9/11 and My Seventh Graders

Today I teach children born in late 2000 or 2001. They have never known a world without the United States at war in the Middle East. Bin Ladin was as real (and frightening) as Voldemort from their childhood storybooks. And they are profoundly affected by their passive connection to this day’s events simply by being born in the year of 9/11. It shows in their conversation and in their writing. From this generation on, 9/11 is a dusty bit of history, as remote as Pearl Harbor.

We did not dwell on 9/11 today. I left their families to approach the historic day, or not. They carry a burden, no matter how young they were on that day. It breaks my heart to read their first writing assignments: a self introduction. Many of them begin, “I was born the year the twin towers fell.” They don’t understand that day, but they have absorbed its haunting, lingering fear. The media images play like cinema footage, equally real and unreal.

I hope for the day when they can say, without fear, “I was born the year the twin towers fell, and I am here to change the world for the better.”

My Kids -Your Kids

I started teaching in 2002, armed with a Bachelor of Science, methods courses, and a mentor. I was fresh out of college, single, and childless. I looked so young that I once had a colleague stop my class from going down the hallway because she thought they were unescorted by a teacher and thought, at first glance, that I was one of my eighth-graders. At the end of the year 7th vs 8th softball game, I wore my hair in braided pigtails for team spirit and a parent asked my partner teacher if I was a “new kid” in the seventh grade class.

It’s now over a decade later and no one is going to mistake me for a twelve year-old anymore, and while I am now married, I am still childless. According to an article by Sara Mosle on Slate.com entitled “Parents make better teachers,” because I am childless, I lack a critical perspective on child and adolescent development.

Mosle writes about her early career as a TFA grad, working for a charter school with the limited perspective that is part and parcel of being in your twenties. If you’re out in the world as an adult for the first time, you’ve got learning and living of your own to do. She writes, “To the extent I understood family dynamics, it was solely from the perspective of the teenager I’d been just a few years before.”

I can remember early entanglements with parents when I attempted to assert my authority in the classroom. A parent refused to have her daughter serve a detention because I could not prove that she was talking when I had asked her to stop. Her mother said, “Just because her lips were moving doesn’t mean my daughter was talking.” I talked with my mentor; I learned flexibility; I learned how to reflect on my actions; I became a more savvy classroom manager–but these skills took time and mentoring to develop. Now, my students rarely receive detention because I’ve learned how to engage them, guide them, and help them stop a problem before it gets to the level of a detention. It took experience and observation to get good at this part of the job.

I remember having a sophomore student who missed class frequently, didn’t bathe regularly, never completed his assignments, and often went to sleep in my class. In my early years, I would have seen this student as someone who needed discipline and strong consequences. Instead, I asked the guidance counselor what was going on. He lived with one parent who worked the graveyard shift. If his parent didn’t come home in time to take him to school, he would miss. This fifteen year-old only had access to the groceries and laundry detergent that was in the house. When supplies ran out, he had to wait until the next grocery trip. He spent most of his waking hours at school or alone at home. When his parent was home, the parent slept. They were on opposite schedules for school and work. He felt adrift and unmotivated. How’s that for “family dynamics”?

I’m not sure how having my own child would help me better empathize with students like him.

I agree with Mosle that charter schools who employ only young, single, childless teachers are being short sighted–but I reject her thesis that hiring teachers with children is the answer.

Enough. Enough with the oversimplification.

It takes a school community. It takes teachers like my mentor when I was twenty-three and starting out to help me learn from her experience and reflect on my management choices. It takes guidance counselors and principals. It takes parents and guardians who are willing to work with teachers and schools as partners. Charter schools who demand their teachers work 100 hours a week for the sake of their students at the expense of their own lives or own families are not sustainable. Teachers are human beings with a very real and important need for boundaries that allow them to be whole people with lives and families of their own. Teaching and caring for someone else’s children should not be all we are allowed to do.

I would love to have children of my own, but so far I can’t. I suffered a miscarriage while at school and had no choice over the following weeks and months to mask my grief and pain in order to protect my students. Don’t tell me I can’t be a good teacher if I’m not also a parent.

I buy school supplies for my students. I buy them lunches. I have held them when they’ve cried and talked them down from their feelings of betrayal and despair when a parent goes to jail or when there is divorce. I have held a student’s confidence when she told me she’d just worked up the courage to tell her parents and the police she’d been raped. I have walked students to the guidance office when they were facing the possibility of pregnancy. I have had a student steeped in his own depression lean on me to guide him to the help he desperately wanted but didn’t know how to ask. I have consoled parents who don’t know how to handle their child’s heartache, or addiction, or anxiety. I have been to hospitals. I have been to funerals.

