What we discussed

My friend’s tweet caught my attention this morning as I stared down another school day: pictures of her students thinking and writing about the juxtaposition of the Queen’s funeral and Powley Day. She and her colleagues had worked together to devise a wonderfully thoughtful series of prompts about this, prompts designed to help them think about equity and Indigeneity and the importance of historical thinking. Their lesson went well; the students did some powerful learning. Even as I admired the elegance of the work, I felt a quick stab of jealousy, then a sense of deflation: I had failed to talk about either topic with my classes. Not only that, teachers had been explicitly told that we had to address both of them. One direction came from the Ministry of Education, requiring a moment of silence; the other from our school board, requiring sharing information about Powley Day.

I exhaled, warm breath across my hot tea, and wondered how I had missed this. Then I remembered. We hadn’t discussed any of this because my Monday morning class opened with a discussion of murder. There had been a fight – maybe gangs? – and a knife. Two people were badly injured; one person died. I say “people”, but my students said “kids” or “guys”. No one involved attended our school, but somehow many of the students in the classroom knew or knew of several of the young people involved in the fight. There was a video. They had seen it. The fight had taken place near-ish to the school. Some students had been near the fight. Someone’s family was close to the family of one of the kids involved. 

The details are all still  pretty confusing for me – after all, I learned about this at 9:30 on a Monday morning, and all of my information was coming from 14 year olds. Or, as one student piped up, “I’m still 13, Miss!” The conversation swerved through the classroom, pausing at stops I could have predicted – should we watch videos of someone’s death? – to stops that took my breath away – “If you’re in that sort of situation, don’t call the cops. They could say you were involved. Just get away.” Over and over I reminded students that we had time to talk, that we wouldn’t rush this, that they needed to listen to each other, slow down, take turns. One boy – Mr. 13 – said, “Wait! This is just like that book some of us are reading. ‘No snitching. Always get revenge.’” Heads nodded seriously: they didn’t need to have read the book; they know the rules. I made a mental note to get out more copies of Long Way Down (and sent another blessing in Jason Reynolds’ direction – that book. Just… wow.). Someone wondered how a kid not much older than them might end up killing someone. I brought up Romeo and Juliet – Tybalt, Mercutio, Romeo. Young men, hot tempers, knives… Someone had read that last year – yes, they said, yes, this has been happening for so long.

Slowly, slowly the conversation settled. Someone asked, almost plaintively, “but what are we supposed to do?” Someone else replied, “Make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Someone snorted, “Of course it will happen again.” Someone said softly, “Make sure it doesn’t happen to us.” Quiet descended. They looked at me.

And what could I say? Only the truth: “I don’t know what to do next.” I offered options. I suggested playing the same quiet reading music I play every day and, well, getting lost in another world. That’s what they chose. Books came out. No one fussed. One student, then another, called me over to say, “Miss, I have seen worse: or “Miss, in my country…” I heard stories that I will not share. They were reassuring themselves that things would be ok. Ten minutes passed and we all kept reading. Eventually I noticed people starting to shift their weight, and we went on with class. 

All day, each class wondered and worried about the fight, the boys involved, the police. All day, we created the calm we could. As the last bell rang, I knew I had done enough; we had found our way through. Monday was over. Tuesday would come.

So, no, we didn’t talk about the Queen or Powley Day – heck, my first period barely touched on any lesson I had planned. And I know that’s ok. And yet, I need to remind myself that social media – even that of people we admire wholeheartedly – can be insidious. I know this; we all know it. Next step: remember this lesson first thing on a Tuesday morning when Monday has been so hard.

First Impressions

What he likes best, my 12 year old, is comfortable clothes. What he likes are sweatpants and t-shirts, sneakers and worn socks. He likes things that are broken in, soft, slouchy. 

Because of this, he spent the summer showing more and more of his ankles as his legs grew and his pants didn’t. He spent the summer with gaping holes at his knees and growing holes in his t-shirts. He spent the summer in stained, ratty clothes – familiar and freeing.

But September loomed and the week before school started, his dad insisted on clothing culling. Both boys dragged clothes from various drawers and dark corners and piled them up in giant heaps in the middle of the floor. Sizes were checked. Those things that were barely holding together were consigned to the rag pile. Items that were still in good shape but nonetheless did not meet individual style standards – such as they are – were gifted to the neighbors’ kids. Everyone agreed that having pants with intact knees and shirts without stains was a desirable goal.

Or so we thought.

On the first day of school, Mr. 12 appeared in the kitchen wearing perfectly respectable sweatpants (if there is such a thing) and a beloved but besmirched t-shirt. I pointed out the stain and asked if he would change it, just to humour me. He agreed. Moments later he returned… wearing a shirt dotted with several small holes. I maintained my composure but suggested that this shirt, too, should be changed. Mr. 12 was less enthusiastic about my second request.

At this point, his dad, somewhat chagrined, I think, by the reappearance of these shirts that he had assured me were gone, chimed in. “Have you ever heard the saying ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’?” Mr. 12 had not, and he agreed to change one more time.

And that was the end of that. 

Just kidding.

The next day, I only got a passing glance at my child as I scrambled out the door on my own way to work. His dad didn’t look too carefully either. This explains why we only noticed his less-than-new shirt (ok, it had holes. again) after the school day was firmly over. I shook my head and started to explain our “your shirts shouldn’t have stains or holes” theory – the simple idea that seems to be anathema to him. He listened patiently, then shook his head with mock sadness. “It’s ok,” he reassured us. “After all, I can’t make a first impression twice.” He skipped away, laughing.

Since then I’ve gone back to letting him dress however he likes.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org who have created this community where teachers practice and share their writing. What a gift!