Wolves

DP817868.jpgI have wolves.  I went to the cathedral on this, Dr. King’s day, and the lesson was about caring for your flock, which was the last thing I wanted to hear, as I want to quit my job, I have wolves.

The first half of my career I was told I was a good teacher, so I think I was.  I felt I was getting better and then that I was maintaining a strong and useful program of work, I taught other teachers, I presented at national conferences.

Then I spent most of a year arguing about if I needed the books I ordered in my classroom, if I was losing students’ papers and if I was bullying them by asking them to be quiet so we could start class.

I have been a “bad” teacher because my lessons were not engaging and I could not control my students, these two things being frequently connected.  I never aspired to be entertaining or intimidating, though, I only try to be thoughtful and trustworthy.

Some of us must be “bad” to keep the show going, so we know who to hiss at.

When I was told I was good, I was better.  This is the story of your life as an agreeable white girl, I know, people tell you are good and so you are.

If a kid refusing to sit down, pushing me, throwing things, and using profanity results in leaving class for a good while, I am a good teacher.  I can control my students.

I hate that word, anyway, it should be that kids find it easier to decide to be productive because the environment they are living in makes that the easiest choice.  It should be hard to be bad.

I work hard at putting myself back together.  Still, I haven’t been sleeping more than two hours at a stretch, and I have headaches.

On my way up to the cathedral, I heard the begging-on-the-subway speech five times.  Three times from the same guy, a big guy with a deep, lovely voice.  I changed cars because something was buzzing unbearably in my car, and the beggars change cars, too, so that’s why I heard that guy twice.  The third time, I guess, I took the train so far, probably 3/4 of its route, that was my fault, too: we overlapped again.

I thought, I know I don’t have change, I just did laundry.  And I didn’t want to give any money today.  I don’t want to give anything.  Not a thing.  Not to anyone.

Then I thought: this guy’s job is better than mine.  At least no one was jumping up and yelling at him or calling him names when he asked for what he wanted.  No one was throwing things at him.  Then I thought: goodness, that’s an offensive thought.

If I wasn’t a city teacher, someone people admire for toughness and virtue, who would I be?  Maybe no one would admire me, maybe I would not be likable at all, if, say, I was a person who left urban teaching, like everyone else I know.

Exaggeration: I know one person who has taught in urban schools a long time, and is still teaching in an urban school.  Most of us, almost all of us, get picked off by administrators, our own exhaustion, financial pressure.

How foolish it was for me to borrow thirty grand and then take the lowest-paying jobs in my field, over and over for ten years.  I really did that.  And all the money on my own office supplies and stuff for the kids— notecards, pens and pencils, treats (bribes).  I’m stingier than most teachers, honestly, but it still adds up.

For a long time, I felt I was making up for something, paying back my great public school education, paying back being white, for having a good family, for being loved.

People say, you’ve been on the front lines a long time, it’s okay to fall back.  Maybe nobody should do these hardest jobs, caretaking at our fringes, for a long time.  Maybe it just isn’t healthy, or can’t be healthy, right here, right now.

Friday I packed up all my stuff in front of the kids.  I was that gone. I was telling myself, I’ll protect you.  I won’t let anyone scream at you anymore.  I won’t let them disrespect you.

I must have scared them, by doing that, and by being gone the last two hours of the day.

I’ve spent the weekend thinking in flashes that of course I will go back, I’ll figure it out, as I have many times before, I’ll figure some way to limp forward, if not to march.

Things you would not, could not do, then you do.  Move to New York.  Kiss.

I became a city teacher because my parents divorced at the same time I learned about the civil rights movement in school.  That’s not fair, I thought, and it was all launched, tied up together.  It wasn’t a bad reason.  When I started teaching, though, I promised myself if I felt I was becoming lost, I would quit.  That doing good shouldn’t mean losing yourself.  That I wouldn’t teach somewhere kids threw things or where I felt unsafe.  But I do.  And I haven’t quit.

Along with “That’s not fair” and paying back my good fortune, there is also enjoying the weirdness of teenagers, their openness and fear together, their first shoots of adult life coming up, enjoying being a person they go to for help, and knowing the answers.

I think Dr. King would say, we are all sheep, but there are wolves in us.

I know they are sheep.  My meanest kid sneers, “She’s still here?” but there is a hint of relief mixed with his nastiness.  I hear it.

