The one thing you’re expected to do as a blogger is to write blogs, at least occasionally, and preferably on a regular basis. But life definitely got in the way of my writing this year. I have a folder, jam-packed with ideas and events I had planned to feature in posts, but I never got around to writing about any of its contents.
Rather than try to cover several months, I am opting to start fresh, which feels appropriate because I’ve launched a new career. I’m no longer a copy editor, though I do still spend quite a bit of time correcting papers. Neither have I returned to my former career of teaching elementary school. However, my job is in the field of education.Officially I’m an employee of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, even though I commute 45 minutes north to Fairfield, in Solano County, rather than across the bridge to the City by the Bay. As an independent studies teacher for Five Keys Charter Schools and Programs, I work with adults so they can either get their high school diploma or take the GED. The five keys of the school’s name refers to Education, Employment, Community, Recovery, and Family, which are all considered integral tools for people to have success after incarceration. Most–but not all–of my current students are adults on probation or parole. When they come to the probation department building to meet with their parole officer or to provide a court-ordered urine sample, they can stop by my classroom and either drop off work that they’ve done or ask for help with whichever subject they’re working on.
I teach everything but P.E., performing arts, and foreign language, although there is some curriculum for motivated students to teach themselves Spanish. I haven’t yet had to teach upper-level math, but I should probably brush up on my trig at some point, since that was where I hit the math wall back in high school. So far I’ve mostly taught fractions and negative numbers, which are both still in my comfort zone.
Some of my students stay twenty minutes, some stay an hour, and some stay all morning. Their ages are from 22 to 60, their reading levels are from 2nd grade to 12th grade, and their math skills range from learning their multiplication facts to algebra. A number of my students are in recovery for addiction, and a few are dealing with accompanying memory loss. Some have hectic work schedules that make coming to class tricky, and others are actively looking for work. Three of my students live in a group rehab house, and at least one is homeless. Several have children. A fair number have learning issues, and many just didn’t get much out of school the first time around.
But they all want to build a better life for themselves and for their families by getting an education, which increases their opportunities.
I’m the only teacher at my site, but I have colleagues in other social services within the building. My fellow teachers are spread out across Solano County and throughout California. My principal is the director for all Solano County programs and has a lot on his plate, so I don’t see him very often. My classroom is all mine, as small as it is, and I’ve done some re-organizing to get settled. Right now all my hours are there. When I get jail clearance, I’ll also teach students who are in custody at Claybank Detention Facility in addition to my current roster.
Getting out of jail and working on getting a diploma is a new beginning for my students, and commuting to Fairfield to work with adults is a new beginning for me–so we’re all starting down that road together. And so far, I love it.
It certainly keeps me busy, which means I’m not always thinking about the current political nightmare. And that is a good thing.
Today is Teacher Appreciation Day, and Chipotle had a buy one, get one free special offer for all teachers. I hadn’t gone grocery shopping and it was a particularly hot day. The last thing I wanted to do was cook, so I decided to take them up on their offer.
I’d put my pay stub in my pocket to prove I was an employee at Prospect Sierra, so at 6 pm, shortly after the last child was picked up from After School (where I’m the director), I headed to the El Cerrito Chipotle, which is on my way home from work. The parking lot was a madhouse. People were stuck, trying to get out, and cars were coming in through the exit, making it even more congested and confused. I drove a block and a half away, found a spot on the street, and walked there. The line was as long as I’d ever seen it, but I was content to play Two Dots on my phone while I waited.
Twenty minutes later, I finally arrived at the counter and pulled out my pay stub to show the server. He didn’t even look at the paper I was holding in front of him; he just called over another guy who told me I needed to show a school ID. I explained that my school didn’t issue ID cards. He looked skeptical, as if that just wasn’t within the realm of possibility, so I must be trying to scam him. I told him I taught at a private school where we didn’t need IDs. He shook his head and said the only way it would work was if I could show him an ID. He didn’t even say he was sorry. I was angry, but I walked away without causing a scene.
I got in my car, vowing to never go to Chipotle’s again. But I was really hungry too. Then I got an idea.
