Category Archives: compassion and cooperation

A Year Ago Today

It was a year ago today, and at the literal last possible moment, that I was told that I would not be coming back to Charter High School for the next year. I had absolutely no warning or indication that it was coming and, in fact, had been explicitly and repeatedly told that it wasn’t by people I foolishly trusted; I have copies of emails and instant messages to prove it.

A lot has changed in that year, but what really hits me is what hasn’t changed. I still, to this day, have not any reliable explanation; no one has bothered to give me the decency of telling me exactly what happened to me or why it happened. I’ve heard different stories from different people, each told to me in almost embarrassed tones, like the speaker didn’t really believe what they were saying. None of the principle players involved in this little drama has ever reached out to me, either to explain or to apologize.

For a year now, I’ve held doors open; I’ve been available and accessible in the hopes that someone would grow a conscience and send me a message, to offer me some kind of explanation, to tell me the truth. No more of that, though; I’m done. I’m not accepting the apology I never got, but I’m not going to leave myself open anymore, either. I’m too hurt – and too angry – to keep hoping that they’re going to suddenly become decent or ethical. I need to move on, and in order to do that, I need to lay this baggage down.

IMG_0648

Leave a comment

Filed under compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, dumbassery, ethics, failure, frustrations, General Griping, history, Mrs. Chili as Student, really?!, self-analysis, That's your EXCUSE?!, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Unhappy Anniversary

It was a year ago today that events set into motion the crash of my professional life.

I didn’t think that today was going to be a big deal, really; it’s just another day, nothing has happened that changes my thinking or feelings about the whole mess, and, if anything, I’m more and more glad that I’m out of that deeply broken culture every time I talk to those who are still struggling to stay sane and ethical in it.

I’m finding, though, that I’m wrestling to put down the last of my bitter feelings toward the people who, for whatever reasons, let things happen the way they did.  I’m trying to come to some sort of peace with the fact that people looked me in the eye and outright lied to me.  I’m trying to find ways to forgive people for their callous disregard for the obvious needs of the students and the staff.  I’m trying to let go of the rage against the perfect storm of incompetence and utter failure of ethics that nearly led to the loss of a precious life.  I’m working on releasing the anger and disappointment I feel for someone who participated in all of it despite the fact that I just know he wanted no part of it, but did it, anyway.  I’m practicing detachment from some people who said that they cared about me – loved me, even – but whose actions were anything but caring and loving.

I am cautiously hopeful that my professional plane is about to taxi down a new runway and this crash was not fatal.  Once I’m proverbially ‘wheels-up,’ I think I’ll finally be able to put this experience well and truly behind me.  In the meantime, I’m working on focusing on the good that came out of this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experience; my chosen daughter is healthy and whole and has done nothing to harm herself since that day, and I’m as adamant today as I was a year ago that, even had I known the hell that was to follow, I wouldn’t do a single thing any differently.

3 Comments

Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, ethics, failure, frustrations, I can't make this shit up..., I've got this kid...., Mrs. Chili as Student, really?!, self-analysis, Teaching

Wordy Wednesday: A Shot of Hope

For a long time now, I’ve been worried that I was never going to be back in the classroom.  After all that happened to me at CHS, I was feeling pretty burned; for all that the place was pretty laid-back and permissive, I still managed to get into trouble, so it stands to reason that it’s highly unlikely I’m going to find someplace where my enthusiasm, passion, and ethics won’t be a liability.

I met Jay for coffee this afternoon.  He’s a teacher at a different charter school (and a hell of a photographer; hit that link and go on over and click around.  Leave some feedback; he’s looking for some interaction), and the parent of one of my former students.  We’d been tangentially in touch since before I was dismissed from CHS; he and I clicked when we first met, he was very supportive of my efforts to kick his recalcitrant daughter in the ass, and we share a very similar perspective on politics, spirituality, and the underlying purpose (and ethics) of education.  Anyway, I left a comment on his blog about a particularly stunning portrait he’d posted of Sweet Pea, and a few emails later, we’d set up a coffee date.

I left that hour feeling much better about where I am professionally.  He told me a lot of things I really needed to hear (though, let’s be clear, I don’t think for a second that he said them because they were what I needed to hear; he’s not like that at all).  He confirmed for me a couple of things that I deeply suspected but really didn’t want to admit (I’m over that now, by the way; I’m done telling myself stories to try to make it hurt less).  He told me that not only should I go back to teaching, but that I very likely had to; we share a proclivity of spirit that compels us to work with young people, and he recognizes in me the same drive that moves him to do the work that he does.  He essentially told me that I wasn’t going to be happy doing anything else – that I could do other work, certainly, but that I would never be as fulfilled as I will be teaching.  I don’t think he’s wrong.

