First Day of School Eve

I’ve been anticipating tomorrow for weeks now; I’ve had that sour porridge of dread and exhilaration churning in my gut since July ended. At 7:30 tomorrow morning, kids will be eating breakfast in the cafeteria, their backpacks smudging the waxed tile floors. Everything that the kids bring to the table, the mischief and brilliance and voltage and personality that I’ve been missing all summer will be back, and with it will come heedless cruelty, angst and funky smells (Simmons says that on stormy days, ninth graders smell like wet dogs) not to mention my own sleepless nights and daily failures.

The dread was at its most ferocious on Wednesday. The high school had professional development all afternoon, and a former colleague was leading the session.  It was an awesome session, but it knocked the breath out of me for a minute. “Think of what you most like to teach – that lesson that gets you most fired up, every year,” he said and I drew a complete blank. I love kids, and on good days, I love teaching, but I don’t love my content. I’m a math teacher by happenstance. “I’ll give you a little longer to think about that. Think about what fires you up about that objective. Why do you love it?” My mind was like a clear blue sky. “We all love what we do, that’s why we’re in this room: we want to give what we love to kids! If you can’t come up with something, get out of my profession.”

All the air came whooshing out of my lungs and I felt like crying. It was intended as a reminder that we got into this because we’re passionate about education, but for me it was a reminder that I’ll never be an exceptional math teacher because I will never be able to teach math from the heart. My placement in math was an arbitrary decision that some TFA person in an office somewhere made nearly three years ago. The consequences of that decision are shaping the rest of my life, and I’m sick with frustration over it. Math is the most sterile subject that we teach in school: there’s little art in it at the high school level, and it’s hard to create a math project that is aligned to the curriculum and has a practical application or a community impact. I asked to move, at least for a part of each day, into a different discipline for this school year, but with the major changes our district has gone through this summer, no one has gotten what they wanted.

The school isn’t putting its best foot forward this fall: teachers still don’t have rosters for tomorrow, and the schedule isn’t finalized yet. Our building, which held four grades last year and felt full, will now host six grades. My 18 crappy old desks were replaced with 29 nice new ones the other day. The electives have been moved into trailers. Somehow, though, I’ve let it all go for this evening. It was a great day, and I have never been so prepared for a Monday. Here’s a Ta-Da! list, which is the opposite of a To Do list, in terms of both its meaning and the feeling that it elicits in my breast.

Ta-Da!

  • We did tons of laundry today, and innovated by drying hanger clothes on the hanger. This saved space on the line, clothespins, and work on the tail end of laundrytime!
  • I made four little jars of pesto and stuck them in the freezer
  • Sean made a week’s worth of curry for lunches with our amazing homegrown lemongrass and thai basil.
  • We picked another batch of paste tomatoes
  • We ran three miles before breakfast
  • I made a gallon of dish soap, which should last us months.
  • We ordered Red Ranger chicks and arranged to sell some chickens to our friends in town. Super exciting!
  • I created a class jobs system
  • I finished setting up my classroom (this counts because it was after midnight last night before we left the school, right?)
  • Sean made a cheeseless pizza with arugula, prosciutto, and homegrown tomatoes that was to die for.
  • Lesson plans were completed by all.
  • Sean planted greens in the lower garden.
  • We both did countless small things for school. Really and truly countless.
  • We left the house clean. This never ever happens!

There’s an agitated part of me that thinks it’s all futile: there’s no front-end work that can make a whole year of school go smoothly. Preparing completely for just one week is an impossibility. There’s a different part of me that’s completely at ease tonight: There is simply nothing more that we can do before school starts except get in the car and crank up the radio for the sunrise drive to Palestine.

That’s where the exhilaration comes in: when you’re whipping up a two-lane highway through fields of cotton, screaming some silly pop country song at the top of your lungs, trying to chase the anvil-weight of nine months of responsibility off of your ribcage and out the window, and dancing like a fool in the driver’s seat where no one but the rising sun can see you. The exhilaration comes when you’re listening to another boring (sometimes alarming) professional development presentation (“You’ve got to crack down on them. When they graduate from here, they’re gonna at least know their manners. Doesn’t matter if they can read or write as long as they say ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ and know not to wear their hat in the house. That’s what will set them apart”) and you’re working on your syllabus and laughing at your own corny joke of putting a thinking cap on the supply list (not that I’d allow any sort of cap in the schoolhouse, no sir!). I get a rush when I think about learning the names on my roster (which will exist someday) and letting myself be smitten with a new group of kids.

