Those Kids

bad kids

A cousin shared a story from The Washington Post written by a teacher who considered the dilemma of THAT kid, the one that drives teachers crazy and worries the parents of the “good” children. I was sobbing by the time that I reached the end of the very well crafted piece because I thought of all of THOSE kids who crossed my path during my teaching career. They touched my heart when I taught them and to this very day I worry about what may have come of them. They were the youngsters whose lives were riddled with troubles that not even an adult should have to face. Their behavior all to often reflected the pain that they were feeling and the confusion that they riddled their minds in having to face situations that were beyond their control. I hope that I helped them in some way, but I also know that there were times when they frustrated me so that I let them down. I see their faces with those looks of longing for compassion that were often masked by actions that seemed so horrid.

The first of them was a child of only ten who disrupted class on a regular basis. Most did not know that she lived in dire poverty with absentee parents. She was followed by the nine year old boy whose mother left him to watch his little sister while she worked nights as a prostitute. There was the young man whose mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only an infant and the girl whose uncle impregnated her when she was only twelve. I’ll never forget the teen who witnessed his father murdering his mother or the one whose mother shoplifted to keep the family from starving. They were all part of a band of children whose lives were often defined by poverty and parents struggling to fight their own demons. They did not start life as troublemakers. They did not want to be viewed as bad seeds. They were innocents who got chewed up by a world that they did not fully understand. In their fight for survival they asserted themselves and pushed back. They became angry and difficult to handle.

How many of us would have been able to endure some of the horrors that they faced? Fate had subjected them to ordeals that no child should ever encounter. They acted out. They behaved badly. They were screaming for someone to help them.

I did my best with most of them but sometimes I became tired and frustrated and passed them along in anger. I wanted them to be punished for ruining the calm of my classroom. I disliked them for the distractions that they were. I fell into the pattern that they had already experienced hundreds of times from adults, that of being ignored or punished for the sin of reacting to adversity the way most of us probably would given the circumstances of their lives. I feel guilt for the times when I gave up on them.

There was a young man from a decidedly dysfunctional family. He exuded a tough guy image. It was his way of coping with abuse by those who were supposed to love him. He made an ugly racist comment to another student. He claimed that he was only joking, but I knew that he was really just crying for help. Our answer was to expel him from our school. A counselor sobbed for him and begged us to reconsider. I was afraid to counter the majority opinion even though I did not believe that sending him away was an appropriate answer. I voted with the group rather than following my instincts. He only became worse because in a sense we had convinced him that he was as worthless as his parents constantly told him that he was. I still grieve over my lack of courage in defending him along with his braver advocate. He needed love at that moment, not rejection, but we we not willing to listen.

So it often is with THOSE students. We adhere without thought to sets of rules that do not take into account what is behind the reprehensible behaviors. We wash our hands in innocence insisting that exceptions only make matters worse. It’s easier to operate from words on a paper, set in stone without consideration of all of the facts.

I think of one of my very best principals, a woman who cautioned me to be flexible with my rules and consequences. She urged me never to paint myself into a corner. She warned me that there will always be those for whom the so called rules do not really apply. She was as wise as Solomon in guiding me when I was just a pup in the beginning of my teaching career. I understood what she meant as I met more and more of THOSE kids. I realized that I had to attempt to reach them rather than judge them. I had to love them as much as I did the ones who were no trouble at all.

I witnessed transformations. The boy who threw books and told me to F off graduated with honors as the president of his class. The young man who ran with gangs doing despicable things changed his ways and became a police officer. The kid who nobody could control went to college and earned multiple degrees because “somebody took the time to care.” Nobody should ever wantonly be tossed on the dustbin of society while they are still young. Our goal should be to redeem them rather than to urge retribution against them.

I still cry at the thought of what some of my students had to endure. I flinch with guilt at the realization of how I may have failed them too. I hope that I made a difference for most of them. I’d like to think that perhaps they are now doing well. I still love THOSE kids. I hope they know.

Advertisements

Be That Person

o-CLASSROOM-TEACHER-facebook

It’s quiet this morning. As I write my blog the children in my neighborhood have not yet started back to school, but by the time it is posted their educational routines will have begun again in earnest. This time of year causes me to review the totality of my own life and to consider the challenges that I faced in growing up as well as those that plague today’s youngsters.

I was five years old when I became a student for the first time. My father dropped me off rather unceremoniously at St. Peter’s Catholic School where I began the first grade with little preparation for the routine that would overtake my life. My mother had only days before returned from the hospital with my brand new baby brother. My favorite uncle was fighting for his life at the Veteran’s Hospital in a battle that would not end well. There was a bit of chaos in my little world and thus the adults decided that I would be happier in the structured environment of school than the free range of a home turned upside down by life’s events.

