Bacteria and virus models

Sweetheart and the enigmas

Admire this week’s science project above—making bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi with clay and pipe cleaners—and meet Isabel, John, and Tara.

Isabel

When I consider my failings as a teacher, I think of her. I suspect Isabel’s often bored and frustrated with the classroom disruptions and slower pace of her classmates.  Diligent, she’s the most reliable when it comes to studying. When I asked the students to write a short story, 10 sentences, about their lives at Camp Green Lake, the setting of Holes, she developed an adorable piece about becoming best friends with a “gentle” (vocabulary word) boy there, who later became her boyfriend. When I suggested that she consider writing as a career (I can dream), she laughed. Like Joe’s, her imagination is colorful and my envy. She’s one of two who puts effort into their bi-weekly journal entries.

Isabel is still a pre-teen however, with moments of slack. Friday she said she couldn’t finish her paragraph about being sleepy because she was too sleepy. (I recommended she write, “I’m so sleepy that I can’t even finish this paragraph.”)  Likely because of the language difficulties, or because I inspire revelation, she can be rather frank, openly admitting she didn’t study for the writing exam because she was busy with another teacher’s (English always takes a back seat, despite this being a bilingual school.). She makes such observations with her sweet laugh. Sometimes she’ll stand near me, perhaps with nothing much to say, and I’ll wrack my brain for conversation. She confides in me that another teacher’s classes are boring and also when mine are boring; yet, despite her boredom, she has on occasion told me how happy she is that it is my class. Perhaps I am not boring. When I have doubts about my effectiveness as a teacher, I look in Isabel’s notebook and see improvement. I see and hear her try. These signs reassure, a comment, I suppose, that contradicts my “failings” comment above, but let that stand. Isabel can move at a much more rapid pace, but I’m not equipped to manage different levels.

As with nearly all of the kids, Isabel is obsessed with love, as well as Logan Henderson of One Direction, Facebook, my comparatively newer iPhone, and discovering the password to my computer. She has an older iPhone and braces. In fact, she’s one of few students with braces at school, which gives you an idea of her family’s financial situation. Petite, with a sweet smile, she is among the most fashionable on Color Day, in dresses too old for her, but elegant nonetheless. I’ve never had such style.

Isabel is the only one who unfailingly thanks me when I hand out anything to the students. She is a sweetheart.

John

The enigma, a student whose mind I have been unable to open for a peek. He will not speak unless called on, and then in a mumble, and is quick to join the other three boys in goofing off in class. Despite this, he vies with Isabel for the top spot. I often wonder if he is uncomfortable being (one of) the best in the class, among the boys, and this is why he goofs off so wholeheartedly, to fit in. Or, more likely, he’s just a short, stocky boy, who doesn’t make the 8th grade girls’ A-list, who’d rather play than work.

Because he confuses me, I am nervous and awkward with him, afraid that he senses my confusion—did he just glare at me? am I seeing contempt? So I consciously praise him and touch his shoulder during corrections. John usually puts in the minimum effort in class and is just as untrustworthy as the other boys for working independently. This adds to my confusion…and distaste. But—of course, but—he surprises. Parcial exams ended this week. His paragraph, a response to the question Are boys or girls smarter? thoughtful, mature. He said both were equally smart…because both are human and have the same potential. This is not the prevailing cultural thought and most students were decidedly in one camp or the other. I was surprised and softened.

Insight alert: I cannot find a vulnerability or place for connection with John. Were I replaced tomorrow, I suspect he wouldn’t care, and this summons insecurity, because if I am not needed (wanted?), in some way, why am I here? Isabel may not be insecure, but she needs me and my teaching. Antonio may be frustrated with me more often than not, but I know he is appreciative when I explain and he understands. Joe lacks confidence, but I am confident, more or less, in my ability to evoke the bright flashes I see in him. Moments like these answer the question, “Am I needed?” With John, I have none of these. I can’t tell if he’s a good, quiet kid or an asshole, a theory I developed after some exchange I don’t recall well.

