Tales from an inner city high school

Saturday, March 29, 2008


We have a new principal.

This is the third one this year. I found out from the kids, as usual. Before first period Ashley asked me if I knew anything about it. "What? No, we aren't getting a new principal. Where did you hear that from?" She was right, of course. I found out later at the staff meeting.

Our former principal, I really liked. He really got things done and was really supportive of my program. He was a charming guy and all the kids liked him. Now that we have all gotten used to him though, he is leaving. He got hired on with the administration that is taking over next year.

"He'll be working on transitioning the students to the new school." said our new principal. An older African-American woman with greying hair and a nice smile. "In the meantime, I'll be here to help you all and I look forward to meeting all of you. We have 3 months left and I think we can make a lot of improvements in that time." Oh great, I thought, more changes.

The students usually get pretty angry during a transition like this. It was all they could talk about when we had the first change in principals this year. This time they seem almost warn out. Not apathetic, but tired. When we found out the school was closing the kids had several walk outs staged. They wrote essays in development class about how upset they were. They went to community meetings and spoke. When the board voted to close the school anyhow I think they lost hope. It's rough to put a ton of effort into something and not see results. I think they feel helpless now.

I certainly do.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


I found out this morning that one of our sophomore girls was killed over the weekend.

"It was over a boy." Kavra told me during first period "I can't even believe that shit." Most of the kids said something about the shooting when they walked in this morning to class, but some of them didn't know the girl or hadn't heard the news. We were told by the administration that if any kids were upset they could be sent to the office, but I guess there weren't enough people to deal with all the response. We had some teachers up there and the one social worker in the building. A lot of kids were crying and needed someone to talk to, but no one in my class.

During fourth period one of my students asked if we were doing any work. "Of course we're doing work, why wouldn't we?" I asked her. "Cause that girl died!" she said "We didn't have to do any work in my other classes!" A lot of kids had the same sentiment, but we did work anyway. "If you are upset about what happened this weekend come up and talk to me." I told them. No one did.

At the end of the day one of the girl's friends read a poem over the school intercom. I was surprised to hear my sixth period class quiet down. Afterward they applauded.

"I know she can't hear me", Matthew told me as he clapped, "but that was really nice."

Monday, March 03, 2008


We found out a few weeks ago that the school would be closing for good in June.

The kids found out about it on the local news. I found out about it from them. A lot of teachers were upset. There were some representatives from the school board that met with the staff that day in the auditorium. People were shouting at them from the back of the dimly lit room. They were saying that the decision was unfair, that the kids needed us, that we didn't deserve to be treated this way. There was applause and standing ovations. There was a lot of anger.

I didn't know how to react.

All the teachers will be fired in June. I will be fired in June. I'll find something else, I know, but I can't stand the thought of leaving my students. It's really depressing to have to leave without wanting to. I've always imagined that getting fired would be sort of direct. Like an event where someone would yell at me and tell me I had to go. This seems so impersonal.

There are a lot of teachers that have been teaching at our school for 20 years or something. I look at my classroom and think about all I have invested in just 2, I can't imagine what it would be like to have to leave 20 years behind. Man. I think about the plants I was thinking about buying next year or the carpet I was hoping to get a grant for so my kids could do group work on the floor. Now it sort of all seems silly.

I think the school definitely needs change. The plan they are proposing will bring that. It will bring in a new administration, more money, more community programs, a new school name and mascot and colors. It will bring in new resources and an entire new energy behind it. But why do they need to fire all the teachers to make that change? Why do they have to fire the lunch ladies and the janitorial staff and the engineers?

Some of these teachers are burned out. That's for sure. Some of them hate their job and hate the kids. But I suspect that some of that has to do with dealing with years and years of the lack of the same things they are promising to bring once we're all gone.

I started out this school year with too little books and too little desks for all my students. In the freshmen gym class there were 65 kids enrolled to one teacher. And now they are telling us, the people that have been making it through this whole time, that we have to leave so they can make the place better?

It's going to be a hard year.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


It's the same every semester. The kids crowd around my computer wanting to know what their final grades will be. "What am I missing!" "How I get an F!" "Why you can't just give me a D!".

Then in the following days, a flurry of makeup work, a chorus of pleads, a general angry disposition.

I tell myself every quarter that I will do things differently the next time. I won't let them turn things in late. I won't except work past a week before grades go in. I won't spend time after school helping kids with late projects.

I haven't changed. I just don't want them to fail!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


It's finals week.

I hate giving finals. I wouldn't ever give written tests if I didn't have to. They make the kids nervous, and for my class, aren't a very good indicator of how much they know. We have to turn in copies of the exams we give to the administration and this year I took a risk and wrote up a description of a demonstration test I would give the kids, instead of a written one.

My Level 2 class has done a lot of work with the camera this year and their exam would reflect that. I brought all the cameras and tripods into the classroom today for a review. A lot of kids had totally forgotten the information we covered a few weeks ago and needed a lot of help remembering. Some kids never learned it. Anthony Palmer is one of those kids.

Anthony came up to one of the cameras a few minutes before class was over. He had spent most of his class time bothering some of the girls and dancing in the aisles. "Okay, so how you do this shit?" he called to me. I was across the room helping another student. "What part?" I asked him. "I don't know!" he said, "All this shit about the cameras!" I didn't want to help him with it. Anthony was a constant disruption and demanded help and attention at all times. I didn't want to cater to his demands. I wanted to let him fail so that I could teach him a lesson.

