Friday, April 18, 2014

Q: is for the Questions That You Don't Want the Answers To

All of my posts to date, excluding this one, have based on past experiences in my life as a parent or as a teacher.  That is not the case with this post.  While I am still writing about school, I am not reaching back into my professional archives for source material.  This time, I am writing about something that is fresh and new and continuing to unfold.   It is a story about judging without being in possession of all of the facts.  It is a story about asking questions and not being prepared for the answers given in response.  It is a story that took place at my school and is about the narrative that I tell myself; the one that says that my colleagues and I are providing safe harbour for our students from the storms that envelop their lives.  It is a reality-check from a world that I am not a part of and will never fully understand.

It happened in our school yard.  I was the yard duty teacher.

I have taught for eight years at this school located in the middle of a social assistance-funded housing development. In that time, I have witnessed a student population that is transient in nature, emotionally-volatile and often starved for attention, affection and proper nutrition. They are beautiful, too.  Mischievious, driven, creative and sincere. Beyond that, the one constant that has remained, regardless of any external changes, is that the students at my school do not know how to successfully play together.  The social act of playing co-operative games is foreign to the life experiences of many of our students and, as a result, recess time seems to always produce its' share of arguments, sulking, tattling and name calling.  No amount of basketballs, soccer balls or skipping ropes ever seems to make a dent in the meanness and/or lethargy of their play.

Now that the snow and ice have melted and we can use our school yard again, the older kids have taken to playing a game that seemed strange, even for my school.  The students in Grade five and six had created, what they called a "game", that basically consists of the kids dividing into ever-changing teams of animals ( horses, wolves, dinosaurs, cougars, etc.) and endlessly attacking each other with side kicks and pitter-pat slaps.  The kids aren't actually fighting and they aren't getting hurt but, just the same, they were ripping around like a choreographed riot and looking absolutely ridiculous the whole time.  Like most schools, we have a hands-off policy and these kids have been warned, again and again, by me and every other adult in the school, to stop this game and find something more product to do during their recess times.  They were offered sports equipment to use and organized activities to participate in but, no, they just kept right on playing this game and slapping each other senseless each recess.

Finally, on Monday, I was on yard duty during the morning recess and the game reared up again and I lost it!  I am, normally, fairly even-keeled but, on Monday, I had had enough!  I laid into the main culprits ( almost all girls) about the continued display of disrespect they were showing toward me and every other teacher, by continuing in this game when we had asked them to stop. I loudly reminded them that we had a hands-off policy at the school and that they were setting a poor example for the younger children to follow. I ended my tirade by letting them know that, in my opinion, I thought that this game was making them look very silly, at a time when they were supposed to be growing up.

Then I did it.  I asked the question that I didn't really want the answer to.  In the heat of the moment, I  unleashed my words.  I asked them how they ever came up with the idea for something so silly, as this game seemed to my eyes, in the first place!?
A simmering anger bubbled over from inside one of the girls and she replied through gritted teeth, "Do you want to know where I got the idea for this game?!  I got the idea for this game because my father has been in jail for a whole year.....did you know that, Mr. MacInnes....and he is getting out in a couple of weeks. There'll be all kinds of kicking and slapping going on in my house soon and none of it will be silly. It will be all too real, Mr. MacInnes!  But, do you wanna know what the worst part of it is, Mr. MacInnes?  When my father gets out of jail, he isn't even gonna come to our house first.  He's gonna go to our neighbour's house and party there first. Then, he'll come home. And, he probably won't even want to see us (his kids) when he gets there!  My life isn't a game, Mr. MacInnes!  This is!  No one gets hurt here!

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine,
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine,
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

We sing this song at assemblies in an attempt to instill a sense of family among those students whose family life is less than perfect. We will be your family, at least for the six hours that you are here at school.  That's what we say to the kids.  We back it up with food and attention and matching ball hats and t-shirts.  But, regardless of the songs we sing or the food we bake, real life, for these kids, is a bitch of epic proportions and we, as teachers, are as able to make a tangible difference in their lives,  as we are able to keep the lava from erupting once the volcano has exploded!

On that school yard this past Monday, I went from a full-fledged tirade to wanting to crawl into a hole, all in a matter of a few seconds!   Crap!  I had become drunk on my own kool-aid and had forgotten to search for the root causes of behaviour rather than reacting to the symptoms.  Having taught at this school for eight years, I know better than that!  And now, I had lost precious credibility with these kids and had exposed myself as just another outsider who really doesn't have a clue what the kids are going theough in their lives beyond the school property.  There I was, yelling at them to play nicely when it is hard to even conceive of playing nicely with your soul, battered and burning.

If there is a silver lining, it is this:  as a result of that blow-up, discreet discussions were held with several of the students in the Grade 5-6 classroom. It turns out that one student's mother had been in the hospital recently for a respiratory ailment. A second student, who was an only child, recently had her mother get a job for the first time since she had given birth.  A third child had the police at their house during the week and, on and on it went. A laundry list of personal blows, recited with the detached air of those whose hearts are slowly hardening.

Sometimes, the answers to the questions asked at school are surprisingly poignant and deeply real for the responders.  Sometimes, I wish I hadn't asked the questions that I had.  But, in retrospect, at least now, I have something, in the way of information, that I can work with this coming week and for the rest of the school year.  To know what is going on, even if it is ugly, is better than operating in a vacuum.  To work in a school where the kids will talk, even if it is in anger, is a compliment.  To judge a person without knowing their story is far too easy to do.  That's what I did on Monday.  That's what I need to make better.

As I type these closing words, my own two daughters, aged 8 and 4, sleep soundly in their beds.  They both enjoy spending their time immediately after school, playing for hours with their friends in their own school yard and in the woods beyond the school.  They run and play tag. They slide and swing on the playground equipment. They, sometimes, play in the worlds of their imaginations, creating civilizations among the fallen tree limbs and ferns of the forest.  When they come home, they are always happy to see their father. I am happy to see them, too.  We are all so lucky!!!  So freakin' lucky, indeed!