The Hunger

Nov 04 2010

When I first started teaching, it was difficult to see the patterns in students’ fights behaviors. At first it just seemed like most of them were fighting most of the time, throughout the school, indoors and out. After awhile I noticed that the stuff they were fighting about differed depending on which day of the week it was. On Monday mornings, there were fights at breakfast in the cafeteria. Kids would try to double up at the serving counter, which would get them yelled at, others would lurk next to the garbage can and grab whatever discards they could get. On Friday afternoons, you’d see kids trying to go through the lunch line twice, and even more kids would lurk at the garbage. They’d stuff the extra pizza in their pants and then cram it into their backpacks when they got back to the classroom. At the beginning of the month it wasn’t so bad. By the end of the month it was like Lord of the Flies. They were eight years old, and they were hoarding food.

I remember a few times growing up when I got so hungry that I couldn’t sit still. The gnawing pangs would seize me and I would need to wiggle a little, change position, to relieve it. I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my stomach. But that only happened a handful of times the whole time I was growing up, and it was never because we were out of food (it was almost always on long road trips). I was seeing this behavior in a couple of kids each day. I could hear their stomachs growling, I could see them clutch their tummies, and I watched them race to the door when I lined them up for lunch.

The unbelievably craptastic fare they were served at lunch is for another blog post, though others have done it much more justice than I ever could, mostly because I didn’t ever take pictures of the food. Anyone who went to the late, lamented David Avenue school and dealt with the fearsome Mrs. Nichol (who made us – gasp – finish our lunch before letting us run screaming to the yard) shares many scary cafeteria food stories with me. But up until early eighties, most school food in California was prepared on-site by people who, by serving them lunch every day for years, developed relationships with the kids – and I think it made a not-very-subtle difference in the quality (and the quantity) of the food we ate.  Thousands of schools have big-ass kitchens with padlocks on the doors, where the ghosts of lunch ladies who were actually cooks drift back and forth with ladles and hotel pans.

In the middle of my second year, a pair of kindergartners somehow got into the playground coaches’ office, and found Coach Jack’s lunch. They ignored the apple and the sandwich and went straight for the Cheetos.  Then, knowing they were hella busted, they hid in the office until the end of recess, when the coach found them. What the rest of us saw was our security guard, Donna, leading two sobbing, orange-faced kindergartners to the office while trying really hard to keep a straight face, because the kids were the only ones who didn’t know they weren’t going to get punished for getting some food and eating it.  My boss Lidia said many times, in many settings, “Don’t fuck with people’s [access to] food.”  I can’t remember what the kindergartners’ consequence was (I think it was something along the lines of “you must hang out with Coach Jack at recess,”) but Lidia sent them each home with a food bag that afternoon and made sure they ate breakfast at school the next morning.

My very first Friday teaching, two arms reached through my door at the end of the school day and dropped two grocery bags in the doorway. The kids started popcorning, jumping up and down singing, “The food bags are here! The food bags are here!” I had no idea what to do with them, didn’t know what they were. I opened them up. Each bag had a 1-pound bag of rice, an aseptic quart of milk, a couple of fruit cups, a can of green beans, and a can of refried beans. I turned it into a raffle and gave away the ten or twelve individual items, then after school went down to the office and found out that I was supposed to pick two kids and give them the food bags, but not to worry – there would be more next week.

Our school site, with its 5 schools and a public library on a single block, comprised the only public buildings in the neighborhood. So our office is where the Alameda County Food Bank made its biweekly drop-offs. Every two weeks (sometimes we were lucky, though, and got 3 drop-offs a month) two pallets would get dropped off, and each of them had about 1000 pounds of food in their wire crates, efficiently packed in paper bags which were folded down and placed in plastic bags, tied at the top. Each bag was a variation on what I took apart in my classroom that first week. Always rice or pasta, always some sort of canned protein, always a canned fruit or vegetable, sometimes milk. We would usually get 5 or 6 bags in our classroom, sometimes (before the holidays) as many as ten. The last week of school each kid would get at least one. I had to keep very careful track of whose turn it was, because there were only a couple of kids who didn’t need them. And since the food bags were nonperishable, many of us kept one or two stashed in our classrooms for domestic emergencies.

