Take A Load Off Annie

Parents versus teachers: we’re sort of on the same team, and sort of not.  When we clash, it’s ugly.

I didn’t go into teaching to sabotage or attack students. In fact, it hurts like the dickens when you suggest I haven’t done a good job.  When left unsupervised, about 1/4 of my brain obsessively catalogues my shortcomings.  I know my imperfections well.

It doesn’t help that our culture has put more and more of the responsibility on teachers, less and less on students and parents.  I kind of get off on everyone thinking I’m so powerful, but let’s face it: I can’t make a parent pay attention to a kid’s grades.  I can’t make a kid work.  I’m a stubborn, insistent motherfucker of a teacher, but I have my limits.

Ninety-five percent of the parents I’ve dealt with are supportive and respectful.  Five percent ignore their child’s schoolwork and academic progress, and then, at some point, abruptly demand to know why I didn’t alert them to it.  It takes every ounce of my self-control to not say, “I have a hundred kids.  How many do you have?”

Infuriated, I start mentally listing my responsibilities (just skip to the end of this when you get bored): supervise 100 kids, monitor their academic and emotional and physical health, plan three sets of activities for the three classes I teach, five days a week, constantly revising them to fit the particular group of students, time of year, day of the week, their other courses, current events, and mood in the building, check on student work while they’re working, keep everyone engaged all hour in productive work, vary social and individual and visual and kinesthetic and oral activities, balance writing and reading, create and grade homework assignments that are meaningful practice, choose literature samples that are compelling and both connect and challenge students, choose grammar exercises and explanations that are accessible and clear, and most helpful to the particular writing problems of that group, tutor students after school, offer extra help to the weak and extra challenges to the strong, clean my classroom, monitor the halls, sign demerit cards for uniform infractions, language, and lateness, meet with the disciplinarian about serious discipline issues, tweak assignments and tests for students with IEPs, meet with my team of teachers to discuss discipline, curriculum, scheduling, and education theory, make sure everyone gets lunch and snacks, refer the suicidal, pregnant, and self-destructive to the social worker, alert student to changes in the schedule or upcoming events, encourage them to monitor their own progress and reflect on their work, encourage age-appropriate developments toward abstract thinking and reasoning, give mints to the sleepy, comfort the sick, encourage the English department and protect them as much as possible so they can do meaningful work, read widely to stay abreast of educational research and current events and literature, and write frequently and seriously so that I can be an authentic writing teacher, offering advice that reflects how people, in all their various approaches, actually write.  Also I occasionally hold poetry readings.

Here’s what I want our parents to be responsible for: know what your kid’s grade is, and let someone at school know if you want to talk to us about that grade.  Here’s what I want the students responsible for: asking for help when they need it, pointing out my mistakes, and accepting a grade based on what their work (or lack of it).

Through the wonders of the internet, parents can look at student grades any old time they want to.  Before we had that system set up, I sent paper copies of grades home every week. Still, in meetings, parents would complain that they were in the dark.  (My students are older– as I like to remind them, old enough to drive a car.  I think if you’re old enough to drive a car, you must old enough to take some responsibility for yourself.  At least the state of Missouri thinks so.)

Often, they ask me to call them when their student has grade problems.  I do not have time to consider all 100 grades every day or every week or every month, and I don’t have time to ponder if you think the grade is appropriate and need a phone call.  (Parents also, of course, receive grades mailed home eight times a year, as long as we have an up-to-date address.)

Let me say again: 95% of our parents come in for meetings and tell the kid, “You better listen to your teachers and straighten up.”  I love that.  I especially love the ones who are frustrated or depressed or anxious, which is most of them.

The problem with putting more responsibility on teachers is that it cripples students.  If you work with students in poverty, encouraging a sense of helplessness and a lack of personal responsibility is the best way to keep them poor.  It’s hard for a school that serves such a population to make any demands on parents or students.  We know how much they are struggling with the basics.  But responsibility, even a little bit, is empowering.  We flatter ourselves when we say they have to rely on us, that schools have to bear the burden alone.  We don’t, and we shouldn’t.  It’s not helpful.

Architectural Cravings, Fatherly Advice, and Closed Doors

“For a few of my Harvard years, I taught drawing to architecture students, and during that time I became convinced that we human beings gravitate toward spaces that are metaphors for our inner lives.” –Martha Beck, Expecting Adam, Berkley Books, 1999.

