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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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teaching teens

The Most Critical of Workers are Reporting for Duty: Students in the Pandemic

As school starts back, we have a whole new essential workforce hitting the frontline in the pandemic. Teachers were labeled critical workers by the POTUS. And that is as it should be. We are willing and able to meet the challenges ahead — especially with a dedicated and conscientious school system supporting us. 

But I’m here to call attention to another group of critical workers out there — a group vital to the core function of society and the entire future of our great nation. A group of young, unsung heroes willing to do whatever it takes to succeed under strange and difficult demands. 

I’m talking about our students.

The changes these kids are facing — and embracing — are enough to rattle the steadiest of veterans. Our school has opened on a hybrid schedule, leaving us at half capacity inside our walls, with kids reporting both in person and virtually at different times throughout the week. The hallways and stairwells have one-way signs, there are hand sanitizer stations every fifty feet, lunches are eaten inside classrooms, masks are worn when social distancing isn’t possible, and desks face one direction and sit six feet apart.

But these kids of ours — these superhero Gen-Z go-getters — they are taking all these hurdles in stride just to be here and be educated in far-from-ideal and so-far-from- normal conditions.

And they’re doing it with smiles on their faces. Not that I can see their mouths, thanks to the masks they wear so willingly — but I can see those smiles in their eyes. And they can see mine. Or I truly hope so. Because I love being with them again, interacting, forging relationships, watching light bulbs click on, discussions unfold, learning ignite. 

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s far from easy peasy Lysol squeezy. Despite our school system creating one of the best re-opening plans I’ve seen out there, I’m not gonna lie, things feel weird. Because being socially distanced to keep us all together is messing with the normally exaggerated and wide-open personalities of my teen students.

I’m sure some of it has to do with the trauma of the past four months — the PTSD of losing classrooms and classmates and social lives literally overnight. And I’m sure a large part also has to do with the smaller class sizes and the masks we wear.

But y’all… I’m used to kids who like to talk. Who, if anything, talk too much most of the time. They’re teenagers. On the cusp of adulthood. It’s a confusing stage under normal circumstances. So they talk through their confusion in class A LOT… way more than they do at home. They feel freer to vocalize thoughts, feelings, dreams, and fears. And through their persistent chatter, formal class discussions, and best-friend heart-to-hearts, they learn who they are, what they know, what they believe, and where they stand in life. And I love that about teenagers. 

Like, really. I’m not lying. Some teachers love it when their students are silent. But me, I love it when they’re not. When they feel comfortable and safe enough to give voice to their rapidly-evolving thoughts and feelings. 

But this year, they are quiet. Eerily so — as if the masks are acting as mufflers. 

And not just for them. Me too. 

I teach because I love to make connections, to share literature and love and learning with young people so they know and understand their worth and potential. My goal is always to make a positive impact. 

But this year, my impact feels muffled, like my best efforts are falling on… not quite deaf ears, but more like mute mouths. Our kids, I think, feel vulnerable and isolated and self-conscious. 

But then, these kids are also brave. Brave and here. At school. In a brick and mortar building. Present and determined. They make me prouder than they’ll ever know. 

I wish I could put into words how much I love them. How far I am willing to go to help them succeed. How much they inspire me to be the best possible teacher — because they deserve only the very best. 

As our superintendent says, this school year should be seen not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to grow and become better at our craft. I want to be a better communicator and a better teacher — to bridge the social distancing distance and reach my students. And teach my students. And see them grow. 

I will rise to that opportunity, and I will seize it with both hands (well-sanitized, of course).

Because my students are willing to do the same. 

The 2020 Class of Grit and Grace

Yesterday was my senior students’ last day of high school, and unfortunately it was virtual. It breaks both my heart and theirs. I came to know many from this 2020 class as juniors last year, my first year at Cartersville — and those of you who teach know how those kids you teach your first year (whatever “first” it may be) live in a special little place in your heart.

But this crew didn’t just carve out a niche, they climbed in and set up camp. And when we were all yanked apart eight weeks ago, my heart was left numb and aching.

I miss them like nobody’s business. They are a smart, fun-loving group, full of moxie and mirth, despite life being more than a little unfair to them.

Several of them I’ve had the honor of teaching two years in a row — last year in American Lit and this one in journalism. There’s one particular group of girls who’ve written about the impact coronavirus has had on their lives — everything from emotional turmoil to lost milestones and missing friends.

