“We are just a holding cell until they get to big people prison.”
I shot a look around, was I the only one hearing this?! At each tiny table students studied with headphones, gossiped with friends, and the whizzing of the milk steamer blared loudly drowning out any sounds of nearby conversation. I wondered what to say to that, I wondered how people open conversation with that? “Oh,” was about the most my 23 year old self could muster.
“Their parents are in and out of prison, they are just in and out of juvi, we aren’t there to be the hero, just a holding cell until they get to prison. We don’t assign work beyond what could be done in the classroom. We just stick to the bare minimum because they can’t help it, it’s just their path, they will drop out in a year or two and end up in prison.”
You’d assume from her jaded standpoint that she had been teaching for decades, watched ages and ages of students dropping out, but in reality she had only had her education degree for less than a decade, this was a career decision she made late in life.
To get to this point though was a blessing and I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. It had only been a month since the tearful day I was called to the front of the class just before finals, “I’m going to have to give you an F, which means you can’t move on to student teaching, you will have to repeat this class first,” Ms. Cashman’s face was as if she was some kind of untouchable entity.
“Your homework, you’re answers aren’t wrong, but they aren’t right. There’s just something off about them. The papers you turn in are the bare minimum but it’s strange because when we have class discussion you answer questions and it’s like, she gets it.”
She rubbed her bulging womb as I attempted to bite the sharp tongue that has done me more harm than good in my life. Tears started to fill my eyes, what was the point of four years of studying if some first year prof was going to fail me just because my answers are not to her liking on the most menial of assignments. Desperation filled with exhaustion got the better of me, “What?! I work a full time job, I am a full time wife, and I have a full time school schedule, and you are concerned with the effort I apply to your bull shit busy work that, just if you don’t realize, just happens to be the exact same bullshit busy work I have completed in each class before this one?! This is round three for me and I quite frankly find it a waste of my time.”
She cried from hormones I cried from wrath, and she agreed to “give me” the pass.
I showed up that first Monday Morning, set up my tiny desk next to my mentor teacher and watched the seventh graders pour in. Of course solid white tees were replaced with school jumpers that much resembled the prison uniforms you’d see in the movies. Sagging pants were easily remedied with hot pink zip ties at the belt loops that the kids wore with great pride.
There were two types of classes, there were classes like this first period which were the ghetto masses and not worth my mentor teacher’s time, and then there was the fourth period who were AP and despite how this whole student teaching thing was supposed to work, I was not allowed to participate.
I was not allowed to pick the curriculum, I was not allowed to set up lesson plans, “these kids don’t learn.”
I took the opportunities I could, and always embraced a captive audience such as educating them about the food label on the back of the school district provided cereal bar when they asked “what are all these percentages and shit for miss?”
Having very idle hands and mind made me a very good listener. I listened to their conversations in the classroom, in the hallway, in the cafeteria. I wanted to know about their lives, I was fresh in the field and wanted to make a difference. The best way to make difference was figuring out who they were, and where the patterns lie.
“My brother man, he got locked up.”
“Ah shit, again?!”
“It’s bull shit, dealing charges.”
“Students are all unique, and they all are intelligent. We have to discover their unique learning styles, and cater our lessons to that if we want them to be successful. We have to consider their home life, their schedule. They may be having to juggle a job to support their family along with school, for these students we need to find other means of assigning them work and offering them tutor assistance. We may have to keep them in lunch, we may have to offer them a quiet place early in the morning…” Ms. Stocks continued her ramblings that I question if she actually believed any of the words that came out of her mouth.
The electives we offered at the school was mariachi, keyboarding, construction, and auto mechanics. In my short stint at this school the latter two were removed by Obama’s first 100 days and his education reform, having something to do with giving all kids the “right” opportunities. I wasn’t into politics, so I didn’t know the specifics, but what I did know is the message it sent to these kids was that their parents weren’t good enough and that their dreams weren’t the “right” dreams. Their faces fell in shock and despair, and my heart absolutely broke.
So I shot myself into overdrive, I couldn’t fix it, I couldn’t help it, but I could at least be sure they knew that a sentence meant more than their time before parole. The fifth period class was my best shot, my mentor teacher was so checked out with them that it is the only period she would physically leave the room. It was a small class, all boys covered in tats who frequently missed class because of the time wasted in ISS. (ISS is the least effective method of punishment, waste of the students’ valuable learning time, and a waste of the teachers’ time, all to send them again next week.) They were a rough bunch, loud, hollering to one another across the classroom during discussion. Sleeping or cutting up during reading time. The book selection didn’t help, Flipped was a story about two white kids that have first world problems and raise a baby chick, how were my kids supposed to care about this?
I went to my professor back at the University and asked her for different techniques of effective discipline. “You kindly tell them to stop,” she smiled.
“Ya okay, well when that doesn’t work.”
“Then send them to the principle.” The issue with my education profs was their lack of insight on unique cases. They taught us to the ideal of this fantasy class, then stuck us in the schools that bordered the tracks all over town.
