Middle School Hero

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 20 2012

The Fire That Burns Within

During the school, we come under tremendous stresses every single day. Constantly, we are inundated with negativity. Apathy, beuracracy, poverty, and outright failure stymie progress every day and prevent us from maintaining the searing optimism that drew many of us to this line of work.

Every single day I hear or see something that shouldn’t exist at a middle school. Eventually, you become numb to the staggering numbers of kids without parents, kids without papers, kids in government housing, kids sucked into drugs and gangs. You fall into a rhythm of getting through each day, battling kids who are either too immature or else just don’t care to try, and it makes you something you didn’t every really want to become.

But today, something happened that completely reignited the fire that I have for what I’m doing here.

I have a student. We’ll call her P. Most days she’s a terror. She is rude and impetous to other kids, blatently disrespectful to teachers, and shows an open disdain towards work. Managing her behavior and getting her to produce writing is a tightrope every day and the challenge is intensified by the fact that every lecture, every phonoe call home, every attempt to reach her falls on deaf ears. Her immaturity is a barrier to progress because she can’t empathize or understand any errors in her ways.

So anyways, today she was telling her classmates that what we were doing was “stupid and pointless because I’m just going to drop out next year anyways.”

Now, keep in mind that this girl is 13. She’s not even in high school yet. I tried to call her mom to let her know what I’d heard, but, like so many other times, I couldn’t get a hold of a working phone number. Instead, I settled for calling her into our team’s planning meeting so that we could talk to her. However, I lucked out because her mom happened to be up at the school anyways to drop something off, so we invited her to join us.

The meeting began and we told P why we had called her in. She claimed she had been joking and then refused to say anything else, but her mother started to talk.

For the next 45 minutes, none of the teachers said more than a couple of sentences. Instead, P’s mom began sharing her entire story. P’s cousin had died in gang violence recently. Her other cousin was suspended for drug possession. Money was low. P and her mother had been fighting, physically fighting, at home.

As she told the story of how P’s cousin, a role model for P, descended into gang warfare, she started to cry. When she started talking about how she found a letter from him in P’s backpack, P broke down too. I stood there watching as this girl was transformed from a cruel, rude, apathetic bully into what she’s really been all along: a scared little girl. Yeah, this girl kept me up at night with her ability to destroy classrooms, but here she was broken down.

I don’t know how much weight that meaning is going to have. I think she still hates me for calling that meeting together and I think she’s still going to throw her tough persona around. I know that today we didn’t change her perspective about college or life or anything like that. But maybe, just maybe we turned a tiny, tiny corner.

Transformational change happens in many ways. It has to end in student achievement or it doesn’t mean much at all, but it can start in a million different ways. All throughout this semester, I’ve maintained that I’m not a good teacher (yet), but in moments like this I have to step back and say at least I did something. At least I told her I cared, in both word and action.

I can’t say how this will change P or if it will at all. But I can say it changed me. It has lit a fire under me going into this break. The stakes are simply too high for too many of these kids- there can’t be any holding back, any lost time. We have to be desperate, fighting for every second, every opportunity to become better, to become more. That goes for me and my kids- because we owe it and we deserve it.

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Chronicling teaching middle school English in OKC

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