Wednesday, October 27, 2004

because they have their own thoughts

I was just reading the paper, still frustrated, when I had an idea. What is it I want? I want them to read and think. I saw a little article in the paper about a judge who threw a party with balloons and a cake the day a runaway con got returned to court for re-sentencing. I wondered what my students would think about that. So I cut it out. Then I thought, why not go through the paper and cut out a bunch of short articles that they could read and write their thoughts about. Just a simple read this and tell me what you think. Tell me what YOU think. And it doesn't matter if you like the subject or care about the issue. Just read it and tell me what you think. And I'll read every response and be harsh about not letting them get away with taking it lightly. I might do this every day. Every day! Read this and tell me what you think.
I feel a lot better now.


let's read a story!

Today I decided I'd give them a story ("To Build A Fire," because it's in the text) and some good questions which call for page by page inferring, concluding, contrasting, deciding, etc., those questions that call for critical thinking. I also thought it would be a good chance for them to read something on their own and to have specific questions to focus their writing on, which would keep them on track and involved in the story. I read the first two pages of the story and helped them figure out the answers to the first four questions, then I set them loose on their own. I tell you what, almost to a person those students fought me until, by third period, I succumbed and read the damned story to them. They want everything spoon fed. (I find that so ironic, given the lives they lead.) I personally think it's because they don't know they have the ability to think through these things for themselves, and it's not necessarily because they think they're stupid. I don't know how much they're being asked to think. But really, the question of "why" isn't the issue right now. That they don't exercise their minds, that's the issue. Because time is short. My students are juniors and seniors, and almost every single one of them says they're going to college. What is going to happen to them? Do they think college teachers are going to read texts to them? I don't know WHAT they're thinking. I don't know where they got this business that everything has to be read out loud. Their favorite thing to do is copy things. They're very content to copy things. Should I remind them of what Frederick Douglass, the man, said about how to keep slaves contented?
I know they don't have confidence in themselves. I know. I know I know I know I know I know.
I'm frustrated this evening.
They do like to write, though. And my goodness how their writing has grown! I have to bring this issue into this blog. It's the success.
In third period, the class that gave me the hardest time, a girl who has been mean and disruptive and rude for weeks now got in my face and I caught the security guard in the hall and I wrote the girl up right then and there and I had the guard take her away. She got suspended. I thought that was too harsh but the assistant principal said she'd already gone way too far and had it coming to her.


Tuesday, October 26, 2004

I'm bad

It was a great day. Here's a part of it that occurred. It was first thing this morning. The rest, which includes a student telling me that she knows why I'm teaching at this particular school, I'll write about tomorrow. For the moment, I'll have to leave it at this:
During first period this morning, just after we'd been discussing and writing about mental darkness and mental slavery ("emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds," from Bob Marley's "Redemption Song,") while I was reading aloud an excerpt from Frederick Douglass's narrative in which he says, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see now how a slave was made a man," someone tapped civilly on the door. I opened it and it was a kid who has been getting in my space lately. He tried pushing his way in, physically. I had my book in my hand. I absolutely refused to have this clown interrupt my class. I absolutely refused to have this absurdity to interfere yet again with a profound moment. I was completely clear and resolute. He was not coming in. And so I stood in the door's opening and forced him out. I stood there and physically would not let him into the room. I set my shoulder and kept him out. He put his foot in the door even, to keep it open, and I pushed it away with my shoe and pulled the door past it. It was not easy. This was a big guy. I don't know where my strength came from. I pried his fingers from off the door and pulled it shut. And then I kept on reading. My heart was pounding and my head full of energy and blood. The text was so beautiful.


