Tales from an inner city high school

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


You can't just kick kids out for anything. For instance, if a kid gets up in the middle of class and runs around the room in circles knocking over chairs in his path - you can't kick him out. If in the middle of a test a student shouts out all the answers - you can't kick him out. If while explaining directions to a project a student yells "This class sucks and I'm not doing this stupid project!" - you can't kick him out.

You can only throw them out of the room for a few things. In the very public of public schools, with a large percentage of students being wards of the state and an even larger percent being special ed, the students have a lot of rights. Their number one right is "The right to education". And so you have to keep them in class. No matter that they might be disrupting ANOTHER student's right to education you have to keep them in.

One of the ways you can get a student out of class is if they use profanity. In my school the kids use A LOT of profanity. If they use it in your direction you can put them out no problem. Because of this a lot of teachers provoke the kids they have problems with. If a student is acting out and being disruptive a teacher might try and provoke them to use profanity. It's very easy to do because profanity is such a natural part of most of their vocabulary so if you talk to them long enough they will probably use it.

I have never been a provoker and I've always felt uneasy about it, but today I did it for the first time. I had a kid that would not sit down, was running around and shouting, when I told him to sit down for the fifth time he said "I don't got to listen to you, white lady". That racist remark really got me. This year is my first time being racially discriminated against and it really sets me off. I wanted this kid out of my class. So I provoked him. "What do you mean you don't have to listen to me?" I asked. "You heard me." he responded. "No, I didn't hear you, say it again" I told him. " I SAID I don't have to listen to you, BITCH"

BAM! I got him. I made a mental note of his exact words so I could write him up. But I kept going "Whoa, now I have to write you up for profanity" I told him. He kept going too "I don't give a fuck, you is some shit." "I'm some what?" I asked. "You is some SHIT!" He yelled.

Monday, November 20, 2006


You can always tell when there has been a girl fight. The kids recognize it instantly. "Hey was there a fight up in here?" They asked excitedly today. I told them there hadn't been. "Then what's all this weave doing on the floor?"

Sometimes strands just come out, I guess. I am not schooled in the art of black hair or "Ethnic Hair" as they label it on the aisle marker in the grocery store. I am curious about it, though, interested. I asked a student about her hair a while ago. "Why do you put lotion in your hair" I asked. There was another girl standing above her administering the process. She looked at me in the precise way I hoped she wouldn't "Because its dry." She said, just as dry.

I have always felt strongly that the notion of "everyone is the same" is a big factor into racism. Everyone is NOT the same. We are all EQUAL, but we are not the same. I don't want to pretend as though my students' lives are the same as mine. I am sure that their Thanksgiving dinner will look different from my family's. I want to know about it. I want to ask about it. I want them to ask about mine.

And I want them to tell me why their weave is on my classroom floor.

Friday, November 17, 2006


A while a go I found out that one of my best sophomores, Shonique, couldn't read. I don't mean she couldn't read well, I mean she couldn't read. She knows some words by sight, but she doesn't know phonics or how to sound out words. She has an A in my class, though. She does all her work and she gets her friends to help and her mother to help with homework.

Anyway I was shocked when I found this out and surprised it had taken me so long. I frantically tried to find some one to tutor her after school for free. I called the board of education, the public school literacy department, I even tried calling the toll-free No Child Left Behind number (They were the least helpful). Finally I found a community volunteer and a retired woman from the neighborhood has been coming in every day after school to tutor this girl.

Today I gave Shonique a computer. It was an old computer that we had in the house, an old iMac G3. I took it to school today and drove Shonique home so I could hook it up for her. I am pretty sure I am not supposed to do this. I haven't heard for sure that you can't drive kids homes and give them computers, but it seems like something that wouldn't be acceptable. I told her to keep it under wraps.

It was a crazy experience going to Shonique's house. It was in the projects and it was the worst neighborhood I had ever been in. Shonique called her sister to come down and unlock the door so that we could quickly bring the computer into the building without getting robbed. A boy ran up to us and asked if he could carry it upstairs for us, Shonique looked at me and shook her head. Later I found out that kid was her brother. "He goes to a special school" she said "for behavior problems"

The damp and dark hallway lead to their 3rd floor apartment and I could see immediately how poor they were. The apartment itself wasn't so bad, it was the lack of furniture and upkeep. There was a baby walking around in stained pj's and her pregnant sister told me not to worry about him cause "he's mean". Shonique lead me into her room where snapshots lined the walls with scotch tape. Rows of pictures of cousins and friends. She had found an old desk especially for the computer and was excited to show it to me. I noticed there were no sheets on the bed I sat on.

