Saturday, August 27, 2011

Girls Just Want to Have Fun, But Do They Get To?

Having two young daughters of my own, I have begun to develop a growing terror at what their experiences may be like in high school in several years, based on what the ugly underbelly of the average day holds for many girls I work with in a different setting from the classroom, where they can flow in and out and often seemingly blend.
Having coached girls for 15 years and seen them transform into young women, I learned of their insecurities, their body image issues, but was often amazed at their fierce loyalties, their innate toughness, the emotional and physical toll that they were willing to submit to in order to not let down their teammates, their families, and even their silly old coach. They were willing to get smelly, dirty, even bloody in their quest to be great, and I was enthralled at watching them transform into tough minded physical specimens of young womanhood. Confidence and power and fulfilment was what I got to see so many times.
Now, dealing with and meeting with the "others" on my campus, I , witness more and more the frailty that comes with their daily life as females. Sexual harassment, bullying from both boys and other girls in a dozen different ways, impossible standards of size or beauty, and generalized anxiety that comes from being 1 in a 1, 000 or so seems to overwhelm too many. In the last year, I have had conversations or helped girls deal with issues with anxiety attacks over testing and college, frustration and anger with a father who "only feeds me because he has to", a hopeful addition through foster care to our school after a long time being expelled for violence against a teacher, and a dark-eyed knot of anger flaring from one who made threats about a gun being brought to school. Pregnancies occur from all kinds of financial backgrounds, and there is optimism but also white-eyed terror from what is to come. Girls "cut", they find themselves in tenuous and dangerous relationships out of a craving for affection, and they sometimes are kept in a state of suspended animation/puberty by fearful parents, and I relate to that last one too closely. For what the future holds, I can not enable a rosy hue, a secure end, nor shield them completely from harm.
My best effort is try and normalize the situations with these girls, be in the moment with them, and hope that that when they ride out the storm, that they aren't too battered to continue forward. That in this brave, new world, only a few generations from a set pathway for females, that they embrace the opportunities in education and career that so many are now able to grasp. That their armor is forged from within and is of unbreakable strength. That they don't just survive but thrive.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Prayer In Schools? As Long As There Are Tests, There Always Will Be.

As we get closer to the school year starting, I had an occasion to watch an episode of MTV's True Life on a lazy Saturday, and there was a feature on a young athlete, who had decided to forego home schooling to pursue more opportunity in the local public school, and under questioning, he believed that he would be fully equipped to handle the "worldly atmosphere". His story is not an unusual one, as at last count, there were about 300 thousand or so students in Texas who were homeschooled at some point, and many were for religious purposes. Keeping away from the evil influences in the public schools seems to be a driving force. This often puzzles me, because in my experience, religion and religious belief are alive and well on public school  campuses, despte the claims that banning "prayer in school" has led to a banishment of God Himself.
In my school I have observed that there are no less than 4 groups that meet before or after school to pray, to sing, to hold mini-worship services, from different denominations or in an all-inclusive manner (Christian) that is open to all. Every day there is a moment of silence that is clearly seen by all as a time of quiet prayer, and this is enforced quite consistenly across the campus. There is a Baptist backed mentoring group that works with "at-risk" students on a regular basis, and I have seen many community religous leaders come and eat lunch with students in the cafeteria. Bible Literacy is taught as a popular elective, and there is a religous service, Baccalaureate, for graduating seniors just before graduation.
It was my experience as a coach that most teams wanted to pray together before games, although I felt it my responsibility to step outside the room or away from the circle where it was taking place, so as not to condone it and make anyone that didn't share mutual beliefs to feel uncomfortable or judged. The nature of that reality, of course, was that every single student that I ever coached, always took part, regardless of their beliefs or lack of them, so that they felt connected or didn't want to risk being singled out.
I will confess that when I am speaking with student or parents and death occurs or there is great tragedy such as a cancer diagnosis, I try to assure that I am keeping them in my thoughts, when they know it means prayers. It is an intrinsic part of who I am, and I don't feel that spirituality, commonality, is threatening to those students I work with, although they may be coming from a place far away from that. They seek a connection beyond a physical presence more often than not.
Would all this be different if I worked in a school that had many Mulsim or Jewish students or both? That is a question that intrigues me, and I wonder when and if that might occur in my career. I know that our demographic is ever shifting, as a more Catholic presence is among our student body. Many don't come from any place of belief or church affiliation. The question for me, and this is a daily challenge: does my light shine? Mother Theresa may say it best: I know God will not give me anything I can't handle.  I just wish that He didn't trust me so much. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Teach Your Children Well? Of Course, But It Isn't News.

