Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Dorian McLeod Taylor Plesh

Every day lately I'm hearing about someone who has been killed. Every day. I don't know if something unusual is occurring in the Universe or what, but everyone lately has a story of someone close having died or been killed.
Today is the second anniversary of my mother's passing and, strange but beautiful, several people, without knowing what this day is for me, came to me and told me or read to me privately about anniversaries of their parents' passings. EL wrote and read to me about her father who passed two years ago in April, and how she looks just like him. DD, whose father died last week, has her 18th birthday tomorrow. She wrote about how the two of them loved to watch professional wrestling together. DW had to leave the class while we were writing (about someone on our minds). I wasn't surprised. This morning before class I told her my story about my mother. Something just told me to. And I know her story. I'm afraid of being corny but I want to be real and say that we cried together and that I said to her that we, and every other person who has lost a mother, understand each other, and that because of a mother's passing we gain the gift of compassion and the ability to give solace to other people, just because we understand the unique pain. I never understood emptiness and loneliness until my mother passed. And now I not only understand mine, but DW's too. I'm afraid that I'm crazy to call it a gift, but it seems so to me.)
When DW came back into the room (the other students were worried about her and wanted me to go after her. I put my head in the hall, but I knew I didn't need to, because we'd talked and I knew she was as okay as she could be and that she was doing what she had to do. And I knew that she knew I was completely aware of her. But I love it that the children were so worried about her.) When she returned she had a speck of glitter below her left eye which looked like a clown tear.
It's the writing that's opening all this up. It shows me that we're getting real. But it's like looking at the sun and hoping our eye protection is sufficient.
My mother, Dorian Mcleod Taylor Plesh, died two years ago today and was buried on the 25th, her 84th birthday. Her death was not a tragedy but her life was. She had some moments, but too few for a poetic woman. She died before she found her voice, though she knew she had one. That's the worst part. My friend Anne said that she hoped heaven was like Florence, because her mother loved Florence better than any place in the world, and I'd like to say I hope so too. But for my mother, I hope heaven is Scotland and that she is with her people.
She was a lonely woman. I wish I had been a better daughter.


Monday, February 21, 2005


This morning I awoke with dreams in my mind about some little things I can do with my students to help them become more literate. When I got to school someone asked me how I was doing. She said I didn't look too good. I feel like a soldier in combat. I guess I wasn't smiling.
I'm determined to do a good job at this school. I feel like I'm coming to understand better who the children are and what they need. I realize I've taken way too much for granted when it comes to, for example, words I'd assumed these children, along with all people, understand.
It was a hard day. There'd been a fight Friday which several boys attempted to rectify today by starting a new fight. I've not seen so much tumult in the halls as I saw today. A lot of cops, a lot of screaming angry words and little fights, including "play" fights, all day. Children swarmed in packs in the halls, including the tall mean girl, who is not mean to me anymore. And she's pregnant, about seven months.
There are several kids per class who still need to pass the English LEAP and so I'm replacing the "do now" time for them with individual remediation.They have the potential to pass this test. I was called down last week by our distinguished educator in residence because I was not doing exercises with the whole class on LEAP strategies. I do understand the strong desire on everyone's parts to help these children pass. I am absolutely one of them. But I think it's wrong to remediate 20 children when only 5 need it. So I'm doing it on the side. However, I might be harrassed for doing it my own way.
I have papers to read tonight and grades to tally. We're finished with the first quarter of the new school year.


Thursday, February 17, 2005

what matters?