Sunday, October 24, 2004


It's Sunday. I conversed with Tim this morning. He was walking in a Paris subway station about to put his token in the gate when I called. Every time I speak to him I can feel Paris. Anyway, he asked me how things were going at school and the first thought that came to me was that things were hard. I told him that week before last I was considering what I might do if things didn't work out for me here. I feel better now, but, still, I cannot not think. He asked me why things were so hard and the first thought that came to my mind is that I was afraid that the children are already ruined. That's a harsh thought, and it scares me to think it. I deeply do not believe it, but on the surface it appears to be possible. And there's always that little thing in the back of my mind (not my heart) that says I might be wrong, that is, that there is no hope.
But there's a student, the girl who retrieved the Maya Angelou book of poetry from the supposed fire. She and her mother were evicted last week from the housing project for not paying the bill. Yet this girl is still alive in her heart, still has hope, and she's innocent. She believes in poetry.
There are no answers.


Friday, October 22, 2004

some answers

A lot of people are making comments and asking questions in responses to the blogs. I think I would like to institute something here which is to copy some of the responses into the main text of the blog. So I will begin with the questions of an Ancient Mariner, thrown against her will into the spotlight, she who calls herself anonymous:

Anonymous said...
But, what I don't understand is that no one mentioned frying pancakes in bacon drippings. What's wrong with those kids?? And definitely, the crunchy edges are the best.

We had gumbo at MHS today. How is the food at your school?

The food. I hate to appear to betray my school, but the food is dreck. It costs teachers $2.25. However we do get extra portions. However again, that's extra portions of DRECK. Causes very mixed understanding of what a gift really is.

You haven't mentioned it. Do you have duty?

Not exactly. We have hall duty and big spaces duty, but nothing like any other place I've ever worked. Our lunch periods are our own, as are our mornings and afternoons. They ask us to be in the halls between classes, and I always am (which is when I get pushed around and cussed at). However (I'll be struck down for saying this) that perhaps is part of the reason we have such chaos. However again, I think it's a way for teachers to be relieved of stress. However yet again, I watched Lean On Me last night and think perhaps we shrink from confrontation. (I know I do.)

I taught the Greek creation story today..the one where Cronus eats his kids and Zeus makes him vomit them all up. Kids love that story. Do your kids know it? I'd love to hear their reaction!

I'm going to lay it on them and I'll definitely let you know how they respond. I bet they'll have some very serious comments to make, and the comments will be surprising and hard at first to understand, but in the end they will have illuminated the story in a way I'd never thought of before. I'm not just flinging rhetoric here. They really do see things in ways I'm not in on. I am as much of a student as they are. But don't tell them that. That would probably make them feel cheated.

"Yo vanilla, kick it one time, Boyzzzzzzzzzzzz." I have no idea what that means. Do you think your kids might translate. Someone told me that "Yo vanilla" refers to a white person.

Laura said, "I can't believe I'm doing this, but..."Yo Vanilla" refers to the song artist, Vanilla Ice (responsible for that oh so talented rendition of "Ice, Ice, Baby," that recycled media channels like VH1 and high school dances alike are so fond of), and I believe in most versions of the song the entire phrase "Yo Vanilla, kick it on time boooooy" can be heard in the opening moments.The phrase "kick it" is sometimes applied in musical situations to mean "to perform especially well", and in some cases this includes improvisation. "Kick it" in other contexts can mean "to relax" or "hang out," or "to (attempt to or actually) keep intimate company with" ("try to get with") someone. However, obviously only the first definition is applicable here.And "boy" is just a generic term of endearment/alliance/address.

What are your kids saying about the election? Are they interested?

They talk about it every day. They're angry. They're almost unanimously for John Kerry. Of course, voices are so raised that the quiet ones who may be Bush supporters could be loathe to comment. One of my students brought me her voter registration card and asked me where she's supposed to vote, and what all the information on the card means. I felt very honored about this, though if she only knew how very stupid I am in some things...
We talk often about Bush and Kerry, though not because I intend it. They just want to. It's the ripest place in the world for a social studies teacher.

Thank you for participating in this with me.



