Colors, Patience, Superman – Teaching on the Borderlands.

The little boy would not enter my classroom.

I saw him lingering, out in the hallway in front of my doorway, amidst the organized chaos of our morning routine, as the other students were coming in. Then, a moment later, he was gone.

I didn’t think much of it.

He was either afraid, or he was having a bad day. Or both. His teacher – my colleague – had to take the day off unexpectedly because her son woke up with a high fever.

On days when a teacher is out, we normally split up that teacher’s class between the remaining four 5th grade teachers, so we get an additional five to six more students.

We do this because on a campus like ours, located just a mile away from the U. S.-Mexico border, where we service a heavily Spanish-dominant population whose median income is below the poverty level, and we have to prepare them to pass the 5th grade STAAR exams, losing a day of instruction can really hurt these children.

Rather than having twenty-two to twenty-three students doing busy work, increasing the chances of them acting up with a substitute, it’s better they come to us and continue getting actual instruction.

There are space issues. Classroom behavior spikes a bit, but as long as we’re prepared with constant instruction, lessons, activities, the students are too engaged to even try to act up. Usually it ends up alright.

This day, we’re testing our district’s CBAs – a mini diagnostic to check if teachers have been teaching and if the students have learned what their teachers have been teaching. I get my students settled and working on their morning routine while I make room for the extra students.

Our special education teacher comes in and tells me that the little boy went back to his teacher’s classroom.
He’s in the room by himself.
He doesn’t want to come to my class.

I can cut a pretty imposing figure, with my size and my beard, and the children can find it intimidating – even threatening if I stand too close to a child.

This little boy has ED, so there are times when he won’t cooperate, won’t want to go where he is supposed to.

I head over to his classroom.

The little boy is there, standing up against a whiteboard. He looks unsettled, with a small light of defiance in his eyes.

The substitute is there as well.

I ask her if she could go to my class and watch my students since I left them unattended. She does so.

When she’s left the classroom, I ask the little boy if he’s going to come to my class. He just stares at me.

I ask him what his name is. He mumbles. By this time, morning announcements have begun, and with my peripheral deafness, I can’t make out what he’s saying.

I ask again.

I still can’t hear him. I ask him again and I explain to him why I keep asking. This time he yells out his name.
I shift my demeanor and I tell him firmly not to yell at me like that.

I wasn’t yelling at him and I honestly couldn’t hear him. There was no need for it. I tell him he’s being rude.
He says his name again, this time in a softer tone.

This time I hear him. I thank him.

I slowly walk towards him, but he begins to walk around, opposite me, keeping himself equidistant from me. We’re both feeling each other out, and we both know it.

I sit down.

For a while, I don’t talk.

I just sit there, calmly listening to the morning announcements. I’m not frowning. I make sure that my posture is relaxed.

I make sure that I’m giving off an aura of calm. I let him grow accustomed to my presence. I ask him if he wants to sit. He shakes his head no.

I calmly, gently explain to him that he needs to come to my class and I tell him not to worry.

I explain to him that I don’t want him to get into any trouble.

Then his special education teacher comes in and begins talking to him in a rough manner.

She needs to take him to her room so she can give him his test.

I use this time to call the front office and ask for our assistant principal to come by.

I step out into the hallway and when she reaches me, I explain to her the situation.
She tells me she’ll take care of it and tells me to go back to my class.

I do, and I get my kids settled down and pass out their tests.

As soon as I’m done, I see the little boy at my door.

The security guard escorted him. I tell the boy, hi! Come in and sit by me. I gesture at a chair on one end of my banana table and I sit. He walks in slowly and sits down.

I have a colorful tray filled with different types of markers that I use to create my classroom posters. I give him loose-leaf paper and push the tray towards him.
I ask him if he likes to draw.
He says yes.

I ask him if he could draw me something he likes. I sit there beside him as he draws. It’s a crude child’s drawing of Superman.

I tell him that I like Superman. I tell that I like to draw also.

I ask him, would you like to draw with me? I could draw you Superman after you finish your test.

He smiles and nods yes. His teacher comes for him and he leaves my room to take his test.

I tell him goodbye and that we’ll draw as soon as he’s done.

He never comes back.

Later I find out that he was sent home because of his behavior.

This was Thursday.

It’s Friday now.

We have two 5th grade teachers out all day at a training.

This time I get seven additional students.

We’re done with testing.
It’s “activity” Friday, and I give my students an extra thirty minutes.

Again I’m getting all the students settled and working when a student stops by my class and asks if I can step outside so his teacher can talk to me in the hallway.

It’s the little boy again.

He doesn’t want to go into his classroom teacher’s room.

The special education teacher is there again and she says he wants to go back with me because I told him that I would draw him Superman.

She sounds angry and frustrated but I respond cheerfully, of course he could come with me!

