Monday, December 1, 2014

Rage Days: Life in a Dickens Novel

One of my favorite authors of all time easily has to be Charles Dickens.  Of all of the comedic genres, I consider satire to be probably the best and yet, least understood; Dickens was a master. The ability to create a setting, and characters and to tell a story that went BEYOND a story, a meaning beyond face-value.  Drawing dark humor from an otherwise dry scenario.  But most of all, it was the realism that Dickens created that drew me near.

Dickens’ ability to paint emotion is something I envy, and probably always will about his writing.  You didn’t just read the words, you felt them.  I pick up a novel, and I could feel my lungs weighed down by the fog rolling off the Thames.  Seemingly always gray, always bleak.  And yet, this was an appropriate vision of his social commentary of a 19th century London.  Just a constant fog, perhaps with a subtle glow, illuminated by the sun that you can’t quite see.  You know it’s there, just beyond the thick mist.  But the gray blanket seems to snuff out any possibility of clarity.  What’s left is dull, dark and gray.  Always gray; always bleak.  You long to experience the warmth from beyond the clouds, only to be denied by Earth’s own hydrologic cycle.

Our hands can wipe through a mist, and while they come up empty, it is still arguably tangible;  it is water vapor after all.  Yet the intangible, the psychological toll, of such dreariness can be profound.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is something that millions of people around the world struggle with in their respective winters.  I am one of them.  To describe it to someone in the most basic of terms is like a 19th century Dickens’ London:  there’s light, but seemingly no sun.  The shortened days lend a cerebral tone that I cannot describe other than feeling like there is fog in your brain. Any roadblock or pressure, only seems to compound your sentiments.  In the professional world, the challenge is great.  But in a profession where morale is so crucial, the challenge is indeed daunting.

I am an actor.  All teachers are.  Each day brings a new scene of something new, a role to be played; but your kids could not care less about what you ate for dinner, or whether you argued with your spouse, or whether you sprained an ankle playing football last Friday.  To wear your emotions on your sleeve would otherwise be selfish:  “yeah, hey, I know there’s 28 of you in here that want to know a little bit more about velocity and acceleration, but my wife and I got into an argument last night about how to load the dishwasher.  Here’s a worksheet.  Shut up and do it.”

And maybe that’s why the winter season is so exhausting. It is the culmination of S.A.D. breathing down my neck like a chubby, congested toddler, a job where morale (or the perception of it) is vital, and the rare INFJ personality (INFJ highlights the ability to work with and inspire people, yet the downfalls is that this can be physically exhausting.  As a matter of fact, isolation is often a remedy as a means to “recharge” that social fuel gauge).  I love what I do, but sometimes, at the end of the day, I want to submerge myself into that water-coffin Ben Affleck dives into every night in Daredevil (yes, I know it is a terrible movie).
"Night everyone!"
Consider the physics of the formation of a sand dune. All that is needed is a simple grain to have its’ path blocked by the smallest of impediments.  From there, the formation grows as more grains are trapped.  The larger the structure gets, the more grains it traps.  At times, I feel that it’s these tiny grains can be the most daunting obstacles to overcome, not because of what they are, but because of what they lead to.  In any profession that deals with people, you will have bad days.  Education is no different. The bad days can run rampant.
When you talk about someone’s bad day, maybe its because they have a bad co-worker, a bad client, or perhaps the power grid shut down, leaving the security fences vulnerable, and releasing velociraptors on the island.  You ask a teacher how their day was and, if their response is one of bleakness, you’d best buckle your shit down and put on your water-wings, because a hurricane is coming, and hell is coming with it.  Am I biased?  Hell yes I am.  When you’re equipped with the task of arming a generation of people of not just knowledge, but the skills to seek out and use that knowledge, it sounds pretty daunting.  Maybe that’s just the pressure I put on myself.  But we as human beings are only put on this earth for one life, one “pass” to make it worthwhile, enjoyable, lovely, and content.  And if I were to deny a child of that, and cheat them out of his or her full potential for any selfish alibi of mine, I am the scum of the earth.  Now, multiply that sentiment over 100 times for each of my kids, and you’ll start to feel that artificial gravity that weighs down on me at all times.  No wonder I’m so fucking short.  You’re on Earth, and I’m on Alpha Centauri, son.

Last Monday was terrible;  one of those days where you start to backtrack in your mind where things went wrong.  “I should have majored in something else,” I thought to myself. I could feel the clouds gathering as the day continued on, the low-pressure of sadness patiently approaching.
Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you:  some days you wonder “what the hell is wrong with these kids?”  The likely issue on Monday was that it was only two days prior to their Thanksgiving break.  They had already checked out.  I could tell my initial classes were a little off the hook, as their chatter and general tone was a little bit more blunt than usual.  With my classes, it feels like that as the day goes on, they begin to “wake up” more, resulting in more discipline issues in general.  