It turns out that the third class was sent to me yesterday by mistake. So today was much quieter and I got to work individually with a few students, grade a few papers, and have a few conversations. Had a few come in from the hall. The student who gave me a hard time day before yesterday, whom my friend "removed" from the class for me, came to my door to ask me for a bus ticket. Yeah, right. And then that mean guy who told me to open the fucking door and then pushed past me asked me if he could sit in my class. I would have let him, maybe it would have been a chance for me to become a real person for him (and him for me, I realize), but he was running away from something or someone and I didn't want to be party to it. Anyway, he might have been tricking me.
People have been talking about the fact that our school's enrollment numbers may be too small to support the number of teachers we have. They're talking about how some teachers will have to be "surplussed," which means sent somewhere else. I'm probably the lowest person on the staff -- no time in Orleans at all. Well, two months. So I have this fear, though the possibility of it seems unconscionable to me, that I will be transferred. After all this. The thought doesn't fit in my mind. I caught the principal and the assistant principal in the hall today and told them both that I don't want to leave. The assistant principal, who is very kind, said I shouldn't question new doors that open, which is what I say all the time to people, and the principal led me to believe that I shouldn't worry about it. I know Ms W is right, but I feel so much that Douglass is my school, and that I've begun to make some connections, and that it would be a downright shame if my students were to lose a teacher in midstream.
Anyway, there it is. Something else to keep me up at night.


Thursday, October 21, 2004

happy when it's crazy (have I turned?)

I'm especially looking forward to writing this blog tonight.
We are still interminably (it seems) mired in leap re-testing. I am not a tester. I hear things are spectacularly quiet on the second floor where testing is taking place, including in MY room. Instead, I am a sitter, as I have been all week, on the third floor where everyone who isn't testing is sent. This morning I got to school and found out that first period (which this week is lasting two full hours) I was to sit with THREE classes of children in one room, a room which is not my own. I am watching my students (those who are not re-testing), and the students of two other teachers (they have full classes but one of them is in my room testing rather than me testing and him being with his students.) Miraculously, first period was relatively calm. (the word relative has taken on new significance for me lately). No ceiling fans fell. No one rebelled. No one went crazy. No fight took place (though two did in the hall I was sitting in). Much of the thanks for the calmness of first period this morning goes to my sweet student Charles who happened to have a deck of cards in his bag. There were three drummers with drum sticks in the mix. Insane as that became, I let it go because when drummers aren't allowed to drum, things turn crazier. I know drummers. I'm secretly a drummer.
I don't want to admit this, because it almost sounds like a condonement (is that a word?), but today had its lovelinesses. I got to hang around with children I don't know (individuals who were walking the halls and happened into my room, whom I eventually did not send away. One, a stranger named Andrew, asked me if he could play a cd. I got all bitchy and said, in essence, no fucking way [excuse my Spanish, and I didn't say that word, I promise], because one must always be prepared for the unacceptable, and then he told me it was Al Green he wanted to play. How stupid did I feel? Al Green's almost always in my cd player at home.) The great thing is that I got a chance to know children I don't teach, which means that's a few more who won't hassle me in the future. I also got to hang around with my own students in a situation where I'm not hounding them to rise, where we just sat around conversing about things. Chilling out, as it were. For a few minutes I was in the hall talking with the other teachers who were sitting for classes, commiserating, teachers hanging out, bitching and commiserating, and one of my students came into the hall and asked me why I wasn't in the class. I told the lady I was conversing with in the hall that the girl wanted me in there to talk with them, and I returned. When I got back in there she told me I missed a whole conversation. I asked what the conversation was about and they told me it was about pancakes, and whether we like to fry them in butter or oil, and whether we like crunchy edges. I guess this sounds silly, but it was not silly. The conversation led to cooking, which is anything but a silly topic. During this time one of my students advised me not to stand in the hall and force children away (like the principal asks us to do) because they're only mocking the system and laughing at me. This tells me that she does not want to see me laughed at. This tells me that she has my back.
I learned a lot this week. At the end of the day I wrote a note to the coordinator of the leap retesting, asking her to reconfigure my first period and give some of those students to someone else, and now I'm sorry I did that. Maybe it's me recognizing how lessons occur in the most interesting and surpising places, but only to be seen in retrospect.
Or maybe it's the Merlot.
In any case, after looking at this and writing here, I do not feel unfortunate. I believe I must be a crazy broad. But I'm a happy crazy broad. And I felt a lot of love today.


