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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #16

One month before graduation. “Now what?”

michele godwinfavicon Monday, 4/18 2:10 pm
Family meeting week, the last of my advisees’ high school careers. I meet with K’s mom for five minutes, just to let her know that K is on track to graduate May 28. K has all her credits, she’s passing her classes, and she’s in good shape for the senior exhibition. Go ahead and order the invitations for the graduation party! K’s already paid her deposit to CSU Stanislaus; she’s ready to go. It’s the easiest meeting I’ll have all week.

2:45 pm
D’s mom comes in to talk about D’s progress toward graduation. He’s currently failing two classes, and he owes over 30 academic hours. D swats it away like it’s nothing: “Yeah yeah. I’m taking care of it,” he says.

“What about your exhibition slides? I haven’t seen any of them, and all 15 are due Friday,” I tell him. “You have to pass the exhibition to graduate.”

“Yeah yeah,” he says again, yawning and looking at his phone.

D’s mother takes copious notes in the binder she keeps for tracking D’s school endeavors. She knows that D has absolutely zero wiggle room, that he cannot fail one more class or miss one more credit if he wants to graduate on time. She has experienced his Fs as well as his last-minute recoveries. She’s been on this roller coaster for a while.

I tell them both: D can either walk across the stage on May 28th or not. It’s all in his hands. He nods again, checking his phone and pushing back his chair to leave.

3:30 pm
I’m surprised to see N on campus still, school having let out over an hour ago. N has stopped staying at school until the end of the day, cutting out the last 30 minutes or so every day because he can’t handle being here, or so he says. He’s angry all the time he’s not stoned, and he’s hard to be around. It’s almost a relief when he cuts out early, even though it’s absolutely not OK for him to be skipping school.

I ask him what he’s doing.

“Working on AP Bio with Ms. P,” he tells me and keeps walking toward the science room.

I’m surprised. It’s typical of N to buckle down the last few weeks of school and scrape by in his classes. But we still have another couple weeks! It’s not quite last-minute yet!

I resolve to call his mother and tell her the same thing I told D’s mom: N may or may not walk the stage in a few weeks. But I’m betting he will.

Wednesday, 4/20 4 pm
K is worried I’m going to tell her mother bad news. She has a good reason to worry: K never showed her mother her report card from January. K’s failing three classes, and her mother is concerned that K is always out with her friends and never at home studying. K’s older brother dropped out of high school and sits around the house getting stoned all the time, so mother naturally worries that K is destined for the same fate. The mother works long hours, cleaning people’s houses to make enough money to barely get by. She brought her children to this country to give them a better life, to give them opportunities she didn’t have.

K has to translate the bad news to her mother, and then translate her mother’s reaction. It’s too much for her, and she refuses to translate when it comes time to tell her mother she may or may not graduate, depending on whether or not she can bring up her Spanish grade. She cries instead of telling her mother she won’t be able to go to college if she doesn’t bring up her grades. Her mother can tell I’ve given some bad news—she sees her daughter crying—but she doesn’t know what I’ve said, and K refuses to say what she needs to say. I finally have to use Google translate. Her mother listens carefully to the robotic voice tell her that her daughter’s future is in limbo, that she may have to rescind her college acceptance and the scholarship and the work study and all the assistance she’s been offered if she doesn’t buckle down and get her work done. I’m embarrassed, listening to that horrible voice read this woman’s future to her. I wish I had found another teacher to translate, a human being to convey the scary news.

Again, I didn’t think it through. I didn’t put myself in this mother’s place and imagine a robot telling me my child’s future. What have I done?

4:45 pm
I talk to M’s mother on the phone. Her son has all As and Bs, has completed all his community service and academic hours, and is in excellent shape for graduation. She knows all this, of course, because she keeps a very close eye on her boy. She calls regularly, to ask about deadlines and upcoming events and homework assignments. She checks his emails and recently told me she’d found her son a date to prom but she needed to find one for his brother. Did I have any suggestions? I didn’t.

Friday, 4/22 3:30 pm
C’s dad calls for our family meeting. He’s a contractor and has had to take a lot of time off to deal with his younger son, C’s brother, who skips school all the time and is failing all his classes. C is the oldest, the exceptional child and very much a typical child of alcoholic parents: straight As, self-centered, over-achieving. He’s applied to schools all over the country, top-tier schools with excellent engineering programs, as well as UC Berkeley and UCLA. His number one choice is MIT.

