Monday, March 20, 2006

Part 12: Surviving Middle School

Recap: Last time, at the last possible minute, I had been moved from teaching 3rd and 4th grade up to teaching 7th and 8th grade. This was both devastating, as I had really bonded with my partners and had already seen the kids that day, and thrilling, as my certification area is 6-12 English.

I gathered the few thigns I had in our 3/4 classroom. It didn't amount to much, as it is my first year teaching. I had a few books on space, which was one of the subjects I was teaching, a couple of containers, a rolling cart we'd purchased, my easel from childhood, my name plate for my desk, and...well...that's about it. Oh, the sweater I'd left at school and the variety pack of Sharpies I'd treated myself to for getting the job. Forgot about those. But that was it. I trudged up the stairs to what was going to be my new room, and my heart sank. It was pretty bare. Glenda, the teacher I was now partnered with, decided at the last minute that she would return. They put the few kids returning from the high school's 7/8 class in that room, as well as a few overflow kids. They had merged 7/8 A and C, as well as 7/8 B and D, to make two classrooms, but they were to capacity. We became 7/8 E. The other two decided to name themselves 7/8 Q and 7/8 X, "because these letters don't ever get any love." It was a last minute classroom with last minute students and last minute teachers. I felt like we were an afterthought. We had 11 students, while the other two had 17 each. I felt very small and very alone all of a sudden. There were no bulletin boards set up, no decorations, no nothing. Just desks. And only one small teacher desk. There was also a refrigerator, as the iguana from next door, Lou, requires vegetables. Our room had the space for the mini fridge.

How all of these classroom animals survived, I'll never know. Apparently, the military had commandeered the school (we were under marshal law, remember), and we think they were feeding the animals. I don't think any of them died.

My new co-teacher sized me up for a minute, spit out a few things about the schedule and where some books were, and then disappeared. I looked at the barren room and my heart sank.l This was to be a totally different experience.

I spent the whole weekend worrying. I didn't know if things would work out. I hoped they would. There was only one away to find out.

Monday morning was hard. I kept seeing my 3/4s, and they were all happy to see me. But I had to stand with the 7th and 8th graders. My little ones were confused. We decided it would be best for the other teachers to break it to them. I looked at this new class of mine. They were taller than me in some cases. These aren't typical 7th and 8th graders, either. They have been failed in every sense of the word by other schools. I have 15-year-olds in my class. Many cannot read or write scrpit. A couple can't tie their shoes. Most are afraid of school, having had horrible experiences at other schools. We are their beacon of light; their last resort; their salvation. The days can be long and hard sometimes, like when one 15-year-old 8th grader talks about how he loves Thomas the Tank Engine. Or when one child's anger management issues surface, and he starts seething for no reason. Or when a 15-year-old 8th grader can't read the word "the" but is otherwise extremely intelligent. But then there are the rewarding days, like when that last child reads an entire page in reading class. It takes him about 20 minutes, but he can DO it. Or when a child with an eating disorder trusts you enough to have you be the person she confides in and realizes she needs help. Or the moment you see that light bulb physically go off above a child's head. Or when that very first child gets off the bus in the morning, greets you with the biggest smile ever, and tells you "Good Morning!"Nothing more rewarding.

We spent the first few days on some healing issues. We gained a few kids, including one whose brother was in the room next door as an 8th grader. They lost their home and it was easier to have both kids in the same school. For that first week, though, I had nowhere to hang my hat, so to speak. We shared the tiny teacher's desk while we waited to see if another was available. No drawer space was cleared for me, so I lived out of a tote on the mini-fridge. The low point came when Glenda referred to me, twice, as "my helper."

I don't know if you know much about co-teaching. Essentially, it's like the mother and the father overseeing their children. Two teachers, sometimes trading off teaching the full class, other times breaking into groups and teaching two different subjects in the same room at the same time. We are equals, like parents. But, since I was a rookie without a degree in education or a master's in it, like SHE has, I was nothing. She was curt, she cut me off, she belittled me in front of the kids, like when I was reading something for them to reflect on, and she walked up to me and loudly said, "Slow down, please." She was rude to me and to the children. She refused to get my name correct. Eventually, after hearing the kids call me by name, she eventually got it right. It wasn't until January, when I went ballistic over it, that she stopped even trying to pronounce my first name correctly. That's an issue of respect. She had none, and I received none.

The worst came when a girl in the class wrote in her journal this direct quote: "I hate my teacher. She's so mean. But at least the assistant makes it fun." The assistant. That's how the kids saw me, because that's how she treated me. We were both new, we were both displaced, we should have been there for each other. But we were not. I tried. Believe me, I tried. But there comes a point where you can't give any more. I gave up by the end of October. This was the second week of October.

