This week, like all weeks, was a frenzy of events and my thoughts on it blur. I can’t even remember what happened on which day. But I want to remember. I am seven years from retirement eligibility and I’m afraid that within a year of leaving my classroom I’ll close my eyes and there will be …. nothing there to remember. My memory is stupid-short in the first place. “Like a sieve” I say – more holes than bowl and lots of good stuff gets lost down the gray-matter drain. So here’s a post dedicated to remembering anecdotes, snapshots, bits and pieces and if I’ve forgotten to put you in here, whoever you may be, it’s not that you aren’t important – it’s that I took too long to write your piece down!
> I am busy at noon-hours and on this day I’m organizing some kids who are making valentine cards for veterans, to be delivered next week. J & K are coming towards me. These two girls are new to the school. I think, if I understand their story correctly, they live together: J’s brother is dating K’s sister and the four of them make a household. I taught K’s sister: a bohemian musician-artist, free spirited, smart, self-directed and mature. She came in lieu of parents to interviews and did all the right things: got the information, made plans, asserted with firm but gently guiding statements. J made it clear at that interview that she dislikes school, doesn’t see the point in reading and generally would rather be shopping. She’s a “badass wannabe”. But K’s sister has both these girls well in hand, pretty much from what I can see. They sit at the back of English class, heads down, hands covering up their pages when I walk by; earphones in; shy smiles; avoiding attention.
So I’m coming around a corner on the second floor at noonhour when I bump into them. They smile, I smile. K turns suddenly, “Mrs. G., I, uh, we … ” and her body language shifts. She suddenly becomes assertive, for the first time in six months. I stop. I must stop and listen. “Mrs. G. since you’re the, uh, you know, Book Lady, uh, we, well, I, like books that are sort of, you know, disturbing.” She has my full attention. “Disturbing?” “Yeah, like, Stephen King, you know? And ….” I’d been talking up book series in class using a website “If You Liked The Hunger Games…” I’m guessing K doesn’t want The Hunger Games. “We have Stephen King in the library. Have you checked? A whole shelf of his books.” “Oh really?” “Yes!” And looking at J I remember how she’s learning to like books and maybe a whole King novel is a big bite to swallow. “I really liked Full Dark No Stars. Short stories. Well, long stories, short novellas, really.” J smiles. “I have my own copy in my class and there’s another in the library. You could each have a copy and compare your ideas…?” K smiles widely and turns to J, who smiles back. I’ve got them! “Come,” I say. “You can sign mine out from my collection right away and then run down to the library before Mrs. I goes for lunch.” And they do.
I am smiling remembering this, knowing I’ve got them. I can hardly wait to ask them what they think of the first story!
> D went awol last week for a couple of days. I asked one of our school’s mentors about him, if she knew what was going on, and she said he’s just gone. I was deeply sad. He’s been working on getting his life back together and struggling with some addiction issues. His final ELA project last semester was a speech about getting it together and finishing school. He’s 17 and he just got his first credits with that speech. So three days in to the new semester and he’s gone? My heart sank.
And then, on Monday, there he was, homework in hand! “Mrs. G., here’s the thing. Sorry it’s late. What’d I miss?” He worked hard that class and got his stuff in to me before he walked out at the bell. That evening was an Activity Night – the SLC sets up a PS3 in one room with Sing Star and has Just Dance set up in another. There’s a board game room, the canteen’s open with Jones pop and popcorn and ring pops for sale. The doors are going to open in a few minutes and I’m just moving from door to door to make sure they’re all locked and secure so kids can’t go running in and out all evening. One of the side doors must’ve been left open because there’s D, with his friend. I smile, and they smile back, “Is it time? We’re just warming up? Can we come in?” I approach and wrinkle my nose. It’s been a long day and my reaction is sudden and swift. “You two smell like a weed patch. Out! Out you go! You can’t come in here like this! You stink!” I shove the door open and usher them out. D’s friend looks offended, but D just looks hurt. “Nope. Not like this!” and I close the door, locking it.
They leave and don’t show up again. I worry. I fret. I wonder if D will have the courage and stamina to come back to class the next day. I know he’s fragile right now. I know that changing your life doesn’t happen in a moment, but in a series of ups and downs, setbacks and comebacks. Will my harsh reaction be too much setback for him? The next day I don’t see him in the halls. I think, “If I don’t see him by the end of the day I’ll find the mentor who’s got him on their list and track him down myself.” But when the bells rings for class he saunters in and takes his place, last seat, last row – closest to my desk under the hanging plant. He sits himself down and I catch his eye. He nods at me; I smile and nod back. The chill leaves my heart – I’ve got him back – and class begins.
> Fewer than half the grade twelves hand in their annotated bibliographies at the beginning of class. I raise my eyebrows and begin the lecture. You know the one – the one about getting your stuff done and in on time. This lecture happens about two or three times a semester, but typically on the first due date. “Why is it presumptuous, arrogant and irresponsible to not submit your work on time and expect that it will be okay to hand it in later?” I want them to know this is a character issue. That the due date might seem random but that there are reasons assignments are assigned at intervals and what is the back story work behind their education that they don’t really see from their desks? We talk: presumptuous because why? Arrogant why? Irresponsible, how come?
One girl, B, who I know from the halls but whom I have never taught, puts up her hand. “Because it just lowers the standard in the class?” Her voice goes up and her head tilts – she’s wondering if she’s right. I shake my head. “B, you haven’t been in my class before. You need to know the standard is never lowered.” I put my hand out, level with my shoulder, palm down. “Here is the standard and here it stays. You’ll have to work hard to meet it and that is that. Not meeting it doesn’t lower it.” Her eyes widen and she looks a little stunned. E turns to her and says, “B., Mrs. G. won’t ever slack off. In this class you’re gonna have to work to pass.” He doesn’t mean that B expects to pass without working; he’s been in my class before and knows the drill.
