A couple of years ago our non-profit was openly bleeding requiring I get off the books! The economy was crashing and our backers were heading to the storm cellars leaving funding problematic.
I didn’t need much – just someone else to pay for health care and to make a few coins available to continue our outreach programs to the poor and the sick. If I could pick up that coverage we could keep a few volunteers going with occasional reimbursement for their expenses.
I heard through the grapevine that a school in the West Seattle neighborhood of Seattle needed a humanities teacher on a part time basis. It looked like a good opportunity so I emailed my CV to the hiring group.
Within days I had completed the interview process and was offered a fairly flexible schedule along with the understanding that I could tailor make the curriculum to meet the needs of the kids once that was determined.
The principal was brand new to the world of Middle School aged students so he embraced my years of experience giving me the nod to do what needed to be done to serve the kids.
Because I had years working with kids in and out of the classroom combined with working with people on the margins, in and out of the third world, I thought the opportunity to teach part time in an immigrant school would be ideal. I knew that a percentage of the population of the school had shifted from white blue-collar workers kids to the sons and daughters of legal and illegal immigrants coming in from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Sounded ideal.
Little did I know what lay in store for me!
My first few days at the school were “eye openers” for a number of reasons.
A couple of days before the kids were scheduled to fill the empty seats in the room I was decorating one of the bulletin boards in the classroom. I had just tacked in a photo of my nephew shaking Barack Obama’s hand when a woman who introduced herself as a part time arts teacher joined me. I shared that my nephew had a sound gig with Nickelodeon that gave him the opportunity to record and meet the “future” President when he addressed kids on the network. I had previously hung a picture of friends walking down a hall with Joseph Bidden, who was carrying their son in his arms. The little tyke was grinning like a Cheshire cat at Bidden. I thought they were great photos that I would use to show the kids how we all have opportunities regardless of our particular personal histories. I had a stack of other items to hang up that would give more support to the idea that we aren’t limited in our society.
As I was standing back admiring my handy work my companion uttered, “baby killers!”
OK, I should have written her off to being a member of the lunatic willfully ill-informed fringe but I instinctively replied that candidate Obama was “pro-choice” and not a baby murderer. Her reply was that all of them were the same and that she hoped they lost the election. Once I realized the depth of her anger, fear and lunacy I recommended we have the conversation at another time and place. I thought I was polite and had diplomatically managed to swerve out of harms way. Boy, was I ever wrong!
My next big surprise was realizing that I had no real concept to how challenged many of these kids were that now sat in front of me the first day of school wondering just who I was and why was I standing in front of them.
I did my usual story telling inviting them to join in sharing anything they wanted about their lives, summer, hopes and aspirations. I was attempting to gain some insight into the mix of kids sitting there so hopeful those first few days of school.
My first assignment was a one pager on what they expected from class, the school and their classmates. I needed to get a feel for the skill level and their ability to share their thoughts on paper.
When I reviewed their submissions I knew I had a much bigger challenge on my hands than I had ever considered.
Some of the kids could toss together some thoughts though most were fractured and challenged by language.
I have taught history, literature and world religions/cultures. Those disciplines were combined to foster critical thinking.
I did not have the training or expertise to deal with what I was seeing on these kid’s papers.
One little boys writing was incomprehensible. It was Rocko’s.
Rocko was in the sixth grade when I first met him. He was the oldest of six kids being raised by a single dad who worked evenings and nights cleaning office buildings. I soon learned that Rocko worked along side his dad pulling full shifts over the weekends.
The dad had survived the Guatemalan Civil War working his way through Mexico with his kids towards the land of opportunity. He eventually moved to the Seattle area to be near some distant relatives who had convinced him that he and his family were safer here than near the Mexican border where suspicion and security were much tighter.
Rocko was not a happy kid. When I tried to talk to him about his writing he dove down into a cauldron of anger that boiled over in an instant. His verbal skills were as equally hard to decipher, as was his two lines of written work. I had to guess at most of the words coming out of his mouth. I soon realized that my incomprehension made his interactions with me that much more frustrating. On the playfield he was quick to anger at the slightest perceived trespass. He would sulk closing down any opportunity to open him up.
I was drawn to him. He had flashes of charm mixed into a glimpse of mischievousness that tickled me and gave me a sense of hope. My plan was to make him my “go to guy” with the hope he would warm up to me and allow me to help.
