Thursday, October 06, 2005

Baggage

I knew her first as the head of long, mousey brown, hair piled over folded arms. The days that she showed up in class, she sat in the back of the room and buried her face on a bunched up jacket plopped down on the table. As the rest of the class was getting their latest projects out to work on, she would sit, with her head resting upon her arm, eyes closed.

"C'mon darlin', I can't give you a grade if you don't have anything to turn in. You're here, you might as well give it a shot."

Malinda would roll her eyes, and slowly walk to the file cabinet to get her portfolio. She was taking the art requirement her freshman year, and had pretty decent drawing skills, but her absenteeism was taking a toll on her progress. My cajoling was usually met with a reluctant compliance. Any attempts to talk with her were met with one-word answers. She was quiet, an easy student to overlook in a class filled mostly with excitable ninth grade boys.

Malinda had one friend in class, Sara, a slightly built, tom-boyish, chatty, tenth grader. Never lacking in self-confidence or something to talk about, Sarah was popular. Even though she had many friends, I noticed her taking time out with the loners, the "geeks", and the "underdogs". If anyone was ever so ingnorant as to pick on one the the special needs students in Sara's presence, they would find themselves dealing with a 5 foot tall, ninety pound avenger. Justice in a ponytail, Sara's fist could fly as fast as her words.

Early one morning, before the first period bell, Sara appeared at my door.

"Ms. Matthews, I need to tell you something."

"What's wrong?" Dark circles beneath her eyes told me she had been up most of the night.

"You know that girl, Malinda, I sit next to in your class?"

I nodded my head.

"She told me last night that she was being raped by her father and her brother. She said it's been going on since she was eleven. Her mom knows about it, but lets them do it. She said her mother blames her for what they do."

Whoa! Every moment of annoyance I ever felt toward the child I had assumed was lazy, morphed into guilt combined with horror. "We have to report this."

"I'll go down to the office, I'm the one she told. I heard the story."

"Is Malinda here today?"

"I haven't seen her yet."

"Do you think she would go with you to talk to someone? Is she ready? Does she want to get out of there? Did she say?" A million questions raced around my head. A million and one regrets. Never again would I assume anything about a sleepy student.
Knowing everyone carries baggage is one thing; knowing the contents can make you a participant in the burden.

"She needs to get out." Sara was resolute. "I told her I was going to tell the school. She didn't say anything."

With that, Sara turned around and headed down the stairs to the office.

Sara had breached the levy.
Malinda's life, previously a solitary, silent, scream, became a flurry of police detectives, social workers, and prosecutors.

Her family was tried and convicted. Her testimony in court assured prison time for her father. A minor without a home, Malinda became a ward of the county. Over the next couple of years she lived like a teen-aged refugee, bouncing from one foster home to another.

Now that she had found her voice, she began to talk.. and talk.. and talk.
The healing effect of communicating was evident as she began to share her frustrations and fears. I gave her a sketch/journal, perhaps it could be therapeutic.
Sara and Malinda had become fast friends. They made certain to keep me informed during the court proceedings, and kept me updated on the idiosyncrasies of the various foster homes Malinda was placed in. One typical day the girls came in to my room together, this time they both looked sad. Malinda was transferring to a new school in the suburbs. A family in Strongsville was taking her in.

____________________

Last week Sara appeared at my door, all smiles. It was two years since she had graduated, but she was a periodic visitor, so although I was happy to see her, I was not surprised. "Somebody wants to see you. Come out to the hall."
Curiously, I peeked my head around the corner.

"Malinda!"

"I thought you might not remember me."

"Oh honey, how could I forget you? How have you been? What are you doing?"

Malinda had just moved back to the near westside, had her own apartment, and was going to college. She looked so grown-up. A far cry from the sullen child I needed to keep waking up six years ago.

"I have to go to court in a few weeks. My father is going up for a probationary hearing. I'll be testifying against him."

"Good for you darlin'. Good for you."

3 comments:

Jill said...

Thank you for this post, MaryBeth.

Dale P. said...

MaryBeth,
I could use some of your wisdom. I'm an energetic, eager teacher of eleven years who is getting discouraged at the state of my school and classroom. How do you stay positive in an environment such as your school? Today we had one student taken away by paramedics because he had been beaten so badly, and that was only one of five violent fights we had today! I'm getting discouraged, fearful, and outraged at my school, but I want to make a difference. How do you cope/deal/stay positive?

marybeth said...

Dale,

I laughed to myself when I read your question about coping. My friends would attribute my good spirits to my eroding sanity. Thank God our benefits package covers mental health care.

I was not always so positive. Ten years ago I was given middle school classes after having taught high school for 15 years. It was awful. I was ready to quit the profession. I never had patience for that age group. I didn't like the kids, and I didn't like myself at the end of the day.
There is a saying amongst my colleagues who are certified in grades 7-12:
"Your worst day in a high school is still better than your best day in a middle school."
Rather than quit teaching, I just quit teaching THERE. I was tired of feeling like a bitch. I started looking for a high school opening, and finally discovered a teacher who was retiring. I prepared for my interview for two months, and beat out 12 other candidates.
Granted, my current job is challenging, but I don't have to listen to screaming sixth graders, which is my personal concept of hell...everything is relative.

But how do I deal with dicouragement now? How do I know if I am making a difference?
I make the effort to build relationships with my students. I take the time to get to know the kids in my classes. I listen to them, and they, in turn, listen to me. I don't just present material, I share my passion for the subject. I challenge them to think and see things differently, and I model the behavior I want to see in them. I ask them, everyday, what they need from me, and what I can do for them to help them succeed. I don't try to control them, I encourage them to control themselves. Most of my students respond very positively to my strategy of modeling behavior and mutual respect.
However, just in case there is trouble in paradise, I do like to maintain good relationships with the guidance counselors, who will find alternative classes, and make schedule changes when I encounter students who are intent upon their mission to disrupt the educational process in my classroom, or simply be a pain in the butt.