Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Graduation Day

Last week I said goodbye to a school I have had the priveledge of storytelling in on a regular basis for the last four years. I first met and worked with an AMAZING teacher named Marco Vargas, who's title might have said ELL teacher, and maybe Sciene teacher, but who's role to the children he served was more like mentor/life line/super hero. I watched as a group of middle schoolers tried to learn this insane language that is English,while in a school large enough to have it's own zip code, cling to him, like drowning people in a life raft. He wiling, cheerfully, took on not only the task of educating them in English and Spanish, but in life. He taught them how to ask for help, how to be respectful, and, when they weren't exactly angels, that actions have consequences. Marco himself LOVED stories, and any I would tell, he would listen with rapt attention, smiling and nodding, and rushing in to fill in the words the children could not understand, with the enthusiasm of a six year old. My first years at the school were just with his class, and to work with him on his own storytelling, and right from the get go, it was clear that I was getting the better end of the deal. Watching Marco in that classroom taught me so very much about not just teaching, but compassion. Real compassion. For even when some of the kids were, well - kids, and disrepectful, he saw it for what it was - a reaction born from how they themselves were treated. He did not blame them, but he held them accountable, he lovingly gave them boundaries, and they, in turn, gave him the hardest thing to get from kids that age when you are an adult - their trust! I then also worked with a woman who stole my heart the second I met her, Brittany Spatz. If she was another type of person, she would have used her physical beauty to be a model or an actress, but instead teaching is what drew her in. I knew I would walk through fire for her, when at our first meeting she said, "I want you to help me to teach these kids empathy. I can use anything to teach them to read and write!" WOW, right? And so through a combination of yoga - a passion of both Brittany's and mine, and storytelling, I tried to aid this remarkable young teacher in her quest to REALLY educate 7th and 8th graders. I watched her show them so much love, that she planned her wedding so as not to miss much time with them. My second year with her, she taught computer skills - at least that's what her title was, but her mission was the same - teach them to care, and the rest would follow. This past year she had some of the most apathetic middle schoolers I have ever seen! Their world revolved around them, and them alone. But, I watched as the power of her energy and love melted their hearts, and in the end they listened not just to my stories, but to details of people's lives who varied greatly from theirs with attention and interest. And, finally, I also worked with Virginia Rodreguez. New to the school she was given a HUGE class of children who not only couldn't speak English, but because of immigration problems, didn't speak Spanish well, either, becuase they hadn't had any schooling, sometimes for years. With a young child at home, I watched her scrap her lessons plans, and try to find a way to bring the kids up to their reading level in at least one of the languages. It was in Virginia's classroom that I really understood what life must be like for an ELL student. All the things you can't understand, perhaps homesick for where you have left, and very often the traslator for the adults in your home. Virginia's battle moved me, and motivated to try to do my part to make this world a bit more understandable for these kids. And so, last week, I said goodbye to all those kids, and to those three amazing teachers. I leave this residency a much more informed, and I hope better storyteller, and teaching artist. Since most of my life I have been a performer, I have no trouble being "entertaining" in front of students - but being an educator - ahh, that is a different thing all together, and my four years at Frelinghuysen Middle School has certainly taught me much. I was teary eyed those last days, and I'm sure my car will try to take me there in the fall, since it knows the way so well. But, though I will not be back, the lessons I have learned from Marco, Virginia, Brittany, and all their students will stay with me forever. My "graduation" from this project leaves me ready to take the skills I have learned, and try to use them in the work to come. I am humbled, and honored to have been a part of the lives of those kids and those teachers - they have taught me far more than I ever could have taught them.

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