Uncertainty

This morning, as most of the school was walking to morning assembly, two 8th graders bounced up to me and said: “Ms Blythe!!!! It’s been SO long!” These two were my students when they were 6th and 7th graders, and I came to know them from when they were very small to when they were very awkward to when they were almost teenagers, and now, they are on their way to high school. It is amazing to bear witness to the growth of children, and to be a person they trust with their feelings: both fears and joys.

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Robert Indiana, first day of issue January 26, 1973

One told me about a drama about a friend, a fight, and head lice: the fare of middle school experience and friendship. As we were walking into the gym together, the other one said: “Ms Blythe? If we go to war, will it be like World War III?” I said, “Well. I need you to look at me while I say this.” She said, “ok” and looked directly at me. I put my arm around her and said, “I have absolutely no idea. But if it is, we will go through it together.”

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Ali Cat Leeds of EntangledRoots.com

It’s been ages since I wrote here, and really ages since I documented my last public school teaching experience in inner city Philadelphia. This school year is so trying: the students are dealing with so much stress, and so are the teachers. What is funny (the type of funny that is tragic, not laugh-out-loud) is that, in the public education sphere, or at least my public education sphere, no one is speaking out or with each other about the stress that the outer world is causing in our hearts and minds.

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Hope by George Frederic Watts, 1886

I taught a professional development yesterday on how to teach good quality projects. At the beginning, I asked teachers to play by working 6 feet of wire into something that represented what was going on with them yesterday morning. Most jumped into the task, a few fought it at first, one point-blank refused and left. After a few minutes, it was fascinating to watch a group of 30 adults playing with wire, bending it, shaping it, talking to their friends, laughing, wondering: bemused at their own inner-workings. A few spoke about their sculptures, but most just left them on a large table, much like children do. I realized during the second session that the vast majority of my adult students were overwhelmed, tired, sad, confused, stressed-out and hollow-eyed. They didn’t know what to do in terms of developing a project. I realized at the end of the first session that we really should have canned it all and done something else, but it was too late, and there was no Plan B.

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Candles burning in a Buddhist temple: photographer unknown

When that student asked me about World War III earlier today, I almost cried then and there. Later, we had a tornado drill and I envisioned my portable being picked up and carried by a giant tornado that would drop us on our side somewhere down the road.

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Teachr, Teach Peace – his Facebook is here

I watched a video by Robert Reich the other day in which he explained that stress, feelings of trauma, dread, despair, are all common-place in our current state of affairs. I think we can see evidence of that from before this president was elected in the opioid epidemic: we are the only country in the world who is dying in huge numbers of hopelessness, sadness, and desperation, however, I will say that those feelings may be experienced currently by more people than pre-election day 2016.

America, poor America! You sick culture of racism and of classism, and of feelings of not being good enough, smart enough, rich enough. As adults, we can try to dismiss those fears or at least cloud them with exercise, working in the garden, cooking, drinking wine,  and eating too much dessert. But our children: my question is, what can they do?

My students are in 7th grade. They were born in the year 2005, four years after 9/11, and after the beginning of what is now America’s longest war. They have never known their country in peace-time. During their lives, America has increased its prison population, and the awareness of the murder of African-Americans by police has become commonplace thanks to social media. Their media life is one of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Paris bombings, Orlando and now Las Vegas shootings. Their governmental life was one of hope with President Obama, shot down by the election of Donald Trump, and colored by his rants about North Korea, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Iran.

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Unknown, brilliant Twitter cartoonist

Most of my students are immigrants or children of immigrants. Most of my children are economically classed as “poor”. Most of my children have parents who are working so hard just to give them what society demands is necessary: tiny mega-computers that broadcast this information-propaganda-fear into their pockets, into their living rooms, into their eyes, into their minds at night when they are alone. How frightening is this? How more frightening is it that we, the adults, are so scared that we do not know how to discuss it in a pro-active, assertive, and hopeful way?

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Almond botanical drawing: in the language of flowers, Almond is for Promise

Hugs do a lot, but they do not do enough. As a teacher, as a step-parent to a 7th grade child, it is up to me to shield where I can, but be willing to talk when the questions come up, because the shield that my parents had for me no longer exists. The courage lies in looking into the dark and understanding that we know very little more than we did when we were 7th graders, and the courage comes from the very thing itself: courage to believe, courage to speak, courage to love, courage to hope.

