My [redacted] Journey

A teacher's search for inner peace.


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Middle School Madness


new class

My new classroom.

August 26, 2016

Dear Readers,

School is back in session and emotions are running high.  So far in my classroom there’s been laughter and sorrow, smiles and tears, and a whole lot of learning…and that’s only me, the teacher, not my prepubescent charges.  As always, I have so much to learn about the students I teach.

The school year started out better than I had anticipated.  In fact, it started out better than anyone had anticipated, the other teachers, the administration, even the students.  The ‘feel’ of the new school year was much lighter, much happier, and much more chill than the previous three years.  Even the students’ behavior had seemed to mellow over the summer.  The school’s ‘detention room’ had much lower numbers than in previous years, and it began to feel like our school had turned a corner, at least behaviorally.  Which made what happened this past week so upsetting.  However, I have to admit, what happened this past week is part and parcel of teaching at the middle school level.

I have a secondary-education, English degree and in my state that means that I am able to teach 7th through 12th grade English Language Arts.  I have always known that my personality and my teaching style work best with teenagers, ages 14 to 17.  I am both strict and demanding of my students.  I expect every student to reach just past where they think they can and to work just a little bit harder than they think they should.  In other words, I have high standards, for my students as well as myself.

My high standards do not end at my classroom door.  I expect students to behave like they have some sense when in the presence of adults.  I realize that middle school students can act crazy and they can be loud and obnoxious, which is why you’ll find me wearing earphones when walking the halls and/or during school assemblies.  It’s not the crazy, loud and/or obnoxious behavior that bothers me, be cause believe me, I can act crazy, loud and/or obnoxious right along with my students.  No, it’s not that.  It’s the flagrant disrespect, the bullying, and the violence that I cannot tolerate.  And that is what always pushes my buttons.

In my classroom, the rules are simple: 1. Listen and follow directions; 2. Raise your hand and receive permission before leaving your seat; 3. Keep your hands and feet to yourself; 4. Respect yourself, your classmates, and your teacher.  The consequences are equally simple: The first time a student breaks one of the class rules I give the student a warning.  The second time a student breaks a class rule, they are sent to time-out.  This may seem babyish and elementary.  However, my students all work in groups and it pains them to be isolated from their peers.  Needless to say, it is rare that I have to go to step three.  I allow my students to re-enter their group once they have sat alone for a few minutes, thought about what they have done, admitted to me which rule(s) they broke, and apologize.

My last recourse for a rule-breaker in my class is to send them to the office with a referral. Now, once they leave my classroom and head to the office to speak with the vice-principal, any further consequence is out of my hands, and the rule-breaker is out of my hair…at least for a the day.  Fast forward to this past week.

This past Wednesday was quite an eye-opener.  Not only did I have to write one referral in one of my classes, I was close to writing 8, yes, 8 referrals in one class.  I was beside myself.  Before I began yelling (yes, I do raise my voice at my little cherubs), I stepped away from the front of my class to calm down.  That is when I had a small epiphany: my students tune out anger and respond to calm.  I calmly addressed the class.

It worked!  The 8 rule-breakers were subdued with my soft, low voice and my encouraging words of wisdom…for exactly 6 minutes.  Six minutes is just enough time to lull me into a sense of false security!  It was the end of  the period and I just didn’t have the heart to write 8 referrals.  In fact, I was so hurt and disappointed that all I wanted to do was cry.  I excused my students to their next class with the threat of writing referrals for the unhappy eight as soon as school was out.

I didn’t stick around after school to fill out the paperwork, “I’ll do it in the morning,” I sighed to myself.  I do not make idle threats to my students, that just leads to students not taking my word seriously.  No, I had to follow through with the consequences.  However, I would sleep on it and go in to the office in the morning, sans emotion (I hear that is always best).

The next morning at school as I was writing the referrals, I received a call from one of the mothers of the unhappy eight.  The mother wanted to know why I was punishing her daughter, at which time I politely explained my class rules, i explained which rules her daughter broke, and what the consequences were.  The mother’s response?  “Well that doesn’t sound like my daughter.”  Sigh.  Of course not.

