Training Wheels

No Fear

No one told me I couldn’t do it.

At thirty-four pounds, it weighs as much as I do. Yet, I reach above my head to the handlebars and tighten the fingers of my left hand around the rubber, ribbed grip. Slippery with summer sweat, my right hand grasps at the metal frame and slides unsuccessfully down its slope. I let my ride fall to the ground and rub my hands in the dirt.  Right foot on the frame, I pull the handlebars until it stands upright.  Now, my grip holds. Dirt provides excellent friction.

I wheel the bike across the front yard and lean it against the humongous rock.  Almost as tall as me, this boulder mocks and scoffs at young climbers and promises not only defeat, but skinned and scarred knees. For me, it is a breeze.  I conquer it in seconds and carefully straddle this two-wheeled horse. My left foot dangles as my right foot keeps me and my metal companion standing erect.  

Ready, set, go!

No hesitation. I push off with my right foot and I roll, my feet kicking the pedals as they rotate. I imagine how fast I could go if only my legs were long enough to pedal properly. Luckily, our front yard slopes downward into the neighbor’s property and the bike quickly picks up speed.  The rubber, knobby tires bounce over the uneven terrain, almost catapulting me over the handlebars. I laugh hysterically and right myself on the seat.

Kicking harder and faster, I clumsily ride past the parked Honda in Bobby’s driveway, barely missing the front fender. My front tires lunge off the gravel driveway and I plummet down the hill parallel with the road.  To my right a car creeps down our gravel road.  “I’m winning! I’m winning!” I shout triumphantly.  Giggling, I extend my legs and coast with my face to the sky, “I’m free!” I scream.

The car’s motor hums from farther away indicating a change in direction.  The road turned to the right and yet I race on across the grass. With no time to stop, I brace for the end of my ride.  How deep is the creek anyway? One more dip in the earth beneath my wheels and, like a sling shot, my too-tall bike hurls me into the air.

Suspended in the air for a single moment, I bask briefly in the warmth of the sun, the weightlessness spins my equilibrium. Lightheaded, I still feel no fear. This is what the astronauts must experience in space! This is my moment.

Momentary ecstasy before the fall.

Then my back slaps the surface and I wonder if somehow I missed the creek. But earthy water swallows me, assuring me that I am in a safe, familiar place. I never touch bottom.  Instead, I kick and splash like a frog until I bubble to the surface.  Laughter explodes from my chest and I float for a few moments feeling like Evel Knievel.

I wade out of the water and hoist my bike out of the mud.  It takes fifteen minutes to drag the bike up the embankment, across four lawns, back to the monstrous rock by the driveway. My mom cooks dinner inside while my dad burns trash in the backyard.  My brother plays Hotwheels downstairs with Bobby.  Casper, my best feline friend, raises his head in approval from the porch.

I conquer the rock for one more ride.


Uninherited Caution

Nine years old,
Beady brown eyes beneath barely-there brows.
He has my ears, my mouth, my forehead.
That fair hair and quick-to-blush skin
Shout out our relation.

But he did not inherit my courage.

Positioning the bike precisely where the driveway threatens descent,
he struggles to mount.  Helmeted_boy_on_training_wheels
He tries again,
feet fumbling
with pedals and medal.
Balanced on training wheels,
The bike dances back and forth,
laughing,
mocking,
taunting.

He did, however, inherit my tenacity.

White-knuckled hands
mold themselves onto the rubber grips
becoming an extension of the handlebars.
He will not let go.

I watch from the lanai as he grits his teeth.
He pushes the pedal propelling
the bike forward.
It rolls and stops.
Soon he is in motion again.
He’s got it this time.

Anxiety rises in my throat.
He’s going way too fast.
He breaks.
It wobbles.
The training wheels aren’t enough.

I rise from my seat,
desperate to rescue my boy,
to spare him hurt,
to vanquish embarrassment,
to shelter him from disappointment.

I ease back down
onto the warm iron bench,
bracing for impact.


I sit, swallow hard, and wait.
The bump at the end of the drive taunts.
Bike and boy tip to the left.
Metal and plastic clatter against pavement.
All is still.

I wait
as he lifts his pant leg
to inspect his wounds.
He looks back at me.
I smile and wave.

As I still my heart,
my boy climbs back on,
grits his teeth,
and moves forward
through the world.

Stephanie De los Santos

9/22/2017

The Pleasure of Words

Who Thought of These Funny Sounding Words?

