Justice: (n) fairness, equity, objectivity, righteousness, honesty, disinterestedness
(n) a judge or magistrate, particularly a judge of the Supreme Court of a state or country
Javier sat fidgeting in the brown papasan chair, stalling, dangling legs kicking randomly, clearly not ready to begin reading. Since he was my only student so far, I had the luxuries of time and attention to offer him. I waited while he wiggled.
“Do you have a family?” he finally asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Nooo. But I do have kids.”
“Yup. They’re all grown people now.”
“Your kids are grown ups?”
“Yeah, some of them even have kids of their own now.”
“Do they all live in Denver?”
“No, they live in different places – Fort Collins, Cheyenne, Boston, and in New Mexico.”
“So they don’t live with you?”
“I live with two of my sons in Fort Collins – one is 30, and one is finishing his last year of high school, before he goes to college.”
“What does the one who’s 30 do?”
“He’s getting ready to go to law school.”
“So you live with your sons?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes, I live with my daughter and her husband and her two kids. We like living all together, in our big family.”
“I live with my mom and dad, and my brother, my grandma and my uncle.” Javier looked at his shoes. “We’re Mexican.”
“Cool – we’re Danish.” Javier looked back up. “You know, you remind me of my son who’s 30. Your teacher told me you’re a fairness and justice guy – yeah?”
“Maybe,” Javier eyed me.
“Yeah, my son is too. When he was a kid, he’d get frustrated when things weren’t right, weren’t fair. That’s why he’s going to law school – he wants to help people when things aren’t right, using the laws that say everyone is equal. He’ll be a lawyer.”
I looked at Javier. “You could be a lawyer, too. We need more fairness and justice guys.”
“What does he look like?”
“My son? He’s 6’3”, tall and strong, has smart eyes and a warrior ponytail.”
Javier nodded in approval. He opened the book he’d brought. We read a chapter called “La Bamba” together. He helped me with the Spanish words one of the characters used from time to time, a boy named Manuel.
Javier hadn’t understood the name at first. “Man-ial?”
“Man-yuu-el, in English. But it’s Mahn-whale,” I explained, giving him a knowing raised eyebrow and hand gesture suggesting the obviousness of how we really pronounce this name. The familiar name rolled off his tongue naturally as we read the rest of the chapter.
Javier had never seen this Spanish first name written in any of his books. I wondered how many times this had happened before, he’d mispronounced a name from his own first language simply because they were underrepresented in children’s books, and none of us in the teacher’s chair had the time or attention to hear him and support a role model who looked and sounded like him.
As we walked back down the hall to his classroom, he casually asked, “So – does a lawyer make a lot of money?”
I hid my smile. “They can,” I nodded seriously. “They can make a lot of money.”
Better: (adj) more excellent, more effective, preferable
(adj) recovering from illness, injury, or mental stress; healthier
(adv) to a higher standard, in a finer way
(n) that which is better, as “a change for the better”
Miranda stopped the kids at the doorway. We could all hear them in the hall. “We have new rules in Literacy Lab,” she announced, sounding sorry and aggrieved. A chorus of negative responses harmonized into a familiar childhood song.
“No, no, now listen. Listen!” She cleared her throat and brought her volume down. “So now when we go to Lab, there’s no talking.”
“SSSHHHH! No buts! There’s no talking for five minutes.” She sounded as if she was standing up taller, or maybe just making her decision about where she stood overall. “That’s – reading – time.”
The kids slunk in, casting suspicious eyes my way as they passed my cubicle. “Is that your boss?” one of them asked Miranda.
“SSSHHHH! No. READ.”
We’d had a conversation, we three Fellows. I’d done a fair share of the talking, and Chloe much less. But in order for me to start having students soon, things would have to change. We couldn’t have three groups of loud, boisterous kids all wandering and running in one classroom at the same time.
Chloe’s kids were golden. Her prior experience in tutoring programs shone, immediately evident in the silent parade of attentive students in and out of the Lab. We all knew that. We all knew why we were talking.
But I’d tried to be realistic, too. “I feel optimistic about showing these guys how we come in and out,” I said, referring to the program model of focused attention, silent entry, silent exit, so we showed the kids we were all taking their learning time seriously. “How we’ll be as I’m instructing – no idea. But I still think it’s important that we approach this as a team, and try to set the same standard.”
Miranda had sighed. “Sorry, guys,” she’d apologized sincerely. “I’m trying….”
