Musings of a Southern Belle

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 07 2013

Weeds Are Flowers Too.

I quickly realized after getting my teaching placement that if I blogged about my school and community, it would be easy for people to know it was me since there are only a handful of us where I teach. On the off-chance that someone would read one of my posts and misconstrue it, or even worse, read something I said that was negative and then repeat it (you know how small town drama goes), I decided against using this blog. But now, with three months left in my first year as a corps member, I feel like I can finally use my voice to tell my story. This is what my journey as a first year corps member has been like. These are the things that have happened to me, good and bad. The journalist in me has to tell the whole story – without sugar-coating it – from the beginning until now. If things are left out, it’s because I forgot about them, not because I thought they were unimportant or intentionally left them out. I don’t think there is anything offensive in this post. If something offends you, please forgive me, because that was never my intention. With that aside out of the way, the real story begins. I’ve arranged it chronologically with some themes coming out repeatedly.

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”

July – Institute was hard. My last post can attest to that. There was a silver lining though, in the form of a student, Mr. Preston. This child was firmly on a path to prison when I met him at Institute. He had a bad attitude, tried to fight people a lot, let his temper get the best of him and was involved in a crew of miscreants. He was smart, but didn’t want to look it because he was the leader of his group and it wasn’t cool to be smart. It was cool to have an attitude with his teachers and to not do his work. I realized quickly that he could use his leadership skills for good and convinced him to stay after school. I tutored him regularly over the five weeks and helped him realize that the path he was on was not the only path he had to choose from. On the last day of school, he wrote me a note. The top note is the one from the second week of summer school. The bottom one is from the last day. I couldn’t believe it!! I went back to Appalachia thinking that if I could positively impact his life in five weeks, I could do all kinds of great things in nine months!

The change in Mr. Preston from the beginning til the end of Institute

After Institute/August – Broke up with the guy I was dating. Moved into an old house with lots of character and an OPOSSUM residing under my sink. Said opossum then died under my floor and smelled horrific. Started school, teaching freshman and sophomore English and reading intervention. Was observed nearly every day by state people (my school is PLA and has three ERS’ on staff), the administration and my MTLD. Started off with a bang thanks to my terrible Institute experience that showed me exactly what I did NOT want my classroom to look like so that I could design it how I wanted it run. I knew who I wanted my kids to be when they were in my classroom. I didn’t meet a lot of people and spent most weekends running off with my college friends to Lex. Worked 14-15 hour days every day of the week. One really cool thing was that I waved at a neighbor as I drove by her house, and about two hours later she was knocking on my door to deliver a red velvet cake! Southern hospitality, at its finest! I felt more blessed than ever to be living in my home state and in a rural region.

What is true for my students in my classroom.

September – saw huge improvement in my kids’ reading scores!! My goal had been for them to grow .5 of a year in 12 weeks and they grew 1.5 in 6 weeks!! Crazy awesome feeling to know I was making a real difference. Finally started adjusting to a slow-paced life. Got taken up some hollows (pronounced hollers) to see where my kids lived. Cried a lot over the poverty. Learned more about how drugs were tearing apart my kids’ families. Showed a clip from the Freedom Writers’ Diary about class feeling like home and asked kids to tell me about their lives. Got my heart shattered by the terrible, horrible things they have seen and live through at such a tender age. This was my first wake-up call to what life in Appalachia was really like for the majority. Discovered that my meager teacher’s salary is substantially more than what most families make in a month. I also got a cat named Hilary (after the term I stayed in Oxford) but she was semi-stolen by my neighbor and eventually stopped coming around. I surveyed my kids around this time and was thrilled to see that they had been taking the messages I was sending them every day (Stay positive. Own the places you’ll go. You can be whoever you want to be) to heart!

Seeing that my students had internalized the messages I was constantly giving them warmed my heart!

A thank you note from a student in my first "rough" class

October – the Daniel Boone Festival happened. Whoa. It was like the county fair on steriods and with lots of strange sights but delicious food!!!  A rumor got started that a fellow teacher and I were dating because we attended the festival together (not true, but still persisting at school to this day). I got horribly sick with anemia. Then came visiting my GSP Alma Mater Centre College for the VP Debate. I volunteered for the Obama campaign and got to meet Jim Messina (his campaign manager) and be on MSNBC! It was really cool. Everything went downhill from there. My three best friends from college and I had a major falling out, leaving me alone in this tiny town with only one friend. I found out I was going to teach all the kids who failed sophomore English. I got in TFA-trouble  for not being able to keep my opinions to myself. I was told I was an emotional person and I over-reacted to situations (who would have guessed?! I hadn’t known that for my entire life.) I joined a regional choir. I became severely depressed, lonely and miserable. No one seemed to care. I also found out that I was going to be teaching Arts and Humanities, bringing the load of classes I had to prepare for each night up to four. I was going to be the only one teaching repeater’s English and Arts and Humanities, so I was on my own. I ate many Blizzards and cried myself to sleep almost every night. Oh, then, on the last day of October, my house got egged. The week after it got a coat of fresh white paint. It wouldn’t come off the house or my porch. My landlady (actually an angel in human form) came over and finally got it off by scraping it with an ice scraper. It was a disastrous mess. I had never hated my life more and spent almost every day regretting joining TFA and wishing I had gone to grad school instead.