I ask him to come with me.

He follows me.

As I pass, I tell the special education teacher to come by later, once he’s settled down, so he could be picked up and do whatever work he needs to be done.

We can’t have a student out in the hallway unsupervised. It’s a safety concern. Better he’s with me in my classroom where I can keep an eye on him.

The boy sits down back at my banana table.

I sit beside him. I gently explain that he is always welcome in my room and I’ll always find time to draw with him, but he has to go with his classroom teacher later and he has to go with the special education teacher so he can learn and be smart.
He says okay.

Then I explain to him that I have to go about teaching my class and showing them the activities they need to complete.

He doesn’t blow up.

He doesn’t have an episode.

He nods and sits and waits calmly.

I go to my instruction area, I get my students attention, and I begin modeling the activities for my students using my document camera.

Then out of the corner of my eye, I notice something.

I have the lights off, so the class can see what I’m doing on our smart board.

Off to my right, in the back corner of my room, the little boy is standing up.

I continue my modeling with one eye on him and I see what he’s doing. I was actually surprised.

He’s straightening up my banana table, organizing my papers, throwing scraps of cut paper into my recycling basket, putting all my stray markers, pens and pencils where he thinks they belong.
I pause in the middle of my instruction and I tell him thank you, you’re doing such a great job and I appreciate it.

Then I finally reach a stopping point.

The class is working and they’re in their flow, so I’m able to go back and sit down with him.

I have my phone jacked into a speaker system, and I start playing some instrumental chill hop and trip hop. That always gets the kids working but it doesn’t over stimulate them.

The lights are off, but I have a multi-colored octopus lamp that bathes the room in a soothing glow.

I start drawing Superman for him.

He watches me, smiling with delight as Superman slowly takes form, flying up into the air, his cape billowing around him.

It’s not my best work.

I stopped practicing my figure sketching in college, but I would sketch occasionally, and I’ve slowly taken it up again as I sketch out character ideas for the manuscript I’m working on.

I’m smiling, too.

I’m keeping an eye on my students making sure they’re on task, but I’m relaxed.
When I finish, I hand it over to him, and he starts coloring, asking which part of his costume is blue, which is red, and all that.

I tell him, but I also encourage him to color however he wants to, change it up.

I sit beside him and watch.
My students come to me with questions about their assignments.

I answer them.

Eventually, the special education teacher comes for him, and he leaves, not one complaint.

I take a breath.

Seven students working on their own separate activities, my twenty-two students working on their assignments, and this little boy, who calmed down when I began drawing him his Superman.

Teaching children is a nonstop job. You have to be good at juggling and have a quick mind.

You need to teach them the skills in Reading, Math, Science. Writing, often. Social Studies when we can.

But that’s fifty percent of the job.

The other fifty is seeing to their needs – and there are twenty-two very different students with very different personalities, with different levels of learning.

Guiding them when they do their work. Building their confidence by showing them that they can master any concept. Showing them different ways to try and solve problems. Teaching them to recognize their own self-worth. Showing them how to use their words and communicate with one another in respectful ways to settle differences.

These are not suburban kids.

Many of the students I teach have fathers and uncles and cousins in prison.

They come from homes where the stress level is high, parents, single or together trying to make ends meet.

Quite often the default tone at home is yelling.

Some only have the breakfast and lunch the district provides for them as their only meals.

There are some parents, single, grandparents, stepparents, who really care about the education of their children.

And there are an unfortunate few who don’t pay attention.

All these children want is to know that they can be good at something.

All these children want is to learn and be a success and have fun doing so.

All these children want is to know that there is someplace safe, with regularity, stability.

All they want is to know that there is someone who cares about them.

And I’ve grown with them.

I’m a forty-three year old man. I have Major Depression and adult ADHD.
I’ve been medicated three years now, and I finally feel that I am the teacher I want to be.

The loss of my father and my longtime relationship has tempered me.

As a Gemini I seek peace and balance. And all of that has informed my teaching.

I’ve grown into a father figure for my students, my children, whom I love driving thirty minutes from my home to teach.

I’ve been teaching 5th grade at this campus for eight years now.

To teach, it truly takes love – not some squishy, saccharine love, but a fighter’s love, a fighter’s heart.

It takes dedication.

It takes an almost monastic devotion.

There is a craft to teaching children, an art.

It takes a fair mind – free of bias or prejudice.

It takes kindness.

It takes a soft word and a firm but gentle hand.

It takes never giving up on any students.

Not.

One.

It takes humor.

It takes breathing – a lot of breathing.

And it takes patience.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it even takes some colors and Superman.

Dispatches From Teaching on the BorderLands.

She sits at my banana table and she’s talking to me, during my conference period, her tennis looking like puffy pink and white marshmallows at the ends of skinny little legs as she swings them back and forth.

Her eyes are puffy, too.

