It’s a Nice Idea

“The kids at this table are my low ones. I usually sit here while they’re finishing their worksheets. The two tables in the middle are just regular kids. Over there are my high ones,” she smiles as she gestures to the other side of the room.

I nod and look around, shifting uneasily. Still, it’s not bad. Could be worse, as I now know. No fly traps. It’s clean and bright. Looks like a Kindergarten room. She looks like a Kindergarten teacher up there in front of her students who crane back their little necks to view the book she’s reading.

For the second time in my brief career, I’m taking over a kindergarten classroom in the spring while the teacher goes on maternity leave. I sit in the back jotting down the schedule, lyrics to the little songs, routines, names of children. 8:00 to 8:15 – pledge, attendance, “character education” lesson. 8:15 to 8:45 – calendar songs. 8:45 to 9:30 – snack and recess. No, this time was going to be a different ball game, I could see. When I arrived in the spring last time, all but three of my students were already reading. Here, many students were still missing 5 or more letter sounds.

“This is a rough neighborhood. Lots of ESL kids. You know,” she warns me.

Again, I shift slightly in my chair to contain an argumentative remark. I want to believe I learned something from the past fall and will keep my mouth shut, close the door, and show these kids what they’re capable of.

9:30 to 10:30 students dance to a little alphabet song, copy sentences off the board, listen to a story, complete a worksheet requiring them to trace letters and draw lines between pictures with the same initial sound.

“No talking, please, Maria, finish your worksheet and you can go look at books on the carpet.”

10:30 is music class. When we arrive to pick them up, they are calling out the names of music notes. “Half note!” they  shout. 11:00 is recess and lunch. 11:40 to 12:10 is a math lesson followed by another several worksheets. Then free play until at 12:45 they are packed up and trotted out to the gate to meet their parents. I remember the conversation I had with the director a few days prior: “Your work day ends at 3:30.”

“And what are my responsibilities after the students leave at one?” I asked, a bit confused. I can’t seem to stop myself from asking questions.

“Oh the kindergarten teachers really need that extra prep time. You know… all that cutting!” She makes a motion with her fingers as though they are scissors.

Indeed, when we return to the classroom that afternoon, the teacher is cutting out identical flower shapes from construction paper. “For their writing craftivity tomorrow,” she explains. I nod.

A few days pass and the baby arrives. I’m up to bat. Doing my best to replicate the schedule, feeling frustrated and bored, students piping up, “No, Mrs. Garrison, that song isn’t next. You forgot the color song.”

“Well, don’t you know your colors already, friends?”

“Yessss!” They intone, smiling as though I was asking a very silly question.

“Then maybe we don’t need to sing that song anymore.” They look at me a little blankly, uncertain.

After a few weeks, I try to incorporate small group-style learning centers. Less worksheets, more collaboration. It’s not pretty. I sit with students holding paper books, leaning in to listen to them sound out words. A parent volunteer shhhh’s the students writing poetry. They stop sharing rhyming words and bend their heads back down to the paper.

At lunch with the other Kindergarten teacher, I get an unexpected lesson on classroom management. “You see, the kids are always rowdy when it’s windy like this. I’ll probably let them stay out for a bit of extra recess. And you know, Thursdays are always really rough days for some reason.. Mondays too. Thankfully, Friday is a ‘fun day’ with no math lesson and early dismissal. And they have P.E. that day.”

We pause to take a few bites.

“What was your school like where you moved from? I heard you taught Kinder before?”

“It was pretty different,” I say.

“Oh, well, you know our kids come to us so low. Most of mine didn’t even know how to hold a pencil. It’s the neighborhood. The parents either don’t parent much or they don’t speak English.”

I’m not sure where she got the idea that my previous school – a public elementary school in Chicago – was homogeneous. I try to clear it up. I can’t seem to stop myself from batting at her veiled explanation for the kids’ mediocrity. I knew she meant well. She was kind and loving to her students. She wanted them to learn to behave. It was my problem really… I wanted more. Too much, some would say.

The following week, after another messy, loud round of centers, I return to my classroom to have lunch in peace. Only now the parent volunteer is lingering in the back, pushing together stacks of cut-out butterflies. I thank her again for her help and take out a sandwich at my desk.

“You know, I think (the other teacher) had a good set up in here. It wasn’t so rowdy.”

“With the copying off the board?” I respond. I wonder if she can hear the contempt in my voice.

“Exactly!” she smiles, glad I understood her. “I’ll be here next week!” She waves cheerily and closes the door. My heart is pounding, my sandwich swimming in my vision through hot tears. I throw it in the trash, unable to eat. Unable to think.