But, no, I must remove that asshole consideration after his response to the writing exam question. There is someone thoughtful and considerate in there. I just might never get to meet him.

Tara

Oh, Tara, where to begin? At the beginning of the year, Tara was Kim’s coloring cohort. Now she more often colors alone. She’ll request permission to wash her hands because the pen she was chewing on or the marker she was toying with burst. Five seconds after I’ve given instructions, she’ll ask, “What, Miss?” or “For the notebook, Miss?” having returned from her cloud. If I take a breath, she’ll burst in with a non-sequetorial “How many homeworks [until I get a prize]?” no matter how many times I’ve stated she can ask at break. As the year progresses, I’ve (shamefully) grown increasingly sarcastic in my responses, having no idea how to address her delay, the inattention. Attempts at personal talks, to solicit questions or request behavioral changes, are met with an uncomfortable eyes-averted, “Nothing, Miss,” or “Yes, Miss,” implying she has no questions or understands, when she obviously just wants the conversation to end. Corrections are met with denial and cease communications notice. Like John, I haven’t found the way in.

Her work is erratic, but quiz scores are high, indicating that she studies, and even remembers. After a student tipoff that Tara had cheated on a quiz, I questioned her a few days later. No cheating; she knew her stuff. She is eager to participate in board work—but on her terms. If she doesn’t get to go first, forget it—bingo, and most games. In her own mind, she is infallible. Actually, that could apply to most of the students. They are all perfect, in their own and God’s eyes.

Like John, she is an enigma, but of a different type. A less kind person would suggest that she has a screw loose. Let’s just say she and I have different priorities…and maybe different planets.

And now it’s Semana Santa!

theresa

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A plant with sports

You so crazy

Nothing gets me talking better than the topic of my students, and since I described a few of them last week, here are a few more, all seventh graders. Although I teach three grades, I teach these crazy guys at least three classes a day and think about them the most.

Antonio

During one of our parent-teacher-student behavior meetings, I asked Antonio to be my superhero, like Iron Man, and use his power for good. Tall, attractive, engaged in an active love affair with hair gel, and cocky, Antonio is the obvious leader of the class. He doesn’t walk across the school yard, he struts. During a game of grammar tic-tac-toe, his teammates sought his approval prior to placing their mark on the board. Jojo refused to compete against him in a review quiz game. When the first grade English teacher substitute taught my class this week, due to some scheduling craziness, and she was glaring at him for silence, he commented that she must be looking at him because he was so good-looking. He is confident in his immortality.

Of all the kids, it’s most difficult for me to remember that Antonio is still a child, because he’s tall, because his spoken English is fluent, because his defiance is strong, and I, a neophyte, easily fall prey to his manipulation. I roar internally in frustration at his academic scores because he’s smart but thinks he knows everything and always races to finish his work as quickly as he can, then bother those who aren’t finished. He could do much better, but he’d rather comb his hair and chatter. He laughs loudly when others make mistakes, which further discourages students from risking themselves.  He’s also a baby and, I suspect, babied by his mother. Whenever Antonio is chastised more than he thinks he deserves, he puts his head down and refuses to talk. If given detention, he pouts and threatens, “I will not come.” When asked to write about an awesome person, Antonio wrote about his mother, whose awesomeness stems from her giving him whatever he wants.

Yes, he’s a kid, a popular kid. I struggle to like him. He probably taps into the wounds I retain from my own middle school years. He can be charming, but it’s a power struggle, always, and I often hear his protesting voice in my head. When I can find a moment of vulnerability, like when I catch him needing help with something, I spread my teacher-gifted-with-knowledge wings and flash them in an attempt to blind him into humility. Despite how middle school theresa may feel, Teacher theresa does care. He’d make a good politician. I just want him to be an intelligent and kind politician.

