The Dangers of Volunteering

A few times a year, we do school-wide activities where every student participates in mixed groups. It’s fun, but a lot of prep! This year’s activity involved painting rocks, so we needed nearly 600 roughly palm sized rocks. Needless to say, the preparation and storage for this was daunting. When we realized we needed to move 6 large buckets full of rocks from the first to second floor and down a long hallway, I immediately volunteered my class.

The reason I volunteered? Steven.

Let me tell you about Steven. At 11 years old, he is 5’4″. His shoulders are wider than some of his peers standing side by side to each other. When he walked in the room on the first day, my first thought was “Is this someone’s Dad?” He is also an incredibly helpful kid, willing to volunteer for any job. Perfect for rock lugging.

Of course, I didn’t expect him to do it alone, but I figured other kids could handle it, so I asked for volunteers.

Some background about elementary students and volunteering: They will volunteer for anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you say “I need volunteers to”- every hand will go up. I’ve tried to get them to realize they should wait to hear what is being asked. Otherwise kids go on errands to find teachers they don’t know, in rooms they’ve never been to. I always tell them one of these days I’m going to ask for volunteers to clean the restrooms with their own personal toothbrushes. It never works.

So this time, I explained, “Don’t raise your hand until you hear what I’m asking, ok? I need volunteers-” Every hand went up. “Guys.” I said. “Listen. I need you to carry buckets of rocks, very heavy buckets, quite a long way. This is not a joke. It’s literally buckets of rocks.” All hands still up. “They’re heavy. Please don’t volunteer unless you know you can carry very heavy things!” All hands still up. Since we were doing morning work, I added another caveat. “And you can only volunteer if you’ve finished page 127.” A few hands went down, including Steven’s. “Except for you.” I told him quietly. “You can still volunteer.”

In the interest of fairness, equality, and hopefully teaching some a lesson in forethought, I picked a mix of gender, size, and strength. For 6 buckets, I sent 10 kids. Then I waited.

A few minutes later, a trio of girls walked back in to the room empty handed, shaking their heads. Next Ethan, one of my bigger, taller, but not quite Steven-sized boys walked in. Or rather, waddled in, carrying the bucket between his bowed legs and swaying side to side so he could move it. After he put it down outside the room, he went and laid on the rug with his eyes closed for several minutes, breathing heavily.

Next, two groups of two came back, each carrying a bucket between them. One group managed to carry it, the other was dragging it down the hall where it made a horrible scraping shriek on the linoleum.

Then Steven came in, walking with a normal stride, standing tall, a bucket in each hand, arms held up so the buckets swung at his side. Ethan raised a fist from where he lay on the rug. “All hail Steven.” He said weakly. Steven smiled shyly, then walked up to me.

“Um, Riya is still in the hall with her bucket. Can I go back to help?” He asked. “Riya has one bucket by herself?” I asked, alarmed. Riya is the tiniest person in the class, but also arguably the most stubborn. I didn’t even actually call on her when she volunteered, but apparently she went anyway. He nodded. “Yeah, why don’t you go back.”

“She won’t let you help her.” One of the girls who came back empty handed called. “We tried!” Steven shrugged and left anyway.

A few minutes later, he walked back, his arms literally full of rocks, more than half a bucket’s worth. He placed them in the other buckets, then turned to look back down the hall. In the distance, Riya appeared, tiny arms straining, a look of grim and slightly terrifying determination on her face as she dragged her bucket, now nearly empty, down the hall. “She wouldn’t give up her bucket.” Steven explained as I walked over to stand next to him. We watched as Riya finally made it to the door, and then silently walked into the room, head held high. “Good job Riya.” Steven told her. “I told you I could do it.” She answered.

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Moving On

The end of last year was really hard. Harder than previous years, for a few reasons. I started out teaching third and fourth grade, then moved up to fifth and sixth. I didn’t get any of the same students for the next loop, but it meant I saw my former kids all the time. So out of the 100 kids at this grade, I had 50 of them. In the four years with these kids, I got engaged, bought a house, got married, became a mother. I really became an adult, and hit so many milestones. These kids were with me for them.

