Category Archives: Teaching

Easter Musings 2015

For thirty-something years I had the privilege of working with children who have severe disabilities. Often when I was out in the community with my students, strangers would approach me and say, “You must be so patient.” Yeah, sure, but probably no more than any other teacher. Other times folks would tell me I was doing “God’s work,” and once a school nurse said I would get a “crown in heaven” for all I was doing for these children.

The truth is working with these kids was a hecka lot of fun, and I don’t need any greater reward than that.

Tim Shriver, one of the Kennedy clan and current chairman of the Special Olympics, was quoted in Parade Magazine last weekend, and what he had to say really summed it up for me too. Just as his parents taught him, this is what my parents emphasized to me: “What our Catholic tradition has done well is make you not just ought to help, but want to help—hunger for it. Be hungry for justice, be hungry for healing, be hungry for connection, be hungry for leveling the playing field. That’s more than just a moral imperative. It’s believing that your best self will always be in solidarity with those who are having a hard time.” After all, he adds, “Jesus was all about [taking care of] the poor and the marginalized and then having a party.”

Yes, Jesus teaches us to be hungry for justice, hungry for healing, hungry for fun and hungry for cake. And I think Jesus would be fine with Christians making wedding cakes for same sex couples too. Just thought I’d throw that in there.

Happy Easter

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Unsafe Airbags

Last week I took my 2002 Honda into the dealership because there was a recall due to unsafe airbags. They told me it would take a couple hours so I asked if I could test-drive a 2015 Civic. I’ve been on the fence wondering if this will be the year for a new car and since I had time to kill, I thought, why not?

Many many moons ago I encountered more than one car salesman who thought it was cool to be condescending to a young woman who dared to shop for a car alone. Even now I had my defenses up, using nature’s tricks to look bigger—feet set wide, arms akimbo, chin raised. And some nice looking, rather young man came to help me. I relaxed a bit.

I just wanted to get in a car and drive around the block, but he wanted to be my friend, or so it seemed. He asked me where I lived, and wanting to be noncommittal, I told him East Sacramento–which of course convers a broad area. Nonetheless it seemed I was now a stereotypical white woman from an upper middle class neighborhood. He proceeded to tell me that his kids went to a school in East Sac known for its program for gifted students and its high test scores. Then he complained that the principal they loved had transferred to a middle school farther south where he had started a prestigious program, but that particular school attracts kids from Oak Park, and “maybe we don’t want that kind of influence.”

I was stunned that a salesman who wants to sell me something big and costly would say something that reeks of racism. But I didn’t say anything. I just narrowed my eyes and gave him my disapproving teacher look. “Where are the Civics?” I asked curtly.

He led me toward the cars and asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a retired teacher and that I had generally worked in poor neighborhoods. I thought maybe he’d understand but I overestimated him. He made a comment about the “bad side” of the Natomas School District. I decided to be direct.

“Look, sweetie,” I said as if talking to one of my 4th graders, “you shouldn’t make comments like that when you don’t know who you’re talking to. You don’t know me.”

He looked very confused and professed ignorance. I said, “What you said about Oak Park hurts my heart.”

“Oh, no,” he said.  “I didn’t mean it in a bad way–”

You don’t want kids from Oak Park in your kids’ school, but that’s not a bad thing?

 I said, “Look, I just want to drive a car. Can I drive a car now?”

So he let me drive a car. And I don’t know if it was the East Sac white thing again, but he insisted I take the car with all the bells and whistles. I was less than impressed—and said so repeatedly—but I figured if this is what cars are like now, I guess I could get used to it. When we came back he showed me the scaled down version. Oh, gee, I thought, this one is more my speed. Wish I’d seen it first.

He gave me his card. But if I decide to buy, it won’t be from him. Like I said: unsafe airbag.

A Prayer for These Times

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most beloved stories from the New Testament—not just among Christians, but throughout our western culture.  In a nutshell: a man traveling on a public road is attacked by robbers.  His belongings are stolen, he is beaten and left for dead.  Members of his own ethnicity and religion see him and pass him by.  But a Samaritan—a member of a rival group, a people for whom the Jews of Jesus’s time felt animosity—a Samaritan stops and helps the man, tends his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays from his own pocket for the man’s lodging and care.  The Good Samaritan—or the person we might least expect—he is the answer when Jesus is asked, who is my neighbor?

