I Survived!

When I first started this school year in my new school, I was warned by all that it was not going to be easy. I had blindly signed up to teach the hardest class of students who had run off so many teachers before me that they didn’t even know what it was like to learn.

The few teachers that stayed for more than a year were called survivors. The ones that fled before Christmas break were called normal or sane.

Even with all the warnings, I could have never been prepared for what I walked into on that first day and every day after. Between the verbal abuse of the students trying their best to make me cry and the constant threat of physical fights breaking out in my classroom, it was hard for me to maintain order well enough to teach.

But I am happy to say that I am a survivor! I went through the fire of October, February, May, and everything in between, and came out on the other side–alive, exhausted, and maybe just a little more refined… or at least in some ways. My awareness of new profanity has certainly increased as well as my understanding of colloquial terms for topics I have never wished to discuss with anyone. Ever. But in terms of my perseverance and abilities in the classroom, I have become refined.

There has been a lot of learning and teaching and learning even more–on my part, I mean. The students have been fighting against learning all the way. But I have been picking up all kinds of little pieces about their life and culture. Little phrases that they say a hundred times a day have become ingrained in my brain. Things like:

Triflin’ “you’re triflin'” “that’s triflin'” or “they be triflin'”
Petty (used in the same way as triflin’)
“That’s doin’ too much” (meaning I don’t like what you’re doing)
“Why are you wri’in’ so disrespectfully” (meaning sloppy) “That’s just extra” (meaning unnecessary, or more accurately, I don’t want to do this)
Fleek (beautiful)
“Look how you feel!” (You should be embarrassed)
“Rachet”
“Rusty/dusty”
“Turnt up”

One line I really like is when a kid asked me, “Why are we called colored when you guys turn all different colors? You’re red and blue and purple…” as someone who turns splotchy red when emotional, I couldn’t disagree. We’re pretty colorful people. Of course, I tried to tell him that the term refers to the amount of melanin in the skin, but that doesn’t really negate his point.

Most interesting insults that a student has thrown at me all year-
First place: voodoo doll
Second place: cracker star

Best compliment from a student:
weirdest teacher

Best critique from a colleague:
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re like a Mary Poppins. And I like Mary Poppins. But a spoon full of sugar isn’t going to fix these kids.”

I have come a long way since my first day of teaching in the ghetto of Charlotte. My understanding of the kids, of their culture and upbringing, of the most unfortunate circumstances that affect them all, has grown exponentially. As dark as some of those fall months were and as much as I dreaded some mornings, I know that God had me go through it all for a reason. It was His strength that got me through every day. And now that the year is done, I am stoked for my next year teaching in the same school.

Because I am a survivor. I didn’t run away and I have signed on for another year. The same God that gave David his fearless courage to go against a giant has given me the courage to teach the most difficult student (even if I have to do it from a bit of a distance because he likes to pickpocket me.)

I learned so much this year on the west side of Charlotte, but I still have a lot to learn. I think another year is what I need for some more refining. Bring on the fire!

It’s been a long, hard year. I have never been so exhausted. There have been days and weeks where I thought I couldn’t make it through the year. In those weeks, all I wanted was the comfort and loving of Kafka.

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Kafka’s lovin’

There have also been days and occasionally weeks where I feel like I’ve got it all figured out… Or at least, handled well enough.

So far this school year, I’ve had four students of mine put in handcuffs, one allegedly in jail at the jaded age of 14. After a threat to my safety and several other death threats to students, another of mine has been sent off to God knows where, never to return.

It’s heartbreaking. Everything in me nearly shattered when I watched the resource officer snap out his handcuffs for a boy that only came up to my shoulder.

But after nearly nine months of this environment, I’ve become a little jaded myself. Praise be to God for giving me a light in the middle of this darkness. Each of my mornings starts off with a piece of sunshine. Even on the dreariest of days, I have small glimpses of hope and sweetness.

This lovely light comes in the form of a girl with round cheeks that light up when she smiles. She’s playful and kind and anxious to help so much so that she’ll get upset if I don’t let her help in every way.

But just as sweet as she is, she can also be explosive (as many of these kids are) and she can cuss up a storm just as good as any of them. But when the dust settles, she always returns to the lovely young lady that brings me joy in my day.

Kaniya 001

Hidden Struggles

In the midst of my  frustration in trying to control a class of 20 students who want to undermine me (and everything else), I sometimes fail to see the struggles that they go through. It’s too easy to feel my own pains and difficulties. Rarely do I catch a glimpse of theirs.

In the middle of my day, I have a student who has always been the top of his class. Sitting in the middle of a classroom full of loud, angry, rebellious children, he was one of two in that class that actually wanted to learn. He worked extra hard to get something meaningful out of my most turbulent class.

I noticed a sudden change in his behavior a few months back. He became withdrawn–keeping his head down and fidgeting with things on his desk. He no longer did his work. I received word that he was attending a counseling group for those who have lost family members.

Then he started acting out. He became loud and problematic–provoking others to fight him and disrupting my teaching. For the first time ever, I had to threaten to call his mom… and then follow through with it. I left several messages for her until one day she showed up at school.

