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.

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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.

 

A fight

I heard the yelling as I walked out of the copy room.

I saw the pushing a few steps later.

I yelled one girl’s name. “No! Stop!” She didn’t hear me yell her name.

I don’t know which one lunged first, but by the time I got there, they were both on the ground.

Everything happened so fast.

They both had long hair, which worked equally as a disadvantage for each girl but an advantage for the other one.

Two other teachers were there as well. We all tried to pull them apart.

They were so close to the stairs; I worried that they would tumble over.

Our SRO and VP came up. I’ve never heard an officer announce himself like that in real life. “Stop! Police!”

One girl’s boyfriend was recording it. “Put that away!” I shouted, putting my fresh copies in front of the camera. “You should be ashamed of yourself. You should be helping her stop this.”

One of them lost a shoe, her cell phone, and a clump of hair.

A clump of hair the size of a bald spot.

One girl was arrested. One girl was suspended.

Then I had to walk to class, stand tall in my cheetah print heels…and teach.

But first I took a few deep breaths in the hallway and cried a few tears and willed my hands to stop shaking.

Perspective

Monday, a few teachers had their cell phones stolen, one had her wallet stolen, and a kid had his backpack stolen. Everything has been recovered and the kid responsible for it all was arrested yesterday.

Overheard in the staff room:

“It’s such a shame. I guess I’ll have to do a better job locking my door.”

“Part of why he got turned in is that his friend found out whose phone he stole and she said she couldn’t let him do that to me.”

“These kids work so hard all the time to disprove the stereotypes about kids in this school; it’s an added insult when someone breaks that trust.”

Overheard in the halls:

“That kid was new here. He didn’t know how we do things. You don’t just go and disrespect teachers like that. If he ever comes back, we’ll make sure he understands this time.”

You’re HOW old???

Me: Height doesn’t have anything to do with age. Most of you are taller than me, but I’m twice as old as all of you.
Boy 1: What? How old are you?
Me: I’m 36.
Six kids: What? No way!
Boy 2: I thought you were 29!
Me: No. I’m 36.
Boy 2: Really??? Someone told me you were 29.
Me: No. I’m really 36.
Girl: What year were you born?
Me: 1981.
Girl: Shit. Yeah, well, I guess that really is 36 years ago. The oldest I would have guessed you at is 32.
Me: Thanks, but no, I’m really 36.
Boy 1: Snap! You’re only 24 years away from being 50! That’s so old!
Me: I’m actually only 14 years away from being 50.
Boy 1: What? That’s even worse!
Boy 3: My dad just turned 36 a few days ago.
Me: Cool. Well, I guess me and your dad have something in common.
Boy 1: Oh my god! Fourteen years away from FIFTY! Don’t you hate being so old?
Me: Nope, I don’t really mind it. I’ve gotten used to it, really. Just one year at a time.
Boy 2: Yeah, that’s not too bad, being 36. It means you’re smart. You know, wise.
Girl [laughing, clearly making fun of the boys]: Yeah, Ms. H. You’re wise because you’re so old.

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