Wednesday, October 20, 2004

literature and writing

Several people in less than a week have suggested that I address what it is like in the classroom, what my students are like, how they respond to writing assignments, etc., and I agree. (And now suddenly I'm thinking it would be so wonderful if I could have my students write blogs.)
I think it's correct to say that my ultimate wish for the students is that they discover that they are as capable of thinking as anyone is and that they have the potential for profundity. I see my job as being a facilitator to help them discover their thoughts. I teach English III, which is American literature and writing (I added the "and writing" onto the course description). I know that teachers are officially supposed to be passing our society's values along to our children, but that's not the way I think. I think we have to decide for ourselves what is valuable. I pass along American literature so they can see the thinking that has come before them by studying the work of the observers of our world, the writers, the people who embodied in their words the climate of America as it developed and as it continues to develop, and so see how our American lives today reflect that. I think learning and reading for the sake of learning and reading is beautiful, but I don't think children are there yet. I think they have to see the relevance to their lives, and they have to think their way through the past, to the present, and see that they are members of the present who are affected by people and events of our past, and see that life is not static, that change occurs, and that they're involved. There the question arises, are we victims of our past? And then we toss that word "victim" around. Maybe I'm also hoping that they can come to some conclusions about what America is, and hence, who we are. Puritanism and slavery, for example, didn't just come and go.
Agh! but that was wordy.
Cutting to the chase, let me tell you that it is not easy getting these children to let themselves think of themselves as thinkers. In the beginning, the most common reactions to me asking that they think something through (almost always through writing) was the slamming down of the pencil, the strings of expletives, even the getting up and the "rolling out" of class. They didn't buy it that they were capable of great thoughts, or, for that matter, any thoughts pertaining to life outside their bus-route defined world. So I've had to slow down, not because they cannot grasp the ideas, but because they don't think they can. I have to be gentle, and encourage them.
My last writing assignment was that they discuss the moods and tones in several pieces of literature, including "The Raven" and "Song of Myself." I must tell you that they did not balk like they'd have done in the beginning. They dove in. They gave it a shot. They're losing their fear of writing and trying out thinking their own thoughts primarily for one reason: writing practice. I'll have to bring home some of their writing about this and type it into this blog. One girl, probably the most vociferous when she's thinking she has nothing to say, wrote without fear and was proud of herself. She even smiled at me. A month ago she would have thrown her pencil on the floor, called me a name, and left.


Tuesday, October 19, 2004

friends good

This week we're doing leap retakes. Most of my students (juniors and seniors) have at least one test to retake, so my classes are sparsely populated. I'm taking in students from other sparsely populated classes, as we all are, trying to balance things out. The school was pretty chaotic overall, except on the second floor, where tests were being administered. There, all was absolute peace and honor. Sentries stood at all the stairway doors keeping walkers out. The hallways were quiet. The space for the children was kept what I would call sacred. All the energy at school was focused on the well being and success of these children. It's so admirable.
And it also tells me that it can be done. Forget the irony of the fact that it is this damned test that causes the school to make the sacred spaces happen. Perhaps we should thank the test, now that I think of it. Because now we know it can be done. If the administration and security people could cause this to happen every day, on every floor, during every period of the day, it would be such an honor to our children.
I'm going to request a meeting with the principal.
One last thing. I had a hard time with a kid in the 4th period class I was watching on the third floor and I told him I was getting him out. So I stood at the door waiting for someone big or authorative, or with something in a holster, to come down the hall to get him out. I could not believe my great fortune when the teacher who works across the hall from me on the second floor, this fabulous wild powerful math teacher, the one whom kids love and listen to, and a FRIEND of mine, came down the hall, this hall, usually alien territory for us both. I told her I needed a kid removed from my class. She stood up straight, roared his name, and he folded up his stuff and said yes maam, and left with her. I have no idea what she did with him. I cannot express how grateful I was. It was a perfect stroke of luck. I guess I'm accepting the fact that I'm not a roarer.
I have gotten over something. Everything is better again. I don't know what happened to me these last few weeks, but I'm back.