It could be worse, I tell myself, thinking of the drives home from the school in the country. Unable to see the road from crying so hard, unwilling to pull over because I wouldn’t feel safe until I was far away from there. I think of the fourth grade classroom where I spent time substituting. The chart on the wall with the students names and results from the last standardized test. Far Below Basic: Kendra, Dario, Cruz, Perla. Below Basic: Jamal, Wesley, Ricardo… It could be worse. Thinking of the special education classroom where I filled in for a week. “Bring a book with you,” the secretary chuckled before she hung up. The four classroom aides ran the routine like clock work – changing diapers, passing out papers, turning on a DVD. “Can I help?” I asked.

“Sure! I think Eddie needs help with that puzzle.” Eddie was in third grade – autistic. I sat with him as he chanted names of dinosaurs. I counted about 18 different types, but some were repeated. He spun the puzzle piece around in front of his face.

“When does he go back to his classroom?” I asked, having been accustomed to full-day inclusion.

“This is his classroom,” they chuckle. My brows came together. I said nothing.

When the parent volunteer returned to the classroom the following week, it was just as noisy. “Did (your son) show you his poem about butterflies?” I asked hopefully.

“He did!” Then she added, whispering “I told him it was lovely, even though it didn’t rhyme.”

At the end of the year I was asked to remain at the school as a first grade teacher. “Any requests for students in your class?” the director asked. I didn’t know I could do that…

“Maybe (the parent volunteer’s child) could be in the other class? You know – since I already got her help…” I trailed off weakly.

“Of course!” she replied brightly. Later I realized that the same request had likely already been made in reverse, so it had been an easy one to accommodate.

“Too much noise,” I imagined her saying, “my child can hardly think.”

 

 

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Falling Flat on My Face

I turned the faucet at the back of the classroom and a brown liquid sputtered out, smelling of eggs. Fly paper swung from the ceiling when the air conditioner kicked on. My teeth felt gritty with dust from the twenty miles off the highway, through the orchards, past the dairy farms with their relentless clouds of flies. I smacked my hands past one another and put them on my hips, looking around the room like Mary Poppins. I had flown in just in time to help these sad children.

If you’ve ever been asked to complete an impossible task, you might know that at first it just seems very difficult, rather improbable… a thinker, you’ll have to look at it from every angle. You might have thought, like me, that it just needed a creative solution, a fresh pair of eyes. You notice the tangles on the outside first and tease them apart with a hopefulness inside until you get past them and see it’s a rat’s nest and you might not get out alive.

The class was comprised of 27 seventh and eighth grade students. Due to low enrollment, grades were combined and teachers instructed in all subjects. Five content areas, two grade levels of content, one day. It seemed difficult but not impossible. I became obsessed with time management, rotating my students around the room like a mad dance. This grade receiving instruction while that grade practiced independently. This group receiving remediation while the others worked collaboratively. The students were gangly and startlingly distractible. They were dazed at first, by my determination and the expectation that they would and could actually learn. Some fell in love, most fought back. After five weeks and a class novel they were mostly on board. They were thirsty after all. Their struggles and small victories were always on my mind.

As we studied medieval Europe, I wondered if they might see their reflection in the feudal system. Children of fieldworkers, they rode the bus home after school and let themselves in to the trailer with a few younger siblings following behind. Squeezing onto the couch with a bag of Taquitos and bad TV: the American dream. Their parents, pulling double shifts, would stay in the fields ’till dusk so that they could be at their kid’s volleyball match on Friday.

Interpersonally, I had a lot to learn about a career in education. I had a lot to learn about adulthood. I had a lot to learn about people. Like how dangerous they can be when they are given a position of power and lack the skills to succeed there. Naively, I went to my administrator with some questions that stemmed from genuine confusion on my part. I wasn’t in Chicago anymore and I couldn’t quite figure out why, for example, athletic competitions took place during the school day every Friday – reducing my classroom to four students, while the rest splayed on the brittle grass near the soccer fields or hustled up and down a painted football field. How was I to recover the years of instruction they’d missed from teachers who sat behind their desk, telling them to turn to page 74 in the text and complete the questions at the end of the chapter with a partner?

No, I shouldn’t have asked that question. I shouldn’t have wondered aloud why weekly staff meetings required early student dismissal, additionally cutting a full two hours of classroom time from my already shortened week. What’s that phrase, squeezing blood from a turnip? I was picking at the wrong knots. The administrator told me so. With a slam of his fist on his desk, he demanded I not disrespect him in such a way at staff meetings. I left stunned like a fly that had smacked against the glass; thinking I was soaring free and realizing I was woefully trapped.

