Thursday, February 21, 2019

Lenny the Wise Man

I am not sure of how long I was hiding behind that door. Thoughts and memories were flying through my mind. Was I really the person described in that DSM book? Had my prior actions and decisions in my life hurt the ones I love the most?

I tried to remember a time in my life where I was the happiest. When I did the most good for others. Still curled on the floor behind my bedroom door in the Behavioral Health Ward of Greenview Hospital, I forced myself to remember such a time. That way, I wouldn't be the horrible person described in that DSM book under Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder Type I.

I forced myself to remember when I was keeping this blog, teaching Middle School in The Bronx. I simply felt so proud of myself and my students. We were at Lehman College at the Bronx-Wide Poetry Slam Competition, and my students had just taken home the Gold, Silver, and Bronze for our School, beating the High Schoolers by a landslide. I remember noticing the roar of the audience when the winners were announced, two hundred students from my school sitting behind me, cheering in the way only kids from The Bronx can. It was a time in my life where I was being intellectually and emotionally challenged, and I thrived on the quick pace and the high-energy level of the job. I'll never forget the looks on the faces of my students as they received their medals. They had learned to express their emotions through poetry, and then competed to win for our school. I'll never be right there again.

But I must, must, MUST be able to feel that way again.

My thoughts shifted to....worse places. The dark room with the little window that I had just come from the day before. The dark days when my son's father abused me and the struggle that followed after I left. I tried to remember a time when I wasn't anxious at all. Digging deep into my memory, past my childhood, I couldn't remember a time when I didn't suffer terribly from fear. Oh God, I was broken. What if I was breaking my family?  My breath came in quick gulps of air.

I curled myself deeper into a ball on the cold, tile floor of my hospital room. I felt awful, like a complete failure. Suddenly, every perceived negative thing I'd done in my life became huge. Plus, I looked like a leopard attacked me.

 It must have taken awhile before I noticed the had reaching out to me and a tall figure before me.

It was Lenny. And he was a priest? I was so startled I jumped off the floor. "Hi, Lenny. I had no idea you were...."
"A Preist? Yes, I am. I have two very closely intertwined professions. Are you all right?" They must have been looking for me. "The doctor told me wheat happened." Lenny shook his head. "I know. That's hard. First mental health diagnosis is no walk in the park."
" do you know?"
"You are here to focus on you. Don't worry about me. I'm a multi-faceted priest."
I actually laughed out loud, and Lenny laughed with me.

I decided right then that I liked Lenny, that he was a good person, not a fake. He was well-rounded and compassionate. He did not judge me, or tell me how I should or shouldn't feel. He did not push God on me. He just listened, and responded appropriately.

He steadied me gently in his hands. "It's lunchtime. You don't want to miss today's special. Chicken Alfredo," That didn't sound bad. I was so fucking hungry.

"Lenny? Do you think I'm broken? Do you think my illness breaks people I love?"

"No, no my dear. You aren't broken. You don't need to be 'fixed'. You can't  be fixed. You can learn to cope with your illness. You can treat it with therapy and medicine. You can learn how to control your thoughts and calm yourself down." He grinned and patted me on the shoulder. "I have confidence in you, Teach." Ah, my nickname. When you're locked up in the hospital, it's easy to acquire these.

I managed a smile. "How long am I going to be here? When can I see my family?" It still wasn't real, all of this mental hospital business.

"You will be here for as long as it takes. Your doctor will decide your release date and he is going to track your progress here. The more you participate, the more open you are to sharing, the less resistant you are to treatment, the sooner you leave. Visiting hours are daily from 5-7, and you can't have more than two visitors at a time."

I balked at the thought of an indefinite stay here, so I heeded Lenny's warning. Just be good and do what they say. No more hiding behind doors and running out of doctor's offices. "Okay," I said. "I think I can do that." No more freak-outs.

Just as we were going to leave together, Lenny gently grabbed my arm. "Acceptance," He said, "Is the key. Accept your illness as a part of you. As if it were a moody, unpredictable friend. Accept that you are here, don't fight it. Accept you for you, and you will learn to love yourself."

"Father Lenny, how do you know I find it difficult to love myself?"

"The scratches on your face, dear. Stop punishing yourself for perceived failures, and move on."

I decided I was going to take Lenny's word for it. The reality was, I was once a successful teacher in one of the most famous cities in the world, and now I sit, medicated, behind locked doors. The reality was, my brain was very, very, ill and I needed treatment. The reality was...I had to let go of my son, the boy, and accept my son, the teenager. The reality was, upon leaving the hospital, I was about to be homeless because I couldn't pay my rent.

The reality was, I needed help, and a lot of it. And the sooner I accepted that, and reached for that help, the sooner I would get better. The sooner Noah would have his mother back, and my parents would have their daughter back, and my friends would have their friend back.