I started baking muffins for my students, cramming as many nutrient-dense ingredients and fiber into them as possible, then dumping a package of chocolate chips in to increase the chance that the kids would actually eat them. Periodically throughout my time in East Oakland, we would have breakfast parties on Monday mornings. I’d conduct the morning meeting and get started on a math warmup while they picked the chocolate chips out of their muffins, or carefully wrapped them up for later, or inhaled them and looked around to see if there were more. Then we’d have a peaceful morning and nobody would squirm from hunger pangs. I soon learned to bake extras for siblings, so pretty soon I was making 36 muffins each time.

Any time we had a party, I would bring in my 10-quart stockpot, five pounds of cooked spaghetti and a half gallon of sauce and heat it up. Spaghetti, I found, is universally adored among the third grade set. Didn’t matter if you were fresh in from Mexico, were born in a West African refugee camp, spoke Khmer at home, or had never left East Oakland – everybody loved spaghetti. My twenty kids could put away ten quarts of spaghetti in less than 10 minutes. But there was no way I could keep it up, and feeding 20 people just breakfast once a week, even if breakfast is just a muffin, begins to have a financial impact. I couldn’t mitigate eight or nine years of poor nutrition with a single muffin once a week. I couldn’t keep my twenty students fed enough to do well in school. Neither could their parents. And I could see it in their work.

So I’m here today to talk about a something that is outside teachers’ control, that is hard for the average middle-class American to spot and easy to ignore, and that dramatically affects not just test performance but basic cognition, basic memory function, and basic social development. It’s also our vocabulary word for today:

Hunger: food insufficiency attributable to constrained resources

We cannot improve the academic achievement of American schoolchildren without first solving the hunger problem. Now, less than 1% of American children suffer from chronic, long-term malnutrition, like one would see in a famine situation. These are not the children I am talking about. But millions of American children (during this recession, estimates go as high as 40% in areas like, for example, East Oakland) suffer through multiple periods where there just isn’t enough food in the house to go around.  This kind of hunger is hard to spot if you aren’t looking too closely. Researchers call it food insufficiency.

Feeding America, formerly known as America’s Second Harvest, has a terrific website that actually includes policy recommendations, just in case you wanted to write someone a letter. Here’s their Child Hunger in America Fact Sheet.  They did a great job of interpreting in reasonable English a USDA report, Household Food Security in the United States (2008) (and remember, the recession didn’t really start picking up steam until mid-2008). Please read it. Really quickly: 1 in 6 Americans, and 1 in 4 children, experienced food insecurity in 2008. Let’s do a quick-and-dirty interpolation here: There are six million public school kids in California. One-fourth of that is one million, five hundred thousand kids just in California.

And that was before the recession.

There are mountains, MOUNTAINS, of peer-reviewed studies on the effect of hunger and food insecurity on cognition, behavior, memory, and overall mental health. The vast majority reach the same conclusion: Poor nutrition or inconsistent access to food in the home strongly correlates with cognitive, behavioral and memory deficiencies, with increasing evidence that the damage is permanent. The only thing that’s surprising to me is that there still seems to be room for debate. No, that’s not true. Another surprising thing to me is that the people who are in a position to actually deal with this problem on a national scale are refusing to even seriously address it. Did any of you see any politicians plant their flag on childhood hunger this election season?

Since I respect people who actually cite their sources after making blanket statements, let’s look at what some of the scientists say. Since I respect you, dear reader, I’m going to keep this a high-level overview. If you’re curious, start searching. Type the terms “childhood hunger cognition” into Google and you’ll get over 1.5 million hits, including some good ones that will tell you how to help.

In their article Food Insufficiency and American School-Aged Children’s Cognitive, Academic, and Psychosocial Development, authors Alaimo, Olson & Frongillo (2000) analyzed data from a huge study, the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, specifically focusing on families who “sometimes or often” did not get enough food to eat. There is actually a term for this group: Food-Insufficient Children. I’m going to call them Hungry Kids. These authors found that elementary-aged Hungry Kids had significantly lower math scores than non-Hungry Kids, were more likely to have repeated a grade, were more likely to have seen a school psychologist and were more likely to have a hard time getting along with other kids.  Teenage Hungry Kids were more likely to have seen a school psychologist, been suspended from school and have had difficulty getting along with their peers.

