Teaching Outside the Lines

Somewhere along the way, I realized I taught kids, not curriculum, which means I’d be a square-peg in today’s Common Core round-hole.

The kids I taught were fondly known as Retreads, from having failed and retaken so many classes. I loved their energy and insights.  Most other English teachers were happy they didn’t have my classes, administrators were happy because they didn’t have to persuade said teachers to teach said classes, and I was happy because I was pretty much left alone.  

However, one afternoon as I was prepping for the following day, I got a call from the Vice Principal of Attendance and Discipline. She was on a first name basis with most of my students.

Glad I caught you.  Do you have a minute?  she inquired.

Sure.

Are you taking attendance in your Mass Media classes?

Of course I’m taking roll.

Mass Media was a favorite class, designed specifically for the Retreads.  I had taken one look at the curriculum, which was little more than Shut Up ‘n Color pablum, tossed it in the curricular file and asked the kids what they needed to learn.  They were 18 years old, hanging on to school by a thread and many already had their own personal Probation Officer. The kids knew full well what they needed in order to survive.

The class put together a list of life topics, which made it easy to develop an appropriate curriculum utilizing basic psychology and sociology as the doors through which the kids could improve their reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking skills.

That said, they wouldn’t have recognized a gerund, intransitive verb or denouement if one jumped up and bit them on the nose, much less known how any of them function in grammar or literature. These kids would not have done well with Common Core standards.

We opened with Relationships, not that I have even a marginal expertise in the subject (see Dating Category). The kids first read the original Cinderella, courtesy of the Brothers Grimm, in which each of the stepsisters cut off her toes and heel in order to squeeze her bloody, mutilated foot into the glass slipper.  I would not recommend that anyone read this particular version to princess-enthralled little girls.

The kids then compared and contrasted the Grimm version with the sanitized Disney Cinderella, and ended with watching the R-rated Pretty Woman.  I could have been fired for showing the movie, even though it seems pretty tame by today’s standards. Then again, I could have been fired more than once, so in the grand scope of things, it probably wasn’t that big of a deal.

The girls quickly figured out and shared what modern-day Cinderellas give up/cut off of themselves in order to catch their Prince Charmings while the boys were equally vocal in sharing what happens when they fall into the Princely trap of assuming responsibly for keeping his Princess happily ensconced on her pedestal.  It was an eye opener for both genders. One young woman sought help and got out of an abusive relationship after the unit was completed.

In another unit, the students researched gangs like the Mafia and KKK.  These kids were incredibly perceptive: leaders got power; followers got to contribute and have their contribution valued.  They observed that dynamic is also a definition of family, which every one of us needs regardless of how we define our family members. The kids concluded a person couldn’t successfully leave one family without first finding a replacement family. Sociologists would have been hard pressed to be as succinct and on point as these students.

The discussion grew into a lively, loud debate around local gangs, whether it was better to stay or leave, because anyone leaving would be killed.  They knew this for a fact; many had been born into multi-generational gangs. Two young men later returned to say goodbye to me. Each shared that he wanted a new life so had enlisted in the military, his new family, knowing there would be no return to the old family or old life.

But, back to attendance and the Vice Principal.  The morning after our phone chat, the kids were in small groups, discussing, debating and involved in the assignment at hand when one of the kids nudged me and nodded towards the door.

Ms. C. is here.

I turned to see the vice principal standing in the open doorway, just watching, so I walked over to greet her while the class continued their discussions.

Hi! Can I help you?  I asked.

They’re all here.  It was a statement and I didn’t know quite what to do with it.

Well, yes.  They’re supposed to be here.

No. She looked puzzled. They’re all here and they’re all working.

ah, yes. It’s class. What else would you expect?

She just looked at me.

No, you don’t understand. This is the only class they attend.

Metaphor Wars

Beyond having creative, innovative and somewhat endearing English teachers, our department was unique in that we were also very close friends. We loved the art of teaching and most of our students; we also loved to have fun both in and out of the classroom.