At that very moment, in that hospital, a tiny piece of my darkness was pierced by the light of hope. And it came from a man of God Himself.

"Lunchtime," I said as brightly as I could. "Why am I starving all the time?"

"It's the medication. There could be worse side effects. You need some meat on your bones, anyways."

I plowed forward to satisfy my hunger with Hospital Chicken Alfredo at 11:30 in the morning. It was time to take my life moment by moment, or I wouldn't survive.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Chalkduster: The Diagnosis

They wheeled me away. I had no idea where I was going. I knew, deep inside, that I had to relinquish control. My desiny was in the hands of...I didn't know who.

Again, God bless them, The EMTs performed their magic. It was a long ride, at least an hour. And the whole time, someone was next to me, involved in a meaningful conversation. My son, my teaching, my regrets...

By the time I arrived at Green Hill Hospital, in a city that straddled New York and Pennsylvania, I was acually calm. I had no control over my fate. Chalkduster, the mother and teacher and daughter and sister and friend was shoved into my baby toe. What was going on with my brain?

I was in the Behavioral Health Ward in an unknown Hospital in an unknown city. There were two pay phones for patient use, my own bed in  room with an empty bed, and a jolly Scottish nurse who gave out meds. At the time, the situation was ludicrous to me, despite the fact I had written a suicide note to my twelve- year- old son only 24 hours prior. It certainly had the bottoming-out feeling.

I was offered a blanket and a clean hospital gown at Green Hill. I remember coming in through the doors that would lock behind me, but I was greeted by a nurse that was so goofy and friendly that I momentarily forgot where I was.

He, we will call him Lenny, had a mouthful to say. And tons of vital signs to take. My BP was elevated, as was my heart rate. When I peered at the screen, he stepped in front of it.

"Don't pay attention to those numbers, sweetie, they don't define you at the moment," He brusquely checked something on is clipboard and patted me on the shoulder. "It's snack time".

It was about 8 pm. I was starving, Lenny gently led me, clad in a cotton hospital gown and the pants I came in through the ambulance what felt like a lifetime ago, to what appeared was a gathering space for patients.

My shoulder-length hair was dirty. My face burned and I wanted to know how Noah was doing. Nonetheless, I was placed, alone, amongst the rest of the patients.

"Look, It's the new girl!'  "The fuck she do to her face?"

I smiled, figuring it was best to be positive. This was rock- bottom, wasn't it? Plus, I was hungrier than I'd ever been in my life. A young, round, beautiful girl with coffee skin and extremely short hair bounced up to me and introduced herself. I timidly offered my name.

She snatched a red jello-o off the table, which was laden with saltines, graham crackers, and apples. The jello-o seemed to be the coveted treat, and this one wanted me to have it. And it was delicious. I finally started to relax. I looked around me. The other patients were smiling through my medicated haze. I had a feeling I had lucked out that there were no more beds in the previous hospital, and that I was in a decent place. But it was still a mental gotta call a spade a spade.

I had arrived in the evening and missed dinner, so I filled up on more jello and graham crackers. I padded up to the nurses' station in my grippy socks and asked, "When will I see a doctor?"

"First thing tomorrow morning, my dear." He was so friendly I couldn't help but smile. Even smiling hurt my face. Suddenly, I felt heavy all over and very, very tired. The florescent lights were turning hazy. I nearly lost my footing. I started to cry. "I feel funny"

Lenny came around the desk and gently led me to my room. "It's the meds, hun. You aren't used to them."

"What did they give me again?" I couldn't remember the names of the medications the jolly Scottish nurse had given me. I felt as though I was underwater. Everything was muffled.

"Haldol. It is normal for you to feel this way."

No, it's not. This is anything but normal.

As Lenny tucked me in, I started to cry. Like a small child I said, "I'm scared, Lenny. I don't know what's wrong with me. I miss my family."

"Honey, remember. Keep it simple. With every problem, there is always a solution. You can call your family tomorrow. They can come visit you. You will get used to the meds. And first thing in the morning, you're gonna see the best Psychiatrist in Green Hill, and he will figure out how to help you."

"I'm broken." My face and my heart were aflame.

"No, honey, you are not. You are whole. You're you, and we are going to help you figure yourself out." He patted me on the shoulder, turned off the light, and left me alone. The Haldol drifted me into a heavy, deep sleep not one minute later.

The next morning, after a huge breakfast that I'd inhaled like never before, I sat in front of Dr. Burns. After answering what felt like a hundred questions, he pulled a fat book off the shelf.

"This is the DSM-5. It's the psychiatric diagnostic manual we use to diagnose mental illness in our patients. Actually, it's what all psychiatrists in the U.S. use." He flipped to a page in the middle and placed the book on my lap. In front to me was a list of emotions and behaviors. It read, Borderline Personality Disorder. 

"I don't want you to just think about how you have felt recently. Think back as long as you can."