Even adults’ cognition drops off when carbohydrates are severely limited. Kristen D’Anci, in her article Low-carbohydrate weight-loss diets. Effects on cognition and mood (2009) found that adults following super-low-carb diets performed worse on memory-based tasks than adults on the weight-loss plan published by the American Dietetic Association. So there you have it. Even in the short term, Atkins makes you stupid.

Hungry Kids can grow up to be slow adults. The University of Michigan studied the effects of childhood malnutrition on cognition in later adulthood, examining elderly Chinese immigrants participating in a longitudinal health study who had lived in China during the first half of the twentieth century, where there was famine after famine after famine, and then a really bloody revolution. The team of researchers, led by Zhenmei Zhang, Ph.D, found that childhood hunger correlated with decreased adult cognitive function: men were 29% more likely, and women were 35% more likely, to have cognitive impairment than people whose long bones did not reveal childhood malnutrition.

The Washington Post recently reported that the hunger problem in the DC schools is such that the district has begun serving dinner at 99 of its 123 schools. Recent census data shows that 43 percent of African-American DC children live at or below the poverty line, and a survey conducted by Gallup for the Food Research Action Center found that 40 percent of DC families did not have enough money for food at least once between 2008 and 2009. Serving dinner in the schools, however, is a Little Dutch Boy move: funding for this little program will eventually dry up, the funding required to scale this program up to the point where it will help on a national scale will cost billions, and serving food to the students will alone not solve the poverty and food insufficiency at home. It also opens the door to making schools responsible for food relief, and once that idea is in place people will be able to blame teachers for the hunger problem also.

People who are unwilling to talk seriously about solving the hunger problem in America but who are willing to fire teachers who work in schools full of Hungry Kids are not interested in improving the state of American education. We’ve heard a lot lately about the increasing concentration of wealth at the very top of the American wealthy. The richest 25 people in the United States have a combined wealth of $463 billion. They could, if they wanted to, get together and throw a bunch of money at this problem until it goes away. Or they could start paying their taxes at the same rates that you and I pay. If they wanted to. But hunger is the red-headed stepchild of causes. Malaria and leukemia and breast cancer are sexier, I guess.

Next week (I promise): how to help, plus more funny.

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Angular Momentum Wins Every Time

Sep 08 2010

I got hired on a Thursday, but I didn’t get the keys (and therefore access) to my classroom until that Friday. School started the following Monday, so there was no time to deal with the district warehouse for classroom furniture – I had to furnish my room with what was left after all the other teachers had done their rooms, because I was the last hire.

I found a set of double desks – two desks attached to each other so that the students sat side-by-side, with little open cubbies underneath for books and such. They are definitely space-savers, and some teachers love them. I do not.

I knew almost nothing about my students on Day 1, except their names, birthdates and last known phone numbers (about a third of which were disconnected, I quickly learned.) So I paired their nametags up as best I could, putting boys next to boys and girls next to girls. I put a boy named Aidan next to a boy named Ferdinand, who was and remains to this day the largest child I have ever taught. By the time Ferdinand was in fifth grade he was taller than me and outweighed me by at least 40 pounds. In third grade we were about even.  Aidan was a scrawny little kid, smaller than most of the third graders, even though he had also repeated a grade.

I quickly discovered neither Aidan nor Ferdinand could read more than ten or so words in English, although they had both been here since kindergarten. Ferdinand wasn’t sure whether his name was spelled Ferdinad or Ferdinand, and Aidan couldn’t tell me his middle name. I also quickly realized I was going to have to keep an eye on Aidan. My BTSA¹ mentor had been his first grade teacher and she told me she did most of her teaching that year with her arm around his upper half just to keep him from hurting other students and destroying their work. Great.