It’s hard to move on after two years with a group no matter the situation, but it’s especially hard when they leave the school. When my fourth graders moved on, I still saw them all the time. Granted the sixth graders moved across the street, but it still means I see them far less. So visits from my former students have been so important since school started.

When the first day of school ended, I looked up to see one of them in the door. “Hi,” she said. “I need you.” And she started to cry. Turns out she was just feeling a bit overwhelmed by the transition to middle school, but was totally fine. Other kids have popped in throughout the week. Sometimes they wave from a distance. Sometimes they run to me and hug me. On one occasion, they snuck in while my current class was still here, and sat on the rug with them. It took 3 minutes before I even noticed. Yes, they timed me. So far every day I have seen at least one former student.

I love these visits, but I know they’ll taper off soon. And that’s good for both of us. They need to start feeling like their new school is home. I need to start feeling like my current class is where my heart is. It’ll happen on both ends. It always does. But the transition is hard.

A colleague and I were talking about it in the staff room yesterday.

“We go into it knowing it has to end, that it won’t last, but it’s still hard to say bye.” She said.

“And we want them to be happy, and like where they are now, but I don’t want them to forget me.” I said.

“I know I’ll love the new ones just as much eventually, but right now I just really miss the old class.” She said.

Then another colleague leaned over and said “Until you said class, I assumed you guys were talking about exes.”

We laughed, but that analogy really works.

So here’s to a new year! To teaching fifth grade again (I’ve found I like the 5/6 loop more than the 3/4 one.) To kids who don’t yet smell like sweat and cheap cologne, complain about hormones, and roll their eyes at everything. To a new group, and all their quirks, charm, and uniqueness.

I love my job.

How I Know I’m a Grown-up

When I started teaching, I was 22. In my first week at work, a custodian yelled at me not to run up the stairs, and was mortified when I turned around and he saw I was not a kid. A student once told me “Sometimes I think of you like a grown-up, but it doesn’t last long.”

I am no longer the youngest teacher at school. Several of my colleagues now have the dubious honor of being yelled at by custodians, and staff in the parking lot who tell them high school parking is on the other side of the campus. I’ve passed on the torch.

Since then, I have hit a lot of adult milestones. I went to grad school, got my masters, travelled all over, payed off my car, bought a house, got engaged, got married, had a baby (almost, anyway! One more month!).

None of these are the reason why I can now truly say “I am an adult.” No, that statement hinges solely on one reason- I watched THE MOVIE and handled it like an adult.

THE MOVIE refers to the human growth and development video we have the kids watch at the end of fifth grade. It can be summed up the following way: “Feelings. Hormones. Wash yourself real thoroughly or you’ll stink. Menstruation. Nocturnal emission.” The kids start talking about it in fourth grade, and the lead up to the movie itself is fraught with sweaty palms, awkward laughter, and red faces.

The teachers handle it much better, of course. Except for me. Awkward situations make me even more awkward. If the kids are laughing and know they shouldn’t be, I am most likely busting a rib trying not to laugh with them.

In my second year working with kids, I student taught in fifth grade. When we watched THE MOVIE, I went with the girls. (We split the grade by gender, and have each watch their own movie one day, and the opposite gender movie the next.) I was not looking forward to it. During the event, I did my best to blend in with the wall. Despite this, one girl felt the urge to turn around and make direct eye contact with me every time a part of the male anatomy was mentioned. It was intense. When I reminisced about this with the colleague who at the time was my mentor teacher, she was surprised that I had been there. “I don’t remember you being in the room for that at all!” She said. Good. That meant my attempts at blending in with the bulletin boards had worked.

This time around, I was in charge of my own classroom. I had to run the group. There was no blending in with the walls. Not only did I have to watch the movie with them, I had to teach the associated curriculum, and answer any questions. There was no backing out.

My colleagues and I had a talk about who would take which gender, since we split our class and send half to another teacher. “I’ve taught the boys class before.” “Me too, and I used to be a doctor.” “I have three sons, I can do this.”

