Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Very Urban Funeral

I've never been to a funeral for a person who has been fatally shot. I couldn't go to Joe's funeral (the first student I experienced this tragedy with) because they needed staff to stay behind and cover classes. I did attend Izzy's viewing and funeral yesterday and what an interesting experience.

Let me first say that I've apparently become hardened because when I went to pay my respects, I didn't cry at all. Of course, I cried the whole way over and prepared myself for what lie ahead and I think that helped me stay strong at the viewing. It was terrible seeing him dead and lifeless like that. I hate that this is the last memory I have of him - bloated and without a soul. I want to remember him when he was alive, full of life and energy and being a pain in the ass, not like that in a coffin.

Anyway, I introduced myself to his mother (I hadn't met her prior to this), who was holding up remarkably well for someone burying a son, whose death was an act of violence. This was a Muslim funeral and all the women were wearing white dresses and head scarves, except his mother, who was wearing a black head scarf.

One of the nicest parts about this funeral was the distribution of mints. At the end of the funeral, the leader (who looked remarkably like Kanye West, right down to the sunglasses) of the service told the attendees to eat the mint and whenever we have memories of Izzy, let them be sweet and not sorrowful. I thought that was a very comforting ritual.

Now, let me get to the top ten list of perfectly acceptable attire at an urban funeral:

10. Baseball caps
9. Sneakers
8. Shorts
7. Mini-skirts
6. Pants so low they reveal the boxers
5. Cut off shirts that reveal one's stomach
4. Thigh-high boots
3. Sunglasses
2. Wife beaters

And the #1 most acceptable thing to wear:
T-shirts with an iron-on photo of the person who was shot.

So, the very best thing a poor, black kid (who has turned to the street), can hope for is to end up as a face on someone's t-shirt that says: "R.I.P." Something is wrong with this picture. I hope we can find a solution to help fix the prevalence of violence on the streets for poor minorities. I think education is still the leg-up for these urban minorities, but we have to fix the urban school systems.

R.I.P. Izzy, I'm sorry I failed you too.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Izzy, the Way You're Going, You're Going to End Up in Prison Or Dead."

It turns out it was death that was waiting for him. I found out yesterday at work. I received a call from one of the staff at my former school. She said: "We just got confirmation that Izzy was shot and killed last night." There I was, standing in front of employees of DCPS' Office of Special Education, with tears welling in my eyes. I had to run to the bathroom and finish the conversation in a stall.

After hanging up the phone, I burst into tears. "Pull yourself together." That's what I told myself because it was the start of the day. I couldn't have my eyes moist with tears every few seconds, thinking about a former student. I'm at 825 for God's sake! Show no signs of weakness.

So, I managed to get through the rest of my day without crying, but when I got into my car on the way home, that the tears really starting flowing. Izzy was such a pain in the ass kid. He had ADHD to the extreme. The kid couldn't focus for longer than 2 minutes at a time. He was wildly inappropriate, always talking about sex or drugs or some other crazy thing that happened to him over the weekend or the night before.

But the kid was smart; sharp as a tack. As much as he got on my nerves, I wanted nothing more than for him to succeed because he had the wits about him to do it and he had the swagger to smooth people over. He wanted to get into business and he would've been the best damn salesman there ever was. The kid could could sell rehab to Amy Winehouse, he was that persuasive.

We had to implement a system, as a staff, for Izzy to keep him on task during class time. Every time he entered a classroom, he got a sticky note next to him. Each time he was off task, I would give him a tally mark to indicate his off-task behavior, with a limit for how many tally marks he could receive in a period. It was a visual cue to help him attend to academic tasks.

This was the greatest tool I utilized in the classroom with Izzy. He hated seeing the marks because it reminded him that he wasn't completing his work. It brought him back to reality and didn't allow for any of his BS. One afternoon, he was close to reaching the maximum amount of tally marks for my class period, which meant he'd be removed from my class. When he realized how many marks he'd received, he crumpled up the sticky note and had a little fit. I knew it was working because he hated it.

One day, Izzy was driving me over the edge. I was ready to strangle him. He was completely out of control and his language was extremely foul and crude. I finally pulled him out of class and was real with him. I explained how I thought he was so intelligent and was just throwing his life away on this "gangsta" lifestyle. I told him he could do so much better. "This is it," I said. "The end of the line, you're either going to jail or you are going to be dead, just like some of my other students."

I can see his face so clearly, now, staring back at me with that condescending look he would get. The face of youth; the face of invincibility. "Stupid, white lady." That's probably what he thought at the time, but it was that day that he knew that I really cared about where he was headed in his life.

If I had placed that bet on Izzy, like I wanted to with other staff members, that he'd be one of our first graduates, I would've lost. I thought for sure he'd see there was more to life than selling drugs. I'll never know, but I would guess that right before he was shot, he was running that smart mouth of his. The kids who shot him, probably did so to shut him the hell up. Maybe that's why there were multiple gunshots. He was just arguing his point of view right to the very end.

So, what is the lesson learned? I told you at the start that this wasn't the kind of blog with a moral. The reflecting, revealing type that comes with examining what's happened in the past and being able to learn from it. When it comes to untimely deaths, I have no answers, no great insight. But to quote one of my favorite lines from The Wire: "It all matters. We thought it didn't, but it does."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Deja Vu with DCPS

I've started my new job working for DCPS in a non-instructional role. What a different world! Central Office is a strange place to hang out and get work done. I'll mostly be school based once this current school year gets started, but for now I've been reporting to what we used to call "825." It's not located there anymore, but I think it will always be 825 to me. Anyway, it's a weird place to work.

Just the other day, I'm sitting in what they call the "Touchdown" room. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, but it's basically an area where people have informal meetings to discuss God knows what. So, there's all kinds of people who come through the Touchdown room. Right now, there's a master educator, who observed me a year ago, having a meeting with some reading specialists about classroom interventions for struggling students. The new director of special education, Dr. Beers, passes through. There's a group behind me trying to figure out the daunting task of transportation for the coming school year. Everyone is talking education policy and I feel like I'm finally somewhere that I can make a difference.

Or at least make a different kind of change. So, I won't always be working at 825 or Central office. In fact, I'll only be there about once a week when school starts back. But I like being in a position where I can effect change not just at the local level, but with people who supervise special education policy and make changes district-wide.

Well, I plan on continuing my blog with its focus on education in the District. I'm sure once everything gets going in this new position, I'll be bitching about DCPS again and how horrible their policies and practices are. For now, I'm keeping an open mind and trying to learn as much as possible in order to utilize this experience for my (hopefully) long career in education.