I called the Chipotle in West Berkeley–the one I’d visited often when I worked off Gilman. I told the man who answered that I was a teacher and had a pay stub to prove it, but the El Cerrito Chipotle wouldn’t honor the special offer for me. Then I asked if I came to the Berkeley Chipotle, would my pay stub be enough to prove I was a teacher. He said he thought he could make an exception and asked my name.
“When you get here, tell the person at the counter your name, and I will make sure you get your free burrito,” he assured me.
So I drove to the Berkeley Chipotle and waited in line again, but only for about ten minutes this time. True to his word, the Chipotle employee made sure I got the teacher deal. I thanked him and changed my vow to never frequent the El Cerrito Chipotle, but the Berkeley Chipotle would continue to get my business.
I took home dinner for my husband and me and didn’t have to cook. Thank you, Berkeley Chipotle!
The SEED (Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity) Showcase: Tools of Resistance is the first educational conference I’ve been to in many years, and I was excited. Since it was held just 20 minutes away at the First Congregational Church in Oakland (affectionately called First Congo by its parishioners), I didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to drive there. I found parking right away—because, for once, I was early!—and entered through the blue door as specifically instructed on our pre-conference materials.
Loud rap music was coming over the loudspeakers in the main hall, setting a distinctly different atmosphere from any educational conferences I’d ever been to. I gathered various free materials (a mainstay of any teachers’ workshop), made my way over to get a bagel and coffee (also an important component of any teachers’ workshop), and grabbed a seat in the front row for the whole-group event.
After a brief mindfulness exercise to get us all centered, Dr. Eddie Moore, founder of the White Privilege Conference, took the stage. He began by telling us he was an emotional mess and has been since November. (Nobody in our progressive Bay Area crowd had to ask what he was referring to.) I listened eagerly, expecting to agree with everything he said, and I appreciated his energy and passion. He compared our struggle with racism to the relationship between the dominant lion and the innocent lamb. While I didn’t entirely understand his metaphor, it made for a striking visual.
He stirred us up with a rousing call to action, and I found myself nodding a lot. Yes, it is scary knowing that white supremacists have the presidents’ ear. No, we can’t be complacent and accept this as normal. Yes, we must do what we can to resist!
Then he mentioned that even well-meaning white teachers did not see future doctors and lawyers when they saw black boys in their classrooms, and he bemoaned the fact that he had to send his son—a black boy—to kindergarten where his teacher was a white woman.
It was as if a fully saturated roll of paper towels had hit me in the chest. I’m a white woman who has taught black boys, and I sincerely hoped that none of their parents felt that way about me. I know in my heart I never expected less of any of my students based on their race. Don’t I?
I was feeling resistance, but it was not in the way I’d expected. I let that sit with me for a while and consciously worked against my gut reaction. Somewhere in the back of my head I heard my daughter telling me that this was tough work and in order to make progress, I was going to be uncomfortable sometimes.
Then it was time for small-group work. Our name tags were color coded to divide us into groups of ten to twelve. (Go Team Red!) Our leaders went over the procedures for SEED meetings and gave us a question as a writing prompt, after which, we took turns in triads sharing our responses in precisely timed three-minute segments. I went last and finished in under sixty seconds. Although the SEED way is to embrace any silence that occurs before the timer goes off, it is not in my nature to sit quietly. So I just kept adding thoughts until it was time for crosstalk, which is SEED’s term for discussion among the triad members. Then it was time for popcorn (which, as it turns out, did not mean it was snack break.) Apparently popcorn is the term used for the discussion that happens in the small group (bigger than the triad, smaller than the whole group). People shared thoughts and feelings that had come up for them during Dr. Moore’s talk.
And out of nowhere I shared something I had not ever planned to talk about, all in the spirit of being open, I guess. Even as I was blathering, I began to worry that I shouldn’t have mentioned it at all. What would my Team Red colleagues think? Immediately afterward, a kind soul reminded us that this was a safe space and thanked us for being willing to share feelings that might make us uncomfortable. I knew she was thanking me because, as far as I could tell, nobody else had said anything they wouldn’t be perfectly fine announcing to a crowd of strangers. I appreciated that and no longer worried about consequent judgments.
After a break, we reassembled in the main hall to hear Santa Rosa Junior College psych professor and former co-director of SEED, Dr. Brenda Flyswithhawks. A member of the Tsalagi (Cherokee) tribe, she started her presentation with a mini-lesson on the recent events at Standing Rock. A warm, funny woman who credits her grandmother as being her greatest teacher, Dr. Flyswithhawks shared several personal anecdotes about her experiences with and reactions to racism.