May

There are students closer to my heart than others, and May is one of them, mostly due to the near deadpan inflection of her English, which renders her work protests hilarious. She shakes her head and tells me, “Miss, I don’t understand,” with a strange little lift at the end and a flat-lipped, embarrassed smile in her half-turned face as if this is a strange thing I have caused, this not understanding, and she’s casting it off to me to do something with that information. It stems from insecurity and a self-rooted assumption that she will not understand whatever I’m teaching. I’m not sure why she feels this way, and it may be my fault. Despite months of being with this crew, I still am unable to gauge the difficulty of my lessons. So before quizzes and exams, when I remember—increasingly difficult with my sieve of a memory—we review during lunch time and she passes, whatever the topic, or she doesn’t. She works hard, I think. May is a Good Student, not great, but good. I don’t often enough see her smile and I will tease her and turn myself on my head, in our free moments, to find it in her sweet face, that wrinkled-up nose, averting her eyes. I often want her approval and wish I knew her better.

She loves to make cakes…if only I could get her to make one for me.

Krissy

I am the only volunteer teacher who is fond of her. Big, loud, and a school hater, Krissy is a bully. She frequently and at high volume disrespects her teachers and kicks or punches other students. Hers is another voice I hear in the quiet and it often says, “Miss, but I no want to!” Another volunteer proclaimed that Krissy is “just too much.” I suspect I love her for a vulnerability that is rarely revealed.

Early in the year when I’d allow the students to find relief from our stifling and loud classroom by working outside, Krissy’d wander away and bother other classrooms. I confronted her and explained that because of this tendency I couldn’t trust her, despite wanting to. I’m not sure why, maybe it was my speaking to her seriously and honestly, but our relationship after that changed. She started trying more and looking my approval. If I gave her The Look, she’d stop talking, for at least a second, and work. She’d argue less. And we built this relationship where if Krissy gives me crap, I can give her crap right back:

K: Miss, it is so hot and boring.
T: I know, Krissy, but you are young and strong and in my heart of hearts I believe you will survive. Can you? Can you make it through this rough day?
K. (Smiling) Oh, Miss, you so crazy.

And she’ll try…for a minute.

Krissy is the biggest—okay, fattest—kid in school. At a parent-teacher meeting, her aunt mentioned that the family couldn’t get her to stop continuously eating. Her aunt suspected stress from school. When we were studying earthquakes in Science, an eighth grader joked it was Krissy walking. During a writing exercise where kids had to write a sentence then fold over the paper and pass it to another student to write the next sentence, someone compared Krissy to an elephant. And Krissy, big, strong bully Krissy, who never shows hurt from these comments, was upset. My middle school self, one that was also relentlessly teased, the memory of which struggles against Antonio, hugged her. My teacher self struggled to find a solution and felt inadequate.

Krissy’s family is a good one. Her mother is a dentist, her father a mechanic. Both care for their daughter, though seem confused at times by her behavior. Krissy now sees a psychologist, though I’m curious if she actually talks to him/her, because it’s difficult to get beyond the superficial. Krissy excels in math but hates Science and English. (This post’s picture is what I drew on a quiz when she wrote that a plant could reproduce with sports, not spores.) She has great listening skills and is fluent, if grammatically atrocious, and her writing and reading skills are weak. Recently I started tutoring her once a week, and while she’ll lie slickly to wiggle out of it, to the point that I call her mom if Krissy tells me tutoring has been cancelled, our sessions are fun and she’ll play along. I suspect she enjoys the attention. I enjoy shocking her, such as by telling her I used to dye my hair all sorts of colors. I love her incredulous smile and her look of surprise when she gets something right.

If the other volunteers spent as much time with Krissy, I wonder if they’d change their minds about her. They see her picking on their little kids and protesting their instructions at top volume. I see these things too and daily get on her case for physically responding to a slight. But I also see how she is picked on by others for her size and poor vocabulary, and while I don’t see it, because it’s hidden, I know this hurts her. And, I suppose, I like her because she likes me and I’ve figured out, a little bit anyway, how to work with this girl who’d much rather be at home watching Calle 7.

