A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 26 2010

On a Series of Unfortunate Events

I look forward to reading Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events this summer.  This is a book series that many of my students read and enjoy.  I think I will connect with the book too; I’ve recently experienced my own series of unfortunate events.

O, hear, hear! Let me tell you a tale about life in a (dilapidated) DCPS classroom! After the burst ceiling pipe and asbestos incident, after the overeager classroom heater, I’ve been hit upside the head–literally–with another hard reality of life in DCPS…

The Short: Monday morning, as I was closing my classroom window, a rogue window panel slipped out of its track and smashed me in the head, sending me to the ER and necessitating (a) an anesthetic injection, (b) staples in my scalp, (c) a tetanus shot and (d) a picnic basket of pain as a reaction.

The criminal is in the image below and the top-left panel was the weapon of choice (I’ve placed a copy of A Lesson Before Dying on the ledge to show just how massive these windows are):

The Long: Monday morning at approximately 8:40am, after a fantastic weekend visiting Uncommon Schools schools in Brooklyn, NY (more on this to come soon), I noticed that the window in my classroom was open.  Given that it was a warm morning and the air conditioner was working well, I decided I’d close the window.  As I got up onto a desk to slide the giant two-paneled windows shut, a heard something release itself and before I knew it, I was gripping the side of my head, wincing in pain.  I imagined this was like any other minor bump to the head.  But the one student who was in my classroom at the time shocked me with her next few words: “Mr. K! There’s blood dripping down your face!”  At that point, I panicked.

After 2.5 seconds in panic mode, I calmly stepped down off of the desk (hint: teachers must not panic in front of their students) and, pressing down my bleeding scalp, proceeded downstairs to the nurse’s office.  There, I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a streak of blood dripping down the right side of my face, just in front of my right ear.  I reentered panic mode.

The nurse calmed me down.  She glanced through my thick jungle-like hair, gave me some Kleenex and told me I’d need to go to the hospital to get stitches.  After two excruciating hours nonchalantly pressing a blood-soaked Kleenex wad against my wound in the waiting room of Washington Center Hospital, I received an injection of local anesthetic and a series of staples to my head.  The doctor told me I wouldn’t feel a thing. He was wrong.

*****

More interesting than the story of how my scalp became home to a series of staples, however, is the reaction that I was met with when I returned to school briefly to pick up my belongings before heading home.  Standing outside the door of my classroom, I could already hear what appeared to be small-scale rioting.  I walked in my classroom to see a sub frantically attempting to control a classroom of out-of-control hallwalkers. More than half of the students in the classroom were new faces to me.  At our school, you see, when a teacher is absent, hallwalkers and other class-cutters flock towards the empty classrooms, eager to find a weakly-supervised sanctuary protected from that dangerous activity called learning.

I set foot in my classroom and, immediately–as if I were Jesus healing the lame and the blind–my actual (and posing) students swarmed around me, asking me if I was alright, but, more importantly, demanding that I sue the crap out of the school.

NG: “Are you going to sue? You better!  Are you alright?”

JH: “Mr. K, you better sue the $h!t out of the school! Then they’ll tear this place down and make it better!”

JB: “Sue! Sue! Sue!”

Mr. K: “I’m not sure yet.”

Students (in unison): “WHAT?!”

My head started pulsating rapidly, as the heightened stress level channeled unacceptable levels of blood to my headwound.  I got out of that classroom ASAP.

My Dean of Students dropped me off at home, where I then took a 5-hour nap, caught up on some episodes of 24 (given it’s stress-inducing factor, it was not quite the most appropriate TV show to watch) and then returned to a deep slumber for another 11 hours.  Tuesday, I caught up on grading and tracking at the neighborhood Starbucks.  Around 4:30pm, with the school day over, I unavoidably bumped into several of my students on the street.  Suing came up as a topic of conversation:

MW: “Oh my gosh are you okay?  Did you sue the school yet?”

