Monday, November 30, 2020

Elementary School Pandemic Hothouse

I don't know how to talk about the month (only one month) that I spent teaching art in an elementary school during the pandemic. I started, and I left, out of necessity. The first, being willing to work physically in the schools, I volunteered to do because I love to teach, and, as a recently divorced single mother, I needed a job. The reason I left is more complicated. 

image copyright Julia Gandrud 2020

How to explain the hothouse of love and fear in that literally brick and mortar building? The red alertness on the faces of staff, the fatigue so deep that many adults ran on electricity only? The grief, joy, love, gratitude, rage, abandonment in the words and actions of the beautiful kids? They were the sun, even at their worst. And there was some astoundingly bad behavior... even then, those children were beautiful. My heart breaks, thinking of them, as individuals and as a group, knowing that I abandoned them, in the end. 

As I said, I'm a single mother and have my own kids most of the school year. After only a few weeks of teaching, I was sent home because of close contact exposure (a student who regularly ran around the room, joking and laughing during lunches, mask down, unable to absorb the weirdness of not being able to be a normal kid). 

Wouldn't you know it? During that week, I got a rash. It was so bad that my eyes swelled nearly shut. It was so bad that I couldn't sit still for the itching. I called in for a telehealth session. That nurse wanted me to go to urgent care. Urgent care wouldn't see me because I was on close contact quarantine. They sent me to the emergency room... which was overflowing. Again, I had two kids at home, alone, during this. I couldn't risk wading past the COVID tents (yes, there were those) to wait in the emergency room, then get treated, for the rest of the day.

I went home. I did not get treated. Luckily for me, I have a friend eleven hours away who is a dermatologist. She could do trial and error treatment with me via text and photos, calling in prescriptions. A few weeks later, I still have itches – it was likely poison ivy, not impetigo or the other horrible disease the nurse first thought.

I have had cancer twice – well, three times if you count the minor skin cancer – and can't play around. I chose to quit. 

I cried as I wrote the letter to the principal. I felt depressed for days after. My heart breaks, hoping those kids are happy with whoever replaced me. I hope that person is brilliant and strong. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

One day, I will outgrow my fourth grade ostracism

 When I was a little girl, I had two friends who sometimes fought, and often gossiped. In a fourth grade school yard tussle, Angel Heineschewitz accused Donna of grabbing her, pinching her, in the middle of a fighting huddle. I was a bystander, so Donna asked me, “Did you see my hand in there?”

“I don't know,” I answered honestly. Donna never forgave me.

The thing is, she had reason. Donna was the only black girl at school. I should have been able to say if her hand had been there or not. But I didn't see.

Donna started spreading rumors about me – that I'd been mean to her cousin, on the bus. I'd never met her cousin. She orchestrated a mass excommunication from the fourth grade girls friends circles. It wasn't until months, maybe a year, later, that I confronted her. “You know that I never said anything to your cousin, don't you?” I asked. 

“I know,” she answered. Matter of fact. 

            Julia Gandrud 2020. Use with permission only

Now, as a newly divorced woman with a hostile ex, I am afraid of the same thing. He is charismatic, and I am not. He is friendly, and I am crabby. Whenever one of our mutual friends doesn't respond to me, I fear the worst. 

I'm trying to remind me of the following rule: 

How do you know that your friends are your friends? 

Because they are there. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

"Comply With Directives": Race and Special Education

As I read Rachel Aviv's 2018 article (Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Education System: A statewide network of schools for disabled students has trapped black children in neglect and isolation) about special education being wielded as a racist, Jim Crow like cudgel against black boys, I'm reminded of a story of an acquaintance of mine. 

My friend is white, and was teaching in a school of privileged white children, maybe six years old. Still, she had been begging for help with one child who was biting and hitting others. She got no help. One day, after an already tough morning, complete with difficult interactions with a parent, she snapped, and tied the boy's hands together. She got fired. 

But, like the teacher in Aviv's article who ended up in prison, she had never received the support and guidance she'd been pleading for up until the incident.

Weird punishments, and physical violence, are not excusable. But neither is institutional negligence, leaving teachers to be alone in the responsibility for young people who need more. If the children need more help, so do the adults – maybe we can call that a general rule of education. 

This problem of not caring enough for (and paying enough) our teachers is compounded, exponentially, when put in face of America's institutional racism. From the article:

I just felt like these students, especially the black boys, were put there, basically, because they intimidated their teachers.” Melissa Williams-Brown

It became a way to filter out black boys, who at younger and younger ages are perceived to have behavioral disabilities,” Leslie Lipson, a lawyer at the Georgia Advocacy Office said.

According to Beth Ferri, a disability scholar at Syracuse University, IDEA provided a kind of loophole to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Now racial segregation continued “under the guise of ‘disability,’ ” she said. 

Likewise, the origin of the public school system, as a tool to create good workers who will follow directions, and not read or think independently, is multiplied in this situation. From the article:

Latoya said that, when she walked into her son’s class, “I did not see one white child. All I saw was black boys.” Seth’s “target behavior,” according to the center’s intervention plan, was to “comply with adult directives.”

* * * *

When is being labeled as in need of special education a harm to the student? My brother was mislabled autistic (not even remotely close...) and it meant that none of the teachers bothered to teach him. For my son, on the other hand, I've had to fight for the dyslexic label, just so he gets any of the extra assistance he needs. Otherwise, the teachers were more than happy to let a child California lables “gifted” skim by in the lower third of the class.

I am white, and sound traditionally educated. How much harder is that question when you are black or brown, or don't talk the same way the teachers and administrators do? 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Book Review: The Serpent of Essex by Sarah Perry

The Serpent of Essex 

A beautiful book, it rolls like the tides, but sluggishly, as though the Victorian vocabulary and style create resistent brackish. With sensitivity to all kinds of clashing and melding personalities, The Serpent of Essex follows a nineteenth century widow and her milieu through London and Essex. The characters were tender and terrible, from Luke Garrett and his love and loathing of Cora, mixed with an untempered glee in radical surgery, to Martha with her qualms about using an admirer to further the causes of the poor Londoners who she truly loves. 

It's the main character, Cora Seaborne, who shines brightest. A survivor of systematic abuse over more than a decade at the hands of her husband (complex post traumatic stress), she is freed by his death. The joy in that freedom she finds wrong, but celebrates it, and ignites everyone with her love of life.

When Cora turns away the advances of Luke Garrett in a decisive way, it felt like a tragedy of cptsd that what she takes from this, his narcissistic loathing of her for expressing what was true, is that she is wrong to affect people this way. That Martha espouses, harshly, the sentiment that Cora ties people to her – though she never made anyone obliged to her or dependent on her – seems cruel, but it is even crueler to let the story run out as though this were true. Why does Cora have to end up alone, with her things and her paintings, with even her son away at boarding school? It's because that is the fear of all survivors of complex ptsd: my desires hurt others (even though they don't, maybe only contradicting them) and I don't deserve love and companionship (which is why so many homeless people are survivors of childhood neglect or abuse.)

Please, let Cora have that light she shines. If she draws people to her, that's no crime.