Friday, February 26, 2016


ICE. In Case of Emergency. Its a thing on the cell phone, red font in my contacts. Bixby is my ICE, of course, but so is my father and my sister Bevin. In case of emergency, please call this person. If I'm incapacitated or you don't think I'm going to make it through the night, call them.

I'm Bix's ICE. I'm Brooklyn's ICE. My name and house phone number was for a long time written in permanent marker inside someone's hard hat. I was his ICE. For a while.

In the world of middle school, there is a step down from ICE that we call "trusted adult." When we have class meetings or even sometimes in the middle of class, we will mention things like, "If you're worried about something, talk to a trusted adult." I never assume I am the trusted adult because I'm sure I am for some folks but not for others. I never tell students, "Come talk to ME about it," but instead refer to a trusted adult, to seek out a trusted adult.

Many of my kids last year had the fifth grade teachers as trusted adults. Some of last year's 8th grade boys had me in that place. Many girls in middle school trust, deeply, the Spanish teacher. 

Right now in my homeroom there are a couple of ongoing conflicts. I have some of the details sorted but not all of them. We had a class meeting today and I had four animal archetypes on the walls--sharks, bears, turtles, and owls. We talked about different responses to conflict. 6th graders, remember, still play along sometimes, and I had them split into groups and talk about the archetypes, positives and negatives. Then I had them stand by the animal that best represented them (I'm a bear; most of my class stood by the shark).

After the activity, I had a reflection sheet. Why did you choose your animal? How is your animal good at conflict? How might it make things worse?

On the back of the sheet, I had them reflect on a recent conflict in their lives. This is where I was looking for information on the current problems. All the forms were anonymous.

My last question was "Is there anything you need me to know?"

That question produced mostly "no" but a couple of students had some things to say that it is clear I need to follow up with (even though the form was anonymous, a few wrote their names). There are some problems in my class.

The second last question was "Do you have an adult mediator to go to if you cannot resolve a conflict with a peer? Do you have a trusted adult?"

Everyone answered that question with either "yes" or with an example--parents, coaches, teachers, older siblings. Every child has a connection somewhere, some adult he or she thinks will listen and believe them. Or at the very least, every child knows how to play the game--tell the teacher what she wants to hear.

Except one.

He'd written his name at the top but had erased it. I could still read it. His answers were thoughtful on the front side about the animal activity. On the back side, nothing out of the ordinary, and then that question caught me. Do you have an adult mediator to go to? Do you have a trusted adult?

I don't have one, he wrote out in a full sentence.

He's twelve.

He's twelve years old and he's alone.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Charles Bukowski must've taught middle school in his spare time

"....and I had a father come into my classroom with his belt in his hand," said a teacher friend this evening to me. A teacher friend who is leaving the classroom behind, which is a damned dirty shame because she might be the best teacher I know, with real gifts in hard places and stamina that I cannot muster. But she's also right to leave. I nodded at her and repeated words I've said before:

"That was the day--the day when Lorin's father showed up and asked me how he was in the classroom, and I told him, and he took Lorin out of my room while I stood there watching him leave with his son, beat him in the hallway, and Lorin came back in with a cut on his face, that was the day I became a liar." No matter what happens in my classroom, it's something I handle with that kid at that time.

The kids I teach now? Nobody's going to walk into my classroom with a cut face after a beating in the hallway.

But I still play my cards close with their parents. I'm still a liar.


She's mad but she's magic. There's no lie in her fire.


"Did you think that if we just loved him enough, it would turn out ok?"

Yes, of course I did.

Why else on the earth would anyone ever try?


You begin saving the world by saving one person at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.


A teacher was on a field trip, which means classes get shifted around. If you were supposed to have her class, then you take the class that she would have had. It is never hard to sub in your own building. You know the kids. And you don't actually have to do any work. My homeroom was supposed to be in her class, but were assigned to another teacher for the hour.

I went over to that room to tease them a little bit before I took my break. To tell them to be sure to be good for her. Of course they would be. They're a good group. I walked in and my kids--these are my kids--are sitting down at the desks and chatting, eating a snack before the quiz they've been assigned by the absent teacher. I scan the room and then see my invisible boy, standing the back facing the wall with his books on a counter.

"What's that?" I ask the teacher.

Shrug. "I don't have enough chairs."

I walk over to him. He's studying for the quiz. "Can I, please let me get you a chair?"

"Thank you," is all he says. All he usually ever says. Thank you for helping me. Thank you.

I go across the hall and get a chair from my room, take it back and put it at a little computer table. He nods at it, picks up his books, and thanks me again. Fleeting eye contact. No expression.

He was going to just stand through that class.

Everyone in that room was going to just let him stand through that class.

That teacher was going to let him stand through that class.

I am sure I offend people 100 times a day. I blunder around and talk sharp sometimes and hell, I teach middle school and that's enough said about that. But my classroom is my domain. And I am going to make sure everyone has a place in it.


We must. We must bring our own light to the darkness. 