The most incredible story dated back to an incident that happened when she was a child. She remembers her grandmother hurrying all the children to the back of her house one day to hide. And when they emerged, little Brenda went out to the front yard, where she found her uncle hanging dead from a tree, the victim of hooded Klan members, who wanted to show Native people just what they thought of them. Years later, when she working toward her doctorate, she persistently made efforts to sit down with the grand dragon of the KKK. When she finally got a meeting with him, she told him she forgave him and told him about that traumatic day from her childhood. I have no idea what that meant to him, but she explained that the forgiveness was for her, not for him.
I could not relate. I don’t possess that kind of forgiveness, and I was floored to hear of someone who did.
We wrote our evaluations and jotted down questions on cards that were not quite 3 x 5 to submit to our speakers for an end-of-the-day conversation. Although the schedule claimed that the conference closed with a mindfulness exercise, I think that got skipped in favor of letting the Q&A time go longer. Even so, they got around to only a fraction of the questions, so I felt fortunate that both of mine were answered.
I’d asked Dr. Moore how he reconciled leaving his boy in the hands of a white woman every day, knowing he preferred not to. He replied honestly that it wasn’t a matter of reconciling it, that he still has a hard time with it. And I could hear the pain in his voice as he picked up a piece of paper and replied, “Every day, I hand my boy over whole.” Then he ripped the paper into strips, letting them fall to the floor as he said, “And every day, this is what I get back.” He proceeded to piece the strips back together on the ground and added that even after this process, his son was never as whole, that creases remained.
That is when I understood his side of the story. I may do the best job I can do as a white woman, but I could never be the perfect teacher for his son. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect teacher, but a parent always wants the best for his or her child. And he was speaking as a parent.
My question for Dr. Flyswithhawks was “How were you able to get to a place where you could forgive the grand dragon of the KKK for the death of your uncle, even understanding that the forgiveness was for you?” Her answer: grace–the grace she has as a spiritual woman, the grace she learned from her grandmother. She was a great believer in prayer, even as she conceded that some of us in that room would be uncomfortable with the concept of prayer.
There was that idea again—being uncomfortable. Here I was, a devout atheist since the age of 11, looking up to a woman of faith and appreciating her for all that she was. This by no means changed my thoughts on God, but I didn’t have that automatic reaction to discount what else she said, as–I admit–I might have before.
So the day was full of lessons: I learned that I could be vulnerable without negative consequences. I learned that I could listen and hold onto ideas that were contrary to my own without having to argue against them. I learned that I could accept wisdom from someone whom I truly admired but wasn’t completely aligned with ideologically.
And I needed to work on being comfortable with silence. That one might be tough.
First, the bad news: I didn’t get the job I’d really hoped to get. I’d applied to be the After School Director at Prospect Sierra’s middle school, but I got beat out by someone with more experience and a PhD. I can’t compete with that. Sigh.
I usually wouldn’t get so emotional about being turned down for employment, but thinking about it afterward, I began to understand the implications. This was not merely an employment opportunity–landing this job would have represented something more akin to healing. Rejoining Prospect Sierra’s faculty would have felt like reconnecting with a long-lost family member or childhood friend.
Now the background: Out of 24 years of teaching, 19 of them were at that school. It was a great place to work, and I got along with teachers, students, parents, and administrators. Except Sheila, the lower school head, who of course was my boss.
In independent schools, teachers don’t get tenure the way they do in public school, and our contracts allowed the administration to dismiss teachers without cause. When the school didn’t renew my contract eight years ago, it felt like a divorce. I was devastated. It seriously broke my heart.
Luckily, my husband, Dave, was there to pick up the pieces and offered me a job in his company without even so much as an interview.
A few years ago, Sheila retired. Former colleagues kept telling me I should come back now that she was gone. But I had moved on and switched careers. I became a copy editor and proofreader, and I had time to pursue writing. Occasionally I missed the classroom, but I was happy.
