Saturday, January 13, 2007

"Don't take a bullet for us"

Yesterday was probably the most challenging day I've had at my school since I started last September.

It's been a busy week which left very little time for sleep. I had Students for Social Justice and union meetings two days this week, so I hadn't been getting home until 9ish when I'd eat my first real meal of the day, spend some time with the wife and then get a little rest before I got up at 5 the next day (although I fell a asleep a couple times during planning so I probably wasn't fully awake until around 6 am).

Thursday night I had to drive up to tutor a student who goes to a famous high school in the North Suburbs. She's an extraordinary kid--very thoughtful for her age or any age, and it helps me to get some one-on-one teaching time. Strangely enough, I tutor her in mathematics--not my area of certification. It works out better than usual though since we just sit down and derive the formulas together, which, scandalously enough doesn't seem to be part of the curriculum any more.

To be straight-up honest and rude, they sorely underpay me. It doesn't really bother me--if I had a problem with it, I wouldn't do it--it's just a fact I thought I'd throw in there. One of the reasons I enjoy it so much though is that it gives me an excuse to visit with my cousin--a truly remarkable person who really will improve you just by sitting with you for a few minutes. He might read this and I don't want to hurt him, but I think the best description of him is someone who is pretty much the best in the world at anything he tries but just has a blockage when it comes to employment because he expects more of himself than any of his currently available options.

I want to help, but it changes from day-to-day, and I'm not sure where he needs help. (We all need help.) He survives fine--basically hustling large-corporations and doing little odd jobs and schemes to feed himself. So I'm not sure whether he needs help getting over his blockage to get a "real" job or he just needs to learn to be proud of himself whatever he chooses to spend his time with. Probably a bit of both.

It just kills me sometimes that he isn't teaching (he was a great teacher for a year), practicing law (has a degree), photographing (in the short time he did that he won a city competition) or any of the other dozens of things he's tried and mastered and then moved on to something else. I find myself wanting to shake him sometimes and say, "Why not just share one of your gifts whether you like it or not until you figure out what you do want to do?"

But that probably would just upset him and I really love our time together.

So I got home after midnight, my wife talked to me a bit in a half-asleep state until about two-ish, I got up at five, took a shower and drove to work.

Now, it's just my first year, but I've got my own room and the kids have figured out I'm someone they can be straight up with so I get to tap into the SCN (student communication network) . The SCN is not very high-tech, but it has been in existence in every school in the history of the world and it just consists of kids relaying information to each other in the halls, on their lunch, and most importantly in the middle of class when they really should be learning some math, history, English, or Japanese. It's a trade-off, as a teacher in order to be part of the SCN, you can't share everything you hear with the administration, but on the flipside, you are privvy to information which could protect yourself, and more importantly your students.

At a school like mine, where the faculty numbers over one-hundred, and one often doesn't hear about even the official events before the minute they are supposed to be underway, the SCN is the difference between you standing there clueless and being able to get your kids safely to where you are supposed to be. Whether it be a schedule change, early dismissal, a gang conflict or an assembly, my students know it before I do, and I know it before most of the rest of the staff does.

The day before, on Thursday, there had been a major fight on the third floor, where a couple of the lunchrooms and about half of the lockers are. My rumor-based understanding is that there was a dispute between two young ladies, which resulted in one of the students and nineteen of her friends attacking the other student. That student made a very good immediate decision and a poor subsequent decision.

The first decision is something you might find useful if you are ever attacked by twenty other people. In this situation, she curled up into a ball, and protected her face and body with her arms and legs. This allowed her to escape with some cuts and deep bruises but little in the way of serious damage.

You might ask yourself at this time, "Where were the teachers in this situation?" I can't be sure, as I wasn't there--perhaps there was a faculty member or two putting themselves in harm's way to attempt to defuse the situation. There's no way to know for sure; one or two faculty can do little to remove twenty students from one other student. I'm not sure even how the fight ended. Did the large group tire or feel a pang of conscience or did the little security staff that the school can afford eventually arrive and break up the altercation?

