Friday, May 29, 2020

Don’t Wait for February


My fellow Well-Meaning White Lady teachers out there…there are so damn many of us, it’s downright embarrassing. Isn’t it? The best of us recognize how marinated in white privilege we are, no matter who we voted for, no matter what the percentage of pesticide-free organic produce filling up our reusable shopping bags.

That’s…a start, I guess. But even in our awkward state of alliance, we kind of suck. The high-achieving Hermiones among us miss the point completely, tripping over each other to earn the most house points for woke-ness. And don’t even get me started on the Mean Girls among us who’ve managed to weaponize anti-racism against each other – couching pettiness in equity jargon to get the edge in an argument, looking for weakness everywhere but the mirror.

We speak in terms of “gaps,” and how to “close” them, rarely if ever acknowledging that the so-called achievement gap itself is a cultural construction. It’s not random. Somebody had to decide what counts as “achievement” in the first place. Somebody had to decide what tools we were going to use to measure said achievement. Somebody – despite piles of research that quantifies teacher-student relationships and student voice as crucial for equitable success – somebody helps us teachers feel justified in pushing those things aside because “There’s just so much to cover!” to get our students ready for those achievement-measuring tests.

And somebody – in the name of providing The Best educators for public school students – decided that you can’t get through the door without a battery of expensive degrees, internships, and piles of standardized tests. Somebody put up locked gates instead of windows. Those of us who got in are smart, talented, and passionate…but those qualities alone wouldn’t have gotten us anywhere. We needed money and time and more money – we needed privilege, in other words – to truly unlock those gates. And here we are, disproportionately white.

Many of us are grappling with how to be anti-racist while knowing that we got here in the first place through a labyrinth of racist systems – and we continue to run through the hamster wheels of inherently racist systems that built our city and our state and our entire nation and the demographics of every Seattle school. Folks…it’s messed up. And I won’t attempt to resolve it here beyond acknowledging the stark, messed-up, racist reality of it all. There’s no way to reconcile or justify the cognitive dissonance and inequities that got us here.

But…here we are anyway. And what now?

I don’t know, man. I’m no expert. But here are a few little baby steps toward anti-racist practice that I think we white teachers can take:

Let’s stop telling our students of color how to feel about…anything. If they want to exclaim that George Washington was racist, let’s engage that, or at least give them room to rant it.

Let’s lean in to tangents and off-topic questions. If we don’t know, let’s be honest about that and maybe model how to find an answer, or have an answer ready for them the next day.

Let’s make a point of speaking respectfully to and about their parents and grandparents – to the students and when we’re talking with colleagues.

Let’s own our mistakes and apologize to our students with sincerity and grace.

Let’s acknowledge when things are terrible, and that we care. “Yes, I did hear about that lady with the dog in Central Park. Isn’t in awful?”

Let’s really work as hard as we can to NEVER flipping be that lady with the dog in Central Park. I’m looking at you, Nextdoor.

And speaking of Nextdoor, let’s also work hard to not be NIMBYs. Our ancestors either stole this land from indigenous people or benefitted from the co-option of that land. I think we can all put on our big girl pants and be okay with some new building that’s going to block our view of downtown and bring in more renters.

Let’s spend a lot of careful, intentional time planning our lessons for Black Lives Matter at School: Week of Action. And if our school doesn’t participate in that…let’s advocate for participating in it next year.  
Let’s not wait for MLK’s birthday and Black History Month to put this stuff at the forefront. The resources are there. It is completely possible to put intentional anti-racist focus into all subjects, all lessons. Because we can’t afford to wait until February. 

Please don’t wait for February.



Monday, May 4, 2020

Pedagogy of a Plague

Me, kind of not sucking at distance-teaching...
I’ve been wanting to write about this for weeks, but it’s been impossible to settle on one particular way to feel about teaching in the midst of a pandemic. Ultimately, I guess, I don’t have any one particular way to feel about it.

