A Tale of Two Perceptions. #Ferguson

“Rage — whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us — is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion.”  - Bonnie Myotai Treace

“Rage — whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us — is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion.”   – Bonnie Myotai Treace

I’m a pre-kindergarten teacher at a public elementary school. When people find this out, they typically react with some variation of, “Oh what a cute age,that must be so fun!” It is fun, and tiring, and humbling, and at times heartbreaking. My classroom reflects the neighborhood I work in—ethnically and linguistically diverse. There is a common thread that binds the majority of students, however, and that is that the majority of them live in poverty. I’ve been working in the same neighborhood, at various different schools since 2007. And I can tell you that despite the reputation of the area, the families I’ve worked with over the years have a strong sense of community, pride, and dedication to their children’s education and well-being.

Throughout my career, I’ve collaborated with families from all walks of lives, with the common goal of ensuring that their child’s academic, social, and emotional needs are adequately met while they are in my care. It’s because of this, I think, that I’ve come to look upon every child I meet as an extension of my own family. Therefore, it’s hard for me to watch the current images coming out of Palestine, Iraq, Detroit, and Ferguson without grieving for the families and children who are impacted by these events.

Years before Trayvon Martin was gunned down in his own neighborhood, an incident occurred at my school that, once again, left me pondering the issues surrounding race, perception, and the realities that form when deeply held attitudes and beliefs about a particular community manifest in prejudicial ways.

That year, I had an African-American student in my class by the name of Melody*. Melody’s mom worked two jobs in order to support her four children, and because of her schedule, Melody’s older brother Thomas had the responsibility of taking her to and from preschool. Thomas went above and beyond his duties as a sibling. Not only did he get her to class on time every morning (despite the 2-mile walk between their house and the school), he also made a routine of staying with Melody a few minutes every morning to ensure that she was settled in. He often checked in with me or my aide, to ask about Melody’s progress, and ways he could help her at home. One particularly cold morning, Melody began crying when she realized she’d forgotten her jacket at home. I called Thomas, and he walked all the way back to school to bring it to her. That morning, as he knelt down to wipe her nose, he told me of how he was hoping to enroll in community college. He was nervous about the costs, and how he’d transition back into the school routine. It’d been two years since he’d graduated from high school. After that, my aide and I regularly chatted with him about his enrollment progress, financial aide options, and his future plans. My aide developed a fondness of him because he was the same age as her youngest son, and in her words, had “the same gentle personality.”

Later in the school year, security policies at the school changed, and all visitors were required to sign-in the office before entering campus. All gates, including the one that lead straight to our preschool door, were to remain locked. That’s when the trouble began. At first, I was unaware of it, but now looking back I can see that the tension slowly escalated over time. Apparently, some of the office staff had issues with Thomas. They perceived him as openly rude and hostile.

Okay, let me stop right here and explain something. I’ve worked with many office staff members over the years, and the majority of my interactions have been pleasant. There are secretaries, office managers, and administrators who maintain a level of professionalism and compassion that is to be commended. And there are those who do not. I am not saying that all staff in the office that year were unapproachable, but there were definitely a handful that consistently had a visible chip on their shoulder. And when I say chip, I mean chunk. I had witnessed many of their interactions with parents, students AND other staff that were questionable. When a school culture reflects the respect and dignity that all of us wish to be treated with, it’s largely reciprocated by the families and students we serve. We’ve all seen it in action.

That said, I did not witness the interactions between Thomas and the office staff, I only know that one Monday morning, he came into our classroom visibly upset. “That lady is SO RUDE!” he said, shaking his head. When I asked about it, he just shook his head as if to say, “forget about it.”

The next day, Thomas and a friend of his arrived at the office together to pick up Melody. According to some staff, this is what transpired: Thomas walked past the sign-in book, nodded to office staff, at which point a secretary told him to come back and sign-in. He kept walking. They called to him again. He exited the door and walked straight toward my classroom, where I was busy lining up my students for dismissal. They perceived his behavior as a threat. I remember hearing raised voices outside the door, and instinctively began moving the students toward the back of the classroom. My aide stayed with them while I went to see what all the commotion was about. When I peeked my head out the door, my heart sank. There was Thomas, arguing with several staff members, saying something to the effect of, “Why should I respect you when it’s CLEAR you don’t respect me.” His friend looked on nervously. “Stop yelling!” a staff member yelled. Just then I saw a police car roll into the parking lot. Then another. Then another. I fought back tears as I asked an administrator how everything had escalated so quickly. “He’s been a problem for a while. Always has attitude and is disrespectful. He won’t be allowed to come on campus anymore.”