After a month rolled by I knew that a standard curriculum was not going to work for most of these kids. I needed to find a way to motivate them to wanting to learn versus sitting at their desks counting the time until their sentence was up.
I presented a three-year strategy to the principal outlining that I would spend the first year enticing the students through community service towards wanting to learn how to properly communicate. Speaking, reading and writing because they wanted to – not because they had to-
The second year would be an acceleration of reading and writing with the third year being a shoring up of anything that might be missing in each kids development. I foolishly presumed there would be Title 1 support, ESL teachers and qualified tutors to help me and other faculty who initially seemed dedicated to the kids’ best interests. I was wrong on all counts though I was sure I had heard at my interview that all these supports were in place. I had forgotten to enquire at the initial meetings about the library, science labs, computer training and foreign language classes.
Turned out there was no librarian, initially no computer classes, no foreign language classes and the principal was going to teach science and religion. That he had never taught middle school kids or science didn’t seem to slow him down.
He asked me if I would take a full schedule teaching science to two classes. My standard reply every time he asked me to do this was, “the kids deserve better.” This would come back to bite me much later.
I’ve failed to share that this school is a parish school overseen by a priest. This particular priest, until he was replaced with one who announced at our introduction to him that he wanted little contact with kids (more about him later), was more interested in sheltering who he really was than doing anything for the kids.
He had a couple of pet projects that smacked those of us who cared right across the face. He determined that shipping a seven-foot statue of the Archangel Michael to Italy for repairs was a better use of funds than supporting the kids with all that was missing in their educational environment.
In addition to his statue project he openly solicited parishioners, parents and anyone in sight to support his non-profit, named after his mother, which resides on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Peru. We had no Peruvian students.
The essence of his Peruvian interests was in teaching the “rhythm” method of birth control to uneducated Peruvian newly weds. He was also involved in supporting a group of men who would meet to pray that their gayness would be lifted by that same god who so messed up the first time with them. He promoted taking all the middle school kids on an anti-abortion march even though sex education was banned from the school. Oh yeah, the girls were not allowed to serve at the masses though they were required to attend service every Thursday.
Dear reader-you are probably beginning to see where this may be headed. Stick around-it gets really crazy!!
Poor Rocko was caught in a system that was destined to fail him and his family. The desperate dad had arrived in America full of hope that his blessed church would do the right thing for his kids. He was equally convinced that the principal would also do everything under the sun to help Rocko and his siblings. His children’s best interests went no deeper than collecting tuition.
The principal had become a principal without ever having spent any time with lower or middle school aged kids in a school environment. He had children of his own but that was the limit of his experience with the age group, learning styles, educational, cultural, gender, language needs of school kids. To his credit he had taught mathematics at one of the failing public high schools for a couple of years. Other than that he had achieved a level of career incompetence by achieving only a mid level career rank in the military after twenty-five years. Little did we know what a scared angry man he was behind his swagger!
None of us could figure out why he had been given the job by the Archdiocese.
It didn’t take long before the kids picked up on who he really was and began to refer to him as el pequeño gallo enojado (the angry little rooster.)
When my three-year plan was verbally approved I launched into involving the kids in relevant projects that would appeal to their hearts first. Once fully engaged it would be easier to get them into some exercises honing their skills. I believed that then and I believe that now.
Rocko helped me brainstorm some ideas for class projects. After a month or so I could understand about ninety five percent of what he said. He seemed to have found his forgiveness button for my lack of being able to speak Spanish or to fully understand him. I guided him towards the projects I wanted to do.
Many of these kids were separated from their grandparents so choosing to work with the elderly at the local Salvation Army was a natural. That the Salvation Army had a shuttle that would run our kids back in forth from school to their center solved one of the biggest hurdles-transportation.
At first Rocko resisted the idea of hanging around with some “old fossils.” After our first visit he became one of the most outgoing kids making friends with a number of old gray panthers who adored him and his sense of play. He became fully alive the days we visited the center to socialize and serve lunch. He was still reluctant to write anything but was more open to talking about what was on his mind. Truth is I couldn’t get him to write anything or hand in any written assignments. My hope was that he would eventually trust me enough to give it a shot.
