Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Wave of Chaos

If every day at work were like today, I could do this forever and never miss teaching. There was a chaos cloud that I was caught in today where almost nothing went right, random things happened rediculously and all of it was fun.

Out of the four years that I taught, I had maybe two or three classes of kids over whom I had absolutely no control. It was like from day 1, they gave me a handfull of leader points that I had to use sparingly or I wouid run out by the end of the year. Any other time that I wanted them to do something, I had to cajole or entertain or persuade or trick them into doing it. Scaring them had absolutely no effect and neither did threatening them with anything other than the total withdrawal of my humor and affection (which I knew would make my life as miserable as theirs so I rarely used that ultimatum). Most classes will grant a teacher a certain amount of blind authority most of the time simply because it is just easier to follow where a teacher leads. Sheep. Or at least shy goats. Occasionally, these classes will spin out of control when the teacher proves to be totally unworthy of this leadership (you've all heard those horror stories) but usually, classes run along with fairly moderate gives and takes of power, with the teacher having control most of the time.

But occasionally, a class will have just the right mix of kids who were never ever destined to be sheep. A class full of strong-willed, intelligent kids. I can think of nothing more terrifying. Or more fun. These three classes made me cry. But I also laughed so hard I cried on a regular basis. On all three occasions (luckily, never in the same year), I recognized the situation pretty quickly and stopped beating my head against the wall. It wasn't their fault that they were powerfully sharp and charismatic kids bouncing off of each other. I wasn't going to get mad at them that my box of a classroom wasn't big enough to contain their combined energy. So, I broke down and made deals with them. I made them laugh. And I waited. Oh, did I wait. At least once, I waited the entire class period for them to notice that I was at the front of the room, standing at the podium ready to start. The next day, I quizzed them on what they were supposed to have learned. Did they yell and complain? The funny thing is, they didn't. These kids took a frightening amount of responsibility for their own actions. They knew I had no control over them and they didn't fault me for it, much like I didn't fault them for being unable to submit themselves to the confines of a traditional classroom. When they failed a quiz or got sent to the dean, they had their emotions - mad, sad, etc. - but they rarely blamed me. Since I admitted I had no control and instead asked them for the favor of their attention, they often gave it to me. I think they saw my humility as a sign of respect rather than defeat. This actually made these classes a pretty dynamic place to teach. No one worked because the had to. When they worked, it was because they wanted to. I became a better teacher because of these classes that I could not control. I had to make my lessons worth their attention or they wouldn't give it to me. Each thing I taught had to be applicable to their lives or they wouldn't do it. So, I could explain that a particular assignment was to keep them quiet while I conferenced one on one with their peers and they would, for the most part, keep quiet. If it also helped them practice their grammar, well, so be it. That's what I mean about tricking them. I could explain that an assignment was to practice not looking suspicious when they took their ACTs and they would accept that and would practice not looking around the room when they were thinking about answers to quizzes or they would practice not whispering to their neighbor that somthing smelled funny, because I explained that a proctor wouldn't know them like I did and would just assume they were cheating. Or, I could explain the things that they should experience from an assignment and the type of knowledge that they should have when they were done and get the most amazing pieces of creativity and passion. Compare that to having to line out exactly the minimum that needs to be done to get an A, B or C and getting just that: the minimum.

I loved those classes.

Today was like one of those classes. A total of four people showed up today for "appointments" that I knew nothing about. Two were tentative appointments that they never called back to confirm. One couldn't make his appointment at 10:00 yesterday so just showed up at 10:00 today and the fourth had never spoken to me, just told the woman at the front that she had an 11:00 appointment. I can't fault her for not understanding the concept of appointments as an agreement between two people to meet. In her life, when you tell the gatekeeper that you have an appointment for whatever time it is that you have arrived, she tends to get to see that person, even if that person is only emerging from her office to clear up the understanding. Saying that she has an appointment has the desired result. Who am I to insist upon the correctness of abstract definitions? And they work so hard with the poor of this community and feel so blessed by God to have access to the product that I provide that I can't fault them for their lack of business communication skills. Luckily, I have the flexibility in my day to accomodate them. I don't think that's a mistake on the part of my predecessors.

Other things happened during the day. I had to apologize to a woman at HQ for being mean to her a few days ago, but got her support to change what had made me that frustrated in the process. I got pizza at Lou Malnoti's and got another sympathic ear for what I am trying to accomplish. I moved another step forward on two projects that I'm working on. I had a good conversation about yoga and Christianity with my colleagues. My boss, totally unprovoked, acknowledged that I was experiencing a major life-altering segment of my journey by working at this job and absolutely affirmed me. And then the teachers showed up.

Almost every day, at the end of my shift, I spend an hour with teachers who have come to the warehouse to "shop" for free office supplies. They come as a group, all from the same school at the same time. Most have been there before and it runs pretty smoothly by itself with me there to supervise for the little snags and to get them both started and checked out. But today, oh today. Wait, let me start a new paragraph so that this is a complete narrative in itself.

