Thursday, December 10, 2015

Merry Christmas...or not

I wish I was a mind reader.  Then I might really know what to do here.  I’m in over my head.

I’ve spent my professional career as an educator at Title I schools.  Title I means that a big chunk of the population we serve has high needs in critical areas—our students may lack basic necessities like adequate food, shelter, support.  

For twenty-five years, I’ve served children on antiquated campuses as well as kids romping around brand new school yards.  I’ve taught school in Georgia, Germany, Indiana, Florida, Texas, and California.  I’ve worked with little ones and big ones, of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and exceptionalities, not unlike most educators I know.

Children have surrounded me in classrooms equipped with every tool and with no tools. I think I can reach and teach anywhere.  My own children will tell you that I teach even when my pupils don’t want to be taught.  But this year…oh this year.

I’m posted on a campus that is distinguished by labels that we don’t like—100% free and reduced lunch; 100% poverty; “academically unacceptable”; in “academic recovery” …labels that say very little about what’s going on behind each classroom door. 

I’m surrounded by committed teachers as well as newbies.  This is the first year for most of us to serve on this campus.  And we’re all in over our heads. We were all placed here for a reason. I was posted here to see if maybe a robust library program could impact learning, along with many other initiatives. Everyone’s working hard, staying late, striving to set up “rigorous learning” opportunities that will help us make the mark.

The jury’s still out on how we’re doing.

The decision about “what works” is still hanging in the balance and will swing like a pendulum until state testing is complete later this spring.  Then maybe some of the labels will come off.

But despite my years of teaching experience, I’m still learning.  As it turns out, I’m still na├»ve about what poverty means. 

Many of our students are part of a silent neighborhood.

They live in “have not” homes or neighborhoods, silently going without.  I don’t want to disregard those families that are making ends meet. Some kids are just fine; their parents and extended families are providing all they can.  But it’s the “have nots” that keep us awake at night. 

Backpacks of food are sent home several times a month with five year olds or ten year olds, whoever needs the help–just to insure there’s food at the house when they’re not at school. Clothing is provided as needed.  Eye exams are conducted and new glasses show up on faces ready to learn. Paper, pencils, notebooks, shoes...all free as needed. 

And yet.

And yet. 

These kids need something that money can’t actually buy.

Stability.  Security.  Hope. 

Day after day, I’ll prepare to teach and start a lesson focused on my objectives.  In my mind, I'm running down the checklist of the many things I want to teach.  Language arts.  Digital literacy. Databases and information power kind of stuff.  21st Century learner sorts of things. 

But over and over I get stopped in my tracks.  By children who can’t read because no one’s home or literate enough to help them practice.  By kids who have grown lethargic about their own success. By children who are so new to this country that they've yet to assimilate one language, much less two. 

With the countdown for Christmas beating like a drum, I hear from children with wish lists that bear no resemblance to those of my grandchildren…kids who want one thing, or two, knowing that neither item will probably show up on Christmas morning or any other day. 

I get by kids who say things like, “I get to see my dad in prison on Christmas Eve…” and behind those eyes that sparkle there’s a pain, a pain that I can hardly comprehend. 

Today a nine-year old wrapped up two paper bookmarks we gave him and tucked them in his pocket—Christmas presents for his “granny” when she gets out of jail. 

A fourth grader asks me, “Did you read my essay?  It’s about my sister.  She’s an angel now.” 

A fifth grader has given up trying to get to school most days.  It's hard to comprehend if he's lazy or hopeless. 

A kindergartener hangs on my every word, like I'm magic because I've told her I like her dress.

This one needs a tissue; that one needs breakfast;  another just wants to be seen and will act out every which way to get attention, uncaring of whether it's positive or negative. 

I don’t know what to do here.  I’m in over my head.  

I hug them.  I welcome them. I hold them and high five them.  I tell them to work hard.  I say that words will make them strong and powerful.  Is it lip service?  Is what we’re doing making any difference? Do I need to say, “Be tough.  Get over it. Do the work?”

Feeling sorry for these kids will get them nowhere.  What’s the proverb-give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day;  teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime?  But is it fair to expect kids to fathom such wisdom?  We’ve colluded to give our kids the fish and teach them how at the same time.  While we try to prevent an “entitlement” mentality, isn’t every child entitled to warm clothes, food, a fish?  

At the end of the day, I feel like an alien in this environment.

I work with children whose life stories are foreign to me.  They deal with issues that are completely out of my control.  

When I say goodbye at the end of the day, I can think of very little to say.

“See you tomorrow!”

“Read a book!”

"Be safe!"

But the truth is, most of the time, I am at a loss for words. 

When a teacher told me her students cried at dismissal before Thanksgiving break and I asked her why, she said they told her, “We don’t want to go home. We want to be with you.”   

I find myself picking up my jaw and closing my mouth nearly every day.  I read them fairy tales, yet the stories I hear are far from it. 

For Christmas, I’d like these children to live the fairy tale.  I’d like them to peer out their frosty windows, gazing at bright stars in the night sky.  I want them to hear jingle bells and sleigh bells.  I'd like them to be awed by the straw in the manger.  Shepherds keeping watch. Wise men on the way. I want them to wait on Rudolph and all his four-legged friends to land on their rooftops.  I long for them to have a pitcher of milk and cookies all ready for the big jolly guy to skinny down their chimneys.  I'd like them to rise from cozy beds on Christmas morning, to find an overstuffed stocking and an obnoxious pile of toys, regardless of where they land on the naughty or nice lists.

A fairy tale merry Christmas.  I’d love that. 

I'd ask the big guy if he could also throw in a return of innocence.  No lack.  Just love. 

But I know, I'm in over my head.

I want so much more for them than what Santa can provide.