Perhaps you might judge harshly any faculty members who stand idly by while students bloody each other. Please don't. The union itself advised new members in its board sanctioned new teacher training, "No matter what you might want to do, you must not lay a hand on any kid. Such intervention may and has in the past resulted in dismissal!" So I can't fault those who protect themselves and their welfare. However, I can't speak for how it must feel inside to have dedicated oneself to a profession of improving the lives of young people and then stand by powerless as they pepper each other with violence.

I can speak for how I have learned to handle fights and other flare-ups in my classroom or the hall around it. I shout, "Ok, I'm walking in the middle and if you continue swinging, you are going to hit me in the head!" and then I walk in the middle of the conflict. It has worked wonders so far. After I had explained my strategy, over the couple of weeks on a couple of occasions my students tested my honesty by beginning what I believe were mock fights in my classroom. When I did indeed shout and walk into the middle of it, a couple of fists narrowly missing my head, they were satisfied.

No fights have broke out in Japanese class since. I expect that it has not only pushed some fights out to non-instructional time, but probably also prevented some. If you have to wait a half-hour to get a hack at someone you are angry at, the anger tends to subside. At least it does unless they and nineteen of their friends got a crack at you.

The second decision the student who was attacked on Thursday made was the common social convention of calling her friends and family and informing them of what happened.

Friday was mayhem. Our security system consists of opening one door and passing kids through a metal detector. A school of 2,000 kids are far smarter than any hastily constructed security system. My students have gotten guns, knives, snakes, cell phones, and a host of other banned items into the building through a number of end arounds the security system. Ok, maybe snakes aren't on the banned list of items, but they did indeed get a snake into the room, upon which we decided to leave our normal homeroom topics and spend a few minutes discussing the life habits of snakes.

Utilizing this knowledge well, a number of students of another school in the area were able to enter the building, at least one with a weapon. I heard many other stories about the exact number of weapons, but again, the SCN is not concern with journalistic integrity (is anyone these days)--it spreads information and quickly.

There were fights all day; by the grace of God, no one was shot, and the administration, understandably went into lockdown mode.

I had had a minor incident with a student earlier in the week who had stepped in dog shit and decided rather than going to the restroom to just scrape it off in my classroom. The other students were miserable, so I wrote him up.

Went I went to speak to the administration about it, however, I felt silly. Who would want to deal with this on a day that hall sweeps were occurring (where any and all students found in the hall were being detained and suspending or arrested). Cops, security and administration were running everywhere and there were lines of dozens of students at every assistant principal's office.

Throughout the day, I had students, some of them the most agreeable people I have ever had the fortune of meeting, entering the classroom with the international face of "I just got harassed by authority for doing nothing wrong" showcased for all to see.

In my fifth period class--often my most challenging--a student finally broke away from our Japanese lesson and asked, "Are you going to hide under the desk if they come up shooting?" I thought for a minute and just said, "Iie, Gakusei-o mamoru-yo. It's my job to put myself in danger to protect students."

"Don't take a bullet for us," she said. I told her I couldn't think of anything better to take a bullet for, but I hope I won't have to.

By the afternoon, the classrooms were almost empty. Japanese, history, English, math, art these are fun subjects and some students stayed for them. Others decided that they are just not worth risking getting shot over.

I don't know that either decision is right, persay. I know teaching people IS something worth getting shot over to me, but perhaps it's not something I've experienced so I'm just being foolhardy, or worse, dishonest with myself.

The next time someone like myself, who received the very best education that money can buy, goes on TV or addresses Congress and says, "If these schools can't get their students to have the same test scores as other schools, they don't deserve funding," please, please remember this story. It is being repeated all over our urban landscape, and let's face it, when you take away opportunities from individuals who had no responsibility for what you are trying to punish, you are accomplishing little more than attacking the ideals of democracy.

My school is full of amazing, dedicated, brilliant students. Students who think critically, and stand up for what they believe in are sprinkled through its halls and classrooms. And yet they are subject to what are often ridiculous conditions and impossible decisions simply because they are poor kids of color and none of them are the kids of the people who make decisions on these issues.

I'm sure your kids are wonderful too. That's a trait pretty typical of human adolescents. But how would they do in this environment and why are they entitled to not be part of it?
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