Thursday, May 24, 2012

Falling Short - Part One

It wasn’t until I was forced to leave teaching and go on bed rest that I found out how I had failed my students.  Though I'd tried to impart to my class all I had learned from my teachers there was a fatal flaw…and it wouldn't become known to me until it was too late to remedy.
It was inevitable.  In two weeks I would have to stop teaching and go on bed rest.  Though my principal Miss Budd had made every accommodation she could to make it possible to stay, my doctor said if I continued working I'd be endangering my twin pregnancy.  

Twins often came early, premature and with complications.  To minimize the risk to their physical well-being you had to make it to at least 32 weeks to avoid respiratory distress syndrome (lungs not fully formed to support healthy breathing). Thirty-six weeks was even better.  At 36 weeks they’d still be premature but more fully developed.  If I was going to make it to either of those milestones I had to stop working and go on fairly complete bed rest.  I’d contracted shingles, had gestational diabetes, and my doctor cautioned I couldn’t put it off any longer.  I had to quit.

Though I hated to admit it, truthfully, continuing to work had been tough. In spite of my colleagues pitching in and helping out, even with the kids being so good, working was taking its toll.  I’d thought I was doing such a great thing by eating fresh fruit and drinking juices five or six times a day  until my fasting test showed I had gestational diabetes.  I needed to cut down on the sugars and monitor my blood five times a day, twice during school hours.

I couldn’t leave the room and hike down the stairs to a faculty bathroom every time so, I decided to make it part of the day’s lessons. The kids could track the level of my blood sugar and plot it on a graph posted on a bulletin board in the room.  They could compare and contrast how I was doing within a day, day-to-day, or week to-week.  They liked recording the number, plotting the point, drawing the lines, making predictions.

In those days the high-tech glucometer was a hand-held gun that allowed you to stick a disposable needle  a lancet  in the machine, shoot yourself in a fingertip, press to get a drop of blood, then stick a litmus-like tab of paper in the blood, slide the paper tab into the meter and wait for the reading to register and appear digitally.  Then you had to write down the number, carefully place the lancet and the tab in a safety bag for disposable.  Twice a day the kids would gather around my desk while I went through this ritual.  The boys couldn't wait to hear that trigger pop and see the blood slowly emerge   the girls held back and cried.  They were convinced that it was hurting me.  I tried reassuring them, laughing even, but after awhile my fingertip pads were marked and sore and I couldn't laugh it off.

The day had been particularly long. I'd been standing on my feet too much (carrying the weight of twins) and cramming it in so the kids would have as much as possible in their heads before the dreaded “test.”  There was no telling who would come in and replace me. It certainly wouldn't be an established teacher — they’d all be in jobs already.  I was stressed and worried and felt guilty and adding to my anxiety that moment, I was teaching my absolute least favorite subject in the world…math.

I sent the next group of three to the board to work out some multiplication problems.  Class clown James was trying my patience by sauntering up to the board and doing what my mother would call “lolly-gagging.” The other two students quickly did their calculations; we checked the math, they sat down.  James was standing there with his trademark grin on his face and fooling around with the chalk.

“James," I said impatiently, "just work on the first set of numbers.  Just look at the first numbers to multiply.  What’s 3 times 4?”

He jerked around grinning, giving me what he thought was an endearing look.  

“I don’t know…” he drawled and everyone burst into laughter.  Grinning and laughing, James was enjoying the comedic moment.  

I wasn't laughing  I was livid.  If I'd told him once, I'd told him a hundred times. He had to memorize those times tables.  

I had spent months trying to get James to work to his potential.  Praised, cajoled, reasoned, given him a hug, a kick in the pants, anything I thought might work.  Despite his poor grades, to me he was a smart kid.  There were glimpses of his intelligence but the only role models he saw around him in his neighborhood were non-productive adults.  The three "D"s were part-and-parcel of the adults he knew outside of school  drinking, dealing, and drugs.


Everyone turned to me, still laughing, but curious about the tone in my voice, not one they'd heard.

“Class.  Are you laughing WITH James or AT James?” and James turned to the class  still enjoying being at center of it all and still laughing when they called out loud and clear “AT HIM !!”   

The smile disappeared from his face.  He got angry, turned to me with fury in his eyes and said, “I didn't know that because I thought you asked me, What’s 4 times 3 !!”

And at that I put my hands on the board and moved my head forward and back as if I were bashing my forehead into the blackboard over and over in sheer frustration. The class thought it was hysterical.

I turned to him.  “James.  If you don’t know that 3 times 4 is the SAME as 4 times 3 — then I give up. I GIVE UP.  You say you want to be a pilot?  What do you think that control panel in the cockpit is made of?  Dials with NUMBERS.  NUMBERS THAT REQUIRE MATH.  Did you think the plane was gonna FLY ITSELF?  SIT DOWN.  I’m through. I wash my hands. No more talks, no more trying to get you to learn, no more sessions after school — I'm DONE.”

The class had gone quiet. James had taken his seat.  He had a steely look on his face.  His eyes were filled with bitterness.  It was a terrible way to treat a student. It was awful.  I was awful.

After that, James stopped talking to me.  He was in class but he wasn't present.  He didn’t act up but he didn’t look at me and he didn’t speak to me.  I tried pleading. I don't remember but I hope I said I was sorry. I do remember saying to him, “James. You can’t keep this up. I’m leaving in a few days.  Please.  Is that the way you want to say goodbye?”

But for those two weeks he just avoided talking.  Maybe on my last day he might have mumbled "goodbye."  I don't remember.  I only remember I left feeling I’d fail him.  

Soon it would get worse.

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