*Names and identifying details have been altered to protect the innocent people who could sue me.

December 31, 2011

Francincense and Myrrh

I look up from the computer when Mike pokes his head into my room. “You still here? Should be you go home by now. Everybody else go home already.”

His broom handle points at the clock as he makes his way around the clusters of desks in the room. It is 4:30pm, darker outside now than it was when I came in at 7:30am. I nod and hit print.

“Yeah, I’m leaving.”
“You take care of the rest later,” he nods. “It still be there tomorrow, you know?”

He helps me adjust the desks into rows for tomorrow’s quiz. I leave carefully arranged papers left at the front of the room – the quiz to be photocopied, a freshly-printed worksheet, and now-graded papers to hand back – I follow him out, locking the door behind me.

Tuesday is quiz day. In high school I sat at the back of the room during quizzes, grading those of the period before. Now in 8th grade I am on my feet, on the move. I answer questions from the practical to the absurd, and I open the box for those who have shut it. Again and again and again.

“Do we use all the words from the word bank?” Read the directions again. “Oh.”
“Is this the right answer?” Raised eyebrows, tilted head. “Oh.”
“I’m not taking this quiz.” Okay. Just give me the answers you know. “I don’t know any.” Oh, that’s not true. What about this one? “Ok, but just that one.” Don’t you know this one too? “Oh.”

22 students in the room, 22 different boxes I juggle. At the end of the day I stack my bag with 85 quizzes to correct, 85 worksheets to check off, and 47 minutes of teaching to plan for the next day.

Wednesday’s lesson does not go well. Half the students have not done the homework, and the worksheet doesn’t keep them engaged. I reverse and we recap. Students work on a journal question and I hastily replan. In three minutes I will need to change the homework to diffuse the growing mutiny in the room. My hope is to use those who have got it to work with those who have not. The students’ hope is to not have homework. Somewhere there is a middle ground, but the map to it requires activating student interests, providing enough footholds for them to access the material, and making it relevant to their lives. I have three minutes to draw that map, and 22 students starting to shift restlessly again at the sounds around us – the lecture in the room to the left, the movie in the room to the right, the heating fan jetting hot air into our already warm classroom.

I am at the computer again when Ronny comes in to sweep and help me rearrange the desks into tomorrow’s groupings. He pauses at the reading shelf.

“You don’t see ones like this in the classroom very often.” He is holding up Black Enterprise.
I know what he means, but I am tired. I just nod.
“Do you get these at home?”
“From a friend.”
He goes back to sweeping. “Nice to have around, anyway.”

When he leaves I move over to the shelf and stare at the haphazard pilings that the kids have tossed about, then resort them back under their various headings – animals, celebrities, news, sports, automobiles. There is no average 8th grader; there is no common sensibility among my 85 young minds. Some still dig through the piles to find National Geographic for Kids, others pick up Time to read about developments on the Afghanistan war. Others only want to know why they have to read at all.

The more I leave out for them to peruse, the more I can hope they will discover. 85 minds can cover a lot of knowledge, if enough boxes are left open. It is 4:30 again; I leave the magazines, photocopies for tomorrow, and stacks of student journals to be read in the morning.

At 5pm on Thursday Mike is back on my floor, feigning surprise when he finds me in my darkened classroom.

“Boa tarde,” I say.
“Boa noite,” he answers.
“But it’s only 5pm.”
“But is dark out now – boa noite.”
“Boa noite.”
“You getting better, you keep at it maybe someday you be good. But now you got to go home.”

Mike is originally from Portugal, and he’s helping me learn some basics so I can communicate better with students who are newly arrived from Brazil. They laugh at my accent and the limitations of my phrases, but that is ok – it is the communication under the words that counts. The bridge that laughter builds. The box that opens when I say, “Here, I would like to learn from you as well.”

Friday is a town celebration, the start of the holiday season. The kids are always antsy on Fridays, and even more so in December. I keep Fridays as writing practice, individualized and quiet. There are standardized tests in every grade level now, and beyond the on-going struggle to prepare them with content, we also have to teach them certain skills that our society has deemed important for its citizens to perform. Analytical thinking. Backing up your statement with textual evidence. Sitting at your desk and staying focused for long stretches of time.

The kids leave at 2:45 and I follow soon after, finishing attendance and parent emails and shutting down my computer at 3:30. Later I drive downtown and join the crowds on Main Street, strolling past brightly-lit displays in our still-locally owned shops and restaurants, converging at the Town Green that has been transformed for December into a maze of holiday decorations and seasonal statues.

At the Nativity scene, I am crowded off to one side, staring down the chipped, painted faces of the Three Kings. Perhaps it is my first year of teaching that draws me to them -- a representation of Wisdom meeting the Holy Youth. Perhaps it is how they embody the pathos of the Christmas spirit as they lay the best they have to offer at the feet of him who seemed to deserve it the least. Perhaps it is because no one else cares to notice them. The contemplative Mary will soon pop up at the Dunkin Donuts drive-through window, Joseph will be standing on top of the slide at the school playground, baby Jesus will be found lying in his bed on the police station lawn. The Three Kings will stand here in the hay until New Year’s Eve, staring at the empty spots of the Holy Family and waiting, patiently, for their return.