As a crowd of parents gathered and police escorted Thomas and his friend out the gate, he turned to me, “Sorry, ma’am. I’ll send someone for Melody.”

One of the police officers pulled me aside and asked “You know this guy?”  I struggled to keep my voice composed. ” I do. I want you to know, that this young man has always been a perfect gentleman in our classroom, and an attentive sibling to his sister.” He just nodded.

They did not end up arresting Thomas that day. I heard later that an officer, who was also African-American, vouched for him as well. Apparently he had gotten to know Thomas well during frequent trips to the neighborhood. He must have seen the side of Thomas that my aide and I saw. Unfortunately, because Thomas was barred from returning to the campus, no one was available to bring Melody to school, so she stopped coming. A few weeks later, I took a  small bag of school readiness supplies over to the house, where I was received by Melody, her siblings, and mom, who was in between shifts.Thomas was there too, and we chatted for a while, mostly about Melody. We didn’t mention the incident.

The year ended, and since then I have not seen Melody or her family. But I often think of Thomas and hope he has managed to stay in school and steer clear of misfortune. He is not the only one that stays with me. The stories of countless students, parents, siblings, and grandparents weigh heavy in my heart. Sometimes it all builds up and I find myself crying for all of them.

Like the time when I heard recordings of Trayvon’s last pleas. Or watched the grainy video of Eric Garner as he cried out, “I can’t breathe!” Or when I opened a link to the image of Michael Brown’s lifeless body in the street, uncovered, unarmed.

It makes me sick to hear people try and justify these deaths based on their perceptions of who these men were, or weren’t. 

They were brothers. They were fathers. They were sons.

And I’d like to think that WE are human enough to see that, and take action against a tide of ugliness that is sweeping our nation.

In Solidarity.

*names have been changed

Appreciation, Depreciation, & All the Moments in Between

Average salary for a California teacher who holds an M.A. degree: $75,000

$550: Amount I spent out of my own pocketbook, on classroom supplies, parent meeting snacks, student incentive rewards, etc…

185: The days I was required to work, per our human resources calendar.

200: Approximate days I ACTUALLY worked.

2.5: Number of months I am officially off duty, though a good percentage of this time is spent gearing up for the upcoming school year, through classroom & material prep, etc…

2: Number of days I was furloughed this year without pay.

Numerous: The roles I played (including, but not limited to, resource provider, parent education facilitator, social worker, home visitor, community liaison, nurse, custodian, secretary, coach, confidant, and student).

Countless: The number of times I felt frustrated with the profession

Endless: The rewards of my career

         Last week (May 5-9th) was teacher appreciation week. At my school in particular, it was business as usual, save for the modest  potluck provided to us in the staff lounge on Thursday afternoon. Other than that, the week was uneventful. And I’m not complaining. May is an extremely busy month for teachers anyway, what with parent-teacher conference prep, the mad rush to acquire all required common planning time hours, and the usual end-of-the-year matters to attend to. Overall, it was nice to hop onto social media and see pictures of all the cute little pinterest-inspired teacher appreciation crafts, along with the occasional inspirational teacher related quote. But what continually caught my attention last week was the news surrounding a federal judge’s upholding of Florida’s teacher merit pay law, and rumors within our own school district regarding the possible restructuring of early childhood education employees pay scales.

Sadly, this is nothing new. Teachers are constantly under attack. Talks of de-unionization, threats of pink slips & layoffs, and the ever-changing climate of curriculum and content standards keep us constantly on our toes. It seriously feels like a circus sometimes. But aside from all the politics and bureaucracy, the thing that keeps me grounded on a day-to-day basis are the relationships I have with my students and their families. It’s really as simple as that. It seems that each time I get frustrated with the steady stream of bad news regarding education funding and threats to our programs, I receive word from a parent who wants to update me on the progress of a former student. Just this evening, I was at my son’s baseball game– with a lap full of conference forms to prepare–and a women stopped me to say hello. Her daughter had been in my Kinder Readiness Academy class several years ago and (according to mom) is now doing marvelously well in the 3rd grade, thanks in part to her participation in our program. These interactions keep me going, and remind me of the reasons I chose this field to begin with.