Chloe had patted her arm and told her not to worry. I’d added, “I just think it’s a shame you didn’t get the same training and support – and that’s not your fault. I know it’s so much more work to go back and reteach them the Lab norms now….” I did not, however, say not to bother. We all knew that. We all knew what I was saying, and not saying.
Chloe and I had talked wistfully of our love of evidence-based models. It’s as if social science could be Pinocchio, a real science after all, able to faithfully replicate outcomes if only we, the woodcarvers and accordion-players, would just follow the blueprints, stick to the plan.
“Evidence what?” Miranda had asked without interest before grabbing her lunch and headphones.
I had seen them work. I remembered a 2006 New Yorker article titled, “Million Dollar Murray.” The key quote from the article was spoken by police officer Patrick O’Bryan, who had been arresting and interacting with homeless Murray Barr on the streets of Reno, Nevada for years. “It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray.” Million Dollar Murray became a rallying cry for systemic change among agencies working with the homeless. Out of this understanding grew the phenomenal Housing First model, where homeless individuals and families are first provided long-term shelter, the thing they need immediately, and subsequently offered support services to help them keep that housing.
We learned from that article that it would have been much cheaper to just rent Murray an apartment than to aid and abet his cycling in and out of hospitals, rehabs, and jail. Housing First has been so successful, in Denver and across the nation, that it has become not only an evidence-based model of its own, but included in more complex evidence-based models for serving the homeless.
Give them what they need. Our students immediately needed to be able to focus, in order to be able to learn. In the Lab, we could give them an environment that helped them focus.
“SSSHHHH! I MEAN it! Knock– be…quiet…,” Miranda corrected herself, adjusting her voice down a notch, as well. They read. They got squirrelly. She SSSHHHH!’d them loudly.
And then – they read out loud, one at a time, for her. Before they started pestering each other and grabbing pencils.
As she walked them to the door, Miranda looked in at me, eyebrows raised in a question.
“Better?” she mouthed.
I gave her two thumbs up from behind my laptop training screens. She smiled bashfully, but looked pleased.
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.”
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.
Familiar: (adj) well known from long association, informal, casual, relaxed, open, unpretentious; “hail-fellow-well-met”
(n) a demon supposedly attending and obeying a witch, often said to assume the form of a small being or animal
(n) a friend or associate
“What do you want to be?” is a difficult question for children – unless it’s Halloween. With endless possibilities, they tend to zero in on the costume that most delights them, whether because it makes them feel magical or beautiful or shockingly bold. They attune themselves to their inner superhero, mermaid, bunny, or monster, and for one evening, we get a glimpse inside their alternate universe.
It’s empowering to remake yourself. We get to play God, creating someone in our own image, an image we hardly dare glimpse a lot of times – the image, the dream, of who we truly want to be. Who we actually are.
Miranda helped me put another barrier between us. To give myself more whiteboard to write on (and another wall to funnel her kids into her cubicle), I took her up on her offer to wheel another whiteboard partition down the hall to our room. As we struggled to wiggle it into place, the top corner came loose, exposing the crumbling particle board inside where a sharp screw had torn through.
“Want my Gorilla Glue for that?” she offered.
“You’ve got some? That would be perfect.” Filling the broken places, we then pushed the whiteboard’s edge back into the partition frame. I held it together while Miranda got our wide packing tape from a drawer. ”If you would, put a strip around the whole frame here,” I indicated, nodding at my hands above my head, and she strapped tape from one side, past my glasses and my ear, around the corner to the other side. “Nice. Now, one over the top, to hold the first tape in place.”
Letting go of the partition, I saw that it held. Good fences make good neighbors, I thought, quoting Robert Frost and imagining his stone walls. Yet the necessary intimacy of working together, reaching so near each other to fix the board, had opened a psychological barrier even as it repaired a physical one. Freed of my wall, I looked around Miranda’s teaching space.
Her word wall was colorful and appealing, and already had words the kids had asked her to spell for them. Group photos of each of her tutoring classes grinned down from another wall. As was expected of all of us, she had a corner dedicated to her college experience, with a smiling photo of her in cap and gown. And another photo, in another cap and gown. Colorful pennants from her four colleges hung above her space, inviting and encouraging.
“That one’s when I got my Master’s in Library Science,” she pointed at the most recent photo. “I just got that in May.”
We talked about her program of study, and about her two undergraduate degrees, in English and Education.
“So you know how to do all of this – the lesson plans, the district standards, the objectives…,” I confirmed, her technical expertise dawning on me.