Jay also offered me a glimmer of hope that there may well be a place for me in a classroom.  I’m going to chase down a couple of contacts tomorrow (and send out a couple of resumes, as well) and see what becomes of it.  While I’m not going to force myself into a situation where I have to change who I am to fit in with the culture so much that I don’t recognize myself anymore, neither am I going to give up entirely on the idea of being a teacher.  The truth is that I miss the kids too much to abandon the work, and I love who I am while I’m doing it.

Onward.

1 Comment

Filed under admiration, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, debate and persuasion, ethics, I love my job, job hunting, Learning, Mrs. Chili as Student, out in the real world, parental units, self-analysis, winging it

Wordy Wednesday: The Conversation We Should be Having

Go get yourself comfortable; this could take a while.

By now, 5 days after the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, we’re pretty well steeped in the hysterical rhetoric coming from both “sides” of the political spectrum; the “left” is screaming for rational gun control legislation and humane mental health services while the “right” is advocating arming teachers and eliminating “gun-free zones.”  The fighting is as predictable as it is pointless; background checks wouldn’t have prevented this tragedy, the guns used in the shooting were obtained legally, guns are not the problem, you can’t plan for the crazy people, there’s evil in the world and there’s nothing you can do about it, The Second Amendment….

Blah, blah, blah.

This is not the conversation we should be having.  We don’t have a gun problem; we have a humanity problem.

Are there reasonable things that we should be doing as concerns guns and weaponry that we’re not doing?  Of course there are.  I’m not going to go into them now, though; I’m betting you’re sick of hearing about them (I am) and anyone who knows me, even if they only know me here, knows that I have both feet firmly planted in the pro-gun control camp.

I don’t want to talk about guns or lobbies or the NRA.  I want to talk about culture.

A few months ago, my grandfather observed how difficult raising kids is “nowadays.”  I kind of called him on that; I said that raising kids is just as hard now as it was when he had kids, or when he was a kid himself, and that it might in fact be easier given all the modern conveniences and health care and safety equipment.  He shut me down, though, and this is how he did it; “When I was a kid, we didn’t have a telephone, but my mother would know that I’d done something wrong before I even made it home.  The whole neighborhood watched out for everyone else’s kids.  If I did something I wasn’t supposed to, my friends’ mother would take it out of me at the scene, then my mother would take it out of me when I got home.  When my kids were little, it was still like that.  No one looks out for anyone else anymore; they’re all too worried about lawsuits.”

While I’m not sure it’s the lawsuits that people are worried about, Grampa’s point has merit; we don’t look out for each other anymore.  We have drawn very clear and very rugged lines around our lives, such that it is the rare person who will step up to correct another person’s child, or even to offer to help someone else.

Case in point; the other day, I was in a department store.  Little kids love to hide in the clothes racks (I did, and I bet you did, too), and, look at that!   I found a small person in a clothes rack.  I looked up and didn’t see an accompanying adult, so I asked the kid where her grown up was and stayed with her until said grown-up appeared (which, I might add, was not immediately, and when the grown-up did arrive, she was not in the state of panic I would have expected of a parent of a small child in a department store around Christmastime, but I digress).  She scolded the child and ignored me completely, which left me feeling as though the help I offered by staying with the kid (or, not for nothing, discovering her whereabouts in the first place) was both unnecessary and unwelcome.

I have been “spoken to” many times in the course of my professional life for “caring too much” about my students; for being interested in them as human beings, for listening to them when they spoke about their lives or their frustrations or their goals, for offering advice and support and, yes, love.  It wasn’t my “job” to nurture them as people, it was my job to stuff “knowledge” into their heads, to provide opportunities for them to spit that knowledge back out, and to assess their competence in doing so.  I was told that it was the counselor’s job to take care of the kids’ emotional needs, but then listened as that same counselor said, out loud and in public, that he didn’t “do” crying kids.  A facebook friend observed that “Hell, I remember when everything shifted. Prior to my junior year in HS (that was 83-84?) the counselors went from just that, someone you could go to get help or just talk, into someone who helped with ONLY curriculum and college placement. Now they see a kid with a problem they call the idiots at CPS and all hope is lost for the poor child!