There are moments of success, connecting in real ways with families and students over the phone or video chat or whatever. I kind of LOVE creating video lessons, like to the point where I’m tweaking out on it a little. I’m not saying they’re any good. I’m just saying I love this shiny new tool in my toolbox and I will now build 50 different dilapidated birdhouses in a variety of shapes and colors because TEACHING!

And there are moments of struggle and fail. Many of them. Trying to teach myself how to schedule a video IEP meeting on Microsoft Teams had me flat on my back in grown-ass-lady tantrum mode a few weeks ago. And, as much as I love making video lessons, I dread doing “live” shit. My “live” shit  is weak, sparse, redundant, and not super-well attended. I hope to balls it’s not part of our performance evaluation this year, because holy moly, is all.

But the sharpest and most persistent stick in my side is this: I still can’t seem to find the cognitive balance between the voices that want so much more teachy-teaching from us (administrators, mayors, state officials, newspaper columnists, lawyers, tiger parents, etc.) and the voices that want so much less (parents, generally). The closest consensus between all of these voices seems to be “NO NOT LIKE THAT!”


Last week I got super salty about a McSweeney’s article, of all things, that mercilessly exposed the sad fact that we classroom teachers kind of suck at digital marketing distance learning. It’s almost as if most of us have had no training or practice in the field. It’s almost as if we’re using clunky technology that makes a grrrl really lean in to those tech skills she acquired growing up on the farm in the 80’s, twisting the TV’s rabbit-ear antennae to hear and see MASH through the static. We’re doing the best we can with the flimsy-ass tools we’ve got, trying to calibrate our skill set to parameters that just don’t fit.

The crankiest part of me wants to ask…. “And for what?”

Because is any of this actually helping? Or is our hard work and Apollo-13ing basically just…performative? Expected of us? Defensive, even, against the many, many detractors of public education and its teachers? Does anyone who might truly benefit from our work even want us jumping through all these flaming hoops?

We’ve done a lot of good, meaningful work, too. I’m proud of us for keeping our students fed, and for how we’re providing families with books and laptops and various and sundry gap-narrowing devices. That’s essential work.

But this so-called “continuous learning” rollout…I mean…What even was school in the first place that we’re scrambling so hard to maintain its status quo? What do “grade level standards” even mean when people are dying of plague-on-crack and class inequities are blazingly exposed like never before? What am I even doing when I reach out to a family that I know has been hit hard by all this COVID mess and I'm all like “Good news, dude. Phonics lessons!”

So, yeah. I get it. I’m disappointed in us, too. I wish I could do more. When the schools first closed I saw it as this tremendous opportunity to revitalize what public education even means. We were free! We could keep what was working and toss the rest; help our students follow their passions and start a whole new public education revolution!

The thing is…I was tired. So were my students. Any attempt at psyching them up for the revolution left them kind of shrugging and asking for a nice, safe, predictable worksheet. I’d be lying to say I wasn’t relieved. I’m too weary for revolution right now, folks. Maybe another day.

So, for now, I wake up every morning, down a pot of coffee, and twitch and tweak my way through this brave new world of digitizing the status quo. It’s not good, and it’s not bad. But, you know. What is? All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and now we get to see them play out through the filter of a global pandemic, hopefully learning some new skills along the way.

No easy answers. But I guess I can think of worse ways to spend a plague.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Sidelines

Art by Gregg Chadwick

This might be a shameful thing to admit, but I will say it: I’m glad to be safe. I feel guilty. And I feel sorry. But I also feel safe and glad.

There was so much about teaching middle school that was hurting, it’s hard to even know where to begin. So I guess I’ll begin with the parts that have been good: my students, their spirit, our spirit, the pure thrill of innovation and bursts of success where you least expect it. Their joy and humor. Their sharp, incisive wit. Their love. How we all come together around whatever obstacles are in our path that particular day. Just how they come into the room and everything falls into perfect, chaotic sense.

But there’s a fair amount of fear there, too. And anger. And powerlessness.

