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Archive for the ‘Inner City’ Category

I woke up early this morning (my first back in the U.S.) thinking about school. I have been out of the country for the past month, and now have a little over a week until a new year starts with all the joys and challenges that brings.

What was on my mind this morning was actually an incident from last year. I had an incredible class last year, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of them after the summer. There are very few years as a teacher when you have a class in which there is NO student that you don’t like. Last year was one of those years for me: No one that annoyed me, no one I hoped would be absent, back teaching a subject I love, just an incredible year. While that is an amazing thing, it makes preparing for this year a lot harder. It’s true that I’ve heard every year from at least one 7th grade teacher, “This is the worst class to come through the system!”, but by the time they get to us as 8th graders, they’re usually not bad (except the traditional 5 to 10.) The class coming up has mixed reviews (Some teachers loved them; most had a few challenges.) Still, going from the best class you’ve had in 10 years at the school to the unknown is bound to be rough.

So, what was on my mind this morning was an incident from the last week of school. I was in the midst of writing my traditional “end of the year” letters for my students, and when I wrote one particular student’s, I started crying (and I’m not usually a crier). So you understand, I put a lot of thought and prayer into the letters and try to say what I feel each child needs to hear. The kid that made me cry was a rough kid. He had had a hard life–more difficult than most of our kids who have hard lives. But, in the course of the year, he had shared bits and pieces of his story with me, and on a few occasions, I was able to see through the chink in his armor to the little boy he was hiding with the “tough guy” exterior.

When I read the letters to my students the next day, a number of students cried over their own letter, but his was the only one I’ve ever read that made someone other than the person it belonged to cry. I had warned him that his letter had made me cry, but he let me read it anyway (and I cried again, as did many others in the class.) When other classes came in later in the day, I heard the same statement, “I heard you’re going to make us cry.” I explained that some students do and others don’t, and that more people had cried in the previous class because I had when I was reading someone’s. They immediately guessed the student, so word had gotten out (as things do in a small school.) A student asked me, “Why did you cry over (student’s name)?” The answer I gave surprised even me. I said, “I don’t know. Maybe because no one else ever has.” The truth of that hit me like a ton of bricks. If even part of the stories I’ve pieced together about this student are true, his dad has never cried, his mom can’t stand him, and his siblings beat him up. So, in all likelihood, no one has ever looked at his life and loved him enough to cry for the things he’s suffered and the wrongs that he’s experienced. No one has watched him make bad choices and grieved for him. Whatever way he’s made, he’s made most of it himself. To me, that’s not how it should be. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten a huge heart for this kid without realizing it until I started typing.

As I gear up for a new year, I know some of the kids I will have are students that have caused a lot of problems for other teachers. I already know them by reputation or discipline reports, or from having to write them up in the hallway. And yet, if I keep in mind this situation from last year, I will remember that this kid was a student who had gotten in trouble, and who, from the exterior, made others assume he was trouble, and yet, I had seen a side of him no one else had. If I approach each student (remembering that looks can be deceiving), searching for that chink in the armor that will let me see what’s really going on with them–if I look beyond the external to the heart of a child, I will have no problem loving each one. And when a child knows you care, it’s amazing what kind of a year you can have!

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A student told me today that I was almost like an angel or a saint—“One of those people who never do anything wrong.” She listed the traditional “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” kinds of activities. At the time, I explained that I had made choices based on a long-term perception of how I wanted my life to be and the conversations I didn’t want to have with my spouse. I then launched into a discussion of how our choices affect our lives, specifically in the areas of sex and drugs.

I realized, however, as I thought about it, that I didn’t make good decisions because I was so wise as a teenager, but because I wasn’t around all the stuff these kids are. I didn’t know anyone who was divorced when I was in junior high or anyone that wasn’t living with both biological parents (unless one of them had died.) I couldn’t have found drugs if I wanted them (except on a family trip to New York when I was offered crack), and I knew very few people who drank in high school—and those only by reputation, never around me. It’s an entirely different world from the place my students live.

To allow others who may have been similarly sheltered to understand what my students deal with, I wanted to type out a portion of their stories in their own words. The writing is in response to an autobiography project that I assigned. They started with a list of five events that had impacted their lives. Then, they could either pick one to tell in detail or all five in summary. Those were the only instructions I gave them. I got a few “When I got my tongue pierced” or “The day I met my best friend” essays, but more were much more tragic. I think for me the greatest tragedy was the realization that for these kids, there was nothing abnormal or weird about sharing these stories—it is their “normal.” I asked them for permission to share their stories with you. So here they are, in their voice, the stories of their lives :

1. When I was young, my mom lost custody of me and my brother. My grandma [name] got custody. They are still fighting for us today. My brother has seizures, so he’s kind of mental. I have two sisters and three brothers. My mom and dad were never married.
Now, my mom is engaged and my dad is now married. My dad has been married for five years almost. My family is kind of hectic. My grandma is married and has been married for six years. I moved here from [location]. I’m hoping that I’ll move down there next month after the ninth. I haven’t lived with my mom for seven years. I moved here in the third grade when I was nine. . . .