Image: Wolf, Anonymous, 17th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Yours

DP143725_CRDToday a kid asked me what my religion was, I used to dodge that question, today I just told him.  I don’t know why.

Episcopalian.  I mean Christian.  Episcopalian.  Did you, like, grow up in the church?  Yeah.  My family’s very religious.  He’s Catholic.  Other kid nodded.  He’s Catholic.  I’m nothing.  I mean, I’m a monotheist.  I believe in one God.  Oh.

I am nervous for a student who is performing in front of a huge crowd next week.  Gave me a ticket.  What is this?  I said.  I’m performing.  I didn’t know you did anything.  I do.  Can you come?  Yeah, I’ll be there. Nervous for my student who lives in a shelter, and gets paid to babysit, and is saving up so her parents can go out to dinner on their birthdays, which are close together.  Nervous for my student who was interviewed, suspicion of child abuse, I don’t know what happened.  Nervous for the student I told to be brave, cowards die a thousand deaths, but brave men, only one.  It’s the opposite, actually, I think.

I won’t know how they are this summer, not that I will want to, really, I will, shortly, fall into the deep and peaceful sleep of summer, and my fingers and toes will tingle with remembering myself.

I’m going to this boot camp thing this summer.  My dad is making me go.  But I want to be a Marine, so it’s good to get used to this stuff.

I want to work at a nursing home.  I wanted to volunteer there before, but I didn’t get to.  My grandpa died of Alzheimer’s while I was in my mom’s stomach still.

Can you put your number on these applications?  You’re my reference.  Wait, you were fired from your summer camp job?  No, it just ended.  Well, then, don’t check that you’ve been dismissed or asked to leave a job.  That means fired.  Oh, okay.

Nervous to leave them, it is always hard to let them go. The first kids I let go were my first class of preschoolers, at that preschool all the classes had names, and they were the Triangles and the Astronauts.  I still think about those kids, J, the dark-haired twin who laughed to screaming when I tickled him or when I told him we were having spiders for snack.  B who made me read The Grinch Who Stole Christmas every day for weeks that summer.  B and his best buddy R, always with their arms around each other, side by side, running to the block center to get some building done.

The kids for whom I made The Coloring Rules, a nonlinguistic guide to marker use in our room.  An uncapped marker with a slash through it.  An arrow showing a marker going back where it lived.

I quit my job at the preschool before I had another because I was so pained by the idea of leaving those kids.  They are so intensely yours, for a while, you are the one they will run to demanding band-aids and how to spell a word, you are so theirs, and then they are not yours at all.

A kid I didn’t know at all happened to be in my room today, and while everyone else was leaving class, I saw he was bending over the trash can.  Everyone else from that class had left already, he was alone there, throwing up.  “You’re okay,” I said.  I got him a chair, some gum, some water, a granola bar, Gatorade.  “Thanks, Ms Schurman,” he said, a bunch of times.  I didn’t know his name.

Image: Returning Home, Shitao, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Baltimore

photo-4From an interview with James Baldwin, just after the death of Dr. King:

Baldwin: It is not the black people who have to cool it, because they won’t.

Interviewer: Aren’t they the ones getting hurt the most, though?

Baldwin: That would depend on point of view.  You know, I’m not at all sure that we are the ones who are being hurt the most.  In fact, I’m sure we’re not.  We are the ones who are dying the fastest.

Yesterday I took this long walk in Manhattan from Chelsea to Chinatown, not because they both start with “Ch.”  Purple tulips, one lady with purple hair, one sign with a curl as one of its letters.  The townhouse Edward Hopper painted in, it is on Washington Square Park.  I climbed the steps to see the plaque that explained this, and stood on his stoop a minute.  I planned only to see things I hadn’t seen before, which was more difficult than I thought it would be.  I accidentally walked by the same pharmacy that always makes me think, what a fancy pharmacy, my doctor’s office, and a restaurant I ate in 1996.

Interviewer: Let’s talk about the average citizen, the white man… what should he be doing?

Baldwin: If he feels he wants to save his country, he should be talking to his neighbors and talking to his children….

Interviewer: What should he be telling his neighbors?

Baldwin: That if I go under in this country, I, the black man, he goes too.

I asked three of my students what they thought about the trouble in Baltimore.  Two of them had opinions.  One of them knew someone in Baltimore.  One was like, what?  I told him to look it up.  I printed off that interview with Baldwin, and an excerpt from The Fire Next Time, and I sat and read both with a pencil in hand.