They looked at me. I answered honestly. “I am not mature enough to handle this, so if no one minds, I’ll take the girls group!” Have I mentioned I love my colleagues?

On the day of, my boys all went to a colleagues room, and her girls came to me. We watched the movie. They giggled, turned red, and then wrote down a million questions, which ranged from serious to confusing, insightful to accidentally hilarious. I answered them all. Was it hard to explain how to insert a tampon? Yes. Was it hard not to laugh when explaining that boys did not get their periods? Of course. Was it hard not to be embarrassed explaining what, exactly, testicles were to a group of 11 year old girls? Good god, yes. But I did it. I didn’t laugh, I didn’t turn red, I didn’t try to become one with the walls.

And that is how I know I’m a grown-up. It’s kind of nice, to have finally stepped away from the intense awkwardness of caring about being embarrassed. I guess I just don’t care anymore. So please, feel free to ask me any and all questions about puberty, tampons, and nocturnal emissions.

Race in the Classroom

“Race is a social construct.” That’s one of the first things you learn in any Sociology 101 class. Like so many other life lessons, I didn’t totally understand it until I worked with kids. And, like so much else again with kids, these lessons are poignant, heart-breaking, and hilarious.

I’ve seen two little girls comparing the color of their arms- one whose ancestors came from North Africa, the other from southern Europe. “I don’t get it,” the second girl said. “How come you’re black if I’m darker?”

I’ve had Indian students ask me “Where would I sit on the bus?” when we studied Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement.

I’ve had first generation Mexican-American students express personal guilt for the treatment of slaves, despite the fact that her ancestors were in no way involved.

The very first year I worked as a classroom assistant, our school was randomly chosen to participate in one of the many standardized tests that the country uses to gather data on public schools. This meant that the teachers did not proctor it, but sat by as an outside person ran things.

The woman running the show had the kids fill out their info- name, grade, birth date. Then she got to the section on race and ethnic identity. 25 nine year olds lifted their heads and said “Huh?”

What followed was the best example of how ridiculous these categories are.

The kids were asked to check the boxes that best applied to them, and the woman read through each one. When questions arose (and boy, did they) she replied that she couldn’t answer them, and the kids should just pick ‘the best fit.’

Confusion was an understatement.

A Salvadoran student listened as she listed the options “Hispanic or Latino, including but not limited to Mexican, Puerto-Rican, and Dominican.” At 9 years old, he was understandably confused by the phrase “including but not limited to.” “I’m from El Salvador, does that mean me?” He asked. The woman smiled and listed the same damn thing again. “I’m not white, so is that me?” He asked. She avoided his answer. “Guess not.” He muttered.

The Indian kids had no idea what to put down. “India is in Asia, we’re Asian.” One said. The Chinese kids immediately disagreed, on the basis that they were Asian, so it couldn’t be the same.

“White or European ancestry.” The kids who had a parent born in Europe immediately filled this out. The rest seemed confused by the specification about Europe.

“African-American, or Black.” A confused Indian student held his arm next to his black friends. “My skin’s darker than his, am I black if he is?”

The Middle Eastern kids asked if there was a box for them. “Is Israeli white?” One asked. “I’m way darker than you, so Iraqi can’t be white, can it?” Said her friend.

In the end, I would guess about half the class put down the correct identifier. Two Indian students and the Salvadoran student filled out “African-American or Black” on the basis of skin color comparisons. A Chinese student decided he couldn’t be Asian if the Indians were, so put down Hispanic. The Israeli kids picked based on their differing opinions about where Israel was on the map, while the Iraqi student wrote out her own box and checked it off. For reasons known only to himself, Declan O’Connor (a pseudonym but I swear this kid had the most Irish name I’ve ever encountered) chose “Pacific-Islander.”

Here’s my favorite part, though. Through all the yelled questions, the confusion, the proctor getting angrier and more frazzled by the minute, one student kept his hand up until it all died down and the proctor finally called on him. “I don’t know what to put.” He said. “I’m from Morocco. It’s in Africa, but I don’t think I’m Black. There’s no Arab box. What do I put?” The proctor at this point snapped at him “Just put what you are!”

