There are some interesting developments in the schools these days. I cannot comment on all schools, of course, only the few in which I work, and that is what I have been doing lately—working. I have taken on a long-term subbing job in a public high school, teaching algebra to the end of the year (about three weeks). Why, you may ask?
The school is an interesting one, to me. It is on the southwest side of Columbus (not far from my home) in an area that is rather impoverished and crime ridden. The neighborhood is definitely “blue collar” and high school educated at best. The school’s student population is very diverse. I will estimate racially, about 50+% White, 15% Black, 15% Hispanic, 15% Somalian (and other Africans), and even a small contingent of Ukrainians! In spite of these demographics, the school has been called “a little gem,” by some. It is generally orderly, and many students there are fairly successful in diverse ways. A veteran teacher once commented that “the kids are not great students, but they are good kids.” “Good” as in, good-hearted, well-intended, but not necessarily quiet and focused on the teacher.
Well, I am a retired teacher and I do enjoy the interaction with these kids, many of them at least. Even some of the less cooperative provide an opportunity for me to be influential: be creative verbally, engage them personally with a few jests-jibes and challenging directives. Some of them, you just mostly sit back; unfortunately, there is little to be done or little they will let you try to do to encourage them that school is worth trying. In three of my class periods I have the assistance of a co-teacher, an Intervention Specialist, because those classes have many students with “special needs,” like “learning disabilities” or “behavior problems” or both. And many of the kids are great, and very appreciative of my attention, concern, enthusiastic teaching, and treachery silliness. I do say and do things that often incite laughter or at least smiles.
One of my classes is “ESL” students, English as a Second Language, and this means mostly Hispanic kids in this school. It surprised me at first to learn that this does not mean overwhelmingly Mexican; a significant percentage of these students are Honduran, Porto Rican, Guatemalan. To me, they all seemed ‘just’ Hispanic, but to them, these differences are obvious and somewhat important. The famous tradition, Night of The Dead, is not celebrated much beyond Mexico, for example; various phrases and slang are also limited to specific parts of Central America.
One example of fun at school, involves this group of mostly sophomores and juniors. Recently when I continued to try to insist that they focus on algebra and less on chatting and silliness as they too often do; I was saying again that it is “rude” to be talking while I am trying to address the class. One of the louder and most prominent boys suggested that I tell the group in these situations, “mucho chingas,” to which most of the group snickered. I asked him what that meant and he said “too much talk.” And when I continued to seek clarification, several of the guys ended up agreeing that it meant ‘too much disrespectful talking.’ These students often have small discussions about what is the most accurate translation of a phrase they use, into English.
Well, I did then bark out, “Mucho chingas, Back to work!” but retained suspicions. The next day, I used the phrase several times, much to the delight of most of the class, but then cornered some of the “nicest’ and most studious girls later and asked, “Now, what does that Exactly mean?” They could not, and even would not, say; but all agreed– in the end — that I should not say it.
Now, I had to find out for sure, its exact meaning. When I had the opportunity, I went upstairs to the Spanish-Speakers Translator, and asked. Several students were present, and all present, including me, began chuckling. At first, she (the translator) had no precise answer but did say it meant something like “too much talk,” but there was a more precise translation that she could not tell me. “What?” I said, “does it have to do with sex or something?” and she said “No.” I persisted, asking her to whisper it to me quietly, but she said she could not. More laughter, by all present. Finally, she typed it into her lap top for a translation (which I could have done!) and showed me the answer. “Too much shit.”
Not All is Fun and Games
Being the end of the year, my duties included reviewing for the final Unit Test (quadratic equations), and its administration, and the same for the Final Exam which is coming this week. I take this Algebra seriously, but also try to make it like a puzzle, and a challenge that all can rise to. I pride myself on my ability to explain things clearly, and sometimes kids acknowledge that.
In the third period each day, I do a study hall, usually an easy assignment. This week, in the back of the class, a girl I had always marked as absent, and did not know, suddenly appeared on Monday and sat — quietly — looking at her phone. I did not engage her other than to remark I was glad she was here. The same went for Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday, a few minutes after the start-bell, Markya (Mar-k[long i ] short a—but no real names used) stood up and quietly and quickly walked out the class door near her seat in the back. Luckily, I had noticed and wondered. After several minutes and she did not return, I went back to investigate. Thinking she had shot out to use the restroom (without asking), I looked down the hall only to here some rather loud voices from a nearby classroom. Soon the voices got louder. I heard someone yell, “You white bitch” and then the volume really increased. “Trouble,” I thought, and I turned to secure my own class, thinking “they’ll break it up.”
