I Am Nemo

This past Friday I was at a Brown Bag discussion when a CCE staff asked, “How is Henderson?” It was a simple question, but one that evoked mixed emotions. I felt like I had just come back from study abroad again, where I was forced to casually answer the “How was abroad?” question. How can I package the sheer depth of what I saw, what I learned, and how it has been fundamentally re-shaping my perspective with a simple response?

I was surprised by my own answer too. “To be honest,” I told her, “it’s harder than I thought.” These past few weeks, I’ve been dissecting every minute of what I captured in the classroom until it all started to get tangled. Therefore, I felt relieved to share a slice of my frustration, joy, and continuous feeling of helplessness with someone who understood what I was going through. The CCE staff probably didn’t realize what she was getting herself into when she asked me that question.

During my last two visits to Henderson, I decided to take initiative and focus on helping a group of 3-5 students at one table. It seemed more manageable then chasing after all the students the entire period. The first time, I sat with a group of 5 students working on a word search. I approached one 6th grade girl who was struggling to find some of her words. “May I help?” I asked. She nodded and I asked what strategy she’s been using to find her words. I then suggested we try one that’s worked for me in the past. One by one we started looking at each letter in the first row when the boy across the table asked for my help. I told her I’ll be right back.

I came back 15 minutes later.

Every time I sat with one student, another seemed to need my attention. Other students approached the table looking to tease or playfully argue. Even when I briefly had their attention, I felt pressured to get them to understand how to do the word search quickly before they became disengaged again. Halfway through my unsustainable method of teaching, I decided every time I had to leave one student, I would ask the student next to them to help with the assignment. That seemed to work for a brief amount of time. When I finally returned to the first student, I found her swinging her legs without having made any progress.

It was the first time I truly got a sense of what the art teacher felt. In the first 15 minutes of class, I already felt stressed and hopeless. I had only been working with 5 students at one table! How could 1 teacher manage all 25 students who each required individual time and attention?

For a while, I’ve also questioned whether or not their behavior was “normal” middle school behavior. I had come into Henderson with a preconceived notion of what to expect – high-poverty, predominantly black children, and struggling academic achievement. I was told that the cocktail of these factors contributed to frequent misbehavior. However, I wanted to make sure to heed Payne’s warning about having bias towards behavior among specific races. I had to question myself; after all, I didn’t have anything to compare with Henderson. How does Henderson compare to other middle schools in terms of behavior? I think I subconsciously chose to blot out my middle school experience and I hadn’t stepped inside a middle school in years.

My data research on misbehavior along the elementary, middle, and high school level was revealing. Compared to Overby-Sheppard and John Marshall, Henderson indeed had the highest number of offenses. Although Henderson was not the worst school in terms of misbehavior, I wish I had looked at middle schools in the surrounding counties. I decided to ask the CCE staff I had involuntarily engaged instead. She quickly broke my skepticism. She reminded me that children from high-poverty have a tumultuous life outside of school that we don’t fully understand, and that this difficult environment contributes to their attitude and misbehavior in the classroom. She reiterated that I would find middle schoolers in the surrounding counties to be very different compared to Henderson.

I thought about what she said and slowly began to see things differently. I realized I hadn’t been negatively biased toward the students. In fact, I had the opposite problem. Because I knew their background, I was giving them leniency in their behavior. When they ignored what I said, said something rude, or disrespected the teacher, I had given them a pass.

The thing is, they’re good kids, and I knew that. Each time I’ve gone, I learn more about my favorite students. I know their names, what they like to draw, and smile at the work they’ve completed for the day. Despite the difficulty in the classroom, I always have a good time getting to know the students. Simultaneously my growing attachment and care scares me a lot. I am reminded of the fact that I am temporary. Even if I stay another semester, I’ll be gone after May 2016.

Woven within my tangled mess of thoughts is my attempt at understanding what my role is at Henderson. Some days I feel like I’m helping. The last time I went, I managed to engage multiple students in the assignment, and even convinced one to continue his project even after he initially gave up. All it took was a simple, “C’mon Ernest! You can do it!” But more often than I’d like, I feel like I am being harmful. Aren’t I adding to their inconsistency? I am afraid of getting too attached because I may be just another adult that leaves them.

I think back to Tanya Mitchell’s call to develop authentic relationships with community members and the people we serve at our service sites. Before I leave campus, I put my differences aside from the fact that I’m Korean to the fact that I go to a private University in a wealthy part of the city. It’s not hard to leave my differences behind; but I admit, it can be hard to remember that the students and I have distinct differences. Poverty isn’t an obvious aspect of their lives. They chatter, dress, and get excited about the Warrior Store just like all children would. But I have to remind myself that they are different, and this is the most evident whenever I talk with them. They don’t talk about brothers and sisters – they also talk about god-sisters, cousins, and uncles who are a part of their lives. One student pointed to the student on my left and said, “He’s my cousin.” I then asked what I thought was a simple question, “How are you two related? Through your dad or mom?” He was about to respond, but like me with the CCE staff, was at a loss of words. “It complicated”, he responded.

At the end of the day, I know I am still only helping with surface-level activities. I help them complete their assignments, clean up the papers, and help them find words in a word search. I am not driving the social change Mitchell calls us to do. In contrast, I am thinking about the structural issues, and every day, the activist in me grows. I want to engage the teachers in these discussions about the structural barriers and engaging the students – but how? Do I even have a say in how she can engage them? Or am I just the idealistic, energetic volunteer who hasn’t yet felt the burnout of the persistent failure in teaching?

To be honest, my CBL experience has been harder than I thought because I feel like a new fish in an old fish bowl. It’s like when Nemo finds himself in the dentist’s fish bowl. All the old-timer cool fish knew the rules of the game, and that at the end of the day, Darlene always gets her way. Darlene is the culture of failure, lack of communication, bureaucracy, and the structural barriers that I can’t touch. But there is hope. The solution is to get out of my fishbowl thinking of what I just see in the classroom and like Nemo, somehow make my escape to the big sea way of thinking. Of course, Nemo doesn’t escape alone. How can I engage the old-time teachers too? Will they simply shake their heads when I talk about overcoming “Darlene”? More importantly, even if all the barriers Payne mentions are remedied – would our urban schools still be able to succeed in teaching students when the students don’t listen?


One thought on “I Am Nemo

  1. You ask really good questions, and I don’t know that there is a right answer. Maybe it is enough to settle on the answer that is right for you and to know that there are other ways of answering these questions. Maybe too what Ryan said can help. Maybe UR students can’t change the structural issues, but there was a time when UR students didn’t even venture out into the city, didn’t even try to know the structural issues, didn’t even strive for authentic relationships (whatever that means). However inadequate you may feel at times, just to show up is meaningful.

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