Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Purple Stapler

Dear Mad Tedious Readers,

Thanks for the emails encouraging me to get back to writing about teaching! I am still teaching special education in NYC, but my teaching position has changed significantly since I started this blog. I have gone from teaching high school special needs students in the South Bronx to working with much younger kids in Manhattan, mainly preschool to kindergarten-aged kids on the autism spectrum. I've also become a sort of special needs consultant, working privately with several schools and families. I still have amazing teaching experiences every day with amazing kids, and I do want to get back to writing about them.

I'm not quite sure where to take the blog from here, so for now, I'm re-posting an old "favorite," The Purple Stapler. I wrote this at the height of my frustration in the South Bronx, and since first posting it two years ago, I've received a steady trickling-in of emails and comments from amazingly dedicated teachers in similar positions throughout the U.S. The sad truth is that most of us cannot stay in these positions without developing insomnia, losing our minds and/or becoming numb. Purple Stapler conditions still exist in far too many schools in our country. How can we work to change such deplorable learning and teaching conditions while maintaining our personal sanity and professional integrity?!

The Purple Stapler

There are hundreds of reasons to freak out at work each day. Those who haven’t spent much time in a South Bronx high school may think I’m exaggerating or stereotyping. Unfortunately, I'm not. My school’s administration is in shambles. The school district is grossly neglecting the educational rights of students with learning disabilities. I have 17-year-old students who are reading and writing at a second grade level. Not because they’re dumb (talk with them for a minute and you’ll hear their wit), but because they never received help for learning problems ranging from dyslexia to autism. They are among the few teenagers in their situation who haven’t dropped out. Two of my brightest students are constantly in and out of sketchy foster homes. They come to school smelling of urine and worse. One of them has learned to deal with neglect by managing to find a way to get high every morning before 1st period. A 15-year-old girl in my English class still sucks her thumb. She's six months pregnant.

Yes. There are hundreds of reasons for a teacher here to freak out. Fly off the handle. Go ballistic. Hit the ceiling. Wig out. Flip a lid. Fly over the cuckoo’s nest. Go off the deep end. Or, in other words, break down. My students call it beastin’. There simply aren’t enough idioms in the English language to describe what can happen when a normally rational inner city teacher decides she's had enough.
Before today, I had remained relatively calm in the classroom. I would weep at home, vent to friends over the phone, laugh when I meant to cry, and stay up worrying at night. But for six months I managed to wake up each morning, take the painfully slow train up to the Bronx, and put on my game face in front of my students. I knew it couldn’t last.
So today marks the day that I finally went loca en la cabeza in front of my students. I didn’t snap over something worthy, like drugs or dropouts or a student telling me to fuck off. No. I, Miss Dennis, snapped over a stapler. A miniature purple stapler. It was missing, and I was mad.

Mind you, I teach at a school where several computers are stolen each year. Teachers’ wallets and cell phones have gone missing. I've been lucky. My stapler cost $4.99. In an attempt to make myself seem slightly less ridiculous about freaking out over this, let me explain that at my school, teachers have to buy their own paper to make photocopies for their students. We also spend our planning periods individually stapling student packets because the stapler function on the copier never works. (Administrators pay themselves overtime, but they won’t buy paper or staples for the copy machine.) Since I was given no appropriate books for my special education students, I make countless photocopies from books I purchased myself (don't sue me), and I end up stapling countless packets for my students each day. My little purple stapler was part of my daily routine, and it made me happy. Its theft, of all things, pushed me straight over the edge.
When I discovered the stapler was missing, I completely shut down my class and demanded to know who'd taken it. I was on the verge of tears. My students stared at me in shock.
“Are you okay, Miss Dennis?”
“What’s wrong Miss?”
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong! Look around this classroom. Look at all these books and posters and videos and highlighters. Do you know who bought these? I did! With my own money! That’s right! The Board of Ed gives me nothing! Nothing! That was my purple stapler, and no one has the right to take it! That’s it! I’m taking everything home with me.”
I began pulling down and piling up everything I'd bought with my own money. (It wasn’t quite true that the Board of Ed gave me nothing. I received $150 to spend on classroom supplies. Other teachers got $200, but the genius Board of Ed CFO decided that special ed teachers should get 25% less than all other teachers. The NYC teacher's union - which I am forced to pay $80 per month in membership dues - agreed. Way to go guys! Way to motivate teachers in your highest need area to keep working for you.) So I got $150. Which I spent on 10 copies of The House on Mango Street. I paid for the other 15 copies myself. I’ve spent an estimated $550 on classroom supplies already this semester, and many teachers I know have spent much more. Clearly, my rage was not simply about the missing purple stapler.
I finished piling up all of my belongings as my students looked on in disbelief. 