Tonight I bid the summer adieu, but I’m welcoming with open arms another opportunity to fall ass over teakettle for a crop of quirky, sensitive, ruthless, ingenuous, imaginative, terrified kids. I’ll love them even on rainy days.

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Snakes, induction, pool parties, and free time (?!)

Sean and I got down to business when we got home last Tuesday. We loaded up the truck with the tables and the propane cooker that we’d borrowed for the barbeque and bumped down the road to Danny’s. I was reading this amazing book, Code Name Verity, so I didn’t look up until Sean said “whoah…” and stopped the truck. There was a snake, sunning itself in the middle of the driveway, perfectly still. It was a rattlesnake, at least four feet long and easily as big around as my forearm. Whoah.
We edged around it warily, and I placed my body between Sean and the snake, which never moved a centimeter. Its stillness gave me the heebie jeebies. We knocked on the door and Sean informed Danny that his “pet was loose in the driveway.” Danny looked out from the top step and went goggle-eyed; He does this very well – our neighbors are all good at theatrics and story-telling. He went into the house and came out with Nancy and a flat hoe, then walked right up to that rattler in his house-slippers. “Be careful baby,” said a worried Nancy, then to Sean and me, “the logging up behind Catherine’s place is driving them out of the woods. We’ve never seen one on this property before, but they’re on the move now. Loggers killed a six footer with 18 rattles just the other day. Wish they hadn’t killed it, they’re endangered.” Danny had reached the snake by now and was using the hoe to prod it. It set up a rattle, which is more like a buzz, and rose up, ready to strike. Danny held his ground and then actually scooped the snake up on the hoe and threw it a few feet off into the grass. He followed it and repeated the performance. It never stopped buzzing, but Danny was slowly able to harry it until it was well into the treeline.
Sean, Nancy and I let out our breath with a whoosh and Sean and I hopped into the truck to meet Danny down at the shop to unload the tables and cooker. We were all a little unsettled and I looked down at the ground before I stepped out of the truck, unreasonably afraid of running across another snake, this time by surprise. Of course there was nothing there, and I laughed at myself as I stepped out of the truck, reached into the back and pulled out the stand for the cooker. Sean and Danny were leaning against the tailgate, talking about snakes. I walked a few steps into the shop and just about set it down right on top of a copperhead. I noticed just in time and pulled back. “speaking of snakes,” I said, and gestured. Danny turned and there it was, not two feet away from him. “Keely!” he hollered, “My God! He has got to go. He was inside the shop! My God! How did he get in here!” The snake was gorgeous: its hide was a polished copper with deep chocolate patterns. It was coiled up, probably hunkered down for the night, and it never moved until Danny grabbed a long handled tool with a blade and smashed its head. It thrashed a bit, and Danny flung it off into the grass outside the shop. “You’re not gonna skin it, Keely?” Sean said with a shudder. I shrugged. “You want it?” asked Danny, and I nodded “why not? I’ll skin it and practice on it, just like with my raccoon.” Danny gave a laugh but beheaded it for me and I placed it in a bag and chucked it in the truck.

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Snakes are weird. They have a musky smell to them that lingers on your hands. I pulled the snake out of the bag when we got home and started trying to skin it. Sometimes, when I would trigger something just right, it would thrash or make a slow slithering glide. It seemed alive, even without its head. Sean couldn’t be in the room with me while I did it. I made a long cut down the belly and once I got it started, the skin pulled off like a banana peel, but all in once piece. It was easier than skinning a raccoon or a pig and took maybe ten minutes. The skinned snake was gray and strange. I bagged it back up and threw it away, disconcerted on an animal level. The skin I laid out, scaly-side down, on the same pallet as my coon skin. Sean helped me flatten it with some window-screen and then staple the screen down to the board so that there wouldn’t be holes in my snake-skin. It’s drying now, though nothing’s really drying in this humidity. I’m going to try making some bracelets out of the hide.

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Last Wednesday was my official last day of school, though it was our third day without kids. We teachers spent most of the week doing nitpicky things in our classrooms and gossiping anxiously about the big changes that our district is going through: TFA is not placing in our district for reasons that I wholly support, but the news came late and we have a lot of positions to fill; in addition to that pressure, we’re moving the 7th and 8th grades up to the high school campus. We don’t have enough classrooms, so some teachers will be in portables. We’ll be offering fewer electives and some of us may have to teach more subjects. It’s not a comfortable change, and transparency isn’t one of our superintendent’s professional values.

Interjection: It is broad daylight and I’m hearing coyotes outside. This is extremely unusual and a little nervewracking.