An artist in residence came to my room yesterday. Somehow I am involved and the fortunate recipient of such a cool opportunity. She came to my room to ask me what ideas I might have for an interaction between our textbook (so to speak) and a paid outside artist. That's my perception of the situation. She's an actress and performance artist.
Even as we were conversing I felt BORING, and that I didn't have a life other than teacher, and this has spurred a lot of self-doubt. I feel like I've been a dull teacher so far this year. I think I'm preoccupied by the fact that these kids have such huge needs and that I don't want to spend a single minute on anything that will not specifically enhance their ability to make it when they graduate. The wise part of my mind knows that it's not the lessons but the atmosphere that matters, and that often tangential things that appear frivolous are actually profound if they're allowed to complete their circle and flower. But there's also my fear of anything frivolous sans obvious profundity. So much time is wasted at our school.
I fear I'm boring to my students. I like to think they realize they're becoming educated, but I fear it, fear that they don't see. But why should I fear that? It doesn't really matter that I see that they see. It only matters that they see. And I may never know if they do. I do know that KH learned two words -- exacerbate and penultimate (penultimate because she had the second to last conversation with her grandfather before he died), and I know that she's blowing her own mind with her writing. MR is writing something huge about his experience on the street. He too is blowing his own mind (and mine). In fact, it's also happening with JC and ST and BG. Things are happening all over the place. It's suddenly occurring to me. Even WR has discovered that he loves writing about himself.
Almost all of the writing these people have produced so far seems to be leaning toward themes. (I'm thinking this is something I need to write up somewhere, this beautiful thing that has inadvertently developed). In these four and a half weeks they've discovered what and how they like to write. Suddenly I realize this. I'm thinking I could help them actually zero in on their themes and then show them how the different genres could intrinsically, due to their natures, be useful for expressing various aspects of what they have to say.
It's incredible to me that first period, which has caused me so much grief lately, is the one inspiring all this. I'd think, given my experience in this world, I'd have expected it.
How the hell ever, I'm still boring. I'm preoccupied. I have no personal life. I am merely a worker, a serious worker, and the children are more important to me than me. But how can that be right?
I know I'm happy and crazed and preoccupied and lonely and, to make matters worse, am clear that I do know what I'm doing. I'm on fire, but I sure wouldn't mind a simple Thursday.


Monday, February 14, 2005

the snake helped

I did what I intended. I stood at the door and caught the culprits and told them what time it is and they rolled their eyes, and I told them that was a disrespectful act too and they'd need to drop that action from their repertoire. The class went fine. The original perpetrator, EN, wasn't there, and neither was another one, but that's okay. I've got a grip.
I realized today that one of the problems with me is that I feel sorry for these children and so I let them get away with too much. It's hard to draw the line. It's not black and white, but it needs to be moreso. I'd told myself that if I had to err, I'd err on the side of kindness. But I think that's faulty thinking. I think there should be fewer iffy areas. That's hard for me. I deeply do not understand hard and fast rules.
We got a lot of work done in that class today, which right there is enough proof that order is better than kindness. Did I say that? Good grief!
I am worn out. Just standing at that door this morning, gathering my strength and wherewithal, exerting, and standing by it, wiped me out. But it's done. I made it.
The snake around my neck got a little bit of attention. It's a little intimidating I guess. Fine. Maybe not everyone can wear a snake necklace. Maybe that told them something about me.


Saturday, February 12, 2005

a brown horse

I woke up at 4 this morning with a brain full of all the cruel things I'd like to say to the people in first period. And every so often all day I've found myself talking to myself, saying out loud, here, alone, those same mean things I wish I was mean enough to say there, to them. That's not really true. I don't wish I could say mean things. But it does give me a little comfort remembering that they are rookies when it comes to using words. F You is pretty much the best they can do.
The only thing to do is to figure out a plan.
One thing I am definitely planning is to stand at the door on Monday and not let anyone in until I have had a private conversation with each one wherein I'll get their agreement to be decent or leave. That has worked before for me. Also, I plan to add a 100 point grade to this class, and if a person gets written up she loses 20 or maybe 30 points right there. And I'm making the grade retroactive, beginning with Thursday. The rest of that grade will be subjective, decided upon by me. Also, I have a stack of discipline referral forms which I will have at the ready, and I'll warn them once, that anything like rudeness in the class will be something I'll write them up for. This should work with the disciplinarian, whom I will warn ahead of time, because I've already written three of them up, and, really, they're the serious three. Two others participate, but it's the three at the core who cause the problem. Also, perhaps I can talk to a security guard (but where have they been?) and see if I can get her or him to pass my room during first period a couple of times so if I need a student taken out she or he can do the job for me. Because here's something surprising, when you tell a kid to get out of class they refuse! Then what? If there's no one in the hall to take the kid out, the only alternative is to buzz the office, but the two times I've tried to buzz (not for a discipline problem) the office can't hear me. I think just about every teacher in the school has a cellphone for situations like this, and they call the front office by telephone. I don't have a cellphone.
Another thing that I'm going to do is adjust my attitude. I'm going to take things at face value. I have a tendency to think I know what's behind bad behavior (like EN, the girl Thursday, and my sure belief that she's a troubled girl) and because of that letting things go that shouldn't be let go, letting kids say and do more than is right. I'm going to make them be responsible for their actions. Compassion is good, but holding them to a standard of decent human behavior is good too.
Something I don't talk about enough here is the constant racist comments against me by some students and the ever-present racial overtones. This plays a part in the terribleness of first period. It affects me by chipping away at my self-esteem. I'm just thinking out loud here. And naturally I have to imagine, and can imagine a lot more now than before, what our society's racist attitudes against African Americans must do to their self-esteem, what it must have done for a long time, and how these kids are the current result of, what, maybe five or so generations of ancestors who have been singled out and harrassed because of their skin color.
What I have to do is go ahead and see the big picture, which includes what I wrote above, but also to remember that it's wrong to be racist. Even against me.
I believe everything is going to be alright. In any case, I'm showing up Monday. But I'm going to wear my snake necklace, my horse ring, and carry a picture of Penny in my pocket, for strength. By the way, this morning I read over my dreams of the last three months and the night this semester started (January 18) I dreamed that a brown horse and a palomino came running by me and I thanked the brown one for showing up and telling me that everything was going to be alright. The palomino sank in some deep mud but got out. Maybe that dream was a before-the-fact kindness. Penny was a brown horse.


