Anacostia Elementary School (all names have been changed)
Week one of teaching in Anacostia. That is the southeast part of the city. The “bad” part of town. There is really no other way to say that.
I knew that, going in. I knew about the abysmal reading and math scores, only 15% of the children at grade level. I only vaguely sensed the ugly reputation such schools had and dared not imagine the reality on the ground. Even if I had dared, I don’t think I would have been able to imagine a real Anacostia school.
Our school has an almost entirely new teaching staff. Only three teachers from last year remain. All the students are black and so is most of the staff.
I wonder what it feels like for the kids to come back to a school full of new teachers. Right now it seems like a struggle between us and them. We are wrangling for authority over the turf. Who is winning?
Hard to say. By 2 pm, in my class, the kids have definitely won. They’ve outlasted, outscreamed, outcussed, outfought, and in some cases outrun me. Nothing would have prepared me for their tenacity for off task, off focus, and appallingly rude behavior.
Common forms of communicating, at least among the fifth graders, are slurs such as “you African bootie scratcher,” “crackhead”, “faggot”. “I’m gonna steal you!” is their favorite promise. “Penis” and “vagina” are some of the most commonly named body parts. “Shut up!” is their favorite command.
It’s a rough crowd. Day two was my first encounter with a fist fight. I have never seen a fist fight in real life before. Not amongst teenagers - if there ever was a fight in high school, I certainly had no interest in being a witness. And really, after that where would one see a fist fight? A bar? A party? I never had the privilege. Not until my second day at Anacostia Elementary. On the way back from lunch, two boys started to fight, for no apparent reason, right in front of me. I tried to hold each one by his arm, and separate them - since they are little twigs that come up to my waist. But they are squirly little guys, and kept pursuing each other. It didn’t help that about half of the class was shouting “fight! fight! fight!” with their hands cupped at their mouth. Once one of the boys broke loose, I had to let the other one go so he could defend himself, and I sent one kid to go get a security officer. In the meantime, a pile of punching and kicking scraggly arms and legs was wriggling on the floor. When the massive security officer heaved herself upstairs, each one of us was able to restrain one kid. I can’t quite describe how inwardly shocked I was at that incident. That night I had some doubts about this job. I didn’t sign up to be a correctional officer! I cried, and felt sick, and wondered what the hell I got myself into.
I wish I could report that day three was better, but it really wasn’t. I had to restrain one of the boys again, from picking a fight with a different boy. At least I was reassured, that it wasn’t just me, since one actually pursued the other after school even in front of the pursued boy’s father. Father started to chase the enemy boy and fell down. Next day, pursued boy was transferred to another school.
Day four was a little better, largely because there were two of us in the room. A special education teacher comes one and a half days per week to assist with the five special education students in my class. That day we taught them compliments. The kids came up with a list of compliments they could give each other (and it couldn’t be “I like your hair” or “I like your shoes.”) Then we went around the room and each complimented someone, while the recipient said “thank you.” That was the most positive atmosphere we had in class yet.
Day five I had several kids join me for lunch in my room. They brought up their trays with their school lunches; we sat around a table and got to know each other. I found out that Marco has been going to Anacostia Elementary for 8 years, because he’s been held back twice. A very sweet kid. I found out three of them consider Redskins to be “their” team, while one considered herself a Steeler and another a Raven. We all found out that the reason why Marco’s right arm is shorter and limper than the left is because “they took a nervous from his shoulder” and put it in the lower part of his arm. When one of the girls sought clarification about the “nervous” part, wondering if perhaps it wasn’t a “nerve” that was replaced, Marco pointedly retorted “hey, is this your arm?” It was a very lovely lunch.
You see, many of them are sweet. And I think they like me. But the few that aren’t “sweet” have an amazing capacity for causing mayhem. It’s hard to imagine what they have been used to in a school. We have a looooong way to go. It would be great if students wouldn’t raise their hand and request to step outside to remove a wedgie (I didn’t even know how to spell that word!). It would be great if they didn’t chase each other inside the classroom at full speed, or walk out of the room without permission. It would be great if they would acquire the discipline of working on something, being successful and feeling good about themselves. It would be great if they would be kind to each other. It would be great if they would understand the purpose of school, of learning. And I think we can get there. But man, it’s going to be a loooong road.