Outside of my own classroom, there is no room for all the space I take up…even when I make myself small, squeezing my too-large body through the tightly packed chairs at staff meetings in the library, squeezing my too-large voice back into my throat. There are facial expressions I’ve learned not to make, empathy I’ve learned not to feel, and a bottomless well of words I can’t say without the grown-ups side-eyeing each other, glancing anxiously at the clock.

There are broken things everywhere that I am not supposed to notice or try to fix. There is a piece of my voice that no longer makes any sound. Counterintuition is the new intuition. There are families who would have loved me and stood by my side back in the early Floor Pie days who hate me now, scolding and shaming across IEP meeting tables. There are speeding buses everywhere, ready for someone to throw you under. And there is always someone to throw you under. Bonus points if you trusted them enough to be within those throwing arms’ reach.

There is sexism so baked-in that I buy into it myself. “We need more male teachers.” There is rape culture that I haven’t been allowed to call rape culture. “The teacher creates the culture in the classroom.” There have been braying jokes about girls and female colleagues and myself that I wasn’t allowed to take seriously. “He’s just a baby.”

That summer, five years ago, the school district HR person had laughed patronizingly when I’d called in the midst of a disappointing job search. He’d all but patted my head when I said “I want to work in an elementary school” as if I’d said “I want to be a princess.” He steered me toward middle school instead.

I tried so hard to be happy about it. I worked so hard to bring the spirit and joy I found in working with younger students to this darker, scarier space. I searched for the good, and I truly did find a wealth of good. I’ve connected with so many students and families. I’ve learned so much from incredibly talented colleagues. I’ve even been able to make significant positive differences now and again.

Still…there’s fear. There’s anger. There’s defeat and a sense of powerlessness. There are ruthless, narrow cracks and corridors to navigate. Even before the quarantine, I knew it was starting to break me.

Working from home is not a vacation. It’s a whole new job – new technology, new challenges to calibrate for social equity, the pedagogy of distance learning, and plenty of raised angry voices telling us (1) how much we’re failing our students by not providing enough lessons, and/or (2) how unfairly we are overwhelming our families with all these relentless lessons. I’m plenty busy. I’m just a lot less broken than I used to feel. I’m safe, surrounded by my kids and cats and husband, and even though this plague might kill us all before next year, these last few weeks have felt like the strangest of blessings.

Honestly, I don’t feel as guilty about that as people probably want me to feel.

We public school teachers were supposed to be rushing into the burning buildings next week, saving the city by providing childcare for the folks who are actually saving the city. First they asked for volunteers. Then they made it mandatory. Then the union stepped in, and now they’re at least trying to make some sense of it – working out safety measures, hazard pay, a generally less behind-the-scenes shady approach to the whole endeavor.

Providing childcare won’t be mandatory for us teachers now. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who hate us for that, but honestly, it shouldn’t be. You don’t want your child in the care of someone who’s being forced to be there under duress. Just trust me on that. You don’t. Honestly, you don’t even want your child in the care of some well-meaning non-ECE professional. But I know most of the world just can’t see it that way.

For example, in a letter to our school superintendent last week, our mayor said this:

[T]his is an emergency where our community needs help now. No one can stand on the sidelines. Every organization and every person has a new job description: do what is needed. The well-being of our children is the responsibility of us all, but it is the core mission of our public schools.

And, okay. She’s not wrong. These are unprecedented times and each of us has a duty to bring our best to the situation.

But I don’t consider any of what I’ve done these past five years – or now, or ever – equivalent to standing on the sidelines. It feels so fundamentally hateful to even suggest it; so irresponsible and so uniquely Seattle to guilt-trip vulnerable people – who are, let’s face it, super-easy targets for this brand of shaming – into harm’s way without so much as a mask or a thank-you.

How I wish that, instead of shaming us tired and broken and PTSD’d teachers, that our city could find a way to recruit an army of talented, dedicated, willing early childhood ed professionals to take this on, and (for the first time in the history of education) pay them what they’re worth.

The city may have just realized that teachers and childcare providers are “essential,” too, but we’ve known it all along. We’ve been fighting and hurting and holding everything up with every last shred of our strength all along. Maybe I’ll offer my childcare services once things make a little more sense and the details have been sorted out. For now, though, I need the littlest breath of peace and space to heal while I figure out how to do my actual job under these extraordinary circumstances.