On the second day of school I moved Aidan and Ferdinand to the front of my room to keep an eye on them and so that I could help them out more unobtrusively. They both needed a check-in every four or five minutes.

At about 10:15 on the second day I moved them one row back from my desk because several handfuls of small things from the top of my desk had gone missing. Stamps, stickers, erasers, a few dry-erase markers and a teabag. Walking behind their desk while they were supposed to be reading their decodables² to each other, I spotted all of my missing stuff in Aidan’s desk. I asked, “Aidan, that stuff belongs to me. What are you doing with it?” I received a reply that I was to hear for the rest of the year.

“Noooo! That stuff is all mine! I didn’t take it! Ferdinand took it!”

Ferdinand: “Noooo! You took it off Ms. Cracker’s desk! I saw you! Look! He’s got more stuff in his pockets!”

Rest of the Class: “He took it!” “Every time you turn around -” “He always took stuff from the second grade teacher too -”

Aidan: “Noooooo!”

Ferdinand: (reaches into the waaaaaaay back of Aidan’s desk and pulls out TWO whiteboard erasers) “See?”

Aidan: “Noooo! That’s not mine!”

Me: “Well, you’re right about that! How about you cool off back at the big blue table, Aidan?”

Silence. Aidan doesn’t move.

Me: “NOW.”

The big blue table was where all the crap I hadn’t had time to deal with was stacked according to an organizational scheme that I had made up as I went along.

Was. Stacked.

Aidan swept a foot-tall stack of decodables that I had sorted but not yet found a home for onto the floor. Somewhere in that stack were the forty decodables I was supposed to pass out and teach from that morning.

Back to the front row for Aidan.  There’s twenty minutes of instruction that I’m never getting back.

A few days later I noticed that Ferdinand was leaning weirdly toward Aidan, like he was trying to body-block his reading partner. He also had his whole meaty forearm inside his desk all the time, with his elbow angled directly into Aidan’s side.  I told him to take his arm out of his desk (it was his writing arm, after all), tried to pick up my train of thought, and had it totally derailed when Ferdinand shoved Aidan and his chair away from the whole desk five seconds later.

Me: “What is going ON?” I had been a real teacher for less than a week, and I had already lost all pretext of speaking in a calming, gentle voice.

Ferdinand then showed me that keeping his arm all the way inside his desk and his elbow an inch away from Aidan’s ribs was the only way to keep Aidan from completely plundering his desk and ripping pages out of Ferdinand’s books when there was nothing left to plunder.

Aidan: “Noooooo! He rips his books!”

Ferdinand and the other 18 kids: “Nooooo! You did it, Aidan!”

Aidan threw up both of his hands in a “search me!” gesture, and a shower of confetti that used to be part of a textbook came flying out of his desk.  Ferdinand pulled the mutilated book out of his desk and held it up like a scorecard.

I sent Aidan back to second grade for an hour or so, and while he was gone I moved all of his stuff into a spare double desk.  So now Aidan had a double desk to himself at the back of the classroom, Ferdinand had a double desk to himself at the front of the classroom, and the rest of the class was jealous.

By the way, this whole time I was supposed to be teaching.

Once there was only one kid’s worth of materials in Ferdinand’s desk, the desk was now considerably lighter than Ferdinand. So whenever he pushed his chair back from his desk to get up or get into his cubby, the chair (and Ferdinand) stayed put and the desk moved forward. When he had gotten what he wanted, he didn’t pull the desk back; he grabbed the bottom of his chair and pushed himself back in. This went on all year; in fact the thrice-hourly desk migrations began to cover greater distances as Ferdinand grew and his reach increased.

I made everyone straighten their desks out before recess and lunch so as not to single Ferdinand and his hugeness out. I put tape on the floor to mark where Ferdinand’s desk should always be, and Aidan peeled it up immediately. I drew circles around his desk feet with Sharpie after that, but the desk still ended up two feet from its starting point each day, and I learned to back away from the front of Ferdinand’s desk before I gave instructions of any sort. Sometime around Spring Break I had an idea.

Krazy Glue™ is a wonderful thing. It comes in these little tiny purse packs, with four teeny single (or double, if you’re careful) use tubes.  Like this:

I could write a whole blog about how awesome this stuff is.

