January 11, 2013

looking over the picket fence

I spent my day volunteering in a classroom for at-risk children. At-risk doesn't begin to describe their situation. The class I taught at normally has 10 children, but today, there were only 5. Two were suspended, one moved, one was sick and one had a death in the family. The class is 3rd and 4th graders, and they are on their last stop of the education train before they are expelled. Expelled in 3rd grade. And then what?

My job today was to teach a financial literacy program. I was to talk to the students about how bank accounts work, how to deposit and withdraw, how interest works. I was to teach them what it means to earn money, and start talking about career aspirations, to get them thinking about things they do well and how they could turn that into a career down the road. To explain what a mentor or role model was and how to model behavior after someone they admire. I was to explain a work ethic and business start up costs.

I arrived on time, briefcase and lesson plan in hand. The principal pulled me aside before I went to the class room and told me what to expect. I had no idea. I am too sheltered, I feared, as I listened to him explain that this was the last chance to educate these kids. Imagine...  on their last chance before some of them are even 10 years old. His words baffled me. He explained that some of the kids could not read or do math, so not to lose patience if they couldn't. I tapped my case and said, I brought calculators to keep things moving along.

Then I confidently announced, I've got this, I have taught all over the city. I have worked with kids from every area and in all grades. I believe in this program and I believed all it took was a positive attitude, a different teacher, and a genuine love for what I do.

He led me to the classroom and the teacher as well as her aide wanly smiled at me. Maybe I imagined it, but I think they wondered if I knew what the heck I got myself into. I don't know. Maybe they were just exhausted. Or exasperated. I took a few minutes to organize my supplies and jumped in with enthusiasm.

Each desk was set up like a group of islands, with no child able to make eye contact with the other. No desk touched another, and one boy was even hidden behind a partition. I invited them to sit at a big table with me together because I had a group activity that was part of the curriculum. The teacher pulled out a big spiral notebook, as I unfolded the game board. I took a few minutes to explain how bank accounts worked and how to keep a ledger of deposits, withdrawals and total balances.  The teacher, meanwhile, was keeping a ledger of behavior infractions. Each student received a worksheet and when they rolled the die and moved their game piece, they had the opportunity to change their bank balance. It was a simple simulation game.

They wanted none of it. They couldn't understand why I didn't give them real money and why they needed to pay attention. They all wanted to go at the same time but nobody wanted to wait until the last person's turn finished. It was chaos.

I realized that I don't know a thing. At least not about this world. I don't know a thing about a world where children are kept separate because they will hurt each other otherwise. But I was about to find out. The morning slowly moved along and we found ourselves barely through 2 of the lessons, of which we were to teach 6. It was time for lunch and the teacher explained that the students didn't leave for lunch it was brought to the room for them. They were not going to a cafeteria, but instead were isolated for repeated behavior problems. They were at this school to try to earn their way back to their mainstream school.

After lunch I gathered them back at the big table to attempt to continue the lessons and get through lesson 3. The trash talking started and the kids were openly hostile. They were cursing at each other in language that I would ground my high school children for using, let alone 3rd and 4th graders. They were grabbing each other's papers, arguing about whose turn it was and smart mouthing me. One handsome little boy with long eyelashes and eyes so dark they were almost black was so angry I actually felt a tingle of personal fear run over my spine. If he had the wherewithal, he would have hurt me physically because I asked him to please pay attention while I was talking. I couldn't believe that for that moment in time, I was actually scared of that beautiful little boy.

Another boy kept pulling his hood over his head and refusing to participate, while another one kept doubling over in pain unless he forgot there was nothing wrong. He was feigning illness because he didn't feel like working. Another young boy with crooked, bent glasses explained that he had lost them at the gym where he was learning how to box so he could punch anyone who messed with him. The dark eyed angry boy called him out on his statement and kicked him under the table. Then it disintegrated. Within seconds, the talk escalated, and the n- word flew out as well as several other profane expressions. I realized that I needed to send the children back to their desk islands. On the way back to their seats, fists flew as one child got shoved so hard a desk almost fell over. Three adults (a teacher, an aide, and myself), five children and the children were dominating.

I opted to skip lesson 4 and combine lesson 5 and 6 with no table time or game playing. I cannot say I was losing patience, but I was out of ideas. I didn't know how to reach them nor did I know what to do. I felt ineffective. At one point another person from my organization stopped by to take some photos, and was threatened by the children not to take any photos. Then the kids took a few moments to talk about their counselors and conditions. They said very matter-of-factlly that they had been diagnosed with ADHD and bi-polar and I sarcastically said, "I never would have guessed." At that point I realized I was in over my head. Because I was wrong to make jokes, however surreptitiously. It's not funny, it's tragic.

We have failed the least among us. Society has failed. Yes, it takes a village and the village left. There were 5 children today who needed someone to care. By the end of today, I only wanted to finish my day. I didn't know what to do and it has me sad. I thought I had the answers.

I am home now, sitting in my suburban enclave writing this very raw blog. But I'm left with more questions than answers, I fear.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...