Making A Difference Differently

08/23/2009
A typical American snack vending machine
Image via Wikipedia

I used to want to change the world.

All of it, for all time.

No one ever accused me of thinking small.

I tried. I worked really hard at it.

I marched; I carried signs, candles, and bullhorns.

I boycotted grapes and aluminum foil. I sat-in.

I signed petitions, wrote letters, organized students, organized grown ups, made speeches, registered voters, voted, and more.

I did that for a long time. I still do some of that.

I’ve changed the world.

Really.

Not on the scale I wished to, but change none-the-less.

It happened in my first year teaching, and it was completely unintentional.

New York can get pretty cold in late autumn and as November slid into December 2004, it did.

One morning I noticed that none of my students had gloves, mittens or hats.

That afternoon I went to a dollar store and bought every stocking cap, pair of gloves, and set of mittens they had. I cleaned that store out. When I told the owner why and who they were for he gave me a generous discount. It still cost me about $75.

At that point of the year I was the push-in writing teacher for three of the four 4th and 5th grade self-contained special education classes. I taught 36 students and they all got either gloves or mittens and a stocking cap.

I had one pair of gloves and a stocking cap left.

The one special ed class I did not teach was the fifth grade class of students who had emotional disabilities.

Almost all of the students, and certainly all the poor, minority and/or special ed students in the NYC public schools have every reason to be extremely angry and most are.

The few deemed to have emotional disabilities are the ones who act on the basis of that anger in what is seen as a less than positive manner. These actions include relatively mundane things like yelling and cursing a lot, and less benign activities: hitting people or throwing pencils, chairs, desks or other students; generally putting people at risk of physical harm.

There were eight students in that class and one acted on his anger more violently than the others. At the end of my first day as a certified teacher I had to hold this kid, Tyrone, wedged between the cafeteria wall and a vending machine to prevent him from doing further damage to the face of some other kid who had somehow angered him.

I managed to hold onto Tyrone even after he knocked the vending machine over. I kept telling him that I had no problem with him and he did not have one with me. Eventually he relaxed and I let him go. By that time the other student had been taken to the nurse’s office.

I did not see Tyrone for a couple of weeks after that because he had been placed in a suspension school, about as close to being a juvenile prison as you can get without actually being one.

I had one pair of gloves and a stocking cap left. I was standing in the hallway holding the bag they were in when Tyrone walked by.

I gave him the bag.

Tyrone stared at me. I told him to look in the bag. He kept staring at me. Then he looked in the bag for what seemed to be a minute before he finally took out the gloves and hat.

As he stared at the items in his hand his shoulders began to shake. I realized he was crying.

I didn’t know what to do. Another fifth grade teacher, a gentle, generous and experienced giant named Mitchell Weintraub took Tyrone into his otherwise empty classroom.

I went down the hall to my next class.

Later that day Mitch filled me in.

Tyrone never knew his parents. He had spent his entire life as a foster child, moving from one placement to another.

It turned out that it was Tyrone’s 13th birthday. Tyrone thought the hat and gloves were a birthday present, the first he had ever received.

I cried when Mitch told me that and I’m tearing up again now.

I know that every thing that happens has an effect on every other thing that happens afterwards, and that the effect of any one occurrence increases exponentially over time.

That truth is the basis of the Butterfly Effect, a notion that the wind created by a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing will, over time, cause a hurricane in the Caribbean.

I didn’t know it was Tyrone’s birthday and I would not have given him a gift had I known. We did not have that kind of relationship.

Even so, that bag of warming things meant a lot to Tyrone.

It meant someone loved him.

The other evening, after sharing an intense day of science professional development and a pitcher of beer, I got into a heated discussion with a NYC Teaching Fellow second year teacher who saw nothing wrong with teachers being rewarded or fired based on the test scores their students receive.

I don’t think I sold him on the idea that the tests are unfair, easily manipulated and fail to test the abilities most people say they want students to develop in school, but I think I helped him realize that the most valuable thing teachers do can’t be assessed from year to year, from class to class.

The most important things that teachers do isn’t measured in a test or from year to year. What we do takes years, sometimes decades to come to fruition.

We change the world, one Tyrone at a time.

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