Monday, November 26, 2012

Two Chinese Buffets

"One of these days, Karl is probably going to stab me outside of school," I admitted to a co-worker as we left for the day.

My co-worker smiled, but looked concerned, as if she couldn't tell if I was being my usual comical self. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"I don't know, with the kind of shit I say to kids sometimes, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already. These guys need tough love, so we have to play teacher and parent. A kid like Karl, for example, is not hearing what he needs to hear at home. For him, that means unfortunately he has to learn principles of life and algebra in the same classroom."

We continued talking as we walked towards the subway station. Karl and a handful of other students suddenly stepped into view across the intersection and began approaching us. My co-worker stopped mid-conversation and gave me a concealed look of panic, which made sense since I'd just confessed I wouldn't be surprised if Karl stabbed me. We kept moving forward, maintaining eye contact with the students rapidly approaching us.


To be clear, Karl sold drugs to students in school. I wasn't sure what the administrators knew about his dealings, but every student in my school talked about it and nearly every teacher suspected it. Although Karl's attendance wasn't bad, he never accomplished a single thing in any of his classes, which meant he came to school with ulterior motives. In my experience, that meant dealing, stealing, or some combination of the two. Karl did it all and was pretty vocal about his actions.

Karl was in my remedial Algebra course. In our first few weeks together, I thought I could help him, but he resisted in every way. I adjusted my strategy several times until I finally figured out what he was really doing in school. Then, after a lot of back-and-forth mostly in front of his peers, he and I finally came to an understanding. Karl would come to my class, plug his phone into the wall to charge, and sit quietly or sleep. Normally, he would be very rude and disruptive, often sexually harassing some of my female students, which I didn't tolerate. He finally learned that discussing sex, drugs, and theft with other students in my class was not in his best interest, since this type of behavior would catch my attention immediately and then I'd have to "put him on the spot." He hated arguing with me in front of other students, probably because he always lost but most likely because he learned nothing he said bothered me. He called me all sorts of names and insults, but I remained cold with a big smile. This bugged the shit out of him.

Karl had broken his informal promise with me the day before he approached my co-worker and me outside. Sitting next to another male student with poor attendance, he began bothering the female students in class by throwing pieces of paper at them and asking them if they were pregnant. After several redirection attempts, I called him out on what he was doing, and highlighted the illogical arguments he was making in front of the class. He finally grew silent. Victory was mine, so I finally went back to facilitating the day's lesson.

Back Outside

As Karl and his friends approached us in front of the subway, I replayed the events of the classroom the day before. I imagined he could have been angry, but he was not the type to hold grudges. He respected me, probably because valued that I knew his motives in school. I was the first to speak, "Hey Karl, didn't see you in school today. You guys just chilled in front of the subway all day or what?"

"Nah Mista, we was arrested!" They all flashed their wrists at me and I was stunned to see red imprints of handcuffs on all of their wrists. All of them really had been handcuffed recently.

"Wait, what? For what?" my colleague asked, surprised and probably relieved.

"We was trespassing in this building, looking for a party. That's OD, how they gonna arrest us for jus walkin' around? I'm not playin', we was carrying mad weed, now we got nothin'. Ugh, I'm tight." Karl admitted. He was clearly upset and frustrated.

Another student from the group also looked agitated. He turned to my co-worker, whom I guess was his teacher and said, "Miss, I'm sorry I didn't come, but they held us there all day. They didn't even give us food. No lie, I'm bout to hit this Chinese buffet right here. I'm dumb hungry Miss. Matta fact, Imma order two Chinese buffets, that's how hungry I am Miss!"

My colleague and I looked at each other and laughed. "You know a Chinese buffet is unlimited right? You don't need to order two, you get unlimited with one." I explained, smiling.

"You right Mista." Karl turned to his friend, "See, you can't deck this n!gga. N!gga be usin' his brain n' all dat."

