Saturday, August 11, 2007

Institute: Closing

5:40 am. The alarm clock buzzed, signaling an appropriate time to wake up that I often ignored. Today I choose to rest on my laurels to celebrate my successes at Institute and wait for a later, more opportune time for departure.

5:43 am.

5:45 am.

5:48 am.

5:55 am.

Stumbling out of bed, I might appear as a mess of a man to the untrained eye. Squinted eyes fought the approaching light--dim as it was for pre-6'o'clock status-- and searched for the alarm. On some days I might decide that my printer was actually the one buzzing, and consequently attempt to silence it with a swift yank of the power cord. On other days I'd locate and dispatch two of the three different alarm clocks hidden around my room, and loudly threaten the third that I'd cut its throat when I'd eventually find it.

Not today. Today I found all three well enough, put on a sweatshirt, and started the day with a trip to the cafeteria. Breakfast was always my favorite. Eggs, pancakes, bacon, cereal, potatoes, all adorned my plate and bowl and asked me in sweet weightless whispers to engorge myself with their deliciousness. "Shh, my carbohydrate loves," I said, "teachers sitting nearby might hear you." And the first smile of the day fit across my lips.

"Can you believe this is our last day of institute?" says a familiar face sitting next to me.

"Thank Goodness!" I reply. We certainly had come a long way since our first day of teaching four weeks ago.


"Alright, class, let's get started with a little get-to-know you game. I will call on random people that turned in these index cards you filled out, and that person can introduce him or herself and say an interesting fact."


"Alright, let's call on... Ricardo! Ricardo can you introduce yourself?"


"Come on Ricardo, introduce yourself! Class let's encourage him!"

*Teacher claps alone*

" name's Ricardo."

"Alright Ricardo, great, and say an interesting fact about yourself!"

"I don't have one."

"Alright great thanks Ricardo!"

*Teacher claps alone*

*3 students put their heads on their desks*

"Now let's call on... Danny! Danny, say your name to the class!"


"Ok, great, and what interesting fact are you going to share?"

"I hate biology."

"That's too bad, but thank you for sharing! Ok, great, well, we're already magically 10 minutes behind in my horribly planned lesson so let's continue on with more uninteresting and worthless activities that are helping me make a bad first impression as your teacher and also aren't getting the point across that this class is important for your education, your future, and every possible life opportunity you can think of!"


*2 more students put their heads down*


Stabbing another juicy piece of breakfast with my fork, I thought of the progress I had made as a teacher, and of the progress my students made. Classes weren't nearly as bad as the first couple of days--at least not consistently as bad. I realized that having a passion is nothing without having a plan to utilize it. And so I planned.

My students needed plans. They needed structure. They have lived their lives up to this day without the comfort of structure in their lives. Fluid family arrangements and a school system that asks nothing of them drive them away, deeper into the heart of a community bleeding red, blue, and violet, divided into gang territories marked by crude sharpie sketches on walls and fences. They need somewhere safe.

Stacking my empty plates, bowls and cups, I said good-bye to fellow teachers, returned my dirty dishware and suited up for another long day. Hanging near my closet was an assortment of patterned and striped ties, each designed to help differentiate me from the high school students I taught, by making me look less like a young man and more like a sweaty, overdressed young man.

I gathered my things and boarded a yellow school bus. Greeted by other professionally dressed young adults, I nestled into the back corner with my bags piled around me, and I slept. The morning bus ride was reserved for personal reflection, via an extra forty minutes of adventuring in dreamland.

In my dream I taught in a city that didn't need me. The communities we drove through were bustling with families getting their children ready for school by preparing sweet-smelling meals and packing their backpacks with lunches, binders, and completed homework assignments. In the warm sunshine children of all ages would step out of the front door waving goodbye behind them to their busy parents, and sprint out over the green lawns and past the freshly painted fences to race their friends to school. They would pass by shiny new cars and smiling joggers with ear buds in place, eager to greet a new day of learning and discovery. The school they ran to glistened pristine in the morning sun, with smiling administrators greeting children as they entered and made their way to their classrooms. Teachers grinned at students walking through the door, asked how their weekends were, and promptly started class lessons with high expectations for student performance and behavior.

At this point I awoke to the bus groaning loudly as it creaked and bumbled off the highway exit and onto the main road, passing by an empty lot filled with mounds of dirt and trash. Next came the run-down stores and parking lots of downtown, followed by a turn down a residential street with barred windows and closed doors of every house thereafter. At last, we approached a large building fenced in with gated and locked inner passageways, several students outside milling about whom I knew were enrolled in my class but would never show up. The dream is definitely over. We're here.

I collected my supplies, making use of every latch, handle, and strap available, and stepped off the bus with all items attached and hanging from every available part of my body. As I'm walking toward the main gate, each student I pass I address with an emphatic 'Good Morning!', greetings that hopefully belie my fatigue. And I get a reply back from every smiling face, even from the students who never come to class.

I look up to the big electronic sign overlooking the entrance to the school, which displays various messages for students and parents alike underneath the school name and next to a picture of a saint, the school's representative mascot. At that moment the lights coordinate and flash the message:

Once a Saint, always a Saint.

I smile widely and continue my stroll through the first hallway. I am needed here, not in my dreams, I remind myself. The structure and safety I can provide these kids elicits more of those smiles, and each is a glimpse into their potential. There are so many more dreams at stake here, underneath this array of light bulbs conveying motivational messages. These saints have done a lot to succeed so far, and will continue to succeed if they remember that they can.

I get to the office and pick up the remaining paperwork still sitting in my file, and continue the walk to my classroom, up past 2 flights of stairs and still more graffiti. Already feeling warmer than I ought to, I roll up my sleeves and pass through the doorway of my classroom. I unpack my supplies and start preparing the classroom for our last lesson. Students trickle in and sit down at their desks. The bell rings.

"Alright, class, let's get started..."

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