WHEN I STOOPED DOWN TO KISS little Sophia,* she whispered “I love you, Mrs. Wright” in her raspy voice, and I could not hold back the tears. It was June 3, just five months ago—the day I said good-bye for the last time to my kindergarten students at northeast Austin’s Winn Elementary. As I hugged Sophia and her fifteen classmates, I felt a lump rise in my throat. With a mixture of regret and relief, I would soon be moving to another school in another neighborhood.
I had taught at mostly black Winn for seven years. Back when I started, it was a model learning environment. The school had 530 students—a manageable number—in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes and grades one through three. The many challenges we faced, from curriculum reform to discipline,, seemed solvable; we were a unified, optimistic staff. Our efforts to improved student performance, particularly test scores, won special recognition from the state. One year, we were awarded the Governor’s Award and $26,000 in bonus money.
In 1990, however, two things changed. One was the school’s size: It almost doubled, a result of adding fourth and fifth grades and many new faculty members. Suddenly Winn was overcrowded, making it harder for us to pay intimate attention to students or to maintain order. The older kids, who bristled at being returned to the “baby school,” vented their resentment frequently and proved to be a bad influence on the younger ones. The second thing that happened had an even more devastating effect. Drugs, a problem largely confined to the streets of the inner city in the eighties, suddenly shoed up in the hallways of Winn—not directly, but in the form of kids whose lives had been upended by addicted parents and relatives, drug-induced violence, and poverty-induced abuse. This made the already edge culture of the school even more so.
From then on, the hostility of the outside world seemed to seep through the classroom walls and ooze over the playground fence. At different times, a fourth-grade boy knocked a classmate to the ground, injuring him so severely that an ambulance had to be called; staff members were hit or berated by angry children whose home lives were collapsing; and a fifth-grade teacher (since dismissed) slapped the face of an impudent student in a moment of rage. It was more than I could handle.
Still, my decision to leave Winn came with a flood of conflicting emotions. Telling Sophia good-bye brought back fond memories of her brother and her two cousins, who had been in my class over the years. They were shining examples of what happens when the system works. Sophia’s mother, a single parent, cared enough about her daughter’s experience to send dozens of cup-cakes to class parties. Her aunt accompanied countless field trips. Sophia herself, on many dark days, cheered me with her enthusiastic giggle and her burning desire to learn. Their message was clear: School mattered. Was I betraying them by taking another job? Then again, Sophia and her family were exceptional case. Most of my students were raised in homes ravaged by crime, unemployment, and substance abuse. The instability of their private lives made it difficult for them to meet the more structured demands of a classroom setting. For me the reverse was true: The problems I faced at school affected my personal life. The amount of energy I was pouring into my teaching seemed instantly to be absorbed by the escalating needs of the children. The stress of my work took its toll on me and my family, as I succumbed to one illness after the next.
Exhausted and discouraged, I sought a transfer to my neighborhood school, south Austin’s Travis Heights Elementary, which also serves and inner-city population, though one with a more balanced blend of races and socioeconomic groups. Travis Heights has any of the problems Winn has—poverty, broken families, and drug abuse—but its active corps of parents and staff members work together much more effectively, and they have the same level of optimism that I did in my early days at Winn. That is critical. I loved teaching, and I did not want my momentary burnout to be terminal. But I was desperate to be at a school where I could have an impact. I wanted to make a difference.
HOW SIGNIFICANTLY DID DRUGS—specifically crack cocaine—affect Winn? In my last year at the school, roughly half of my sixteen students were touched directly or indirectly by drugs: Two had fathers in prison for drug use, three lived with grandmothers and one lived in a foster home because of addicted parents, at least one lived with an addicted mother, and one came in with regular reports on Uncle Monty, his mother’s drug abusing boyfriend (“My Uncle Monty got cut all the way across his stomach,” he told me one morning, “and it was bleedin’ everywhere. He was creamin’ real loud”). One child insisted during a cooking lesson that the flour used to make bread was actually cocaine. When her teacher assured her that it was flour, she replied, “Well, it sure looks like cocaine to me.” Another child, spotting a familiar face on the school grounds, blurted out to his teacher, “Ms. Carter, that lady of there sells drugs. I seen her at my mama’s friend’s house.
Two years ago, inner-city teachers were warned to brace themselves for the onslaught of crack babies approaching kindergarten age. Crack, which became readily available in poor neighborhoods in the mid-eighties, was seen to have profound effects on babies who were prenatally exposed. That summer, a New York Times article cited “an array of symptoms that include hyperactivity, sudden mood swings, extreme passivity, apparent lack of emotion, slow language acquisition or mild speech impairment.” Many students are “overwhelmed by stimuli like noise or piles of toys,” the article said, while others “are easily frustrated, find it hard to concentrate, and learn something one day only to forget it the next.” Every year, more kids with these symptoms started kindergarten at Winn.
