Thursday, February 26, 2009

Life Lessons

Well, this week has certainly been action packed with enough drama to start my very own telenovela (soap-opera) entitled, “How Many Outrageous Things Can Happen in Seven Days?” My childhood dog of thirteen years, Daisy, died on Monday, I found out that one of my best friends is stranded, homeless, and penniless in Taiwan after a truly disturbing peeping-tom scandal happened at her not-even started-yet teaching position, two of my cousins were in the hospital with life threatening illnesses, and the roughest student in the fifth grade was switched into my classroom after making completely false claims of inappropriate sexual conduct from his old teacher. When it rains, it pours. These things refresh my consciousness with focus; focus on what things really matter in this life. The “big teacher” in the sky is sending us messages, and if we listen closely enough we might just discover the value in those lessons.

Loosing Daisy was really hard. She was a member of my family, and brought us all so much joy. Thinking about never being able to see her another time makes me tear up all over again. She truly was one of the last things that tied my newly empty-nester parents to my finally-freed college freshman brother and myself, “the-newlywed.” Loosing her was loosing someone, and something that we all shared together. It feels like Daisy took a piece of all of the memories that we made together as a family with her when she left. As my Dad put it, “From now on any dog your mom and I get will be our dog, not yours and Nick’s too.”
The focus I gained from this: Daisy made me remember the importance of love and joy in everyday. She always managed to bring so much joy into my life, in the short visits that I had with her, simply because she loved me so unconditionally, so completely, so fully. I can only wish to be as devoted as she was towards my friends and family.

My best friend began her adventure to teach in Taiwan almost two weeks ago now, and has gotten more than her share of surprises. It seems that the house in which she, as well as other foreign teaching staff, was living was being secretly videotaped by their peeping tom headmaster, who was in charge of running a school full of children! When does this sort of creepy bullshit end? How does a person do something like that? At my own school, it seems that the accused teacher actually did all of the disturbing things that she was accused of with the fourteen year old boy – she plead guilty to the charges and is prison. It seems that perverts in education are all around the world. How is that for a warm fuzzy?
The message I got from this: Be aware that not all people are good intentioned. My innocence and the innocence of others is worthy of protecting. After hearing from my friend how backward the foreign police and courts are in Taiwan, I am again grateful for the rights and protections that I am given in the United States. The privileges we experience as simple realities were not always so secure, and are not so secure in other places in the world today. I am grateful for a system of justice that puts away criminals.

Two of my cousins were in the hospital this week for life threatening situations brought on by serious illnesses. One was sick after a nurse decided to forgo the prescribed immune-booster shot she was supposed to give before administering chemo to my twice-breast-cancer-warrior-cousin. The other was rushed to the hospital after doctors realized that her attempts to self-medicate her diabetes through a restrictive diet had left her anemic to the point of near-death. Thankfully they will both be healthy enough to go home from the hospital soon. As for the cancer and diabetes – only God knows.
The focus from this: Thank god for health. Thank god for the time we are given.

As of today, I have a new student in my classroom. He didn’t come in as a new student to the school – he has been here from day one - and I have had my eye on for a while. He has been in another fifth grade teacher’s classroom, and he comes to my classroom after his grandmother wrote the longest complaint form in our school’s history, accusing his teacher of intimidating, humiliating, discussing religion, cursing, and finally “putting his private areas close to his face” on purpose. Holy God. The things that she is claiming in order to move her grandson into a new classroom are shocking! The other teacher is completely baffled at all of her claims and says that none of these things are true. He believes that the grandmother or the student made up all of these stories just to get their wish of switching into my classroom (I have this student’s younger brother in my classroom right now, and have had a very good rapport with Grandma. Apparently, this other teacher does not.) It is very scary either way. The things that they are claiming require an investigation! If I have learned anything this year, it is cover your ass – you cannot get your name or reputation back once it has been questioned, and some people will say anything to get their way. As a teacher all that you have to work with are the relationships and trust that you build with your students and their parents. Without that, there is no learning.
This new student I have in my class is just twelve years old but has already developed the life outlook, “I’ll get you, before you can get me.” It is written all over his every gesture and every smirk on his face. His personal history gives him every reason in the world to believe that this is the only way to survive in this world. In his young life he has been beaten by a drug addicted mother, witnessed her death, watched his father go to jail on a fifteen year sentence, and been shuffled from house to house, and state to state, as an unwanted burden to unstable relatives who were barely able to care for themselves, let alone him and his two younger brothers. Needless to say, being the oldest brother, he bore much of the burden of their tumultuous childhoods (which are still in progress – they are only ten and twelve!), and the effects are plain. I have seen two things in his eyes; an eager to learn little boy who distantly remembers hope and believing in himself, and an angry, weathered, and wild boy who has given up on the world and himself.
The message I see in this: I will accept him in my classroom as a challenge. If any of my students ever needed someone to believe in them, it is him. Whether or not I can convince him to believe in himself is not up to me, but I will do everything in my power to change the cruel hand that fate has dealt him.
More than anything all of this reaffirms my belief that life is about the little things in everyday. It is the precious impermanence of life, our mortality, the losses, challenges, and victories that make our little insignificant lives passionate and beautiful. Until next time, we’ll see what God has in his divine lesson plans. (How’s that for teacher-glorification? Ha-ha!)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Cumpleaños and Criminal Charges – Community at My School