I hope that’s enough. I’m sorry if it isn’t.

                                                      

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Last Days of the Old Normal

 I’ll admit it. I was wrong in my last post, comparing our recent plague-times to the good old H1N1 scare of 2009. My goodness, what a simpler time it was TWENTY DAYS ago. So much has happened since then.

We were in this weird limbo that weekend when I wrote that post. I’d just learned that a student’s sibling had been hospitalized with a confirmed case. I wasn’t supposed to know, but there it was. I knew. My 1st period class was already seated. The bell had rung. And then a colleague came to the door to pick up the student’s belongings.

Discreetly, in the hallway, grieving beneath a businesslike efficiency, she told me. Now she wouldn’t have to bear that shock and sadness like a secret. We had each other’s back, and the family’s back, too. But I wasn’t supposed to know. So I acted as if I didn’t know.

Deep cleaning was set to happen over the weekend. All I could do was wipe down the desks with Clorox wipes and check my messages, waiting for the doctor’s office to call me back. They told me to call Public Health. Public Health told me to wash my hands and wait to see if symptoms showed up.

That weekend felt like it does when there’s a huge snowmageddon predicted that will supposedly shut down the city, but you don’t see a single cloud in the sky. Ostensibly, everything was still fine. We shopped for extra groceries just in case. But I planned my lessons and worked on my IEPs because there was no way, no way the schools would close. How would they possibly?

Monday, it was all the students could talk about. Those who were still coming to school, that is.   Every day for the past two weeks, my classes had been growing smaller and smaller. Fewer and fewer teachers were coming to work. There was news that two schools in our huge urban school district had closed – one of them citing a similar level of exposure that our own school had experienced. Still, we kept on going. I was proud to keep on going. The students who kept showing up needed routine and caring adults now more than ever. I figured I would keep showing up until they told me not to. I would NOT give in to Townspeople-of -South-Park-level panic. I. Would. Not.   

Tuesday started out normally enough. I woke up at the usual extra-early time to drive The Boy to track practice in the dark. I sat up lazily, picked up my phone, scrolled through social media, and clicked on a story about the situation in Italy.

Italy.

And somehow, everything shifted.

I didn’t consciously change my mind about the seriousness of COVID-19. My mind just changed; its floor giving way to a bottomless well of grieving clarity. I felt sick. Not the sickness of a cold or flu…just a tidal wave of pure despair. I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. As soon as I’d arranged for a sick day and a sub, I fell into a deep sleep filled with anxious dreams, not waking up until mid-afternoon.

And then…I got up. I worked on IEPs. I wrote lesson plans. I read emails about how horrendously my 4th period class had behaved for the sub and started working on a new seating chart. I emailed my colleagues reassuring them that I was all better and would be back at work the next day.

Wednesday, there were fewer students than ever, full of questions and concerns about coronavirus. We watched Governor Inslee speak during our Social Studies class. I answered their questions as best I could. I invited them again and again to wash their hands at the classroom sink. I gave my 4th period class the sternest of lectures about how they’d behaved for my sub the day before.

And then…the announcement came that schools were closing. None of us could believe it. The students weren’t even happy, as I’d expected – just stunned. It didn’t feel real. It couldn’t possibly be true.

But there it was.

And here we are.

A new normal.

It’s a normal I honestly can’t get my head around to define. I’ve called and texted emailed and emailed and texted and called, making sure everyone’s safe and sound. I’ve posted distance learning activities and smiled from the bottom of my heart when I see my students’ sweet little sentences. 


I’ve watched the cherry tree in our front yard go from cold bare branches to Laura-Ashley rose-colored buds to gloriously full cotton-candy bloom.



 I’ve fed the steller’s jays, who wait for me every morning like my own special flock of chickens. 

