Tag Archives: school safety

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: When is a Frog Just a Frog?

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So the school year, thus far, is cooking right along. I like my 9th graders. And that’s no little thing to say. For the most part, they are positive, respectful, willing, and mostly ready for prime time. There are some exceptions, of course, as always, and, of the three groups of 9th graders in my charge, one of those groups is proving to be more of a challenge. Let’s just say, there’s lots of energy in the room, and a lot of that energy isn’t moving in the direction I’d like it to go. But there doesn’t seem to be a single mean soul in the lot. That’s huge. In other good news, I’m hosting an intern from Lewis and Clark College this year. He seems like a great guy and he’s turning me on to a bunch of new music. We’re playing records together during our prep period and as kids come into class. Today’s selection: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard with the Mile High Club.

But the beginning of the school year has not been without it’s drama and difficulty. First, some teachers are dealing with some extreme class sizes. I have social studies colleagues, in particular, who are dealing with upwards of 40 kids in a classroom, one class in a physical space that was designed to house 25 students safely. A math teacher colleague had to teach one of her groups in the lecture hall. She since has experienced some relief. I don’t know if my social studies colleagues are being similarly relieved. Additionally, there were some safety issues: on the very first day of the school year, there was a fight between two brothers that broke out in the cafeteria (I think). In the second week of school there was a lockout. No drill. A lockout. This means that there was the potential of a threat outside of the school building. Business as usual, except for that all the exterior doors are locked and the teachers lock the classroom doors. That lasted ten or fifteen minutes before the all-clear. But again, during a lockout everything just keeps percolating as usual except for the locked doors. And then, a bit of controversy: Pepe the Frog made an appearance at the first assembly in a slideshow promoting a Monday Meme dress-up day for Homecoming.

I’m not a huge purveyor of the meme cultural phenomena. Vaguely, I remember in weeks or months past, hearing or reading on my periphery about the use of this particular image of Pepe the Frog in association with hate speech practitioners and alt-right conspiracy theorists. But it was not, as you might say, on my front burner. I saw the frog (just the frog) on the slide promoting Monday Meme Day and it struck not a single alarming chord. And yet, on Monday of this week, our Leadership Teacher came on the intercom to offer to the entire staff and student body a sincere apology for using the image in the assembly as she reiterated our school policy against hate speech or hate symbolism of any kind and toward tolerance and acceptance for all. Along with this was an admonition to students NOT to sport the infamous frog in any way, shape, or form.

Okay. The announcement came while I had my seniors in the classroom. Most of them seemed incensed, totally taken aback with what seemed to them to be the wild notion that a simple cartoon frog could be a symbol of racism and hatred. They all seemed to understand that that was not its original purpose. It was as if none of them had been aware of the appropriation. Any graphic, any cartoon, any meme can be, and probably has been misappropriated by someone, they said. Consider the recent Thomas the Tank Engine picture where the trains are all wearing KKK hoods. They seemed not to have any inkling that this frog image, somehow, inexplicably, had been used in this way to the extent that it had, any more so than Thomas the Tank Engine. Out of curiosity, today, I asked my 9th graders if any of them had awareness that Pepe had recently become a staple image of various hate groups. A handful of kids were aware–surprisingly, a greater number of 9th graders than in that particular 12th grade group. The upperclassmen in charge of the slide show to begin with also claimed to have NO awareness of how the frog had turned somewhat evil in recent years. Fine. To the kids in my 12th grade and 9th grade classes who were dismissive of the significance and the seriousness of the announcement, I would like to have said: just because you’re not aware of its use as a hate symbol does not mean that it has not been used that way. And it’s possible that you simply do not understand how often and to what extent it has been appropriated. And once a symbol has been appropriated towards evil uses, if that use is pervasive enough, the original intent be damned (right?), it’s now a hate symbol and cannot be tolerated. After all, it made the list of hate symbols curated by the Anti-Defamation League.

