I offer unlimited extra-credit for dressing up like a character in a book and double unlimited extra-credit for staying in character for the entire period. Juan, who needed points, came as Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. He had the wig and knee-high combat boots and a little scowl that never left his face….He looked good! He jumped on my desk and gave a rousing speech to the class where he compared our school to an Orwellian state that exploits and represses kids. I don’t remember the details of what he said–it might have been lines from the movie or a series of disconnected ideas that he made up on the spot (I couldn’t tell)–but he ended by waving his crossbow and telling us to “burn this mother to the ground!” Then everybody cheered and ran out screaming, presumably to destroy the school. I fell back into my desk applauding and pumping my fists into the air. After a few minutes I decided that I better check up on them, so I went to the admin building and there was Juan lying on the ground with handcuffs on. Apparently you are still not allowed to bring a crossbow to school. The rest of the kids watched him get put into the back seat of the cop car and driven away. Zoie T. told me that it was just like the movie.
I have this girl in my class who doesn’t talk, doesn’t do any of the work, never participates or even bring a book. All she does all day is draw unicorns in her notebook and blink at me. Usually I leave these kids alone. I have no idea what trauma, what horror has left the poor wretch such an empty shell unable to relate to others. Usually its prolonged bullying or some unspeakable physical abuse or a really bad divorce which they internalize for the rest of their miserable lives. But since girls are statistically unlikely to bring a gun and mow us all down I tend not to uncork the genie. But yesterday I said, “Veronica, May I ask you a question? What the heck is wrong with you?” She blinked at me and I said, “You have an opportunity to change your life right now! I don’t know what that man did to you or if he is still doing it to you, but I do know that escaping into a fairyland fantasy of unicorns and butterflies will never make you happy!…Do you want to be happy?” She looked down and continued to add shade to her purple unicorn who was, ironically, breaking through a cloud toward a rainbow. I grabbed her wrist and shook it. “Veronica! You can’t live like this any longer! I’m here to help! Come out, Veronica! Come out of that rainbow-unicorn world and join us in the here and now! We will not let the bad man hurt you, I promise!” The entire class was quiet, stealing looks and few snickers, but Veronica didn’t look up from her drawing (though she did flail her arms spastically and screech a little). I was on my knees, starting to cry. The bell rang and Veronica packed up her supplies and left with the rest of the class.
I learned later that Veronica had been wandering away from her special day class and into my class because she is severely autistic. I guess I need to check my roll more often.
What invigorates me? Wonder. Like last Thursday I found a pool of blood under a desk in my classroom and I wondered: Who lost his (or her) blood? And does he know that he lost it? I dipped my finger in it and wrote my daily agenda on the white board in blood. Then I covered my hands and face with streaks of blood and told the class that I had murdered a student because she had stopped wondering about the world. “I was doing her favor,” I told them. “Once you’ve lost your sense of wonder you are dead.”
Of course I was making a joke in order to make an important point, but I heard later that a Freshman forgot her pad and had an accident, so it really wasn’t the teachable moment I had thought.
Embrace the Ick
On Friday all of my third period Freshmen students dressed up as their favorite hero–from history, movies, books, sports–whomever they admired–and then we challenged each other to fights to see who was the greatest hero. So I was Odysseus and also the referee and I would make sure that the battles were realistic and that everyone stayed true to character. For example, when Albert Einstein fought Kobe Bryant I would tell Kobe that he could dunk on Albert Einstein or perhaps rape him, but that Einstein could actually nuke Kobe Bryant’s family. Then they would mime the battle in super slow motion (while my computer played the battle track from A New Hope) to give it that epic feeling. The kids loved it! And of course they learned that sometimes being a great scientist is cooler than being a superstar athlete–not a message they hear often in our culture.
Some battles were made in heaven. Todd S. came as his own great-grandfather who had survived Aushwitz and the death march, while Connor (who is a bit autistic and never participates in anything) slicked back his hair, glued on a mustache and came as his favorite military hero, Adolf Hitler. I allowed Hitler to beat, shoot and gas Mr. S while Mr. S could only writhe in pain and, with his last breaths, thumb his nose at Hitler, who would grow more and more frustrated. Finally, he shot himself in the head and Connor took a full minute to die, which was super funny. And of course the lesson here was that Courage always trumps Evil!
Many heroes challenged me, The Man Who is Never at a Loss, the Great Odysseus, and each time I smote them with my sword or battle ax. My favorite moment was decapitating Peyton Manning after he hurled (imaginary) footballs at my head. But then things got dicey when Hana, dressed as the Muslim prophet Muhammad, issued a fatwa on me and my descendants. Of course I easily took her out with an arrow between the eyes, but then the entire class–acting as her followers–captured me, cut my throat and paraded my corpse around the room. After that things got a little out of control and a full scale slow motion riot broke out. Fortunately the bell rang a few minutes later.
