static

Inútil

I’d wondered if it would happen, if Glisa would come to class with marks clearly human in origin, like a swollen face or belt stripes that couldn’t be hidden by her sleeveless top on Color Day. But I’d doubted it. While the younger kids confide, follow their teachers like ducklings, openly crush with star-pooled eyes, the older ones stay aloof, confiding in each other or no one.

I wasn’t prepared. Can you be prepared for confession? When sitting alone on a bench, lost in space, while your students listen to music or play on tablets during an earned play afternoon? Can you prepare yourself for a tall, lovely girl who is quick to laugh, rather careless, and rarely concerned to suddenly be in tears? And what were we talking about, nothing, I don’t remember, I was in the middle of some joking comment.

“My [step]dad says if I’m not good, he’ll hurt my mom.”

Probably not. I couldn’t prepare for this secret warrior to remove her armor.

The night before, the stepfather came into her room and hit her. She doesn’t know why. He was looking for something in her room; she doesn’t know what. When her stepsister cries or whines or cries—she’s always crying—Glisa gets hit. The stepfather has threatened her with a knife. Glisa is afraid to go home. She stays at her grandmother’s as long as she can during the day. Probably everyone on that street knows what happens in that house, but her mom talks to only her sister. Her mother wants to leave, but doesn’t know to where. Glisa’s aunt is trying to get her and her brother to the States, to Houston. Her mom can’t afford to care for all three kids.

Glisa sat above me on the table, I rubbed her leg, squeezed her foot, maybe took her hand as she talked. I wondered what to say, knowing that listening was the right step, but wanting to hand her a solution, feeling helpless in this pain, trying to not let my own tears show. It’s not my place to cry here. I asked if there was someone who could help. Only the aunt. Thank goodness for the headphones, most students were too absorbed to notice our island at the crowded table, Gilsa’s tears.

“You know you don’t deserve this, right?” Glisa nodded. I murmured words about that asshole, her intelligence and wonderful personness. My hopes of her escape.

Then, she was done and went to play with her iPod. Football was played that last hour. At home, I fell on the bed, drained, teary, and am still somewhat lost.

The days after September 11 were emotional and paranoid below 14th Street, including where I worked in the West Village. Cars weren’t allowed. A stranger sold cleaning fluid in unlabeled bottles and we suspected anthrax. Spontaneous memorials grew on fences and street corners. Pictures of the missing, Have You Seen Me?s, were hung; of course they were never seen again. I knew, and they did too, the hangers of those pictures, they had to have, but they hoped, I guess, that their friend, lover, father, mother, child was out for coffee during the fall and just got…confused. Or lay unidentified in some hospital. I passed them and looked, the candles always burning. The faces gradually familiar, and I looked for them each morning.

My story of that day and the weeks that followed is inconsequential amidst so much loss and real pain. I lost no one and was not even close to being lost. I worked in the Village, a lower part of the island, but still streets and streets away. I was close enough to see the flaming maw in the first building before it collapsed. I was close enough to see the ash-filled sky as I looked south, those days that followed. The ash rained on the cars outside my arts school.

I attempted to join a blood donation queue outside St. Vincent’s Hospital. I arrived just as the crowd was disbursed: there were no bodies. Someone recently pointed out that obviously there wouldn’t be any bodies, but he wasn’t there that day, walking north up 6th Avenue, away from the cloud that obscured the lower island, huddling around someone’s open car door to listen to the report that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and feeling desperate and alone, so alone, and shuffling slowly to some where, to find someone to shake and ask what the hell is happening? I worked in a shop on Greenwich Avenue. The store was dark but I punched the access code, lifted the gate, and waited. The phones weren’t really working. They wouldn’t start working well for awhile. I found out the next day that I missed my coworker Laura by just a few minutes.

I had more luck finding warmth at a nearby church where a friend worked. He and his partner hugged me. The video footage repeated, the buildings kept collapsing. And then I wanted to be alone again, because I felt so alone and it’s better to feel alone away from people. But when I got home—190th Avenue, the trains must have restarted quickly, or did I walk? I know some did—I was alone, and that was the worst place I could be. The phones didn’t work. That night I screamed into my pillow. Why had I come here?