I don’t think he’s wrong.

We don’t take care of each other, plain and simple.  We aren’t allowed to check in to make sure that things are okay at home; pediatricians were asking, not too long ago, for legal permission to inquire about guns in the home.  They were told ‘no.’  When a teacher sees something in a kid’s behavior that raises red flags, we’re told that we have to wait until there’s a clear and obvious crisis situation before we’re allowed to call someone else, who may or may not intervene.  We mind our own business and keep our heads down.

The message that sends is that there’s no one to go to if you need help.  If you’re in trouble, if you’re confused or frightened, if you’re bullied or harassed, if you’re feeling hopeless, there’s nowhere for you to go unless you’re threatening yourself or others; the situation needs to be escalated to crisis mode before there are any systems in place to help you, and by then it may be too late.  There’s nothing that can be done; you just have to suck it up and deal with it because you know what?  Life is hard.

I’m calling bullshit.

The problem we have isn’t with guns, though guns are certainly an exacerbating factor.  The problem we have is that we don’t know how to manage a basic level of common human decency.  We don’t know how to care about one another, and we don’t know how to accept that care without its being perceived as some sort of judgment about our fitness.  We’re so wrapped up in ourselves – our rights, our privileges, our perceived greatness -that we fail to recognize that our lives are inextricably wrapped up in others’ lives, too.  We listen to our politicians use violent rhetoric and watch them work tirelessly to further disadvantage those who are already behind.  Our entertainment glorifies violence and the loner; the rugged individual who keeps to himself and does whatever he has to do – up to and including hurting others – to ‘get the job done.’  We have, as a culture, completely swallowed the myth of isolation; that we are alone in the world, that the only things we get are the things we get for ourselves, and that everyone else should, at best, be viewed with suspicion.

I reject that mentality wholesale.  We can totally fix this gun problem and this mental health problem by just being decent to each other.  Let teachers care for their students.  Ask for help when you need it (and accept it when it’s offered).  Be willing to think and look critically at the habits and traditions you follow, the ways you solve problems, and the ways you talk to and treat other people.  Think cooperation before competition, and abandon the idea that someone else’s success means that there’s less for you.  Hold a door open, yield the right of way, look people in the eye and really listen.

Let’s try being decent and see what happens.

8 Comments

Filed under analysis, compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, failure, frustrations, General Griping, I can't make this shit up..., Learning, out in the real world, parental units, politics, popular culture, really?!, rhetoric, self-analysis, Yikes!

Angry Love Letter

I subscribe to Letters of Note.  You should, too.

This was today’s offering.  It’s a letter from Pat Conroy, the author of, among other things, The Prince of Tides, in response to hearing that a school board in West Virginia had challenged the inclusion of that novel and another of his works, Beach Music.  The letter was published in the local newspaper, and the challenges later failed.

Letters like this make my proud to do what I do.
To the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book-banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.

Sincerely,

Pat Conroy

5 Comments

Filed under about writing, admiration, book geek, Civics and Citizenship, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, ethics, great writing, I love my job, Literature, out in the real world, parental units, politics, really?!, Teaching, writing

Sad

When I came home this afternoon, this was in my inbox:

I miss you at school so much, Mrs. Chili. Ms. Danielli is apparently our English substitute this week and I’m about to pull my hair out. She screamed at Elizabeth this morning during class, and the sad part is that though Liz said some bold things; it was what everyone was thinking. The gist of it was that Ms. Danielli was being very unfair and micro-managing our class when Mr. Lannen specifically said we could handle making decisions for ourselves, and Liz spoke out saying something along the lines of, “I thought this school was supposed to be about freedom.”  Liz makes me nervous when she says things like this, but instead of just her feeling this way, this year she’s the only one not afraid to speak about the elephant in the room.

There’s a different mood to the school this year. It’s quieter between classes, cliques are really tightly-knit, there are noticeably less positive shares in the morning, no one has very much enthusiasm about anything, and for the most part, people are absolutely miserable. I can’t speak for all of the teachers, but Mr. Wayne took our sophomore advisory aside and talked about it as a group with the door closed last week and everyone agrees, including him. It’s just a really sad place to be, and it’s been made clear that it’s not just the students who have noticed this.