This is from The Fire Next Time:

Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any [white] people ot treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that.

Five Bradford pear trees are blooming just outside the school, every time I go out they are there, a white not of purity or emptiness, but of unsplit light, these bloomed branches pressed against the sky so blue it is almost pink.  I walked under them, looked up at them, on my way to buy lunch for myself and a friend.

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this– which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never– the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

“It looks like it’s gonna rain,” one of my students said.

“No, it doesn’t,” I said.

“No, it doesn’t,” another kid said.

She looked again at the pink-blue sky.  “Oh, I guess not.”

Something very sinister happpens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.

The thing right now is “deez nuts,” that is what the kids are saying, pretty much every day, someone, and today I said, “That’s so last week,” and a kid considered, accepted that perhaps this was true, the saying was worn out.

Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

I saw also that my heart was full of little holes, pinpricks, and this is why it has trouble holding things, sometimes.

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.  If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

Guard Dogs

cerberusThe two big news stories since I moved from Missouri have been: anti-Semitic lunatic shoots up the Jewish Community Center, and cops shoot teenager who is black and unarmed.  Is that where I am from?  Well, yes.  It is a place that struggles with fear in its own ways.

We will always have trouble with people in authority and how they scare themselves and other people.

Terrible things happen when people get scared.  I was scared of Kansas City’s east side, the black side of town, until I went there for work, until I knew and loved so many people who lived there.  I’m still scared when alone in unfamiliar neighborhoods that look uncared for, neighborhoods where kids aren’t out playing or there is no one to see what happens to you.

I am scared of being alone, although I like being alone.  I am scared of not having enough money.  I am scared of falling down steps.  I am scared of thinking I am being funny but people are offended or think I am weird.  I am scared of not having enough time to think.  I am afraid of looking back on my life and thinking I was a coward.

When I get scared, I watch a lot of television.  I make a plan that involves begin to list things that are wrong with other people in comparison to what is right with me.  Being a hard worker, or laid back, or smart, or ignorant, really, anything will work.  I used to work a lot with logic, having faith in the logic of the world, the logic of other people, or even in playing the odds, how likely is that to happen?  Also, I think about how to make myself so okay that I will never need anyone else and then no one can ever disappoint me again.

These strategies are actually rather effective and thus it is hard to stop.

When cops get scared, really bad things happen.  Either cops are scared, or they are stupid.  They know people hate them and want to kill them.  They have a lot of fear to manage.

When teenagers get scared, and they are scared almost all the time because you may not recall but their whole selves are construction zones where heavy shit can fall and they aren’t even the foremen, usually.  Teenagers who are black have particular and real reasons to be scared.  Especially the ones who live in neighborhoods that give them PTSD.  This is still gunshot season, until about the first frost.  Then things calm down until Christmas when people have to deal with their families, or realize they don’t have money for presents they want to give.  And then you know the people who are supposed to protect you are people who even if you want to, you have trouble trusting.

Really bad things can happen when teenagers get scared.  Not necessarily the things people think of, running away, withdrawing, but often counterphobic stuff like stealing a car or borrowing a gun or cussing out a teacher or throwing a book at her.  (Said book was nowhere near aerodynamic enough to be anything more than a gesture, don’t worry.)

I think scared people are helped by sitting in a quiet room with someone who is either not afraid, or pretending not to be.  I am very good at the latter, not to brag.  Posture is important, too, that is, sitting next to someone, side by side, is usually good.  Lots of quiet is good.

I have plenty of fear experience, both of the average type, like, I am too afraid to move to New York, which is something I still think regularly although it’s hard to have faith in now.  And the pathological type of the anxiety disorder, which is a different species.

For religious people, repetition helps.  Chanting and praying the hours and ritual helps.  Singing helps.  Letting yourself feel your feelings helps, but this is very hard.

For many fears between people, conversation about food and annoying parents or annoying children helps.  The weather is a place to begin.

I had no great interest in the movie “Big Fish,” but I remember a scene with a big black dog.  Someone had to confront this very scary dog, and when they did, the dog ran away.  This doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes bullies don’t back down.  Sometimes they beat the shit out of you.  Sometimes they kill you.   You may be better off, though, working on your happy medium of not running away, not becoming aggressive, something in between, whether it is jokes or silence or shifting your weight.