There were days when Rocko could hardly stay awake and would lose his temper in a flash. I was the only adult who knew he was working a swing shift with his dad. If I were around him when he was having a meltdown I’d let him go to the place inside until he felt safe to join us. It was bad for him when he acted out in another class, the playground or in the lunchroom. Those days were never good ones for Rocko as the principal was emerging as a guy who showed his disrespect for kids by screaming at them at the top of his lungs. He would order them in a particularly aggressive fashion to do whatever it was that he demanded them to do. This was the worst way to deal with Rocko.
All of us in middle schools know the frustrations of dealing with kids in this age group. We are also aware of all the studies that equate yelling and screaming as being as abusive as laying hands on a kid. A couple of us could see trouble looming if the little rooster didn’t get his temper in check. Most teachers looked the other way.
If Rocko were on the receiving end of the principal’s wrath he would close down completely. He would refuse to answer his interrogator standing rigid, arms crossed, staring at the floor. Whenever I witnessed this all I wanted to do was get him away from the situation before it blew sky high. It had crossed my mind that he might take a swing at the principal. I hoped he would not and that we could spend enough time together for him to see some humor in the situation versus becoming as angry as the “adult.” Unfortunately, poor Rocko would get suspended for a day or two for not respecting his elder.
Rocko was right – the man demanded no respect.
Looking back I can see that my volunteering to run interference with Rocko wasn’t really appreciated by the principal. He saw romance in the old days when you would sustain a beating by an out of control nun or priest who was determined to beat the devil out of you for Jesus, the Virgin and the unnamed saints and heroes of the church.
I recall no such romance to those days of being beaten for Jesus!
With a child like Rocko the last thing you ever want to do is send him home. No educational opportunities are happening at home. While at home he can stew in the injustice of being the pawn in a system that is telling him, on the one hand, that he is a little jewel loved by God, and on the other hand, that he is not worthy of any respect.
When the principal would tell the kids that they are all special little children of God and then rage at them for some minor infraction they were quick to realize they needed to be cautious around him.
Rocko is no dummy! He knows when you are transparent and a hypocrite.
I tried to promote the idea that a couple of us could mentor some of the kids as a way to support their involvement and to shore up their self-esteem. A couple of teachers seemed to embrace the idea with the balance of the faculty complaining that they were already over worked etc. etc.
I was beginning to see into the system I had stepped into so blindly month’s before-
One of my daughters visited school one day to hang out and to help kids sign up for public library privileges. She was going to use the rickety computer in class to register the kids for library cards. My hope was that I could get a lot of the kids to use the libraries as much as possible. We were fortunate that there were a number of libraries in the neighborhood.
That our school had no librarian was having a profound impact on what these kids could access beyond the torn and mangled books available in the classroom. Most kids had no access to the Internet at home. The school was waiting for computers to arrive with the hope we could offer the kids some training and access to a bigger world. I needed to do something to help them now.
Kids were lining up to sign up for a library card when Rocko came to me telling me he didn’t feel well. Something about that didn’t ring true so I stepped into the hall with him asking him,” What’s up mi amigo?” We had begun to develop our own language and ways of addressing each other. He really liked it when I called him my friend. Often I called him my Guatemalan friend, as he was very proud of being from Guatemala. He liked that I had been there and had friends living and serving the kids who lived off scraps in the city dump in Guatemala City.
“I can’t go to the library.” He whispered.
“Why not?” I asked not quite getting the subtlety of what he was trying to tell me. His silence kicked my brain into enough of a gear to realize his being illegal was surfacing somehow in this exchange. It took a moment but I got it. His dad was afraid he would be picked up if he hung around a government facility. It wasn’t the time or place to explain that he would be safe and that librarians didn’t rat out people. His belief was reality and I had to deal with it.
I began to supply him with books, magazines and newspaper articles though he rarely read any of them. I didn’t really care, as he was happy to receive them from me. I was banking on time and trust to bring him around to taking some risks. Half way through the year I knew all the skills, fears and interests of all the kids. I knew Rocko wasn’t going to hand in anything as his fear of being criticized outweighed any desire to master reading and writing. I began to evaluate him on his ability to share his thoughts. The beauty of this group of kids is that they seemed to understand and were pretty supportive to each other. A very loving group of kids, who wanted the best for themselves and those around them.
