May 30, 2011

Thoughts On Memorial Day

This Memorial Day I have a lot on my mind. At our end-of-year picnic, a parent told me that her son--my former student and the husband of one of my most recent graduates--was almost killed in action. Richard is in the National Guard, currently serving in Afghanistan. A flash bomb exploded close to him and he was lucky to survive. I hugged Linda, his mother, after she told me the news. The whole time I held her I was thinking of how I would feel if I had come so close to losing my own son.

I spend this Memorial Day thankful that I am not mourning the death of a young man who used to be my student.

I spend this Memorial Day worrying about him and about his friend, Brandon, another former student who is serving in Afghanistan.
All Rights Reserved, 2011 Bobby Duncan
I also spend this Memorial Day reflecting on other students who have all, thankfully, served in the Middle East and returned home safely-- in body, at least. They are, however, not the same in their minds or spirits. Their souls are forever changed by war. Because of them, and because of my two grandfathers who fought in WWII, I know that it is not just a physical sacrifice that our soldiers make; it is a spiritual sacrifice as well. Soldiers returning from war are not the same people they were before. Knowing this, I have always had a hard time supporting the recruiting efforts of our local military offices. They seem to target my students--those at-risk of dropping out, those who don't fit into a traditional system, those who suffer from poverty.

I just read an article by the Reverend Romal J. Tune posted here on the Huffington Post and it got me thinking about my own internal conflict regarding military recruiting practices. If you have a moment to read it, I think it is worth your while.

Just like every situation in life, each individual must decide what is best for themselves and then make their choices accordingly. As a teacher, I may not like worrying about my students who join the military (and I worry so much!) But for so many kids, joining the military is the only way for them to travel the world, learn new skills, and further their education. It is not my job to limit the available information about their options; it is my job to help them look at all of the available choices. It is my job to help them learn to make decisions for themselves about what is best for them. Once they make their decisions, it is my job to support them and assist them...and to hug their moms while we wait for them to come home.

May 26, 2011

Redemption, Part 2

In my last post I shared some amazing stories of kids who saved themselves from dropping out of high school. As a teacher, those stories are the ones that keep me going year after year. They inspire to keep getting up and going to work in the morning. But to be honest, they don't stick with me as long as the other stories--the stories of the kids who did not make it to graduation. Those stories haunt me, sometimes, and it is hard to let them go. I relive moments where I could've, should've done something to make a difference. I worry that I am no longer an effective teacher and start combing the ads to look for another job. I worry.

In the past few weeks I have been contacted by a few of the kids who didn't make it. These kids have been doing the same "could've should've" dance that I do when I think about them. 

A girl I'll call "M," who dropped out of school several years ago, messaged me on Facebook.  She's ready to finish school but doesn't know how to go about it. She asked how to go about finally getting her diploma.

A young man who has struggled with alcoholism since the age of 14, dropped out of our alternative program at 17. He will receive his diploma from an adult high school completion program this week at the age of 20.  

And perhaps the most impressive story of all:

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The mother of a sophomore student who dropped out earlier this year visited this week. She said, "I realized that I can't get him to graduate if I never did it myself." She enrolled in the adult high school completion program and is proving to her son that it is possible for the people in their family to succeed.


Talk about redemption! It is never too late to strive for success. 

May 22, 2011

Redemption, Part 1

flickr photo by 1 
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Most kids who attend alternative schools have heartbreaking stories. Those stories impact them in ways that are painful to watch. They've been beaten down by their environment, their poverty, their circumstance...but almost all of them keep a glimmer of hope. It is my job to find that glimmer and grow it--the way you start a fire with a spark and fan it into a flame.

We struggle together to ignite the spark. Some fires get bigger than others. Some kids want to learn more than others. Some kids have never felt like they belong in a classroom and we work to make them feel safe and comfortable before we can even think about helping them learn. It is a very long, hard journey for some.

That is why I love to celebrate the achievement of those who take the journey all the way through to the end by GRADUATING!


