Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I get on a flight to Providence tomorrow evening. I cannot wait to see old friends and family, but I can already predict that my students will never leave my mind.

I have all my students keep a journal in which they respond to prompts I have given them. One prompt asks the students to recall their hardest decision. One of my favorite students, a boy I'll call Mansor, had a particularly striking response: "choosing between living with my mom or living with my dad." Though I realize this is a decision that must be made by many children who have divorced parents, the story of how Mansor had to make the decision has stayed on my mind since I read his journal.

Immediately following a domestic dispute in Mansor's house (during which his parents fought physically as Mansor, his brother, and his sister tried to pull them apart), Mansor's mother scooped him up and placed him in the back seat of the family's car. Bags packed, she told the children she was leaving their father for good. Screaming for his father, Mansor opened the car door as his mother was backing out of the driveway and jumped out of the car, running back to the house and his father. A few weeks later, Mansor, his parents, and his siblings appeared in family court. Upon being asked with whom he wanted to live, Mansor picked his father while his siblings chose their mother. He was nine years old.

Though many (myself included) may, at first, doubt some of the details in this story, I have no reason to believe this boy would lie to me, particularly in his journal. All I am left thinking is how I would have deal with that situation, or a similar one, at that age, and how such a decision would effect the rest of my life. I am sure that I would not be able to be as happy and outgoing as this young man seems to be. Many of my students drive me crazy on a daily basis. But there certainly are moments when I stand in awe of them. Those are the moments that make this journey so bearable, even on the bad days.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

For one of the Teacher Corps graduate school classes we were asked to read A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. I usually keep a personal policy of avoiding books by an author who insists on adding the "Ph.D." to the end of their name, as I am commonly bothered by individuals who find it necessary to continually remind those around them that they have their doctorate. Payne, Ph.D.'s photograph on the back of the book was equally disconcerting: her red blazer and feathered colored hair were both disturbingly premeditated and the entire composition was meticulously airbrushed. Alas, this reading was required. So, Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D., here I come...

Like many other sociological examinations, Payne, Ph.D.'s book tries to get the reader to imagine what it would be like to live in poverty. So, the book is basically all about perspective or, more specifically, how an individual's perspective alters how they relate to the world. To emphasize this point, Payne, Ph.D. develops lists of "the Hidden Rules for each Socioeconomic Class." For example, one of the lower class rules is, "do you know which rummage sales have the best values?"; a middle class rule asked, "do you know how to get your children onto the best soccer and basketball teams?"; and a upper class rule asked, "do you know how to hire the proper designer to plan your home's holiday decorations?" While these lists are not an exact science (I am not so sure if poor people value their family any less than their wealthy counterparts), they certainly got me thinking about how each class has their own secret world. This secret world allows them to conceptualize not only those who share their economic status, but also those who are above and below them in status and wealth. In this sense, the class system in the United States is much more defined than I ever thought it was; in more ways than I can envision off the top of my head, one can relate it to India's caste system.

Another thing that surprised me was the degree to which debt is a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Spiraling debt" sounds like a catchphrase Suze Orman would use to sell her new financial self-help book, but Payne, Ph.D. actually makes it a feasible framework. Basically, Payne, Ph.D. outlines the ways in which debt accumulates - both slowly and quickly - until those who are in debt cannot climb out of their hole. It made me think of that old math question - would you rather a $25,000 cheque on the first of the month, or to get a 1 cent cheque on the first day of the month and then have your cheque double each day until the 30th of the month. It's amazing how fast the money (or the lack of it) compiles.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, however, was the lower class' complete lack of support systems. About a month ago, I posted an entry on this site that examined how much my friends and family had helped me over the past few months, especially since I am so far away from home. I would go insane - or worse - without them. Payne, Ph.D. clearly shows that poor individuals are often at a complete lack for familial support. More than any other aspect of poverty, this is what would kill me.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Difficult day in school today. I thought my 6th period was coming along, but as soon as I tried something different with them - I put them in pairs to peer edit - there were problems. Kids were off topic left and right, they were talking about everything but for their essays, and it seemed as if nobody was following my very explicit directions. It has been a pretty difficult week for me and I almost lost my temper once or twice, but I guess this job teaches patience if nothing else. What perhaps added to my frustration was the fact that my 5th period had fielded the same exact set of directions smoothly not fifteen minutes prior. Although I do think the quality of student is exponentially better in my 5th period, I still fault myself for not being able to handle that 6th period.

My mood fluctuates a hundred times each day, but the past week has seemed to include more than its fair share of valleys. Just when I thought I was headed in the right direction, numerous circumstances have combined to turn my ship into harsh waters. I am battling a nasty fit of homesickness, and I seem to blame every problem I encounter on my surroundings (the state I have come to call *#&$!@% Mississippi) instead of myself.

True to this recent development of constant pouting, this entry itself has become obnoxiously whiney. I sometimes become angry with myself for such moods and Teacher Corps for encouraging me to complain. It seems like many people in the program like to hear themselves complain, and I hate to think I am becoming one of them. We are made to think that teaching is such a difficult pursuit that it is acceptable to continually hark on those tribulations. And as I sit here and whine, I am becoming increasingly angry with myself for even entertaining and verbalizing those complaints. The only thing that bothers me more about other people's bitching and moaning is when I lend my voice to that unproductive chorus. I don't know what to do to rebound from this slump, but I know if I am going to remain in this program and in this profession I must do all I can to find the energy that brought me to Mississippi.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Before seeing the school at which I am teaching, I expected to encounter a dirty, hardly inhabitable building that had not been cleaned or refurbished in a generation. I expected my peer teachers to be borderline illiterate, my principal to be incompetent and overbearing, and my students to be unwilling to learn. All of these expectations were a result of what the Teacher Corps told me: expect the worst. My situation is not ideal, particularly in regards to many of my students, but it is not nearly as bad as it could be. My principal is supportive and kind. My peer teachers are largely competent and interesting, and I find it easy to avoid those who I do not like. To my great surprise and delight, I have encountered a number of teachers who are interesting, intelligent, and young. In short, they are excellent resources to have in the same building. Those teachers are made up of a core of Teacher Corps alums, and it is great to see the Corps and those they train are making a difference.

The one major disappointment is my students. Although most are not nearly as disrespectful as I expected, some are more disrespectful than I ever could have imagined. Almost all of them are less intelligent than I had hoped. More disturbing is the fact that so many have no idea how to achieve their largely ambiguous or unrealistic goals (NBA star, famous singer). Additionally, the have no idea how to reach those goals (for example, the kid who wants to play in the NFL isn’t even on the football team). Most realize that college is loosely important, but cannot define the root or meaning of that importance. At their worst, my students are ignorant, intolerant, and not open to learning anything new.

But, like anything, I must search to find the best in any situation. I only hope that I can find the best in my kids before they wear me into the ground.