After school that day, I used an emery board that came with my desk to rough up the surface of the floor and the desk feet, and Krazy Glued Ferdinand’s desk to the floor. I used two whole tubes, and then gathered up some work and sat on the desk for thirty minutes while the glue set.  The next morning I gingerly leaned against the desk. It didn’t move. I leaned a little harder. Nothing. I tried lifting it up.  Then I tried a little harder. It didn’t move.

It turned out Ferdinand had been just as annoyed by the desk as I had been. He loved the desk being glued to the floor, and told me so several times that first morning. He grinned at me every time he pushed against the desk and his chair moved instead of the desk.

Right before recess he showed Aidan.

Right after recess Aidan ran to Ferdinand’s seat, planted his feet, braced his hips against one corner, gripped the opposite corner with both hands and twisted that goddamned desk right off the floor. It took a chunk out of the floor with it too, and I could see the striations of wax and grime going back at least a decade.

I could not believe it. Ferdinand was so mad.

He begged me to glue the desk down again, and I did – two more times, including once when I let the glue cure over a weekend. Aidan, who couldn’t read a sentence or memorize an addition fact family, understood the relationship between force, torque, linear momentum, angular momentum and position better than any third grader I’ve ever met.


Your vocabulary for today includes one bureaucratic acronym and one word that only teachers use:

¹BTSA = Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment – a program that each new teacher in California has to do for two years to get a “Clear” or semi-permanent, credential. Failure to complete the program in two years results in revocation of your credential. It involves being observed, evaluated and coached by a more experienced teacher, it involves making a portfolio that usually runs around 100 pages, and it involves tons and tons of paperwork. It takes hundreds and hundreds of hours, and you don’t get paid for any of it.

²Decoding is sounding a word out. (Encoding is spelling a word.) Decodable books are books containing only letter-sound patterns that have already been explicitly taught, and usually focus on a sound-spelling pattern that we’re working on this week. They are often four or five little pages folded and stapled, and sent home with kids. They are a tremendous pain in the ass, and for a class of 20 I had to make 750 of those suckers. The second year and third year I had parent volunteers to do it.

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The Nastiest Gun in Oakland

Aug 04 2010

My commute into Oakland from Berkeley each morning took about thirty minutes door to door and, like most people’s commutes, deposited me in a different world. Most days I encountered very little traffic congestion as I traveled against the commute, but once I got off the highway the unpredictable portion of the morning’s entertainment came into play.

I got off the freeway at the top of the Oakland hills and took a surface artery road west and down, down, down. At the top of the hill near the freeway is a small, private, very good college with a campus full of Julia Morgan buildings. I’d drive past all the students, waiting to cross the street with their Kleen Kanteens and Marni jackets and REI laptop bags, and curve around their campus’s southwestern perimeter, the barbed wire fence cleverly almost-disguised by an out-of-control eucalyptus grove. Turning right I’d head southwest, and this was where the fun really began. Sometimes it was just four or five AC Transit buses stacked up, the way they do everywhere. Sometimes it was change-out-your-dumpster day. Once there was a full-on street fight, with the two contestants in the middle of a five-way intersection, taking off their jackets and shirts and just bashing the crap out of each other. At eight fifteen in the morning.

Being a child of the seventies, I immediately thought maybe they should both switch to decaf.

More often domestic disputes would spill out into the street, or a stray dog would take up an entire lane of traffic trying to decide which side of the street had the most chicken bones. But the night before this particular Friday morning there had been three shootings in the neighborhood, and a major police action was centered right at the intersection where I make my final turn, six blocks away from the school. Oakland Vice and SWAT teams were still out at 8:00 a.m. as I was making my way toward work, inching through the streets that were partially blocked by a battering-ram truck and a couple of mobile booking stations. Plus, a police chopper hovering way below the usual 1000-foot floor, and a few news helicopters further up.