My porch after eggs had been drying on it for 13 hours.

November – After suffering through October and just barely making it out alive, November greeted me with a care package from another corps member. The quote that stuck with me from the care package was , “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” I felt like my sophomores were weeds when I first got them. They told me they were going to make my life hell, promised to make me cry and sexually harassed me. I tried to quit, but my principal wouldn’t let me. It was the lowest point in my short TFA career. I had been given a group of students who hated me, hated school, hated reading and hated being told what to do. They were only at school because they were in truancy court and had been ordered to be at school or they would be sent to jail. One of them actually was sent to jail during the second week of the class. I had no experience in dealing with them and no other teachers had any advice to give me. My principal told my MTLD that I reminded him of Erin Gruwell. I went home, watched the Freedom Writers’ Diary all the way through, and decided that I had to be Erin for these kids. They deserved it. Connecting with them was really tough, but I finally got through to them once they realized that I was not here for the money, but to help them get a better life that they deserved. They realized I wasn’t like their other teachers. My teaching methods were incredibly unorthodox, but they worked. I started to see  teeny-tiny changes in their behavior. They enjoyed the class. Then one day while I was teaching, one of them was called out of my class and arrested for drugs. The class thought I snitched on him. I had NO idea he even did drugs until he got arrested. All the progress went out the window. My depression, anxiety and miserableness hit a new low. Over Thanksgiving, my family and I decided to take seven of my students for the school’s angel tree. Finding jeans, shirts, underwear, coats, shoes and everything in between for seven teenagers was tough, but I felt as though I HAD to do it because I knew if they had clothes that would keep them warm and they didn’t have to worry about that all day, then they would have more time to focus on learning. I hated that I wouldn’t get to be there to see them open their presents, but I knew the reward would come after Christmas break when they were all back in my class wearing their new clothes. I can’t take them home with me and care for them 24-7 like I would like, but I found comfort in knowing I could at least be sure they were warm and wearing clothes that fit well. My “weeds” had turned into my most cherished flowers, even when they hated me.

The care package I got from a second year corps member on one of the worst days of the school year.

December – Hell on earth. In brief, here’s what all happened in the 13 days of school. One of them got really mad at me and swung at me but punched a locker right behind me. I stepped in between two boys who were about to fight and almost got punched again. I had a desk thrown at me and was cussed out in the middle of class during one boy’s fit of rage. Pencils and paper wads were thrown at me. One boy took my rolling chair and rolled it all the way from one end of the school to the other. One of my sophomores wrote “F*** U” on my door handle.  And to just add the icing to the cake, a group of boys barricaded the doors to the parking lot on the last day before Christmas Break so I couldn’t get out to leave. Oh, then there was the comment by a colleague about me not being a “real teacher” and so of course not realizing that the students I promoted to English weren’t actually “honors” students. My students refused to read the book we were supposed to be reading and they also refused to do their homework.  On the last day before break, I gave all of my sophomores a Christmas card telling them how proud I was of them and how much I looked forward to continuing the trimester with them. I knew they might think I was crazy, or even think I was lying, but when two of them teared up and the one who had thrown a desk at me told me he was sorry and that he loved me too, I knew I had made some serious progress. The one good thing that happened before Christmas break came in the form of a present from a student I had twice a day. I stayed on him all the time about being positive and making sure he was owning the places he wanted to go. He told me he was making me something for Christmas but I had no idea what it was. It turned out to be a stop sign that he cut out of a barrel, then painted red and wrote on. It was super awesome and I keep it up in my classroom to remind myself and my kids every day to stay positive. I still wasn’t sure at all if I was going to come back when I went home. I had made some new friends, found what turned out to be a second family for me, enjoyed singing in my choir’s performance and had been attending a church that I really enjoyed. The break made me realize that I had to come back. I had gotten through to my students once, so I could definitely get through to them again if they could just stop fighting and start learning. I came up with a new behavior management plan (class dojo – check it out!), new seating chart and a renewed energy to fight this long battle.

The best Christmas present ever.