While I set up the computer Shonique and her sister watched me. They wanted to know if the computer had the internet. I tried to explain that computers don't come with the internet and they would need to buy it separately. They seemed really disappointed and I felt as though I had let them down. When the computer was set up I showed them how it would work. I took them through some of the applications. I felt stupid explaining what iPhoto and iMovie were. I told them that to use those they would need a digital camera. They looked at me with eyes that said "oh, this is for rich people"

I came away from her building feeling bad. Like I had given them a taste of something that they can't have. A computer without the internet, without a digital camera, without a floppy disk drive.

I should have just given them a typewriter.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


There are a lot of reasons for the chaos at my high school. Most, I would say, come with the kids. There are all kinds of behavior that they bring to the school that would not be brought to a school with a middle or upper class population of students. However, I believe a lot of the problems come from the administration.

One problem experienced today was disorganization. Today was a half day and thus restructured. The kids were only in school until noon instead of the regular dismissal time of 2:30pm. So classes are shorter and they don't attend every period. Well, there was a strong lack of communication to the staff and students and the kids had no idea what class to report to when they arrived at school. "Do I go to first period or second period?" was the chorus I heard in the hallway. I told them to go to second period which was the most logical step since on Tuesdays they usually report to second period in the morning. Other teachers were telling them differently though and there were kids scattered around the school. Some trying to legitimately go to class, others taking advantage of the confusion and goofing off in the hallways. Finally there was a long awaited announcement from the administration:

"Students should go to their first period class until we figure out what to do"

...until we figure out what to do? I couldn't believe I was hearing that. Finally fifteen minutes later, another announcement came.

"Students are to report to their second period class"

Monday, November 13, 2006

shut up.

Silence is a very rare thing at school. There isn't a fear of getting in trouble which is present at most schools, the students simply don't care if they get in trouble. Most times when they do something wrong nothing happens to them and if something does, its usually not that bad.

Teachers deal with the lack of silence differently. Some teachers bring yard sticks and beat them on the desks when they want students to be quiet. Others turn off the lights and wait for attention (which often never comes). When taking a test a lot of teachers give everyone zeros if the class cannot remain quiet. Today during 6th period I heard the teacher next door to me shout "Sit down and shut the fuck up!"

That's pretty common too.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Today I had the kids write a synopsis for a story they are about to write. Here are two of the ones I got back (I am transcribing them here EXACTLY as they wrote it):

"This groups show is a comedy called a Box of Crackers which is based on a family of 3 and a black teenager from compton. Our main characters names are Dick Johnson who is the dad who got fired from the bank, the mother Kimberly Johnson who was a financial advisor and she got her waged deducted and Billy Johnson, a boy who went to a catholic school and was on the honor roll. Last but not least Keebler a black teenager who was born and raise in compton who lives with his grandparents because his parents died in a driveby. This show will show us the life of the Johnsons when they move to Compton."

"life in the hood. This is about how we feel as people in the hood like the things that we grow threw such as gangs in how the goverment is handling The situation and why on every corner the a liquor store or a fast food restorant."

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Beatrice, one of my students came up to me today and said "Hey teacher, give me a dollar for my birthday!" I said "um...no" and didn't think anything of it. She walked away looking really offended, but I get asked for money all the time from kids saying they need bus money or lunch money. The administration has made it pretty clear that we are not allowed to give money to kids. I think a lot of kids probably lie and even if they don't I can't get into the habit of paying for someone's lunch everyday.

Anyway later I saw Beatrice asking another student for a birthday dollar and I was very surprised to see that the other girl actually pulled a dollar out and gave it to her. I asked Beatrice what she was doing. She told me that all of the kids did that on their birthdays. She said they didn't give presents for each other they just gave out dollars and that when it was your birthday you were supposed to walk around asking for dollars. It seems like a really weird situation to me, to go walking around begging for birthday money, but its a part of their culture that I was unaware of. After talking Beatrice asked me again to give her a dollar.

I said no, but Happy Birthday.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Today the community newspaper came out and we always get a pile of papers dropped off at the front door of the school. During first period a lot of kids had the paper out and they were excitedly looking through it. I was really happy to see them all reading it and then I figured out why.

