Of Electrons and Erasers: Writing Therapy to Keep from Diving out the Window of my Third-Story Classroom

It’s the second week of school.  I am in the middle of a discussion about the atom.  What are the parts of an atom?  Why do we have neutrons?  What is the charge of an electron?  Why don’t the electrons collapse onto the nucleus?  Most of the scientific terms are lost on a largely English-Language-Learning population.  Many of the kids read over a year below grade level.  This particular class has 11 special education inclusion children; there are also 24 regular education students, all sitting there, eyes glazed over.  Unfortunately, we need to trudge through the tedium of subatomic particles before we can build them with pipe cleaners, and at this point, I am still operating with the assumption that they will take notes while I am talking, and thus, am not engaging them appropriately.  I will later discover a whole plethora of graphic organizers; right now, judging from their vacant stares, I am steering the Titanic of eighth grade science classes.

A girl raises her hand.  For a flicker of a second, excitement—validation, even—courses through my veins.  I am reaching them!  They are interested!  And here’s proof: in the sincere, unadulterated curiosity of a young girl.

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

My heart sinks.  “Miss So-and-so (they still hate being addressed by their surnames), that is not a relevant question.”

“But I have to goooooo!” she whines.  “It’s an emergency!”

The last time a student had an “emergency,” he spent nine minutes wandering the halls.  I counted.  And, besides, they have five minutes between classes to take care of business.  This class has ten minutes before the bell will dismiss them from school altogether.  I think to times I have held it for hours on long drives and longer workdays.

No other teacher on the eighth grade regular team allows them to go to the bathroom during class, let alone during instruction.  This is the team policy.  They are trying to see how much they can squeeze out of me because they know I’m new.  This group of students is way behind in testing, and they are the ones with behavioral concerns, spending many days in in-school suspension for cursing, fighting, and being outright defiant.  These are not the kids who will get the notes they missed from a friend.  These are the kids who, at the age of 13, have arrest records.  It is not histrionic to suggest that instituting a relaxed bathroom policy might result in pandemonium.

Although I am fully cognizant they are testing me, I am not here to torture them; I derive no satisfaction from depriving them of their liberties.  But if I let a more responsible child go, then every child will suddenly decide that she has to go, and chaos ensues.  Class over.  These are the considerations I use to inform the ruling that I pass down.  Contrary to my students’ belief, possibly because this fact is beyond their scope of understanding or empathy, I make a very calculated decision.

“No.”  I move on.  We have been over this a million times.

“But Missssss!”  (They insist on calling me this even though I have clarified, countless times, that I consider it disrespectful.)

“Just go!” Several students chime in.  I instinctively move toward the door.  I know I cannot physically prevent one of them from leaving, but I can give the illusion.  The conflict has escalated to a power struggle.  Now, even if I wanted to let her go—which I don’t—I can’t.  I cross my arms and demand silence so that I may continue the lesson—or whatever’s left of it.

“Push her!”

I fail to retain my composure.  “Excuse me, sir, are you threatening me?”

“Uh, yeah!”

“Well, we can have a discussion about that after school, then.”  I’m not even angry.  Bewildered is the better term.  Maybe a little sad.   The bell rings.  They push and shove their way out the door, ignoring the instructions for their homework that they are not going to complete anyway.

Fast forward several weeks.

Classroom management has improved dramatically since the days of a kid setting a fire in the lab sink, an emotionally disturbed child locking me out of the classroom, and a horde of miscreants dumping paper out of the third-story window onto one of the assistant principals.  Brightly-colored posters line the wall, detailing concise steps for classroom procedures.  What do you do when you walk in?  Step one, turn in your homework.  Step two, pick up your journal.  Step three, sit down and begin your warm-up silently.  What do we do during instruction?  One, sit up and listen.  Two, take notes silently.  Three, ask relevant questions.  We go over procedures every day, sometimes taking time to practice them if the class is particularly rowdy.  Five minutes before the conclusion of each class, I stop so that we can collect journals and place them neatly in piles in their respective class cubbies.  We take time to pick up trash.  (For whatever reason, their first inclination when receiving a piece of paper is to crumple it up and throw it on the floor.)  Then, I dismiss each table one-by-one based on who behaved the best during class.

I have transformed from a babysitter to a prison guard.  I have devoured any book I can get my hands on about students in urban schools; they all tell me that the same freedoms in school that shaped my transition into adolescence as one of cultivating curiosity and independence is incompatible with kids who not only crave, but with their actions demand, structure.  Whereas I distinctly recall one of the first conversations that piqued my interest in politics—a discussion with my seventh grade social studies teacher weighing the pros and cons of communism—few of my students are socialized to interact with adults.   Some of them will not even return my greeting if I say “good morning” to them in the hallway.  And when they do try to forge a connection, it’s usually about something that they can understand, like the latest gossip about who’s “going out” with whom, or the most recent episode of Jersey Shore.  One of my kids, whom I suspect has special needs that have yet to be diagnosed (and yes, I have discussed this with the school counselor), does not even attempt to carry on a two-person dialogue, but will come to my classroom before school hours and during lunch to talk at me about his affinity for computers.