There was no getting through to this mother.  She kept insisting, “That doesn’t sound like my daughter!” and my insisting that it was exactly like her daughter was not going to change her mind.  Finally, she said, “Well, I’m good friends with Mr. Vice Principal, and I’m going to give him a call!”  Sigh.  Of course.

I was certainly upset with this exchange.  However, I had the whole morning to decide how I should handle the whole referral mess, the afternoon would come soon enough.

As the unhappy eight entered my classroom, I realized they were happy and smiling.  The mess from the day before was long forgotten.  What had broken my heart wasn’t even a  blip on their radar.  Oddly enough, this made me smile.  The were 11 and 12 year old kids and they had been acting like 11 and 12 year old kids!  It was then that I had a little bit bigger epiphany: they are only 11 and 12 year old kids!

The class began with light and airy conversation between me and the (now) happy eight.  I was certainly in a much better mood, as were they.  As we all came to an understanding, the student whose mother had called me that morning raised her hand and asked with a smile on her face, “Miss, did my mother give you a hard time on the phone?”

I smiled back, a genuine smile and said, “No, she just kept telling me, ‘That doesn’t sound like my daughter.'”

My student chuckled, “Yeah, she doesn’t know how I act at school.”

Of course not.

Peace, ~v.

 

 

 

 


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Reflections for the Living


Respite

Our garden of peaceful reflection

June 29, 2016

“I know you are anxious to get on with the business of living, but she’s just not ready yet.  I’ve taken care of her, led her and loved her for over 57 years.  Yet, I never had the heart to prepare her for something like this.”

Dear Readers,

This is the dialogue I imagine I am having with Mr. Uruguay; or rather, the conversation he is having with me.  I have taken up my post on a plastic couch directly across from my dying friend. Should he open his eyes, I would be directly in his line of sight. However, that is not likely to happen.

Mrs. Uruguay is generally seated to her husband’s right, in a recliner of the hospital’s finest plastic.  Now however, she is bustling about on the other side of the room as the nurses are fussing about their patient, “Trying to keep him comfortable.”

The Uruguay’s son is pacing anxiously at the foot of his father’s bed. He was in the middle of shaving Mr. Uruguay’s three-day stubble, as per his mother, when the Nurse Angels flew into the room. By his nervous gait, it is obvious that Mrs. Uruguay’s son is not used to not following his mother’s directions, thus the nervous stutter-steps.

Mr. Uruguay’s daughter-in-law is curled up, crossed legged on the other available recliner, pecking away on her iPad, sending and receiving messages to and from parts unknown. Daughter-in-law is a registered nurse.  So, this appears to be old hat for her.

The Nurse Angels flit out of the room as quickly as they flitted in, and the process of death falls like a hush over the room’s occupants.  And here is where I imagine mine and Mr. Uruguay’s conversation picks back up.

“She needs a little more time to get used to me dying.  I mean, it’s only been three days since we made the decision to stop my nutrition and hydration.  And although she knows I’m dying – thank her for the priest and my last rites, by the way – my lovely bride needs just a little longer to accept that she is going to be alone.  I owe her at least that much.”

And so it goes.  Slipping towards death, just as he was in life, .Mr. Uruguay is still in control.  Mrs. Uruguay is a quick study, however.  And although there is a vast emptiness in her soul, she is beginning to take control of her life and her husband’s death.  It is hauntingly beautiful to watch. And so it goes, and so it goes.

Peace, ~v.

 


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Anonymous


July 28, 2015

Dear Readers,

My name is [redacted] and I am an alcoholic/addict.  It has taken me 32 years to write that statement with any amount of sincerity.  Of course, it has taken me that long to be able to work the program with any amount of sincerity, as well.  I was reluctant to even write this post.  And I was certainly never going to publicly admit that I am a, well, you know.  So what’s changed?

