"The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain."

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

We are Phoenix

At the end of the hallway, on the way to the teacher bathrooms, loomed the words, “In order to write the book you want to write, in the end you have to become the person you need to become to write that book.” That Junot Dias quote was my daily chastisement for a long time. It motivated me, but also reminded me of my deficits. I think I always knew I would, and could, make it through my two years of Teach for America. But, I wasn’t sure who I would become in the process, who I would be on the other end.  The quote taunted and motivated, because it was inevitable that I would become someone—or rather, I would become a different version of myself, and I didn’t know what sort of something I would become. I didn't know what sort of tale mine would be. I wasn’t sure of the ending. A tragedy? A comedy? A triumph? A Mark Twain-ian, satirical commentary? Perhaps, like all great stories, mine would have moments of each. And I could become the person to tell that multifaceted story. Or, it would be a one-sided, simple story of failure. My failure to become who I needed to become. 

“Is Boston your final destination?” asked the lady at the counter. In the context of flying and layovers and airports, it should have been a simple question to answer. In the context of moving to a new place, for an undetermined amount of time, however, the question was not that simple. I stumbled over an affirmative response, feeling troubled by it all, wondering why she felt the need to phrase the question in that particular way. “Will Boston be my final destination? How long will I be in this place? What am I getting myself into?” were all questions I posed to myself as I made my way to the gate.

I had a window seat that allowed me one last view of the mountains. Something about the mountains made the tears come. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the last time I was away from those mountains, it was the best, but hardest time of my life. I had a small feeling that this next stretch of time would be similar in some ways.

I may or may not have cried myself through most of that flight (a kind flight attendant may or may not have brought me tissues), as I contemplated my new life and my unknown future. I think I was also still nursing a bit of a broken heart over having to say no to something I really wanted.
Leaving family, friends, home, security, and the known was hard enough. Finding myself in a *difficult* work environment took the hard to the next level. I use the term “difficult,” in the most euphemistic of ways. Tears were my constant companions in those days. If not tears, then certainly frustration, anger, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

My mom loves to tell the story of my first day of work, because it basically consisted of me sobbing wordlessly into the phone, huddled in the corner of my classroom, while she waited for me to stop crying long enough to tell her what happened. I wish I could say it was all uphill from there, but it wasn’t like that at all.

I used to drive with the windows down on my way home from school, because all of my emotions threatened to suffocate me in the small, enclosed space of my car. I needed space and air--I needed to remember to breathe.

I look back at the beginning, and I chuckle a little bit at the moments that brought me so much satisfaction, and the moments that crushed me.  They seem so inconsequential in retrospect. In those times, however, they weren’t. Simple things, like students sitting in an assigned seat, or a student not addressing me as the b-word anymore, or a student actually completing an assignment made me feel like the champion of the world.  I remember the first day that nobody swore at me. The entire day. Those small moments were the biggest victories. And, on the flip side, when those moments weren’t happening, the failures overwhelmed me. 

Memories of successful moments, luckily, overshadow the many negative ones leading up to the more lasting, long-term successes that I encountered.  Sometimes the negative memories still come to mind—no matter how unbidden and suppressed. I don’t care to put labels or descriptors to all of those, but I remember the feelings.  

Hoping is necessary, and dangerous, in such circumstances. I hoped so much, but the hope wasn’t tempered enough and I found the hope shattering far too often. Left with shards of hope, I would try to piece it back together, but it wasn’t ever quite strong enough not to shatter again.
I had an idea of the teacher I wanted to be in that school. I had an idea of the strength and hope that I wanted to feel. But I didn’t have it. I knew the kind of story I wanted to be able to write, but I wasn’t there. Yet.

I spent more time, especially that first year, feeling crushed and broken. Certainly not strong or hopeful.

