Category Archives: Middle School

When You Shoved a Desk at Me as I Walked Past You . . .

I didn’t punch you, like any of the teachers in any of the viral videos punched their students.

I didn’t punch you, because . . .

I am an adult, and adults are here on this earth to nurture and mentor young people, to teach you who you should become as an adult, not to teach you who you shouldn’t become. If I had hit you, I wouldn’t be nurturing you or mentoring you. Most importantly, your decision-making skills will not be fully developed for another 10 years. I cannot expect you to make choices like a mentally-well adult, because you are a middle schooler.

I want, more than anything, for you to grow into a wonderful, smart, caring, kind, and loving man, not the sort of man I will read about in the headlines for doing something mean and heartless. I already had to read about a former student trying to murder his girlfriend, including some graphically sordid details that didn’t need to be in the newspaper. I don’t want to read something like that about you.

On most good days I actually enjoy my job, and I look forward to coming into a school where students, ready to learn or not, will get one little glimpse into the beauty of this world and into the theological concept of grace. My goal, each day, is to teach my students one thing that hadn’t ever thought about before.

I am a pacifist, and even if I wasn’t, I want for you to know that your first response shouldn’t be what can I do back to them, when they’ve done something wrong to you. I should model that a response can be forgiveness, love, and grace, not retribution.

I can control my initial reaction, and I can look you in the eye and tell you, “NEVER do that to me again, because a person’s first instinct is to hit back, or push back, and I don’t want you to get hurt.” I mean that. I really want you think through your actions, your words, your behavior, because I want for you to act with purpose, making good choices, not out of impulse, making poor choices.

You are a kid living with (probably significant) trauma in your life. You don’t need me to add onto that, and I probably didn’t think through this one hard enough when I got angry. Instead of talking through your actions with you and helping you to see how many other good and pure choices you could have made, I spoke harshly, punished you and your classmates who were laughing, and then made you work in silence.

I love you, even when you don’t love yourself. Even when your sole mission is to entertain the other kids in the class with behavior that is the opposite of what you know is right and good, I love you, and I want the best for you. At this point, it feels like I love you more and care about you more, than you love or care about yourself.

Situational Paralysis: Make a Good Plan

While I am visiting my parents this weekend, I came here to Gas City to a Starbucks, where I worked during graduate school which seems like ages ago now, to work on lesson plans for school next week. The school corporation where I work uses a system called PAR to evaluate all new teachers and also struggling teachers who have been teaching for a while.

I value this system, because every teacher should have other teachers observe them, and every teacher has room to grow and learn, which is facilitated well by conversations with a good, mentor teacher (I am lucky, mine is fabulous). Conversely I dislike this system, because it requires me to write formal lesson plans every weekend for every period for every class, and sometimes I just want my students to work on a project for a few days, but I don’t know how, in a formal lesson plan, to adequately express where I will be and what I will be doing for those days.

And sometimes, let’s be real, formal lesson plans seem like one more thing when you have a general trajectory for your students’ lessons, like they are taking time away from making the lesson happen, doing a bit of extra preparation for your students, grading their work and making meaningful comments, and all those things that really make a difference.

But, in American culture, what are we without a plan? We start planning our kids’ lives from before the time they are even conceived. We tracks students by their achievements from the time they are in preschool. We guide students forward on their trajectories all through elementary, leaving brown, black, female, financially poor, and queer kids at the margins (if you don’t believe me, a simple google search will prove my point; there are countless scholarly articles that speak to these issues as well). These groups spend far more time out of class, in the principal’s office, in the nurses office, and out of school for behavior or absences, and frequently they are left behind.

We start seriously asking students what are their plans for their futures in seventh grade (I’m 44 and I still don’t have a solid plan), but those same groups of kids (the marginalized) are largely at a loss for guidance as papers (lessons and punishments) are pushed their direction, sometimes in languages they and their parents cannot speak or read, sometimes for opportunities they and their parents do not understand, and sometimes with the lens of a cultural structure into which they do not fit. Twenty-first Century Scholars in Indiana, for example, must be applied for by the end of 8th grade, so students and their parents have to choose to go to college by the young age of 12-14. If they miss the 8th-grade deadline, there is no second chance.

So, yes, plans matter in the USA. And your plan had better be a good one, the right one. As a teacher, my plan had better be a good one, the right one. No pressure.

 

 

Dear Ten-Year-Old Me

When you are 40, you will look back on this day as both a pleasure and a pain.

