“And I Teach, Too.”

Monday morning I scanned my email’s inbox– still no word from the local librarian about the books-in-a-box sets I requested. Damn.  My school book club was going on two weeks with NO BOOK.  For my avid readers, this was like purgatory.  I glanced at the clock and figured I had ten minutes to run down to our school library and mine the back room for a selection.  They wanted a book that also had a movie adaptation.  The shelves proved lucrative: The Importance of Being EarnestA Raisin in the SunOctober Sky, The Diary of Anne Frank.  There were also several copies of Night, so I grabbed one of those, too.  There are plenty of holocaust films to pair with it.  I ran back to class just as the bell rang… just in time to teach.

******

“Ugh.  I hate that book,” said Oz as I pitched A Raisin in the Sun.  I plastered a smile on my face as I tried to make sympathetic noises.  Oz is my most negative book club member and seems to take delight in pointing out the worst in everything, even if it doesn’t exist.  Last year she informed us that she didn’t like any of us “not to be rude.” I calmed my nerves with happy thoughts of her impending graduation this year.

Sweet, mild-mannered Kate spoke up, “Um, Ms. L, I don’t like raisins.”  Sigh.

“This isn’t about raisins.  The title’s from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” in which he questions what happens to dreams when they are constantly deferred– put aside.  The line from the poem is ‘or do they (dreams) shrivel like raisins in the sun’?  There are no raisins.”

Kate seemed almost interested in the book, but stopped again, “Ms. L, you won’t put raisins in any cookies will you?”  I assured her that, no, I will not put any raisins in any cookies, cookies, cupcakes, or bread that I might bring for discussion.

Secretly I hoped they would choose The Importance of Being Earnest, a nice pleasant, funny read.  They voted for Night.

*******

I checked my mail-box for the red Netflix envelope.  I sent the past movie back last week, and should have received the new one by Saturday.  Book Club and Adventure Club needed The Ring for our Tuesday Movie Night fundraiser.  Obviously, the mailman would have put it in my box today.  Shifting through the political fliers, ads, and bills, I found nothing.

I got back in my car and drove to Best Buy.

******

Tuesday. “Don’t you get discouraged?” Liz asked.  It was after our Academic Decathlon meeting, and Liz, the president of the club, was underwhelmed by our team.  Last year’s team was predominately made up of the class of 2012– a group of motivated, driven, extremely intelligent superstars who went on their way to Stanford, Berkeley, UC Davis, UOP, UCLA, and other UCs and state colleges.  The class of 2013 is, well, playing Jan to last year’s Marcia.  Liz wanted to know if teaching such students (she missed being in the class of 2012 by being born a few days late) made me frustrated.

“Yes and no.  It’s frustrating because I can’t teach at the level I want to teach, nor can I teach one of the books I want to teach.  However, I’ve been teaching the class of 2013 for a long time now– I had them as sophomores.  I had them as juniors.  I knew what was coming.  They’re like a storm, and I’m waiting it out.”

She sighed, “I want the club to do well, but I don’t think I can change them.”

“You can’t change them,” I replied.  Liz, a perfectionist, holds the same high standards that she has for herself for everyone else.  Compared to her, everyone including our best and brightest, come up short.  As the leader, she found the other members not excelling at the pace she expected.  As the advisor, I see students who come in and spend two hours every week practicing math or economics and practicing their speeches; I was impressed.  “You can only get to know them and find their strengths.  Work with what they have.  Don’t give up on the team.”

******

An hour and a half later as I attempted to get some grading done, Hal and Puty came in early to help me set up for movie night.  They shot the breeze by discussing their love of Pride and Prejudice, and Puty complained about not being in my class, for she loves Mr. Darcy, too.  Their conversation turned to Shakespeare as Hal reminisced about reading Othello.  Puty lamented at having to read Hamlet.

Hal glared at me, “Ms. L, why didn’t we read Hamlet?  It looks so interesting.  I wanted to read Hamlet!”

“I hate Hamlet,” I replied, pursing my lips.  Hal let out a shocked gasp and demanded to know why.

“Because he can’t make up his mind.  The ghost of his dead father tells him twice to kill his uncle, the man who murdered him, and Hamlet can’t decide if he should do it.  Geez, he can’t even decided if he wants to kill himself, ‘To be or not to be?!'”.  I followed this up with a five minute rendition of all the rotten things in Denmark, and ended it with, “And what happens at the end?!”  Both of them looked at me, “Everyone dies?”

“Yes!” I exclaim, “Everyone dies!  Because he can’t make up his mind!”

I looked over at Puty to get her approval, “Did I get it right?”

She shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know. We’re starting it in a couple of weeks.”

Sigh.

“But what about the witches?  What part has the witches?,” Hal questioned.

“Witches?  Are you talking about Macbeth?”

“Oh!  It’s Macbeth!  That’s what I want to read!  Why didn’t we read that, Ms. L?”

