The graphic below has made its way through my Facebook feed more times than I can count. As a former English teacher and student who loves books, this always strikes a visceral chord with me.
I previously wrote about one of my students whose lack of access to books and love of Star Wars pulled at my heartstrings. I thought it was time for an update.
When last we left off, I hoped you understood why I wanted to help “Sam,” and I stressed to you all my wish that he and his children will have hope one day. My Facebook friends and family spoke loudly and acted clearly.
Answering The Call
Paul Hankins jumped right in and started making recommendations: Origami Yoda series, Di’Terlizzi’s beautiful picture book, Jeffrey Brown’s young Jedi series, and more. My longtime friend Teresa Saxton Bunner wanted to know if we had a Barnes & Noble nearby. My sister said she had some books in a bag for me. My high school classmate, Jennifer Laura Foley sent a link to a list of 10 Books For Kids Who Hate Reading. Donalyn Miller – yes, she of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild – wanted to know if Sam liked graphic novels and suggested the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi.
And the list goes on and on. Amy Gilbert, an Assistant Principal in Paul Hankin’s school asked for “Sam’s” real name and a mailing address to send something if she found the right book. Julie Fitzgeral saw my post through Teri Lesesne and recommended an update of A New Hope: A Star Wars Novel.
Most of these people have never met me face-to-face, and yet when they heard about a bookless child in need, they came forward en masse.
Brenda Valencia, from the La Habra City School District in California sent an Amazon gift card which allowed us to purchase the Trilogy Box Set for Jeffrey Brown’s Jedi Academy series.
When we returned from Thanksgiving break, I talked to Sam’s teacher and gave her the boxed set with which to surprise Sam. She wanted to bring me into class to give it to Sam, but that just doesn’t fit with my view of servant leadership. I want to serve my students by providing when they have needs; I just don’t want them to know it came from me. I’d prefer to leave it that somebody cares about them and wants them to enjoy books. She asked where the books came from, and as I explained the response from my Facebook family, I think we both teared up a little.
We removed the plastic wrapping and opened the first title and Sam’s teacher said, “It’s a graphic novel! He’ll love it!” That’s all I needed to hear. As she left my office, she said she couldn’t wait to tell Sam and that she’d just say these books came in and she just knew he’d love them. They will stay in her classroom for now, but eventually they will become a part of his own library.
Yesterday I came home from school, and not feeling well, laid down for a quick nap. Four hours later, I awoke and went downstairs to see this sight.
Wow. My incredible cousin sent a check to help out my kiddo, and she apologized because there was a delay. No apologies are necessary, and I cried last night as I looked at the check.
More recommendations come daily via private message, Twitter, and email.
On Monday when we returned from break, Sam came into the office to find me and asked if we could keep reading the book. I smiled and we read some more. I can’t wait to see how he grows as a reader now that so many wonderful people have provided the opportunity for him to have access to books he likes and a library of his own.
I will leave you with the graphic that began my post. This….
Let me warn first that you can probably categorize today’s post under “Longform” – minus the journalism. So I warned you – this is long. If you choose to read it on, I think it is worth the time.
Yesterday, on my ride home from work (I have an hour-long commute from Clintonville to Oshkosh), I reflected on the strife we have seen since Tuesday night. I worked this week to help keep those most vulnerable in my school safe, and it led to a lot of reflection. I thought about the highlight from my week: reading to a young man who in spite of his uncontrollable fits of rage (or maybe because of them) has me rooting for him. When I came home last night, I made a decision and sent out a post to my friends and family on Facebook.
The response was incredible. I have so many titles recommended that I cannot wait to talk about with this child on Monday. Some very kind folks are also sending some books or means to get some books for this student. My sister even reminded me that I have some ancient action figures that might make this boy smile. Thanks, Wendy!
As part of my Facebook post, I promised to tell everyone the entire story in a post on my blog. I’m hoping if folks see this young man as I see this young man, more of them will choose to rally to his cause.
I first met “Sam” (not his real name, but having to say “this boy, child, young man” feels disconnected and artificial) last year when Scott and I went to the elementary school to meet and welcome our future students. Sam stood out immediately – he with his fists clenched, a sullen look, and inability to make eye contact – because he swung from rage to elation so quickly. He knew we were coming, so as soon as he saw us he came over to share the paper airplane he made. That was our first fist-bump.
This school year has been an understandable adjustment for Sam. New building. Bigger kids. New bullies. Earlier this year, Sam struggled greatly. When he became angry, he would put his jacket hood on his head, clench his fists, and “march” like Frankenstein’s monster down the hall, not hearing or seeing anyone who got in his way.
