Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Whiskey or Rye?

Well, here I am, back in my old stomping grounds. Has anyone missed me? Did anyone notice my extended absence? My world these days and since August 18 has revolved mostly around the education of my new class of first graders at my new school in San Pablo. There are some notable differences in the habits of this group as compared with my last class, which was located in the more affluent El Sobrante. Many of my new kids have a loose definition of attendance. Some are regularly 1 or 2 hours late. A couple of kids haven't showed up for two weeks. Are they following cultural mores? Do they dislike their new teacher? Yesterday Diego casually entered the classroom with the rest of the class at 8:30 when I ushered them in from the playground. He had not been to class in over two weeks. He quietly sat in his seat, a nervous look on his face. He is a larger child, looking more like a 10 year old than a 6 year old. The first day he cried when his mother left him. Despite his nervousness, he seems oblivious to classroom norms, and is often talking to his tablemates when I'm trying to give a lesson. He appears to be devastated when I remind him. So many things happen before 9:00, I wanted to make sure I acknowledged his return. During attendance I asked him where he had been this whole time. He said his grandpa was really sick, and then he died. The class and I took a moment to digest what he'd said. I told him I was really sorry, and asked him if he'd like us to make cards for his family. He did. I asked him what kinds of things his grandpa liked, so we could maybe include them in our cards. He said, 'Well, when we buried him, we put a drink in there.' Me: 'Oh- you put a drink in his coffin? A cup of coffee?' Diego smiled, and said no. 'A glass of wine?' He nodded. Later that day in the lunch room I shared the story with Ms. Pena, another first grade teacher. She said that one year she celebrated the day of the dead with her class, and explained to them that families who are mourning their loved ones will offer their spirits foods, and then enjoy the food themselves. The kids went home and told their parents that they ate the food that dead people didn't want. Ms. Pena had a lot of parents calling in concerned about this, and that was the last time she celebrated the holiday in class. I still wanted to have my class create sympathy cards, but I was cautious in the sentiments being included. When we were all seated on the carpet and brainstorming what to write, I gave a sentence starter: 'I am sorry..' I paused, not sure myself how to complete the thought. One boy called out earnestly, 'I am sorry you died.' Time to take over. 'Let's write, 'I am sorry for your loss.' The kids agreed, and off they went. They created some amazing cards! One little girl made a manga-like rendition of herself crying, holding a card that said 'Love Tina' on it. Diego wrote a card that did make me cry: Mom, I know you loved grandpa. I loved him too. Love Diego'. Today Diego came back again to school. He said his mom thanked the class for the cards. When I dismissed the class at the end of the day, he gave me a big hug. It is a huge challenge as a teacher when kids are persistently tardy or absent. My class this year is particularly distracted and off-task, and it feels disrespectful to have a student knock on the door an hour after class has begun, and go through all the routines of preparing for the day. What if I did that when I took classes over this summer at UC Berkeley? I am pretty sure my professor would have had a big problem with it. And this is part of the reason teaching is so challenging- there exists a mental/moral/philosophical struggle within most every decision a teacher has to make with regards to her students' well-being. At the core of this internal debate is the belief that students are individuals, and as such, need their needs addressed within that framework, and not exclusively through the lense of the class as a whole. So I am glad I took a moment to jump off my high horse of attendance norms, and probe Diego's absence as a caring adult figure in his life. My whole class grew as a result, though they likely would have probed Diego's circumstances without hesitation.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Leann, the hairdresser

I have a few free days before school starts again. I have no idea how to use free time. I have had a groundbreaking year for myself, gainfully employed at a job I adore. This is the first time I really loved my job since scooping Frusen Glädjé ice-cream in Manhattan when I was a kid. Wait- I also loved my waitressing stint two years ago- but both of those jobs were temporary pathways to the Studs Terkel kind of work that defines a modern person. After eight momentous months of being the kindergarten teacher to 26 beautiful children, guiding their emergent reading and math skills, assisting them navigate through the social ineptitudes of their peers, adapting to vastly different child-rearing methods of these students’ families, two whole trimesters of report card entries and accompanying individualized comments that have the power to become a recurring mantra for years to come in the ill-adjusted- all this data available to remind me that I have become a properly functioning adult- and yet- I am clueless, still, as to what to do with my free time. My pre-kindergarten teacher days would find me in search of events that would demand my immediate exit from my apartment, abandoning all quotidian chores in favor of some exotic adventure that would reinforce my goals of living a culturally rich life. These usually take place in the public library. I know, it doesn't sound very glamorous, does it? I have not yet been disappointed or failed to learn something new and useful at these meetings. Today however, my plan was to take a bus to Barnes and Noble to get some math materials for my class. I knew I had a long wait, so I popped into this tiny deli next to the bus stop. The clerk had a funny little voice, and looked Ethiopian. No, he is definitely Somali. It felt improper to ask him so I asked about the coffee instead. 'Do you have coffee?' 'No,' he smiled, without offering a reason to go with the answer. 'Do you ever have coffee?' I asked, quite surprised at his nonchallance at this shocking news. 'No,' he replied, again with a little smile that suggested it was a pretty amusing conundrum I had fallen into. 'OK, thanks,' I said as I walked back to the bus stop, feeling like there was a lot more to say on the topic. As I stood waiting for the bus, the smiling Somali swept some garbage out of his store. He looked at me and (as expected) smiled and apologized shyly. 'Oh, that's fine,' I said, thinking, is he just going to leave that garbage there? A few seconds later he came out and continued sweeping the area in front of his store, and then scooped the collection of goods into a dustpan. Then he came over to where I was standing and continued sweeping (he was being quite thorough, I thought.) He bent down and picked up a black bodied pencil, and as he examined it, asked me if I didn't want it. He spoke quickly and with a heavy accent, so I needed him to repeat the question a few more times before I understood what he was asking. He didn't become impatient as my little sister would have. She hates when people don't hear her. Apparently this didn't bother the sweeping Somali at all. After a few minutes of small talk, I asked him where he was from. 'Eritrea. Do you know where that is?' I did in fact. I was pleased that I hadn't been too far off with my original guess. He didn't seem very impressed that I knew who Meb Keflezhigi was, until I mentioned that he was quite short in stature, and I knew this because when we took a photo together, he only came up to my shoulder. (Specificity leads to believability, as my resume writing coach loved to say.) My new friend was notably excited when I revealed this information about his fellow Eritrean. So I was actually set to write about Leann the lady who cut my hair today at Supercuts. I really liked the way she did exactly what I asked her to do, she didn't berate my hair in order to sell me a product, and she was a really great listener. We had a really nice conversation about the challenges of being a kindergarten teacher, and she shared that people she knew tended to try and get lots of free haircuts out of her. She had really long black hair, and I felt like I could trust that she wouldn’t cut off more than I wanted. Sure enough, when she was done snipping, I had a hard time finding any evidence of a haircut on the floor. Yet I loved my new haircut! Even though hair is essentially dead, I think it's a little like a plant in that it will respond to proper emotional nurturing. Leann put a dab of some beachy smelling leave-in conditioner, and told me it would even-out my hair color. When I pressed her for a translation of what that really meant, she said it would get rid of the brassiness. (It really was quite brassy, and was in dire need of a brass ass-kicking.) So I can't believe this is my first blog entry in eight months! But I guess that's what happens when you are suddenly the caregiver to children- they completely take over, as well they should.