And those are three of my kids.

ta ta,

theresa

Grover

Now and later

Many adults, caught in the tangled net of responsibility, look upon their childhoods or those of their own children with nostalgia. They recall childhood as easy, but I know I wouldn’t want to travel backward, except to visit moments here and there that weren’t so hard, that weren’t rife with confused emotions, intimate conflicts with friends, and tall people telling me what to do and feel and laughing with condescension at my wounds. Then kids, too, get bundled up like debris in the messy lives and emotions of their adults, whether those are parents, guardians, or teachers, people they’ve been told to follow, but who at times have no idea what they’re doing. Yet they tell their kids, Follow me, while another adult, doing something completely different, also tells their kids, Follow me. Still others are punishing their kids in order that their life won’t be followed.

Kids are told to do this now or don’t do this now for reasons they’ll understand later. They’ll get to thank some big person later. Study math now because you’ll need it later. Don’t have sex now and you’ll understand later. Too much of a kid’s life is spent in a vast later that stretches beyond comprehension, because when you’re five and those five years have seemed pretty long, the next 13+ years of later is forever. I would imagine by the time you’re in the adult-dreaded teenage years that later is a pretty sickening word, especially because you’re starting to feel more like an adult, be given adult-level responsibilities, but with none of the freedom, and are still hearing about that neverland later. You know that later is closer but still much too far.

This is me, trying to be compassionate with my students.

One of my seventh graders, KB, lives in one room with her family, her mother, her older and younger sisters, and her niece. The fathers of her sisters are semi-involved financially in their lives; hers is not. Their family relies on her mother’s part-time income and foreign support. KB is the responsible one, for her little sister and for her niece when her older sister isn’t home. She worries about too many adult things, like rent payments, because she has to. She has adult worries but not adult trust, and KB is very torn by this. Her mother gets suspicious whenever she talks to a boy in her neighborhood and has punished her upon hearing rumors of such conversations. I’ve been told about name calling and shouting over this issue. My student knows why her mother is concerned—pregnancy—but all KB wants to do is talk, and it’s unfair that she’s responsible enough to take care of her family but not move beyond the gate that closes their apartment to the street. I have heard this story many times this year.

With my oh-so-vast adult wisdom, I can see as her mother does, how talking leads to one thing and another, as it did for her mother and so many others—and too many of the others are barely older than KB—and I can understand that her mother fears most that this second daughter will create or end up in her same circumstances and is determined to lock her up and even beat her to prevent this. I can also see that KB is fiercely loyal to her mother, protective of her family, responsible as best she can be, and she honestly just wants to talk to this boy (Okay, I bet if a kiss happened, she wouldn’t mind.). But there’s no way that KB will understand that for now she gets to worry like an adult, care like an adult, but can’t be trusted like an adult. There’s too much now and later.

This is me trying to be compassionate when she fails a test and can’t help flirting with a classmate rather than take notes.

Kim is insecure and not a little goofy. She’s tall, long-limbed, and has a birthmark on her face she’s ashamed of. Rather than believe in herself, she idolizes other girls, girls I wish she wouldn’t, because they are terrible role models, girls who need good role models themselves. For a few weeks early in the school year, Kim and I had a breakthrough and she went from coloring in class to wanting to please me, which translated into her working. Now, she works and will participate more than she did at first, but if her friend isn’t working, neither is she. So I try to sit them apart, and her mother wants this as well, but Kim is shy, a little strange, and a lot of the kids don’t like her. How can I begrudge her a friendly elbow partner? She gets mad when I move her and sulks with her head on her desk. She tried to cheat on her last parcial exams. Then, after lunch, she’ll zoom around the room and stand an inch away with her lovely lopsided smile and a “Hello, Miss Theresita!” Of course it’s a joke on me, but I’m glad she’s comfortable enough with me to be that weird and, honestly, I’m quite weird. I just worry that the sparking light I see in her is going to be twisted by whomever she places her trust in and not lifted, as it needs to be, but she’s not strong enough to lift it herself. Yet.

