An Ode to Inner City Mothers

It’s a little early for mothers day, but I have to do this.
When I first started teaching, I was only 10 years older than my students. When a few of them started calling me “Mom” or “Auntie,” I bulked and made it clear that I was not that old. Now I’m between 15 and 17 years older than my students and I still can’t swallow the idea of being any kind of mother. But when I meet my students mothers, they are my own age. And more often than not, they have more than one kid.
It stuns me every time. When I first heard that one of my 15 year old students was a father and that his mother had had him at 15–the concept of being a grandmother at the age of 30–I couldn’t fathom what that meant for a home life. But it’s a scenario that is all too common in the inner city.
This is not said to shame anyone. On the contrary, I want to honor the mothers that somehow provide for a family against so many odds.
One mother, in particular, deserves the praise. She can’t possibly be more than 30 years old, but wherever she goes, a trail of 7 kids follow close behind, complete with two sets of twins. With no husband to help her (or anyone else that I have ever seen or heard about), she somehow finds a way to provide for her small clan of kids. I can’t imagine how many hours at what kind of job she must have to do so.
But if that wasn’t enough, her tribe of children are not the most docile kids. Her oldest son is one I like to refer to as the mad scientist. With the right tools, he would destroy the world. He’s smart (ridiculously smart) but there’s no kind of trouble he won’t get in to.
The next two oldest in the family are twin girls, also highly intelligent. One is known as the angel and the other is clearly the evil twin. It’s important to be aware of which one you are talking to.
The rest of her kids are in elementary school, and I have not had the pleasure of knowing them. But my point is this:
This young mother not only finds a way to provide for all of these little mischievous geniuses, but always makes sure to come to every parent-teacher meeting, with her train of little ones behind her.
On open house nights, you will see her walking the school hallways, going from one class to the next and taking time to talk to every single one of her kid’s teachers, listening to them list all the horribly disastrous things that her kids have done in class, so that by the time she reaches me, her eyes are red with tears and her body slumped with fatigue. Her children, too, are tired and dragging each other through the door. Each one is responsible for taking care of the next youngest. The mother will drop into a chair tell me she doesn’t want to hear one more bad thing about her kids.
Nor do I want to tell her one more bad thing. I am in complete awe that she would even take time out of her day to come and talk to me, when most parents ignore us completely.
So I search earnestly for something good to say about her son. And when I manage to find just one kind word, she smiles and straightens up with pride for her family.
She makes my night. She inspires me. With the weight of so many things stacked against her, she puts in the effort to care about each and every one of her children and their education. And that is why I have to honor her.
But it’s not only her.
With this new school year underway, I’ve already spotted other mothers like her coming out to meet the teachers at open house with a small clan of kids in tow, each child looking after the next youngest in line. The mothers have a long night of meetings ahead of them, but they’re there.
They are symbols of strength and diligence in the community–working against the push and shove of adversity and hardship. Very few people acknowledge them and the exhausting dedication they exude. But someone should.

Autumn is Here

Someone whispered the word “fall” and suddenly, this:

Someone is excited for the season.

Someone is excited for the season.

Ghosts of the Past, Hopes for the Future

Before the school year began in August, I had a series of nightmares (as I often do before something big happens). In these nightmares, I was trying desperately to teach a new class of bright and joyful students, but the ghosts of my last class kept interrupting. They walked all over my room in their ghostly forms and made such a racket with their banging and talking and complaining, that I couldn’t teach my new class.

Of course, that’s just nonsense brought on by my own worries for the new school year. I looked forward to the opportunity to teach a new group of students who were much better behaved than my last class of crazy kids.

Just before the school year started, however, I received word that I would be teaching remedial reading in multiple grade levels across middle school, including, but not limited to, my students from last year–particularly, some of my most challenging students from last year. Suddenly my nightmare seemed more like a premonition than a silly dream.

The first few weeks of school went a lot better than I had expected, though. Most of my students were excited to be working with me and I felt relieved to know that I could build off of the past to ensure a better year for all of us.

But last week, everything changed again. Our school received word from the district that we had too many teachers and too few students. Two teachers needed to be transferred out to another school and everyone else was going to be shuffled around to cover the changing classes. Within that week, I went from teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade reading, to teaching 6th grade Language Arts exclusively. And just like that, my past students whom I both loved and dreaded were cut out of my day, like ghosts.