  • Ointment
  • LinoleumWORDS
  • Snickerdoodle
  • Catacombs
  • Diphthong
  • Lollygag
  • Nincompoop
  • Polynomial
  • Aluminum
  • Snarky
  • Tinkle

‘Nincompoop’ provides comedic relief for two year olds as well as adults. Think about it.  What adult male doesn’t enjoy a good excrement or gas joke?  It’s timeless…and ageless.  The other words on the list twist our tongue or morph our mouth into something either humorous or pleasurable.

Terrified, Transcendental, and Tenacious Testers

nail biting

They are in every classroom in every state in every country around the globe.  They beg to be seen as individuals, as distinct students, as nonconformists, yet throughout the history of testing we see them replicated in classrooms every where. They are the hair-twirlers, the constant snackers, the leg shakers, the gazers, the sleepers, the quadruple checkers, the experimenters, the drummers, the rushers, the driven ones, the emotional break-down testers, and the early finishers.  Test my theory.  During the next state assessment, when you are desperate for cognitive stimulation, analyze your testing group.  You will see them.  And you will smile.

The Hair-Twirler – Also morphing at times into a hair smoother, this student is compulsive, attempting to bring order into this abstract and random domain of testing.  The test is something to be conquered – a group of seemingly arbitrary questions that require definition.

FullSizeRender (3)This category is naturally more alluring to girls, but guys too are caught twisting the hair at the nape of their neck or trying to bring that unruly curl into its proper place.  As if by doing so, the task before them will somehow gain purpose.  The twirl, they twist, they prod and they persist until they feel accomplished.

She sits in her chair twirling the same piece of hair through the same two fingers over and over again, and I wonder, how long can she keep this up.  Her hair is straight and will not become any straighter by the manipulation.  Yet, she twirls on…and on.  After ever two or three twirls, she smooths the hair to assess the situation.  All hairs are still in their proper place.  I glance across the room.  Another twirler, except she occasionally brings the ends of the twirled lock into her mouth to taste it.  I must look away.

The Constant Snacker – These students enter the testing room ready for the day.  Their expression says, “I got this.”  The teacher packages up all cell phones and gives directives about where lunches should be placed.  She notices that this child still has a lunch with them.  “Oh, this is just my snack,” they say.  A bag overflowing with food?  Really?  Ok, then.  There are more important battles to fight this morning.

Pencils, test booklets, and scantrons have not even been distributed yet and the child is already eating.  “Did you eat breakfast?” you ask.  “Of course!” he mumbles through a mouth full of marshmallows.  That smile!  All is right in the world as long as they have snacks.

cheetosTesting begins.  He is on snack number two. Goldfish. Then on to fruit snacks, cheerios, granola bars, string cheese, Airhead Extremes.  I stop him at the Flaming Hot Cheetos.  I imagine his test scores disqualified because of spicy cheese smudges.  He cheerfully agrees to wait until lunch and proceeds to break out the popcorn.

Across the room another child is oblivious to the world as a twelve-inch ribbon of fruit roll hangs from her mouth.

Culturally Meaningful Learning

Unsettled.  Irritated.  Maybe even short-tempered.  I struggle to identify the emotions swimming through my heart.  My mind chases runaway thoughts that scamper away like squirrels up a tree. Maybe it’s just one of those days when I am easily irritated.  Perhaps I didn’t get enough sleep.  My page-long to-do list could be fighting for my attention. But something, something has crawled under my skin.

Every couple of weeks I meet with a group of teachers to discuss issues relevant to the field of education.  In particular, we focus on the unique needs – social, emotional, educational, cultural – of our minority students and our students who are at risk.

This week we are discussing an article about cultural relevance in the classroom – how to stay aware and sensitive to the differing social and educational needs of our students because of the diversity that exists in every classroom.  The article, not so gently, reminds us to respect the learning styles and preferences of every student.

students readingThe article we discussed last week admonished us not to treat students differently just because of culture, race, and economic differences.

Thus my irritation.  How are teachers to practice culturally responsive teaching while ignoring huge chunks of students’ identities’?

They can’t.

Even without cultural differences, diversity in the classroom has never been greater, nor has individualized instruction ever been as needed as it is today.  That’s without cultural differences in mainstream America.  Teachers differentiate because of needs associated with

  • ADD/ ADHD
  • Autism
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Dyslexia
  • Other Health Impairments
  • Eating disorders/ weight issues
  • Hearing impairments
  • Visual impairment
  • Diabetes
  • Allergies
  • Anxiety/ Depression
  • Asthma
  • Tourette’s Syndrome
  • Epilepsy

Not an exhaustive list, but these issues are some that have necessitated accommodations for many of my students -past and present.