But even coming off of that pleasant reminder, there is something  that came up last week that continues to nag at my thoughts.  This past Monday night, my 12-year-old son Isaac mentioned to me that he is thinking of becoming a teacher when he grows up. Granted, he’s young, with many years of career exploration ahead of him. That, and I’m quite sure he’s also been influenced by his older brother’s increasing interest in becoming a high school history teacher, but the fact remains that he is at least considering the field of education as an area of interest. And naturally I’m inclined to encourage this interest. But, as both my boys have found out as they express their future plans with others, not everyone shares in this enthusiasm.

For various different reasons, my sons have heard plenty of justifications as to why they shouldn’t consider teaching. From the tenuous state of public education, to the notoriously low wages, there are many aspects of the profession that prompt people to advise my sons to reach for higher goals. Perhaps law, or investment banking, or engineering, or medicine…anything that would provide more prestige. Because, let’s face it, teaching is clearly on the second tier, as far as professions go. There is little glamour in it. Except of course when you run into a student at the grocery store and they chase after you, calling out your name as if you were some type of celebrity. (That really happens y’know).

But aside from all that, I remain an idealist. I cannot help it, it’s in my blood. I understand that my working conditions can be extremely difficult, the hours long,  and the pay minimal in comparison to other careers. But damnit, I love what I do. And if my boys decide they want to take part in this experience, I’m behind them 100%.

In the last few weeks, I’ve counseled a mother who lost her home. I’ve comforted a child who is fearfully anticipating the transition to kindergarten. I’ve calmed a father who felt that his child was being treated unfairly by another student. And this is all outside of my formal job description. This, is the human aspect of teaching. The part of our profession that cannot be measured using standardized methods, or evaluated through tests. On the first day of school, I open my doors to 44 learners and their families: I am expected to prepare them for kindergarten by fostering the growth of social skills, encouraging language and critical thinking, and instilling the basic skills needed for academic success. Throughout the year, we almost always encounter many setbacks…but we also accomplish countless triumphs. Some days I come home tired beyond belief…okay, this happens most nights. But in all honestly, I always rest easy knowing that in my profession I have found both my livelihood and my life’s passion. How many people are blessed enough to say that about their line of work? Why would I want any less for my own children?

For me, teacher appreciation extends far beyond a week in the year. I experience it whenever I run into a former student and see the way they smile in recognition. I ponder it when I recall the teachers I’ve had who inspired greatness in me. But the ultimate form of teacher appreciation manifests itself in my sons & the fact that they have considered emulating my role as an educator. Whether they were inspired by their grandparents, who were both in the field as well, by me, or perhaps by their own teachers along the way matters not to me. What matters is that I know that they have recognized the honor in the profession. And that is all the appreciation I need.

 

The poster that hangs in my classroom. One of my favorite reminders...

The poster that hangs in my classroom. One of my favorite reminders…

 

 

 

Aside

Weathering the Storm; Education, Empowerment & other thoughts on a Weekday Evening

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The makings of literacy. My mother & I. (1983)

I was sitting there on a Monday night, sipping coffee like it’s nobodies business, trying to maximize what little time was left in the day when I came across a Daily Show interview with Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai. Instantly taken by the youthful hopefulness of her responses, despite the heavy nature of the conversation, I closed out the evening by watching the interview in it’s entirety.  If you have not yet heard about this young woman, there’s a good chance you will in the near future.  Malala began blogging for the BBC when she was just 11 years old. In her writings, she told of her life under Taliban rule, and denounced their attacks on the schools, teachers and students of northwest  Pakistan. As a direct result of her activism, Malala was shot in the head and neck during an assassination attempt while on a bus with her classmates as they returned home from  school. She survived the attack, and has become an international advocate for women’s educational rights. I went to bed that night thinking about Malala, the motives behind her fierce determination, and the idea that it’s not necessarily a political agenda that makes her voice so threatening to the Taliban, but the fact that she’s pressing for girls to be educated in a country where women are afforded few freedoms, and are subjected to astonishing rates of violence and institutional discrimination. I remembered the way my grandfather proudly wore a “Knowledge is Power” shirt for as long as I can remember while I was growing up, though I didn’t quite grasp the significance of that power until early adulthood. Clearly, Malala understands it, as she has literally risked her life in order to contribute to the chorus of voices demanding educational equality in that region of the world.

