Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Just Call Me a Boy

There seems to be a racial war that begins in elementary schools long before people even recognize that racial tension exists among children.  Often this tension begins with children simply repeating what they have heard adults say and then, over the years, as that tension grows, may end with an internalization of attitudes and belief structures we like to believe were eradicated decades ago.

There is in our country and thus in our schools a dichotomy of what it means to be an American.  We are divided into the privileged and the not:  into those who speak English and those who don’t, those who have parents and those who don’t, those who have money (and thus access to technology) and those who don't, those who have access to a quality education and those who don't, those who have a home and those who don’t.

Some of these issues are the planting of the seed that ultimately develops into a deeply-felt sense of racism and prejudice and injustice. 

There was a fight on the playground amongst the 4th graders the other day.  One child spoke a racial slur and another child retaliated with a punch.  The child who threw the punch was suspended for fighting and the child who spoke a racial slur was lectured.

Their teacher felt the situation had been poorly addressed by the building's administration.  How did suspending the child who had defended his entire race help resolve the situation?  As a result, she had a sit-down session with her entire class and discussed with them the unacceptability of using racial slurs in any circumstance. 

One student raised his hand and said, “yeah, but I don’t like it when they call me African-American either.”

His teacher asked, “Well, what do you want people to call you?”

“I just want them to call me a boy,” the ten-year-old replied.

How utterly and singularly profound.  Just call me a boy.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Skate City

Went skating this evening for the second time in my adulthood.  I think that brings me to perhaps a total of 5 times in my lifetime.  Needless to say, I am not very good at this whole skating thing.  I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that my sense of balance is never very good, even when not attempting to travel with wheels attached to my shoes.  Who came up with this bizarre pasttime anyway?

The truth is I had a great time.  Of course, I went skating with my nieces, which pretty much assured me of having a good time.  I adore them both and take great delight in spending time with them.  I should be grateful that neither of my nieces are experts in the skating rink either, and therefore do not leave me in their dust like many of the other munchkins on the rink’s floor.

T.S. in particular likes for me to skate with her.  So, over and over, we maneuvered our way around the rink, with the wall as our prop and savior.  A.J. had a bear in her arms for half the night, after receiving it from an older child who won it in a raffle and wished to pass it on.  Therefore she skated with one arm waving for balance and the other arm clutching that bear, as if the bear was her prop.  If I had had a stuffed bear at the skating rink, I think I would have wanted it strapped to my ass for additional padding (not that there’s not plenty of padding already there), but that’s just me.

At some point during the evening, I had to go to the restroom, so I left the two girls skating together (A.J. made a face at my command, but then appeared to have fun with her sister despite her reluctance — isn’t that the way of siblings everywhere?) and headed for the facilities.  I now believe that Skate City’s bathrooms were designed by some kind of torture enthusiast.  Upon entering the women’s restroom, I was appalled to realize there were no pads on the floor.  Of course, this realization came a little too late as I flew in the doorway, leaving the carpeted hallway behind and hurtling at breakneck speed across the tile floor toward a stall door.  All I could think is “god I hope no one’s in that stall, because I’m going to land in her lap!”

Luckily the stall was empty.  I slammed into the door and managed to catch myself on the top of the door, which was so short that I gave myself whiplash as my head bounced forward over the top of the stall door and back.  I think those stall doors were designed for midgets.  Did they not consider the fact that adults might also be idiot enough to don roller skates and come flying through their restroom doors?

After entering the stall, I was appalled to realize that the toilet was only about a foot off the ground. On roller skates, I somehow managed to lower myself four feet where I took care of business with my knees in my face (when my feet weren’t flying out from under me of course).  The worst part was trying to extricate myself and stand back up.  It required a sense of balance (see above), inhuman strength (not one of my assets) and wheelchair bars (which were not in evidence at all).  With my feet scrambling for purchase, I used the bottom of the stall to haul myself forward and up.  Thank god the restroom was empty and no one heard my growls and curses as I attempted to lift my carcass from that damn toilet.


Truthfully, despite the crazy bathrooms, we had a great time, A.J., T.S. and I.  I'm looking forward to when my nephew C.S. is in kindergarten and can join us on these school-sponsored events. Yep, lots of fun flying into the walls with less-adventurous parents looking on.