 

I’ve cancelled trips and hit “refresh” over and over on Amazon, jockeying for a grocery-delivery time slot. I’ve flailed in frustration trying to teach myself how to set up an IEP meeting on Microsoft Teams. I’ve done yoga on the kitchen floor in between e-mail pings from work. I’ve sat for hours with cats on my feet and shoulders. I’ve let my hair grow wild and mermaid-tangled and free.


I’ve absolutely savored all this extra time with my own kids, both of them teenagers now, so gorgeously themselves. They talk non-stop about D&D and video games. They binge-watch their shows and keep up with their schoolwork with minimum nagging. The Boy practices guitar, Grrrl writes and draws. They come and go from their rooms, making their own lunches but gathering as a family at dinner times.

I’ve cried only once – when I read about the high school principal in Brooklyn who died from this. Good people are going to die. The helpers. The ones who put themselves in harm’s way. I cried and then I picked up my phone and saw an opinion piece from the Seattle Times criticizing us teachers for letting our students down. I cried a whole lot more and stayed up all night delving into an audiobook to put it out of my mind. I woke up with a killer migraine, took some meds, answered some emails, had my first virtual team meeting.

The next day, I made enchiladas.

Mr. Black and I just ebb and flow, loving each other, still, with an older, stoic love. We are family to each other. We do what has to be done. We help each other, laugh with each other, squabble when it’s time to order online groceries – a process I love every bit as much as he detests. We move around each other like two old compatible cats in this strange new day-to-dayness of our lives.

What’s coming next, I can’t begin to imagine. The Battle of Hogwarts? Who can say. But, just as Hagrid said, a few books before that Battle of Hogwarts, “What’s coming will come, and we’ll just have to meet it when it does.”

Godspeed, my gentle readers. Stay safe. Wash your hands. 


Sunday, March 8, 2020

Plague & Privilege


I don’t mean to make light of it. Or maybe I do. It all feels so familiar, is all. Remember swine flu in 2009? Remember how people drove to other counties and stood in line for hours with their kids for the vaccine?

Grrrl was one month away from her 3rd birthday – just young enough to get her in under the wire when a limited supply of the vaccine became available at our pediatrician’s office. I felt a little silly showing up an hour early, but there was already a line around the block. In November. In Seattle. During a phase when Grrrl had some pretty serious opinions about never wearing a coat. Other parents were smart and had one waiting in line while the other waited in the car with the babies and toddlers. And they all had coffee. Why oh why had I not thought of bringing coffee?

Meanwhile, Mr. Black had already survived a confirmed case of that very swine flu two weeks earlier. He’d quarantined himself in our bedroom and actually managed to not pass it along to the rest of us. Still, my Grrrl and I hunkered down in the rain and waited for the vaccine line to move, reading her favorite books and singing her favorite songs, coat-less and coffee-less. We didn’t get swine flu. We didn’t even catch colds.

Now my Grrrl is 13, and she diplomatically asks if she can stay home from her Saturday activities. “Are you worried about coronavirus?” I ask.

“No, I’ve just had a bad week,” she says stoically, and after some encouragement tells me that some adult at school publicly called her out and scolded her for holding hands with one of her friends in the hallway. She’s not outraged, or even angry. Just quietly, deeply mortified.   

To make her feel better, I shared some of my own stories from the week. It started with dumb jokes, of course. Somebody coughs. Three other 8th graders yell and point “Aahhh! Coronavirus!” and it’s all fun and games until the anxious kid with seasonal allergies won’t come to school anymore.

The next time something like that happens, it’s not a joke at all. A different anxious student is screaming for real and demanding that student at her table stop sniffing (to be fair, it is pretty gross). But the also-anxious sniffing student she’s screaming at is crying. “It’s just phlegm. I don’t have coronavirus.” He happens to be Asian, and he’s fed up in a way he doesn’t completely grasp after several days of this. I intervene and manage to make it a little bit better. But the boy still cries on and off for much of the day, and the girl hasn’t been back to school since.

