The more things change….

When I was a new teacher, I used to think that my students would just leap to learn what I had to offer, coming to school eager to learn.  Ridiculous, as I myself hated almost every day of school from about 5th grade on. But as a newbie, I was sure we would forge a mutual love of everything, especially gerunds (a noun formed from a verb, describing an action, state, or process.)- Encarta Dictionary

We didn’t.

I did try, but that proved tricky when they were on shaky ground with even the most basic parts of speech.”What’s a noun, again?”

I have been reading a book about children’s’ ministry in a postmodern world. People who are involved in religious education for children are starting to worry about the time when the reaction to the idea of religion will be, ‘So what?’ They wonder what they will do when that day comes.

I thought, “Ha! Teachers have already been asked that question.”  I’ve been teaching for almost two decades and heard it on day 1 and expect to hear it twenty more times.

If they liked me, they listened politely, but it was obvious what they were thinking; their eyes wandered and they snuck peeks at their watches (when kids still wore watches).

Teachers aren’t as exciting as video games and television shows. We don’t talk in the vernacular of the times, we don’t have captions over our heads and, to the chagrin of the student body, we can’t be clicked off for a commercial break or even put on pause.

We are more important. We are teaching them to think, to notice when they are thinking and to notice when they’re not. We are trying to help make connections to their life and the world.

What do they care about? Friends, having as little homework as possible, clothes, and sometimes getting a good job when they grow older. They don’t really connect the whole day-to-day school thing with the latter; they are simply resigned to being made to show up by some guy named John Lynch, who many of them think is the king of New Hampshire.

Sadly, though, some of them do care  about some things a great deal.  They care about where they can get their next meal or if they should hoard the school lunch and save it for later.  They worry about whether dad will start drinking tonight, if mom got out on bail and if the bullies will beat them to their own front door. These youngsters don’t have the energy to think about subject-verb agreement, the periodic table or the proper way to form a cursive letter.

I started my career teaching in a tough middle school in Massachusetts with underprivileged kids. I had to be their cheerleader as their parents were otherwise occupied.   I could not assume anything about their absence.  That was outside my sphere of influence and in some ways, none of my concern.

I created the excitement and encouragement for the work they did with me.

It was hard because junior high had changed in ways I had not anticipated and for which I was ill-prepared, and not just because we now called it middle school.

I had the extraordinary task of tutoring 8th grade girls who were absent on maternity leave. They were amazed that I had no kids despite being 25.  I met kids in gangs who had obligations and could not do homework, so busy was their initiation process.  Once that was done, they could focus on school having created an income source for their family. Many of my students were bilingual but had no mastery in any language; having no framework for understanding grammar and syntax unless I created it.

Now a mother of three, I see one thing that kids still care about.

Kids still love stories.

They love to write them and to read them. Those they write contain all their friends’ names and over-endowment of superpowers. More than anything, they love to be read to.

They know a good story when they hear one, and when they do, I have them in the palm of my hand. They lay their heads down on the desk and close their eyes and settle in. When seated on the rug, they lean forward with their mouths slightly parted in anticipation. I have found this to be true whether the child is in the midst of a family crisis, is the bully or the victim or is from a perfectly stable household and it is one of the most gratifying moments in the life of an educator. The very best books even garner a round of applause.

So though I have failed to inspire a love of gerunds, I just remind myself that I am doing some good. When I am reading and they are listening, they are caring about the ending and, unbeknownst to them, they are thinking.

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About Deb Beaupre

I am a teacher and a mother who loves to read and hates to exercise but must. I live in the boonies and have three athletic kids and a cat and a horse.I touch neither. I grow flowers, not food. I am from Boston and so nobody understands what I say but that's okay, because no one around here talks much anyhow. Things I have done I never expected to do:own a horse and be asked to help catch a runaway cow. Thing I will never do: deliver a baby lamb.

21 responses to “The more things change….”

