Well, I can hardly believe it. The little gangbangers inspired me. To back track, substitute teaching is so difficult and devastating that it generally knocks me out for the day. After subbing I have to spend the entire rest of the day recovering … just lying on the couch, licking my wounds, meditating for hours on my mistakes and how to not make them again, reminding myself that I really am a good teacher and a decent person, practicing self-nurturing and self-forgiveness so I can carry on. Not to mention confessing the horrors of the day to my sympathetic husband.
Thursday was one of the worst days of my entire life. I’m subbing for the Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) for two weeks in Oceanside, in a class filled with gangbangers, from 6th to 12th grade, all male except for one girl. They are not bad kids, I truly like them, and I imagine that five years from now they’ll mostly have straightened out and be fine. But for now, somehow their lives have gotten onto the crazy track, and they’re obsessed with toughness, drugs, and not cooperating with authority.
However, in any given classroom, often there are one or two kids that inspire me. In this classroom, there is a kid named Jose (name has been changed), who is always so well-behaved. He does all his work, even when everyone else is goofing off, and is he only one who actually brings a book to class and sits there reading it in his spare time (it is entitled The Guns, but we won’t be concerned about details). The first day, I told him, “Jose, I really appreciate how you do all your work, and behave well, and are a good influence on others … I just want to let you know that I notice and appreciate it.”
After school that day I was talking with the classroom aide, Fernando, a hulking man who is invaluable in keeping order. Fernando not only does this job but works in a group home for kids with serious cases of bipolar disorder and other mental illness, that he says are physically violent and much harder to handle than this group. He is a true hero. Anyway, Fernando mentioned that the kids in this JCCS class were not too bad, but the most troubled was Jose! I said – Really? He was the one kid I just had to compliment on how well he did all day. Fernando said that Jose had been in so much trouble with the law that now he was really trying hard.
I guess that’s who inspires me. Those who are trying hard. That’s about all we can do in life.
Anyway, back to Thursday. I had gotten fed up with the usual routine of this classroom, which included “current events,” in which students were supposed to read copies of the San Diego Union, and do write-ups of two articles. Of course all these little hoods did was to write up the most heinous murders, robberies and drug busts, essentially glorifying or at least obsessing on crime. So I decided to go to one of these “people making a difference” websites and bring in print-out’s of some positive news, and have the students write these up as current events. I took the trouble to do this, and brought in an article about a young man in the Philippines who had organized former gang members to teach basic literacy skills to children living on the streets. My students seemed to be absolutely furious at this assignment. They threw the print-out’s on the floor, said they couldn’t understand them (though I read it out loud at their request), and would not do this assignment. I don’t know if it was that the positive nature of the article threatened them, or just that any change in their routine was unwelcome. But this set the tone of the day, in a very bad direction. Next, Fernando found that he had left his keys at home, and had to go get them, so he would be gone for about 30 minutes.
As soon as he left, all hell broke loose. Students started roaming around, getting into things, one walked out the door, they made huge banging noises (though I couldn’t tell what they were banging), and even threw paper wads at me, which was the worst. I couldn’t see who was doing what, and couldn’t stop it. A merchant from the store next door came over and said students were banging the walls and he was afraid his mirrors were going to break. After attempting to carry on with reading, and getting no cooperation, I told the students to put their heads on their desks (as if they were going to comply, but I had to try something), and I think this at least got them sitting down. I said a number of things to the students, culminating with, “I have never in all my years of teaching been treated this way. I want you to really think about what you’re doing here. They say that ‘character is what you do when you think no one is watching.’ Think about how you’re acting when Fernando steps out. I also want you to think about having some empathy for me. We’re all supposed to be respectful in this classroom, and you guys have gone so far into disrespect, that we’re at the level of – how low are you going to sink in how you treat another human being? I am a human being. Would you want anyone to treat your sister or your mother the way you’re treating me? Do you really want to treat any human being in this manner? “ I guess I go for the “conscience activation” approach. The last thing I remember saying to them was, “I’m glad I’m not someone who goes around making fun of people,” and then Fernando walked in. By this time they were quietly sitting at their desks. However there was a textbook in the trash, three holes in the wall – it turned out they had been banging desks against the wall – and paper wads all over. I suspended two students – the one who had walked out the door, and a little guy who would not stop mocking me. I would have suspended more, but I wasn’t sure who had caused the damage. I learned from this, if nothing else, that I should have immediately pulled the desks away from the wall when the banging started.
We were supposed to watch a movie in the afternoon, and I told them there would be no movie, and they could just keep working from the textbooks. It would have been a lot easier to turn on the TV, but I wasn’t about to do anything remotely pleasant for them. I felt traumatized by how they had treated me, humiliated over the damage caused on my watch, and like crying. They asked mockingly if I was about to cry, and I said I was very sad. It felt like a long afternoon, but luckily the Court Schools get out at 1 pm, so it’s never really that long.
So that night I went home and licked my wounds. I hadn’t gotten enough sleep for days, had come perilously close to falling asleep on the long freeway drive, and told my family I needed a quiet evening, and to go to bed early. So I laid there and thought about things. Some things had transpired with my daughter that I actually felt worse about than the subbing. Overall, I just felt battered. But underneath that, a little flame burned. I had the strong feeling that I would survive, would master the art of substitute teaching, that I would learn something from every event that happened, that things would get better and not worse. I always simply try to focus on the good – I have work in August and September, which is hard to get. The universe seems to be conspiring to keep me teaching, if anything.
The next day, I went back to the old routine. They were very, very good. I’ve learned that in the Court Schools, things are cyclical. Whenever you have a day that is so bad you feel you can’t go on, the next day, things are good. Either the kids feel guilty, or they’re tired of all the conflict, I’m not sure which, but I’ve noticed this pendulum swing again and again.
And the next morning, I woke up, and did a lot of work on my subbing Wiki, adding a page about philosophy, little write-up’s about some of the great philosophers through history, and links to websites and films about them. The beginnings of some lessons I’d like to try. The face of Jose and a couple of others keeps popping up in my mind. Kids who have sparks of brilliance, kindness, striving, and leadership. Of course they all do. You never know who you might make a difference for. I always keep trying.