Monday, June 27, 2011

Graduation Party

Over the weekend, I went to Lucia's high school graduation party in Brooklyn. I never thought I'd get actually invited to a student's graduation party (being a teacher), but there I was, dressed to impress and ready to pretend that I am not awkward.

Lucia is special to me, because she's the other student I spoke about here. She's a work horse, scoring some of the highest grades at our grade on all the New York Regents Exams. She's incredibly motivated. I'm quite proud of her: she'll go to a community college for a year or two and then transfer out.

As we sat at our respective tables enjoying the company, I remembered what it was like when I was in my students' shoes in this moment. Graduation right around the corner, everyone thinking this was a big deal. My thoughts during my graduation process:
Hmm. Well, I don't feel any older...
I wanted my high school graduation to end as soon as possible. I didn't want to go to a "formal" dinner afterward. I didn't want to get pictures taken at different angles holding an empty diploma holder (they mailed it to us later). I just wanted summer to end so I could get the hell out. But that was me and if it's one thing I've learned, not all students are like me. Yet.

Kareem, student who I've written about several times, was also at Lucia's graduation party, as well as other students and teachers. It was fantastic being there, to see how far Kareem and Lucia went after they came to my school two years ago, looking for a fresh start. When I originally went through their transcripts, I would never have guessed these two individuals would later became the "good ones" I'd think about after a rough day. Shows how much paper tells you about perseverance.

I began to wonder how they will feel around August, when it's time to start college: that magical place where they're supposed to broaden their horizons, figure out what they don't want to do in life, and ultimately choose their vice: beer or pot or both.
Readers: you know which category you fall into.
With my dad driving and my mom up front talking up a storm about something insignificant, I sat in our green van for two and a half hours from Chicago to Urbana-Champaign with a couple of songs on repeat in my iPod. This was one of them.



Sometimes songs represent feelings better than just words. Thank you, Blink 182.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Friend Defragmenter

One of the best things about being a teacher is that Facebook, YouTube and Gmail's chat functions are blocked on all Department of Education (DOE) computers and wireless networks. This means, on a day like today, when there's absolutely no one in the building and no one taking state exams, I am literally bored out of my fucking mind. The school feels like a ghost town.

One of my esteemed colleagues has taken it upon himself to enter my room any time he has to rip some serious ass. In the past four minutes, he has entered my room three times, and cranked out four (maybe six, if you count the little ones) loud, solid farts. Although, it might be more appropriate to say liquid farts judging by their sounds: some of them might've been a little wet. Pretty impressive, I'd say. Graduation is not until next Monday, so tomorrow looks to be more of the same.

It's depressing: my room is barren, all the other classrooms are barren, and there are no gangster-wanna-be students roaming the hallways thinking they can rap. I guess it's true, you never know what you appreciate until it's gone.

During lunch, I was somehow able to bypass the DOE's proxy on one of the computers and began going through my online contacts in GChat. What I suddenly noticed was how a lot of my friends are fragmented across the U.S. and the rest of the world. Friends I used to live with for years in college are now spread out in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. My closest friends at the investment bank I used to work at are now in Bulgaria, England, and the Philippines. More friends spread out in other U.S. cities. Even more friends in Canada, Germany, Pakistan, India, the list goes on.

My experience in New York City has taught me that it's really hard to maintain a close social circle in the city, as a lot of people in my age group use it as a platform to move onto something else. So, it was strange when I learned from my students over the past two years that they would rather stay in their "hoods" all times if possible. A lot of them told me they try not to venture past a 10-12 block radius and don't particularly care about exploring other parts of the world, or even New York City for that matter.

Last summer, when I told my students about my trip to Pakistan, I mentioned I went to the beach with a lot of friends and had a blast being in the water.
"Mista, that's so lucky, ain't no beaches around here."
"Uh...  what? Dude, there's shit tons of beaches. Coney Island, Far Rockaway, Jones Beach..."
"Those be out in Brooklyn. No beaches in Harlem."
Originally, I thought I was just being naive. I didn't like to travel much when I was younger too, but this became a pattern, particularly with students who were likely affiliated with gangs or wanted to be in a gang. What is it about this particular population that makes them averse to travel or leave their territory? Is it safety? Comfort?

There is one benefit I could see if you never leave your block: your friends don't either. Everyone stays together and as a result, your friends probably aren't as fragmented around the world. College forges strong bonds between people from all over the world, but when you graduate, you decide how hard you want to work to maintain those relationships.

It would be great to have my closest friends in the city with me, although, it's nice to be able to visit a foreign country and crash at someone's place...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Detective Johnny Wadd

A few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with Kareem, who as many of the blog readers know is a student of mine set to graduate soon. Kareem asked me about my opinion on several get-rich-quick schemes he'd heard of or thought of.