Lately she’s been in detention a lot, for not doing her work. When she’s upset, she shuts down and it’s hard to find access. Sometimes I have to threaten her with going to the office.

Her best friend and idol, Jojo, has divorcing parents and a distant father. Too many dads are out of the picture. Jojo’s been a slippery enigma since the beginning. She has a wall a mile high, much of it fortified with insecurity. I also can’t sit her next to anyone else in class because, as I’ve said in my less compassionate moments, she gets her claws into them and brings them to the dark side, as she did with Kim. But I’ve found some chinks in her armor. If she doesn’t do her work, it’s often because she doesn’t understand, which she’s too proud to admit, and so I always thank her for her questions and invite her to ask more.

This is me trying to be compassionate when they both ignore and giggle at me and I itch to place them in hugs bordering ever so slightly on a chokehold.

This is me trying to be compassionate when Fred, mortified at being so behind, yet again cancels our tutoring session, but the fact is he shouldn’t be in seventh grade, he’s already failed once, and he continually disrupts class because he’s bored and lost. He gets by on his sweet smile.

Sometimes I have no idea if my sandwich is being buttered with bullshit. I wasn’t prepared for life in this emotional blender of compassion and adolescence. Did Jojo really not understand the homework or is that an excuse for forgetfulness? How can I blame the kids for whining when it’s over 80 degrees in our classroom with the broken fan, but I need the whiteboard for our lesson? Was the science quiz too difficult or did the kids just not study? Am I explaining this poorly or are the kids just not paying attention? I’m not proud or arrogant to enough to assume I’m always right. I dole out negative reinforcement with secret guilt, wishing the positive reinforcement were enough.

Often I forget they’re kids. It’s hard not to when they’re practically adult sized and not cuddly like the wee ones. I struggle to comprehend that they (mostly) aren’t kids like I was, who paid attention, who suffered the boredom silently, who didn’t like but understood the importance of later. I forget that my world is not their world. The other volunteers were more normal as children, or perhaps they’re just more resilient, and don’t appear to be caught in this emotional goo. I forget that inadvertent rudeness happens when you don’t know the subtleties of the language you are learning. I get impatient and sometimes unfair and too often take this all personally.

My kids are kids; they barely comprehend tomorrow, much less later. As I write this, the compassion swells into my fingertips and my weekly forecast is tinted with hope and strength. I can just see myself navigating these moments with skill and grace. I feel myself remembering childhood and the future that came much too slowly. And then…I can feel myself dreading the alarm Monday morning.

I’ll try.

Indubitably,

theresa

P.S. Grover came to Honduras with me. Despite his self-doubt, he dabbles in superheroism.

SalvaVida sign

Soy El Hulk! Soy un hijo de Dios!

Here are a few observations that have been on my blog topic list for awhile but my brain has not yet formed into a full entry, kinda like a blog version of Radiolab‘s Shorts! episodes:

Dogs

Dogs roam about the town, pant on street corners, sleep in the road, fight with each other, and bark at all hours. Sizes range from tiny to medium. Their minimal flesh clings to ribs and tailbones, unpadded by fat, their testicles outsized in comparison to their bony frames. Many have open sores and limp.  Most are male, for reasons I don’t want to fathom, and the females, with their distended and swollen nipples, look overused.

Dogs crawl through the fence that borders the school to scavenge for scraps (or participate in Monday’s Acto Civico assembly) and are chased or harassed by the children, though I did see a boy give a dog his lunch. Yesterday I tried to give one the stray bits of popcorn he was sniffing for under the table, but my movements scared him and he fled. Well, he fled when he saw the guard running toward him. They’ve learned a raised arm releases rocks in their direction.

Still, dogs here are dogs everywhere. They make friends and play with each other; even the scrawniest look happy-goofy as their tongues loll out, panting in the heat, and once a dark brown longer-haired mutt, who appears better cared for, goosed me in a friendly sort of way.

