Psychic Income

May 22, 2010

Well, another school year of trying to influence the lives of the 11-13 year old set is about to end. My second year of teaching — first year as a full-time teacher. How do I feel? Exhausted, drained, spent, and surprisingly enough, exhilarated. I just had another of my “psychic income” moments, and this year, my psychic piggy bank is more than half full.

After cruising through life unfulfilled, I decided to go back to school and embrace my DNA. When I was in teaching school, my supervisor said something to me during one of our meetings that really caught me off guard: “You’re going to be an amazing teacher.” I wasn’t sure how to respond without coming across as an egotistical bitch, so I quietly changed the subject. But inside, I was furiously nodding my head and saying “DAMN STRAIGHT I AM — MY MOM IS WATCHING.”

I’m a fourth-generation teacher, and it’s a title I wear proudly. When anyone asks me what I do for a living, I hold my head up high, smile broadly and say: “I am a TEACHER. I teach language arts to MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS.”  I’m always amazed at how many people respond with: “You poor thing, middle school.” I’ll tell you, I’d take hormonal middle-school students over snot-filled, leaky primary students any day. Kids in grades K-5 don’t understand my dark sense of humor. I make them cry (not intentionally, however!)

My first year of teaching, I had to learn how to survive in an environment where I was bullied by grown ups who hadn’t really grown up yet — most of them younger than I am. I not only had to learn how to teach, but learn how to maneuver my way around a school filled with cliquish staff members who banded together to make other people’s lives (usually the ones who aren’t willing to play such immature games like these — i.e., me) miserable.  Fortunately, I quickly won the support of my students, their parents, and a principal — the only three groups of people I really need to impress anyways.

Some might wonder why I stayed at a school where I was bullied by staff. It’s simple — teaching jobs are tough to get, and my co-worker and I are so much alike, we were even dressed exactly the same when I interviewed for the position, as she told me after she insisted to the principal that I get hired immediately or “she’s walking”.  And, since God answered my prayers for a teaching job within 45-minutes of sending it up, I decided I owed Him one in return.

I digress. What I really want to say about teaching is this: “Teaching pays me in ways no amount of money ever could.” Oh sure, if someone offered me a high salary, I certainly wouldn’t thumb my nose at it. But, the money isn’t the issue — it’s the “psychic income” that comes from the relationships I’ve developed with some of my students and their parents.

I had one student last year (and again this year) who couldn’t write a full paragraph for me at the start of the year. His words were all over the page, and he wouldn’t capitalize or punctuate in the right places. Many teachers had him pegged as “odd” or “lazy,” I saw him as brilliant and untethered.

I worked with him all last year, slowly encouraging him to write more and more. When he came back to me this year, his writing exploded off the page. I couldn’t get him to stop writing, even when it was time to switch to reading, or vocabulary, or whatever else I had to teach. His stories had characters, intricate plots, development, structure, creativity! His grammar and punctuation were near perfect. His poetry was filled with the full spectrum of emotions. And most importantly, he worked with me and he thanked me — for being his teacher and showing him the joys of writing and poetry. Ka-chink.

This year, I had two students who made deposits in my piggy bank. One boy, who I suspect has dyslexia (yet undiagnosed), can now write clear sentences most of the time. He stops, takes the time to write carefully, and doesn’t slop his words onto the page anymore. The other boy, who I suspect has Asperger’s (working in a private school, there isn’t a high number of Special Ed students with definitive diagnoses to warrant services), has been struggling to write coherent thoughts all year long. His first writings were totally incomprehensible. I couldn’t even tell what shape the letters were supposed to be, much less what they were trying to say. These were my “project” students — two students I decided needed extra encouragement and help.