The first article encourages teachers to ask immigrant students to share their experiences with classmates.  Stop for a moment.  Remember how it was for you as a new immigrant, or imagine how it might feel being singled out as different.  Everything is new and strange and you already feel like an outsider.  Now the new – probably white – teacher is drawing attention to you, confirming that you are, in fact, the outsider.  Culturally responsible teachers recognize that individuals that identify with certain cultures  feel uncomfortable with the spotlight on them.  Yes, allow them opportunities to share their experiences…on their terms, not in a way that draws unwanted attention when they are already self-conscious.

My point is, we must interact with each student in a way that shows respect for who they are and what they bring to the classroom.  We must ask hard questions such as, ‘how does their culture impact how they learn and behave in the classroom?’ ‘Is their behavior affected by racial issues?’  Sometimes kids are hesitant, other times they distrust the teacher, they show unsolicited anger or overreact.  And behaviors we consider to be positive could also be as a result of culturally or racial influences.  Consider the child who so desperately wants to please the teacher, the quietly working kiddo, the student who always does more than what is required, or the student who stops by the classroom to chat with the teacher in between classes.  What is behind each of these behaviors, and how should we respond to them?

Relationship.  I’ve said this before, there is no substitute for getting to know your students. Invite conversation, be available if they want to ask a question or make a comment, welcome opportunities to tutor students of all ability levels. I will never forget the student who asked in amazement, “You actually researched Greenday?”  Greenday was the band that he was completely obsessed with and he often made it the topic of his writing.  So, of course I needed to know a little more about this band if I wanted to appreciate my student’s work.

Language arts teachers have an advantage because writing cracks open the thought-life of our students.  But there are plenty of other ways to connect with kids.

  • Welcome them into the classroom.  Be at the door waiting for them.
  • Jump into conversations with them.
  • Find out about their extracurricular activities. Attend if possible.
  • Notice and comment on books that they are reading.
  • Create a homework hangout once a week.
  • Compliment them/ say something positive.
  • Share tidbits of your life.

Safe Environment.  Create an environment that embraces diversity of all kinds.

(in progress…)

Safe Space Triangle

Safe Place“I never felt I could talk about it or even be myself in this class because your room does not have the ‘Safe Space Triangle’ outside of the door.”

Two students have echoed these feelings recently and it deeply disturbed me.  Four months in my classroom and these students did not feel safe because of the absence of a sticker outside my door.  Shouldn’t every classroom in any school be a ‘safe place’ for all children?  Placing the sign outside of classrooms leads children to believe that some classes are safe while others are not.  Is it an error in reasoning on their part?  Of course it is.  They are kids and aren’t supposed to be completely logical yet.  Even adults illogically make assumptions.  The intention behind the ‘Safe Space’ initiative is commendable.  However, it perpetuates division and feelings of rejection.

Groups have designed Safe Spaces as a place where anyone can go without fear of criticism, exposure, harassment or bullying.  It should be a place where every child is valued, where diversity is embraced, varying opinions appreciated and all lifestyles welcome. The people in these spaces (ideally) model kindness and do not tolerate hate speech or insults.  Originally, safe spaces were created for those in the LGBTQ community who needed a refuge from onslaught of negativity. Then, these spaces became a place of refuge for anyone who needed somewhere to go, an escape, a place to relax and be themselves. A place of acceptance.

The idea, some say, originated with gay and lesbian bars and with the women’s movement of the 60’s (Harris).  During a time when there were actually laws that punished gays and lesbians for having intimate relationships, these bars became a rare ‘sanctuary’ of sorts where people could be out and experience an accepting environment.  The term ‘safe space’ broadened with women’s groups of the 60’s and 70’s, focusing more on the community of females working towards a shared cause.  This shared space freed these women from male domination and supremacy, even if only during their time together (Harris).

Designated ‘safe places’ are not appropriate for K-12 schools.  In these settings, every child is entitled to a safe environment – in classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, cafeterias, libraries, student centers, gyms, playgrounds, etc.  If a teacher cannot commit to respecting all children and to fighting for tolerance and kindness in the classroom, if a teacher cannot look into the face of a transgender or homosexual child with love and kindness, if a teacher cannot promise to prohibit hate-speech or racial slurs, then that teacher has no place in a classroom or around children.