I calmed down and pathetically tried to salvage a lesson out of my tantrum.

“Now. Who can tell me why I’m bringing all of this stuff home with me?”

The Class Sycophant actually raised his hand to answer my question, but he was thankfully stopped by The Student of Reason.

“Stop playin’ Miss. You're not gonna’ take all that shit home. You take the 6 train. Seen you yesterday. You can’t take all that shit home on the 6 train!”

"I'll take a cab."

"You can afford that?"

He had a point. I might have been acting a little ridiculous.

“Miss, are you crying over a stapler?"
“Not just any stapler Joseph! My lovely, miniature purple stapler!”

Laughter, finally.

I was sure my students would hate me for this incident. Instead, something strange happened. They began to see me as human, and they began to respect their classroom.

“Miss, did you really spend your own money on all that stuff?”

“You must really care about teaching!”

I had my suspicions about who’d stolen the stapler, but I knew no one would snitch. In high school (whether in the wealthiest of suburbs or the grittiest of inner city neighborhoods), there’s nothing worse than a snitch.
Amazingly, after class, one by one, each student came back to the classroom to show me where the purple stapler had been stashed – in a desk drawer in the back of the classroom. Apparently, whoever had planned on stealing it couldn’t go through with it after my tantrum. Even the toughest, most seemingly uncaring of students came back to the classroom to make sure I was reunited with my beloved stapler. One of them helped me put back all of the books, posters, videos and markers.

“I knew you were just playin’ Miss.”

Right. It was all a big plan.

25 Comments:

Blogger Jhena said...

It is so sad to hear such stories. I hope your school administration, as well as your government will do something.

11:40 PM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

I hope so too! It makes it even sadder knowing how much talent most of the kids have. I think it will take an enormous amount of fighting/advocating to really change things. Of course, teachers HAVE been known to move walls.

1:06 AM  
Anonymous Ms. L said...

I linked to this blog from a livejournal post and OH MY GOD! you are living my work life.

My stapler was black but I did almost exactly the same thing when it came up missing...and for the same damned reasons. The bookcases were mine, the books in them were mine. I 'stole' textbooks from a supply closet that was providentially open (after being told my kids didn't really need standard textbooks - no matter that federal law requires they have the same materials as general ed students).
And I create and copy/print out every worksheet, instruction sheet, test, shared reading text in my room since we're not allowed to even use a school copier - especially on the scale teachers need.

So the stapler was gone, and the calculators I purchased were broken through clumsy handling and the supplies I'd purchased were wasted or broken or appropriated and I blew a gasket.

It's "Kirkin'" here in Baltimore, but same diff. My kids started helping me pack up my stuff, and asking what was wrong and was I going to leave, and I kind of 'came to' and wiped my eyes and we put stuff back. We talked about how sometimes having a little something that is our very own feels important, and I felt like they understood why I was upset.

And the next morning, my littlest guy (who really shouldn't be in my kind of special ed class but in an even more special kind of ED class but fat chance) 'found' my stapler. It was busted. The spring mechanism was unsprung, couldn't get tight to hold the staples in place. And my little guy had hidden it out of fear of my wrath. I told him I thought he was very brave, like in a movie or something, to come clean - and gave him extra token money to reward him.

It reminded me that despite how much money and effort I spend and how tired I am, my kids are impoverished in ways I can't imagine and their daily challenges dwarf most of mine.

But there have been too many instances of me blowing up and losing control due to my own stress and exhaustion. I decided I can't continue living on a variety of medications in order to get through the day...and I've given notice. I'll be working in a nonpublic Level V special-ed school with kids so challenged that they're removed from public schools - but I'll have aides and supplies and support. It's frustrating working with these kids (I've done it before) because they're progress is so hard to see, but I can't cope without support.

Best wishes to ya!

10:47 AM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

"Kirkin!" I've never heard that one before. So glad that there are people like you out there who can relate. We have so much in common! I also recently gave notice at my current school because I realized I can't do this job without support. I'll still be at the school on an hourly basis, but my full-time job will be working with students with autism for a private group.

I'll still be blogging about the school, though, because there's still so much unsaid and so much memory to be written down. It's sort of therapeutic. Good luck at your new school! Happy New Year!

