Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Letter to the Youth Correctional Facility

Dear Curtis,

What were you doing a week ago right now? Were you hanging out with friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Were you talking with your family, maybe your Dad, about what you had coming up in the week? Did you ever, for even a second, picture yourself sitting in jail in five short days? Did you ever think that so many lives would be devastated in a mere three days because you would have your hands on a gun?

What were you doing five years ago right now? I know the answer to that one. You were taking your time walking to my class every day and swearing over and over that the cigarette smoke I smelled was on someone else's clothes. You were sitting in my seventh grade class with your entire life ahead of you. Is this how you thought it would turn out?

Do you remember that our class song was Natasha Bedingfield's Unwritten? Do you remember that we talked about the lyrics - "Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten" - over and over? Remember how I would play the song and we would dance and sing around the room? We were Glee before Glee was cool. We were Middle School Musical! You didn't so much sing and dance as stand in the corner and grin, looking at your crazy teacher and your classmates who would shout "THE REST IS STILL UNWRITTEN" until the windows shook.

Remember how we wrote timelines of our lives? We started on that day in that classroom and mapped out everything we thought we'd be doing the rest of our lives. You struggled with that assignment. While other students plugged in high school, college, playing professional sports, and getting married, you kind of stared at the paper. I tried to help you, encouraging you along, but you told me you probably wouldn't go to college, maybe wouldn't finish high school. You did want to get married and have a wrote that on your chart, but other than that it wasn't very clear for you. I promised to help you feel more comfortable with schoolwork so that maybe college could be in your future. You reluctantly placed that on your chart. We compromised later when you erased "college" and wrote "community college."

But nowhere, Curtis, nowhere on that paper did it say "life in prison." Nowhere.

You may be surprised to know that I cried when I found out that you were arrested. I was with my grandchildren, taking them shopping for a "peasant" - that's what my granddaughter calls a "present." I read the news article on my phone and was so alarmed I scared two little girls with my immediate sobs.

Curtis, I cried in the Hello Kitty store.

I knew you were troubled in seventh grade, but I wasn't expecting it to come to this. You knew you were struggling, too, but I can't imagine that you ever dreamed your life would take this turn. I cried for three straight hours the day you went to jail. I couldn't stop thinking about our conversations about your life, how I never thought to say, "Curtis, you won't murder anyone in the future, will you? You won't shoot someone's father and grandfather in the back of the head for the $200 you'll get out of the cash register, will you?"

No, I never thought to ask that. And neither did the other teachers who've had their hearts broken over this news. I bet you'd be surprised that we've talked about you, sharing memories and stories of you, and that we can't even grasp what has happened. Curtis, we had dreams for you even if you didn't have dreams for yourself. And it hurts when dreams must know how that feels now.

I have to ask you what I could have done to change the rest of your story. You knew I cared about told me you didn't want to let me down. So what didn't I say? What didn't I do? What elements out there were stronger than a school full of encouraging teachers pulling for you? Whose voice was louder than mine?

I need to know so I can help the next troubled student write a different ending. Today is where his book begins...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Identity Crisis

So I'm not standing in front of my own classroom anymore. I'm proud to be a teacher-on-loan to my state's department of education (emphasis on teacher.) I'm still very connected to my identity as a teacher, so much so that I tend to tell my teacher stories in present tense (when I assign homework, I....) and so on.

But the truth is I don't have my own students now, and the last ones I officially taught are now eighth graders. Luckily, I'm still based at my school and so I still get to see middle schoolers and my colleagues. And sometimes I find myself walking down the hallways of the school, just inhaling.

Because the truth is that I miss them, every one of them, every day. I miss how they're so goofy that my days were full of laughter. I miss them caring so, so much for the teacher that they made the bad days better and the sad days endurable. I miss them so much that sometimes I forget that the students in my school aren't mine.