Every teacher in the room wanted to throttle her at that point. The student, however, narrowed his eyes and said loudly “Listen lady, I’m an American!”

All of this is on my mind right now because of what’s going on in the news. Young men dead at the hands of the police. Young unarmed men dead. Young unarmed black men dead.

Race is a social construct. It has no scientific bearing. Any group of kids will show you quick how ridiculous these categories are. But it doesn’t matter, because society trumps science. Best friends will hold their arms side by side and giggle as they wonder who is black and who isn’t. But society won’t question it.

My Greek student will likely never be followed in a store the way my Sudanese student will.

They’ll stereotype my Indian boys differently from my Black boys. Their skin is the same color, in reality, but I doubt Raj’s mother will ever need to worry about her son out at night in the way Jamal’s mother needs to worry.

There will come a day, soon in all heartbreaking likelihood, that Youssef will not be so quick or so proud to tell the world he is an Arab.

There are two things I wish when I think of this, both impossible. One is to protect them forever from this. Keep them in this state of innocence and logic unclouded by prejudice. The other is to unleash them on the world. Imagine an army of 8 year olds going into every charged situation and saying “You’re being jerks! This is stupid!”

My more logical wish is that this generation comes of age holding on to these beliefs they know to be true- that these categories don’t matter. I know my classroom isn’t the norm in America. There are places where all the faces are white, or all are black. Places where racism is still the norm and differences are seem as something to fear. But a generation ago the town I’m in was nearly 100% white. Now we have a huge diversity of backgrounds. Kids grow up with wide groups of friends from different races, religions, and backgrounds. Maybe we are moving towards a nation like that.

These dividers don’t matter with little kids. They don’t know about the hundreds of years of blood and pain that exist between people. They don’t know that the actions of a few can doom every member of a group to be victims of hate and mistrust for a generation. They don’t know that people will judge them in a second based on how they look- judge them, exclude them, hurt them, and sometimes kill them- even if they put their hands up.

Get Me Out of Here! I Don’t Want to Leave.

Ah, the last day of school. Mixed emotions all around.

School ended for us last week. This year was particularly hard for me. After 2 years together, my class was moving on. Since our school loops, I’d had them for all of third and fourth grade. It’s hard to say goodbye after that long.

Added to that, the first class I ever had as a full time teacher was graduating to middle school. The tiny little ones I had at age 8 had grown up to be tall, smelly, pimply, moody preteens. (Just kidding. Sort of.) Saying goodbye to them, even though I knew they were more than ready for junior high, was also hard. In one way or another, I’d been dreading this day for years.

The kids all react differently to the end of a loop. Some kids become extremely clingy, and want hugs and high fives and to stand as close to you as physically possible without actually merging into a single person. Others suddenly doubt everything, and ask questions like “Where are the pencils?” to which you must patiently answer “The same place they’ve been for two years.”

Some start pushing away before they can be pushed. Loudly declaring how they won’t miss the classroom, then wistfully sighing and whispering goodbyes to the fish. There are more tears, more fights, more frustration, than ever before.

At the end of the loop, they are more like siblings- prone to snap at each other, argue over pointless things, and push each other’s buttons. But like siblings, they see each other as family, and are sad and afraid to face a new class without each other. (The fact that they will see 1/3 of their friends in next year’s class, and the ones not in their class will be only yards away, and they’ll still see all the time, is not something they can comprehend right now.)

Mixed feelings sums it up. A few days before the last day, when I mentioned the impending final day, two boys spoke at once. One said “Ugh, get me out of here! Is it summer yet?” The other said sadly “I don’t want to leave.”

Then, they both spoke at once again, saying the opposite! The first said “But I’ll miss everybody so much! It’ll be so sad!” While the second said “Obviously, though, I can’t wait for vacation!”

Mixed feelings.