It’s an old cliche that teachers refer to students as our kids. No one who says so does it lightly. I know when a new group of children are entrusted to me at the beginning of the school year that I have an obligation to provide each child with an intellectually and emotionally safe, motivating environment. They become my kids and I advocate for them; encourage them; and challenge them to see their potential even when they cannot.

I may not be a parent, but I have learned over the course of my career that I don’t have to be a parent in order to be a good teacher. What makes a good teacher? All those things I have been so blessed to find as I have grown and developed as a teacher: consistency, support, positive relationships with parents (their child’s first teachers), trust, and experience. Having a fertile womb hasn’t really entered the picture.

Lockdown, 2001-2012

The first time I participated in a school lock-down, it wasn’t a drill.

It was 2001–just before 9/11–and I was student teaching in a sophomore English class. My classroom faced the main road and there were five or six large windows spanning the length of the room. My cooperating teacher and I got word that the local bank branch just down the block from the school had been robbed by a rifle-wielding gunman and police were in pursuit. As a precaution, we were to pull down the window shades and lock our doors in case the fugitive attempted to take refuge (or hostages) at the school.

My students started getting up from their seats as I casually lowered the shades.

“They’ve got guns!” One girl said, noting the armed and ready officers already standing guard outside, black rifles pointed across their bodies, tense and watchful.

I just kept pulling down window shades and tried to distract them with a half-fictional personal story. Anything to get them away from the windows and any potential stray bullets that might be fired. It was terrifying to think that a gunman was on the run in our neighborhood and that we might be vulnerable to a gun attack. Instead of feeding their fear or giving in to mine, I kept moving with the day’s lesson.

Eventually the man was captured and life went on. I still think about that day and how quickly the world seemed to crumble in the weeks and months that followed. Lock-down became policy, then procedure, then annual practice alongside fire drills, severe weather drills, and earthquake drills.

As a teacher, I think about lock-down and school safety every school year:

  • What’s the best way to cover the three large windows that allow me to see into the hallway, but might let a shooter look in to find us?
  • How should I deal with the broken window shade that maintenance taped at the top to keep the heavy roll from falling onto our heads? There’s a four-foot wide and eighteen-inch tall section of window that cannot be covered by a shade. Should I paper over it?
  • If we needed to escape through the windows, will they shatter if I smash them with a chair? Do I have a screw driver that will allow me to remove a window from its casing so that students can fit through the smaller openings?
  • What’s the safest corner of the room to avoid gunfire or sight lines? How many twelve year-old children can I expect to fit into that corner before we run out of room and are so many sitting ducks?
  • What do I do if an attacker shoots out the glass in my door or beside it and reaches in to unlock the door from the inside? Where do we run without compromising the interconnected classrooms on either side, which (by the way) have no locks or securing mechanisms, so that if one classroom is compromised, the entire wing is compromised?
  • How quickly could I move my file cabinet to barricade the door? Would I realistically have enough seconds to do it by myself?

I think about what I would do if an attacker came into my room–what I would do, what I would say. I think about the futility of buzzers and plastic ID name tags whose only use (as far as I can tell) is to help police identify the bodies once it’s all over.

Then I think about how absurd it is that I have to think about these things at all as a regular part of my job as a teacher in a democracy such as this one. This is not a border land of some long-standing war. This is not Gaza or Belfast or Tel Aviv or Bosnia. Why is it okay for American children to practice what to do in case of a shooting?

Why is it that the rhetoric about teachers in America says that I am a union thug, a moocher from the lower third of my class when it comes to academic performance. I am not to be trusted as a professional, but managed, micromanaged, tested, and measured to mastery. I can’t even get access to worthy YouTube videos because I can’t be trusted to use internet access responsibly, yet I hear governors, mayors, and other political leaders saying I should be trusted with a gun. I should be armed and dangerous so that if an assailant makes it past the buzzers and paper-covered windows, I can stand my ground and kill before I or my students are killed.

It’s too much to ask.

It’s time for lawmakers to find their spines and protect American citizens from the violent, irrational behavior. Don’t hand me a gun, wish me luck on my VAM score, and go back to your office and shut the door. Don’t make me personally responsible for one more thing about a child’s life and future.

Am I the only one who finds this maddening?