Assessment Opinion

Sarah Puglisi: The Heart Shaped Box

By Anthony Cody — February 14, 2012 9 min read
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Guest post by Sarah Puglisi.

Often I ask people what they think or remember of school.

After 30+ years teaching public school in areas of poverty--some of the “worst,” apparently, in the nation--it interests me what the answer will be. Most often it has to do with a relationship between a student, a teacher, and the student’s feelings of recognition of a gift, talent, ability, possibility. This is how hope operates in a real-world context. The stories usually celebrate what assisted that person to try to “make it in a tough world.”

I call these the echoes of my work.

Sometimes I ask teachers too what they remember about their work teaching. These stories highlight relationships--serious stories, ones that are hard to look at in the present ‘accept no excuses’ culture. It’s hard to look openly at what teachers know when they are simply labeled “excuse-makers”. We cannot look into the eyes of the children, these traces of our nation’s public work, people alive within their teacher hearts, from a position of shame.

Especially held within the teacher in schools in poverty.

Of all the folks that have been forced into silence, these teachers remain the most demonstrably eliminated from the dialog about teaching work. They are now called the dealers in failure. It might be because they are blamed, called “bad” or failing the children. It might be because under the covers of the policies and political spin we haven’t wanted to hear them. In any case, their voices are not the ones I hear on education policy now so front and center.
Yet these are the people that best know the children left “behind.”

After all, who really writes? What voices frame our understanding, especially in a world more decidedly divided by income than ever before?
My voice is concerned with a one percent, but not the one percent that may well be having lobster on wheat toast this morning.

Yesterday, after work, I went rapidly home. This is unusual--like most teachers in neighborhoods like mine, I usually stay, off the clock, for tutoring, prepping, and other responsibilities. But my son had a migraine. Halfway there to his high school, my husband called to say he had found the way to get him first, and somehow this put me at the grocery store getting him milk. I tell this to set the scene--just an ordinary moment in my life.

In the store, I glanced at a product. And I started to cry.

On the shelf this year they’ve returned those lovely boxes of chocolates in the red velvet boxes. The last few years I didn’t see them. I bought one, when I found them last, and I took it to the gravesite of a former student. He was killed the day before Valentine’s Day. You might have heard of his story. It’s complex. He died because of the fact still today violence is a factor in our neighborhood. In all our lives all the time, violence stands.

My former student died at school in the 8th grade. But when I see the box, I remember him younger--when he was a student in my 1st/2nd grade combination class, and he brought me a beautiful box like this one. His father escorted him in, very upset, asking him to apologize to me. This wonderful child looked up so sheepishly. I see him clearly to this day, looking downward, looking up. Swallowing--swallowing food. On his way over from the gate he’d opened my present and had a chocolate or two. I laughed! And, seeing that, so did his aggravated father. His father wanted me to understand that they sent the box in for me. And like any father might be, he was upset. What teachers do, all the time, is assist the child. And what I did that day was the same. “Oh thank you,” I said, “I just cannot eat these all by myself, I’m so plump, let’s have another.” And so we did. Happily I gave him a hug and I would hope, all was right with the world.

Most of us, teachers in poverty schools, must find hope now in a nearly empty Valentine’s Box. Because hope is untestable, ineffable, undefinable, the nation has chosen to ignore it--but it is probably the most precious commodity we pedal. Just the same, I’m aware of the role it plays in the relationships we build in public schools. And how really incredible hope is. Like the force of love, it may embarrass our leadership to speak to such stuff, but if you talk to students who live lives forging possibility--it’s everything. That I know.

This school year, several years after the Valentine’s where I went to the burial of this child, I am again brought face to face with the issue of violence in our community, in America. I’m dealing now with the consequences of domestic violence for instance; what it does to my students. Limiting their cognitive development, forming their fears. I see children that are not best served in highly competitive, test-based and high-stakes cultures, children who are still trying to do their best for us every day. I sit after school talking to the home-school tutor, or the social service caseworker, or looking over at the apartments wondering just where the stabbing actually took place. I liken this to looking over the wounds to the body of my work, the scars. It doesn’t stop me from hauling in my telescope, buying my own iPad to share, buying books, prepping lessons; it doesn’t keep me from making a book a week for the children with them to fuel our enthusiasm for reading. It just sits with me sometimes as I reflect.
A silent fact of the lives of my children.