But while they do address the negatives, what I find profound and powerful is the grit and grace they’ve uncovered in themselves, despite the unforgiving situation. I find myself humbled and inspired by these young adults.

One bubbly eighteen year old with eyes blue as May skies and an outlook equally clear, explains how she finds comfort in the pandemic: “I completely lose myself in words. [I have a] need for music and reading. It’s a haven for me, a place for me to say and think what I want … It feels like a sense of worth to have what YOU need set down in writing.”

Ultimately, the one thing she hopes happens after this pandemic pause is that “the world can come together and act as a whole instead of being separated.” In the meantime, she wants the earth to “catch its breath and just be.”  

Another student who never fails to maneuver through darkness in search of light inspires me more than she’ll ever know. This year was rocky for her, even before the shutdown, but she handled that upheaval with strength and resolve.

And now her year has been upended once again, but through it all, she’s remained optimistic. Sure, she has felt “down in the dumps,” but she also sees this as an opportunity to “hike, travel to beautiful gardens, walk, run, [and] work out.” She notes “how structured and unappreciative life used to seem, [when] most everyone took …everyday activities for granted.” Now, she’s determined to soak up the memories and moments until life resumes its normal pace.

A third senior with her own set of childhood ghosts has used her past to help her forge the future with confidence. She battled feelings of “not being enough” for a very long time, but along the way she’s gathered the wisdom to know better– and the foresight to know this pandemic will not beat her or her classmates.

“Seniors are strong and we will get through this. We might not finish this school year traditionally, but we are going to finish. You will not defeat our 2020 class. And we will be ready for wherever life takes us next.”

I don’t know about y’all, but I believe her.

And finally, a fourth senior, one with flawless hazelnut skin and an outlook far beyond her years blew me away with her words this week. She’s had a lot to juggle, caring for two young brothers at home and managing her own course load while her physician mother treats COVID19 patients. And though she admits to feeling proud of her mother, she has equal feelings of being robbed of her senior milestones.

“It makes me feel selfish, but people always say that the first step to recovery is admittance. So that means I’m not just dealing with the pain, I’m healing.”

I feel like what she says is just what this tenacious senior class is doing — dealing with the pain and healing. By seeking beauty and finding grace inside the struggle.

I would say I can’t wait to see where this world takes them, but then, the world’s not taking them anywhere. It’s definitely the other way around.

I Miss My Students

I miss them all. I miss the quiet ones, the loud ones, the eager ones, the sluggish ones, the class standouts and the class clowns, and every one in between.

I miss my their smiles — the wide-open ones, the small, sheltered ones, the barely-there smiles, and the gummy, toothy grins,

I miss their drama — the boyfriend/girlfriend kind, the hair’s-a-mess kind, the math-is-hard kind, the parents-just-don’t-understand-me kind.

I miss their stories — the dog-ate-my-homework, the truck-wouldn’t-start, the baby-brother-cried-all-night, the forgot-it-on-top-of-my-best-friend’s-car stories.

I miss their creativity. The artwork that brings me to tears,the presentations that give me goosebumps, the insights that blow me away.

I miss them bargaining over who’s gonna make the Quizlet, arguing over who gets the comfy chair, debating over which is better: Sweet Chili Doritos or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

I miss the small groups of dancers, ball players, and poets who convene in my room fifteen minutes before school every morning.

I miss my first period’s scramble to fit Stalin into our daily discussions and their impromptu Phineas and Ferb theme song serenades.

I miss my eighth-period gaggle of multicultural girls, chairs mashed eight-strong at a six-person table.

I miss the quiet kid in fourth period who whispers when he says a single word, and the rowdy one in second who has an Irish blush to his cheeks and a soccer jersey on every day.

I miss the boys named after Texas cities who stroll into class with their lanky legs and sheepish grins, and I miss the girls named after the seasons, with their calm, soothing ways and hopeful promise.

I miss my daily bear hug from my husband’s D-lineman and the sweet side-squeezes from my beloved Chipper girls.

I miss the red head who proclaimed himself “Testiculous the Great” while studying the Roman poets, and the mop-head who loves Joe Mama jokes.

I miss 10th grade boy humor.

I miss the dark, quiet beauty with the light dusting of freckles and the penchant for writing stories. I pray she’s doing okay.

I miss the awkward goddess full of frizzy curls and goodness who’s got no idea she’s a goddess yet. I pray for her confidence to continue to bloom.