When I asked T.S. whether her parents skated with her when they brought her to these things, she said no.  I asked why I had to skate then and she said, “because you’re a nice aunt.”  I guess I cannot ask for a better reason than that.  The things we do for love.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Playtime's over, folks

Today, for the first time this school year, I had the opportunity to play with my students.  Yes, that’s right.  I actually stopped teaching and we just had fun.  It was even sanctioned fun, so I couldn’t get in trouble for it!

The thing is, we’re an inner-city school, and more than that, we’re a Reading First inner-city school, which means that we got a big grant that requires a lot of hoop-jumping in an attempt to meet the combined requirements of the grant, the government and our school district.  The result this year has been an overscheduled nightmare of a day.

I can honestly say that the only time I see every single one of the 23 students who were assigned to my classroom is during the first 15 minutes of every school day.  From that moment on, small numbers of my students are being pulled from my classroom for reading interventions.
Despite their absence, I am expected to somehow manage to teach every child in my classroom the skills they need to arrive at grade-level outcomes by the end of the school year.  In order to accomplish this, every single moment spent in my classroom is accounted for.  There are no spare moments anywhere for frivolous activities that are not in some fashion attached to the achievement of a specific benchmark skill.

Remember those long-ago school days when a student came to school with cupcakes because it was their birthday?  Remember the building excitement as long-anticipated holiday celebrations approached?  Remember wearing costumes on Halloween?

Maybe celebrations still happen in more affluent neighborhoods.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that any children planning to bring a special birthday treat to my classroom had better plan on passing it out exactly one minute before the bells rings signaling the end of the day, because that’s the only minute I can give them.

We have standards to meet, people, benchmarks to teach, and children who must not be left behind. 

Oh yeah, and remember those days when we had a morning recess and an afternoon recess?  My god, we had no idea how lucky we were.  TWO recesses in ONE day?  UNHEARD OF!
In my world, students get 15 minutes to eat, during which time, they are encouraged NOT to talk.  They then get their one recess of the day.  It’s an awesome opportunity for them to relax and talk and run and play (unless it’s bad weather of course, then they have to sit still and watch a cartoon in a tiny resource room, but let’s not talk about that).

Anyway, they get this recess every single day (aren’t they lucky) and it’s lasts an ENTIRE fifteen minutes.  (In case you’re wondering, they really are lucky because last year they only got ten minutes.)

During these fifteen minutes, my students get their only real opportunity to play, to relax, to take a desperately needed brain break.  I should add they do get “special” time each day — 50 minutes of art, library, music, P.E. or technology.  I suppose these times might be considered a break, but I have serious doubts, given there are benchmarks to meet in each of these areas as well.

In any case, I was asked to cover recess duty today, and as a result, had the opportunity to play and interact with my students in a completely stress-free and relaxing fashion for the first time since school began back in August.

As I watched the children running and playing and laughing, I had to wonder:  by the time these first and second graders reach middle school, will they even remember how to do any of this, how to play, how to kick balls, how to chase and play tag and jump rope and laugh with abandon?
Or instead, by that time, will we have smothered the laughter right out of them in our crazed obsession with benchmarks and indicators?  Will we have leeched their joy away in our reckless zeal to achieve the desired outcomes within an acceptable time frame, no matter the child’s background, learning style or life circumstances that brought him or her to our classroom’s doorstep?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Nameless

I once wrote an essay I called “The Nameless”.  I wrote this essay as a senior attending The American University in Washington, D.C.  It was my answer to what I saw as a loss of my own humanity when facing the homeless on a daily basis.

In my essay, I wrote about some children I had seen on the streets panhandling with their mother in Washington, D.C.  I also wrote about a child I saw in Lisbon, Portugal, who was also homeless.  In my mind at the time, homelessness was a characteristic owned by adults.  These children I had seen were certainly extremely rare, particularly within the United States.

Today I know this is only a fantasy, one shared by most of the complacent population.  In fact, the fastest growing segment of homeless individuals in the United States today is that of families with children.  Approximately 1.3 million children are homeless today, and of those, approximately 500,000 are under the age of 5.  How is this possible?  How could we not know of such a severe problem?

