Thursday, May 22, 2014

This Moment, It Is Everything

There are moments in my day as a teacher that I look into the eyes of a child and see confusion.

I am prepared for this, ecstatic to be able to serve the purpose of learning by finding a new way to explain or guide a student to explore a different angle or discover their true question that they might quest for the answer with renewed purpose. In that moment, I have served a child and served the profession.

There are moments in my day as a teacher that I look into the eyes of a student and read disinterest.

I am prepared for this, overjoyed to focus the full force of my passion for beautiful words and stories and the writing of them, sharing the satisfaction from having reached into the obfuscated depths of a text that feels too too too hard to navigate and pulling light and meaning from it, or to throw down the challenge of reflection and humor and curiosity to see a spark alight in those eyes.

There are moments in my day as a teacher that I look into the eyes of one the members of our class community and find defiance.

I am prepared for this, ready to use a gentle word, a firm reminder that we are the stuff of excellence here, or a carefully-placed bit of humor or an invitation to smile in their path; to discover the root of this reluctance to embrace our work and the precious time in which we have to do it, to give them the space to lay down the heaviness of pain that they wear into my room on their shoulders, and so to see the defiance fade to relief then to vulnerability and trust.

But...There are precious few moments where I look into the eyes of one of my students and see tears only to watch it turn into a watershed moment before my very eyes.

Today was such a day, and for the first time, after eleven years of teaching eleven-year-olds, I finally felt prepared.

We began this year by reading a touchstone text together, RJ Palacio's amazing book, Wonder, together.
This layered, deceptively simple novel tells the tale of Auggie Pullman, a boy going to school with other children for the first time as a fifth grader, having been home-schooled due to a severe craniofacial abnormality. His story is told believably, matter-of-factly even, by his voice, but also by the voices of those around him: his sister, his two new friends, an old friend, and even his sister's boyfriend tell their parts in their own voices. All are Team Auggie supporters. We see all the events of the story told and retold from a different character's perspective, lending readers plenty of aha moments and empathy where before there might have been anger. It is a brilliantly written book, designed to make readers question what it means not to judge someone too quickly.

The one voice whose perspective was missed almost universally by readers in my classroom over the last two years (and in most other circles as well, I understand) was that of Auggie's fifth grade tormentor and nemesis, Julian. After spending so much time learning not to judge a person without walking a mile in their shoes, my students wanted to find out WHY Julian chose to be so relentlessly cruel to Auggie. They wanted to understand him, find redemption for him. So, when Palacio published the e-book called, The Julian Chapters, last week, I knew I had to end the year with this.

As in Wonder, the chapters cover many of the same main events, flashing back through the school year, adding Julian's (ahem) unique perspective to each one. At each turning point in the plot you can see my students' faces alight with hope that Julian will tell us SOMETHING, ANYTHING to help us like him, make him part of his community again. And, thus far, Julian has disappointed and angered them (so have Julian's parents, but I won't spoil anything for you). It has become almost a game to my students, when we are getting close to a make or break moment, to debate each other over whether Julian will do the right thing or not.

Today, we reached a point in the story where Julian goes too far. A lot too far. In more than one situation. Worse, he is so entrenched in his own narcissistic rut, that he becomes almost monstrous. I wish you could have been there to witness the shocked gasps and angry muttering and exclamations of outrage that filled our reading space.

In discussion of this turning point moment, I posed a question that Julian's friends asked themselves before deciding to join Team Auggie too. It had to do with what Julian MIGHT have done in a situation that he was not present for. Julian claims that he would have done the right thing, but other characters are reluctant to believe him.
My students were reluctant as well, considering the awful deed of Julian's they had just uncovered and his reaction to getting caught. Each of my students waved evidence and examples of his past misdeeds and cavalier attitude like banners, marking him guilty, guilty, GUILTY.

Except one girl.  When it came time for her to speak her piece, she quietly, patiently asserted that Julian would have done the right thing if he had been there. Immediately, I had to quiet the other students who wanted to jump on her belief and stomp it out with all their evidence. The crux of her defense was that she just didn't believe that Julian was so "bad" that he would have stood by or joined in on physically harming Auggie. She kept coming back to her belief that Auggie was at fault too, for not standing up for himself in the face of Julian's bullying.  I asked her for clarification, "So, Auggie is at fault for provoking Julian's behavior?" Her chin quivering, she nodded. I was baffled, but she stood firm. She had ceased looking around at her classmates at this point, not wanting to engage their accusing eyes, instead looking straight into mine, looking for acceptance of this thought.

I was torn,  not wanting to undermine her brave choice to speak out in defense of the undefended Julian, but I also sensed that she was trying to paint a pretty face on an ugly moment in her own experience.

I looked into the eyes of this little girl and I saw tears born of fear.  I gathered my own evidence to confirm this as her eyes welled up and she tightly rolled her lips into her mouth and took deep breaths through her nose to force back the tears.