I miss my golden-haired seniors with laughter in their spirits and spitfire in their souls. I pray their sunshine and lightning always stays.

I miss my students and I pray for them all. All my precious, quirky, needy, independent, oh-so-capable students.

These kiddos are inheriting the earth very soon — an earth currently coping with and recovering from the likes we’ve never seen. But they have what it takes. They have sunshine and lightning. They have passion and gumption. They have humor and grace and whimsy and wit. They have everything it will take to get through this and to get this world to a better place.

I miss my students, and I pray for them every day. Every. Single. Day.

Autumn: the season of change and new beginnings

It is autumn! At least, that’s what the calendar tells us. My car thermometer, on the other hand, says it is 93 degrees at 6:30 pm. We’ve had more than eighty days of 90+ temperatures in North Georgia this year. Enough is enough already! But supposedly it’s autumn, and that means it’s officially my favorite season.

tateandpumpkin

I love fall for so many reasons. For pumpkin patches and apple orchards, for candy corn and nutmeg and cloves, for gemstone leaves and front porch scarecrows. Albert Camus proclaimed autumn “a second spring, when every leaf’s a flower.” And I tend to agree. I mostly love fall because it symbolizes new beginnings in all sorts of ways for my family: a new school year, a new football season.  Fall is my absolute favorite!

tateandcowboyhat

Fall is the season of new school years: new faces, new potential, new energy, new passion. And even though we’ve already been in school for over seven weeks (this is the South, after all – we go back before the sunburns have even had a chance to peel), we still call this fall semester, and we’re still feeling fresh (sort of) when the autumnal equinox officially strikes. I have one-hundred- eighty sophomore students sitting in my seats and eager to learn (sort of). And while the challenges are great and the resources are slim, I still have a tremendous reservoir of love for my students and passion for my subject. So fall is my favorite!

And fall is the season of football, the game that seasons our family with a long, strong, complicated marinade. It is flavored with dynamic combinations, unexpected ingredients, raw emotions and daring outcomes — all served up on a spiral slice to robust and critical crowds. It is the sport that leaves me absolutely spellbound and absolutely spent… a complete and utter glutton for the punishment and pain, the pleasure and pride that makes up the season. As a football family, we wouldn’t want it any other way. So fall is my favorite!

And fall is the season for late afternoon drives in the countryside. Living in the country gives the boys and me ample opportunity to witness the glory that is fall: golden soybean fields, corn crops with buzz cuts, and barnyard nurseries – the farm animals are having their fall babies!

We pass a menagerie of livestock on our way home from school every weekday, and I swear, almost any given pasture on almost any given day has a new baby to ogle. Parker and Tate providing me with a running commentary of each fascinating new discovery. We pass a horse farm, a multitude of cow pastures, and even a field full of mama sheep and their newborn lambs. I bet there’s a dozen in that pen — little, bleary clouds scattered sleepily across the grass and under the pines. My breath catches at the sight of them every single time.

And fall is the season for hay bales. I’m here to say that I never knew how compelling hay bales could be until I had twin boys with a hearty devotion to tractors. There’s been a steady harvest in recent weeks. From one field to the next, the same scene has run its course and the boys never tire of talking about them. I dread the day when all of the hay bales are gone. It will be a dark day, indeed.

Fall is the season of long and languid afternoon sun, a sun that leans low to blind drivers and irritate my twins on rides home, a sun that creeps deep inside living room floors to butter bare toes, a sun that catches dust and pollen dancing in its rays for an undeniable reminder of allergy season – as if we needed reminding. The boys’ noses have had snail trails from nostril to lip for weeks now.

Fall is the season of baking treats and making memories. I used to spend hours in the kitchen when the girls were little, crafting fall festival Cake Walk prizes and bake sale bounty.  Baking makes me dizzily, freakishly happy. It’s my mother’s fault. She baked a lot when I was a kid, her hair, frosted with highlights (and probably splatters of buttercream frosting, as well), pulled back from her beaming, beautiful face. The world felt warm and wonderful and safe and sound in the sanctity of her kitchen — and I guess somewhere along the way, happiness, beauty, warmth and womanhood all got tangled up with baking for me. So now when I bake, I feel like I’m Wonder Woman on a mission to cure what ails the world, one bundt cake at a time.