            I was thinking about this story this morning and it occurred to me for the first time that what the Samaritan did was easy.  Now don’t get me wrong:  after thirty years working in special education I know that the physical care of others is no simple task.  During my years as an Instructional Assistant and a Teacher, I changed soiled diapers, cleaned up vomit and blood, even improvised on-the-spot instruction on how to hold your head upright and pinch the bridge of your nose while blood is gushing out of your nostrils.  The act of caring for others is often physically exhausting and emotionally draining—and I should add that the smell and sight of bodily fluids and excrement can bring you close to losing your own lunch.  Not the most fun part of the job.

But what’s easy about it is this:  you can’t do it wrong.  Today in education heated arguments ensue about what to teach, how to teach it, and how to know we’ve taught it well.  There’s a lot of finger-pointing and blame.  But when you see a child who’s soiled his pants, there’s no debate. You know what you need to do.  Likewise when the Good Samaritan saw a man lying in the road, bleeding and near death, he knew this wasn’t the time to debate the merits of the Affordable Care Act.

I like to think that for the vast majority of us, when we know the right thing to do, we do it.  The problem often is that we’re not sure what to do.  All who know me are aware I have strong political opinions.  I think my side has been doing the right thing—for the most part.  Folks on the other side probably feel the same way.  But right now I don’t want to talk about politics; I want to talk about prayer.

For many years I was deeply in love with a man named Harry.  We used to pray together—not as a regular routine, but often.  One of my most comforting memories of our time together was sitting on the couch holding hands on the morning of September 11, 2001, praying.

Inspired by John 14:13 (“Whatever you ask in my name I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”), Harry liked to end our prayers, “. . .in Jesus’s name, Amen.”  I liked this too, but one day I created a new prayer for us:  “May the love we have for each other be a reflection of God’s perfect love for us.”

Harry and I are no longer a couple but I do feel this prayer was fulfilled.  I feel we completed the work we were meant to do together and now we’ve moved on.  I haven’t said this special prayer in a long time but I thought of it this morning.

I want to offer this prayer to the world as an affirmation of our intent to turn over all worries and concerns to Divine Consciousness (or God).  There is great anger in and at Washington right now.  We don’t know what to do to heal the divisiveness but Divinity is already at work in ways we do not understand.  It is our greatest desire to see our own ideas of perfection manifest, but we must be open to the idea that God’s perfection may not look the way we want it to.  But even as I’m writing this, I’m thinking, I don’t know what to do!  I don’t even know what to write!

Then I remember my friend Craig telling me, “It’s never about doing, it’s about being.

Call it prayer or affirmation or meditation.  You can even call it an intuitive leap based on empirical evidence if you want.  But know that prayer isn’t necessarily something you do, it may be what you are.  Allow yourself to be the prayer, because you are God’s love, you are God’s perfection.  Affirm that this is so.  Ask for understanding.

And if you need words, I give you mine:  May the love we have for each and every one of our NEIGHBORS, be a reflection of the perfect love God has for us.

In Jesus’s name, Amen.

Post Script:  please know that I feel comfortable praying in this way because I come from a Roman Catholic/Christian tradition.  I believe the prayers, hopes and wishes of all people—whether they believe in one God, many Gods, or no God—are equally valid.

Let’s Do Away With Schools

Years ago, when Sacramento native Dusty Baker was manager of the San Francisco Giants he used to dress up his 3-year-old son Darren in a miniature Giants uniform and let him hang out with the team in the dug-out during the games.  The announcers would fall all over themselves blabbing about how cute the kid was, and how this proved that Dusty was a great father, etc.  Then one day the boy—caught up in the excitement like everybody else—was loitering near home base as one of the Giants was sliding in to score, and there was a very good chance the kid was going to get knocked into next week!–but another player scooped him out of the way at the last second.  Whew!  Then began the inevitable backlash:  what’s a child that age doing in the dug-out during a game?  It’s dangerous!  What is his father thinking?  As a public school teacher, I was right there with them during that scary inning.  Children need to be protected, I thought.

