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.

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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.

Six Months

IMG_0843Part of my Lenten practice this year is Seven Sun Salutations, at least, in part, for the alliterative value of that practice.  It reminds me of that bit on “Sesame Street” with the baker.  “Seven…sun…salutations!”  The other part is letting myself mourn my old life.  One of my godmothers mentioned to me that it was okay to do this.

It seems ungrateful.  I am reluctant to say anything negative about my move, since, after all, I chose it, and I am so lucky to get to do this, and you get to have all these great adventures, and blah, blah, blah, but my godmother said I could, so I will.

“You had roots,” she said.  I did.  I mean, I do.

Last Friday I went straight from work to Penn Station.  One of my classes on Friday was quite unpleasant.  I will repeat that my limits allow for kids yelling, not sitting down, throwing small objects, using profanity.  They do not allow for kids touching me, yelling profanity at me (once or twice a year max), throwing anything that could actually hurt anyone.  The unpleasant hour was within my limits.  Merely I won’t shut up, I won’t sit down, I won’t do any work.  With my freshmen, they are certainly not perfectly behaved, but on our bad days, instituting a bit of silent reading time has always been enough to settle us to productivity.  Not Friday.

Year nine of teaching, and yes, I still have times, days, I think, maybe I am not cut out for this.  I suck.  I do not have that je ne sais quoi that makes people listen.  MLK had that, but then, so did Hitler.

The previous day, I had taken kids on a great field trip, got to see lots of them smile and say things like, “I’ve never eaten dumplings before!” and one kid had written me this uber-sweet thank you letter.

There are some things in teaching I’m good at, some I’m not.

I finished my day with a teacher meeting where we shared some of our regrets, weaknesses, and fears.  That helped.

Being a teacher fosters both pride and humility.  Lots of both.

The train ride to Philadelphia was long enough I felt myself come back into my body.  I pulled my suitcase from the train station to the art museum.  A guy in front of me on the sidewalk said I looked French.  The beret.  Then he said he had met some Italian tourists recently who asked how to get to “Baltimoray.”  Doesn’t everything sound better in Italian?  Of course it does, we agree.

Everyone at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was elaborately friendly.  It was like I was in Georgia, but no one had an accent.  “Is there anything else I can do for you?  Anything in particular you want to see?”  the ticket sellers said.  “Hi, how are you?” several of the guards said as I walked by.  I can’t remember a museum guard ever greeting me.

I met my cousin that evening, and he hugged me.  We went out to dinner, and someone said, “I can tell you’re related.”

The next day I met an old friend, and she said offhandedly, “You know how I am,” and I do.

Between the two of them, they have known me 54 years.

I miss being able to help people because I know who they should talk to, where they should go for this or that.  I miss playing hostess, which I did a lot during my mansion days.  I miss introducing people to each other, hoping they will enjoy each other’s company or somehow benefit each other.  I miss knowing what is going on.  I miss having so many people I love spending time with, time that is hours of just talking.  I miss knowing where I want to go, what I want to eat.

At the Philadelphia museum, I saw this piece by Michael Snow.  Snow took a metal tub and set objects in it, poured in some grey liquid plastic, put more random stuff in, poured more plastic in.  On the left is the now-hardened bin.  On the right is a pile of white gloves.  In the middle are 22 wooden slabs.  A Philadelphia-friendly brunette young woman says, “Would you like to participate in our interactive display here?”

Of course I would.  I put on the gloves and pawed through the pile of slabs, as directed.  They are images of the tub being created, object by object, gluey grey plastic and more gluey grey plastic.  Things being engulfed.  They were in that tub now.  Sort of.  They were no longer accessible.

“Sesame Street” Seven with the Baker

PJ

1506015_10201373421285344_1430477510_nI did not expect PJ to actually bring a shrunken head into my classroom during my planning period.

When he told me to touch the shrunken head, of course I had to.  I did not want to, but he showed such devil-may-care affability that I would not be shown up.  He had brought the head in his briefcase.  He told me a fabulous story about how he got it, when he was in South America doing research for his PhD.

He cracked jokes about race I wasn’t sure I could laugh at until he wiggled his eyebrows and tapped my shoulder with the back of his hand.

When I say to someone, “You are so full of shit,” I mean this as a compliment.  No one takes it that way.  What I mean is, you are a little inside-out, for this world, saying crap you might or might not mean, because what does it mean to mean something, anyway?  And who are you, anyway?  And what can you joke about if you can’t joke about death and religion and sex and politics?

It means you seem to take things only as seriously as they are, and for me that means both very seriously and not seriously at all.  It’s a paradox, like all great ideas.

PJ was totally full of shit.

He came to one of the arts shows I organized.  He bought a drawing by a six-year-old that was on display, crouched down to meet her, and then commissioned an additional work.  He was a history buff, so I was happy he got to see the house where I was sort of squatting, the house I knew the history of.

He told me about how he had to buy the whiskey for card night at the mayor’s house because the mayor, a reverend, couldn’t be seen at the liquor store.

When I wrote an anonymous letter to the school board about things administrators had said and done, he told me everyone thought he had written it, and I thanked him for covering for me.

A grandfatherly black man at an inner city black school can, as he nonchalantly admitted, do whatever the hell he wants.

He knew who he was, and he was thoughtful about how people saw him– how could he not be, as a black guy who lived through the ’60s in America and got an education?

