This reminded me of Adam. I wonder how he’s doing now…..
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.
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.
So, remember a few weeks ago I told you that Glen sent me a time turner?
Well, I made him a facebook friend and we’ve since gotten to know each other pretty well. We’ve emailed back and forth, we’ve shared recipes, and we’ve become, I think, pretty close (well, close in the way people who’ve only met through the computer can be). I have always strongly maintained that the very best part of keeping a blog is the community I’ve gathered as a result. I’ve met some incredible people through my online writing; some of the most important people in my life, in fact.
Well, two weeks or so ago, CHS opened a wishlistr site and uploaded some things we need onto it. A few days later, 150 rolls of paper towels were delivered, thanks to fermat. I nearly burst into tears over the delivery, You Guys; it was a simple little bit of nothing that felt so incredibly generous and thoughtful, and it touched me in a way you wouldn’t expect paper towels could.
This would have been more than enough, but something else came today. As I was in the kitchen getting my lunch, the receptionist was sorting the mail and handed me an envelope with my name on it from a publishing company. I wasn’t expecting anything, so I opened it expecting to find a solicitation, Instead, I found a disc. On that disc is the APA manual with 10 licenses. This disc was not free; it wasn’t even cheap, and here it was, in my hands. I brought it out the social studies teacher, who requested the manual; he is beside himself.
Just when I start thinking that the bad well outweighs the good in the world, something like this happens. Thank you, Glen; I really needed a shot of good today.
A couple of weeks ago, fermat sent me an email asking if I’d like to be added to his holiday card list. The idea tickled me, and he offered to take my work address if I wasn’t comfortable giving out my home address, so that’s what I gave him. I didn’t really think much about it after I sent my delighted reply.
This afternoon, one of my coworkers handed me a box that had arrived in the mail. I opened it and was astounded to find Hermione’s time turner!
There was a packing slip in the box, but I didn’t immediately recognize the sender’s name. It took me about ten minutes, but the email exchange popped into my head, so I went back to look to see if fermat had signed his real name and, in fact, he HAD!
This wonderful, perfect stranger took time (and no small amount of money!) to send me an incredibly thoughtful and wildly generous gift.
I have always maintained that the primary reason I keep blogs is because of the community they bring to me. I was reminded again, in a very tangible and concrete way, just how giving and supportive and awesome that community is. I am humbled by all of you, and I’m grateful for your presence in my life.
… but I’m kind of hating the weekends.
I’ve got a couple of (my favorite) kids whom I’m keeping a wary eye on lately. Things aren’t good for either of them; Margot’s just been released from a hospitalization and is dealing with debilitating panic attacks, and Jeff is neck-deep in a really unpleasant home environment. They’ve both come to me for support, and I’ve been more than happy to give it to them.
I’m finding, on this lovely Friday afternoon, that I’m worrying about them more than I did last night, or on Wednesday. I’m sure this is because, on every other night, I know I’ll see them first thing in the morning (and, if I don’t, I know how to find out where they are and whether they’re safe and upright). The idea of going two days without laying eyes on either one of them is proving to be disconcerting.
I’m less worried about Margot. She’s got a strong family support system and is being well cared-for at home; I am confident that she’s safe and loved.
Jeff is another story altogether, though; he sent me a text message on Wednesday asking me to sign onto facebook so we could chat, and he told me that his home life is fast becoming untenable. So much of his situation reminded me of MY life at that age – parents (or, in this case, a mother and a new boyfriend) who give every impression of loathing the mere presence of him and make no effort to disguise that fact but who, inexplicably, won’t let him leave the house. Jeff is angry and frustrated and, I think, scared; he’s recognizing that all of this is wearing away at his already tenuous self-esteem. I spent a good bit of our chat time explaining to him why *I* think he’s an amazing kid who’s growing into a good and decent man, and how I’m deeply proud of him. I know, from my own experience, that while hearing these things from me is probably helpful, it’s not enough to salve the damage being done by the people who are supposed to love him, and that’s the part that’s killing me.
I had a conference with Mitch (the new guidance counselor, whom I really, really like) and our assistant dean (whom I’ve not yet given a pseudonym; let’s call him Brad, okay?) about exactly where my line has to be with Jeff. They both agreed that everything that’s happened thus far has been not only okay, but good; they both recognize that Jeff needs someone he feels he can count on, and he clearly feels safe with me. When I brought up the idea of having a sit-down with Jeff’s dad, my men searched all of Jeff’s files and discovered that we’ve got nothing in the way of custody orders or other official paperwork that would forbid such a meeting, so Dad and I are having coffee tomorrow afternoon.
In the meantime, I’m keeping my cell phone on – and on me – at all times. I need to be available if either of these babies needs me.
Monday can’t come fast enough.