Our outreach had expanded. I was introducing topics that I thought would touch the kids. After discussion of a news story, and a bit of instruction, they would want to reach out and write their thoughts and feelings to the appropriate people. I would hang butcher paper in the front of the room and let the kids construct the letters calling out what they thought should be in the letter. Rocko would always be the first to volunteer to write down the suggestions on the sheets hanging in front of the room. Quite often he offered his own suggestions.
The kids learned how to write a petition to support the Duwamish, Chief Seattle’s tribe, with their ongoing desire to be recognized as an official tribe. We were writing letters to the girls in Kandahar, Afghanistan who had been attacked with acid on their way to school. We wrote letters with stories enclosed to kids at Children’s Hospital who were stuck there over Christmas, we wrote cards and letters to people in homeless shelters, HIV/AIDS hospices, the Veterans Hospital and to our new buddies at the Salvation Army.
I referred to this as Stealth education as the kids were the lead with me as their guide.
While doing these various writing exercises we were reading whatever I could find that was relevant to them and their somewhat limited worldview. I tied everything into a theme of social justice and an exercise I called, “When does a bad idea become a good one?” This became one of our mantras and allowed me more access and trust to the kids who saw the humor as well as the seriousness to having a strategy that might work best for their own self-interests.
Rocko was no longer losing it in my class. He was still having his anger issues elsewhere getting suspended on a regular basis. I would try to talk to him about different ways to act. I knew he wanted me to respect and like him, which allowed us to occasionally laugh about his reactions to things. I needed to be gentle, as I didn’t ever want him to look at me as being what so many others were in his mind. It was a fragile relationship during our first year together.
Rocko was flunking just about everything except PE and music. I began what one teacher referred to as my “memo machine” asking for real support for Rocko and other kids who were on the edge. Almost fifty percent of the kids were failing one class or another. We had kids who desperately needed ESL support, tutoring, coaching, a reading specialist, computer access, and study halls with a certified librarian, a counselor to help with teen issues.
The reply was always the same. “We don’t have the money.”
The principal would go on about how he was teaching science and religion as well as helping with PE and the lunchroom etc. and we were a poor school needing to make the best of it.
I wasn’t buying it for a second-
Thinking that offering ideas were welcome I submitted in writing ideas that ranged from a proposal to sit down with the Auxiliary Bishop/Superintendent of Schools to lay out a plan to honor and serve these kids academically to a strategy on closing the school. Leaning back on my business experience I suggested a three-tier plan, with budget projections, be offered to the Bishop asking for financial support to allow us to actually do our job. If there was resistance or a decision that we were on our own we should suggest an orderly closing of the school. If we couldn’t give the kids what they deserved we should at the least offer them opportunities at schools that could support their needs.
When I made that suggestion it was apparent that we were going to graduate 8th graders who were illiterate, non-English speakers, low scoring (11 took the private high school entrance exam with nine scoring in single digits-a low would be around 200) and totally ill-equipped for high school. We had kids who were failing most or all of their classes. One girl was working part time coming to school once a week on average.
The principal was meeting none of these issues head on even though a couple of us asked for a policy to be put in place to bring some credibility to the school. He was compounding the problem by allowing anyone in the school who asked for admittance.
Everything began to collapse in the school towards the first blossoming of spring. The little roosters wife had given him the heave ho, we had a kid he had let in against our wishes threaten another with, “I’m going home to get my gun…” When the kid disappeared we were blamed for his failure by the principal who was now striking out at us, with me squarely on ground zero, because of my tossing so many ideas into the hopper for the kids.
I always tried to be diplomatic in my memos asking other teachers to read what I was going to submit to ensure I didn’t have things misstated. I always told fellow teachers that I would never hand in anything with their name in it unless they had read it first. I always gave them that courtesy never hearing, not once, that what I was saying in a memo was incorrect.
The principal hated that I had gone to a neighborhood high school to see if they would let us use their science lab. Had the principal paid any attention he would have known I called on a lot of schools offering our company outreach. The head of that high schools science/environmental department, who I had worked with on a number of projects, thought it would be great if we brought our 8th graders to work with his kids.
Yep, you guessed it. The principal ignored the opportunity. He never responded to my write up, notes or my futile attempts to bring it up at the few meetings I attended.
Reader, are you still with me? The twisted part is about to begin.