Thursday, March 18, 2010

Old, White and Out Of My League


I've been unemployed for just over six months - nine months if you count the three months of summer vacation I received as a public school teacher. And, by the way, whoever says teachers don't deserve their summers - are crazy! In fact, I think I deserve six months of unemployment AND a summer vacation. I must have worked at least 60 hour weeks, regularly. My teaching job was very, very difficult.

Perhaps this last time around felt more difficult than my first year because I had nothing to compare my first year of teaching to. I was just thrown into it...and survived. But teaching middle school for three years in the rural South turned out to be much easier than teaching public high school in a wealthy suburb of San Francisco. Whooda guessed? After working in NYC, I didn't think these kids could be THAT tough. But they were. Though the school was in an affluent neighborhood, MY students were from "EPA" - East Palo Alto (which was as "ghetto" as SF suburbs get). One afternoon I drove around their "hood" to check it out. It reminded me of scenes from "Boys in the Hood" - the irony of a beautiful, shining sun and graceful palm trees juxtaposed with dark, tinted car windows and unkempt, sad houses. Most of my students were AfAm, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic...and most of the students I came across in my career. But these small-town kids had big-city attitudes - and, surprisingly, their lives could be just as violent. I remember one day being fed up with their 'tudes and, before I knew them very well, said, "You think you're so tough? You wouldn't last ONE DAY in the Bronx!"

Yeah. That went over REALLY well.

Actually, they probably WOULD have been humbled by life in some of the tougher Bronx neighborhoods, but undermining their hardships didn't help my cause - which was trying to reach them. (I was learning, too.)

It was a tough career transition for me - moving from NYC to CA. Prior to CA, I spent 4.5 years working "professionally" in New York City. I had a corner office (which included a door I was free to close at any time for peace and quiet), frequent flier miles, a company AmEx, respectful and intellectual colleagues, and rental car gold service. Did I mention I could see the Empire State Building from my window? Then, I moved to California, wanting to get back on "the ground" - back in "the trenches" so to speak - and took a job teaching in a public high school. This was a MUCH different work atmosphere. The culture shock was palpable. When I closed my door, I didn't get peace and quiet. I could always hear the harsh, angry, sexist, racist, and just downright mean language that students used within and among their little cliques as they loitered outside my windows and doors in the beautiful California sun. Sometimes it got so bad, I politely asked them to move away from my windows so I could eat my lunch. Between the beautiful sun and their (at the risk of sounding like an old, conservative bag) dirty mouths, the contrast was stark and I didn't miss the irony of it. My job was filled with ironies like these (which, as an English teacher, I appreciated)...

I recall once having a young man, a student from my 9th grade "Below-Basic English Class" (this brilliant course label was the administration's doing - indicative of their creative classification system and keen ability for respectful anonymity and political correctness) enter my room during lunch one day in the usual fashion - no "hello", no "excuse me, Ms. Heaney", but the much more friendly burst-in-the-door-and-don't-make-eye-contact approach. I was used to it.

"Hi, Chip!" I ventured a connection with the student, whose brother had been shot and killed earlier that year in gang-related violence. "How's it going?" I asked, sounding whiter than ever.

"Humph." Chip rustled through his writing folder which sat in a neatly labeled file box on a shelf under the windows.

"You okay?" I could sense anger. Actually, with Chip, I always sensed anger. It was his modus operandi. I'd probably be pretty pissed off, too, if my brother died from gang violence and the only choice for me was to be in a gang. To be "forced" to ally with the same entity that got your brother killed? If you're a logical person, and Chip was (at times), I ask you...WHERE'S THE LOGIC IN THAT?

"'M getting suspended," he mumbled.

"Oh! Well, what happened?" I was always genuinely concerned, and tried not to sound nosey.

"They thought I did something I didn't. They kickin' me out." The student's rarely admitted fault, so it was so hard to know a lie from the truth. I didn't pry further. For all of his anger and issues, Chip was a smart kid...with REALLY good handwriting for that matter. This was like a huge bonus for me. I LOVED my good-handwriting students. They were a rarity. I thought of good handwriting as a sign of intelligence and patience (I guess you could read those last two statements and conclude that I thought most of my students were bereft of both...which isn't true. I am making a generalization with no scientific proof to back it up. It just works for this story right now. So, permit me to continue without your judgement. Thanks.). Anyway, Chip had both, even if he chose not to use them very often in school. He was very artistic, too. I wondered why he was in my room fishing through his writing folder.

"Do you need something?" I asked.

"Yeah, I want to make up work while I'm out."

"Hallelujah!" I thought. Breakthroughs in teaching usually happen completely without a teacher's planning (as often as we plan and plan and plan, it makes you wonder). Really, I think Chip feared the boredom that would hit him at home. This is probably what led his older brother to be killed. I think it's what leads so many of these bright minority kids to gangs and violence. Kids who have no resources, no tutors, no community outreach programs, but who do have creative ideas and street smarts must get terribly BORED in some of these neighborhoods! Sometimes I think our military would have much more success planning invasions of our worst neighborhoods, "shocking and awing" the gangs out of existence, and then letting the Peace Corps in to set up resources for our AMERICAN kids. We have so many issues here. Can we deal with those first, BEFORE we try changing the rest of the world? But I digress (as usual)...

I'm not blaming it on the community per se. I was there. I was trying to help and give these kids something to do that was interesting. But it's not my job to raise kids. I was there to TEACH them. When are administrators and the public going to starting letting teachers teach and start asking parents to parent? I'm sorry but, too often I hear this and that about raising the bar for teachers and expecting more from our teachers, etc, etc. I also heard the Superintendent say, "We do all we can to keep the best and the brightest teachers in our schools." Well, I was a good teacher. I got laid off. I held high standards and am highly educated. I worked my ass off. They didn't try to keep me on. And how much were the parents of my students working to help their kids? Open Houses for me were jokes! I would have like 5 parents come by. I mostly just sat, prepped and ready with worksheets and samples of student work, listening to crickets and watching it get darker and darker outside. WHERE WERE MY STUDENTS' PARENTS? It made me very angry (obviously). Anyway...back to Chip...

"Oh, well, here are a few things you can do while you're out." I handed him some assignments and a list of make-up work that he needed to...well, make up.

"A-ight," and with those word(s?), Chip turned and began to walk out the door.

"Hey, Chip, what's your shirt say?" I yelled out as he walked away.

He turned, emotionless, to show me. It read, "Young, Black and Gifted"

Oh, the irony.

It should have read: Young, Black, Gifted, and BORED! Challenge me, please! Don't stick me in classes labeled "Below Basic" and expect me to feel good about myself. And, please, MOM, DAD, come meet my teachers and make sure I do my homework. And don't let me join a gang and die like my brother! Take this "Chip" off my shoulder - and call me "ED"!

Chip's REAL name was Edward, but he insisted I called him "Chip" and would not answer to Ed or Edward. (Did you catch the irony there, too?)

"Got it. Well, see you later, Edw...I mean, Chip."