Tuesday, July 21, 2009

don't wipe that smile off your face

Following is a transcription, more or less, of a conversation that I just had 20 minutes ago during my 4th period class with Mauricio. We had just finished chapter 3 of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and we sat down to play a quick hand of Scrabble Slam:

Me: Want to listen to Pandora while we play? We can put on that Michael Jackson station you made.

Mauricio: Yeah, that's cool. That music's ill.

Me: You know it! (sings in a mock-MJ falsetto) "You got to leave that 9 to 5 up on the shelf, and just enjoy yourself..."

Mauricio: (looks at me, smiling, shaking his head) Can I ask you a question?

Me: Shoot. But pick a word first, then deal.

Mauricio: Are you ever, like, not happy?

Me: (giving him quizzical look) Well, sure...why?

Mauricio: Because, you're like, always happy. You're always in a good mood.

Me: Well, you see me when I'm at work. You see me here. And I'm really happy here. I really enjoy working with you guys, teaching reading.

Mauricio: (keeps dealing cards) Yeah. I was talkin with Duggan (another student of mine) and we was sayin' how, like, there's something wrong with you. 'Cause you, like, are always happy.

Me: (chuckling) Oh yeah?

Mauricio: Yeah, Duggan goes, "I beat her at Scrabble Slam, and she goes 'Oh well, guess I'll have to do 9 pushups!' That's wack, yo!" (laughs)

Me: So? He beat me, and I throw in that little rule, which I only make myself adhere to. (laughing) Is that bad?

Mauricio: (laughing) No, I guess not. We're just...not used to someone like that.

Me: Not used to being around someone who's happy?

Mauricio: Yeah.

Me: I see. Well, I could change that. But I really don't feel like it. Besides, I have someone's butt to kick at Scrabble Slam. Let's go. Play.

It doesn't bother me that they think I'm unusual for being happy all the time. I don't wear a maniacal grin on my face 24/7. I have my ups and downs like everyone does. But it is an absolute truth that I adore the work I do and the population I work with. How did I get so lucky to reach this professional nirvana?

What does bother me is that there aren't more happy people in the fabric of my students' lives, both in the clink and on the out. People who smile and look them in the eye upon seeing them, people who ask them how their day is going, people who care enough to listen to their good and bad and in between. The realization of this bums me out. But I save these thoughts for moments outside of instructional time. Class time is sacred, and the attention I give my students is best delivered undivided.

5th period starts in 11 minutes. Gotta go.

Friday, July 17, 2009

nails from the clink

Brace yourself, dear reader, for what I am about to confess is going to sound weird:

I want to do my students' nails.

For those of you who either know me personally or have read my full profile, perhaps this isn't such a sick, twisted declaration. Several years ago, while I was working for a holistic skin care company, I enrolled in a nail technician licensure program, the intention being to create a natural nail protocol in my company's education & training department. The only problem with this plan was that, upon attaining this license, I realized that I desperately missed working with kids, kids with tough lives, real needs and big problems. Dealing with the skin care dramas of people who have never known the meaning of hungry or broke was, I realized, not going to be a satisfying vocation.

So I'm three years back in the classroom, yet I still carry this funny nail tech license in my wallet, which I sort of use, mostly in the summer, for the occasional pedicure party. I don't think of myself as a member of the Nail Care profession. But lately, I've caught myself looking at the hands and nails of my students as they hold their books and thinking, "God, if I could only trim those cuticles." WHAT? I've tried to shake those thoughts clear out of my head, reminding myself that this is my reading workshop in a house of corrections, not Katie's House of Nails. SNAP OUT OF IT, I tell myself.

But their hands, for all of the mischief they've encountered and crimes they've committed, are beautiful. They have long, healthy nails. None of my students are nail biters, from what I can tell. All of them could stand a manicure, if for no other reason than to get their nails down to a more sanitary length. They'd love the hand and arm massage that I provide, and with the biodynamic skin care products I use, it would be like a little slice of heaven right here in the clink. There's not a lot of nurturing human touch in this place. And they don't have free access to nail scissors for the same reason that sharp, weapon-like objects are generally frowned upon in jails. Plus, some kids have been known to use their own torn fingernails as tools of self-mutilation. If I gave them regular manicures, there'd be fewer opportunities for them to hurt themselves (and others).

Sounds like plenty of good reasons to offer up my services, right?

Here's why I won't do it. These kids have already had all of the boundaries that should exist in normal, healthy relationships skewed up and screwed up. Most of the female role models in their lives thus far are women who want to have sex with them for drugs, money or both. At best, the women in my boys' lives have been dishonest and unhealthy. If I, as a reading teacher, were to introduce a layer of physical touch to my students, even if it were as part of a 15-minute therapeutic nail treatment, it would change EVERYTHING. Our relationship would change permanently, and for the worst. I would never again be an effective teacher. I'd be just another woman who crossed a line and touched. It would confirm what they've suspected all along.