Wednesday evening, Sean and I went to Memphis for dinner and I was able to check out the book Rose Under Fire which is the companion to the book I had just finished. A librarian had to bend the rules for me to make it happen, since the book had not yet been processed since its return, but I charmed her with my enthusiasm/desperation. Her willingness to help me reaffirmed every good thing I’ve ever believed about librarians. I gladly spent $50 for another year’s membership with the Memphis library. Every time I go through the doors to that place I have to fight back a happy-dance.

We went to bed too late and I woke up way too early: I had to be in Monticello, nearly three hours away, by 8:00 am. You do the math: I’m on vacation. I was volunteering to help with induction, TFARK’s orientation for new teachers, and I was less than 100% stoked. I’d committed before I realized that we’d have no new TFA teachers at my school, and I couldn’t go back on my word so I stayed the course. My exhaustion evaporated soon after I arrived and began meeting new teachers. Everyone was so passionate about teaching, so excited to meet their students, so ready to love everything about Arkansas, and so eager to learn that I found myself plugging in to their bubbling energy and recharging. I think I made a summer’s worth of recovery in two days. My jaded, cynical perspective is gone and I’m ready to dive in to next year with all my heart. If you’re one of the people I met at induction or at the party in Helena on Saturday, this is my sincerest thank you. You’ve inspired me.
My favorite part of induction was the math content group. I love teaching math (most of the time) and talking about the specifics of teaching math makes me happy. I loved being grilled by new teachers about my classroom and hearing their ideas for how to get kids excited about math. Totally wonderful. I hope some of them will take me up on my invitation to come up here some weekend during institute to do some planning or talking or canoeing and to let Sean feed them. I want to have a real community of math teachers next year, and it’s already looking good.

Sean’s science lady from our co-op had us over to her beautiful home yesterday. We sat by the pool and had some drinks and chit-chat. She was funny and gracious and fed us generously. It was a perfect way to kick off the summer, that strange season where I have free time and I don’t quite know what to do with myself. It’s a fantastic feeling.

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Teaching (mostly) White Kids

Dear incoming teachers,

Don’t be disappointed if you’re teaching white kids.

Sometimes teachers (especially new TFA teachers) get into pissing contests about whose job is toughest, and a lot of people will discount the challenges that you face because you’re teaching white kids. Folks will assume that you have a cushy job. Don’t buy into this. If you believe this, you are allowing yourself to give credence to assumptions that are based on race and reflect lower expectations for students of color. If you catch your friends making these assumptions, call them on it.
The other thing, which I didn’t appreciate until my partner (who teaches in a mostly-black school) pointed it out to me, is that I get to experience diversity every day. I witness racial dynamics in action among the students at my school. Sean doesn’t. In this particular way, my experience is richer than his.
If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to teach in the integrated south, your experience is going to be unique in ways that your peers can’t yet imagine.

Lots of Love,

Ms. O

a long post about a short weekend

Friday Evening:

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Sean bravely accepted the cold water challenge and took a sunset dip at the confluence. Kathy and I didn't join him, to the disappointment of the guys camping out to spend the weekend fishing.

Sean bravely accepted the cold water challenge and took a sunset dip at the confluence. Kathy and I didn’t join him, to the disappointment of the guys camping out to spend the weekend fishing.

Saturday:

At pro-sat, they started calling my cohort “TFA alums.” It was really weird. Aside from the crappy veggie wraps and the long haul to Jacksonville, the day was a solid. I got a great vocabulary tool from another CM and had some thought-provoking conversation during a session on identity. During that same session, Sean let fly with some feminist discourse that had me swooning.

At pro-sat, you are required to make this face.

At pro-sat, you are required to make this face.

Art teachers lookin' cool.

Art teachers lookin’ cool on a hot day.

Post-pro-sat dinner with friends in Little Rock.

Post-pro-sat dinner with friends in Little Rock.

9:00 a.m. Sunday

Sunday Strawberries: almost there!

Sunday Strawberries: almost there!

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I think this guy likes pigs: note the belt buckle, t-shirt, and hat.

I think this guy likes pigs: note the belt buckle, t-shirt, and hat.

Sunday Afternoon:
We planted sweet potatoes, ate our first broccoli, moved the piggies to greener pastures, and went to a birthday party. While moving the pigs, we discovered that pigs can indeed scale walls and leap high buildings. Pigs are not supposed to be able to jump at all, but Levi somehow scrambled over a waist high wall to freedom when we thought we had her cornered. They are truly astonishing creatures.

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homegrown broccoli!

homegrown broccoli!

Daisy's getting bigger!

Daisy’s getting bigger!

They like to take baths in their water trough. We should start charging for refills.

They like to take baths in their water trough. We should start charging for refills.

