Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Nine

As we approach the anniversary of the tragedy in Charleston, I thought I'd put this out there.  I wrote it last summer.  While it recounts some of the terrible events, I like to think there is hope here too.

The Nine – Tim O’Keefe 7-15

Charleston in the month of June
At Mother Emmanuel
Good people met to share their prayers
But one man came to kill

They invited him to share their time           
To pray, to learn, to teach
They welcomed him with open arms
But his heart was out of reach

Maybe some good will happen
Maybe some kind of spark
Maybe we’ll move a little closer to the light 
Maybe come in from the dark
Maybe we’ll seek some honest answers
That would be so fine
Maybe we’ll speak some truth to power
We owe so much to The Nine

He shot and killed those precious ones
To start some kind of war
He thought his hate would conquer their love
But he’ll get no reward

‘Cause when the families of the victims spoke
Their strength came from their faith
Forgiveness was the message they shared,
“There’s no room in my heart to hate.” CHORUS

It was no trouble for that young man
To get himself a gun
Like chains and whips and ropes of old
He carried a Glock .41

They prayed and talked that mid June night
A young stranger in their midst
Singing those old Halleluiah songs
They couldn’t know what to expect                       

We met this evil man before
His face was there on Africa’s shore
In the Dark Middle Passage and Hate’s awful course
We’re familiar with his terrible face
His gun and his rope and his hanging place
His Jim Crow laws, his higher race
We know this wretched man all right
His tired flag, his speeches trite
His endless battle against Civil Rights
His chains, his whip, his hate, his gun
He’s been in this land since we’ve begun
Now let us pray that his time is done

Along with the Birmingham girls
Mississippi and young Emmett Till
The Freedom Riders back in ‘61
We remember their stories well

“Come Ye That Love The Lord,” they sang
And, “We are marching to beautiful Zion”
We sing their songs, we raise our voices

To the memory of The Nine

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Teacher's Life

A teacher’s life is a bit of a mess I’m afraid.  New friendships forming, old friends leaving.  It can be an emotional roller coaster.  At least that’s the way it is for me.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I have taught next to and near teachers who count down the days until summer, wishing their lives away along with the potential for being best friends with students.  Teachers I have known in the past have shown me exactly who I do not want to be as a professional – or as a human.

One was many years ago.  My neighbor in a very large public school with 7 second grades.  She was a nice person.  The wife of a preacher.   She never had a good word to say about her students.  They were her enemy.  They made life hard. She hated coming in to work each day and after the first she would say, “Only 179 days to go!”  This counting down was her mantra.  “Only 157 to go…  Only 132 to go…”  It was funny.  

Only it wasn’t.  

Teaching for her was an endless process of wishing she wasn’t teaching; wishing she was doing something else.  Her kids hid her keys from her.  Her kids were never quiet.  Her kids were failures.  When she retired, it was the happiest day of her life. 

The other is a teacher I know now – although I hasten to add that she is not on my staff.  I play and sing with her at my church sometimes.  She teaches Kindergarten.  She literally prays for the end of the year to come more quickly.  She also counts the days down and is always asking for a HALLELUIA as the year draws to a close.  She regularly recounts stories of her students spitting on her, cussing her out, assaulting her.  Kindergarten.  While she claims to love teaching young children, I doubt she fools anyone.   Being that we are two teachers from the same district you might think that we have a lot in common, that we might be able to talk shop some.  Nope.  We don’t come from the same shop. 

Friday was our last day together.  In my school we loop with the children.  I teach second grade, then third.  That’s 360 school days. That’s over 2,500 hours, 150,000 minutes.   It’s a long time in a critically important time of young children’s lives.  Everyone grows and changes so much.  And I get to be right in the middle of it, I get to bear witness.  And it is an honor and a privilege.  We get to know each other really well.  We become best friends.  So, yeah, I’m kind of sad right now.  But that really is a teacher’s life. 