I was not supposed to teach middle school.  I was “trained” to teach high school chemistry.  I say “trained” in quotation marks because my “training” consisted of being thrown into summer school with no curriculum, little direction, and a few dozen kids who failed during the school year and whose parents paid $90 for them to be there.  I taught all morning and took intensive seminars until six o’clock in the evening.  All my training was directed toward teaching in a high-needs high school, where our primary goal was to close the achievement gap.  Then, through a bit of bureaucratic turbulence, I was hired at a middle school.  Even though it was not what I had planned, I was optimistic about it, thinking that I could hit them with a love of science at an age where they were more impressionable, before being good at school became tantamount to being a total dork.  And besides, my “expertise” in chemistry was shaky at best; I got a C in orgo in college, and my AP chemistry experience in high school consisted of Mr. Astri giving me a contemplative stare, stroking his chin, and saying, “Simenauer, I think you’re deep,” before passing me a used copy of the Anthony Hopkins thriller, Instinct.

On my evening run a couple weeks ago, I ran into one of my summer school students.  Let’s call her “T.”  During the summer, she had been manipulative with an attitude to boot.  But she was a bright girl.  After a few come-to-Jesus talks and candid conversations, T entrusted me with stories from her home life.  She had a much-older boyfriend who fought with her mother constantly.  The situation was exacerbated by the fact that her mother, who was disabled and couldn’t work, refused to go on food stamps so that the family could eat, so T relied on her boyfriend to buy her groceries.  When her mother smashed her cell phone and forbade her from communicating with the boyfriend, she went hungry.

And so, T and I slowly but surely came to an understanding.  I had worried about her since the last day of class.  I dreamt about her.  I wondered where she was.  Finally, that evening, I found out.  She landed a part-time job at my favorite salad and sandwich shop.  She is going to an alternative school and will graduate in the spring.  Things are still bad at home, but with the job she has enough money to feed herself and even buy herself the newest trends every once in a while.

She said she had been thinking about me, too, and asked me how things were with my students.

“They hate me,” I sighed.

“Oh, don’t worry; they’ll love you!  At the beginning, none of us liked you, either.”

Thanks, T.

So the school year has moved along, and on Friday, I found myself administering a test.  I hate testing days.  It would seem like I would have extra time to grade papers and plan; on the contrary, testing days are when I have to do the most discipline because the kids are loathe to be silent and respectful of other test-takers.  In my third period, before we can even begin, a kid yells the n-word right after the bell rings and I waste two minutes writing him up.  When I tell him he has just said the most disgusting word in the English language, the whole class laughs.  They have no idea.  I am going to be in for a long sixty-three minutes.

Ten minutes into the district-required test, one of my drama queens raises her hand.  I brace myself.  This is the same girl who storms into my classroom late with her two minions, screaming at another girl in my class who “be trippin’” or who is “talkin’ shit about [her],” or whatever.  She also has recently taken to bullying my special ed kids, which breaks my heart and keeps me awake at night.

She wants an eraser.

“What’s that?”  I point to the clearly functional eraser on the end of her pencil.

“It’s not big enough.”

“I’m sure it will work fine.”

So she spends the rest of the test slamming her pencil into her test booklet so as to make the darkest marks possible, so that she can then erase them, thus filing down her eraser to nonexistence.  When I still refuse her an eraser, because I simply don’t have any more, having had all my school supplies fall victim to theft or destruction, she spends the remainder of the period bouncing up and down in her chair and stomping her feet.

I warn my fifth block, before I even pass out the test, that I will not be entertaining any requests to go to the bathroom while the test booklets are still out.  It’s not my rule, I lie.  In reality, I’m worried about cheating, losing track of the kids, and the logistics of having to set up a queue of bored students who want to go to the bathroom.

“My mom said that if I have to go, I should just go,” says the same girl I refused to let go to the bathroom weeks ago.  I had even apologized to her since then, explaining my reasoning, and arranging a signal for her to alert me to her needs discreetly in case she had a real emergency.

There are nods of approval and murmurs of assent.

“Yeah, so did my mom,” blurts out another girl.  She accents her unsolicited outburst with a smug smile.  It mocks me.

I want to invite their mothers to sit in my classroom and watch how rampant disrespect and refusal to follow the rules result in the deterioration of my carefully-planned lessons.  I think to myself that if their parents are more concerned with their children’s right to leave the classroom than their right to stay in it and get an education, maybe they shouldn’t have a right to an education at all.  This is a failure in one of the lessons my mother taught me when she was sacrificing her career and her social life to raise my sister and me—to choose one’s battles.

