Tennyson Street School: fugitive

Fugitive: (n) a person who has escaped or is in hiding to avoid persecution from his fellow man

Miranda was reassigned to outdoor recess duty. Another day, another lunch duty with Chloe was wrapping up, the fourth-graders dumping the leftover food from their plastic trays into large trash cans and hopping back to their tables on two feet, reaching over to thump a buddy on the head or joining the rugby scrum at the doorway to be let out to play.

I held back the shoving mass of energy at those open doors. “Make a line,” I told them. “Line up for outside.” Eager to run, the boys in the front immediately organized themselves into a zigzag that approximated a line.

“Know what this is?” one buzzcut bruiser asked; he looked like a future football lineman. He held his hand up, palm facing himself, as if looking at something there before his eyes. I cocked my head toward him. He then licked his hand with a wide tongue and shoved his palm to within inches of my face, faking a spitty swipe down to my chin.  

“Spit shine!”

Instinctively I pulled back. He and his buddies laughed. “I didn’t really do it,” he added good-naturedly. “Can we go?”

Chloe made her way through the throng to the head of the line. “This group.” The boys launched into the hall, speed-walking and then hurtling through the playground doors out to freedom.

Like the red-green light of a freeway on-ramp at rush hour, Chloe dismissed small groups of comparatively calm, less-frenzied kids – until a familiar character squeezed past her and loped down the hall the other way, toward the office. “Wait! Where’s he going?” she asked me.

I turned and strode after him, and the wave of children broke past Chloe and dashed out the exit doors to the playground. Chloe swept away with them, holding the doors open as they poured out and lining up the next class from the playground to come in for lunch.

My trickster plunked down on the cushioned benches outside the front office. “Hey there,” I approached him casually. “Where are you supposed to be right now?”

“Here,” he told me coyly.

“Here,” I echoed. “The hall? So, if you’re supposed to be here, why were you just in the lunch room?”

“I just needed to put something away,” he answered, cuddling a pillow to his chest and wiggling on the bench. He pulled a stress ball out of his jacket pocket and began tossing it a few inches into the air and catching it.

“You probably want to put that ball away, don’t you think?”


“I don’t think you’re supposed to throw balls in the hallway, do you?”

“I think it’s okay,” he disagreed.

“Can you tell me your name?”

His eyes narrowed. “Why – so you can tell the office?”

“Mm, mostly so I can make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be, so I know you’re okay.”

He shook his head.

“Okay,” I said. I walked in to the office, a fishbowl of windows at this corner. The Office sees all, knows all, with this vantage.

“Hi,” I said to the secretary.

“Oh hi!” she greeted me, trying to sound welcoming while vaguely recognizing me as the new person.

“So, our friend out here says he’s supposed to be sitting on the benches – is that right?”

“Yes, he’s going to be there this week and next.”

“He’s got a squeeze ball he’s playing with for now – he told me it’s okay,” I added.

“Yes, several of our kids do that.” The secretary looked at me with a mildly patronizing expression. “You know, any time you have questions, you can just ask us.”

Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?, I thought, annoyed. “The reason I’m asking is that he popped into the lunch room, where we were on duty, and then he skipped right back out, and we didn’t know if he was supposed to be with us or where….”

“Oh, that was my fault,” the secretary said breezily. “He finished his lunch in here and still had his fork, so I said, ‘Well go take it back, but be quick.’”

“Ah, great, okay thanks,” I responded with a half smile. I recognized this boy as one who had been reprimanded in the lunch room previously. Now he was having lunch in the office and spending recesses on the entryway benches, squeezing his stress ball and hugging the cushions. For two weeks. A kid eternity.

Send the kid who gets in trouble so often that he’s eating lunch in the office – send that kid, carrying a fork, through the halls without a pass. The secretary had been friendly and helpful to me every other time I had walked in. Now she felt almost protective of our young friend benched in perpetuity. I held in a sigh of frustration, yet I couldn’t help thinking as I turned away from the tall front desk and back out the office door: you – set – him – up. Without meaning to, of course. Thoughtlessly, the way we most often cause harm. Through unintended consequences.

I slowed my steps as I reached the benches. “Well that was easy,” I confirmed, the boy looking up at my approach. “I wish I knew your name, so I could thank you for helping me understand where you needed to be.” I kept my dawdling pace and started to pass on by.


His clear voice behind me carried no attitude, no hostility, no evasion. I half-turned, looking back over my shoulder. “Thanks, DeLeon.” I smiled.

DeLeon gave me a confident and curious expression, inscrutable as the Mona Lisa, the same thoughtful eyes, almost but not quite a smile.

I reached across and raised my hand over my shoulder, palm toward him, like waving goodbye; but really, more like a salute. No spit shine. Then I walked back down the hall to the lab.



