Friday, November 10, 2006

A Look Back

Maybe cowards or those that “curse the dark” always come back; if for no other reason than to see what one is missing. Today, after teaching at my part-time gig, I went to visit my former place of employment. Like all the visitors I went to the front office, filled out the guest book and got an approved visitor sticker.

I walked the halls and first decided to head to my old department. Whatever rumors were spun about my leaving were surely quieted as everyone in the building was in the full swing of second quarter. I saw some old friends, received some real hugs and then went to my old classroom and the co-teacher I worked with last year. There she was smaller than the students, sitting on the floor amongst them trying to help them with a pronoun packet. She stood to hug me, really hug me and we talked. Within seconds she asked me to stay, sit with the group and help. So I introduced myself to some of the kids and sat next to Ricco. He wasn’t working, only allowing the hallways to distract him from he, she, they, them, and us.

We went over the directions, I explained that directions are like a treasure map…”you wouldn’t go looking for treasure and leave the map behind?” He agreed that would be stupid. We read over the directions and his left hand started to work on the first one. We talked a minute about the truth or myth that lefties are smarter…something he’d heard before. Together, leaning against the red lockers we went through the sheet. I asked him to stay focused and finish even if the packet of 60 pronoun questions seemed dry. Afterwards he agreed it was not hard. We shook hands and I went to the second floor to peek in on my former students. All 30 or 31 of them were quietly listening to their teacher who came over and gave me a shoulder hug. I saw their faces, some smiling because they remembered me, maybe missed me. I say that some could not sit at a desk because there weren’t enough desks so they were sidelined to a corner table. And at the corner table was the one student I’d met almost four years before. He seemed tough then, I was weary of him because he never smiled and came to class late. Over the years he became my favorite.

As it turned out he was not sullen but shy and he did smile each time he came to my class. I looked over to him and he picked his head up from the desk and looked and smiled. His face, like so many others in the room, made me question myself and my lack of strength. I stood in the doorway for a minute or more and then headed out, teary.

Before leaving my former co-teacher said, “Don’t come back unless it’s to visit”. She said it with love but her words only reminded me that revolutionaries, teachers and angles do go back and do the hard work. I only went back to see and wondered why the hard work overwhelmed me so much and not the others. There is no answer yet only this report.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A reader says; "you are a racist. I would also like to add that for all of your self-pitying tragically hip BS, you are nothing more..."

Thank you so much for your opinion. I assume you work as a teacher and know the ins and outs of what it takes. Is it tragic that I quit one job to find another teaching job? Perhaps. Are you a person of color or rather what exactly gives you the right to deem who is racist?

Have you experienced racism first hand...and some would argue that the system of racism is in fact an institutional system (you might want a reading list I would be happy to provide especially the one given to me by Johns Hopkins teacher Dr. Garren) that can only hurt those that were historically excluded from schools, jobs, housing, medical attention and so on.

At least I am hip with my "BS" too bad it was less than hip when I experienced it and if you happen to know me then you might have seen me light more than one candle at a time. In fact, with the number of students that still call, email and talk to me I have a wonderful bon fire to keep me warm and very clear about my decision. Not a quitter, otherwise I would not be teaching in the fall nor would I have invited some of the graduates to my home to meet artists, musicians and other folks that can help them towards their career goals.

I won't say that I never had a pity party, in fact I do believe I even wrote that down so no points for you there and big-ups to you for never feeling lost or tired or broken. You must be the most well-put together teacher that has ever responded, if in fact you are a teacher (and at least you are reading and responding however it is the only negative comment I have received yet...might that mean anything?). And while it may not matter to you, being a person of color does add a different hue to one's job especially when they are so obvisously a person of color; not person that can be mistaken for something other than black.

Step into my flip flops and see how easy and how difficult it can be dealing with all the issues teachers face. I have battled and lit candles of ten years and most of my students of all shapes, sizes and colors seek me out and thank me. That is not pity talking but last year's Best All Around Teacher speaking. And so if I need a break from the struggle so be it...even Assata Shakur took a break from the revolution and now only sees visitors in Cuba if she decides to see them at all (I am sure you are familiar with her since you know so much about racism). So thank you for your words but next time you really believe in something and want to be critical why not write your name and stand in front of what you say instead of behind it.

