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.