Melanie Anne Plesh

Monday, October 18, 2004

Tupac Shakur

I find that I'm hesitating to write here because I feel like all I'm doing is focusing on the bad stuff, my bad feelings, and everything negative. That is not what I want to do. I hate whining in every form. Also, I feel like I'm telling on my school, and I don't want to do that. Today I asked my friend across the hall how the faculty celebrates Christmas and her face got soft and she told me about the parties they've had in the past, and I got my feelings about the strong, good faculty reiterated. Apparently, the parties were spectacular. And my friend is a very classy woman. I haven't really written much about the faculty. That's something I would like to do. Part of the reason I came to Orleans is because I thought I could give the children something, that I was a strong teacher, at the height of my power, and that I could help them rise. Spit it out, Melanie (I'm embarrassed): I thought they needed a good teacher like me. What I find is that there are many great teachers on the faculty at this school. The problem is not the teachers. I could say what I think the problem is, but I have come to realize that what I thought I knew isn't necessarily correct. Not only am I facing a new world, I'm also facing the fact that I did not understand. I know that's vague, but there it is right now. This faculty has power and love. But it's stymied by some things, like the lack of discipline in the halls. I keep saying that I think a big solution to our troubles is that we hire several more security guards, and that they take their job seriously. If the menace-makers were removed, the kids who are longing to become educated could have the freedom to become so. And we has the teachers to do it.
I want to write about the good things. Here's one. Friday, I initiated something new, the New American Word Friday. My intention is to bring modern American poetry, in whatever form, to their attention. After a while I want us to analyze its relevance. But anyway, I began with Tupac Shakur. I figured I couldn't go wrong with him. One cannot but love him. He was an advocate for change. One night, about 5 years ago, I was listening to Bob Dylan when a student telephoned me. He heard the music in the background and asked me what I was listening to and I told him, and I told him that Dylan spoke for my generation. He told me that Tupac spoke for his. Tupac died when he was 25 of a gunshot wound, in Las Vegas. I think he is a martyr. He was shut up by the people in the world who didn't want him to say his say, just like the kids in my room are shut up by the fools in the hall. Anyway, here's the good thing (couched in a bad thing). We were listening to his song, "Dear Mama," when I heard a civilized tap on the door, so I quietly opened it. A kid I didn't know pushed his way in (I pushed back, but, well,) and he went around the circle of students in my room, shaking hands. He was a complete fool and a disruptive bastard. I can't tell you how angry I was. We were deeply silent, listening to this beautiful Tupac ode, and in comes this idiot. Anyway, what could I do? I could have notified security, but by the time they'd have come he'd have been long gone, and he would have won. He'd have disrupted us. So I let the thing run its course. The first guy he put his hand out to is a guy who is a serious human being and who loves becoming educated. He makes A's, though he keeps the street persona. He's a great student. I quoted him once in this blog. He's the guy who loves the idea of keeping things real. Anyway, the clown went to him first, and he, R, had to shake the clown's hand, because he has to work between the lines. He can't let anyone know how much he loves school. But he also looked at me to tell me he was disgusted. Then the clown went around the room. I sat down, which I thought was a small way to defeat him. When he got to this great girl in my class, L, one of the girls I had that rough morning with a few weeks ago, she refused to shake hands with him. He stood there for a long time, but she refused him. She was so angry. Finally he left and we remained silent, listening to the end of Tupac's song. It was interesting. I fear that my students will think that me sitting down is me being defeated, but my gut tells me how to proceed sometimes. SOMETIMES
Anyway, so that's the good thing I'm reporting today. I'm going to try to focus on these things. I'm also vowing to regain my smile. There really is much to smile about. But the things that take away people's smiles here are so much noisier.