I hope to write more here. I hope to hear from you. With love, P

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Ali Cat Leeds from EntangledRoots.com

 

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The Story of Adam

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“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” 

Corrie ten Boom

I met Adam in the early fall of 2011. As a new teacher at my North Philly charter school, I was required to visit the homes of all of the students in my home room. Adam lived in the Ojo de Oro neighborhood of North Philly: an area just off Lehigh Avenue that is most easily described as a melange of row houses, bodegas, cars, streetlights, and families.

When I pulled up to Adam’s house, or where I thought it was, anyway, I ran into a group of little kids sitting on a stoop, watching a movie on a laptop. Inside, their house was dark and they told me how great it was that they were watching the movie on the stoop. I asked if this was Adams house, and they said, “No! But he lives over there!”. Pointing, they steered me to a cream-colored house with a plain door. I knocked, and was let in by Adam’s mom. Inside, the house was dark, and I soon noticed that there was no floor. I sat on an armchair in the living room, and, looking up, I noticed that there was a huge hole in the ceiling where pipes were visible. His mom told me that some of the pipes had burst and they had tried to fix them earlier,  but that the basement still flooded all the time.

Into this room walked a tall, slender boy carrying a huge bottle of blue Kool-Aid. He was wearing a wife beater and basketball shorts, and had just come from his room where he was playing video games. Politely, he told me it was nice to meet me. His mom told me that I was the first teacher that had ever come to their house.

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Adam was challenged and challenging: life had set up many obstacles for him including a learning disability, emotional disturbance, a father with a history of incarceration, poverty, and a dominant anger management problem. During the first few weeks of school, Adam refused to attempt any assignment, and when asked a question, would laugh at the fact that I had dared to ask it of him. He sat, in the front of the room, where I had moved him, and did his best to do absolutely nothing.

In this room was a wall of closets, leftover from an educational past that would have had all the students hang their belongings in the closet at the beginning of the day. The school building was about 100 years old and had been built, owned, but not maintained by the School District of Philadelphia for all of those years. When the building was taken over by the charter school, it had sat, abandoned, for many years. Inside, homeless people had used it as a squat house and had stripped every piece of wire, every light bulb, everything of value, from its walls. When the charter started, they had to rewire, paint, and scrub every surface to make it into a semi-functional school again. Its three floors held its history in the peeling paint of its surfaces, its lack of air-conditioning, its squeaky floors, and those long, open-doored closets.

In the closet I kept all the tricks of my trade: lab supplies, baskets, colored pencils, paper, books, and fabric. I find that fabric is a great teaching aid, both as decoration and as a mechanism of soothing troubled children. All of us love touching fabric and looking at patterns and bright colors: this sense of touching something soft and flexible is a tangible way to relax and experience our environment.

One morning, Adam was supposed to take a test to determine his “levels”. These tests are notorious for the stress they cause in the students who are forced to take them. Racially, culturally, and economically biased, their results are questionable and do not take into account the individuality of the test taker. Adam had taken these tests every year he had been in school, and he knew what he was getting into, and most likely, what the results would say. So, he disappeared.

A few minutes passed and I asked the children where Adam was, and no one seemed to know. It was typical for the students to defend each other against the new teachers: they treated us like enemies who were out to hurt them in some way. This reaction to new people was not their fault: it was simply how they had learned to deal with the constant stream of teachers, counselors, and other adults who desired to help them when they didn’t want any help. In a moment of frustration, I happened to look into the closet and noticed that the fabric was moved, and looked almost wrapped in a cocoon. It was then I realized where Adam was.