The other teachers were nice, but it took a while to break into the circle. Their dislike for my co-teacher manifested itself in ousting me. Then they started noticing how she treats me, and they took me in. Thank goodness.

Once I saw that journal entry (she had folded the page, but Glenda had opened it and I didn't know it had been folded, so I read it.), I knew something had to change. It wouldn't be my new partner's attitude, that was obvious. So I went to the storage room with the maintenance people, and we found a desk. It was missing a leg. But Mr. Mike quickly located it and fixed the desk. Later that afternoon, they delivered it. It was huge. It had more drawers and more surface area. When they delivered it, the kids were so funny. They were excited for me, because I had my own space now. They all wanted to help clean it and move me into it. Best line of the day whispered to me from the girl with the journal entry: "Your desk is bigger than hers!" This was because she still saw me as the assistant. So I sort of cleared that up gently. I was no longer the assistant. And, best of all, because we all have our petty moments, was her obvious envy over the desk. She kept eying it up and making comments about its size. Sorry. You claimed the other one and wouldn't let me even have half a drawer to store my purse. You snooze, you lose.

The weekend of Halloween, Mark was very ill. But he still came in town. My insurance check for my car arrived that week, so my parents, Mark and I went to buy a car. We decided on a Toyota, without a doubt, because we've had such great results with our Toyotas. Then, I decided, after gazing at Kevin's and then sitting in Kurt's brand new RAV4 , that that was what I wanted. It had room to throw in lots of things to evacuate. As I told the salesman, "An SUV saved my life. Why wouldn't I want one?" After about 5 hours, we drove my brand new green RAV4 home. No more driving mom's car.

For Halloween, the other two classes worked together and had a haunted house for the little ones. Just another thing we were left out of at the beginning, for whatever reason. So, feeling sad about how sad my students were, we hastily organized a "haunted pumpkin patch." We let them bring costumes (older kids couldn't wear them on Halloween), and made paper pumpkins. The little ones were trick-or-treating in the middle school and high school classes anyway, so when they knocked on our door, the kids sprang into action. They hid in the room and made scary noises. They showed the little ones the pumpkin patch, and each child got to take home a handmade pumpkin. Some were foam, others construction paper, but they all loved it.

In the afternoon, we had the school's annual Penny Party. There were booths all around. One of my 3/4s put me in the "jail" for leaving the class. One of my 7/8's "bailed" me out. I worked a little in the hair spraying and face painting booth, and walked around and observed the kids. My teaching partner was put in jail a few times, and was eventually released on "good behavior" each time because none of the kids bailed her out, and I pretended not to see her. Petty, again, but you get what you give, lady.

Follwoing the Penny Party, we had the Pelican Party. Normally, these are two different events, but because we didn't know how trick-or-treating would go, with so many people not being home and with so many neighborhoods being unsafe or uninhabitable, they combined the two events to give families something to do. They had space walks, a DJ, and tons of food. All Saint's Day was one of the holidays we lost, but we were able to come in for 9 a.m. that day since we were required to stay so late the night before.

After that, I ran home, changed into a costume that wasn't Catholic school approved (it had a low V-neck. That's all. I wore a different set of clothes during the day with my fangs and my wig, so it wasn't a problem. But I had a more fun version of my vampire getup for later.) and went to "the Cabin," as we affectionately refer to Kevin and Geoff's/Alicia and Kurt's. It's just easier to say, you know? The other roommate, Alex, had come in for the weekend, and he was firing up the barbecue for the first time since the storm. We had a lot of fun. It was the biggest gathering of all of us since the storm. We had a blast, took crazy pictures, ate tons of food, and imbibed a little. Halloween was something we needed.

Coming up next: Part 13: A true Thanksgiving

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Part 11: It takes a village to move a school

Recap: Last time, we snuck into Orleans Parish using Mark's press pass. Words could not describe what we saw. We were getting ready to move the school from Mid-City to Metairie.

Wednesday afternoon, while we were still at the remains of our home, Alicia called me. The call went straight to voice mail, as cell reception in Lakeview was scarce. I talked to her on the way out, and she could tell something was wrong. She asked what was the matter, and I responded with, "I'm leaving my house right now." She had been to Gentilly to see her parents house a few days earlier, and while she no longer lived there, it was where she grew up. They lost as much as we did, including my uncle's company car. She asked if I wanted to stop by that evening, and I will admit I immediately thought, "No." But then I realized that I didn't really want to be home with my thoughts, especially since Mark was going back to Baton Rouge. We showered, leaving bathtub rings that looked like the brown bathtub rings all over the city. That's what it looks like: A skanky shower. We cleaned the tub, and gingerly threw the clothes directly into the washing machine.