Disposed of: three vee-neck sweaters I only theoretically liked

Melanie Anne Plesh

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


I so do not want this blog to be me cataloguing the negative things. There are lovely moments. But right now, I guess because it's so new to me, the scary things are more in my face and consuming. Today a kid, who was hallwalking during my planning period, used his pen to poke through the duct-taped hole in the door next to my desk. It was a shock because there'd been no noise outside, nothing, then suddenly this loud sound of the kid's pen trying to bust through the duct tape, and me on the inside, seeing the duct tape bulge, right next to my face. Then he went to the other door and broke through the taped window pane. And it was loud too. I jumped up and ran after him the second time he did it, but he got away, though I did see him. I said, "I've got your face, little brother," and he said, "I don't give a fuck." Of course I'll never see him again, so big deal if I've got the little brother's face.
After that I sat at my desk trying to concentrate on reading papers but kept expecting another assault, as I always expect (and more often than not get). I cannot concentrate there. And so then I think about my students and that they live like this, waiting for something to happen, 24/7. I swear, and I'm a little embarrassed about this, when I walk past my papered up glass-paned door I'm quick about it because I fear a gun going off and an inadvertent bullet through the door. I would be willing to die for someone or for a cause, but not as an incidental casualty of someone else's bullshit, bullshit, bullshit meaningless war. Like a former student of mine, Wayne Williams, a big precious gentle guy who worked hard to graduate, who got caught between two bastards shooting at each other at a bar in Slidell and died, just a few months after he graduated.
Oh, I could get maudlin. But I won't. It's not the point. The point is that even though I want to discuss the beautiful things and the beautiful students, I am distracted by the violence. Things are always on the verge of blowing. I saw my friend, Tracy, this weekend, someone who knows me, and she says she sees something different in my face. I see it too. And I feel different. I feel on the edge, anxious, and in danger. I get to leave this place every day and go across the tracks and park in my special, saved little spot in front of my house that I and my two neighbors civilly agreed upon. But I do look around me a lot more lately than I used to. And I don't smile much anymore. And I cannot sleep well. And I'm having nightmares.
And that's only me. Imagine living in it every moment of all your life.

Disposed of: the remains of the lilies


Monday, October 11, 2004


Pompeii! That's the name of the lilies. Thank you, Laura.
By the way, they're still with me. They're fading, wrinkling, drooping, the petals becoming translucent. But they're still with me. All six blooms.


what's english?

My students have begun telling me we do too much writing and reading in class. They want to know when we're going to do, you know, English? (They might be afraid they're being cheated.) In a case of perfect timing, I got an email today from a former student who said he's having a hard time in all his classes at college but has an A in English.
English. Whatever that is.
This is what I wrote in my journal after they left:

Kids are asking me why we're writing and reading so much. They think English class is still supposed to be about clauses and parts of speech I think. Worksheets. Vocabulary quizzes. So what is the purpose of English class? To make people fluent in the use of the English language. To open up the world a little more for them. To help them think. We're born with language. Language is what gives us the chance to communicate our needs, our desires, our thoughts, who we are, what we believe. It gives us a way to take our place in the world. To take it and not be squeezed out. Words are power. To be able to make words of thoughts is power. If you can't read the newspapers, for example, to find out what's going on, or you can't read a book to find out what people are thinking, what the human race is about, your world is made more narrow. If you can't express a thought about stuff that really matters in the bigger picture of the world, your options are limited. And nobody knows really who you are. Things become possible when we can speak and write and read and use the English language fluently. We're all about language.
That's the gist of the rant I want to make.