 

I made some banana bread last week, which went with Mike to the football war room, where the guys spend hours working on this week’s game plan. I hope it gave them a little lift in the midst of the Sunday grind. The process of making it and the comforting scent of it gave me one, for sure. 

Fall is the season of my grandson Bentley’s birth. The little acorn is a fall fledgling with gangly limbs and translucent skin, who shimmers like wheat fields in the sun when he smiles, and his eyes are brighter than crisp autumn skies. So thanks to Bentley Boo, fall is my favorite!

Finally, fall is the season of change. Colors change, temperatures change, grades and teachers and wardrobes and weather… they all change. And in this hate-filled political climate, I pray that Camus is right. That autumn is a second spring – a season of new beginnings – an opportunity for rebirth. May it baptize us all under the shower of leaves, washing us clean of this long, hot, angry summer of hate and intolerance.

Let clarity and love, humanity and grace shine on us all. May we all feel welcomed and valued, respected and protected in this rapidly unfurling season of change.

 

Giving Love and Giving Purpose: Teaching Humans, not Humanities

In the last two days, I’ve attended three staff trainings that have rattled my teacher’s heart. Human trafficking, suicide prevention, and educating students of childhood trauma. Next week, I’ll sit through some drug awareness training.

The world of public education has changed dramatically in the last few years. Not because the world has changed that much, but because education has quit burying it’s head in the sand.

Used to be, we’d pretend problems like this didn’t exist. Or that they happened in other places. Not our town, not our school, not our student body.

Well, it’s high time we quit saving face and save some lives instead.

Yesterday, I learned from a social worker about girls from our school. Girls who sat in our seats, walked in our halls, and cried in our stalls. Girls who were sold by their mothers, raped by their fathers, enslaved by their friends. Girls who got in debt with their drug dealers and got in bed with strangers. Girls who went to school all day every day, then went home to be raped all night every night by multiple men.

The stories rattled me. My stomach hurt.

The second social worker of the day then told us about the suicide statistics in our community. Our school system is definitely no stranger to suicide. The last couple of years alone, we’ve lost students and former students. But the epidemic is far from over. We heard about high schoolers, middle schoolers, elementary and even primary-aged schoolers battling severe depression and suicidal thoughts.

The stories rattled me. My heart hurt.

And then today, I attended a conference led by Mississippi teacher Donna Porter and her former student (and gang leader), DJ Batiste. They spoke on creating a culture and climate in the classroom to best serve students who have survived childhood trauma. Trauma like gang violence, child abuse, rape, suicidal thoughts, parental addictions, extreme poverty… to name a few.

There’s a lot of heavy words surrounding these kids molded from trauma, but the word I need to focus on is SERVE.

As a teacher, I have been called to serve kids. I believe it with all my heart. All kids. Even the hard kids. Especially the hard kids. Because nobody else is.

We are their last resort.

But everything about these hard kids is… Hard. They push. They challenge. They try. They drain. They do all the things. All of them. To you.

Because they’re good at it and they know it. They don’t think they can do much of anything else in life, but they know they’re good at that.

So they push you, challenge you, try you, drain you.

But the message today was, never let ’em see you sweat. Instead let them see you care. Find a way to diffuse them and enthuse them. Give them purpose, give them power, give them love.

I have always tried to give my students love. Always. And when they are hard to love, I work even harder than they are to find a way.

But I never thought of giving them purpose and power. At least not beyond giving them an education. Education brings purpose and power, right? That’s what I always assumed. I assumed wrong.

I learned today, that for these kids Reputation is far more important than Education. They would rather buck up and be abrasive than be vulnerable and be saved — even though they want to be saved. They really, really do.

So I’ve got to make a paradigm shift. In them, yes. But also in me.

I’ve got to check my ego and remember it’s not all about me. In fact, with these kids of trauma, it’s got nothing to do with me at all… and everything to do with them. They are hurting. And they need someone to show them there’s hope out there. Hope beyond the hurt. Hope in spite of the hurt.

And I’m not going to get there by teaching them sonnets and syntax. I’m only going to get there by showing them they matter; they have purpose. By teaching the human. Not the subject.

And I need to shift another way, too. Inside our classroom. (Not my classroom, which is how, I have to confess, I’ve always thought of it, but OUR classroom.) And I can make it ours by something as simple as creating jobs. Creating roles for my students. Things like taking attendance, leading the warm up, closing the lesson. Jobs that will take some responsibility off me, and give my students some purpose. A way to take ownership.