This was my first thinking on the subject. But then, I’ve been thinking about it some more. Would we ban an image, any image, of Charlie Brown, say, if enough white supremacists and nazi sympathizers had mutated it or co-opted it for their evil purposes? Would it then be that ANY image of Charlie Brown, whether it contained a racist, sexist, homophobic message or not, should be banned from public spaces and especially in schools? That sounds ridiculous to me. In part, because it’s Charlie f-ing Brown. How is Pepe, who was originally drawn as a kind of chill-dude-feel-good frog, any different? Has his image moved beyond the point where we are able to even ask: what’s the intent? what’s the message? Is Pepe on the same level now as the swastika? It seems preposterous to think that somehow Pepe is now on that same level. One of my colleagues was talking about the insidious way the frog, just the frog, can be a kind of code between evil like-minds. I don’t know, man. I am decidedly undecided. All I can do right now is ask the questions. My understanding (and it might be an incomplete understanding) is that teachers, not offended students, brought to our Leadership Teacher’s attention the association of the frog with hate speech. To my knowledge, no student at that assembly was shocked by the frog. Does that even matter? Our job, precarious as it may seem, may be to protect even the one kid in a thousand who was offended or threatened but too frightened to speak up. Meanwhile, it seems clear to me: Pepe as a nazi is bad; Pepe as original green frog? The very picture of innocuous. Whereas: swastika? Always bad. At this time, this is the best I can do.

 

 

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#284: The American English Teacher Tries Not to Be Afraid While Doing His Job

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Two nights ago I woke up at 3 a.m.
and could not go back to sleep.
It was not a nightmare that woke me.
Just some disturbance in the force
that momentarily stirred me from slumber.
Immediately upon opening my eyes, though,

a waking nightmare:

I was thinking about those kids in Florida,
and I was thinking about those kids in Newtown,
and I was thinking about those kids at Columbine,
and my heart raced, thinking of my own students
in my classroom in a similar situation, or my son
in his teacher’s classroom, in a similar situation,
and I could not sleep.

Even my morning’s meditation, while I worried
that my lack of sleep would find me
dozing off on my cushion, resulted in this
kind of thought-struggle: the focus on the breath,
in and out, in and out, fighting against the thoughts
of making sure both doors into my room were locked
and lights were out, of huddling with students
inside a darkened classroom, of listening
for the signs of safety or of imminent danger,
wondering if I could take the risk to open my door
to let other students in, wondering what I
would do, what I could do, if a shooter
somehow entered my classroom.
These kinds of thoughts would have been
inconceivable to me in my first years
as a teacher in a public school.
Now they are ever-present, hiding in
the shadows of every waking moment.

I walked into my schoolhouse yesterday, a place
that I love, a place I consider another home,
a place that houses over a thousand
human beings that I love, young people
and adults that I consider another family,
as I have done every day since Columbine,
and I try not to be afraid while doing my job.

When I’m there, in that building, doing the work,
it’s easy. I’m immersed. I’m present. These young
people bring me the gifts of their minds and their
personhood, their presences, and I do not feel alone
and I do not feel afraid. It’s when I’m not there
that the fear kicks in: in the middle of the night,
in meditation, at meals, on a walk, and in particular,
reading the internet news, which seems invented
for the sole purpose of cultivating fear.
My only complaint yesterday morning was that
I was exhausted from sleep deprivation,
but I was having fun with my students talking
about Hamlet, and then it began to snow. The district
decided, as a safety precaution, to close down the schoolhouse
two hours early. And as much as I wanted to see
my fourth period 10th graders after an extended absence,
I was happy that I could go home a little early to rest,
and heartened too by the news from Florida:
these kids have had enough of our shit and are fighting
the good fight for the future of our nation and for the
safety of our young people: one and the same fight.
I have more faith in them than I have ever had
in the Republican Party, in any Party, to send us on
the right path, away from harm, away from fear,
toward something like real freedom, a thing that
nobody else seems to recognize any more on either
side of the aisle. Our children are reminding us
about what this word means. They have to be
our heroes now.

They are rising to the occasion.

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Final Exam: The Visitor

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Let’s say, you’re beginning class for your seniors in Creative Writing on the very last day of the school year, their final exam. Let’s say you have asked them to do this relatively simple but quite risky thing, to read a piece of their fiction out loud to the class. Okay. And let’s say that today, despite chronic absences all through the semester for this group of students, you have a full house. Are you with me so far?

Let’s say that at the beginning of the period, there is a student sitting at a desk that is not enrolled in this class, but rather, a recent graduate, apparently visiting. At first, you think how nice it is to see this particular kid, a kid you liked, a kid you had in class two years earlier, a kid who, despite his intelligence and capability, struggled nevertheless in his last years of high school, but for whom you have not a single negative or judgmental thought.