I said I would start writing down the daily happenings of my life so that I would not loose the emotions and details of my days. And, well, just to prove that there is never a dull moment in the outrageous school and ridiculous district I work in, today was a doozey. But let’s back up and start with last Friday.
After working in my school for two years, I am proud to say that I feel like I am starting to understand and be accepted within the community I teach. It feels good to be accepted into the lives of my students, and their families, and I treasure this trust that has developed between us. One of the defining reasons why I decided to teach a third year at my crazy-ass school came from the mouth of Mr. Perez, a fourth grade teacher whom I respect greatly. He said to me, “Do what is best for you, when you make your decision about where to teach. But I want you to know that I have heard how the students and parents talk about you at our school. Everyone likes you and what you are doing. Students talk about wanting to be in your class next year. If I were you, I would stay at this school because you have made such a good impression with the community.”
Before I go any further I really should describe the school that I work in so you truly grasp what a big deal this sense of community is (This isn’t the type of elementary school where mommies are lined up to decorate bulletin boards and bring afternoon snacks.) First, I will give you the political/socioeconomic rhetoric that is associated with my school. I work in a Title 1 school, in arguably the worst district in my state (it’s not everyday that the State Department decides an entire district is incompetent and needs to be taken over), where 95% of the students get free or reduced breakfast and lunch due to poverty, and I stand out like a sore thumb in the halls of my school where 85% of the population is Hispanic, 14% African American and 1% encompasses all forms of “other.” With that said I will give you my own vernacular description based on my experiences:
I work in the ghetto.
I work where gangs kill the older siblings of my students in homes literally a stones-throw from the front door of our school, and where lock downs happen during dismissal because of random gun fire, or mid-day because a high-speed chase ends in gun shots, crashing vans, and twenty scattering illegal immigrants who run from the back of the van and into the neighborhood trying desperately to out run the police. I work where a student in my classroom is so traumatized by the robbers who looted her house while she, her grandmother, and siblings hid in the shower, that she doesn’t feel safe enough to use the school bathroom alone. I work in a school where brand new computer equipment is mauled by students who etch in the names of gangs into computer monitors, because by the seventh grade they have “chosen a side,” and claim their turf in the computer lab. While I seek to embrace, recognize, and celebrate the unique culture my students have - at times the realities and hardships of this ghetto weigh heavily on my mind and it is difficult to see the community caught amidst the chaos. Labels, political rhetoric and personal judgments aside, I will let you evaluate what (if any) amount of that bullshit really has to do with the students, families, and community that I serve.
The first year of teaching at my school, I really felt like an outcast within the building’s walls – families perceived me as a very young, very pretty, very white girl, who they didn’t really know how to interact with (I am not flattering myself when I say very pretty – I actually had a set of parents come in to a parent-teacher conference – after MONTHS of trying to meet with them - to talk about their sons failing grades, and when they met me they said in Spanish, “well no wonder you are failing, how can you focus on what la bonita is saying?” They laughed and sort of made this and a slew of other lame excuses for their son’s poor performance. He repeated the fifth grade this year.) I don’t think I will ever tire of the looks of astonishment I get from parents when they hear me speak Spanish for the first time or hear about my travels to Guatemala – it sort of gets me immediate street credit with the Mexican families, and my exploits in Tanzania earn me more than a few points with the African American families. And hey - I’ll take it.
That first year all of the teachers perceived me as another know-it-all Teach for America crony come to “save the children” for a few years and then skip town the first chance I got (to their credit – this stereotype is not baseless, many TFAers are as arrogant and self-righteous as they believe). My first day at my school, Mr. Widup, the eternally inhospitable curmudgeon of a teacher who made up the veteran portion of my grade level team, looked at both me and the other fresh faced TFA novice and said, “I doubt you two will make it through the year.” What a warm welcome. This prediction came right after he explained that he only needed to work 6 more years to reach retirement and then he was moving to Spain and opening a restaurant and never talking to a child ever again. Lo! How his passion for teaching truly guided and inspired me that first year. Ha!
He walks the halls to this day, scowl creased upon his face. Only now it’s more like 10 years of infecting-I-mean-shaping young minds because he lost all of his savings in the market. To put it in a nut shell, as with most things my first year, my relationship within and to my school was less than ideal. But I more than worked my ass off last year and students, teachers, and the administrators have begun to recognize this. This year I have been invited to student basketball and soccer games, traditional Mexican folklorica dance recitals, and this past Friday, I attended my first student birthday party.