I tend to lay my hand on their shoulders as I pass them in the hallway: "Excuse me, honey," and I'm confused when there's no reaction. There's no "Hey, Mrs. Rigsbee!" along with hugs and squeals and "let-me-tell-you-what-happened" stories. Yesterday I was so excited to be invited to a science classroom - I was a guest judge for some amazing project presentations! I stood at the front of the room waiting for instructions when a student said, "I like your shirt." I started explaining how the shirt was one of the first "spirit gear" shirts sold by our school, but I was interrupted: "Um, I was talking about Mrs. White's shirt."

Ouch. He was talking to his REAL teacher, the one he actually knows and has a relationship with. I had a Personal Pity Party and went on with the judging.

Later, I worked with a couple of students who were testing, and I used the Literacy Coach's office. Probably not the best idea. I had forgotten that I donated (loaned?) all of my classroom library to the Literacy Coach when I packed up my classroom. I glanced over at the bookcase and saw my entire career lined up on shelves.

There sat Martin Luther King, The Peaceful Warrior. If I had students, we'd be reading that now and writing our Dream Speeches. I saw Master Puppeteer and remembered a grade level unit we did that included Japanese kite flying, origami, and a trip to a Japanese restaurant. I saw the Bluford series and Sharon Draper books like Forged by Fire and Tears of a Tiger, all books that I used in my remedial reading classes - high interest books for my middle schoolers - chosen with care...because I cared.

So...all this is to say...if you find that you are standing in front of a classroom of children every day, remember that you're doing the most important job there is. Cherish those faces looking back at you, and embrace those relationships.

You'd miss it if you were gone...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Teachers' Gifts to Students

I hope there are some adults in the world right now who can look back to middle school and think that I taught them a little something. I also hope there are a few high school students out there who are using reading strategies I taught as they now tackle the work that will enable them to graduate and live happily ever after. Sadly, I know I taught a few how to take a test: Read every answer. Don't mark the first one you come to that you think is correct. The directions ask you to choose the BEST read them ALL!

But after a recent conversation with my daughter, I've been enlightened to a bigger gift that teachers can give their students - an understanding of how to live in the world.

My daughter is on her way to interviews for an internship she'll need to complete for her doctorate in psychology. As we talked about potential questions she may be asked, we discussed her ability to work with a diverse group of patients. She told me that she's very comfortable working with all kinds of people, a skill she says she gained, in part, by watching her mother, the teacher, teach all kinds of students.

I thought back to a question I was asked during my first Teacher of the Year interview - I was asked how I teach a diverse group of kids. I told the selection committee that I remember back in the early 90's: teachers walked all up and down the halls of the school proudly proclaiming, "I'm colorblind. All of my students look alike to me, and I treat them all the same!"

I went on to tell the committee, as I've told numerous groups of educators since then, that we were all wrong back then...that we must actually SEE color...that we MUST celebrate every student for who they are and where they come from. We cannot, in fact, be colorblind.

I realized when I left that interview that I had raised my voice while answering that question, and I hoped they recognized that what they had heard was passion about a subject that's important to me: accepting all students, not merely the ones who look like me.

Back to the conversation with my daughter...I continued by sharing with her the time I sat with my Jewish student Aaron, who explained to me how he felt about Christianity...about all of the times I asked my Latina girls to share their Quincenera pictures with the class, and about the time I asked my Vietnamese student to share the story of his boat ride to America.

Even now," she said, "you continue to correspond with a student who writes you from jail, a student you have little in common with."

I never realized that my children were watching, learning how to work with others, as I taught school every day. Yes, I did try to explicitly teach them how to treat people, but I didn't think about what they may learn from watching me do my job.

It's with that in mind that I hope all teachers realize they are being watched by others; those youngsters sitting in our classrooms may someday go out and treat the world the way they see us treat it. So it makes me wonder if I always treated others kindly...did I ever roll my eyes when a colleague interrupted my class over something unimportant? Did I ever make a remark in passing that could have been hurtful to a student? Did I ever disregard a colleague or student's feelings?

Sometime during the past thirty years, I'm sure I did.

Who was watching?

And as I became an older, more experienced teacher, did I do a better job of being a role model, accepting of everyone?

I hope we all can. It's the most important gift we can give to our students - an understanding of how they should live in the world.