The cops were wrapping things up, and many were walking away in groups of two and three, vests loosened, gear bags in hand, from what seemed to be the epicenter – conveniently, exactly where I needed to turn left. Then I saw a trio of cops coming up the street toward me, and one of them was holding a very large gun (not an understatement; I looked it up later and it was an M16, probably an M16A4). It looked just like this:

without the Marine.

I’ll post later on what you run up against when you try to search for images of guns on a school district network.

It was the largest gun I had ever seen in the wild. But he was holding it really awkwardly – with one hand, angled away from his body. Like the three cops drew straws for who had to carry it and this guy lost. Now, I’ve never touched a big gun, but I’ve never seen anyone with any weapons training hold a great big piece like that as if it had cooties.

They were walking up the street towards me, and I was stuck in the blockade traffic so I just watched them while I memorized the gun. The two cops behind Officer Cootiegun were laughing, clearly at him. Then, as they get closer, I saw pink and brown hair, several feet of it, all tangled up in the gun and all over the cop. Some of it was tufty and clumped and some of it, especially the pink stuff, trailed in the breeze like candyfloss. The officer had a faint pink hair-extension halo wafting behind him like the smell of fabulous.

Shooty howdy shucks, it DID have cooties.

So not only had I actually laid eyes on the Nastiest Gun In Oakland, but I now knew that somewhere within about 6 blocks of my classroom was a whore stupid enough to get her weave tangled up in an M-16.

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We Bring the Farm to You

Jul 15 2010

Our school deep in East Oakland used to be a farm, and the farmer’s name is still on businesses and housing projects all over the neighborhood. When he died around 1910, the farmer deeded the land to the city on the condition that there always be nothing but a school there. There were two child development centers, two elementary schools, two middle schools, a playground and a softball field on the land, but we still got a nice big yard. Unlike other playgrounds, 6 portable classrooms didn’t really get in the way. In fact they provided a nice barrier between our yard and the middle school’s exercise yard on the other side of a chain-link fence.

Sometime in the spring of my first year there, a pair of big fat floppy-eared rabbits took up residence under Portable A, the first in the row of portables. They got in and out through a hole in one of the vents beneath the classroom, drank out of puddles, and spent all day sitting ten feet back from the hole staring back at the succession of children who laid down on the ground and reached through the hole up to their shoulders whenever the coaches were on the other side of the playground breaking up a fight. Within about a week you could follow the trail of cafeteria-issued baby carrot wrappers across the playground to the hole, but not everyone knew about the bunnies.

At this point in the year I was meeting frequently with my boss Lidia trying to wrap up the evaluation process for a couple of my students to see if they would qualify for special services. She mentioned one afternoon that the rabbits were going to be dealt with the next day; Animal Control was going to provide a trap. One of the rabbits had died, probably because an early-spring heat wave had dried up the last of the puddles, so it was cooking under the portable and it was only a matter of time before that attracted other nice plague-bearing animals.

The other rabbit had produced a handful of small rabbits.

We had an ancient PA system whose wires were one with the plaster inside the foot-thick walls. When the large elementary school got reconstituted into two smaller schools with two principals and two office staffs, there was no cutting of wires and giving each school their own PA system. Everyone had to listen to everyone’s announcements, which often came right before the end of the school day.

The other school started and finished their day 25 minutes ahead of us. Our dismissal was at 2:55. At 2:53 the next day, Lidia got on the PA.

“Please pardon this interruption. Boys and girls, as you know there are rabbits living under Portable A. We all love rabbits and I know some of you have been feeding them, but we need to leave the bunnies alone. We need to not feed them carrots, we need to not leave water for them. We shouldn’t try to reach through the hole to them. Mr. Jacques is going to be setting out a cage for them so we can take the bunnies to find a home. Please stay away from Portable A when you leave your classrooms. Have a good afternoon!”

This is what the children heard:

Blah blah blah blah blah RABBITS blah blah PORTABLE A blah WE ALL LOVE RABBITS blah blah blah BUNNIES blah blah blah FEED THEM CARROTS blah blah LEAVE WATER FOR THEM blah blah blah REACH THROUGH THE HOLE blah blah blah TAKE THE BUNNIES blah HOME blah blah blah HAVE A GOOD AFTERNOON.”