"How did Auggie invite Julian's anger?" I gently prodded. She shook her head and a tear escaped down her cheek as if running away from notice.  "Was Auggie ever mean or nasty to Julian?"

She looked down at her lap, her cheeks coloring slightly. "It was just because he was ugly," she mumbled, retreating, conceding the point. But then she brought her eyes to mine again, beseeching me to see something in them of her truth.

"But that doesn't mean he couldn't change," she chanced, her chin firming up.

"You are absolutely right," I assured her.   There was a sigh of relief at the finding of common, acceptable ground, the tension escaping the room as we transitioned to our writing time.

I sent her to get a drink in order to let her finish collecting herself, but I met her in the privacy of the hallway to make sure she was okay. As gently as possible, I invited her to share what had so affected her about Julian's situation that she would brave the wrath of the class to defend him. She blurted out that it had brought back feelings about a situation from a year ago, a time when she had been guilty of following otherwise funny, good-hearted friends into tormenting a girl in their class. She had always been able to rationalize her role in the bullying by claiming that the other girl should have stood up for herself.

Still overfull of emotion, she broke into tears again, claiming, "I knew it was wrong, but these other girls weren't bad people. They just kept picking on this girl, and so did I. I don't want people to think- I don't want to think that I'm all bad! I don't have to be like that forever just because it happened before!! I can be good person! I AM a good person!"

I gave her a hug and reminded her that we all make mistakes, sometimes cruel ones that hurt others, but that we all have the capacity to grow into better people if we learn from them. She wasn't sure if she deserved this forgiveness, but she didn't want to be the person from the past either.

"You were the only one who stood up for Julian in there, Kiddo.  You have changed. You have learned, and maybe this moment is what you needed to take that final step.  That guilt you have for not standing up and defending that girl against your friends last year, has made you determined not to do it again. The pain that you're feeling right now by facing your own mistake is a powerful thing to learn from. I'm proud of you for figuring out that everyone deserves a second chance, both the victim and the bully."

As we walked back to the classroom, she said, "I still think Julian would've stood up for Auggie against those seventh-graders. I still think he'll find a way to be a good guy."

"Yeah.  Me too, Kiddo.  Me too."

This moment, it is everything.

It is everything that reading books can do to help us understand our world.  It is the moment where we realize that we are all sometimes the victim and sometimes the bully. That we realize that we are all deserving of forgiveness, that we all have the capacity to change and be better people.  More so than even Auggie's story, told by the people who all supported him, Julian's story makes us face true ugliness - the ugliness in ourselves, name it, learn from it, and seek forgiveness.

As ever, Choose Kind.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Sliver Poem - #TeacherPoets Challenge 2, Week One Assignment

This first official poetry challenge from Christopher Lehman's #TeacherPoets online workshop got right to the heart of one of my personal stumbling blocks as a writer - writing about a pebble instead of a whole beach.

He challenges us to define big emotions using small moments - like Nancie Atwell does in her "Write About A Pebble" lesson from Lessons That Change Writers.

My first attempt at this went wildly out of control. I desperately needed to release the emotion of a moment of great vulnerability that had happened a few weeks before, but it was so complex that I kept adding bits of the history surrounding the moment to clarify all the nuances...blah, blah, blah.

It took sitting down again, weeks later, with time and determination on my side, to re-start that poem.  Even so, this is merely a first draft with some minor tinkering and revision.  I feel as though there may be more to cut out, but I also feel as though I've hacked off all the shooter vines of the surrounding history and focused in on a single moment that embodies this  huge emotion for me.

She Threw It All Away
by Jessica Wisniewski

It seemed to weigh down her hand.
But everything does, these days.
The thin, winter tree limb of her arm extends,
Lengthy, so frighteningly fragile
Out to the twiggy, alien grace of her fingers, clutching the bottle.

She drops it in the trashcan
And instead of the light, hollow pong of empty plastic
There is a dull, sloshy thud of a muffled church bell
When she casts off the nearly full nutritional supplement shake,
Her body’s nourishment, foregone.

In a fleeting moment of remorse,
She clutches her shirt hem, nervous in the face of her rebellion,
Expression trembling between two worlds.
The ghost of her old self, full and joyful,
Scared of her own defiant act.

But a second face is not sorry.
This new mien is marked by jagged angles and shadow.
A demon’s smirk twists her lips and dulls her eyes.
He dares me to say something to her, anything.
The sinister fiend of ED brashly extending his middle finger.

Lava rises, heating my skin, speeding my heart.
The mama bear inside me rears up ready to bellow and battle,
But at what? I cannot roar away the parasite
Without marring her, the already bruised child on which the demon feeds.
I cannot untangle her from this puppet master’s strings with fire.

Instead, I retrieve her true, precious smile from my memories,
A beloved talisman to clutch as I prepare the prayers of exorcism.
But even as I ready my gentle warfare
She turns and walks away too soon, leaving me deflated, sick with stymied words,
Wishing I could bear this burden for her.