As soon as he showered, Mark hit the road. I would see him that weekend, hopefully. I ate something, then headed to Alicia and Kurt/Kevin and Geoff's. (Remember, they live in a shotgun double.) Most of the gang was there. Blake and Matt were missing, as Matt only showed if Blake was there, and Blake was in Missouri. Mark was in Baton Rouge. Kate was still in New York. Alex, from St. Bernard, was not back yet, which meant no Crystal. So it was Geoff, Kevin, Calie, Caroline, Keith, Alicia, Kurt, and me. I brought my camera. We ran my pictures into Kevin's computer, then broadcast them on the television. Having a computer genius for a brother brings in some pretty cool results for his house. Anyway, we did a slide show with them. As expected, the usually loud bunch was silent. I would have liked an alcoholic beverage, but I was driving myself in my mom's car, so it didn't happen. I needed one, really. One other problem: the curfew for Jefferson Parish was still midnight. I had to leave by 11 anyway.

It was my first real night seeing everyone. The last time I visited with my parents, when we were starting to move them home, Geoff was still at Calie's house. I went to visit for a little while, and Keith and Caroline were there. That was all I had seen of anyone. They all noticed that I'd lost a few pounds. That would not last long, as over the next 4 or so months, I would gain weight, ending up 20 pounds heavier than I was on August 27, the last "normal" day. It felt so good to reunite, but I can't help but feel jealous of them. Calie, Caroline, and Keith are all in River Ridge and Harahan, so they had no damage. Geoff, Kevin, and Kurt and Alicia were all miraculously fine in Old Metairie. Kurt lost his car, and they almost lost much more, but the house, if you remember, was raised at a magical height that kept the 3-4 feet of water their block received from entering it. Kevin's parents and Alicia's parents lost everything. Well, Kevin's parents had a two-story house, so they didn't quite lose everything, but they lost a great deal, to put it mildly. This jealous feeling was a problem that would continue to rear its ugly head....and still does, 6 months later. Yes, yesterday was the 6 month anniversary, sort of, as February did not have a 29 this year. My mom joked that since there was no 29, that we could pretend it didn't happen. Easier said than done. The jealousy isn't just with my friends, though; it's with everyone I come in contact with who has no problems. This is difficult to process.

That night, Kurt agreed to come help me move my classroom the next day. I had the meeting time incorrect, though. Melissa called to inform me of this. She told me to write the school name and "Essential Personnel Caravan" on a piece of paper, then stick it in the window. When I reached the checkpoint, an NOPD stopped me. I must have had a nervous look on my face, because he joked with me about looking like I was up to no good, then he waved me through. We took Metairie Road to City Park Ave. Seeing City Park that first time was hard. I have so many great memories of that place: feeding the birds with my mom and grandma, playing at Story Land, Christmas/Celebration in the Oaks, the multitude of concerts I'd been to over the years at Marconi Meadows, carriage rides with Mark, the New Orleans Museum of Art...all of those majestic live oak trees, split like balsa wood, wilted and brown from toxic water, bare to the bone, lacking their usual blanket of Spanish moss. It was heart-wrenching. I drove through this park every morning during my two weeks of employment. I remembered that last Friday morning, when Katrina was a footnote, expected to loop back and hit Florida again. Nothing to worry about. The sun was rising, a light fog hovered around the live oaks. A giant raccoon came out in the road, staring me down for a few minutes before moving on. I was amused more than annoyed. I realized that this zen moment of mine would be gone forever, because even if I was still working there next school year when we returned to the Mid-City campus, I would not take that route there . I'd take the I-10, most likely. This hit me with a heavy sadness.

We got to school, and found that it was a total island of peace, surrounded by a moat of destruction. Cars were bashed in with trees, there was no electricity, houses were stained, rotten, dissipating before our eyes, it seemed. It was not as tragic as my neighborhood, mostly because our school was fine.

Kurt worked. Let me tell you. That man is amazing when it comes to helping with something like this. He even wore a T-shirt for "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." It had a picture of the main characters and said, "BOGUS!" underneath. It brought a wry smile to my face.

We loaded half of our stuff into Melissa's Saturn and my mom's Camry. Other stuff went into an SUV belonging to one of the high school teachers, Michelle. She was assigned to our room and also did a great job. At 11:30 a.m., we all had to caravan together back to Metairie. They didn't want anyone alone, as there was reduced police presence, increased looting, intense debris in the roads, and no traffic lights, as well as reduced cellular service. More bars in more places, my foot. Not when hurricanes are involved.