January – my house finally became a home. My life calmed down enough that I was finally able to put all of my things where I wanted them, how I wanted them, and decorate my house so that it felt like mine instead of someone else’s (I’m renting a fully furnished house). This was helped immensely by the nine snow/flood days we had! I also got to attend training on cooperative learning and it really shook up what I wanted to happen in my classroom. I traveled all around my beautiful state and visited with friends and professors from college as well as going home to my family. I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel! My time with my sophomores was coming to an end (or so I thought) and we were making real progress. They found out that Louisiana offers a career diploma as well as a college diploma and that it prepares students much better for jobs by doing so. They wanted to be able to have a career diploma for themselves, so they set about writing argumentative papers on the benefits of having two diplomas (especially for high risk students). We discussed this with the administration and soon found out that the school would offer career pathways starting next year. I may never know if the papers we wrote and the discussions I had with the administration played a role in the development of career pathways, but I know that my kids believe that they helped affect real change at our school (something that they thought impossible when we started writing!). That was a huge victory for us. I soon found out that my third trimester would see most of my children I’d had all year taken from me and my schedule being changed all around, with one exception: I was keeping my sophomores. I was shocked. After I got over my shock, I resolved to make the third trimester a way better 12 weeks than the previous. It rained and rained and snowed and snowed. I never understood the saying, “see you tomorrow, Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise” until I moved here. Now, it makes perfect sense. I watched the valley I live in turn into a virtual lake over night.

No matter if it's flooded, snowy, foggy or sunny, the foothills of the Appalachians are the most beautiful place on Earth.

February – My family at home fell apart, but my second family here became stronger than ever. The relationships I have developed with people in my town will go with me for the rest of my life. I’ve learned how to cook Appalachian food. I’ve enjoyed sitting around a camp fire and listening to a family sing songs that have been passed down for generations. I’ve been in a working outhouse! I’ve learned that family can take someone in as one of their own with no blood relation and support them in their time of need. I’ve laughed til I’ve cried, then cried til they’ve made me laugh. I’ve gotten a second mother, sister, father and a whole heck of a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins. I’ve seen the mountains covered in snow and even got to go with a friend to the Pinnacle and see the Cumberland Gap. I finally belong here. On the school front, I finished up the trimester with the biggest victory with my sophomores. They tested for THREE STRAIGHT DAYS without a whole lot of complaining and no refusing, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM PASSED MY CLASS!!!! These kids, the ones deemed failures and told they are just biding their time til they drop out, showed everyone else that they CAN be successful and do well in school, if given a chance. If you would have asked me on that first day in November if I thought they would all pass and work on assessments for three straight days, I would probably have laughed in your faith. I had such little faith at the beginning. I had no faith in them because of what I had heard about them, and I had even less faith in myself. I couldn’t imagine being able to do anything with “these” kids. But I did. I am so proud of them. The growth and the maturity they have shown strikes me with awe. I am so glad my principal didn’t let me walk out on that horrible first day. I would have never believed in myself or in my students.

These guys managed to test for three days without giving up! And each and every one of them passed my class!!

March – and here we are. 10 weeks left of school and out for another five day weekend due to weather. Back in August, I had a student who was disrespectful to me to the point of sexually harassing me, refused to do work and was basically the bane of my existence. After threatening me to call me at any time of the day or night, a parent-teacher conference was had and some pretty severe consequences were threatened by the assistant principal. I was shaken up by this breach of privacy and didn’t really know how to react. I had a lot of trouble with this student for the rest of the trimester and felt like I never really got through to him. When he showed up in my class again third term, I was worried. To my complete and utter shock, on the first day of class, he raised his hand when I asked who in there wanted to go to college! He then told me he had stopped dipping. My jaw was on the floor. A few days later, he came to me after school and told me thank you for changing his life around. He said that when he almost got in so much trouble because of my class, he realized he didn’t want to be that way and decided to start acting right. I hadn’t seen him in 12 weeks. He was like a completely different person. I was flabbergasted and humbled to think that something that was so minute to me was a life-changer to him. This is why I Teach For America. To make changes on the very small scale so that they have better lives for themselves, their communities and generations to come. Within the same week, I got a phone call from Mr. Preston, the student from Institute. The connection was shaky, so he texted me instead. You can see the picture below for what it said.

Why I Teach For America - to inspire changes like this.

Looking forward – I know I’m not a perfect teacher. I know I’m not a perfect human being. But I am doing everything I can to give my students options so that they do not have to be resigned to the destiny they were born into unless it is their choice. I believe more strongly than ever in the saying “All weeds are flowers too, until you get to know them.” I believe strongly in the future of Appalachia and of the children I am teaching. Yes, it is difficult work. Yes, it is time-consuming. Yes, sometimes it really sucks. But I’m not giving up. I can’t give up. I believe in myself. More than that, I believe in my children. I believe in my fellow corps members. I believe that one day, all children in Appalachia will have access to a quality education.

These are the things I believe. One day, all children.

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