I teach in a one-room alternative high school program. We started out the year with 26 students and are ending with 13 graduates! To honor them, I am sharing their stories here. My hope is that the next time you read a story about "failing" schools, low standardized test scores, and the sorry state of education you will remember these stories. My students did not succeed in a traditional school setting, do not do well on standardized tests, and may not go on to become CEOs or leaders in business. But they do have qualities that will make them successful in life: they are survivors, they are hard-workers, and they never give up.


Nichole came to the program as a junior. To say that she had "an attitude" would be a vast understatement! Raised by a single mom who relieves her stress by drinking, Nichole joined the cycle of work/drink and partied hard from an early age--it was normal in her family. In addition to the drinking, though, Nichole also learned from her mom that having a job was important. Soon after enrolling in the alternative program, she got a job at a local nursing home. She liked the independence she got from working at the nursing home, so she did well at her job. Her new attitude carried over to school. She was able to graduate a semester ahead of her class and will go on to get her CNA training through the nursing home.

Caitlin came to the program as a sophomore. She was raised by a single mom who spent all of her time in the town bar--either waitressing or hanging out. Caitlin's dad has been in and out of prison her whole life and the family has struggled to keep a roof over their heads. As a junior, Caitlin's dad had a brief stint out of prison--long enough to get her mom pregnant. Senior year (a year when most girls are thinking about prom and having fun) Caitlin spent either babysitting so that her mom could work, or looking for a job so that she could help pay for the new baby. Caitlin is extremely intelligent and she worked very hard in school. She, too, graduated a semester early! Her dream is to go to college to study music and become a choir director. She plans to put her dream on hold so that she can continue to help her mom raise her baby sister.

Samantha joined us as a junior, just after testifying in court at her stepfather's trial for sexually abusing her. Her world was very unstable. Her mom had a lot of anger and grief, both for the pain of her daughter and for the loss of her marriage. Mom began trying to drink away the pain. Samantha needed some stability and found a boyfriend who was willing to commit to a long-term relationship. Her boyfriend was, at the time, in the National Guard and counting the days until he was sent to Afghanistan. They got engaged. When things at home got to be too much for Sam, she knew she had to get out of the house or she'd never graduate. She got a job and moved in with her future in-laws. Her boyfriend shipped out. She worked, came to school, and put one foot in front of the other each day to survive. When her boyfriend came home on leave, they got married. This gave her more inspiration to finish school....which she did! Sam patiently awaits the safe return of her husband while she continues to work as an assistant manager at a pizza place and lives with his parents.

Brandon always did well in a traditional school and his counselors were suspicious that he was dabbling in illegal substances when his grades started to fall. He failed some classes and was no longer on track to graduate with his class when they referred him to our alternative program. It turns out, though, that Brandon's main difficulty at school was homework completion. After turning 18, he needed to take a full-time job to support himself. Attending school all day and working 4:00 - 1:00 every night doesn't leave much time for homework (or anything else!) He enrolled in our program (where we have no homework) with the goal of catching up and graduating with his class. Due to our mastery-based system and our acceptance of work hours for elective credit, he was able to meet his goal. Brandon is walking across the stage with his class later today!

Matt was born to a woman who was addicted to crack. As a baby, he was immediately placed in foster care with his older brother. They stayed in the foster care system for two years until they were finally adopted. When Matt became a teenager, though, he was quite a bit bigger than his adopted parents. He had a lot of emotional problems and refused treatment. His anger led him to cause his adoptive parents more stress than they could handle, and they took legal action to remove him from their house. He was put back into the foster care system. His new foster parents enrolled him in our alternative program. Many people hold negative opinions about Matt's foster family and their motivation for taking him in; but despite those opinions, they gave Matt what he needed: structure, rules, routines. They took him to counselors and helped him accept the fact that he needed some medication. They helped him get a job at the animal shelter caring for strays (animals with no known parentage and no home--kind of like Matt himself.) When Matt turned 17, they legally adopted him and made a commitment to stay with him for life. They communicated with me regularly to make sure that the expectations in place at home were the same as the expectations in place at school. I am happy to say that Matt is now a high school graduate!

