What did you want as a child (that you never got)?

I know there are many children around the globe who lack for basic necessities - clean water, food, medical care, housing. There are kids who'd give everything for an education or love. Safety. It seems ridiculous, as a middle class American, to even ponder this question. But having spent many years in therapy, as well as contemplating Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs", has made me realize the truth of Tolstoy's famous dictum:"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Sometimes it's not the thing itself, but what that thing represents.

                                        Ever notice how this pyramid lines up with the chakras ?

When I was in elementary school, one of my best girlfriends had a mother who worked (rare in the 1960's) and a nanny/cook at home who packed her lunches. She had what seemed to me at the time the most incredible lunchbox meals, such as a thermos of tomato soup, a ham and cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit, a small carton of milk, and goldfish crackers. My other best girlfriend's mom was a stay at home mom who gave her a dollar a day to buy her lunch, and back then, the food at our school cafeteria was like eating at Luby's. We had Meatloaf  Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Chicken Fried Steak Wednesdays, Fried Chicken or Corndog Thursdays, and Fish Stick Fridays. Each meal came with 2 kinds of veggies, plus mashed potatoes and gravy, and a fresh baked roll. You could get a small carton of milk or an iced tea and an ice cream with this meal and still have some of that dollar left over. Oh how I wanted to eat either of those lunches! I can still remember the smell of my grade school cafeteria. The lunchroom ladies baked those fresh rolls every morning, and the smell of them baking wafted through the entire school, making everyone hungry.

What did I get for lunch? My father was an attorney, my mom was a stay at home mom and we lived in a custom built home in an upscale neighborhood. Had three cars and an RV. Both of my parents were mentally ill, however, and they had their good days and their bad days. In the early years, they packed my lunch for me; later, I packed my own, but I was hampered by what my mom bought and stocked the pantry with. Sometimes I got a bologna sandwich or a peanut butter sandwich. Sometimes not. Sometimes it was a piece of bread spread with butter and sugar. No matter what, though, I got a full-sized candy bar. Always either a Baby Ruth or a Butter-finger. My mom kept cases of those things in the pantry at home at all times, along with dozens of large returnable glass bottles of coca-cola, and very little else. Sometimes I got a candy bar for lunch and nothing else. Now you'd think most little kids would be pretty excited about this, but I was a growing child, physically active, and hungry all the time. The candy bars just weren't filling me up. Also, after several years of this - I spent a lot of time trading these candy bars for lunch items other kids had but didn't want - an apple, celery sticks and peanut butter, cheese and crackers, nuts, a banana- really, it was a great way to try new stuff I'd never had before - the other kids got tired of just these two candy bar flavors and stopped trading. I was stuck.

This situation was symptomatic of an over-arching issue of my childhood - I was hungry all the time. My mom didn't like to shop, cook, or even leave the house. She started sending me to the grocery store when I was 5 or 6 - I rode my bike a few blocks, clutching rumpled dollar bills in my hand - bought what she told me to buy, and brought it home in my bicycle basket. Most of the time, I was instructed to buy cut up chicken parts, coca-cola, and candy bars. Once in a awhile it was a can of coffee, a loaf of bread, or a carton of half and half. The list varied little in all the early years of my life. When my parents divorced ( I was 19 years old and in college) one of the barbs my dad slung at my mother was that he "was tired of eating nothing but chicken every d@mn single day".

Throughout my childhood, I was small and thin, at the bottom of the growth curves. Tiny for my age - always on the front row of school pictures (they lined us up by size). I often fell asleep at school in the afternoons (probably bc the sugar rush had faded by then) which my mom said was the reason she held me back in kindergarten for a year, because I was so small and still needed a nap every day. It never occurred to her that eating a diet of sugar toast for breakfast, and a candy bar for lunch might be part of the problem. Teachers chided me routinely for the sleeping, even though I made good grades. I was the kid who hung around after school, playing at everyone else's home at mealtime, hoping to be invited to stay for dinner, and scrounge off other family's meals. I loved eating things at other peoples homes : spaghetti, salad, garlic bread, pork chops, mac n cheese, hamburger helper, corn, hotdogs, baked potatoes, pepper steak, la choi chinese food from a can, fried chicken, hamburgers, tuna casserole. 1960's kid food. As soon as I turned 16, I went out and got myself a job (my parents had gotten me my drivers' license early, so I could drive my little sister around - again, bc my mom didn't want to leave the house), and I started eating out every single day. I lied about my work hours, left 30 min early, and grabbed a meal at some place en route.

