Archive | February, 2012

We Unleashed The Lion

29 Feb

Kids fight.  I wasn’t much of a fighter when I was a kid, but I got into one real fight in middle school with some kid on the soccer field, and looking back on that I can’t remember what it was about: but it wasn’t that one of us was bullying the other; or that we were from different cliques, groups, or certainly gangs.  I’m not even sure how many punches were thrown and though I can remember the kids name very well–hey, he’s a Facebook friend now!–I remember the only “pain” from the experience being the disappointment of my temper having gotten the best of me once again, and the debilitating frustration of not being able to explain to anyone why I was so upset.  There weren’t bullies in my school in the traditional sense of the word: no Scott Fargus pelting us in the face with snowballs, hanging us from tree-limbs by our underwear, or flushing our heads down the toilet.  But there were mean-spirited fuckheads, who were compensating for disappointments or insecurities in some aspects of their lives by being shitty and verbally abusive to other kids.  I was one of them–one of the mean spirited fuckheads, I mean.  And one of the other kids, too.

I remember when the Pearl Jam song, “Jeremy” came out.  It made me think about two things:

1.  These dudes are going to be one of my favorite bands of all time.

2.  They are right, man.  Kids in schools are going to start snapping and really start killing themselves and the people that push on them.

Well, in different ways I was wrong about both things.  Pearl Jam ended up becoming a caricature of themselves, and are now one of my least favorite bands of all time.  If a Pearl Jam song from any album other than Ten comes on the radio, I reflexively turn it off.  But a few years after “Jeremy,” Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris  walked into Columbine High School, injured 24 and killed 13 of their classmates and teachers as they sprayed the cafeteria, hallways, and classroom with bullets, before shooting themselves in the school library.  When you’re 16 and living, working, and going to school on a boat, and this is the way you hear about Columbine–a school not far from where one of your best friends grew up–I guess you tend to remember those details: the names, the numbers, the locations.  And then over the course of the next few years, it just kept happening.  Nothing on the scale of The Columbine massacre, no school shootings with perpetrators whose names I can remember, or even at schools I could name off the top of my head now.  But at least once a year, or so, somewhere, typically in some suburban fantasy land where “nobody ever thought something like this could happen,” a kid gets pushed over the edge, and the “unthinkable” happens.  And, as was the case these past two days, our gut reaction, as a community driven by a sensational media, is to draw it back to one thing: bullying.  The kid–we assume–is an outsider, pushed to the edge, who snapped and brought a gun to school to avenge his bullies, and killed some other people along the way.  And then the details come out, and as Michael Moore pointed out even in the case of Klebold and Harris the truth is so much more complicated.  Sometimes the bullied are also bullies.  Or perhaps the girl who jumped in front of a bus was dealing with some other heavy issues besides the insolent little punks who told her to “kill herself” on Facebook.  I don’t say this to minimize bullying at all, but to reiterate: shit’s always much more complicated than we would like to make it.

When I taught in jail the term “bullying” would have applied in so many ways, I wouldn’t know where to begin.  The justice agency bullied the education agency, the education agency bullied the justice agency; some counselors bullied kids, some kids bullied counselors.  The kids didn’t bully the kids (they either jumped one kid in larger groups, or beat the shit out of one another man-to-man, or Big Homies extorted littler day-room kids for their snacks and privileges.)  Fights were so common they became less worrisome, and more of a source of excitement.  It’s sad to say, but when you put kids in a place that looks and operates like a jail they act like it’s jail.  At my current school I don’t see traditional “bullying.”  I don’t really see any fights, even.  It may be because the kids are older and generally have other shit to worry about.  It may be that they save their aggression and violence for their block.  It may be that teachers like myself mock all of the kids enough for everyone to get their fill.  But I know where it does happen: it happens on Facebook, and Twitter, and via text messages, and subliminals.  I get it.  The insecurity, clownery, and machismo of the bullying mentality lends itself perfectly to social media.  It’s even easier to shit on someone and make yourself feel better when HUNDREDS of people can see it, without you having to hear or pay attention to their response.  God, if Facebook was around when I was 15…what a nightmare I would have been in some kids’ lives.  There would be a permanent record of what an inconsiderate ass-clown I was at that age.  Physical fighting and verbal taunting, bullying, and deflecting insecurities onto other people is something kids are always going to do.  And when it adapts itself to an online world that most adults don’t understand or know how to monitor, it’s going to cause even more fear, of course.

In January, when a teenage girl in Staten Island jumped in front of a bus, the news papers talked about online bullying a lot.  And then they talked about a failed relationship with an older boyfriend.  And then depression.  And then issues from her childhood.  Eventually, after the story was well off the front page of The Post, they talked about the stress of being a teenager.

