For the last two months I’ve been working at a school in Southern Arizona not too far from the Mexican border. We absolutely love the area! The incredible food, sunbaked landscapes, shadowy palms, towering cacti, desert wildlife, and the stark reality that the old west is alive and well in the 21st century. It took a little while to get used to seeing six shooters holstered on people’s hips in the downtown commons, on line at Walmart, or chilling at the dog park. But for me, it kind of feels a bit safer in public when everyone and their grandma is packin’!
So I was quite stoked when I heard that a public charter school in the area was in need of a middle school writing teacher. It would be a welcome change of pace at least until the summer swelter settled in and we headed for higher ground. The school was a family run K- 12 building and the director and I hit it off right from the opening handshake. He offered me a temporary position on the faculty and I was ready to work the following Monday. The school had such a warm and inviting atmosphere. I felt a part of the family almost immediately and was very eager to meet the kids.
Now, teaching 7th and 8th graders is no day at the beach, by any means. However, while most educators would rather gargle hydrochloric acid, this age group was something I rather enjoyed. Early adolescence is such a difficult time for kids. Sometimes grownups forget the sheer agony of being a pimple face, socially awkward, self-loathing, terribly insecure pubescent, but I remember exactly.
I arrived on my first morning to a classroom full of blank faces and apprehensive glares. In a teaching career that spans 13 years this was something I was quite used to and could pretty much hold my own at the white board of any school. However, this time I was there for a different reason than obtaining tenure or prepping them for a meaningless state test. I was there to open minds, share wisdom, and help them discover how writing can truly save one’s life. After a brief introduction of who I was and what I expected I chose to break the ice with one of my favorite inspirational videos. It was one I had shown countless other times to people of all ages, but never had it taken on the magical affect it did today.
As the opening music began I could see the emergent intrigue on their faces as they sat up in their desks, slid their perfectly hidden smart phones into their pockets, and focused intently. Then it happened, the first tear rolled down the cheek of a young lady in the front row. With a visual aid of this magnitude, it was totally expected. But then it happened to another girl in the back, and another in the adjacent desk. The empathic vibe in the room was palpable. You could feel the collective emotion as we all experienced the video’s razor sharp themes. By the six minute conclusion it was an all-out tearfest. Kids were sobbing uncontrollably throughout the room, consoling one another, and even asking to be excused to compose themselves. When I turned on the lights I was astonished to see the aftermath. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room, even the boys were choked up. By the expressions on all the faces, it was obvious I had struck a deep emotional chord and that this was just the tip of a ginormous iceberg.
Quickly, I encouraged them to write what the video made them feel with no regard for grammar or spelling, just stream-of-consciousness directly from mind to paper. They began writing at a feverish pace and the sound of 30 pencils scratching away on the desktops echoed like a symphony of academia. The papers I received that day were barely legible and mostly anonymous, yet so utterly amazing and packed with raw emotion that reading them took my breath away; tales of abuse, alcoholism, neglect, eating disorders, self-mutilation, and so much more. I couldn’t even fathom that this stuff was coming out of 13 and 14 year olds. The pressure atop their shoulders was unimaginable and yet they had no clue how to process it all or who to turn to.
The next morning as class began I knew that I had this small window to continue our discussion before they tuned me out as yet another clueless instructor telling them to sit down and shut up. I opened with…
“You know, I’ve been traveling all over the country with my family speaking with teens and trying to help them with their problems. Most people think I’m crazy for doing this. They say that you’re a lost generation of desensitized techno-junkies. That teenagers only care about three things; their phones, their friends, and music. And that my words will mean absolutely nothing!”
I told them I thought that was a load of crap and that I believed that teens DID care. In fact, I thought they cared so much that they used these things as an emotional shield to block out the cruelty of the world. The phones, music, and friends are merely protection and the only things that they have in their lives that won’t hurt them. With these words I noticed a glimmer of trust in their eyes, as if they were thinking, “Hey, maybe this dude understands us a little bit.” The walls were down for the moment and I was being heard wholeheartedly. We had a major breakthrough and I was going to take full advantage of our new bond.
We started right then having real discussions about the myriad of issues they were facing and how hard it was being a teen today. When awkward silences arose, I would simply share personal stories of mine growing up a 98 lb., stuttering, punching bag on Long Island, and things would loosen up again. We got down to it, no topic was off limits. We dissected every aspect of the adolescent condition down to the bone. As the bell rang, a group sigh of disappointment offered proof that we were really getting somewhere.
Each day was a new breakthrough and each night I would come home beaming with enthusiasm as to the real ground I was gaining with these kids. It was a dream come true and I considered maybe even staying the next year and seeing how far I could really take this. I mean, I couldn’t write a coherent sentence until college, and my book wasn’t written until my 30’s, imagine the mind-blowing stuff these kids could create if I could ignite their passion at such a young age. The possibilities were boundless. And then came the kick in the teeth…
During a discussion, one of the boys was talking about when he was suspended for fighting and that he had to have, “two swats” as well. I laughed out loud and waited intently for the punch line, but there was none. I asked what he was talking about and he explained how the director has this big wooden paddle that he smacks their asses with if they receive a certain amount of demerits throughout the year. I was aghast! “You mean they hit you here?” I blurted incredulously. And they all shook their heads in unison as if it was totally normal and accepted. I then inquired how many of them have been struck in this fashion and about 75% of them sheepishly raised their hands… even a few girls.
