Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Nicaragua: the new preschool teacher

This is a picture of Miguel, the new preschool teacher. He's reading to Eva while Michael puts a yellow ring on his head. He just left it there after she climbed down and wandered off to play. I think this communicates what a great companion and guide I think he is for my students. He has studied teaching in Nicaragua (he lives in the same community as the 5th & 6th grade teacher), so he knew some things I didn't about early childhood development. I feel great about him taking over with my kids. He was able to start on the first of September, so the kids had both of us in the classroom for two weeks before I left. That way they could get used to him and he could get used to our schedule. He is very respectful and patient with them. I am thankful to God for providing such a wonderful teacher for those 14 beautiful children.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Student Lost

I was folding laundry and calling Leah when my phone beeped. I quickly finished my message on Leah’s voicemail and flashed over to the other call. It was Adam.

“How are you?” He said hastily.

“Fine,” I replied. It wasn’t odd that he was calling me after being out of touch for several weeks. We call each other to check-in every once in a while. He tells me what’s going on at my old school and we exchange advice and encouragement.

“You busy?” He asked.

“Nope,” I responded.

“Really?” He questioned.

“Really,” I said. “I just got home, took a shower, and now I’m folding laundry. I’m actually not busy, it’s amazing.” I laughed.

He hesitated.

“What is it?” I pushed.

“Do you remember Brittany Jaques? White girl, kind of nerdy…”

I went through the Rolodex of my former students’ pictures in my head.

“I think so,” I said, unsure of her exact identity.

“You know, white girl,” he knew that if he pushed, I could narrow it down just by race. “Glasses, she’s a 7th grader now.”

“Brittany,” I thought to myself. Then her picture flashed into my head. “Yea, Brittany!” I exclaimed. “I used to drive her home sometimes.” The truth is, sometimes is an understatement. By the end of the school year, she and Luis talked me into giving them a ride almost every day. Other teachers took students home, so I always agreed. It was a good chance to get to know them as they were both in the most difficult class in the school. Their presence in class was always overshadowed by the behavior problems of the other students.

“Well, she’s dead now.” He said solemnly.

“She’s what?” I stopped what I was doing.

“She’d dead, Megan.”

I was worried this would happen. That school is in such a rough area, I was sure that one day I would turn on the television and see that one of my students had been killed in gang activity or armed robbery. But of all the students on my mental Rolodex, she would be the last I would expect to be killed. Some of these students made me believe that they were safe…that they would make it through and go to college. Brittany and Luis were two of these students. I learned this about them while I drove them home every day. Their parents, teachers, the principal, we weren’t worried about them.

At 3:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, Brittany, still in pink pajamas, put on her tennis shoes and her glasses and walked out her front door. She took nothing but house keys, locking the door behind her, and ventured 2-3 miles through empty lots and fields or busy roads to the highway. Around 3:30 a.m. she stepped in front of a car that had just entered the highway and was hit and killed instantly.

I was silent. “I’m sorry to ruin your evening,” Adam said.

I ran down the stairs and grabbed my computer. “I don’t understand,” I said, assuming Adam had the details wrong. This didn’t make sense. I scanned local news websites and read the short stories finally identifying the child that on the 5:00 a.m. news was listed as “unidentified.” Adam’s details matched the news.

“How are things?” He tried to change the subject.

“I’m sorry, I don’t feel like talking anymore.” I said bluntly. “I’ll call you later this week. I’ll text you or something,” I said, afraid to break into tears on the phone.

“Okay,” he said.

I watched the online video of the 5:00 a.m. news that broke the story about Brittany. They were still saying that a “woman” or possibly a “late adolescent” was killed on the highway early this morning. This must have been what Brittany’s mom was watching, shaking her head sadly and thanking God for her own child. It wasn’t until she opened her daughter’s bedroom door to wake her up that she realized this unidentified “woman” might be her daughter.

After rereading the stories online, I sat and stared at the computer. I tried to remember every memory of her. Every moment she was in my car. Did I take her home in my car? No, not always. Sometimes it was my dad’s truck or my grandpa’s car. She and Luis couldn’t stop talking about how they thought my grandpa’s 10-year-old Grand Marquee was the nicest car they had ever seen. I thought about where she sat in my class. Three seats in on the long row. In a class full of students throwing chairs, fighting, saying and doing terrible things, she sat there and followed directions. While her friends, mostly boys, were somewhat bullied, the students seemed to like her. She never seemed frustrated or unhappy. Though I might classify her as an outcast, it seemed that she was mostly an introvert. She was comfortable in her awkwardness. As I got to know her in the car, her sarcastic sense of humor made her seem well adjusted and able-to-cope. She talked about a loving mother encouraging her to do her homework. She spoke fondly about her brother.

