Saturday, September 24, 2005

There is no liminal space in middle school.

All things are black and white. A boy in my class writes me a poem about life and death, love and hate. I tell him I like the contradictions.

In the mornings I come in tired and already sweating. I wait in line for our one working copy machine and read the note again about how the repairman has been called. I write the date at the top of the blackboard, open all the windows as wide as I'm allowed to (the opening must be smaller than the space you'd need to toss a chair out onto the sidewalk) and wonder how many grandmothers I'll have to call this afternoon.

There are excellent days, when everyone piles in from the hallway, takes out a notebook, and attempts to put pen to paper. There are terrible days, when the whole class is already screaming by the time I get them in their seats. A boy says to me, "You must be so patient." A girl has an asthma attack and EMS has to pick her up out front. Tears well in tiny brown eyes when I say I'm going to call a grandmother. I turn to write on the blackboard and somebody calls me a bitch. A twelve-year-old girl asks me to tie her shoes for her - says she forgot how. Five minutes later she claims to be fourteen - older and wiser than everybody else in the room. Kids I've never met come up to me in the cafeteria, call me by name, and ask to be moved into my class. Kids I know ask the guidance counselor to move them out.

I sing the chorus of the new Young Jeezy song and I am a God for thirty seconds. I make them wait to leave for lunch until everyone is quiet and I am Satan for the rest of the afternoon. We have spelling races on the blackboard and I am their favorite. But the next day my class is boring and we never read anything except this corny bullshit. I am the worst teacher they've ever had. I give them stickers and they love me again, until I tell them to spit out their gum and once again, they hate me. They hate everyone in this stupid school. They love it here and can't wait to go to eighth grade prom. They're not coming back for the rest of the year.

I always. I never. Everything and nothing.

A star student is absent for a week straight because his family goes on vacation during school. One girl shows up three days into the year and then disappears again. Some people never miss a day but spend them all camped out in the back row, mumbling to themselves. They do excellent work and forget to put their names at the top of the paper. They sing. They sleep. They beat on the desks. They have endless energy and can't sit still. They are tired and can't think of anything to write about. They know more than I do about everything. They have no life experiences at all - why do I ask them such stupid questions?

There are days when I get all my copies made early and scribble everything on the chalkboard the afternoon before. There are days when for twenty sweaty minutes I race around from floor to floor looking for lost lesson plans, only to find them right on my desk.

I eat alone, staring out the window. I eat in meetings nodding - copies, I can make the copies.

In the eighth grade we learn about communities and how they fall apart. We read "The Lottery" and the script of a Twilight Zone episode about townspeople turning on one another. We are learning not to shriek in class, making scrapbooks about the neighborhood's history, and prepping for a unit on the Civil War.

In the seventh grade we learn new words - posthumously, loathing, antagonist. "Why you gotta antagonize me like that?" I ask the kid who falls asleep. I pile books on his head. I explain to them that I can't mark on their essays, only make "rubric based comments" on post-it notes and then stick the post-it notes to their essays. "And whose idea is this whole post-it note thing?" I ask, opening my hands to show that everyone can call the answer out - no need to raise hands. "The man," they chant. "Who's the man again?" one kid asks another. "Could the man be a woman?" Contradictions.

Some afternoons, I stare at the map of New Orleans in last week's Time magazine (all of my reading is at least that far behind) and I cry on public transportation. Some afternoons, I smile at all of the crossing guards. But every afternoon, in a few minutes on the 3 train, I do what it takes some people in Brownsville a lifetime to accomplish, what some of them never do: I leave. In the morning I come back again. I hate this job. I love this job.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

First Days

So. It happened. I went in early, made copies, put up posters, and wrote my name and today's date up on the blackboard.
And I did it again the next day.

Here's how my two classes went:

8th Grade

More than one teacher glanced at my eighth grade class roster and said, "Oh." Not in an encouraging way.

And having spent five hours with these kids so far, I can understand why.

I teach these twenty-four twelve and thirteen year olds for two straight hours first thing every morning. I'm the only adult face they see between homeroom and lunch, and I told them on the first day that this means we'll really have to work at getting along. We're going to be seeing more of each other, I said, than we might see of people in our families.

"Can we do that?" one kid called out, "Can we see people in our families? That'd be great."

Wonderful start.

Here's what two or three of them are experts in: pushing buttons.
Here's what the rest of them are experts in: following the lead of the two or three button pushers.
Here's what we've accomplished so far: nothing.

Yesterday, we spent the entire two hour period on one activity, because I had to keep stopping to ask for quiet, to count down from five, or to erase a point from the blackboard. The kids who like to work were bored because we weren't doing any. The kids who like to talk were upset because I kept telling them not to.