I love all of my students, but some of them are much closer to my heart than others. Here are ten of my favorite kids (in no particular order), and just some of the reasons I love them. I have changed the names, but the kids are all very real.
1. Bart. He’s my “school son;” I love him like my own. He is kind and gentle, he is generous and thoughtful, and he is wicked smaht and funny as hell. He and I have settled into a kind of familial intimacy that makes me grateful every day that I took this job.
2. Margot. She and I are just now starting to connect. I had her in class last year. Some days I thought we clicked, other days I was sure she hated me; I could never tell where we stood. I found out the other day when she had a panic attack, left the school, and called me in near-hysterical tears asking me to come and get her. I cannot tell you how important it is to me to be a safe person to my kids; knowing that she is comfortable enough to call me when she felt most vulnerable is huge.
3. Kermit. Kermit and I clashed HARD last year; to the point where he actually transferred out of my class. I will admit to being nervous to have him this year, but something is profoundly different between us. He’s energetic and engaged, and he’s dug into the work that I ask my kids to do – to the point that he’s kinda rocking my socks. His parents told me that something clicked for him at home, too, and he’s totally making it all work. He and I are laughing and really talking, and I am delighted to be sharing this year with him.
4. Caroline. She’s a new kid this year, but something in her resonated with me from the moment we met. She is open and sweet, she has a sublime sense of humor, and she’s eager to learn and to find her place in our community. She’s got some self-esteem problems that I’m working on (she was convinced at some point that she’s a bad writer), but every time we talk, I get the feeling that she’s going to be one of my kids.
5. Jeff. Jeff is one of my guitar boys and, like Kermit, we did not connect our first year together. In fact, Jeff was one of the kids I was sure we were going to lose; he just wasn’t working. I kept at him, though, even though I know he sometimes hated me for it. Last year, something in him turned, and he started the year really rockin’… until he wasn’t. At one point, he came to me and admitted that things were bad at home. I looked him in the eye and told him that he could call on me for anything he needed. Ever since then, he’s been my kid, and I love him like I love Bart.
6. Trevor. Trevor is a new kid, but he’s already grown on me. He’s open and sweet, he’s sharp and funny, and he seems a genuinely happy to be with us. I have no idea if he’s going to be one of mine (really, the kids choose me), but I wouldn’t object if he wanted to be.
7. Nick. Nick is also a new kid, and I am deeply impressed by him. He is infectiously, deliriously friendly, he is wickedly smart and observant, and I’m pissed that he’s a senior because it means we’re only going to have him for the year. He seems to me the kind of kid who will put himself out for other people, and I already feel like he’s going to be a huge part of my school life this year.
8. Hannah! There are a million things to love about Hannah!, not the least of which being that she signs her name with an exclamation point. She’s in it; she wants to learn, she wants to read, she wants to suck everything out of this experience, and I adore her. She isn’t really mine – while we get along fantastically, I think she’s bonded much more to another teacher at the school – she is one of the kids I look forward to every day.
9. Arthur. Arthur was another kid I thought we were going to lose last year, but who’s somehow managed to come back to us this year; he’s not quite wheels-up, but he’s definitely on the runway and picking up speed. We’re really starting to connect; he’s looking me in the eye, he’s joking with me, he’s starting to trust me – and himself. I have a good feeling about this kid.
10. Betty. I adore Betty. She is a firecracker, but I think that a lot of that energy is her way of trying to cover up some pretty hefty insecurity. She admitted to me, in a piece of writing, that she’s going through some things. I wrote back to her and told her that she didn’t have to go through them alone; that I would be there for her if she needed me. We haven’t spoken about it – that’s not the way Betty operates – but I know she knows I’m here. That may be enough – just that knowing – but if she needs more, and I can give it to her, all she has to do is say the word.
I am so incredibly lucky to be able to do this work, and to work in a place that lets me love my kids the way I need to.
Every morning, my English classes are expected to write for about 10 minutes on a bumper sticker quote I put up on the board. The first class, they just get the quote; I want them to approach it fresh and as they would on their own. They find critical thinking questions and prompts from me on the board when they arrive for subsequent classes. My hope is that these will nudge them to think deeper or more carefully or from a different angle; my goal is for them to practice critical thinking skills, then to transfer that thinking into their writing.
For the most part, these exercises seem to go over okay. The kids grumble about having to do them – especially the first-thing-in-the-morning kids – but with the exception of a couple of recalcitrant kids (who don’t write on principle, anyway), I get pretty decent engagement.
I had to kinda drag Hatcher through these last year; not exactly kicking and screaming, but for a while there, I was working harder than he was. This kid is SO smart and SO insightful, but he would give me bullshit responses to the prompts, and it made me CRAZY. I pushed him and cajoled him and harassed him all year, and he only once in a while let slip how brilliant he really is.