  1. Meg Petersen says :

    Dear Ms. Beaupre,
    I was drawn to this blog from listening to your essay on NPR and going to the website. Reading this blog has reinforced my desire to make you part of our writing project. At the National Writing Project in New Hampshire, we are a group of teacher-writers from all over the state (and many from the Dominican Republic) who get together to write and work on the teaching of writing. Please email me at megjoanna@gmail.com, so I can send you more information.
    Thanks,
    Meg Petersen

  2. Edith Berger says :

    Dear Ms. Beaupre,

    Your every word resonates with me. I love laughing and crying in the same breath. I grew up in Claremont, NH, and now teach 6th grade reading and social studies in a midcoast elementary school in Maine. Thank you for all the wonderful words about reading. I’ve sent the link to your blog to our email staff folder. I used your NPR essay as part of our discussion of the preamble to the Constitution today for Constitution Day (Sep 17). The kids were a little stunned, but on it! After you’ve checked out Hello Hello and had some coffee at Rock City (same storefront), check out Maine Coast Books in Damariscotta. Feel free to check us out in Waldoboro on your way by. Keep those blog posts coming!
    Best,
    Edith Berger

  3. Michael Leuthold says :

    Dear Ms Beaupre!
    I,too, listened to your commentary/essay on NPR yesterday morning, and your words and thoughts moved me deeply.
    Just read the first several comments that appeared on your blog, and I must
    say I was shocked to read that one commentator accused you of complaining!
    Very much regret that I could not have been present when that hateful person flicked his cigarette ashes toward you; or rather: I am glad that I did not witness that foul behaviour, because my reaction toward that individual
    would undoubtedly have landed me in jail!
    I will visit this/your blog regularly, because I very much enjoy reading your thoughts and learning from your insights. I am 71-year old former teacher (taught for six years at a private independent school in NH) who realised long ago that the older I get the more I want to learn.
    I know that you can access my email address and I hereby would like to
    ask you to contact me, because this “reading rat” (=German equivalent for book worm!) should like to send you some of the books that I value enough to have bought duplicates.
    My dear wife and I would LOVE to have someone like you as a neighbour!
    Cordially,
    Michael Leuthold (in Spokane,WA)

  4. Deborah Koslowsky says :

    Dear Ms. Beaupre: I am a special education teacher in the Los Angeles Unified, and I could have written the above blog post!!! When I meet parents who are what we call “non-nons”–nonliterate in English and nonliterate in Spanish–I feel, just for a moment, like Atlas holding up the earth. It just makes me sink a little inside, but I come back the next day and keep working with their child, looking for little successes.

    On another note, I just read your NPR commentary and was totally frustrated by the comment that insinuated that you were just complaining. I know a little of what you were talking about. If I had been present and witnessed that guy flicking a cigarette at you, I would have been in his face in a New York minute. I hope the person who witnessed it was silent because they were totally dumbfounded that someone could be so incredibly STUPID.

    I remember traveling cross country from California to the DC area, where I lived at the time. We stopped in central Illinois for dinner, and after we were seated at the Denny’s type place we found, we looked around. All the faces were white. Not even anyone with a hint of Italian darkness, let alone Middle Eastern or African. After living in the area of DC for 10 years, and having just visited LA, looking around there made me feel almost as though I were hallucinating, even though I am also white. I felt paranoid, and although we ordered a meal, I could not eat it and had it wrapped up to go because I had to get out of there. I know that sounds extreme, and I was sleep deprived at the time, but the lack of sleep simply grew the feeling I would have had anyway in that place.

    I hope some of the responses to your commentary and your blog have made you feel a little less alone. I understand your desire to live with the familiarity with which you grew up, but if you are ever in LA, you’ll find a hefty amount of respect from all sorts of strangers. Out here, our surly sales clerks are surly to everyone, they don’t discriminate!! 🙂

    Hang in there, sister teacher! –Deb Koslowsky

  5. Myiesha says :

    I too arrived via NPR (faceboook). I really love these first blog entries! Please continue.

  6. Sahra Omar says :

    Hello Ms. Beaupre,
    I heard your commentary this morning on NPR. A great work you have done to put this experience into writing. I truthfully enjoyed listening to it and reading it on the website. What is more is your description of racism and how it can be treated but not cured.
    I live in Tulsa, OK. and at times I see myself being ignored while I am speaking and it really puzzles me. What is their gain?
    Thanks for sharing your experience.
    Sahra

  7. Joanna Mitchell says :

    Dear Ms. Beaupre,

    I heard your commentary on NPR this morning and I found it so very well-composed that I went to the website to hear it again. That led me to your blog, where I can see you are an all-around fine and thoughtful writer. What a blessing for your students.

    Your NPR commentary seems to be (inevitably) drawing a wide range of comments, and the few I’ve read are rapid-fire reactions that come from personal experience and aren’t necessarily the product of careful reflection. I want to thank you for being such a thoughtful writer, for offering such a provocative and challenging but reflective piece of writing to NPR listeners. It really enriched my day.

