Wednesday, June 22, 2016


In the debate over gun legislation, one question hangs over all. Have you personally lost anyone - a friend, a student, a relative, a co-worker - to gun violence? For most people I expect that the answer is not only "no," but "what are you talking about?" I passed the first 47 years of my life never having known anyone who got shot to death by someone else. This is an "inventory" of those I knew who were murdered by gun, beginning that 47th year.

Angel was my TA first semester one year at a large comprehensive high school in a tough, gang-infested neighborhood. He was from that neighborhood, had graduated from that high school, and was currently enrolled in a community college, where he was taking the required classes in order to transfer to a four-year university, where he hoped to complete his BA and get his teaching credential. I mentored him as he worked with my ESL students, and encouraged him to come back to our school and teach, citing examples of others who had preceded him down that very path. He moved to another teacher's class second semester, but we continued to chat when we passed in the halls or ran into each other in the office. One weekend at the very end of March, he and his brother, then a senior at our school, went to visit some cousins in a nearby state. His cousins gave a party. Some outsiders tried to crash it, but were turned away. They came back with guns. Angel never knew what hit him. He was across the room when the intruders burst in, but a bullet severed his aorta, and he bled out in his brother's arms.

Darryl was a student in my 10th grade English class. Second semester he came back without his glasses. He'd sat on them over our track's two-month break at our year-round campus. I spent a lot of time on the phone with his mom, the social service agency that had to OK payment for replacement glasses, and the optical shop making the glasses. He was using the lack of glasses to cover for his lack of effort, which resulted in further conversations with my friend the football coach. By the end of the semester, Darryl was back on track, and we broke for the summer. When we returned in the fall, I heard that he'd been shot in the stomach while riding the Metro bus. He'd survived, but football was out of the question. He also fell behind, and was transferred to a continuation campus, where he could work to catch up at his own pace. I visited that campus at the end of that school year to meet with another teacher and ran into Darryl. He was back on track to graduate the following year and had signed to join the Navy after graduation. Both my teacher friend and the principal were pleased with his effort and leadership. The following year, I had left the large comprehensive campus and transferred to a different continuation campus. All of my large district's small campuses held their graduation at a single location, so I went looking for my teacher friend, and for Darryl, whose name was on the unified program for the annual graduation event. I did not see her at the location indicated for her school's students to gather. The students told me she'd be there shortly. Then I asked about Darryl. Every single student looked taken aback, and they all looked down at the sidewalk. At that moment my friend appeared, and when I asked her, she said, "You didn't hear?" Darryl had completed all his classes in April, but had delayed his departure to Navy basic training so that his mom could see him cross the stage and get his diploma. That delay proved fatal....another bullet.

Clifton's mom was an LVN, who was deeply involved in her children's lives. Clifton was her son from a previous marriage or relationship. She had two children with his step-father. I met her at parent night in the fall semester and it was evident from that meeting why Clifton was such a pleasure to have in that 9th grade honors English class. Because it was honors, the students had a huge reading assignment to complete over our two-month "off track" time in January and February, and I'd told them that I'd be calling at least twice to check up on them. Calls began the second week of January. I was able to contact almost everyone, but no one ever answered at Clifton's house; therefore, at the end of the month I called one of his two best friends from middle school. After an endless string of questions, and another call to Clifton's other best friend, I finally pieced together the entire story. Clifton's mother and step-father had gotten into an argument. The step-father stormed out, got a gun, stormed back in and shot Clifton's mom dead in front of her three kids. She died in Clifton's arms.

Felix was a textbook ADHD kid. He could not keep quiet or remain in his seat for more than a few minutes at a time, so keeping him focused and on track was always a bit of a challenge. A student at the continuation campus to which I had transferred a year before he arrived, his saving grace was his good humor and cheer. His problem was his inability to know when not saying something would be better or safer than shooting off his mouth. Added to that was a fascination and perhaps "wannabe" involvement with a gang in his neighborhood. Not a good combination. Shortly after the principal of our tiny campus decided that Felix would be better off at a different campus, he was killed....execution style....most likely by his own homies, according to word on the street.

Those are the four people I knew personally who lost their lives to gun violence. My students knew countless others, including in some cases their own parents, other family members, friends and neighbors. For them, the possibility of violent death was ever present. This is not acceptable. It has never been acceptable, and the fact that it has been tolerated for so long gives the lie to the myth of national "greatness" that is propagated by so many.

Friday, January 23, 2015

One Size Fits All

Congress is revisiting ESEA, in the form of NCLB. Senator Lamar Alexander has asked for input and comment from the public. Here is my letter to him:

Dear Senator Alexander,

In response to your call for comments on the revision of ESEA (NCLB), I have a modest proposal.  Given that Secretary Duncan has repeatedly praised the new Common Core standards, and the annual tests that accompany those standards, it seems unfair that only public school students are the beneficiaries of David Coleman’s chef d’oevre.

