Every school day, sad little stories fall into a teacher's lap

April 14, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

When a teen-age girl decides to have a baby, it is not just her problem or her mother's problem or a welfare problem.

Very soon, it will be a teacher's problem.

Nowhere is the impact of this young girl's decision more visible, more compelling than in schools. When young girls have babies, they interrupt or abbreviate their own educations. And so the education of their babies is off to the worst possible start.

"School is like a story that most parents start telling their children when they are very young," a teacher says. "They tell what school is going to be like for them, and so the children understand what will happen when they come to us. For most of the children I see, that story never gets told."

She has taught for 17 years in Maryland and West Virginia, in very poor neighborhood schools and in very wealthy ones. Today, she teaches in Maryland. Most of her children are poor, and most have just a mother or a grandmother to go home to. Do not use my name, she asks, protecting the privacy of the children to whom she is achingly devoted.

As a kindergarten teacher, she sees these children fresh, before the world and the educational system have a chance to defeat them.

But she also sees the hundreds of little missing pieces in their lives, and so her job changes daily, fractured through a prism of deprivation.

It is hard to read a story about lima beans, she says, if no one knows what a lima bean is. It is hard to play a game of rhyming words when no one has heard Mother Goose rhymes.

Her abbreviated kindergarten day with these children is a window into their life away from school. The morning children are exhausted, she says, because the early bedtimes are lost when Mom has worked all day and has to do her shopping at night, or when Mom doesn't mind if you are up late watching TV. The afternoon children, fresh from some makeshift day care where marathon videos and unstructured chaos are the norm, are wired.

"They love school and they love me and they want to do anything I ask them," she says. "But when they arrive at school like this, they cannot attend to anything."

Food, too, is a reason they are so frantic, she says. Children are not hungry. School breakfasts and school lunches have solved that.

But, the teacher says, the children are fueled by junk food, their miniature systems flooded by sugar, salt, caffeine and a hundred colorings and preservatives. "We talk about food a lot, and all I ever hear is pizza, hot dogs, chicken nuggets and soda." No lima beans.

The children can't sit still. They don't know how to be part of a group. They can't follow simple directions. They don't recognize that the teacher is in charge or how they are supposed to respond to her. The teacher ticks off the list on her fingers.

"We are not teaching them, we are managing them."

The children come to school worried, too, she says. How incongruous to see grown-up strain in little faces.

"They know what is going on at home. They know Mom needed to pay a bill but spent the money on clothes instead, and they are worried about what will happen. They know that Mom is dating and there is another new man in her life."

Her hands wring absently in her lap as she talks.

grew up in an era where whatever Mom did and said was right. They tell me these things, and so I try to explain that sometimes grown-ups make bad choices, that it is not the child's fault, that they are not responsible for what Mom is doing. They need to hear that."

The miniature homework assignments she gives rarely get done. The books the children check out of the library don't leave their backpacks.

"I tell them that their homework tonight is to find somebody to read that book to them," she says.

There is little, if any, communication between teacher and Mom. "Maybe she's just too stressed out or she's too embarrassed to get help for the child. Maybe she had a bad experience with school and doesn't want to deal with me," the teacher says.

Cleanliness is a problem, and so this teacher spends a lot of time washing hands and faces and talking about why. "It is hard for them if their clothes aren't clean or their hair isn't combed. They ,, look different and it sets them apart and they know it. Even if they are little, they know it."

And talking. She does so much talking.

"It is almost like counseling, this whole group talking that we do every day. We talk about classroom routines and how you treat your neighbor. We talk about feelings and how you handle them. We do a lot of role-playing and cooperative games.

"I do this because they aren't able to go home to a parent and pour out their day and talk about what happened. And if you can't do that, it comes out in anger."

The talking she does fills another gap, too. Language. When scolding and back talk dominate the conversation at home, a child cannot learn the meaning of words, cannot explain herself or organize her thoughts.

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