Friday, March 27, 2015

from The Wire: "Mr. P," on his first day in his 7th grade classroom. 
After the abrupt end of my career in dance, after a couple of years listless shuffling what was left of my deck, I went back to school to get a teaching certificate. Eventually I honed in on special education, with a focus on children with learning disabilities and emotional handicaps. Those were the kids that drew me in, their huge need matched my huge need to feel useful. My fifteen and some years of teaching started in Florida and ended abruptly in Maryland. Dunno. Rugs get pulled, eh?

My first teaching job was in a special education center in Florida. I taught emotionally disturbed Kindergartners. The children had already run into big trouble in their pre-schools or regular Kindergarten classes and they were placed with us. The students, roughly evenly black and white, with a few Asians, a few Hispanic, qualified for free breakfast and lunch 98% of the time. Basically, they were all dirt poor.

“My” children were five and six and once they trusted me, they would let me teach them. In most cases, during the years I worked in this center, the children reached the first goal the school established for them: the student will be able to experience their environment with pleasure. When these children came to our center, they weren’t able to do that, and I felt like that was a damn shame. Here’s a poem:

Children, I will teach you.
We will make Green Eggs and Ham,
sing the alphabet in funny voices, celebrate
your good behavior with stickers and playtime,
watch The Red Balloon, dance on Friday afternoons.

Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, A.A. Milne, Dr. Zeuss,
Ezra Jack Keats, Chinua Achebe, Beatrice Potter,
and their friends will join us and you will sit quietly,
soaking in poetry, pictures, and tales of wise animals, 
foolishness, kindness, impossibilities, and satisfying resolutions. 

My last teaching job was in a large middle school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in a town half-way between D.C. and Baltimore. The school population was about 60% white and 40% black; the faculty was a fair mix of black and white, men and women; the children came from well-off families, getting by families, homeless families, and no family at all to speak of. When they were poor, more often than not, they came from a poverty of long standing in their family histories.

During my first year at that school I was a “co-teacher,” supposedly working in tandem with regular teachers, supposedly helping the kids with learning disabilities. The special ed students were in large classes meant to be “regular” education, but most of the other students were placed there because they had behavior issues that were deemed “incorrigible,” or were emotionally damaged or learning disabled, but undiagnosed. Chaos reigned. I tried to teach and now and then I felt like I had taught someone something useful, but most nights I left the school feeling utterly frustrated, lost, and depressed.

During my second year at the school, I taught (by myself, which was better) an “intensive” class of 7th and 8th graders language arts and social studies. Once I won the battle with the administration to get my class size in line with special education guidelines, we, the children and I, had a pretty good time and I think they learned. No, I know they did. But I messed it up by needing open-heart surgery in April of that year. I couldn’t return to that job, in fact I never returned to full-time teaching. 

I recently watched TheWire,,
which originally aired from 2002 to 2008. I didn’t watch it then because, because… Wow. The story is about life in Baltimore, Maryland, but it could be about any city in our country that has poor neighborhoods, political corruption, problems in police departments, a shrinking middle class, children and schools in crisis. So, any U.S. city.  I spread the 60 episodes out sensibly over a couple of months, didn’t binge, because I could only take one or two episodes a night and not every night. Some nights I felt weak. Every American should watch The Wire from start to finish, I think. That won’t happen, of course. Some Americans would rather be shot; for others watching The Wire would never occur to them, simply wouldn’t be in their radar; and for many Americans there would be no opportunity and anyway it would be redundant because they are living it, know the scenes all too well. The fourth season brings a group of middler schoolers into the story and I followed them living out their plot lines with recognition, rage, heartbreak, and in one lone case, joy. Okay, I am, “to the depths of my being” one of the tribe who think this series brilliantly written— accurate, perceptive, and brutally honest, but the thing about the series that both broke my heart and cheered me up the most was that in the final season they zoomed in on the children. We all need to zoom in on the children. Until we do that, we will get nowhere. We can have “conversations” (Jeez louise, I’m sick of hearing about conversations) until we exhaust ourselves, but we can also do things differently so that poverty doesn’t beget poverty, and a zip code doesn’t get to say it all about a child’s chance in America. Let’s finally do as much as we can to help every child thrive and see if that doesn’t help all of us. We need to nurture the roots of us. And yes, I’m a Democrat.