Therefore, I would like to propose that the CCSS and tests like the PARCC and SBAC be made mandatory for all students across this great nation of ours. When I say all students, I mean ALL students, no exceptions. This would include students in private, parochial, online or home schools, all of whom would be required to meet these college and career-ready standards for the 21st century, and to present themselves for annual testing.

We cannot afford to leave the education of non-public school students to chance or the expertise of their teachers. After all, what do mere teachers know in comparison to the brilliant CCSS writers, none of whom were tainted by actual classroom experience?

Parents of these children may complain that one size does not fit all, but they are just over-privileged whiners. After all, one size has been deemed by Secretary Duncan to be appropriate for all public school students; therefore, logic dictates that the CCSS would also be appropriate for all other students. Not one can be permitted to evade accountability. We must have data on all our young people, lest we fall behind!

The type, philosophy and teaching methods of the private, parochial, online or home schools are irrelevant. If adherence to CCSS and the accompanying high-stakes testing causes these schools to scale back or eliminate science, social studies, PE, and arts classes, that is a tiny price to pay for making sure that all students are college and career-ready, and that they can prove that readiness through testing.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Different Life?

      When every male member of your family belongs to a gang, when you can't even remember the last time you saw your dad sober, then school becomes a refuge, a ticket to the possibility of a different life.  "Mari" came to high school every day for two years, until the one day she finally decided to ditch, to "comfort" a friend in need, and the dream went off the rails.

     The first year I decided to give up ESL and teach 9th grade English instead, I did so because the administration decided to provide at-risk, behind on their skills 9th graders an extra period of Language Arts, to be taught by their English 9 teacher.  There was no mandated curriculum.  No extra directives appeared in my mailbox.  I was essentially free to analyze my students' academic needs and then invent a curriculum to solve those issues.  That was a challenge I couldn't refuse.

     Some teachers, and we all know people like this, kept to their same half-baked level of effort, and ended up spending an extra hour boring the crap out of their students.  I decided to form a "family" with my class, and since I come from a culture where a lot of problems are solved with food, I devised a way to get to know them individually, starting the second day of the semester. 

     The double class lasted two hours, followed by a twenty minute breakfast break, so every day I brought in a cooler with several juice boxes and huge individually wrapped Otis Spunkmeyer muffins.  Starting with the students I deemed to be most at risk, and because the principal had told me I could keep kids for the entire 20 minutes if I fed them, I "invited" one student a day to have breakfast with me, turning two desks to face each other in the open doorway, and engaging in the eternal social dance of "getting to know you" with each student.

     The first student selected tried to wiggle out of staying, but no dice.  He had to sit and chat over juice and muffins.  By the third day, students were begging to be the one selected to stay.  I got through three rounds that semester, and by the end knew all of them, and their outside issues, pretty well.

     The first time I invited "Mari" to stay, she told me about a group of girls she'd known in middle school, who were threatening to jump her after school and beat her up.  She had to cross their turf to get home, so she asked me if I could give her and a friend a ride each day across the hostile 'hood until she could work things out with her adversaries.  Each day, for a couple of weeks, I drove "Mari" and her friend half-way home so that she could get there safely.  That was how we bonded, as she told me more about her family and home life.

     "Mari" did so well in 9th grade that she opted to join the special inter-disciplinary program I taught in for her 10th grade year.  Again, she worked hard and did well, but toward the end of the year one of her 9th grade classmates, who had not stayed with me for 10th, got in trouble with another teacher and was suspended for a day.  He asked "Mari" to join him, because he was "feeling low and needed her."  

     I knew about the suspension, and when "Mari" did not show up for class, I knew, from some deeper wisdom, exactly what would happen as a result... and sadly, I was right.  For the first time, she had surrendered control of her life to another, and he had taken full advantage.  I knew, that day after, that she was pregnant ... and once again, sadly, I was right.  She completed the semester, but the fire just wasn't there any more. In June, she told me her parents were sending her to live with an older sister in another town.  Did she have the baby?  Did she complete high school?  I don't know.  

     What I do know is that some kids, whether due to family or economic circumstances, have very little margin for error in their lives.  One step off the path can result in disaster, the shattering of dreams.  I've known students who've had babies in high school, even gone to jail for a while, and they've made it through, but with so much more drama and struggle.  