Then, immediately, I changed my mind.  Let’s not keep children out of the dug-outs.  Let’s put dozens of children in the dug-outs, and the bull pens, and along the side-lines of football and basketball games!  This isn’t “men’s work” where children don’t fit in.  It’s a game, for crying out loud.  Now I don’t doubt that most professional athletes want to put on a good show for the fans.  But for some quirky reason our culture has deified these guys, which is one reason why they make so much money.  In return, I think they owe it to us, at the very least, to try to be good role models for our children.  So if there were kids right there with them during the games, those guys would need to watch themselves:  no cussing, no chewing tobacco, no trash talk, an emphasis on hard work and practice.  Better put some mothers and elementary school teachers with them too.   Trust me, the presence of women and children will make these guys better players and better men.

Okay, so you’re probably thinking I’m naive or annoying or both, but now it’s going to get worse.

I think we should have children in the work place.  All work places.  Working.

Everybody and his brother are complaining these days about the inadequacies of our public schools.  Well, guess what?  They do not give us (by which I mean teachers) the resources we need to do the job we’d like to do.  But there is one thing every public school does really well:  getting your kids out of your hair for six or more hours every week day so you can go to your kid-free work place and not be bothered.  That’s right, we provide free (FREE!) day care.

Yeah, it sounds very cynical of me to say that once we outlawed child labor we had to institute compulsory attendance in public schools so the working class could work.  Whether or not this is true, it’s not what I want to talk about.  What I want to say is this:  our culture has separated children from the majority of adults for the better part of each week day and I don’t think it’s such a good thing.

So my wild radical idea is this:  let’s close all the schools, and all of us together share responsibility for educating our children!

I admit it, I don’t know how it would work.  Even I think it’s a crazy untenable idea at this point in history.  But think about it!!  My goal in throwing it out there is to get people to think in different ways about education.  “Elementary school” has become such a universal experience that most of us think we’re authorities on the subject.  We think it should be just the same as when we were in school.  It’s as if we have a nostalgic desire for something unchanging.  Some of us may even have a certain stubborn belief in school as a rite of passage (“Hey, I survived those nuns!  My kids will too!”)

But this is very limiting.  Everything else in our culture is changing at warp speed.  Don’t we owe it to our kids—our future—to try something truly new?

When I say we should all be responsible for our children’s education, I’m not talking about home schooling.  That’s fine for those who choose it, but it can be very isolating.  So let’s move the kids to the workplace.  The obvious solution would be for each person to take brief time periods away from his or her regular job to teach a class or tutor small groups or individuals.  But I’m going to push this idea even further:  let’s somehow integrate children into the actual work in each place of business.  Somehow—while you’re teaching them to read and write and do math and learn about science and history, they’ll be helping you with your work too.  Impossible, you say?  You’re probably right.  But we don’t know if it’s impossible because we haven’t thought about it.  All I’m saying is we should think about children and how they’re educated in a new way.

I know that no one is going to rush in to implement my idea.  I write this to make people think, but this isn’t my version of A Modest Proposal (Jonathan Swift).  Well, maybe it is.  But we need to integrate our children more fully into our lives, for our sake as well as theirs.  Imagine this:  if you had children in your workplace, every afternoon you could spend an hour drinking milk and eating cookies, playing with blocks or baby dolls or board games.  It would be so good for your soul.

And to all my beloved teacher friends:  have a fantastic school year!  You deserve it!

A Spiritual Master and a Scribe Walk into a Fast Food Restaurant

A few days ago I was in a well-known fast food restaurant chain with my friend Craig.  I won’t say which chain it was in order to protect the confidentiality of the young man working there.  I’ll call him Ryan.  Craig and his friend Lee come to this particular restaurant at least once a week and they have deemed Ryan their favorite, so Ryan always waits on them.

I asked Ryan about the obligatory salads offered by this chain and he admitted he didn’t eat them often.  We continued on this topic, him advising me on menu choices.  Then I asked if, as an employee, he was allowed to eat for free.  The unsurprising answer:  No.  Business was slow right then, so what followed was a wide-ranging discussion of the plight of fast food workers, sprinkled with revelations about how poorly he and the other employees are treated by their supervisor.  Other workers chimed in to confirm Ryan’s stories.  “You need a union,” I kept saying, but I knew none of these young people would follow through on such advice.

We went to Craig’s favorite table in the far corner.  “You and Lee could do something about this,” I told Craig, but Craig just laughed.

