*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.

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