Thursday, April 29, 2010

where the wild things are

I have a student named Robert, the likes of whom I have never faced in my decade or so of teaching. Robert is a fairly adept reader, reading and comprehending at close to a 9th grade level, and he likes reading, so right there we seem to have two strikes in our favor, right?

Wrong. When Robert gets to my classroom door, he's accompanied by a one on one staff who's ready to apply restraint techniques at the drop of a hat. Or a pencil. Or my laptop. Or anything that Robert feels like flinging across my classroom. If we could see Robert biochemically, I think it would look something like a Jackson Pollock piece. He's all over the place. I think he's on a molotov cocktail of personality meds, and from what I can tell, no one can seem to find a good combination. One may not exist. Normally, a kid who's as much of a powder keg as Robert is would not last here at G House. He'd be shipped back to secure treatment, most likely. But Robert is going to age out in three weeks, at which point he'll become a ward of the Department of Mental Health. So here he will stay, until he turns 18.

How do you teach a kid like Robert? What are a reasonable set of goals and expectations? Two words: harm reduction. My goal is to reduce the possibility that Robert freaks out and hurts someone or something. I've decided to take this approach to Robert's remaining time here not so much to protect myself - although I'll admit that's part of it - but to offer this kid at least one 45-minute period each day during which he might be able to feel a little bit of calm, perhaps a touch of peace. I imagine it must be very, very hard to live inside this kid's body. I believe in empathizing with kids, but I would never want to walk in his shoes.

At one point Robert indicated that he liked Scrabble. So this is what we do during Robert's class time. I have Scrabble on my laptop, and we play together pretty much every day. We talk about words, we strategize, and maybe here and there I sneak in a little writing exercise (if he's having a good day, which are few and far between).

When Robert ages out next month and moves on to his next facility, I, along with many other teachers, staff and residents, will exhale loudly. You'll probably hear it. But in spite of the relief we're sure to feel, I hope Robert finds some of his own, some kind of peaceful plateau. We all deserve to have a slice of it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

spring break

It's finally here: April vacation week. I'm sitting in a coffee shop while my little guy is at a birthday party at a movie theater around the corner. I'm having nearly two hours of ME time! Imagine that! Moments like this seem rare, but it's the perfect way to kick off my spring vacation. I get a chance to let all my thoughts settle and sift while the idle cafe banter plays in the background.

I'm letting my mind just wander, but it's making its way back into thoughts of my professional life. Clink stuff...

I think of William, who is about to graduate next week but doesn't want to, because he's so tied into the gang culture and he knows he is going to have to face the kid who stabbed him before he got locked up.

I think of Paco, whose girlfriend just had a baby girl, and who told me, after his last home pass, that he gives the baby extra Tylenol just to make her sleep.

I think of Kyle, who was going to graduate yesterday, but instead got into a fistfight with another resident. His transition into the next stage of his life is now tainted. I hope and pray it doesn't set him back.

I think of Alex, who has bragged to me about his prowess at many things, including dealing drugs and as a ladies' man. He told me a few days ago that a girl claims she's pregnant with his baby. By the way, Alex's girlfriend is expecting in June.

I think of Manny, who read with me last Thursday a short story published in 1996 about Tiger Woods. He told me, "Miss, even though I can read this, I love it when you read out's like the words become alive when you read."

It's 11:10 and I have to pick up my son from the birthday party. May we all have a peaceful, restful week, and do something that gives us pleasure.

Friday, April 9, 2010

friday at the masters

Today is Friday--with a capital F. It's the end of a long week, one that somehow feels as though it's lasted longer than five working days. I thought today would be a perfect day to introduce writer's journals to the kids. They could take the stack of magazines I keep in my classroom and cut out images and words that reflect their personalities and strengths, then decorate their journals in a way that has personal meaning. Hopefully, with a touch of their own style, the kids will be more likely to feel connected to their writing, and more motivated to share authentically in it. They dive into the magazines with zeal while I point out that the words and images they choose need to be appropriate.

"You mean no gang stuff?" says Jerome.

"Right," I respond.

"What about booze?" queries Paco.

"Yeah, we need to leave that out, too," I say. The boys seem unfazed by these parameters and go about their searching, cutting and gluing.

To go along with this relaxed atmosphere, I'm streaming live coverage of the Masters tournament. A few of the students here have been lucky enough to have been out on a golf course with a particularly kind staff member who happens to be a golf fanantic. Most, though, don't like golf. They don't follow it, don't care about it, and don't know of any golfers aside from Tiger Woods. But, I reason to myself, there's nothing like the sweet, tinkling sound of the piano music that they play during Masters coverage, the tweeting birds in the background, and the hushed voices of the commentators to set a relaxed tone. It's this kind of aural accompaniment that I think can really help keep the most explosive DYS resident fairly tame.

During 5th period, Alex remarks, "Yo Miss, you got any better music than this?"