I often am praised for my use of the arts with the children. Luckily, I had a high degree of training in the arts. That the arts improve the experience for my elementary students goes without saying. Sometimes though the feedback stops me. As we make The Garden of Abdul Gasazi in play dough from our reader, it strikes me when children are so effusive, so thankful, creative, what fuels such intense feeling?
“You are the best teacher ever in the world,” they say elevating me off the floor in their hearts. I think to myself, well, hum. Perhaps so, but when I was cooking that dough I felt a bit grumpy, muttering to myself something along the lines of “what was I thinking.” But we press on, drawing, designing and photographing these imaginary best playgrounds ever. I recall one child a few years ago, who returned later to say to me: “These things you did, this changed me, it’s why I went into architecture then engineering. All the designing, I had to keep doing that.” I sat dumbfounded.
Back then, her math wasn’t even that great. Now it is essentially her everyday.
Hum. I started to say to her, well I can’t do all I once did with you, not now under the control, structure and mandates NCLB wrought, but I hesitated.
We were in her dreams, and now my hope come to life.
Why alter that with my present cloudy feelings.

Why rain?

I think the most amazing thing about working with children in the arts is supplying the children with firsts.

Poverty often makes getting the supplies, the food dyes, the play dough, the crayolas, the access to the technology harder, if not impossible. So my glitter, my cloth, my puppets, these things that have taken a backseat to workbooks and test prep and classroom uniformity, are first experiences for many children. This is why I walk a bit on a cloud within the children. Because they do know that their learning will be embedded in an experience, activity, project, model. It is a foundational right. And now, in these times, as has been true for years, I’ll reach in pocket and pay for it.

Still for the wandering here, I’m experiencing a year where violence and helplessness as I said, might be the lessons that are really shouting at the children. Taught within their lives and community. The other day, due to a tragedy within one family, a brutal violent one, my class came in with plenty of weekend “news” and, worse, the association of this to their life, their fears, their experiences.What they see and know.

How can a teacher talk to you about that?

Especially in a world deeply embedded in denial? A world that thinks when I talk about poverty and violence in communities I might be looking to make an excuse? Or that no matter about that, my standards need to be set higher and the pressure always on. A Tiger Teacher. If one is reading what mandates required me to read, how do I address a Ruby Payne who sees the poor pathologically and needing to “Step up to Middle Class Values” the way we now “Step Up to Writing” with the aim of perfect paragraphs? Perfect people, perfectly living perfect lives. Except we see and know the truth.

One of our best writers, say a Steinbeck, would never write to talk to the pain, struggle and impact of living in poverty to mark the people in the life as “our problem” or “bad’, would they? Truthfully it’s tricky.
Because in the end I look at the gratitude in those students I teach in poverty, and at the creativity first. I see them as using the relationships we build for personal growth and motivation, and needing the school they go to, to fire imaginations, to gain hope and skills as well as bring to us their awareness. I see them as our answers. They grow up to assist us in focus upon what we value, what and how to change-their backgrounds are essential to what they offer, understandings of resilience and real success spring from them.
To become filled with a desire to care for another, to hear one another, this they offer you. This they gave me.

I see my work as a place where we build the leaders, address the human values; the complex understandings to actually improve the world, and know what that might actually mean--firsthand. Essentially I don’t necessarily implant middle class values into children, I try to work on students wanting a life of value. One that sees them as an asset to us all first and foremost.

I’m not sure where we got off track in our dialogs in the last few years on schools. I saw we were off track when I dragged myself through the previews of the movie about Superman and teaching, and listened to Michelle Rhee happily denounce the losers she was firing to the three of us in that theater waiting another show. Not so much because of her effort to take out irresponsible adults in teaching, but more for what wasn’t being said. No talk of the people, giants among us, that have taught and assisted children in public institutions, learning their story, opening their heart, building teaching relationships, giving their care tending the communities. To not see that- I saw the train headed for the derailing.

Today it will be Valentine’s. Day. Yes, my kids will exchange cards, ones they’ll write. I’ll engage in having some math activities, secret code heart writing and walk down the halls seeing my peer’s children so happy too. The rooms will be excited, the memories will last. My own children certainly remember the 100 dot Love Bugs I make with students, recall special lollipops, lessons they assisted, or, mostly, the warm sentiments. Memories are made. And I’ll cry a bit and place a box over at a gravesite for a child that didn’t grow up with us, RIP.

But in my mind will be the importance fundamentally of the relationships that are formed and forged within our schools, that are essential to our children, how the children transformed me by challenging me to improve as an instructor- so that I might better prepare them for our world. And how, at the end of the day I take this everywhere, even to the grocery store, as I look upon the hope that springs from a heart shaped box of chocolates.

As I see our nation’s hope in them.

Sarah Puglisi is a public school teacher in California. You can read her blog, A Day in the Life, here.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.