Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When Ms. T becomes Mother T(heresa)....

In my handful of years teaching my particular population of students, I've come to find they generally fall into one of three categories.

The first--and most rare--is the category of students with issues in isolation from the rest of their family. In other words, their parents are normal. Perhaps their child's perplexing behaviors have driven them a bit batty over the years, but who could blame them? They are totally cognizant of the problem and they do their best to care for him/her while handing the reigns trustfully over to the teacher during school hours. Again, this scenario comes along about once every 10 kids.

The second category of students--the most common--are those with emotional issues congruous with the rest of the family. They're the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree" kids, or better yet, the "apple is just a smaller version of the tree". These are the families, Annie and I joke, could all benefit from being placed in our ED program.

These first two categories of students I believe I was born to teach. Somehow, despite even the most ludicrous of situations, I'm generally able to approach teaching and managing these students with a great deal of objectivity and emotional detachment.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't some days when I think my head is going to burst into flames. I'm also not saying that ice water runs through my veins and I don't feel any sort of emotional connection to my students. I just believe that, in general, I've mastered the proper degrees of investment and detachment to ensure some longevity in my career.

But then comes the third category of students--the deal breaker. These are the students who lost the lottery. If born into any other family where they were loved and encouraged and provided for, they would be, for all intents and purposes, normal. But they haven't been so lucky. They've been broken. They're bright and seemingly so full of potential; you see glimpses of love and that child's innate desire to please, but it's clear that much of that was sucked out of them long ago, and by no fault of their own. It was this situation on a very large scale that drove me from my first job--a urban, impoverished community where ignorance and depravity beget more and more of the same in a never-ending cycle. It infuriated me and I knew I was not doing myself or the students there any favors.

Teaching in the context of a much healthier community, now, it's a less common scenario. But, it is still one that gets my goat every time. When tales of abuse and neglect emerge from a child's background, it's all I have not to take them home with me that very day and start showering them with the protection, love, and affection they so dearly need. I'm sure I wouldn't fix the kid overnight, and I'm no miracle worker; but I'd like to think some proper nurturing is all it would take to nurse these poor kids back to some semblance of normalcy.

Talk about your emotional investment. When I'm ready to bring home troubled 12-year-olds and become their surrogate mothers, I know I've gone off the deep end.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Control Freak

Less than a month into my unofficial training and I'm already up to 7 miles!

I've been surprised how impressed some of my friends have been with my accomplishments--in particular, those friends who, from all appearances, are more fit than I am. I'm relatively in shape, but I'm no Olympic medalist, nor do I look the part. I had a very thin, athletic friend remark the other day that he could barely run 3 miles these days, and that made me realize that perhaps my progress is more noteworthy than I thought.

I'm starting to understand that long distance training, like any challenging pursuit, is a great deal more a mental game than anything else--the proverbial 1% perspiration, 99% inspiration (a partially inaccurate equation when you take into account how soaked my clothes are after a run). If I wasn't so dead set on going all the way and making some real changes in my health, I probably would have petered out after mile 5 when my hips were screaming and I started to think I might upchuck.

Yeah, yeah. Go me and my incredible willpower. I'm proud and pleased with what I've done so far, but I think a ton of credit goes to the simple fact that this kind of challenge was made for someone exactly like me--THE CONTROL FREAK.

There are so many aspects of my life in which attempting to attain a goal is a painfully slow, often confusing and turbulent process; sometimes, only with hindsight can success then be measured. This is difficult and incredibly frustrating for the analytical mind which craves a step-by-step formula to reach the desired result.

Thank goodness for the tangible rewards of a running plan, measured in miles run, calories burned, and firmness of booty muscles (yeah, I said it), and the power I have over achieving those rewards simply by making the choice to lace up and swipe in at the gym.

Ah, but, see, life has taught me some valuable lessons about my compulsive need for control. That lesson is this: Just when I think I've harnessed it, some sort of rude and often unpleasant awakening comes to remind me just how powerless I am.

In my mind, I've already set the course for the next 6 months of training, discounting any chance for a sprained ankle or illness to set me back, but who's to say? The occasional reminder to myself that I am, in fact, NOT a machine may prevent any rude awakenings in the near future.

James 4:14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

God helps those...

The first day back from Christmas Break, I opened class with the obligatory question, "How was your break and what did you do?"

Of course, the kids interpreted this question--as they do every year--to mean, "What incredibly awesome gifts did you score for Christmas?"

The responses, as far as the typical pre-teen goes, were not very surprising: new video game systems and Apple products galore. What was surprising was the nature of the students who received these gifts. More than one of them has documented need for financial assistance through the school's free and reduced lunch program; yet, here they were acquiring video game systems worth 50 days worth of school meals. Clearly, something didn't add up.

This is far from the first time I've experienced frustration with the discrepancies between the expressed needs of the students' families and their lifestyle choices. Sure, we all have difficulties prioritizing our money. I freely admit I skimp on quality grocery products sometimes so I can buy some higher-end threads to parade around in. Popular culture easily persuades us to value some silly things.