Time, apparently, does heal most, if not all, wounds, because I can now laugh about many of the experiences I had in those first months, though I can’t say I found them overly funny at the time. Like the time it was really hot and the lack of air conditioning in the school drove one student to take off her shirt in the middle of class, leaving her in her bra, as she prepared to storm out. Not funny when you are the one trying to figure out how to handle that situation, but very funny months after the fact when you aren’t responsible for that anymore. Then you remember that this particular student has since dropped out… and you feel the negative things again…

Or, one of my absolute favorites, when a student spent her five minutes of silent writing time elaborating on all the reasons she hated me. As part of the daily routine, I let students share what they wrote, and she, of course, chose to share hers. She had some very vivid and colorful descriptions—which was also the feedback I gave her after she finished reading for the class. I laugh about it now, but I wasn’t really laughing then. She also ended up dropping out, but she still comes by the school to say hi sometimes and she greets me very warmly. We ended on a better note than we started, but she chose a different path, and I could do nothing more than stand by and watch her make decisions that she was too young to be making on her own. With her mother in prison, and a grandmother that was less-than-attentive, she had no choice but to make those decisions alone.

Being cursed out, or threatened, or raged at, criticized, or any number of behaviors that used to disrupt my state of mind, do not have the same effect that they once did. Sometimes I am saddened at the hardening that has taken place in me, and at the loss of innocence, but I’m tougher. I’m more resilient. I have been forced to push the boundaries of my love and hope.

Nothing makes you question yourself more than feeling unforgivingly angry at an adolescent that has every reason to merit your compassion, help, and guidance. Nothing makes you want to learn to love more than feeling like you don’t have any more love to give. Nothing makes you feel worse than realizing that you have been withholding the love that you should be giving, and the love that is needed. There were times when my charity failed, and I failed because of it.

There are a lot of interactions and relationships that I am still working through and navigating in my thoughts and memories. I have hope for future healing.  Which is probably the biggest thing—hope for future healing, and hope for the future. Hope for more charity.

I remember vividly how it felt to feel hope again for the first time, and I remember what it felt like to feel actually happy. I remember what it felt like to not be afraid in my own classroom.  I remember how it felt to experience all of those things, and everything in between, and I remember the void that it is when you don’t feel hope or happiness or security. They are tangible absences, much like the lack of sun in a New England winter.

I don’t think there were any significant moments, or climactic events that really turned things around. I think it was more a process of becoming. Becoming what they needed me to be. Becoming the teacher who wouldn’t flinch in their rage, who would push forward when they pushed back, who would take their hate and anger and emotions and diffuse them. Not that I always did that. I often still failed to see the needs behind the emotions and actions. But I got better. I became better.

Eventually, dread didn’t fill my heart as I got in the car in the morning to make the drive to work. At some point, they started writing more, reading more, and thinking more. We started discussing, and pushing and truly exploring ideas and issues. They started talking to me about their lives and their feelings, and they started seeking my approval. When I asked them to step out and have a conversation with me, they did. They started walking out less, pushing back less, and chiding each other more for off-task behaviors. I caught them reading when they shouldn’t have been, they took more risks with their writing, and they admitted to actually enjoying some of the learning we were doing.

They read independently, we read together. They talked to each other about what they were reading, they recommended books to each other, and they even took recommendations from me. They let me help them find the right books. If we didn’t find the right book the first time, they kept trying to find the right fit, and eventually we did. Waiting for students to stop talking actually became a management strategy I could use. In the past, wait time would have ended with them spending the rest of class talking. The days weren’t necessarily easy still, but they certainly were not as hard. The cloud wasn’t hanging overhead the way it had. Sometimes we even laughed and joked together. I learned to bachata at the prom. They watched Harry Potter movies when they came on TV.

The last Friday of school, I watched my students perform their own, reworked versions of Shakespeare plays. I watched as one group performed a prequel to Hamlet, which they entitled Claudius. It delved into the motivations of Claudius, and why he did what he did. I watched another group show how the characters in Hamlet all betrayed each other, leading to their own betrayal. They highlighted how Horatio betrayed no one, and was not betrayed. Another group did a bilingual version of The Taming of the Shrew, while others did a contemporary version of it. Students who used to refuse to read, or talk about books, or work in groups, and so many other things, had worked together to write and perform their own Shakespeare plays. They performed in front of the entire school, which was also the first dramatic performance in the walls of that school. They had made their own props, had pieced costumes together, and typed up scripts. One group even had some kazoos to announce the arrival of royalty in their play.