I studied the list. It described a self-centered, over-sensitive, over-emotional person who had no identity. "I don't like this list." 

Abandonment issues, early childhood sexual trauma, loves to be the center of attention, difficulties in relationships, lack of identity.

And those were just a few. Other items on the list simply described a person I didn't want to know.

The doctor looked at me kindly. "The list doesn't define you, They define your disorder
And your disorder doesn't define you, either." Apparently, nothing defines me here.

That was really confusing to me. "Doc, so many of these apply to me. It's difficult not to define myself based on this list of symptoms."

"Through Dialectical and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,  balanced with the right combination of meds, you can...and a full and healthy life. But I'm not going to sugar coat it. Recovery is hard work, If you want to survive this, you have to apply yourself."

I nodded. "I will do whatever I can."

But the doctor had more bombs to drop. "Borderline Personality Disorder is not your only diagnosis. Based on your symptoms and the answers to my questions, your diagnosis are: Bi Polar type I, PTSD, Major Depressive disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and, as we discussed, Borderline Personality Disorder."

The Bi-Polar diagnosis hit me hard. There was mental illness on my mom's side of the family. I knew that Bi-Polar was the new name for manic-depressive. And I had seen in my life, what the disease can do to people. My son's father, the abuser, as also Bi-Polar.

I shakily rose from my chair. "Thank you, doctor. I have to go now, Too many disorders for me to handle at the moment."  Shit, I'm just one big dis-ordered human being.

I ran out of his office, down the hall, and to my room. I frantically searched for a closet, but there was none.

Nowhere to hide.

I hid behind the door and curled into a ball.

I was truly broken, and at that moment, I felt utterly unfixable.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Chalkduster's Journey to Redemption: Part II. Chalkduster is committed.

This part of my story is a great depiction of someone who had a life as a professional for years, and lost almost everything, and as a result, becoming completely broken. Yes, I went from the person I was when I started this blog, to the person I am now, and sometimes I think they barely know each other. Hopefully writing this will re-acquaint my past self with my present self, and also be a great and inspiring story to my readers. This is a personal, not a professional story. Because I barely taught for six years, much of my upcoming material will lean towards the personal side of my life. I write about where life brings me...even if it's ugly and scary.

I was living in a tiny town in upper New York State, with my then-boyfriend, whom we will call Jason. After my divorce, I dipped into the dating pool and found that gem. Looking back to 2014, I don't know what I was thinking at the time. maybe it was because he was twenty-seven and total eye candy. He's the perfect example of someone handsome on the outside, but ugly on the inside. Jason lived with my son and I at the time. One year into the relationship, his mean streak began to rear it's ugly head.

I was substitute teaching every grade in two tiny school districts. And aside from the boyfriend, who was a job-hopper (no surprise there) I was happy in a mediocre manner. My son had friends, and so did I. I loved my job, but it didn't pay nearly enough to pay the rent and the bills. As a substitute teacher, it is rough to budget. If school is closed for holidays and snow days, you don't make money. For a short period of time, I waitressed in a diner to try and make ends meet, but our landlady, who needed her rent on the first every month, was getting impatient. The pressure was on. In addition, I was being weaned off the drug Wellbutrin after taking it for five years. I was on it to treat my anxiety, which is a demon that has followed me since childhood. Looking back, many factors added up to the disaster inside my head that was about to ensue.

One particular day, I will do my best to recount for you. I will warn you, it's brutal and honest. This day changed me forever. I do not remember what grade I taught, or even where I taught that day. I do not remember coming home from work. I doubt I prepared dinner.

What I do remember is hiding in my closet and screaming until my throat burned. I remember Jason being terrible, but I can't remember the details. I'll bet it was a healthy dose of verbal abuse. I was angry at myself for falling into the Abuser Trap for a second time, and didn't know what to do about it.

I remember writing a note to my son, who was twelve at the time, and telling him his life would be so much better without me, and that my parents would take good care of him. Luckily, my son never saw this note.This is so hard to to write. My identity was gone, and I was in so much mental pain.

I remember being in the kitchen with a knife in my hand, intending to do the unthinkable, when Jason wrenched it from me and called the police. I refuse to paint him as the hero here, as he is the one who triggered the episode. I only remembered these details in therapy months later and had to rely on Jason's and my son's accounts of what happened.

I remember someone in a uniform trying to convince me to get into the ambulance peacefully, because I had no choice, and I was going. I remember pleading, No. I'm okay now. Don't take me.

I remember finally getting into an ambulance peacefully. The EMT, God Bless him, was kind, gentle, and said things to me that made me feel a tiny bit safer.

The rest of my journey and even my arrival is a total blur, as if it was a dream I can't describe, but am still haunted by the essence.

