Wednesday, March 2, 2011

sweet memories

My first year of full time teaching was the most horrible degrading year and yet I stayed in education because of it. In another post I will delve into the degrading parts, and how I vowed to never step foot into a school again, in another post. But here's what kept me in education.

The kids.

I teach for the kids. Not the pay check, not the socialization with co-workers, not the health benefits or summers off or whatever. It's for the kids.

My first year teaching, I had my flaws as I was a first year teacher thrown to the wolves. (more about that, as stated, in another post). I admit I wasn't perfect. But I cared. I cared more than anyone about those kids.
I worked in a 5th grade classroom with 30-36 students (depending on the subject) in a town that wasn't your quaint suburb. 100% of my students were on free lunch- thus, in poverty. Only one was a native English speaker and only three others were fluent in English (and Spanish). The rest were all Spanish speaking immigrants. I had, years later, applied to jobs out of state and no one believed that I worked in a title-1, program improvement, school on 100% free lunch with 80% EL population.

Anyways...these kids had nothing. I had to supply pencils and paper. Some showed up in the same outfit every day. Screw hunger for knowledge, they were hungry for food. They were already in gangs. They had incarcerated parents, dead parents, drug dealer parents, prostitute parents, missing parents.... I had twins that had bragged about their new apartment because they got to share the couch to sleep on which was much better than the floor of the last place.

I recall one day we won an attendance award and got a hot dog party. As they were eating their alloted one hot dog, a student of mine was telling her friend how gross the school nachos were. But after her hot dog she asked me if she could go to the lunch line for those nachos as she was still hungry. I said sure, since I knew by law they were entitled to their free lunch. Well the lunch lady screamed at me and refused to serve the girl because she already got her lunch, the hot dog. Since I was trying to keep my job at that moment, I didn't quote her the law dogs were not from the federal lunch fund but rather the extraneous rewards fund and since someone (tax payers) paid for this girls nasty nacho lunch, she was entitled to it.

I rewarded my students, at least once a month, with a party during lunch. They would go get their nasty nachos or what have you and sneak over to my classroom where they had pizza waiting. I'd get my husband to order pizzas and deliver them. Each child would get THREE slices. These children, poverty stricken and starving, would forfeit slices and give them away. We would construct little carrying device (two paper places stapled into a pouch) to deliver to siblings or take home to parents for dinner time. These children had nothing and yet had the heart to provide pizza to their families.

I also had Christmas. I know, such things are illegal now, even the mention of it as it may hurt the feelings of a non Christian. But all my students were catholic and all attended the church down the street. So, knowing I was already on the chopping block, went for it. I bought a 3" fake tree and decorated it. Then I went to the 99cent store and bought a stuffed bear for the girls and a toy truck for the boys....99 cents a pop. $35 later I was done. The night before the last day before Winter Break, I snuck in and Santa fied. When the students walked in the next memories still bring a tear to my eye, they lit up so much. I've never seen happier kids. Many had never had a tree so they were so happy to have one in their class. And I'd been apprehensive about my teddy/truck lame....but I was wrong. Everyone was so excited! I had a few students tell me that they knew how hard up their families were and that Christmas had been canceled. My gift was their only gift and they were so happy for it. One of my toughest kid- already in a gang, real tough cookie....said this was his favorite memory of 5th grade....walking in to see a tree and a gift for him.

I had one girl who I took under my wing. See there was an after school program and it would rotate classrooms each month. didn't and was in my classroom the whole year (let's take advantage of that new teacher we're firing and put hyper after school kids in there!!). She was an attendee and I'd let her help me put up spelling words or file papers. If I happened to go out for a late lunch, I'd pick her up a sandwich from the 99 cent menu. Well then I found out her families sole income (mom and 5 kids, one institutionalized on her bill) survived off mom's income of tamale selling. That's all... well she started bringing me a tamale a day. I tried to pay $1 they were sold for but was almost always shot down. A family of 6, on a tamale income, gave me a tamale a sacrifice. When we returned from Winter break, she and her sister came to me acting all embarrassed. Well they had cleaned house all break and earned $10 and wanted to get me something but they had no clue what to buy an adult. They were embarrassed of their gift- a knock-off barbie from the 99 cent store. What is my best gift EVER? Super-ceding an ipod and a trip to Chicago? A 99 cent doll. That was the most heart felt, hard earned gift in the world.

I knew some Spanish, as I had to to survive here. I had a girl who enrolled half way through the year and she was smart and I told her and her mom just that. This girl was kicked out of her previous school for failing grades which baffled me. Mom was so happy to have her in my class, she got As and Bs and mom was so happy that her daughter was so happy and doing so well, she had nothing but praise.

We had a boy whose mom had..a not so legal career and was never home. He'd be wandering the streets at 10pm as he was never cared for. His academics suffered- he was maybe at a first grade level, and his behavior was atrocious. Since kindergarten, teachers had tried to meet with mom to get him on an IEP, to no avail. No one had ever even seen or talked to his mom. Well come parent conferences, to pick up grades and this haggard woman comes in and shuffles through my grades. I was in a conference so I could not help her. She grabbed a report card and left and as she walked out the door I saw her hand it to her son...the aforementioned child. She showed up at school!!!! She even assigned the attendance log, so everyone would believe me!

I have many many more cherished memories that will always live in my heart. Six years later, I still tear up when thinking of these kids. Who has been killed in gang violence? Who is pregnant? Who is an honor student? Who wants to go to college? Who remembers me? I really do wonder how they're all doing... more so than any other clas I've had. They're in eleventh grade now! Whenever I go near that school (there's a fabulous Latin American market nearby with great empanadas!) I purposely detour and go into that neighborhood just to look for people, check out faces of people walking to see if they're my students. I've yet to find one and if I did, would I stop and chat? Would they remember me? Who knows, but I always wonder....

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