But a break-up did not occur. The shouting increased, noises of a scuffle became evident, and still I stood in the door directing my class to stay seated and calm. Soon, with my class cooperating and the fight seemingly escalating, I went to help.
As I was heading there, about three doors down, I was directing students to stay in their rooms, when another student I knew was rushing from the other direction. I told Serina to go back to her class, but she ignored me and rushed in ahead.
Serina is a very uncooperative girl. I knew her from my first period class. She is a junior and physically attractive, rather large and very fit; she should be a track athlete but is not. My experience with her in first period is she usually comes late and then does no work, instead talks on her phone. Twice when asked for her tardy slip, she did not have one. When asked to go get one, she just simply looked at us coldly and firmly said “No.” The day before we both arrived at that door at the same time, I had written her up for various acts of insubordination and defiance. Apparently, the write-up did not get processed in time.
So as I looked in that door of the room of the commotion, all I saw was a large tangle of people. Chaos. Some were students fighting; some were students trying to break it up, I later realized. Several staff were in there trying to disengage students. There was a lot of yelling and furniture knocking about. I could discern very little organization to it. Who were the combatants? Who were the aggressors? What exactly was going on?
But Serina apparently knew. She had been texted. She knew it was going down, who was getting jumped and why. So she went flying in ahead of me and went right to the middle of it and leaped on top with fists flailing. At least I could discern her role! I took her by the waste and pulled her back, but I could not hold her! She was like a bull; her adrenalin flowing full force. I turned to try to help some staff next to me who were pulling apart two girls who had hold of fistfuls of each other’s hair, only to realize it was making one of them totally vulnerable to the blows of a third girl.
At that point I began to worry. This fight was too much for us. We could not stop it, and I began to back out, thinking that I was not helping, that I could easily be hurt, and that re-enforcements were necessary. Just then, a male student suddenly stumbled toward me with a smaller girl in his grasp. She was screaming that she was going “to kill that bitch” and fighting his efforts to remove her from the battle. I took hold of one of her arms and told him, “lets get her out of here” and we pulled her to the nearby door, out of the room and across the hall to an empty class. She ranted and raved for a couple of minutes, but then started to calm. An assistant principal (and former college football player) soon came in and took over.
Apparently, across the hall re-enforcements had arrived, and the fight had been dissected into its individual raging girls, who had finally been separated and confined. Gladly, I returned to my room where I tried to catch my breath, thank my students for behaving so appropriately, and report to the principals what I knew.
Yes, Markya was the first girl from outside that class to arrive and help start the attack on the girl being jumped. The girl attacked did a fairly good job of defending herself after being sucker punched, and may have had some help from a friend. Serina was also one of the main aggressors and was suspended for the rest of the year. As last I heard, it was determined that there were 4 or 5 girls basically fighting, with three the definite aggressors.
Markya, I later learned from the Intervention Specialist, has had a rough row to hoe. Homeless with her mother for most of the year, now she was in a foster home. Those three days before the fight were the only days she had been at school for months, but no one gave me a heads-up. Those three days, and up to the the third period fight, are the only schooling she received (or will receive) in a long time. Suspended the rest of this school year. Sadly, that is the way it seems to work, sometimes and for some people.
I hope you don’t give up, Markya! Things can be better.
The Pandemic’s Effect on Some Children
I was talking to one of the older, lady teachers the other day, and she had some insightful comments. She felt that our juniors were like sophomores, academically and emotionally. They had missed an entire year and more of Normal Schooling; missed our influence on their emotional development on a day to day basis and under Normal Circumstances. There is a lot of absenteeism. At this point, when we are trying to resume normality, these students are behind and feeling awkward and struggling with Regular Schooling. These are high-schoolers. My wife says her pre-schoolers and kindergarteners are emotional basket cases; they cry at the least provocation. Each– pre-school and high school– have been isolated too long from the influence of our larger society.
With our children, we are going to have to play catch-up. The pandemic took this emotional toll, too.