Tennyson Street School: jolly

Jolly: (adj) joyful, lighthearted, as a jolly good fellow

“C’mon! Just read it! It’s not that hard!”

My head snapped up, having been tucked into my new cubicle world reading program details and watching training videos. “Teachers and administrators should send messages that intelligence is fluid….”

I listened to the hubbub on the other side of the whiteboard wall.

“C’mon you guys! You can’t be doing that! SSSHHH!”

Her voice had that exhausted nasal inflection of abused substitute teachers all across America. I knew that voice well; no matter what words came out, that voice said, “I am so over this – why am I even here?”

Worse, for generations, what kids in U.S. classrooms have heard that voice say is, “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

I had no idea what I was doing, certainly. I was no teacher. My work background included dark poetry readings, downtown supper club singing, labor market surveys for employment rehabilitation services, addiction counseling, leading a recovery art group, and long talks with filthy, beautiful people who were homeless – social work, in the end. Without the MSW. A more organic career path, if you will.

My labor market surveys could have told you that on-the-job training is the most effective, and they’d be absolutely right. Nevertheless, here I was, listening to my fellow Fellow trample the program model shining at me from my laptop.

“We implemented five correlates of effective charter schools described in ….” My eyes blurred past the study authors’ names, focusing on “…human capital…and a culture of high expectations….”

Despite my lack of an advanced degree, I had always agreed that professional standards matter. I not only carried high expectations for the students, but always had for myself, and for my colleagues. We’re supposed to be that “human capital” enriching the social and educational work. We’re not just the muscle; we’re the money we put where our mouth is.  

I switched screens to look at the guidance on “learning environment.” This training explained the clean organization of my cubicle space, using “word walls” and “agendas” and “anchor charts” to give the students supports to organize their own learning. “Belief in one’s own ability can lead to accomplishments great and small; it can push a struggling student to persevere.”

“No, NO! That’s not what I told you to do! Why don’t you listen?!”

MSW or no, I was hearing interactions that were pushing my professional buttons. I fought myself not to jump up and intervene.

Because this was my first day.

“Knock it OFF!” My alarm grew. I saw candy wrappers and torn paper beneath my whiteboard wall. Her kids had begun to wander, to the trash can, to sharpen pencils that they’d intentionally broken the leads off of, leaving the room without taking one of the hall passes hanging beside the door. At the end of their tutoring session, the kids hid in our bookshelves and under the cabinets in a hyperactive 10-second version of hide-and-seek. Then they ran down the hall without her. And came back into the room, pawing through her books and papers, looking for treats.

Trailer Park Babysitter. When you are a young single parent, you often resort to Any Live Body to watch your kids so you can go to work. You find a babysitter near where you live, or on the way to work, someone who doesn’t cost much, is always there, and will feed them. You correct bad habits they pick up from the Trailer Park Babysitter, like swearing, or incorrect grammar.

The Trailer Park Babysitter can be anyone – they’re not confined to actual trailer parks. Mine was in a licensed childcare center where I’d found this “teacher” frustratedly balancing her checkbook as a roomful of toddlers ran about unsupervised – now including my toddler. I’d had to stop at the office and let the director of the center know before I had hurried to work, now running late.

My sadness about Trailer Park Babysitters is that once upon a time, they wanted to do this important work, to watch over tiny people with big eyes and developing minds and infinite futures. And then, they got overwhelmed – because so many of us need them, to care for our kids without being paid enough to really care…for so many kids….alone.

It’s a system in crisis, from preschool to senior year, if kids make it that far. Struggling families find the system wasn’t designed for us, smart hardworking single parents with brilliant mouthy kids, or grandparents raising grandbabies on Social Security incomes and the best stories they can come up with about why Mom or Dad aren’t around, or parents with legal histories that limit their options to re-enter a society that will never let them believe their debt is paid.

American public education has needed emergency responders as much as teachers. So schools have brought in school resource officers, cops who park their squad cars at the curb and try to build trust even as gangs and drugs slither through the hallways. School shootings bring frantic parents to their knees. Schools give offices to psychologists. They practice emergency lockdown procedures.

Into this combat zone arrive Americorps, Teach For America, and programs like the Denver Fellows. The typical candidate is a young, idealistic recent college grad ready for a teaching career. But the Fellows will also bring you on if you are a retiree, or someone making a midlife career change. That’s right – the Fellows take people like me, one carefully-crafted resume away from what bears all the hallmarks of a midlife crisis.

But with years of emergency response training.

Trailer Park Babysitter did not fare better as Lunchroom Monitor. She sat facing outward on the bench of one of the lunch tables, hollering and pointing at kids across the room. Our third fellow, Shakespeare’s own Juliet come to life as a young woman named Chloe, took a deep breath, and then, eyes widening, pantomimed to me to quickly put my fingers in my ears, as Lunchroom Monitor’s critical, sarcastic voice finally gave way to the repeated blasts of her shrill silver coach’s whistle, echoing and deafening in the lunchroom.