I don’t want to be another Sarah (ed. note; Sarah was a girl who attended the school last year.  She was generally miserable and felt that her misery deserved everyone else’s company; as a consequence, most of her energy was spent spreading malcontent) and I don’t want to cause trouble, but I’m upset, nervous, conflicted, and angry. I’ve wanted to talk to you about things for a while, not because it could possibly fix things, but because it might make me feel a little bit better. I don’t want to ever give up fighting for this school, because CHS has always picked me up when I was down, and I want to do the same for it. But I feel like power has been taken away from the students, and this hurts me most because you said you’d always be my advocate for these things last year when I felt powerless. I know you were an advocate to a lot of students this way. I think a lot of kids have lost hope this year.

I don’t know how much more I can say, because I’m sitting in advisory and I’m close to tears. Sometimes when I get really upset, I try to read and hear your voice in my head like I used to when we read The Book Thief. Maybe I’m just hormonal and having a hard time, but I’m really upset and I guess I just really needed to let it all out. Consider this a morning write

I love you and I miss you so much, Mrs. Chili.
- Amayah

Oh, Lord.  WHAT do I do with THAT?!  I wrote Amayah back and told her that, while there really isn’t anything I can do to change the conditions at CHS, I AM available to meet with her (and anyone else who wants to see me).  I can be a sounding board, I can help them think critically about the situation and work through possible solutions, and I will do everything I can to empower their voices.

This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen after I left.  I knew that leaving the way I was forced to did would result in at least some of the kids feeling abandoned and that, more than anything else, kills me.

I hate this.

1 Comment

Filed under compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, dumbassery, ethics, failure, frustrations, I can't make this shit up..., I've got this kid...., Student Activism, the good ones, winging it, Yikes!

Things I Don’t Regret

The dust has settled, more or less, on the whole fiasco that has been my professional life these last two months.  I am coming – slowly, painfully, but certainly surely – to the conclusion that while I wouldn’t have chosen to leave CHS, it’s probably best that I did.

The information that I’m getting – piecemeal and from varied sources and almost never straight-up, but rather given in roundabout, listen-to-what-I’m-NOT-saying ways – is that I lost my job because of my relationship with Sweet Pea.  I’ve been thinking about all the things that people have said and reviewing all the things that happened, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, even knowing what the consequences were, I wouldn’t have done a single thing differently.

I was there for a kid who needed me – a kid who really, life-and-death needed me.  No one else was able, or willing, to take that kind of responsibility.  The “guidance counselor” stated at the beginning of the year, out loud and in front of witnesses, that he “doesn’t do crying kids.”  The administration put a 15 minute limit on how long we could care for distraught students; I was told that if we couldn’t get a kid back on his or her feet in 15 minutes, we were to send them home.  I’m so sorry, but I can’t be a part of an organization that claims to be focused on community – on caring for the individual and on fostering close and familial relationships – but then turns around and puts a stopwatch on a kid’s stress or anxiety.

The truth of the matter is that we didn’t have a support system in place for the kids who needed it (and Sweet Pea wasn’t the only one who needed it; not by a long shot).  Mr. Chili and I were talking the other day about how my behavior toward students might have to change in a different setting, and without even really thinking about it, I told him that as long as I trusted the people whose job it is to care for students in that way, I won’t feel like I need to do it.  I will still love my kids – I always do, whether they’re in high school or college – but I won’t feel the need to worry about them if I know someone else – someone competent – is taking care of their out-of-class needs.  I reminded Mr. Chili that I didn’t “adopt” any kids last year the way I did this year because I trusted the counselor we had then; I only started picking up kids when she left and the new guy showed up and gave the kids the very clear message that he wasn’t interested in listening to their troubles.

The truth of the matter is that I saved Sweet Pea’s life.  Literally.  The fact is that she needed me, and I was there.  If I had to lose my position because of that relationship, then so be it.  Given the choice, I’d pick the kid over the job every time.

3 Comments

Filed under analysis, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, I can't make this shit up..., I've got this kid...., Learning, out in the real world, self-analysis, success!

Ten Things Tuesday

I don’t know if I’ll make it to ten things, but here are some of the things on my work-related summer to-do list:

1.  Planning.  I’ll be teaching at least three core courses (most likely, English I, III, and IV) and at least two electives.  I need to decide what those electives will be, then plan an overview of the year for each of them.

2.  Writing competencies.  The State has decided to use competencies to determine student achievement, and it’s pretty much fallen to me to write these for the English department for the school.  I’ve already begun the process – I’ve done a fair bit of research into what other schools are doing to measure mastery – but I still have to codify them into a useable rubric.

