Education

The door swung open, and the school counselor pushed a seven-year-old child into the room. As the child's eyes met my own, his face turned pale white. I groaned inwardly but maintained a stoic expression. "This one of yours?" the counselor said. I nodded, and the counselor ushered Dustin to an empty table. He settled down in the back of the room, and I returned to the group of staff members at my own table. These meetings always ruined my day. Dustin had entered the school a few weeks ago. Quite frankly, I was less than thrilled by his arrival. Thanks to him, my classroom expanded — yet again —to an impossible 28 children, an unacceptably large number for kindergarten. And he wasn't just the normal addition. He was the kind that liked to curse, punch, scream, run out of the room, hide in various locations, and refuse to listen to any sort of command or request whatsoever.

"Don't laugh at what you don't understand." Okay, so the words sound a bit harsh, but I promise you that my tone of voice and facial expression clearly communicated warmth, love, and kindness. And yes, I did say this to my students. Because my students needed to hear it. I have avoided talking about the American election with my Korean high schoolers for most of the past few months. It didn't seem appropriate or even remotely related to what I was teaching. So I just steered away from the topic. [caption id="attachment_1460" align="alignnone" width="2080"]chalkboard-class-picture Things quickly turned political in class today, even though I was only teaching conditional sentences.[/caption] But then we began a culture exchange, where they communicate by video with Americans attending high school in the U.S., and one by one my students were shocked to discover that many of these American young people were Trump supporters. Or at least had parents who were voting for Trump.

[caption id="attachment_880" align="alignnone" width="639"]homework-1481153-639x424 Stock photo[/caption] We held a “testing rally” on Friday that was quite possibly the most depressing experience of my year. The purpose of the rally was to get kids “pumped up” and “excited” for testing. In preparation, my students and I created a giant poster saying, “Don’t forget the power of yet!” The poster was a reference to Janelle Monae’s Sesame Street song. We crammed all 320+ students into our gymnasium while they listened to a small speech informing them that, “This test will decide what opportunities you have in life, and even what colleges you will go to.” A speaker came up and told the children to chant, “I am smart. I will pass!” And younger students stood to perform cheers for the older grades. As the spectacle unfolded, a queasiness settled into the pit of my stomach. The chanting and cheering was supposed to generate excitement, but it created something of an ominous contradiction to the actual spirit of the school. A spirit of defeat.

[caption id="attachment_771" align="aligncenter" width="458"]Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 1.45.08 PM Teaching a lesson on skin color with my students[/caption] It hits me mid-lesson. Two weeks into the school year. I’ve spent the entire month of August setting up my classroom, preparing unit plans, rehearsing lessons, structuring my schedule so that everything goes just right, drilling procedures into my students day after day from the moment they arrive to the daily goodbye, and tirelessly calling parents to establish student-family connections, and then it hits me. The predictable existential crisis. I pause in the middle of a lesson and look around at the snotty-nosed, fidgety mess of little bodies playing with their shoelaces in front of me, and I think to myself, “What the heck am I doing with my life?” Some teachers naturally love the children in their classroom. I am not one of those teachers. Each year, as I meet the new army of youngsters that I’ve been tasked with educating, I secretly stifle a feeling of dismay as I realize that I’m inexorably stuck with this brood of germs for the next ten months of my life. The summer feels eternally distant. And then something else happens. A different crisis.

There are moments at the beginning of every year when I wish that I could just sit down with parents and walk them through the harrowing process that is known as Elementary Education in the state of Oklahoma. But every year I put a smile on my face and walk them through the future that I hope we can create for their children, despite all the systemic obstacles standing in their way. My hopes for a better future wage war against an enemy too monolithic to fully describe. The following is a letter written by the System regarding the future that it has planned for our children. It is only a very small snapshot of a much larger network of systemic forces working together to destroy our children's future. school-bus-1527162-1280x960 Dear Family of _________, Welcome to American Dream Elementary! We are honored to incorporate your child into our data. Today, we partner with you in the challenging process of permanently institutionalizing your child for the rest of its life! We understand that you have many fears and worries. Rest assured, your child is in good hands.

It was early in August. Students would not be starting for several weeks. I had spent June and July in New York on a much-needed vacation with my family after a grueling first year of teaching. Now I was back. Ready to start a new academic year. Theoretically. I pulled into the parking lot of my school and grabbed a box from the pile of junk in the back seat. It had been two months since I’d packed up my classroom for the summer. Time to start another year. I finagled my way past the building’s rusty gate and somehow managed to open the southeast door with a few spare fingers underneath my box of supplies.

[I do not blame the psychologist for what happened here. In many ways, she is just a cog in the machine and just as much a victim of the system as my student. The fact is that the following story is all too common. The future of children across the country gets trapped into a never-ending system of useless paperwork and ridiculous requirements that make it nearly impossible to get them help. The sad reality is that the school psychologist in this story really was, more than likely, too busy to do her job. This is a terrible injustice.] buried-alive-1241454 “I’m sorry. Perhaps if it were not so late in the year, we could do something for him,” the psychologist said. “I came to you in October with this data.” I breathed in slowly, attempting to control the tempest of rage inside of me, then breathed out. Dante had been my student since the beginning of the year. It was now May, and he couldn’t even write his name. Information slid from his brain like butter, and he was the only student in my classroom whose test scores actually declined mid-year. Something was wrong. Perhaps a learning disability? I couldn’t know.

broken-society-1243046 Teach for America gives countless surveys to their corps members. One question, in particular, always resurfaced during my two-year commitment: “I believe that one day all children will have the opportunity to achieve an excellent education. Agree or disagree?” Slowly, during the course of my time with Teach for America, I found my response gradually shifting from “agree” to “neutral” to finally “disagree.”