Elementary teachers do it all the time. They have line leaders and door holders and electricity technicians. But high school teachers? I hadn’t seen it in action in all my years of teaching.

But it makes sense. Giving students like these — students with no control over their home-life, their pasts, or their present situation — giving them some power, no matter how small, can be incredibly meaningful and incredibly magical.

Honoring students with purpose. Giving students power. It can turn a life around. Truly. So their paradigm shifts. So Education becomes more important than Reputation.

I learned a lot today about guiding students with love and honoring students with purpose. Giving honor, not rewards, brings value and hope into these kids’ lives, DJ explained. “Don’t give students something they can touch. Give them something they can feel.’

My heart rattled one more time. This time, it was my paradigm shifting.

I’m ready.

Why Teachers Shouldn’t Wait Until Christmas to Smile

A lot of things have changed in my seventeen years of teaching.

Back when I first began, I was told, “Don’t smile until Christmas,” by almost everybody around me: education professors, veteran teachers, administrators. Everybody.

Thankfully, that has changed. Now teachers are encouraged to build relationships of trust and respect with our students. And that is a very positive change.

Not all of the changes have been for the better, though.

Some things, once rare, have become commonplace: like social media bullying and the threat of school shootings. Some things are nearly brand new: like vape juuls and dab pens. And some things are the new normal: like lockdown drills and smart phone distractions.

School shootings are a profoundly American tragedy, and one I’ve addressed before. In my years of teaching, they’ve become so ubiquitous that society seems to be jaded about them. This breaks my heart.

Smart phones didn’t exist seventeen years ago, but they’re everywhere now — along with rapidly multiplying smart watches. And with them, social media is a near-constant source of distraction (and contention) in the classroom. This likewise makes me super sad.

Kids would much rather check the stories on Snapchat than read the stories in English class. Instagram features and filters are much more compelling to them than mathematical fractals and fractions. Even in athletics, they’d sometimes rather tweet than compete.

Teachers get paid to teach… but very often, we feel like we do anything and everything BUT teach. Our classrooms have become lessons in covert operations.

Juuls and dab pens are everywhere — but kids are experts at hiding them. Hoodies and rubber bands have become suspect. Kids wear rubber bands around their wrist sleeves so they can hide juuls and take hits. They wear hoodies tight round their faces so they can exhale into their shirts.

I’ve seen vapor clouds disappear above students’ heads, but been unable to locate the source. I’ve seen discarded cartridges magically appear in my corners.

We play detective every day, trying to figure out which kid was the source of the sickeningly sweet odor infiltrating our room; which kid has red eyes from allergies, which kid has red eyes from THC; which kid is staring at his crotch because he’s texting, and which kid is staring at his crotch because he’s bored. (We get it all, almost every day.)

And you might think juuls and dab pens are more dangerous than smart phones, but experts argue they are all equally hazardous. I would agree.

Adolescent drug use, depression, and suicide is on the rise — and a huge contributing factor is social media and the pressures that come with it. Kids buy what social media is selling, which is almost always half-truths and lies.

Teens see the highlight reels of celebrities and idols and believe the image portrayed is reality. And then there’s also the bullies and predators out there, pressuring kids into sexting and nude pics — and the ensuing threats and belittling if they don’t… and the degrading and shame if they do.

Almost every aspect of social media leaves our kids feeling like they are not rich enough or smart enough or pretty enough or blond enough or athletic enough or cool enough… that they quite simply are not, nor will ever be, ENOUGH.

There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve found suicidal thoughts embedded in student essays. Social media is feeding insecurity and depression and kids are seeking escape through drugs and suicide.

Yes, teaching has gotten noticeably harder in the last seventeen years.

Before, I was told not to smile until Christmas. Now I’m told to smile and greet my students outside the classroom every day. To give high fives and side hugs. To genuinely care about my students and make sure they know I do.

These days, our district (and district all over our nation) are encouraging teachers to build relationships with students.

Because in a world full of school shootings and school bullying, teen depression, smart phone distractions, vape pens, and drug abuse, kids are not getting a whole lot of positive messages or interactions with anyone anymore — peers or adults. 

Because for some of our students, the smiles and greetings and side hugs we give are the only real human connection they make on any given day.

Sometimes our classroom is the only place where kids’ voices are used and actually heard. The only place where kids are given attention and affirmation. The only place where kids feel safe and secure and at home.