And to be clear mr/ms. no name can you explain how I treated or graded anyone differently on the basis of color? That is what the pinhole definition of a racist person does in the light and the darkness.

Monday, July 17, 2006

For The Petty Record

I like to think that I am not a petty person. I am open minded, hang out on the corner talking to who ever else happens to be on the U street corners next to me. I try to get my son to take deep “Buddha breaths” when he is upset and he calls on his ancestors when he needs help with a toy or healing his father’s latest tattoo. I say all that because while I try not to be petty there is a portion of my heart or mind that is in fact on the low rung of human emotion.

I heard through the public school grapevine that I was “let go” due to this blog. According to certain sources “it was mutually agreed upon that I would leave the school due to irreconcilable differences”. For those readers that know nothing of my day-to-day dealings at my job location this might mean nothing to you. For the part of me that dwells on the low rung of petty emotions it means something, not everything, but a little something something, as we might say in DC.

Others believe that I was fired, some think I left due to medical reason of a mental or physical nature and certain others don’t care why I left or never knew who that Anike person was. At least they never knew me well enough to pronounce my name right. So for the record, for those who are wondering and to halt the rumor mill this is why I will not be returning to my public school position in the fall.

After the experiences, some of which are recorded in this blog, I felt that I could not do the job I had set out to do. I really believed then and now that something is wrong with our public school system and in fact the outlook America has on public education. Those who teach and work in the business of education know that reduced class sizes, experiential learning, lighter class loads and fewer non-teaching responsibilities can have a positive impact on the students and educators. There is a laundry list of things that we as adults, parents, teachers, media specialists and politicians could do to make a major difference in the success rate of our students.

I often felt that I was raging against a machine that had no intention of changing although there would be a meeting, complete with a Powerpoint presentation, every other week to talk about change. I couldn’t help but be disgusted by the vast differences between school resources and wealth within the same county. Our school didn’t even have a teachers’ lounge but another school, not ten minutes away, had a cyber café for kids. Ultimately it was me and only me that decided not to come back because I could no longer see a return. I left the building more often than not wanting to cry or cart several kids home to raise as my own.

Some may say that for those reasons alone I should have been strong and stayed. My strength was diminished; the threat of violence too real and the lack of support I felt were cause for many a cry in the second floor faculty bathroom.

So for those that believe my blog was the reason I am no longer teaching at my school you are wrong. For those that thought I wanted to keep my blog a secret you are wrong again…in fact I can’t remember writing anything about school that I didn’t talk about in a meeting, to another teacher, or class full of kids. To those that deem these writings as inappropriate, I only reported the goings-on of the classroom…talk about inappropriate!

And to those the claimed either the writings or I was racist…well that essay is coming up next because that’s every black girl’s “don’t go there” button.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

An Up/Down Date: The Aftermath…Rather the AfterEnglish of Surrender

Since April I have gone back and forth in my mind about my decision to leave; walk out on the job. I have gotten emails from students, hugs from those kids at the mall I use to know as the kid in the second seat, last row, and cried over the should haves or could haves.

Some days I am so sure that the voice that whispered that warning was right. Some days I wonder if it was just weak me that needed a week off instead of a full-scale resignation. Once I left I was stuck grading that last batch of papers, filling out paper work, figuring out how this might all balance out on the home front and worse than that I was confronted with the word "next".

What was I thinking when I left; for once not the money, not the needy and not the crusader…only what seemed to be clarity. And on most days that is enough but there is the word "next" looming above my head. As all the pieces of my former life float above I can’t help but wonder if they will fall in the form of a foundation or a tomb. People now ask “so what do you do?” and my answer is still “I was a teacher” and then there is a pause. The only answer I have coming from my throat and heart is, “and now I am working to pursue my dream of being a paid artist and writer”.

This morning, after sending the boys off to work and camp, I headed for my bedroom-studio. I did some work, painted, sanded, pondered and then cried. Yes, a pity party all for myself. India Arie signs about having a private party for herself but hers is filled with the accolades of fans filling her head and the sounds of her own lush voice pushing back from the mirror she looks into. Instead I stare at my artwork and wonder what the fuck have I done. Since quitting I have gotten a huge tattoo, gone to LA, interviewed Cree Summer, went on the road for an art show in Atlanta and did get two pieces hung in a real museum.