My house has slanted ceilings, while my workplace has generous, soaring space above.  So are my personal goals cramped and limited?  Do I not give myself the space I give my students?  Both these places are old, and crumbly around the edges.  Is my inner life crumbly?  I think it is.  In a good way.  My classroom has huge windows, and my home has little ones.  My workplace is very public, open, out there, and my home is very tucked in, private.  The pitch of my ceiling at home is an acute angle, sloping down to the corners.  My classroom is all right angles.  Home is pinched and sheltered.  Work is strict, set, and accessible.

I read this book on my way to Rome last summer.  The cover embarrassed me a great deal.  It not only says, “National Bestseller,” it also has a soft drawing of a woman wearing a nightgown, barefoot, and looking at a daisy growing out of the dry, cracked ground.  I mean, seriously.  Ultimately, the brightness of Beck’s voice and the fervor of her spiritual callings is so engaging that I could never dismiss her as flimsy or cliched.

“What parents may sometimes do in a helpful way is to point out certain principles of action.  I do not think I would be helpful in advising you too strongly.  I do not even feel the need of doing that because I have so much confidence in your having really good judgment.  I believe that what I can do for you once in a while is to point out certain principles that have developed in my mind as sound and practical, leaving it for you yourself to apply them if your own mind grasps and approves the principles.”  — Katharine Graham quoting a letter from her father, Personal History, Vintage Books, 1997.

Is there anything more inspirational than someone saying, “I trust you”?  Especially a parent.  I love books about journalists.  They’re like writers, except more involved in the world, and a little less angsty.  Katharine Graham, who ultimately ran the Washington Post, shows the progress of women, from the surge of power and excitement in the 1920s and 1930s to the muffling of ambition in the 1950s, and finally a blossoming in the 1970s.  Her story is also painfully personal, and wryly told.  I occasionally hate her when she, say, meets Brancusi, but then I love her when she admits to humiliating self-doubt.

“‘Grace fills empty spaces… it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void…. The world is a closed door.  it is a barrier.  And at the same time it is the way through….The presence of a dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real.'”  –Francine du Plessix Gray quoting Simone Weil in her biography, Simon Weil.  Penguin, 2001.

I guess this goes to the rich man and the camel argument.  People who can care for themselves, people who don’t need anything, might have a hard time seeing the need for a God.  If you’ve always been lucky, luck might have no meaning to you.  Your losses are an opening for enlightenment.

The last part of the quote is from a little later in that chapter, and that’s what really got me going.  I didn’t know anything about Simone Weil.  I only read this book because it’s one of the Penguin Lives series that I love.  The absence of a missing person is real, while the presence is imaginary.  Maybe there’s nothing more real than the absence of someone you love.  Real: tangible, powerful, pushing.

Send Off

A hospital is an exciting place:  some people are there to sprout new people;  some people are there to die.  The post office is clearly a less dramatic location.  Still, as I stood in line, I was cradling my stack of papers like I held a state secret.

There were three people ahead of me.  All of them looked like they might be college kids studying abroad, maybe from India.  They were all sending small packages to the same place.

I imagined one of those boxes appearing on an Indian stoop.  A woman in a pink sari would lift it up, smile at the American stamps and the smeared, beloved name of her child in the return address, and yell,  “Hey, it’s finally here!”

I was sending off 30,000 words.  I wouldn’t say I had sweated over every single one of those 30,000.  I would say I had scowled or pondered or stretched or rebuilt most of them.  Thirty thousand words of fiction costs me about four years, an hour a day, plus all the reading and looking and moving and thinking of my thirty-two years.

When I was eighteen, I left home for college.  We drove the white minivan full of my important junk.  All the way across Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania.  I was terrified, and relieved, to be on my own.

I was the first kid in the family to leave.  So I think that plenty of the time, I was not missed.  There were other kids demanding their attention, and I had been pretty checked out of the family before I left.

On the other hand, I remember feeling that I was destroying the family.  My parents had divorced eight years before that.  The first destruction was their fault.  But the second destruction was mine.  I was breaking up the family.  I would be gone.  I was growing up.  It was a strange sort of revenge.

I think of things I write like children.  Things I made.  Things I worked with.  You have to send them off when they are grown up.  It won’t help anyone to keep them at home.  I don’t have my own children, but I am a teacher, and I have practice moving people along when they are ready.  God knows no one should stay in high school longer than necessary.  On to senior year.  On to college.

I hid the address on my package because it said, “Novella Contest,” and I knew it was extremely unlikely that anyone would say, “Hey, it’s finally here!” when they opened it.  I was trying to protect it, just for a few more minutes.

I finally got to the front of the line.  “You want insurance?  Confirmation of delivery?”  the clerk asked me.

“No, just regular mail,” I said.   “It’ll get there.”