So I'll continue to watch their nails grow and grow. We'll just keep reading.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

happiness is...

I have decided that I love my job. I love teaching reading to kids in jail. In fact this is, hands down, the most satisfied I've ever been in my life, career-wise. May the deities of DYS and DESE in the Bay State continue to smile down on me, and keep funding the mega-grant that keeps me working with these very challenging but very capable boys.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

the reader

Note to self: do NOT show movie The Reader to students just because title suggests good pro-literacy flick...can you say S-T-E-A-M-Y?!? Ja.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Check It Out - I Won An Award!!

Wow! I've been bestowed with the Honest Scrap Award for honesty and authenticity in my writing. My friend Colleen Sculleigh Osman, who writes a fabulous blog called Bay State Brumby, is responsible for this coronation. She herself is the essence of everything real and authentic. Yes, you are, Sculldawg! If you haven't read Brumby yet, you ought to: www.baystatebrumby.blogspot.com

Honest Scrap is an honor that comes with a few obligations:

* Say thanks and give a link to the presenter of the award.

* Share "ten honest things" about myself.

* Present this award to 7 others whose blogs I find brilliant in content and/or design, or those who have encouraged me.

* Tell those 7 people that they've been awarded HONEST SCRAP and inform them of these guidelines in receiving it.

So, here are my ten honest things:

1) I was born in an elevator. My grandfather nicknamed me "Katherine the Impetuous" as a result of my grand entry into this world.

2) I am competitive to a fault. I find it incredibly, incredibly difficult not to kick my students' asses at word games such as Scrabble. I know that if I let this part of my nature take over, I would be a bad teacher. So I let them win 99.5% of the time. This is hard.

3) When one of my students was about to be discharged recently, I made him promise me that he would walk a straight line when he was out in the real world. Two weeks later he was arrested for holding up a gas station with a bb gun. He's in adult prison now.

4) I believe in sustainability. I believe in art. I believe in being a locavore.

5) I once broke my neck in a diving accident. I was 21. I was drunk. I learned a lot from this mistake and it made me a wiser person. It's embarrassing to talk about it.

6) I knew I wanted to teach reading to kids in lock up when I learned that Anne Lamott and Wally Lamb teach/have taught writing in correctional facilities. It felt like a calling.

7) I live around the corner from a seafood processing plant near Narragansett Bay. When we moved in, the smell of steamed quahogs was absolutely nauseating. Now I love it. I can smell it as I type this. Mmmmmmm.

8) The coolest job I ever had was right after college, working for CBS Sports at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France. I worked in their videotape archives. Saw tons of events, in person. Did lots of skiing. Had so much fun!

9) The second coolest job I ever had was as a pool caretaker. I drove all over northern New Jersey one summer and cleaned pools for wealthy people who spent their summers down the shore. I'd clean a pool, jump in, take a swim, and then move on to the next one.

10) My husband is the most real, authentic, no-bullshit person I have ever met. He inspires me all the time, and I rarely tell him. If he were a blogger, he'd be my first choice to receive an Honest Scrap. Dave, you're the real thing. It's why I married you.

Now, here are my Seven Honest Scrappers, whose work really lights up my world!

The MashUp: A blog about books for teens. Connected to www.adlit.org. Jamie Watson is Adlit's consulting blogger/book reviewer. www.adlit.org/mashup/

readingrockets.org: Promoting reading and literacy for all kids. Awesome site/blog!

Bitten. Mark Bittman, food writer for the NY Times, writes a blog about the glory of food and simplicity. I love his ideas, his recipes and his angle. bitten.blogs.nytimes.com

Books on the Nightstand. Just a site devoted to blogging (and podcasts) about books. I get great recommendations from this site. www.booksonthenightstand.com

I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. An assortment of contributing writers comprise the work for this wonderful resource. http://inkrethink.blogspot.com

LiteracyLaunchpad. Amy is an early literacy teacher who, like me, is passionate about getting kids interested in reading. Amy's writing is honest, tender and funny. She's so deserving of an Honest Scrap (I bet she's gotten a slew of them by now)! http://literacylaunchpad.blogspot.com

Lastly, Bay State Brumby. I realize that my friend Colleen is the one who gave me my Honest Scrap, which would mean she's already gotten one (yes, quite recently) herself. But listen, folks: no other writer I know puts as much authenticity and transparency out there. She tells it like it is from the saddle of her paint mare. She's that good. http://baystatebrumby.blogspot.com

p.s. thanks, Scull ;)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

some thoughts while on summer break

Summer school starts next Wednesday. I wonder how many of the books I loaned to my students will actually be returned to me? I find it simultaneously surprising and unsurprising that my books, particularly the popular ones, get stolen in jail. Um, like, isn't this a secure facility? Then again, a lot of the kids I work with have extensive experience with five-finger discounts. Oh well. When my books go "missing" I hope it means they're out in the world somewhere, enriching a young mind. I'll go buy more.