Nobody took a photograph of my milestone entrance into school nor did they explain to me what lie ahead. I was simply told at the last minute that the time for my formal education had arrived. To say that I was unhappy and a bit overwhelmed would be an understatement, but I was always an obedient child and so I quietly demurred to my parents’ wishes even though I was frightened and confused. Luckily my teacher was an extraordinary educator who sensed my reluctance and did her best to help me to feel more comfortable about being away from my family for long periods of time. A sweet girl named Virginia who befriended me in my hour of need helped to soften the experience as well.

I soon found that learning provided me with a profound sense of control over my life. I was by nature an anxious child, but once I began to read and perform mathematical calculations I actually became so caught up in the experiences that time passed quickly and I hardly thought about the concerns that so often crowded my mind. I found solace and escape from worry in the lessons that inched me toward becoming the person that I would ultimately be. Still, as each successive school year rolled around I found myself dreading the return to structure and assignments and being away from my family only to be surprised at how much I enjoyed being a student.

My fourth grade years brought eight year old me to school as a fatherless child. My world had been turned upside down by my father’s sudden death and I had spent the summer in a kind of sorrowful haze. I remembered how much he had loved learning of all kinds and thought of him dropping me off at the first grade. I was a psychological mess, and sadly I did not get a kind and gentle teacher that school year so I experienced my first episode of school as a source of stress. I protected myself by retreating into my books and I found that even without the kindness of the adult in whose care I existed each day I still felt a sense of serenity within the pages of those tomes that carried me to faraway worlds.

Year after year I repeated the rituals of school until one day I was the one greeting the children and directing the lessons. Knowing how important it had been to me to be in the presence of a compassionate teacher, I suppose that I spent an inordinate amount of my efforts trying to make the learning experience a lovely one for my students. I understood all too well what it was like to come to school carrying baggage that made it difficult to concentrate or think. I had learned the power of kindness and understanding in breaking through my own walls, and so I did my best to appreciate each of my students just as they were rather than worrying too much about how I wanted them to be. I always hoped that they understood how much I cared about them.

So many children today begin their educational journeys as infants when their parents place them in daycares and pre-schools while they work. The educational scope and sequence has been accelerated to a level that is demanding and allows little time for relaxing. The buses that come to my neighborhood arrive before seven in the morning and don’t return until after four in the afternoon. The school year begins earlier and earlier. Today’s kids spend most of their young lives outside of their homes and the demands placed on them are often enormous. In an effort to help them be well rounded they are enrolled in extra curricular activities and spend afternoons and weekends competing in athletic events. Their time at home just resting and being themselves is ever shrinking. With homework and projects they are at times in a perennial cycle of exhaustion that allows them less sleep than they actually need and few moments of quiet time.

As adults we have seen these things and maybe even worry about them but continue to simply go with the flow lest our youth fall behind the progress of their peers. After all the college years are looming and our kids must be competitive enough to earn spots on the finest campuses. There is no time to waste, or at least it seems so. Our intentions are good but sometimes the pressure is too much for certain individuals to bear. They break and feel as though their lives have ended. I know this because I have counseled many a young person who felt as though he or she had reached the end of all possibilities. They saw themselves as failures who would no doubt spend their adult lives feeling ashamed. They had been programed to judge themselves with rubrics that did not allow for those moments in which we demonstrate our humanity with bad decisions or horrific mistakes.

As we send our children off to school this year each of us would do well to help them to maintain perspective. A life is not a series of sprints, but rather a long distance marathon that requires us to save some of our energy for the inevitable times that become difficult. The best lessons that we might teach our children are how to pace themselves, how to keep balance in their lives, how to know when they are attempting too much, how not to constantly compare themselves to others, how to choose the right people to be in their lives, how to learn from mistakes and get back in the race. We owe it to their futures and ours to help them keep a positive perspective and to give them our time and attention every single day.

Academics are important, but it will be in the love and understanding of caring adults that our children learn the lessons that will sustain them for a lifetime. Be that person in the life of every child that you encounter. Never underestimate the power that you have to make a difference in the world one young person at a time. The best lessons are not found in books.  

The Backbone of Society

pencils in stainless steel bucket
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s that time of year when the sun bears down hotter than ever and we feel as though we are in the true grip of summer, which means it must be nearing the end of July and the time to purchase those school supplies. I still work with a handful of kids so I usually head for the stores about now to replace my Expo markers, pencils, spiral notebooks and such. The prices are just too good to ignore, and come January not only will everything cost more but it will be difficult to find.