But I do fear it's too soon. A rant is supposed to engross them, but I think they're still too engrossed with the simpler things about me, like how strange I am, like how I dress, drink, walk, joke, tear up, pace, write. All that. Practically everything about me. I don't know anyway if they're quite engaged enough. Today it occurred to me that they don't know yet that I'm not going to be skipping school, or taking sick leave, or quitting, or blowing up. Two kids already asked me if I was coming back next year. I don't know if they know or trust yet that I'm for real.
Also, I don't know if they're ready to fall. That would be fall in a good way.

Disposed of: the old battery in my car. (I know that doesn't really count because I replaced it with a new one, but it felt so cleansing to replace it, so I'm counting it.)

Melanie Anne Plesh

Friday, October 08, 2004

note to self

Back in August, on the last day of our Teaching Fellows Training, our instructor gave us each a post card and asked us to address it to ourselves and write ourselves a note, and that she'd mail the cards in October. I got mine yesterday. Here's what I wrote to myself: "Remember that you have a gift for the kids. They might not be ready for it. Wait for them."

Melanie Anne Plesh

Thursday, October 07, 2004

maya angelou

I forgot something important about yesterday. When the second fire alarm went off a student of mine from another class, J, a girl who loves poetry, came into my room and got the book of Maya Angelou's poems from my cabinet. She said she didn't want it to burn.


Wednesday, October 06, 2004

a poem is called for here

I have to address the plight of the teachers at our school. I have to. I know school is about the children, and is supposed to be, but the teachers at my school are under siege, and we're humans, and our spirits are being grievously injured. In one form or another we're being attacked all day. The better parts of ourselves know not to engage in the crude, hostile, violent behavior and language our students lay on each other and on us all day long, and we know not to reciprocate in kind. And we all appreciate the desperate lives they live (there isn't a word hard enough to describe how they live. Desperate is too weak. Only a poem could express this.) But I don't know how many times I can hear the same boy every single day look at me with hate and menace while I'm blocking the doorway, trying to keep kids from circling, say to me, "Open the fucking door," then get right in my face and push his way through, and not attack back. The principal asks us to keep them out of halls where there aren't any classes fourth hour, and it's right to do this, but how can I keep this brute out without getting loud and mean and stupid? No one can. It's unconscionable. Every day we teachers are subjected to this kind of shit. It's more than foolish or unfortunate or difficult. It hurts our hearts. Because I'm new the hurt is fresh on me, and I'm conscious of it. The teachers who have been there for a while have had to soak it up and bear it, and I think they're in worse shape than I am. Talk about the silent killer.
Today the fire alarm went off twice. Once was a true fire drill and the other was a true fire. A little fire, a bullshit fire, a kid-created fire, but fire enough to cause us to leave the building nevertheless. That was during second period. My students asked me if we could write with a word (we haven't done that this week yet) and I agreed, and I'd just set the timer and that beautiful silence of people thinking to themselves was deep, and the fire alarm went off. Obviously, it ruined the moment, the class, and the whole day. Later in the afternoon someone set a poster on the wall on fire, but the French teacher tore it down off the wall and stomped it out before the alarm could go off. The fire department came and took pictures, gathered evidence, etc., but.
The kids are being cheated of their right to an education. And I know that I began this blog by addressing the teachers' plight, but, of course, it does all truly boil down to them. Teachers seem to be willing to put up with almost anything to help kids get something in this world.
I'm so angry.