The first boy, the one with suspected dyslexia (I’m not an expert, just going on a hunch here), has been a poor speller and writer since kindergarten. So says the Special Ed teacher providing services to him (I use that term “loosely”, because I think he’s just feeding him answers, not assistance). When I saw the boy’s handwriting, I asked if there were anything I could do to help him improve. I was told “That’s the best you’ll ever get out of him. Trust me, I’ve been working with him since kindergarten, and he’s never gotten any better.” Well, of course that was the moment when I decided no teacher was ever going to tell me to give up on a student, so I said “We’ll see..” and grumbled off. A month or so later, it gave me great pleasure to walk up to that teacher, show him a thank you letter written by this student (without a single misspelling or grammatical error) and sneer “Told you, I’d get him to write.” Bitchy of me? Yes. But that teacher deserved to be taken down a notch. Ka-chink.

The other boy, the one suspected of having Asperger’s, continues to struggle with writing. But, something wonderful happened today. I made his mom cry. Why? Because I think she finally has an answer to her son’s situation — I sent her a link about the struggles Asperger’s students have with writing. She read the link and was so overwhelmed at how similar the post sounded to her own son, she started to cry and had to stop reading further until she could get herself back together again. All this time, she had been thinking herself  as crazy, because she knew something was “odd” but couldn’t figure out what.

I have had many moments this year where I heard the coins drop into my piggy bank:

Having an entire class tell you that “You’re the only teacher here who likes us, Mrs. B”

and, when I gave a breath mint to everyone “I LOVE YOU, Mrs. B, you’re the BEST!”

and just recently, “Wow, we’ve never had the chance to read for an entire class period! Can we do that again, Mrs. B?”

Ka-chink! That’s the sound of psychic coins plinking into my piggy bank. And I love that sound.


Language and Television Shows

April 30, 2010

Language fascinates me. Vernacular too. But what really fascinates me is the way “acceptable” language on television has changed over the last 25-30 years. Sitting down one night a week or so ago to watch an episode of the 1970’s TV hit “All in the Family”, it suddenly dawned on me: the censors have lost their grip on reality and sensibility.

The main character in “All in the Family”, Archie Bunker, was portrayed as a racist, bigoted, hate mongering, stereotypical buffoon. He was an EOO – Equal Opportunity Offender — spewing bigoted comments towards all minorities with equal aplomb. No minority, race or religion was granted immunity from his misguided and often misdirected hate: Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Catholics, Polish, the list goes on forever.

The following are some (but not all) of the terms Archie would often use to “describe” various minorities:

Kikes (Blacks)

Pollacks (Polish)

Mics (Irish Catholics)

Heebs (Jews)

Spades (Blacks)

3As and 3Bs (Hispanic Mexicans and Puerto Ricans)

Jungle Bunnies (Blacks)

(you get the hint, right?)

But, therein lies the problem with today’s censors. I’m not condoning the use of any of the above terms, but don’t they seem a little less “offensive” than, perhaps, some of the language that is allowed to pass through the censors today? Isn’t it entirely possible to picture a “Jungle Bunny” as a furry, cuddly rabbit hopping around a tropical forest somewhere, searching for fresh fern leaves to nibble? And isn’t the word “spade” just another word for a garden tool? “3As and 3Bs” is as innocuous a scientific classification as possible, so what’s wrong with using those to describe someone?

Nowadays, it seems like everyone on TV can swear all they want. I find it ironic that censors will let “ass” slide through, but bleep out “hole”, so it comes across as “ASS(bleep!)”  And for reasons no one has seemed to be able to explain to me, it is now perfectly acceptable to say G-ddamn. I know every time I say that, I look for lightning bolts to suddenly appear.

The ironic beauty of the language used in  “All in the Family” cannot be overlooked. Despite the racist overtones, offensive stereotyping and political incorrectness, Archie never did utter a single “curse” word. Yet, if today’s scripts ever used any of the same terms he used, there would be organized marches going on across America within ten minutes of hearing those words spoken over the airwaves. But, “reality TV” censors don’t want to run the risk of “offending” anyone.

And G-ddamn it, ass(bleep!)s like that really piss me off.