Then the bell rang.

By the time I had checked all twenty cubbies, shut the door and crossed to my bank of windows facing the yard, all two hundred sixty of our children and about 50 kids from the other school’s after school program had sprinted across the playground and crowded around the side of the portable. Mr. Jacques was trying to swim through them, holding aloft a medium-sized Havahart trap. After several minutes and a lot of whistle blowing enough kids dispersed that he was able to affix it to the portable’s frame.

Early the next morning the other principal’s truck and Animal Control were parked on the playground to block everybody’s view of the box full of live rabbits and the disposal of what was left of the dead one.

Ever wonder what teachers do when they get together for holiday parties? We drink pitchers of margaritas and re-enact this stuff. Including the crowd-surfing.

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Don’t Call it Cake

Jul 14 2010

This is the story of what happened the very first day I had a sub. Which means the following adventure was related to me by my principal.

It was sometime in October. Because I had been hired so late, I had to do about 40 hours of trainings on the weekends the first several weeks of school in Sacramento, two hours away. These trainings were essential for brand new teachers who needed to get familiar fast with entire shelves full of curricular materials, but they were exhausting. Many, many first-year teachers had to do these weekend trainings on top of the seventy hours per week they were already pulling as first-year teachers or the fifty hours per week you’d pull if you were experienced but new to your grade level. My language arts coach Naomi told me I should take a personal day once the trainings were complete, so I sweated out some overly detailed sub plans and slept all day Tuesday.

When I came back on Wednesday morning there were 17 names on the board, but I had sort of expected that. I had a pretty active group (euphemistically speaking) and I hadn’t found my authority yet, so of course they weren’t going to behave for the sub. They hadn’t even made up their minds whether they were going to listen to me yet. But then Lidia, my boss, asked me to step into her office after school.

I never, ever got sent out of class the whole time I was growing up, except for the time I threw up all over my desk, my jacket, Glenys Rodeback’s shoes, and the sheaf of spelling tests I had just collected in 4th grade. So I still had all this principal’s office anxiety stored up, ripening since kindergarten. I don’t know if I’ll ever not freak out when I get called to the principal’s office. This was made even worse by the fact that she pushed the door shut as soon as I sat down.

The people who built that school in the thirties knew what they were doing; the main office at our site was around the corner from the boys’ bathroom. If Lidia’s office door was open and there was skullduggery going on in the boys’ room, she could be there in about four seconds. While I was face-down in my pillow and my sub was wondering why there were suddenly only 14 kids in the classroom, Lidia heard the unmistakable sounds of several boys behaving badly. Recognizing the voices of three of my students, she made the executive decision to walk in and see what the hell was going on.

Boys’ bathrooms have urinals. Urinals have urinal deodorizer blocks, also called urinal cakes, or urinal mints, or (my husband tells me) hockey pucks. A urinal deodorizor block, for all you girls out there, is a thing that sits in the bottom of the urinal trough to deal with the odor, because boys don’t always flush. Urinal cakes don’t sterilize anything or deodorize the pee; they evaporate long-chain esters into the air to block up your nasal receptors. These nasty inventions look sort of like a big bar of crumbly soap, and sort of like a giant chewy Sweet Tart. According to Wikipedia, the most common scent is cherry.

My champion instigator, Aidan, was in there, along with his disciple Noryb. Aidan dropped the evidence as soon as the law arrived, but there wasn’t much of the piss biscuit left to drop, because it was all over both of them. Shirts. Pants. Arms. Faces.


(I should note that at this point in the narrative Lidia and I were both hysterical. I was wiping tears from my eyes and she was in full-on standup mode. We were bonding.)

A small movement in the corner of the bathroom, and Lidia turned to see Matata. He had been standing very still in the (until then realistic) hope that she wouldn’t see him, but he had made the critical path error of attempting to edge toward the door while Lidia was still in the discovery phase. He wouldn’t have made it very far in any case, because he had a nickel-sized chunk of urinal deodorizer block smooshed onto his forehead.