     Someday, I may learn if "Mari" made it.  Until then, all I can do is hold her in my heart and hope for the best. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Kid in the Back

      Smaller than the other boys, J kept a low profile in class, but often stayed after the lunch bell to hang out with the students who preferred to stay indoors and out of trouble in my room during the lunch period.  Sometimes he'd chat with me, telling me all about his passion for the Highlander TV show, which I had never watched, and describe some of the show-related gear he'd managed to acquire.
     Just before the two-month break for our "track" at this large, inner-city, year-round school, he came to tell me that a close family member had passed away, and that the family was going to be leaving early for El Salvador, to attend the funeral and to visit relatives they had not seen for many years.  I wished him a good trip, and he promised to be back when the track returned from break in March.
     March arrived, as did J, but he seemed even quieter and more subdued than before the break.  His passion for Highlander had morphed into an obsession.  At the end of April, we began to read Elie Wiesel's account of the Holocaust, Night, reading it in class, sometimes in small groups, sometimes together, discussing it as we read.  One day we read a part where the Nazis are throwing babies up in the air and using them for target practice.
     When the lunch bell rang, the students filed out somberly, finding it difficult and painful to read of such evil.  J remained.  "Something like that happened to me."
     All I could think of to say was, "Do you want to talk about it?"  He did, so I sat and listened.
     When he was eight, he lived with his parents and his three year old sister in their village in El Salvador.  Civil war raged in the country, but until that day, his life and his innocence had not been poisoned by that war.  Then, on that day, soldiers came looking for his uncle.  Because his uncle was not there, and to send a "message" to all in the village, the soldiers took J's three year old sister, held her up in front of the house, and squashed her with their jeep.  J smashed his fist into his other hand to illustrate. The family fled to the US soon after.
     Yes, he'd had lots of counseling when they first arrived.  No, he did not want to be referred for additional help.  After all, how does one "recover" from exposure to pure evil, especially when one is a child when that happens?
     That afternoon, I went through the TV guide, hunting for reruns of Highlander, and over the next few weeks watched a number of episodes. What was it about the show that held such fascination for this young man?  My best guess would be that in a world where evil can destroy innocence, J needed to believe that in the end good would triumph, as the good character always seemed to do on the show.  It gave him hope.
     Why do I tell these stories?  I'm a witness.  How can I be silent?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Revised-No Child Left Behind

     A couple of days ago, President Obama issued revisions to the infamous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation from the Bush Administration. This was sold to Congress and the public as a way to force schools to teach to rigorous standards, and to pay attention to all subgroups, especially minorities and the learning disabled - both noble goals.

     I have always asserted that the actual goal of NCLB was to force states to opt out of receiving all federal money, especially Title I, so that they would not be labeled as "failing" and risk takeover when scores did not reach the impossible goal of 100% proficiency in math and English for all subgroups by 2014.  This mass opt-out would enable the Republicans to get rid of the department of education and shrink the federal government.  I stand by that assertion today.

     NCLB has forced schools to pay attention to their subgroups, and that is its one positive effect, but it has also fostered a culture of test prep mania that has pushed creativity and critical thinking (neither of which can be measured on a multiple choice test) out of public education.  

     Private, parochial and home-schooled students can be as creative and think as critically as their instructors want them to.  They can explore larger ideas, without worrying that they will not be able to bubble the correct answers on some generic skills test, while public school students are relegated to the role of drones.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Colors

     The two young men enrolled within days of each other.  The first wore a little blue.  In any other school, that blue might not have been noticed. In mine, it was enough to make him a target.  The second young man wore a profusion of red, far more than the rules permitted, but sufficient to proclaim his status in the local 'hood.

     On the day "First" arrived, a few weeks into the semester, I welcomed him to class as he handed over his program card for signature.  After writing his name into my rollbook, I looked up and my eyes met his.  I had read at least one account of the Holocaust in which the writer described some of the camp inmates as walking dead, men whose souls had died and who were just waiting for their bodies to catch up.  This is what I saw in "First's" eyes.

     Many students in urban, inner-city schools carry an enormous amount of pain from the poverty, drug abuse, violence, and death they have witnessed. You can see it in their eyes.  Not in "First's."  In the few short weeks he attended my school, he came to class most days.  Each day, I made a special effort to speak to him, to transmit a small amount of care and kindness.

     One day, he was gone, and I learned that he had been transferred back to his previous school, where it was safe for him to wear blue.  About two weeks later, riots broke out, and on that first night, as the names of those killed scrolled down the TV screen, one name popped out: "First's."  He had been standing outside, near his house, when a stray bullet killed him.  His body had finally caught up.

     "Second's" eyes were even scarier.  I had read a news article about a teen who killed and then went out for a hamburger.  At his trial he referred to his victim as "the dude who got shot."  That was "Second's" affect.  Every day he came to class, I went out of my way to greet him politely.  If I called on him and he did not wish to answer, I moved on to the next student.

     Finally, the day before my birthday, "Second" stopped coming to class.  I would see him on campus almost every day, and each time would greet him by name, tell him how glad I was to see him, and express the hope that he would come to class later.  He never did, and I did not report him to security, who finally caught him wandering around, up to no good.  He was "transferred."

     I still think about both of them, how they ended up in my class at the same time, or how either would have hurt or killed the other based on the colors they each wore.  It makes no sense to me, but I do not inhabit their universe.  The question for the larger society remains how to pull these alienated young people back into a larger, more coherent community.