Friday, February 11, 2005

blog sans title

It's amazing and infinitely interesting to me that the blog I just wrote disappeared. I didn't like what I'd written, and now it's gone, and I don't want to write it again.
In brief, it was me talking about how EN tried to come back in my class today with nary a how do you do or even a little bitty sorry. Just tried to walk in. It was about how that first period class picked up where EN left off and threw profanities and insults around. It was about how they're trying to take me down and about how I'm thinking about going down without a fight. It was about the fact that they've won the day. It was about the fact that I'll get big again on Monday, but what a ridiculous waste of time and energy, of my one and only precious life, and theirs. It was about how I'm talking to myself, and that I know it will interfere with my sleep.
Why did I do this? WHY did I do this?
It was a terrible day. But what's a teacher to do? I cannot say or do the things a regular wronged, insulted human being is allowed to say or do. So I wrote discipline reports. Big fucking deal.


how many battles does it take before we call it a war?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

the human race

About 30 minutes into first period, after I'd asked her several times to watch her language, a student, EN, a new one, got up, threw her writing on the floor, and said fuck you to me, twice, and then a third time in the hall in front of another teacher when I went out to try to get her to see reason. Haha. Then a boy came out into the hall to tell me I ought to leave her alone, let her come back in class, that she's just crazy and has a lot of problems at home. I asked him what he'd do if someone publicly insulted him by saying fuck you to him. He said something that included violence. Of course the class was watching my every damned move when I came back in. I picked up her folder and loose papers and threw them in the trash. Maybe it was small of me but it was so humiliating to have a girl say the things she said to me, in front of the whole class, and there was nothing I could do. I had to do something. Then I tried to continue with my class. I was shaken but also, mercifully, numb. I turned my back on it. Tried to.
At the end of class I asked the boy who tried to cover for her if she had any friends or any teachers at the school with whom she could talk and he said just NM, who is another girl in the same class who is always on the verge of being unspeakably rude. So I brought NM out in the hall and asked her what was up. She said EN has some serious problems and needs to talk to someone. However, all the time she seemed to be stifling laughter. But I decided to err on the side of kindness and told her to give EN a message for me, that I'm not angry and that I'd be glad to talk with her. No punishment. Here's the thing: I know without a doubt that it's true about EN's life and something is seriously wrong. I also know that these are some cruel kids. Yes, I know, cruel because they're only respectful of people who can say fuck you to the world and to anyone who crosses them. But this makes them players, too. They're shallow. Maybe one just has to become shallow to survive. But not me. I only hope that I'm doing the right thing by being myself, by not participating in the games or the language or the hostility or the stupidity or the shallowness. I hope I'm doing the right thing by holding on to what I think is right. I hope I'm doing the right thing by persisting quietly.
Here's the rest of it. In this class are the sports stars. They're rude. They make fun of the way I talk by repeating what I say in a foolish way, whisper insults about my appearance under their breath to each other, and generally disrespect me every chance they get. I hate the class. I hate being in this ridiculous position. I hate it that they are seniors and still so unbelievably stupid about the world.
I'm still numb but a little bit of the anger is rising. I'm human. How can those children not see that? And where the hell is their humanity? They're only 18 years old.


