DP278210.jpgThis kid was sitting in my room, I realized it was his lunch time.  “Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?” I said.

New teacher to the school, here is a list of things I didn’t know this morning:

  1. If not going to the cafeteria during lunch is a punishable offense.
  2. How to print anything.
  3. How to make my fancy Prometheus board do anything, up to and including getting fire from the gods.
  4. Where on earth yesterday’s attendance sheets were.
  5. If Baz Luhrmann, bless his heart, was going save my life again with his version of “Romeo & Juliet” that could entrance anyone, anyone.
  6. How many kids were going to show up today without anything to write with.
  7. Really, any of my students’ names.  Well, I might know like five of them.
  8. What I did with the 8th period assignments from yesterday.
  9. How many kids were going to say, “I already read Romeo & Juliet!”
  10. How quickly the kid who was nasty to me in the morning would change to a mild-mannered sort when asked, in the afternoon, what kind of candy she liked best.
  11. That one class finds stickers insultingly “babyish,” and another is quite satisfied with them.
  12. That a pen could get caught under the classroom door, and when a kid and I would try to free it, we would break it instead.
  13. How many kids, when offered the opportunity to ask me anything, would say, “How old are you?”

There were two moments today I really lost it.

The first time, there was another adult in the room, and I walked right over and said, “What do you think I should do?”  I don’t know if that was the right thing, or if that made me look bad, but I’ve wasted enough of my life being too proud to ask for help.

The second time, I walked around the room for a bit, pretending to be checking kids’ work, in reality completely out of hope.  While I was walking, I found a few kids were working and appreciated attention and help.  I went to get the Starbursts– our currency of choice– and handed out a few to those kids.

“Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?”

I bought the big box of golf pencils I knew I would need, and the ocean-scented air freshener, the scent my 7th period class chose, over Flowers or Xmas.  And some of those fancy wipes to clean things to keep us from giving each other the flu, since we’re in, for the winter, where we are, where, let’s say, we’re supposed to be.

Note: Luhrmann came through again.

Image: Hercules or Atlas Supporting the Globe, possibly by Clodion, Metropolitan Museum of Art






Speak Tenderly

glassesThis week: the social worker was trying to talk to this woman with her eye swollen out of her head, the woman was thrusting her cell phone at this very young social worker demanding she talk to her dad.   The hospital security guards talked about what to have for dinner.  A college girl from Columbia waited for her dad, and then her dad put his jacket over his face and lay down to wait.  The receptionist called people to tell them what time to be there for their surgeries.  A guy I wasn’t sure if he was homeless ate a banana and then he picked up all his stuff to leave and clearly he was homeless and keeping himself together very well.

I typed up a unit plan for the Aeneid and played Candy Crush until it wasn’t fun anymore and squinted because the light hurt my right eye.  I was so pissed this was taking so long, waiting is one of my primary anxiety triggers, that is why I try always to be late for everything.  All elsewhere around the city people were marching and chanting and yelling and lying down in streets because a cop who killed a guy had not been indicted.  I saw one of their signs resting against a newspaper stand the next morning when I was walking to work.

Also this week: one of my students sat toward the back.  Was trembling.  I know what to do.  At least not to make things worse.  Sit next to.  Pat on arm.  Tell everything will be okay.  Let friend take over.  Compliment friend later when he rejoins class.  Thank him.  Go back and offer to listen to problem.  Student tells me what I already know: cousin was stabbed, can’t get cousin on the phone.  I told student you can’t use your phone in the hospital, I was sure cousin was fine.

I still haven’t really felt this.  It takes time.

After spending last Friday night throwing up and hoping to throw up and wandering my dad’s house looking for some kind of medicine maybe I should take, I pulled myself out of my brother’s old bunk bed with the model planes flying above me and the giant stuffed pony on the top bunk watching me like some kind of creep to be driven to the Christmas tree farm where we talked with Jack Russell’s son (Jack Russell died last year) about the prospects for keeping the tree farm open, and how much water the baby trees need.  My mother took the tree home, I went back to the bed with the model planes above it.

At church tonight we didn’t pray together for Eric Garner’s family, or the police, or the city, it is unusual for us not to be on something like this, but we are between priests.  We did have Isaiah, though: “A voice says cry out! and I said, ‘What shall I cry?  All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.”  Or perhaps you would prefer: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

I heard our neighbors knew Eric Garner, went to barbecues with him.

I told people who were going to the protests that I hoped it would be fulfilling.  I think it was like telling people I hoped a funeral would be good.  Some funerals are better than others.

In my advisory, we watched the CNN video about the Garner verdict and I told my students black kids look like my kids to me.  They talked some, too, and then they wanted to play Uno and loud music which I generally don’t like except for the new Beyonce song, that I might like.  “Oh, my God, Ms Schurman, you know this song?”  And we talked about the video, I liked it, she hated it.