He was having a particularly bad day. Everyone in the class was picking on him for not wearing socks. He had already been the subject of talk for wearing Wal-Mart brand shoes instead of Nike Jordans or the like. As someone who grew up barefoot, I couldn’t even begin to understand how this mattered. But to too many of my students, it means everything.

Before they picked on him about shoes and socks, they had picked on him for how bad he smelled. Thank God, I have a terrible sense of smell, because apparently a number of my students are quite rank. But I never notice. I’ve just been warned that the ones that never take their coats off, are most likely the ones that smell.

I met his mother in the front office during my planning period. He was with her, fidgeting with his hoodie strings in a nervous way. I smiled warmly and began by saying as many positive things as possible, “I know your son is a very bright boy and he was doing so well at the beginning of the year, but I’ve seen a change in him recently and he’s falling behind in work.”

That set the mother off. She turned on him in the front office like she had just heard that he had murdered someone. The boy’s hands were shaking like leaves as he twisted and tied his strings in silence. But he kept his chin up and his eyes on her face as a show of respect. He had a very dignified look about him that masked the fear, which was evident in his hands working the hoodie strings.

His mother tore into him for quite a while as I stood by. I couldn’t betray her parental rights, but it hurt me to watch.

In the hopes of looking for more positive resolutions, I asked, “Is there something I can do to help him focus better in class. Perhaps moving his seat–”

But my plan backfired as she cut me off to turn on him again, saying, “Why is your teacher having to ask me how to keep you on task? You should know how to behave in class. She should not have to ask how to get you to focus.”

After the boy returned to class, I asked the mother, “Is there something going on that I should know about? He didn’t used to act this way. I just want to make sure I’m sensitive to anything.”

“Oh,” She said, as if to shrug it all off, “He’s just upset. See, he used to live in a car with his father, but his father died of cancer, so now he’s living in the shelter with me… but that is NO excuse for his behavior in class.”

Suddenly so many things made sense. I didn’t want to contradict the mother, so I politely said goodbye and made a mental note to only ever say nice things to her about how her son is doing.

My One Word for 2015: Persevere

2014 is over and I am almost halfway through the school year.It has been rough. Through perpetual adversity and sickness,  by the time christmas came, I felt like the little engine that could.  Or maybe a very tired Dory saying, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”
It was very easy for me to pick my one word for 2015. God has been encouraging me with it all through the school year. And through the prayers of those around me, I know I’ve been carried through the trials and hardships of any kind.
Sometimes my perseverance has looked like this:

DSC00746

But a lot of times, it felt like this:

DSC00748

And more often, this:

DSC00750

Recently, it’s been like this:

DSC00751

But as God promises, perseverance leads to hope. My hope has been to be this:

DSC00754

When hope dwindles, I end up curled in a corner like this:

DSC00755

But God’s strength and your prayers pick me up again and perseverance pushes me forward.

So now, as I head into the second half of the school year, and a brand new calendar year, my aim is to persevere–with my hope in Christ to never leave me empty and understanding that perseverance brings maturity.

Romans 5:3-5

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

 

James 1:2-4

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

The Man with the Teardrop Tattoos

He had three teardrops outlined on his cheeks and five stars spread across his face like a constellation. He towered over me in a way that would be intimidating if I had met him anywhere else. But this was a classroom and he was a caring parent of one of my students who had come on his own initiative to see how his son was doing in my class. He was fresh out of prison and anxious to be a part of his kid’s life.

I called him on multiple occasions when his son was acting up in class. It’s not that his son is a “bad kid.” He’s just very talkative. And hyper. And goofy. And likes to play fight in class; and rap in class; and do anything except his work, really. So his dad came in twice to check on him and have a conversation about his behavior. As they say in school, “His dad don’t play.”

“I know he’s is smart,” He said one day in the cafeteria. “I was the same way. I had a full scholarship to college too–on academics, not sports. But my temper got me in trouble… I want my son to do better. I don’t want him to end up like I did.”

That stuck with me. In a school like this, there are so many parents who just don’t care and others who are just worn out. But this man was adamant about his son’s education. And poured out his pent-up hope on his future.

Shortly after that encounter, I was given the unfortunate news that he had died. I had a gut feeling that it was a violent death. The story ended up on the local news. He had been jumped by gang members and shot to death in a convenience store.

His son was out of school for 2 weeks. When he came back, he drew a teardrop on his cheek with a sharpie.

My Classroom Anti-hero

David came into my class late in the first quarter–transferred from an alternative school for behavior management. It wasn’t long before he was suspended the first time.

It wasn’t that he was a bad kid. He didn’t search out ways to be disruptive and he never tried to disobey authority. He never had a malicious intent and he rarely broke a smile. But the kid had no impulse control. His body moved before his brain even knew what he was doing. He couldn’t sit still–if he could manage to sit at all. And he couldn’t help but grab everything that came within reach–like my watch or my pen, someone else’s pencil, anything on my desk, or the money in my pocket.

