"FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO….." The
countdown had begun, for approximately the 17th time in the last
hour and a half. The fifth-graders gradually became silent, but only because
there was a very long pause between the "TWO" and the
My 25 year old daughter glared at them with a murderous
look on her face. My sweet, fun-loving, delightful child had turned into the
Wicked Witch of the West. She shot a look at one kid when she said
"TWO" that would have made me shrivel into a corner. This 5th
grader just smiled. But he did stop talking.
At the sound of "ONE" her 29 fifth grade
students in her East Palo Alto classroom finally shut up. She let the moment
linger, scanning the room with those murderous eyes, daring a kid to break
After 20 seconds or so, she began speaking very slowly,
in a tone that I had never heard in the 25 years I’d known her. "Now
open your math books… NOW!!!… to page 32."
Opening books caused a distraction. Some kids in the back
began talking to each other. A few in the front followed suit. "FIVE,
Again and again and again. Day after day after day.
Teaching in inner-city low-income schools was taking a horrendous toll on
her well-being. A good week was one where she didn’t break down crying.
29 kids and absolutely no help. No teacher aides. Parents
are nowhere to be seen. The only volunteer is my wife, who tries to come
down on Thursdays to help out. And then there’s me, who shows up once a
month or so, mainly to sympathize.
The political catchphrase, "No Child Left
Behind," is always on my mind when I visit her classroom. Whoever came
up with it has never been to my daughter’s class in East Palo Alto. Try as
she might, and she is doing everything humanly possible, there will be
plenty of 5th graders left behind.
Graziella seems like a normal kid, but she can’t spell
simple words or add and subtract. Neither can Jose, who only wants to be a
gangster. Jay has no interest in doing anything other than wandering the
room. Three minutes with Jo’Nesha and you just want to slap her. Juan
speaks absolutely no English. None. Neither do three other kids. And my
daughter speaks no Spanish. Makes it tough to teach.
They all need individual attention, and tons of it. But
there’s no time and no resources. Close to half the class will be left
behind, and it’s sad.
There are three fifth-grade classes at my daughter’s
school, and all are taught by first-year teachers. No one else applied.
There is no "hazard" pay for teaching in such difficult
conditions. Experienced teachers go elsewhere, where the stress level is
It’s now lunchtime, and the kids are outside,
tormenting each other instead of their teacher. I’ve brought my daughter a
salad, and she eats it while correcting spelling tests. I glance at the
answers. Half the class is doing well, the other half is left behind.
"I have to continue teaching the kids who want to
learn," she says as she writes an encouraging comment on a spelling
test where the student got a "zero" but came close on a couple.
"I can’t slow down for the kids who don’t."
I nodded, but I was thinking of what she told me a few
weeks ago. Every child in her fifth grade class knew someone or had seen
someone who had been murdered. Uncles, fathers, family friends….someone.
One girl, Mary, was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of her 16-year old
cousin. She wasn’t murdered. She committed suicide across the street from
It has all taken a toll on my daughter. She desperately
wants these kids to succeed, but with no help and no time, it’s a tough
battle. The frustrations and the stress have changed her slightly.
Her fuse is far shorter and her patience, at least in the
classroom, is non-existent. Patience is not an option with these kids.
I got up to leave."Only four more weeks until
Summer," I said, giving her a hug. "Hang in there and it will all
She looked at me and smiled. "I can do better, you know. I’ve
learned a lot."
"You don’t mean…."
"Yep, I told the principal I’m coming back. I want
to make some changes. I know one thing. Next year I’m starting out mean
and then I’ll get nicer as the year goes on, instead of the other way
The murderous looks, the screaming, the countdowns…..they
were all far, far away. It was just my sweet little girl, and I was very,
very proud of her.