They explained that their parents must give permission and even attend the swatting if it takes place, but that it happens quite often. My blood boiled and visions of the infamous leather belt from my youth came flooding back to the forefront. I had a burning desire to storm into the front office, rip that paddle off the wall, and take a few practice swings on the director’s “special no-no place!” My emotions were aflutter.
Later, I asked the other teachers in the faculty room if this was true and one by one they all shook their heads in affirmation. Some rolled their eyes, others uncomfortably laughed, and one stated, “Yeah, I was disturbed too when I heard that, but it is right there in the employee handbook!” And yes it was, right there in black and white on page 57. I guess not all school handbooks are the same old regurgitated mumbo jumbo.
I was speechless and without a clue as to what action to take. It really was going against everything I stood for. One of the main reasons I was out here on the road was to fight against child abuse of any and all kind. How could I possibly work somewhere and accept payment in a place where corporal punishment is enforced? After a few days I was finally able to stop obsessing over it and even managed to view a sliver of optimism. I felt that I had already made such incredible headway with these kids and couldn’t let it all be for naught. I convinced myself that maybe my being there would help them deal with the oppressive environment and the psychological scars it can cause. I would try to power through this and finish out the year, continuing to be a positive force for these kids.
As the weeks passed and the paddling had been forgotten, I grouped the students together and asked them to create a five minute play script about a current issue that was affecting adolescents. My only criterion was that it had to have both a positive theme and resolution. The topics ran the gamut; bullying, self-harm, eating disorders, addiction, gang violence, sexual promiscuity, and even homophobia. Although some of the ideas were a tad bold, none seemed too extreme and if done correctly a genuine learning experience could be had by all. They got working on their scripts immediately and as I walked around and listened in I could hear an authentic exchange of ideas and viewpoints. I left school that day feeling extra accomplished for encouraging the kids to think abstractly and work out their frustrations in a creative way.
The next day I was summoned to the office where the director, vice principal, dean of students, and an irate parent were waiting. Apparently, a student had informed his father that he was writing a play about gay people for school and that it made him feel very uncomfortable. I was asked to explain the objective behind the assignment immediately. I tried to illustrate that the plays were completely monitored, written in good taste, and only out to open up a dialogue about real issues the kids were dealing with. I then explained that the students had hand-picked every topic and it didn’t feel right of me to label good topics from bad. The dad then erupted into an all-out tirade, spraying spit from his lips as he unleashed a hate infused monologue the likes of a 1950’s K.K.K. meeting.
“Listen here, Mr. G! In Leviticus 18:22, the Lord spoke that, ‘No man shall lie with another man as one lies with a female; for it is an abomination.” The vein in his forehead turned bright purple and looked like it was going to blow at any moment. “This is the grossest excuse for education that I have ever seen and if these plays are allowed to continue, my son will be pulled from this school so fast your heads will spin!” The director intervened with a much calmer demeanor in hopes of settling the tension in the room. And then in a perfectly crafted politically correct way, gave the identical speech expressed by the parent. “You see, Peter, although this is a public school, it has a deep Christian foundation and quite frankly homosexuality is outside of our belief system. We don’t hate anyone here, but we feel very strongly that homosexuals are misguided souls and need to be brought back to God.”
I was then asked to cancel the plays effective immediately because they were inappropriate topics for middle school aged kids. But more importantly there was a state test approaching and this should be my one and only focus, not teen issues. I sat there in silent disbelief and only shook my head in agreement as I left the office.
I slept not a wink that night. How could there be a public school in The United States of America in 2014 that not only paddles the students, but also promotes that homosexuality is a sin? My emotions were in turmoil at this mind boggling assertion. I did some serious soul searching that evening and finally came to the conclusion that I would be completely going against my principals* if I gave in with their requests. How could I possibly look these kids in the eye and tell them that a topic portraying homosexual acceptance was inappropriate? This concept couldn’t have been any further from my true feelings on the issue at hand. Deep down I knew that self-loathing and suicidal thoughts were born out of intolerance just like this. Think of the damage it could have on a young person in my classroom struggling with identity issues. It was something I simply could not do. I needed the money, the health benefits, but how could I possibly talk the talk, but not walk the walk. Just what kind of a role model would I be? I would be the epitome of hypocrisy.
I resigned the next morning and expressed exactly how I felt to the administration. They were completely supportive and even greatly respected my stern convictions. In hindsight, they were probably just relieved to be getting rid of this freaky liberal Yankee, but they understood and were very nice about it. I was asked not to tell the kids in fear of the rumor mill. So I finished my day, handed in my keys and drove away. On the ride home I was heartbroken to think that these kids would come into my room tomorrow to a strange face before them, thinking that I completely deserted them without word. That I didn’t care and gave up on them. That everything I said and all that we shared was total bullshit!
But in reality, I felt that leaving my job in protest would be the biggest lesson these kids could ever learn about standing up for what you believe in. Maybe someday they would read Dear Lilly and realize that I was sincere and the latter part of my life had been devoted to helping teens in need. In the short time I was there I really grew attached to those wonderful kids. Massielle, Joel, Nayah, Victoria, Grecia, Andrea, Sydnee, Eduardo, Julian, Alyssa, and every last one of them will forever be in my thoughts. And as I move on with my family and travel trailer in search of new causes to fight, I will cherish the memories and all that they taught me. Because without their trusted belief I wouldn’t be the man I am today. So farewell my special friends and please remember that Mr. G loves each and every one of you with all his heart <3