Let’s say that it appears that this former student wants to stay. He even says for all to hear that he is excited about experiencing your teaching today, again.  You say, because of the nature of this particular day’s plan, that if he does stay, he’ll be taught not by you, but by the students who will be reading their fiction. He seems perfectly happy about that as well. If this were a final in which kids were “testing” in the traditional sense, you probably would have simply said how glad you were to see this young man, and sent him on his merry way, but instead, you think, what’s the harm? If he wants to hear these kids read their fiction, he is most welcome. You even ask the students, your first mistake, does anyone object to a guest audience member? No one objects.

So as the class begins and the first readers volunteer to read, he sits there and listens. But quite early in the process, he starts commenting, raising his hand for questions, complimenting various readers, in short, becoming an active participant in the proceedings, which irks you, makes you uncomfortable, causes you at one point to say out loud that this student is not the student you remember, to which he replies in agreement, but ads that both students, this one and the one you remember, are equally present. You remember now asking him at this point to be quiet during the readings. Your second mistake is that you have not yet asked him to leave the room.

Strangely, you remember looking up at various points during the next few readings and noticing his absence and feeling some relief about that. Minutes later, however, he’s back in that seat. And now he’s commenting again, directly to students, as they finish their readings, about what he liked and appreciated and it’s getting kind of hard to tell whether he is being sincere or if he is mocking or something else. At this point, you remember saying out loud what everyone in the room is feeling, that you are a bit weirded out and becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Your third mistake: you still have not asked him to leave.

Another student volunteers to read. You have this thought: how nice it is that you haven’t had to call on anyone; they just keep volunteering. But then during this particular reading, the recent graduate, the visiting student starts to do some truly strange things. He gets up out of his seat. He starts to move about the room randomly picking up things like tape dispensers, staplers, and post-it pads, trinkets in front of students, and he’s rearranging them around the room and placing them in front of some students on the desks in front of them and making these strange little gestures with his hands as if he is casting spells while the student still reading finishes. And now this boy has a pair of scissors and you are scared. You remember saying (but at this point things get fuzzy in your brain because your adrenaline is pumping)–you say to him, you need to leave now. You are distracting us and you must leave. He is immediately and profoundly apologetic for “hurting you.” Those are his words, and he begs an opportunity to explain himself. You say, no. You need to go. And then you make your fourth mistake: You ask him before he leaves to put things back where they belong. Your students sit in absolute stunned silence while the boy franticly tries to return everything he moved to its rightful place or its rightful owner. And then he leaves.

The students are flabbergasted. You are embarrassed and ashamed. And the first thing you do, the second correct thing you do after the first correct thing of asking him to get out, is to apologize to your students for allowing that weirdness to go on and on and on.  Somehow, with 20 minutes left in the period, you manage to hear the remaining students read from their fiction. As soon as the bell has rung, you have called student management and asked them to find and remove this visitor from the building.

He comes back into the room almost immediately after that phone call. Apologizes again. Begs an opportunity to explain. Tries. Fails. Something about objects directed toward the students who were reading which created an optimum focus for attention, a reverential respect. He begins to cry. Asks you for a hug, which you give to him. The school’s plain clothes security guy is there to escort him away. The boy asks for still another hug, which you give to him. These hugs, perhaps, the third and fourth correct things you’ve done this morning. You say to him as he leaves, please, take care of yourself.

And as you sit here remembering these events of the morning, you allow yourself for the first time today to really feel something. If you had allowed it inside earlier, you would have lost yourself and you would not have been able to work through the day. But now you are safe to feel something, and mostly, it is not fear you feel for the safety of your students, because you know in your heart that they were never in physical danger. It is not disappointment that the security measures in the building did not prevent this unauthorized visitor from entering the school. That feeling did occur to you today, but it is not what you feel now. It is not anger toward this visitor who robbed attention that was due to your students in this final, potentially profound experience of reading their words out loud to their classmates. You felt that today as well but it is not what you feel now. It is not guilt you feel that you did not protect your students sooner from the vulnerability, the emotional danger of reading their work in the presence of an individual who was not operating at full faculty and was not part of their community. You felt that, too, today, but that is not what you feel now. No, what you feel now is sorrow for this boy, this graduate, this former student of yours, this visitor who is now a kind of lost soul who may very well be in serious trouble and needs more than anything else our compassion and our help. If you were a praying man, you would pray that he gets what he needs to live healthy and fulfilled. Instead, you weep for him now, and hope for him now, and you write this down so that you never forget, which is a kind of prayer after all, offered up to the universe for this boy and all others like him who are needful of something that our schools could not provide.

 

 

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