His father and I spend a few minutes talking about what C needs to do to graduate in May: keep doing what he’s doing, and work on his senior exhibition. We spend more time lamenting that C hasn’t been accepted into any of the schools he applied to. How can that be? He’s a straight-A student, played soccer all four years of high school, first generation to go to college, qualifies for free and reduced lunch, Mexican American. What’s the problem? I don’t understand it, and I tell his father as much. I wish C had applied to some CSUs, but he brushed those aside. He was so confident. Now what? favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #15

“I’m grateful for the education”

michele godwinfavicon Monday, 2/1 – 2:45 pm
They are falling off. Four of 15 advisees are out today. J is putting her mother into hospice care, but the others are just taking the day off, I guess. They likely feel they accomplished something huge by getting through their portfolio presentations, so they’ve given themselves a three-day weekend. They don’t realize that it only picks up from here. English, AP Bio, Advanced Leadership, senior exhibitions, student aid applications, scholarships: There’s still so much to do. It’s not time to celebrate just yet.

Monday, 2/8 – 8:45 am
J’s mother died Friday morning. Friday evening, J attended the orientation sleepover at the university she was accepted to and wants to attend. I know why she went: she wants to show the school how committed she is. She wants to make a good impression so they will give her the full ride she needs to attend the college of her dreams. She wants to think about her future and forget about her loss. She’s coping the only way she knows how.

Friday, 2/12 – 9:30 am
C isn’t here today. He hasn’t been here all week, and that’s not good. I talked to him Tuesday afternoon, when it became clear that he will receive an F for Psychology last semester, since he hasn’t finished his contract for the incomplete grade he received. Nonplussed is the word I would use to describe his response. Perhaps cavalier would work as well. He texts later, though, finally considering what an F might do to his 3.9 GPA and the college acceptances he’s counting on receiving. He’s in the penitent phase of the semester. We’ll see how long he stays there.

Monday, 2/22 1:45 pm
I drop off a care package of nine books to a sophomore girl who’s never been in the library. I subbed for one of her classes, where she walked in 25 minutes late with a full bag of McDonald’s, which she proceeded to eat as if she was in the cafeteria and English class was long over. I didn’t argue with her because SUBBING! I was nice and welcoming and made a joke that she appreciated. She asked me, “Aren’t you the library lady? Will you help me find a book?” I responded with a watered-down version of the back-handspring I usually do, and she agreed to meet me in the library at lunch, since she wasn’t hungry anyway. Perfect!

We didn’t have much time to meet, so she told me the kinds of books she is interested in: mysteries, high-school drama stuff, and stories of social injustice.

“Perfect! Those are the Three Pillars of The Leadership High School Library!” I told her.

I pick out some books and deliver them to her during the last 5 minutes of history, just as she is finishing dessert. She gushes her appreciation and pleasure at having an entire bag of books to look through.

Reading! It’s what’s for dinner!

Friday, 2/26 8:30 pm
I spent much of my day refining a letter of recommendation for one of my advisees. I had written one for him before, but his mother asked that I make some changes: “Please emphasize that my son is a Black boy and that he’s lived in poverty for most of his life.”

I am embarrassed. I’ve always prided myself on my letters of recommendation. I take my writing seriously, and I  think I am pretty good with turns of phrase and metaphors. I don’t lay it on too thick, but I challenge myself to come up with innovative ways of describing students’ gifts and personalities. Overall, I’m a pretty good writer.

This mother, though, has helped me see that this letter is not about my writing skills. It’s about getting her son the scholarship he needs. I can’t be futzing around with a thesaurus and patting myself on the back because I use a word like “plucky” for someone who really gets on my nerves. And I can’t shy away from describing students’ real-life situations. “T is intellectually curious and motivated” is fine for plenty of students—but not for T. He’s brilliant and autistic and easily unnerved and extremely literal and laser-focused and big and Black and poor and he’s grown up in a society that has normalized the homicide of young Black men—and he’s survived. And now he’s going to college and he needs help.