We taught Metaphors, a comparison between two non-alike things without using like or as (that’s a simile for those searching the deep dark recesses of your minds trying to find something that you learned in school and has absolutely no application to anything you’ve ever done in life unless, of course, you’re an English teacher or writer). 

The world is your oyster.

He drowned in a sea of grief.

It all started innocently enough in the English Office when we were helping one of the new teachers come up with unique examples of metaphors.  Someone offered the example of Ted and Jane being the black and white keys on the piano…different genders and ethnicities, but closely aligned in their lesson plans. 

It was probably the finest example, because, as it was Friday after a long week, the discussion quickly disintegrated into a one-up-man-ship of examples that could never in a thousand years be used in a classroom.

And thus began the rather infamous, if short lived, Metaphor Wars…

Monday, Suzanna tacked up a poster of a gas-masked soldier walking away from a building with toxic orange smoke billowing from it with the penned metaphor, the teacher who has bathroom duty this week

I should note Suzanna was well known for her ability to blush a deep red at any suggestive innuendo.  It was so bad that she kept a small paper fan on her desk because our office thrived on innuendos of all kinds.

brainTuesday, our colleague from the science department brought in his This is Your Brain poster. We all applauded his grasp of the metaphor.

Wednesday was a short column from the local paper… for every woman who doesn’t want to have sex with her husband because of a headache, there are two or more women with aspirin in their purses, and pictures of confident, sexy women with prominent purses.

Pictures and posters of metaphors began filling every possible space in the office. Who knew metaphors could be so much fun?

Thursday, Peggy walked into Suzanna’s room during a silent reading period, when everyone in the school was supposed to be reading.  She carried a small silver tray bearing a torn page from a magazine of an advertisement showcasing a man’s suited torso, a scantily dressed woman draped over his shoulder with one arm and very suggestively caressing his tie with her free hand. Next to the picture were two aspirin. Dianne followed, handing Suzanna her paper fan.

Every time Suzanna attempted to re-focus on her reading, she’d start laughing again, turn beet red and frantically fan herself. It was quite a sight to behold according to her students who had no idea what was going on except that it seemed to be far more entertaining than anything they were reading. 

Friday was as quiet as a Friday could be, other a rather large collection of men’s ties suddenly decorating the office.

The following Monday, there was a staff meeting after school and an unexpected guest presenter.  He was dressed in the typical professional attire, with the exception of a very large, very wide, extraordinarily ugly, bright green tie.  

The English Department, sitting together in the back of the room, immediately dissolved into a puddle of giggles before the poor man ever opened his mouth. We all looked at the floor, bit our lips and tried to suppress our laughter as tears streamed down our faces. It didn’t work. One of us would start giggling and the others couldn’t help but join in.

We couldn’t look up, we couldn’t look each other, we couldn’t look at the speaker, no doubt a very nice man who was speaking on a topic that none of us can remember.

But we all remember his tie.

The English Teacher

English teachers get a bad rap.  

When I meet someone for the first time, they usually cringe upon learning I had been an English teacher.  This especially happens with men on first dates. 

The general public consensus, with a few exceptions, seems to place English teachers in the first cousin category to the caricature of librarians…that we are rigid, have dull grey hair pulled back into severe buns, dress in frumpy clothes, carry red pens and rulers, re-read Jane Eyre every year and wear glasses.

Theteach glasses part may be true, a casualty of reading far too many essays every week.

I know a few — very few — English teachers who actually do re-read Moby Dick and Jane every summer break. I have no idea why. 

But the rest is simply not true.  Ask any principal.  It’s typically the English Department that gives administrators the most headaches, second only to coaches but they’re a breed apart from classroom teachers and don’t count.

Of course, English teachers are also the most innovative, the most creative and the most endearing of all teachers. That last descriptor was provided by English teachers.

I’ll share an example that was repeated over and over and over again.

I used to train schools all over the nation in emergency responses to a man made or natural crisis, often to an active shooter.  In that case, I always had a local police chief or subordinate there to answer questions and nod his head approvingly, which I knew he would do because (a) he had approved the training, (b) he was scripted and (c) he knew I’d do him great bodily harm with my red pen if he went off script.

