I woke up happy this morning for a bunch of reasons--breakfast with my Dad, the sun and warmth, a rockin Ayyam-i-Ha party last night with the biggest potluck table we've ever had and tons of new faces, some of whom I got to meet, and then this. I started to really feel like I can do this, be a dad, and do it well. Rewind a couple years to when I was a teacher.
I got a job at the Youth Detention Center. I was a volunteer first, then I needed a part-time job so I worked as a guard. I liked the way the center was run, being focused on making the kids comfortable and working to make sure they were safe and had their needs met. I also liked the kids. Many had come from horrific patterns of life, and had done something, usually out of anger, to land them in detention. All the kids were from 10-16 (older than 16 and they either went to County or youth jail, depending on what they were charged with), and most times you couldn't imagine what they had done or what had happened to them to lead them to this place. I learned early on to not read their files. Either it would change how I looked at them, knowing what they had committed, or it would break my heart. It was also a big stretch for me. As part of my job I had to do things I never would have envisioned myself doing. Searching kids as they came into the center or when they left to go to court. Locking them in for the night. Cuffing them, usually just their hands, but sometimes their feet depending on the severity of their crime or the likelihood that they would try to escape during the short walk from the van to the courthouse. To keep that from happening I would hold onto the belt that went around their waist and held their wrists in cuffs in front. The problem with them trying to escape is that they would most likely be caught and have time added to their sentence, so it was in their best interests, I think, to help keep them grounded. And I developed some great relationships with the kids. One was 16 when I met him and had been in and out since he was 10. He was active in a local gang that has roots in Chicago, and was very powerfully built. I always liked talking with him. He was quiet and introspective. Sometimes when he saw me coming into a room he would discreetly take off his headphones, signalling to me that he wanted to talk. We would talk about what he wanted to do with his life, what I was doing. He never resented me for my job, which I really appreciated. None of them did. I think we all realized that we were pawns, in a sense, in a larger system that has roots in racism and the worst parts of capitalism. At least that's how I felt. So when the Center moved to a larger facility and needed another teacher I jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to interact with the same kids but on a completely different level. I could act in a more direct form of empowerment through knowledge.
So I got the job. But I was also asked to teach part of the day at a local alternative school for kids that had serious problems with mainstream public school. In many cases these were the same kids. One day I had a child in my class at the alternative school, then in the afternoon he was at the Center because of a missed court date. Eventually there were so few kids at the Center that I was asked to work full time at the other school. Inside a big part of me was saying no, but I wanted to help and thought it would be temporary so I said yes. That's when things took a very different turn.
The alternative school was run a bit more like a traditional school but with very small classes. And while many of the kids were the same, there wasn't as much structure. Looking back I think it's interesting that my biggest worry was classroom management, and this was what I was tested on for those 6 months that felt like 10 years. Every day, every class was a constant battle to keep the kids focused, to keep them from acting out at each other or myself. For many I was just another adult in an authority system that tried to keep them down. And I kinda felt that was how the schooling system had trained them to see me, and even to see myself in a sense. After a month or two I started to get most of the kids around to a different view, that I was there to learn from them as well as help them get on the right track, and that I wasn't out to get them. I think it's significant that I was one of the few teachers that wasn't physically threatened by a student. But the lack of resources, the interactions between the students themselves, and my newness as a teacher made it very difficult. Eventually I realized that I had become so quick to anger and so tense as soon as I entered the building that it might be better if I quit. The first time I talked about it with my boss it felt like taking my first breath after being underwater for a really, really long time. That's when I knew it was the right decision. I struggled with it because I didn't want to be another person that abandoned the kids. I had managed to develop some positive relationships with the kids, especially one-on-one, but I knew that I couldn't continue as a teacher. So I left in January and found a job in a special education classroom in a local elementary school.
Before this time I was really good with kids. I had volunteered for that year in South Dakota and spent the whole time with little 3, 4 and 5 year olds. And I loved it! And I think I was good at it. One of my major victories, which I'll talk about more later, was with a child who'd suffered at least from neglect, if not other things. He didn't smile for the first month, and somehow I managed to get the first smile out of him. But after my experiences teaching, I came to see little people as full of anger and arguments. It's hard to explain, because I don't think it's a logical thing, it just developed over that year because that's all I saw and dealt with. I realized that in myself. That I didn't know how to interact with 'normal' kids, but I could deal really well with 'at-risk' kids. It's a totally different dynamic, especially in a school setting which can start people out in a bad place because of all it's associations. All kids need the same things, I think, but with kids that have been dealt with so unjustly, who have boatloads of anger that can all of a sudden be directed at you for no reason that you can see, you have to use different tactics. You have to love them, but you can't come across as soft or you'll be chewed up. And you have to be able to withstand all that anger and let them know that you'll take whatever they have to dish out because you're committed to loving them and seeing them happy. All the anger, in a sense, is a way of testing you, to see if you're going to stick with them.
So, here's where I am today. It's taken a while, but I can see kids now without seeing the anger, either mine or theirs. And I can interact with them. I saw this last night at the party. I was with very young children, a group of them at one point, and I didn't feel the slightest trace of anger or impatience in myself. And I'm really happy about that.