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.