I awakened somewhere very dark except for a square of light on what I supposed was a locked door. My face burned something terrible, and when I reached to touch it, I winced. I was wearing some kind of paper apparatus that reminded me of the gynecologist's office. I suddenly realized where I was. I was in a mental hospital.

Holy shitballs. Me, the teacher, mother, friend, sister, daughter...wound I burned with shame.

That door with the little square of light must be locked. I don't remember how I got here. I sat, with my knees hugged to my chest, adorned in paper and a hospital blanket, for what felt like hours.

Finally, finally I wriggled off of the very skinny, very hard bed. I was in the tiniest room I'd ever been in. My feet had socks on with rubber grips. I did not remember putting on those socks, and that really bothered me. I was really hoping the door was unlocked. It was.

I stepped outside into a hallway, and immediately the harsh fluorescent light burned my eyes. The hallway was all white, except for a tan tiled floor, and empty. I timidly ventured to my right. I was confused and hungry and I wanted to call home.

There was a desk with someone, who was on their cell phone, sitting behind it. "Where am I?"
I ventured. The aide looked up from her phone and snapped her gum. She told me which city, which hospital I was in, and returned to her phone. I took a deep breath. I was in a city very familiar to me. (It's the same city where I presently teach...ahh...the irony....)

Even though the aide did not seem the least bit interested in helping me, I had several more questions so she was going to have to do her job. I puffed up my chest and ventured, "I'm a teacher, you know." At this moment, while I write, that moment had some humor. Can you imagine, readers, a lady in a paper gown in a mental hospital saying this?

She put down her phone and rolled her eyes "Not now, you ain't. You a patient in emergency behavioral health. What you do to your face, girl?"

I reached up and touched my face. Without a word, the aide got up from her seat and came around the desk. Her scrubs swished together as she maneuvered her robust frame towards me. She took me by the arm, and led me to a nearby bathroom. "Look in that mirror, hon."

I looked like a leopard attacked me. There were deep scratches on my forehead, and both my cheeks. My eyes filled with tears that quickly spilled over and burned my wounds. In a tiny voice, I asked, "Did I do this to myself?"
"No one else done it to you." She led me out of the bathroom.
"Oh!" I cried. "It burns! My face!! It burns!"
Finally, compassion hit her eyes. She adjusted the blanket around me and led me back into the hallway, and went back to her spot at the desk. She opened the drawer  and took something out. "Come here, honey."
I didn't move. "Behind the desk?"
"It's ok, I got some bacitracin for you for them scratches. It will make 'em feel better. Sit."
I came around and sat before her. She gently dabbed my face with tissues and applied the ointment and the burning disappeared.
"You got such a pretty face, with them blue eyes. Don't scratch that face no more, you hear?"
I nodded and said in a small voice, "I won't. I don't remember doing it."
"That's because you got meds when you got here."
Whaaat? "What medication?"
"Two mg's of Ativan. You were one upset young lady when you get here."
I couldn't help but smile, even if it hurt my face. No one had called me a young lady in ages. "Is there a phone I could use?" I had to call Jason.
I remember calling Jason to make sure my son, Noah, was safe. Then I called my parents and painfully confessed where I was.
After many tears of shame and my scratches burning and my parents soothing me and telling me I was okay, my mother asked, "So, what now? They keep you there how long?" I had no idea.
I ventured back to the nurse. "How long am I staying here?"
"I don't know. All the beds upstairs are full." Upstairs? Huh? "You are slotted to go to Green Hill Hospital."
I had no idea where that was. My heart started to pound. "But...I don't want to go. I don't know where that is..."
At that moment, two EMTs arrived with a stretcher. It was for me. I had to go to an unknown hospital in an unknown town, far away from my family and everyone I knew. I was terrified. "No! I'm not going! I'm not going to a place I don't know!"
"Yes, you are going. Please, let's do this the easy way and just get on the stretcher."
I'm sure my sobs could be heard throughout the hallways and tiny rooms in the Psych ER as I climbed onto the stretcher as if I was climbing to my death. The idea of being in another unknown place was mortifying. But I was too weak to fight, so I was wheeled in an ambulance towards my next step in my journey to redemption.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Chalkduster's Journey to Redemption: Part I

So yes, 2012 was the year it all changed. To help it make sense to you, I have to back up a little further. A little foundation never hurt anyone. Besides, my life is interesting. Why not share? We can only learn from each other's experiences.

The very start of my career as an educator was on the cusp of NCLB . I attained my Master's Degree the year of Colombine. The path was already set for a rough travels.

(No Child Left Behind...George W. Bush's brain fart that led to corporate education reform...) It was also right before 9/11 and everything else that static time in our history flew at us. I began teaching in a Bronx kindergarten classroom in 2000. In the very school where I attended kindergarten! Those wonderful ladies who taught me how to read were suddenly teaching me how to teach how to read. I was ecstatic. Those little ones stole my heart! So loving! Like puppies! They loved me, no matter what mood I was in, what I was wearing, who was in trouble, or what was for lunch. Little-kid unconditional love...nothing like it in the world. 