To be clear, I wasn’t the one talking to any of the students. I had stationed myself quietly at the exit doors, corralling midsize stragglers and escapees; the kids at this lunch were in fourth and fifth grades. A “para,” the paraprofessional staff who help throughout the school, had been attempting to talk with one of the boys being pointed at; he was having a hard time hearing her over the roar as she tried to get his attention.

Now we all looked up in simultaneous consternation. The lunchroom quickly decided Lunchroom Monitor’s screaming could be interpreted as, “FREEFORALL!!!”

Lunchroom Monitor upped the ante by demanding the boy do something – which the boy of course refused to do.

“GO TELL THE OFFICE!” she screamed – at me.

I assume I looked puzzled. Or startled. “Tell the office…?”


Oh how I agreed. I nodded and stepped through the open exit doors. But just then, she saw an experienced-looking teacher passing those doors in the hall.

“HEY!! HEYYY!! COME HERE!!!” she screamed at the teacher. The teacher immediately frowned and walked into the storm. “HE CALLED ME ‘YOUR HIGHNESS!’ HE SAID, ‘YES YOUR HIGHNESS!’” The teacher got between them and had Lunch Monitor step back, sit down.

The teacher turned to Chloe and me. “Would one of you go to the office?”

I went to complete my office mission.

“Hi,” I said to the secretary.

“Hi…,” she said, not sure if maybe she might recognize me.

“I was on lunch duty, and I’m supposed to tell you, ‘Carlos needs a first responder’? I’m not sure–”

“Carlos Menendez? All right.”

I shrugged, open hands half-lifted, having no idea if that was the right Carlos, and returned down the hall to the lunchroom as a woman who must have been the First Responder strode past me. She met up with Carlos, the teacher from the hall, and the para, as Lunch Monitor slowly retreated out the side door. The Shakespearean tempest blew itself out. I had just met Miranda, like Prospero’s daughter in that play. If Prospero had raised her in a trailer park.

Enter Commanding Teacher. With the simple words, “Hey! My crew!” half the heads in the lunchroom swiveled immediately in her direction.

“Not okay! Line – up. Now!”

And they did. She led them out the exit to her classroom.

I heaved a sigh of relief. Chloe walked back over to my side.

“Did she really yell “HEY! HEY!” at that teacher?” I rehashed.

“At the Dean of Students,” she corrected me, eyebrows arched.



Tennyson Street School: onboarding

The Fellows program was based on a model out of Boston. A Harvard researcher had taken elements of a successful local charter school – smaller class size, motivated teachers and principal, data-driven teaching strategies, and high-frequency small-group tutoring – and introduced a test program in Houston Independent School District, augmenting instruction at schools designated “chronically poor-performing.” They called the participating schools “Apollo Schools” – and they took off.

As I filled out online hiring forms, I remembered Houston Independent School District. My young husband had gotten his first teaching job out of college with Houston – over the phone. We packed up our two toddler boys and our shabby college-student furniture and our gangly spider plants into a rented Ryder truck and drove south out of Colorado for two days. When we arrived and I opened my car door in South Texas, the 99% humidity and heat of a Gulf Coast August hit me full in the face like a burning slap. At 22, I was two months pregnant with my third baby, parked next to everything I owned.

The boys and I would drop Daddy off at school most mornings so we could have the car. Everything in Houston required a car – I found no sidewalks, not downtown, not in our neighborhood off the highway. Everything was off a highway, a beltway, an expressway, so I’d take an exit to our winding streets of identical duplexes, another exit to the grocery store, another to the laundromat.

As we wound around the raised freeway exit ramps in the early morning light, we came face-to-face with towering clouds off the gulf, rosy-golden mountains of potential havoc that could pour torrents of rain by afternoon and leave the oily highways slick and terrifying. But in the mornings, all was soft and gentle, and the boys were usually content to watch this new world go by from their carseats.

Driving down into their daddy’s school neighborhood, the world turned. Instead of neat but bland brick duplexes, dilapidated clapboard shacks, most a faded gray-white, sagged alongside the road. On the porches filled with torn couches sat black men, young men, middle-aged, a few with white hair, most ignoring our passing. Some watched us go by in our small hatchback, a simmering frustration lingering like the exhaust from our old car.

At the railroad tracks, my husband slowed, then crossed, accelerating again. “Did you – see that?!” I asked, shocked, twisting in my seat to try to see behind us. My husband asked what I meant. “The man at the railroad tracks? He didn’t have any pants on!”

A black man of maybe 35, potentially in the prime of his life, had stood nonchalantly next to the railroad crossing sign, wearing a worn T-shirt – and nothing else. Naked from the waist down, his eyes had looked completely vacant, uncomprehending, uncaring. Nothing to see here.