A childhood spent hungry leaves you hungry for the rest of your life. Whether the hunger is for food, or attention, or love, it can never be fully abated. Naturally, I struggle with weight issues today because I can never feel not hungry.


I was called to the principals office

This week’s adventures in teaching:

1.)    I asked an administrator at my school for help patrolling the hall where my classroom is located, because we’ve had a real problem lately with vandalism, fights, students eating lunch in the stairwell and being disruptive with noise and trash. All the teachers on my hallway are little old ladies, and it is clear we just aren’t fierce enough to scare the teenage students any more- when we try to direct, manage, or reprimand them, they just run away, only to return 5 minutes later. The situation escalated to a near riot one day awhile back, and that was when I asked the principals (we have 6) for help. The first principal who came to talk to me, following my request, reprimanded me for taking photos of repeat offenders and sending the photos to the principals, asking for help identifying the offenders. Apparently, I am not allowed to do that. (We have cameras in the halls, but they are broken.) The second principal who came and spoke to me, when I related how we had students having sex and dealing drugs in the stairwell, informed me that this “wasn’t true”, as if I were a bad kid who needed a stern talking to. Why would I make this up? The next principal who came to speak to me patrolled the hall for about 5 minutes a day for two whole days, and then the situation was dropped. Now we are back to the vandalism, fights, students eating lunch in the stairwell, students having sex and dealing drugs. Graffiti covers the bathroom doors and the walls of the hallway……but it’s “not true.” Now guess who will be blamed when something truly awful happens, and someone gets hurt? Why weren’t those teachers doing their job, patrolling the halls?

2.)    I had yet another angry parent meeting….I typically have about 2-3 per school year. Each and every time, the parent is certain I’ve done something horrible to their specific child (keep in mind, I teach 17 and 18-year olds, not 4 year olds) as part of my personal vendetta against them. Previous parent meetings have involved scenarios such as : their child didn’t turn in their assignment on time to be graded (this was, of course, all my fault, and I had to listen to a 30 minute rant about how evil and hateful I am, and when I tried to explain what happened, I was told sharply not to “talk down to them”); a parent didn’t agree with the grade the student earned on an assignment (bc the student didn’t follow the instructions) – we went back and forth for a good 15-20 minutes on how disrespectful I am, then when I asked the student to produce the assignment so we could all look at it together, it turned out he had torn it up. Another parent didn’t like a grade their student had earned, and demanded that the grade just not be counted, or be excused, from the gradebook. My principal forced me to do it.  I had a big kerfuffle last spring, with three girls who plagiarized each other on an essay. That meeting – 3 parents, 3 teenage girls, 3 administrators – lasted for hours late one day, and continued for hours the next day. During this meeting, I was told that I “was just jealous of these girls because they were popular” (wtf? I don’t think they are particularly popular), that I had “told the girls it was ok to cheat”, and other bizarre things. At times, I had trouble keeping a straight face, it was all so ridiculous. They actually forced me to sit there, 3 essays laid out side by side, and hi-light the plagiarized / copied passages in front of them, while they all looked on, critically. I did. (Because, you know, I might have been making this all up.) Why would I ever create that much stress for myself? They also demanded I have someone else grade the essays, because I was clearly, in their minds, incompetent. I did. The other AP English teacher, without knowing the situation, assigned even lower grades to the essays, than I had. These same parents then filed a grievance against me with the university where I teach - did I mention this was for a college course? I was exonerated. 

