I work thirty hours a week as a tutor at an elementary school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. The school is struggling – it’s had four principals in less than three years. The last one left suddenly, just before Thanksgiving, with no explanation or apology. The school was without a principal for more than two months. There’s huge turnover among the teachers, too. The district has managed to create a budget deficit of almost fifty million dollars, so massive cuts are coming. Morale is low, and the kids can feel it. They think it’s their fault.
My students are children of color, and all of them have a cognitive disability. About half have a diagnosis already, and the other half have yet to be evaluated but exhibit signs of dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and other processing disorders. All of them struggle with school in general, and reading and writing in particular. All are at least three grade levels behind in all subjects, and all are from low-income families. There are shootings in their neighborhoods. They are faced with racism and bias, overt and subtle, every day of their young lives. Many of their parents were not able get any higher education, so they, too, have mixed feelings about school. My bilingual students have ESL issues, and often their parents speak little or no English. A few of my students are functionally illiterate. One third grader has trouble recognizing not just letters, but numbers. Several of the fourth graders can read maybe fifteen one-syllable words. Every week, at least one student looks at me and says, “I’m dumb, Miss Brie.” Or, “I’m dumb at reading.” One student, a fifth grade boy, confided: “I’m bad. I was born this way.” When I hear “dumb” or “bad” I say no. No, you’re not. My students are stressed at school and stressed at home. There are so many obstacles for them. So in the short time I spend with them every day, I try to be kind.
My co-worker and I started bringing snacks, because we noticed the kids are always hungry. They are happy to get one Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookie. Or a handful of popcorn, or a tangerine. Or a sticker, or one of the plastic trinkets that my co-worker gets at Daiso Japan. Or some one-on-one academic attention, or just five minutes of listening to their tribulations. They’re so innocent, and also so hardened and cynical.
I frequently go to work worried about my own problems: It’s not easy parenting two teenage girls. They attend a large urban high school in a town that used to be middle class, and is now frighteningly affluent. My husband has a couple of chronic medical issues, both of which have no cure. Our medical bills are astronomical. Oh god, our property tax is due next month. Why is our electric bill so freaking high? I’m still taking an anti-depressant because I’m terrified that my suicidal depression will come back. We haven’t taken a vacation in years. I haven’t published enough. I don’t really need my MFA, why did I bother? And so on. However, after a day at my job, I know – again – that my life is ridiculously easy: We own our own home, and there’s no landlord hassling us for the rent. Incredibly, we have two bathrooms in our house. I have two beautiful children and a husband I love. Our neighborhood is safe. I may face sexism (what woman doesn’t?), but I do not face racism. I’m educated, and have spent time in other countries. There are trees on our street. I can pay my bills. There’s a wall of books in my bedroom, and I love to read. In short, I am fortunate.
What does any of this have to do with writing? Not much, at least not directly. Indirectly, however, there is a connection. For example, sometimes I wish my students loved books, even just a little bit. I want to talk about books with them, and books just aren’t part of their world. Even while wishing this, I think about how hilariously funny, and very smart my students are. And I think about their many extenuating circumstances, of which I’m hyper-aware every day in the classroom. I know that when a kid comes into our classroom pissed off and acting out, the thing to do is not to reprimand him, but to take him aside and ask him what’s wrong. This often works. One time, the kid wouldn’t talk at all. He shook his head and sat down in a chair, and tears started rolling down his face. Sometimes all a kid needs is sympathy, a kind word.
What I’m getting at is this: It’s not reasonable for me to expect my students to love what I love. Why should they? They love Fortnite, and Roblox, and Takis, and NBA YoungBoy, and Lil Nas X. Not books. Rather, the equation works like this: I teach my students a bit of what I know about reading and writing – because they’re in school and they have to learn. In exchange, my students allow me a glimpse into their world. They let me get to know them. That’s the gift they give me.
Growing up, I never thought I would be a teacher. I thought that teaching would only distract me from my real work, writing. But, weirdly, I have been writing a lot lately, in big bursts. Long shitty drafts. Maybe this is because, although my job can be emotionally exhausting, it gives back to me, too. As I suggested above. When a kid runs to say hi to me in the morning, for example. Or when the sixth graders all cluster around my desk at the beginning of class. Or, in general, by opening so many more windows on the human experience than I could have ever have found otherwise.