Typically, a district would pull as many teachers, classified personnel and administrators as possible into a gym or theater. There could be fifty or a couple thousand in the audience. The superintendent would then cross his or her fingers, say a prayer and, relinquishing all control, turn things over to us for an hour.

It was critical to break up the rather intense training with humor in order to bring down the anxiety, so we had funny tidbits seeded throughout the presentation.

The final component was on evacuation and pat downs, a touchy subject for teachers worrying about kids being patted down.  If necessary, law enforcement does pat down everyone being evacuated in order to ensure that the evacuation area is secure and weapon-free.

I’d tell the true story of our first active shooter simulation, when 600 students, teachers, classified and administration were evacuated and everyone got patted down. 

The kids were all interviewed as part of the assessment. They all reported that the pat down was simply not an issue; the officers were all professional and courteous.

We did, however, receive numerous complaints from female teachers who thought the pat down could have been much more thorough…

(pause for nervous laughter and side glances of did she really say what I think she just said?)

…primarily from the English Department.

At which point, the entire room would break into wild laughter and applause, knowing full well that it was the absolute truth. We could always count on at least a couple female English teachers jumping up and doing a little oh yeah, baby, come and pat me down!! dance.

I rest my case.

The Cowboy and the Gun

His name has long left me, but I can still see him in my mind’s eye and occasionally wonder what became of him.

He was tall and skinny, a lanky cowboy in an upscale suburban school in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. Dark reddish-brown curly hair, freckles and dressed in a Johnny Cash style of black tee-shirts and jeans, he didn’t interact with the other students, all sophomores, most of whom were very talkative and social.  I suspected he floated on the fringes of high school life.

What I did notice was that he slouched in his desk towards the back of a college prep English class and did minimal, if any, work.  I tried to engage him, I spoke with him after class to see what he needed, what we could do to move the grade out of the D-/F range.  He wasn’t going to move.

Day after day, we engaged in a predictable struggle.  I’d try to draw him out; he’d resist. Occasionally, I’d get a weak smile.  As a novice teacher, I was at a loss as to what more to do.

One day when I had a few minutes, I walked down to the Women’s Dean and asked if she had a moment.

Absolutely.  What do you need?

I described my young man and my concerns regarding his grade and attitude.  She shrugged. She had been an English teacher for many years, so this was not completely out of her realm.  There were no words of wisdom other than to continue doing what I had been doing. 

It was the Keep Hitting Your Head Against the Brick Wall Solution.

A few weeks later, on one of those overcast days, the class was in the midst of a lively discussion about an assigned chapter of a novel, when there was a movement immediately followed by a series of gasps coming from the back of the room.

All eyes were turning towards our cowboy and desks were starting to inch away from him.

He has a gun.

I steadied myself.  Teacher training had not addressed this issue.  There were 35 kids in the class, give or take, and I had two of my own at home.

Probably like a fool, or maybe just like a mother or teacher, I walked back to his desk with measured steps, a composed demeanor  — certainly not disclosing that I was frantically trying to find a possible option, any possible option, filed somewhere in my brain…

Give me the gun. Probably not the best plan, but it was all I had.

I looked at him. He looked at me. Our eyes locked.

I was still holding the open novel in my left hand so I extended my right hand, palm up.

I. Mean. It.   Hand. Me. The. Gun. Now.

I used my best stern I. Have. Had. It. Voice that mothers use when They. Have. Had. It.

He handed me the gun and we all began breathing again.

Let’s go. Let’s get you some help.

The rest of my students sat frozen at their desks, silently staring at their closed books. 

The two of us walked out of the room, my right hand on the cowboy’s arm while the other gingerly held the gun by the handle with my index finger and thumb, barrel down, out in front of me. Any idiot could have grabbed the weapon as we walked across the campus to the Men’s Dean.

I later learned the gun was loaded.  It was then that everything became far too real.

My student was depressed, like an estimated 20% of all students. And, like most teenagers, he didn’t have the life tools to seek help or to even know that he was depressed.  I had spotted the signs, and 30 years too late, knew exactly what they meant.

