Their Baggage, Our Burden, My Privilege

Today was one of those days--one of those days where right now has been made most necessary. To be clear, "right now" means Friday night, 5:30pm, me in a tank tank top and underwear, surrounded by not one, not two, but count 'em six pillows, a million thread count quilt and duvet, a water bottle, and potato chips. Sara Bareilles is rocking a cheesy love song, getting my emotions going and flowing like it's 2010 and all that 2010 was for little ol' me.

Today was one of those days where I cried at school not once, not twice, but count 'em three times.

8:29am. A student came at me, emotions blazing:"Why the f--- did you do [this and that and this and that] and I'm tired of you f---ing [this and that and this and that]". Nothing I did or said got him to calm down. I sent him to the office.

Time to start class.

Then, yet another student comes at me with a slightly different flavor of really the exact same thing--

Me: You can't wear those red shoelaces here. Him: "Man, I'm tired of all you teachers on my back. You gonna snitch on me? Go ahead. I might as well go home right now if you're going to send me to the office. blah blah blah blah" (it honestly becomes hard to hear/remember what's being yelled at you when you're being yelled at).

...aaaaanddd it's 8:30. I had just sent a student to the office, straggling students were milling about the hallway, and admin had their hands full because, well, they always do. I had nowhere to send this student and was at a loss with how to resolve the situation.

So I sat down next to him.

Unsure of what to do next, he sat, got his work and carefully wrote his name, the date, and period at the top of his paper. He stared at the directions at the top of his paper, as though trying to feign that he's ready to get to work and that he doesn't actually want to get sent to the office or go home. I could tell that his heart was racing, tears were behind his eyes, and that the gears in his mind were grinding fiercely.

I reflected on my misstep. This is not the first time I've had to discipline him for something (phone use, being off-task, wearing red, foul language...), but I've always disciplined him (and other students) in a consistent way: "[Name], I love you. I respect you. I feel disrespected when you.../Please don't.../Please help me out by...". Today, instead of saying good morning to him, with the first angry student hardly out the door, I greeted him with "you know you can't wear those shoes here, I keep on telling you again and again, why are you wearing them." Period. No question mark.

I sat with him in silence for a moment. Other students all around us awkwardly tried to figure out what to do with themselves while he and I worked our confrontation out.

And, well, tears began to fall. On my part.

"You know you're the second student to come at me like that today? The second. And it's barely 8:30." I told him. "The second one?" he asked in disbelief. "Yup."

Then he opened up.

"I'm sorry I came at you like that. It's because I came in already mad from fighting with my parents. I fight with my parents every morning. Every single morning. They argue with me saying that I'm always at this and that party, but I never am. All I do is work. I go to school, go to work, go home and sleep. And all they do is yell at me, saying I'm out, up to no good with my friends. But I'm not like that. Oh well, I'm going to move out soon anyway, so I try not to worry about that. But that's why I yelled at you, because I wasn't in a good place. I'm apologize. I shouldn't have done that." He started to cry, too.

I accepted his apology. I told him that I'm sorry that he's having issues with his parents and I reflected back to him about the time that I met with he and his mom, how I could tell that she cares about him very much and I could tell that he respects and cares a lot about what his mom thinks of him. We then switched gears and talked about the school dress code. We talked about why the school has a dress policy about colors, what the school has done to address dress code violations, and what the school could do better. I didn't end up sending him to the office. I dropped the shoelace issue. I recommended to him to talk to our administration including himself and perhaps other students to the table to discuss dress code, gang affiliation, and colors.

Later in the day, I saw that he had taken off his shoelaces on his own accord.

9:05. Students shuffled about as A block turned to B block. Many students in my class celebrated as, one by one, they saw their graded tests from the day before. I walked over to each student, one by one, to praise them for their hard work, regardless of their score on the test. I gave many handshakes, hugs, and high fives. I talked with every single students individually about every single mistake they made on their test. I encouraged and pushed students who felt motivated to try their test again to re-take their test--regardless of if they failed the test or received a 75% or even 89%. I welcomed back students who showed up that day after chronic absences.

Class ended and I continued meeting with students about their personal issues, pushing into their C block time and my prep period time. Why haven't you been coming to school? What support are you looking for that you feel you are not getting? Can you change your work shift so that you're not getting home at 2am? What are your next steps? I will be here for you every day before school at 8am for you to catch up, if that's what you need. You can do it. But you have to do it.

Not 5 minutes later, as I'm clearing away my Math materials, straightening up my shared classroom, planning, typing up, and printing out my lesson and Chemistry worksheets for my next class, a familiar face walked by. A former student of mine! I hadn't seen him since he dropped out of school 2 years ago.

The next 30 minutes was a whirlwind of nostalgia and catching up. Remember that basketball court you fundraised for the school? he asks. Man, being out there, playing basketball, saved me. I sent a silent prayer of thanks to Brian, my sister, and my parents for chipping in to buy my school that basketball hoop. He went on to reminisce about every teacher, what made them special to him, and how life-changing so many little moments at our school was for him. I reminded him about our Geometry tutoring days and told him about how impressed I was by how good a math student he was. I told him about how I remembered what a poetic soul he had; how in my health class, while other students wrote one-worded, superficial journal entries, he thoughtfully wrote pages and pages about his feelings, his poetry, his thoughts, and whatever he was going through at the time. He smiled remembering these moments. I was going through so much at the time, he said. But this school was there for me. He wants to go back to school and get his GED. He wants to turn his life around and do something with his life. Not for money, he assures me, although I guess money is important to some people. I just want to do something interesting or important. We exchanged information and I promise to help him sign up for adult school.

