April 2018

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Three Students

I asked for poems and quotations for my 50th birthday, and I got oodles of them. (Thank you!) Even more, the whole week was a celebration of so much joy in my life. Amidst all the fun, three young women, all previous students, reminded me of what a gift it was to teach, and seeing these young women helped me gain perspective on how small I am on eternity’s timeline, and how lucky that is.

These meetings helped me identify still as a teacher, one who still loves my students (those whom I still know and those who are now far away from my life.) My earlier identities are not lost: they have simply passed, as time does and as we all will.

On my first day in my fifties, Ann invited lots of folks whom I love to celebrate our friendships and our (or at least my) love of poetry. Seventy or so people came, and our first guest was Sara, who had been my student in A.P. English and Journalism 21 years ago. Even as a teenager, Sara was smart and steady, a strong leader and an excellent thinker. Twenty-one years later she is starting her second career as a nurse in the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), caring for our youngest and most vulnerable children on the night shift. I’m not sure if I’m more grateful for her dedication to these children or amazed by the fact that she stayed for three hours, hobnobbing with a houseful of strangers who were mostly a couple of decades older than she is, and that so many people told me, as the night wore on, that they had met my friend Sara and really liked her. How lucky I am that Sara is still in my life, still teaching me.

Two days later, my partner Ann and I traveled to visit our previous student Chancey in Minneapolis, where she has started a school primarily for children of color who are living in poverty. Seventeen years ago Chancey took Calculus from Ann and American Studies from me. She was a strong student. She is a brilliant and joyful educator.

We went to Prodeo Academy that Monday and witnessed an inspiring place of joy, learning, and hope. We started with the 60 kids at breakfast and loved the morning’s chant, led this day by three kindergartners. They shouted, quickly and happily:

I am somebody.
I was somebody when I came in,
And I’ll be a better somebody when I leave.
I am powerful. I am strong. (at this they flexed their muscles)
I deserve the education that I get here.
I have things to do, people to impress, and places to go.
I am somebody.

Then they lined up, one class at a time, to go to their classrooms, either Duke, Stanford, or Notre Dame, and walked single file, following the taped walkways on the floor as if they were following the lighted arrows on a plane after an emergency landing.

After breakfast, the kindergartners in the class we observed settled onto the colored squares on a rug at the front of the classroom, and with their teacher, they began a new chant in their sing-song voices:
I believe in myself and my ability to be my best.
I am intelligent. I am capable of greatness.
I can learn. I will learn. I must learn.
Today I will listen, I will read, and I will write.
I will speak, and I will reason.
I will do all these things with one purpose in mind:
To do my best.

I am way too smart to waste today.
This is the way. Hey. We start our day.
To get the knowledge. Hey. To go to college.
Hey. But don’t stop there. Go anywhere.
Hey. This is the way. We start our day.
If at first you don’t succeed, try again.
You have to work hard to get smart,
You will best at what you do most.

After the chant, the teacher instructed students to sit in “star” position: sitting with their legs crossed, thinking about how to learn, at attention for the day’s learning, ready to think, hands folded in front of them. (I guess that’s really Starh with a with a silent  h, but that seems too complicated for kids who are just learning about “Bossy e.” There was a lot of excitement because in the teacher’s chair there was a note to the class, and when the teacher asked the students, the guests (Ann and me), and then the principal (Chancey), “Did you put this there?” we all answered, “No.”

No, we didn’t, and when she opened the letter, it became clear that a leprechaun had been in the classroom that morning because it was St. Patrick’s Day. The note said that the leprechaun had left gold for any kids who attended to their learning and wrote their stories. A boy in the middle, very excited, said, “That’s chocolate! I know because I saw it on the principal’s desk!” He was clearly more excited about the possibility of chocolate than gold.

The morning’s literacy lesson on crazy vowel sounds began, and kids learned to sound out vowels and to use meaning as a way to figure out what vowel sound to use. Then half of the class was excused to work on individualized computer programs while the teacher worked with the other half. I was impressed by how quickly the students moved from the leprechaun excitement to vowels.

Ann and I observed all three classes. The lessons moved quickly and efficiently, and students seemed happy and engaged. When a student misbehaved, the teacher moved a clothespin with that student’s name on it down a brightly colored yard stick, but would later return the clothespin to the color of excellence when the same student did something praiseworthy, like persevering even when his thumb hurt or having a lot of energy when another student was leading the class.