Here's a short scene from our morning:

Me: Who's bored? I'm bored. Raise your hand if you're bored.

twenty-four hands go up.

Me: I think we're bored because we're moving so slowly. A few people are really slowing us down. Let's all turn and look at the person who's slowing us down right now.

twenty-three heads turn to look at Julio [not his real name] who is already sitting by himself and already expecting me to call his house this weekend. Of course he just keeps talking because I have, brilliantly, given him exactly what he wanted.

So. I've already got parents and grandparents to call, a stack of half-finished homework assignments to grade, and a sinking feeling that Monday isn't going to be much better. Every teacher who's had this group before, even the best disciplinarian in the school, says it took at least a few months to "break them in." I'm worried that I just don't have the personality or the will to "break" people. I feel like I'm working against myself.

Still. Most of the other teachers I've met are encouraging and supportive. Another eighth grade teacher, who's new to the school but not to teaching, brought me cookies on the first day and stayed after with me on Friday to plan for the next week. I'm hoping to keep the kids a little busier and hopefully, more on task. Two hours is a long time for anyone, and I'm trying to take that into account.

I'm encouraged by the fact that I don't have any mean spirited troublemakers (yet) - just a bunch of socialites. They're working and they want to get it right, even though I can't come by their desk and help them because I'm so overwhelmed with everything else going on around me. And while one kid started our first day by announcing, "I got forty-five discipline points last year and I'm gonna get forty-five again this year" (fighting will only get you fifteen points,) even he is willing to do his homework and work in class, albeit noisily, and even he is still afraid of a phone call home.

7th Grade

On the first class behavior report I filled out for my seventh graders, I wrote "Angelic!" and they are. They are terrified, wide-eyed innocents in navy blue uniforms, all of them new to the school and to one another. They're scared of getting lost, of the big kids in the hallway, and even of me. Even better, they can't talk in class because they don't yet know who to talk to.

They walk behind me in single file from the lunchroom to the classroom, and sit in alphabetical order without a hint of complaint. They look at me when I'm talking, and raise their hands to ask what the "Do Now" assignment is if I forget to write it on the board.

One girl, crooked teeth and a jumper, spent her summer volunteering at the library. On the survey she filled out for me, she wrote in the space for "anything else you'd like me to know," that she was valedictorian of her elementary school. She is shy, but willing to read aloud in class, and does so with fluency and grace. She's worried about making friends. I praise her and she looks down - I look at her and see myself.

A beautiful small boy with long dreadlocks is worried that he won't meet anyone here.

One boy hopes he'll get a little taller. A girl wants "people to know who I am."

Another says, "the work doesn't fear me so much."

Yesterday, we read a story by Gary Soto called "Seventh Grade" about a boy who tries to impress a girl by pretending to know French. After they read (in silence!) and answered comprehension questions (in silence!) we had a lovely discussion about who in the story we'd like to be friends with, and why. We talked about the different characters' actions, analyzed their personalities, and practiced speaking up so that everyone could hear us.

Then I let them in on the bad news: that, very soon, over on the other side that line of lockers that's about as tall as I am, there's going to be another class going on. That's right, I told them, another class in our same classroom. Their tiny jaws dropped. I know how they feel.

Still, even after the trauma of two hours with my eighth graders, I ended my seventh grade period feeling like I could be helpful to these kids.


So. Good and bad. I want to cry and I want to smile and I want more time with each kid.

Today I made a notebook with a page for each one of them, both classes, and listed what I know about them so far.

Who are their friends? (I asked them this on their surveys so I'd know who not to group together.) Do they like to read? What kind of books do they like? Do they like English class? (The most popular "favorite class" listing so far is "gym" with "homeroom" and "lunch" tied for second.) Do they like school at all? Do they watch too much TV? Have they already read the books I was going to assign? What are their goals for the year? (Which range from passing to excelling to not talking so much to not getting "kicked up.")

Already, I feel like I know a hundred times more about this job than I did three days ago. Which is good, because Monday morning, I'm going back for more.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


is day one. My posters have been cut and pasted, bulletin boards covered, and endless amounts of paperwork slogged through, and now I'm trying to pick out my outfit and figure out how I'm going to make enough copies during my lunch break to get me through to sixth period. I've got a two hour block of eighth graders first thing in the morning, and an hour and a half with seventh graders in the afternoon, and only about nine hours to go until I have to stand up at the blackboard and walk this walk. Pretty wild. Too tired to say too much more about it.

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