Alcoholism is an insidious disease.  Lest you get the idea that alcoholism and addiction do not qualify as a disease, here is Merriam Webster’s definition of the word disease:  a condition of the living animal or plant body or one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.  Whew, that’s a mouthful!  Let me break it down for you, dear Readers.

a condition of the living animal or plant body or one of its parts Well, I am a living animal.  And that plant body thing, well, the definition is stating that both animals and plants can have a disease.

that impairs normal functioning I suppose the word ‘normal’ is open to interpretation.  However, this is really the part that gave me the most difficulty because by and large, I functioned pretty normally for the past 32 years, at least on the outside, but I’ll get to that later.

and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.  How are these for signs and symptoms:  shaking, jittery, clouded mind, physical craving, irritability, and headache.

Looking at the definition and breaking it down like that, certainly gives one pause.  Yeah, I guess I really am and alcoholic/addict.  However, what I have just described, dear Readers, could easily be an addiction to caffeine.  Gosh knows I experience these symptoms if I don’t have my coffee first thing in the morning.  But it is also a description of addiction to numerous medications and illicit drugs, and, of course, alcohol.  So why the stigma?  Why, as a people, do we give aid and comfort to those who have the disease of cancer, but shame those of us who have an addiction?  Why do we have telethons to raise money for muscular dystrophy, but insist that we alcoholics ‘just get over it’?

Interesting questions, and I don’t have the answers, at least not all the answers.  But I do know this, as long as we see alcoholism and addiction  as an imperfection, a slight on our character, we will continue to treat the alcoholic/addict as a pariah, an outcast.  Me?  I’m not willing to accept that.        

I recently spoke to an aunt I hadn’t spoken to in quite a while.  She told me she loved reading what I write.  She also told me how courageous she thought I was for writing my own experiences so that others could know they are not alone.  I’m pretty sure she was talking about the fact that I have written about my bouts with mental illness.   But, I’m sure she’d be proud that I wrote about my alcoholism and my addiction, as well. 

I’m in remission now…oops!  My bad, I mean recovery, I’m in recovery now.  But make no mistake, my name is [redacted] and I’m an alcoholic/addict.  Peace, ~v.                     


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Tu Solo Tu


October 31, 2014

Dear Readers,

Writing the first two installments of my series, “Saved” has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.  It has helped me work through some of the more painful moments of my accident.  Of course, it has also managed to help me re-live some of them, as well.  I’m taking a break for a day or two.  I do hope you enjoy my alternatives until I publish “Saved ~ III.”  For those who would like to catch up, here is “Saved ~ I” and here is “Saved ~ II.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I come from a musical family, music runs in our blood.  Creatively, we have artists that run the gamut from singers to songwriters to players of instruments.  And we are not pigeonholed into one genre or another.  Our tastes also encompass a broad spectrum.  We grew up listening to the likes of Ry Cooder, Dr. Hook, The Temptations, The Eagles, David Allen Coe, Vikki Carr, Alabama, The Oak Ridge Boys, and Linda Ronstadt.  My dad even had the soundtrack to Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke.  And those are just the artists who sang in English.

Included in my parents’ repertoire were a myriad of singers who sang in Spanish and for the life of me, I can remember not one.  Oh I remember the songs, just not the artists.  Well, let me re-phrase that, I recognize the music when I hear one of the songs from my childhood, but not much else.  I didn’t understand the lyrics, so it was difficult for me to remember the titles and the artists.  Except one.

One of my dad’s favorite artists was Linda Ronstadt.  And jut as my dad, her musical tastes contained both breadth and depth.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ms. Ronstadt, it might surprise you to know that she was born in Tucson, Arizona and she is of Mexican descent, on her father’s side.  These two innocuous details, coupled with the fact that her vocals span several octaves, had my dad hooked.  However, it wasn’t until she released her album Canciones de mi Padre in 1987 that my dad was truly over the moon.  It is from this album that I randomly chose a song for this week’s prompt:

Select a lyric from the first, random song you hear.  Use that lyric in a piece of writing of your choosing (fiction, non-fiction, poem, letter, etc.).  The Twist – work the name of the artist into your writing as well.

I hit the music app on my iPhone, and the song Tu Solo Tu began to play.  I downloaded the song when I was overseas in 2013.  The reason I downloaded the song was two-fold:  it reminded me of home, particularly of my dad, and I wanted to learn the lyrics so I could sing it for my dad.  My dad passed away in 2001, and he and I both knew that my musical abilities began and ended with pushing the ‘Play’ button on his 8 track in our blue Dodge van.  But I was determined to learn, and sing one Spanish song; it was the one thing on my bucket list I disclosed to no one.