The following evening, I lay on the floor of my son’s bedroom, feet propped up on the edge of the bunk bed, with book in hand. My 6th grader’s required reading for this month is Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. As usual, I’ve been coerced into a group read-aloud, as my little ones have grown accustomed to bedtime chapter books in place of standard bedtime reads such as Goodnight Moon.  Anyhow, I wasn’t about to get off easy with a simple board book, because on this particular evening, the author of the day was Mildred Taylor, not Dr. Seuss.  My toddler’s eyes fluttered closed as I read from a passage describing how it was once necessary for some children to walk miles each day in order to get to school.  Whereas the children in Roll of Thunder would depart from the house while it was still dark in order to arrive in the classroom by sunrise, my kids can easily leave the house 10 minutes before the start of school-on foot- and still have time to chat with their friends before the tardy bell rings. We talked a bit about the dedication it took for children to make that kind of daily trek- in many cases, without shoes- just to take part in their right to an education. I told them about the black students in Little Rock, Arkansas who had to be escorted by the national guard into their classrooms because they were under threat from  violent protesters who seethed at the idea of integration in schools. I reflected on just how precious our right to an education is, and the lengths we’ll go to get one.

Educational empowerment was the theme of a discussion my children and I had weeks ago when—out of nowhere— my 8-year-old posed this question: “Mom, what was the happiest moment of your life?”Clearly, the births of my four beautiful children are in the top five of my life’s happiest highlights. But narrowing “happiness” down into one single moment is tricky.  I thought long and hard. And a memory surfaced…

It was Autumn. I was 25 years old and had recently been accepted into grad school at Sacramento State University, Sacramento. It was my first day of courses. Perhaps it was the cool fall breeze that seemed to carry with it an air of nostalgia and possibility. Maybe was the way the carpet of red & orange leaves covered the campus walkways like a gloriously seasonal variation of the yellow brick road. It might have been the smell of the new textbooks I cradled in one arm, or the pumpkin latte I held with my free hand. But as I bustled along with the crowd of other students, backpacks slung over shoulders and syllabi in hand, I realized I was insanely happy. I kid you not, I was literally trembling with energy to the point that I had to keep my teeth from involuntarily chattering.  In all my life, I have never felt so radiantly alive. It was a mixture of pride, freedom, wonder, and hopefulness beyond measurement. Less than a decade before, many people openly told me I’d never complete high school, yet there I was on the cusp of obtaining a Master’s degree.  I love that memory. And when I get lost in the recollection of it, I feel as if I catch a small glimpse of the passion present in the spirit of Malala, the Little Rock Nine, and countless other young people who have  fought for their right to an education.

As of present, the Western world has co-opted Malala’s message for educational equality and paraded her across every major news outlet, and all the while public schools across The United States are struggling under the pressure of shrinking funds and a battle against educational privatization. It bothers me that the talking heads will sing the praises of education when it serves their agenda, but regularly ignore the fact that we have a serious crisis on our hands as services such as school counselors, libraries, physical education, and enrichment curriculum are being slashed as educators struggle to compensate for the losses. Yesterday, the district I work for in Sacramento, California, announced that our superintendent, Jonathan Raymond will be resigning from his position come December, in part due to the difficult nature of the last few years in which the state of California made drastic cuts to education spending , and declining enrollment prompted many school closures and teacher layoffs.  Meanwhile, the district’s child development program that I teach for has run out of funds for the year, and I am left trying to find ways to maximize supplies while keeping the quality of my classroom curriculum high. It’s going to take a small miracle.

There are few things more empowering than an education. My dad used to encourage my sisters and I with this mantra, “Once you get your education, no one can take it from you.” There are few things in life in which  that is the case. Homes can be lost, health deteriorated, loved ones grown apart….but an education, once earned, remains. And maybe that’s what drives us to pursue it with such relentlessness, despite the odds.  Whether it’s a young mother in search of a better life for herself and her child, or a girl in Pakistan with a dream of liberation, young people across the globe face major obstacles when it comes to achieving their goals. Many of us in the States feel suffocated under the weight of inadequate funds, school closures, lack of resources, ever-changing standards, and the cost of higher education. Around the world, the barrier between a student and their education may be as small and deadly and as a bullet.

Here at home I fight my own small battles- as a teacher, the parent of three school-age children, and a community member who is truly concerned with the state of public education. It is, at times, daunting. As I walked up to my classroom this morning,  I heard my dad’s voice, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.”

 In the face of the current educational climate, I can only hope to be a warm front in this brutal chill.

Bundle up, young ones, we’ve got a storm to brave.