Some kids get nurtured at home. Some don’t. Some kids have the tools they need to navigate this increasingly treacherous world. Some don’t. Our job is to make sure all kids do. Teachers don’t just teach the Three R’s anymore.

The most important job we have as teachers now is to demonstrate love, compassion, and positive interaction. To teach community. To model the best of what humanity can be.

I’ve never been a teacher who didn’t smile till Christmas. Never. It wasn’t in my nature.

And while I’m glad that particular rule is no longer the norm, it makes me sad that changing times are what finally made the institution that is education see that students really do need and deserve smiles… long before Christmas.

Yes, there have been many changes over my seventeen years of teaching, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is that I still love teaching students. I really do. I still find it the most rewarding thing I can do with my life, besides motherhood.

But for me, teaching and motherhood are the perfect pairing. They go together like tacos and Tuesdays, cookies and milk, bacon and anything.

… like smiles in the classroom.

Kids Hate Language Arts. Can Reading and Writing be Resuscitated?

I have a passion for teaching English to high schoolers. A passion for seeing kids learn, seeing kids’ faces light up with understanding and excitement. Sadly, I see that light diminishing more with each passing year.

This week begins my 18th year of teaching English to secondary students. And every year, fewer and fewer students love to read. Heck, let’s get rid of the phrase “love to” and state the facts: Every year, fewer and fewer students read. Anything.

Or I guess I should qualify that statement — kids do read a little. And by a little, I mean memes. They’ll read something if it’s shorter than a sentence. And is paired with an image.

And they write that way too. Sentences are overrated. They want fragments, abbreviations, and emojis. That’s how kids communicate these days.

Which means my subject matter — literature and composition — is rapidly dying. It’s very nearly dead — and almost universally despised by my students. So I have a hard task in front of me, trying to save something most kids would love to see buried and gone.

On the first day of school, they are always so happy to brag to me about how much they hate English class. How they don’t read and they don’t want to. They once read a book in 7th grade, they’ll tell me when pressed, about some boy and a plane that crashed. “Hatchet?” I ask. “Yeah, that’s it,” they say. It’s the only book they’ve ever read. “Nothing since?” I whimper. They laugh. “Nope.” And my heart sinks. Every time.

How can I resuscitate a skill that far gone? Something that breathed — once — three years back and then flatlined, never to even be mourned?

We are in the era of smart phones and laptops. Kids don’t even watch television anymore. They watch their portable screens. And mostly quick, entertaining segments on YouTube. If it’s not quick, they won’t usually give it their time. And if it doesn’t grab their attention in the first 30 seconds, they’re hitting the search bar looking for something else.

Kids’ attention spans are jaded and fading. They want new, new, new and fast, fast, fast. And reading meets none of those requirements; writing, even less.

How do I, as an educator, compete in this fast and furious climate and culture?

Sometimes I worry that it’s just too late. That I simply don’t have the ability to raise Literacy from the dead. Indeed, the prognosis is bleak.

Case in point: my students from last year. I love them dearly, and I really believed that together, we’d made all sorts of progress. Now, I knew they weren’t out randomly picking up books instead of their iPhones, but I still thought I’d made some sort of impact. I thought they’d at least enjoyed the literature we read together.

But then I had a group of kids tell me a couple weeks back how much they hated To Kill a Mockingbird. Hated it.

And I wanted to cry. I failed them miserably. And I deceived myself in the process.

How can I remedy my failure? How can I bring the joy of reading and the art of writing back from the brink of death? Or is it already too late?

I know for a fact I can’t do it on my own. It’s impossible. Trauma surgeons have whole teams working in conjunction to keep their patients alive. From paramedics to ER docs to nurses to lab techs to anesthetists to surgical residents and attendings, everybody does their part, separately and together, to keep the patient from multiple system failure. Resuscitating literacy can’t all ride on me.

And it can’t all wait till it gets to me either. Fifteen years without a heart for reading is probably too late. Sure, I might find a feeble pulse in a couple of kids and nurture it back into a steady beat, but saving 2 kids out of 185 is not enough.

Nope, it’s got to be more and it’s got to begin sooner. It needs to begin at home. With parents and their babies.

Parents, read to your children. Read to them early — as newborns, even. It’s never too soon, I promise. Read them Goodnight, Moon. Read them The Grouchy Ladybug. Read them Green Eggs and Ham. And sing to them, too. Sing nursery rhymes. Sing The Itsy Bitsy Spider, sing The Wheels on the Bus. Heck, sing Baby Shark, if you dare.