You see, Craig and Lee are spiritual masters.  Trust me on this:  it is simply something I know.  Craig tells me they do their work on the energetic planes.  I’m not certain what that means but I have faith in their powers of manifestation. So I said again, “Really, Craig.  You and Lee could do something about this.”

Notice I didn’t tell him they should do something.  One doesn’t tell a spiritual master should—just like I don’t tell him they should frequent some nice little vegan place with lentils and bulgur, and drink smoothies and herbal tea instead of Cherry Dr. Pepper (Ugh!  Tastes like children’s cough medicine, but the particular spiritual master I happen to know drinks it by the gallon!)

So I said, “You and Lee could do something about this.”

Craig said, “It doesn’t work that way.”

I told Craig I felt like Mary at the wedding in Cana.  She said to Jesus, “They have no more wine.”  He said, “Woman, it is not my time.”

Mary didn’t say anything more to Jesus; she just called over the waiter, pointed to Jesus and told the waiter to do his bidding.  Mary was a woman who knew how to get things done.

So I said, “But Craig, Ryan’s not getting his state mandated breaks.  Ryan’s being cheated out of overtime pay.”  But Craig isn’t Jesus, and I’m not Craig’s mother.

Craig said he and Lee had to work with prevailing consciousness.  He feels the issues Ryan and other fast food workers are having come under the larger context of RESPECT.  Ryan’s employer doesn’t respect him.  In fact, respect seems to be in short supply these days.

Now if you’re like me, you read that last sentence and you thought, “That is so true!  So many people are disrespectful these days.  I run into them all the time.  Thank God I’m not like that.”  Yeah, that’s what I thought when I wrote it too.

I like to occasionally post political content on my Facebook page.  Not often, but once in a while.  Usually stuff poking fun at the other side, occasionally something praising my side.  This past week every time I’ve posted something political, a friend I used to work with has hit me with a challenging comment from the other end of the political spectrum.  I ignored the first one.  I just didn’t want to get into it.  But now he’s peppered me with five or six comments in as many days.  I’m annoyed at him.  I don’t want to discuss these issues with him; I just want him to stop!  How respectful am I being if I won’t allow him the same space to express himself that I allow myself?

Anyway this has led me to consider that maybe I simply shouldn’t post political content.  If I’m not willing to do the work of educating and debating, then maybe I should keep my mouth shut.  Not saying I will, just saying I’m mulling it over.

But getting back to Craig’s assessment of the “prevailing consciousness.”  I told him that every poll I read shows Congress has a very low approval rating.  That people are sick of partisanship and refusal to compromise.  If this is the prevailing consciousness, then how can this situation persist?

“Is that really what people want?” he prompted.

“No,” I realized, answering my own question.  “They say they want cooperation, but what they really want is what they want.  They want their side to win.  They want their point of view to prevail.”  And so we have deadlock.

Okay, it’s taken me a long time to get here, but here’s my call to action:  we need to respect each other.  We need to listen to other people’s point of view.  We can start small; listen carefully to your family and your co-workers.  Listen to people you disagree with.  Listen.

Yes, I know I sound simplistic and naïve.  You know what?  I don’t care.  This is important.  Please affirm every day that you respect all the people in your life.  Please affirm that you respect the animals and environment.  Advocate for what you believe in, but listen to the other side.  Listen.

Already I’m thinking the other side needs to listen to me and my side!   But whom do I need to listen to?  What do I need to hear?  This will be very challenging for me.  I’m not sure how well I will do with this.  Please let me know how this works for you.

Poverty and Our Public Schools

 

I chose to make my career in public education and I have become a fierce defender of it as a democratic institution.  I worked as a special educator with children who have severe disabilities for over thirty years.  Federal law guarantees all children a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment.  FAPE in the LRE—those are the acronyms every special education teacher candidate has memorized for midterms and term papers. These are promises made to students who have special needs, i.e. student who have disabilities, or medical or psychological conditions that affect academic performance.  Lately I’m thinking we need to make sure these promises are extended to all students, particularly those who are growing up in generational poverty.