2. The first thing I remember is police busting through the door arresting my dad for drug trafficking. I was small. I’m not sure how I remember this, but Tupac’s “Hail Mary” was playing and the stove was on. My mom and I were crying.
Another memory from my childhood is me, about three now, sitting in a tub. My mother was washing my feet. I cried because the water was too hot. I got burned.
I remember when I was thirteen, when my dad was arrested again—on Christmas. My mom went to rehab for alcohol abuse. My brother and I cried together.
I remember being forced to share a house with my grandparents, staying outside all day, playing football and basketball with my brother.
I remember my first fist fight. I won. But, I felt so bad.
I remember the first time I thought I was cool and try a cigarette. I coughed my lungs out. I almost died. Ha-ha. . . .
I remember a lot of things. Negative or not, the memories have made and shaped who I am today.

3. Birth. My parents got divorced. My dad got remarried. My mom got remarried. I ended up with two sisters and three brothers on my mom’s side. My step mom told me she was pregnant on my birthday. Worst birthday ever because I wanted to be Daddy’s little girl. Sixth grade, my little sister was born. I was scared. My mom took my dad to court for custody of me. We lost. My dad wouldn’t talk to me for a few weeks after that. Seventh grade, I got in my first fight. I was afraid my dad was going to kill me, but he just said as long as I didn’t lose, then I wouldn’t be in trouble. And now, here I am.

4. When I was a little kid, my dad was not a good one. He is/was a drug addict. My mom had me at a young age and wasn’t married to my father. My mom had me in April, and they got married in September. She married him because she thought he would change. But, he didn’t change. He would steal my mom’s car and leave. When he left, he would go get high on cocaine or marijuana and stay out until it wore off. When he would come home, he would make up lies about where he was at. My mom dealt with it for a long time. Then, I found out that my mom was pregnant with my sister. She had my sister and still put up with his crap. In August [year], they finally got divorced. I was sad about it, but then I got over it. He couldn’t keep a job and was in jail a couple of times. In March [year], I got a call that my dad wanted to see me. I went home and saw him. He was with my cousin. My cousin and my mom were talking, and my dad took me in my room and said he wanted to talk to me. We sat on my bed and he started to cry. He had been doing drugs and told me that he didn’t want to live anymore. I screamed and started crying. My cousin and my mom ran in the room and asked what happened. Then, they left, and I didn’t see my dad for a while. In October [year], my dad went to jail for a month and a half. It was sad, but then again, oh well. He is now sort of stable and has a job. But, if any of that wouldn’t have happened, my mom probably wouldn’t be the woman she is now and wouldn’t have raised me like she did. I probably wouldn’t be as strong as I am now and independent.

5. I grew up in a house with four rooms two bathrooms. I lived with my mom, dad, and two sisters. This was until I was six. My mom decided to move out and get a divorce. We went to my aunt’s house for a couple of days, then moved out to [location.] I lived there from [time]. I went to first and second grade in [location]. We had moved in with my uncle. Things got bad between me and his daughter, so we went back to my aunt’s. This time, we lived in the back house, which the last time was occupied. We lived there for like two years. In [year], my mom wanted to move again, so we did. We had to move schools again and make new friends. Well, I liked it because it wasn’t that hard. . . .

6. I don’t really remember when I was born, so I’ll skip to when I was five. When I was five, my mom, my mom’s ex, and I used to live in [location.] My dad would always think my mom would cheat on him. He was a truck driver, coming home only some weekends, so he did not know. I know my mom didn’t cheat on him because I’m here from like __to two o’clock. So then my mom and dad divorced. We got kicked out of our house and forced to move here. We lived with our uncle until his wife didn’t want us to live at their house. So we moved into my grandfather’s house. I loved it there because he didn’t care what we did at all. My life has been very well after all of this. My mom has a very good job and she is very well. . . .