So I looked up methods, one was a post it note system. I went to the store and bought green, yellow, and pink post it notes and placed a green on each assigned desk. As the student’s entered I said, “You start with a green post-it, if you act up you’re moved up to yellow, and pink is the principle’s office.”
30-something me looks back at 20-something me and face palms, what about any of this sounded like it would work? Two of the students started cutting up across the classroom, I don’t remember the words, I don’t remember the progression really, I just remember that with a lack of sleep from working a full time job, taking a full time load of classes and student teaching, a complete lack of help from anywhere, and a mind full of frustration and desperation I lost my shit as I slammed the pink down on the desk, “red!”
My outburst led to the student throwing his desk, and in a way, rightfully jumping me. Half the class screamed at him to get off of me while the other half egged it on. I felt as if I deserved it, I had let them down again. The coach that monitored the halls for this very reason leapt into the room and pulled the boy off of me, I was shaken, more out of anger at myself than the reality of the situation I was just in.
I wanted to cry as the coach escorted two students out of my classroom and into the principle’s office…they looked back at me like I was just every other teacher that didn’t care about them in this place.
“You need to call Anthony’s mom, tell her he’s going to fail again,” my mentor teacher said.
I did as asked, of course Anthony’s mom spoke very little english, and despite 8 years of Spanish classes over my lifetime I couldn’t’ speak a lick. She wept, she wanted more for her son, than this, and I did too.
It was time for more TAKS practice, this was the standardized test in Texas at the time. TAKS practice dominated most of my time in nearly every class, across every grade, and every day I taught to it because the students’ success on the exam measured just how much of a bonus the administration received in their pockets, but my opinions on the politics of standardized testing could be a post of its own. I gave them the writing prompt, “Tell me about your favorite day.” I looked around, “is this serious?” My mentor teacher laughed and nodded her head.
And so it was, some kids started scrawling lines of jumbled words with no periods, indentations, or commas. The other half seemed to stare into space thinking of anything but this paper. “Rico, why aren’t you writing?”
“This shit is too hard miss.”
“This is too hard? You can’t tell me even in one sentence, a happy memory?”
“Nah miss,” again laughing maniacally as if to say I told you so, my mentor teacher ejected herself from the room.
I looked over, “Josh, why aren’t you writing?”
“Because this shit is hard!” I nodded.
I walked over to the chalkboard and in the most readable and whimsical calligraphy drew out their prompt. “So this is too hard?” The class nodded, “what if today, and today only I give you a second prompt option?” The class’s nods grew in excitement.
I moved to the other side of the board, as I continued to add curls and waves to my script the students ooo’ed and aw’ed, “You write so pretty miss.” I finally had their attention.
When the prompt was done I read aloud, “The school is thinking of lifting the dress code. Write a letter to your school principle that explains why you think this is a good idea or a bad idea. You must have three reasons to support your decision.” The students looked at each other in shock and excitement.
“That’s allot of writing miss.”
“It is, and if you don’t want to do it, that’s okay, you always have your favorite day prompt over here.”
They nodded, and suddenly everyone was writing. I received a mix of the prompts that day and I decided I couldn’t stop there. I decorated the bulletin boards in vibrant colors that showed off every assignment I received. I started to rearrange the desks, less single file, more group work, and I became quite the topic in the teacher’s lounge. Here I learned you never want to be the topic in the teacher’s lounge.
“This just isn’t how it works.”
“You are only encouraging them to get out of hand.”
“They can’t handle this.”
Teachers were continuously approaching me in the hallway, and I didn’t care, the students were excited about learning. These children who were dealing with things far beyond their maturity levels: Their job plans smashed, who dealt with family in and out of jail, who witness gang violence, and fell victims themselves, if I could offer them an opportunity to find joy and learn in the process for just an hour of their day, I wasn’t going to stop. Well until I was called into the principles office that fateful morning just before Thanksgiving break…
The principle was a kind man, average height, brilliant white hair, and the kindest smile you ever saw. He shifted in his chair all while maintaining that hospitable grin. “Jess,” he paused, “you are a great teacher.” That was the first time I’d ever heard that, “I have found a good school I think you would be perfect for. I don’t want to lose you, but…” he was trying to find the words, but he didn’t need to, there was no doubt I had received complaints. His next sentence surprised me though, “I hope to see you back next year, you are a real inspiration.”
Graduation day came that May, and I didn’t really feel deserving to be there, my professors had made sure of that. I skipped out on the graduation ceremony itself and had my family accompany me at the cording ceremony instead. With my single pair of tassels hanging from my neck I made my way into the reception area where everyone lined up to receive congratulatory hugs from all the profs of our past.
Ms. Stocks stood near the exit and I felt a cold chill remembering the words she had spoken to me just a week before on the last day of class, “I’m going to let you graduate but I hope you don’t ever pursue teaching, you just don’t ‘get it’.” I smiled as I embraced her, she could no longer break me, and I forced her to smile in return for a selfie.