“Yeah, I just made a little mistake?, so I’m doing this for now.” I looked at her quizzically, but she just continued on. “It’s really not that hard. I can give you one of my lesson plans to look at, if you want.” She smiled at me, then looked over at the utter disaster of papers that was her bookshelf. “I’ll…uh, find one…I’ll email you one.” She looked back at me sheepishly.
“That would be great. I haven’t ever written one before, and it’s a bit daunting.”
“For me, it’s the classroom management I struggle with. That’s why I got disciplined. I have to do training now.” She said it openly, though clearly chagrined.
“Oh, are you doing the online trainings? I think they’re great, super helpful. I geeked out on the research – it’s so cool!”
“Yeah, the coordinator said I have to do them, since I was hired by that last guy, the one that got fired, and I didn’t get any training….”
“Well great! I mean, not great that you didn’t get any training from him, but – “
“Yeah, that’s why I got punishment.” She hung her head just exactly like the kids do when they feel defeated by their reading assignments.
“Discipline,” I offered.
“Yeah, discipline,” she agreed.
“I think training is always a good thing.” I smiled hopefully at her.
“Yeah…,” she tried to agree.
“Well, my background is in social work with homeless families – so I feel pretty good about managing behaviors. Maybe we can trade, yeah? I can learn from you, you can learn from me?”
“Yeah! They’re good kids, my kids, they’re just a little…,” she wiggled her hands, trying to decide what they were.
“High energy?” I offered.
“They just need to settle down.” Her brow furrowed. I remembered the lunchroom.
“It’s hard, but you get to kind of start over,” I sympathized. “You can reset the tone you want.”
“Yeah.” Miranda turned back into her messy, colorful space. “Well, lunch time!” Then, putting on her headphones, she ate a sandwich while watching the training videos.
“Fixed and Growth Mindsets are related to skills, comfort zones: ‘I’m just not good at X.’ With a growth mindset, all absences of skill are understood to be temporary and malleable. You might not know how to do something, but you assume you could learn if you took the time. We find ways to express the same relevant information about your present lack of skill, without encoding it in a sense of defeatism. Instead, speak of how you’re not as skilled as you could be if you trained or practiced more.
“So growth mindset applies not only to ‘abilities’ like public speaking or math or dancing, but also to traits or typical responses you have. It’s easy to hear about growth mindset and think, ‘Oh yeah, I know that I can improve my skills, obviously I have a growth mindset!’
“Not so fast. What about your traits? Descriptions not of what you can do but of what you tend to do? The way to talk about these from a growth mindset is to put these tendencies in the past. Note that this it totally allowed even if they’re in the really recent past, like if you’re talking about a reaction you had just days ago, or even a few minutes ago.
“And it doesn’t assume that you are certain it’ll never happen again. It just means that you’re not condemning yourself to that fate…but waiting to see, and anticipating progress.”
“Ms, Barbara, can you tie a tie?” Miranda asked me as she escorted a boy to my tiny table in the afternoon.
“Mmm, not from memory,” I said to the disappointed boy. “But I know how to find out.” He perked right back up, and Miranda left him to me.
“Come on over, let’s look and see,” I offered, typing into my laptop. “How…to…tie…a…tie,” I narrated, hitting the Enter key with a flourish. “Excellent – step-by-step pictures.”
I brought up the illustrations and the boy came to stand in front of me. As he stood patiently, I read the instructions out loud for us both, stumbling and fumbling and having to restart. Miranda came back to watch, chatting companionably as I tried to figure out the steps; and eventually, I completed a simple single knot.
“So if there’s something we need to know,” I summarized, finishing tucking the end through, “like how to tie a tie,” and I slipped the knot up to the boy’s collar, “we can just look it up, read how to do it,” I finished, straightening the knot. “We can learn how.”
All three of us smiled happily. “I’m a teacher,” the boy explained, showing me his costume. Me too, I thought wryly, and smiled even more.
“Thanks, Ms. Miranda,” he beamed at her. “Thanks,” he said to me.
“Go join your class!” Miranda barked at him; he took it good-naturedly and hustled out the door.
She turned to me. “Have you seen the parade? It’s SO cute.” We grabbed our jackets and headed out to the playground, dressed as teachers, while a universe of possibilities paraded by, right before our very eyes.
Brilliant: (adj) bright, shining, blazing, dazzling, vivid, intense, gleaming, glaring, luminous,
radiant, coruscating, vivid, intense, bold, dazzling, intelligent, clever, smart, astute,
intellectual, gifted, talented, able, adept, skillful, superior, first-class, first-rate, excellent
Back in the farmlands of 1970’s Iowa when I was a kid in elementary school, I was not allowed to be bored. That’s not true; I was not allowed to say I was bored, so long as I kept my boredom to myself. In my family, if you said you were bored, you were assigned extra chores, usually fairly unpleasant cleaning tasks.