But, I find myself becoming bitter when I witness extremely poor financial choices, and on a repeated basis, among families of children I care for. I put much of my yearly classroom budget to basic school supplies for those who can't acquire them. I donate money to school families for the holidays or give anonymous gifts throughout the year to under-resourced students. I don't do it to check "Be Generous" off my bucket list for the year. I do it because I want them to experience at least an ounce of the privilege I've been so blessed to have. So, it doesn't bode well when they come to school rocking brand new $100 shoes the next day.

"God helps them that help themselves."

Amen, Ben Franklin! I mean, the declaration definitely has some merit to it--particularly from the perspective of the teacher. Our students would get nowhere if we handed them every answer, every step to solve the problem, every ticket to the "Fast Pass" lane. So, instead of giving them a fish to eat for a day, we teach them how to fish so they can eat for a lifetime (Chinese proverb) .

My angst over individuals playing the welfare system and/or charity stems from more than just the desire to help the disadvantaged become self-sufficient. I fear it's something much more primal and not so noble in me.

There's this song by Christian artist, Matthew West called "My Own Little World" about learning to be selfless and reach out to the less fortunate. In one part of the song, the lyrics describe finally taking notice of a homeless widow on the side of the street and giving her some money. Every time I hear the song, my mind screams, "No! Don't do it! She's gonna take your cash and blow it on a 40 at the liquor store!"

And you know what? My concerns have some validity. Let's not kid ourselves: there's a reason a lot (not ALL, mind you) of these people are destitute and it doesn't result from throwing away all their money on infomercial products or brand-named groceries. They have some nasty and expensive habits that I don't particularly want to sponsor with my pocket change.

With this cold-hard truth in mind, the sink-or-swim, every-man-for-himself side of me does a mental fist pump when I hear Big Ben's quote.

But then, another side of me starts to kick in. The side that rejects what is culturally accepted, or what is "fair" by world standards, or what suits my selfish heart. It's the side that acknowledges the Truth.

The belief that the quote, "God helps them who help themselves" is straight from the bible, is a misconception. In truth, not only is it not found in the bible, but it is refuted.

Psalm 46:1-3 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

God gives grace (favor, blessing) to the humble. 1 Peter 5:5

True, there's nothing there about God favoring the free-loaders and the parasites, but there are some pretty important verses about not judging others when we have our own share of issues.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? Matthew 7:3

So, there's a danger that my charitable giving is not being taken advantage of appropriately. What am I to do? Keep on giving as I've been called. It's not up to me to determine who is most worthy of the gift.

After all, Lord knows I've been given something a time or two of which I didn't deserve...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Big Bang Theory

My flavor of the month, lately, has been episodes of CBS's The Big Bang Theory. It's not always the most well written and you find after watching several episodes back-to-back, that they don't vary much in their basic formula. However, I'm pretty "tickled" (who uses that word anymore?) by the character Sheldon Cooper.

Yeah, yeah, everyone thinks he's great and hilarious and Jim Parsons has won about 3 million Emmys for the role if that's any proof. But the reasons I love him may differ from most. With his debilitating social challenges, lack of ability to express or perceive emotions, extreme OCD tendencies (same seat on the couch, always knocking on a door 3 times, strict food preferences), impeccable math and scientific reasoning skills, and love for all things nerdy, it's impossible to ignore the fact that the character of Sheldon Cooper is based off of someone with autism. Rarely am I watching the show thinking these geeky scientists are "so ridiculous!". Most of the time I'm thinking they are "so every kid and adult with an Autism Spectrum Disorder I've worked with in my life!"

There are students in particular that come to mind when I think of the show, and they're none other than my favorite English class alumni, Ryan and his best friend, Allen (not previously mentioned, I'm surprised to say) . The very best of friends, and undoubtedly cut from the same cloth, Ryan and Allen travel the halls together perpetually engrossed in conversations about Star Wars, Pokemon, and Kirby for Wii. They walk into class tossing around "Lord of the Rings" themed jokes and are silenced only at the teacher's request. In unison they break into hysterics over the teachers' puns or simple wordplay (once again, I refer you to the "Eggs Benedict--Good Speaking Eggs" incident). The end-bell hasn't even finished ringing before they're out of their seats and throwing around theoretical scenarios for Mario and Luigi in non-existent levels of the video game.

Before I even ever invested in the story line between Leonard and Sheldon, I vowed that Ryan and Allen would be room mates some day. More and more now I find myself connecting the dots between my former students and their television complements.

The first day back, I had the honor of getting caught walking right in front of the boys during a passing period. Their conversation was true-to-form.

Ryan: Hey remind me to bring the "Physics of Star Trek" book tomorrow.
Allen: Oh yeah, and I'll bring [nerdy graphic novel, the name of which I'm blanking on].

At that point, Ryan spotted me ahead walking in front of him and caught up to my side. For the following exchange, feel free to substitute a mental image of Sheldon Cooper.

Sheldon--I mean Ryan: Why should Windows XP be a prison guard?
Me: Oh, well, hello to you too, Ryan! Nice to see break was GREAT! Thanks for asking!
Ryan (no emotion): I'm trying to tell you a joke.
Me: Okay, go for it.
Ryan: Why should Windows XP be a prison guard?"
Me: Why?
Ryan: Because it always locks up.
Me: [forced laughter] Good one
Ryan: It's true.

If only I could the kid to finish with "Bazinga!", we'd be golden.