Friday, April 2, 2021

Worms on the Blacktop, 2.0


    Five years ago, I wrote blogpost called Worms on The Blacktop. It contained some details about the struggle I was feeling during my first year in the school system, assisting at a local elementary school. I have not gone back and reread it, but I do remember the feelings I had after a magical recess filled with stranded worms; the sense of remembering who I was amidst the soul-sucking beast of the school system, as I rescued the worms with my students.

    Much has changed in 5 years; I am now a 'real teacher' at a different elementary school and have spent the past half-decade working my way through the unforeseen difficulties and intense rewards of teaching. Unfortunately, the difficulties can be very hard to weather. The teaching profession is fraught with challenges that send many people running far, far away. I've stubbornly held on, always hoping that the magical moments will override the hard days.

    Yesterday during recess, I had a beautiful reprisal, a sequel of worm magic, that refilled my waning passion.

    I've been reeling from yet another blow to my core. I am trying to process the utter failure of most of my class on Indiana’s high-stakes 3rd Grade reading test. I didn’t expect to care so much about it, but I do. I am bitter and angry and formulating backup plans, an escape route from this career, or at the very least, from this particular position. It’s becoming clear that the things I value in my classroom; connections, love, deep questions, more love, a little fun thrown in, and at times, some hard lessons and hard feelings, are not what is valued by ‘the man’. Whoever the hell that is. On paper, according to the scores provided by standardized tests, I am not a very good teacher. A mediocre teacher at best, bordering on downright shitty.


    With all of this brewing just below the surface, the worms came out. It’s like the universe knew that I needed twenty minutes of magic to remind me of who I am, and what is important deep in my soul.


    The morning had gone incredibly smoothly, despite my exhaustion (I’d learned of my dismal test scores the day before and had spent most of the night crying, then showed up to school to find that I wouldn’t be getting a break all day because the art teacher was gone and of course we NEVER have subs—that is a whole other story).

    I led my kids to the playground after a surprisingly amazing math lesson. I was relieved that the rainstorms that had showered down all night long had paused to give us a chance to get fresh air. I needed my kids to be able to run around and burn off energy if we were to get through the day. It was colder than I’d expected, and I regretted my decision to not put on my jacket. As I braced against the bite of the wind, I suddenly heard one of my littles scream “worms!!! Look!!!” I went running. Four or five students had noticed the many stranded worms, and one had started to pick them up. “Run them to the grass. Save them!” I directed, and was immediately reminded of those moments from five years before. More kids joined, and I quickly realized that these kids knew more much about worms than the kids from 5 years prior.

    Five years ago, there were mostly screams of ‘gross!’ and ‘I hate worms!’, but this felt so different. Many of my kids have some solid knowledge about the world around them. One of my boys explained that worms are important, and that they are a key part of our ecosystem. “I know they are an important part of our ecosystem, but I am still afraid to touch them.” I took a good look into his eyes and smiled (how wonderful it is to go outside and take off our masks, so that we can see each other’s full faces). This is a child who failed the almighty IREAD: a one-time, high stakes test. Yet he always tells me the most amazing facts and has a zest for life and learning. It didn’t take much for me to convince him it was okay to pick up a worm, and then he happily rescued several, his eyes alight. How many standardized tests will he have to fail before he stops believing he is smart?


    I tried to push away all the negative thoughts about how those tests will NEVER show who these kids are. Instead I fell deeply into the experience of running around, finding more and more worms who would probably die if we didn’t move them. The job was important to me and to my kids. We found plenty of worms that had—based on their appearance—already died, but for good measure we even relocated some of those, ‘just in case’.


    My fingers grew so cold that I lost feeling, my hair blew into my eyes, I squealed and jumped and worm-rescued my heart out, just like my students. Half of my class had joined at this point, and several were busy digging little holes in which to place the worms. One of my most difficult students, whose personal story has so many tragedies I have to hold back tears when looking at her sometimes, filled her hands up with so many worms I had to giggle. Her eyes glowed with a warm kindness that I’ve seen in her time and again, during the precious few moments she is not having a meltdown. Daily she rages with an anger she can’t name, and I don’t ever blame her. This child survives, but nothing in her life puts a standardized test on the priority list; not her parents, not her upbringing, not her emotions. This child, you guessed it, failed the almighty IREAD. How many so-called ‘failures’ will she face before her eyes lose that spark? I can only hope that her spirit surpasses the stories that these meaningless scores tell her.


    I can only hope that MY spirit surpasses those wicked stories; but, for the survival of my own heart, I’ve always got a nebulous backup plan tucked away, which I will act on more aggressively if I can no longer stand the implications that I am not a good enough teacher.


    Did my students fail, or did I fail them? From the perspective of the system, it hardly matters, but the answer is plain. I didn’t produce the numbers expected, despite my best efforts, despite endless practice and teaching and quite honestly, a sense of confidence on my part that they’d all actually do really well on this test. The blame is not placed on any other part of their lives; not their parents, not their tragedies, not the society around them; at least not officially. The official blame goes directly to the school system, who then blames me, their teacher, for making them look bad. I am expected to squeeze blood from a stone.


    A very important piece of self-preservation, right now, is to remember who I am and that no matter what, this job does not define me. I can leave it. It would hurt, because I love my students beyond reason. Every year, I watch a class grow, change and amaze me, and I always hope that I imprint something important into their hearts to take along on their journey. However, the system is bigger than me and definitely holds the power to run me off.

    The worms on the blacktop provided twenty minutes of magical and profound moments that will live in my heart forever, that allowed me to climb out of my current sense of humiliation and anger. I watched the kids make connections, help each other, feel love for nature, and ask each other important questions. I felt so much love and pride in these kids. No matter what the numbers say, the system will never know my SMART, amazing students, and for that I pity the system.