At my yoga class, the teacher asks us if we’re all working from home as much as possible. I’m surprised to be the only one in the class who doesn’t answer with an enthusiastic “YES.” When I say that I work in a middle school, so much about them freezes. Not just their bodies, but their facial expressions. It’s like..they have the presence of mind to not chase me from the room with pitchforks and torches, but they haven’t perfected a replacement behavior for that impulse. I joke about it on social media, but that look of frozen terror in those faces is going to haunt me. There’s something very….not funny about it.

At school, the jokes continue. We’re asked to present a lesson from our school nurse during homeroom to curb the hysteria and channel all that anxious energy toward hand-washing. You're welcome:


In the hallway, students are joking “Let’s lick the doorknobs so they cancel school!” There are reports of students fake-sneezing at people in Starbucks because HILARIOUS.

By Friday, well…shit gets slightly more real.

I am almost supernaturally calm, because this was inevitable. While the parents of our school’s Facebook page start engaging in exactly the rhetoric one would expect of parents on a school’s Facebook page, I wash my hands and discreetly message my doctor’s office for next steps.

Over the phone, a Public Health nurse advises me to just keep swimming, but monitor for symptoms for the next fourteen days. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Fever? Nope. Coughing? Nope. Shortness of breath? Nope with a side order of nope sauce. Lately I’ve been starting each morning by taking a big, luxurious breath of rich, creamy, full-fat oxygen. I count my blessings. And I acknowledge the privileged space I take up in this world.

I’m honest with Grrrl about all this, and I talk her through the likeliest scenarios. I assure her that even in the worst-case one, the four of us will be safe and sound with our health insurance, our paid sick days, our ability to purchase food and supplies ahead of time, our access to technology at home, and our being in low-risk groups to begin with.  

My fears are for the people who don’t have access to all of that. And my fears are for a society that is elbowing them out of the way to snatch up the last bottle of hand sanitizer.


Friday, February 14, 2020

My Vitriolic Valentine


How do we know it’s that bad? He sent me an email that was maybe an apology, or more likely one of those “sorry you’re such a fruitcake” non-apologies, and I didn’t even read it. Instead, I blurred my eyes out of focus so as not to accidentally ingest any possible doubled-down toxicity as I clicked through all the necessary steps to send it and any further attempts at contact directly to my Junk Mail folder.

And even though it happens to be Valentine’s Day, this has nothing to do with ghosting some bad old boyfriend. No. I’m ghosting my son’s high school guidance counselor instead.

I don’t care to share my son’s business on here, but I do want to write about my own experience of the fallout from my attempt at helping him sort out some things at school. I want to share it because it was one of the more surreal moments in my 10 years of IEP team meetings, and I need to air it out before it rots in my soul and hurts forever.

The last time something like this happened, The Boy was 4 or 5 years old, still in preschool and undiagnosed. Some preschool dad went full asshole on me on the playground. Screamed at me “I’m sick of YOU, I’m sick of your KID! He should be kicked out of school!”



I high-roaded it and waited for an apology that never came. I heard through the grapevine that his wife was “torn” – appalled by hubby’s bad behavior but super-proud of him for standing up to, um, that autistic kid and his mom on a preschool playground. I saw him years later at some kid’s birthday party and he actually tried to talk to me as if nothing had happened. Ha. I saw him again at a high school open house a few years ago and I actually moved seats so I wouldn’t have to see the back of his big stupid head.

There have been a lot of awful moments between then and now on the ASD Road to Life in the Mainstream, but that first moment is the one that can still bring bitter tears to my eyes all these years later.

Today, though, I might have to crown a new king of that particular domain.

He didn’t like that I’d emailed at night and then expected to hear back by late morning. He didn’t like that I said I’d drop by the school that afternoon if I didn’t hear back. “Didn’t like” is putting it mildly, though. He rhetorically tore me several new ones today. Scolded. Talked over me. Scoffed and made these little high-pitched laughing sounds. Kept on going even after I’d said “Please stop, you’re making me uncomfortable.” I am not exaggerating any of this. And yes, I admit that my whole email/drop-by strategy was on the obnoxious side, but the vitriol he spewed in my general direction….he hated me in that moment. Hated me for sending an obnoxious email when I was confused and upset and worried about my kid. Hated me for showing up at that meeting still upset and worried and confused.