But read to them, and sing to them, and foster in them the love of language.

Then, we teachers will keep it going — from preschool all the way through senior year and beyond. Together, we can foster lifelong readers and writers… and excellent communicators. This world needs these skills. Desperately.

It’s never too soon, but it can be too late.

The end of school is not always a happy occasion…

We are six weeks away from the end of the school year. Six weeks away from summer. Six weeks away from unlimited sunshine and freedom. A week ago, I could hardly wait.

But then, my principal said something in a faculty meeting that really hit me. Hard.

She reminded us that graduation is approaching. And while graduation generally means the culmination of over a decade of hard work, it also generally means the culmination of childhood.

And some students are not ready for adulthood.

And some students have already had far too much adulthood. And they long for a return to their schooldays. And to innocence lost.

And believe me, there has been so much innocence lost.

I’ve taught a lot of students in my eighteen years as an educator. All teenagers, but ultimately, all still children. Children who deal with standard kid things. Like puppy love and shoe-envy and math allergies.

And, sadly, children who deal with standard adult things. Like work and money-troubles and death and pregnancy.

And tragically, children who deal with things no child OR adult should ever deal with. Things like rape and sex trafficking and addiction and suicide.

Teach for a year. Teach for a month. Teach for a day — And you will start to understand the obstacles and downright darkness surrounding some of our most vulnerable and precious of resources: our children. And the numbers are far greater than you can imagine.

I’ve taught students — children — who have been raped.

Children raped by strangers. Children raped by friends. Children raped at parties. Children raped at home. Children raped by fathers.

Children whose mothers sold their child’s virginity for a $100 meth fix.

Children coping with the trauma and shame of rape, plus the trauma and shame of family serving time for avenging that rape.

I’ve taught students — children — engaged to be married to high school sweethearts. And insanely happy about it. At sixteen. Seventeen. And I’ve taught students betrothed to men they didn’t know back in a home country they scarcely remembered. And insanely hopeless about it. At sixteen. Seventeen.

I’ve had students addicted to smart phones, to video games, to porn, to substances.

I’ve had students high in my classroom. Glassy-eyed and giggly. Or cracked out and twitchy, picking endlessly at arms, at scalps, at cheeks, at skin rupturing, crusting, rupturing again.

I’ve had students who are pregnant. I’ve had students who’ve had abortions.

I’ve had students who sleep around. Students who sleep on mattresses in kitchens, who sleep on blankets in closets, who sleep on sofas, on floorboards, in backseats

I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they work all night in a factory to put food on the table for siblings.

I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they stay up all night playing Fortnite to escape the reality of abuse.

I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they stay up all night playing Fortnite because there is no one home to tell them to go to bed.

I’ve taught homeless students. Homeless students living with friends. Homeless students living in shelters. Homeless students living in cars.

I’ve taught hungry students. Hungry students with nothing at home to eat. Hungry students on free-and-reduced breakfast and lunch service. Hungry students who go home on Friday afternoons with backpacks full of ready-serve dinners and snacks. Full backpacks; far-from-enough.

And I’ve taught hungry students whose parents won’t fill out the paperwork. Hungry children who go home on Friday afternoons with nothing at home to sustain them at all. Not food. Not love.

I’ve taught children who’ve eaten friends’ leftover pizza and bread crusts, proffered snacks from my emergency stash, restaurant refuse, their parents’ prescription pills.

I’ve had students have meltdowns, have seizures, have medical emergencies. I’ve had students who’ve overdosed.

I’ve had students who made it. And I’ve had students who didn’t.

I’ve had students who’ve died in car accidents. I’ve had students who’ve died by suicide.

I’ve had students lose parents to cancer, to violence, to addictions.

I’ve had students whose moms are in prison for child endangerment. I’ve had students whose fathers are regularly subpoenaed for child support.

I’ve had students whose grandparents are raising them. Whose foster families are raising them. Whose siblings are raising them. Who are raising themselves.

I’ve taught students who dropped out. I’ve taught students who stayed in — but failed grades repeatedly. Not because they were incapable, but because they were in chaos.

Because school is their sanctuary. Because the classroom is their cocoon. Because at school there are adults who care. There are classmates. There is structure. There is connection.

And outside there is only darkness.