P.S. I also know what you mean about medicating. I took entirely too much Tylenol PM to try to escape the insomnia I developed from the stress of the job. Luckily, my body can't handle sleep medications, so I am forced to discover healthier ways, like writing.

11:06 PM  
Blogger pablo said...

Ms Dennis

You have moved walls aready! These 'special Ed' kids learned an even greater lesson than any Public School can ever teach. They learned to care for you & have gained respect.

You broke thru the ice and actually reached their heart - not too many teachers can come close - simply because you care.

Forget the CFO, admin, the system. Everybody gave up on those kids - that is everybody BUT YOU - they know it now!

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

Wow.

This really puts things in perspective. Although in the UK, I would still like to take the opportunity to thank you for what you are doing with your life, to have the courage and tenacity to keep going in the face of such adversity makes you a pretty special person. The positive impact you are having on kids having tough lives is a massive thing, you know.

You should be proud of what you do, I would be if I was you. Good luck for the future.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous Schoolgal said...

You really hit the nail on the head when you talk about lack of support. It's easy for the DOE to blame teachers, but I think when one is put into a position where there is no respect or support, they should leave. (especially if you only have a few years in) I know you are devoted to your students, but to administrators, teachers are easy to replace.

Good luck.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Discovered your site through Yahoo's Daily Wire. I've sat here and read it all and if Hollywood isn't calling you for the rights to your story and if you don't write the screenplay yourself...well what a shame!

I love it. You're in my prayers. As are your students.

Leslie G.

6:32 AM  
Anonymous tracy said...

Not enough is said in a public forum about the ADMINISTRATORS on both the site and district level who view the children as 'throw aways' not worthy of the same learning envirnonment as their regular ed counter parts. The folks who refuse to acknowledge the need for EXTRA support and resources for these children, and the lack of support for the teachers and aides who deal with them as well as the young English language learners. They too are treated like second class citizens among their own peers. In many cases, the initial lack of support, testing and correct placement at an early age are the reason these older, frustrated, low functioning kids are now the responsibility of a few over worked teachers to begin with. The blind eye of an administration that doesn't want to know the truth about some of these kids. The fact that todays lunch maybe their only meal or the words of encouragement they get from their overworked, underpaid, undersupported teachers, may be the ONLY words of encouragement that child hears today or any day. The blind eye that doesn't care to see those children who come to school inspite of the lack of support at home.
Parent also need to step up to the education system, as 'good consumers'. We are tax paying individuals and our schools run with those monies. These 'blind' admistrators are accountable to the tax paying parents via the local school board. Parents need to show up at a few meetings, find out what's, going on, and voice their complaints. Support the kids and teachers by letting the board know they are paying attention. SHAKE THINGS UP A BIT! We wouldn't buy a car that doesn't work. Why not apply the same to a school that's setting up our students to fail life, as well as failing the teachers we entrust them to daily.
A CA middle school employee

12:19 PM  
Anonymous hulananni said...

I teach ESL to adults. A simple, interesting (and, yes, fun)job. I have (and always have had) the absolutely greatest admiration for special ed teachers. The students know you care and you may be the only one who does. Thanks for giving of yourself.
Aloha and peace. hulananni

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Cindy said...

You are a good person. You are a great writer! Thanks for your wisdom and your words, best wishes to you from me in Iowa.

12:33 PM  
Anonymous Bugsybee said...

Miss Dennis, I taught in a place that is more than a thousand miles away from Bronx and it is only now that I have come to realized that we have a lot of things in common, one of which is this: as a college teacher in a private school in the Philippines, I had to buy a lot of stuff (including my own laptop) for my classroom and for my students' use (including some textbooks). I would have freaked out too if I lost my stapler for the same reason that you did - it would have been a way to vent out all the frustrations that come from having to deal with school administrators who do not appreciate the needs of our students as much as we do. My warmest regards to you!

2:43 AM  
Blogger Libby said...

Miss Dennis, you are LIVING my work life, or actually, my "ex" work life. My union, my administration cut and cut and cut to the point that everything in my classroom, including the books, was paid for by me. And no matter how I tried to explain that to the kids I taught (8th grade) stuff would still go missing, books would be vandalized, stuff graffitied and ripped from the walls, books I had bought thrown out the window. It's like they've got nothing to care about at home, no possessions of worth in their own lives, that they carry that over into the classroom (I taught in Hopewell, outside Pittsburgh)
Thank you. It helps to know someone is still out there "fighting" God bless you girlfriend :0)

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Lady S said...