At 2:00, I was paged to the customer service desk to explain to a teacher that her school's appointment was not until 3:45. I was in the middle of something, so I left her there at the desk calling her principal and went back to my little office. At 2:30, I was in the office having the aforementioned conversation about yoga and Christianity when I heard myself being paged to the Customer Service desk in the warehouse again. Since this would have been the fifth unexpected "appointment" of the day, I went ahead and finished the conversation before heading out to see what was going on. As I walked toward the Customer Service desk, there was a gaggle of people trapped by the railings that create a reception area to the warehouse so that people can't steal stuff by slipping out while the customer Service ladies are busy. It was the most raggedy, varied group of people I've seen in a long time. And all of them were sort-of meandering in place, maybe even bumping up against the railing every once in awhile like fish bump their noses on the sides of the tank. Rather than trying to draw out their leader, which I must have instinctually known was futile task, I called to Lisa, "Are these my 3:45 teachers, Lisa?" This led to a slight increase in their physical and verbal agitation much like when one moves the lid on the fish tank, signalling that one is about to start dumping in dehydrated flakes of something yummy. They were not at all frightening in their indignation. They all called out in degrees of muted despair that they had a 2:45 appointment. I stopped. Looked at them. Then asked if teachers were also coming at 3:45. "Oh no!" they assured me. So, I made a big, magnanimous gesture with my arm and said, "Come along then," like an American Mary Poppins with pigtails and led the way back to the teacher section of the warehouse. Their relief and beginning hesitant tendrils of delight were reminiscent of children whose mother stopped yelling scary things like, "Why did I ever let your father convince me. . ." and guiltily offered them a trip to Oberweis for ice cream.

I walk faster than most customers around the warehouse because I know where I'm going. So, I reached my introduction spot and asked them to gather around me for instructions. It was at this point that I noticed Mr. O'Leary (not his real name, but close enough for you to get the idea). Mr O'Leary was a large African-American man, wearing nice leather shoes, plum-colored pants and a red and black checked quilted flannel for a coat. All of his hair was tucked up in a black beret that could not have looked less like a Black Panther beret by the way it was draped on his head. Mr. O'Leary had giant, ping-pong eyeballs that were locked onto me as I spoke. He looked a little like Kermit the Frog. In fact, the entire group looked like a gaggle of about 8 Muppets, all different and with their heads at different levels like some were standing on boxes, with an underlying thread of rediculousness that identified them as belonging together. Part of this effect came from the fact that Mr. O'Leary had immediately sat down on the round, wheeled stool, which had been located on the other side of the teacher section and immediately began scooting toward where the rest of the teachers were standing in short, jerking motions. As I watched his slow and very slapstick progression toward the group, I realized that he was eating a piece of fried chicken. Where did he get a piece of fried chicken?! So, he stared at me raptly with his bug-eyes, eating his chicken while I gave very clear instructions with lots of visual examples for how they should go about procuring their product. As I was finishing and about to transition to showing them where to sign in, his head snapped up and he said, "Wait, what are we supposed to do?" Classic. Then, everyone was clamoring for the clipboards that they would need to shop and I had to slow it down and tell them that "the clipboard is a reward for signing in over there. No, over there." It was very much reminiscent of my special classrooms. These were teachers at an alternative school for kids who can't make it in regular school. Of course they resemble my smart, can't-stay-in-the-box-if-we're-all-together kids. The rest of the hour was spent further demonstrating their high-maintenance status but also demonstrating their great good-will and willingness to laugh at themselves.

I need to emphasize to you what a great diversity of weirdness there was to this group. Aside from Mr. O'Leary, there was the 23-year-old sandy blonde white kid, with his sirt unbuttoned to his sternum showing lots of chest hair. Adding to his sun-kissed skater good looks was his nascent beard or overgrown 5 o'clock shadow. After him came the small, tidy African American woman in her 50s who, although neat in her person, showed absolutely no tendencies toward style whatsoever. She wore flat dress shoes with socks and jeans and had large red glasses and a black Old Navy ballcap. Contrasted with her was the African American woman of about the same age who was making her shiny red workout pants and white tennies look good. The way the totally normal looking white guy in his 50s that could have fit in as a junior high science teacher anywhere in the suburbs, And the absent-minded art professor white guy with the hair that he obviously ran his hands through compulsively, creating little tips that stood out straight. He had a thick beard and thick glasses, with eyes that didn't focus in the same direction. His red wool letterman style coatcoat was too nice for him to have bought it for himself and, sure enough, there was a wedding ring. The man they addressed as Rev. Michaels was a classic Billy Dee Williams-stylish church man by the look of him, with pressed jeans and long black leather coat but who couldn't seem to focus on his surroundings and was helped variously by all the other teachers there even though he only appeared to be in his 40s. As he walked around, he made gutteral noises of vague agreement. "Uh-huh, all right, yeah, uh- huh, look at that, all right." There was also a stylish white lady in her late 60s wearing high-class all black and a hot pink fedora-style hat over her silver hair. The principal, a large African American woman eventually showed up wearing a blue sweatsuit with green piping, matching blue Nikes and a fur coat. Every type of crazy urban teacher, except the very stylishly-dressed, recently-engaged young woman, was there. I loved every minute of it.

I'd do days like this forever. They are so full of fun and good purpose. There are enough minor frustrating moments and little successes to keep me from taking any of it for granted. And I have no control over it. I just have the to ride the wave of chaos and persuade and cajole and bribe the people the people I'm working with to get them to go in the same direction with me. Perfect.


PrincessMax said...

I later found out that Lisa had given Mr. O'Leary the piece of chicken to get him to stop complaining that they were being corralled and insisting that their appointment was at 2:45 when Lisa had already told them it was at 3:45. When she offered it to him, he said, "What? You don't have a leg or a thigh in there?" Classic.

Al said...

Hi PM,

I am always impressed at your attention to detail and the way it works its way into your writing. Your descriptions of events, feelings, memories, behaviour - your own and others, even clothing make all your stories come alive. They are so much more than "this happened, did this" blog posts I've read. When you write your book, it will become a bestseller.

I hope you are printing and keeping these musings for future posterity. Forty or fifty years from now, the people who call you Mother will want to know who you were when you were younger. This will be an excellent way for them to know you.

Best Wishes,