We unloaded our belongings. We were told that Melissa's and my classroom would merge with Kelly and Kelle's classroom. Elaine and Jennifer would merge with Annie and Michelle. However, Annie wasn't coming back, and we were short a few 1/2 teachers, so Kelle was shifted to 1/2, and Michelle went up to 5/6. Kelly would be the "Internet liaison," communicating with the families that were unable to return, didn't want their children at other schools, and were planning on home schooling until the could return next year, or in January.

We worked hard, buying furniture, unpacking boxes, and generally trying to figure out how co-co-teaching would work. We were told to leave our furniture at the other campus, because we were donating our buildings to a much-less-fortunate Lakeview school for the rest of the year. So we bought some. Since Melissa was without all of her belongings, she said any of the bookshelves that we had left at the end of the year would just become her personal property, so she didn't mind buying bookshelves and such.

On Friday, Kurt couldn't come help, but my dad did. We caravaned back into Orleans again, this time taking my dad's Durango. We did everything we had done the day before. But towards the end of the day, it was a bit much for my dad, who had to leave because he was too worn out.

The whole next week, we worked our butts off, racing to Wal-Mart and Target and Big Lots during the few hours a day that they were open. School was supposed to start on Monday, Oct. 3, but because of the Rita delay, we pushed the first day up to Monday, Oct. 10. But on Friday, Oct. 7, we would hold a "Welcome Back Day of Healing." We spent that whole week prepping, and our classroom looked amazing. We were ready. That Thursday, a child psychologist whose daughter I've known through the J since she was 4, stopped by. He is a friend to my school, and he was telling me that his daughter, who at this time was 14 (she's 15 now, yikes) was bugging him to let her come see me on Friday since he was coming for our first day. He said this in front of the school president, who told him to bring her, that seeing me was probably more important than her first day of school, which was that Friday. That's the type of people I work for. She's a president of a school, and she told this man to let his daughter skip her first day back after the storm to reconnect with me. I love this school and its administration. That's no lie.

So on Friday, I nervously dressed professionally in my one nice outfit and dress shoes. We started the day off with an "open house" of sorts, to let the kids come check out their new space. I didn't know what the day would hold, other than the visit from my former camper, Mirit. I didn't know about tears, reservations, hang-ups, and whatever else would show up with the kids and their parents. While the kids were playing in their rooms, the parents would have a meeting, to discuss finances, replacement uniforms and supplies, the new dress code (jeans and school T-shirts or school uniforms, if you had them. Same for us, jeans and school T-shirts were fine, as were tennis shoes or professional clothes, if you had them, at least until January.), and the adjusted calendar. We were going to be in school until mid-June, which, to people from the north, should not sound unusual. But here, we start school in the first or second week of August (we had two weeks of school in by August 29, if you noticed) and end the last week in May. We added 15 minutes to every day. We dropped several random holidays and half days, and we also shortened the length of Christmas break. Mardi Gras was probably not going to happen, so the Mardi Gras holidays were up in the air as well. Not as bad as we thought.

Mirit stopped in first thing in the morning. She and her father and the school president came together. It was so comforting to see her. Even though she is so much younger than me, I am fairly close to her. It was great to see her. Last time we spoke, her family was in Houston, evacuating Rita, and she was scared. I was trying to be the brave one, but I was just as terrified as she was.

At an appointed time, we met in the cafeteria for Mass. Mass ended with group singing and a candle-light ceremony. A pot-luck lunch followed. We all had to bring something, and several of the parents club members brought things, too.

It was so good to see my students. Many seemed okay. Many seemed sad. But seeing them made me feel like things might be okay. I was excited about Monday. Normalcy would return.

When the day was over, we finished up some loose ends in the room. They had been hinting that I would need to spend parts of my day in 7/8. I went to find out when that would be so that we could finalize our own classroom schedule. While we were meeting about that, they realized that the numbers for 7/8 had increased dramatically, and a third class was necessary. 3/4 did not rise. At the last minute, after having seen all of my students, and having them think that I was going to be their teacher, I was pulled from 3/4 and placed in 7/8.

I reacted to this with mixed emotions. I would be leaving my kids. They had already seen me and expected to be in my class. I was leaving two people I had really bonded with as partners and friends. I was being paired up with a teacher I didn't know.

But I was going to be in my area: my secondary certification is going to be for grades 6-12. I was going to teach reading, writing, and science: animal biology, to be exact. It was what I needed, for school purposes and personal reasons. How exciting. Kelly was still at school when I found out, and she was very sad, but happy for me at the same time. I packed up my few things, as it's my first year teaching, and I didn't have much to contribute yet. I had to call Melissa, as she was already gone for the day. She was very sad. But, also happy for me, since I was supposed to be there.

School was going to be very different. Very, very different. Now I had new anxieties to face.

Next time: Part 12: Surviving Middle School