He ended up leaving the school this term (I’m not sure why, and it saddens my heart; I miss him every day). This morning, I got this message on my facebook page:
Dear Mrs. Chili,
After the second day of [standardized testing], I can honestly say that I would have had an incredibly hard time on the writing sections without the daily quote writing from your class.
I live for these notes.
…Or is it the other way around?
I met this afternoon with Carrie, a student I taught three years ago in one of my Local U. freshman English classes. I had bumped into her again after all this time when I ducked into my colleague Charlotte’s room at the end of her class – Carrie’s class, as it happens – to tell her about this article. I turned around after talking to Charlotte to find Carrie, grinning from ear to ear. After a lovely hug, she asked me if we could get together. I told her to find me on facebook and we’d make plans.
She’s working on a paper for Charlotte, and it seems she’s been stymied a bit by the prospect (Charlotte is a remarkably sharp and demanding thinker, and she expects the same of her students. I am in love with this woman, but that’s a post for another time). Carrie, it seems, has been fretting about this paper for a while now – to the point of starting three different drafts of the thing – and decided that now was the time to send up a flare and ask for help.
I met her in one of our local coffee shops where we chatted a bit about her adventures these last three years, her travels, and her plans for her life after she graduates in June. Then we talked about her paper (Charlotte’s asking the students to choose one of the works they’ve read in class, then write an analysis of an element in that piece), and about what kinds of strategies Carrie can employ to get to the kind of specificity Charlotte’s looking for. Carrie had an idea of WHAT she wanted to talk about – she had a topic that was acting as the “splinter in her brain” that she wanted to know more about – but she wasn’t sure how to go about getting down to the kind of focus Charlotte requires. Carries’s smart, though, and quick, and within about 5 minutes, we talked our way to her furiously scribbling notes and seeming genuinely less stressed about the task ahead of her.
I can’t wait to read her next draft.
Just as I shifted the conversation to business, Carrie ducked under the table for a second and came back up with a single Gerbera daisy for me, along with a lovely note about how much I’ve influenced her for the better. As I drove home after what I think was a very productive meeting, I thought about that lovely gesture. Sometimes (oh, who am I kidding? Always!) I am surprised by the ways in which students respond to the work that I do with them. I spend so much time worrying about the ones I’m not reaching that I often miss the ways I touch the ones I DO hit.
I’ve been feeling, since the start of this school year, that I still haven’t quite found my groove. I’ve been worried about that, and concerned that maybe I’m “off” in a real and significant way. As I talked with my former student about scholarly things, easily and with authority, I started feeling a little bit of that groove coming back. I’m good at this; I care about the work that I do enough to do it well. I respect my discipline and the students who rely on me to give them skills and tools they need, and I care enough about that to be diligent and conscientious. With that feeling of competence comes an increasing feeling of confidence. I’m on my way back.
I decided to start my Aliens and Vampires in Literature class with the Aliens contingent (though, now that I think about it again, I probably should have started with vampires, since Hallowe’en is coming up… Oh, well…) and, while I’m waiting for them to score copies of Carl Sagan’s Contact, I am showing and discussing films.
We started with Avatar.
I love this movie. Is it formulaic and predictable? Yes. Does it tell a new story? Not really; in fact, it’s nearly one-to-one with Dances with Wolves (which I also love, so there!). Despite the panning that it received in some circles for its lack of originality, I think it is an important movie, and I was excited to show it to my students.
One of my goals in this course is to get kids to think about the functions that entertainment serves beyond simple entertainment. We spent three classes watching the film (I got a M/W/F short-day class instead of the long-day T/TH class I wanted, so we’re making do; it’s going to mean covering less material, but I’ll make sure we do more with what we do see), and I patently refused to let the kids talk about the films in class before we’d gotten to the last scene. (That made them CRAZY, especially since it turned out that I had to stop the film for the end of classes in some really compelling spots; the kids nearly lost their minds when I had to stop the movie when Jake drops onto the creature to become Toruk Makto on Wednesday.)
We had our culminating discussion yesterday, and it was amazing. All but two of the kids had seen the film before – several of them more than once – but every single one of them said that, despite being very familiar with the movie, there were a number of things they saw when they were “watching it for a class” that they never noticed before.
My absolute favorite moment in the whole discussion came at the very beginning of the class and from my “school son” (whom I’m probably going to talk a lot about this year, so let’s call him Bart, okay?) We were all talking about the idea that, in typical alien movies, the aliens are always the bad guys* when Bart pointed out that, in this movie, the aliens are still the bad guys. I pointed at him with my eyebrows-up, “you-just-nailed-it” look on my face and waited for what he said to sink in with the rest of the kids. One by one, the light dawned; we’re so used to thinking of the “aliens” as ‘whoever isn’t us’ that shifting our thinking to recognize that, in this film, we’re the aliens is a surprise.
