Tennyson Street School: strand

Strand: (v) drive aground, leave high and dry
(n) a waterfront, seaside, beach, sands, shore
(n) a single thin length of something, especially when twisted together with its fellows

Parent-teacher conferences were held during the school day. The students led their parents in to sit in the small classroom chairs, and, nudged by their teachers, carefully apprised their parents of their academic progress. Work folders were reviewed; art projects on the walls were pointed to and exclaimed over. For most kids, it was a day at the beach, showing the pretty shells of writing you’ve collected, or the bright pebbles of math shining in the sun, while walking around any behavior issues like bits of broken glass in the sand.

A few students brought their parents in to meet their literacy tutor in our Literacy Lab. Miranda fielded questions of student progress like a politician, since we hadn’t started testing or mapping achievement gains yet, so early in the year. “He’s doing really well. As we start testing, he’s going to do really, really well.”

More “really’s” seemed to be the key to her pitch. I shook my head and continued reading about all the components that seem to be really, really necessary for a written lesson plan, though for the life of me, I thought the whole thing seemed unnecessarily convoluted and overly complicated.

Lesson plans looked like some sort of military requisition to my eyes, citing standards like CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.2 in one box, the children’s “Lexile” range in another box, “Objective” (which was somehow different than “meeting the district standard”), book title, vocabulary, clever catchy hook to pique their reading interest, and an insane number of acronyms – TLW, CFU, and HoD didn’t even scratch the surface.

All timed. Teachers have to time out each tiny segment of each lesson, each minute of learning, the number of minutes actually listed in a box beside each and every task. Who can make such determinations? TLW: The Learners Will copy these vocabulary words at exactly the pace I have predicted, no one will break a pencil lead and meander to the sharpener, no one will need to erase and accidentally tear a gash in their page and request a new one, no one will get into an elbowing match because “Miss, she’s on my paper!” Which no one will vehemently deny, and an argument will not need to be stopped, elbow space will not need to be managed. CFU: Check For Understanding by telling the elbowers, “Is that understood? Good.” HoD: Habits of Discussion explained.

Later in the afternoon, I heard a soft rustling near our doorway. Assuming a straggling student was bringing their parents for a conference, I came out of my cubicle and around the bookshelves to find an older lady nervously peeking into the room, unsure about entering.

“Hello; can I help you?”

Her eyes scanned me, the room, and looked for something…else. “I’m looking for…Ms. Chloe?”

“Right back here,” I showed her, and Chloe stepped up from her own low student table to greet her visitor.

I went back to the maddeningly overorganized, cryptic coding of lesson planning, convinced I would find some meaning to this format that looked like a cross between warehouse inventory and a barcoded mailing label. Surely we were not warehousing children or labeling their learning into stacks of simplistic little boxes.

Suddenly, I looked up to see Chloe standing hesitantly at my cubicle. “Did you hear that?” she asked.

“No, I was reading…this….” I waved dismissive hands at my laptop.

“It was so sad….” Chloe’s eyes were looking for a friend.

“Come on in here; what happened?”

Chloe pulled up a tiny blue plastic chair, and we both leaned our knees against my tiny table.

“That was Javon’s grandma,” she began.

“Without Javon, I noticed.”

“She asked me how he was on the First.”

“So, yesterday?”

Chloe nodded. “And I told her he’d seemed a little subdued, but he still did his reading.”


“And so I guess he waited and waited all evening on Halloween, but his mom never came to pick him up to go trick-or-treating, like she’d promised.”

We shared a moment of deep disappointment, as if we were standing beside Javon at that dark  window, looking for a relationship that might never improve, might never show up on time to let him just be a little kid who wants to go trick-or-treating.

“He lives with his grandma,” Chloe confirmed. “And she said stuff like this happens all the time, and then he sometimes has a hard time. He gets mad, she said. Throws stuff. I told her he has never done anything like that with me.”

Chloe got fired up. “How can you do that? Just not even show up, or call? He’s such a good kid!”

“I think they all are,” I tried to soothe. “I think we may have quite a few living like Javon. There are a lot of reasons why their parents might not be able to be there for them.”

“Yeah,” Chloe agreed. She sighed. “His grandma told me about how she has to take care of him now – she’s got custody of him, and his little brother. And I mean – that’s a lot for her!”

“For sure,” I nodded. “But maybe she’s really stable for them.” I looked thoughtfully at Chloe. “It was probably such a relief for her, to be able to talk to you about his situation, and see that you think he’s a good kid too. She might not have anybody else she can share these stories with.”

“You know where she works?” Chloe’s eyes were wide again. “In our gym, after school. She does the after-school program.”

I thought of how small our fellowship stipend was; then I thought of being 10 years older, trying to raise two grandchildren on a similar wage. I tried to imagine raising my grandchildren because my daughter was AWOL with her own miseries to tend to; I could feel the pressure, of age, of money, of heartache. I wondered where they lived.

“Well, now Javon has both of you wrapped around him,” I smiled at Chloe, my arms illustrating a big hug. “And if all you ever did to help was to hear her story, that mattered. She needed you to hear her, and you did. And you didn’t judge her, or her daughter.”

Chloe started to breathe easier.

“And if you stop by the gym at the end of the day once in a while and just wave Hi, you will be building a relationship. It might really matter.”

Chloe’s face brightened. “I can do that on my way down the hall before I leave.”

The Fellows were an eclectic bunch, all crossing paths here as we all headed somewhere else, footsteps in the sand as we continued on, seeking that further shore of ourselves. “I know you’ve told me you want to go into law,” I ventured. “I see how talented you are with the kids. Maybe there’s a way you can combine the two? You’d be such a great advocate for them.”

“I’ve been thinking about that! I really want to intervene. I like that idea.” Chloe talked more about her hopes and goals, for law school, and for her life.

“Well, you’ve got to do something with kids, because you are such a natural with them.”

She’d told me she wasn’t pursuing a teaching career, because she couldn’t live on the poverty income. It was a crime, robbing year after year of students of Chloe’s sweet calm presence. I found myself just as sad as I had been about Javon, envisioning students coming to a classroom door that would never lead them to Chloe.


“Sort of.” Chloe smiled at me, standing and pushing in the tiny blue plastic chair. “Thanks.” She turned and looked back at me. “You’re good at what you do.”

I smiled encouragingly. But inside I wondered, what is it I do?

There’s no planning for these conferences, these lessons. No box exists. The Learner Will follow a long, thin line drawn in the sand, cling to it like a rope, hoping it leads to more than a stick absently abandoned near the water’s edge.