The Times article focused on the Salvin Special Education Center in Los Angeles, where a pilot project for drug-exposed children ages three and four has been successful in preparing them for school. The classes are small, with many opportunities for personal instruction and for physical affection to build trust. Although my Winn class was twice the size of those at Salvin, I found myself patterning my teaching techniques after the center’s; I too had many students who exhibited short attention spans, extreme hyperactivity, and no tolerance for frustration.
It wasn’t easy. A typical morning began with my herding students from the coat closets over to their assigned places for such daily routines as money collection and flag salute. I often felt like Nana, the huge shaggy sheepdog who guarded the nursery in Peter Pan, as I nudged and swept my charges from their volatile exchanges about coat hoots to some semblance of order on the carpet. About halfway through the Pledge of Allegiance, we would hear Arthur whimpering outside the door as he clung to his mother. Although she and I spoke repeatedly about the importance of getting him to school on time so that he could feel as if he was part of the group, he usually arrived late. Mondays were especially hard because he made periodic weekend visits to see his father, who was in prison for selling drugs.
As I began to explain the day’s activities, Curtis would interrupt me, sputtering and grinding like an old jalopy. When I failed to react, the noises would grow louder and louder, until I finally sent him to the “time out” chair. It quickly became clear that my traditional forms of discipline would not work for him. Curtis was born to a crack-addicted mother; he went in and out of foster homes as she went in and out of rehabilitation clinics. Bright and cooperative one minute, then lashing out in rebellion the next, Curtis would kick, scram, and fling himself to the floor in a wild fury triggered by unknown frustrations and fears. The class would watch all this with alarm, of course. Only toward the end of the year did I discover that I could persuade Curtis to draw his anger and confusion on large sheets of white paper, giving me just enough time to complete my instructions to the rest of the class.
The hours would pass during art, language, and science instruction, punctuated by fragile children reaching their limits—committing some act of aggression against a classmate, vehemently refusing to share or to play safely, simply collapsing into fits. Oftentimes, I would have to conduct a small group lesson while rhythmically rocking a screaming child on my lap until his rage subsided. Then we would go to lunch and to the playground—a collective sigh of relief. Time for the children to climb and run and hang upside down, time for us teachers to counsel kids who were near the edge and to recover from a morning spent fending off catastrophe.
Sometimes, though, it kept on coming. During this period of the day, blood sugar leves dropped and tempers flared in an instant. A tearful Curtis might kick Jason halfway across the commons for laughing at him; in a single action, I would have to flip one screaming child up on my hip and hold the other’s hand as we marched of to the nurse’s office, my class trailing behind like so many baby ducks. Jason’s involvement in such blow-ups was never a surprise. Part of that year he lived at his grandmother’s house while his mother and her “friend” were being investigated for drug dealing.
ON THAT FINAL SCHOOL DAY IN June, as I worked my way down the line of students, I noticed Candace back by the door. I could feel my mixed emotions coming to a head. She was standing with her arms folded across her tiny waist and a characteristic pout on her face. “You said you were gonna give me a sticker, and you forgot!” she barked.
Candace always kept score; that day my rating was poor. I dug a sticker out of my pocket and dropped it in her backpack. As I tried to hug her, she stiffened her muscular little shoulders against my embrace. I let go and looked at her large green eyes. She turned her head away.
“Candace, I’m really going to miss you,” I said.
“You’re going to a new school,” she replied. “You’re not comin’ here no more.”
She was an insightful child with an uncanny grasp of adult situations. Nothing escaped her attention. Many mornings, as she passed me by she muttered, “You got on perfume?” or “Why are you wearin’ red lipstick?” These simple questions had the ring of an indictment. In Candace’s life, changes were seldom made with her approval, and they never made things better. She had learned to be hyper-vigilant to guard against life’s vagaries.
Several years ago Candace’s young mother—a crack addict—abandoned her and her four siblings. They moved in with their grandmother, who is hard-working and kind, but caring for these emotionally wounded children strains her nerves and her budget. It was obvious in class that Candace was hungry for maternal attention. All year she touched my clothes, my hair, my earrings, and the things on my desk (an “off-limits” area for students) as if they were magical. She quizzed me about what I like to eat and where I go after school. She engaged me in her ambitious projects to make books about princesses and castle in order to capture my undivided attention. When she felt invisible in our class of demanding five- and six-year-olds, she picked a fight or snatched a toy or marched off to the bathroom without permission. She snuck into the closet and swiped box drinks and cookies from lunch boxes that were packed for other little girls. When confronted, she would swear convincingly that she was innocent; then we would follow a trail of sugar ants to her cubby box, where she had stashed the stolen goods She was struggling for control of her world and for control of me. All year she had, by turns, held me and then pushed me away because she knew how dangerous it is to make someone your own and then lose them.
Last winter Candace heard me talking with a classmate, a foster child, who was going back to live with his father. He was torn with confusion, and I was investing great energy into reassuring and supporting him.
“I’m gonna live with my mamma now,” Candace mentioned as the final bell was ringing that day. “She’s gonna come get me, and I’m gonna live at her house. Jus me and my mamma.”
