What’s best

She waits after class until everyone is gone, even rolling her eyes at a friend who normally stays pretty close. “I’ll be right there,” she says, languidly lifting her fingers to shoo the other girl away.

Now it’s quiet in the aftermath of the chaotic class period. She dips her head downward, avoiding eye contact. “What is it, Chrissy*?” I ask and then I wait while she finds her voice.

“Is it really ok with you if I sleep in class?” she whispers.

My heart breaks a little. She has been sleeping through large parts of English class for the past two weeks. Not every day, but many. Dark circles linger under her eyes. I know, more or less, what’s happening, and I know she needs the sleep. In my experience, very few students sleep in class when everything is going well, so I’ve already asked her if she wants me to wake her or let her sleep when she nods off. She chose sleep, mostly. But here she is.

I pause, wondering what she is really asking. Is she realizing that the lesson goes on while she sleeps? Is she starting to be aware of what the other students must think? My guess is that she’s all too familiar with those two things. Ah…maybe she’s asking if we’re still ok, if I can still care for this animal part of her.

“Listen,” I say, “I am here to help you be the very best Chrissy that you can be. Some days, that means you need sleep; some days, that means you need to be awake for class. We can work together to figure out when you need what.”

She looks relieved? doubtful? wary?

“You think my job is to teach English.” She nods. “I think my job is to teach you, the whole you. And sometimes you need to sleep.”

“Really?” she asks, wonderingly.

“The whole Chrissy,” I respond and she smiles.

Is this the right decision? I don’t know. She needs to grow into the strong woman she is meant to become. To do that, she needs to read and write and learn. She needs vocabulary to express herself and knowledge to help her make sense of the world. But there’s no growth without sleep and there’s no sleep where she’s staying right now.

“We’ve got this,” I tell her. She wiggles her fingers at me as she heads out the door to join her friend

* Not her real name

I call four homes tonight. Four times I report that their student has lied, has broken the rules, has been rude. With each phone call, with each parent, I talk about wanting to support their child, wanting them to do well. With each phone call, the parents worry:
“My child’s grades have gone down and I don’t know why.”
“Do you think he is spending time with the wrong people?”
“He just doesn’t understand how hard it will be to go to university.”
“I am afraid he has forgotten all the work we did to make his life better.”

My heart breaks a little.

I try to allow each conversation its own space; I try to tell each parent something good about their child; nevertheless, I am calling because I am angry about the lies, angry about the behaviour. I tell the parents, tell myself, that I am calling because I want what is best for each child – I want them to learn more, to engage, to do better – but as I hang up after the last call, I wonder if I have made the right decision. I don’t know. They need to grow into the strong people they are meant to become. To do that, they need to learn. They need to listen to voices that are not their own and find ways to speak truth, not lies, to power. But there’s little growth in anger and they are angry right now.

In fact, one student emails, furious, before bed. They’re probably all mad, but he’s the only one who has written. Yet. My response is fact-based and terse. Yes, I do believe that he lied. Yes, his father did ask about his cell phone in class and no, he’s not managing it well. Or at all, really. I end with a stereotypical teacher phrase: “We will talk about this tomorrow.” I do not try to tell him that I want what is best for him. I’m not sure I know what that is.

Just add salsa

I was still grumpy from school nonsense when I got home. Since the time changed this weekend, I’ve been walking in the mornings, but my husband took one look at me and suggested I should maybe take an evening walk, too. I declined. He backed out of the kitchen, supposedly to go finish some work.

I stewed.
I scrolled.
I texted.
I muttered.

Finally, I had to admit that none of this was making me feel any better at all. And since I was filling the kitchen with my frustration, no one was making dinner, either. Even Mr. 11 – hungry, as ever, 20 minutes before dinner time – had abandoned the space when I glared and said he could not have a snack. Harumph.

At least if I was alone in the kitchen, I could play my own music. My finger hovered over my list – this was not the moment to let some app determine what I needed to hear – and I landed on Dream in Blue by Los Lobos. I heated water for the pasta and smiled at the thought of Patrick – his horror at my unformed musical taste; his insistence that I listen to, well, everything; his eclectic music the soundtrack to our relationship and the fun we had while it lasted and we listened. 