At first, I was a little leery about going. Would my presence at an 11 year old girl’s birthday party be seen as awkward and inappropriate to her family and guests? I argued with myself that if the invitation was extended, then clearly the family approved of this decision. Finally, my mind was made up when (for only the second time in my two years of teaching) a student brought in birthday treats to share with the whole class. I told the older sister who brought in the Hannah Montana cupcakes, that I would see her later that night at the party.
After school I went home and decompressed from the week a bit. I knew I needed to buy a present (what sort of a present should a teacher bring? I had never given a gift as a teacher before.), and I figured I would just stop at a store along the way. A true tell as to how different this neighborhood is, not a single major department store, chain pharmacy, or grocery store existed between my house and the party venue. I had to backtrack through the stinky industrial junkyards and dilapidated neighborhoods until I found a CVS four miles out of the way. (Where do these people get their wares for god sakes?! Do they just not buy anything nearby? Do they take the bus every time they grocery shop? How is there no commerce in their neighborhood at all?) After I had successfully secured a “teacher-y” gift (notebook, journal, pretty pens), I worried that I would too embarrassing late to show up to the house.
Well, when I pulled up I realized this was not going to be like the sleep-over birthday parties that I had as a kid, because this eleventh birthday wasn’t at a home. It was a more than slightly rundown salón, or dance hall, however rough around the edges it was complete with fully set stage for a band, 50 tables, dance floor, DJ booth, and professional lighting. Apparently, my students family owns not only a sit down restaurant, but two rancheros (street side food vendors), and a dance hall. I walked in to a nearly deserted room (apparently starting a party three hours late is customary), but the tías y padres that were present turned and for stared for 30 seconds at me like I was lost. Then my student’s mother came out and greeted my in Spanish and introductions began. There wasn’t another uncomfortable moment all night.
As I waited for the guests and birthday girl to arrive I was treated to tostadas and ceviche which was superb. Family and church friends immediately welcomed me as we talked, laughed and danced (I was taught to dance like a Sinaloan by my students) for hours. It was the best eleventh birthday I have ever been to and the look on my student’s face when she came in and saw me there was unforgettable. She immediately came over to me first (before la familia) and gave me a big hug, saying, “I’m so glad you came!” I felt very honored to receive such recognition.
This was definitely a new high for me as teacher, and as member of Phoenix’s South Side community. Driving away from the festivities that night, I really felt like I had been apart of something very special. As a teacher (and Spanish speaker), I realized I was able to be apart of a community that previously never would have existed to me. I had left the party with invitations to attend worship services at La Sagrada Familia from an Auntie and to go dancing with some older cousins at a Salsa club. I had been adopted as a part of her family.
Having seen how hospitable and warm this community could be, today’s events at my school were even more upsetting than they would have been before. Thirty minutes before school let out, our Principal came over the loud speaker and instructed teachers to pass out an important letter to every student before they went home. I opened one up and read.
An 8th grade teacher at my school, who has devoted her life to this community and worked within my district for 28 years, was arrested yesterday on charges of sexual assault with a minor, she was absent today because she is still being held by the county. I cannot begin to speculate about the truth, but I do know this: whether the allegations the 8th grade boy made are true or not, either way a horrible thing has happened and our school and the community it serves is hurting.
As our principal and the superintendent of the school pulled us into an emergency staff meeting to advise us on what to do about the camera crews (lined up outside interviewing parents as they picked their children up), the teachers who were close to the accused teacher were crying and in disbelief. As our principal finished speaking to us about how to deal with student and parent questions and where to send students who needed counseling, he wiped tears from his eyes.
Immediately, all of the teachers began thinking the obvious: this could happen to me. The superintendent went over standard “CYA” procedures (Cover Your Ass) like; never be alone with a child in a room, never touch a child, etc., and it made me hope to God that the teenage boy made it all up and that this teacher’s life could be put back together. I quickly realized after seeing our school’s name and her mug shot splashed all over the news with the gory details of the “alleged sexual account” that a quick recovery from this would probably not be possible for her even if she was found innocent and cleared of all charges.
It makes me wonder about the world today – where are we going as a society? What kind of person molests a 14 year old boy? And what kind of child makes up a story like that? Why are we so mesmerized by this bullshit that the media shows up in hoards to spoon feed it into our minds?
I am worried for tomorrow. I am worried for the teachers who have lost a friend. I am worried for the student, and teacher involved in this. I am worried for our administrators, and for our school. I am worried about the questions I will get from my students and their parents. I am worried for the community I teach in.
After the mandatory meeting, the librarian stood up and said with tears in her eyes, “If you would like to stay and say some prayers, please do.” I stood in a circle of about 10 of my colleagues and as we held each other’s hands we prayed for the community. It needs all the prayers it can get.