I didn’t want to call T poor or Black, and I didn’t want to name the violence that surrounds him. I wanted to write my little letter and hope he gets a scholarship and feel good about how I helped. T’s mom called me out, as she’s had to do with many people, I’m sure, and explain, yet again, what it is people of privilege can do to help. I’m sorry she had to be the one to explain it to me, but I’m grateful for the education. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #14

“You got some nerve! Hold on to that!”

michele godwinfavicon Monday, 1/4/16 – 3:15 pm
Back from the holidays. Everyone is excited that it is finally 2016, the year of their graduation. The end is getting nearer and nearer! We spend several minutes calculating how many more school days there are until graduation. Ninety two!

Wednesday, 1/13 – 12:05 pm
It’s portfolio season, and seniors are freaking out. If they had finished their four school-wide outcome (SWO) essays last semester, as they were supposed to, everything would be smooth and easy. But few of them finished all four, and many of them turned in drafts that need revision. Portfolio is a graduation requirement, and they have two more weeks to get their essays cleaned up, their slideshows prepared, their talking points memorized, and their acts together. Judging by the number of crying jags and temper flares, this is going to be a long couple of weeks.

Wednesday, 1/20 – 10 am
C. has left the school. She’s been talking about it for awhile. Actually, she’s been talking about not leaving the school, but wanting something to change. We looked at inpatient treatment centers and independent study, but neither of those are real options. We finally talked her into transferring to a continuation school, where she can come and go as she pleases, and ask for help when she needs it. It was a sad, sad day when we counseled her out of the school. She needs the LHS community; we know her as well as anyone knows her, and she knows that we love her completely. That’s why she comes to school every day! But she never stays in class long, her temper quick to flame and destroy any ounce of productivity in a classroom. Her boyfriend has gone back to jail, so she doesn’t have that distraction anymore, but it’s clear that she’s full of pain and rage, and there’s little more we can do to help her. When she came back from Winter Break, she was covered in fresh tattoos and cut marks.

We all miss her terribly.

Wednesday, 1/20 – 12:30 pm
A ninth grader, M., comes into the library, as he does every few weeks or so. He paces around the room, stopping every once in awhile to look at the manga section. I’ve ordered a few things for him before, and he’s been appreciative. Often, though, he comes in and asks strange questions about buying things.

“How much will you take for that picture?” he inquired once, pointing to a frame on the wall. Another time, he asked, “Was that printer expensive? Can I buy it off you?” I’ve told him several times that I’m not in the retail business, and that he should focus on checking out books. Or ordering books. That’s what I’m here for.

Today, I’ve ordered pizza for my advisory. M. comes in and asks if he can buy the large pepperoni. I roll my eyes, irritated with his repeated strangeness. Just as I start to launch into a lecture, T. laughs and claps M. on the back.

“You got some nerve!” T. tells him. “I like that. Hold on to that!”

M. smiles, shy but pleased by the attention from one of the coolest 12th grade boys in the school. He walks out of the room grinning, pizza forgotten.

Thursday, 1/28 – 3:30
Another Portfolio Day completed. Phew! The day went off without too many hitches, and everyone is glad it’s over. The seniors are proud and relieved, ready to change out of their job interview outfits and back into their everyday wear. Some of them didn’t get to present today, but they know they’ll get another chance and they’ll graduate with their friends. It’s a good reminder for them that they have to take care of their business or they’ll get left behind. They want to be able to celebrate too! favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #13

“I can think of worse tattoos.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 6.51.05 PMfavicon Monday, 10/9 – 8:45 am
T. stops by to tell me his mom is not coming to our scheduled meeting. He explains they got into an argument the night before. She doesn’t understand why his grades are so low, and she thinks he’s giving up. She told him to find someplace else to stay, she doesn’t want him in her house anymore. He tells me this angrily, but it’s clear that he’s hurting. I listen, resisting the urge to ask questions.

I call his mom. She talks for a long time, repeating what her son has just told me: he’s come this far, has earned A’s and B’s, has worked this hard. How can he stop right before the finish line? She doesn’t understand. She’s exasperated. I listen until she’s finished.

