Saturday, February 22, 2020

Tales of a 4th Grade Something

My wife teaches 4th grade at a public elementary school. She’s an excellent teacher, is adored by her students and coworkers, and makes a real difference in the lives of everyone she interacts with.

Star Wars Shrine 1.0 (Circa 2014)
I’m told that her classroom is a favorite place for the 4th graders to hang out—even by students from the other classes. I can’t blame them because Danica has an awesome sense of geek decor. I learned this when we were first dating and I showed her the surviving remnants of my childhood collection of Star Wars toys. It was then that she told me that I should use them to make a “Star Wars shrine” in what would later become our first apartment. This tradition has continued into the decoration of our home and now her classroom.

A magnifying device of some sort
It's gotta be educational!
I’m grateful to have developed a skillset over the years that lends itself quite well to aiding Danica not only in her lesson planning but in other ways that benefit the school. I’m often called upon to upgrade worksheets that have been made from photocopies of photocopies... of photocopies—probably for decades—into updated, high-resolution digital masters. I’ve aided her in preparing classroom experiments. I hired a drone operator, courtesy of my nonprofit organization Utah Filmmakers™, to capture some awesome footage of a school event. Whenever my eye catches an educational tool at a thrift store—or at least something that has the potential to aid her in teaching—I confer with her to see if it’s worth getting. Thrift store-finds and clearance items are usually worth it.

Not legal tender... but Sooo cool!
When I was told that the 4th grade would be teaching the kids about money and budgeting by paying them in “classroom cash,” I insisted on contributing to the final design of the currency (based on concepts voted on by the students themselves). I was no stranger to the concept of teaching kids about money management in this manner. My 4th-grade teacher, Mrs. King, issued “King’s Bucks” in her classroom. Danica’s class-cash is referred to as “Puente Pesetas”—based on the former legal tender of Spain before the country switched to the Euro in 2002. I also recalled that when I was in elementary school, we didn’t just use our King’s Bucks to buy pencils, erasers, and glue. The students were quick to organize a black market, usually trading in toys and trinkets brought from home. This unauthorized use of Mrs. King’s educational tools was tolerated but frowned upon. It wasn’t until an “Old Maid” gambling ring was discovered that King’s Bucks were declared to be no longer legal tender. I didn’t make that up, my best friend, Tom, told me about it; though my theory that the crackdown was the result of an elaborate sting operation involving a 10-year-old informant trying to have some demerit erased from their “Permanent Record” remains unproven. Afterward, the economics of the Coarsegold Elementary School 4th grade reverted to a barter system dealing mostly in good behavior and completed homework assignments. Either way, I was a very poor student.

Every day, when Danica comes home, she always has stories to tell. Amusing anecdotes from her fellow faculty members, funny things that her students said or did, moments of pride, times of embarrassment. One thing that I had not counted on, being married to a teacher, was how many memories of my own childhood would be brought to the surface as I learned about how modern elementary schools function and whenever I listened to Danica just telling me about her day.

I was told about one child during Danica’s student teaching who came to school and seemed to be distracted and upset. They were asked some questions in an attempt to figure out what was wrong but there were no helpful answers, then Danica simply asked, “Have you had anything to eat today?” That was the problem. The child was hungry. In a nation that throws away 141 trillion calories of food every year.

When I was a kid, my mother bought us the same frozen item to take to school for lunch every day. I can’t even bring myself to say what it was because the other kids made fun of me for it and used it as a cruel nickname for me. I begged my mother not to make me take it to school anymore but by then it was too late. I stopped taking lunch with me to school altogether… Mom never made our lunch for us. I would sit in the cafeteria with my classmates and eat nothing, wishing that I could have the school’s hot lunch like so many of the other kids but I didn’t know how to get it. It never occurred to me to ask anyone about how I would go about getting it. I was afraid to ask my parents for anything. It was easier just to be hungry. I’m sure that the teachers noticed but they never said anything. Not to me, nor to my parents—as far as I know.

The special attention that is given to the problem of bullying today makes me feel encouraged… and resentful. I’m glad to see that people are more willing to step-in when it comes to bullies and it pisses me off to think about how no one took it seriously when I was being bullied as a kid. The fact that bullying used to be addressed as a disciplinary problem and not a behavioral one meant that I was often made to share the responsibility of incidents that came to the attention of teachers. It didn’t matter to them that a smaller child was being attacked by a larger or older child, if the smaller one tried to defend themselves then they were just as bad as the other student because they were both fighting. I even tried not fighting back, but feelings of fear and anxiety over what sort of torment I would face during the day would take its toll on me in other ways that my teachers seemed to assume was just a problem with me and not the other students’ abusive behavior toward me. The emotional, psychological and physical abuse that I endured at home meant that the only respite I had from any torment was during the walk to and from the school bus stop.

