Me: Where is it?
Boy 1: I think I put it in the basket.
Me: OK, then it’s still in the basket. Go ahead and get it.
Boy 2: Which pages are we doing?
Me: Pages 13 and 15.
Boy 2: I don’t have my packet.
Me: Where is it?
Boy 2: It’s at home.
Me: That packet has three of your EOC grades in it.
Boy 2: Yeah, can you just print the pages for today for me?

So I print the pages, then when I bring them to Boy 2, the boy next to him speaks up.

Boy 3: What do I do when I’m done?
Me: You’ll get together with someone and read their paper. These two haven’t started yet, so how about we do a triad instead: 3 read 1’s paper, 1 read 2’s, and 2 read 3’s.
Boy 3: What do we do with their paper?
Me: You’ll complete pages 13 and 15 of your packet.
Boy 3: What packet?
Me: The orange packet. The packet we’ve done all of your EOC work in all week.

Boy 2: How do I find his paper?
Me: Go to the document where you turned in your paper – the document I shared with you Tuesday. Boy 1, have you opened 2’s paper yet?
Boy 1: No. Why?
Me: Because you need to read his paper and complete pages 13 and 15 of your packet.
Boy 1: How do I find his paper?
Me: Go to the document where you turned in your paper – the document I shared with you Tuesday.
Boy 2: I have that document open. Now what do I do?
Me: Click the link for the document next to his name.
Boy 1: This document?
Me: Yes, that’s the document where everyone turned in their work. See? There’s yours right there.
Boy 1: OK, now what?
Me: Click the link for the document next to his name.
Boy 1: OK, now what?
Me: You’ll complete pages 13 and 15 of your packet.
Boy 1: I already did this.
Me: This is a new sheet that you’re completing for your partner’s paper, but they are both identical to what we did earlier in the week.

Boy 3: So what do I do now?
Me: Do you have 1’s paper open?
Boy 3: No. Why do I need his paper?
Me: Because you’re going to read his paper and use it to complete pages 13 and 15 of your packet.
Boy 3: I was reading my paper.
Me: There’s no need to read your paper. You wrote your paper; you already know what you had to say. You need to read someone else’s paper for the analysis.
Boy 3: How do I find his paper?
Me: Go to the document where you turned in your paper – the document I shared with you Tuesday.
Boy 3: The link won’t even open.
Me: You have to click on it to open it.
Boy 3: I already did this.
Me: This is a new sheet that you’re completing for your partner’s paper, but they are both identical to what we did earlier in the week.

Boy 1: Is this all we’re doing this period?
Me: Based on how well things are going so far, yes, this is probably all you’ll be doing today.
Boy 1: Sweet!

Then about twenty minutes later, I see a girl across the room watching a video on her phone with her laptop put away.

Me: Are you considering yourself all done?
Girl: Yeah.
Me: OK.
Girl: I don’t have a partner though.
Me: I can get you a partner. Are you wanting to get your computer out again so you can do the partner activity?
Girl: No, not really.
Me: OK. Then make sure your packet gets turned in. You’ll just have a zero for that portion of your EOC.
Girl: OK. Do you still want me to do page 15?
Me: No, because that was part of the partner activity and you said you don’t want to do that. So like I said, you’ll have a zero for that portion of your EOC.
Girl: OK.

I promise you, the amount of repetition in this post is entirely accurate.

Mental Illness

Sometimes, the topic of mental illness comes up in class. It usually goes something like this: the kids without mental illness say things that they don’t intend to be inflammatory but are, and the kids with mental illness get offended. You know, things like, “All you have to do is decide to be happy.”

Well, if you’re born with a chemical imbalance or if the events in your life have thrown your system so far from normal that you’ve developed a chemical imbalance, you can’t just “think your way out” of that shit storm.

But that’s a tough concept for people to understand.

So I tell the kids this story from my own life – well, my sister’s life – that really helps. You’re free to borrow the analogy if you ever need it.

My sister always made sure she sat in the front of the classroom so that she could see the board clearly because she didn’t want teachers thinking that she was one of the “bad kids” who sat in the back. She thought it was unfair that schools were built with classrooms so large that someone was forced to sit in the back of the room and she thought that kids who chose to sit there were clearly inferior students who didn’t care about their grades.

Then she got glasses. And then she realized that those “bad kids” in the back of the classroom weren’t choosing to sit there because they didn’t care; they were sitting there because they didn’t have problems seeing the board.

The thing is, my sister didn’t know she needed glasses until she was 15, when she said something in class about not being able to see the board and her teacher sent her to the nurse for a simple eye test. Until she said something that someone else paid attention to and recognized as a problem, she didn’t know anything was wrong with her. She had no way of knowing that the rest of us didn’t have problems seeing the board because she was in her body with her eyes, not in our bodies with our eyes. And when she did realize something was amiss, she needed glasses to fix it. She couldn’t just decide to see the board better or to stop squinting at road signs and subtitles in movies. Glasses were her only way to see and experience life like the rest of us.

Mental illness is like that. Sometimes, people don’t know they have a problem until someone else says something. Sometimes, people need help from something outside of themselves (glasses…medication) in order to experience life in a more “normal” way.

Phrasing the story like this usually leaves my class quiet for a moment until someone – usually someone with a mental illness – nods slowly and says, “Yes. It’s exactly like that.”

Phrasing the story like this also gives kids without mental illness something real and physical to hold on to, especially since so many of them wear corrective lenses and understand my sister’s story because it’s also true in their lives.

There are limits.

Girl 1: Ew! These Cheez-Its are gross!
Girl 2, pointing her finger: Don’t you ever disrespect Cheez-Its again.
Girl 1: They’re whole grain.
Girl 2: Oh. OK. That’s fine then.

Oh.

Remember when I wrote about that fight a couple weeks ago?

Yesterday in class, my student who was in that fight was talking about it with another girl in class. The girl asked her, “And Ms. H was there?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t know how she got there so fast, though. Her classroom is way over here and we were in the middle of the school by the stairs.”

“I was walking back from the copy room,” I said.

“Oh.” It was the sound that comes when you mix surprise with understanding.

The girl who wasn’t in the fight but was just asking questions asked me if I had been so mad about the fight.

“No,” I said. “It made me sad. Really, profoundly, sad.”

The girl who was in the fight said, “Oh.” This time it was the sound that comes when you mix understanding with humility.

Things Fall Apart

It’s that time of year when things get hard.

Students stop showing up every day.

Parents come to conferences drunk.

Kids are arrested for fighting the principal and the SRO.

Counselors look tired.

Administrators release a giant exhale every time they walk from the hallway into the staff room.

Everyone does a lot of resting their head in their hands.

The Christmas tree lights are up in the main entrance, the spirit days are scheduled, the holiday dinner is planned.

But there’s just the permeating feeling of needing to hold on long enough to get through it all.

 

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