Pleased to Meet You
Got into an argument with my Principal about the value of poetry. I told him that Life is Poetry and that therefore we cannot live without poetry in our lives. Mr. Grunk said that he had always hated poetry when he was in high school and that kids don’t need to learn to read it. He said that “Poetry is not a twenty-first century skill, that kids need “facts about their world” and not “navel-gazing flights of fancy.” I told him in no uncertain terms that I respectfully disagreed. Kids should be gazing at their navels instead of their computer screens. Kids should develop imagination and compassion and respect for language in its most condensed form. They need to know about rhythm and assonance and onomatopoeia and metaphor because that is what literate people talk about. He said in so many words that I was full of poo-poo, which I did not respond to because I like my job and sometimes you have to “step away and work another day”–that’s a rhyme…and an aphorism. See. Poetry saves lives.
Hard-working teachers need access to their classrooms and all of the resources that we use to create 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Sometimes inspiration for a lesson will strike at 3am and I will leap out of bed, drive to school and rearrange my desk configuration or spritz clean my whiteboard or even run the copy machine. This access is vitally important because teaching is vitally important and teachers don’t stop collecting and creating just because they are on vacation or asleep. Now this morning I was awoken by an email from a colleague who did not have access to the copy-room because she had not been granted access. Of course I immediately drove to school and let her into the building so that she could work during the holiday on her classroom. Then I went to the corner locksmith and duplicated my key and gave her one. She was very grateful, though she acted concerned that I had no authority to remake the key or distribute them. After all, she argued, she was just a twenty-three year-old student teacher with no credential and had not even been hired or vetted by the district. But I told her that her desire to come to work on the Friday after Christmas was qualification enough. I tapped her shoulder and dubbed her a “real teacher” and then bestowed her very own copyroom key. Praise youth!
Today is Christmas! And Happy New Years! Something…something…something brings something cheer! Oh happy Christmas….I always forget the words to that song because we are not allowed to talk about Christmas at school. Why? Because Christmas is religion and religion is God and in the school there is no God. God is not allowed in school because God is anti education. God does not want you to learn things, especially scientific things but really anything other than his wish for you to praise him constantly, which is wrong. So sorry, God, but I’m going to have to send you home so that our children can learn!
Personally, I think God should be allowed to come to school because then He or She–we have to be careful today that we don’t assume that we live under the dominion of a male God…He could be a She or an It or a combination of the three…a Sheit…
But if God, whomever Sheit is, was allowed to come to school and learn about his creation, about Evolution and Chemistry and Math and, of course, poetry–where incidentally he would learn just how angry people are at him–he might improve himself.
Now some of you might be saying: How could God improve himself? He is a perfect being. He already know everything there is to know about Geography and Biology, and He or She can do an infinite number of pullups in PE. All true. But I for one would like to talk to God about some of the inconsistencies in his writing—some of the places where he says one thing and then a few pages later–says the complete opposite thing. Do the animals come to Noah two by two or seven by seven, for example? Frankly I find the whole seven story far-fetched, but that is exactly the kind of thing that we sort out in the rough draft.
School is not just for humans. God or Gods can make life better for humans and for themselves by updating their understanding of the world. That is why I strongly advocate for the presence of God in school.
It’s Christmas Eve, 2014. Today I’m not going to think about school. Instead I want to reflect on my year–the ups and downs, the magnificent achievements and dismal failures. On the magnificent achievement side I would have to count every day. Maybe I didn’t bring my A game every day, but I did bring heart and intention and compassion and high expectations! Every day I said to students: Currently you are down here, but in order for you to be successful you will need to be up here (standing on my tiptoes, raising my arms). Now jump! Jump over this bar!… And often times they would fail and perhaps if indeed I am honest with myself I should call these moments my failure. But I never dropped the bar. I just held it out of reach and barked: “Jump!…Jump!, you cur!” because sometimes you need to call children out on their failing behaviors. Looking back I can’t say that I had many kids jump over the bar–and that is probably because that when they got close to achieving their goal I would move it higher, away from them. But even if they never accomplished the ever-changing standard that I set for them, I know that my students experienced growth. They know what it feels like to fight through frustration and hopelessness to pursue an elusive, delusional dream. Merry Christmas, everyone!
It’s Christmas vacation and I have over 150 essays to grade. If I give each essay 5 minutes of my time that is more than 10 hours of work that I do not get paid to do. Of course I am a professional and I take my job very seriously so I have developed a formula for grading papers in less than 20 seconds. First I read the name, then I scan to see how long it is and that they have paragraphs. Done. I don’t need to read a word. That’s how good I am. You see, the trick is that the name tells you everything. If it is an A student, chances are they wrote an A paper. F students sometimes rally at the end so that is when I take the length and paragaphing into account. Now give me another glass of wine and turn on the football game!