I began teaching an after-school creative writing class in the Bay Area called Take My Word For It and ended up getting assigned to one semester at Prospect Sierra and a few at Madera. I think in the back of my mind I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to teach any more–I’d lost my confidence. But it all came back to me, and I enjoyed teaching again, although it was only once a week for an hour.
About this time, my husband and I were reviewing the state of our finances, and it was none too rosy. We weren’t bringing in enough income and had spent most of our savings. It was unlikely that we’d ever be able to retire. We started entertaining the possibilities.
This past February, I ran into a former colleague who still teaches at Prospect Sierra, who mentioned that the school had raised the pay rate for substitutes to $150 a day.
Hmmm…I updated my resume, filled out an application, and was subbing at Prospect Sierra the day after I handed in all the paperwork.
The biggest surprise? I discovered that I love middle school students. Maybe part of my brain stopped maturing after age 13, but I totally relate to them and appreciate their sense of humor. I’d always taught elementary school, but now I was seeing myself as that rare breed I used to pity: a middle school teacher.
I became quite fond of these kids and even attended graduation last week. (Yes, I did cry a tiny bit…)
So I was overjoyed when I found out about the After School Director position. What could be more perfect? I wanted it too much. When the head of the middle school called yesterday to break the bad news, it hurt. Even though she wasn’t even at the school when I was let go, it felt a little like getting back together with an ex-boyfriend just to get dumped again.
But the take-home message is that I’ve discovered a new side of myself, and I don’t have to teach where I taught before. There are middle school students all over the place, so there must be openings at other schools, right?
Although this year’s project focuses on the paths of Berkeley, inspired by my January 2 purchase of the map so named, I also made a vow to walk more in general. And the opportunity arose on my first day of subbing.
Let me backtrack just a smidge. . . I left teaching 7 1/2 years ago. Okay, it would be more truthful to say that teaching left me, but that’s a whole long sob story I’d rather not relive for this post. Suffice it to say that I went from a stable 25-year career in elementary education to the glamorous offerings-aplenty world of publishing. Or maybe that was the little lie I told myself to get me up every morning.
I was incredibly lucky to land a job in publishing with nary an interview or related job experience. Since my wonderful husband hired me, I didn’t even have to update my resume. (My favorite line is that I can do what I want at work because I sleep with the boss.) Of course I have a B.A. in English Lit, which is exceedingly rare and a huge asset in the job market. (English majors not only have the distinction of being the best-read baristas, they are also prone to sarcasm.)
So, you may have heard: the publishing industry has been in decline since someone proclaimed that print was dead. And our property taxes here in Bezerkeley are among the highest anywhere. So . . .
To make up for the reduced income–and because my nemesis was no longer in charge of the lower school–I decided to see if the school where I used to teach needed subs. I filled out the paperwork, handed it in, and got called that evening to sub the next day for one of the 7th grade humanities teachers at the middle school campus.
Of course Wednesday is the day that I teach an after-school creative writing class for 3rd-5th graders at Madera Elementary in El Cerrito, so I explained that I could sub only if I was allowed to leave early in order to teach my class. It was fine.
The office staff person in charge of subs told me to wear my walking shoes because part of my day would be escorting my charges on their trip to visit their 4th grade buddies on the elementary campus, which is 1.6 miles by foot. The plan was for the 7th graders to walk over, eat lunch with their buddies, play with each other at recess, do an activity together, then walk back to their own campus in time for a 2:30 dismissal.
Except I needed to leave at 1:40 to drive to Madera, which is a mile and a half away from either campus. So I got up early, drove to the elementary campus, parked my car, and walked the 1.6 miles to the middle school campus to arrive there at 8:10, ready to get my class roster and sub plans for the day.
En route I saw one current elementary teacher walking the opposite direction heading for work and one former middle school teacher who happens to live in the neighborhood out for her morning jog. I got lost, very briefly, when I unnecessarily climbed a steep block that led to a dead-end. Since I wanted to make up time for my wrong turn, I stopped only once to take a picture.
My first day of subbing was wonderful. In the morning the kids worked on making books out of their collections of vignettes–choosing their about-the-author photos, formatting the various pieces, printing out their pages, and gluing them together. They were kind, helpful, self-directed, polite, and respectful. Who knew that 7th graders were so great?