7. [Date] is one day I will never forget. One interesting day, I should say. That day I won’t forget because I lost my dad that day. I was at my friend [name]’s house, and early in the morning, my dad got up and decided that he didn’t want to be around anymore. He got up, and he got dressed. He and my mom got into a huge fight. They wouldn’t stop. They argued about everything, until my dad got so far, he grabbed a knife and started going towards my older brother’s room, and my mom had to call the cops. The cops heard the whole thing over the phone and were sent to our house right away. My dad was escorted out and told it would be best if he were to stay gone for a few days. It ended up being more than a few days. When I came home, he was gone. I saw my dad again that July when there was a medical emergency including me where I had to go to the hospital because my little brother shattered a glass window in my face at about three inches away from my face. I was put into the emergency room for eight hours. They took X-rays of my face and hands and then sent me home.
The problems just spiraled out of control from there. My brother was sent to a mental institution, shortly after the incident with my face, and we went in for family counseling. One year later, my little brother was released and sent back home. Before he was released in [time], I had stopped seeing my dad in [time]. I haven’t seen him in a year, nor has he tried to contact me in over a year. I really don’t understand why it seems like my dad didn’t care, and if he did, he had an odd way of showing it. I kind of miss my dad, but I don’t really miss the things he said and he did. On [date], my parents will be getting a divorce, and then me and my two siblings will be put in a custody battle. This will probably be a long, hard process, but it will have to be done. I hope to have all the fighting over with soon, but with all this, something good is sure to come.

8. A few months after living a life of abuse and lies, I broke. I couldn’t handle the stress, and I couldn’t bear living with my mistakes. I found a bottle of pills and took nearly twenty. I was numb. I stumbled into my room. Becoming more and more dizzy, I began to pass out. My sister walked into the room, picked up the pill bottle, and screamed. She quickly told my mom what had happened. She was screaming, crying, and starting the car. I was rushed to the hospital. My family was shocked. I was forced to stay awake until a room had opened. I could hear my mom filling in the rest of the family. I could only make out a few words… “She found Grandma’s pills…she was raped.” I closed my eyes as I was put on a stretcher. My inner thoughts were screaming, “Take me, take me, take me already.” The nurse interrupted them as she impatiently shoved a large white bottle in my right hand and a straw in my left. “Drink quickly, sweetheart.” I took a sip. Charcoal. I should have known. I drank hastily, growing more and more terrified. I heard my step sister inform my mother what had to come next. 72 hours in a padded room. I trembled. “Why hadn’t I just used a quicker method?” My inner voice boomed in my head. By now it was 11:00 pm. I had arrived at around 3:00 pm. I was exhausted. Hauled onto a stretcher, the paramedic socialized and tried to give me advice. I fell asleep, and awoke in a new hospital. A mental hospital. I stayed there for almost a week. I will never forget this experience. And I hope nobody will make the mistakes I have.

These are just a sampling, but I think they paint a clear picture. May we love well and never be fooled by the calm exterior. Additionally, may we realize that not everyone’s dealt the same hand in life, but as so many of my students did, understand that regardless of the hardships, there is still hope.

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I received the following four journals this past week. I thought they might reveal a little bit about the state of Education. The only thing I have changed is spelling and names. The rest is exactly the words used. The first letter was a free write (Write whatever you want); the others are a response to the topic write a letter to someone who has impacted your life. Here’s a sampling of what I received. Keep in mind, I teach 8th Grade:

1. “(My girlfriend) might be pregnant. I don’t think it’s so bad. I’m happy about it. I don’t see what’s so bad. Her mom wants her to get an abortion, but I won’t let her. If she succeeds, I will call her a baby killer.”

2. “Dear Mom and Dad,
When you guys left me I didn’t know what to do. I was lost. You guys made me go through hell. I didn’t have you in my arms. I never had a hug or kiss. It’s hard for me to see kids with their parents. I cry inside when people say, ‘Hey, tell your mom or dad…’ Every time I hear Mom and Dad, I feel so depressed, and at some point I feel like ending the pain, and I want to end my life so I don’t want to live with the pain. I never knew you guys at all. I wish I did.”

(I asked him what had happened–wrote the question actually, since he said I could read his letter. Here’s what he wrote back:)

“Well, when I was a baby, my mom gave me to my grandma and she left, and my dad split too. So I grew up without parents. So, I don’t know how it feels to love.”

3. “Dear Dad:
I haven’t seen you in years. This ‘in and out of prison’ crap is killing me inside. I need you, and all I can do is talk to you on the phone and Facebook–which I don’t know how you have a Facebook in prison. Even though, if you add it up, you were in prison for 12 years of my life, I’m 14 now. I love you and need a dad. Our memories are dear and close to me. I’m in this classroom writing it as an assignment, but I actually mean this to you, Dad. Our memories make me smile. For now, I’ll have to stop writing. I’ll see you when I’m 22. Love, your son…”

