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Teaching is Not About Me (Except It Is)

January 17, 2012

I had a rough morning. I try not to make class about me, ever, but some mornings the love and frustration mix together and overwhelm me in the form of a big knot in my stomach and a shaky voice. I have to sit in the back of class to keep my composure. This was one of those mornings.

Near the end of lit block, my students wanted to talk about anger management. They’re fairly mature (for being over-aged middle schoolers), so I had one of my oldest and angriest students describe to me how she would tell her little nephew to keep his cool. She was so sweet. She said how she loved him with her whole heart, and that she never wanted anything bad to happen to him. She would tell him to keep his cool, to walk away from anything, because it wasn’t worth it to fight. Unless. Unless someone messed with him. And then it was ok.

I see my classmates agreeing, so I ask them to elaborate. They turn it back on me.

“Ms. Summers, what would you do if someone hit you?”

“I’d walk away.” They all freak out. “Hold on, hold on. That’s just how I was raised. I don’t fight. I’m not a fighter. It’s not worth it to me.”

I almost beg them to understand me. I remind them that simple little fights in this glorious city of New Orleans lead to gun play and senseless murder. That they all know someone who has been killed over something dumb. One of my kids’ grandmothers was gunned down in the street. Another student volunteered how his dad killed someone and was now on death row. Somehow death is so close to life here, too close, that it’s making them go cross-eyed looking at it.

The conversation continues for a few more minutes, and I feel like we’ve made a little ground. But I am only one voice, and the voices most of them hear at home are not preaching what I’m preaching.

Then the bell rings to switch classes.

By the time I walk out the classroom door, the hall is silent except for the sounds of slapping. The girl, the one who just convinced her baby nephew to not fight (unless) is in a full-on fight with another student. They’re locked in, wads of hair in the middle of the floor. Girl fights always mean a trip to the hair dresser. It takes our principal and dean at least 3 minutes to get them untangled. They run back for more. I can’t get my kids in class. They just stand there and stare, mouths gaping open. I begin to drag them by the arm, one by one.

And then we move on. Once I get a full class, I pretend nothing happened. I begin to loudly narrate those students who are staying focused, writing in their journals, trying to wrangle an education. I move forward, reaching deep within myself to find enough strength to make it 50 minutes until lunch so I can close my door and sob in silence.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2012 10:32 pm

    this is really profound:
    “Somehow death is so close to life here, too close, that it’s making them go cross-eyed looking at it.”

    • Kathy permalink
      January 17, 2012 11:26 pm

      My dear Sunny, your experiences amaze me. I would not have the fortitude that you seem to have to handle this type of thing anymore. Nerves and emotions would get the best of me I’m sure. I do enjoy reading your day stories but don’t let it make you sick. It is hard to imagine such a life in our innocen city of Iola. I subbed in a 5th grade class today where no one could ever stop talking, bossing or stay in there seats. Mild compared to yours but so so different than 27 years ago. we need solid families back in this country.

  2. Vasy McCoy permalink
    January 18, 2012 10:13 pm

    And yet, pivotal take-away for me was not that the students didn’t believe that anyone would turn away from disrespect, or that troubled girls fought, or that they turned their frustration on Doc and I as we dared to break up the fight. The pivotal point was that an adult that they respect and admire gave them insight on another world view that they could ponder the advantages of. Obviously, that idea will need time to ossify and overrun the well developed defenses of mistrust and false bravado that have served them well in their current situations. Like any academic content however, if we continue to be aligned to a worthwhile objective, reteach the content and assess for content mastery . . . maybe we can start moving students from unsat to basic.

    At least, that’s why I’m taking time to unwrap fingers from tracks instead of drawing buildings or painting anymore. This revolution will certainly not be televised . . . it’s not very photogenic.

  3. Aunt Peggy permalink
    January 20, 2012 7:17 pm

    Sunny Sue, It’s been awhile since I visited you, but a friend of mine visits you often and commented what a wonderful person you are – which you are! – and I thought I’d better catch up. I know each day brings you a new challenge, but each day brings those children a little bit of hope, a bit of sunshine that might not fall on them if not for you. You are blessed and bringing more blessings to those without and that challenges the rest of us to do something – anything – to make this a better world. You are our inspiration. Thank you.

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