Because we are lulled into believing that those who are homeless are the men and woman we see wandering the streets without a home.  We console ourselves with the thought that they are adults, in charge of their own fate and future.  If they wanted a home, surely they could manage it, we tell ourselves.  Most of them are probably alcoholics and drug addicts, we whisper in our mind, without ever admitting the darkness of our thoughts.

Is someone only considered homeless in our eyes when they are visibly living on the streets?  What of the millions in temporary shelters, sleeping on a neighbor’s or family member’s couch, rotating from home to home every few days to keep from becoming a burden to those they rely upon for a temporary roof over their head?

This issue is extremely important to me, as I have been working with the homeless children in my school district for the past year.  On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from 5:00 to 7:30, we meet at a local elementary school and do all that we can to provide a small amount of stability in the most unstable of lives.  Our main focus is to provide academic support in the hopes that these children will stay in school, that they will be among the few who actually make it to graduation day.
Each and every one of the children I have met through this program breaks my heart; from the victims of domestic abuse to the African refugees who have memories of escaping into the brush to avoid guerilla warfare; from the victims of severe poverty to those of circumstance like fire or loss of a job.

These are the heroes in my world:  these children who somehow manage to bring me hope and joy, merely through their presence in my life and the demonstration of their will to survive.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Eloquent Words of a Child

Every Friday afternoon, my students write a letter to a specific student in our class.  As far as my students are concerned, this special child of the week is chosen based on behavior and academic success.  Little do they know that every child on my list will eventually be chosen.

In any case, every Monday morning, before school begins, I collect these letters and staple them into a book for the child.  While arranging these letters, I often find myself amused by the things my students feel are especially important to share with their classmates.  Usually they are utterly random comments (”I like baseball.”) or questions (”Do you like macaroni and cheese?”)  Occasionally however, they are nothing short of unique.

This morning was a prime example.  I happened to notice one letter had not been signed.  As this letter was written in extremely precise handwriting that meandered down the page in an increasingly narrow triangle, it was not difficult to ascertain the author.  Shaking my head, I set it aside to remind the student to sign the letter, realizing I would have to wait until this had happened before stapling the pages together.  It was at this moment, as I was setting aside the letter, that a word upon this unsigned page caught my eye.  It was the word “squize.”

What on earth was a squize?  So of course I had to read what followed.  What followed was “your balls”.  Squize your balls?  This could not be good.

My eyes immediately jumped backward to the beginning of the sentence where I read:  “Be nice to me or I will squize your balls.”  Further down the page, the author continued to write “If you are nice to me, I will not squize your balls.”  I am sensing a theme here.

Did I happen to mention these were second graders?

Of course, at that point, I had to read the entire letter, which began with an eloquent statement of the recipient’s cuteness (”so cute, so cute”) and then a denial of being liked by that person (”I no you don like me, but I like you, so I don kare”) followed by the infamous “squizing”.

All I can say is THANK GOD I caught this BEFORE stapling the letter into a book and sending it home with my student to share with his parents and siblings and heaven knows who else.  

Is it winter break yet?

Friday, October 5, 2007

School Lunch Meat Surprise

It is inevitable I suppose that when teaching the young ones, unwashed hands that recently touched a toilet seat, boogers and snot wiped upon every available surface, and an often seemingly endless supply of vomit become familiar trademarks of the profession.

Even so, gross.

Today was Friday.  Friday should always be a happy day, one filled with joy for the coming weekend.  Instead, it was exhausting from start to finish, as frankly, many Fridays are for teachers and their students.

What made today particularly difficult however, was the vomit spewed in giant bucketsfull upon my floor.  I swear to god that a child of that size simply should not have been able to contain the sheer amount of vileness that spewed forth.

And I also happen to think this particular child’s digestive system is on the blink, because in the hour’s time that passed between his consumption of our school lunch meat surprise, and its regurgitation upon my classroom carpet, not one single chunk of hot dog had been digested in the slightest amount.  I feel sick just envisioning it.

The worst part was that I was too busy trying to comfort my poor distraught student to realize I should instead be diving for the trash can and shoving it in front of his face.  Give me a few more years with the spewage and I’m sure I’ll get it right.

