I didn’t know his name, but he knew mine.
He said, in the kindest most innocent way, “Hi, Ms. Queen. I remember you.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
We talked at length about how violence affected his life. He started with a story from third grade and ended with an incident that occurred the week before our conversation.
None of the other boys in the room spoke. None of the other adults in the room spoke and I mostly listened to the young man who is taller than most men while he chronicled various degrees of violence that had angered him and interrupted his life. He told me about something he said while angry that landed him in some trouble.
Anger, I told him, gives permission to do and say things that a person wouldn’t ordinarily do or say. I told him that the most important time to have self-control is when he is feeling angry. All of the boys, six of them, nodded their heads in agreement.
Self-control is a skill that must be taught.
I teach language arts. Being a teacher at this time in history when violence is omnipresent: everywhere all at once, including in our nighttime dreams, is arduous: difficult and tiring, but those of us who are called to teach know that we have to add a list of mostly self-taught skills to our content area lessons.
Violence is omnipresent: In the days just before school opened this fall CNN reported that there had been twenty- two school shootings in the United States. “They have occurred across the country, from Georgia to California, at elementary, middle and high schools and on college and university campuses (July 26, 2019).”
No level of schooling is exempt from this kind of violence which we are reminded of monthly when we practice our response to potential school shootings. We are always thinking about it.
There have been more than ten homicides in our city this year. Most of the homicides, possibly all of the homicides, directly affect the classroom. The relative of one of our scholars, and sometimes one of our scholars, have been the victim. One hundred percent of the young people who have been killed in Paterson are students in Paterson. One hundred percent of the young people have been charged with violent crimes have, at some point, been students in Paterson. In addition, there have been micro violent occurrences that continue to plague us in our daily interactions: conflicts, traffic, nightmares. I know what anger a grid-locked intersection can ignite.
My own commute includes sirens, accidents, double parking, slow vehicles, including school buses, and crossing guards that sometimes give unclear signals. The scholars and their families endure these same things on the way to school. I have had several students who simply can’t sleep because the night brings with it an expectation of violence and when they dream sometimes they have nightmares. Teachers are expected to create school environments and classrooms that transcends the omnipresent violence in the world (including the commute to school) and scholar’s lack of sleep in order to teach academic content and we do it.
Teaching is arduous.
We, teachers, create an environment for learning and sometimes, despite our best efforts, we have to stop teaching content to address the water on our scholars’ faces. We have to stop teaching content to give a motivational speech. We have to stop teaching content to remind our scholars that they are worthy of love. We have to stop teaching content to tell the one who is chronically depressed that it is okay to be sad sometimes, and there is beauty in the world in addition to all of this sadness.
We have to stop teaching content to say, “You need this because…” We have to remind our scholars that self-control is imperative even though self-control is not a question on standardized exams. We have to give our scholars a kind of deep love that helps them to navigate a cripplingly violent world and teaches them the New Jersey Common Core standards.
Teaching is hard.
Violence requires those called to teach to add self-taught skills to their content area. Every teacher has to bring more than the content area in order to make the environment absent of the effects of chronic violence in our world so that learning can occur.
I teach language arts, and mindfulness, and self-love, and empowerment, and self-control, and empathy, and conflict resolution, and civic duty, and organization, and tolerance and patriotism, and respect, and current events, and history, and patience, and possibility. I teach all of these things and some I’ve forgotten to mention after I’ve learned them for myself. Some I’ve paid money to learn. Some I’ve paid for with experience.
My classroom neighbor teaches Social Studies, and how-to -be- a- man. He uses everything in is knapsack to get the job done. Still, with all we bring, teaching is hard because the violence in our country has permeated the classrooms from sea to shining sea.
We, teachers, are like the scholars that we teach because we also have to navigate this violent world. We are sad sometimes about what our children are experiencing. We have fears about the future just like our scholars. We need to be reminded about what we are doing well just like when we uplift our scholars. We need pep talks and surprises and we need to know that we are loved- a little bit, too.
Teaching is exhausting and arduous because there isn’t anyone with a knapsack making sure that the teacher is alright and that is why when a scholar, who has never been in my class, gifts me with the words, “Hi, Ms. Queen. I remember you,” my reply is, “Thank you,” before giving him one of the things from my knapsack.
Questions Before the Bell
If a shooter comes through that door are you going to save us?
The answer to that is not on any page
in any book.
What’s your favorite color?
Purple. Sometimes orange.
When you were a kid, did you have this much homework?
The answer to that is yes,
Why won’t they let us wear our hoodies?
The answer to that has not been shared
with me, but I suspect that the answer is fear.
Do you have anything to eat?
The answer to that is no
because I am not allowed to share food due to allergies.
If I die will you come to my funeral?
The answer to that is No
because you will live longer than me,
Is this a drill?
There is no answer to that.