By now I was reheating the chili and cutting the bread. When the song ended, I didn’t hesitate: very sharp knife in hand, I found Carlos Vives and cranked the volume on Pa Mayte. Ah… My feet started moving, then my hips, and despite the fact that I was in the kitchen making dinner for my family, despite the fact that I will turn 50 in two short weeks, I was back in Chief Ike’s Mambo Room with Linda, sweaty and happy as we danced with whichever partner was nearby, danced after-hours until we were so tired that only their hands and the music held us up. I was at the Gipsy Kings concert dancing on the lawn and I was in Belize, with Amy and Janny and no, I don’t remember how we ended up at the club, but oh, we danced until our feet hurt and we took our shoes off and danced barefoot and then…

Well, then the pasta was done and the chili was warm. Andre came in and turned down the volume because he needed to tell me something. The kids tumbled in and we sat for dinner. And it was good, life was good, life is good.

(especially if you can fit in a little salsa)

The privilege of support

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about kids and classroom behaviour. The same week that I wrote it, the same week that I laughingly remembered some of the things my friends and I got up to in 8th grade, the same week that I blithely assumed that my long-ago teachers “didn’t write Michelle off or worry that she would turn out to be a bad one” – implying, of course, that they didn’t write off any of us – that very same week, Matthew Morris wrote something very different in his post What My Teachers Were Saying About Me

Matthew, a Black male educator in an elementary school in Toronto, wonders what his teachers were saying about him and his friends back when they were in school, in part because he hears what other teachers are saying *right now* about the students in front of them. And the conversations he overhears – “(that boy) is gonna’ end up in jail. Kid just doesn’t know how to get out of his own way” or “(that girl)  is going to end up pregnant by 16, watch” – are not the ones that I was imagining in my post.

As I read his post, my heart sank: no matter how many times I encounter it, I am always shocked when I find another way I experience privilege. I never – never – wondered if my teachers said bad things about me. I mean, maybe they got annoyed with me or kids like me, but I don’t think a single one of my teachers ever sat in a staff room and  predicted a negative life outcome for me. Nor did they think that any of my friends – no matter how outrageous – were going to end up pregnant at 16 or in jail. Now, I should be clear that there were no Black students in our magnet program in suburban South Carolina. We were smart wealthy white kids. We were going places. 

Never mind the fact – the FACT – that a boy in the class above me, a nice smart rich white boy, actually *did* end up in jail while we were still in high school. Never mind the fact that I know of at least two girls who *did* end up pregnant while we were still in high school – and I’d bet there were more.

What does it mean to live in a world where you have every reason to suspect that the people who educate you, who are supposed to be helping you create pathways to your future, also think that you are likely to go nowhere? What does it mean to live, instead, in a world where even your bad behaviour is written off as youthful indiscretions? What does it mean that the colour of a child’s skin might be -no, is –  the difference between these two things?

A few years ago I attended a conference that brought together teachers, support workers, and school resource officers – a community of support. One of the keynote speakers that year was a police chief from the States who had transformed the way her department dealt with kids whose parents were involved with drugs, many of whom were Black children. She told a “before story about an officer at a drug bust handing a baby over to a social worker and saying, “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you in about 16 years.” The social worker nodded in resignation. A baby. A BABY. The very people who were supposed to be protecting this child had already decided their life’s outcome. And statistically, they weren’t wrong.

I cried after her talk, but the future chief didn’t bother with crying. She got to work and changed the way the community handled these children. She made sure that children’s futures were not about their skin colour or their parents’ faults. She created a community of support, looked at the systemic problems and made changes.

I’ve been thinking about Matthew’s post for a week now, and I’ve been thinking about that police officer. I’ve been thinking about what my teachers said about me and what Matthew’s teachers said about him. I’ve been thinking an awful lot about what I hear other teachers saying as well as what I say or believe about the children in my classroom and in all the classrooms in the school.

I think it’s time for me to be 100% sure that my students know how much I believe in them. In twenty years when they look back at their schooling, I hope their memories are like mine – full of the certainty that the adults in the school buoyed them up, even behind closed doors – and not like Matthew’s. Every child should be lifted by the adults around them. That should not be a privilege but a given.

PS – You should follow Matthew. His voice is powerful. https://www.matthewrmorris.com/