Sometimes, when Danica expresses frustration with particular students that wouldn’t do their homework, turned in assignments obviously completed by their parents or could always be counted on to be distractions in class, I’d feel like I was nine years old again. I remember those students from my youth very well… because that was the sort of student that I was.
That was me, on the far left... leaning in...
Wishing I didn't feel like an outsider.
Hearing Danica’s frustration about some student or another, all I could think was how I most likely had that same effect on my teachers. I imagined my 3rd Grade teacher, Mrs. Hansen, and Mrs. King going home and venting to Mr. Hansen and Mr. King about me for the same reasons: “I don’t know what to do about Joe. He’s always talking in class, he doesn’t do his homework…”

Another frustration for Danica—and most other teachers, I presume—is the obvious indifference shown by some parents, especially those who will only intervene if serious problems present themselves. That’s what my parents were like. I remember getting slips of paper to take home to them, inviting them to PTA meetings or bearing some other item of potential interest to involved parents and I would throw them in the trash on my way out of the classroom because I knew that my parents just didn’t care about those things—my sister got the same slips of paper but I don’t know if they made it home through her either. I remember being asked by a substitute teacher or a teaching assistant why I was throwing away the slip and telling them why. I don’t recall their reaction. Of course, there was nothing I dreaded more than having to take something home that needed to be returned with a parent’s signature. Rarely was it anything that I felt good about presenting to my mom or dad. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I remember one form—of a punitive nature—that actually included a clipart image of a child, hanging their head in shame with a tear in their eye, right next to the line where it had to be signed.

I have a vivid memory of a phone call with Mrs. Hansen. My mother was on one phone in the house and I was asked to be on another phone in a separate room, listening to them talk about how difficult it was to teach me. How my teacher tried to organize a classroom schedule that she hoped would work for me and implemented it for the entire class so I wouldn’t feel isolated. It didn’t work and my teacher didn’t know what else to do, except to call our house and talk to me and my mother on the phone. As I continued to hold the telephone receiver to my ear, listening to my teacher’s frustration and my mother’s anger, I started to cry. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t think to hang up and leave because all I knew in that moment was that I had to stay on that phone, I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, and both my teacher and my parents were disappointed in me and were at a loss for what else to do. I had no idea what I was supposed to say, I didn’t know what sort of contribution I was expected to make to the conversation, all I could do was listen to the most important adults in my life talk about me and express their disapproval and frustration with me, then ask, “What do you have to say, Joe?” And all I could do was cry. I don’t remember what happened after that. Like so much of my youth, I’ve repressed it.

At the end of one school year, Mrs. King wrote certificates for all of the students in the class to commemorate their accomplishments for the year. She couldn’t think of anything that I had accomplished but she didn’t want me to be left out. All the kids in the class laughed and I smiled, proudly holding my certificate with absolutely no idea that they were laughing AT me. That afternoon, I took home a certificate that read, “Most Challenging.”

At one point, my Mom informed me that she was told—by Mrs. King—that the only reason I didn’t have to repeat a grade was that my teacher felt sorry for me. What’s a boy supposed to do with a revelation like that—from their own mother, of all people?

Years later, Mom decided to pursue a career in teaching. It wasn’t until she was studying various learning disabilities that she recognized certain patterns in my behavior as a child. But it’s not as though such issues were unheard of when I was going to school in the 80s. I later learned that one of my older siblings had been diagnosed and treated for the same problem, but all I got was guilt-trips, groundings and periodic physical beatings from my mother when she felt that she had run out of options to correct my behavior.

Not an ancient insect trapped in amber...
Just a modern mosquito in some UV resin.
I’ve told Danica all about my experiences growing up and how her anecdotes have effected me—we keep nothing from each other and she has been very understanding—but I don’t want her to not tell me about her day. Despite how difficult writing this has been—with a need to take long breaks of several days between painful recollections—it also feels necessary for me and I think it has helped me to put things into perspective so that I can continue to be a dependable resource in Danica’s teaching efforts, so she knows that she can come to me at any time with a request to update a worksheet in photoshop or to make some sort of teaching tool or experiment to share with her students.

I have said to Danica—only partly in jest—that I sometimes feel as though the work that I’m doing to help her at school is a sort of penance for all the aggravation that I gave my elementary school teachers, especially Mrs. King.

I love my wife with all my heart and I’m so grateful to be able to help with the important work she does in ways that I truly enjoy. That her profession has managed to stir up some old and painful memories has turned out to have been a cathartic experience, reminding me that everything that I’ve been through has helped to form the person that I am today. Thankfully, I’ve come to believe that the person that I’ve evolved into is one that is good and worthy of love because I know that Danica loves me for who I am and not just for the things that I am able to do for her.