This was the first approach to self-discipline that I learned: do not say what you are thinking.
When I started school, I was initially one of those eager learners, the bright-eyed kid throwing their hand so high in the air, waving it so frantically, it starts to lift them out of their seat. Learning made my brain feel like I was flying, soaring over the corn fields and hog barns, glimpsing far away lands where people talked about visionary ideas and crafted new inventions and found wondrous new stories I’d never heard before.
In kindergarten, I was quick. In first grade, I was a delight. In second grade, I was an undisciplined behavior problem.
I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop myself from learning. Every question my teacher asked, I answered – even when she was trying to ask questions of the entire class. She’d tell me to let the other kids try, but then she’d ask another fascinating question, and I knew, I just knew the answer it was so fantastic, and before I could think I had thrilled my own brain with that soaring flight of connection and discovery. Again I would answer, shout it out, loud and proud.
Eventually they would label me “gifted.” My second grade teacher labeled me impulsive, undisciplined, and disruptive.
I remember the desks arranged in a mod circle, my young, beautiful teacher practicing the latest classroom structures for group learning. And I remember my desk removed from that circle, stuck back in the corner by the pencil sharpener and the trash can. Now I was not allowed to answer any questions. I became bored, and lonely.
When my standardized test scores came back, they were off the top of the charts. My No. 2 pencil was allowed to make the school look wildly successful, but my voice had been silenced. The group would not be learning from me, because I would see and hear very clearly in that silence outside the circle that I was not part of the group – I literally did not fit in. I was not normal, I was not okay, my thrill at learning was selfish, and I should not say what I was thinking.
What I learned in second grade was that I was a bad kid. This translated into behavior issues, especially with babysitters. Since my parents needed to work, I finally ended up going to my grandparents’ farm every day after school. There, stepping down from the confines of the yellow school bus to where their dusty lane met the edge of the gravel road, I felt free.
Grandma Jensen taught me about discipline – which was simply groundedness for my mental energy. I needed her one-on-one attention to help me learn to ride the powerful, wild horse of my mind, to channel my curiosity into self-mastery. With her never-ending patience, I learned to follow directions to sew a quilt, weed and harvest in the garden, wash clothes in a wringer washing machine and hang them on the clothesline, iron, chop, bake, knit – and write.
Grandma got me writing little stories about the things I was thinking and learning. She let me staple my pages together, and use markers and pens to make covers and illustrations.
My grandma was a brilliant teacher. She was my first, best teacher, supporting my endless love of learning. She gave me back my voice, a way to speak my mind, say my truth. I wrote about everything. I wandered the farm, exploring happily, silently noting details of monarch butterflies on milkweed, the rippling waves of a hay field like water, the variety of clouds overhead and whether they meant rain. I thought about worlds so small you’d need a microscope to see them, waves of oceans I had never seen, and soaring above the clouds like traveling through time, off into the vastness of space, where the light we see is only the memory of star shine.
Affinity: (n) a fellow feeling for
While technically still in training, I was asked to meet regularly with Javier. “Ooo, good luck,” the other Fellows had told me with a sympathetic wince. He had a reputation for disregarding rules and fighting back. His test scores showed his attitude more than his ability; a student teacher had advised me Javier “hadn’t felt like trying that day.”
I felt myself bristle ever so slightly. I have an affinity for the smart kid who picks all the wrong battles to fight. I come from a long line of Javiers.
Grandpa Jensen didn’t actually get his degree from Iowa State; he enrolled, took all the required classes, and passed them all – except for one. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t pass the English.
Holger was a conundrum for those who knew him: a hard-working farmer but a lackluster student, a fun-loving guy with a strong stubborn streak, a proud man who didn’t talk about himself, humble yet fierce. His thick Danish accent was a daily reminder that he was a first-generation American; he might be born here, even able to speak the language, but inside his parents’ home, vi er danskere. We are Danes.
He became an ROTC second lieutenant who technically didn’t graduate college. Maybe Iowa State didn’t have Fellows or tutors to help ESL students complete their degrees in the 1920’s. They had professors, however, and other students, native English speakers. Holger could have asked for help; the problem was that Holger…just…couldn’t. Something in his character, his personality, maybe his upbringing, made that the distasteful or shameful choice. Knowing him, his attitude would have been to clench his jaw and walk away without looking back.
