Thursday, September 10, 2015


The school buildings in the Pittsburgh city limits are often very old. They are built out of hearty brick, feet and feet thick. Windows often don't open, or only open a bit. This results in extreme heat in the summer in buildings that were built before central air was invented, and in school districts in which budgets don't allow for it. On the third floor, some rooms can catch a breeze. Others swelter and stew, sticky with brutal, unrelenting heat, as palpable and real as a heated blanket on a fevered head. 

My library at Perry used to be the swimming pool. It is a long rectangular room with a low-ish ceiling. There are four windows that open inward and offer some relief from the heat when a breeze blows up Hemphill. However, two-thirds of the room has no windows and no fresh air. It is a brick oven.

The Library houses 20 computers near the circulation desk. It has my office, which doubles as a work room for the staff. In the work room are the servers for the computers and the laminator. This past week, the Library and work room, additionally heated by the technology inside, were at 96 degrees, with at least 40% humidity. Sweat running down my body did not dry, but continued to stream from my head to my toes unchecked. At times I was dizzy, light headed and disoriented. Some of our medically fragile students spent more time with the nurse.

My journalism students are embarking on their first essays. They are writing a story about something that happened to them, good, bad or indifferent, on the North Side where they live. Incredibly, these children, who range in age from 14 to 17 years old, engaged with college level literature, learned how to use Google docs, and are deeply into their personal essays, all within the first 9 days of school. And what a 9 days-- in these 9 days, I've sweated off five pounds. 

The kids have read the title short story in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. They persevered as I clonged a gong each time Sandra Cisneros used sensory information in her vignette "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn" from Woman Hollering Creek. They discussed story structure while reading the first chapter of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. And then they had to face the evil blinking cursor on the mighty empty white page, and use their own brains to concoct their own stories about their own lives.

It was hard. Kids are writing about things that hurt. Ghosts of physical pain, accidents, brutality, violence. They are also writing about great things: new beginnings, beautiful historic homes, exploring museums and poetry readings. My kids are writing about moves across the country, being the new kid, not fitting in. 

One girl refused to work. She was sitting at a table, refusing to try Google docs, refusing to write. I approached her and asked what was going on. I reminded her she hadn't turned in ANY work at all. We have a policy that when a kid is doing poorly, we call their parents to alert them. I told her about the policy. She told me I was annoying her and that she was not going to write. 

That's when I knew I had to drop the teacher voice and just be a person. I told her I knew she had a story that nobody else knew. I told her that people who look like me in other parts of the city don't know her, probably underestimate her, and often dismiss young people like her. This class was conceived as a way to put her voice on an world stage. Her story will become a script, which will become a short film. That film has the capacity to reach the world. I told her I believe in her. That her story MATTERS. I told her that she only had to write 6 sentences today. And then I walked away. 

She wrote 8 sentences. 

So many kids don't believe in their abilities. We who teach are so blessed to have any positive impact on them. Blessed are the days when we can, even in those brick ovens we teach in, even in those states like mine that undervalue and under resource education for their own kids. Heroic children, streaming with sweat, dizzy, light headed, reaching for difficult and ever more difficult concepts, straining past emotional pain and barriers of shame and fear to get to some shimmering and tremulous achievement. I'm feeling pride today. Pride in our achievement in getting past all those barriers together. Blessed are those children and our strength together. 

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