Even writing my last letter to parents was emotional.  Because most of us get to know each other pretty well too.  After all, we share responsibility for their precious children for two years.  Below are some excerpts from my last curriculum report / newsletter.  Some of it is insider language – but you'll get the gist…

 “Ends are not bad things, they just mean that something else is about to begin. And there are many things that don't really end, anyway, they just begin again in a new way.”  C. JoyBell C.                    6/4/16

Dear Friends,
            It is a bittersweet moment for teachers to say good-bye to their children. And for us at CFI, it may be especially so since we are together for two years. It seems even more emotional this year since I am getting older and probably only have a couple years left teaching. It is also hard because I am just an old softy and I fell for your children.  Oh, we’ll be together again; I’ll make sure of that. We’ll sing songs together. We’ll share projects. But it won’t be the same. They know it. And I know it. But it has been a wonderful ride.
            Perhaps because I am older, and that each year is only a tiny fraction of my lived life, but it seems like only a little while ago when your children were walking into the classroom for the first time. They were looking around full of curiosity and wonder. And perhaps they were a little scared (there are a lot of animal skulls in there!). Most of the kids were used to their Kindergarten/first grade teacher. And here was this old-ish man. They didn’t know if they could trust me. I’m sure they asked themselves… Who is this guy? Will this be fun? Will I learn a lot? Will he be mean? Will I be allowed to talk and be myself? Will it be hard? Does he yell? Will we all be friends?
            The truth is, after all of my years as a teacher, I was a little scared as well. At the beginning of the loop I miss my old friends who have moved on to grade 4. I am also wondering… Who are these guys? Will this be fun? Will I learn a lot? Will they be mean? Will I be allowed to talk? Will this be hard? Do they yell? Will we all be friends?
            While every day in the life of a student (and a teacher) isn’t pure joy, we had a tremendously successful time together. We covered a lot of curriculum but, more importantly, we uncovered a lot of essential learning.  Together we dug in dirt, watched black swallowtail butterflies emerge from chrysalises, assembled skeletons, and built tall structures from toothpicks. We learned cursive, we wrote beautiful songs and sang our hearts out. We got to know our 4th grade pen pals through letter writing. We learned about hunger and homelessness and together we made a difference.  We shared awesome books (Fig Pudding, Marshfield Dreams, Charlotte’s Web, Shiloh, Shiloh Season, Saving Shiloh, The Music of Dolphins, a lengthy set of books about hunger and homelessness, a set of books by Patricia Polacco, Holes, biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller, The One and Only Ivan, The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963, The Indian in the Cupboard, The Return of the Indian, and Number the Stars). 
            We all outgrew ourselves as writers with our own memoirs, our non-fiction animal pieces, biographies, conflict and resolution pieces, poetry and “This I Believe” essays. 
            We had interesting visitors concerning hunger and homelessness, and geology. We were glued to the news and the polls as the primary election process whittled away the field of men and women running for president. What better way could there be to learn about government than focusing on the amazing process happening right in front of us?
            We went on some powerful field studies including one to the State House and, of course, Harvest Hope food bank– where the class worked efficiently to sort and inspect food. And we sang and sang and sang. Our learning celebrations always had a song or two to demonstrate what we had been learning and thinking about. We sang at The Haven Alzheimer’s Care Center before the holidays. We recorded our CD “Helping the Hungry with Harmony” and managed to sell (or give away) hundreds of copies (and raised almost $1,200.00). We sang for the Inquiry Matters conference, our MAT Hooding Ceremony, for Sparkleberry Fair. But mostly we sang for ourselves. During the final week of school we voted for our favorite five songs to sing together on that last ½ day. They were precious. We ended our time together with the very first song we sang when the kids were in first grade. It was a powerful full circle moment.
            These critical incidents and memories made our year unique. This year was filled with special learning events from literature studies to expert projects to science demonstrations to learning about Civil Rights and SC history.  

           In some ways we were like those caterpillars we fed and observed at the beginning of our time together. Even though I had a BIG plan for the year, in an inquiry classroom one never knows precisely what to expect. We all grew and matured and changed and outgrew ourselves. We became more efficient mathematicians, more effective readers, more curious about the world, richer singers, more expressive writers, better team members, wiser teachers, deeper researchers, and more fearless at asking questions. Just like those black swallowtails last fall, the kids shed their old skins and grew up.  After 36 years teaching young children, I guess I did too.

EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY in the end.  IF IT'S NOT OKAY it's not the end - John Lennon