I flip through records. I look at pictures, I look for hints. I look at those little kindergarten photos and then the progression through to middle school. Stability does not equal happiness, that's the lesson there. I wouldn't have had more than one or two photos in a permanent record like that. These kids, almost all of them have a full set of K-6 by the time I have their names sorted in my homeroom and it's picture day.

Stability can be smothering, even toxic. Or maybe it's unrelated directly to the outcome. Correlation, not causality. Some kids are resilient. Some are happy. Some are talked about in meetings. Some are never talked about at all.


back off. If there is light, it will find you.


Sitting across from her, a girl who has closed herself to me in her anger and shame, there was nothing I could do.

Except teach her the math.

So that's what we did. Math. The reunion of broken things.

And she, too, thanked me on her way out after her test retake. A different sort of thank you, one said out of perhaps sheepish realization that I wasn't actually out to get her, out to fail her. It felt real, not parroted.

"You're welcome," I answered her. "We'll go over the answers tomorrow. We'll get it sorted."

We parted in the hallway. She was already on her phone, looking for her mom to pick her up. I was headed out the back door to my car--I drive a Ford Escape--to take off the teacher hat and blare the music so loud that my brain cleared.

But my heart really never does.


What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.


"How did you know you wanted to be a teacher?" one of my favorite 8th graders asks me as the snow falls outside the window and the ipads only sort of work how I want them to.

And so I tell the story of the smart girl who changed her mind. "I needed a piece of paper," I sum up, "Something I could hand to a future boss and say, this is what I know how to do."

"Like, a mechanic or something," he connects.

"Yes, like a mechanic. Except with kids. Maybe more like a welder."

They laugh. I watch the snow and think about so many broken things.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Against all reason, I teach math

I moved from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, to St. Louis, Missouri, in the middle of my first grade year. My parents had me tested and, back in the day, the answer to "what should we do with our bored smart girl?" was "Let's skip her up a grade."

So I started in a second grade classroom in south county in January. I loved Mrs. Chott, but I don't recall a single friend's name from that half-year in her classroom. What I do remember is Mad Minutes, those timed math facts papers.

They were my first taste of failure.

After my half year in second grade, I switched schools to a small Catholic school that is no more (so many of my schools are no more, it isn't fair). St. Bernadette's. Math was easy there. In fact, too easy. We moved again after 5th grade ended and when I walked into the math classroom in Columbia, Missouri, I was two years behind.

Two years! How do you ever catch up from two years? The girls I became quick friends with, the girls in my (top) reading group, were a year ahead of the class in math. Which meant I was THREE YEARS BEHIND my best friends.

I was ashamed by this like I had never been ashamed of anything. Ever.

My math teacher made a raw deal with me--I could take books home over Christmas break and finish big chunks of them and catch up with the average group. That was my challenge and I did it. I spent that Christmas break doing math.

So many three digit by two digit multiplication problems. So much long division.

So much long division that I taught myself.

I remember the satisfaction of turning in the work, and the remedial textbooks, to Mrs. Kruse. Moving my desk away from Bethany and Tim and Kyle and back into the normal zone of her classroom. (Which is a shitty way to split up a classroom, by the way).

In 8th grade, friends were shocked that I was in the average math class instead of Algebra. By this point, math was such a sticking point in my self-image that I didn't even try to engage. I soared in my Literature classes and Art and so forth. Math was a necessary evil. Like vaccinations or dental exams.

Ninth grade Algebra was taught by a football coach who never got up from his desk. Tenth grade down in Georgia was a skillful Geometry teacher and I decided that maybe I was a geometry person. I heard that folks tended to be one or the other. My junior and senior year math classes, in Houston, were spent at the mercy of a bright woman who knew math but could not teach it. I was a chapter behind most of those two years, and jealous of my smart friends who took the advanced classes from the physics teacher.

I wasn't good at math. I was good at many other things but not math.

So when my parish priest turned to me after mass one Sunday and asked if I'd be interested in interviewing for our parish school, for a math position, I said yes. Because I say yes a lot. It was only an interview. I liked my current job ok, although I feared teaching wasn't for me in the grand scheme of things. But I said yes because who knows what a yes can lead to?

I got the job. And I stood in front of a rough house of 8th graders who had driven the last math teacher right out the door.

I don't know where it came from, but I turned out to be pretty good at it. I taught them, and myself, middle school math.

And I liked doing it.

Kids in my class ask me, "What's your favorite subject? Is it math?" I always answer no, that my favorite subjects are literature, writing, and art. They give me funny looks.

"That's why I teach math," I try to explain. If they're young, I usually stop there. But 8th graders want more reasoning.

If I taught literature and all of you guys didn't fall to your knees over Ray Bradbury or Harper Lee, Lois Lowry or Langston Hughes, I would cry myself to sleep every night. I don't understand why someone wouldn't want to read, or even how reading could be frustrating and boring. But I get why math is hard. I know how it makes you feel stupid. I can feel the frustration of a wrong answer erased for the 3rd time on rough looseleaf paper and the futility of all these little rote tasks. I get it. I've been there. Math has been an acquired taste for me. I appreciate it, but I don't think I would ever love it. The thing is, you don't have to love it either. It won't hurt my feelings. We can still be friends.