I used to say that seeing Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre was life-changing. Any performance at the Globe that I saw in the past was completely eclipsed by seeing Shakespeare performed at Phoenix Academy Lawrence. That was actually life-changing. I understood in that moment why parents hang ridiculous assignments on the fridge at home, and why my dad used to tell me I had a beautiful singing voice, even when I would sometimes hit the most atrocious notes in my practicing.
They had done it all on their own. I had given them templates and outlining tools and space to brainstorm and work in class. I listened and gave feedback, and encouraged where I could. But I left it up to them. They did all of the thinking and writing and creating on their own. They kept on top of each other, and they made it all happen. I could hear them talking and laughing animatedly during rehearsals, and bouncing ideas off each other. They revised and reworked and readjusted casting decisions. They spoke loudly during their performance and owned the stage. And I sat and watched. Awe and joy and hope and love colored their performance, at least in my eyes, and I realized that my life had changed. I had changed. They had changed. We had changed together.
The last day of school, I sat in my empty classroom, looked at the walls that had become bare. The student work hung no more, the annotation guides, charts, posters, and all the teacher things had been taken down. Within just a few short hours from the final bell, it had become a sad and empty classroom. I cried in that empty classroom. Remembering the heartache, the grief, the hopes that had died, the hopes that had been reborn, the person that I used to be.  I cried more, however, with gratitude for the person that I had become.

The mission statement of the Phoenix Academy says, “Phoenix Academy Lawrence challenges resilient disconnected youth with rigorous academics and relentless support, so they take ownership of their futures and recast themselves as self-sufficient adults in order to succeed in high school, college, and beyond.” The students all know that a Phoenix rises from the ashes of their burned existence, and gets a new start. The Phoenix is the ultimate symbol of redemption, change, and becoming.

When I first started working at the Phoenix, it felt hard to picture the end. It always is. It is very rare that we get to glimpse the future and see the hints of what could be.  I don’t think I knew then what the story could be like, and I certainly didn’t know what it would be like. It was hard to picture change and redemption, and I had no idea what, or who my students and I would become.  What I know now, though, is that together, we became a storybook ending. A tearful, tumultuous, at times tragic, but overtly triumphant ending.

This is not a book, or really even a fully-fleshed out story. It is a tale of the Phoenix, and we are Phoenix.

I drove home from school that day with the windows down. My emotions were too grand and big to be contained, and I could finally breathe the fresh air.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Don't You Forget About Me."

I’m not going to pretend he was my favorite student, or even that we had a particularly close relationship. His attendance wasn’t great, and, quite frankly, his focus wasn’t either. He was a student that very cheerfully handled his redirections, and would tell me to “chill.” To which I’m sure I responded with something about how I “would never be chill about his education.” Was I his favorite teacher? Nope. Did I have high hopes and dreams and expectations for him? Yep. I was his teacher, after all, even if not his favorite. I was not a perfect teacher for him, and I didn’t do everything right. I know that, and will learn from that. But, I still showed up, ready to teach him, ready to fight for him—ready to fight for them all. It wasn’t enough, but it was what I could give.

“18-year-old killed…” That was the headline of the first article I read about the shooting. The photos of him show his height and stocky build. They use “18-year-old” to make it seem like he was an adult. Which, technically, he was. But he really wasn’t. The articles speculate about gang activity, and it all clicks into place for people. “Ah. It is sad, and he is very young. But that’s what you get for hanging with the wrong crowd.” The assumptions and speculations abound, and people might acknowledge that it is sad, but there is still this air of understanding, almost. As if this was to be expected, because, I mean, look at his picture! He is big, and tall, and hangs out in a gang. It’s his own fault. Now, people might not go that far, but there is certainly a hint of that in their words.

