Caroline in the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
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Jan 16 2014

Arkansas Winter

I have a lot of work to do.

This morning my homeroom class was incredibly stubborn, their eyes squinted, glaring, or piercing the linoleum. My voice was stern, little warmth, clear directions, fit for seven-year-olds, not pre-teens. Step by step we went.

“First, your head. Hold it up without any help. Hands and fists down, you must look without help.” Limp wrists curled against necks, little baby bird wings, flightless under tight jaws.


Slowly arms uncurled, pressed tight against ribcages or resting in fists on the desks.

“Now your feet. Go directly. Under. Desks.” Little movement. “Not to the side, not one in one out, both feet, under, desks.” Jordans and Walmart sneakers slid into place.

“Decide what I mean when I say this, and do it. Square. Up.” Instinctively, every student faced into their new five-person pod. Eyes quickly darting up, across from them at a new face. Someone they didn’t spend the last nine weeks up. Just as quick the eyes averted.

“Now last, the hardest part.” They were tense, waiting. “There is a pole, going straight through the top of your head and into your bottom. Your spine must be straight.”Backs pressed against the blue or maroon plastic of their worn out desks, lanky arms draped across the surface.

“This is how we will read. Every. Day. Full group, and in pods. When we do great, you will be allowed to independently read in whatever position you want, wherever you want in the room. But we must earn it.”

Today my room was icy with them, all the students so stubborn with their brand new copies of Number the Stars, a book they seemed to despise before opening the first page. They were raging when I didn’t directly answer raised hands, when I reflected questions and refused conversations. They were stiff and unfeeling when we read the first six pages as a class.

But they read. Their posture corrected as I walked by or as I interjected a sentence with, “Pause. Check your head.”

These students are capable, laughing, smart. They have infectious smiles and quick fingers, constantly twisting rubber bands into new bracelets, coloring graph paper in patterns. They take pride in their clothes, their work, their relationships and pens and homework grades. They are human.

When I started planning for Number the Stars my brain housed collision after collision of gradiose ideas: tie it in to bullying, and do a class project for the school; tie it in to Black History Month and historical figures that showed courage; show how color and ethnic and preference lines blur when we all recognize that we are human.

But this week started. Monday, after a long weekend of a grad school seminar I was late to (again) and a sixteen mile run that left me full of pride and whimpering at dusk in Murry Park, walking off my tense shoulders on Little Rock’s River Trail. The week started after I missed a call with an important resource for planning the Arkansas Teacher Corps’ summer institute, a job that is daunting and enticing when I can commit a straight two hours to attempting to plan. It started after allowing myself three straight hours of social time (after grad school, after a five mile run on Saturday) with frozen yogurt and homemade pizza; skipping a movie to go to sleep early on a red couch, preparing for the sixteen miles.

The week started and I didn’t feel prepared. I didn’t feel committed or excited about the tasks I was attempting to complete. The week started, and the paralysis of over-thinking turned into avoiding planning entirely, turned into lacking procedures, content, and delivery, turned into all of us hating this fourth grade level book that I had so much hope in.

I think by attempting a unit on bullying, I am bullying my students into taking this class more seriously. After having reading conferences last week, realizing that the vast majority of students are reading books on second, third, and fourth grade levels because they are comfortable, I am frantically trying to correct the error of prioritizing a tolerance for reading over a high level critical knowledge of reading. I am backtracking and overcompensating for not re-training reading procedures after our last three weeks of writing pen-pal letters, taking TLI tests that aren’t aligned to how I teach, and having time in class to complete homework packet after homework packet.

I am drowning in reality. In knowing that there is no halfway point Christmas break; we are past it. There is no promise of next year; this could be my last year as a classroom teacher. There is no way to perfectly put each tiny mind in a special mold of academic dreams and the intrinsic desire to not get pregnant before graduation. I am more than halfway finished with the year; I am infinitely behind in my work.

This morning I read off the names of each of my homeroom students at our nine weeks awards ceremony. Of my class, one single student did not earn an award. One student got her first citizenship (no discipline for nine weeks) award ever. Three had all A honor roll. I have never given out the number of awards I did today. I had so much pride as I read them out, so much love when I watched them shake our assistant principal’s hand. But as a handful of them got checked out, as tradition tells a select group to do each term, it disappeared when the stubborn remainder of my class came back to the room. Glum, angry, slouching.

When I got home from school I made a mug of tea and pulled out Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper, a book I’ve been reading during the 15 minutes of silent reading my students have each day in class. When I left off reading it this afternoon the protagonist was frustrated and worn out from responsibilities pulling her in too many directions at once: she’s being recommended to integrate Central High in 1957. This is my third book on the topic (after Melba Pattillo’s Warriors Don’t Cry and Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock) and after hating the first 30 pages I’m now deeply committed and concerned for the entire family of well-developed characters. I read with anger at what the Little Rock Nine went through and what my current students continue to go through.

I’m angry that people are homophobic, that race is an issue I can see in the actions of my students, that I have 26 grad school assignments left to do and that I haven’t pressed myself enough to effectively plan for Number the Stars. I’m angry that the second season of Girls is to authentically dark, that I’m not sure where I’ll live or what my job will be after August, and that my sister is not in this state and my mother is not on this earth to give me advice or to see every day.

I was reading this book on my back porch, drinking the tea and sitting in the lime green fleece Katie gave me last year after shrinking it post-camping. Angry at my day, at my life, at the eight miles I have scheduled today and the 22 my Nike+ is telling me I’m supposed to run tomorrow. I’m angry, but pitifully so.

My grad school director and mentor building principal sat in a conference room with me to talk about my internship today. The director drove over two hours to get there, and the principal took time out of caring for his daughter who’s been sick (him missing school all week) to meet with me. For me. To help prepare me to be an administrator. These men and I sat around a rectangular table, looking at spreadsheets of intern projects and talking about the expectations for each one. Deciding when to do them, who will help me with them, and the resources I need to finish the program. I was pulled out of class to do this.

I do not have a right to be dissatisfied. I have not the tiniest bit of room to complain. I cannot take any more breaths of frustration when in front of me I’ve walked into, built, and shared a system of support that is deeply rooted and completely optimistic. My angry students came back from their afternoons to prepare for buses begging me to grade the homework they finished early. My highest achieving student immediately was on a chair, erasing the date and schedule off the board to prepare me for tomorrow. The perfect neighbor-teacher and quick best friend sat with me in the hall (because after helping my struggle student complete his homework for tomorrow literally in the doorway before he left for the bus, I couldn’t manage to stand up again without encouragement) to decompress our day, and my homeroom’s what we call “grump grump attitudes.”

I was part of a beautiful same-sex union in a church in downtown Little Rock on New Years Eve. I spent the better part of my break with a delta gentleman who I am steadily attached to. One of my students left me a note on my desk before getting checked out that included, “I never want to leave your class because you are a very good teacher! One of the BEST teachers I have ever had.” My second class killed an assignment to revise for style, working entirely on the iPads we’ve had in the room for four days.

This season is always the hardest for me (for most?) I’m so used to preaching to first year teachers that once those October and November days are over, things go up and up. But those months were wonderful in 2013 and 2012– it’s the post-Christmas laziness, the high pressure test looming, and the anxiety and guilt that coat any thoughts of not being here next year, this is the season for those things. And the cold.

My weekends until late February are booked. New Orleans tomorrow, managing a PD day for new teachers, running a marathon, spending time with the beau, a flight to meet a baby in Chicago. My life is full of celebration, support, love. I am proud, I am happy, I am blessed with the opportunity challenge brings and the strength it nurtures to grow. 2014 is both nothing and everything I’ve expected.

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