I guess a couple kids from school got caught up in some real trouble and there was an article about it in the paper. One of my boys in first period came up to me and said "hey wasn't this kid in our class?" Sure enough one of the my kids was right there with a big CONVICTED underneath his picture. He had only come to school the first week of class but I definitely remember him. He was only a sophomore. I guess he got convicted for being involved in some local drug ring.

The weirdest thing about the streets is how these young teenage boys work with much older guys. In the paper there was another kid pictured and then the rest were grown men. Since most of these kids don't have fathers it might be one of the only relationships they have with an adult male. At 15 I wonder what this kid's life is going to be like now having been convicted for a major crime.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Today I really felt like I affected a kid in a positive way.

The kid in question is Earl. Earl is a 19 year old senior. He used to be a ward of the state, which means he used to live with foster families. Since he turned 18 he moved in with some older guys that he knew and now he is supporting himself by working part time at night and coming to high school every day. Beyond doing all of that he also has a kid. He got a girl pregnant a year and a half ago and eventhough the girl and him broke up, he is still really involved with the baby and tries to take responsibility for it. He is a good kid.

In addition to everything else going on for Earl he is also a special ed kid. Like most of the kids I teach he reads and writes WAY below grade level. He is probably at around a 4th grade reading level and his writing is very hard to understand.

Anyway last week I chose Earl for a public speaking opportunity. Two of my usual picks were going to be out of class that day so I decided to go with Earl. He had never done anything like that before and he did not want to. He told me I had made a mistake and that he wouldn't be good at it. But I told him I really wanted him to and that I had chosen him because I knew he could totally do it. So he did it. He did a really good job. He was so determined and he practiced really hard and it really paid off. I was so proud of him on Friday and today I have never seen him work harder. He came to class on time he got right to work and he didn't talk to anyone. He was great. I think I made him see a different side to himself. I feel like this is why I wanted to teach.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Today we had something called "Principal For A Day" in which the mayor comes to visit the school. It has been a highly anticipated event all year, not by the students, of course, but by the administration. What takes place is that the Mayor comes to our school for a day. Well, not a whole day. Really it was like 2 and a half hours. He tours two classes with handpicked students, he eats a breakfast prepared by the culinary arts department and then he has a press conference about how great he is. Not exactly what our current principal does every day, but close.

I have never seen the kids so collectively pissed, and I know why. The whole situation was entirely faked. We have one of the worst schools in the city and we went around all day pretending like everything was great. There was such high security that the kids weren't allowed to go to the bathroom at all until the mayor left. They actually locked the bathrooms until he left the building. They also took all the metal detectors and x-ray machines out from the front of the building and moved it to the side entrance where they made all the kids enter from. I'm pretty sure they were trying to hide the fact that the school had metal detectors.

It's so frustrating that the administration decided the best way to act was to impress. What we should have done is say "Look! Look how terrifying this place is! Please give us more money and more teachers!" Instead they decided to say "Look! This place is great! Aren't we doing a wonderful job!" The kids saw right through it. I bet the mayor did too.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Today during 2nd period I saw two security guards run down the hallway at full speed. I knew something big was going down. They ran upstairs and then a minute later a lady from the front office ran toward the clinic. "We need the nurse!" she screamed. I said "what happened!" and she ran past again. A few minutes later the I saw the nurse run at full speed past me. "What happened?" I yelled. "A girl on the second floor is having a baby!" She screamed as she ran up the stairs.

The school is full of babies. There are two nurseries, one for babies and one for toddlers. I think after three the kids start going to preschool. But they are all children of students. I knew a lot of kids had babies, but I am continually shocked at how many of the girls I know are mothers. Some really sweet girls getting A's in my class have two kids at 15.

The worst thing is how the boys clammer around girls that have just had a baby. The girls get so much affection and attention from boys. The boys always want them to sit on their laps and to give them massages. They hold them around the waste and ask them about their baby. When I was a teenager I was always told that if I got pregnant no one would want to come near me. The situation is totally different. Its a reward to have a baby. You get time off school, a lot of attention from your friends and new found male affection. The other thing that girls get when they get pregnant is a pass to the baby club. All of a sudden you are friends with all the other mothers. They pass around baby pictures like trading cards.

When it all dies down and the girl goes back to being normal she usually gets pregnant again hoping for more attention.