So many things came together in a motel room in Al Mirfa in February of 2013, it was the perfect storm.  I was 7,000 miles from home, I was by myself, wearing a t-shirt with a poem about being Chicano that my brother had written, and I was watching Arabic television.  It was then that I began my first blog.  I had been listening to Tu Solo Tu over and over and over, trying to phonetically learn the lyrics.  I took a break to watch, of all things, a One Direction video.  I remarked out loud, “What a great world we live in.  Here I am in the Middle East, a Mexican chick from America, wearing a Chicano lit. t-shirt, singing a song in Spanish, and watching a video of an English-Irish pop band!  Ain’t life grand?”

After the video finished, I turned on the news for background noise as I began to write my first post for my first blog.  As the lyrics to Tu Solo Tu ran through my head, I was struck with the thought that I didn’t know if my dad would have approved of my going to the UAE to teach.  It was a nagging, all-consuming thought that kept looping through my brain.  It was just about to drive me crazy, when I turned to watch a story on the news of citizens protesting in Tunisia.  What I saw next floored me.

The news program was showing protestors gathered in groups and holding signs.  One sign caught my eye, so much so that I grabbed my phone and snapped a picture:  1554393_10201714006164327_5562529658264456655_n  The message is written in Arabic, but look at the first three letters: gaz. Dad’s name was Guadalupe Alejandro Zubia – gaz.  For me, it was the vindication I needed that I was where I should be.  And it came from the only person I needed to hear it from, my dad.

After the initial shock, I began singing as loudly as I could, serenading my dad.  Although the rest of the lyrics don’t quite fit, the title of the song was certainly apropos:  Tu Solo Tu  (You Only You).

Peace, ~v.


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H.W.G.A. or Here We Go Again


August 7, 2014

Dear Readers,

Here we go again.  When we were growing up, my siblings and I used to say, “HWGA,” whenever our parents would argue with one another.  We would roll our eyes at one another and simply mutter, “HWGA,” and we all knew what that meant, “Here we go again!”  We would all scatter to various rooms in the house, or sneak outside so as to not have to listen and/or to give our parents their privacy.  Don’t know if we ever told Mom and Dad what HWGA meant, or if they even knew we had a little code.  Well, Mom knows now if she’s reading this (sorry MmR, GaZjr, AeZ, FaZ, MdZ, VlD and DrZ for giving away the secret).

Today’s post will be my last post for…well, I don’t know how long.  I will leave this post, and the rest of my blog up for three days, and then I am sorry to say, I will be shutting it down.  I am sure some of my dear Readers would like to know why.  Here is the condensed version:  a student.  That’s all I will say on the matter.  However, I will be back.  I don’t know where or when, but I will be back.

I do this to protect not me, but my loved ones.  It is my decision to write, so I am willing to suffer the repercussions.  however, I do not wish to harm anyone with what I do and who I am.  I know you dear Readers will understand.

Now, on to loose ends.  In my last post, The Ones You Never Forget, I wrote about a former student (CM) that seemed to be troubled.  I had several people tell me that they wouldn’t be surprised if I hear from the student again and that he would remember me.  Well dear Readers, God does have a way of making believers out of us cynics.  Yesterday, two days after my post, CM did indeed get in touch with me!  He has since graduated from high school (no small feat) and is gainfully employed and looking forward to being a father and getting married (in that order).  He said he sought counseling on and off through his high school years and although he is not quite over some trauma he suffered in his teen years, he is much better than when I saw him last.

Now this is why I teach, because of kids like CM.  When I met him, he did not believe he had a chance at a life, he couldn’t see past his pain.  I did not think he would ever remember that I taught him how to write a complete paragraph, nor did I think he would remember that I taught him how to write a proficient essay.  What I was hoping for, however, was that he would remember the seed of hope I was so desperately trying to plant within him.  He thanked me for always believing in him, for never giving up on him, and most importantly, never letting him give up on himself.  Wow!  You could have knocked me over with a feather  Now that is why I teach.