Lots of big box stores are offering discounts to teachers which is a grand idea because every educator that I ever knew spent a good portion of the first paycheck of the school year readying the classroom. I kept mountains of lined paper, sharpened pencils, and pens in my cupboard for those students who came in without supplies. I never minded helping out even those who carelessly came to class without the things they needed. I had no patience with lecturing them about being responsible during the short time allotted to me for teaching them mathematical concepts. It was far easier to just wordlessly point them to the table where I always had some necessary items waiting for anyone in need. The remarkable thing is that the students often rewarded my generosity by repaying me with even more than they had initially taken, so I rarely ran out of my little offerings for them.

I wanted to have an inviting classroom so I was one of those teachers who joined the crowd at the teacher supply store that used to be a big draw in southeast Houston. It was like Christmas in July as my fellow educators filled the parking lot and jammed the aisles with carts filled with all of the items that might make the classroom environment more exciting for the kids. I got tired of the crank pencil sharpener breaking down at an inopportune moment, so I invested in a heavy duty electric one that cost almost a hundred dollars. It was quite an extravagance but it lasted until the day I retired at which time I passed it on to my nephew along with the mathematical manipulatives, and algebraic thinking books that I used for problem solving sessions.

I’d be at the school readying my classrooms days before the official return date. I learned over the years that administrators provide very little time for the actual process of putting a classroom in working order in the frantic week before the students arrive. Somehow principals always seem to think that the lovely environments created by the staff just miraculously pop up like mushrooms over night. Luckily I learned the tricks of the trade over time from real pros who had stayed the course and demonstrated their dedication to the ideals of teaching.

The teachers in Texas will receive a raise of some kind this year depending on how each school district decides to dole out the funds provided by the state legislature. It isn’t a great deal of money, but every little bit counts. No doubt much of it will be poured right back into the classrooms by educators eager to make a difference to their students. Altruism runs deeply in the hearts of most of the teachers I have known. Those who are less concerned about the welfare of their students usually burn out in a few years and head for more lucrative and less stressful careers.

Society spends a great deal of time discussing the pros and cons of the worth of teachers. What they rarely discuss is how exceedingly devoted the vast majority of them are. Theirs is a difficult job beyond measure. The rewards rarely come in the form of pay or bonuses. Instead they receive intangible feelings of great purpose, a sense of doing something special for thousands of individuals, many of whom rarely stop to realize how much teachers are responsible for the successes that they ultimately achieve.

I was listening to a discussion of how various occupations are valued. Most of the time the highest paying professions are the ones that return most monetary compensation to a company. Invariably such analyses point out that teachers do not generate income therefore they are more of a drain on resources. Such thinking contributes to the lower salaries that educators have historically made. In truth each teacher ultimately provides vast amounts of capital to the economy. It does not happen directly, but over time the students that educators have prepared will enter the workforce and contribute mightily to the coffers. Teachers are the foundation of the economic system, helping to mold future doctors, lawyers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Bill Gates certainly has a level of natural genius, but along the way there were teachers who helped him to become the person that he is today. Educators are the silent force that keeps our world moving forward, and they do it without a great deal of fanfare or recompense.

I applaud any efforts to recognize our nation’s teachers. In reality we should be celebrating them even more than we presently do. They are the backbone of any nation, in many ways the most important people in society. You may soon see them in a Target or Walmart near you. They will be the ones filling their carts with extra supplies to make life better for your children. The least you might do is to thank them. 

All the World’s a Stage

The Globe

I was one of those young college students who struggled to decide what path to follow in preparing for a career. I began with an unspecified arts and sciences major and changed directions multiple times. I even dropped out for a time because I was so confused about what I really wanted to do with my life. In the end I graduated with many more hours than usual, ultimately majoring in English and Education with a heavy dose of mathematics courses for good measure. By that time I saw myself as a purveyor of literature, and I dreamed of inspiring students to love Shakespeare as much as I do. I carried visions of my favorite high school teacher, Father Shane, in my head and hoped that I might inspire a new generation of young people to appreciate the beauty of the the written word as much as he had impacted me.

To my surprise my first job was as a mathematics teacher, something I viewed as a temporary status wrought by a dwindling market for newly graduated educators. I assumed that within in year or so the economy would right itself and I would soon enough be dramatically quoting lines from Othello and demonstrating the art of writing. Somehow I instead became branded as someone capable of instructing students in the algorithms and formulas of algebra, geometry, probability and statistics. It became an unbreakable trend, and soon enough my preferred mode of work. Still, there hovered in the back of my mind an undying love for literature, grammar, linguistics and composition. The artistic side of my nature needed to be unleashed, but would have to learn how to express itself in unique lessons for teaching proportion and the wonders of circles.