******

An hour later, Tiny, the president of book club, watched the students lining up outside the theatre for what was to be the book and adventure clubs first really successful fundraiser.  The members had sold many pre-sale tickets, and now there were more lining up to watch The Ring.  She gasped, “Look at all of this!  We did it! We made it happen!  I’m so proud!”

She had a lot to be proud of.  The book club members are all quiet and shy wall-flowers.  Everything that they have done has been on a small scale.  This– using the school’s theatre, selling concessions, showing a horror flick– was all very big.  For them, it was momentous.

******

Nguyen, one of my two Adventure Club members, informed me that they probably wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to go on the trip to Ireland, Scotland, and England next year.  They wouldn’t be able to go.

“Well, that doesn’t mean that we still can’t have an adventure.  We’ve raised money.  We’ll raise more.  We’ll have a local adventure.  How about that?” I offered.

His face brightened, “I’ve never been to Washington, D.C.!”

“D.C. is fun, but I meant local, like in the state.” I refrained from saying “on this side of the Sierras.”

I could see his brain working for closer destinations.

“Nguyen, there is one stipulation.  No tourist traps.  This is an adventure.”

******

The new teacher towered over me.  Nguyen had recruited him to chaperone movie night, and it was my first time meeting him.

He looked around the crowded theater, “This is really great!  So how are you connected to the clubs?  What do you do?”

“I’m the book club and Adventure club advisor.  And I coach Academic Decathlon.  I’m also an advisor for HOSA.”

He stared at me, flabbergasted, “That’s like, what, four clubs?”

I nodded, “And I teach, too.”

******

Wednesday.  I opened the mailbox.  There it was: the red Netflix envelope.  The Ring.

Green Converse

Converse (or Chuck Taylor’s, if you will) have been an important part of my life for a long time.  Steve and I were both wearing Converse when we met, and everyone knew that when they saw a little pair of Converse walking their direction that it was me.  Recently in London I bought myself a new black pair as a souvenir and brought them home to join my white, blue, and grays.  But it’s my green pair that mean the most to me.

I bought my green pair when I first started teaching, because they were the school colors (white, black, and green).  Even though they were on clearance, I debated buying them.  There were numerous doubts in my head: Should I spend the money when I didn’t know how long I’d be at my school?  What if this was my last year?  What if I wasn’t asked back?  Would I be stuck with a green pair of Converse– a color I normally don’t wear?Would these shoes be ridiculous?  Would I be trying to hard to have school spirit?  Would the kids laugh at me?  It’s weird what we remember, but I remember being in that shoe store pondering them.  Purchasing those shoes seemed too hopeful, and I didn’t want to toy with hope only to get its evil twin, disappointment.

Feeling like a girl going to school the first day of wearing a training bra, I wore my green shoes.  One of the assistant principals waxed nostalgic when she saw them and later on dug up an old pair and wore them to school.  The kids began showing me their Converse when they wore them to school, and a couple of years later, another teacher purchased her green pair.  That year I was not let go, but  wasn’t officially invited back either.  Instead it was an assumption that I would just return.  Driving away for summer break I felt odd– I had worked so hard to make that transition from sales to teaching in such a short amount of time (for example, I decided to become a teacher in March, got accepted into a credentialing program in April, quit my sales job on July 4th, and began teaching on July 26th).  Now all I had to do was enjoy myself for nine weeks and then go back and show up.

It’s always a new day at school.

But it’s weeks like this one that makes me realize how far I’ve come from being that doubting, anxiety-ridden teacher (though I am still both, but about other things).  Here are some things that occurred this week:

Observations: This week I had two observations.  One was by my vice principal and the other by a leadership team.  Before I would have been on-edge and nervous, trying to make my class as perfect as could be.  Now, I’m not bothered by it.  My vice principal and I shot the breeze while my kids did pair-shares.  While the leadership team observed my students, my kids just went about their business like they weren’t even there.  Everyone did what they were supposed to do, and they made me very proud.

Maintaining my temper: I can have a very bad temper, and I don’t mince words when I’m angry.  In the past, I have gotten emotional and let my feelings overtake me.  It doesn’t do much except freak out the kids. The biggest struggle has been to rein in my feelings.  There were times this week when I had to quietly and calmly reassert my authority.  There is much more power in staying calm.  There is also much more power in getting angry less, so when it does happen, it packs a punch.

Letting my kids out: My seniors have been working on media analysis all week by studying rhetorical appeals and advertising techniques.  Yesterday and today they’ve been working on creating a PSA power about how to be a successful student using the appeals and techniques.  Normally I have my students post their work around school, but this time they are presenting their posters to freshman and sophomore classes.  On Monday they will break up into small teams and each team will visit a specific classroom.  There are eight teachers who are allowing my students to present to their class.  Once my students heard they were presenting, my students stepped up their work, created scripts, and are planning to dress professionally (this is extra credit, but I don’t mind giving it since they look so cute dressed up).  Before I would have never let my students out of my sight, and now I’m letting them go present elsewhere.