My next move is to write an article about myself and approach the weird space of shameless self-promotion. I pray a lot and not just for me. I have lent money I didn’t have and thought about doing an outdoor performance piece regarding education, a cardboard sign and a plastic cup… “Will work to enlighten. A dollar for every ten minute lesson plan.” I got the cardboard sign, handouts and everything but the courage to get out to the city streets and see if anyone really cares about learning anything new.

What’s mostly on my mind is capital or rather the lack of capital. What does a former teacher, writer, artist, free-spirited mother do for cash in America…watch their artwork watch them and write a list of magazines that might be interested in strange thoughts.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Can Both be True?

Quitting or Surrendering?

Whenever I run into old friends, meet new people or chat it up with the next person in line with me at the post office the same question always comes up, “What do you do?” I’d like to answer that question in one hundred different ways…I do self breast exams while lying in bed, I do drink coffee so I will forget about food and lose weight, I do remember the first time I had sex and how slow going it was. These are not the answers anyone wants to hear, although I should perhaps throw a few out there the next time I am asked, “So what do you do?”

For the last ten years my answer has been, “I am a teacher.” First you get a look, the “like really” look and then you get the follow up questions, the stock conversation and then their advice. The questions/conversation maker: “What grade? High school oh my I couldn’t do that. I don’t have the patience and kids these days. What subject? Oh I was great/terrible in English. Are they still reading __________________(here fill in the blank with the oldest, whitest, most boring book you remember from four years of high school English classes)?” And my answer is yes every third quarter.

Then the advice comes hard and fast…because everyone has been to high school they figure they know what it must be like to be on the other side of the desk. “You should teach blah, blah, blah.” And you really don’t want to get into the long conversation about the new curriculum the County is forcing down your throat, the lack of hands-on learning included in the nine-month-guide to literature, the lack of diversity, and the lack of time it takes to really get a kid to understand what figurative language is and how So-In-So used the ethos rhetorical appeal to prove his point that America’s No Child Left Behind is a great way to test kids right out of graduating and right into toilet scrubbing. I don’t think said person on the other end of the conversation really wants to hear all that truth and angst.

Finally, said person explains to me what I have heard a thousand times from my grandmother and administrators… “They need you in that classroom, keep teaching, I know they must love you, you have so much energy and “our” kids need that so keep it up”.

And here is where my rant really begins. It is not what I do but what I did two weeks ago. If you have read any other entry I have ever written then you already know about the gangs, the juvenile justice system our students take a ride on, the babies having babies, the young ones that are expected to pass state tests even thought they don’t speak English although the test is written in English; begging the question are they testing knowledge or language acquisition? You already know about those students that didn’t start school until they were eight because they were running from war or the kids that threaten teachers, one “youth group” in particular surrounded a two-year teacher and said, “It’s empty your pockets day”. My readers may already be familiar with the restraining orders teachers have against students because being attacked or threaten isn’t really worthy of expulsion or Columbine concern. Even my boy Nathan said two weeks ago that he would make it his job to come to class every day to make my life miserable…his exact words which he repeated to at least three other administrators. He was given the opportunity to return to class and on the suggestion of his case manager’s solution which was, I should have “limited contact” with him. And readers already know that my classroom has no windows, is one of the smallest rooms in the building and is an actual fire hazard because there is only one exist, the door. You also know that I could go on with stories, facts, statistics that bare out the truth that No Child Left behind is a the one sure-fire way to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

And for all those reasons and more something strange happened to me as I was walking my class to the computer lab two weeks ago. It was a regular day but compared to someone working outside the school or prison system it might seem like Armageddon but it’s really just controlled chaos. I heard a voice as I keep up with the racing pace of my students bound for the computer lab. It was not a voice from the right, left, front or back…it was a voice from the center of my heart or head, I am not sure which. But I heard it softly say, “you are going to die here”. That was the first time I’d ever heard that voice in my teaching career and like a light switch clicking off, I felt my body physically give in and give up. All the outsider conversations about “keep it up, we know you work hard for little pay, you’re doing the most important work in the world” caved in and carried no weight. The great pressure, pain, exhaustion, frustration and sometimes fear all conspired to whisper from within a warning.