But even  if I had recognized the signs, services to address these issues were not found, are still not found, at most schools. I know I’m not the only teacher who has faced a loaded gun held by a depressed student.  In a recent national survey, 20% of high school students thought about committing suicide and 8% had attempted to kill themselves.

School guidance counselors are not trained mental health professionals. Counties and agencies funded by public monies typically see only Medi-Cal eligible clients, even though depression and suicide are not limited to those living below the poverty line.

There is still little if any professional help available in schools where kids can be referred or access services on their own. Despite the suicides, despite the school shootings, most schools and counties still can’t figure out how to get minimal professional mental health services to all kids in all public schools.

Instead of saying we can’t, perhaps it is way past time that we start saying we must when it comes to getting kids the mental health help they need.

White Wine and Hot Tubs

It was 1990 in Pennsylvania, certainly not the 1950’s and certainly not the deep South. My soon-to-be-ex had been transferred to a suburb outside Philadelphia, and I took a leave from my teaching job in California to follow him, except he was traveling most of the time so I was pretty much alone.

At the time — before internet, if one could even remember those olden times — California could just as easily have been a foreign country floating somewhere in the Pacific. I felt completely cut off, except for AT&T phone lines.

Desperate, I signed up for substitute teaching positions, but, alas, there were no jobs to be had, until one dreary, rainy day when a call finally came.  I must have driven a good hour to a high school in a small, rural community.

The principal came out to greet me which was a bit unexpected, but then, I wasn’t familiar with rural Pennsylvania norms.  He was tall and probably in his early 40’s. He asked about my experience and said that the schedule was pretty standard, except for the period around lunch.  It was a split period, with half before lunch and half after.  And, he warned me, it was a very difficult reading class.

Not to worry.  I’ve taught reading to high school students.  I’m sure it will be fine.

You are from California, right?

Yes, sir.

He visibly grimaced.

The first two classes were a breeze, primarily college bound students.  I was used to suburban California schools, with classes filled with young black, brown and white faces; these classes were filled with pale white faces and blonde hair. Brunch bell rang and the principal was waiting for me as I locked the door.

How did it go?

It went well. The kids are wonderful and the lesson plans were extremely clear.  You’re very fortunate to have such great kids and teachers.

He nodded, then hedged. Ah, I have a concern.

I waited.

Well, lunch will be in a another period and a half.

Yes, thank you.

And, I know you’re from California.

Yes.

And, hmmmm, well, California teachers are pretty liberal.

I had no idea where this was heading, but my intuition told me it wasn’t good.

Not everyone is a liberal. 

Well, ah, that’s good. I understand. But, we have heard ah, we know that you California teachers, hmmm, use the lunch break,  hummmm, for hot tubs and drinking white wine.

His un-asked question hung in the air.

I don’t know what I was thinking.  I wasn’t thinking.  My only excuse was that I was in high school teacher mode, where quick, snappy somewhat wise-assed comebacks are a staple in surviving teenagers and, so I immediately responded.

Oh no, that’s only in Marin County, not all of California.

With that, I no doubt sealed the doom of any teacher from Marin County California from ever getting a teaching job in Pennsylvania and for that I want to offer my deepest, sincerest apologies.

The principal looked visibly relieved.

Well, then good luck with the upcoming reading class. It’s mainly gang members.

oh.

The reading class had all of twelve students.  Only six, all black, made the first half of the class before lunch.  I’ve taught gang kids, and believe me, these students were young kids and no more gang members than my own two children who were students at UC Berkeley.

I looked at the lesson plan which was a quick drill ‘n kill assignment. For an hour class, it seemed very skimpy.

How long will it take you to get through this?  Kids can be notoriously honest.

About 10 minutes.

Great. Can you do it and then we’ll do something more interesting?

Yep!

We had gotten well into Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool when the lunch bell rang.  The kids all wanted to stay and keep on going.

No. I need to eat. So do you. See you in thirty.

The principal was standing outside the room

Was that the lesson plan?

No. They finished the assignment, so I’m filling the hour with poetry.

hmmmm.

