Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Saturday, March 28, 2009

for colored girls who have cosidered suicide when the rainbow is enuf

for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf has saved my life on several different occasions and continues to do so even now. Though I have never actually contemplated suicide. I have dealt with a lot of the issues in the book first hand.

To start, the book is actually what Ntozake Shange has dubbed, a choreopoem which intertwines poetry, drama, prose, performance, dancing and music into one short, profound work of literature that will change your life. I had to read it for an African American Literature class in college. I read it twice for class and have continued to reread it through the years. Every time I read it I discover something new about the ladies dressed in the colors of the rainbow and about myself.

I lent my copy of the work to a student who is near and dear to me. She gave me my first "teacher moment" when I started teaching. I was immediately drawn to her because she is exactly what and where I was at her age. I love her the way I should have loved myself when I was 17.

She borrowed the book and did not want to return it. She said she had a hard time adjusting to the vernacular in the work, but once she figured it out it made sense. I would have given it to her, but I don't think I can stand not having a copy in my possession at all times.

I lent it to her because she told me she once considered suicide. I wanted her to read it because I needed to have read it when I was her age. She understood the meaning of the work. She understood that overcoming life shattering obstacles comes from connection and community. She understood that in order to move to the end of her rainbow, she needed to find others who would support and love her unconditionally. She got it. I got it, but I really couldn't apply it until she came to me on Thursday.

Thursday morning she came to me and told me she seriously considered killing herself the night before. She told me she'd told another teacher who had shrugged it off. I immediately get on the phone and call my mom to get the number to the behavioral health center in my county. I also gave her other numbers she could use off the top of my head. She went back to class and I walked to my car and fought back tears.

I got home and call my mom back to ask for advice. She told me I needed to tell someone. I turn to To Write Love On Her Arm's website. They have a huge section called "find help" which gives you numbers to call if you need help or know someone in need of help.

I did, so I called. I called the National Suicide Prevention Hotline(1-800-SUICIDE) and spoke to a woman who told me exactly what to do. She informed me that I had a legal obligation to let my supervisor know and that the student absolutely could not leave school before she called someone and arranged treatment. She gave me phone numbers to my county crisis center and a number to a place where she could call to get treatment.

I wrote all of this down feverishly and went back to school. Mom called while I was on the way back to school and reminded me to stay calm. She knew I was on the verge of tears and hysteria before she dialed.

I got to the school, told the powers that be and they handled it. They surrounded her with love and support. They talked to her. They listened to her. They called me to see exactly what my concern was. By the time she left school, she had a place to go to get treatment.

And she wasn't upset with me. Well, she was when they pulled her out of class, but she got over it. She understood what happened. She understood that people love her and want to see her get better. I told her the world would be a duller place without her and that I did what I did because I couldn't live with her light being extinguished when there was something I could have done to help her.

Before Thursday, she "waz missin somethin / somethin so important / a laying on of hands." For so long I have had to overcome adversity and hard times alone. I now realize that I no longer have to go at it alone, whatever it may be. She now understand this too.

I have a support system. I have surrounded myself with people who love me and care deeply about my well being. I have, as KP kept telling me I would, found my tribe.

I am part of her tribe and she is part of mine. We have each other. Now that she and I realize it, adversity doesn't seem so bad.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

City High Anthem

This post was inspired by a song I have heard dozens of times. The song is called "City High Anthem." The artist, City High, is/was composed of three twenty somethings, all of which were born and raised in Willingboro, NJ. I was also born and raised in Willingboro, NJ.

The group gained some notoriety from their song 'What Would You Do?' but the aforementioned song off their self-titled album is what made me write this post.

The song talks about their collective disappointment over teachers in their public school. As a resident of the town, I was never allowed to entertain the notion of attending any school in the district beyond grade school. The middle school is INFAMOUS and the high school's reputation is less than stellar. I attended private school for middle and a vocational school for high school.

"City High Anthem" is heartbreaking to me as a teacher and as someone who "should have" attended school there. It begins, "They just gave up on our entire generation / So we were all pushed to the side cuz we didn't see the world through our teachers eyes /When all we needed was a little bit of motivation, But because we wore our pants saggin' y'all labeled us gangstas And said we wasn't worth the time."

I have met students, parents and other people in education that admit they know teachers who hate students. You may think this is an oxymoron because it is. Still, a lot of people teach because of the job security and the schedule. I think this is incredibly selfish and damaging because students know you don't care about them.

It continues,
There are so many things I never asked you /There are so many things I still don't know /There are so many things you never told me /And still so many things that I will never know /and why, cuz I went to City High

In college, I went to school with a girl who graduated from the school. The transition from high school to college was incredibly difficult because as a college freshman, she was reading at a 9th grade level. I suppose this is the basis for the NCLB Act, but the school has very little change.