TJ: “Mr. K! Are you alright?  I heard the window attacked you or somethin’?” (TJ was one of the few who did not mention legal action in conversation)

Wednesday, I returned to school.  Some students had no idea, of course, about what had happened.  Others swarmed me again.  Others approached me more subtly.  During my lunch break, WJ came into my classroom.  Our conversation was—surprise—centered around legal action:

WJ: “Did you sue the school?”

Mr. K: “No.”

WJ: “You’re lucky it wasn’t me! I woulda sued the school bankrupt!  As a black person, that [i.e. getting injured and not suing] just wouldn’t happen.”

Mr. K: “Wait wait–why does it matter what skin color the person is?”

WJ: “You see, the majority of black people just going to get their money back.  They won’t stand for that.”

Mr. K: “I see.”

4th period, another sympathetic student walked in and noticed my neutral demeanor. He smoothly used this as a conversation starter:

RT: “You don’t have your spunky spirit no more…I say you sue!”

Mr. K: “I see.”

RT: “In fact, you shouldn’t sue for money; you should sue for better windows.”

Mr. K: “I never thought of that. That’s a good point.”

RT: “If they fixed the ceilings, fixed the windows, fixed the pipes and cleaned the damn bathrooms, [our school] might be okay. They might have more students. But NO!”

So, within 48 hours of receiving what could have been, but was not actually, a traumatic, life-changing injury, I had heard dozens of request to take legal action: against the school! against DCPS! against someone, for God’s sake!–maybe even against the window!

*****

The most infuriating part of this incident is that the accident could have been prevented.  One of the custodians came into my classroom this afternoon and told me how he had been smashed in the head by the same exact window last week.  He muttered complaints about how almost every single window in the building posed some sort of potential threat to anyone who placed hands on them.  He tilted his head forward and pointed at the scar on the crown of his head.  He helped me imagine different scenarios by suggesting that things would have been much worse had he looked up to see what was about to clobber him.

A veteran teacher in the building also spoke to me.  He used to teach in my classroom.  Back then (I have no idea how many years ago this was), he was also assaulted by the window.  As with the custodian and me, the window struck this teacher’s head.

I told myself that I would not put up with anymore nonsense.  I demanded that the window be dealt with.  Provisionally, the window is nailed shut.  Hopefully, it will remain shackled and motionless for the remainder of its life, until it perishes in the bonfire of a landfill on the outskirts of town, replaced by a modern architectural marvel that doesn’t weigh 200 pounds and pose literal life threats to its human co-inhabitants.  RIP, murderous window.

*****

This unfortunate experience, of course, stands in stark contrast to the one I had in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, last Friday, when I had the opportunity to visit Excellence Boys Charter School.  There, 270 bright young minds were ensconced in one of the most fabulous school buildings I have ever seen.  As evidence, the library teemed with over 10,000 volumes (remarkable if it were at the middle school level, but uncanny that it is in an elementary school) and exuded a literacy spell of sorts on the children that passed in and out of the space.  Students took pride in their learning space with every dance move, singalong, and school spirit cheer.

The visit was simultaneously among the most uplifting and most depressing moments of my life.  Uplifting because I had never seen a community so oriented to learning and achievement; depressing because I knew my students experienced nothing of the same; depressing because I had to return to–and snap back to the reality of teaching in–my own school.

As noted, I returned today.  I was eager to see my students.  I saw them, but not before our school was stuck for an hour at 8:30am in a blackout.

*****

Normally, I end posts with some sort of conclusion or lesson.  It’s hard to piece together one this time.  I’m feeling a swirl of emotions and thoughts that can’t be tamed into a neat takeaway message.  Furthermore, I think you can draw your own inferences about this series of unfortunate events.

These events have admittedly put a damper on the end of my 1st year as a teacher.  Students, teachers, and other colleagues alike have expressed their surprise that I haven’t taken “workman’s comp” and that I’m already back in the classroom.  Given the impact of teacher absenteeism, I couldn’t get myself to take the entire week off, as many had urged.  It feels good to be back in the classroom, no matter how exhausted and beat down I feel.  I have less than a month with my students this year.  I will make the most of this time.

(Note: There will be more to come on the Uncommon Schools visit, as well as, hopefully, the promised update to my first post on Doug Lemov.)

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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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