After lunch, the rest of the class showed up as well, so I had full contingent of twelve kids.  Evidently word had spread that I was okay. And, to answer your question, yes, all black students.

We finished Brooks and continued with Harlem, by Langston Hughes.  When the class period ended, the kids exited, excited and still debating the poem.

Remedial Reading and gang members, my foot.

It was the only time I was asked to sub in Pennsylvania.

The Raging Inferno

I was a second year teacher, marginally seasoned in life, but certainly not the classroom.

But I knew, just as any seasoned teacher knows, the class right after lunch can be difficult.  Sugar highs. I had 20 squirrely freshman, which made it all the more challenging, in a low-level reading class.  Somehow these kids had managed to get through eight years of school without ever having learned to read. That aside, we were a couple months into the first semester and had fallen into nice routine with the students feeling good about their progress.

Lunch had ended, the final bell sounded and my students were settling in their desks when there was an enormous roar of an engine outside the room.  The door opened and, as we all watched dumbfounded, the doorway darkened.

There was a motorcycle, a massive Harley-type cycle, entering the room, being pushed by a mountain of a young man. He had long black hair pulled back away from his face, dark eyes and probably weighed a few hundred pounds. 

He parked the cycle inside the entrance of the room, grinned broadly and sauntered towards me with a new student ticket clutched in his fist.

My freshman students dove under their desks.

The teacher next door came out of her classroom, looked in and mouthed you ok? I nodded yes, knowing she had 35 students waiting for her, but not really knowing if things were actually okay.

The mountain approached me, holding out the entry ticket.

You’re a student?

Yep, just out of juvie.

uh huh. Your bike?

Yep.

It’s very nice. Think you could park it outside?

He grinned and pushed the cycle outside of the room.

His name was Masou and, early on, he decided he liked my class because I didn’t hassle him.  Of course, he was always on time, did his work and was pleasant. There was no reason to hassle him.

He and the bike would be at the door waiting for lunch to end and the class to begin, while the freshman cowered behind.

In time, I realized I was no longer having to discipline the freshmen; if anyone acted out, as they were apt to do given their age, the class period and the sugar, Masou would simply turn and glare at the offender who would then hide under the desk.  I grew increasingly fond of Masou.

Slowly, his life story emerged in bits and pieces.  Life stories of each of the students tend to come out, especially in English classes and especially if you listen. Some of them can break your heart; Masou’s touched mine.

He was Native American, with a mom and stepdad.  Stepdad was an alcoholic and beat his stepson until Masou got large enough to return the beating, which ultimately led to more fights and Juvenile Hall. 

Despite everything, Masou had the Native American connection with the earth, her spirit and all growing things. Whenever he spoke or wrote of the environment, it was with a profound sense of awe and reverence that few people will ever experience.

Then, before we knew it, it was the Christmas holidays and we all wished each other well and left on break. Masou never returned.

A few years later, a small fire started in the mountains surrounding our valley and quickly grew into a raging inferno that forced the evacuation of 4,500 people from 2,500 homes.  The thick black smoke blanketed the valley for the better part of a week while evacuees huddled and worried over their homes and belongings. The rest of us watched in horror as the fire consumed the mountains that we loved and had mostly taken for granted.

The fire caused over $7 million in damage, destroyed 42 homes and charred some 14,000 acres. The inferno left the mountains scarred for a decade or more.

The local news announced that a suspect had been arrested in connection with the fire but released for lack of evidence.  It was Masou. I didn’t hear of anyone else ever being charged with the crime.

I had such a overwhelming sense of sadness that a young man who had such an connection with nature could have ever been filled with so much rage that he’d turn on her, if indeed it was him. I hoped it wasn’t him.

I also wondered what we could have done at the school to have averted this tragedy and the subsequent scarring of the environment, the homeowners, the greater community and even the person who set the fire. Whether police arrested the right person or not, it was obvious Masou needed help far beyond what a teacher could provide. It was also obvious we had no services to which to refer him.

Here we were, in a relatively affluent area and without readily accessible resources for kids. It wasn’t a priority. It was too expensive. That was over 40 years ago. I wish I could say things have changed.

They haven’t.