Sunday night I finish grading and then review and revise the week’s plans. I lay out four folders of graded essays to return. Packets of work to be photocopied. Magazines and young adult novels to add to the reading shelf. Art books to keep in the reference section for research projects. Cards for the games we will play to learn grammatical rules, vocabulary roots, and how to embed textual citations. I turn off the light and go to bed, my frankincense and myrrh laid out on the table waiting for me and the morning and a new week of school.

How to Become a Teacher While Living in Alaska, in 39 Steps

Step 1: Move to Alaska.

Step 2: Find the school district office and pick up a packet of forms. Attempt to submit name for orientation training; instead, submit name to be notified for when next orientation is scheduled.

Step 3: Fill out I-9 and W-4.

Step 4: Find health records and begin to fill out health questionnaire. Call sister for help matching up vaccination records (DTP, MMR) with disease names (Diptheria, Smallpox, Typhoid, Polio, Tetanus).

Step 5: Discover you were never vaccinated against Smallpox or Typhoid.

Step 6: Check up on the forms for individual health insurance you filed the month before. Begin searching for a walk-in clinic that will fill out your physical/emotional evaluation and, possibly, vaccinate you against diseases you previously thought eradicated from American society.

Step 7: Almost sign the “Oath of Office” form without reading. Upon closer examination, decide to read the Constitution of the State of Alaska before solemnly swearing (or affirming) to support and defend it.

Step 8: Search online for the Alaskan Constitution. Download instead a 255 page “Citizens Guide to the Constitution.”

Step 9: Move on to something else.

Step 10: Begin online application by registering on school district website.

Step 11: Cut and paste name and address from resume into #1 (personal info) and #2 (postal information). Read through vacancies and available positions. Decide that you do not want to apply for the principal, coach, or lifeguard positions. Select “substitute teacher/general.” (Under positions desired, select ELA and confess to having student teaching experience only. Hesitatingly select Theater technician, and admit to having 10 years of experience.)

Step 12: Cut and paste experience and reference sections of resume into #5: experience. Realize with dismay that trading theater for teaching has so far resulted in an 80% pay cut.

Step 13: Cut and paste education section of resume to #8: education. Realize you have no idea what “number of semester hours in major area” even means.

Step 13.5: Email friends from undergrad for help.

Step 14: Save application, and go to undergraduate/graduate school websites to order transcripts.

Step 15: Return to application.

Step 16: Fail to find the MTEL Communication and Literacy test under the drop-down list for #11: Have you completed a Basic Competency Exam? Answer yes anyway, and list it as “other.”

Step 17: Make copy of score results to add to HR packet.

Step 18: Discover, with dismay, that you only meet two of the three the “Highly Qualified” federal standards:
a. Hold a minimum of a Bachelors degree from an Accredited University
b. Hold a current, active, teaching certificate in the state in which you teach
c. Have passed a state-based subject/content area test in the subject(s) in which you teach.
... because your MA teaching certificate, while current, was not activated while teaching as a permanent substitute in Massachusetts during the past year.

Step 19: Describe the skills or attributes necessary for being an outstanding teacher.

Step 20: Describe how to address a wide range of skills in the classroom.

Step 21: Beat head against the wall.

Step 22: Contact three professional references to advise them that an online survey will be heading their way.

Step 23: Read #25: Geographical preference. Call boyfriend to ask what “Small Schools/Fly-in” and “Russian Schools” means.

Step 24: Sign in agreement that the Borough School District may seek to obtain background information on me from third parties, financial sources, employees, State Troopers, and the FBI. Also agree to pay any fees this may incur.

Step 25: Call local non-profit clinic for general physical and discover that the (discounted) cost for the physical is $126.

Step 26: Complete physical: determine emotional stability, accurately hear a word whispered from across the room to prove physical health, pee into a cup to rule out diabetes.

Step 27: Call school nurse to schedule free TB test.

Step 28: Find high school, have TB test shot.

Step 29: Return three days later to have TB test read. (Result: negative.)

Step 30: Spend several hours on the phone trying to track down MA certificate of licensure (first discovering original was lost in the mail 1.5 years ago).

Step 31: Bring packet of documents back to Borough office (W-4, I-9, Health Questionnaire, Physical Examination form, Oath of Office, Cover Letter, Resume, Transcripts, Copy of certificate, copy of MTEL results).

Step 32: Receive phone call about a full-time position opening up in hometown in Massachusetts.

Step 33: Sigh.

Step 34: Attend one-day substitute training seminar to talk about models of education, discipline and classroom management, and why it is inappropriate to hit the children.

Step 35: Narrowly avoid gouging own eyes out with the plastic forks supplied at the lunch break.