Saturday, February 05, 2005

parenthetical me

Thursday I woke up with a headache. After going round and round with myself, I finally called in to school sick. While I was taking a bath I kept trying to imagine standing at my classroom door, feeling puny and less than a hundred percent, the bell for first period ringing, and me attempting to tame the surge of circling, Mardi Gras-crazed adolescents. In fact, I couldn't imagine it. I don't think it's possible to go in as a teacher at my school feeling less than a hundred percent. It seemed weak-willed of me until I had the revelation that at my school there is never a normal day or a day without some kind of drama. Teaching here calls for every shred of ability and strength musterable, and for us to be prepared for the unexpected at all times. And for us to be prepared to handle the unimaginable. (The realm of the unimaginable is getting smaller. Theoretically I think that's a good thing, because what can be wrong with facing what is real? On the other hand, realizing that there are those kinds of things in the world is disheartening because I sometimes now wonder if I'm wrong in thinking that all children are salvageable, that their few years on Earth cannot possibly have damaged them forever, that no matter who or what, they can rise. Someone recently brought up the possibility that children who are their family's third generation to be born in poverty, often to young mothers who don't fathom that what they do and ingest while they're pregnant will affect a life, children who are raised in dangerous neighborhoods mostly without fathers, that these children begin life with a deficit that they may perhaps never be able to overcome, that their development is stifled from their pre-natal time and that a certain weakness or inability or disability is almost written in stone. I don't want to believe that. I have to and I do believe these children begin life on less than equal footing with most of us Americans [how can there be such poverty in the midst of such affluence? MLK raised that question], but that they're capable of herculean efforts. And that's EXACTLY why I want to be a teacher here - to teach them about Hercules.)
That was a tangent that got me to a truth about who I am. Writing blows my mind!
Where was I? Oh yes, the headache. So I knew I couldn't be Hercules myself Thursday and I stayed home. Yesterday a kid came to see if I was okay because she was so shocked that I'd been absent. That's a damned shame that a kid should be shocked that a teacher is almost always in class. But that's another story (we recently had a spate of days where on the average, 17 teachers were absent in one day). But that's another story (which I have to muster up the courage to tell soon). Soon. Anyway, so I found out that what I missed on Thursday was that several girls, all my students, jumped another girl, a former student, and the jumpee sprayed them with Mace. All but the macer got expelled. They're all girls I've written about in this blog, every one of them. In fact, we got a list yesterday of all the expelled students in school and seven of the ones on the list are or were my students. Also on Thursday a boy and a girl came to blows in my second period class, but apparently got separated before the authorities had to be involved. See, imagine if I had been there? On a hundred percent day the altercation in my second period wouldn't have materialized because one of the things we teachers do is stay on top of things all the time, almost smelling out potential trouble. That's one of the things that people don't know about teachers, how much of ourselves has to stay engaged every second we're with our students. (That's why it makes me crazy when people make light of teachers and give us a hard time, even in jest, about all the holidays we get. I know I speak for every teacher I know when I say that we couldn't function without the times to turn off and catch up with ourselves. And now that I'm on this tangent, saying off the top of my head, there's probably no amount of money that could entice people who are not willing to give themselves over like that. That's probably why teachers make a, relatively speaking, low salary. Am I crazy for saying that money is kind of an afterthought?)
So I didn't go to school on Thursday. That's the second day this year I've taken off. I'd begun the year COMMITTED to not taking a single day off, but I've backed off a little, now that I understand this hundred percent thing. It's an intense school in an already intense profession. Every so often, I guess we need a headache which makes having a headache, ironically, a blessing.
Enough for now.


Tuesday, February 01, 2005

ad nauseum

The steps forward are short. I hope they're deep. Right now I'm going on hope. I think that's the natural progression anyway. First the lessons are yellow jackets in the summer, all over the place and fierce, and later, now, they're yellow jackets in the winter, slower but still themselves. I see them coming now but they sting me anyway, and the sting hurts worse. I now know to go lie down and let the poison have its moment and that it'll pass. It doesn't blindside me anymore. Now it just makes me sad. I feel almost sick with sadness that the halls have turned vile again. I'm back to locking my doors and reading our daily poem over the foulness of their din. They crash against my doors and windows like fighting fish looking at a mirror. The noise is sickening. Sometimes I think it's better to leave the doors wide open because then they can't bang on them, but then they walk in like the gig is theirs and they're impossible, just like in the beginning, to get out. I do find that my students inside the room are less tolerant of the fools out there in the hall and ignore them more, except that yesterday one of my students yelled to the thugs outside that I was coming to the door and told them to run. I lost my cool and then I told him to find a new 4th period. He wasn't in class today. I hope I never see him again.