I really enjoyed the subway ride home that evening.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

This Isn't Right

In the world of teaching at-risk teenagers, the odds of students achieving what we in 21st century America define as "success" are slim-to-none. For many of my students, college is simply not a realistic or relevant next step, although that's what educators like me are conditioned to believe students should be striving for. We hold these unrealistic and unfair expectations and are then shocked when year after year, familiar faces disappear and become names on paper. And eventually those names become statistics. Something is very wrong with this.

In my first year of teaching, I couldn't believe teaching at-risk students was like investment banking: a numbers game. Teachers worked their asses off, giving 110% everyday, but ultimately we knew the return rate of success was slim. In banking, we'd pitch merger ideas to a plethora of clients, hoping one would bite. Eventually someone would like an idea, and all of of our hard work would transform into a lucrative deal. In teaching, our student successes were also small in number, yet each success felt more than just lucrative. Each success was amazing. Fulfilling even. A big, fat, lingering middle finger to the system that tried to bring that student down.

When I received word that a former student whom I had penciled into the "success" category had fallen from grace, it broke my heart. The words, "motherfucking piece of shit" came to mind.

Esmeralda's story resonates with many of the at-risk teens I teach: raised in a variety of foster homes in different states, traumatic childhood experiences, and constantly in financial distress. On top of that, Esmeralda got pregnant when she was in high school, and decided to keep her child. Her spirit was strong, and after working her ass off at the alternative high school I worked at, she proudly graduated with a high school diploma.

Esmeralda was determined to become the first member of her family to graduate college. Her dream was to become a social worker for children who that weren't receiving the support they needed (like her). She started undergraduate studies at a community college and frequently updated me on her progress via Facebook and text. Her last text:
"I withdrew from school, I'm going through a lot right now."
I stared at the text. Rage flowed through my veins. Rage and a growing sense of hopelessness. This actually wasn't the first time a former (successful) student withdrew from undergraduate studies. In fact, there have been many. What's depressing though, is how few of these students actually make it out of high school, only to withdraw later again.

Esmeralda's situation hurt me a bit more than others. And so did JR's, who also recently withdrew. Years back, I wrote about JR on this blog. JR was my first victory; I'll never forget him and will always consider him a friend. JR was undocumented, which means his parents brought him over to the U.S. illegally. You wouldn't have guessed though, because he looked, talked, and dressed just like any other urban teen into rock music. His parents brought him over from Mexico when he was two years old. The only colleges that considered his application were the local community colleges. After a lot of hard work, one of them eventually accepted him. Unfortunately, he withdrew due to financial distress and other constraints.

Esmeralda has obviously been plagued with problems her whole life. As a single mother with no support, she needs to do whatever she can to support her and her son. JR has also had to lead tough life without documentation. Obviously, I'm not mad at either for them for withdrawing out of college. I'm mad at our education system. I'm mad at the school-to-work track our country has set up. It's the worst.

What we're doing isn't right. Our system is corrupt, designed to work best for those raised within the right circumstance, unless the kid has a strong, type-A personality. If that's the case, then maybe the kid has a chance of making it through.  Somehow, we as at-risk educators have grown okay with others making the rules. We've grown okay with ignoring facts. We ignore our students' poor attendance histories, their traumatic pasts, and their lack of discipline. We assume that if we just "show" them how to get to college, that they'll actually get there. And that they'll actually succeed if they get there.

Many of my at-risk students perform mediocre at best in an alternative high school where there are bells, flags, and whistles designed to keep the student in the building at all times (because many are frequently tempted to cut class). There are counselors calling home. There are privately hired hallway monitors and school safety officers on patrol. Is it really then fair to assume these students will survive college? College doesn't have these checks and balances. They're not designed to support the lifestyle or habits of at-risk teenagers. Somebody please do something, I can't deal with my former kids feeling like shit because life happened and they had to drop out.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Giving Thanks, Part II

When I left my iPhone in a cab on a Friday night, I wasn't just angry, I was disappointed. It wasn't just about the iPhone. It was also the idea that I could do something so stupid and forget something like that in the backseat of a cab. That's just not me.