Then at 11:35 on an unusually warm, sunny February day, all the 7th graders and their teachers trekked over to other campus, bravely sweating up that last big hill. It was pizza day, so they happily ate outside with their 4th grade buddies and spent recess together. Afterward the 7th graders gave handmade cards to their buddies and helped them make special valentines that light up. I loved watching the older children patiently teaching younger ones and having fun.
I slipped out and drove to Madera to teach my regular class and was pretty tired by the time I got home that afternoon.
It was quite a productive day all around: between the two jobs, I earned $200 and took 12,668 steps!
Because I’ve been blogging so much about food lately, I haven’t been sharing all the wonderful theater experiences as I should. But I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage as many people as I could to see this amazing play at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.
Everything about Gidion’s Knot is well done. Before the play even officially begins, actress Stacy Ross is in character as a teacher on stage, grading papers at her desk in a convincing fifth-grade classroom. The set is decked out with the typical primary-colored, cheery pre-fab elementary-school posters under harsh institutional fluorescents, which is the perfect setting for shining light on an extremely dark topic and sets the right tone for what must be the most uncomfortable parent-teacher conference ever. My compliments to set designer Nina Ball and lighting designer, Michael Palumbo.
I don’t want to give away important plot twists because part of the beauty of the play is the unveiling of each element, but it is a story that delves into many issues, none of which are easy or clear cut. An abrasive, wounded, misguided mother, played by Jamie Jones, descends on the teacher who does her best to consider the mother’s situation before reacting.
Johnna Adam’s script is a finely cut jigsaw puzzle whose pieces interlock before the audience to reveal a troubled student who never appears on stage. Both the mother and teacher have pieces of that puzzle. But even when the audience has the insight of both women, the picture isn’t complete, which illustrates how deeply complicated an eleven-year old can be.
Also noticeably absent is the principal, who is supposedly on her way. Representing an institutional lack of support, this Godot fails not only the teacher and the parent but presumably the boy as well.
Stacy Ross is one of my favorite Bay Area actors, and this role took advantage of her great talent. (Another actress will take over that role starting March 4, and I’m sure she’s good, but to be on the safe side, I would get tickets now.) Jamie Jones did such a good job of being that multi-faceted pain-in-the-ass parent that I actively disliked her character while also feeling great sympathy.
It’s not a rollicking good time, but it’s a moving drama that poses important questions that will haunt you long after you leave the theater.
Bullying has been around as long as there have been people, but it is not an inevitable condition that we as a society have to give in to. New approaches are starting to make headway as schools and parents tackle this issue that will not go away.
Last week I attended a book launch at Laurel Books for The Bullying Antidote: Superpower Your Kids for Life, written by my friend Kristen Caven and her mother, Dr. Louise Hart. It was a warm, muggy night in Oakland, so the door was opened in Luan’s cozy little bookshop to allow the occasional breeze to provide some relief. A small but engaged audience of parents and teachers listened to the authors present ideas based on both science and experience.
Hart is a community psychologist who has studied school environments and is an expert in self-esteem development. Caven is a writer who is actively involved in the parent association where her son attends high school. (She also happens to be an active member in the California Writers Club, which is how I know her.) Together they have compiled information that explores the topic quite thoroughly. One major aspect of this issue has to do with different parenting styles. Nobody sets out to raise a bully or a victim (or at least I hope nobody does!), but any sort of extreme parenting, whether permissive or autocratic, leaves its mark on our children. Through positive parenting, the authors suggest that we can help turn the tide on a trend that has contributed to the bully/victim dynamic. Recognizing patterns, understanding motives, and focusing on effective communication are all part of a multi-pronged approach to dealing with this prevalent problem.
During the question and answer portion of the presentation, a young man shared his recent experience as a substitute camp counselor. Neither a teacher or a parent, he hadn’t known about the book event. He just happened to be walking by and impulsively entered the open door. Then something about the topic piqued his interest, and he stayed. His own father, he admitted, was less than an ideal parent, but rather than putting energy toward resenting him, this young man seemed bent on breaking that cycle and taking what he learned to heart.
It’s possible that, as it often is, the authors were mostly preaching to the choir, considering those assembled. But even if just one young person really understood the advice being offered that night, perhaps it will influence his choices and actions, spurring a ripple effect that will touch many. It may be a romantic notion, but hope thrives on such notions, doesn’t it?