He tried to explain how busy teachers are. I told him I know that, because I am also a teacher. He told me he was surprised to hear that I’m a teacher, because I don’t conduct myself like a professional educator. He told me my email was bullying. The Boy was sitting right there crying. I started crying too. Nevertheless, he persisted. Eventually he had to leave for another meeting, and it was time for The Boy’s dentist appointment anyway, and we left.

Yes. This all really happened. I don’t believe it either.

So. I didn’t curl up in a ball and die like I wanted to. I cried in my car for maybe 30 minutes, replied to the administrator’s apologetic email with a simple, straightforward account of what had happened, gathered my wits about me, and drove to my own school.

My students had been making valentines…little choppy pink and red hearts and scraps of pink and red paper all over the floor. They were so excited about our upcoming mid-winter break that they all joined in with the kid who makes fart noises and fart-noised up the joint until I begged them to stop and a girl explained “Fart noises are how you know we LOVE you, Ms. Floor Pie!”

Still, in the pit of my heart I kept hearing it. “You don’t conduct yourself like a professional educator.”

When the kids went joyfully home for the day, I cried all over again. A few colleagues have reassured me that I’m not crazy and that I did not, in fact, deserve that level of vitriol. But I’ve been at this game long enough to know that I’m never going to change vitriolic minds.

So, okay. I don’t need to.

But I also don’t need to shut up about it.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Never Not Broken

Art by Emily Winfield Martin

Part One: Love

What I hear is a very familiar outburst of “SHIT!” in a high-pitched child’s voice, trying out the power of that word. So familiar, in fact, that it barely registers at all except for the out-of-place surroundings.

She’d made a mistake, knocked some things over, spilled the coffee. It’s pretty much the only reaction you could expect if it were water instead of coffee, my classroom filled with middle schoolers instead of a posh organic grocery store filled with posh organic shoppers. I am one of them in many ways: Prius in the parking lot, well-crafted fingerless mittens on my hands, and the money to pay for a mini-cart filled with fresh organic oranges and cookies and grapes.

But in just as many ways, I am not one of them at all. I don’t look up or even grimace when she hollers “SHIT!” and spills the coffee. I don’t freeze up until I hear the stern man’s voice in response: “Go. Now. Without your coffee. GO!”

I only look when she strides right past me out the door, not a child but a grown woman, striding out the door and down the sidewalk screaming “FUUUUUCK! AAAHHHHHH!” like it’s just another Thursday at my job, except there’s no staff of loving adults who will graciously head her off; no quiet counselor’s office for her to take deep breaths and plunge her hands into some kinetic sand; no one to bring her a granola bar and ask her if she’s ready to try again.

In the posh organic grocery store, there is only nervous laughter and commiseration among the staff and shoppers. If they were my students, we’d unpack it. I’d insist on grace and respect for the person who is struggling, but I’d make a space for the others to share their feelings about it. We’d share stories about the times when we got angry and lost it. We’d even reminisce about the time when I got angry and lost it. (“You were SO MAD, Ms. Floor Pie! We thought you were gonna quit that day!” So did I, children. But I felt much better after I took a break and came back when I was calm.) And then I’d remind them that we’re not robots and that we all experience anger and frustration. It’s what we do next that counts. And we’d make a plan for how to welcome the student back in when they were ready.

But it’s a grocery store, not my classroom, so I just keep rattling my mini-cart up and down the aisles, taking the deep breaths I wish I could have coached that woman to take and feeling pretty certain it wouldn’t have done a damn bit of good anyway. People say it all the time. We’re doing them a disservice. What about the Real World? What will they do then, when there’s no kinetic sand and no breaks in the counselor’s office and no granola bars and only a cold world of consequences? What then?

“Sorry about that interruption, ma’am,” says the manager when I pause by the La Croix’s to decide on a flavor. He looks like a younger, more earnest Ron Swanson. He probably thinks I look so shell-shocked because somebody yelled “SHIT” in my favorite posh organic grocery store.