Kareem is an interesting student who spends a lot of time trying to come up with business ideas in order to "help people get even lazier" as he says. He goes through these random phases sometimes where all he can think about is money, getting rich and making more money.
"I've just been thinking a lot lately. Will Smith's kid. He's got it made. He's a have. I'm a have not. That's so unfair. All the opportunities he's already had and is going to get."
At first, I was shocked I was having this conversation with him, because I thought he knew better by now than to simply say life is unfair and do nothing about it.

I told him sure, life is unfair but his definition of "have" and "have not" needs to be revisited. There's plenty of "rich" people out there who aren't intelligent or productive members of society and will likely waste the hard-earned money someone in their family accumulated. What does it mean to be a "have?" Is it money, or is it some sort of knowledge, support structure, etc?

Kareem agreed, and also admitted that while he would loved to have been born into wealth, he appreciates everything he's come to learn in his current life.

Phew! Crisis averted. Or so I thought:
"So, would you star in a porn movie for a million dollars? I would do it. Then I'd use that money and start my own business."
This is where my kids would write, SMH. I obviously said no, I wouldn't do porn (despite all the demand) and explained my reasoning. He responds:
"I don't care if people know I did porn or somehow found out. If I was a celebrity, I would make a sex tape and secretly release myself so I could get some popularity and money out of it."
At this point, I'm thinking: Uh... who are you and what have you done to Kareem?

At the end of the day, this exchange supremely depressed me. Kareem has been one of my star-studded students over the past two years. His perseverance and intelligence is something to admire. For him to seriously consider porn as an alternative makes me feel like all the conversations I had with him over the past two years were meaningless.

Beyond that, it seriously made me question if I, as a teacher, could really "change" someone for the better. Maybe he was just having a bad day and felt like his struggles were futile.

The conversation also made me thinking about myself: growing up in an industrial town off Chicago, I did everything I could to land a gig in investment banking. I really didn't care when people told me I'd have to give up my life to do it. "Sell your soul" as they say. I didn't really appreciate being happy until it was too late and I was already pulling all-nighters crunching numbers and wearing out the shortcuts to copy and paste (CTRL + C and CTRL + V) on my keyboard.

Some questions come up:
  1. Will most people who aren't born into at least the middle class spend their lives trying to jump classes through the acquisition of quick money? And have they "truly" jumped classes just through the acquisition of money? Or does one need to acquire more than simply wealth to jump classes?
  2. Is that why most of my students don't understand the Teach for America program, when I tell them it's packed with kids from among the most prestigious colleges and universities?
In my opinion, Real Housewife of New York, Countess Luann said it best, "Money can't buy you class."

Okay, seriously, stop wondering why I know so much about the Real Housewives of New York and focus on the main point of this entry people!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pawn to E4

Two school days left until the June Regents Examinations begin.

I remember last year, my first year of teaching, I was a little freaked out around this time. I didn't realize some students would still prioritize other things over school, especially in such a critical time. It's hard to generalize with my student population: some have legitimate problems going on in life while others are playing XBox live and thinking about what to get for munchies (funyans maybe?). These are the same students rarely show up, but always come to school on Friday because they know other pot dealers don't (at least they have some business acumen). Friday is as good a day as any to buy drugs.

This year, I'm a bit more prepared, professionally and mentally. I've already provided my students with comprehensive review materials. I'm coming into school Saturday for a couple of hours, making myself available to students willing to come in and prep for the test next week. I'm betting only five kids will show up. Last Saturday it was two. But good for them. They'll get my best effort and hopefully make something of it.

I'm actually quite excited about today. Why? Well, it’s hard to imagine (and I'm still finding this hard to believe), but I think my school actually has a chess club. What started with a couple of students playing every once in a while on a set my colleague owns has transformed into a 16-person chess tournament set to wrap up today.

The kids are actually into chess, which is fucking bizarre. I mean, yes, with some of my students, I can see them liking chess. Others however, I never thought fit the mold of what a chess player might look, talk or act like: I was not even aware of my own biases here. Quite frankly, it's pretty cool. And now, even some of the students who didn’t really have experience playing chess are asking teachers and students to coach them.

What’s best are the things I've heard as the kids play:
  • "Your bitch [queen] is mine."
  • "Imma fuck you up, lay your king down now, save you the trouble..."
  • "Yo Mista, I’m nice in chess. If you ever want to stop teaching and play me, I’d be okay with that.”
  • "Shit yo. It's like I’m doin’ bicep curls, but with ma brain. Hurts OD."
  • "Yo Mista, you doin’ regents prep during lunch or can we bring the boards in your room?"
I must admit, there's some talent in the club. I’m actually trying to avoid playing some of my own kids because I don't want to get my ass handed to me. Not yet anyway.

Must download chess on iPad. Must buy chess set for home.

Must practice.

Damn you kids for this!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Salman Khan on The Colbert Report

Check out Stephen Colbert's interview of Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy. I'd previously written a post about Khan Academy here.

His lessons on YouTube have had over 57 million views. Pretty incredible stuff.