The worst part of my job

I am sick at heart today as I write.  It’s taken me days to just deal with my grief.

Two weeks ago, a former student of mine was shot and murdered as he sat in his car listening to music.  I was at his funeral last week.  Sitting in the funeral parlor; waiting to bury another student; wondering if there was something else I could have said or done differently; and shaking my fist in impotent rage at the persistent violence and poverty that lurk in the neighborhoods of too many of my students; all of this is the worst part of my job.

Two years ago, “Skeet,” as he was called by his friends, was a freshmen in my class.  He was in my history class as well as one of my “advisees.”  Even though the local newspapers have been publishing his real name, I’m going to continue to use his nickname in this post out of respect for his family.  Skeet was 17 when he died.

Several years ago, my school reorganized our freshmen year, sorting our newest students into houses.  Each house would hold about 140 students.  They would all be assigned to the same history, English, math, and biology teachers who would form a team, sharing them and taking on an advisor role for 30 students.  During adversary period, my thirty students would go over their homework, learn study and school-success skills, learn about health, and build relationships.  Because I saw my advisees twice each day, the relationships we built would be significantly deeper than the relationships I had with the rest of my kids, making this loss that much more personal and painful.

The day before his funeral, I was going over some e-mails from the English, math, and biology teachers from three years ago.  “I’m sending (Skeet) over, he is being disruptive.”  “(Skeet) and (another advisee) are on their way.  I can’t get them to stop talking.”  “(Skeet) told me to F-off.  He’s on the way.”

As Skeet was my advisee, it was my job to contact home on behalf of the team.  His mom was working on her degree at a local college, so she was often available to come to campus and help me sort out whatever mess Skeet had gotten himself into that week.  I was spending so much time with Skeet’s mom that I would tease him that my wife was becoming jealous.

Don’t get me wrong.  Skeet wasn’t a “bad kid.”  Mostly he just needed a lot of attention.  His reading level was far behind most of the other students, so academics were a struggle for him.  Knowing those two things about him, it is easy to see how clowning and talking became ways he could get the attention he craved and hide from the academic struggles he was having.

Skeet didn’t want to work in class.  Instead, he wanted to talk about music, partying, and girls.  He could easily lose his temper when confronted by an authority figure.  At the same time, Skeet was charming, funny, and fun.  He reveled in his ability to make people smile and laugh.

Together, mom and our team were able to help Skeet through freshman year, barely.  His grades weren’t good, mostly D’s and a few F’s.  During sophomore year, without the support of a team of teachers behind him, Skeet lost what little direction he had.  He started skipping more classes than he attended.  He got deeper into “mobbin” – wandering campus with a few friends – and “postin” – just standing around.  His grades slipped to all F’s and by the end of tenth grade, he was gone.

I lost track of him then.  I hear that he bounced around between one of the continuation schools in our district and a school in another state where he had family.  However, from my kids I hear that he spent most of his time on the streets, deep in the “thug life.”

After the school heard about his death, tension grew thick as my kids trudged through the mourning process.  Some made posters and cards.  Others made t-shirts with Skeet’s picture under a stylish “R.I.P” and loving slogans.  The funeral was crowded with kids wearing our school’s red and black.  Outside, several police officers waited across the street, ready to respond if the rumors of the memorial being attacked proved true.

In the days after the services, the tension continued.  Many students wanted desperately for the school to return to some sense of “normal.”  Compared with the constant disorder of their neighborhoods, school was an island of calm.  Others were still so deep in their pain and mourning, they wanted to continue processing Skeet’s death, and school was one of the few safe places for them to deal with their feelings.

As I see the downward spiral of poverty and violence take another turn on my students, I want this article to be a call to action.  I want to ask the very best of my colleagues to consider joining me in the inner city, where the children need more good teachers.  I want to advocate for the school to focus on the whole child, caring about their children’s emotional, social, and physical health at least as much as we worry about their test scores.  I want all of this, but mostly, I’m tired.  I’m tired and depressed and sick at heart.

I don’t know what I can do as their teacher to help my kids overcome the hurdles of persistent poverty and violence in their neighborhoods.  College and career are far from the front of their minds right now, and I certainly can’t blame them.  History and algebra just don’t seem very important in comparison to the trauma and drama haunting my children’s lives.

I know that life and school will get back to normal.  Every year, after every death and tragedy our community endures, normalcy eventually returns.  Linear equations and colonialism will once again seem important.  Eventually, I get to experience the best part of my job again: helping and watching as young people become curious and insightful scholars.  Eventually, I’ll be able to get back to writing about the reforms my students need for their schools.  Eventually, I might even be able to help recruit the quality teachers it will take to make a difference in these students’ lives, but for now, I’m stuck in the doldrums of the worst part of my job.

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