Thursday, March 31, 2011
It started with the principal’s morning announcement that a 16-yr-old student in our academy had been shot and killed Sunday night. Counselors were made available, but those close to the boy have struggled the whole week, today wearing R.I.P. Steven with his vibrant, smiling face emblazoned on red sweatshirts. It was unclear how kids were processing his death, but the halls felt different.
My ESOL students, removed from the American community were dealing with their own horror. A bunch of them had been waiting at the bus stop Monday morning when a little boy tried crossing a busy, 6-lane street (no crossing guard) and was killed in a gruesome accident.
Another student, also in this 3rd period class was again absent. A bright, Nepali boy, he was badly beaten on the bus on his way home from school last December. This is pretty common, as American students see the ESOL students as easy targets, banking them and then stealing their MP3s, cell phones, etc. He is among a handful of male Nepalis who simply cannot take the threats, harassment, and fear anymore and are functioning with very short fuses. They’re great hand-to-hand fighters, but Americans don’t fight one-on-one, so if you dare to defend yourself, you’re taking on 3 to 6 other guys. He needs counseling, a safe ride to and from school…and lots of support.
One of those males lost it at my door today. He was not allowed to enter (I was doing federally-mandated testing) but took the rejection personally. No doubt there was body language from the latino on my side of the door, but when another Nepali let the boy in, he attacked with rapid-fire, landing a bevy of hits to the latino’s face. By that time, I was up and across the room and clutching him from behind, so he couldn’t throw any more punches. (The last time I did this, it was a much bigger kid who flipped me head over heels, with me falling sprawled out on the floor, joining three other latinos fighting for an advantage from their prone position. Meanwhile, their target, who was just trying to protect his face, was getting kicked from the lone man standing. Four-on-one, not good!)
But, back to today. This kid, with incredible adrenaline driving him, was smaller, and I was able to keep him in one hold for awhile, and when he broke that, I was able to again restrain him with another hold using my legs. (It’s a shame we’re not taught wrestling in the Educ. curriculum.) Two school police officers finally arrived and relieved me of “control”. After about 10 min. of explaining, I was able to get back to testing while the two combatants hung out in my room, in their different camps…peacefully!!!
In these situations, I’ve learned it’s important to be cool…I did my best to hide my shaking (we were struggling on the floor a long time), and I avoided rubbing my head which took a hit from a desk as we were going down. And, I don’t know why -- if it’s the rush of emotion or what -- but I had to fight back tears as I was explaining what had happened to the two police officers. I totally understood why the Nepali went off, and I was incredibly proud of the latino who chose not to fight back (even after getting hit hard in the face). Instead, he focused on dodging the repeated lunges and punches. This kid had just had a terrible experience with the federal test…the ‘listening’ portion…not understanding anything and I’m sure feeling totally stupid! So, I have one student at his wit’s end due to the daily verbal and physical threats and another struggling with his sense of self after suffering complete humiliation. Ugh!!! This is not what childhood…or adolescence is supposed to be about!
And, was that enough for a day? A week?
Less than an hour later, a developmentally-delayed Kenyan, a very big kid, who has been beaten, kicked, and pushed down many, many times because he’s always smiling…and when the Americans tell him to stop, he just smiles more, unable to verbalize anything….with the Americans interpreting his silence and smile as an Insult!, thus beating, kicking him all the more. After dealing with this reality for the past 4 or 5 months, this very sweet kid has begun acting out, and with his size, can do a lot of damage quickly.
Anyway, as I was trying to explain the roots of the earlier fight to my science class, two girls jumped up and ran across the room screaming. I looked at the boy who was sitting next to them, and he looked possessed: eyes wide-open, fists clenched and shaking, unblinking eyes, red and watering like in intense anger….a scene!!! “Had he been laughed at, made fun of? Did the discussion trigger something?” Then, I realized he couldn’t understand any of the conversation and was having a seizure. The most intense part lasted about 5 minutes. Despite the wide-open eyes, he saw nothing, heard nothing; he just sat there and shook.
As soon as I had realized what was happening, I asked a student to run across the hall and have a teacher call a nurse while I stood next to him rubbing his back…not sure if he was about to explode or not. Again, the wait. It took more than 10 minutes for the nurse to arrive!!! She was alone in the clinic and couldn’t leave until the assistant came back. So, with my earlier lesson plan that centered on nutrition morphed from an explanation of the school’s layers of racial oppression to first aid and seizures!!!
To top it off (granted it’s only Thursday), as I was driving home, I passed a cop car blocking off a street with yellow crime-tape sealing the entry to an apartment project behind him. This killing added to another one in a shopping center parking lot on Tuesday, on top of the little boy’s death Monday…all of them within a half-mile radius of each other.
This has not been a normal week re/ murders, but it has been entirely normal regarding violence. It’s epidemic, and these kids have no tools to defend themselves or process the context.
The information needed, the thinking required, the empathy plumbed…cannot be wrung out of standardized test prep. I wish we could wait for a superman…like that might be a possibility…but instead opportunist right-wing politicians attack teachers’ laziness, incompetence, and greed….while the center (Obama, Duncan, and Democrats in general) hide behind the authority of their podiums and comfort themselves with finely-crafted visits to the hinterlands seemingly ignorant and uncaring about the realities of inner-city America. As if a 3-year funding stream of “Race to the Top” can make any kind of difference…when school systems nationally are laying-off tens of thousands of teachers!!! Part of me wonders if the ‘big’ bourgeoisie is preferring to write-off the inner-city as a rotten core of superfluous workers. And, instead of investing in its development, is comfortable sitting back letting the young males kill each other off…avoiding the high costs of incarceration!
Yes, we have teachers who are tired, burned-out, and shouldn’t be in the classroom, but I am heartened daily to see the efforts many more of my peers who come back day after day trying something new to reach their students. More often than not disappointments outnumber achievements, but when things click, they’re injected with a new dose of hope with dreams….perhaps not unlike our hopes for the O’s who open this Saturday!!! [A new teacher across the hall celebrated her last period class that totally got into new census statistics and the concept of affirmative action].
We could be better in so many ways….but the problems are soooo huge!!! From the isolation of our classrooms (lacking technology, heat [for three weeks my classroom hovered between 58 and 62], and AC [with room temps going over 100 in May, June, August, and September]) to the implosion of the inner-cities, there’s no quick fix. But, if there are solutions…or improvements to be made, teachers have to be a part of the process! There are too many things wrong, too many players that have to be engaged. The ‘reformers’ have be more than the billionaire grant-givers who know nothing of these realities…and don’t bother to research them! And, there is no Superman!
This entry was written by Tom Smith, a Progressive City Councilor from Ward 3 in the late 80s and again in the late 90s, and a two term member of the Vermont House from 1991-1994. He is currently a teacher in Baltimore, MD.