triage

Sunrise before the commute.

It’s because of mercury, one of my coworkers tells me in the staff room. It’s in retrograde? Something like that. I saw it on social media. That’s why the kids are acting like this.

Full moon’s tomorrow, a different coworker says a week later. Another teacher shakes her head. I don’t know what to do with them.

The other week, two fights broke out before 8:30 in the morning. Two boys came off the bus and immediately started throwing punches. The other happened in the cafeteria while students were finishing bag check and going through the metal detector, all 200-something of them clustered in the dingy room. I was in the cafeteria when it happened. It was my week to be on bag search, meaning I show up 15 minutes early, stretch on a pair of vinyl gloves, and paw through students’ bags searching for contraband, mainly cellphones. I hate bag check. It feels invasive. I stick my hand in gym shoes and open purses and remove study Bibles searching. I usually don’t know whose bag I’m looking through, and sometimes the contents make me wonder who they are. A narrow slice of life. It is like looking through someone’s illuminated window when you go walking at night. A glimpse, no more. An introduction made solely on a handful of objects.

But I digress. The fight.

I was finishing bag check when it erupted behind me. There were bags on the floor and a swarm of kids just loitering and it was hard to tell what was happening. You know a fight is breaking out based on how everyone else reacts. It is like the way tides wash out further before exceptionally large waves, a physical prelude to the coming violence, a brief warning if you are smart enough to heed it.

I’ve never been in a mob before. The intensity electrifies you. Students began surging toward the fight, running across tabletops to get closer to the nucleus of it, pushing and yelling, bystanders getting roped in. I helped a girl off the ground who’d been pushed over in the swarm and she was smiling. Smiling.

It lasted only a couple of minutes before the students were forcibly separated and everyone was sent to class.

The fight was over a student calling another student gay. Something of the sort.

I had study hall in the cafeteria first period that morning. My thermos had been knocked over by kids vaulting over the tables, and I spent the first five minutes cleaning it up. And there it is. The picture, the symbol, the metaphor stretched thin. Me in my coral-colored dress sponging off spilled tea. My orangutan thermos lying in a puddle on the ground. My book on social inequity in Aspen a little damp but not ruined. The bottom of my laptop wet. The remaining kids were silent as I worked. The silence after a fight is volatile—it threatens to break at any moment.

The atmosphere of violence that permeates my students’ lives is unfathomable to me. During our nonfiction unit, my creative writing students wrote about rape and abuse and their dads being murdered by gang violence. Multiple students in my school have been in jail for things they did and did not do. In September 2020, one of the largest mass shootings in Rochester happened at a backyard party, and apparently a handful of our students were there. I get it, I want to tell them. I get it that learning the correct use of apostrophes is the last thing on your mind, the least important thing I could teach you. I get it, I get it, I get it, but really I don’t get it at all.

I don’t believe it’s the full moon, and I don’t believe it’s because Mercury was in retrograde. These things are happening because we have failed these kids. We as in the schools. We as in their social structures. We as in public infrastructure and EBT cards and health care and the fact that one of my students used to wake up at 4:45 to skateboard to school because none of the buses went near his house. The bones of our fractured society are being unearthed in the pandemic, the debris we’ve buried washing up in the rain. None of my students are bad kids. They don’t deserve any of this.

In my department meeting the other week, we discussed which students were eligible for reading intervention. Most students read well below grade level and there are several burgeoning programs in our school that provide literacy support. There are a couple problems, though. First, kids don’t want an extra class, especially one that focuses on something they are bad at. Second, there are not enough teachers and not enough rooms to support these extra classes. So the department has to choose. They have to choose who qualifies for these services and who doesn’t. Based on shaky diagnostic data, some students will have access and others will not. And I’ll spare you the grisly details, but in summary it’s educational triage. We can’t help everyone and some of the students the department is helping are those who are deemed to have the greatest chance of success. I don’t know what to do with this information.

I asked some of my grad school peers about these issues the other week. What do you do about high absentee rates? What do you do about the behavior? What do you do when in a single senior-level class you have reading levels from grades 3-12? What do you do?

My advice would be to go with your gut, one of my peers said. You’re doing your best. It was kind of her to say this, but it was useless advice, the kind of live laugh love statement that sounds pleasant but is entirely meaningless. My gut isn’t good enough. I want proper trauma training. I want to know what to do when my students tell me they’re hungry. I want my school to have a library and a gym and a computer lab—all things it currently lacks—and I want to know when I should be generous with their needs and when the right thing to do is tough love.

It is fall. There are black walnuts along the canal path and egrets in the river and a fist-sized hole in the stairwell window screen that grows wider with every passing week.

I’ve been working on metaphor with some of my students. Love is a BLANK. Fame is BLANK. They find it hard to write in abstracts, to move beyond cliches.

School is a prison, most of them wrote on the assessment. I don’t entirely feel like they’re wrong.

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