After my last class that day I went to a friend’s house. She could see, without my speaking and said simply, “You have to quit. Tonight you will go home and tell your husband you’re quitting. Don’t ask but say that you are not going back.” For two hours I cried; she had to drive me home and once there I started reaching out to the network of folks that make up my safety net. First the husband but there was no answer, then my mother but there was no answer, then I left a message for my psychiatrist and waited for someone to return my calls.

Waiting on the sofa I cried at the thought of the kids that I loved and how they were outnumbered by the bad asses, the apathetic students that seemed set on failing, the kids that rolled their eyes and sucked their teeth at the mention of a new game we might play to learn the difference between irony and that stupid song by Alanis Morriset that got the definition all wrong. I cried for the ones that often asked me sincerely how I was, if my son was well and if my husband would mind if I went out on a “date” with whichever man-child bold enough to ask. But the fact remained that I was mostly crying because I knew that the pressure of creating and executing lessons plans, translating the entire curriculum to our under-achieving population, and the meetings and the day-to-day performances that I gave for 90 minutes four times a day (many of which were interrupted but cell phones, text-messages, cussing cousins, or a discussion of the location of the next skip party) had beaten me. I was burned out and not going back would mean giving up a salary that helped to keep my family afloat.

Quitting meant meeting my husband’s stare and not taking, “Let's come up with a plan first, let's not be hasty or can you go through the motions for just three more months?" I heard the warning, I felt my body and spirit collapse under the weight of today’s public school system and knew I was finished. And with no plan, no net, no promise of a check every two weeks I took a three month medical leave (the safe-watch-my-ass-just-in-case precursor to quitting straight out). My doctor, who immediately fit me in for an appointment, explained that this was the fourth letter she had written for teachers that needed medical leave because they were having panic attacks, no sleep, headaches, constant anxiety, and bouts of depression stemming from “the job”. It sounded like were snatching bits of dialogue from NYPD Blue, calling it “the job” and “being on the job”. If overheard no one would think we were taking about MCPS (Montgomery County Public Schools)…someone with a glass to the wall would think we were talking about the pressures of drug busts, lives on the line and the constant threat of who-knows-what and maybe we were.

“I should have a public teacher form letter for those that need to go on medical leave.” She looked up from the letter she was writing to let me know I was not alone, I was not weak and I was not a failure. I felt for the first time in months that I could breathe. It was not a shallow, automatic infusion of air but the type of deep breathe that follows an hour long message or yoga session. Drawing in the breathe on the doctor’s sofa helped to dry the tears and blow away the Warning from the center of my heart/mind.

“Just blow that shit out,” is a hip hop lyric that I have been breathing by for the last two weeks. I have no idea what I will do next…I jumped without wings to save myself from the burning building that had become my everyday environment. For the moment I will think, write, paint, do some consulting work here and there and just find some peace.

And can you believe it? For the last two weeks I have not heard the words bitch, fuck, faggot, nigger, wetback, or dickhead and the only person rolling their eyes is my son as he falls asleep next to me knowing that tomorrow Mommie can take him to school, and the next day and the next day and the next. Good night and breathe.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Teacher's Delight

It does not happen often. Since I am tending to young minds, listening to young thoughts and occasionally narking out the latest skip party It doesn't happen as often as any teacher would like. This morning though It did.

A teacher never knows when It might happen. I could be at the mall, the Mac make-up counter, on the train or in a list of emails like this morning. A former student, now in his mid-twenties, sent me a message. He was one of the first students I ever taught. He and his classmates were my test-case. Being no older than 24 myself I had no idea if my training, my mentor and my internship had really prepared me for running my own class. The thought of being in a room with 17 and 18 year-olds, at the time, only made me laugh.

Me in control? The same Me that decided the college weekend started on Thursdays in the basement of the Thurman Dorm. The male dorm on Morehouse's campus was the place to be for my crew of wild girls. Forties and smokes were passed around and sometimes the girls, never me, passed out. I was still convinced that the weekend started on Thursdays when I began teaching at the Newport Prep School in 1998.