The parent meeting this week was over a student who was offended when I asked her to please sit in her assigned seat, so that I could take roll. Mom and dad rolled in during the middle of one of my classes, early for their appointment by 30 minutes, angry at having to wait while school was still going. When the bell rang and the class was dismissed, they continued with their belligerent manner, refusing to even sit down at a table with me and discuss the matter. The dad sat a few feet away, and started the meeting demanding that the student not be present for it. As the student is a member of a course that is actually a university class, taught as part of a dual credit (students earn college credit while still in high school ) program, certified by a local college, the Ferpa laws are pretty strict. Also, I have found over the years that we can cut out a lot of the “he said / she said” triangulation if we can have all parties present to discuss the situation, so I asked that the student be present. The dad began the meeting while hollering out “this is a PARENT conference not a parent and child conference” as his almost 18 year old daughter sat next to him, crying. The issue, as the parents saw it, is that I was unnecessarily picking on their daughter. I called her name too many times in class. I was constantly on her for talking. I singled her out and humiliated her. The parents were certain that no other student was given assigned seating, or ever called by name in class for any reason. The father quickly set up a dynamic where he would ask me a question, then when I attempted to answer it, he cut me off mid-sentence, loudly spoke over/ interupted me, and told me that I was cutting him off and not letting him speak, then launched into a 5 minute tirade about what was wrong with me. It seems that I did not know how to teach, and I was not “nice.” The angry father repeated this maneuver over and over…. talk about your micro-aggressions….this was a macro-aggression. He’d then look at the administrator present, male, and say, “You she what she did?” He wouldn’t let me speak when I agreed with him on a point, either. After the 3rd or so time of him yelling at me to stop talking (which I only attempted when he had asked me a question), I stopped talking, emoting, interacting altogether and just let him rant. My principal, a male, sitting in on the meeting, repeatedly asked the father what he wanted from the situation, and the father never gave him an answer (but never told him to shut up, either). In the end, after about 30 minutes of this, the dad, mom and daughter got up and left. Nothing had been resolved or even in reality, discussed. It was just a misogynistic controlling rant on the part of the father. I actually felt sorry for the student after witnessing this scenario – for I have found, once a bully, always a bully. Telling note: The daughter chose to do her research paper on child abuse. In my experience, teens will often pick a topic which they themselves are struggling with in some way ( pregnancy, drugs, homelessness, etc). The last student I had who selected this topic also had an abusive father. 

3.)    One day, (in terms of linear time after incident #1 but before #2), my head principal called me down to his office. He didn’t tell me why. I walked into his office and watched him look up from his work, where he was writing something, and he put his “angry, mean” face on. I actually watched the transformation. I scanned my brain trying to think what I might have done. His opening line was, “I’m so disappointed in you.” He pulled out a folder with my name written on it in large, angry (wobbly) black marker letters. Inside was one page, a copy of one of my facebook posts from months previous. In the post – a general comment about the stressors teachers face, the extra non-paid/after hours work we are often required to perform, strange things we are asked to do, and some of the ridiculous demands of our profession – I did not mention any people, places, schools, towns, districts, or specific identifying incidents. It was a general comment based on my 30 years (6 schools in 3 states) as an educator. I am not a person who posts political topics to facebook, in general- I view it as my “brand”, an extension of my public/ career/community self. So I don’t have posts about this or that president, political party, or which politician/ pop star/ famous person did or said this or that, but I might have posts about laws under consideration that negatively affect education. The particular post my principal had was part of a back and forth conversation between several old college friends, formerly teachers, who have since left the profession, springing off a scholarly article about why teachers are leaving the profession. My principal continued: “This post is offensive to members of our community…..I received numerous complaints…….you are a long time teacher, you should know better…….” I pointed out that it was a very general comment, taken out of context, and that nowhere on my facebook page does it identify where I live or where I work. The posting is not about him or my school. “It doesn’t matter”, he said, ”People know who you are.” It was a scary conversation, as the tone of it made me feel like I was about to be fired, even though I wasn’t sure what law I had broken.

After a long back and forth conversation – I confess I babbled about random stuff for awhile, trying to think and figure out the real meaning of the situation....so I’m not allowed to speak publicly about my own experiences? My own life?  – I said I would take the post down. I did. But I am hideously, hellishly angry. Combined with the demented parent meeting that came a few days later, I feel that everyone in my community is allowed to speak up about what they find offensive, except for teachers. I feel under attack on multiple fronts, just for doing my job.

Let it be noted: I am nice to students. The number of kids signing up for my classes - they have a choice and they do shop teachers - has increased 300% in recent years. Everywhere I go in this town, I run into former students, who are friendly and kind to me, as I am with them.

I feel like teachers on the front line of education these days are trying to start a conversation about teaching - the good and the bad -  but no one wants to hear the truth. The unchecked crimes committed in the school hallway outside my door. The student with the abusive parent who cries when asked to follow a simple rule, like sit in her assigned seat. (Afraid to receive a small verbal reminder not to break rules- what happens to her at home when she does?) Public censorship of an academic generalized conversation about teaching. I’m not trying to be a trouble maker or a whistle blower, but I am trying to open a dialog about the issues we face.