Monday, October 17, 2011

Students and Teachers

My husband noticed he had a voice mail on Saturday morning.

What's this? I missed a district wide call last night? What could this be about? he asked as he dialed to retrieve the message.

And then: Oh. Oh God. No. Oh my God. No. Oh God.

He frantically scrambled for a pencil and began taking notes on the back of an envelope. When he hung up the phone he stared into space, shell-shocked. I glanced down, but could make little sense of the random collection of words he had jotted down: a boy's name, a small town south of us, the hospital where I took my daughter when she fell and hit her head.

I asked: What is it? Are you okay?

He just shook his head, and kept staring forward, looking at nothing.

* * *

Nearly three years ago a girl walked into my classroom with her eight month old son. She was a teen mom, there to take the entrance test to qualify for our GED program. Her son had never -since birth- been separated from her at that point, not even to sleep. He cried for 3 hours while she labored over math and reading problems. We took turns passing him from staff member to staff member, trying every baby calming trick we collectively knew, to no avail. He sobbed until he was back in her arms.

* * *

One of his students died on Friday night. He sustained a hit to the head during a football game. He continued the game for a few more plays; no one even knew there was a problem. He got hit again and went down. He rolled over, sat up. He could talk, but wasn't making a lot of sense, so they called an ambulance.

They were en route to the hospital where I took my daughter, when he took a turn for the worse in the ambulance. They headed for a closer hospital in the small town south of us where the game was being played. He died there, a junior in high school.

* * *

She qualified for the program, which means either her reading or math scores had to be below ninth grade level. I can tell you it was both. Later we found out she had a learning disability that had gone undiagnosed for her entire school career.

She was on her mom's public assistance case, and their welfare-to-work caseworker wanted her back in high school. The same high school, same district, that missed her learning disability for all those years. The same district that had shuffled her through to tenth grade when she was reading and doing math on an elementary school level.

They wanted to put her baby in full time daycare so she could go to school. They pay for it, but they don't pay much, so he'd have been in the cheapest daycare she could find. They told her it was that or find whatever job she could without a high school diploma, and they'd pay for daycare for that too.

They didn't want her in our GED program, where she would get parenting classes, and interactive time with her baby. She didn't know why they didn't support it, and they certainly didn't feel they owed her anything like an explanation for the decisions they were making about her life.

She'd never been a good student, and they wanted her in a substandard school that had already failed her. She had no work experience, and no marketable skills, but they wanted her in a dead end job. She had one thing going for her: she loved that baby more than anything, and her instincts were dead on when it came to mothering. She had that one thing, and they wanted to take it away from her.

* * *

My husband walked around in a fog all weekend. We took the kids to the farmer's market, and he kept forgetting what was on the list. He tried to plot out the sidewalk we're building through the yard next weekend, and couldn't focus on the numbers on the blueprint. The boy's story was on the front page of the Local section of our Sunday paper, and when I asked him if he read the article about Obama in the Opinion section, or saw the Victorian house for sale in Homes he shook his head and said: I didn't read anything except the article about my student. I never got any further than that.

* * *

I called my boss, and my boss called the caseworker's boss, but to no avail. They assigned her to high school, and she never went, never enrolled her son in daycare, just skipped every day and sat at home with her baby. They started docking her mom's public assistance, so her mom went down and screamed at the caseworker, who finally relented, and assigned her to our program instead.

She had perfect attendance. Her son, almost 2 at this point, still sobbed when his mom left his side. So we set up a desk in the nursery, and she worked there, while he gradually ventured further from her side. Finally we began taking her from the children's classroom for short -and then longer- periods of time. We were shocked to discover that working unassisted in the nursery she'd brought her reading scores from a fifth grade to a tenth grade level.

She was a month away from passing her GED when we lost our funding and had to close up shop.

* * *

The student who died would have been in my husband's first period, Monday morning class. Going into work this morning was daunting. I saw the weight of it across the slope of his shoulders as he headed out the door. I turned the tea water on, and wished there was something I could do.

Later, I took the kids for a walk and saw a large bunch of deep red mums that someone had tossed out with the trash, though they were still in bloom, whole, and beautiful. I picked them up, folded them gently into the hood of the jogging stroller, brought them home and arranged them in a vase. I placed it where he'd see them when he first walked in the door.

At some point between walking out the door of our home and into the door of his school, he squared those shoulders, heavy with the weight of the responsibility he bore for the students who would have even less ability than he to make sense of the senseless tragedy. He squared his shoulders, walked into that first period class, and spoke to the kids in his first period class, minus one.

* * *

I called her caseworker before our program ended and she assured me she'd transfer my student into another GED program. Her son is old enough for preschool now, and we pulled every string we could to get him enrolled. He cried the first time he took the bus without her, but overall, he's doing incredibly well.

The caseworker didn't keep her word, though, and refused to refer her to another GED program, after all. The day she found out, I invited her over for a bowl of ham and bean soup, a hot cup of tea, a honey crisp apple. We looked online for another GED program, one that doesn't require a referral from her caseworker. We're still trying, and she's worried her math and reading skills are slipping.

Her son is testing above the 90th percentile for his language skills though, a testament to her strong attachment to him, her willingness to throw herself wholeheartedly into parenting, to soak up skills like a sponge and then pass them on to him. She wants his life to be easier than hers.

We were texting last night, talking about her love for her boy, when all of a sudden I read the following line:

I was forest to have sex, thats how my baby was made.

I had to whisper read it aloud to myself, to be sure I understood.

I wrote her back:

You are an amazing person.

She sent me a smiley face emoticon before I went to bed.

* * *

I can debate educational theory all night long: Maria Montessori and John Dewey, the Reggio Emilia approach, and what the latest findings in neuroscience mean in the context of the day-to-day drag.

I have opinions about the politics of it: unions versus reformers, Michelle Rhee and what she did in DC, merit pay and standardized testing. And if my husband and I get started, the next thing you know the wine bottle is empty and we're both all riled up. A perfect date night for me would be back-to-back showings of the most recent educational documentaries followed by debriefing over generous glasses of Cabernet.

But what's missing from the conversation is the slope of my husband's heavy shoulders as he walked weary from our house into the still dark morning, saddled with the weight of what he'd say to those kids. There's no place in policy for the way my heart stopped for a moment and the muscles in my abdomen involuntarily clenched when my student sent me a text that spelled forest for forced.

We talk numbers, and strategy, and we have to. We have to. But every time someone's child connects a letter to a sound, sketches a still-life on a thick sheet of off-white paper, finally figures out what the hell fractions are all about ... there are billions of beating hearts behind it. And if it didn't start -and end- with our heavy, hurt, imperfect hearts: all the theory and politics in the world would come to nought.  


  1. I've read this post a few times now. At first I was just carrying the weight of it around, but I think the reason I find it so compelling, and so beautiful, is that you're doing exactly what your last paragraph suggests. You're shining a light on the stories behind the statistics, and that's so incredibly important, and so powerful; and so, thanks for this, but -- oh, I'm sorry.

  2. Oh dear...this post is so incredibly important. I think you and I could sit down with a glass or two and have the same types of conversations. I hope that wonderful mama finds a program for her. And I so glad you are there for her. And I hope everything went smoothly for your husband.

  3. I have a lot of responses to this post. One of them is that you should turn this into an essay and submit it, maybe somewhere like The Sun. This was terribly upsetting and obviously important.

  4. Wow, this piece gave me chills. I agree with JJ Keith's suggestion.