My luxury is that I get to forget most of that day and those that followed. I hold flashes and emotions, one of the strongest being helplessness, uselessness. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t donate blood. I had no skills. All I could do was stand behind the counter and wait for customers. My coworker Laura had a task, something to do with the search and rescue dogs sniffing the rubble. I answered a call from someone connected with our store (a trainer? supplier?) and I found my task. The rubble was hot, the pads on the dogs’ feet were burning, we sold special booties for the winter, our store could donate. But in the end this fell through. People around me rushed around, and I stood static behind a counter, completely useless, without ideas or skills. What a waste.

The Volunteer Coordinator suggested that Glisa’s mother could be killed if she told the police about the abuse. That night she emailed me a list of shelters to give to Glisa, and I did the next morning. That I could do. But not much else. I can’t take Glisa away from here. I can’t stop the abuse. I can’t stop her fear. There were days as a child I didn’t want to go home, because of my own (first) stepfather, of whom I was also afraid, but not physically. I didn’t fear that I might not leave the house alive. I can only guess what she’s feeling. I can only hug her when she asks, listen to her chatter, and laugh, these last few weeks. I can’t rescue her.

So I feel pretty useless.

I suppose that feeling has never gone away.

theresa

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heat

Flawed human

I present to you my last two students:

Glisa

I worry about Glisa’s future. Many of the female volunteers do. Her 12th birthday was two weeks ago, but she looks older. One could say Glisa is too pretty for Honduras, because beauty leads to attention, and that leads to to trouble. After her last speaking exam, she and I chatted about her desire to study medicine in Cuba (apparently it’s good there?). I encouraged her with a full heart, because Glisa is such a bright girl, and told her that she’d have to be strong and push aside those that would stand in her way, like guys, because guys would try. She laughed. She knew what I meant, but she’s only 12.

I’ve heard that life at home is horrific, that the busito driver has pulled up to the house and heard her younger brother being whalloped by their stepfather. Last year, if not this year, Glisa came to school with stripes. While the younger kids share these wounds with the volunteers, the older ones don’t. I haven’t seen anything and she is rarely anything but cheerful, but I have pulled her aside to tell her that she doesn’t need to give the mid-parcial grade letter to her parents if she doesn’t want to. Glisa’s grades are not the best. She’s careless. She doesn’t study. She chatters constantly, like its an addiction she can’t kick. I shudder when I see her stepfather. Glisa adores her mother.

If she would steal Isabel or John’s focus, there’s nothing Glisa couldn’t do. She radiates light and joy and curiosity. She’s the only person to pester me with questions when interested in a science topic and her hand is usually the first when I ask for opinions. She’s the only 7th grader who (still) loves Justin Bieber and didn’t vote for Antonio in the school elections (he lost). Glisa is silly, with startling moments of maturity and clarity. She would also fit in easily in the US.

Glisa has a crush on Antonio, which everyone knows and he exploits. She hugs me most mornings. She is so hungry for affection and attention. It could be the homelife, or not. It’s this hunger that makes me afraid for her, because someone will prey on it. I want to protect her in a glass shell.

Lizz

After watching me talk with Lizz during recess one day, a volunteer questioned why I dislike her so much. Ouch. Awkward, egotistical, needy, self-concious, unpopular, and hopelessly obsessed with a boy who doesn’t know of her existence, Lizz has been hit with some of the worst characteristics of adolescence. Were I a better, stronger, more compassionate person, my own recollected wounds of those years would help me be gentle with her, but I’m not that person.

Lizz lies to me, carelessly, obviously, then denies it when caught. She disobeys my request that she not hit her cousin, John, and is disqualified from a game, then asks why she didn’t get candy when her team wins. I give her candy so she’ll just leave me alone. She’ll wave me over to her desk with a hushed “Miss, I have to ask you a question,” in such a way that I assume it’s a sensitive matter, but it’s something purely mundane, such as having her homework ready to turn in and I should praise her for it being early, despite her doing it instead of taking notes. Lizz is convinced she is the smartest, exclaims “Miss!” in a shocked tone over…what, I don’t recall, but nothing shocking…expects exceptions and special attention. I ignore her when she complains of illness, because I’ve heard her wolf cry too often.

At first I was able to meet her needs with sensitivity, but now I’m short, impatient, and snap. She’s just a girl, and no one deserves that, especially from a teacher. I don’t know if she notices, but I notice, and that’s enough to wound what is left of my soul. Tara is another recipient of my exhausted, impatient self. She notices.