The first issue began in 6th period where a particular student, Hal, was completing an online assignment for me during class.  Allow me to elaborate on Hal:  he scares the shit out of me.  Not in the physical sense, but physiologically, in that I do not know what this kid will do.  Hal comes from a family of siblings with criminal records (with charges that I won’t dare mention), and one of his own, as well.  Legally, I cannot and will not tell you what Hal did, but let’s just say he’s under house arrest.  Literally.

Hal isn’t one of those kids who does bad things because they’re funny, he does them to see pain in others.  For destruction.  He has gotten into trouble and has been suspended multiple times this year, and his reactions to them will often tell you his mindset:  he will just sit there, silently.  Not a word said, no argument.  Just a cold visage.  Not an ounce of regret.  When mentioning some of Hal’s acts to my lovely teacher-wife, she would tell me “you be nice to that kid!”  She didn’t say this for Hal’s well being, but for mine, if that tells you anything.

Toward the end of class, I looked over to Hal’s computer and saw a series of events that led to my own reaction.  First, I saw a screenshot of the district firewall blocker.  Then, a Google image return of cats.  I couldn’t see what he had initially searched for, but considering the order of operations that he went through, I could probably venture a guess as to what exact term he had typed into the search engine.
“Hal,” I said, “I don’t think that’s something you’re supposed to be on for this assignment.”
“What?  I can’t be on Google?” he responded in a joking tone.
“If you can show me in the assignment where it tells you to search for cats, I won’t give you a discipline slip.”
“But I wasn’t on anything bad!” he retorted.
“Were you on task?” I questioned, knowing that if a student is “off-task,” they are to receive a discipline slip (if a student accumulates a certain amount of “points,” they receive a consequence, be it detention, etc.), “because it looked to me like you were trying to get to a website that was blocked.”
Hal just kind of chuckled.  Once class was over, he made his way over to the slips, and filled one out, complaining to his cronies how unfair and “stupid” this was.  He denied that he was on anything that was “bad.”  I just said “either way, Hal, you had a Google image page pulled up, which had nothing to do with the assignment.”

Later in the day, Hal approached his Study Hall teacher, Mr. Jones, and asked him “how many points” he would get if he “punched me in the face.”  Mr. Jones jokingly replied “I think Mr. W would probably destroy you.”  After that, Hal apparently just nodded his head as if to say “yeah, you’re probably right.”  As I type these words, my face remains untouched by Hal’s cruel fists of fury.
Getting ready, yo'
Two class periods later, last period, featured my most, er, rambunctious class of the day.  Perhaps it’s the timing of the class, but I think it largely has to do with the chemistry of the group:  a lot of close friends, some of which should not be found breathing the same molecules in the same classroom together.  

As with the previous groups, the students were working on an online assignment in the computer lab.  As students were getting logged in, I was helping a few with some basic tech-things (making sure they were on the correct computer, making sure usernames were correct, etc.).  One particular student, Scott, who has gotten into his fair share of trouble in the year, let his thoughts on the matter known.  Loudly.  

While not malicious, Scott just didn’t know when to shut up.  He was the guy that had a wise comment for everything that anyone said or did.  The kid who never paid a bit of attention in class when you needed him to, but if there was a typo on a worksheet or if you accidentally mispronounce a word in class, he would sure as hell let you and anyone within a 500 foot radius know.

Apparently my instructional speed was not up to Scott’s liking, as he loudly questioned “what are we supposed to do?” Mind you, this was not 3 minutes after I addressed the entire class of the agenda;  I even wrote it on the board for them, albeit with terrible handwriting.

Scott’s neighbor thought his comment was funny, not because of what he said, but because I was right behind Scott as he bellowed out loud.  Laughing, he leaned over to Scott and quietly said, “Scott...Mr. W is right behind you.” Not wanting to appear ignorant and out of touch with the situation, Scott didn’t back down: “I don’t care!  What are we supposed to do?!”

It’s one of those things where, sure, it wasn’t a big deal.  But considering the source and, let’s be honest, the degree of disrespect (scornful or not) perceived by the class, I needed to act.
“Scott, step out in the hall.”
“Scott, step out in the hall.”
“I didn’t even do anything!  This is stupid.”
“Scott...step in the hall.”  
With that, Scott angrily pushed in his chair and groaned “oh my GOD,” and made his way out to the hall.

I’d like to think that my eyes change color as the rage pulsates through my veins.  I suppose that’s better than my chest glowing blue as I accumulate enough pure energy to fire a Hadoken in Scott’s general direction.