Those dogs with homes are used primarily for protection though I have seen a few well groomed, anything-but-fierce pups on leashes held by children. Some of my students speak fondly of a dog they once had and played with, and I’ve met a few lapdogs of the Chihuahua and Min Pin variety.

Dogs are the preferred pet, with cats prized for their rodent catching abilities. The cats are rough and ragged and refuse to be pet. Our house feels no ethical qualms that Nova, the cat that adopted us, may have belonged to a family, because we intend to spoil him as only cat-spoilers can. It took him no time to accustom himself to the new lifestyle.

El Señor es Amor y Paz

People tend to be Catholic or Evangelical. Our teacher meetings start with a prayer, as do our Monday school assemblies. On Saturdays and Sundays, one of the houses across the road plays church services at top volume. When a minister leads a prayer, people also pray aloud, but some fervently, with their own words and at their own speeds. They close their eyes and raise their hands, sometimes pulsing their arms. This style contrasts with the listen in silence or repeat what the pastor said style I grew up with.

Traveling to La Ceiba, I passed many signs celebrating the love and peace of God, and all the hired vehicles dedicate themselves to Jesus and El Señor with worded inscriptions or paintings of Jesus in his crown of thorns or a cross. My favorite tuk-tuk is painted with a picture of the Incredible Hulk, who proclaims, “Soy El Hulk!” and a picture of a man, I assume the driver, who responds, “Soy un hijo de Dios!” the message, no doubt, that the man, backed by El Señor, can kick anyone’s ass. I call the chicken buses “Jesus buses” because when I first saw the inscriptions, I though they were used specifically for taking people to church. But, despite the odes to that higher power, no one finds it odd that the Jesus-blessed bus also shows hyper-sexual reggaeton videos.

I can’t deny that the religiosity bugs me. The poorer people are, the more religious they tend to be, and on its face, this doesn’t make sense. How can someone praise how they are blessed when there are bars on the windows and no food on the table? It reminds me of Freud’s observation that the pleasure we experience from relief of pain is a sick pleasure because to feel it, we first must feel agony (I wonder now if he was talking about S&M, in which case, I’m taking him out of context.). So people thank God for the food they have, overlooking or somehow justifying the days without it.

Vintage

On the main road is a stretch of wall covered with a peeling advertisement for the Honduran beer, SalvaVida. It took me some time but I finally figured out why I find it so pleasing. My aesthetics have been corrupted by the ‘vintage’ look. In the States a person can pay very high prices for furniture either made of weathered materials, like wood or rusted metal, or designed so that it looks like weathered wood or rusted metal. You can pay people to make your stuff look old and worn out. It’s a pretty interesting people-with-money idea, and I’m as guilty as the next corrupted person to find my favorite bakery in Portland, Back to Eden, adorable with its use of old (or old-looking) cabinets and “reclaimed” wood. Then there’s the ubiquitous pictures of European villages and streets with centuries old buildings that are disheveling in an oh-so-quaint way…. So that SalvaVida sign? It fires all those quaint and vintage aesthetic receptors in my brain. But the thing is that there’s nothing fashionable about the look of peeling paint and crumble here. It’s the look of someone who doesn’t have enough money to repaint, repair, or replace. It’s the look of poverty.

How did that worn out look become so popular? What makes it so special, and is the pleasure confined to white urban people with money? When I see a worn out cabinet being used to store flour I think of how well it was made so that it is still useful now. I admire the use of real materials rather than a bunch of woodchips slathered with glue to make a board, then screwed together into a shelf that will definitely not survive the zombie apocalypse. I think of farms and outdoors and simplicity, when men were men and all we had to do was live on the land, that sort of nonsense fed to me by Hollywood. I think of when people cared about quality.

In other news, today is March 1. The countdown to the end of the school year is going strong, too strong. But that relief is mixed with panic as I wonder what is next.

As ever,

theresa