The boy the papers don’t show, however, was the one that roamed the halls of our school. He was goofy, and smiley, and as laid back as it gets.  Like I said, I’m not going to claim that he was the most focused student in the world, but very few students are that student. He tried to do his work more often than he didn’t, he tried to help out classmates when he could, and he wasn’t a student inclined to curse you out. He wasn’t an angel, or a saint. He was more than just a gang member, or a thug. He was a kid. A good kid, even.  A kid who was involved with things far beyond his years. A kid who had friends, who loved basketball, who loved joking around. A kid who will be missed by a lot of people, myself included.

  I have experienced loss before, and each one brought a slightly different pang.  This is my first time experiencing the pain of losing a student, and it certainly has a sting all its own.

It isn’t just a sadness for this student, which is certainly part of it, but it is a sadness for all the students that it has been, and could be, through the years. A sadness for the hurts that exist in the world, and the wrongs that take away kids who are forgotten as individuals as they become statistics.
I think part of the sadness is also tinged with a little guilt. The guilt of knowing that you were one of the adults in his life who was supposed to help keep him safe. You were supposed to prepare him for the “real world,” and give him the tools, resources, and knowledge necessary to be successful. In this instance, we, the adults, failed. I failed.  At least it feels that way.

I am not prideful enough to think that I could have single-handedly changed this outcome. Nor will I ever think that my job as a teacher is to save students—or this student. I also know that no matter how much I would love to have the assurance that the children of the world are safe, that isn’t a reality. On any level. That isn’t what I mean by saying that I failed him.

My failure stems from the doubts and questions I had after his death. I started thinking about all of the *stuff* my students deal with on a daily basis, and I started to doubt that anything we do in schools can make a difference. How am I supposed to plan a lesson that is engaging enough to combat whatever is going on outside of the classroom? How do I try to get them to care about iambic pentameter and rhyme schemes when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or where they are going to sleep that night, or when they fear for the basic security and protection? I can’t fix those things for them. So, what’s the point? Nothing is really going to work. Nobody can make a difference, and I certainly can’t.

It’s like that stupid “starfish story.” The one that is really sweet and touching if you are in the right mood for it. Or, that is totally irritating if you aren’t. I’m not right now. I don’t really like thinking about my students as these sad starfish, washed up on the beach, waiting to be thrown back into the water. Only some of them will be the lucky ones, and the rest are left to dry out, thanks to the changing tide. Because I saved a few of the starfish I’m supposed to be okay with losing the rest of them? That doesn’t seem like a great strategy.

Yet, the idea of saving ALL of the starfish is overwhelming to the point of debilitation. Also, I still have to call my mom to ask her things about taking care of myself, so I’m certainly in no position to be saving anyone. To be perfectly honest, the very idea of teachers “saving” students, or anyone “saving” another person makes me cringe.

I think the reason that idea makes me feel so uncomfortable, is because I know that there is someone who has taken the necessary steps to actually save everyone, and this is also where my real failure comes in—how I actually failed this student, and myself.

I failed to remember that there is a real Starfish Saver. Somebody who has already saved all of the starfishes. Through all the ages, through all the school systems, in all the places. I’m one of those starfishes, too. Some starfishes are hanging out on the beach, some are safe in the water. We are all doing these different things. We wait for the tide to come in and out, and we try to remember that, ultimately, the Starfish Saver has the capacity to save all of us.

While this was a comforting reminder for me, it still didn’t make me feel all the way better. I am working on building that hope for the future, and the eternities, but I still get dragged right back to the present. Yep, one day this student and his family and his friends will be just fine. What do we do until then? What is my role in this? What am I supposed to do for my grieving students? What am I supposed to teach them in a public school setting that makes a difference? I just teach my fellow starfish about the nouns and verbs they need as they slowly dry out? I quote Tennyson to them as we all wonder whether this tide is in our favor or not?

I know a lot of my colleagues are going to be spending time this weekend reading and pondering the words of inspirational, motivational , wise people, and trying to ground themselves in their own motivations for becoming teachers, particularly teachers in a situation like ours. In tough times, you have to remember why you did things in the first place, I guess.

I watched The Breakfast Club.