4. “(Name) was my mom’s husband who tore my family apart. He came into my life when I was 18 months. My brother was about 4 years old. He threw bricks at my brother when my brother would pee in his pants. When I was 3, he took me to the room and took my clothes off and raped me. I didn’t know what was going on until I was 7 years old, and I asked to live with my dad because I was scared. When my step mom started noticing scars and noticed I was acting different, she pulled me into the room and asked me if something was going on. So I told her how he was abusing me and punching me in the face and raping me. She got scared and nervous, so she called my dad at work and told him he needed to come home. When he came home, my step mom talked to him, and he came out of the room crying and made a phone call. Even though I lived with my dad in (town), I still went to (a school name). After school, I walked to the office because my name was called over the intercom. There was a guy with a notebook and pencil. My sister and brother were in the office talking to him, and it seemed as if he was taking notes. He asked me questions about when I was raped. I remembered everything that happened like it was yesterday. My mom didn’t know this guy was here. I was trying to figure out who he was, and when I looked at his shirt, there were 3 letters “CPS” I didn’t know what that meant. She had told me it meant Child Protective Service. I thought I was going to get taken away. My mom walked into the school and realized what was going on. After she and the CPS guy talked, she took us to my aunt’s house and we tried hiding from him (step-dad). When he found my mom, he started shaking her and tried killing her. As I started crying, he came and punched me. My mom pressed charges, and now he has to be 100 feet away from us and he is not allowed in (town). After everything, my mom took me to the hospital and they got me checked out, so after that I was sent to the emergency room, and I was dehydrated. They didn’t think I would make it through the night, but I did. And now, I’m living today for tomorrow.”

One week of letters. So the reader knows, I have submitted each of these letters to the counsellors. As to the validity of these letters, I have heard the general details of each letter confirmed by siblings or others in the community. The specifics are the account given me in the child’s own words. Yes, there are details which make me question their truth (i.e., do CPS workers wear shirts advertising their logo? I don’t thinks so…But, I had heard from the other siblings similar accounts of this step-dad’s treatment of the kids, so the details in it are at least mostly accurate.) For me, it was just another reminder to not write these kids off as “Failing students” as the state would label each of them but the author of the third letter, who is in my Honors class–the rest currently hold F’s in my class. It’s a matter of looking at a student who has already “Left the Child Behind” and trying to pick up the pieces in the aftermath.

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Last year, our reading teacher showed the movie Freedom Writers. She had told me the general idea and how powerful it was. Like a good friend, I listened, but hadn’t really given it much thought. Over the weekend, though, I checked it out, and I now echo her sentiment–and think it should be required teacher watching.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, it chronicles the life of Erin Gruwell, an English teacher who takes her first teaching job in inner city LA in the wake of the forced integration after the Rodney King Riots. She has the unfathomable task of trying to teach English to a class of kids from opposing races and gangs. Her first real break-through comes when a Hispanic kid draws a defamatory drawing of an African American kid. In anger, she explains that it reminds her of a picture she’d seen of a Jewish man during the Holocaust. She explains how these kids think they’re so tough, but there was this one gang–they didn’t take over neighborhoods; they took over countries. They just eliminated everyone that they didn’t like and blamed for why their lives were bad. After going off on the subject, one student raises his hand and asks, “What’s the Holocaust?” She asks if anyone knows the meaning–no one does. She then asks how many of them have lost someone to gang violence–every hand goes up. Using The Diary of Anne Frank, Erin is able to connect Anne’s fate to these kids’. She then has them keep diaries telling their stories. Their diaries were later published in a book called The Freedom Writers.

I think I cried though the entire movie. For me, it was like a mirror image of my students. Many of us in inner city schools approach teaching from the white middle class perspective of changing the world with no idea what these kids really deal with. I remember when I first came in lecturing students that you’re a jerk if you fight. I might as well have told them you’re a jerk if you eat dinner–fighting is a way of life for so many. One of the students in the movie lashed out, “You in here trying to teach us this stuff and then we go right back out there. Tell me one thing you’ve said that makes a (expletive) difference in what happens out there.”

I’ve been at my school for nine years and have just scratched the surface of what their life experience looks like. I had a conversation with an alum at our football game Friday. He’s now a pro-fighter and has moved out of our town to a more affluent area. He said people there are amazed that he only knew one friend from high school whose parents were still together. Only one. And that’s the mildest of the issues.

So how do we reach these kids? In the movie and in my experience as well, it comes down to being willing to find a connection and build relationship. Another quote that hit home to me stated, “Why should I respect you? Because you’re a teacher? That don’t mean [anything.] I don’t know what kind of person you are. I don’t know if you’re lying or a bad person. You don’t just automatically get my respect.” But, relationship–giving a kid an opportunity to be heard–showing that they have value. Those are the things that count. As Erin states, “I see you. And you are NOT failing.”

Knowing that a cornerstone of teenage philosophy is being misunderstood, I think it’s vital for us to let them know we care enough to try. A listening ear and an open door go a long way. As I often tell people, you have to have a lot of conversations about stupid things to have the conversations that really matter. So, I listen to stories of new puppies, video games, TV shows, and new nail polish to have the conversations about relationship drama, drug use, parent abuse, and deep hurts. If we start by listening, we might find more of our students are “teachable.”

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