As teachers get ready to report after a long, hot and busy summer, I wanted to clarify a few things about our profession, which I consider to be the most noble and quite possibly currently under attack more than any other. Every day near the end of the school year, it seemed, there was a news story about a criminal act regarding teachers, mostly of a sexual nature. Of course, the precious mission that teachers have often heightens the spotlight, and I wince knowing that one teacher who acts from a place of evil in their heart tarnishes the thousands who toil so hard. With full disclosure, I will say that I have seen my share of miscreants. And, then there are those who do our profession a grave disservice by not operating at full capacity. (I have been guilty of this, especially during the busiest times of seasons when I was coaching.)
I don't say this to inflame but to acknowledge that not all teachers are created equal, and not all have a purity of heart and a sense of purpose that drives them. I have known slack jawed yokel coaches who try to only push PLAY and pedophile alternative certification "second career"  wannabees who wear too much cologne to school. Some have wanted immediate gratification and thrown their hands up at the grind and the dedication it takes and rely on others for their lesson plans, and ease through their days on texting or going online to chat about the movie they are going to see. I worked with a lady who stayed drunk most of her days and muttered and slurred instructions and was confused by another teacher for an eccentric custodian, and I knew a prominent coach who dallied in "aides" early in my career who washed his car and appreciated his attention. An instructor long overstayed her welcome and began to curse at students and staff, and another bodyslammed a student who teased him one time too often. Dress code violators, slackers at putting in grades or turning in lesson plans, habitual "tardy to the party" ditzes, these have all made my acquaintance. AND, they are the vast exception to the rule.
Most coaches I have known have been diligent disciplinarians and been the mainstay of their campuses, taking on all learners and making a real difference in the classroom. Most teachers I know that have been through alternative certification programs, including my own wife, bring a fresh perspective and a meticulous work ethic quite often that carried over from their first careers as engineers or retired members of the military. They stay late, arrive early, go the extra mile or TWO, as we say at MHS, and they have a tremendous capacity for heart and humor and a love for their jobs and their students. Most are continuous learners, volunteer for committees, go to events to support their students and work tirelessly to make sure students feel cared for on a daily basis. MOST are wonderful examples to their students that goes far beyond lesson plans.
They spark interest, they inspire, and they are the foundation not only of their schools but their communities, and they will leave lasting legacies far beyond a single school year. Their moments are sweeter upon reflection, with time, and they are more precious because often they do it without ever truly knowing the fruits of their labors. They go on year after year, not making the news anywhere. Quietly, they breathe deep and go into the summer.  And, then they rest, recharge, sleep a little late, and they come back and do it again.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Year In The Life

It's drawing closer and closer...that first day of school will be here in less than three weeks, and soon it will all begin. My experience has led me to believe that the year is to be planned for, and that a good, steady pace is essential. Burning too bright can lead to disaster.
The school year definitely has an ebb and flow to it, as well, while I am thinking of that easy "9 months" that educators work, with a pace that is never a consistent flow, but rather short, dramatic bursts with long ennui and a dash of hysterical glee thrown in for good measure. The year starts with such promise in August with new clothes, new rules, new campuses for so many, and there is an excited, frantic quality as kids flow in seemingly forever and promptly get lost on their way to their homeroom. Schedule changes abound as students figure out that the summer assignment WAS necessary to be successful in P-AP or AP courses or if the reality sets in that they may have already taken that particular course and been succcessful enough to gain credit. We deal with the invariable "teacher hates me", and sometimes it is too true, or the all important lunch schedule takes first precedence, so the con begins to get the same lunch as their "boo".
Finally, things solidify, and most students are at least mildly successful, and then the WALL of expectations looms suddenly on the road for too many, as assignments are due the next day, projects require more time than HALO, and the test that wasn't studied for becomes a 13 or 42 or 56 (which is bragged about), and the failures start to pile up. An October break brings fried foods at the fair and some breathing room and a dash of excitement, but it is a long time to Thanksgiving, and the PSAT does not thrill or amuse. Thanksgiving does come finally, and  MISD's choice to have it weeklong is almost criminal in  that it allows for a completely stupifying time. The first day back is a running in mud experience that goes on forever, and it can be a day of great transition, as I have seen marriages break up, grandparents die, jobs get lost, and addresses change at a pace barely equaled by the beginning of the second semester.
Finals this year will come before Christmas again, and I get the feeling that there is a bit of panic amongst the staff to get all done sufficiently before the break, which is two weeks of bliss and wonder and a rest of weary bones and psysches. Oh, and the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Breaks come much less frequently in the second half of  the year, with Spring Break a storied time of excess and sun, and I hear that students sometimes have fun, too. There is a warmth and ease of the pace on the campus, and then there is a melee in the cafeteria with fists thrown and  hair pulled, as girls can and do fight over shiftless boys. Police get involved on the modern campus today, and I have seen Tasers and handcuffs make an appearance. I saw a principal walk back behind the police who had two under control carrying what looked to be a small dog but turned out to be a torn out weave.
 Many shut down and get their excuses ready to try and avoid summer school, while Seniors try to make their final push a meaningful one and some fall short, but most make it out the door, with a firm push from their teachers and counselors. There is a hubbub and papers fly and tears flow and screams of mirth are heard, and another year ends, with just a whiff of satisfaction from most educators but a sense of relief pervades.
And, then, as the sun sets in a stadium full of 8000 adoring people for the 500 plus who have survived and sometimes thrived, and speeches are made, and then the lights go out, so the fireworks can start, and young men and women run like kindergarteners in the dark to grab a friend and a view, I gain strength and peace and think of future years ahead with a calm resolve.