WHOA: Reflection on “The Oh Factor”

April 24, 2010

This poem is in response to Charles R. Smith, Jr’s published poem entitled “The Oh Factor” — a poem from his CD “Portrait of a Poet” about the effects poets can have on their readers. I call this “WHOA”, because of how my students reacted to “The Oh Factor”. I found his email and sent a copy to him this morning.
WHOA

Just lettin’ you know,
Your fluid flow
Made my poets say “WHOA
And move and groove
To the sweet, smooth, slick
Sensual sound of wondrous words
First time heard
Flippin, slippin’ and drippin’
Off your CD’s knees
Blowin’ thru the easy breeze
Aimin’ to please
young minds like these
Landin’ and commandin’ in their ears
Chillin’ their fears
‘Bout hearin’
One. More. Pointless. Poem.
Taught by teacher
Preachin’ ’bout
Love for all poets
And funky, fresh, flowin’ poems
That roam
From the home
inside the
fine young mind’s
predefined eye
where they realize
recognize
and utilize
scraps of verbs and
unknown words
can make themselves shout out:
“OH!
What do you know–
I guess
MY best
can make
others say ‘WHOA.’”


Role Models Come in All Sizes

March 6, 2010

I was fully prepared for the accolades I would receive from teaching. I was well on my way towards patting myself on the back and crowing “What a GREAT teacher you are, Nerd!” while blowing smoke up my own backside. Two years of teaching almost behind me, and so far, everything I’ve done has been met with praise and glory and…blah, blah, blah. Enough of that–here’s the reality of working with children — they are great equalizers when it comes to feelings of self-importance.

Nothing deflates an over-sized ego faster than dealing with the untimely death of a child. No, not my own child — I wouldn’t be writing this post with such reckless flippancy. Besides, if it were my 13- year old child who just succumbed to complications from his 6-year battle with leukemia, I’d be on the way to the nearest psych ward, hoping for a voluntary psychiatric hold.

But today, as I write this, there is a family here who is losing their child to the battle. Most likely, right this very minute they are gathering at his bedside, holding his hands, and praying one last time as a cohesive, family unit. Then, his younger sisters will leave as they see their brother alive for the very last time. And this is what is tearing me apart.

I met this family last year, when I was his teacher. Despite weekly chemo treatments, horrible side effects and general feelings of “ick”, he still managed to earn straight As and complete all his work at home. His parents insisted he maintain as “normal” a life as possible — going to school, doing his homework, taking his tests on schedule, etc., etc. His chemo treatments were always scheduled on Friday, so he’d have the weekend to catch up on homework (between bouts of nausea, I bet).  I could tell where he was in his treatments based upon the amount of red fuzz he had on his head — the less hair, the more dosage of chemo he would have in him. But, never, ever, did he lose ground in my class. His parents insisted upon it, and he made it happen.

He moved onto eighth grade this year, so I lost him as a student. But, his little sister took his place at a desk in my 6th grade room this year. And, much like he was, she never lets her brother’s health situation get in the way of her schooling. Every day she comes to class, ready, eager and willing to participate. She eagerly reads out loud, answers questions about grammar, bops up to be the first person to share her writings — everything that happens in my class room, she embraces enthusiastically and with such focus and attention. All the while knowing when she goes home at the end of the day, her parents will be at the hospital, hoping for a miracle for her older brother.

I’ve always known the world needs positive role models. I get so disgusted when I hear that people with questionable morals and values are being idolized in the press and put on pedestals for the world to “ooh” and “aw” over, when all they’ve really done is just figure out a way to act obnoxious and foolish and get away with it.

They aren’t role models to me. The role models — the ones who deserve to be placed on a pedestal, are the ones like the family I’ve met, who are going to be burying their 13-year old son and brother shortly. Through this horrific battle, they have remained close, strong in their faith and stoic in their deeds.

They are my role models. They have taught me more than I could ever teach them. What a great way to keep my ego in check.

Goodbye, Seth.