One time in particular, students in the cafeteria for breakfast made it difficult for Sam. The next morning, I ate breakfast in the cafeteria with Sam, reassuring him with a fist bump that “We got this.” I also started making up reasons to show up in his classes or bump into him in the hall. One morning for breakfast Sam looked at me asked, “Are you stalking me?” I laughed and said, “No. I missed our fist bump today. You were mad at something and left me hanging.” He grinned and said, “Not today. Tomorrow.”
Several weeks ago, one of Sam’s teachers came to me before school and said he felt Sam needed to talk to me about a consequence. He was sent to that room for help on reading but was refusing to read and had started swearing at the teacher about this. [Let me reassure everyone. This teacher is not naive; he has worked with emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students for decades, and understands when a student needs intervention beyond what he can offer in the classroom.] I told the teacher I would swing by his room after school started and have a talk with Sam.
When I came into the room, I saw Sam trying to concentrate on one of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet Adventure Books. I asked him to come with me so we could chat. He got up right away and started to follow. Then he stopped, went back, and put something in his cubby hole in the back of the room. I asked him if he needed any of that for his next class, but he said his teacher just had him keep that stuff in the classroom, so he wouldn’t lose it.
As we made our way to my office, I asked Sam why he didn’t want to read chapter books. He replied, “I don’t like that I have to answer questions while I read.” We talked about how we don’t always have to answer questions. Next I asked him what kinds of books he liked to read at home. He said he didn’t. When I asked why, he said “We don’t have any books at home.” That stopped me short. Further questions helped me learn that he liked books with adventures and that he didn’t like chapter books in middle school because they didn’t have as many or sometimes any pictures compared to the books he liked reading.
Once at my office, we talked about how Sam might have handled the situation with his teacher differently next time. He had a lot of great ideas, and I learned that the will to read was there. We just hadn’t found the right books yet. As we neared the end of our chat, Sam said he needed a consequence for his actions because he didn’t handle it the right way. While it lifted my spirits that Sam knew he hadn’t handled his frustration well, I knew this was a blip. We had about ten minutes left in class, so I said that if it made him feel better he could sit in the ISS room until the bell rang but that he wasn’t being punished.
At that moment, he took time to look around my office. He said, “Hey…do you like Star Wars?” I asked why he asked, and he correctly noted that I had thirteen different Star Wars things in my office. I told him that I LOVE Star Wars, and he screamed, “Me, too!” I told him I was just about his age when the original Star Wars came out in the theater. He said, “Wow. You are old.” We fist-bumped, and Sam headed to the ISS room.
After a minute, I checked on Sam and told him he could just sit if he wanted, but I asked him to think about reading his book. He opened it, and I said, “Sam, don’t do it for me. If you feel like it, do it for you.” A minute later, Sam came into my office asking for a pencil and paper. I asked why he needed those, and clearly exasperated with my lack of knowledge, Sam sold me in his best “Duh!” voice, “Because he’s going to have questions for me about my book!” I smiled a lot after that.
That weekend, I ended up inside Barnes & Noble, looking for Star Wars chapter books with pictures. I found lots of great-looking titles and settled on Star Wars: Before the Awakening.
Thursday morning of this week, I went down to that same teacher’s room and asked Sam to come with me to my office. I think he thought he was in trouble, because he pulled the Frankenstein march on me. When we got to my office, I pulled out the book and showed it to him. Sam’s face lit up and he just had a look of awe. I explained that this told the stories of some of the characters in The Force Awakens before we meet them in the movie. I talked about Finn and Rey and Poe. And then a funny thing happened. Sam leaned in close and whispered, “Actually, Mr. See, I haven’t seen the new movie. I don’t know who those people are.”
At first, I stopped short. How had he not seen this movie? In the next breath, of course, I remembered that Sam is homeless and lives in a motel in town. No, he had not seen the movie. I said, “Sam, it’s OK that you haven’t seen the movie. Unlike most of us, you will know these characters before you see the movie. I bet you’ll enjoy it even more than I did.” He said, “My dad can’t afford that movie.” I simply reassured him that “We’ll figure out a way.” His reply cut right at my heart. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to see it.”
Sam started out reading, but struggled with some of the words. I helped him pronounce them, and we talked about what they meant. At one point he became so frustrated, that I said I could find an easier book, if he wanted. He looked at me and said, “Not a chance!” Like I have done since I read the Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter books to my own daughters, I created voices for all of the characters. As tension rises, so does my voice. When a whisper is called for, I use that, as well. I lean in on the action when I have to and cover my eyes when I don’t want to watch.
When it was Sam’s turn to read again, I pulled up short again and felt that pesky, salty discharge in my eyes. You see, Sam read and created voices for the characters, and even though it did not match the action of the story, he had tension or softness in his voice. I had not expected that.
As I read Finn’s story, which starts with a tense battle simulation, Sam literally squirmed around in his chair, squatting or moving from one knee to another as the battle action called for it. Together, we lowered our heads to the conference table in my office, spying for FN-2000 and FN-2099 and the enemy gun.