Thankfully, I had a mentor here too. “Keep your head down, Adrienne. That’s how we get by here. Just nod and smile and then go to your classroom and close your door.” I became aware of a buzzing in my head at that point. A rising panic and awareness that I was trespassing and needed to tread lightly, but surely that was just my imagination. Surely, it really came down to the students and their needs. I pitched myself forward, wholly committed to them, to helping them find a way out.

Each morning began with P.E. Yes, I taught that too. First thing in the morning, before the air quality became a serious threat to their health – the sun shining against the fruit trees, green leaves aspirating pesticides. On a Monday in October, my students’ feet dragged against the pavement on our way out to meet the rest of the hundred-odd students for stretches. “Come on!” I shouted, smiling, desperate to make them care, desperate to continue caring. “Anyone who doesn’t beat me to the line has twice the laps to run.”

I laughed and broke into a run. Some of them laughed along and a few dozen feet slapped the pavement behind me. Then, in my slacks and my respectable leather flats, I felt my foot land a bit wrong on a weak ankle. My knee crumpled and I skidded against the pavement. So much weight hitting the hard, unforgiving surface. I had forgotten what it was to fall after so many years. The pain, the pride, it was excruciating. I pulled myself up, my students forming a half-circle around me. Concealing laughter, expressing concern… mostly just staring stunned at the unlikelihood of it all. Their pretty white teacher having to pick herself up from the ground, her pants ripped and bloody. “Okay, Carla, looks like you’re leading stretches today.” Baffled, bloodied, I limped to the office.

A half-hour later, all of us back in the classroom, I cut into my Algebra lesson by telling them to just go ahead and get it over with. “I know you want to laugh about it. Go ahead, tell me how ridiculous I looked.” Nervous chuckles gave way to exclamations and vivid retellings. “You see,” I said, “You see what I’ll do trying to get the very best out of you?” I’ll break myself in the process, I thought. Foolish, foolish me.

The next day, during Algebra, my administrator came to observe. Sitting in the back of the classroom, taking notes on a tablet bought with grant-money. All the teachers had one. As I had always done, I continued teaching as though he wasn’t there. Leaning in to address a student question, I didn’t realize until he was a few feet away that he had moved from his spot in the back. I tried to continue, moved to the next slide, then he caught my eye and motioned me to step aside. The buzzing started in again in my head and I stopped mid-sentence and stepped to the side as he walked to the front and continued my lesson, straight from my own slides. After a few minutes, he nodded to my students and to me and walked out of the room. Shakily, I wrote the practice problems on the board and slid into a chair. What could it mean? A critique? Feedback on my teaching style? Meant to be a teachable moment to me as a young teacher? Reminding me of my place? Somehow, the day eventually ended and I sat at my desk with hot tears streaming down my face. I called my Chicago-mentor. I said many things. I resolved to walk out of there and never return. “Now don’t be reactive, Adrienne. You have a tendency to do that. Think of the kids.” So I loaded my bag and got in the car and drove home. The experience wasted me. I felt like a husk, hollowed out and tossed around by a small breeze claiming to be a gale force wind.

Gains were made and warily reported during parent teacher conferences. If I was lucky, someone might be available to translate. My students were unreliable at this not only because of their incentive to bend the truth, but also because a number of them also did not speak Spanish. Older siblings bridged the gap and had, apparently, taught them to speak as a toddler using only English. Language aside, parents are parents. Flawed, well-meaning, hopeful. I committed myself to them, set goals, made promises. Silly, stupid me.

In the end I learned that I had been unsuccessful at keeping my head down. The administrator – burdened as he was with a school board dotted with parents of students in my class who had seen first hand the gains I had made with their children – had to get inventive. He gathered together a group of boys I had sent in for a referral and got them to make a professionally and personally damning complaint. He looked right into my eyes as he pulled the report from a file beside his desk. “The adults present stated that this report was untrue,” he said. “Of course it isn’t true,” I replied. And yet he replaced the paper into the file. Later a coworker recounted a man-to-man conversation with this administrator regarding my time at the school. “I just don’t do well with strong females,” he reportedly said.

The following week I handed in my letter of resignation. My students were told I was needed at home and assumed I must be pregnant. A few of the girls hugged me and cried, the rest of them looked back at me with dull eyes. I was doing just what they had known I would do all along – leaving them behind.The buzzing stopped, left me numb from all the promises I had broken. I packed my bag and drove away for the last time. Pomegranates rolled along the road. I had only made it to November.