A school with more drop outs than sign-ups at registration
And the pregnancy rate is at an all-time high, we all know why
Now you would think the classroom's the place for mental stimulation
But it's some brothers outside sellin' that stuff, that'll really stimulate your mind, (talk about gettin' high)

I know a woman who works at the high school. She was in tears the day she walked into her classroom. She was hired at the last minute and when she walked in to her room, there were no chairs, no desks, no books. Nothing. She called her father who was able to find her supplies so her students would at least have a place to sit on the first day of school.

I can completely understand their frustration,
So, We don't need your education /We don't want no pacifier/We are the leaders of your nation/We're gonna make sure the world survives /There ain't no justice there's just us /What happened to the meaning of 'in God we trust'/So as we get older and our children grow up /We ain't gonna teach them what y'all showed us

Teachers play an integral role in the development of our future leaders. I play an integral role in the development of our future leaders. I have a soft spot in my heart for at-risk youth because I should have been one.

All at risk students need someone who cares. Someone that really wants to help. If not, they are left feeling neglected and abandoned all over again. And there were so many things that needed explaining /But you said it was too late for me to learn /You were suppose to be my shelter when it was rainin'/But instead you left me out here all alone, so I gotta make it on my own

Teaching is too important to be taken lightly. It is not something you do for convenience or as a stop over. You teach, I teach because I know I can, and do, make a positive difference in the lives of the future of our country. I don't want my kids to ever have to write something like this because I didn't care enough about them.

For people who did believe what we could do to change our future: You knew the world was in our hands. Help build them strong so they can withstand all the pressures, all the war, all the prejudice. And the others who were sure we couldn't fight the stress in life, for those of you who didn't believe us: Listen to my words for you. Listen to your children sing to you--

We don't need your education
We don't want no pacifier
We are the leaders of your nation
We're gonna make sure the world survives
There ain't no justice there's just us
What happened to the meaning of "in God we trust"
So as we get older and our children grow up
We ain't gonna teach them what y'all showed us

Hear the song here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Who am I Without You?

I read somewhere one time that the reason Emily Dickinson was such a recluse was because she wanted to keep her art pure. That is to say, she cut herself off from the world because she believed everyone you come in contact with has the ability to change you; to influence you in some way. She was not willing to take that chance with her craft so she stayed home. And wore white. And wrote.

You'll have to forgive this rare unsubstantiated claim as I have no idea where it came from. Interestingly enough, I find myself pondering this trivial tidbit of information all the time. I'd say almost daily. Who am I without you? The collective you. You all. This is a loaded question I will attempt to answer now:

My grandmother talked to me and lectured me about things I couldn't understand until I was grown. My aunt showed me that the center of the home is the kitchen and that the love omitted from a kitchen was universal. My mom was a pillar of strength until she wasn't, but remained present to help sweep up the pieces where they fell. Mrs. Wilson was the most incredible teacher I ever had in 3rd grade. I thought she hated me because she refused to let me settle for mediocrity. The woman broke her leg and was in school the next day with an assistant and a wheelchair. Mrs. Blaetz knew I struggled with math, but gave me the confidence I needed to succeed in leadership roles. She helped catch some of those pieces as they were falling. KP got me to declare English as a minor because at 17 she saw the writer in me. Mez. My dear Mez kept me from considering suicide when my rainbow was enuf.

Being around other people is so important even if your experiences are less than stellar. Who would I be without help? Who would I have become without preemptive lectures? What if I'd have settled for that D in math in third grade? If I would have let the fact that my world was crumbling impede my desire to overcome my circumstance? Truth is, I don't know.

I do know that I probably would not have ended up a teacher. But I am. I teach because I love. I teach because I want to become what these women became to me. I teach because each and every one of them has taught me something vital. And sure, I'll never be as famous as Emily Dickinson, but my impact will stick with someone and resurface just when they need it. Kind of like how my memories just resurfaced for this post.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fact Check

Teaching is so terribly fascinating because I am constantly learning as I am teaching. Here I am. 24. Fresh out of college, getting ready to graduate again and I am a teacher. Teaching is my accidental calling (as I have explained in earlier posts), and I'm good at it so why do I sometimes get so nervous? I'll tell you why: My audience.

As an undergrad and in grad school, you sit in courses with like-minded people. All of you are literally and figuratively on the same page. You all show up to class having read the same novel with vastly different opinions and observations ready to share/contribute. After the first couple of courses/papers, you really don't need to prove yourself to anyone anymore because opinions about you have been solidified. In my case, most of them knew I am stark raving brilliant and that I will go tit for tat with them about how Huck Fin is NOT the Great American Novel. I digress. The point is, you're all pretty much at the same "level." I mean this in an academic sense.

When you enter a high school classroom the playing field is DRASTICALLY different. You think you know all there is no to know about something until you have to teach it to teenagers.