Two other posts that I have to close out are Out of Focus and Out of Focus, Again.  Although this school year has started off better than perhaps the past five or so years, I had one class that I was not really connecting to, yet.  I thought I had solved the problem, but after a second lesson went flat, I decided I needed to try a new tactic.  I thought, I prayed, I meditated, I slept, I asked fellow teachers, I thought I had tried everything.  Then, God sent me an angel in the form of a Badass Teacher, DS.

DS wrote to me and suggested that I try a team building exercise.  Some may know it by a different name, but the premise is the same.  When you are with a group, be it work, school or church, and you must function as a group, you must have trust and a sense of camaraderie.  Without those two things, your group will not function properly.

“But, of course!” I thought when I read DS’s message.  “I need to build a little trust and camaraderie among my students.”  Not only does it help the students gel as a class and as small groups within the class, it is a diagnostic tool for me.  Here is how my team building exercise went:

I had my students do an exercise called “The Human Knot,” (again, some may know it by a different name).  Eight students stand in a circle, for my classes it worked out well, since my classes are in groups of four.  The eight students put their right hands in the middle of the circle and grab the hand of someone within the circle that is not standing next to them.  Next, they put their left hands in the middle of the circle and they grab the hand of someone else not standing next to them.  In order for the exercise to work, each student must be holding hands with two different people, and they must not be holding hands with someone directly to their left, or directly to their right.

Next, the students must try and untangle themselves to form a circle without dropping each others’ hands.  It can be done.  It has been done.  And in my classes, it was done.

At first, the students were reluctant to hold each others’ hands.  Then, all it took was for one student to make a move, and they all dug in, teamwork at its finest.  It worked beautifully.  One group within each of the three classes that tried this,   were able to form a circle.  It was the neatest thing to watch.  And that is all I did, watch.  Here were the results:

Most of the students were able to successfully work together.  However, there were a few that started out extremely annoyed with me for even suggesting this exercise, but they quickly joined in and tried to help.  Even so, there were two or three who simply refused to help, they just stood there, not helping, but not hurting the team.  The students thought it was fun, but didn’t really know what it could possible tell me.

I was able to see who the leaders and the reluctant leaders of the groups were, who the loyal followers were, who the reluctant followers were, and who took on the role of comic relief.  After each class had finished the exercise, I gave each student my observation of how they functioned in a group.  For the most part, the way students behave in team building exercises is the way they will behave when working in small groups.  Both the students and I were surprised at the leadership qualities in some of their peers.  However, I explained to them, now I know who has the leadership qualities, and I fully expect them to live up to their roles.

I tried this, and similar team building exercises with many of my classes over the years.  And each student that has participated, has risen to the high expectations I have set for them…without exception.  It was, and has been an exceptional diagnostic tool.  Now that I can see the beginnings of my students strengths and weaknesses with a small group, I can begin to work with them to get their best efforts.  By the end of the first quarter (around the end of August) I should see students working up to the high expectations I maintain for all of my students.  Teaching…It’s a Beautiful Thing.

Well, dear Readers we have come to the end of  very fine friendship, at least I think so.  I will be back someday; someday soon, I hope.  I will continue to write, because writing soothes my soul.  As for publishing, well, I’m working on it.  I thank each and everyone of you, dear Readers around the world.  I have enjoyed every smile, every frown, every frustration, every thing that this blog has brought me.  I leave you with the hope that you will all go out and change the world for the better, even just a little, I know I will.

Please always remember, and don’t ever forget…Peace, ~v.

 


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The Ones You Never Forget


August 4, 2014

Dear Readers,

I just finished grading and recording 106 pieces of homework and 106 quizzes.  I had already put away the papers and was on my way to bed, when a piece of paper fluttered to the floor.  I bent over to pick it up and noticed that it was a picture that one of my former students had drawn and I was floored!  He is one I will never forget.

This past weekend, I had been emptying out old, old papers I had accumulated over the years.  Part of the accumulation was from 5 or 6 years ago.  I’m not a hoarder, just a recycle-er who forgets to recycle sometimes.  Anyhow, this drawing must have gotten mixed up with my current students’ papers.

