Kids in Need Won’t Find Help

When I was a high school student in the early 1980s I couldn’t have imagined having police officers or Department of Human Services social workers in the building. Now that I teach high school, I can’t imagine doing without them.

But it’s happening.

I’ve already discussed here how we’re down to one officer for our high school, 9th grade center, middle school, and alternative school (about 1,300 students). I’ve since learned he also covers the elementary school just north of our campus, too. This allows kids to roam freely at all hours of the school day; there’s simply nobody available to round them up when they skip class. It also allows for acts of violence like the one that occurred outside my room a few minutes after the bell signalling the start of a class yesterday.

That’s bad, but I’ve talked about that already. I learned recently that Oklahoma’s cuts to the DHS budget is costing us our social worker at the end of this school year. This is our second year to have Katrina in our building and I simply can’t say enough about what she’s done for our students.

I have gone to Katrina countless times about students who need help because a parent, step-parent, boyfriend or girlfriend was physically or emotionally abusive. I’ve taken her kids who were bruised, who were hungry, who needed clothes, who were homeless, who were thinking about suicide. She’s gotten help for them. She literally has been a life saver.

And now, as we’re facing a reduction in force that will lead to bigger class sizes, more work per teacher, and less individual attention per student, we need someone like Katrina more than ever. It’s likely she won’t be there, though. What will happen to those kids? Who will they turn to? Who is going to have the time and energy to care for them?

Not the legislators who refuse to end subsidies for petroleum and wind energy companies. Not the congressmen and women who are considering deregulating schools so cash-strapped administrators can do away with high-priced teachers (who are now the lowest paid in the nation) and hire minimum-wage-earning ex-convicts to save money. The governor won’t be reflecting on their fates as she stares into the new reflecting pool that will be built at the Capitol.

Every seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives is available this November. About half of the Senate seats are, too. We cannot afford to allow the same kind of people to continue to run our state. Vote for candidates who will diversify our budget and who see the value in a strong system of public education.

Going Viral

Talk about intimidating! Sitting down here to write a new blog post after my “Open Letter to Oklahoma Voters and Lawmakers” exploded over the Internet and across the country and around the world is the most intimidated I’ve ever been when it comes to writing. How do I follow up on that?

The truth is, I don’t think I can. Probably never will. So it’s either abandon my blog, or go on as if that post was only seen by the dozen or so people who would typically read what I post online. That means that pretty soon I’ll be back to posting book reviews and updates on my novel writing or promotion. Speaking of which, I’ll be a guest at the Underground Monster Carnival at the OKC Fairgrounds again this year. Come out and visit me and many other authors, movie makers, make-up artists, and vendors. Organizers Stephanie and Art Sunday have very generously offered to collect donations for my school, and you don’t even have to pay Carnival admission to make a donation. That’s the true spirit of the average Oklahoman.

The response to my Open Letter was overwhelming in many ways. The sheer volume, of course, was staggering. I had no idea that was going to happen, and I am still working my way through e-mails and comments. If I had known what was about to happen, I might have worded a couple of things differently. For instance, it was not my intention to say that everyone working in factories or oil fields are peasants. Those are often good-paying jobs (more than teachers make!) and many people find satisfaction there. That’s great. I was a little impassioned at the time of writing and recalled my own feelings during the 10 years I worked in machine shops between high school graduation and going to college. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t a trade I chose. I’ve since lost the ability to do the complicated math I did when I was running CNC machines, so obviously there is a level of intelligence beyond mere peasantry needed to do trade jobs. Like I said, I didn’t choose that career; cleaning high production machines was the only full-time job I could get in 1986; once I was in, I worked my way up until a shoulder injury ended that career. The whole time I worked in various shops I was looked at as an oddity because I usually had a book I was reading or parts of a manuscript to edit. I wasn’t happy as a factory worker and I committed a fallacy in the heat of the moment. A better wording to that part of my letter would have indicated that I don’t want my students to be forced into any job due to shoddy education if they aspire to some other profession. I apologize to anyone who took offense to the way that was worded.