In any case, this happened around 2:00 this afternoon, and sadly our custodian was off campus at the time.  Being that our school has a 4:00 dismissal time, the rest of my class and I had to suffer through the smell of regurgitated school lunch meat surprise for a full hour and a half.  We were able to crowd into the classroom next door to my own, thus giving us a little relief, but given that Jill (the neighboring teacher) and I share a accordian wall, the smell was not far enough away to save us.
Thank god it’s Friday.  I can only hope if the rest of my class is also contaminated, they will get the puking all out of their system over their weekend and come to school on Monday all chipper and ready to learn.  Yes, I know it’s not kind to wish that upon their parents, but hey, at the very least, the parents probably feed their kids something a bit more appetizing than dead road kill, so maybe there’s a chance the vomit won’t be quite so… memorable.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Bug

Teaching is always fraught with disturbing images, endless fears and boundless hope. You cannot teach without some sense of eternal faith that humanity is worth something, that we are each of us capable of infinite greatness, that we will accomplish much more than we ever dreamed possible.  You cannot teach, at least not effectively, without this true and utterly sincere belief that the children you teach will change the world in infinitely positive ways.  You simply hope that the future will bear out this truth in all its simplicity.

Which is why the bug was so very disturbing.  A tiny image, seared upon my brain forever.  I do not know how it came to end its life in our hallways, but I do know that its passing had such grave importance I shudder even now to remember.

To help you see this image, I must place you within my school setting.  I teach inside a three-floor elementary school building, with open doorways, a product of the open concept classroom of the 70s and 80s.  My classroom is on the second floor, and immediately across the hall from my doorway are two restrooms.  When my class takes a restroom break, we line up along the wall between the doors to the girls’ and the boys’ restrooms, girls on one side, boys on the other.  As the students exit the restroom, they line up on the opposite wall, right outside my classroom’s doorway.  These restrooms are used by three second grade classes and three kindergarten classes, each class made up of some 22-25 students.  Therefore, on any given morning, a full 150 tiny bodies may line up along those walls, waiting for their opportunity to pee.

I suppose if you are a member of the 5-7 age set, the moments spent waiting while 22 of your classmates attend to their bodily functions can be extremely boring.  It is hardly any wonder, therefore, that these children seek ways of entertaining themselves.  They know of course that talking and running and generally acting like its recess time can result in the swift fall of that consequence anvil teachers love to spout about.  Therefore, I suppose other opportunities must be sought, opportunities that are less obvious and as such, undoubtedly of greater value intrinsically.  After all, who can resist the danger of sneaking some revelry in right under a watchful teacher’s evil eye?

Despite knowing this, I will never forget the moment a child squealed “Ms. Culey!” and held out a tiny staple.  Staples in this hallway are a dime a dozen. The hallway is lined with bulletin boards which we are required to keep filled with student work.  Sadly, bulletin boards do not belong on the walls of a hallway that is frequently also lined with 5-7 year old bodies, bouncing up and down, waiting for their moment in the restroom. During any given restroom break, I will generally be offered anywhere from 1 to 6 items that have fallen from a bulletin board due to excessive movement on the part of my students.  And of course, as these items fall, so too fall the staples with which they were pinned to the bulletin board.

What made this staple so unusual was the tiny bug speared upon one of its spikes, looking much like some form of terrible scientific experiment, as if at any moment, the bug might begin to squirm in its death throws while its fascinated audience watched in glee.

I would like to believe that this staple simply fell to the floor at exactly the right velocity and angle, allowing it to spear this tiny bug in a moment of terrible timing and circumstance.  Sadly, the staple was found on the opposite side of the hallway from where the bulletin boards were.  In addition, the bug was so small that the spike of the staple had managed to move completely through its body, so that the bug appeared a permanent feature of the staple — or perhaps more accurately, the staple appeared a permanent feature of the bug’s body, with one side protruding from its belly, the other side from its back.

Perhaps the bug was already dead when a fascinated child decided to spear it so deliberately? But even if this were true, would that make this any better?  Whether it represents a complete disregard for the sanctity of life or simply that of death, he implications left me incredibly disturbed.