A reminder that humanity actually has a chance, that automatic love and kindness did exist, at least at one time, in all of us. That, I basked in every day, it was my warm sunshine. 

But even back then, almost twenty years ago, I sensed something was amiss when I was instructed to perform academic assessments on four and five year old babies. My mentors themselves rolled their eyes and sadly shook their heads when playtime and other developmentally appropriate activities were replaced with phonics and sight word drills. By the onset of the 2001 school year, the blocks and toys were collecting dust, and the dramatic-play area was gone. Sure, we made learning fun anyway, as teachers will do under most circumstances. We read tons of quality children's literature. Clifford, Curious George, Harry The Dirty Dog, The Rainbow Fish, Caps for my nostalgia, I could go on and on.  To be honest,, it did feel pretty satisfying when the assessments showed tangible growth at the end of the year. So, with a gritted-teeth smile, I did what I was told.

Although I truly loved my job then,  (I'd give up my right arm for it now...) I could see the dark cloud of testing and profiteering approaching. Very metaphorical when I remember seeing on television the gray cloud of debris engulfing the city like an angry monster when our Towers fell. 

Of course, like everyone else, 9/11 shook me to my core. I was twenty-four. After work, I had lots and lots of fun, too much fun, adapting an I-can-die-at-any-time mentality. It was a time of, let's say, self-exploration.

 As a result of my very wonderful time, I found myself pregnant with my (now sixteen-year-old) son, and temporarily left teaching in 2004 to attend to my own family matters, which included ending an extremely painful relationship and becoming a single mom. For the next five or so years, I stayed away from NYC, attempted to find a position in the suburbs, but to no avail. So back to The Big Apple I headed, in 2008, this time to a middle school with a student body of over fifteen hundred. 

Unconditional love? Puppies? Barely. Still lovable, but more like angry, gum-snapping, sagging-pants wearing little souls who indignantly flopped their way into my classroom. Not all of them. There were a few puppies left, generally those who were not tainted, at the ages of eleven or twelve, by abuse, hunger, gang violence or homelessness. Teachers, am I remiss to say we always love them anyways? And the ones who give us the most trouble and annoy us to our very core are the ones we love the most?

When I began this blog in 2011, it was my third year teaching 6th grade in The Bronx, Language Arts and Social Studies. Standardized testing had found its home in our classrooms. Pre-Common Core, but paving the path for Pearson Publishing, those years were very telling. High-stakes tests weren't going anywhere. They were too profitable. Teach to that test, OR ELSE.  

In my school, bubble-testing was in full swing. Obama was elected into office my first year teaching the sixth grade. Arne Duncan, the gangly basketball player with not one minute of public school teaching experience, was appointed Commissioner of Education, meaning, an ignorant doofus was placed in charge of public education for the entire country. I swear, he and Obama were (and still are) like Dumb and Dumber. Or Laurel and Hardy. 

To my dismay, they insisted on high-stakes testing as a means of asessment to determine funding, evaluating, and labeling schools. Such hypocrisy coming from a black man who claimed to understand the plight of the "underclass". I mean, duh. How did he think angry, hungry city (or impoverished rural) kids would perform on tests that were not only tortuously boring, but a poor-quality means of assessment? Did he think they would jump for joy and beg to prepare for them? Did he think their failing scores, being labeled as a number between one and four would INSPIRE them? LOLOLOLOL!

It became a race. A race to the top. A race between the privileged who had support at home, and the poor, who were stuck in the cycle of living for survival. Naturally, the privileged were winning the race. And the funding. And now it continues, still funded by tax dollars, Pearson Publishing's profits and the Common Core Curriculum that has lately sent parents and teachers spinning. See this post of mine from 2012. I saw it coming, and it was ugly.

If you'd like to read about what it was like for me teaching Middle School in The Bronx, I strongly suggest these previous posts of mine:  A Day in The Life,  My Famous Death Glare, and When the shy one completely baffles me..... There are plenty more, but in reading back, these three entries give an authentic and colorful depiction of the amazing experience. The blog is apparently so old that it exists but I can't edit or continue it. I had to begin this one, under a new address, instead. If any of my readers can help me figure out how to just continue that previous blog, your guidance would be much appreciated. I miss my old blog. It truly kept me going in 2011.

This was all a lot for me. At the time, in 2011, my (now ex) husband  was unemployed, money was tight, and my teaching job was consuming me to the point that my own boy started to fade into the background. I could not allow that. So after much careful consideration, I decided it was time to go back to teaching Kindergarten. It made sense. I loved it, I had experience.