When I closed the book after the action-packed battle simulation opening, I told Sam that this is his book and that when we are done it is his to take home. His jaw dropped and he asked so questioningly, “Mine?” When I said yes, he whispered, “I’ve never owned my own book.” I want to remedy that problem, so that’s why I posted to Facebook.
I’m not so naive as to think I can “fix” poverty or even that I can save every one of our students in need. Instead, I’m hopeful that each time I have the opportunity, I can provide hope that ripples outward. The battles raging on social media right now are beyond my ability to repair. What I can do is make sure that a little boy who has never owned a book, gets some books to call his own. Maybe he will one day read to his own children. And maybe they will have hope.
I apologize for the lengthy post. I hope you felt this story that needed telling was worth your time.
Yesterday, I shared with everyone why I struggled so much the day after the election. Not because one candidate lost but because my students did not feel safe in the wake of a historic election. I also told you I’d tell you more about the community, families, and students I serve.
Twenty five years ago, the poverty rate in Clintonville, WI was extremely low. Home of the Four Wheel Drive, Clintonville sustained a thriving, working, middle class community.
During the intervening years, jobs were lost, development stopped, and the Clintonville so many people remembered had changed drastically.
Today, in the Clintonville Public School District, poverty rates hover near 50 percent and unemployment is high. At Clintonville Middle School, we report 52 percent free-and-reduced lunch, but the actual number is 60-66 percent. For a variety of reasons, not all of our families complete the necessary paperwork, but we know our demographics mirror that of the elementary school, and they report 66 percent free-and-reduced lunch eligibility.
Why are those numbers so important?
First, school report cards in Wisconsin have a multiplier based on poverty levels. Because not all of our parents fill out the paperwork, we report low, which lowers our overall report card grade.
Second, eligibility for many grants factors in free-and-reduced lunch rates. Clintonville already qualifies for many grants, but we would qualify for more grants, and in much higher amounts, if we reported actual free-and-reduced lunch rates.
Most importantly, though, if our parents complete the free-and-reduced lunch paperwork, our students who are hungry could eat.
Statistics Are People, Too
At my very first open house as an administrator in Clintonville, two parents approached Scott and I and openly wished us luck dealing with their son. At the end of the previous year, he had “destroyed” the principal’s office, and they just wanted to prepare us for the challenges ahead. During that first year, that student did challenge us, communicating loudly and in a way many staff members did not want to hear. Scott and I worked with the dad, but that young man had high absenteeism and struggled to succeed in school. Many times dad came to us for help with parenting, but he struggled to follow through.
At the end of the year. Despite the dad’s initial fear of working with the county due to some negative contacts for him, we convinced him to at least consider voluntarily “wraparound” services. Dad was not ready to commit, and last year began with more struggles for this student. He missed a lot of school and on the days he attended, he wanted to fight everyone, even me.
Many people who do not work in schools today, or have never worked in schools, cannot imagine students so angry and in distress that they would harm themselves or others while at school. One of my most vivid memories as an educator is of standing outside an empty classroom to ensure this student did not harm himself while simultaneously dodging the shards of glass he chose to throw at me after shattering a window. This child needed our help, and whether or not I appreciated the medium, he was communicating loud and clear.
Afterwards, the student missed more school, had increased negative law enforcement contacts, and struggled to find any success in classes. On the plus side, dad agreed to fill out the free-and-reduced lunch paperwork. They qualified, but our young man refused to get lunch.
Fast forward to this year. Over the summer, the student participated in long-overdue counseling and the family received much-needed, mandatory wraparound services.
I will never forget the first time I saw this child’s face this year. He smiled and laughed, and when we asked him to eat lunch…he did. This went smoothly until mid-October when last year’s paperwork expired and our cafeteria staff denied this student lunch. He spiraled out of control again, until Scott got the father to come in to fill out new forms. The father struggled to read the forms, and his pride caused him to write down more income than he had. Initially, they only qualified for reduced lunch costs. Scott called the dad in one more time, and after reporting actual income, they qualified for free lunch.
When uninformed, unknowing people demand that people in poverty submit to drug testing before receiving benefits, I always hear the line, “If I have to pee in a cup to get a job, why shouldn’t they?” I don’t know what the correct answer is to that dilemma, but I do know this: I’m sure that punishing adults can feel right “in the moment,” but since I’m in the kiddo business, I want to know how that consequence helps children in need. We need to remove barriers to success, not erect them.
The family I highlighted today is in a long-term cycle of distress. The child has experienced unimaginable, unspeakable trauma in his life. The father battles his own demons but tries so hard every day to do right by his son. When we choose sides. When we decide to denigrate one group of people. When we worry about what others have that we do not, we miss the bigger picture. Every day I see the difference eating breakfast and lunch makes for this child. He is healthy. He has grown for the first time in years, and most importantly, he looks as healthy as many of his peers. And that smile…
If all of our families who qualified for free and reduced lunch filled out the forms, our school report card would likely jump up an entire level to “Exceeds Expectations,” and we would potentially receive more grant money. While that looks good on a resume, it ignore the most important outcome: all of our students who go hungry could eat, which makes focus on school so much easier.