Walking to the closet, I looked inside and saw a pile of fabric in the shape of a tall and slender boy. Crouching down, I touched him gently and said, “Adam? Why are you wrapped up in fabric?” He said, matter of factly, “I’m just in the closet”. I asked him if it was okay for me to ask him to unwrap himself and come back to his seat. He said no, again, very matter of fact. I asked again, gentler this time, if he would come back to class. Slowly, after a few moments of weighing his options, he uncurled his body, climbed out of the closet and back to his seat, laughing to himself the whole time. In his seat, he seemed to not acknowledge anything strange about his behavior. When the other teacher came to get him for his test, he refused to move, sitting in his seat, stuck as if with glue. When asked again, he became angry: cursing, he still refused to take the test. After much time and power struggles, we succeeded in getting him out of the room, after he locked the door, refusing to leave, and pushed himself against the door frame to stop the adults from being able to physically move him. Despite his slight stature, he was strong and young and absolutely determined not to have his intelligence measured by a test. Later, when we received the results, he was flippant and refused to engage with what those results meant. Again, sitting in the front row, he refused to attempt any of his assignments, and began his path to almost failing the seventh grade for the second time.

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Adam suffered from anxiety and, no doubt, felt an incredible amount of pain due to the circumstances of his life. He, often, could not see beyond his feelings to be able to see solutions that were actually fairly simple and direct. In refusing to attempt his assignments, he set himself back day by day, hour by hour. In becoming angry and potentially violent, he instilled in the adults around him a belief that this child was always going to be this way: there was no capacity for change. He had grown up in a terrible neighborhood that was enslaved by urban blight, poverty, open air drug markets, and violence. He lived in a house with no flooring, with a family that was trying their best to succeed when the deck was most certainly stacked against them.

Over time, Adam would occasionally arrive to school in a good mood and his almost constantly sarcastic laughter would give way to real laughter and enjoyment, Slowly, I could tell, he was learning something, even if hardly a pen touched paper during our ten months together. He complained that he was in the front row, and oftentimes was rude to the point of causing me to emotionally react to his behavior. Eventually, though, he grew on me and I on him, and he began to defend me against the other students who insisted on disrupting my attempts at teaching. One time even he turned to the other students and told them that “Miss is the only teacher that ever came to my house”.

I told him once that I was going to take him to Maine with me and put him on a lobster boat because that job was something that would be good for him. He needed time every day to do something kinesthetic: he needed to do things with his hands in order to bridge the gap between his anxiety and his intelligence. Adam was remarkably intelligent, funny, bright, sharp-witted, calculating and had a great capacity to learn and do almost anything. What stopped him were the negative feedback mechanisms of his own brain. When I told him about Maine, he laughed and said, “nah, Miss, I can’t leave my hood!”. I told him that he deserved a better ‘hood, and he just shook his head.

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Almost at the end of the year, when I had reached my wit’s end with the school, with Philadelphia, and with teaching science to a group of kids who had never been given a science lesson in their lives, we were learning about dinosaurs. Each day we learned about a new animal because it was a good way to pack vocabulary words into a concise and manageable space for the students. Also, one of the teachers had told one of my classes that dinosaurs didn’t exist because they were not in the Bible. I decided to fight fire with fire and teach the students about one dinosaur per day for two weeks. On this day, we were learning about Pterosaurs: flying dinosaurs. As I was teaching the names of the dinosaur to the students, and talking about its dimensions and what scientists thought its behaviors might have been, Adam raised his hand.

“Yes Adam?”, I said.

“Did you know that the military uses flying dinosaur skeletons to design drone aircraft?”

Stunned, I said, “no, Adam, I didn’t know that. How do you know that?”\

“I just like this sort of stuff”, he said, and went back to being quiet in his chair.

During that period of time, as I watched each day pass on toward the end of another school year, my seventh as a classroom teacher, every day I wanted Adam to pipe up and say something. He did, on only one day, but that one day was a huge step forward for him as a student and as a citizen of his class and school.

Anxiety and our interpretations and expressions of our past experiences can show our pain, raw and red, to the world. Sometimes we cannot understand the actions of someone with anxiety because we cannot see beyond the ends of our own noses, and because, honestly, we wish to help when sometimes no help can be heeded. In those moments, it is important to remember that we are all only existing in this one, present moment, and to look for the glints of hope amidst the darkness. Those moments of precious clarity are fleeting, and some would say insignificant. I say that in that one moment, Alex let go of his anxiety and his anger and his learning disability and his father and his past, and was a normal middle school kid who loves dinosaurs, and planes, and video games.

And I will always be thankful to him for that.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God [whatever we consider her/him to be] to open up another route for that love to travel.” 

– Corrie ten Boom