At that time, there was no standardized testing in Kindergarten, Formal Assessments, yes. But bubble tests had not yet infiltrated the early childhood classroom. I requested and was granted a transfer to an elementary school in the South Bronx. A new start. In retrospect, one of the many huge mistakes of the year 2012 that I am still reeling from.

So, here I was in a new school, after three years in a middle school, excited to finally be teaching the Lovable Kindergarten Puppies again. 

You can read about my last teaching experience in my post entitled, Chalkduster is Broken.

cold February morning, I walked away. In the middle of the day, on a Monday, in the middle of the year. I remember throwing the doors of the school open, stepping out into the streets of the South Bronx, the freezing air meeting and biting my tear-stained face. I knew it was a pivotal moment. I left and did not look back. I refused to go back. I was broken. I'd reached my limit, had enough.

The financial and emotional repercussions of that decision are still affecting my life to this very day. But that's the story. That's why I stopped blogging. I gave up. I was ashamed. I couldn't write. How would I, how could I keep a blog about teaching if I wasn't really teaching? 

Now I'm back, because I can't NOT write. The content, I'll figure it out. My message is the same.

The past three years of bouncing from teaching job to teaching job, from home to home, from county to county, is a formidable journey worth recording.

For awhile I escaped with my son to
a teeny tiny town in farm-country in Upstate New York, where it's literally -8 degrees outside, where I am a single mom, a substitute teacher for two local districts and a private school, and loving it. The ever-laborious task of searching and searching for a regular teaching job, or ANY steady work that involves helping children in ANY way, is constant. I don't give up.

I am still struggling, again, with my son, to survive. Full disclosure...we live under the threat of eviction, my internet being shut off from time to time, and car insurance payments sending me into panic attacks. My pension is gone. I've stood on line for countless hours at The Department of Social Services, and am the proud carrier of a blue-and-white NY State Benefit Card.  My boy is old enough to be aware of these suffocating problems, and I am filled with regret, because my rash descision to walk away from NYC Schools has affected the stability of his future. There is no turning back.

Tears are falling as I write.

I put us here, and now we are living with it. I'm trying to make lemonade, but my lemon supply is limited. For now, I substitute teach in a small city in NY State, one that is riddled with poverty, homelessness, and high-crime where shootings occur weekly and homeless people die in abandoned buildings set aflame. I continue to teach in a high-needs area because it keeps the blood coursing through my veins.

Who we are is ultimately a result of our choices. Those choices then affect those we love, either directly, or they feel the backlash. I've lost many friends. I'm living with that. These are the cards I have dealt myself. Let's hope the next hand is a little better. Oh, and of course. My son and I REFUSE THE TESTS!! You should, too if you haven't joined the ever-growing movement already.


Obviously, I am no longer teaching in NYC. The year 2012 was a difficult time for many reasons, a year of change for my family, a year of awakening for me, a year of grieving. It was a precious time of learning to appreciate the very basic aspects of survival, and most of all, a year of change. I have gained, and lost, many connections. I disappeared into my family's struggle for survival. I'm still struggling, but I refuse to let that inhibit me.  I will be sure to post about what the world brought to my little family. The truth must be spoken. 

But first, before continuing with the narrative of the events that occurred after my resignation I would like to clarify what this blog will be to my readers. America's Future: The Inside Story  will be a place where, as a Citizen of the United States, I will practice my First Amendment Right to express my thoughts publicly regarding the twists and turns of today's policies on education, social services, and the rights of those impacted. My own life experiences and how my family has been impacted by poverty and mental illness will be intertwined.

Reflecting the exact nature of its broad title, my blog will explore the challenges that the future of our country faces behind the closed doors of various institutions. In this time of struggle for so many people, students are reduced to test-score numbers. Teachers are--almost literally-- gagged.  The amount of any type of public assistance (food, heat, electric, medical, housing, you know, basic needs) --if any--a family receives depends on ambiguous formulas based on "income, family size, and expenses". All numbers. People that live in poverty and/or have a disability are the stepping stools for billionaires.

The relationship between poverty and education will continue to be explored as well as the impact of Standardized Testing and The Common Core Curriculum. Any form of enlightenment, unique expression, or independent thought is being completely squelched by numbing curriculum. I now substitute teach in a smaller city north of NYC, and have implemented Common Core Curriculum myself to at-risk students. Needless to say, my previous years of experience as a teacher in NYC helps me immensely in my current position.

For the life of me, I still am trying to make sense of why those in power who create policies upon which the success and survival of America's Future depends refuse to address the relationship between poverty and academic success.

The connection between hunger and the ability to focus in school.

The direct link between homelessness, abuse and violence in schools and on the streets.

The school-to-prison pipeline.

It doesn't take a genius to see these obvious problems, but it takes a greedy politician to not just ignore them, but actually perpetuate them. The darkness of greed has driven the politics regarding the "business" of our children and families. It's a glaring fact at this point.