4-square at Mel's birthday party!

4-square at Mel’s birthday party!

10:30 p.m. Sunday
We just about hit these little critters on the way home. There was no house nearby, and when we stopped, they marched right up to us. They’re part Siamese, so they have a very elegant bearing and slinky gait. I’ve named the mama Audrey after the Hepburn human she resembles. If you’re in Arkansas and looking for a cat or kitten, let me know. Sabine and Rucifee aren’t interested in new roommates.

Audrey and the babies.

Audrey and the babies.

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1:10 p.m. Monday

C brought in a baby turtle, no larger in diameter than an oreo. K found it in the mud, apparently.

5:30 p.m. Monday

Monday strawberries: ripe, warm, and heavenly.

Monday strawberries: ripe, warm, and heavenly.

Acting White

Let me preface this by making it clear that I’m white and I can’t pretend to fully understand the experiences of the young people of color that I teach. I do, however, consider it worth my time to try to understand the social dynamics that operate in my classroom and that influence my students’ goals and self-efficacy.

I teach in a predominantly white high school in rural Arkansas. Most of the public schools around my district are much less diverse and serve a majority-black population. The numerous private schools in the region are almost exclusively white. Sean teaches in a school that has never been integrated. It was a white school until integration was mandated. That event coincided with the opening of a private school less than a mile away and LHS became a black school.

I had a conversation yesterday with a couple of colleagues about the phrase “acting white” and it’s still turning around in my head. Our black students use the phrase to deride other black students (or themselves) for appearing to put effort into school and for openly seeking success. The phrase associates success, earnestness and goody-two-shoesiness with whiteness, and implies that you can’t be black and successful or black and educated. It turns my colleague’s stomach, and mine, to hear them using this phrase because it’s a slap to the face of the few black kids who don’t fit the mold of “blackness”. Our students self-segregate during their social time. White kids have cliques and they congregate during lunch and before school according to their interests. There’s someone for everyone to talk to, some support system for every kind of weird, as long as you’re white. There aren’t enough black kids to form cliques, so they all hang together. If you are black, at P-W, it is much harder to be different than if you are white.

My colleague compared it to girls in sports, saying that if you’re a girl, you have to overcome a stereotype to play sports, but if you’re a boy, you have to overcome a stereotype to not play. That takes a lot of confidence, which isn’t abundant in teenagers. If you are black, especially if you’re male, you have to overcome a stereotype to even try to succeed in school. You have to reject your friends and your race and “act white” to gain access to the choices and privileges that we teachers work so hard to provide for our kids. One of the endless frustrations of this job is the kid who actively chooses to forego education, throwing everything you value and every bit of work you’ve done back in your face, daily. By demanding that she get an education, maybe we’re trashing her identity and throwing her values back in her face, and maybe the reaction, which seems so out of proportion, actually isn’t.

Though it makes me uncomfortable to hear my kids talk about “acting white” I want to validate them. They’re being accurate. They are describing a real phenomenon. Our society is dominated by white people who promote white values. Achieving success and being yourself requires sacrifice, and for some people it costs more than for others. For youth of color it can demand the sacrifice of a racial identity and a community. However you define success, you must recognize that it isn’t readily available to people of color, especially people of color who embrace black culture.

Because I am limited by my own experience, I’m going to compare this race issue to a gender issue again. As a woman, I’m uncomfortable traveling alone. I will never sleep on the street in Dubai, as a male friend recently recounted to me that he’d done during a long layover. It is absolutely horrible and unfair that I should be afraid to go out alone at night, but I am. I am afraid of strangers doing me physical harm, and that sucks. It’s not right, but it’s right that I should be afraid. My fear is justified. Just so, my students are justified in equating success with whiteness. It sucks. It’s unfair. It’s wrong, but it’s correct.

My colleague brought up the irony that we can’t change this injustice without more black role models, and to become a black role model, you have to act white. I’m not sure, yet, what I think of this statement.

Until yesterday, I don’t think I’d really come to grips with the personal, internal conflict that characterizes the achievement gap. Here I am at the end of my second year of teaching in a school with racial tension out the butt, and I’m just now comprehending, in a really personal way, the pressure that made J drop his Pre-AP classes, telling me he’d done it because “there’s so many white faces in there. I’m too stupid to be in that class.” When I moved here, I knew something about educational inequity, but I didn’t have any sense of the feelings that contribute to an individual’s experience of educational inequity. I do now, so I guess it’s time for some action. Ideas? How can I, in my role as math teacher of all things, empower the kids I work with every day to overcome social pressure and stereotypes?

It’s not an easy question. I’ll have to ask the kids.