10:25am. I run to the copy room to grab my copies and to my next shared classroom to start my next class.

10:30am. I put one of the older students in charge after briefing him on the lesson for the day. I leave him with my D block (with a supervising adult, of course) so that I could go resolve my confrontation with my first student.

I went to the office to speak with that first student. With a couple of hours to cool off, he was like a completely different person. He apologized (many times) for cursing me out and expressed how he'd handle his frustration in the future if anything like that ever came up again. Then there was a turning point--the flood gates cracked and out leaked one heartbreaking issue after the next about things he's dealing with at home and outside of school. He was tense, and hurting, and angry, and frustrated, and physically holding back from crying--literally pressing his hands into his eyes as though he could lock away every emotion and tear.

A silent tear rolled down my cheek.

This seemed to be the permission he was waiting for. His own tears started to fall. He didn't say anything else from there--the guidance counselor took over from there, saying soothing words about it being OK to feel frustrated, angry, upset, and lonely. She addressed the hurt and stress that he brought up; she reminded him of the growth we've seen in him in the past years and how much we believe in him as a student and as a person.

10:35. I returned to my class, thank the staff member and student leader for covering for me, and continued teaching the lesson.

And then my class is interrupted by a student who's wandered from his own class [again]. He popped his head in my class, disrupting the lesson, throwing up gang signs, greeting his friends, ignoring my requests to please leave, approaching me to greet me with a smile and a hug (though you wouldn't be able to tell by his annoying disruptions, he often joyfully greets me in the hallways and tells me he loves me as a teacher... I'm not even one of his teachers!). I chased him down, sent him to the office, and scolded him for disrupting my class [again].

The next few hours was a blur of students texting me asking for help for something or asking about their grade or telling me why they're absent that day, students asking for help with their work, seniors and former students of mine (politely) interrupting my class to ask to borrow calculators (not one senior, not two, but seven!) to use on their ACTs tomorrow, me scolding students for being on their phones when they should be doing work, or halfway trying to chase down students as they run out of my class in tears about who-knows-what...

1:15. The school day has ended, but they day's not ended yet. A senior and former student of mine dropped by to tell me that he's applying to Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford (!!!). Another senior and former student of mind dropped by to tell me he received his first college acceptance letter and that my class was his favorite class. Two more students stopped by to practice speaking Japanese with me and to show off manga artwork they're working on.

1:30. Staff meeting about trauma-informed care, vicarious trauma, and self-care. I awkwardly try to scarfed down my lunch while I somehow also cry more (as I now know to be) vicarious tears. I remembered a student who is chronically absent from my class but asks to talk to me after school every single day to chat about her issues or to catch up with the work she's missed. Nearly every morning, I text her to wake up and to come to school, promising to buy her breakfast if she gets to school on time. Nearly every day that she does come, I welcome her with a hug and a It's so great to see you. I'm so happy you're here. Emphasis, though, on nearly every day. One time, on a day that she came for two days in a row (a first-time streak!), I greeted her with what seemed to her as a neutral "good morning". Why aren't you as happy to see me today, April? she asked.

I thought back to the Thank You notes I received from students less than a month ago for Thanksgiving. I am thankful for April because she's always happy to see me (from a different student). I am thankful for April because she's always checking up on me (a note in response to, I'm guessing, my texting him the night before for not showing up to school for Portfolio Night). I am thankful for April because she is nice and she helps me.

3:30. I went to the bathroom. I peed. I had been holding that since 10am.

4:45. Quiet classroom, quiet school. I use the silence as a time to catch up on grading, lesson plan, print next week's lessons, call, text, and email parents, meet with admin, clean one shared classroom and then the other. I pack up my work and load the car; work to be finished at home over the weekend.

- - -

Today is just another day of many like these. I once likened classroom teaching to a circus, with the teacher as the ringleader, juggling many acts at once, teaching while managing while helping while responding while entertaining while disciplining.

I now know more about teaching than I knew then. I've learned about the prep and behind-the-scenes work. I continue to learn about the lives of our youth, the gifts that they bring, and the baggage they carry. I now know more about the impact that our school has on our youth on a daily basis and beyond graduation. I no longer think of a classroom teacher as a ringleader, but I don't know what to equate this job to.

For now, it's 6:30 and I'm still in bed. I've switched the music to instrumental jazz to help my words flow without Sara Bareilles' crooning interruptions. My emotional constipation has transformed to a tightness in my arms, my legs, and my back... emotional transference at its best.

I love my students. I love my job. I love my growth as a teacher. I love my job despite of and because of crazy days like today and all others because, as my former student said today, I get to do something that is interesting and important.


Btw, PSA: (In response to a conversation I had last weekend with a total stranger) If you're a non-teacher talking to a teacher about their job, please, please, please don't ever say to them "it may be hard, but at least you get to go home at, what, 2:30? 3:30?"

I know a lot of teachers and not a single one of them only works from 8:30 to 3:30. In those seven hours, I'm allotted one hour as my "prep"; the remaining six hours, I'm teaching. Between counseling and tutoring students, preparing and breaking down two different classrooms for not one, not two, but count 'em three different preps, I don't even have time to pee when I want or sit down and have lunch, let alone lesson plan, make copies, grade assignments, meet with/call/email/text parents with my one hour of prep.

No, we don't go home at 3:30.

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