This depressing night actually started at a cocktail party in the Upper West Side of New York City. My wife and I arrived directly from work, so although we were dressed to impress, we had a lot of bags and things to carry. When we were ready to leave, it was really late. We hailed a cab and naturally, both of us passed in and out out of sleep in the backseat. After what seemed like forever, the driver yelled at me to wake up. I nudged my wife and asked her to go outside and open the apartment building door while I grabbed all of our bags. And that's where it all went wrong. My iPhone was resting unsecured in my dress pants pocket, and as I scooted across the backseat to get out, it must've slipped out.

I noticed it was gone as soon as I got upstairs to my apartment. Within minutes, I was on the phone with 3-1-1 and simultaneously tracking the device via the "Find my iPhone" application. I was hopeful some incredibly nice New Yorkers would find my iPhone and make every effort to figure out my contact information and return it to me. Or maybe someone greedy would find it and track me down to score a reward like what happened to Tiny Fey in 30 Rock. As the minutes passed, my hope diminished. 3-1-1 helped me figure out the medallion number of the cab, but I couldn't obtain the cab driver's contact information until the day after. After about an hour of pacing, waiting, and tracking, my iPhone went off the grid. Somebody had turned it off, along with my hopes of ever recovering it.

I went to bed that night thinking about how stupid I was. I wanted to punish myself. Secretly, I decided I would go without a phone for as long as possible. That night, I dreamt I was checking voice-mails. My mind can be a complete dick sometimes.

When I woke up, I revealed my plan to go phone-less to my wife. It didn't take long for her to beat some sense into me. Punishing myself by going without a phone might have been fine if I was single and carefree, but not when I'm married and working in a high school for at-risk teenagers. She was right, like she usually is. We agreed to compromise: I would wait two full days (and be phone-less) before going out and purchasing the cheapest piece of shit phone AT&T could offer. I didn't qualify for an iPhone upgrade just yet, so to hold me over I'd just go back to using a regular call-and-text phone. No biggie really.

To be fair, my wife offered me her iPhone the night I lost mine, claiming she didn't use all of its functionality. She wasn't lying, but I just couldn't take her iPhone. I am very attached to my electronics, and for some reason, I believe everyone else is too (this is wrong, I know). I wanted her to have her own iPhone; I guess that's one of my many idiosyncrasies. After I told her that I simply could not accept her phone, she did the logical next thing: put up a "does anyone have an old iPhone they're not using?" status on Facebook.

My godson's mother, Della was among the first to respond. Yes I have a godson, I wrote about getting asked to be one here. Incredibly, Della had an extra iPhone lying around, collecting dust. She used to use it, but had to switch carriers and as a result, the phone was useless. At first, I was hesitant to accept the offer. Della is a former student, and I had hiccups about accepting this from a "kid." What if she switched plans and wanted it again? Would she feel awkward about asking for it back? Why would anyone that age give away an iPhone? I had a lot of questions running through my mind and I hate putting people in awkward situations. I began to over-think everything and my wife conveyed this ridiculousness to Della, who wrote me this message on Facebook:
"Don't ever think of me as just a former student, you're my sons God father, and I love you and your wife because you guys give us great advice, and the most important thing that counts, you take my son in your home and spend time with him A LOT of time lol. He loves you and that means a lot to me someone who isn't family loves my son, I will always love and value that. So let it be the last time you think of me as a former student MISTA  . . . and please feel free that WHENEVER you need a favor that I can do, you NEVER hesitate to ask me. DEAL!!!!
Yeah, so I took the phone. Dammit, with a message like that, how could I not? I was being stupid and preventing someone who I've helped from helping me. What's amazing about all of this is that I could not have ended up in such a great position if I hadn't impacted Della's life so positively, both as a teacher and as her son's godfather. My wife's swift thinking and love, combined with Della's generous gift made me feel so special. I was overjoyed and because I have no idea how to react when I feel this way, I had no idea how to express this emotion. I'm incredibly thankful for the relationships I have with cultivated with family, friends, and students. Yet another event that really made me feel the positive power of the teaching profession. Gotta love it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Read a Book, Brush Your Teeth

A colleague recently sent me this song (via this blog post), and I couldn't stop laughing. Enjoy.