Sure, they’re still alive and making plenty of noise at the end of the hallway. I can still hear them when they go to lunch. And every so often, I see them walking between classes, or ducking around the hallway during classes, trying to avoid the Behavior Management Technicians who act as bouncers for the school.

It’s a bitter sweet feeling to let go of them so soon (and yet so late considering I already had them one full year). And now, as I transition into 6th grade Language Arts, I know that I’ll never have a class as difficult as that one (God willing), but I’m sure to always be surprised by the students handed into my care. I can already tell, these 6th grade students are going to be an interesting time–like a party at a zoo.

Explaining my Tattoo to Kids of the Inner City

Working in a place where everyone and their 30-year-old grandma has a tattoo, it’s been an interesting experience trying to explain mine to them. I thought it was simple to understand. Especially since so many of them understand the significance of a cross.

The difference stemmed from the fact that they think a tattoo should be a part of self expression. It’s very personal. Unless it’s a gang tattoo. Then it’s a part of a group identity and is meant to show loyalty.

“That’s a gang tattoo,” the kids told me in May. “You’re a part of a gang. Or at least a squad.”

“No,” I insisted.

“Yes,” they said. “It’s a tattoo that all these people got to show that their the same, right? That’s a gang tattoo.”

I was baffled (as I often am with these kids), but after I let the idea sink in, I accepted it as a difference in semantics. Since gangs are what they know, their vocabulary to describe what I have reflects that. They don’t understand standing in solidarity with others around the world, but they understand sticking up for a gang brother. And really, the two are the same.

What I mean to say is, I, apparently, am a part of a “gang,” which would make Jesus my gang leader. He’s a very strange sort of gang leader. He says things like, “If someone takes a swing at you, let him take another, too” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.”

It was not the conversation I expected to have over my tattoo, but it has been a fascinating look into the world of my students and a chance to see myself in a new light. I already knew that I was a Citizen of Heaven (Philippians 3:20), an Ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), a Slave of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22), a Prisoner of Christ (Ephesians 3:1), a Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a Child of God (John 1:12) and a Friend of God (John 15:15). But now, I have a new identity:

I’m Christ’s Gang Member (my students).

Standing in Solidarity

I got a tattoo.

In this day and age, that can be a mundane statement, or a damming one. I have been talked out of, scared out of and begged out of getting one many times before. To all of those who make that scrunched up and hurt face, I do apologize. I don’t mean to offend.

But this tattoo means more than a western taboo.

My sister, Jodi on the left. I'm on the right.

My sister on the left. I’m on the right.

What it is:

The Coptic Cross is the symbol of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt and has been tattooed on Christian arms, young and old, for centuries now. In a world of religious violence and oppression, the cross tattoo is a symbol of faith and solidarity. It’s a symbol of fearlessness in the face of  terror. And it’s a family crest.
Why the tattoo:
God has blessed me greatly by allowing me to live in a country where it’s safe to be a Christian. In fact, Christianity is so common place that people have a hard time understanding what trial by fire really means. We read about the martyrs of the Bible and we think, “Huh. What saints!” and move on with our lives of soccer games and TV show, comfortable in knowing that no one is going to imprison us or torture us for saying we believe in Christ. Worst case scenario, we’ll get a scoff and an intellectual challenge, which I always enjoy because it makes my brain tingle.
But elsewhere in the world, the scene of the martyrs is still going on. Christians are being killed, and imprisoned around the world today. Sometimes we hear about it and shake our heads sadly for the people we don’t know–who live so far away we should probably pull out a map to find them, if we weren’t too busy looking at kitty pictures on the internet. We call them brothers and sisters in Christ, but we have very little emotional connection to them. We don’t even know their names. And if we heard them, we’d probably bulk at how foreign it sounds. It’s nothing like Paul or John, whom we proudly name our kids after.
In our world of placid comfort and spiritual lethargy, it is important to have a constant reminder of the turmoil and spiritual war going on in the world–something to keep me mindful and alert, to think beyond my own little bubble to the Christian family members around the world.
That’s what this tattoo is: a reminder of my greater family around the world–all who are suffering for their faith. And it’s a reminder of my own identity. I stand with them.

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)
“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.


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

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