  8. Rebecca Ekmark says :

    I have two beautiful girls in the public school system here in northern MN. I hear from the girls stories about the life situations of many of their peers, and I always wonder how a teacher can be positive, day after day, and not feel helpless at times. Your blog has rekindled my faith a bit!

  9. Phoebe V-G says :

    Off the topic of this blog, but wanted to say I found you from your NPR commentary this morning. Well done! (I would offer you an apology on behalf of idiots everywhere, but I know that won’t do you much good.) Take heart that there are more Good Guys than Bad Guys here. (I live in NH, too.) Look forward to following you. Good luck!

    • Deb Beaupre says :

      Thanks for reading. You know what’s funny? The good guys are the ones I used to be scared of- with John Deere hats and grubby barn boots and Carhart pants who can be real softies deep down. I would be thinking- uh-oh, get me outta here. It took me a long time to realize that they were just really shy.”Thank goodness I did see that, too. Those guys have the plows and the chains to pull me out of ditches in the winter.

  10. Kim Simmons says :

    I appreciated your NPR essay and wanted to share with you a project we’re putting on near Portland Maine – Books as Bridges: Children’s Literature and Anti-Racism Education – would love your thoughts !

    http://www.booksasbridges.eventbrite.com

  11. Cheryl says :

    Inspiring! Loved your piece on NPR, too. Will be back for more!

  12. Laura says :

    The whole post is so true but that last sentence is truly gorgeous. Thank you.

  13. Josh Holt says :

    Hey, Debra!
    I know this comment doesn’t apply to the above post, but I just read your post about being black in New England on NPR. I, too, have recently moved to northern New Hampshire to teach from much bigger cities like San Antonio, New Orleans, Austin, and New York City. Athough I am white, I, too, often feel incomfortable with the lack of diversity up here in the North Country. It’s been quite an adjustment.
    Good luck with the transition, and I wish you the best of luck in your work as both a mother and a teacher! It’s such a small world up here, we’l probably even run into one another at some point soon. 🙂

    Thanks, and keep up the good work!
    Josh

    • Deb Beaupre says :

      Thanks for reading and your kind words. I have lived here for over 15 years, actually. There is lots to love about New England, really. Once in a while, though, I wonder what life would be like if I knew more than a handful of professionals of color. Literally a handful- I can count on one hand the folks I know up here where I live…gets lonely once in a while.

      • Mongoose says :

        I also just read your entry that was featured by NPR. I found the piece very interesting and thought provoking.

        Sometime on your tour of NE bookstores I would suggest Rockland Maine’s Hello Hello. I do not own that store, or work there. I don’t even live in Rockland, but it is awesome.

      • Deb Beaupre says :

        Oooh, thanks for the tip!

        I suggest Toadstool in Peterborough in NH, Northshire in Manchester VT, and Innisfree in Meredith NH.

      • Joy says :

        Hi Debra,

        As a Kentucky native who’s lived in MA for the past three years (and fellow teacher/writer of color), I can empathize with you, too.
        I’d always wanted to live in the “progressive” North, but after several disappointing racial experiences (most recently being turned down for an apt we loved, though we were pet-free, non-smoking, high-credit-holding candidates), I find myself missing home– and KY’s not exactly known for its inclusiveness! It’s just that I’ve had more of these up here than I did in the South. May be less of a surprise to some than it was to me, I guess.
        Anyway, thanks so much for your honesty! It’s brave and wonderful that you can share, but without bitterness.

        PS-I’d love to be another friend you can “count” on! 🙂

  14. Bob Brodsky says :

    I am moved by your comments on Morning Edition today (and on your blog, now). I share your experiences. Racism is one of the chronic conditions of most white Americans, and sadly, most of us don’t realize how it colors all our relationships. We have to make clear, positive, actions at every opportunity to put it down. But it doesn’t stay down. I live on a little road in Rowley MA. One of our neighbors is an Italian/Jewish/Black/white family and therefore sets a standard for all of us.

    I didn’t learn to read until fourth grade, but I agree that kids love to read and being read to. I tutored a dyslexic student for nine years. Now he’s an ex-Marine, studying international relations. He’s just spent the summer in intensive Russian language studies in St. Petersburg. Who knew?!

    Send me an address where I send you a copy of my memoir.
    Bob Brodsky, P.O. Box 335, Rowley, MA 01969

thoughts?

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