I can’t imagine to know what in the world went on in the mind of Dylan Klebold, T.J. Lane, Amanda Cummings or Tyler Clementi before they took their own lives or someone else’s.  Just like almost everyone else in the world, I do not know their whole life story, or the circumstances that left them feeling that taking anyone’s life, even their own, was their best and only option.  I just remember what it was like to be young and tell other kids hurtful and mean things, and to have other kids tell you mean and hurtful things.  And I can remember what it was like to feel like shit about so many other things in your life.  And I remember how stressful and hard it was to be a teenager, even if I look back at some of it now and say “how petty.”  Nothing in your life at that time is a black and white fill-in-the-right bubble, and it was A complicated project that you didn’t feel like you really had the tools to complete.  I wonder why the media, and so many adults seem to forget that.


Let’s Hope the Groundhog Was Wrong

9 Feb

“Just remember….in the winter…far beneath the bitter snow…

lies the seed that with the sun’ s love…

in the spring becomes a rose.”  

— Bette Midler, As sung by the Griffin Family, Family Guy

I do not like winter.  Unless it is going to snow, I really have no use for cold weather.  But even when it isn’t bitter cold (as has been the case this winter) there is just something about the January/February/March stretch of the school year that makes me want to sleep in; or just keep riding when I get on the train…see where I end up; or actually proclaim things like, “I hope all the kids go to the Giants parade today!”  I do not like teaching during these two months.  It’s the only two months of the year that I do not find any joy AT ALL in what I do.  I think you get my point: if it were up to me, on New Years Day, I would enter a time warp, and when I came out on the other end it would be April 1, but it wouldn’t be April Fools.

I used to think this was a weakness of mine.  The weather must be dragging me down.  The two long stretches of 5 weeks around the week off in February (which is always so damn short you are convinced someone made a mistake) are unproductive because I am in a crappy mood, and dying for spring to get here, so I become a bad teacher and an all-around bad person, and it permeates everything I do.  Sorry kids, but you get screwed because of my winter blues.  But I am looking back, and realizing that no matter what the environment, no matter what my own moods or what’s going on in my personal life, the pattern is startlingly similar.  This year I am in a phenomenal mood outside of school!  But in school?  Yuck!  And it isn’t just me: kids hate winter too!  And they hate it so much that they basically throw up their hands and say “Fuck it, I am checked out until April.”  And THAT is what pushes me off my teetering position on the cliff into the abyss of these dreary months.  I am a goddamn lemming, following them right off the ledge.  It can’t be just me.  Because I walk into every other class in the building and its the same shit: 10 heads down; other kids seriously acting like they are five years old, screaming and kicking and yelling; attendance even further in the gutter than usual.  Now don’t get me wrong.  These problems go on in moderate doses at my school throughout the year, but these weeks?  Every single day, with every single kid.  I was looking at my students work since we returned from the break.  There is a consistent trend: I DON’T HAVE ANY.  Not from the kids who are in school every day, not from the kids who come most of the time, and not from the kids who usually mail it in (literally, there are some kids who never come, but they always email their assignments in.)  This is going on in every single class.  And it happens every single year.

So I flipped out at my first period class today.  I mean really dead-ass blacked out.  Yelled at them the way they were likely yelled at by countless teachers, all of whom they almost certainly were running from when they interviewed for a transfer school (every interview I hear the same thing: “Well at my old school, the teachers would tell you how bad you were, how you were a failure.  It’s like they hated us.”)  I am certain my first period was feeling that way about me today.  And for a little bit I felt really bad about that.  Now, you may ask, what drove me–a typically calm, laid-back teacher who firmly believes that every student’s education is their own responsibility; that by the age of  17 or 18 any human-being should certainly have a right to place their own value on their education, and commit themselves to their schooling accordingly–what drove me to go absolutely berserk, tossing a chess-set and throwing up my arms with an exasperated “If you don’t give a fuck, why should I?”


Take a look at this:

That is my classroom.  At 9:33 am on a Tuesday.  Class starts at 9 am.  Half way through our first period it looks like that more days than not.  On a typical day, during first period at my school there is a solid 1:1 teacher:student ratio.  And then they creep in.  One by one, the students wander in, with bagels and sodas.  Flop down their backpacks and stare into space.  And they do this for a solid two months.  Every day.  I wish I was exaggerating.  I wish that picture up there was a wild anomaly.  I wish.  But instead, I sat today, as I have for well over a month.  Spinning in my chair for the first thirty minutes of class.  Alone.  I spun and spun, and festered and stewed in my disappointment that this was what the public school system has become: an empty room, with a bored and frustrated teacher, and one student eventually wandering in and refusing to work on ANYTHING (I literally mean ANYTHING…the kid is there every single day…not on time, but there for a little while, at least…and still has not handed in a SINGLE project. Or blog.  Or journal entry.)  Over half of a period, with not a single repercussion for the students, or the schools that allows this to happen.  And not a single solution from the geniuses in Albany, or DC.  So when they trickled in as they tend to do (with 12 and 10 and 7 and 2 minutes left in the period) so they could be marked present–‘What teacher is going to have the balls to fail me when I am “present” almost every day?!’–I blew up.