Another criticism I saw concerned my mention of Michelle Obama. I stand by that one. School meals are not filling, and under the Smart Snacks guidelines kids cannot get second helpings. If you’ve ever had teenagers in your home you know that they eat a lot of food. In our district, the school meals are the best a lot of kids get, which is why we continue to feed them during the summer. They need to be filled at school because there often isn’t enough food at home. Further, Smart Snacks gutted our most reliable fundraisers, which were selling hot dogs, pizza, chicken strips, or nachos from our school concession stand. Under this initiative pushed by the unelected first lady, we cannot sell alternatives to the Smart Snacks approved meals. Kids are not even supposed to be selling those old stand-by Worlds Finest Chocolate candy bars during school hours. All that said, Mrs. Obama was not the point of my letter and the fact so many people focused only on that mention of her says something about their perspective, in my opinion.

I would also like to point out I was careful not to name the school or district where I work. When I agreed to meet with local reporters from KFOR Newschannel 4 and FOX25 they both agreed beforehand that they would not mention the name of my school or district. Chelsea Washington of FOX25 violated that agreement. It could have been learned, anyway, by people who read some of the early comments to my letter, comments made by personal friends who know where I work and mentioned the school name in their responses. I did not try to keep the school’s identity private because I’m ashamed to be part of Western Heights. On the contrary, I’ll be forever grateful to the administrators who took a chance on a long-haired 40-year-old first-year teacher with alternative certification. I’m proud to be a Jet and proud of my kids. I tried to keep the school name private because I do not speak for the school or district. The views on my blog are my own and are not endorsed by or a reflection of the views of the administration. As expected, once the name was out, there were calls of complaint.

Let me say this: Not every student at Western Heights lives in the conditions I described. Not every parent of a Western Heights student uses drugs, ignores their children, or abuses them in any way. We have some of the best parents you’ll find anywhere. I’ve been lucky enough to have older and younger siblings go through my class and I’ve gotten to know families and count them among my friends and they are excellent parents. But the bad stuff is there, too. The stories about parents who can’t answer their phones are real; a girl who was not the object of my original story stopped me today in the hall to tell me her parents were too wasted to answer the phone sometimes. The story about the boy sleeping on a neighbor’s back porch is true; that was the incident that first opened my eyes to the plight of some of our kids in my first full year of teaching. And yes, I had a female student who was beaten with a cane by her grandfather because I let him know she was failing my class. These are things that never should have happened. Once you see that they do, you don’t forget them. They do not only happen at Western Heights. Those things are happening at your school, too. If you think you are the parent I was talking about in one of those examples, please turn yourself in at the nearest police station.

One last thing for tonight. Many, many, many thanks to everyone who expressed support for what I wrote. The response, as I said, was unexpected and overwhelming. People have brought me boxes of food, a case of copy paper, poster paper, and one kind soul send $250 to my PayPal account to use to help my kids. Several of my former students shared the post with personal notes about our time together, and more than a few of those put a lump in my throat and a mist over my eyes. I didn’t write the letter to get free stuff, or to goad my graduates into stroking my ego. Those things were as unexpected as the 85,000+ views the Open Letter currently has. Spiritually, there is no better profession than teaching and no reward greater than when a successful young adult tells you that you made a positive impact in his or her life. It doesn’t keep the electricity on, but it fills the heart and reminds us why we put up with all the negatives of being a classroom teacher. Thank you all!

I’ve rambled. Tomorrow or Friday I’ll share the modified version of my Open Letter that I sent to the state senators and representatives for my district and the district where the school is located. So far, I have not received a reply from them, or from Gov. Mary Fallin. In the meantime, I’ll leave you to ponder the most recent lunacy from the Oklahoma legislature: Mandated anti-abortion instruction.

Open Letter to Oklahoma Voters and Lawmakers

I am a teacher. I teach English at the high school of an independent district within Oklahoma City. I love my job. I love your kids. I call them my kids. I keep blankets in my room for when they’re cold. I feed them peanut butter crackers, beef jerky, or Pop Tarts when Michelle Obama’s school breakfast or lunch isn’t enough to fill their bellies. I comfort them when they cry and I praise them when they do well and always I try to make them believe that they are somebody with unlimited potential no matter what they go home to when they leave me.

What do they go home to? Sometimes when they get sick at school they can’t go home because you and the person you’re currently shacking up with are too stoned to figure out it’s your phone ringing. Sometimes they go home to parents who don’t notice them, and those are often the lucky kids. Sometimes they go home to sleep on the neighbor’s back porch because your boyfriend kicked them out of the house and his dog is too mean to let them sleep on their own back porch. They go home to physical and verbal abuse. They go home looking for love and acceptance from the people who created them … and too often they don’t find it.