It is understood that many of us have become fearful and apathetic adults, because almost half of us are solely focused on survival and nothing else, which weakens our resolve to plant the seeds of progression. How can we, as struggling parents and teachers, affect any change if all of our energy and time is dominated by "taking care of our own"? That's no accident.

My promise to my readers is that absolutely no names, places, or otherwise identifying information will be disclosed unless granted permission. I will stay as raw and honest as I have always been. I will describe my personal experiences colorfully, with or without fear of judgement.

If you're not interested in the truth, stop reading and retreat back into your ignorance, but don't complain about your child failing school or your empty bank account. 

I've never known of a great writer to tiptoe around the idea of controversy. Ducking under a blanket of literary safety, which I have done for the past six years, has gotten me nowhere. A true writer never ceases to express themselves based on shame or fear.

Great writing is brave writing. Great learning happens when the mind is open to that which may be intimidating to understand...and act upon. So I'm gonna jump back into the Blogosphere...despite my fears. Thank you for reading, and I hope you decide to continue, comment, and share.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Hey there, readers! It's been a minute, hasn't it? More like six years! I'm alive and well. And can you imagine, I felt remiss for not writing for six months, way-back-when? I noticed on my stats that I've had some readers during my whole hiatus, which truly inspired me to pick up this blog again. Well, now is better than never. Chalkduster is back. I've got my lukewarm coffee and my juul next to me, I'm ready to go. That's right, I quit smoking.

So...let's rewind back to the summer of 2011, during the time I was still writing this blog, but not disclosing what was going on in my then-position as school slave for a small public elementary school in our beloved BX. I believed at the time that the Middle School that was the subject of many posts on this blog was no longer the place for me. Although all of my observations were satisfactory, I felt that as each year went by, I was being more and more set up for faiure. Also, I craved Kindergarten, which was my first position as a teacher back in 2000. I was hired in the summer of 2011 to teach Kindergarten by a principal who shall remain nameless and happens now to be deceased.

I was so excited! (Not that he's deceased, really...) Cutting out apples and phonics and adorable braids and huge brown eyes that drank in knowledge like tiny sponges....I was ready! I couldn't wait.

The first red flag should have been when the school had to be moved across the Bronx over the summer due to deadly toxins in the original school building. It was serious, people were suing. Former students and teachers were coming up with chronic...and sometimes conditions.

The second red flag should have been when, after helping the school move I spent hours upon hours setting up my classroom only for the administrative team to come in, glare at me reproachingly, tell me it was all wrong, and that it had to be ready for the first day the next morning. Needless to say I stayed in the sweltering classroom for several more hours, hoping to "get it right" when I hadn't really been told what "right" was. For someone like your beloved Chalkduster who suffers from anxiety, that level of confusion can be torturous.

The next day, the school year in a new school teaching a new grade was underway for me. By then, my former middle school students seemed like characters in a dream. The third red flag was when the principal stood before the whole school and led morning assembly as if it was a dictator's rally. This was not, I repeat, NOT, the soft-spoken man that hired me two months prior.

I'm not going to torture you with all of the sordid details of the next six months. I'll place it in the neatest nutshell possible. This won't be easy, because there were many events that led to my eventual resignation from NYC Schools.

About three weeks into the school year, the principal and his team literally disbanded my kindergarten class, which had low attendance due to the move and the toxins. Because it was known as a Choice School, parents could pull their children out and send them to their local elementary school. The toxins in the old building cut the school's roster by about a third. Yet...I was the only teacher who lost her class. I watched in sadness as my little whom I was already attached...were spread over the remaining two kindergarten classes. Those classes now had a crop of seven new students each. This is how I became school slave.

It was my most stressful year thus far, because I didn't know what to expect when going into school each morning. For about two months, I co-taught a first-grade class with a wonderful teacher. I learned so much from her, she is possibly one of the best teachers I have ever met. We got on like peas and carrots. As soon as the principal saw things were going smoothly, God save his soul...he would yank me out and place me somewhere else.

The only female member of the administrative team was just as awful as her two male counterparts. She scrutinized every move I made. One day, I sent a third-grade boy to her office for misbehaving. She called me in to meet with them and said to the child, "Your teacher is telling me you can't behave in science class. Are you aware of what this could do to your teacher, and her son, who is just your age? She could lose her job. Yes, she could. Because your misbehaving makes her look like a bad teacher." The poor little boy didn't know what to say. I was mortified that she would say such a thing to a child. It's especially mortifying because I wound up leaving not long after that incident, and I always hoped the boy did not blame himself, as children always do.

By then, I was beginning to feel again that I was being set up for failure. Luckily for me, I'm a Sagittarius to the core, so flitting around the building doing whatever wasn't so terrible for me, until in turned into clear path towards harassment. I was constantly pulled in and out of classrooms, in the middle of delivering lessons, leaving me feeling unprepared each day. Being the fill-in person for quite a while, I became familiar with all of the students and teachers, but could never really delve into my teaching, as it had no stable home in which to thrive. Even worse, the fill-in person is easy to track and follow around with a clipboard....especially if the one with said clipboard created the schedule.