"Why, you don't like it? This is the music they play whenever the Masters is on. It's supposed to be soft and calming, I guess," I point out.

"They don't got no Puerto Rican music? You know, bop bop bam bam, bop bop BAM!" Alex mimes.

"Yeah, I can see how that might liven things up a bit. But they tend not to play Puerto Rican music during golf tournaments. Especially this one. They like to keep things pretty chill."

I giggle to myself, imagining the brass at ESPN or CBS Sports or The Golf Channel trying to reach out to the Hispanic audience, experimenting with salsa music during the biggest golf event of the year.

Hmph. No wonder these kids can't relate to golf.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

fringe benefits

One of the fringe benefits of teaching in the DYS system is that teachers have no extracurricular requirements. You aren't forced to supervise any after school clubs, coach any sports, or suffer through detention duty. This is not to say that I don't value the educational opportunities that out of school time programs offer. I simply welcome not having to be an unwilling supervisor. But because we're mandated to work an eight hour day, DYS teachers are on the job site for a significant period of time outside of acadmic instruction, and some of that time includes those morning hours when the boys are getting up to start their day, eating breakfast, doing their chores, etc. I try not to get in their way, and they seem to go about their morning routine in a fairly calm and resolute manner.

In a way, I've come to enjoy this part of my working day. I have a full hour in my classroom before my students arrive. I greet the boys quietly in the second floor common room as I make my way up to my third floor perch. I leave the door to my room ajar, leaving open the opportunity for boys to say hello, or not say hello, or ask what we're reading in class today. Simple stuff. Chitchat. Conversation that won't be graded or judged in any way.

This morning, Omar's face appeared at my doorway. "Miss," he chirped. I saw that he had rubber gloves and three or four trash bags in his hand. "Miss, you need your room cleaned, or your trash taken out?"

This program, like others in the system, operates on a point system. The kids need to earn points to maintain their status level. Points are earned and lost for good and poor behavior, academically and otherwise. Kids who might be a little lower on the points ladder might go looking for creative ways to earn extra points. In Omar's case, I know that he lost points for getting into a squabble with another resident over the weekend. But he's always been a very willing, very cooperative student with me. "Well, sure, that would be great. Are you looking to get some extra points?"

Omar nods. I glance at the trash barrel, which is overflowing with garbage left by the third shift staff who uses my classroom like the basement of a frat house. "Can you take the trash out?" I ask him. "Yeah, uh, that's my chore this week anyway. So, I'll sweep the floor, wipe the desks, and take your trash. Is that okay?"

Omar's face, like the faces of all of these boys, seems so innocent right now, so freshly scrubbed. Sometimes I truly wonder how so many of these boys got into so much trouble. "That'd be great, Omar. 25 points sound okay to you?"

Omar smiles. "Yes, thank you." He goes about cleaning the room as I begin my morning routine of starting up my computer, putting out supplies and arranging my plan book. Omar finishes his job pretty swiftly, gathers the trash and heads down the stairs. In a minute, he reappears in the doorway with a funny look on his face. "Miss, staff is busy right now, and I need to take this trash out." I know very well that Omar can't exit the building without a staff present, but this seems like an unusual circumstance. With a high-risk kid, I would never agree to it, but Omar is such a straight arrow, no-nonsense type of resident. "I'll come out with you," I offer, and I grab my keys and we head out.

It's a beautiful morning. The cool air feels refreshing, invigorating. Omar trots out to the sidewalk with the trash bag, and as he does so I notice a woman to my right, walking down the driveway next door to G House. I hear her high heeled shoes before I see her. She's light brown skinned, maybe in her late twenties, wearing a very tight, revealing dress that shares more with the world than I can say I'm comfortable with. I glance up at the front porch of the house next door and see a man. Wearing only a towel. As my eyes take in this information, it all registers. There's business being conducted next door. Before I can bring my attention back to my charge, I hear the man on the porch say "good morning," and I look up in time to see him drop his towel, exposing his manhood to the brisk morning air. And to me.

Immediately, I see Omar fling the trash bag down and run toward the neighbor. "OMAR!!!" I yell. "Omar, get over here!" I manage to grab Omar by the sleeve, and somehow push and shove him back toward G House, where another staff, who has obviously heard my outside voice, comes to my aid.

"That guy can't do that shit," says Omar, breathless and clearly heated, once we get safely inside G House.

"Do you think he was trying to offend me?" I ask Omar.

"Yeah! Miss, that guy was so rude. I had to stand up for you."

"Omar, it means a lot to know that you would stand up for me. But I would never want you to get in trouble as a result. I tell you what: the next time you need someone to escort you outside, we'll find a male staff to do it. I'll stick to teaching. Deal?"

Omar smiles. "Deal," he agrees.

I head back up to my classroom, and Omar goes to wash his hands. I stifle a smirk as I consider how authentic learning opportunities can be found in the most unlikely places.