My imagined soul is spongy like a liver and now shriveled, with decayed spots, like the heart with atherosclerosis I showed the older kids in science. When I am less than kind, or give deserved punishments, or litigate arguments over whose ball it is or who broke the pencil sharpener, a spot appears or darkens. I suppose it will heal, but I’d rather it never appeared in the first place. Ah, the pitfalls of being a sensitive and deeply flawed human. Maybe the damage is mitigated by hugs from the school’s baby dinosaur.

I remain,

theresa

Visual of a lesson plan

The rabbits hopped all night long

Some people were wondering how I make my magic:

First off, organizing this thing called teaching, would be a heck of a lot more difficult without my wonderful teachers from the Concordia University TESL/TEFL Certificate Program. Those women are idea masters, and while I’m sure they’d look at my lesson plans and find tons of areas for improvement, including my inability to set concrete objectives, I know I’d be doing worse without having basked in their wisdom for three weeks last summer.

I have an English curriculum but my kids are so behind that I’ve barely looked at it. We started the year by reviewing the present simple (Rabbits hop. Do you hop? They do not hop.), present continuous (Those damn rabbits are hopping!), past simple (The rabbits hopped all night long.), and the past continuous (While the rabbits were hopping, the students failed to understand this tense.). That carried us through the first two parcials. Now in the fourth parcial, we’re slogging through comparisons, including similes (She is as ugly as a monkey. My feet are smellier than your feet. They are the smelliest in the world!). Along the way we’ve started and quit Holes by Louis Sachar, a wonderful book but too difficult for my little bilingualites, studied parts of speech, basic sentence structure, the paragraph burger, spent an entire term on pronouns, and are about to explore the future simple and “going to.” We will probably wrap up the year with a review of prepositions. If this were third grade, I’d feel rather accomplished!

I’ve seen others’ lesson plans and can only drool at their simplicity—“Grammar tense,” “Do stuff,” “The End.” My memory is crap, as are my improvisation skills, which years of theatre games only reinforced. My lesson plans are detailed and color coded and written in Excel so I can have everything aligned and indented just right.

I plan my week around a short list of goals, usually a grammar tense, to be practiced in reading, writing, speaking, and listening (RWSL), and a specific writing skill, like paragraphs, and build my lessons from there. Starting with the third parcial, each day of the week has a certain task or skill area we always do. For example, we start every class with a Phrase of the Day to work on pronunciation and do an activity with that week’s vocabulary. Mondays always introduce new vocabulary; Tuesdays and Thursdays include reading a short story; Wednesday, a listening activity and review of troublesome sentences from the vocabulary homework; Thursdays, Bingo; and Friday, vocabulary quiz. Well, those are the goals, anyway. Inevitably, the activities take longer than anticipated and things get shuffled around, but the outline of the ideal week saves me so many hours of wracking my brain for a variety of activities that work on all the skill areas. The first two parcials found me floundering in a sea of how to fill my all of those minutes. Now, I still flounder, but less.

As for the day to day…here’s what it looks like:

Phrase of the Day: I found a TEFL site with silly limericks. We practice a line a day and then put it together at the end of the week. Pronunciation is tricky to practice because the kids feel self-concious about speaking alone, and I can’t correct them too many times or they retreat.

Vocabulary: There are only so many activities I can do. Some activities found online look fun, but I can’t imagine my kids understanding them or cooperating, or having the resources for them. But we have a staple, including the race-to-the-wall-to-find-the-paper-with-the-correct-word-once-Miss-T-has-read-the-definition-but-do-not-attack-your-competitor game.

Grammar: Look on the internet for exciting, limited resource, kid-appropriate activities, that will also accommodate their miniature attention span. Eliminate the numerous websites that promise “exciting worksheets,” an oxymoron if ever there were one. Consider low-tech alternatives to high-tech ideas. Consider prep time. Superlatives lead to a boon of activities the kids liked, including “Best of the Class.” The kids voted that Joe is the most handsome and romantic and that Kim and Jojo are the silliest. Krissy, by a landslide, is the strongest. An ideal activity can be exploited to cover more than one skill. Writing—students had to make a correct superlative sentence for their vote to count; speaking—students had to discuss with a partner if they agreed or disagreed with the results (not that the students ever talk in English unless I’m hovering over them); writing/paragraphs—students had to write about one of the results and why they agreed or disagreed with it. Later I might copy out some of the paragraphs and use this as a How to Improve Your Paragraph study.