Step 36: Begin studying for Praxis exams, to replace rejected MTEL results.

Step 37: Take 4.5 hour Praxis test.

Step 38: Learn from boyfriend that he intends to apply for PhD programs in Texas.

Step 39: Buy a plane ticket home.

A Jacket for Heaven

I am warned well before Heaven arrives.

“Repeat,” another English teacher nods. I am headed to obligatory pre-teacher training, as though anyone could take sixty minutes to prepare me for one hundred forty days covering another’s classes. “Julie had her. It was a hard year.”

“Troubled home life,” announces our guidance counselor at the first team meeting. “She spent most of last year in the halls, when she wasn’t in detention.”

I file this away with other tidbits – students with learning disabilities, students with older siblings, students with long hair or green eyes or one leg longer than the other – whatever turns this list of eighty names into individual people. So that I may know them; teach them, guide them, fret on them, and three months later, give them back.

Heaven walks in as I announce that yes, I am covering Mrs. Rivers’ classes for the first semester. I send her to the office for a late pass, internally cringing in expectation of the angry outburst to come. But Heaven only blinks, shrugs, and walks back out. I am all the more relieved when she returns, purple slip in her outstretched hand.

I want to tell her, “I had to let you know I will be an adult in your life who keeps to the rules.” I want to tell her, “Actually, I don’t care if you are late to homeroom.” I want to tell her, “This will be a safe space for you.” But I nod, and take the note. She shrugs and takes her seat.

In the questionnaire I make them complete (“What name do you prefer?” “What language(s) is/are spoken in your home?” “Name one person you respect.”) Heaven writes:
Two years ago on May 28th, 2008 my brother John Arthur Nunez died. He was only a little older than me. It was the worst day of my life and I really, really miss him every day. So, I guess that’s something you should know.

This explains the tee shirt, a young man’s silhouette and the letters R.I.P. partially obscured by her dark braided hair. This explains the dreams I overhear her describing to her friends, dreams where “Johnny is there, but he just stands and says nothing.” This explains why last year she might have been focused on something other than her English grade.

In October I sit with my department head, discussing students with problems and my responsive pedagogical maneuverings. “No, no counseling,” she says, to the question of Heaven. “Her parents wouldn’t allow.” She pauses, then asks, “Well, how is she doing, for you?”

I want to tell her, “She gets a lot of work done in detention; it’s quiet, and she feels safe.” I want to tell her, “She spends more time helping struggling students than doing her work.” I want to tell her, “She’s nice to the teachers she respects.” But I am new, and young. So I just nod. “She always participates in class,” I say, “the days when she shows up.”

As winter approaches our team counselor warns us that Heaven’s family has moved to another temporary home. “On the upside,” she adds as the bell signals an end to our prep period and reminds us of the students waiting outside our doors, as eager at this point in the semester to see us as we are to see them, “her mom was given some money to buy jackets.”

Friday we are in the library, ostensibly doing research. I circle, reminding students that a blog is not necessarily a factual source, that their brainstorms are due at the end of the period, that solitaire is not an appropriate use of their time. Over Heaven’s shoulder I see an article on new regulations hindering local fishermen. Her father works on a boat, she told me once. I notice that her arms are pulled through her sweatshirt sleeves.

“Is that new?” I ask.

“Yeah. Feel it, Ms. Gettlin!” She turns, one arm proudly outstretched. “It’s so soft!”

I touch it, nod. She grins again.

“But Heaven,” I add, “It’s awfully thin. Aren’t you cold?”

She shrugs, grin faded, and turns back to her computer, arms tightly recrossed against her chest.

In December I warn the students that Mrs. Rivera is coming back. They want to know if she will make them do all those self-reflections – probably not. They want to know if she is nice – if you do your homework. They want to know where I am going – Alaska. They want to know why – I have friends there, and I can find more work. They want to know if it is cold, if I will see bears, if I will have to shoot a gun. Yes, probably, and I hope not but imagine so.

The team throws a party for me and lures the students to the cafeteria with the promise of cake. I want to tell them, “I have tried to prepare you for the inequalities of life.” I want to tell them, “I have tried to teach you to seize your education for yourself.” I want to tell them, “I have to give you back now, but I will carry you with me always.”

Instead I mention each by name and the things they have taught me. Then we eat cake. As I circle, I notice Heaven’s tears. I nod to her, put my hand on her shoulder. She does not shrug me off.

That weekend I go shopping. Monday morning I swing by before the buses arrive, not wanting to ruin the seal of separation that our good-bye cake-eating has forged.
I wanted to tell her, “Life shouldn’t have been this hard for you.” I wanted to tell her, “There are others who can help you, if you let them.” I wanted to tell her, “I can’t go to Alaska and know you’re cold back home.”

This is for you, I write instead. Stay warm this winter.

“Heaven left this in my classroom last week,” I lie to the secretary in the main office. “Can you make sure she gets it?” She nods. I shrug, tuck my scribbled note into the bag, and leave the school.