He had an academic remove, and a personal anger, and he seemed to quite frequently enjoy himself.

He worked out with the students every day and talked health and fitness frequently.  He would gladly flex his biceps for you.

He was a Vietnam vet.  Every time I asked him how he was, he would say something about the Mekong Delta.  A friend on Facebook reminded me in his post.  It was, “I aint had a bad day, even when I was waist-deep on the Mekong.”  Yeah, that’s it.

I never saw him grouchy, not really, and no matter how I was feeling when I ran into him, I left with lighter shoulders.

When I told him I was interested in family history and slavery, he bought me a book on the topic for my birthday.  Along with the book, on my desk, was a bottle of wine (in a bag, thank goodness) and a card that had a joke about boobs.  I loved it all.

He talked however he wanted, which was, frequently, fast and loose and ridiculous, sprinkling his sort-of asides and sort-of jokes to the kids with the “n” word, references to slavery.  When he first showed up, none of us teachers knew what to make of him.

He was one of the people older than me who make me look forward to being older and getting softer and looser and more ridiculous every year.

My former students are spending today posting their remembrances and expressing their sadness.  He was our building sub, and the track coach, but actually he was the school grandfather, especially for kids who didn’t have fathers or grandfathers, but even for the ones who did.

He was maybe five-six, significantly shorter than me, but he seemed taller and he always walked like he was president of the room.

He dressed like it was 1960.  Blazer.  Turtleneck.  Straightened hair, combed back.

1897006_10152162453602508_534265889_nHe did Civil War reenactments, including giving presentations as his ancestor,a slave, alongside the descendent of his owner.  He taught me about slavery in Missouri, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Vietnam, anthropology, and, of course, shrunken heads.

They were in a cave, he said.  They were taken there because PJ looked more trustworthy to the South American guy– that is, PJ wasn’t white.

How did he get the head through customs?

He taped it to his crotch.

I rolled my eyes.

No one suspected a thing.  He could have hidden anything there.  No matter how huge.  Because, you know, he was a black man.  And you know what people expect.

Interview with PJ, that is, Dr. Johnson

Yes

Lois Lowry taught me who Freud was.  A guy prominent enough to have a bust, one that her character, Anastasia, kept in her room and talked to.  Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst was the name of one of the books I loved.  Reading about a Freud bust, a big Victorian house in the city of higher education.  She wore glasses, she was an intellectual, and a little bit of a snob, as I hoped to be, joking about Freud as if this was a normal thing for a young girl to do.

I sat on the floor of a small college auditorium and Lowry, my favorite author of my later grade school years explained that she got so many sweet letters about her first book, A Summer to Die, she was led to continue writing for kids.  The book, although it has a grim title, is a sweet juxtaposition of a girl’s losing her sister and witnessing the birth of a neighbor’s baby in softly lit hippie-at-home birth-style.

Ms Lowry spoke along with another writer, someone I didn’t know.  I was pretty amazed I had managed to get to downtown Brooklyn relatively on time, and to be let into the room even though it was packed.  I was also relieved the Book Fair volunteers told us we could sit on the floor.  Pretty much every day here I do something new and painful to my feet.

The great author told us that for years, she had a paper she had written for high school English.  Her teacher had written, “Your writing is good, I think you could make something of it.”  It is now lost, but she kept it a long, long time.

My teacher wrote something on my story “The Owl and the Magic Tree.”  To be honest, that teacher made everyone feel like a million bucks.  Which is not to discount the quality of “The Owl.”  I’m sure it was brilliant.

Another story I found curious: Lowry received an email without punctuation, rife with spelling errors, an only sort-of paragraph.  The email was about how the kid wanted to be a writer.  She wrote back, “It’s important to listen to the lessons your teachers teach you about grammar and punctuation.”  The child’s mother wrote her back, infuriated that Lowry had damaged the kid’s self-esteem.

I am always ready to defend the cause of linguistics over grammar Nazism, and remind people of the living nature of language, blah, blah, but really, you want to be a writer and you can’t use periods?  How can the writer not comment on such a thing?  When is your attempt at communication such disrespect that it begs for a kind, solid intervention of reality check.  One cannot write for others without some rules.

Four of my six classes are working on the hazing part of my induction to the new school.  One kid who was throwing paper across the room whenever I turned my back, I stopped him at the end of class.

“I hate writing,” he said.

“Uh,” I said, gathering my thoughts.  “Why?”

“I just do.  I hate it.  I can’t do it.”

“Like, you don’t want to do it because you might get your paper handed back covered with red ink, like everything you did wrong?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Oh.  That’s not what I do.  I won’t do that.  I promise.”

The longer I am teaching, the more I am likely to forget to explain these basics, to reassure kids of things, like the fact that I am not the grammar police, that I don’t, and won’t, make my life harder and make myself feel smarter by taking the red pen to their papers until they are “right.”

As I walked here today, I was having my usual agony of not knowing what I would write about, then sat down and realized I had not brought my notebook, so I would have to type everything, no warmup, no emotional pen time first.

The best thing about opening up to make something, or mentor others to create, is all the moments of yes that present themselves.  Yes, you can type instead of hand write for one day.  Yes, people who wrote books you loved are people.  Yes, that is a whole paragraph that is there, thank God, and yes, it needs periods.  Yes, you can stop throwing paper across the room.  Yes.