If I can’t find useful ideas online or in my Azar grammar book, especially for speaking, I attempt to create my own, with varying success but almost always with slips of paper with drawings or words on them that the students have to pull from a pile to utilize in some way. Some work in reality, others, only in my mental classroom. As for worksheets, the few times I’ve downloaded them from websites, they’ve been for too difficult for the students, or just really bad, so I write my own, an exercise in tedium.

Tap dancing: In general, this is how I feel as a teacher, that I have to entertain my kids every moment. Be the most interesting thing in the room, make learning inspiring and dynamic, blah blah, all the responsibility is on me. I completely agree that a teacher should try to make lessons as interesting as possible, but the kids take this one step further and expect playtime. Sometimes I get that old fart feeling akin to the “When I was a kid we walked up hill both ways to school.” Boring or not, I/we did our work. I don’t remember my classes being activity filled. I don’t remember working for parties or behavior points. Yet, that’s what I’m expected (by the kids) to do, and if I don’t, all I hear are whines of “This is so boring” or “You never let us play football.” They’re kids, I get it. I take this all too far too heart. I’m not meant to teach kids at this level. What would it be like to teach people who wanted to be there? The occasional moment I hit on something they like is such sweet relief, this happiness, that learning or no learning, I want the moment to continue. I make note of the wins and failures and hope for the best.

As the end of the year nears, it’s tempting to just phone in the lessons, give them free periods, try to avoid bumps. But, like I tell the kids, I’m mean. Yes, it’s 100F outside and in, and I still expect them to know the difference between a noun and a verb. I refuse to be sorry. (Okay, I wish I were that firm…but I’m just so tired.)

Back to the whiteboard,

theresa

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

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.

Our cat, Nova

The me of me, or I don’t love *Serial*

In my former life, I loved This American Life. TAL, Radiolab, The Moth…. Give me a good story, sprinkle on some intelligence, and I’m yours. These podcasts accompanied my bike journeys between home and everywhere Portland. Engrossing enough to pass the time and learn me some new stuff, and light enough that half my brain could follow the narrative arc while the other half dodged cars, bikers, debris, humans.

I haven’t listened to any of them in six months. The moments with empty ear time, such as walking through town or taking a bus somewhere, aren’t moments I’m comfortable having technology exposed. Yesterday, however, I started a long-term project, making friendship bracelets for my 7th graders (desires of the heart don’t always make sense), and tuned in to the first episode of Serial, that much-hyped podcast from the TAL team. I liked the story well enough, but what grated was the nasally, detached, self-aware tone of the presenters and even the interviewees. I’d noticed this previously but my interest in the storytelling had been enough to override my distaste. Now, with clean ears, not so much. Couldn’t Sarah Koenig show a little bit of messy emotion as she analyzed the situation, in this case a man possibly wrongly convicted for murder? Rather than sounding impartial, Koenig seems superior to this messy gray-zone battle among truth, lies, and memory. The right words are there and passion is acknowledged, but it’s too pretty and detached to sound genuine. At least Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab get goofy and giggly sometimes and are genuinely excited about their topic whereas Ira Glass and family couldn’t be bothered.

After Serial I tuned in to The Moth and, again, was annoyed by yet another nasally, self-aware tone, now with a huge dose of self-aggrandizement, that of Dan Kennedy as he introduced a live show recorded in Portland, Maine. He opened with his appreciation of the city’s beauty while simultaneously making them aware of just how busy he was on his book tour—this was the most beautiful city he’d landed in after all his flights the past four days. He subsequently commented on everyone’s niceness by way of a New Yorker’s desire to protect the innocence of young stranger who greeted him warmly. Yes, Dan, we are aware that you live in New York City. The audience came to hear just how important you are.