They view class every day as a battle—them against me—even though I am on their side.  If I am honest with myself for a minute, I am beginning to see it the same way they do, my shoulders shrugging under the weight of defeat, the failure of my operation: to get them to understand matter, the composition of the universe, at a basic level.  To get them to see that there is a universe.  Even if I can get through one class without incident, it’s evident that I am not presenting the material in ways they can absorb it.  After a whole month on the topic, after writing, and drawing, and looking at pictures, and building models, I still get the question: “Wait… Miss S… are you saying that there are atoms in your water?”

Yes.  Yes, my dear, there are atoms in my water.  In fact, my water is composed solely of atoms.  He is one of my best students.  I have failed him.

One student’s response to the two-question prompt: “1. What are three adjectives your best friend would use to describe you? 2. What are two goals you have for this year?”

The Economist argued in its “True Progressivism” issue that huge disparities in income will stand to stunt the economy, and that one of the best, tried-and-true measures of closing the income gap is to provide public education to the masses for free.  A policy of free education for all seems in line with the quintessential American value that every citizen should have an equal opportunity to succeed even if he uses the opportunity to differing levels of success or outcomes.  Yet, in our aim to provide an education to all of our children in need, I fear that we are spreading our resources too thinly, thus diluting the value of an education.  Instead of providing a high-quality education to the affluent few, we are providing a mediocre education to everyone.

Further, the OECD reported that the United States is one of the only developed countries that spends less money on the education of its poor children than on their wealthier counterparts.  Additionally, although the U.S. spends more in absolute terms on every child than other OECD countries, we spend less on the crucial early years and more on the years encapsulated by our compulsory education program.  The OECD recommended that the U.S. invest more in programs like HeadStart, which was discredited, but then reevaluated to show some important successes.  I often hear the sentence, “I don’t like reading,” like a dagger through my heart.  While I point out to my students examples of them enjoying reading—like in a magazine or on the internet—I disguise from them the truth: that they would probably like to read if they were better at it, and they would be better at it if they had learned during the critical reading acquisition period, wherein they could attain fluency without too much strain (between the ages of four and eight, just about).

The OECD also suggested that we legislate paid parent leave.  However, I question the effectiveness of such laws on families like the ones in my kids’ community, which are comprised largely of recent immigrants who have obtained jobs illegally or who are paid under the table.

While my students and I wait for major reform (accompanied by me worrying that it is too late for them), I grapple with this idea of a “compulsory” education program.  By law, my kids are too young to consent to withdraw from school.  I don’t think anyone would agree that allowing them to drop out just because they want to skateboard with their friends instead of doing homework is a good idea.  Their future selves might thank their parents and teachers.  Some of their parents probably think that my class is basically a glorified day care and I am an overpaid babysitter.  To be fair, many extenuating circumstances like home environment contribute to their inclination to act out in school.  And yet, by requiring misbehaving, poorly-socialized kids to stay in school, we deprive their better-behaved classmates of an education, and, consequently, of a conduit to a better life.

Suddenly, I am tasked not only with teaching the basic tenets of the laws of motion, but also with instilling values in a group of kids who are suspicious of me and who view me as a foreigner.  And despite the fact that some of my students will become mothers much younger than I (word on the street is that seven girls got pregnant before Christmas last year), I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that I am too young to become a mother, and am ill-equipped to serve in a mothering capacity to my 130 eighth graders.  I can barely handle my own emotional needs without a glass of wine (or bourbon) and a sympathetic friend (or parent) on the other line.  And despite my own parents’ complaints about me being the height of precociousness, they never had to try to raise a kid who thought it was okay to raise another kid above his head, throw him onto the ground, and then jump on his leg, thus breaking it.

Ill-equipped.  That seems to be the theme of my experience in my Texas public school, and I am at one of the better ones.  Disregarding the bureaucracy of the school district, the backwards curriculum designs, a detached governance, and the unions’ obstruction of performance-based pay, at the basic level, I am ill-equipped.  I came to Texas because I was passionate about education reform.  I thought I could lend my expertise to a group of kids who desperately needed it. Now I am coming to the realization that my good intentions were fraught with paternalistic attitudes and arrogance.  How presumptuous of me to think that I, with my world-class education and progressive ideals, was the answer.   How presumptuous to think that, with hard work and compassion, I could make a difference.  Maybe there is a person who can.  I am beginning to believe less and less that that person is me.

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2 responses to “Of Electrons and Erasers: Writing Therapy to Keep from Diving out the Window of my Third-Story Classroom

  1. I feel your pain. I had forgotten about the trash on the floor, and how I had to get them to clean the room after every class. Cried myself to sleep so many nights. Four words: FW Country Day!

  2. keep your head up. don’t measure your success by the whole group but by whether you can make a difference for the few kids who need it most. continue to chronicle your experience and then spread your story o’er the land.

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