When she repeated the same story the next day, I asked a staff member, who has known her family for years, if it was true. She shook her head. “No, that woman is burned up on crack,” the staffer told me. “She came by my house on Halloween night, beggin’ for money, and I said, ‘Patricia, look at you! I’m not givin’ you any money to buy drugs!’ Mrs. Wright, she was the skinniest thing you ever saw, and her eyes were all red. She looked awful. You can’t get off that stuff. I had a cousin who went into rehab, and he was back on crack in two months. No, honey, Candace isn’t gonna live with her mamma.”
What can I say to Candace that will help? From her six-year-old perspective, she probably thinks that she is the reason her mother left—that if she were a better kid, her mom would still be with her.
At my classroom door, as Candace and I said good-bye, I was paralyzed by my reluctance to let her go. She was angry at me for abandoning her as her mother had. The truth is that I am not Candace’s mother, and after that day, I would not be her teacher. I had to let her go. I could not fix her life. I did what I could.
LATER THAT DAY, I LINGERED IN the empty halls, chewing over the ambivalence I felt about leaving—the sense that I was deserting my duty to Candace and so many others like her. A young pre-kindergarten teacher stopped to commiserate. She had just watched the school buses pull away, loaded with shouting children.
“I could hardly let go of little Henry,” the teacher said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to him this summer. It just scares me to death.” Her eyes filled with tears.
We headed toward the teacher’s lounge, where the conversation centered on Milton, a rambunctious second grader of some renown. His teacher had worried for some time about sending him home to an alcoholic father, having grown up in such a situation herself. As she leaned over to hug him good-bye, he said, “Just you wait, Ms. Gonzalez. You gonna see me in the newspaper one day!”
“Why Milton?” she asked, amazed at the apparent turnaround. “Why will you be in the newspaper?”
“I’m gonna murder somebody,” he proclaimed with chilling nonchalance.
Milton’s world was bereft of the love and tenderness an eight-year-old child deserves and needs. As he absorbed his father’s fury and failure, he had to be tough and mean, suspecting his father would not protect him. What he wanted to say to his teacher, who had shown him care and patience, was, “I love you, Ms. Gonzalez. Please notice me.”
The storybook picture of school holidays as times of family togetherness and carefree play is strained in a community where drugs, poverty, violence, and despair have crept into neighborhoods like leeches, sapping their vitality. A colleague recalled tiny William, who used to cling to her leg whimpering whenever a holiday approached. “I had to peel William off of me in order to get him on the bus,” she said. “It tore me up to send him home. His mother was an addict, and he older brothers tortured him. It was all I could do not to take him home with me.”
When this same teacher found herself teaching an older grade, William showed up in her class again, this time equipped with new survival skills. He was tough, aggressive, untouchable. Inside was the same frightened little boy, but on the outside was the requisite suit of armor. He had learned like his brothers before him, that any accidental brush in the hallway from a passerby was occasion for clenched fists and a hostile “Don’t mess with me!” He had learned that the world is a vicious place, that masks and shields are necessary protectors.
William and Milton had to become independent and resourceful because no older family members really cared about them. They have built impenetrable walls around themselves to keep out disappointment and hurt. As they have hidden behind these walls, however, they have also shut out love, caring, and gentleness. For children this age, it is a terrible loss.
WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES THE job so unbearable that nearly two thirds of the faculty (by my count) wanted to leave? Why is it that, after seven years, I too sought a new position? Being a teacher at Winn was often more like being a social worker than an educator, and I, like most of my colleagues, was not qualified to do social work. Where before my work simply left me tired, now it left me drained. Where in the early days my successes inspired me to continue, now there were lost among a continual rush of new crises. My fellow teachers offered support during this difficult period, as they always did, but I began to feel as if I were paddling a sinking dinghy.
The ultimate frustration for me—beyond the spiraling numbers of desperate families, beyond the constant exposure to the effects of drug addiction, beyond the difficulty of simply doing the job—was the absence of a larger framework to address the critical problems that schools face today. From the principal to the custodians, we were all moved by what we saw, but we were trapped by our despair. For these children who needed us so much, whose lives were truly out of control, we had given and given and given, and still we wondered whether we ever gave enough to make a difference.
As I settle into my new third-grade job at Travis Heights, I’m filled with hope and good feelings. A whirlwind of pilot projects and innovative programs provides the resources for many of the services required by our kids and their families. I can send my students to our full-time nurse. I can send them to our counselor, to one of our tutors on loan from St. Edward’s University. I can send them to our social worker. Winn seems incredibly far away.
But it continues to be on my mind. In dreams, I see the faces of the ones I loved, of Jason and Arthur and Curtis, of Sophia and her brother and her cousins, of Candace. The sadness I felt every day, as I held them and worried for them and tried to make their lives better, has not waned. Moving on may have been the right decision, but it hasn’t been easy. I cannot forget them.
* NAMES IN THIS STORY HAVE BEEN CHANGED.