Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Because They're Children


In all honesty, when I learned I would have to spend an hour a week at Four Corners School, I was not happy.

I walked into the library at Margaret Scott at the end of August for our first full staff meeting thrilled to know I would be in a classroom, rather than the gym, and that I would not have to divide my year between Scott and Hartley Schools. Then I started to hear rumors about Four Corners, a school I'd never heard of. There was talk that my time would not, in fact, be undivided, that this other school had laid claim to some open space in my schedule and that the decision had been made, without consulting me, that I would have to teach there, as well.

All these rumors proved true: on Mondays and Tuesdays, the last half hour of my work day was open. The administrator of Four Corners, an alternative school for high-needs children with major behavioral issues, had learned that music was being restored across the district, and had invoked state law to get some music instruction for her students. With Scott just five minutes away, and those holes in my schedule, it wound up being me.

I wasn't happy at the prospect of this alteration to my schedule, especially with the idea of working with children who had such issues. Those I talked to assured me the support at Four Corners was remarkable, that I'd be working with small groups of children and multiple adults in the room at all times. I talked with the administrator and was impressed with her dedication to the children, man y of whom had been abused, all of whom needed far more attention than a mainstream classroom could provide. They come from neighborhoods across the Portland area, with other districts contracting with Reynolds to place students at Four Corners.

So I went. Mondays and Tuesdays, I ushered first graders out of my room as quickly as I could, grabbed whatever instruments I intended to use, and drove down 148th to Stark. Access was with my badge, which let me through two levels of security both entering and leaving--many of the children are a flight risk. I never had more than a dozen children, and all of them were enthusiastic. Clearly they enjoyed whatever I did. I chose basic Orff music games to play with them involving their names at first, then lummi sticks. I taught them "Head and Shoulders Baby," an African-American playground game with a catchy tune, and they ate it up. They couldn't do everything I wanted them to do--partner games proved especially trying--but they hung in with me, never becoming too bored or frustrated to keep working.

Then came word of another change: a fourth kindergarten teacher was to be hired, and my two empty spots would be filled. I would have to hand Four Corners over to another teacher in the district, one who should probably have been there from the beginning. He's a first-year teacher, fresh out of his degree program, energetic, dedicated, a good fit. He shadowed me yesterday and today as I wrapped up my six weeks with the Four Corners kids.

Today there was a new boy in the older kids' class. The children had been prepared by their teacher for this to be my last day. One boy said, "I'll miss you." The new boy said, "I've just met you, and I'll miss you." As I ended the abbreviated lesson--a traffic issue delayed me five minutes, so I really only had twenty with them--and the children began lining up to leave for the day, one of them gave me a hug, something I'd never had at this school, and I felt my heart melt a little more.

I hadn't wanted to be at Four Corners, and it was often difficult to teach there, but here's the thing: these are children. They've got more issues than the children at Scott, but not that many more. In fact, many of my classes at Scott contain children who, if their behavior issues were just a little more extreme, would be good candidates for Four Corners. It can't take them: there just isn't room in its program, and every school in our impoverished district has more such students than are commonly found in suburban districts. So we put them on behavior plans, try to practice restorative justice, and work to minimize their impact on the other children in our classrooms.

Some of these difficult children suffer from nothing more than an excess of enthusiasm. They want very badly to play the instruments, so badly that they can't help themselves, because one of their biggest challenges is impulse control. Today at Four Corners there was a boy who just could not keep his hands off my guitar. I see that with many of my classes at Scott, and I can't blame these children for touching what they should leave alone until I give them permission. It's a tall order, but without that discipline, music class can become chaos.

These children make it hard to teach; and like the Four Corners children, they need what I have to offer. They need to move, to sing, to play, to fill their ears with sounds that please them. They are only guilty of loving music too much.

And they love me. They smile when they see me, hug me when they're leaving my room, however many times I've told them to stop playing, told them not to be so aggressive with the instruments, finally put them in a time out because they just can't control themselves and the class needs them to be separated out before the lesson can go on.

I love them, too, and I feel for them in their neediness. I love those Four Corners kids I won't be seeing again, as well. Just six weeks of 20-25 minutes a week, and saying goodbye today hurt.

Why should it hurt? Why should children I've spent less than three hours with, and one I just met today, affect me so deeply?

Because they're children. For all their problems, all the challenges of working with them, all the ways in which they make teaching so much harder than their better-behaved, more attentive peers, they are children: innocent, inquisitive, eager to please, easily embarrassed, affectionate, sweet children; and being who I am, I can't help loving them.

That's why, however exhausted I am at the end of the day, however frustrating it's been to continually correct the course of a class that is hellbent on going there in a handbasket, I end every day knowing I have the best job on earth.

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