(I1) Decency to the World: Walking the Walk, A Story From Candy Kean, An Inner City 3rd Grade Teacher

Thank you for sending me Reflection 8: Why We Aren’t Good Students, Why It Matters. It lays s out some profound issues. I want to address just a few of them and while you may already know and understand, I want to be able to tell you from my daily perspective,

Jeff, we are charged with teaching our students how to write. However, many had poor teachers in prior years, or have little or no experience in writing. This is of critical importance. If children cannot express themselves in writing, they simply lose out on chances in the future, whether it’s writing college applications, a letter, or a story.

Second, we are faced with HUMONGOUS challenges at home – from no parents, to one parent, to drugs, to alcohol, to all kinds of violence and God knows what else. I constantly tell my children that learning is a ticket out. But 3rd graders come to me never having done any sustained reading – without interruption for up to 1/2 hour. You think its hard getting a teenager to listen????? Try getting 15 of these students to stay in their seats and read for 20 minutes. IMPOSSIBLE.

Why is this important? Because you need to CONCENTRATE and my students are used to constant interruptions. Even kids with ADDHD can read, but my incoming students can’t read at all. In addition, because home life is so erratic, teachers are additionally charged with the welfare of their students OUTSIDE OF SCHOOL.

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I could tell you stories that would make your skin crawl, including this one. My first year in any school, I was an intern, paired with senior teacher who screamed incessantly at her kindergartners all day long.  One student she regularly yelled was a brilliant child  — sweet, calm and quiet. I knew something was wrong at home but couldn’t get it out of him. Then, he started coming in with bruises. I went to the nurse, who contacted DHS. My classroom teacher??? She yelled at me for going to the nurse and said she wouldn’t get involved. I told her I WOULD.

This child’s mom was leaving to get drugs and the kid was being bound and gagged because he complained. The mother, in an effort to save herself, asked me to call if I had any questions. One day, when I failed to call, she came to the school yard and yelled at me: “MISS KEAN, I HAVE FOUR CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF 10! WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO??” I looked at her, speechless, and realizing what she just said, added “I didn’t mean it that way.”

Since that day, I have learned that if I do not teach the WHOLE CHILD, my job is a waste of time.

A few weeks ago, one of my kids suddenly stopped functioning. I sat down next to her and asked what was going on. She shook her head and I sat there for a few minutes, until the tears rolled down her cheek.

“It’s just that my mom keeps yelling. I didn’t do anything, but she yells at me. Tells me I took her wallet and her things. And I didn’t do, Miss Kean!”
I paused, and said “Well, when does this happen? When you get home from school?”
“No, in the morning. She be out all night partying with her sister and get up to go to school and she yells at me!”
“Who stays with you? Are you alone?”
“No, the babysitter’s there. She’s nice”
“So mom comes home it’s morning?”
“Yes.”
“Does mom walk funny when you see her, sort of stumble?”
“How did you know, Miss Kean? She stumbles and falls all over the place! This morning, she threw up too!”
“Does her voice sound normal?”
“No, she can’t speak right. Like her words are slurry or something.”

OK. So, I’ve stopped teaching to focus on this child. I look around and everyone else is busy doing math or reading. I tell my student not to worry, that everything will be fine, that mom doesn’t mean to be mean – and make a B-line for the phone. Thank God the counselor is NOT busy. She immediately comes to my room. And the child, nervous at first, is more comfortable when her friends run to greet the counselor.

So why in all the world did I just spend all this insane time telling you this?????? First, because there are tons of teachers who could care less, who just don’t want to get involved. Second, because last time I checked, I’m NOT a licensed therapist. Yet I spend a lot of time trying to figure this stuff out. Why? Because if I don’t, teaching becomes impossible.

I chose to teach in an urban environment against the advice of others around me. But, I felt a need to give to the less fortunate. And I’m not complaining.

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So while we teach to a test, we are teaching skills the students need. I want them to have every advantage and if that means teaching writing skills to kids who will never fill out college applications, it doesn’t matter. Third graders have to know how to write.

I know this doesn’t address the more meaningful stuff you write about in Radical Decency, but I wish more people knew what I do because I wonder how they would think about teachers if they really knew.

Remember student whose mom was coming home drunk in the morning? She’s AWOL. We’re trying to figure out what happened. Meanwhile, I am dealing with a student whose dad repeatedly punches him in the face; a child who’s neglected by both parents; a boy with serious, SERIOUS depression; four mentally gifted kids (who keep me sane); and a bunch of other stuff.

I’ve written too much and I’m sorry. But I never know what I am going to find each day when I go to school. I only pray that the kids are being fed and taken care of during the time I don’t have them in my charge. Oh, and I hope they are reading and writing, too.

(I2) Money and Family: To Give or Not To Give, The Struggles of A Loving Sister

Knowing that bad things happen to good people, I have always had a soft spot for have-nots. Indeed, I can’t even walk down a city street without giving everything in my pocket away. I am a caring, giving, and generous person – or so I have always told myself.