As I picked up the drawing, I smiled at the recognition of the name.  He was one of my hard-to-motivate students, as bent on sleeping through my class as I was on keeping him awake.  I usually lost that battle.

Then I took a good look at the drawing.  It was drawn like a cartoon strip, with 4 panels.  Without going into too many details, the “cartoon” strip showed Mom and Dad physically fighting, son and Dad physically fighting, Mom crying, Dad leaving and son hoping for the worst for Dad.  Yeah, not funny.

I was saddened because that picture forced me to remember why that particular students had been so memorable.  The “cartoon” strip I ran across this evening, was not a cartoon, it was his real life.  Yeah, not funny.

It has been a few years since I last saw this student CM and I have often wondered about him.  I know he had a hard home life and I can only pray that he is living the life that God wants him to live.  But, I don’t know and I probably never will.

I know that I will not be able to reach every one of my students, nor have I ever been able to.  However, there are the ones I know I helped, the ones I hoped I helped, the ones who didn’t want my help, and the ones I couldn’t help; those are the ones I’ll never forget.  Peace, ~v.

 

 


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An Open Letter to Teach For America Corps New Recruits 2014


August 3, 2014

Dear New Teacher,

The first, and probably the most important thing, is that this is a letter of support.  Teachers are teachers no matter how they made it into the classroom, traditional, nontraditional, I respect both.  I also respect your passion.  I know you have a passion because who other than a passionate person would embark on this journey.

Like you, I came to be a teacher in a nontraditional, unconventional way (I was a 33 year old, mother of five when I went to school to earn my degree).  Also like you, I am passionate.  However, we differ in that I went through a traditional, secondary education program and you are a Teach For America recruit.  Both can be valid.

In the ensuing months, you will no doubt read and hear more rhetoric regarding education in America than perhaps you have already.  I would encourage you to ignore the negativity on both sides of the aisle:  pro-TFA, anti_TFA, doesn’t matter.  I say this because you have a job to do and your kids need you, all of you.  In fact, they need more of you than you have to give, but please, don’t give them all of you; hold back a little for yourself, you are going to need it.

You are going to need a place within you that is sacrosanct, a part of you in which only you have access.  This is the place to which you will retreat, a place where homework and standards and Common Core are four letter words.  A place where making a pauper’s wage for what we do, is never an issue.  A place to go where bitter, veteran teachers cannot hurt your feelings, nor your new TFA supervisors encourage you to believe that you will be an effective teacher, you won’t be, at least not initially.  You need that place.

You need that place because you will encounter this, and so much more, and you need to sort it all out, calmly and rationally, relaxing not stressing.  Then get ready…

Your kids are going to tell you things (some in person, some through their writing) that you are not going to believe; believe them. Your kids will test you and test you and test you some more.  They do it to all new teachers.  You will have to earn their trust.  The kids you teach will have seen teachers come and go, so they do not want to invest emotionally if they even suspect you will leave them in a few years.  Although, the students you had initially will be gone, the influence you had on them will not, if you are one of ‘those’ teachers, and let’s face it, we all want to be one of ‘those’ teachers”.

Some days your kids will be your saving grace,and some days they will be the bane of your existence, accept both with equal fervor, kids only expend energy on teachers they feel strongly about.  You want them to feel strongly since indifference and apathy kills creativity.  Learn how to turn the negative into a positive and you will have a loyal fan for years to come.

Finally, I was going to end my letter of support welcoming you to the profession and wishing you best of luck in the coming school year;  I’ve had second thoughts.  Although I do welcome you and I do wish you the best of luck, take careful note:  kids know.  Kids know whether or not they can break you, whether or not you are a teacher for life, whether or not you really care and whether or not they can trust you.  Kids know.  So, if your aim is to put in your two years and move on we, the kids and I, would rather you just keep moving, we don’t need you.  If, however,  you have an open mind with regard to making teaching your vocation we, the kids and I, welcome you with open arms, we need you.

Good, bad, or indifferent, all teachers leave their mark.   You choose.

Peace,

Ms. Victoria Kunzmann

7th Grade Language Arts