3.  Interviewing.  I’ve made it pretty clear that I want a different part time teacher next year.  The man who taught this year was well enough – he read books and graded the kids’ work – but he never even bothered to become a part of the community.  Not once in 180 days did this guy ever stay for lunch; he’d disappear as soon as his morning class was over, reappear for his afternoon class, then bolt out of here with only an occasional “see ya later.”  That doesn’t make him a bad teacher, but it does make him a bad fit for the community.  I’m not convinced, though, despite my making requests that he be observed and evaluated, that that actually happened, so it may well be that admin decides to offer him another part time gig.  I’ll argue against it, but I don’t know how well my arguments will be heard.

4.  Rearranging.  I’m not good at moving rooms around; once I get things to a point where they’re both functional and appealing to look at, I tend to leave everything well enough alone.  I’m not sure that I’m making the best use of the classroom space I have, though, so I’m going to bring a couple of outside eyes in to the room to see if I can move things around to make it work even better than it does.

5.  Laminating.  I have a ton of inspirational bits and pieces that I rotate on and off the walls of the room – cards, images I’ve scanned, that sort of thing – that are printed on plain paper.  When it gets humid, all that paper curls, so I need to spend some quality time with a laminator to protect them.

6.  Reading.  I’m reading for my own personal enjoyment again (I’ve taken the Outlander series back up, and am heartily enjoying spending time with old friends), but part of my planning process is choosing which books to read during the upcoming school year.

7.  Cleaning.  We inhabit a nearly 200-year-old mill building that seems to generate its own gunk.  I’m planning to spend at least a whole day after the kids leave taking all the furniture out of my room and vacuuming the shit out of the place.

8.  Re-cataloging.  I have a lot – A LOT – of personal property at this school.  I need to document everything that’s mine, and make sure that I have record of its being mine in the event of loss, damage, or separation.

9.  Organizing.  I have to go through all my files and make sure that a) everything is where I can find it and b) everything that can be scanned and cataloged has been.  I have a lot of great materials that I just don’t use because they’re not convenient to me when I need them.  I need to figure out how to remedy that.

10.  Networking.  I am concerned, because of things that have been happening around here, that there may be a need for me to keep certain options open.  I’m going to review my professional development, look into some more college courses (I’ve been flirting with the idea of a degree in social work), and talk to some of my contacts about the possibility of perhaps stretching a safety net underneath me.  I wish it weren’t so, but wishes aren’t horses, so beggars don’t ride.

3 Comments

Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, concerns, doing my own homework, ethics, Extra-curricular Activities, I can't make this shit up..., job hunting, Learning, lesson planning, Literature, Mrs. Chili as Student, out in the real world, politics, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job, winging it

How Far the Ripples Go

Very long story somewhat short: I’ve got this kid… or, rather, I should say I HAD this kid.  Let’s call him Mitchell.

Mitchell and I never really got along very well.  While I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this, the one I come to first is that he’s a pretty insecure young man, and I think that my forthrightness intimidated him.  Regardless, he ended up leaving my class on ideological grounds; his mother, it seems, is a fundamentalist Christian, and from what I understand, she didn’t appreciate my challenging her kid in the ways that I did.

The truth is that I have nothing personal against the boy, and never have, though I don’t go out of my way to chat with him as his behavior around me makes it pretty clear that I make him uncomfortable.  That’s why I was surprised, and pleasantly so, when Mitch asked me this afternoon if I had a few free minutes I could give him.  I invited him into my room and gave him my full attention.

He started out by asking me some vague questions about how I handle fear.  I spent a little while talking about how different fear – fear for physical safety, fear about personal conflict, fear of intimidation, fear from shock or surprise – have different effects.  I let him know that I, personally, have difficulty managing my physical response to fear; despite going into a conflict armed with confidence and knowledge that I have a strong foundation upon which to stand, I still shake and my palms still sweat and I often find myself in angry tears.  I told him these things as a way of humanizing myself to him because, as I say, I know that his impressions of me have not been entirely favorable.