More stories of recovery, redemption and success to come....

May 16, 2011

Insider/Outsider/All in the Family

I have been the only white person in a room of a hundred or more black folks on more than one occasion. It happens whenever my family is lucky enough to have the money saved up to attend a family reunion. It is good for me to experience what it is like because it gives me a very different perspective on what it means to be in my skin. Such experiences are not always comfortable, though, and it can be stressful.  The reaction you get when you are the "only" in a sea of "others" can be overwhelming: people either stare at you or ignore you completely and pretend you're not there. Sometimes they assume you are there for some nefarious purpose and they follow you around, waiting for you to start a fight or to try stealing something.

My experiences of being the only white person in a room have given me a chance to imagine what it was like for my husband, who attended school in Iowa for many years and was the only black kid in his class. I can only imagine, though--day after day and year after year being the only kid in the class that looked like him. I don't have a clue what it would be like experiencing that feeling of being "the only" for such a long period of time.



The best feeling though, comes when you are welcomed into such a room of 100 people who don't share your skin color, but greet you as family.  The best feeling is knowing that they are family and that they don't care about the color of your skin. They care that their son/cousin/brother/nephew loves you, married you. They trust him, so they love you, too. It's unconditional because it's family. They aren't afraid to tell you that they love you (even though they just met you.) They aren't afraid to show you, either, and the hugs and kisses and holding of each other's babies and the sharing of family stories happen the way they'd happen if you weren't there or if you didn't look different. With a couple of my in-laws I had to wait to gain their trust, but for the most part I am completely accepted. In fact, they will be offended if they read this and see that I called them my "in-laws." To them, I am simply FAMILY.

I recommend the being "the only" in a crowd of "others" to my students each year--be the only guy in a room of 100 girls; the only Christian in a room of 100 Muslims; the only white person in a room of 100 people who aren't white. See what it's like. Catch a glimpse of what it feels like. It will change your perspective and open your eyes to a different world.

May 7, 2011

Mother Love

Mom says this is the best Mother's Day gift ever!
I'm not sending flowers or even a card to my mom on Mother's Day.  She taught me that it isn't necessarily meaningful to celebrate and commemorate people on one day per year. If you are really appreciative of someone, you'll mention it when the feeling strikes you--not just on the day named by  florists and greeting card makers as the day to appreciate them. Despite that sentiment, I am going to share with you my feelings about my mom on this Mother's Day weekend.

My mom is an amazingly supportive and caring person. I call her every single weekday morning and I thank her whenever I can for being my mentor, my friend and my foundation. I don't know what I would do without those daily phone calls. She lives hours away from me, but she helps me as much as if she was my neighbor. Through our daily talks I calm down when my children frazzle me with their morning antics. She listens to my concerns and frustrations; she laughs with me about the beautiful craziness that is my family; and she shares memories with me that I will cherish forever. Thank you, Mom. I will always love you! I celebrate you every day and am so thankful that you are such an integral part of my life.

Mother Earth is the mother of us all. When my children and husband ask me what I want for Mother's Day each year, the answer is always the same: let's enjoy the Earth! Traditionally, we plant things on Mother's Day weekend. This year we will be planting a butterfly bush that was given to me by my beautiful mother-in-law and preparing a garden patch for the tomato seedlings we started a few weeks ago.
Remember to celebrate our Mother Earth this weekend!


Children are the Future. Not just my children (whom I adore, admire, and marvel at on a daily basis) but all children. In every neighborhood there are children who struggle. So many mothers live alone, trying to support their families and raise their children. They do what they need to do and it never seems to be enough. They work day and night to make ends meet and then often face harsh criticism about their level of involvement with their children. I promise you that ALL MOTHERS do the best they can. No one gives birth to a child hoping that the child's life will be lonely, difficult, or sad. All mothers see their babies and see a vibrant ray of hope.