As a teacher of students with severe disabilities, I most often worked in schools in impoverished neighborhoods, because that’s where the district put my class.  For all you Sacramentans reading this, know that the classes for students with visual impairments were in Land Park (big mansions on Land Park Drive), the classes for students with hearing impairments were in the Fab Forties (that’s the neighborhood where the Reagan family lived when he was governor).  My class was next to the federal housing project.

I’m not complaining; I’m just making an observation.  Truth be told, I always loved the schools where they put my classes.  I loved the neighborhoods too. My students and I often went out and strolled around these neighborhoods.  I always felt safe.

I want to tell you about a couple of women I worked with at this school near the housing project.  One of them lived with her family in the housing project, the other one aspired to live there.  Apparently the housing project complex seemed nicer and safer than where she was currently living with her children.

I have hesitated to talk about these women because I’m afraid people will think I’m a bigot.  We live in a bigoted culture, and although I don’t want to be a bigot, I suppose it is inevitable that I may reflect that.   Nonetheless, I think it’s important that I let go of my fear of judgment and speak my truth.

These women were both assigned to assist me in my classroom.  One was a hard worker, the other was a very hard worker.  One couldn’t spell very simple words, so I found out early on that I couldn’t ask her to write anything on the board lest I embarrass her.  Both seemed woefully ignorant of facts that are generally considered “common knowledge.”  For example, one approached me one day and said that a friend had told her it was winter in South America when it was summer up here.  “That can’t be right, can it?” she asked.  “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

The other woman expressed great surprise when I mentioned one day that Seattle and Sacramento were in the same time zone.  In fact, she didn’t seem to have a firm grip on the entire concept of time zones.

I’m not saying these women are stupid.  I’m saying that they and their families have been living in poverty for generations, and public education has not been able to change that.  In fact it would appear that their schooling has been so inadequate that they may have huge gaps in knowledge.

I don’t want to generalize here.  Not every person living in poverty has these issues.  But my guess is that enough of them do—and that is why this poverty is often generational.  These women and many more like them were the parents of the students at our school.  These are the moms who will be helping our students with their homework.

When I was growing up, if I had a question, my parents had the answer or they knew where to go, which book to consult, to find the answer.  My parents read to me and with me.  They set a good example by reading themselves.  They subscribed to two newspapers and more than one magazine.  There were lively discussions of current events at the dinner table.  It was an intellectually stimulating atmosphere.  I am sorry if I sound prejudiced, but I don’t think this is happening in the homes of these women I used to work with.  I don’t think they can provide this for their children.  And quite frankly our public schools cannot fill this gap.  We are not giving our schools the resources to fill this gap.

To all well-meaning middle class people who have no experience with poverty, what I’m trying to say is this:  poverty doesn’t just mean that you have less money.  When you’ve grown up in this kind of poverty, it’s as if you’ve been deprived of a huge piece of our culture.

I have no answers, no easy solutions, but this is how I feel:  children of middle class and upper middle class families will be fine for the most part.  Their parents will look out for them and their schooling.  Children of poverty need more.  I would love to see every classroom in impoverished neighborhoods with a very small student to teacher ratio:  I’m talking no more than twelve to one, and in fact I’d like to put a couple of aides in there with that teacher.  That’s right:  twelve students, a teacher and two aides.  That was my class size limit in one school district for a classroom of students with severe disabilities, and it worked okay for us.  Imagine if we could give that to these kids.  I know most people will think this is ridiculous, even my fellow teachers will say, no, that’s not necessary.  I say, we all know there’s an achievement gap.  Let’s not waste money on new textbooks or testing materials or scripted curricula or some fancy new way to chart all that data.  Let’s just give these kids more attention!  Take them out on lots of field trips so they can have real experiences.  Then they’ll have something real to write about.  Have them write about everything:  science and math and family stories and current events.  As a writer myself, I’m a big fan of getting kids to write.

Some of those kids at the housing project—going to school just a few block south of Broadway on 4th street, barely twelve blocks or so from the State Capitol—some of them would point to the high rises on Capitol Mall and say, “What are those?”  I had a student once—we were watching a Christmas-themed movie and it was snowing in the story and this kid turned to me and said “Ms Schoellkopf, how comes it never snows in the real world?”  Can you believe that?  Is there anything more dear than that?  These kids need so much.

What is happening today in public education makes me so sad that I up and left.  I am telling these stories as a way of lighting a candle.  Maybe someone else will see this light and find a way to help.  I don’t know what to do anymore.