“There’s virtually no way to create a room of two people that doesn’t include the reproduction of some unequal power relation…(Harris)”

A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe…

A Child Without Anger

boy fingers test proofThere are moments as a teacher when your heart skips a beat and suddenly everything around you seems to move in slow motion.  The unexpected.  The inspirational.  An epiphany.  Hope.  I experienced a moment like this today with Marqy Marq (nickname), my student who struggles with reading comprehension and writing fluency –  my student who passes each grading period because he faces challenges ‘like a beast‘ and refuses to fail.  He struggles through each assignment, but he does not quit.  He earns passing grades in Language Arts because he meets the minimum requirements with the help of tutoring and after school homework programs.  Success comes at a price.  And he does not pay it easily.

There is a certain type of knowledge and understanding that comes only from experience.  The insights gained from experience are usually deeper than those acquired through traditional learning methods.  This is a strong statement coming from a book freak.  More specifically, experience brings wisdom, and Marqy Marq demonstrates this with his recent poem.

Marqy Marq poem– published with permission of the author.

Children enter our classrooms with insights and experiences that would shock us if we would give them the opportunity.  As teachers, we should expect each child to inspire us. Expecting every child to amaze us each day is simply overly idealistic, but it is okay to be idealistic.  Didn’t we get into teaching because we loved watching students succeed? It may not happen every day, but we should expect it to happen consistently.  We should anticipate success.  Our students need to feel that we expect them to succeed. All of them – Black, Hispanic, Indian, White, affluent, economically disadvantaged, Bilingual, English-only, angry, emotionally disturbed, struggling with ADHD, autistic, plagued by learning disabilities, talented and gifted, homeless, abused, socially awkward, extroverts, introverts, anxious, athletes, musicians, artists, gamers… every child.  Planning with each child in mind means providing opportunities for each of them to succeed.  Some successes will be greater than others, but all of them are important in creating an “I can do this!” climate in our classrooms.

Marqy Marq may not write eloquent essays or intriguing literary analysis pieces, but he certain can write poetry revealing the heart of a broken mother struggling to make the best decisions for her child.  His poem acknowledges the maternal bond between mother and child, even when the mother fails to express is appropriately.  Marqy Marq reminds his audience – children and young adults – that parents have problems that their kids know nothing about.  In this piece, he encourages his readers to resist hate and realize that parents make difficult decisions in order to spare their children long-term pain and hardship.  Marqy Marq is thirteen.  He already knows how to forgive and how to look past actions to see underlying motives.  He is wiser than most adults.

 

Burning House

Name: Stephanie De los Santos

Age:  29 (yeah, not really)

Location:  Austin, TX

Occupation:  Teacher

Website:  stephieteach.wordpress.com

  • Macbook
  • Iphone 6 plus
  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales book
  • Box of old pictures
  • Parents’ wedding album
  • Our engagement and wedding pics
  • My wedding dress
  • My 380 hand gun
  • Dad’s army jacket and flannel shirt
  • Girls’ bag of pre-adoption and adoption day stuff
  • Bag of watches and rings
  • My famous quote blanket
  • Passport
  • Adoption decree and other legal docs
  • Purse
  • Box of letters from Dad and Grandma
  • Canon Rebel XTi DSLR Camera
  • External hard drive and USB drives
  • iPad
  • Pink Kipling bag and Kipling backpack

The items on my list fall into three categories: valuable, sentimental, necessary and irreplaceable.  My valuables include the phone, computer, camera, ipad, watches and rings, purse, and Kipling bags.  I learned to love Kipling products while living in Hong Kong, and, to be honest, I have a mild obsession with bags.  Electronics provide an opportunity to be productive, creative, and connected, and it would be difficult to replace those costly items.  My watches?  Obsession again, especially with the Movado brand.

Sentimental items include the Grimm’s Fairy Tales book that my dad read to my brother and me every night when we were small. The blanket was my husband’s first successful attempt to buy me a present that I actually loved.  My husband surprised me with the Louis Vuitton purse and actually brought me to tears.  The wedding dress was hand-made for my by my sweet mother who did not even get to attend the wedding because the venue was in a foreign country.

My passport, phone, adoption decree and legal documents are all necessary, and living without them would complicate my life immeasurably.