In the spirit of Mother's Day, I encourage you all to think about helping out a mom who is struggling. Invite her children to your home for a playdate. Make extra food and deliver it or freeze it for her family so that they can have a home-cooked meal. Ask if she needs anything from the grocery store. Do something to lighten the load of a single mom. Let's unite mothers everywhere...because it really does take a village to raise a child.

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Consider mentoring a child in your neighborhood who does not have the luxury of having a stay-at-home mom. Those kids who wander the neighborhood without parental supervision--they need your friendly face and your guidance, not your judgment.  Invite them to play in your yard and serve them some popcorn. Make them feel welcome and a part of the neighborhood. Be a mother to more than your own children. The world's children need all of the mothering they can get.

Visit the Mother's Day Rocks Blog Hop sponsored by  The Epic Adventures of a Modern Mom Blog

May 1, 2011

Tolerance and Respect

For years I've been a subscriber to the Teaching Tolerance newsletter and have used their website as a resource for lesson plans that I use in my classroom. I've tried to impress upon my students the notion that difference isn't bad--it's what makes the world interesting.  I encourage tolerance for differences of opinion and teach my children and my students to listen to and reflect on a variety of viewpoints. Tolerance is a core value in my belief system. But lately I've wondered: is it enough?

Earth Day: stomping newly lain sod.
Earth Day weekend my youngest daughter and I worked with a local volunteer organization to beautify the grounds at her elementary school. All three of my children attend our neighborhood elementary school and it is extremely diverse (58% non-white.) Their school is labeled as "failing" according to NCLB guidelines, but I think it is an amazing place and wouldn't want my children to be anywhere else. We live in Iowa, and there are few schools in the state that better represent the diversity of our world. My husband and I feel strongly that it is important for our children to attend school where there are families that are like ours, with parents from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, races and ethnicities. We teach our children that all people have the right to fall in love with whomever they want--regardless of color, religion or gender. We teach them to do more than to tolerate differences--we teach them to respect differences.

I'd like to live in a world where we all practice more than tolerance...one where we show each other genuine respect...


...which is why I was flabbergasted by the comment of a fellow parent during the Earth Day event at our school.

After a solid hour of laying new sod, my daughter took a break and ran to play on the playground. A younger girl went to play with her while we parents continued to work. A few minutes later, the mother of the younger girl--a woman whom I know fairly well--asked if I could keep an eye on her daughter while she ran inside to use the restroom. She said that her daughter was over there on the playground with mine. She said they were playing together and that it was good for her daughter. "She's getting in some multicultural time."

My jaw dropped.

I still do not understand.

Two girls were having fun on the playground. They were playing together. I am certain that neither one even thought about the color of the other child's skin. Neither one thought about the races of their parents. They were just two girls playing on the playground.

She noticed my open-mouth. She said, "I'm sorry...was that inappropriate?" and then continued on her way to the restroom.

After the fact, there are always a million comebacks that come to mind. A million ways to say the things that you wish you could've said. But none of them were spoken that day. I started out thinking of angry and sarcastic comebacks. I continued with imaginary, short affirmative comebacks "YES! That was inappropriate! How dare you think of my beautiful daughter as nothing more than a tool!" I ended up with patient, teaching comebacks about how she could've phrased things better. But in the end I was left with a bunch of feelings that I couldn't exactly identify. I know this woman from many school-based situations. She has always seemed fairly tolerant of the differences in our community. But her comment reflected something that didn't feel good.

Then I read this op-ed in our local paper, "Replace tolerate with the word 'respect'" and realized that this writer has a point. The other parent who worked with us on Earth Day weekend sends her children to the same neighborhood school as mine. She may want her children to get some "multicultural time" with children who don't look like hers. She may even tolerate the majority of people in our neighborhood who are not like her and her family. But judging from her comment about my daughter, I can tell you what I did not feel from her--respect. Tolerating people implies that you are putting up with them. You allow them to exist even though they are not functioning on your level. Respecting people puts them on an equal plane.

I will no longer be teaching tolerance. I will be insisting that my children and my students show respect.



Check out other posts about a wide variety of multicultural issues at Bicultural Mom during the Multicultural Blog Carnival

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