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A New Beginning

19 Feb

When I was in college and I imagined being an art teacher, I would think of pottery wheels, easels, and colorful palettes.  I envisioned a studio full of wide-eyed young learners, full of creativity and potential, all blinking up at me and excited to get their hands dirty; ready to mold their clay while I molded their little minds.

What I got instead was an abandoned classroom with a soiled carpet, a non-existent supplies budget, and a box of leftover crayon stubs that had long since started to melt together into one sad wax conglomerate.  And to top it all off, my students not only lacked the wide eyes and the excitement, but had long ago traded in those traits for bloodshot eyes that were lost in a seemingly permanent weed-induced coma, the angry depression that comes from living in subsidized housing in the bad end of town, and a Special Ed label stating that they were “Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed”.  This school was not a normal public school.  It was an alternative placement for kids who were “bad” and got kicked out.

But I asked for it.  I knew what I was getting into.  I actually loved it.  Somehow the idea of sorting through the mucky mess was much more appealing to me than being afraid to get a shiny, public school art room dirty.  So I got to know my students, and asked them how they ended up with me.  Here are some highlights:

Student #1: Punched a teacher in the face in seventh grade.  The teacher told him to hand over his binder, and when the student refused, the teacher tried to grab it away from him.  Student told teacher “If you touch my stuff again, I’m going to punch you in the face.”  You can deduce what happened next.
Student #2: Set a fire in the boy’s room in middle school. Was not actually trying to commit arson, but instead was cutting class and smoking a joint with some friends.  Someone threw the butt into the trash, and when it went up in flames, student took the rap for his buddies.
Student #3: Assaulted another student in the middle school lunchroom.  One day, student #3 decided to cut class.  When he was spotted in the hallway by the teacher of said class, student playfully tried to run away.  Accidentally bumped into another student, who got angry and pushed student #3 off of him.  Student pushed back and ended up being charged with assault for punching the other kid.

I know how this sounds.  No parent wants to worry about their little angels co-existing with these terrors.  And there is no excuse for the way these students behaved.  Certainly, as every good teacher or parent will tell you, there must be consequences for all the choices that these young men made.  Alternative placement isn’t an outrageous solution, especially if you ask the victims in these examples.

But now lets talk for a minute about advocacy.  In these examples, there was no strong role model present in the kids’ lives.  No one’s mom came to school afterwards and spoke to the principal about some other kind of retribution.  No one asked if it was possible that student #1’s teacher should not have physically grabbed at the student and his belongings, especially after reading the signs of stress and anger that the student was already displaying.  No one came to the school to question why student #2’s teacher didn’t even realize he wasn’t in class until after the fire alarm was already going off.  And you can be quite sure that while the parent of the victim in the third scenario was going on and on about her son’s immaculate record and his role on the football team, student #3 sat quiet and subdued on the front steps of the school wondering when his dad was going to stop drinking long enough to pay the phone bill to even receive the phone call from the principal.

But wait, there’s more.  Did I mention that, while these incidents happened in middle school, these stories were told to me in the students’ junior and senior years of high school?  The day they were pulled from their schools, their friends, and their everyday lives, they were each told that they were being put in a temporary, 45 day placement.  That they would then be “re-evaluated” to see if they could come back.  I don’t know how many of you are parents, but have you ever dropped a screaming 2 year-old off at your in-laws and thought to yourself “Ahh! Peace and quiet! If only we could leave them there forever”?  Well, if you have, you were most likely kidding, but apparently these school districts are not.  “Get ’em out so we don’t have to deal with them anymore” seems to be the most common philosophy.  No one ever came back to see student #1 getting A’s, keeping a job, and supporting his family with his tiny paycheck.  No one ever heard student #2 say that he loved math but the classes at our school just weren’t challenging him anymore.  And that public school art teacher never got to see the amazing pen and ink drawings that student #3 drew every day because he wanted to create a portfolio to get into college.

So here’s where I start to get mad.  I get angry when I have the best relationship with the kid out of all the staff, but no one asks me to go to the PPT (Planning and Placement Team meeting, where the next phase of the student’s education is decided upon).  I get mad when a principal tells me that a student is no longer to come and speak with me, because although we get along well, I’m not officially a social worker.  I get really upset when one of my kids curses out a teacher in anger, and as punishment is to sit in a windowless, 8×8 room all day with nothing to do and no words exchanged between him and the teacher he was mad at.

I don’t mean to be bitter.  I love teaching.  And I love my kids.  Every kid I’ve ever had will be “my” kid forever.  But I can’t function in an environment that could potentially be nurturing and supportive and instead is depressing and repressive.  So I quit my job, and this is my new start; a breath of fresh air.  And hopefully, by sharing my lessons and by telling their stories, all of “my kids” will finally get their voices heard as well.