Now, if you were Lidia, would you waste time asking, “WHAT THE CRAP JUST HAPPENED?” Do you think you’d get the same story out of all three of them? So we never really found out whose idea it was to try the peepee bonbon, but my money’s on Aidan. Nothing – nothing grossed him out, and he had a thing for seriously misbehaving in the bathroom. A lot of really super-damaged kids do.

We had a variety of hand-sanitizer products on hand, and because it was the beginning of the year there were extra uniform shirts laying around. Lidia found some extra-long gloves in the custodian’s office, made the three cherry-scented miscreants take sponge baths in her office using Purell wipes, bagged up their clothes, gave them fresh uniform shirts to wear, made three phone calls and suspended them for the rest of the day. Then she had to find the custodian.

I love teaching, and I love schools. I never want to be a principal.

So after I wiped my eyes and staggered out of her office, I ran into the three custodians in the hallway. One of the best pieces of advice I got from a professor when I was getting my credential was this: The custodian is your best friend. Never fall out of their good graces. I told them that the three kids who destroyed the bathroom yesterday were mine, apologized again and again, and made a mental note to pick up a box of donuts on the way in the next morning. They had all seen much worse, and told me not to worry about it, kids come up with incredibly gross ways to avoid class. I began to ask, “What would possess a kid to pick up a urinal cake-”

In one voice, the three custodians cut me off: “Don’t call it cake.”

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The Story of the Name

Jul 13 2010

While we were setting up this blog, the guy at our hosting service wouldn’t even say its name. He kept referring to it as, “Uh, your new site.” I think the only fun thing about working at a hosting service would be the permission to say some of those crazy domain names out loud. But since it’s a name someone called my personal self once, I own it. It’s mine. I claim ownership of my retarded crackerhood because it’s true.

About five years ago I was on my second student teaching assignment. The first one had been 17 weeks in Hayward, west of 880. I thought it was a ghetto. I was wrong. Retarded crackers think they work in the ghetto, but if you really work in the ghetto you’re too busy dealing with the ghetto shit to actually stop and think, “Hey, look at me! I work in a ghetto!”

My second student teaching assignment was in Emeryville, which is a little city between Oakland and Berkeley. It’s not a ghetto either. It was originally a giant tax shelter for the railroad. Now it’s where Pixar’s quarter-billion dollar campus is. It’s also where LeapFrog and Peet’s Coffee is headquartered, and the pharmaceutical giant Chiron has a big campus there too.

Nobody who worked at Pixar or Chiron or Peet’s or LeapFrog sent their kids to public school in Emeryville.

I was in a portable classroom with my master teacher and thirty 5th graders. About a week into the school year, we suddenly became a 4/5 combination class, because the 4th grade was over-enrolled. My master teacher, who had seen just about everything and looped back and forth between 4th and 5th grade anyway, rolled with it. But it made me a little frantic.

There was this kid named Clarence, who never smiled. He had the Mr. T scowl down. He was also one of those kids who drew while he listened. (Much later I read some research about fidgeting and doodling. Some people, kids and adults, listen better if they are allowed to move some muscles while they listen. But I didn’t know that then, because I was new.) I decided, on that hot September day, to get on him about the doodling. So I got next to him and whispered in his ear, “Pay attention.”

Clarence rolled his eyes and set down his pencil. But since he was a doodler, he was back at it within a few seconds. So I whispered in his other ear. This time he kept the pencil in his hand and stage-whispered, “I AM.”

Brief staring contest.

I returned to the back of the classroom, but by now neither of us were paying attention to the lesson. I was waiting for him to start doodling again, and he was waiting for me to get up in his grill again. The third time I didn’t even say anything, he just shouted at me “I WAS LISTENING, YOU RETARDED CRACKER!”

They have a lot of student teachers come through that elementary school. It’s possible I was his ninth or tenth student teacher. He was done with them, and he spoke the truth.

Unfortunately the truth didn’t set anyone free that day. The master teacher suspended him immediately. He burst into tears and protested the injustice. It sucked. I fell for the drama and felt terrible. My master teacher lost ten minutes of instruction dealing with it and I made a kid permanently hate me, or so I thought. Retarded cracker indeed.

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