Closer to (my temporary) home, my coworkers are women primarily in their late teens/early 20s. Every event is a story told in that stilted, somewhat valley-girl-but-not voice that is self-conscious, self-interested, detached. The storyteller laughs at herself—isn’t this ridiculous? Isn’t this all just so funny? Aren’t those other people idiots? Unintended but no less present is intolerance. Someone comments about an activity she’s done and another comments that he has never done that before…like never eating chicken noodle soup while sick. One of the girls then gets in that person’s face, OMG, really?! How could you have never done that?! Really?! as if we aren’t individuals with different backgrounds, with our own histories. As if this is something very important and the person is very wrong. This lack of compassion can apply toward the kids, in the teacher talk that happens after hours, laughter at the kids’ behavior in a way that isn’t loving and just…surprises me.

The detachment makes me think of reaction videos where someone puts an odd object somewhere or does something silly that startles a stranger. Then the video is put on the internet so we can all laugh at the stranger being surprised. What is this but manipulation for our own pleasure? The expression of some superior, heartless attitude toward others. Ha ha, I just scared someone with a stuffed animal; I just made someone react in a perfectly normal way; I engaged someone’s startle reflex.

I’m also reminded of backlash to the former chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch two years ago after a 2006 interview in which he commented that he didn’t want ugly people wearing his clothes resurfaced. To protest this sentiment a young man bought A&F brand clothes from thrift stores and handed them out to people experiencing homelessness. Now the dreaded ugly people were wearing the brand. What was this but manipulating people for his purpose? His own desire to make some point about a revolting man. By all means, share with those in need…because they need it. The people aren’t props for you to use for a political statement.

This lack of compassion, this self-consciousness and detachment connects with the You’re Doing It Wrong trend in the media the past several years. BuzzFeed, Slate, Alternet, Huffington Post, et al, regularly, perhaps daily, feature articles about everything we are doing wrong. We are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrong, we are putting on our shirts wrong, we are breathing wrong, and obviously we are having sex wrong. In fact, we’re just wrong all around. My way is not different—it’s wrong. It’s black and white, this world. We must follow The Way. Okay, the headlines are just click-bait (just like my adorable cat picture above), the messages are nothing new in the world of sales, the cosmetics industry is built on it, but with so many competing for advertising dollars the message has spread beyond product purchase to my innocuous daily choices. How can there be a wrong way to make PB&J? I like mine with banana. That’s probably wrong. Why not call it different? Why not let the me of me and the you of you be something interesting to learn about and adopt if desired? Why can’t we just exchange our points of view without there being a right point? This what the uber-religious and the Republican Party thrive on—who you love is wrong, what you want to learn is wrong, what you want is wrong. Perhaps this is just the (US) American way, a lingering Puritan value.

To succeed is to fail, fail, and fail, and in-between failures, stand back up, learn from the dust, rest, and try again. To be wrong a lot of the time so you can occasionally be right…. Wait, no, failure isn’t wrong. Wrong smacks too much of morality. Failure is a key to learning (Oops, I made my chocolate cake without chocolate. Next time I’ll use chocolate.), but if we’re constantly chastising, teaching people to not trust their efforts and points of view, how can we expect our kids to Just Do It if they’re bound to Do It Wrong? I’m afraid of failing. I’m afraid of messing up, and I grew up pre-internet, when messages had fewer means of reaching and corrupting my tiny mind. My kids are slightly less connected than those in the US but they are still terrified of failure, and why wouldn’t they be? When parents get angry over 90% grades, when kids laugh at peers that mess up, when The Church looms over most of their lives, that doesn’t create an environment where kids are ready to try new things. So they turn off their brains, wait to be given the answer, and pout, whine, and get angry when the answer isn’t clear.

And now to go full circle, how does this relate to my criticisms of Serial? Failure means putting yourself on the very edge. It means having all the feels—the sadness, the pain, the extreme joys, the laughing out loud when no one else is, the crying in the corner for no good reason at all and letting the snot run out of your nose. It’s not always pretty and cool. So the vocal detachment sometimes seems a barrier to the sharing of experience. I suppose the idea is to, in reporter fashion, remove the teller from the story, to not influence the listener’s perspective, to allow space for independent opinion, but I don’t hear that. I hear hiding and judgment. I hear apathy. Sometimes. They’re doing it wrong. Or they’re doing it differently, in a way I don’t understand.

But I’m probably wrong.

And that’s okay.

theresa

P.S. The above is our new cat Nova. He wandered into our house on Valentine’s Day and hasn’t yet left.