We drove into the employee parking lot behind the elementary school just blocks from the railroad tracks. An eight-foot chainlink fence topped with coils of razor wire surrounded the teachers’ cars. The school looked like a prison, which often gave me a shiver as we said goodbye and I came around the car and got into the driver’s seat. Then I drove out of the gate, past the Good Eats sign over a boarded up cafe, back across the tracks, and took the boys home until time to pick up Daddy in the late afternoon.

Almost all of my husband’s students were black. The poverty of that segregated neighborhood brought me such a heavy sadness I felt like mourning, for the children inside the school, for the men wasting away on their broken couches, for the women working somewhere, unseen. The discrepancy stood stark and malignant between Houston’s polished, sterile downtown, where rich white men stepped from air-conditioned cars with tinted windows to enter air-conditioned towers with tinted windows, and this low-lying floodplain district filled with sweaty blocks of unemployed black men and broken-down shanties. The barbaric measures ensuring the safety of staff vehicles while children ran a gauntlet to school alongside guardrails of narrow highways or dirt tracks along crumbling neighborhood streets – or past the man at the railroad crossing – set my teeth on edge, a frustration of disbelief at such entrenched community racism; I combined all that with an uneasy fear as I recognized how out of place we were, how awkwardly naive, and how helpless I felt in the face of such a weighted, historic brokenness.

Into these schools arrived Harvard and their experimental plan to coach these kids, closing their “opportunity gaps” by first believing the kids were capable of far more than dodging cars and strung-out, hopeless junkies waiting to get hit by a train.



Tennyson Street School: fellowship

Welcome to fellowship. I’d applied for and been accepted into Denver Public Schools’ Literacy Fellows program, a one-year commitment to tutoring students in the inner-city schools, specifically working on improving reading and writing skills. I’d submitted my application late, after the school-year had already begun; nevertheless, the program had an opening and I was placed at Tennyson Street School, an expeditionary learning school in North Denver nestled just below the ever-streaming traffic of I-70.

I figured my years of experience working with homeless families had been my ticket in. However, memories of my grandma had sealed the deal for me.

Back in the mid-1920’s, my Grandma Jensen had been a dark-haired, serious young woman named Florence attending Iowa State College to earn an elementary teaching certificate. But before Florence really had a chance to use her certificate, my tall, lanky grandpa, Holger, a Danish-speaking horticulture student who’d just completed his program at Iowa State, made his romantic proposal in English along the lines of, “So – are you going to marry me?”

How could a girl refuse. They exchanged wedding vows in June 1927. My father, their first child, was born in May 1928. Florence found herself a farm wife with a second baby boy as the Great Depression fell across the country in 1929 and 1930. Six more babies followed in the years after. Her teaching certificate remained safely tucked away in a drawer.

As I was graduating high school back in 1984, I was offered a scholarship to Colorado State University – if I pursued teaching. I had collected a pretty string of shiny scholarships, enough for a full-ride to CSU without it. So I turned down the teaching scholarship.

Who wanted the tedium of repeating the same stale lessons to the same bored kids, day after day, year after year? Not me. I had plans. Big plans. An academic overachiever graduating 10th in my class, I decided to double-major in Technical Journalism and Biology. Honors Biology. I wanted to write for National Geographic magazine and travel the world, exploring cultures and people’s lives, writing their stories. I had everything arranged.

Halfway through my first semester, I quit. Six months later, I was engaged; in 1985, I got married at age 19 – and got pregnant. In 1986, my first child, a son, was born. In 1987, my second son arrived.

Behavior out of context is easy to judge – but harder to understand. We are born into contexts, into settings among characters, given roles and models and lines to say, marks to toe.

True fellowship is recognition of the very mortal tropes being played out endlessly before us and between us. Human literacy is reading between the lines, where very messy writing happens. Everybody’s lives are stories.


Tennyson Street School: prologue

“This is a riddle book,” I dutifully began. I sat in a child’s blue plastic chair, my knees grazing the low, trapezoidal laminate table in the carpeted classroom tucked between cubical walls displaying an empty calendar grid, a blank whiteboard. Aiden, a first grader, looked at the thin paperback, a beginning reader book, then shyly glanced at me. I flipped through the scant pages, showing him the few words per page, each with an accompanying drawing of an animal.

I turned back to the front cover. “Can you read the title? What do you think it says?”

Aiden’s brow furrowed under his smooth brown hair. “What…Am…I….”

“That’s right, very good. And on each page – “ and here I opened to a picture of a monkey – “each animal will give you clues. And then, it will say those same words – ” and now I waited for Aiden, my finger indicating the line.

“What…am…I?” we said in unison. Maybe to each other. Asking.

So many riddles hidden within so few pages.