When I want to give up on education, when I feel like a broken teacher, and when I feel tired of feeling so many things about my job, this is the movie I watch. Not Dead Poets Society, or Stand and Deliver, and certainly not the abomination- of- a- teacher-movie starring Hillary Swank. For those familiar with the movie, you might wonder why I choose to watch a movie with probably one of the meanest teachers ever, who is not inspiring, or positive, or even nice. There are a few reasons, one of them being that it is just a great movie from the 80s.

The movie starts with the Simple Minds classic song, “Don’t you forget about me” a black screen, and white letters. The white letters are a David Bowie quote that reads, “…And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” This quote is dramatically smashed and blown to bits with 80s flare, and you get a nice glimpse of a normal-looking high school.

Then, you hear the voice of the “brain” who reads the essay they wrote during detention:

Dear Mr. Vernon,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms. The most convenient definitions.
You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct?
That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.

That opening is definitely another reason. It clarifies for me, as a teacher, what my role is and what it is not.  

My job is not to fix anyone, save anyone, punish anyone, redeem anyone, discipline anyone, and a whole slew of other things. These students already have plenty of voices telling them what they can and cannot do. They have people poking and prodding and pushing them. Some have that in more loving atmospheres than others. Some maybe feel smothered by the presence of the love they receive. And that has nothing to do with me.

When they come to me, they carry that all with them. No way I can sort through all of that for each of them—I’m not prideful enough to think I am capable of that, or that  I can change that for them.

But, I can try to avoid seeing them as I want to see them. I can avoid seeing them “in the simplest terms” or “the most convenient definitions.” I can give them a space for the many dimensions of their lives and personalities, and I can validate who they are, even if I can’t always validate all of their individual behaviors.

I can care about them. Even when that caring might not do much for them—just like caring about the starfish on the beach might not do that much for it. I think the starfish would still probably rather know that somebody saw it, cared about it, recognized its unique characteristics, and would miss it when it didn’t get saved by the tide. My job as a teacher is to look beyond the persona they create for themselves, beyond the labels their peers would give them, and actually try to see them as a fellow starfish on the beach that has baggage.  

Another part of the movie that always gets me is when John Bender is in Mr. Vernon’s office and Vernon is threatening him. Bender seems like a pretty tough kid, with a lot of stuff he is used to dealing with. He is not used to dealing with it from a teacher, though. Or at least on this level. You see the look on his face as he realizes that this adult who was supposed to be safe, wasn’t actually safe for him. It’s devastating, and you can see that he doesn’t actually know what to do.

Had Vernon acted differently, it might not have necessarily changed Bender’s life dramatically. At the very least, though, he could have been one less thing that Bender had to deal with and worry about. He could have been one less person to belittle him, or have low expectations for him. He could have helped Bender find a place to just be himself and not worry about it. This movie reminds me that being a good teacher, content stuff aside, just requires kindness. Which, to be honest, is not always easy, but it also isn’t actually that hard.

The last reason I am going to delve into, I already kind of mentioned. The fist-pumping song that has become synonymous with The Breakfast Club, that captures Bender’s moment of triumph perfectly, is another reason this movie is grounding for me. It captures perfectly the plea of adolescence, and, let’s be real, humanity in general. The song says, “Don’t you forget about me… won’t you come see about… will you call my name… will you walk on by?” All these desperate pleas and questions: Do you see me? Are you going to acknowledge our shared humanity? Are you going to notice and care? Please don’t forget about me.

Being alive can be hard sometimes, but I don’t think we actually need or expect that much from the other people on the beach. Maybe I can actually do my job as a teacher. I probably won’t ever be the perfect teacher, but I am certainly committed to trying.

As I mentioned, I didn’t have any sort of spectacular relationship with this student, but he was my student. I lectured him countless times about his tardy problem. I know I chastised him about side conversations.  The feedback that I gave on his last assignment was about the progress he had made. I cared about him, and I hope that all of those various interactions are evidence of that, in their own way.

 That assignment will never be returned to him, but I hope he knows that we saw him. He was noticed, and we cared for him.

The empty desk isn’t just an empty desk--it was his. He is not just a statistic, or a kid who got in with the wrong group of friends. Not just the basketball player, or the goofball. He was our student. He wasn't perfect. Neither were we. 

We won’t forget about him.