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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I Don't Matter

I don't teach in a traditional school.   I work as part of a team in an academy designed for students who could not make it in traditional schools.  Some of our students come to us ready and willing to do the simple strenuous work of graduating and have the tools for doing so already installed.  The rest, though, do not.  My students are the ones that disrupted class, or didn't go.  My students are the ones who got pregnant or got arrested or got deported.  My students are the ones who slept in class or wouldn't take off their headphones.  My students are the ones that were better known by the security guards, lunch-ladies, attendance officers and janitors than they were by their own teachers.   My students are the ones that didn't understand that teachers don't need their opinions on their hygiene and personality and who insisted that calling the classroom leader a punk-ass bitch was simply an observation.  My students are the ones who missed the memo on the importance of getting in line, shutting up and being seated when the bell rang.  

My students were those kids and, some days, they still are. Now, though, they are older, more experienced, slightly less angry and less filled with self-loathing.  Many of them are on their own now, or are already budding heads of household, though they may still share the building with the rest of their original family.  Many of them have forged positive relationships with their probation officer, their social worker, their counselors or, more probably with me and the rest of us in the academy and now they come, almost every day so that they can be with us and be doing something that lets them feel that they are altering a life-course that oftentimes seems inevitable.

They want a diploma.  They want to accomplish.  They want to do better.  They want us to be proud of them. There are moments when what they want is to learn.

My students scare a lot of people.  The school administers a survey of students at the end of each year and one of the questions is "My teacher is afraid of me" and the students are asked to rate the truth of the statement on a scale of 1 to 5 with one being, "Absolutely" and five being "Not at All."  I got uncomfortable when I saw the survey for the first time.  The truth is that there were times in the course of the year when I was afraid of them, when I wasn't sure how far things would go or what they would do.   There were times in the course of the year when the dynamics of the academy shifted to the point where the thin and tender outer ring of willingness to change and desire for more that my students had grown seemed to crack and reveal the hardness of earlier days.  There were times when I caused that to happen by being too sharp, too critical, or too cranky.  There were also times when the steely undershells would break through and seemingly slough off all of the progress of years for reasons I didn't understand.

There were times when I asked, "why?"

"This is Watts."

I think I understand part of it.  I think I'm witnessing the product of having one's greatest truth being the same as one's greatest fear:  I Don't Matter.

I Don't Matter.  That is my truth.   I see evidence of it everywhere and it informs my reaction to every interaction.

"Why you want me to be quiet?  I ain't bothering anybody."
"Nobody cares if I listen to music -- it don't bother nobody."
"Why the fuck you so worried about what I do, anyway?"
"You all don't give a fuck about me 'cept when I get inconvenient"

I Don't Matter.  That is my deepest fear.  I see evidence of it everywhere and it informs my reaction to every interaction.

"What the fuck?!  I need help and you just walk right past."
"Why you  looking at me?"
"Fuck you, you just ignoring me."
"He's disrespecting me.  He needs to show me some respect."

So as the year gets ready to start and we dust off the chairs and tables and computers and files and cringe at all the little things that we didn't get done last year that we still need to do, there's one thing more important than any other that we need to arrange before the rising flood of students, angry at the end of summer, scared of the work ahead, embarrassed by their gratitude, and desperately in need of a structure return.  We must prepare ourselves to demonstrate in everything we do:

You are wrong:  You matter.
Don't be afraid:  You matter.

And they do matter.  Each and every one of them.  And until they believe that, until their personal narration is rewritten to reflect the new truth, our job isn't really done.

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