I’ve been wearing my glasses for a week now, very unusual.  I had eye problems that made doctors forbid me to wear contacts, but it’s been years.  I used to put them in to go dancing, against medical advice, I couldn’t stand the idea of going out, dressed up, in glasses, I did not feel pretty in glasses, also the way we danced glasses would sweat or fly off my face.  This week the problem has been that it has rained.  Without an umbrella on Friday night it got hard to see, walking from the subway home.  I just took them off.  Nice, rain on your face, when it is not too cold and you know you are going home.  I could hardly see at all, blurs of red tail lights and smears of yellow streetlight and none of the sidewalk cracks.  I got there anyway.

Image: Spectacles, Met Museum Online collection, gift of Mr. Alfred M. F. Kiddle, 1940


There was a hawk sitting on the window air conditioner, three stories up.  There was me.  But otherwise the place was dead.I kind of figured there’d be a lot of liquor bottles, but mostly the empties had held water or pop.  Westport Junior High has been closed for a year.  Across the street is Westport High, a place much mourned at its closing.  I didn’t hear much about the junior high.  It’s a red brick building with plenty of architectural flourishes.  Bold, proud ionic columns on each side of the main door, and those curls like Hawaiian surfing waves roaring over it.  At some point, they built a clumsy-looking parking garage to the west of the main building, and a bridge from one structure to the other, about three stories up.

I walked around the whole place.  Imagining a kid getting pushed down the steps.  Kids screaming and waving down at people below from the bridge to the parking garage.  Kids walking around there in the worst state of their bodies, in the worst moods of their lives, enduring the worst social traumas.  In the back, there’s a long, paved strip of blacktop, only one runner’s lane wide, that looks like it might loop around the field back there.  It doesn’t.  It just stops.

The school where I work is much plainer.  It’s also red brick, but our only decorative features are a few images around the front door: an oil lamp, an open book, some Latin that I don’t know what it means.  Inside, we have the empty niches where saints and Jesuses used to preside.  There are still crosses embedded above them.  Once a kid was perched up there during passing period, and I didn’t think that was such a great idea, so I said, “Do you know who used to sit there?”  He looked up at the cross.  “Oh.”  “So maybe you don’t belong there.”  He smiled and got down.

In places, it’s crumbly, but our school is alive.  I went by today to pick something up, and the voices of the students are, as always, scampering around and bouncing up new expressions.  There’s usually someone in the garden, picking collard greens– a kid who doesn’t want to be at home and couldn’t get a summer job.  In the library, there are kids gossiping about what happened at a party last weekend, and what someone said on facebook.  The summer school kids burst out at 12:30 and zip in to bug the library kids.  There’s football weight lifting and volleyball practice and cheerleading practice and open gym and people coming in to pick up bags of produce from the garden for tonight’s dinner.

I love schools, places where people were vulnerable, and places where they changed, for good or for ill.  At my school, I know the stories: my mother, my aunts and uncles, my friends, friends of friends, people who only exist in stories that I pass along over pitchers of beer– they’ve given the walls character, and it pleases me to see it still so alive.  We don’t need perfect schools in the inner city.  We just need schools that are healthy enough spots for kids to grow.


If we’re too enlightened to beat up on the minority group of the hour, at least we have our school system to beat up on. I hear the phrase “failing schools” at least once a week, and last night Oprah went on a Godzilla-hits-Tokyo style hike through educational controversies. I watched skeptically, and barked at the TV a lot. (Tenure systems vary! What makes a teacher “good”?) There are a couple of premises that often appear in these debates that trouble me on a deeper level. While often spouted as obvious realities, I have a lot more questions than answers about education.

Were schools better at some point in the past? When were they better, and what was better about them? Can we learn from that, or are our current circumstances too different? Was everyone better served then, or only some students? Is it possible (or desirable) to create a school where EVERY student is accommodated? How much do students need to practice fitting in and adapting to others’ needs while at school, and when should the school/teacher accommodate individual needs?

How should schools change? Do we want schools to move quickly, like technology companies, or do we want them to move conservatively, more carefully? How much are we willing to risk on educational trends and theories and new technologies? If schools today need to prepare students for post-secondary education, why do Americans have to take out heavy personal debts to pay for college? How much technology should students study in school, when it’s likely their knowledge will quickly become outdated?

What societal problems do we want to fix? Will hard work in school make students successful? If they don’t think so, who has taught them that lesson? Who have they seen not succeed? Why do so many jobs not pay enough to sustain a family? If there is work cleaning hotel rooms and slaughtering chickens and running cash registers and waitressing, why don’t those people have medical care, a place to live, and basic transportation? Will students who live in crime-ridden areas choose those jobs over crime if offered an excellent education? If they have schools just as good as the wealthier students, can they do just as well? Or do their schools need to be better, because they have further to go? Do schools offer equal opportunity to learn, or equal opportunity in life? Should schools wait until the kid left behind catches up to the middle, or push the advanced students as far as possible?

No matter what you think about the state of education, it’s hard on teachers and kids to hear people throwing the word “failure” at us day after day. The word “failure” makes people defensive and angry and shoves responsibility on some, while exempting others. Our public school system has been growing with us for more than 100 years. It has been constantly reforming and changing with our culture. Continuing to reform it requires our respect, patience, and thoughtfulness—not insults and dismissals.