I saw it with the sixth graders, too. For the first time in over a year, they were visiting me in the morning. In the final couple weeks, there would sometimes be 8 older kids at once in my classroom, looking around as if to memorize the details. They asked me if I remembered things from when they were in our class- funny stories, outrageous comments, surprises. They asked me about middle school. When I reminded them I hadn’t gone to school here, they asked me what it was like for me. I found myself remembering my own fear and happiness from ‘moving up.’ Class choice, independence, no more lines! But also, the fear of what was coming next, and wondering if your friendships would hold. Before they left, they almost always doubled back for a hug. Even the boys, who a month before gave me no more than a chin nod in greeting.

Our school does a lot of symbolic things around graduation. Since we’re K-6, most kids have spent the majority of their lives in this building, with these people. Some can’t remember a time before our school.

We end with a handshake. The 6th graders circle up outside, and one by one every grade comes through and shakes the hand of each graduating student. It’s incredibly sweet and touching. The younger kids love it, and it gives the older ones a sense of closure.

When I first started, it had taken me only a couple weeks to realize how much I loved my first class. Since then, I had been afraid of the moment I’d have to hug them goodbye at the handshake circle. I’d been afraid I’d cry too much, be too emotional.

I did ok! I did cry, but I smiled and laughed, too. I told them they were ready.

As I hugged one girl goodbye, one who visits often and cried hardest at the talk of leaving, I whispered to her “You’ve grown up so much!” “So have you!” She said back.

That made me realize another reason why that class meant so much to me.

I had been an assistant at the school I now work in for two years prior to getting my own class. That job had made me realize I wanted to be a teacher, and I had gone to grad school and done my student teaching in the same place. When I graduated with my masters, a position suddenly opened, and I got my dream job- staying right where I had been for two years prior.

I was hired in July, started in late August. In early October, just as I was getting my feet, my boyfriend of 3 years broke up with me. We’d been living together, talking about marriage. Suddenly I had my cat and my few worldly goods in my car, driving to my parents house. I was reeling. I lost so much- love, my home, my friends. It felt like I didn’t know who I was.

But I knew I was a teacher. I had those kids. And I could come in every day and forget how sad and lost and heartbroken I was. I spent 12 or more hours at school frequently in those days- there was always things to do! When everything shifted under me, I knew I was a teacher. I knew they loved me, and I loved them. At my lowest points, they were the brightest parts of my life.

Things got better, and they were there when they did. When I marvel at how the little ones who could barely write a paragraph or resolve a conflict have become such mature, sophisticated people and advanced learners, I see my own growth, too. I was a young, confused, sad- there’s no other word for it- kid. I end this year the proud owner of a house with a big yard, a well behaved dog and an unruly puppy. My wedding is in a month, and my fiance is literally the man of my dreams. I still fall down while playing capture the flag, can fake burp like nobody’s business, and laugh at bathroom humor- but I’ve got things together now in a way I didn’t at 24.

We’ve all come so far.

I’m going to miss my 6th graders, but I know they’ll come back to visit- just like the first class I ever worked with, as an assistant. They’re going into tenth now, and they like to stop by and grin at the shock on my face as I stare at them and realize who they are.

I’ll miss my 4th graders, too, but I’ll see them often. With every emotional goodbye, I realize two things: That things are never final, and we’ll see each other a lot; and that it never gets any easier to say goodbye.

The Good in the World

Yesterday marked one year to the day since the Boston marathon bombing. I did not want to acknowledge it, or think about it. I didn’t want to hear the news stories play over and over again, see the traumatizing pictures. I didn’t want to think about how gut-wrenchingly awful this day was. I sure didn’t plan to bring it up with my class.

The kids had other ideas. The week before, a few asked me if we were going to do anything to mark the date. I gave vague answers, explaining that not everyone would be comfortable with it. The bombing happened early in a week long vacation last year, so by the time we came back to school, they had had time to process it, and it wasn’t as immediate. Plus, last year they were third graders. This year, fourth. The same kids that were not completely aware of what happened  then were now acutely aware of the anniversary.

“Can we do something good?” One asked me last week. I asked her to explain. “It was so bad, what happened. Shouldn’t we do something good, to balance it out?”

That hit me. I have a responsibility to these kids, to help them navigate this sometimes scary world and their place in it. After asking the class parents for their opinion, I decided to ask the class what they wanted to do. I figured it would be something like raise money, or write letters.