Clubs:  Advising a club used to give me anxiety.  I advised the Red Cross Club one year, and while we had some fun, the experience was just negative. There was a lot of needless drama, and I don’t do drama.  The last couple of years I have advised clubs that are more my speed: Book Club and Academic Decathlon.  In Book Club, I was the co-advisor.  The main advisor was quite mothering and took care of a lot of their needs as a club; she is now retired.  Through her doting, the leadership team did not have to do much.  The club has mostly been filled with wishy-washy kids.  They can’t make up their minds to save themselves (they’d have to decide if they want to be saved first).  Now that the club is mine, this drives me bonkers, and I want the leadership to do more…. leading.  I suggested this as an area of improvement, and they agreed.  They are slowly gaining more leadership and making decisions.

In the meantime, my Academic Decathlon club has a new president, who is by far, way smarter than I am.  I have also heard stories about how she can take charge of classes, push the teacher aside, and teach the students herself.  So, I assumed my role would be relegated to pushing the power point button.  I am, quite frankly, in awe of her.  This past week they practiced algebraic equations on my whiteboards, while I stayed safely on the sidelines, unnerved at all of the numbers, lines and symbols appearing before me.  The only chart my board has ever know is a plot diagram.  She was in charge the entire time, and I felt superfluous walking around making sure everyone was signed in.  She blew my role as benevolent host after the meeting as she debriefed me on the meeting and asked for my feedback on how I thought it went.  It was nice to know that she cares about what I thought.

All Aboard!: Last summer for the first time I took students to London and Paris.  We had a blast.  It inspired me to put together another trip for next summer to Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales.  If you told me when I first began teaching that I would take kids overseas, I probably would have said, “Yeah, right,” and cited Liam Neeson’s film Taken as a reason to not to do so.  Neeson, shmeeson.  The kids and I are itching for our next take-off.

Drawing my Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese “twin” did of the five of us in Europe. Stewart’s in there, too.

Throughout all of my changes and growing pains, my green converse have been right there with me.  They remind me of where I started, where I am now, and how many paths I have yet to walk.

You Teach THOSE Kids?

What We Represent

On Friday I had the opportunity to watch five talented dance groups, the performances of a rapper with the positive message of doing his best in life and a beatboxer who wowed the crowd with his ability to create a song of different sounds vocally, and the whole show was emceed by two charismatic and gregarious hosts. The crowd was engaged, spirited, and loving it. Where did this amazing display of talent take place, you ask? At my school’s rally.

The events on Friday fly in the face of how many in the community view my school. Even though the campus in the newest and nicest in the district, we are located very near gang neighborhoods and many of our students are in gangs and/or have experienced gang violence. We’re well-versed on what to do in a lock-down. The majority of our students come from poverty. With 22 languages represented, ESL is not a designation, but a way of life. So it’s not uncommon when I go to community functions and meet other people that I (and everyone else I work with) am asked rather condescendingly, “Oh, you teach those kids? How do you like teaching there?” I think they expect me to break down crying and satisfy them with tales of horror and plans for fleeing the teaching profession. Instead I smile and say, “I love it. I love my kids. I drive an hour each way to teach them.” Then I’ll list some of the colleges where they have been accepted: Stanford, Howard, the US Naval Academy, and the UCs, including Berkeley and UCLA just to name a few. This normally shuts them up as they recover from the shock.

The teachers and administration that I work with are very dedicated to our students’ success and spend a lot of time supporting them; however, we provide guidance and help. It’s our kids who make it happen. The dance groups at the rally? They stay after school and practice everyday. They are organized to create the choreography and they give each other feedback. The boys from choir who sang the Star Spangled Banner trained and rehearsed on their own. The emcees are student leaders. Our sports programs have grown and many of them go on to county and state championships. We have a very large and popular MESA team that meets two-three times a week and brings home a multitude of awards for their skills in math, engineering and science. I had the opportunity to see a preview of a windmill event and was impressed by their thorough knowledge of construction, problem solving, and physics (one windmill team went on to win a gold medal). Nine of our health careers kids placed in the top ten in their events at a recent competition in which 2,200 students from across the state participated. We also have a very strong AVID program and I believe of last year’s graduating AVID students, about 99% of them were accepted to a four year college. I haven’t even gone into what our kids do in CSF, NHS, Key Club, Conflict Mediation and Culinary Arts.

As the Academic Decathlon coach, I have witnessed our students’ dedication as they created study groups, taught each other, made power points, and played review games. Some of them met twice a week, and a lot of work was done at home. For the days of competition, they coordinated the lunches; I just followed their orders. On the big day of competition, we were one of the largest groups there, and we won five awards. We were, though, trounced by smaller teams who had actual Academic Decathlon classes. My kids do not have the luxury of a class and they did all of their studying on their own time as a club. What blows me away is that while many of our students have support from home, many others do not. Our kids do all of these things because they want to and are motivated to succeed to create better lives for themselves and their families and give back to others.

Is my school perfect? No, there’s a lot we can improve on, but we’re dedicated to trying new things and finding out what works. But if our kids are labeled as those kids, then I say, “I’ll take those kids any day.”