Once I got the rest of the class rolling, I stepped in the hall to meet Scott, whose demeanor tends to rival that of a child.  When he’s upset, he just stares and scowls; no words spoken.
I kept my address short and sweet:
“Scott, I don’t appreciate the disrespect you show towards me in class.  I sure don’t talk to you like that, and so I expect you to extend me the same courtesy.  I also expect you to behave appropriately in class when working on an assignment.  Yelling ‘what are we supposed to do?’ is something I expect maybe a first grader to do, but not someone who’s supposed to be ready to be in high school in a few months, especially after I explained exactly what to do on the assignment AND wrote it down on the board.  Now, when you’re ready to step up, I’ll be ready for you in class.”  And with that, I dipped out.  It must have been effective, because Scott was back in working quietly (and angrily).  However, my low patience light began to illuminate.
With ten minutes left in class, I looked over to one particular “social” student’s (let’s call him Marco) computer, only to find that he had already logged off and was loudly talking to his neighbor.  Marco was a student who had done fairly well in class, but his grades had been slipping.  He was failing to turn in work more and more.  Now I look up, and he’s not even working?  I mean, if you’re going to do something wrong, at least do it right. This will not end well.
“Marco, why are you logged off?”
“Because it’s almost time to go!”
“There’s 10 minutes left.  Are you finished with the assignment?  And, did you turn it in?”
“Well, log back in and continue until it’s time to go.”

With that, he mumbled something under his breath and started to log back in.  Meanwhile, I decided to check his online progress to see whether he was “almost” done.”

Not. Even. Close.

Out of a total of 21 problems necessitating a response, Marco had only answered ten of them.  I’m not sure how proficient Marco is at math, or semantics for that matter, but I firmly believe that a 48% completion rate is hardly “almost” finished.
“Marco, come here,” I sternly said.
Marco came over to my computer, where I broke the “unfortunate” news to him. However, rather than accept the fact that I caught him in a lie, he doubled down.
Eyes furrowed, Marco told me “Uh, I’m a slow worker,” in a rather defiant, sarcastic tone, and gave me the ol’ shrug and head-shake, as if to non verbally indicate that I was a moron.  
“Choose your battles.”  This is a creed that was stated from my undergraduate experience, all the way to the current day.  The motive behind it is quite simple: “don’t argue and fight with your kids about everything.”  To do so, will simply make you seem nagging and quarrelsome.  I didn’t choose to fight this battle; it chose me.
“You’re a slow worker?”  I asked him.
“Uh, yeah?”  Again, sarcastically.
“Could you explain to me why then, if you’re such a slow worker, why you are logging off 10 minutes early in class when you don’t even have HALF of the assignment done?”
“I told you, I work slow!”
“Marco, I understand that.  I’m just trying to wrap my brain around the fact why you would then decide to log off early.”
“I’m not that smart, OK?  I need more time to do stuff.  There’s nothing wrong with it.”  Ah yes, now try to hit me with guilt.
“That’s just fine, Marco.  But you are COMPLETELY missing my point.  If you are a slow worker, that means you are going to need MORE TIME to complete the assignment, yes?  So, if that is the case, you are going to need EVERY SINGLE BIT OF TIME in class to work on this assignment.”
“Well...I looked at my phone and it said there was like six minutes left…”  Backtracking.  I have him in my sights.
“Six minutes.  And how long does it take you to log off your computer?  Ten, fifteen seconds?”
“Yeah.”  Target locked.
“So, by your own account, you wasted six minutes of class by logging off early, even though you’re telling me you need more time to work on it.  Marco...that does not make one bit of sense.  Maybe you think you’re a slow worker, but you are not a dumb kid.  And I’m not a dumb teacher, either.  I’m not buying it.  So you have two choices:  you take a discipline slip for being off task, or you come in during lunch tomorrow to finish this up.”
“I’ll come in during lunch tomorrow,” Marco replied, this time, with no expression in his voice.  
Target destroyed.  I’m pretty sure his eyes were welling up, too.  

A few moments later, the bell rang, notifying the adolescents that yet another productive day was complete.  The students loudly filed out of the computer lab.  I tidied up my area, and sauntered back down to my classroom, with a feeling of defeat.
You and me, buddy.
In every profession, there seem to be days like this;  one dong punch after another.  But here is where the professional paths seem to deviate.  My bad day stays with me.  The clouds.  Always present.  Always Gray.  Always Bleak.  What makes it worse, is the emotion I feel is self-directed.  Chances are, in other jobs, you can aim your emotion at something else: traffic, weather, an overcooked Denver omelette from Denny’s;  mine is self-reflective.  I don’t ask “what the hell is wrong with these kids?”  I, more often than not ask “what am I doing wrong?”  I then proceed to rewind my memory and replay the day over and over.

You want to be good at what you do.  In this case, my effectiveness rests in the hands of about one hundred eighth graders.  In a company, if someone doesn’t follow directions, or isn’t good at what they do, they’re fired.  Ineffectiveness affects the bottom line.  The bottom line affects you.  You weed out the weak links.  In education, if a student doesn’t follow directions or isn’t good at what they do, it’s on you.  Kids don’t like you?  They can make your life a living hell.  Parents don’t like you?  That’s even worse.  But the worst feeling is the lack of control.  You can do what you can to salvage the opinions of others, but the ball isn’t in your court.  There is nothing you can do but wait.  You wait for another day to start clean and hopefully, if they can forgive, you can forget.  Until then, the clouds remain. Like a Charles Dickens novel:

Always present. Always gray...
Thanks, guy.