But back to the It thing. I checked my email this morning and William West somehow located my blog and more importantly read the thing. Like West, every once in a while a former student approaches me in some manner to say, "sorry if I was a pain" or "I still remember that Nikki Giovanni poem you read to us". They sweetly say "You look the same", hug me even and sometimes say thank you. I never know what words of mine they might remember from my soap-box sermons about history, metaphors, current events or hyperboles but they touch my shoulder just the same and say "ohmygod".

It is enough to fill the heart and create tears of a different sort. The return or pay-out for a teacher is years in the making or waiting but when It comes It melts you. The children return and never suck their teeth or roll their eyes then, they only seem like adults thanking you for things you vaguely remember.

Thank you William, Karen, Patrice, Amani, Sarah, Ben and the others whose names have fallen away even though their faces hundreds of children.

William West Shout Out

Hey Ms. Robinson,I'm not sure if you remember me, but you were my social studies teacher back when you taught in Kensington. If I remember correctly, Chris Brockman and I used to give ya a hard time. I'm sorry about that, but I'm glad to know that you're still teaching.I'm sorry you're losing your faith in the game, so to speak, but you were able to relate to your students a lot better than some of the old fuddy-duddy administrators. From reading your blog, especially the ones about the pregnant students, I can see that you still have that gift.Anyway, I just wanted to say hi, and tell you that I've enjoyed catching up with you through your posts. Who knew you teaching right around the corner from my house?! Anyway, take care and keep your head up. =)Sincerely,Will West

Yes I remember you...of course. You really never gave me a hard time but I can think of a few others that gave me a run for my money. But that is nothing compared to teaching at Wheaton High School. How are you? What are you doing? I ran into Amani and she was telling me about her college was weird I feel so young but you are all grown. You know I was only in my early twenties when I started teaching you. I was 24 or 25. I often felt more like you the students than the other adults I worked with. I am still teaching but I am working hard to break into visual art and writing. Teaching is my day gig.
I am married with a four year old son but still treasure the days of a somewhat care-free student. Call me any time or email me when ever. It is always a true joy to hear from an old makes the every day grind a little easier. In fact I just finished talking to one student that has a .45 does that happen?
SO tell me about yourself and make teaching seem worthwhile by giving good news.
Anike Robinson, Writer, Artist, Educator How did you find me?

Monday, March 06, 2006

This is what a concerned friend wrote to me...I hope he does not feel I have betrayed his trust by posting the email but I wanted to respond in a larger way. To understand the reponse on must read what prompted it.

Anike: I read your Feb 6th passage on your website and quite frankly, I am very worried about you. Please fill me in on what is going on in your life.Maybe I can be an ear for you. You are my friend and that will neverchange.Take care.

I assume you are talking about the "suck my dick" one. I am not sure if you have read any of the other posts that I have put up but they might shed some light on the daily grind that is my job. If there is one thing about me that is true (and I get it from my father) I am crude and sometimes that crass talk is funny and sometimes it is just plain angry.

People say every day, people that don't teach in schools like mine or don't teach at all, “don't give up, they need you”. Your job is so important and my response is always the same, "come down for a week, sit in my classes, go to my meetings, plan the lessons, grade the work, present to the class …come on down but remember the price ain’t right." In a given day I am asked to do so much that there is nothing left for me. On Sunday night's I cry because I know I have to come here. I am sure your clients don't cuss at the water fountain, pack be-be guns, whisper fuck you under their breath when all you have said is “turn to page 54”.

Yes, there are sweet ones, smart ones, clever ones and thoughtful students that come in and out of my classes. Some of them do well, many fail the classes because they were not prepared in the past, they work two jobs, have kids of their own, think about suicide, or leave school altogether. Some send me email and even call when they are in trouble but at the end of it all I don't think Montgomery county really cares and there is nothing left for Anike...who will hold my hand, tell me “great job”, give me an A and send me home with thoughts of a job well return on a job well done might not come for another 15 years if a former student remembers me and comes up to me in a mall somewhere and says something heartwarming.

I want more for me and some left over for my family. I would not be worried about me if I were you but I would be thinking maybe I should come check it out and see...maybe there's something to be worried about because a school can be a dangerous place to work these days. As a freshman said to a teacher earlier this year, "It's empty your pockets day." His little gang of freshman friends circled her and waited...lucky for us, teachers don't make shit so our pockets are already empty. Dig me?