The dark bags under her wide expressive eyes puff and darken more when she talks about what’s troubling her.

She tells me about needing to lock herself up in her room to get some space, some peace, to escape a while from the responsibility of caring for her younger sister – who’s around five.

I find this out because she mentions going to her room and locking the door a few times during our conference and I notice that every time she does so, her voice breaks up a bit, so I tell her that I noticed and I ask her why.

She says she feels stressed a lot of the time at home because she’s usually put in charge of watching her baby sister.

She tells me there’s only two things that make her feel better: When she locks herself in her room, and when she goes outside and runs. She tells me she runs a lot.

She tells me she doesn’t really eat lately. I gently ask if there’s food at home and if meals are made regularly and she says yes. She does not look neglected nor does she exhibit outward signs of any kind of abuse, so I don’t push the issue.

She got a 54 on a bullshit Reading CBA. She’s not a 54 student, so when I asked her why her grade was so low, she started to explain, but she began tearing up, out of embarrassment, and of fear that I was going to be disappointed in her. It was then I knew, so I asked her, and she told me.

She’s a small, wiry little thing. When she talks about the things that upset her the most, she hunches over the table, bowing her elbows out, her small, birdlike hands palms flat against the surface as she presses down, hard. It’s a physical manifestation of her literally trying to keep herself together, her emotions under control.

She is one of my students.

This is a little girl. 

A 5th grader. 

This is her life.

And compared with some of the other students I’ve taught over the years, her life is not that bad.

This is normal teaching at an At-Risk school along the Texas/Mexico border – along the entire U.S./Mexico border.

The label says it all.

Due to the low economic status and the poor infrastructure, these children have the deck set against them. Our job as teachers and educators at these At-Risk schools is to even the odds. Pick up their English language skills, so their speaking, reading, and writing skills are on par with native language speakers. We’re here to rid them of the shame and embarrassment of not speaking well, and replace that with confidence and pride.

She is incredibly verbal. She is sweet and always very helpful. Once she came up to me, gently placed her hand on my shoulder and told me that if I ever needed help with anything, to let her know, and she’d take care of it. I thanked her. 

She communicates and expresses herself well, and it’s obvious she has a high emotional intelligence IQ as well as a lot of good, common sense. Unfortunately that’s often the result of too much responsibility being placed on one person. They are forced to mature faster. 

In our Mexican culture, it’s still usually the females.

I tell her that I understand. I tell her that’s she’s a great student, a good person, and a wonderful young girl. I tell her that I understand it’s not very fair, the burdens placed on us. I share the G rated version of my story, that I had to take care of my father when he was sick, even though I was the youngest – and I make a point to make her laugh because I emphasize the fact that I don’t look very young.

The curse of being the Responsible One. Adults and older siblings all around, but if you’re the responsible one, your cup gets filled first, and keeps getting filled. This a common occurrence. More common than it should be. I’ve known quite a bit who’re in the same boat.

I tell her the cold, hard truth. You can’t talk about rainbows and sunshine to a child who’s lived mostly in cloudy skies and rainy days. They know how life works. They’re not blind sheep. I tell her that her struggle does make her unique, that it makes her stronger. I tell her that’s why she needs to focus on her studies, get the best grades she can from now till senior year, so she can grow up, graduate, and move away, so she can be free of her obligations and live just for herself. To keep her head down and barrel through.

I ask her if she likes writing or if she’s ever journaled. She says she used to – and write songs as well. I told her that was great because that’s what I used to do, too.

I ask her aside from being in her room, or jogging, what else does she like to do. She says she loves to paint, she loves creating structures and decorating them. I told her that was fantastic, because I’m planning to incorporate those kind of activities in Centers when we start next week.

She brightened up. I told her if she ever needs, she can always come in to class the first 10-15 minutes and write, to just let all that anxiety out. She smiles and thanks me. She looks relieved so I ask her if our talk helped and if she feels better. She beams and says yes.

I tell her to go back to P.E.

I inform my assistant principal. She tells me to call the mom and set up a meeting. I say sure, but I ask if she could be present to give the meeting the sense of importance it needs. She agrees. 

I was fine the rest of the workday. When I got home, it hit me, a pricked balloon, I just sagged, came undone. I barely had the energy to take a shower. I always say, When it comes to teaching, if you come home at the end of the day fresh-faced and full of energy, you’re doing it wrong. These things stay with you. 

Teaching these kids means making sure they’re in a good frame of mind, that they’re not upset because mom and boyfriend fought. I have to make my classroom a safe space, where we can all forget our problems and lose ourselves to the joy and the mental exhaustion of learning, where we can all be better than who we were yesterday. 

It is a challenge. 

That is no lie. But it is worth the fight everyday. And to me, that’s the whole point.

I took this picture that night, to show how worn out it got me.