The morning proceeded in this orderly and happy way. Ann, who is more sentimental than I am, cried as she watched these students read and write and figure out story problems in math. She kept saying, “These kids are in kindergarten!” We knew from the data board that these students had known no letters, colors or numbers when they had arrived at school this fall.

The kids and the school would have been impressive anywhere but were especially impressive in this school for kids who had been considered behind grade level (in kindergarten, no less!), some of them labeled “special ed” in their preschool grades.

After our literacy lesson, I took a nap on a pew in the sanctuary of the church where the school rents its space. Though the pew and my pillow of two hymnals were hard, I slept deeply and with joy for the hope I had witnessed.

After I slept, Ann and I attended recess, where the kids ran around, sometimes shooting basketballs or playing with toys and other times just running and yelling. One little girl, an African American with big brown eyes and a beautiful fountain of curls, asked me if I would play with her. I said, “I was thinking I would sit in the bleachers and watch you play. Would that be okay?” No. That would not be okay. So we sat on the steps and used play cucumbers to flatten play pancakes.

Another little girl joined us, and in one of my favorite moments of the day, she asked, “What’s that?” pointing to my cane. When I told her it was a cane that I used to help me walk, she said, “I’ll help you walk. You don’t need that.” So she held out her hand and we walked a few steps (though I surreptitiously held my cane in my other hand.) As we walked, she said, “I help my grandmother walk. She’s 35!” I didn’t tell her that I am old enough to be her grandmother’s mother.

Ann and I observed a healthy lunch where the “scholars” ate hummus and flatbread, did their best to bite a giant apple with their tiny mouths, and drank milk. One mother ate with them, and I overheard one child say to her, “You are the best mother!” They placed left overs in a bin that would be donated to Ann and me, while other left overs would go to the staff room as usual. The scholars didn’t know where the food was going, but they were learning not to waste good food. (I liked this a lot better than high school contests where kids smear food on one another to their classmates’ delight.)

After our lunch, we went to their classrooms to see the math lesson, which was similar to the literacy lesson in that it was orderly, sophisticated, and engaging. Though I don’t think they were using the words yet, they were reviewing addition, subtraction, and the calendar and were beginning multiplication. Ann teared again. Again she looked at me with her watery eyes and said, “These kids are in kindergarten!” as if I hadn’t known.

After math, Ann and I returned to Chancey’s apartment and when Chancey came home we all went out for a tasty New Orleans inspired dinner. (Our neighbor Annabella, who is originally from New Orleans, will be proud of us.) We talked about the day, all of the joy and humor as well as the child who, having had a difficult weekend, wailed for hours in Chancey’s office.

I felt deep gratitude for Chancey, who meant a lot to me when she was a student and means so much to me 17 years later. She is doing the work that I had tried to do, the work of bringing hope to children and communities that are underserved in our nation, and she is doing the work with courage and brilliance.

Ann and I flew from Minneapolis to Washington, DC, for a week of touristing, and for our last day—our coup de grace—we had brunch with my student Angela, who was in one of the first classes I taught and played on the first teams I coached 25 years ago, and her partner Maryann. (So we had a Mary, an Ann, a Maryann, and an “Ang.”)

Angela and I recalled her writing in my class, our play together on the volleyball court, and our hours on the curb after soccer practice as we waited for her dad to pick her up. We were lucky to know one another and felt lucky to reconnect now.

The last time I had seen Angela, she was maybe 18 years old. Things in her life were hard. She was dropping out of high school, and we went out for lunch to say good-bye. She asked me for my earrings as a token to take with her. I wished I could give her more, and I wondered what her life might hold. I have often thought of her through the years.

The last time we talked on the phone, she was working for a printer and was excited about her work. She thought she might own her own printing business, and at this point I thought she would make it but worried what might happen to this smart young woman who didn’t finish high school and never went to college.

Now I know that she is not only okay: she is great. She started to college but couldn’t afford to finish so signed up for the Navy, which paid for her college education. She worked repairing motors and such and realized that she wanted more education in order to do other work that seemed interesting to her. The Navy sent her to California to get a masters degree in engineering, and now she manages things and people and a lot of money (three billion seems like an awful lot to me.)

At brunch, Maryann and Angela were kind to one another and told us about their lives, their marriage, their families, their four wiener dogs (cute! We saw a photo!) and their plans.

I was delighted—stunned—the whole time. As I remembered the younger Angela I remembered the younger me, trying to be brave and to understand who I was and who I might be in this world. Looking back, I realize how true the words of Chancey’s kids ring for me: I was somebody then. I’m a better somebody now.

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