It had the acrid smell of vendetta. I felt as though I was under a constant microscope.

Then came my formal observations. My pride...I had always done well, in every school, with every previous principal. I knew the ramifications of having unsatisfactory marks for formal observations. Marks such as these can taint a NYC teacher's name forever, make it difficult to switch schools, therefore trapping you where you are. Which is why I was always VERY diligent when it came to such assessments.

My first formal observation at this school (aside from pop-ins, of course) was conducted by a member of the administrative team, the same class I co-taught first grade. It was a math lesson and I thought it went rather well, except for the fire drill in the middle of it. (Would it sound paranoid to say I think that fire drill was carefully planned?) The administrator failed me. When the meeting came time to find out why, he made up a bunch of things that never even happened. Although I had a witness, my teaching partner, who even voiced that the lesson went well, the administrator had the ultimate power. I was furious. I had NEVER, in all my years of teaching, EVER received an unsatisfactory mark for a formal observation. And as a side note...he came down with shingles about a month later. I promise, I did NOT cast a spell on him, but I believe it was a good dose of Karma.

I now had an Unsatisfactory rating in my file for teaching practice, and this would follow me everywhere. No way was I going to let that happen again. No WAY. One failing lesson could be construed as a bad day. Two would be a mark on my record forever that said, "she consistently can't teach." I took my practice very seriously and the thought of that stigma was horrifying.

The next observation came when I was teaching science to every grade in the teacher's lounge. Yes, you read right, my friends. I was teaching science in the teacher's lounge while my colleagues were eating lunch. Although it was interesting when one of them would chime in, I prefer to teach in a classroom independently. The science supplies were a disaster, I didn't have enough desks and chairs, and the entire school was on my workload. Did I mention that I was an English teacher? Teaching science all day every day was foreign to me, and the administration knew it. And although it was lined up as a clear path to failure, I embraced teaching science. I've always loved a good challenge, so I plugged away with enthusiasm. I mean who, besides the alt-right, doesn't love science?

My observation was to be conducted by the principal, who, had obviously not rediscovered his soft-spoken self with me, he was constantly thick with criticism and liked to follow me around with his Ipad and clipboard. The most difficult class in to school was assigned to me. I really, once again, believed the lesson went well. It was a clear-cut measurement and conversion lesson where the students were using meter sticks they had made to measure themselves and items around the room, and then do the conversions. The room was bustling with learning noise, the kids had fun, and I collected their work at the end of the lesson. I ignored the administrator with the ipad sitting in a chair about ten times too small for him, peering from his glasses.

That was a Friday in February 2012. The post observation meeting was scheduled for Monday. As I left the crowded main office that Friday, the principal boomed "You're gonna need to enjoy your weekend because you aren't going to like what I have to say to you on Monday." Yes, he legit said this to me in front of everyone. I left school with tears in my eyes.

I went home and called my mother, who has years of teaching and dealings with administrators, and my father, an administrator himself, looking for sound advice. I cried and cried and told them I didn't think I could take it anymore. My wise mother told me to compile the data of my students' work for the lesson, and have it ready for my meeting on Monday morning.

I spent the weekend doing just that, and realized that 70% of my class had achieved the learning benchmark for that lesson. How could he possibly fail me now?

I warned my family: If I receive an unsatisfactory mark on this lesson, I will have officially reached my wit's end, and will be out of a job come Monday afternoon.

When I assertively presented my data to him, the principal calmly slid it back to me from his side of the desk and stated, "I failed you because I am The Principal, and it is in my power to do so. I don't care what data you gathered, in my eyes, the lesson was completely unsatisfactory, and a total disaster." He went on to mention that some of the boys had been fooling around while I was teaching, something I had swiftly dealt with, something that also had to do with the particular class he had hand-chosen himself to observe me with. What a snake. Did I mention he's dead? Dropped of a heart attack in his 50s, I heard. Again, Karma?

I rose from my chair and headed for the door without a word. Tears were filling my eyes. I found my way to my teacher's lounge classroom. I gathered as many of my things that I could and stuffed them in my bag, leaving behind some very dear teaching mementos. It's amazing how abuse just kicks me into flight mode.... I told the assistant principal I was going home with a headache. I walked down the stairs, down the hall, and out the door. My tear-soaked face hit the freezing February air, and freedom hit me like a cool waterfall.

I walked away and never looked back.

Little did I know how this experience would not only profoundly affect my career as a teacher, but wound my sense of self as a professional, a mother, and a whole human being. Chalkduster was broken. :(

"And still, I rise." --Maya Angelou