Tennyson Street School: collaborate

Collaborate: (v) the act of working together with someone to produce or create something,
band (together), concert, concur, conjoin, conspire, join, league, team (up), unite
(v) traitorously cooperate with an enemy

Harrison was in a great mood as we approached Thanksgiving break. As his group colored their drawing pages, he announced, “I’m going to be…uh,” and then a wide grin, “the first person to WANT! to go INTO A BLACK HOLE!”

Marker poised at the white board, I clarified, “So you want to be an astronaut?”

“No; a teacher.”

BA-DUM-CHING! You could almost hear the vaudevillian drum and cymbal. Speaking truth, Harrison, I thought.

“My first day of teaching, I will have long hair, and I’m going to wear a dress.” When Harrison made his most provocative comments, he switched from roaring like a crowd of one into a voice of utmost affectation, best spoken wearing an ascot and a velvet dinner jacket. Or long hair and a dress.

“Cool,” I added. Teacher, I wrote on the board.

“I know how to spell it.”

“I’m gonna have a flower shop. And I’m gonna wear a flowered shirt, and my nametag will be shaped like a flower, and it will have my name, Poppy, right on it – because my name’s a flower!” Poppy had it all figured out. She was busy drawing the details of her life.

“How did you get a name Poppy? For being a flower-seller? Is that a Mexican name?” Hailey asked, genuinely amazed that her lab pal had a name that bespoke destiny.

“I’mpuertorican,” said Poppy, as fast as a human tongue can rattle off its proud credentials. She bore Hailey no irritation or ill-will at what must have been continual correction of others’ assumptions.

“Is that by Costa Rica?” Hailey asked.

“Not really,” Poppy said, reaching for her next colored pencil.

I had made them coloring pages for this last day before the holiday. “I Can Be A _____” followed by the deliberate intention, “when I go to COLLEGE!” They had three drawing boxes: yourself now, yourself as an adult doing what you want for a career, and then an image of what you think college will look like.

This project wasn’t fully my idea. The tutoring program was quite a Fellowship of the College Ring. We were charged with promoting the idea and expectation that these students would go on to college. My job was to normalize that forward course.

The pragmatist in me knew the kids needed college if they wanted to ever leave financial desperation behind. And I knew they wouldn’t all make it.

I also knew that most American colleges offered a standard bullet list of unsurprising core curriculum designed to offer a general educational foundation – what we used to call “high school.” They’d get maybe a year’s worth of specialized courses specific to their chosen major. If they actually wanted an education, they had to shoot for that elusive fit of interest and program and school and financial aid and location and personal support – the Holy Grail of Higher Ed. I felt like a fraud, a liar, and a traitor.

When my own kids graduated from college, each hit a wall. The adrenaline rush of four years was over, the campus living was over, and after the parties came the looming, depressingly rhetorical question: that’s it?

They’d expected more. Because I’d lied to them.

I told them college was their ticket to a better life, better than the scrimping working-class poverty in which I’d raised them. I told them college would be better than high school, that they’d get to study what they actually cared about, that their education would finally be personal to their dreams and life goals. I told them it would all be worth it.

That isn’t exactly what happened.

At the expensive private college on the East Coast, my daughter was harassed by a professor who thought she was some little rich girl sleeping off a night of partying when she fell asleep in class after working her two jobs the night before. At the small state college back home, her sister struggled with her hostile major professor enough to question her choices and dread each semester. My son cycled through three different universities, looking for anyone who might actually care that he attended, that a significant other had attempted suicide before either of them was 20, that he was paying his own way and working hard and just needed someone to walk him through getting an extension on a project due to being completely freaked out and overwhelmed by that experience.

These were honor students in high school. My daughters earned merit scholarships. It should have been so easy for them all, considering they were all labeled “gifted and talented.”

So had I. I had been all those things. And it didn’t stop me from dropping out in the middle of my first semester of college, full-ride scholarship be damned. No one cared when I pulled out of the University Honors Program and my double majors. No one cared when I let go of all that scholarship money. No one questioned me or counseled me or slowed me as I broke and ran.

No one cared.

I’ve wondered if maybe someone at a smaller school, or a private school, might have cared. But my daughters’ experiences make me doubt that. My son’s experience makes me pretty sure.

If you’re smart and say what you think, especially when you disagree or want something better, you risk alienating people in power. If you are personally overwhelmed in college, you’re seen as unstable instead of being seen for what you really are: young.

All of our educational woes were due to being young. Why be part of the American educational system if you do not have understanding for or compassion for or any interest in supporting and encouraging young people? Thousands of jobs exist that pay better and need smart, cynical people to make hard-edged decisions. Please – go get one. Because our children and budding adults deserve so much more than cold comfort. I deserved better than that. My children did, too.

And now, this generation of sweet grade schoolers were supposed to be looking to college as the answer. “When I go to college, I want to be a…animal saver! What’s that word?” Hailey asked.

“A veterinarian? An animal doctor? Or do you want to save them like save endangered species?”

“Like save endangered species…do they go save rhinos and monkeys?”

“Yeah, so that would be a wildlife biologist…a zoologist….” Hailey gave me an awesome squinty face of absolute disapproval. “No?”

“No, not those.”

“Do you just want me to spell ‘animal saver’?”


So Hailey wrote, “I want to be a animal saver when I go to college.” You tell ‘em, Hailey.


Before we left for the holiday, the staff had professional development training about how to use a certain online curriculum, plus a discussion about how to refer kids for additional support services in hopes of staving off a referral to special ed. The Literacy Fellows were instructed to attend the referral portion, which meant we sat in on the ice breakers and team-building activities.

“Does anybody have a Shout Out?” the administrator asked. Teachers offered praise and appreciation to the pera’s and to teammates who had been particularly helpful. We Fellows applauded along with the rest, even though we didn’t really know most of the staff being named.

Then Commanding Teacher spoke up. “I’d like to recognize Ms. Barbara for ‘Collaboration.’ I have a student with some trust issues, and even before she began taking literacy groups, she started building a relationship with that student. It’s been working.”

Everyone applauded as the administrator brought me a long thin red pin for my ID lanyard. I didn’t know what to say, shocked that my efforts had even mattered, let alone been noticed, or, unbelievably, valued. I attached the pin and looked down: “COLLABORATION.”

A few minutes later, as I grabbed a drink from the snack table, two other teachers who sent kids to me for Lab waved me over. “We were just saying – you’re doing such a great job with our students.”

“Yeah – we’re so glad you’re here.”

It all felt so strange. I did not expect to be included. I did not expect to be welcomed into the camaraderie of those brothers and sisters in arms. Walking past watercolor turkeys on brown paper lining the halls, I felt thankful for the unexpected opportunity that had come my way, to step back into the educational system that I had railed against my entire life. I admitted to myself that I was thankful my children went to college; they’d never been unable to get a job. In fact, the East Coaster got that editorial gig in publishing, just like she’d hoped. The mountain college daughter is getting a second bachelor’s now, heading into medicine. And the son who reeled from college to college – he’s the one going to law school.

The thing about college is not just the college degree – it’s crossing that threshold. It may be a lackluster, mediocre educational system; but now by god it’s your lackluster, mediocre educational system. It’s yours to return to any time you’d like, because now you have access. That’s how you actually work the system. You learn the system.

And like we were taught in our middling, unremarkable, undistinguished American public schools, once you learn the system – work the problem.