That’s why I struggled so with my reactions when my brother asked me for money. Why was giving money to a member of my family such an emotionally difficult question?

Here is my story.

One evening, I received a call from my brother. ” I have a small favor to ask you. Can I borrow $5,000?” My immediate thought: A SMALL FAVOR? Are you kidding me! But I kept my feelings to myself and listened.

His vehicle is his livelihood and he needed a new one. He wasn’t making enough money to provide for his family. He had to make the change. Since the cost was $10,000 and the bank would only give him $5,000, he needed me to give him the rest.

Because the vehicle was used and old, I worried that it was a bad investment. But when I tried to get more information he got insulted, insisting it was all thought out. “If you don’t want to give me the money then just forget about it”. I ended the conversation by saying that I couldn’t make the decision alone. I would have to discuss it with my husband.

My husband’s approach was very objective. “Ask your brother about his business plan and, if it is well thought out, lend him the money.” For him, it was easy. Give him money so long as it was being put to proper use and would be paid back.

Outwardly, I criticized my husbands’ approach as uncaring and judgmental. I wanted him to say: Just give him the money and don’t worry about getting paid back. Deep down, however, I agreed with my husband but didn’t want to admit it. It was easier to blame him. That way, I could maintain by self-image as a kind and selfless person, wiling to give without any preconditions or expectations – even as I held my brother at arms-length.

I was also reluctant to deal with the reality of my brother’s history of impulsive decision-making, poor judgment, and alcoholism. Given these issues, I started to agonize about the difference between lending a helping hand and enabling. In the end, I decided that turning him down, while emotionally difficult, was the best decision. Instead of $5,000, I gave him $400 for the first month of his health insurance. He made no further requests.

A year and a half passed and my brother’s situation continued to get worse. He was on a train heading for a brick wall. He was barely working and couldn’t pay his bills. So, once again, he asked for help. This time I gave him $500 and my parents provided additional support. But I was tired and angry. My parents and I were giving him our hard earned money because he was drinking his money away and spending it on a woman we didn’t even know.

But my anger quickly changed to guilt when the news came that my brother had tried to kill himself – and very nearly succeeded. I couldn’t stop thinking: Why didn’t I not just give him the money? It would have been so easy. It would have relieved his financial burdens. And yet even in the midst of these unrelenting thoughts, I knew – in another part of my brain – that it would only have been another band-aid.

It is now several weeks later and I still have to decide what to do. My husband and I don’t’ want to turn our backs on someone who is trying to do the right thing. But we have also decided that we cannot give without preconditions. We have to know that the money is being used for a good purpose.

So we are only going to pay specific bills – for a doctor’s appointment or medications – instead of giving him a lump sum. And while there are also many non-monetary alternatives, these choices just feel too emotionally draining. For now, we are going to limit ourselves to money.

So back to my original question: What has made giving to my brother so difficult? It is, I suspect, my sense that it can’t fix the problem and might even make it worse by enabling his self-destructive behavior.

In the end, I could only do what felt right at each particular point in time.

And the questions continue: How much should be give? For how long? And when does it end?

(I3) A Wisdom-Stretching Dilemma, A Story from Marcy Szyablya, Business Woman and Community Leader

For me, there’s never enough money, time or chocolate – which leads to a constant struggle to balance my priorities and control my cocoa habit. Here’s my recent dilemma:

I am committed to a year with a non-profit group as one of three volunteer leaders. A big part of this commitment is a leading a monthly meeting open to all members. On the day of my first meeting as leader, I had a huge reminder on my calendar to leave work promptly at 5 pm to get to the meeting with plenty of time to beat the traffic, set up the room, and meet with my fellow leaders to be sure we understood the agenda and our role.

Just as I was getting ready to close down my computer, my new boss walked into my office asking to rewrite an important message.  Both of us were tired and wanted to be somewhere else, but we worked on it for 40 minutes without coming to a good conclusion. When she said, “I’ve missed my train” and I said, “I’m late for my meeting,” she called a halt to the impromptu session and I left – feeling inadequate in both my job and my volunteer role.

Chocolate did not solve this problem.

As I walked to my car and waded through traffic, frantic to be less late to the meeting, I tried to put my experience into Radical Decency perspective.

  • My job means a lot to me, not only for the money it brings me and my family, but because I work with wonderful, caring people who appreciate me and let me do really good, satisfying work.
  • My volunteer work is a huge commitment that I need and want to honor. It means personal growth, helping others and the world (in the think globally, act locally sense).
  • It’s all about choosing – between seemingly equal priorities.

In the end, I walked the middle ground – relying on the support of my fellow leaders, I made it to the meeting with just enough time to prepare and have a meaningful and fun meeting, which felt really good.  Yet I fell short of my own expectations.  At work, my boss took the load for the message, which we continued to work on through the next day, which didn’t feel so good and fell short of my expectations.

Sometimes I choose in ways that work well and sometimes it never feels right. Sometimes, I just eat chocolate.  What do you think? What works for you in making the choices we have to make every day in the face of conflicting priorities?