I’d been told Javier’s family spoke Spanish at home, which might also be impacting his English language skills. I went into the 4th-5th combined classroom to meet him, a beautiful boy who will be a strikingly handsome man one day. Strong and sturdy, Javier looked like an athlete, and his sporty attire confirmed the image. We would be reading together one-on-one in addition to our Literacy Lab time, so after introducing myself, we sat down by the classroom bookshelves.
“What book will we read?” Javier asked me, trying hard not to sound too interested.
“Why don’t you pick one book that’s too easy, and one that’s kind of hard,” I suggested.
He glanced at the shelves, but was actually watching me. “I’ve read all of these,” he shrugged.
“You’ve read ALL of these?”
“Mm-hmm.” He eyed me casually but intently.
“That’s a lot of reading.” I didn’t push; letting the ridiculous exaggeration stand seemed to allow Javier to let it go.
“I can just reach in while I close my eyes and choose, like this” – and placing one hand over his eyes, his other fingers danced over the tops of some chapter books within reach. He snatched one from the shelf.
“‘Bailey School Kids’ – those are good ones. You like the ‘Bailey School Kids’ books?”
A voice popped up on the other side of Javier. “Hey! I know you!” A small, thin boy grinned even as he tried to scowl at me.
“And I know you,” I greeted him. “Your name begins with a D…,” I feigned ignorance.
“Hi, DeLeon,” I grinned back.
Javier looked back and forth between us. “Can we go read now?”
“Did you pick an easy one, too?”
Javier grabbed a thin picture book. He flapped it at me exasperatedly, as if he’d been waiting for hours for our reading time.
“Ready? Nice seeing you, DeLeon,” I waved. DeLeon gave a little wave back. Javier and I left the classroom for a reading and study area up the hall, across from the Lab.
The study area was carpeted and corralled by low walls made of smooth wooden railing and colorful square insets. A high counter ran along it’s farther wall, with bright blue barstools the older kids liked climbing into. The rest of the space was filled with a hodgepodge of discarded office chairs, small ottoman-style vinyl seats in fun shapes and colors, and a brown corduroy papasan chair with a metal frame. I thought of my “learning environment” admonishments: everything in your space MUST serve a purpose; less is more; label everything. Javier plopped into the papasan chair, and with a gracious wave of his hand, offered me the office chair next to it: the teacher’s chair.
I had him start with the easy book. It was a colorful, cartoonish picture book about baseball, aimed at a much younger child. As he hurried from page to page, reading words in the stilted Frankenstein walk of trampled, unrecognized meaning, suddenly a realization came to him.
“Hey! Did you hear that? It’s like a poem!”
“You’re right, it rhymes.”
Javier nodded and continued trampling, occasionally repeating a few words when he recognized the rhyme scheme.
When he reached the end, I asked him what he liked about that book. His big eyes grew thoughtful as he looked directly into mine. “The poetry. I like books with imagery.”
“Imagery like illustrations? Or imagery like pictures in your head?”
“Pictures in my head.”
Javier the baseball fan liked poetic imagery. The picture in my own head was changing focus, gaining depth. The caption I’d been given did not accurately label this complex image.
We started into the chapter book. As Javier stumbled over the character names, calling Liza “Lizza,” I soon figured out he’d never read a Bailey School Kids book before. The premise of this popular series involves a group of four elementary school students who keep suspecting various teachers of being various kinds of monsters.
Where other children grin knowingly as they try to determine if the math teacher is, in fact, a goblin, Javier seemed taken aback. It quickly became clear that he did not want any of the teachers to be any kind of monsters. He seemed relieved when our reading time was up, though he made no move to extricate himself from the cozy depths of the papasan chair.
Comfort zones may be refuges, but they are also limiting. “Time to go back to class.” I stood from my chair, holding the easy book and looking at him expectantly. Javier finally clambered up and out, and now with a gracious wave of my hand, I had him lead me back to his classroom.
“What grade are you in, Javier, 4th or 5th?” I clarified as I opened the door.
“Fifth.” He looked directly in my eyes again, waiting to see how I would respond.
“Thought so,” I smiled.
“We’re going to get you all ready for middle school, bud,” his teacher added now, affectionately tossling his hair and absorbing him back into the room. She was none other than Commanding Teacher.
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.
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.
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.
“WHAT – DID – I – SAY!?! THAT – WOMAN – IS – TALKING – TO – YOU!!! YOU – WILL – LISTEN – WHEN – SHE – TALKS – TO – YOU!!!”
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…?”
“TELL THEM CARLOS NEEDS A FIRST RESPONDER NOW!”
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.
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.
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.