You will remember the gentle sway of your canoe as you sit and relax in the path carved out through endless lily pads by many, many similar boats over the years. You will remember the long, long day you spent in this canoe with a girl whose mother played violin and whose father taught biology. The fickle world of middle school church camp and the fact that neither of you had a clear camp-friend forced the two of you together for the day-long canoeing adventure. You thought it would be a beautiful day, because you loved canoeing and swimming, but she talked nonstop about herself and how smart she was. You learned later, when her mother ended up substitute teaching at a school where you taught in your early twenties, that she got pregnant at 16 or 17 and that her life had been hard. You would not be sympathetic. In fact, you almost thought she got what she deserved.

But on this day, just before you entered 8th grade, you floated lazily, dragging your finger through the duckweed that coated the top of the water. You had just about mustered up the courage to break up with that jack ass boy, and you should have, but you couldn’t. You really should have, but that’s not why I am writing to you this time.

You had been a Christian for over half your life already, and you thought church camp was about the best and worst place you’d ever been. As you floated there, you thought about the spirituality of the place, the lessons, the bible study, the worship, the beauty of it. You thought about how silly some of it seemed, the cliquey girls, the boys who openly flirted with them, the contrived games at recreation time. You thought about a high school counselor from your hometown, who, when I look back on your young life, you may have been a little sweet on. Finally, though you just prayed.

You swayed back and forth as the girl tried to paddle you forward, and you dragged your finger in the water, and you prayed. Hard. You wanted answers. You had always heard God speak, and you always would hear that voice. Even when you are 40 you’ll hear God’s voice. God’s voice will never leave your body or your soul.

In that moment, when you were floating there suspended between your middle school world, the natural world, and the spiritual world, you heard the words that will disturb you for the rest of your life: “I want you to do my work. I want you to speak. I want you to minister to those around you. I have called you to this.”

Those words will both shape and destroy you. You will always wrestle with what this means for your life. You will always wonder if you are, in fact, ministering. You will always wonder why you heard these words and then a few years later figured out your sexuality which wasn’t compliant with your chosen denomination’s perception of your calling. Hell, your gender is barely compliant with your chosen denomination’s perception of a call to ministry. You will always wonder why you can preach, why you can counsel, why you can minister in all situations. You will always have people who want your counsel. You will always feel like you could do more to uphold and fulfill this call, this vision. You will always feel unsettled.

You will go to seminary for three years, and you’ll work in a church for five. You’ll preach sermons, you’ll mentor teenagers, you’ll make an impact on countless lives. You’ll leave all that behind to do the same in the public school system. You’ll go to graduate school and you’ll read books that make you feel whole, that will lead you to putting your bifurcated self back together, because all your life you’ve been taught that you can’t be gay and a Christian, let alone be a pastor. You’ll always feel a bit of that push and pull. You’ll be 35 before you finally figure out that living a call and ministering is a process of putting all your pieces back together. Of accepting those things about yourself that seem to be in opposition.

While you sit there in that canoe, think long and hard about what you’re hearing, what it means, and how you’ll follow that longing, that call. Make some different choices. Give yourself some grace. And revel in who God has called you to be.

Dear Alice Walker

I am not sure if you know that you saved my life.

As a middle schooler, I watched the movie of The Color Purple with my mom when it aired on television for the first time, and we sat and cried together when Nettie came home. I am sure we cried at other points of the story, too, just like we did when at a young age I watched Roots with my parents, because they didn’t want me to be racist like many of the people in my hometown were racist. I know I cried when I figured out that Celie and Shug were so in love, so filled with grace for one another.

When I was in high school, I was really unsure of a lot of things, but I was sure of the fact that I loved to read, and I loved the movie I’d watched with my mom. I was overjoyed when I found out that the movie I’d watched was based (later I found out, very loosely) on your epistolary novel The Color Purple. I borrowed a copy from the Carnegie Public Library, and I never returned it. Your book is the only book I’ve ever stolen from the library, Alice, and I wouldn’t have stolen it, but when I went to the bookstore in the mall with my gift certificate, they didn’t have, and wouldn’t order, your book. So I kept the one from the library with all of my markings and my dog-eared pages, until in the middle of a fight a now ex-girlfriend tore the pages out and threw them out the window like hellish snow.

When I stole the book, I just knew I needed it, because the love between Shug and Celie was the most real love between two people I’d ever read in a book, seen in a movie, or experienced in my own life. I wanted a love like theirs. I wanted someone to make me feel special, where I didn’t feel so special. I wanted someone to make me feel beautiful, where I didn’t feel so beautiful. I wanted someone to love me, even if they loved some other people too. I wanted what they had. I wanted to grow old on a front porch in a rocking chair. I wanted grace, instead of shame.