One of the first suggestions came from one of my very thoughtful boys. “Can we plant something?” He asked. The class loved this idea. Plants, they reasoned, were the ultimate way of giving back. They were good for the planet, the atmosphere, the ecosystem. Go figure, we had a shipment of baby pine trees donated by an Arbor Day foundation that I had completely forgotten about! We decided to plant our trees in the woods behind the school. Not as a memorial, not a place to remember the dead and injured, but just out among the existing trees. Just an act of positive.

After this discussion, the class went to music. One child hung back, and as soon as the class left she collapsed into my arms, crying. The trees, she explained, reminded her of the memorial to Martin Richards she had seen. The youngest of the bombings victims, he was only 8, and his sweet face was everywhere in the days following. I had cried hardest, I think for him. He was the same age as my students.

This fact hit hard for the little girl sobbing in my arms, as well. She explained she couldn’t stop thinking about it after she saw the tree hung with ribbons and beads, with stuffed animals underneath. Planting trees reminded her of it all over again. She apologized for crying, and I told her not only was it ok to cry, that I felt like crying, too. “Is it ok if I cry a little?” I asked her. She nodded.

So I held her while we both sat in the classroom, tears running down our faces. We cried for Martin, Krystle, Lingzi, Sean, for everyone injured, for the sense of safety that had been shattered, for the act of evil that tore apart a beautiful April day.

Then we both felt a little better. We talked about emphasizing the positive. Planting the trees would not be a solemn act of remembrance- that was certainly important, but not what we wanted to focus on. It would be a chance to go outside, be with our classroom community, and give back to nature. To celebrate the good in our world.

The next day we went outside into gusts of wind and rain. We climbed over the stone wall, and dug holes in the leaf covered forest floor, using plastic spoons and sharing one rusty trowel. We got covered in mud, and our feet got wet. The kids lovingly found spots for their little saplings, and implored the rain to keep their trees nice and wet. They sang, they laughed, they threw sticks, they flipped rocks and found salamanders. They were kids, being kids, in a world that can sometimes be scary, sometimes be sad, sometimes be so goddamned awful it makes the adults want to pull the curtains and never leave the house.

I took a lot of pictures. The best is of two of my girls, arms around each other, heads thrown back in laughter and song. They’re kicking their legs in unison, can can style. One holds a Red Sox umbrella, with the Boston B front and center. It’s perfect.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again- you can’t lose hope when you work with kids. They won’t let you.

Top 12 Things Your Teacher Doesn’t Want to Hear This Week

1. “There’s blood on the rug… again.” The last word is the most troubling.

2. “Why are you always eating cake?” Why are you always questioning me about my food choices, hmm?

3. “Almonds aren’t a nut, right?” Not that we have life-threatening allergies here or anything.

4. “When I grow up I want to be like Mike Tyson.” Luckily, he meant Neil Degrasse Tyson, renowned astrophysicist, not the boxer who eats people’s ears.

5. After being told that a hugging robot still needed to ask permission to hug. “Know what doesn’t need to ask? A kicking robot. You should just take the hug and be glad because it could be worse.

6. “I love talking to you. This is why I think you should give me your phone number. We could talk all the time even after school.” While a very sweet sentiment, no. Just no.

7. “I don’t think I was here for this lesson.” While referring to multiplication, which definitely was not taught in a single lesson. Or unit. Or year.

8. “I don’t know whose this is, but I’m eating it.” Which is at least better than ‘I don’t know what this is, but I’m eating it.”

9. ” Don’t forget your coffee!” After being told it was green tea, “You don’t drink coffee? I think you should. I really, really think you should. Did you know it wakes you up? You could be so much less tired! Wouldn’t that be great?”

10. “I brought in my permission slip for the field trip!” There is no next field trip this year. This was very sad news. 

11. “I don’t know which bus to take after school, but I bet if I just wander around by the buses for awhile I’ll figure it out.” Wandering through rows of giant, moving vehicles is never the best strategy. 

12. “All my problems involve cats.” How do you even respond to this?

And it’s only Tuesday!