The conversation took off from there. We talked about the ways in which we create an “other,” and how that process of making a pariah allows us to behave in ways we likely wouldn’t otherwise. We talked about where each character made his or her realizations (and about the characters who never got to the point of change) and about how some of the “good” guys in the film – up to and including the hero – were still complicated and flawed. We talked about the film as modern social commentary in the context of the Iraq invasion after the 9/11 attacks, and about how some people – particularly Americans and those in positions of political power – don’t seem to understand that “our way” isn’t the pinnacle of human experience; that not everyone wants democracy or McDonald’s or jeans and sneakers. We talked about the different perspective of this film – the human as alien – and about how the film asks us to think about things we do in ways that we might not have been able to if the Na’vi had come to Earth; that the position of the different ‘races’ impacted the way we think about them (and us). We talked about power and economics; we talked about religion and belief, about what we value (and how we value what others value), and about the environment. We talked about what it means to be connected – to our environment and to each other – and we talked about colonialism and its effects on both occupier and occupied (though they didn’t use the term, they still nailed some of the high points of the concept).
It was a wonderful, dynamic, interesting, and exciting conversation. We’re off to a good start.
*I recognize that not ALL alien movies are about violent invasions and forced occupation – I’m also planning on showing the kids Cocoon and maybe E.T. – but I think it’s fair to agree that most of our alien genre is stacked with stories about invasion and occupation. Those films bring up ideas I want to get the kids thinking about; I’m trying to train them to see beyond the explosions and action to get at what some of these stories have to say about us and how we treat each other.
Even though I still don’t feel like I’ve hit my stride yet (c’mon, Chili, give yourself a break; it’s only the first week, fercryinoutloud!), today was a very good day.
I have a group of kids, mostly juniors this year, with whom I’ve not yet had the pleasure of sharing a classroom before (they had a former colleague for freshman year and Mike last year). I’ve been looking forward to having these kids; I’ve had one or two in elective classes, I’ve gotten to know a couple of them over lunch and Socratic Society during the last two years, and I listened in on a bunch of Mike’s classes, so I have a pretty good idea of what they’re like. The long and short of it is that, for the most part, they delight me.
I don’t know how it is, but I’m reasonably sure that every high school teacher will attest to the idea that there are just some bunches of kids who rock our socks, while others are either entirely neutral or downright aggravating. Of course, there’s always that one, stand-out kid (whether for better or worse), but it has been my experience that, usually, the trend seems to ripple through entire graduating classes; as a whole, the kids tend to embody a common energy.
This year’s juniors have a particular kind of awesome about them, and there are a few in particular who stand out to me.
This morning, I gave the juniors a writing prompt that asked them to identify and explain the value of one physical object – one thing that they treasure. When we were all done writing, I went around the table and asked them what they wrote about (eventually, I will ask them to actually read their writing, but for now, it’s enough to give just the big ideas to the class). We got such answers as photo albums, laptops, and jewelery, all answers that I was more or less expecting.
Then I got to Donny.
Understand before I go any further that Donny is a quiet giant of a kid. He is literally never in the middle of the action, but I’ve been watching him for a couple of years now and I see that he doesn’t miss a thing. He is an imposing figure – I am eye level to about the heart center of his chest – but his manner is gentle and serene. I have never heard him raise his voice, but neither have I ever really seen him kicking back with the other kids. To be honest with you, I was half expecting Donny to not have anything to say – I was fully prepared for him to say that he couldn’t think of anything to write about.
Boy, was I wrong.
It seems that Donny’s favorite thing is a poker table.
A poker table.
His reason for this thing being so important to him? He went on to explain that he eats breakfast at this poker table every morning. That he does his homework on the table, that he wins money from his parents on this table; but more than all that, he said, this table is important to him because it is one of the few things that he was able to recover after his family suffered a devastating house fire two years ago. The blaze began in the basement adjacent to Donny’s bedroom and, because there was pvc piping involved in the blaze, everything that wasn’t burned or water-damaged was toxic. Somehow, this table managed to escape both blaze and water and, because it is non-porous, was able to be cleaned of any dangerous residue left by burning pvc.
I was profoundly moved by his explanation, and heartily surprised by the alacrity with which he was willing to share it.
Later, at the end of the day, the AD lead the community in closing circle (it’s a new thing this year; we always begin the day in a community circle, but this is the first year we take 10 minutes at the end to come together). His task for us at the end of this first week of school was to mingle around the room to find people to shake hands with and thank; his goal was for us to express gratitude to one another for contributing to the success of the week.
I headed straight for Donny and was surprised when I found myself welling up. I took his hand and thanked him for being willing to share the story about the table, and for bringing with him an open and generous energy. Then he asked me if I needed a hug, and I was just about done.
It’s going to be a good year.