Caroline in the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 02 2012

What goes up

I need to go outside, stand in the sun for a while. Read 1Q84 for a while, call my sister.

I’m friends with a chunk of TFA Detroit, and as a result my kids are pen-pals with a nice bunch at a charter. Yesterday talking with a Detroit CM, I learned one of our pen-pals died Tuesday evening. She was at home, inside, when three bullets came through her door and into her “skull and ribcage” as stated in the news. While the CM is understandably numb, I started crying immediately. One thing that I’ve developed since my own mom died is empathy for death, and those grieving. What if that was one of my mine? What would that girl have been as an adult? What future did we just lose?

And then we push from this one incident to all kinds of global problems, to death all over, to systems that are broken– but I can’t get this girl out of my head.

I decided to tell all my classes (she was one of my student’s pen-pal, after all), and ask them to donate anything they want to so I can send flowers to Detroit, and maybe send some cash to the family. All classes were visibly shaken, but after 4 minutes of processing, we moved on to other things.

Letting these kinds of conversations fall into the classroom feels dangerous. It’s filled with emotional liability, skipped standards, and irresolvable issues. But what is school teaching if we’re not teaching how to cope with arguably the one certainty of life? Death is guaranteed to everyone, and when asked, about 80% of my kids can tell you they’ve seen quite enough of it already, at 12.

Second period was not done in four minutes. Second period was the first class I told, and it was hard for me to not cry, which incited an emotional response. Students volunteered to tell the class that they wanted to send cards, that they have felt death, too, that they had had hard times. But the ultimate gamechanger was when New Girl raised her hand. New Girl is from North Carolina, is bigger than most, is incredibly articulate, clearly knows the difference between wrong and right, and will explain her thinking to anyone, asked or not.

The difference between New Girl and similar personalities at my school, is that New Girl is not a bully, she’s a reverse bully. She bullies bullies into thinking differently, to looking at their own actions.

New Girl (roughly): I want to say something about our class. There is someone in this class that gets bullied all the time. This person just got out her own dollar to donate to a girl who died, because she is kind. There is another person in this class who always bullies her. Who just did, by saying something about her dollar. [Note, said bullied girl is visibly impoverished, said bully is constantly muttering his under his breath, trying to get a laugh. The entire class knew exactly who she was talking to.] I want to tell that person that they are doing the wrong thing. That person is trying to be funny, is trying to get people to like him, but it’s the wrong thing to do.  It is not funny. And you don’t know what you are causing. Sometimes people are bullied until they commit suicide. At my old school, there were these two white boys that got called nerds all the time. They came to school with guns. They hurt people. Just for being called nerds! You never know how someone is going to respond to you bullying them. People will kill themselves …

She went on for probably five whole minutes. The class was in awe. This girl has been here for less than two weeks, and has such clarity and insight into the class, such guts and integrity, she saw a problem and held her classmates accountable.  I firmly believe hearing something like that from a peer is phenomenally more effective than from a teacher. I wasn’t reprimanding the boy, another student was. All I could think after the first minute was that there is nothing I want more than for this girl to become a teacher.

From there, the class took off. One by one, more and more students raised their hands and shared their thoughts. One girl’s older sister was killed as a by-product of bullying. One boy saw his uncle get shot and had his own life threatened multiple times. Another girl’s sister attempted to over-dose after bullying at work. Another girl burst into tears about worry for her grandfather, another girl explained that her own disabled grandfather was drowned when someone pushed him in a pond as a prank, the boy who greets me every day with a hug quietly said through watery eyes, “I want to thank her for telling us this story, because I think she said it very well.” After 20 minutes of hand-raising sharing, I allowed students to vote: write about what you feel, talk in small groups, or talk in a full group. It was unanimous that students wanted to keep as a group, wanted to feel the family. We moved our desks from groups to a circle, and I abandoned any idea of a lesson plan. While about 3/4s of the class shared, every single student was attentive, caring, and dead serious for the entire class period.

Though I know these things happen all the time, in classrooms everywhere, it was terrifying. I’ve never facilitated a discussion like this, never felt confident enough that I could handle the emotional weight and positive-thinking required to manage the grief of so many children. I’m not a counselor. I’m not here to solve emotional problems. But one of our classroom goals is to listen, speak, act and write like junior high students and today’s standard was speaking and listening to be heard. My students rarely work out issues rationally, rarely know what anyone else is dealing with, rarely get to relate on this level.

Teacher breakthrough, undoubtedly. But I don’t feel good about it. I feel tired. I feel sad. I feel again washed out by a giant wave– once management gets better, content becomes an issue; once content is stronger, emotions tear through. Maybe this is the Bloom’s of teaching: environment, content, emotional breakthrough.

I will say that by the end of class I felt like those students were genuinely a family, we were a family. For the last minute, as we put desks back, I told them to find someone that makes them feel safe and give them a hug or a handshake. To feel some connection, to feel less alone, to feel like even though this is harder than any standardized test we are all going through it, we are all human, we all have something to say and we are all going to be heard.

9 Responses

  1. Monique Christensen

    Bravo to you and your class! (typed through tears).

    • Today was most definitely a day full of tears, but I’m hoping the most productive kind! Thanks for the comment. :)

  2. Way to go teach. Tough subject to cover but it sounds like you handled it well. Very powerful to hear how your class took on this discussion.

    • So so nice to know you’re reading!

      • Little do you know, just about everything you write online ends up in my Google Reader and I read nearly all of it.

        Your writing and thoughts are motivating.

  3. Thanks for sharing this uplifting tale. It’s disheartening to think that this convo happened due to a transplant who hasn’t grown up in the Delta, but hopefully the kids who grew up in MS will have some of that new girl’s maturity and wisdom rub off on them.

    • and AR! :) We’re so lucky to have her join our school. What’s awful is every time she mentions her old school, I feel a pang like mine just won’t measure up to the experiences and services they gave her. After our conversation, she was telling me that they had a time set aside every Wednesday similar to this one, in which students got to talk about this mushy stuff. I wish we could implement something like that in our schools; God knows these kids need it.

  4. Rhonda

    One of the best days of education your class ever had. Kudos for your strength and for allowing it to develop.

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