The class is silent. I wait a few heartbeats while E’s point sinks in. I note a few kids nodding or smiling. They know. And then we talk. Presumptuous because handing work in late presumes that I can drop everything and attend to your late assignment. Arrogant because it suggests that you may think the world revolves around you and your schedule. Irresponsible because, well, just meet your deadlines already. And if you need help or extensions come ask ahead of time. And I let them know that I will always take work at the end of the day – it won’t be considered late. A hand goes in the air: “Can I come see you after school?” “Absolutely.”
At the end of the day I had about 2/3 of the bibliographies; I did have that meeting with a student after school – we went over all the work she’d missed when she was sick. And the other students? I’ll get them yet. They will learn. They’ll figure it out. Might be bumpy for a while. But the standard doesn’t sink; the work ethic rises.
> The grade nines are finishing up their creative writing projects. Some are done; some are a little behind; some are just wrapping things up. I’d booked the computer lab and alerted the librarian that I might be sending some down to fetch those “Hunger Game” like books. She pulled some off the shelves in readiness. My Educational Assistant, Mrs. B., and I were ready too. I had planned to send her to the computer lab with the handful who needed to be there while I planned to stay back and work with those wrapping up their second drafts. L was ready for the lab and got up with the others; Mrs. B whispered to me that maybe L should stay in the room with me since he didn’t respond to her very well. I nodded, knowing how those two just got off to a bad start and haven’t recovered yet. And L is a handful; he came to us from a school that focusses on behavioural issues and he wasn’t there for no reason at all! I let L go with her though because I’m working hard to keep him as regular as he can possibly manage. And so far, the more I trust him, the more he puts out for me. I don’t want to rock that boat. But I am concerned about his being out of my line of sight. I switch places with Mrs. B – I’ll go to the lab; she can work with the kids drafting.
L is staring at his computer when I get there. I let him stare while I make a circuit through the lab talking with each student about their projects before I get to him, loud enough for him to hear me approaching, so he knows what I’m doing, so he knows I’m not singling him out. And when I get to him he’s still staring. “Well?” He doesn’t move but says, “Well?” back. I sit down. “How’s your keyboarding? Is this more work than just writing it by hand?” I’d gone through a bit of a process just getting him to write anything at all. He put out about a page of writing, both drafts included, and that’s not much for grade nine but it’s more than he’d done all last semester put together. So I wasn’t going to argue! He pokes his fingers at the keyboard awkwardly and I give him a few suggestions, rising to leave. This is a kid who needs his space, has to come to a decision on his own to comply, can’t be pushed, must be persuaded. I walk away and watch from a distance.
He raises his hand and asks to go to the washroom. “Sure.” I check the clock. Five full minutes later I look down the hall and wait another minute. I call the office. “I have to put out an APB on L.” The principal agrees to go looking but as soon as I hang up there’s L ambling back to class. I call the office back: “Man, Mrs. G., give the kid a chance to flush! He needed more time!” I laugh and tell L I’d just put out an APB on him. He grins and sits down. I keep watching. He’s poking away and finally I see him get up to get his work from the printer. He needs something from the class. No one’s there anymore. I give him my keys along with strict instructions on how to lock the door behind him. I check the clock again. But he’s back right away, and says he’s locked the door. He assembles his work, puts it in his portfolio and looks at me. I offer not much in the line of praise. “Nice,” I say.
“Well, you’ve time to go get a book from the library.” L hates (read as: loathes, despises) reading. Every time we’ve bumped heads it’s been over whether or not he’ll actually read anything, even instructions. But three weeks ago I was doing assessments on all the students and he had to come after school for his. He came, on his own, and I got to tell him not what skills he didn’t have, but which ones he had – which strategies I noticed him using; how he self-corrects; how only readers who are thinking ever self-correct. He’d made full eye contact then. A good sign. So, now, the next step – sending him to the library. And on his own, no less. This is a big deal for this kid. I tell him, “Ask Mrs. I to find a book by SE Hinton for you.” “Mrs. Who?” I mock roll my eyes, “Mrs. I. The librarian, you doofus.” He grins and strolls off – I can hear him muttering, “SE Hinton… SE Hinton…”. I call the library and let Mrs. I know he’s coming, to let me know if he doesn’t make it.
But I don’t hear from her and within ten minutes he’s back. He comes past me and says, “There are six.” “Pardon?” “SE Hinton books. There are six.” I’m confused. “What do you mean?” “You said I should ask the librarian about SE Hinton books and she said there are six in the library. I’m back. Now what?” I rise from my chair, “L! You were supposed to sign out an SE Hinton book!” He looks surprised! “What? You never said anything about signing one out! You expect me to read one?” I’m about to pull my exasperated voice out when he bursts into a grin and pulls a book from under his jacket. “Gotcha!” The bells rings and he’s gone before I can even check which Hinton he’s got!
“Gotcha!” Indeed. Indeed you did get me, L. You have got me right where you want me – I’m sunk on this kid, hook, line and sinker sunk. When I get back to the classroom after the break, the door, though, is unlocked. I’m okay with that. I think I won most of the battles in that class.
It’s been a full week. Crazy full. And at the end of it I caught a bit of a flu, took a sick day. But in looking back, I think it was a good week. I think, overall, good things happened. I got more than I lost. That “gotcha” feeling is a good one.