Sunday, October 03, 2004


It's Sunday. This afternoon I took a walk to go see the German parade in the quarter (kicking off Oktoberfest) but was late and missed it. Those on-time Germans. I was careless. On the way home, as a consolation, I stopped at Flora Savage on Royal Street and bought two stems (three blooms each) of some big white lily named after a volcano, I think, or possibly a city in Rome. It starts with "P." My memory is shot. I'm 51 years old, as I may have mentioned before. I love this florist because she has such gorgeous semi-exotic flowers and she wraps each purchase, even if it's just one two-dollar stem, in tissue paper and ties it with a ribbon. Today she tied mine with a purple ribbon. When I got home and unwrapped the lilies and put them in water I got a good look at that ribbon, and it made me think about that girl in my third period class, R, the girl who sings and dances, the girl who lost her mother, the girl who still believes in love and writes about it and reads about it every day in our class, and I thought it was a beautiful color and I put it in my bag to bring to her.

Melanie Anne Plesh

Friday, October 01, 2004


In this setting with these profoundly alive people, I am afraid sometimes, because I know that everything registers, and that our classroom is not the street or the project or the neighborhood, not even the halls of a school, but a place where something real can take place, something calm and deep and tender and loving and spiritual and hopeful and dear. And they are aware of every word and movement. And they're watching me, I can feel it, still testing me, but also getting a little feeling that maybe there's something special for them in the classroom, They want there to be, and I often fear I'm not great enough for the job. I'm afraid of that. Because I'm finding out that these are not people who are low achieving and dull, ones that I am to go down to help them rise, but that they're brilliant and rich, and above this judgemental and stupid society, and above me. They're above. The job is not for me to reach down and pull them up but for me to rise and meet them there and say that I see them and help them find words to say where they are and who they are and what they see and know. God has given them something, perhaps to compensate for the harshness they have to bear every day of their lives. God has given them a profundity I cannot even fathom. I love them. My life has changed. I'm the student now.



Today I read William Cullen Bryant's poem, "Thanatopsis," with my third period. That's the class I was with while the fights were going on yesterday, when I locked the door and we wrote. That's the class with the girl whose cousin was killed, the same girl who said that thing about sitting in the back of the bus. The same class, I found out today, with a girl whose stepfather got killed day before yesterday.
Here's the poem:

by William Cullen Bryant

To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;--
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around--
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--
Comes a still voice. Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mold.
Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world -- with kings,
The powerful of the earth -- the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, -- the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods -- rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste,--
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom. -- Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings -- yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep -- the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest -- and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men--
The youth in life's fresh spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man--
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn, shall follow them.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

I hope I didn't bring this poem in too soon. I keep asking myself if I made a mistake and keep trying to convince myself that I didn't, but I'm not a hundred percent sure. Can poetry be a bad thing? Part of me thinks it is never a mistake to feel. Another part of me remembers a time in my life when it was necessary not to. I'm forever on the fence about this. The girl I mention above, L, told me she had to leave (but she listened so intently while I was reading), then put her journal in our file cabinet drawer, looked at me to show me that she was for real (which I never doubted), and left the room. On her heels two other girls left (the one whose step-father was killed and her friend who also lost her father by murder). I don't trust these girls (I know this sounds harsh, but I don't believe their hearts were stung. I think they were just taking an easy path out the door). But once L left, what could I do? Put them on trial for depth of feelings?
There was another girl in the room I know of who needed to hear this poem, the girl whose mother died in May unexpectedly. She was also following the reading intently. She writes and reads about her mother all the time. She brought me a picture of her mother. She is also the girl who sings and dances in our class (I know that sounds crazy). She's precious, and I wanted her to hear this poem about how maybe that when people die maybe they do pull the sweet wrappings of the earth around them and sink into somewhere with the people who died before them. Kings and mothers and such.
I'm upset because I see that a poem upset several people I read it to, and I wonder if it's possible that it can be wrong to read poetry sometimes. And then I think about The Republic, and how in that famous text the poets and philosophers were the only ones allowed to read poetry because it was considered too incendiary for regular people to deal with. And that so pisses me off. I'm thinking about bringing that into my classroom and reading it and pushing the point even further. But something in me thinks I should ease off a little and save Plato for later. But I don't know. How hot can things get before they explode or melt down? What would Langston Hughes say?

Melanie Anne Plesh