If You’ve Ever Wondered

If you’ve ever wondered why the school year doesn’t begin until after Labor Day in Chicago, the reason is that the buildings are so antiquated that few of them are outfitted with air conditioners. Starting after Labor Day is meant to spare the children of the City of Broad Shoulders the discomfort of August’s relentless humidity. Instead, we start off the year baking behind tall windows that open only as wide as absolutely necessary in a second story school building.

On my very first day of teaching, I wore a khaki shirtdress. A-line and tied with a sash, it was something out of a movie about a lovely young teacher setting out to make the world a little more kind, a little more grammatically correct. I don’t remember sweating at all. My students were bright-eyed and darling, except for a few misfits and one boy I most definitely didn’t like the looks of. Eight-year-olds have surprisingly defined notions of themselves and absolutely no way to hide them. The baddies are blatantly sneaky: shoulders sloped in, eyes shining with naughtiness as they shoot sideways glances, always laughing with their mouths shut tight. This boy’s mother would be a headache for the entire school year – passive-aggressive emails, insincere smiles, tests returned with little handwritten questions posing as statements: “Mikey doesn’t recall learning it this way in second grade.” Poor Mikey, I got off easy only answering to her for a year of my life.

I don’t remember sweating my first day of teaching, or very many days at all that first year. Ever the contrarian, I breezed through my rookie year seeing success at every turn, innovating just enough to interest administration while still towing the line. The deck was stacked in my favor, of course, but I wouldn’t know the extent of it ’till the following year.

My mentor was also my teaching partner. We had met over the summer in her northside home, bees buzzing around our iced coffees. She encouraged me to think up a theme for my classroom. She shared every last resource she’d gathered and used in the past several years. She split the curriculum down the middle and we planned it together. I have a wonderful picture of the two of us, head to head, on that first day with me in my khaki shirtdress. Our rooms shared a wall that could be folded and pushed aside, which we did to foster collaboration between the classes, but more often to keep an eye out while the other went to the loo.

There were a number of afternoons I stood at the wall red-faced and sputtering retorts to Mikey’s mom that would later be carefully whittled down and sucked dry of all spitfire, then punted back via email with the principal CC’d. Sometimes she couldn’t help me, though, like when I accidentally filled the tank of our beloved class Beta with water that was too cold and he floated pathetically to the top, flipping his tail a bit. “Just take him away from me. I can’t bear to look. It’s too sad.” The fish later recovered, so I learned to do some things on my own.

There is a special power wielded by teachers using a red pen and letters of the alphabet. Adults understand the limits of this power, but children with their magical thinking can take things much too far. For some, the letters came like coins from the tooth fairy. For others, they were a symbol of the world’s unfairness. A not-yet-understood example of the lie that trying your best is always good enough. Emily had a particularly hard time swallowing these letters. They were never the ones she wanted – the A’s with their pinnacle; their ascending, symmetrical grace. She was an average student. She believed she was trying her very best and so did I and so did her parents. She crumpled under criticism. But Emily had this incredibly fascinating capacity for cutting away the fat when she spoke. Also when she wrote. But she never got an A, so she “wasn’t a good writer”. Adults understand the limits of a rubric, but still we stretch the students out on them like a form of medieval torture.

In November we got two new students in our classroom. One of them was difficult with a capital D. We could even call him Defiant, only he never threw anything, so that might be an overstatement in this day and age. Our lengthy sidebars regarding his behavior became tedious to my other students, patiently awaiting their lesson (yes, stacked deck). Eventually, Emily raised her hand and spoke directly to Capital D: “You know, D, I have a lot to learn this year and every time you interrupt Mrs. Garrison you keep me from learning what I need to know.” I was so incredibly proud of her – for asserting herself, her goals. But when the honor’s reception came around she couldn’t attend. Not enough A’s.

On the last day of school I put my beloved green viney plant in the back of my car. The greenhouse effect was somehow unfriendly to the poor thing and when I returned a few hours later it was black. Just completely black. I was wearing the shoes I wore on the first day of school but that day the glue attaching the wedged heel to the sole came undone. I cleverly reattached it using my stapler and managed to get through that day okay. Some of the students in the grade below came to me wondering why they hadn’t been placed in my classroom. “I’m not teaching here next year,” I told them.

“Where are you teaching?”

“California.”

Five days later the wheels went up and my plane headed west where I would rejoin my husband. His residency had begun a few weeks prior, leaving me couch-hopping as I planned end-of-the-year reflections and read final essays.