I’m supposed to tell him it’s okay, but I can’t find the words. So instead I just blurt, “I work with mentally ill children.”

This is a pretty big exaggeration, but not entirely untrue. Not to mention rhetorically effective. The flash in his eyes.

So I keep blurting, motioning to the fruit and cookies in my cart. “All of this food is for them. They’re having their Writers Celebration today and every single one of them, even the ones who hate school the most and always refuse to do work…every single one of them wrote a story.”

He nods, maybe wondering what my point is. There’s no real need to keep blurting, but there I go anyway. “And I’m so PROUD of them, but I’m so worried about them, too. That woman sounded just like some of my students when they get angry, and I feel like I just saw how the rest of the world will see them when they grow up…and I know that no matter how hard I work every day and how much progress they make, there’s really nothing I can do to…to keep that from happening to them.”

And then, because I can read true empathy on his face, and because I’m pretty sure he cares but has no clue what to actually say, I add “But I know you have a job to do and a store to run. I understand.”  And truly, I did.

“Thank you,” was all he said. But he really meant it.

 Art by Emily Winfield Martin

Part Two: Hate

Weeks later, during a particularly wonderful but also particularly challenging school year, I’m still pondering that episode. I’d meant to write it up as a Christmas-themed blog post, but something stopped me. Maybe I didn’t want to put a false glow on something that, in fact, is not as glowingly simple as that story makes it appear.

Weeks later, in fact, I found myself crying slow, calm, steady tears in a movie theater by myself on a Thursday afternoon instead of in my classroom, where I should have been.

I was at the movies because my principal had sent me home for the day.

My principal sent me home for the day because I’d straight-up lost it in her office, sobbing and sobbing because one of my students, in his disability-manifested anger, had ranted at me in the hallway in a particularly sexist and rape-culture tone, and because he’d recruited another of my students to join in, both of them braying the joyless laughter of white men reclaiming their power.

I was crying because several female colleagues I love and trust did most assuredly NOT have my back on it, in fact high-roaded and blamed me for it. (“He’s just a baby,” one of them is reported to have said in a department meeting the next day.)

I was crying because this is not the first time something like that has happened.

I was crying because every time it happens, the message is “Floor Pie, you’re just too sensitive. You need a therapist. You need to get your shit together on your own time.”

I was crying because, as rotten as it feels when stuff like this happens, I absolutely do NOT want to quit this job. I can’t keep myself from it. It’s the only thing I’m this supernaturally good at. It’s the only thing that makes me feel like I’m worthy of taking up my privileged space in this world. I’m called to it. I love it even when I hate it. I couldn’t quit it if I tried.

Art by Emily Winfield Martin

Part Three: Resolve

This story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, and neither does this work. I came to it with passion and ferocity, but that doesn’t mean I get to be the heroine of the narrative.  And, like I tell my students, I’m not just some right-doing robot. I get hurt and blow up too, just like they do. And when that happens, I take a break, maybe curse in the privacy of my own home instead of posh grocery stores and classrooms. I cry soundlessly in the back rows of movie theaters. Then I go home and watch TV with my kids, plan little vacations, order Indian food with extra samosas. I talk it through and through and through with my husband who tries to make me feel better by saying things like “Well, you work in public education. Public education is messed up.”

This work breaks me. But…this work builds me. This work lets me feel hopeful in an increasingly hopeless world; it lets me feel like I am doing something helpful for the people most likely to be steamrolled under the emerging dictatorship we’re all living with because we can’t bring ourselves to die for the cause just yet.

So, here I am. Hating what I love, loving what I hate, joyful and striving and so very, very tired. There are things I could do next. There are ways I could keep doing this but make the parts of it that suck at least suck less. There are good days, bad days, unmemorable days, and summer vacations. There are times – lots of times – when I feel connected to this world with benevolence and joy. There are times when I’m counting the days to the next school break. What’s next for me and this gloriously ridiculous career? One way or another, for better or for worse, it’s likely to be more of the same.

That’s not a happy ending. But I suppose it’s a hopeful one.
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