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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pawnthink and the Power of Personal Narrative

When I orient new students to my school, I always remind them why they're here:

"Everybody who's here has screwed up. Either y'all did something, or something happened to you, or you had bad habits and it landed you here. We are the land of second chances and the only reason to be here is if your first chance has been used up."

Our school is designed for kids who didn't do high school right the first time.

Most of the time, heads nod. They know. It's not news to them that they didn't do everything right. Most of them have been hearing it since kindergarten or before. My kids are the ones who couldn't line up, couldn't sit still, couldn't stay quiet, and couldn't resist talking back. My students didn't D.A.R.E to stay off drugs. On days when the Watts Childcare center is closed, our attendance drops by a 25% -- all female.

Nodding in an orientation is easy. Changing is much harder.

They may know they made mistakes, but in order to get right with their own best hopes for themselves, they're going to have to do more than nod. They've got to change their narrative.

Our personal narratives are our guides to how we understand the world and the most common narratives among my students are destructive. These children's best hopes are ephemeral and distant and without a change in their personal narrative, their hopes will diminish and then die.

We do what we can to keep them alive.

We can teach them how to line up and we can teach them how to ask questions. We can teach them how to take notes but it isn't so easy to teach them how not to give up. We can teach them not to sleep in class and we can teach them how to show up to school. We can teach them proper ways of addressing authority and we can remind them that calling a teacher a "punk-ass bitch" didn't work so well for them before and that now might be a good time to change.

But it is much harder to teach somebody who has believed since before their earliest memories that they are powerless over the world and that the world is dark,dangerous and out to get them that their own choices have had a starring role in their personal destruction (Click here for more on this worldview in my students).

While our students are all near the age of majority, the dominant narrative is victim-based and leads to an emotional age that hovers far lower. We get tantrums because being a victim sucks. We teachers have all been trained on how to assess levels and types of anger and how to manage, deescalate and distract our students so that no permanent damage is done to our furniture, ourselves, our students, or the tenuous grasp on a second chance that each of them has.

Our classrooms can get chaotic -- sometimes there can be 60 or 70 bear cubs in the room with only two or three adults to keep it together.

And sometimes we reach a point where we have to let one of them go.

Meet Jerry. He's not leaving us yet, but if he can't snap his narrative, he's on his way. He's a nice kid. He's funny and he's a showman. He's a one-man, one-ring, circus who amuses the other kids to no end, but he doesn't get any work done and he's not progressing towards graduation. If you ask him why, he'll tell you that it's because of: people stealing his work, us not seeing the work that he's doing, us picking on him, other kids setting him up, people picking on him.

Today was a bad Jerry day and part of it went like this:

"Jerry, we've got to talk," I started as he settled back in his seat having just returned from the office where he'd been referred by another teacher for dancing around the classroom and singing and then saying, "yeah, sure, baby -- whatever you want, I can do for you," which she somehow found inappropriate.

"Oh jeez, Mr. Singer, I'z just about to get my work done, no'whut'I'msayin (he uses it like a period whenever he talks and it's a contagion that's infected the rest of us. We all say it now)"

"Even so, we've got to talk."

"What about?"

"What happened in Ms. ______'s class. You got yourself referred again. Come on outside with me." Going outside is where the "private" conversations happen -- it's a green mile in our school.

"I didn't do nothin'. I'z just getting my shit done, no'whut'I'msayin. She got it all bent outta shape." He's smiling and at the same time growing smaller in his chair. I'm trying not to smile because he's funny, but this isn't.

We got Jerry last year. He'd bounced from Compton to Watts to Los Vegas to Bakersfield and finally back to us. He'd lived with his mom, his grams, his dad, his brother, and finally back to his grams in that stretch and he's attended 5 different schools. He'd accumulated a little over 100 credits in the last four years and he was going to need another 130 to get his diploma. That's 26 classes. He's completed 4 since he came to us last November.

It's hard to convince a kid who's been essentially itinerant his whole life that he has some responsibility for what happens to him, but we try.

His time with us has been composed of long stretches of silliness and aggravation interspersed with short periods of hard work and a lot of redirection and counseling. We've had some real moments, too, between reminding him about not shouting across the room, not pinching girls, not stealing other students' backpacks, not dancing, not calling the female teachers "baby," not responding when somebody 'taxes' him or 'puts him on blast,' but each moment was quickly lost amidst the silly, the weird, and the sometimes downright tragic.

A friend of mine refers to the personal narrative of kids like Jerry as "pawnthink"

Each conversation with Jerry starts the same way this one did. Jerry thinks like a chess pawn. A pawn never moves itself, it is not autonomous and has no control over the board on which it will most likely live and die. Thusly, Jerry has never once been able to see that he plays a role in what happens to him. It's hard to take advantage of a second chance if you aren't willing to admit that it was you who blew the first one.


We continued the conversation in the parking lot. "Y'all are putting extras on this, no'whut'I'msayin?"

He pointed out some of the other cubs that were prone to playing in class. "I get my work done, no'whut'I'msayin? I'm handlin' my shit but you never see that. You always sure I'm fuckin' shit up."

I have my computer in my hand and when he sees me scrolling over to the gradebook where little progress has been recorded, he throws up his hands. "You gotcher mind made up about me, Mr. Singer. My name's always in your mouth and I don't do nothin compared to Deshawn or Rhonda but you aren't movin them out."

Deshawn and Rhonda were both aggravating. But they were also both progressing. We'll put up with a lot from a student who's making progress. Jerry knows that -- he was complaining about it earlier, sure that they couldn't have accomplished as much as they had -- but it doesn't play into his narrative, so now he ignores it.

Jerry's narrative, like all of ours, is strong. I don't know when it happens for us, but at some point in our lives, we decide how our story will be told and then we stick to it come hell or high water. For some people, enough pain can break the narrative's hold long enough for a new one to form, but for others it takes an awful lot more.

Jerry is one of those. I talked at him a bit more, but he wasn't hearing me anymore. When I talked to his grams later, she sighed. She can't get heard by him, either. She's not a pawn and she doesn't like pawnthink any more than I do.

Pawnthink is especially pernicious because it is so prevalent in neighborhoods like Watts where citizens actually don't have that much control over their circumstance. It becomes a vicious circle and builds into a pervasive sense of powerlessness that can dictate inaction even when action is possible.

And Pawnthink can be extraordinarily frustrating to the bishops, queens, kings, and rooks who come down here to work. We want to change things because we see how it could all be different. If they would just think like us. If they would just do what we say. If they would just stop defeating themselves. If they would just be different.

But the structure of the industrial school was designed to re-enforce pawnthink and teachers who are trying to combat it can find themselves working against the narrative in a structure that supports it.

When a child's narrative casts them as a pawn, large institutions do little to disabuse them of the notion.

But Jerry will be back at school tomorrow because he has learned to attend every day. And tomorrow we'll start hacking away at his narrative again.

And maybe tomorrow it'll finally snap.

And if we can get it to snap, then he can make the most of his second chance.


Blogger's Note: Please feel free to also see this as an extended metaphor for conversations with anyone who doesn't yet believe that standing up and taking action will pay off. I'm looking at you, non-voters.

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