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Former Student Checks In
December 1, 2010 - 1:15pm


If there’s one thing blogging regularly for years has made obvious to me, it’s that the mind roams restless as a spirit on the landscape of time. When I have reason to look for something I wrote here previously I can rarely tell, before I find it, when it was posted. I’m often wrong by years; it seems certain I was thinking those particular thoughts during the Eisenhower administration, not the Nixon.

I remember my former student Madeline being in my classes only three or four semesters ago, but I see by one of the dispatches I wrote for McSweeney’s, where she’s mentioned, that it’s actually been three-and-a-half years. I’ll always remember the feeling of that semester, though, because something changed in how I viewed students. Madeline was part of that; she did a fellow student a kindness that might have compromised her own studies, but she went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa and in the top three-percent of students in her college, which means her name will be cast on a bronze tablet in our main library. When she asked me to write her a letter for Teach for America, I gladly did.

I’ve been interested to follow the career of this remarkable young woman, and with her permission I’m posting a portion of her latest e-mail to me, because I think some will find it of interest and benefit. It illustrates many things, not the least the character of recent college graduates in a time of troubles.


My life has gotten even crazier in the last few months, which I didn't think was possible after surviving my first year teaching.

More than a thousand Chicago Public School teachers lost their jobs this summer, and two days before I was supposed to go back to work in August, I became one of them. I scrambled to find a new job and got hired at a charter school that had started a few weeks earlier. It soon became apparent that the school was totally out of control. Students threw things at me, left me notes that said "shut the fuck up bitch," broke into my classroom after school to steal chemicals and pour them all over my things, a student shoved me into a wall, there was a fight involving over 200 students right outside the school with no one trying to split it up besides me and three other teachers (a policeman finally showed up, but he decided not to leave the safety of his car), and then I started getting these really creepy sexual phone calls. A few boys would call me at all hours of the day and leave disgusting messages about how they were going to rape me in a dark alley and how they liked my silver car (shortly thereafter, my car broke down in the middle of the highway and the mechanic said it looked like someone had put sugar into my gas tank). My school administration did nothing about any of this. I cried almost every single day, and I was so stressed out that I would often throw up in the mornings from nausea.

Then, as all this was going on, the principal I worked for last year contacted me and offered me a job, since she'd just had a science teacher quit at the new school she was in charge of. As bad as I felt leaving my students, I knew I couldn't be a good teacher to them when I was that stressed out. So now I'm teaching biology and chemistry at a different school for my former principal. It's an achievement academy, meaning it's for students that failed 8th grade and were too old to repeat it again (it takes a lot of effort to fail out of a CPS school). It's a bit of a madhouse, but since I don't feel that my life is endangered, I am much happier at this school than I was at the charter school. My students are crazy but in a more amusing way, and things are starting to settle down. I'm doing experiments with the kids every single day, which is time-consuming but gets the students more engaged. Only 35% of students graduate from my high school--they are even further behind than my kids from last year, their behavior problems are worse, and they have little to no self confidence. But being so far behind means they have even more to gain. In the seven weeks I've been their teacher, I've watched them slowly gaining the courage to ask questions, to dare to try, and to get excited about science. It's going to be a long, difficult year, but I'm excited for what we're going to accomplish.

Meanwhile, my students from last year keep calling me for advice and support. That school has completely fallen apart since my principal left and most of the teachers were cut. On the second day of school this year, one of my kids shot and killed another student. The shooter was one of the students I was closest to last year, and he spent most days after school with me and his English teacher. He called the English teacher "mom" and (apparently because he thought I was more "authoritative") he called me "dad." He was the only student I ever called my son. The English teacher and I would meet him at his locker each morning, help him open it up (he's an expert with a gun, but he never could learn how to open his locker), and we'd link arms and walk him to math class and tell him we loved him and that we hoped he had a good day. The cards were stacked against him from the beginning, though. He grew up in an abusive household, his dad was in prison, and as a 16-year-old freshmen he was illiterate. His mom rented his bed out for $5 a night to anyone who wanted it, and we had to call DCFS on her once at report card pick-up when she started beating him right in front of us. He had anger management problems, but he was a good kid. One time when I was trying to split up a fight, he picked me up and carried me down the hallway to safety and said "Stay here Ms. M, I don't want you to get hurt!" and then ran back to keep fighting.

I couldn't believe it when his name was all over the news for killing the first CPS student of the new school year. The papers painted him as a heartless criminal, and if I hadn't known him, I would have read those articles and thought, "Good, I hope he rots in jail." But this kid was a like a son to me. It breaks my heart to know that you can pour all of your time and energy and love into these kids, and they can still turn out to be murderers. For a while it made me question if there was even a point to doing my job, since it seems like my kids are just too damaged for me to be any help to them. But then my other students from last year started calling me up. They all wanted to talk about the shooting, and they said they had no one else to talk with and didn't know how to deal with it. They wanted to tell me about their lives and asked me to come be their teacher again. And all these weeks later, they are still calling me. So I guess I have impacted them in some way. I just hate that there isn't more I can do. They are trapped in a system that is failing them, and I can't get them out.

Next year I'll start a Ph.D. program for genetics and evolution. So awesome! Originally I was hoping to become a bio research professor at a university. Now that I've seen the urgent problems with urban education, though, I want to stay involved with helping to solve them. So now I'm not exactly sure what I'll do with a Ph.D. It'd be cool to start my own school or to go into educational policy. We'll see. I need some time to process (and to have a blast measuring bones and discovering new genes).

Well anyway, that's my attempt at a short summary of what's been going on, but I've never had a knack for brevity. I'm generally stressed out and exhausted these days, but at least I can't complain of having a boring life. (Although I am getting more and more exciting about going to grad school in less than a year and having a slightly more structured, calmer existence.) I hope that you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving! When you get the chance, let me know how you're doing!


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