I found through Bloglines and immediately found the Purple Stapler podcast and listened.

I have read quite a few of your entries now and I am amazed at what my coworkers and I get mad over. We just negotiated a new contract in our district and we were ready to strike.

And yet we work in a district where the lowest classroom budget is, like, $500. And we all have these magic closets with markers and crayons, paper (of every description), rulers, staplers (black), staples, and glue. We have 2 copy machines that work 90% of the time. And when we run out of paper, we find a way to get more.

In our school of around 200 elementary school students we have, maybe, 30 kids with IEPs or 504s, but very few real behavior problems. I teach in the computer lab. We have the biggest gym in the district (including a high school).

And yet, we find something to complain about. Not enough this, not enough that. I can relate to the bad principal thing, but almost nothing else.

I think I am going to go out and buy myself a purple stapler, so I can look at it and think of how much worse most schools have it.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

I'm sure your students will remember this the rest of their lives--you made an impact on them. Now if only we could take the money from over-paid administrators and put it where it belongs...

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Half-Past Kissin' Time said...

Welcome back! Yours was one of the first blogs I ever read (last summer), and I've been carrying on without you but keeping the feed there, just in case :)

My school district has money for me, but my students last year just didn't respect anything. I started an alternative "school within a school," and one of the things we did to build community in the classroom is paint a mural in my room. This was just one of many projects I had the kids do to create a sense of pride and belonging; it worked. Kids who feel ownership in their classroom (and school) begin to feel like they also belong to their community. My students, while vandals, I'm sure, would never consider vandalizing the picnic tables we stained for the school. Just thought I'd put these ideas here for others who might have the chance to put them in place, too.

Glad you are making good use of your talents and feeling good about what you do. When you're ready to break out some new stuff, we'll be here!

10:31 PM  
Anonymous Schoolgal said...

Welcome back! And it's about time.
My car horn couldn't take the stess anymore.

You left us on pins and needles regarding your lawsuit post. Can you talk about it now??

8:52 PM  
Blogger Mimi said...

Just found your blog and I love it!!!

9:42 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Your blog struck a chord with me. I was also a high school teacher in an inner city school, but now have somehow found my way to teaching at a center for developmentally delayed children - mostly kids around 2 years old. I've been through a "purple stapler" situation and reading your blog evoked in me those same feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, and those unpredictable moments of joy.

Thank you for sharing your stories and reaching out to a community of people who often feel isolated and unrecognized. Keep up the good work.

11:05 AM  
Blogger hueyDEWEY&louey said...

cool,

tkx 4 the @-A-boy.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Kristen said...

That reminds me of a time, first year teaching, when I was teaching a class of inner city high school kids with ADD, ODD, etc. I had a rough day and with 45 minutes left, I had to leave the room because I couldn't hold the tears back any longer. After 15 minutes, I came back in all puffy in the eyes. They asked me if I was crying. Knowing that people have told me not to get personal with these children, I said no. They started making fun of me yelling that I just went out and smoked pot. Finally I yelled, "Yes, I was crying! Is there something wrong with that?" Complete silence and dropped jaws. Then a boy, who has shown almost no emotions to me ever other than intimidation and disrespect, said "That's ok. I cry too sometimes." I will never forget that moment.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Staples said...

This is a very well written article, and I love the purple staple picture

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this blog entry! I think we all have had the purple stapler moment. I have said those same words to my students over the years about "who do you think pays for all of this stuff," when one by one my pencils disappear and I have to go out and buy more, or when my broom gets stolen (needed because God forbid the custodians sweep underneath desks and tables.)We bought our own paper and leased our own copy machine for years, because the administrator never made it a priority to get us a machine. Things have improved though, with the new administration. We get paper, printer ink, and even have a machine... but when the well runs dry, which it has, we go out and purchase more. I have spent 3X the $150 they gave us this year. (sigh)

7:10 PM  
Blogger Alexandria Goudy said...

Thanks for sharing! This is a great story. Special educators need to stick together! I will be following your blog from this day forward. I too, spend a lot of my own $. I can't believe how high school kids now days do not have any respect for others things.

Best Wishes,
Alex G

11:27 PM  
Blogger April Tallant said...

i too freaked out in a south bronx classroom over a stolen stapler, except mine was orange and magnetized so it stuck to the blackboard. thanks for the perspective....

5:59 PM  

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