Once I retired from my career I returned to my roots, writing almost daily, reading and rereading some of my favorite authors, and immersing myself in the beauty of language. I even enjoyed tutoring a student or two in the ways of interpreting literature and then writing about metaphors and other tools of language. If found great joy and relaxation in having the time to devote myself to explorations of the ideas that I have always so loved.

Still there remained a longing to visit the land where so many of my favorite authors had once lived and to experience the history and culture that had so molded them. The number one entry on my bucket list was to travel to London and its countryside, and I was determined to one day make it happen. It was with great expectations that I recently crossed “the pond” and had the opportunity to walk in the shadow of some of the greatest authors of all time, not the least of which is my favorite, William Shakespeare.

The original Globe Theater where Shakespeare’s plays were performed was destroyed long ago, but a replica now stands along the Thames River offering seasonal productions for those desiring to get a feel for how the Elizabethan world might have been. It is an outdoor venue with a large open area for the “groundlings” who must stand during the presentation with three levels of seating on the same type of narrow wooden seating that the more prosperous patrons of old might have enjoyed. The only nod to comfort in the arena are the small cushions that may be procured for an extra fee to soften the harshness of sitting on a hard surface for three hours.

My traveling companions and I went to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedy that might not have been my first choice but was nonetheless the offering for the season. It was a greatly modernized version of the rollicking farce featuring the crowd pleasing character, Falstaff. The members of the company played well to the audience just as the actors of old most surely had done. Their light hearted banter kept all of us laughing and enjoying the ridiculousness of the story.

When intermission came I learned that the members of my family had little idea what was happening. They had not taken entire courses on the works of Shakespeare as I had. Only my sister-in-law Becky was somewhat attuned because I had gifted her with a translated version of the play since she was worried that her English might not be up to speed enough to understand the nuances of a Shakespearean production. I hastily describe the premise of the play and each character’s role in the tale. After that there were more laughs and enjoyment coming from my family, and I felt a small sense of satisfaction in being a purveyor of understanding for them.

I was literally floating on air as we emerged from the Globe Theater at the end of a riotously fun evening. The night sky was clear and illuminated by a million points of light from the city of London. I walked across the Millennium Bridge in high spirits as I marveled at my good fortune, and considered that the course of my life had gone full circle, returning me to the passion of my youth. I thought of Father Shane and gave him a silent nod of gratitude for instilling me with a love of all things literary. I felt quite complete as I considered how well the course of my life had gone. There was something very Shakespearean about the way that I was feeling and the contentment that filled my heart.

As if to remind me that life is filled with comedies and well as tragedies, in the midst of my elation my brother Michael ran into a low barricade, did a complete somersault, and banged his head on the pavement in view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. His glasses were broken, his body was bruised, and we worried that his injuries were severe. With the usual aplomb he brushed away our fears, but the bubble of perfection in which I had been floating returned to reality. It felt as though Shakespeare himself was reminding me of the vagaries of life that are the stuff of both tragedy and comedy.

I shall never forget my evening at the Globe Theater. I have seen better plays and more superior acting at the Alley Theater in Houston, but those entertainments did not feel as sacred as my pilgrimage to the place where the undyingly prescient words of the Bard still deliver their universal messages. More than ever I knew that “all the world’s a stage,” and I have been a player in its never ending plot.

A Paperless World

laptop on table turned on
Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Pexels.com

The world is becoming more and more technical, and the trend is forcing us to learn how to use complex implements for living or be left behind. There is such a rush to modernize and improve the way we do things that most of the electronics that we buy are outdated within a few years. Technology is the new driver of industry creating a conceivably better way of living, but also a host of unforeseen problems.

When I attended college as an undergraduate I typed my papers on what was essentially a keyboard that directed a piece of shaped and cut metal to strike an inked ribbon to leave an impression of a letter on a sheet of paper. If I mistakenly hit the wrong key I had to use a white liquid to hide my error and then strike the correct button to hide what I had done. A bit of correction fluid here and there was somewhat unnoticeable, but I tended to have far too many slips of the hand as I typed, and so my entries were more often than not rather messy looking. I invariably lost points for the rather shabby appearance of my efforts, even though I was known to type and retype my papers in an effort to make them perfect. I once begged a professor to allow me to simply hand print my offering on lined paper which he obligingly agreed to accept. He noted with a laugh that my scribing was a hundred times better than my typing.