There is so much darkness in this world. So much heartache. My students’ hearts have broken a hundred-thousand times.

My own heart has broken a hundred-thousand times.

Yes, summer is coming. Graduation is coming.

But as you and your loved ones celebrate accomplishments and rites of passages and bright, shiny futures, please remember that the same cannot be said of everyone.

Because for some, the end of school means no more breakfast or lunch. No more smiles and assurances. No more illusions of normalcy.

No more safety net.

No, the end of school is not always a happy occasion.

***

Please research how you can best help young people in need in your community, your church, your neighborhood. Volunteer. Be connected. Stay connected.

A Case of the Vapers (and other contagions sweeping teachers’ classrooms)

It’s a tough time to be a teacher.

We’re expected to captivate, motivate and differentiate, to remediate or accelerate, to teach students to calculate and communicate, to participate and cooperate, to formulate and postulate, to stay celibate and not procreate, and to ensure that every last one of them will graduate.

When it comes to “ates” we have a belly-full — including the hate thrown at us from seemingly every direction.

Legislators fight over whether or not we’re worth the most meager of pay raises. The Secretary of Education wants to cut billions from public school funding. The sons of world leaders call us losers. Parents bully and badger and question and condemn us.

Teachers are blamed if students fail at math, at manners, at life.

And for the most part, most of us can weather the demands piled upon us while still teaching with skill, enthusiasm, and grace.

But all of us still wonder, at times, if we have what it takes to meet the rapidly accelerating expectations.

And now, this year, a new challenge has emerged. One I’m not quite sure I know how to handle.

These days, teachers have a major case of The Vapers. Not to be confused with The Vapors (with an O), which was some crazy, female, hormone-fueled hysteria and hocus-pocus of the Victorian age, the current Vapers (with an E) is a crazy, female AND male, nicotine-fueled hysteria and smokus-pocus of the modern age.

The Vapers: teens who are vaping. And I’m sad to say we have ourselves an epidemic.

I’ve been a professional educator for the last 18 years, but until this year, I’d never had a case of The Vapers. This year, though, vaping is one of middle and high school’s major discipline and health concerns, and we teachers have had emails, training videos, and faculty meetings devoted to the topic. That’s how quickly the epidemic has grown.

Before those trainings, I had no idea that the sickeningly sweet smell that followed in the wake of students in stairwells and bathrooms and classrooms was the lingering scent from vape pens and juuls. I just knew I was getting lots of headaches from what I thought was bad teenage perfume. That is, until a student stopped me in the hall.

“You do know kids are vaping in your classroom, right?”

Wait. What?

Then she told me all the tricks. She explained that kids keep their hoodies pulled up over their mouths and around their ears, not because they’re cold from the drizzly, wettest season on record, but because they are taking hits of nicotine (or sometimes THC) bathed in sweet, glycerin-based liquids and then exhaling into their jackets.

And the cartridges are disguised as flash drives or writing utensils — making The Vapers really, really hard to catch. Despite the irony of them multiplying like cancer cells.

Here’s how hard they are to catch…

I personally witnessed a misty cloud dissipating above the head of a student at the back of my classroom. And I smelled the sickeningly-sweet odor I now knew was not bad teenage perfume.

So I promptly called an administrator.

But when the proper authorities searched the student, nothing was found. The Vaper either passed it off to somebody else or hid it in places admin wasn’t comfortable searching for fear of lawsuit.

Since then, I’ve found vape pens in my classroom, have had students caught vaping in bathrooms, and have had friends’ children serve detention for vaping.

I definitely feel out of my league on this one… I fear I’m about to succumb to a massive plague that may deplete the ranks of teachers everywhere. And it’s not just The Vapers. It’s the pressure from all angles that is getting to us: the legislators, the policies, the public, the parents, the drug paraphernalia. It’s all the demands. All of them.

But every morning I put on my game face… and I put on three bracelets. Three bracelets bearing messages to remind me of why I do this difficult and thankless job.

One says “Blessed” in braille.

One says, “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”

And one says, “I am not a Teacher, but an Awakener.”

They are my spiritual chain mail, girding my soul in positivity and light.

I say the phrases as I head out the door, ready to captivate, motivate and differentiate, to remediate or accelerate, to teach students to calculate and communicate, to participate and cooperate, to formulate and postulate, to stay celibate and not procreate, and do my absolute best to see every last one of them graduate.


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