Saturday, October 31, 2009

Loss, Grief, Growing Up

I have a pain-in-the-butt kid in my pain-in-the-butt advisory. Advisory is just generally a pain in the butt--it's not a "real" class and there's no curriculum for two of the three days in the week. The day that does have curriculum consists of lessons discussing our academic goals, important qualities for being a good student, and really stupid videos on these and related topics. The kids make fun of the videos and talk through them, and I am reminded of how lucky I am that for the most part I am in control of my own curriculum and don't have to teach stuff that I can't get behind. Anyway, of the other two days, we're supposed to use one as a study hall, and the other day is a pep rally once in a while, and the rest of the time it's just a pointless half hour almost at the end of a Friday afternoon. I tried to play games with them once on a Friday early on, but they were way too cool--I might try again now that they know me better and we're a little more united. But mostly we just do a little homework and then hang out on Fridays.

Anyway this one pain-in-the-butt kid, D., might be my favorite kid in advisory, though I have several I like in there--they've been growing on me. D. wasn't in advisory on Tuesday or Thursday, though, and I was vaguely annoyed because I assumed he was skipping. I make my kids work during advisory study hall--I'll give them an assignment of my own if they don't have anything to work on. They fought me at first but apparently I'm a hardass teacher and now they know to at least just pretend to be working. They also know that if they are quiet and work for a while, I'll give them free time at the end. Even the Caitlins don't skip as much as they had been, and when they're there they don't give me quite so much attitude as before (there are three Caitlins total in my advisory of twelve students, but two of them are a united force of rebel, and the other one is mellow and separate).

But D. He's failing a bunch of his classes but is way too cool to work on anything during study hall, so I pulled him aside and worked one-on-one with him some, got in touch with Mrs. Matz, the teacher who works with kids with behavioral problems and specific academic needs and who knows D. very well, emailed a couple of his teachers, and got him actually finishing and turning some stuff in. Apparently he told Mrs. Matz that nobody ever tried to help him with anything in advisory, but Ms. Nelson actually cares about him. This was good to hear, since what he was saying to me in advisory was "They're not working! How come you're not saying anything to them? You're picking on me. I'm the only Mexican kid in here. How come you're not talking to them? They don't do work in here." My response, over and over, was some variation on "You're not passing. You could be passing. You're totally smart enough to do this, I know sometimes you just need some help getting focused. We don't have anything better to do in here, why not get your work done?" Plus I would point out when the other kids were doing work, and make a point of calling them out and reminding D. that he wasn't the only one who had to work. So he'd come sometimes and fight me, refuse to work and just talk to everybody; come sometimes and actually get some stuff done; and skip sometimes.

Yesterday he came in just as the late bell rang and he said, "Look, I can't be in here today. I can't be in here right now. I have to leave. I just have to go."

Something on his face, something in his voice, made me say simply, "Okay. If that's what you need. Okay." But he got halfway to the door and I said, "But wait, hang on, D.--" I went over to him--"Where are you going?"

"I'm just gonna sit on a chair in the hall. I'm just going to take a chair out. I just, I just can't be in here."

I was kind of surprised. He just wanted to sit in the hall? "That's fine. You go ahead."

A counselor came in to pull out another student and I chatted with him a little... I graded some of the eighteen thousand projects that students are turning in this week and next week, before the end of the quarter... and then I remembered D., sitting out in the hall. I grabbed a book off the classroom bookshelf--D.'s not a reader, he's told me a bunch of times how much he hates reading, but he was sitting out there with nothing at all. I brought out Yes Yes Y'all; Oral History of Hip Hop's First Decade, which has been popular with many a non-reader since I bought it. It's one of those books I bought for myself but realized would be worth more in the classroom library than on my shelf at home, though it would stay in much better shape at home and would be much less likely to disappear forever. I think about the books I stole from school libraries as a kid and how I still have many of them: Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (which I stole from the library long before I ever heard of the Cure or the song by the same name)--those are three that come immediately to mind without even consulting my bookshelves. I'm not checking any more big expensive graffiti art books out of the public library and loaning them to students, but my own books and books bought for my classroom will probably keep disappearing. I just imagine that they're disappearing because someone wants to have it, wants it near them at all times, which is why I stole books--not just because they're lost under someone's bed, or thrown out a school bus window. Plus sometimes they don't disappear, they get read and returned and then the same kid will ask me for another book because I actually gave them a book they liked for once.

Anyway. The book was also just an excuse to go out there.

"Hey," I said. "Brought you a book, something to look at--you're just sitting out here." He had his phone out, maybe he had been texting or playing some game, but even so, he really was just sitting, mostly. D.'s an active, loud, gregarious kid too. And he looked so sad. He had way more of his feelings on his face than I'd ever seen. Way more than you usually see on a high school kid, especially a boy.

"What's going on?" I asked him. I put a hand on his shoulder, but he didn't respond to the touch, and I took my hand away. He was too tight inside himself for that.

He told me the whole story. His aunt died. She'd been sick, then she was feeling better, then all of a sudden she was really sick and then she was dead. His mom's only sister, forty-four years old, and D. spent every weekend at her house, all weekend, just hanging out with her and her son, D.'s cousin, who is like his brother. "She was like my other mom," he said. He told me that's why he hadn't been in school all week.

I said some stuff. Maybe it helped. He reminded me so much of me and my sister and how wrecked we were after my dad died. Too awful, too sudden, but totally real and there's nothing you can do, it's done.

I don't remember what I said, except I remember saying, "Try to have some fun this weekend. But you won't." I got half a grin, not amused but recognizing the truth of it, and a nod. I said something about how I lost my dad and I know how hard that can be, how much it can hurt. I wish I would have told him to do something that makes him feel good about who he is, something that means something to him. I don't know if I would have lived through losing my dad (yeah, I would've, you do, you just do, but you know what I mean) if I hadn't had my journal. Writing is that out for me. I wish I would've told him just to play video games, go shoot hoops, to watch his favorite movie and call out his favorite lines along with the characters, listen to his favorite music really loud. Let his brain and his heart have something else to hold onto a little bit and stop working full speed at being overwhelmed and horrified and heart-broken, let the grief step back for a moment and something that feels good move forward, even just for a second. But I didn't think of it then. I thought of it after school, on my drive home. I did think to talk to the counselor at the end of the day before I left and I asked him to meet with D. on Monday. If I see D. Monday maybe I'll try to tell him something about trying to do things you love so you don't totally sink into the loss so that it's all you are for a while, even though it will probably be all you are for a while even if you try not to sink. Even just the effort of trying not to sink can help a little bit, maybe. (I hope I can figure out a way to say it that might make some sense to him.)

So I am thinking about that tough kid and how much he's hurting. Grateful that he could tell me what was going on. Wishing I could do something to fix it but of course I can't, nothing can fix it. Time, sort of. But even that only sort of. A book about hip hop and graffiti maybe a little bit for a little while. A few things for a little while, and the whiles will get a little longer, eventually, and the rough spots will get further apart. I was proud of him for letting himself hurt, at least. That more than anything might get him through it the best.

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