The other day, our student returned to school after an extended illness. I asked him if he was feeling better. He whispered, “Yes,” and he asked me if he could eat lunch again. I asked if he was hungry and he laughed loudly, yelling, “Oh my God, am I hungry.” It was music to my ears. It should be music to yours.
I have not followed Twitter much today, but through friends and family I have heard about calls for Secretary Clinton’s imprisonment and celebrations about when all of the immigrants will get deported.
I have also watched as people who I love and thought I knew post vile, hateful dreck in their social media feeds. And, hey, why shouldn’t they – our President-Elect leads by example. For months now, I have stood by, silently, while people I call friend questioned why an African American man at our campground could have a nice boat like he owned. My guess is that, like his RV, he worked hard for it or went in debt like the rest of it to have something nice. Clearly left unspoken was that this man didn’t deserve to have that boat.
I have held my tongue as people I call friend have referred to the coloreds, Mexicans, and Gooks (they group all Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Hmong in the same group). When I point our that they are Korean I hear back, “What difference does it make?” followed by some horrific sing-songy imitation of someone speaking “Oriental.”
But I don’t know that I can continue to bite my tongue. Not anymore. Not after hearing about the racial taunting going on in the school community in which I work.
To be clear…
This is not about who won or lost an election. If Democrats take off their blue-colored glasses, they would see a flawed candidate who, despite her experience, was reviled by many across the country. They would see that a chance to make “Herstory” ended when the Debbie Wasserman-Schultz “Superdelegates” upended the democratic process to secure a result that had evaded Secretary Clinton eight years ago.
As the election trudged on, and we constantly heard about “uneducated white men,” I reflected on how I might have contributed to people’s feelings about the elite. You see, I am fiercely proud of my education, and the hard work I put into becoming a Principal. But I am more proud of my sister, Wendy, who has risen to great heights with “only” a high school diploma and so much incredible life and work experience. I am also fiercely proud of my youngest sister, who despite her hatred for school the first time through, went back to earn a degree and work an incredible job. I have also long advocated for a return of vocational and technical education opportunities in a day and age when people only focused on four year degrees.
And then today happened…
During the course of my working day today, I have heard about students in the district where I work being told to “Go back to Mexico” despite the fact that they have attended school in our district since 4K. Some families feel so scared that they have made no contingency plans, that they want us to know that if we just stop seeing them, their family has packed up and returned to Mexico before being forced to return. I have heard school-age boys crow, “Lock that bitch up!” I read in horror as a colleague with an opportunity to console a frightened student instead tried to help them understand how there is a difference between legal immigration and being a drain on a community’s resources. Today was not the day for that conversation.
I have spent most of my day fighting back tears, head in my hands, trying to figure out how to support our students who need us the most.
Tomorrow I’ll write more about what I see in the public school I serve, hoping that some of the people filled with such hatred and venom will see that there are no easy answers for either “side.” Today, I make this promise to the families I serve: I pledge to do my best to keep your students safe and help them feel secure and loved. I promise to fight back against bullying and racism even though some might feel they now have permission to act this way. I promise to serve and protect.
Well-drawn characters can make great friends. Sometimes they can feel like your best friends – better than the real-life friends you have at certain points in your life.
My middle school years had the typical highs and lows, but like any early adolescent I focused often on the lows. My father and I had a love/hate relationship back then, but through my jaded eyes I could only see the hate.
Coming to a close-knit community as an outsider made friendships precious but difficult to find at times. I could not always turn to friends as a respite from the challenges I felt at home.
As a result, I spent many an afternoon with Holden Caulfield and Yakov Bok and Aslan and Bilbo. They all helped me during those difficult years, inspiring me and protecting me and captivating me. I also fought at The Alamo alongside Davey Crockett and Jim Bowie. Buck was with me as we shed civilization.
Today we learned of the passing of Alan Rickman, the man who portrayed Severus Snape in film versions of the Harry Potter books. I hated Severus Snape from the moment I met him in Harry Potter and the Sourcerer’s Stone. He obviously despised my Harry, and so I despised him. And I loved him for loving Lily enough to protect her son.
When we learned about Snape’s true nature and fate, I cried like most readers. As a dad who read the Harry Potter books first to and then with his daughters, I remember the agonized wait for my daughter, Meghan, to read that part so we could console each other.
I’m particularly torn at the loss of Rickman because I had already lost Snape once.
Because so many beloved books become movies, we lose characters in writing and then the people we so closely associate with them in real life. (Or maybe I’m just being silly.)