The thing is.  I am sure they took it personally.  I am sure they saw my frustration and anger boiling over, as being directed solely at them.  I’m sure they thought that I thought: “These lazy fucking kids, no wonder they are at a transfer school.  They will never amount to shuto  But oh well, I get my paycheck whether they learn or not.”  God, I wish it was that simple.  I wish I was that bitter and cold, and had it in me to simplify things that way.  If only.

You buy a computer in 2002.  You get the top-of-the-line shit.  And you plug it in.  And you upload software.  And you create files.  And you download music.  And you download porn.  And you never dust it out.  You leave it on, running the same old programs, the same old internet explorer that is downloading viruses faster than Hussein Bolt can pick up his feet.  You leave it running and running and running, just like it was 10 years ago, only it has been collecting more and more shit, and becoming more and more cluttered and slow, and out-of-date.  No, you stick a 6 year old kid in front of that computer.  Tell him have at it.  How long before that kid turns around, makes his best Joe Pesci twisted-and-scrunched up face, and says “You fuckin’ kiddin’ me, with this?!”  I venture a guess before he’s 8 he is whipping out his iPhone, ignoring that piece of shit computer and checking his Twitter app.  I guarantee it.  And are you going to blame the kid?

Why do we keep sticking the kids in front of the 10 year old dusty computer, slowed to a crawl by years of old music and porn, and malware, spam, and viruses.  Why do we keep telling ourselves, “You know what? Today that computer is gonna work.  It’s gonna purr like a kitten, and rev right up.  Miracles are going to happen.”  The system is broken.  Nobody in their right fucking mind denies that.  There isn’t a teacher who has visited a classroom in a school like mine, and then walked into a classroom at the best performing public schools, or private schools–where the schools and classrooms operate in new and different ways, like a brand-new macbook pro–and says, “Yeah, things seem to be going honkey-dorey.”  They might argue for days (and they do) what the reason is that things are broken, but they aren’t going to deny the basic premise that things are, indeed, very broken.  There isn’t a politician, policy-maker, education theorist, or administrator who is blind enough to think things are going just swell.  And I don’t care what your politics are.  Truth is truth: my kids got a shitty education most of their lives.  And its because of the neighborhoods they grew up in, because of where they were born and, in some cases, who they were born to.  And I got a great fucking education.  Because, by the flip of fortune’s coin, I was born to two loving parents who taught at a nurturing private school in the middle of friggin’ farm country.  By the roll of nature’s dice, I got a shot.  And these kids got shit.

But nobody wants to have the audacity to say, “Maybe we need to take a goddamn sledge hammer, and bash in that ten year-old piece of crap computer that sounds like it’s literally eating itself alive (because it is.)”  We just want to give it a sweep-over, maybe buy a new monitor, reposition it on the desk.  Replace the shell with a “Charter” shell.  They want to keep making it over, piece by piece, but leave the same old crummy hard-drive.  And maybe my students can’t voice it, maybe they can’t put it into words more eloquent than their Facebook posts “School to this dick! >.< !!!!”  But it’s winter, and they’re over it.  They’ve unleashed their inner Howard Beale.  Gone to their windows, flung them wide, stuck out their heads and yelled out: “I’m as mad as hell, and I am not going to take it ANY MORE!!!!!!!”  And they’ve done it the least offensive, but most direct and obvious way they know how.  The way the system has trained them to, by grinding them down to the pulp.  They have checked the fuck out.  Given up.

I don’t know the answer.  I really don’t.  But neither does Mayor Bloomberg, and neither does Barack Obama, or Arnie Duncan, or even Diane Ravitch (though it pains me to admit that.)  But at some point, when you take a broken machine to get fixed, and all the experts give you a million different solutions, and it still ain’t fixed, the thing to do is to blow that shit up.  Hope the dust settles in the right pile, and fertilizes the soil, and grows something new.

Spring is around the corner.  And I will tell you this much: whether there is one kid sitting in my room half-way through first period tomorrow morning, or 25: that goddamn crappy old computer is getting thrown out the window.