Finally, my irreplaceables.  Pictures are a window to the past and reminders of treasured moments and people that add layers of meaning to my life.  My dad’s army jacket reveals the kind of man my dad was.  I am proud to be his daughter and proud that he selflessly served his country.  A hint of his scent still lingers on his flannel shirt that I keep hanging in my closet. Letters from my dad and others from my grandma are irreplaceable words from the past that echo into the present.  These letters resurrect their personalities, their fears, their hopes, and their love.   And saved on my hard drives, in addition to pictures, my words in the form of poetry, short stories, and a novel preserve my personality, my fears, my hopes, and my love for the next generation.

*inspired by theburninghouse.com

Foster Parent Shortage

In Texas alone, there were 27,895 children in state custody at the end of 2015.  In Central Texas, 1,600 children are in foster care, many without homes yet.  The need for caring foster families is great, but too many people are unwilling to take the risk, afraid of constant scrutiny by DFPS (Department of Family and Protective Services) or worried that a child placed with them may have greater needs than they can handle.  Their concerns are legitimate, but the need is greater still.  These kids are worth the risk.

children-dancing

Children are in care because of several reasons; many come from homes with domestic violence, drug use, neglect, or abandonment. Others have been removed from unsafe or unsanitary homes.  Still others have parents who committed crimes and are now incarcerated. Parents of these children receive notice through an affidavit and official court hearing that they are in danger of losing their parental rights.  The lives of these children hang on a thread of hope.  They are vulnerable, fragile, angry, devastated, confused, betrayed, resentful, isolated and hopeful.

Every child deserves a safe, nurturing home where they grow, learn, and belong.  DFPS does not remove children unless absolutely necessary because removal will leave scars that no amount of time and healing will erase.  Trauma follows removal as children learn to accept their new home.  They have questions that we have no answer for.  “How long will I be here?  Why did they take me away from my  mommy?  Do my parents still love me?  When will I go home?  Can I stay with you forever?” That last question hurts the most because you realize the desperation they must feel and how bad things really were for them at home.  Foster parenting allows us the opportunity to provide stability and the basic necessities of life to a child, possibly for the first time in that child’s life.

The shortage of foster families results in additional hardships and trauma for the children who suffer too much already.  If a home is not available, the caseworker may have no choice but keep the child at the DFPS office overnight until they can find an available home.  Increasingly, children in Texas are forced to sleep in offices for two days or more because a foster family cannot be immediately located.  In fact, hundreds of children have suffered in this way in recent months.   Children are often sent to group homes, receiving much less supervision and care.  At other times, children sleep in hotel rooms under DFPS supervision for days until a home is found.  I am hopeful that more families will come forward to offer a safe haven to children desperately in need.

 

Please contact DFPS for more information.

Address: 14000 Summit Dr #100, Austin, TX 78728

Phone: (512) 834-3195

 

“Foster Care Statistics.” Pathways Youth Family Services RSS. Department of Family and Protective Services, 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

“Texas Needs More Foster Parents Right Now, CPS Says.” Texas Hill Country. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Bien, Calilly, and Phil Prazan. “Texas Children Sleeping in State Offices Due to Foster Parent Shortage.” WNCN. CBS, 10 June 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

All the Light We Cannot See

Why didn’t someone tell me that poetry dances off the pages of this novel?  Doerr has written a novel that makes it difficult for the reader to pick up another book; we know it will be a long time until another one mesmerizes us in the same way. What will I read now?  I know I have found another favorite.

saint-malo-1326316_960_720Although Doerr uses a familiar format to stage his narratives, he causes us to forget the typical formula by bringing us into the lives of the orphan boy and the blind girl.  We fall in love with the genius orphan boy who becomes a reluctant Nazi soldier.  We worry for the blind Parisian girl, though we shouldn’t, and wake after a long night of reading inspired by her courage and sharp mind in times of personal and international crisis.  Normally, the story of a boy from the ‘wrong side’ merging with the tale of a girl on the ‘right side’ would be a sweet, heartwarming story. This is not your normal opposing views narrative, though it does give the reader new, sympathetic perspectives on those who unwilling served the Third Reich.

Readers of historical fiction, especially those fascinated with the events of WWII, will breathe in the imagery and delight themselves in the details from this time period.  However, those who must have a happy ending will physically ache for days after finishing All the Light We Cannot See.  This novel is pure poetry for lovers of language, and lines from its pages will linger on your lips long after the final page.