Crown in Heaven

When I was teaching special education classes I often took my students out to grocery stores, fast food restaurants or shopping malls to teach them how to behave in community settings.  We’d practice making purchases, placing orders, asking for directions.  Quite often we’d be approached by friendly strangers, who would praise the kids for their good behavior, maybe ask where our school was located.  Inevitably at some point, they’d turn to me and say, “You must be so patient!”  A few even canonized me on the spot, telling me I’d get “a crown in heaven” for my work down here.  That always floored me, but eventually I’d recover enough to force a smile and thank them for their kind words.

The truth is I often found these fawning compliments annoying.  “Why?” I wanted to snap.  “What make you think I’m so patient?  You think these kids are so different, so strange that they require more patience than the average, ordinary, ‘neuro-typical’ child?  All children need patience.  My students are no different in that!”

Even other teachers would get into the act.  “I could never do what you do,” they’d confide in the staff room, and I’d wonder if they’d somehow confused me with someone who had a kinky hobby or a second job that required late nights at the bus station.  “You must be so patient,” they’d finally gush, and I’d release a sigh.  Oh.  That again.

 

The fact is teaching special education didn’t used to require a great deal more patience than teaching a general education class.  You just needed a different kind of patience, different expectations, I guess.  I knew the general ed teacher was covering A through Z in the same time that we would be focused on learning A and B, then repeating A and B, finally reviewing A and B.  We all knew we had to move more slowly:  it wasn’t a matter of patience, it was a matter of planning.

The secret was that these kids were more fun than you can possibly imagine.  Most often they were less inhibited than your regular human being, unembarrassed to give compliments and affection, eager to try new things, tolerant of other people’s differences. It was fun to work with them.  Not all day, and not every day, but a great deal of the time.

When I think of fun kids, I think of K.  It will surprise a lot of people to hear that, even her parents, because K was a notorious motor-mouth and drama queen.  She drove us all crazy at one time or another. But K was filled with joy.  She seemed tortured at times, suddenly aware that other kids were shunning her, that adults needed a break from her and her demanding nature.  But despite it, she seemed able to summon up a good mood at a moment’s notice.  She could turn it around.  She was always ready to laugh and sing.

I think of C, born in a refugee camp in Thailand.  The first day of school he took my hand and tried to get me to hit my aide when she threw out left-over food in the cafeteria.  How do you tell a kid from a refugee camp that in America health laws forbid us from sharing left-over food?  C continued to be bossy and stubborn, but also charming as all get-out.  He was the type of kid who would reach out to give you a hug, and then try to pick your pocket.  He continues to be one of my favorite kids of all time.

I think of D who was somewhat chunky and a very slow walker.  One day we walked to the grocery store, and D bought a bag of chips with the two dollars I’d given him so he could practice making a purchase.  I told him no, you can’t eat it now, but later, after we’ve had lunch, we’ll all share some.

We went outside.  It was one of those cold, overcast days, the valley engulfed in tule fog.  My class line snaked through the shopping complex headed back toward the school.  Suddenly D threw himself on the ground in front of a Chinese restaurant and refused to get up.  He stretched out flat on his stomach, the hood of his bulky ski parka over his head.  After ascertaining that there was nothing more wrong than a bad case of stubbornness, my aides and I cajoled and offered bribes.  The other kids pleaded, but D would not get up.

“D,” I said sternly, “if you don’t get up right now, we are going to eat your chips.”

“No!” he bellowed as he pulled his hood more firmly over his ears.

Well, I’ve always said you should never make a threat you won’t carry out.  So I grabbed the plastic shopping bag that lay at D’s side, pulled out he bag of nacho cheese Doritos, opened it and passed it around to the other kids.  D didn’t flinch.  He just didn’t care.  I was forced to call the school and ask the principal to come pick him up.

As we waited for D’s ride I shook my head and said to my aides, “I spent six years in college so I could come to south Sacramento and eat this kid’s nacho cheese corn chips!”

We three adults exchanged glances, and then we burst out laughing.  “This is the best job ever, isn’t it?” I said, and they both agreed.

Hey, please tell me about your best day at work.  Or tell me about a day when you just knew you were earning your crown in heaven!