I went over to him.

I showed him all the things he would need to know for the exam. He asked a lot of questions and maybe, for the first time, spoke to me in a decent manner. Almost with respect. When I felt like he understood the material, I left him to help another kid and he continued to practice. A while later I heard his voice again, loud across the room.

"Eeeeee!" he squealed proudly, "I'm a be a cameraman, boy! I'm a be a cameraman when I grow up."


I got a call from Latrell yesterday. He called to say he was sorry for pushing me. "I apologize." he said. He said it a few times.

"What happened?" I asked him. "Man," he said, "that fight was over an extension cord!" almost chuckling at the silliness of it all. "But you got so angry." I said.

"I know." he said, "I apologize."

I talked to Latrell about how scared I was when he pushed me and how that made me feel. I talked to him about how I was really worried about how angry he got. "That could have been anyone that you pushed." I told him, "What if that was your child? What if a small child got in your way while you were upset? You could send someone to the hospital like that." he apologized again. We talked a little more about him taking his final. He was suspended for ten days for the incident. I told him we could work something out.

Today his mom came up to the school. She interrupted my sixth period class and I went into the hallway with her to talk. "I just wanted to apologize for Latrell." she said, "he's not a bad child." I told her I knew that he wasn't. We talked a little about the anger issue. I said the same things to her that I had said to Latrell. She said she was worried too. She started crying.

"Thank you." she said, "Thank you for caring so much about my son."

She gave me a hug and I went back to my class.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


I didn't know what the difference between assault and battery was until Latrell pushed me today.

When the principal told me that Latrell got charged with battery I had to ask him what that meant. He sort of raised his eyebrows at me and said "battery is when you push a teacher into a wall."

Latrell is a good kid. This is my second year teaching him. He's on the football team and he's really a gentle and sweet boy. His girlfriend is in the same period as him and they sometimes hold hands under the desks. Last year Latrell had a sort of joke in my class where he would call himself the best 'something' in America. "Don't worry about my homework," he would say, "I'm the best homework doer in America."

Today we were watching a movie in class and Travaris Martin walked up to Latrell and said something to him. I'm not sure what. It was at sort of a low volume and I might not have even noticed if I wasn't watching. All of a sudden they both stood up and I knew that meant they were about to threaten each other and eventually fight. I watched them for a few moments before I made a move hoping that it would diffuse on its own. I glanced at the computers near them and worried that they might topple one over and break it. I got up and turned on the lights in the classroom.

"Let's go, boys" I said and opened the door. They ignored me and kept sort of puffing out there chests the way that boys do when they want to be strong. I walked over to them. Latrell walked out of the room backwards while spewing threatening words toward Travaris. I walked him toward the door and Travaris followed. I grabbed my keys and told the class I would be right back and closed the door behind me.

In the hallway it was just me and the two boys. They started coming toward each other again and I got in between the two of them. They were coming toward each other harder and I was squished in between their bodies. Things started moving faster. Before I knew it the rest of the class had come outside and were yelling things at the boys. I was shouting at them to stop and getting sort of tossed around in between them. Latrell didn't look at me once, but I kept looking into his eyes "Latrell, stop. Latrell, stop." He finally spoke to me, but was still looking past me, "Get the fuck out of my way, girl!" he said and shoved me against the wall.

When security came the guards grabbed both boys and took them away to the detention room. "What do you want to do?" the guard asked me. "What do you mean?" I asked. "You want to press charges, right?" he said.

I didn't say anything.

Three hours later I did. I cried a lot first. Not because I got pushed. It didn't hurt. I cried because I didn't want to send Latrell to jail. I didn't want to send another black kid from my school to jail. I didn't want to put him in an environment that can only make him worse. But I had to.

I had to set the precedent that says "if you touch a teacher, you're out."

I had to.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


We have one White kid that goes to our school.

Heather is a senior and a really nice girl. I didn't have her last year, but this year she is in my first period. She fits right in with the other kids and she doesn't seem to feel weird or out of place. I really like her.

Today I saw Heather in another teacher's room at around 4pm. All the other kids had gone home and most of the teachers too. "What are you doing here?" I asked her. She shrugged. "Do you need a ride?" I asked. "I can't really go home yet" she told me. "I can't get in until my mom gets home." "You don't have a key?" I asked. "Why don't you have a key?" "The place I live won't let me in until my mom gets there." she said.

I looked at her stupidly.

"I live in a shelter." she told me. "Oh." I said.

I saw Heather standing at the bus stop as I was driving out of the parking lot. I pulled up next to her. "You want a ride to the train?" I asked her. She nodded. It was only a five minute drive, but I found out a lot about her. She came from Michigan with her mom and her little brother. She left because of domestic abuse. Now all three of them live in a shelter. They are trying to save some money so they can live in what Heather called a 'second stage shelter' "which is really like an apartment." she told me.

I dropped her off at the train and told her I would see her in the morning. I started to think of all the ways I could possibly help her. I had an urge to go to the shelter with her and see what it was like. I wondered if it was safe. I wondered if she ever got stopped for being a young White girl walking through a Black neighborhood. I wondered if she could get into a decent college and get away from all of it. I wondered if she wanted to.

And then I drove home.