My situation is unique. The job I have now landed on my lap. In preparation for my first day of teaching, I had the Head of the English department tell me to make sure I knew Animal Farm front and back because if I didn't "I was not going to be able to sell it." Sell it. Sell them Animal Farm. What does that even mean?

I figured it out the first time I was stumped on a question or a detail about the novel. I was embarrassed, sure, but I learned from my embarrassment. Now, before I open my mouth, I make damn sure I know all there is to know about what I am teaching. If I don't - the lesson falls apart. My credibility is out the window. Trust is stripped. They are a tough crowd and I have a snowball's chance in hell of getting it back.

To avoid this from happening again, I do fact checks. Often. Theories, definitions, parts of speech, themes, pronunciations, literary terms. You name it. I fact check it. I do this for them. Not only because I love them unconditionally, but because they will eat me alive if I don't know. I don't believe in lying to them. I cannot physically lie to my students, so when faced with something I don't know I tell them I have to research it rather than give them false information or say 'I don't know.'

I fact check because they deserve to have a teacher who, though not formally trained as a teacher, can sell them a novel, short story or poem without so much as blinking an eye. If that doesn't work, I am fortunate enough to work in a school where we can (and do) "phone a friend" when we feel a sale is slipping through our fingers.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sharing Quotes

When I read literature I tend to be overly analytical. This is an ideal trait in one who is pursuing a Graduate degree in English. The problem is, I tend to over analyze everything. Job interviews, conversations with friends, random thoughts that pop in my head. One night I was pondering the word "quarter." I could not get to sleep until I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, Wikipedia and everywhere else I could find discussion on the word. Crazy. I am simply crazy about words.

I began devouring Willa Cather's My Antonia this weekend in preparation for my MA Exam. I'd started reading it last summer and there is one particular passage I read at least 10 times. Not because I wanted to dissect it, but because it was so simple and applicable. I even went so far as to make it the signature on my outgoing email. (That did not last long) It reads as follows:

"I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."

This quote comes at the end of one book one, chapter two. In the beginning of the first book Jim arrives in Nebraska. He is in the garden with his hands and feet in the dirt taking in all the sights and sounds of his new home. Jim has just lost his family, but in Nebraska in the uncharted newness of the land he is entirely happy.

This is how I feel about teaching. It is the one thing that I have found that makes me entirely happy. With teaching I feel like I am an important part of something bigger than myself. And when it comes to teaching and helping my students understand a concept or theory, it truly comes as naturally as sleep.

Full Text of My Antonia c/o Project Gutenberg

Sunday, March 1, 2009

All You Need Is Love

I had a conversation last night with a fellow artist about what inspires me. My gut instinct was to say love. It's true, I do what I do because of love. I could not be a teacher without love.

I then got to thinking about Shakespeare. I am attempting to teach Julius Caesar to my 9th graders. The play talks a great deal about love even though it is a tragedy. Brutus loves Caesar, but he loves his country more. Cassius loves Brutus and is hurt when Brutus represses his love for his friend. Mark Antony loves Caesar and is deeply hurt when he is killed. Though it is a tragedy and everyone dies, the play is as much about love as it is about death.

I am fascinated by the multifaceted definitions and implications of the word 'love'. The Oxford English dictionary has nine different uses for the word. The fourth one is the one I will use here. It reads:

"A feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone, typically arising from a recognition of attractive qualities, from natural affinity, or from sympathy and manifesting itself in concern for the oth 'love'er's welfare and pleasure in his or her presence (distinguished from sexual love at sense 4a); great liking, strong emotional attachment; (similarly) a feeling or disposition of benevolent attachment experienced towards a group or category of people, and (by extension) towards one's country or another impersonal object of affection."

You can love a tree or you can love another person. There is the love a mother has for a child and the love a person has for their partner. There is the love one has for their pet and the love one has for their favorite dessert. Add to that list a teacher who loves her students.

I love being a teacher because it gives me the ability to foster intellectual and personal growth in my students. I love English literature because of the way it captures human emotion for people who find self expression to be a difficult task.

Most of all, I move my students. I love them because they want to learn, but they don't know it yet. I love them for their light bulb moment when they figure something out. I love them for having the ability to make me feel like I am a teacher. You know, like when one of your most challenging students tells you the activity you gave him, "made him think." I love them for who they are despite the fact that they can be a tiny bit lazy.

I have a natural affinity, a strong emotional connection to my students and to what I do. I am passionate about my line of work.

I am fiercely overprotective of my students. I protect them from each other and from themselves. I chide self-depreciation and encourage self-actualization.

I could not do this job if I did not love it. I don't understand how anyone teaches when they don't love what they do.

Taylor Mali loves being a teacher. Here is his piece, "What Teachers Make"

Oxford English Dictionary - Love (Restricted Database)