I think I have read your book close to fifty times, maybe more. Every time there is something new to me, something that speaks deeper to me, something that makes me think life is more beautiful than when I began your book again. There are other books that do this for me, Paradise by Toni Morrison and Mama Day by Gloria Naylor to name two of them. But there’s something about Celie and Shug that pulls me back and pushes me forward and just makes me know everything is going to be alright.

When I was in college, and I was thinking about coming out to my family, I was at a really low point, Alice. I mean a lowest of the low, low point. I thought that telling my family about my sexuality was probably one of the most overwhelming things I’d ever do. I had no idea how they’d react. In my very lowest moment, I decided to reread The Color Purple. When I made it to the scene around the dinner table where Celie announces that she’s leaving with Shug, I just sobbed. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my life could always be so much worse than it felt to me, or what I made it out to be in my head.

Basically, Alice, what I am trying to say, is that your words have saved me so many times over, I have no idea how to repay you for your grace. Through words on a page, you taught me how to move from shame to grace. You showed me the way. And I thank you.

Dear Librarians

You are the unsung heroes of intellectual development. You are the guardians of the word. You are the harbingers of hope and grace. You foster the light in a dark world.

From a very early age, when my mom would pack up the wagon with me and my brother and our bag of books and walk the nice two mile haul to the Hartford City Carnegie Public Library, I was in love with reading and books. I read everything. No, literally, I read everything the children’s section of our tiny library had to offer. From the easiest picture books through Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, I read it all. I absorbed the nonfiction like a sponge and could spout off random facts at whim, and I relished the fantastic realities I found between the covers of every mystery, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, or fiction text I read. I tried without success to write poetry modeled after the poets I’d read. I escaped from whatever chore I was supposed to do, from whatever small inconvenience of real life I had to endure, and I loved every word. Even the books I thought were boring, I read with fervor, just to say I had read the whole thing. To this day, I have only ever not finished four or five books. One of those was Shades of Grey. Please tell me how that got published and became a best seller. Ashamedly, one of those is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I just can’t make it through, though I know it’s a beautiful piece of literature and a blessing to those who read it. Maybe I’ll try that one again.

I remember C G helping me each week to find books I hadn’t read. She taught me how to look at the cards to find my number to see if I had read a book and just forgotten it. I remember how she would hold back brand new books, so I could read them first, if they were ones she thought I would particularly like. Mostly, from my childhood, I remember the summer reading program. The year when we did bookworms was my favorite, because for each book I read, I got a section to add to my bookworm. By the end of the summer my bookworm was the longest in the library and I chose the colors so it made rainbow after rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. I just loved reading.

As I got older, I used books to escape the things I couldn’t tell my parents about. I read my way into dealing with grown-up things that happened too soon. I was proud the day when I walked up the stairs and asked B M to help me locate the young adult books, which were reserved for students 13 years old and older. I was little (I still am) and I looked younger than I was (I still do), so she called downstairs to see if I had approval to read those books. I did. So at the age of ten, I read a highly banned book that is still one of my favorites, To Take A Dare by Crescent Dragonwagon and Paul Zindel. I lived vicariously through the protagonist, and when I, too, lost my virginity at a young age, I reread the book, giving myself hope that if a fictional character could live through all that then so could I.

At school, I was fortunate enough to have two librarians, R H and B A, who guided me and continued to nourish my love for literature. We were fortunate enough to have, as part of our language arts curriculum, education in how to use the library and research with the resources found there. I found myself spending as much time as possible hanging out in the library, sometimes even leaving class to go the bathroom, but ending up in the library reading. During high school, my first job was working at the public library where I had grown up, and I was also a media center volunteer during the few times when I had a study hall in my schedule.

Throughout college, my strong quality education in library science came in handy, as I had no problems transferring the skills I’d learned with the Dewey decimal system to the newly arranged Library of Congress system used by most college libraries. Because of my work at my small public library, I had trouble using Microfilm or Microfiche, and I had problem getting a job working for the circulation desk, where I promptly got fired for sleeping in a stairwell with my coworker. We were simply taking a little nap, which was apparently highly frowned upon. Still I remember everything about libraries in my life with a fondness that I can’t accurately capture in words.

I write to you, librarians, to let you know how important you are! Your work is perhaps some of the most important work to keep our culture thriving and filled with imagination. Sure the authors who write the texts are necessary, but I would bet that so many of them spent so much of their formative time with so many of you, that you are in fact to blame for their greatness. Libraries, and you, librarians, will save us. I am sure of it.

What is that Ray Bradbury says, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture, just get people to stop reading them”? Well, you are the fine folks who keep us reading, who guard our culture, who inspire us to keep pursuing knowledge.

Thanks.