Many days your children bring the resentment they feel toward you to school with them and they act out against peers, property, or their teachers. When I call you I’m told, “When he’s at school he’s your problem.” Or you beat them, not for what they did, but because it embarrassed or inconvenienced you when I called.

Often, they stay at school with me for an hour and a half after the bell rings because they don’t want to go home to you. Reluctantly, they get on the two buses meant to take home students who stay for athletic practice, and they go away for a dark night in places I can’t imagine.

Over 90 percent of the kids in my high school are on the free or reduced lunch programs. The walk hand-in-hand with Poverty and its brother Violence. They find comfort in the arms of your lover, Addiction. They make babies before they are old enough to vote. Or drive. And they continue the cycle you put them in.

Sometimes I get through to a student and convince her that education is the way out of this spiral of poverty and despair. Then you slap them down for wanting to be better than you.

And you, the lawmakers of this state, you encourage it. I hold two college degrees and have been on my job for 10 years. I was our school’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. I teach kids to read the ballots that keep you in your elite position. I teach them to look behind your lies and rhetoric. I teach them to think forĀ  themselves. The compensation of me and my colleagues ranks 49th in the nation, and is the lowest in our region. I currently earn about $18,000 per year less than I did in 2002, my last year as an office worker for an energy company that merged with another and eliminated my job. I feel like my life has purpose now, but, as I turn 50 this year and wonder how I’ll put my own high school-age kids through college, I have to consider giving up helping scores of kids per year so I can afford to give my own children what they need to find satisfaction in their lives.

And what do you do? You whittle away at education funding. You waste the taxpayers’ money so that our great state faces unbelievable shortfalls and massive budget cuts. You take home a salary that ranks 10th highest in the nation among state legislators and you are inept, uncaring, and an abomination to our democratic form of government.

Those kids who stay after school with me? After Spring Break 2016 they can’t do that. You see, our district can no longer afford to pay to run those late buses. Your kids wade through garbage in the halls because we had to release the custodial crew that cleaned at night. Oh sure, we could make the kids clean up after themselves, except our administrators live in fear of lawsuits, and making a kid pick up the lunch tray he threw on the floor has been considered forced child labor. There’s also the very real possibility that a belligerent kid will just take a swing at one of us — again — because he or she wasn’t taught respect for authority at home. Did I mention how we had to let go of our security officers because we could no longer afford them? We now share one single solitary Oklahoma County Sheriff’s deputy with our ninth grade center and our middle school and alternative school. That’s one deputy for about 1,300 students.

We can no longer afford rolls of colored paper or paint or tape to make signs to support and advertise our Student Council activities. This fall our football team won’t charge through a decorated banner as they take the field because we can’t afford to make the banner. There won’t be any new textbooks in the foreseeable future. Broken desks won’t be replaced. We’re about to ration copy paper and we’ve already had the desktop printers taken out of our rooms.

We live in fear that our colleagues will leave us, not just because they are our friends, but because the district wouldn’t replace them even if we could lure new teachers to our inner-city schools during the teacher shortage you have caused. We fear our classes doubling in size.

We fear becoming as ineffective as you are. Not because we can’t or won’t do our job, like you, but because you keep passing mandates to make us better while taking away all the resources we need just to maintain the status quo. We fear that our second jobs will prevent us from grading the papers or creating the lesson plans we already have to do from home. We fear our families will leave us because we don’t have time for them.

I am the chairman of my department. My teachers could easily take other jobs in the private sector where they would make more money, but so far they have chosen to remain teachers because they love working with kids. How long will they continue to put the needs of students over the needs of family? It’s something we’re all dealing with. How far will you push us? What will you do without us when we leave the classroom or leave the state? It’s happening. You know it’s happening, and yet you do nothing.

You, the representatives, senators, and governor of Oklahoma are creating a population of ignorant peasants fit only to work in the oil field and factories you bring to this state by promising those businesses won’t have to pay their fair share of taxes. You leave our kids in a cycle of poverty and abuse while your pet donor oil companies destroy the bedrock beneath us, shaking our homes to pieces while you deny your part in all of it.

Parents, I beg you to love your children the way we love your children. Vote for people who will help teachers educate and nurture the kids we share. We can’t do it alone anymore.