Saturday, August 28, 2010

“Fix your face.”

That was a favorite phrase among my aides that I eventually started using with the kids. That and “Stop making that noise.” I liked these phrases, actually they grew on me, like only the culture of the poor and those in poverty can. Learning phrases like this was fascinating to me. It was like a course in urban linguistics. I would later learn many more phrases teaching urban high schoolers…But those stories, I’m saving. Those stories are like the Seven Wonders of the World. These are more like the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Piza. Fascinating, but not nearly as good. I’m saving the best for last, so hang in there, my dear readers.

The “Fix your face” phrase was used most on Mikey. Mikey, poor thing, was also a brat (apparently this is a thing with autistic kids), but he was cute. In fact, when my fiancé came in to meet my class, he thought Mikey was the cutest of all. I thought he was the most annoying of all. He had autism with a combination of ADHD. It was the most irritating of all possibilities; his cuteness eluded me. It didn’t matter how cute he was because every day after nap time, he would cry. And cry, and cry, and cry, until at last he’d have to be taken out of the room by one of my aides.

I guess she threatened him or something because usually when he came back he was just sobbing. I never asked what she did; I just always thanked my lucky stars when she came back with him that he was quiet. I suppose I ran my classroom like the military, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” I can’t say that was the right thing to do, but it was the thing that kept the peace among us.

Mikey’s mother was a very nice woman. She was a little younger than me and that meant she would have been 24 years old. A single parent, she worked a full time job trying desperately to support Mikey and herself. Her phone was frequently disconnected and they moved a lot. They’re situation was classic poverty unstableness. It made me very sad because she was so close to my age. Even though I was not pregnant nor had a child, I knew that even without Mikey, she would never have the same opportunities as me and the only thing that separated her from me was race and socio-economic status.

I could and probably should take this opportunity to get on the soap box about the achievement gap and how urban education is actually a civil rights issue that is keeping minorities oppressed. But I won’t, I’m trying to keep this blog about my experiences and what happened to me. There have been plenty of books and articles written about the achievement gap, if you care to read those. I will say this; I got into this profession to help close that gap. After seeing the problems in DCPS, it made me realize that the National Guard couldn’t help this school system.

But I tried. Each day I tried to help these kids in the classroom as best I could. I guess it’s good that my program picked Type A personalities. You know the kind, those who are willing to ruin their health, relationships, and everything for the sake of their careers. And that’s exactly what I did for two solid years. I put my career above all things, and everything else suffered. There must be balance in life, if it is to be enjoyed. Uggh, that sounded like the Dalai Lama or something. I’ll stop, I’m sorry.

Back to Mikey. The amazing thing about Mikey is that he wasn’t all that autistic. I mean he liked to line up crayons, sort things, and do a whole lot of puzzles (but so did my fiancé, so he tells me, and he turned out reasonably fine). Mikey talked with a bit of a speech impediment, but he talked a lot, which is a good thing. I wanted him to join a regular kindergarten class, but was having so many fights with the administration about Abeba that I didn’t have the energy left in me. So, Mikey continued in my class and his mother seemed to be okay with that; even though I suggested Mikey going into a regular classroom.

Anyway, it’s hard to see any progress in a child when you work with them day after day and toil long hours with them. You think you are a failure (and you are). You think that you’ve made no difference in a child’s life and you’d be better off if that bus hit you (please, God, I’m waiting). It was Mikey who made me realize that maybe I wasn’t such an awful, terrible, no good, very bad failure. Just a failure.

I had my annual review with principal. It was the end of the year and I was praying to God or someone more and more frequently, just giving thanks and showing my gratitude. Anyway, I was showing my principal Mikey’s work in reading and writing. At the beginning of the year he could only write the letter A and he couldn’t read at all. By the end of the year, he was writing most of the alphabet and reading about 7 or 8 basic words. I was astonished; my principal was too. I couldn’t believe it; I had made progress with a kid.

Okay, so I might not have closed the achievement gap, but screw you DC Teaching Fellows. How was that ever going to be possible with my room full of autists (my fiance’s affectionate term for them)? I was proud because I did the best I could and did make some progress with each of my students.

No, I wasn’t Hilary effing Swank in Freedom Writers, but I was me, and I never quit. That’s not really the lesson though; never give up. I should have given up, when my life was going to hell in a hand basket and everything around me was hopeless. It’s when I think back to that day during my evaluation that I realize that I was just a failure, not a miserable, wretched one. And that was okay by me.

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