This is why the details didn’t make sense. Was she sleepwalking? Then why did she put on her shoes and glasses, and lock the front door behind her. Was she going somewhere? All of her friends and family lived away from the highway. Was she committing suicide? Honestly, she was too smart to use that as a method of killing herself. Was she running away? This seems likely, but she took nothing with her. No clothes, no money, and she stayed in her pajamas.

The details of how she got there don’t make sense either. The distance she had to walk in addition to the pathway she had to take. Did she take the bridge that didn’t accommodate walkers or did she work her way through fields?

I cried without knowing if I had a right to cry. For some reason, I felt guilty, like I wasn’t allowed to be upset because I was not her teacher anymore. But I could still see her in my car, in my classroom. And now her face is all over the internet, television and newspaper. I miss her, even though I had already left her.

This morning, I looked at all of my students differently. I looked at each one and began to memorize their faces. I thought about how they are all so much like Brittany, searching for something I don’t understand. Part of me has lost hope that my students are going to be all right. I look at the faces of those that I am sure will live forever, though now I am not so sure. But mostly, I look into their eyes and see the children, my children, that give so much to my classroom every day. I try to file away every moment, remember every time they make me laugh. Through my students, I celebrate Brittany’s memory, and I get to know each of them a little bit better.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


The following is a text version of the story I told for today's storytelling class. The assignment was "How I Got to Be This Way: A Story About my Origins."

Begin by reading Mark 5: 1-13.

where i grew up, everybody was white. there were maybe five asian kids in my high school, and one puerto rican kid. all of the asian kids had been adopted by white families.

somebody had to tell me that i was white. i didn’t really know there was any other option. i knew some people of color, i guess, and i saw them on tv. but to think of myself as having a race: this was a new idea. I wasn’t white so much as i was “normal.”

where i grew up, everybody was American. I didn’t even think of myself as being a US citizen. It was just something everybody was, in the same way that I don’t think of myself as someone who breathes. Somebody had to tell me I was a US citizen. I didn’t really know there was any other option. I met some people from outside the US, but to think of myself as having nationality: this was a new idea. I wasn’t American so much as I was “normal.”

where i grew up, everybody was straight. a few kids came out in my high school, and my dad came out to my family in middle school. that helped me realize a little, but i never much thought of myself as “straight.” I dated girls in high school; I’m dating a girl right now. I wasn’t “straight” so much as I was “normal.”

where i grew up, everybody was middle class. i once went to a friend’s house, and there were not that many nice things there; there were some kids in my school who got the free lunches. I knew about poverty, kind of. I saw it on tv, read about it in books. We talked about it in church. But I never thought of myself as poor or not, never thought of myself as being a member of a class. I wasn’t ‘middle class’ so much as I was ‘normal.’

where i grew up, everybody was male. There were women in my school, at my church, in my family. But I didn’t have to think of myself as having gender. I wasn’t male, so much as I was normal.

my friend calls us swags: straight white american guys. Nobody tried to teach me that all these things were normal, with the possible exception of the advertising industry. None of my teachers wrote out a lesson plan that said, “today, teach david that white people are better than other people.” Or, “today, teach David that he is better than Becca because of his genitals.”

But, friends, I grew up in a small town in the United States of America, where most everybody learns these things. Particularly the swags.

I catch myself, sometimes. Catch myself acting in a way that shows I think US citizens are better than others, that I am better than others for my whiteness, my maleness, my straightness, or for some other imaginary thing.

But most of the time I don’t catch myself; I just go on acting in racist and sexist ways.

Last week, I was talking with a friend and colleague about original sin. Original sin, see… not something that I would list as something i believe in. This sin that is inexorably passed down to us from our sinful parents. That we cannot escape without the grace of God.

But, I, my friends, am a straight white American guy, and this is the story of how i got to be this way. Trying to get better, but still racist, sexist, homophobic and nationalist at my core. Only able to escape from this mire with the help of traveling companions who will call me out. And with the grace of God, calling me out of my hatred into solidarity, into struggle, into wholeness.

...original sin.

End by reading Mark 5: 1-13.