I was thrilled with the invention of the word processor which permitted me to concentrate on my phrasing rather than the physical construction of my papers. My days as a graduate student were far easier than my earlier years of education, but as usual inventors were not satisfied with leaving things in a simple state. They had to create software that enabled the users to develop professional looking presentation pieces that were often far too complex for me to manipulate. I generally didn’t have the time to study the processes, and so once again I found myself falling behind not in how I said something, but in how it looked on the page.

It was about the time of my graduate studies that the Internet was becoming a thing on college campuses. One of my professors taught us how to use it and required us to send him emails. It seemed almost like magic to be able to communicate so easily with him. It would only be a couple of years later that the concept of email would become a thing and the need for almost everyone to purchase a computer became a reality. Before long the educational world was onboard for creating an almost paperless society.

At first I worried mostly about my economically disadvantaged students. The virtual way of doing business did not always work so well for them. It assumed that they had computers and wifi in their homes, which many of them did not. I was often criticized for allowing them to use my machines and printers rather than the computer lab, but I had learned that the fight for use of the facilities was real. Over time home computers and Internet access became as common as having a stove for almost every person, but I was still concerned about those who were not up to speed with the world of technology. I saw the changes happening so quickly that most students were working with outdated and sometimes unreliable equipment that created huge problems for them. I remember one young man who had worked for weeks on a research paper only to have some quirk of his home computer lose all of the writing that he had done. Because he had been conferring with me on a regular basis I was able to confirm to his teacher that he had indeed been nearing the completion of his great efforts and he was given one  additional night to attempt to recreate his paper.

Now students are being bombarded with technological demands. They register for classes online, receive emails with syllabi and instructions for projects, take online tests under the eye of proctors for whom they must pay, and submit assignments electronically. They must watch for confirmations that their work has been received and be alert for last minute messages. The old face to face meetings with professors during office hours are often replaced by attempts to “speak” with them via text or email. In spite of the fact that messages get lost in the barrage of information drowning students each day and equipment failures at the worst possible moments excuses are rarely considered. Students live and die by their ability to cull the wheat from the chaff, and must hope and pray that there is no power failure or unforeseen problem when due dates loom.

I have heard many stories from my former students about issues that they have encountered because of the assumptions by professors that they will be able to navigate successfully in a fully automated world. One young man spoke of how his dyslexia was not well served by computerized tests. Another called me in a panic one evening when his laptop crashed just before an important paper was due. Others have spoken of having to spend far too much time perusing their email inboxes each day just to be certain that they were not missing some important information from their professors. Sadly occasionally they became so snowed under that one tiny misstep obliterated what had been an excellent grade in the class. The brave new world of technology can be as hurtful as it is helpful.

Technology has been a boon to much of our way of life, but it has also created unforeseen problems as evidenced by cyber bullying, out of control tweeting, and an inundation of information that often creates new anxieties. Without checks and balances the electronic way of doing things can leave individuals feeling alone and isolated. What was supposed to be an aid to better living can become a source of major frustration.

We know full well that each human is an individual with a very specific learning style which highly computerized teaching does not always address. I am a very tactile person who needs to have a paper in my hand with words written on it that I may then highlight and annotate. That is how I best study and how I do well on tests. If I have to deal with a computer screen I still need a piece of paper on which to jot my ideas and create outlines. The paperless world does not work well with my dyslexia and I’m soon transposing numbers and reading words that are not on the screen. I’m certain that there are many others just like me who are struggling with the demands of an electronic world.

As we educate individuals we must ask ourselves why someone might make all A’s on traditional work in our classes and then suddenly make a failing grade on a computer generated assignment. Surely we need to take the time to find out what happened and then adjust for that student accordingly. The key to good teaching has always been to understand that there can never be a one size fits all way of operating. We have to be ready to deal with the exceptions to rules.

I was the valedictorian of my high school class of 1966. I was proud of that accomplishment then as now because I earned it with old fashioned hard work, not native intellect. What it taught me was that goals are achieved through persistence and effort. The playing field on which I excelled felt level and fair because it allowed me to learn the way I am best suited. I’m not so sure that I would have done as well in today’s environment. The learning difficulties that I overcame would be sorely challenged by the letters that seem to jump around and glow on electronic pages. There would be no place for me to set them right with my markers and pens and little drawings. Like my blind student who required braille books, I need materials in my hands to learn most efficiently. I wonder how many more like me are struggling to demonstrate that they have what it takes because it is so often assumed that everyone does better when no paper or textbooks are involved. It’s something that we need to think about and address.