It turns out that, despite what else he may think of me, Mitch understands that I’m someone safe to go to with difficult personal issues.  He confided that he is having some pretty serious problems with a family member (not his mother), and that the issues are sufficient that he felt it necessary to warn the school about what’s been going on.  He asked me for advice on how to comport himself through these experiences, and I told him that while I could not counsel him – that I’m neither a social worker nor an attorney – I did know that, as an adult (he’s 18) he has absolute freedom of association; he gets to choose whether or not to spend time with someone, and that his fears of being compelled by court order to associate with the person in question are unfounded.  I recommended that he seek the advice of law enforcement about the possibility of a restraining order and that, if he feels it would do him some good, he should talk to a counselor to sort out how he feels about the whole mess.  I offered that I grew up as an abused child, and I understand that there are a terrible lot of mixed emotions that come with that legacy.  I also offered up confidence to the boy that I had faith in his ability to find his way through it, and told him that I would always be a listening ear if he felt I could be useful to him.

It turned out that I had some things to take care of a the end of the day, so I was on my way out the door when Mitch emerged from his meeting with administration.  He was clearly upset, so I hung back to offer up one last shot of support.  I took him aside, so that we wouldn’t be in the middle of the hall, and asked him how he was doing (though it was patently obvious the boy was on the verge of tears).  As I was giving him my “you’re not alone; there are plenty of resources; you’re strong and smart and I believe in you” pep talk, his mother came around the corner and stopped dead in her tracks.  I know, though I’ve never been told outright, that she has very little use – and even less respect – for me, but at that moment, I didn’t care.  Her son recognized me as someone safe to confide in, and I was not about to disrespect that for fear of what his mother might think.  She stood there, a respectful distance away, listening to every encouraging thing I had to say to her son.

Though I’m truly sorry for what’s happening to Mitch, this could not have happened at a better time for me.  After everything that’s happened at school these last several weeks, having THIS kid come to ME to address something difficult and painful and personal is nothing short of divine confirmation that I am doing a good job.  He sees me being a support to other kids; he recognizes me as someone safe and caring and generous, and came to ME despite our previous rocky history.  That tells me that what I do – and the way that I do it – are working.  This boy’s choice to seek me out for this personal issue is a vindication of the very public, open, and honest way I love my students.  ALL of my students.

Thank you, Mitchell.

Leave a comment

Filed under compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, I can't make this shit up..., I love my job, I've got this kid...., Learning, self-analysis, student chutzpah, success!, Yikes!

You Get Out What You Put In

Every afternoon, a teacher in our school leads an end-of-the-day activity with the entire community.  These vary widely – we’ve done everything from music and movie trivia to musical chairs to a flash game of Apples to Apples.  Nearly anything goes.

Tuesdays are my days, and I had settled into a movie-related theme months ago that the community seems to like.  As yesterday was the last Tuesday with this year’s seniors, though, I decided to do something a little different.

In the past, we’ve had what we call “sticky note days” at our school.  These are randomly chosen days where, throughout the day, students write positive things on Post-Its and stick them to one another.  I love sticky note days; the notes are always positive (and often surprising), they can be anonymous, and the small space forces the students to really condense the things they want to say.  In this spirit, I cut a bunch of copy paper into smaller squares and invited the group to write love notes to each other.

“We are influenced for good by a lot of people,” I told them, “but rarely do we take the time out to tell them how much they mean to us.  The seniors are leaving on Friday, and I wanted to give you all an opportunity to say something to them – and to anyone else you want – to let them know that they mean something to you.”

The bulk of the group took advantage of the opportunity, and I was surprised that I ended up having to get more paper.

This morning, as I was handing out love notes during the chaos of the start of day, I overheard one student complaining about the activity.  “It makes some people feel bad,” she said, “because not everyone gets notes.”

She’s right, of course; not everyone DID receive notes, her among them.  I think she’s missing something important in her disdainful assessment, though.  The students who didn’t get notes this time around were, by and large, the students who don’t go out of their way for others.  The kids who didn’t receive notes are the kids who criticize other students, look down on them, or decline to participate fully in the things we do together.  These are the kids who don’t eat lunch with anyone other than their tight group or who – like the girl who spoke her complaint – openly speak ill of other students, often within their hearing.

I understand that it’s not a one-for-one formula, but I have discovered that, generally, one gets out of a situation what one puts in.  If you want to be liked, you’ve got to open up a little and make yourself available.  You’ve got to practice some generosity, some patience, and some forbearance.  You’ve got to treat others kindly and foster the kind of goodwill toward them that you’d like returned to you.  I didn’t point this out to the girl – I’m already on eggshells with her as it is, and she’s not in a place where she can hear these things from me – but I’m hoping that she does some thinking about it.

image credit

2 Comments

Filed under compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, failure, frustrations, heard in the halls..., I've got this kid...., Learning, out in the real world, really?!, student chutzpah, You're kidding...right?