It’s Takeima and Larry that worry me. Larry worries me because of his exhaustion. When it’s my turn to teach, Larry puts his head on his desk and declares that it’s naptime. Takeima also shuts down…she sits there, stony-faced, unwilling to speak to me or her classmates. They worry me, but mostly because they are the two students who make me visibly frustrated. I try all that I can with Takeima and Larry—I use positive reinforcement, I encourage them, I give them choices. I am also stern and dole out consequences and stop their behaviors in their incipient moments. I try everything I can think of, but nothing seems to work with Takeima or Larry. I am worried because they do not respond to me, and by the end of every period I am flush with frustration and helplessness.
I had my worst day yet on Friday. Takeima decided that she is in love with Mr. Ramirez and so was livid that she had to be in my reading group. Not only did she refuse to read, but she refused to let her classmates read: she clicked her pen and hummed and muttered under her breath for the entire class period. And Larry…Larry threw a chair on his way to the Principal’s Office. Within fifteen minutes, I had exhausted every trick I knew, and by 20 minutes into the hour, I had lost all but two of my students. They called each other “guacamole head,” they hummed “Caroline” by OutKast, they insisted they were going to go #2 in their pants if I didn’t let them go the bathroom, they kept losing their pens and notebooks and handouts. By 30 minutes, my face was burning red and Raven and Elvira were doing a better job of controlling the class than I was. For a moment, their classmates would actually quiet down when one of them implored, “Dang! You’re wasting our time!” or “But I want to read.” By the end of the hour, we’d gotten through about fifteen minutes of the lesson…and this was the rest of the lesson from the day before. Two days to cover thirty minutes of material. I felt like the worst teacher ever.
And so after school on Friday, near tears, I thought to myself, “Why am I putting myself through this? I could be teaching at a school where the kids want to behave, where they know how to behave. No wonder no one wants to teach in Watts.” The moment I let myself acknowledge those feelings, however, I was smacked in the face by the gravity of the situation. That very frustration is the reason I have to keep doing this. I have to continue because no one else wants to. Because everyone keeps giving up on these kids, writing them off as problems, as no good, as lazy and misbehaved. And while that may be true on the surface, I know that it is not the entirety of their situations.
There are moments when I break through to Larry and Takeima. Moments where Takeima is jumping out of her seat to participate and moments where Larry stays awake and isn’t drawing pictures of guns. There are moments when I see that they do, in fact, want to learn. These are the moments that keep me going.
Takeima and Larry—and everyone else in Room 56 at Markham Middle School—have far more complex lives than I can imagine. Larry’s father is infamous at Markham for showing up at school at 8am, sloppy drunk, cursing, and looking for Larry. And Larry, for some reason, doesn’t sleep at night. His bed is in the living room right now, and he’s lucky to get two or three hours of sleep a night. And Larry—tiny, twelve-year-old Larry who doesn’t even come up to my shoulders—is one of the angriest people I’ve ever met. He walks around with his shoulders tensed, brow narrowed, ready to spit out venomous insults at anyone who tries to penetrate his angry armor. And Takeima has apparently suffered unfathomable tragedies, the details of which I’m not allowed to know. But I have been told that she’s dealing with a lot.
There are moments when I worry that my frustration with Larry and Takeima and all of Room 56 will derail me this summer. But then I think of the complexities of their lives, their frustrating and dehumanizing school experiences thus far, their 12-year-old faces getting excited about a story or a lesson, and I am refocused. I am refocused on holding them to high academic and behavioral expectations and on finding ways to inspire them to work towards these high expectations. My true frustration is not Larry, and it is not Takeima. My true frustration is that I can’t think of ways to reach them, to inspire them. I can’t think of ways fast enough, and I worry that four weeks will pass and Larry and Takeima will simply have lived through yet another uninspiring school session. I worry about it, but I will not let that happen. I just hope that my determination is enough to make a difference to Takeima and Larry.
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While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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