He never kept what he took. If he did, he would actually have something to do his school work with. As it was, he couldn’t even keep up with the school supplies I gave him. Every day he came to school with nothing but his clothes. And when he left my class, he left behind all the paper and pencils I had given him, along with the homework assignment and whatever piece of notes he managed to scribble down between dance moves and kleptomania.

David was a five foot boy of hard muscle and the most expressive eyes I’ve seen outside of a Disney cartoon. Every day I’d check his behavior at my door–blocking the way with my arm until he promised to sit directly in his seat. When he pressed himself against my arm, I realized that he was probably strong enough to break it if he wanted to. And he knew it. But even though he had obviously seen his share of fights, he was not the kind of kid that would want to do something that terrible to another.

Sometimes I wished I could request a straitjacket for him. Just seeing him walk down the hall towards my door was draining. The kid had energy like a beam of light. I couldn’t keep up with him. But there were times when I was very glad he was there.

His class was the hardest class for me to handle(still is, honestly). They were the class that prided themselves on making teachers quit. And I have to admit, by the middle of October, I had a bit of an existential crisis.

I had been warned that October was the month of crazy in this school. I tried to brace myself for whatever that meant, but nothing could prepare me for it. Fights broke out constantly. Somebody got up to sharpen a pencil and the next thing I know, I’ve got a boy bigger than me punching a boy half his size. Desks got knocked over. The two of them tumbled out into the hallway. And all the while, the rest of my class is cheering like they’re watching a football game. I ran for the phone to call the office and just then, I see David come barreling out of nowhere and tackling one of the fighters to the ground. “Great,” I said, “Now there’s 3 of them in a fight.”

“No,” a girl next to me said, “Look, he’s breaking them up.”

And sure enough, David picked himself and the kid off the floor, shoved one student into another classroom and wrapped his arms around the other to physically restrain him. The fight was done. Four teachers stood watching with heads poking out of the doorway behind them. An EC teacher came storming out of her room, high heels clicking on the tile and dreadlocks bouncing on her back, and grabbed the kid that David was holding onto, dragging him to her room to find out what had just happened.

With nothing else to do, David came right back into class, pushing past all the onlookers who were still talking excitedly about what just happened. He was the first one back in his chair. As he started copying down the notes off the board he looked up at me with his big Bambi eyes and said, “Am I doing good?”

And that’s when David became my bouncer.

It wasn’t long after that another kid fell under the spell of October and went berserk when someone took her lip gloss.

She was a scrawny girl, not much thicker than a twig. High pitched and temperamental, I never knew if it was going to be a good day with her or a bad one. She was the kind of girl that could smile sweetly and curse you at the same time. On this particular day, she was quiet and focused until her lip gloss went missing.

A common prank in the school was to steal something and pass it around (or throw it around)–a little like Monkey in the Middle. I was still learning that this sort of behavior existed and was never fast enough to catch anyone in the act. So I was rather useless to figure out who had her lip gloss.

The poor girl, feeling victimized by the whole class, resorted to screaming and flailing her small, bony fists at the two boys she suspected the most–one of which being David. Both boys backed away. There are very few boys in this school who would ever fight a girl–even out of self-defense. I was making my away across the classroom to try and sort out the situation (honestly, at a complete loss as to how I would do it).  When she was done hitting the first boy who held his arms up defensively against her, the girl turned on David. David didn’t hesitate to act in the best way he knew how. One by one, he grabbed her wrists as she swung at him and pinned her to the wall. She slumped to the ground crying and he sat down next to her on the floor, explaining that he didn’t have her lip gloss and doing his best to console her. The boy who drove me nuts saved the day again.

I was starting to feel quite glad that I had this crazy ball of unrestrained energy in my classroom. But most unfortunately, October was his last month in my class as the month’s warping effects touched him as well. And by late October, he was suspended for steeling money out of my pocket. He swears it was just a prank and he was going to give it back. But the on-campus resource officer doesn’t do pranks. He was suspended for ten days and was transferred out shortly after.

My class is quieter now. November is starting off much more peacefully than October. Nobody has tried to fight each other (although there have been some threats). And David isn’t running around my classroom with someone else’s pen, jumping over chairs or grabbing my wrist as I walk by. And I can’t make up my mind on how to feel about that.

Right and Wrong

I am relearning everything this year. Particularly in the field of classroom discipline. I’m now ten weeks into the year and I think I’m starting to grasp a few of the basics for handling the behavior in this new culture of the inner city. I suppose when the environment that you grow up in is this tough and mean and violent, it takes a whole different level of punishment to show a kid that they need to fix their behavior. But I’m told that I must be doing something right because this week I received an anonymous and poorly written note from one of the students. I won’t tell you what it says. The only two words that would be appropriate to write are my name. Apparently getting cussed out is a sign of a win on my part. I think I’ll have it framed as a milestone.

I think I’m failing in after-school detention, though. I thought I was doing it all right, but now I’ve got several kids begging to have after-school detention with me. I can’t complain. They do a good job at cleaning my room. And the custodian is thrilled. But it’s strange and maybe a little sad when I get four students in a week asking if they can stay for detention instead of going home. I’d offer them tutoring instead, but… then I’d have to pick up trash off my floor.

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