I tell her that many of the seniors are going through something similar, that it’s not just her son who’s freaking out. The future is scary. She tells me she’s lost one son, and it feels like she’s losing another. I assure her: we won’t let him get lost.

Friday, 10/13 – 9:15 am
J. steps into the library between classes. She’s as energetic as ever, already laughing at the joke inside her head. She tells me good morning and asks me to look at yet another college essay, all in the same breath. I realize she’s laughing at the sheer quantity of college essays she asks me to edit. I think we’re at 15 or so. Of course I’ll edit your essay, I tell her. That’s my job.

I ask her how she is.

“I’m fine. Busy. Tired,” she says in rapid succession, the smile faltering a little.

I ask her about her mother.

“She’s sleeping all the time now,” she says, finally slowing down and taking a breath.

It doesn’t last long, though.

“Gotta go!” she says. “Thanks!” she yells behind her, and she’s out the door, on to her next class.

Wednesday, 10/18 – 9:30 am
C. has shown up to school today, and she seems determined to stay the whole day. Great news! It’s not unusual for her to come to school, but she never makes it to the end of the day anymore.

I’m so happy to hear her determination. Maybe today is the turning point.

I ask her to stop by the counselor’s office for a quick meeting about a schedule change. She goes into the bathroom first, next door to the office. Ms. S. and I wait for her. I’m in the middle of our conversation when I hear something strange coming from the bathroom. When I walk out of the office, I can hear C.’s voice. She’s on the phone, yelling at someone, crying and angry. It’s her boyfriend. I try to talk to her, try to get her to listen to me and not him. She yells louder. They’re saying horrible things to each other, and nothing I can say will get her off the phone. She gets louder, and she punches the mirror. I try to talk her down. She keeps yelling. She punches again, with all her strength. Her hand is bleeding. I want to grab the phone from her and throw it out the window. I want to hold her super close and wash her bleeding hand and tell her, “You are strong. You are smart. You are beautiful. You don’t deserve this.”

She keeps yelling and punching, and, for now, all I can do is watch.

Wednesday, 10/25 – 10:30 am
No school today, in honor of Thanksgiving. I’m in the car with my family when the phone rings. It’s K. She’s been accepted to CSU Stanislaus.

Joy! This is huge for K. and her family. She will be the first in her family to go to college, the first in her family to finish high school. It is a wonderful accomplishment not just for K. but for her entire family. I’m so honored she’s called me and told me. I can add this achievement to my long list of things to be grateful for.

Friday, 12/4 – 12:30 pm
It has been a week of excellent LHS alumni news. First, A., class of ’07, stopped by for a visit. So professional, in his suit and tie, he was a pleasure to behold. He’s a financial adviser now, full of wisdom and maturity, but still as big-hearted and funny as ever. He told me he referred to the school-wide outcomes in a recent speech he gave to his co-workers. He has them tattooed on his brain forever: communication, social responsibility, personal responsibility, and critical thinking. I can think of far worse tattoos.

Later in the week, I reach out to immigration lawyers for help with another one of my young people. The woman I speak to is kind and offers to waive the consultation fee. When I email her some specifics about the case, she responds with an appointment time and a funny coincidence: she graduated from LHS in 2002.

They’re everywhere, these amazing people. And more are coming! favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #12

“Did you get the books yet?”

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 6.51.05 PMfavicon Friday, 10/9 – 11:35 am
C explodes into the library, as she does every lunch period.

“Did you get the books yet?” she asks, loudly, despite the fact that I’m in the middle of a conversation with another student. I ignore her, and she keeps on walking toward my desk where I’m sitting. Having a conversation. With another student.

“Did you?” she asks again, as she begins to dig through a pile of books that are reserved and that have a big sign over them that says, “RESERVED.”

My other student, a senior, looks at C and rolls her eyes. She doesn’t know C, but she knows she’s a ninth grader and hasn’t yet learned her manners. I worry the senior will go off on C; I’ve seen her go off for much smaller things. Thankfully she tells me goodbye, and thank you, and walks out.

C is sorting through the books, repeating, “Did the books come in yet? Did you get the books? Are the books here?” She won’t stop.

Somedays I am more patient than other days. Today I am patient, because I am able to remind myself that a) C really is super excited about these books, and b) C considers me one of her very few friends. Many of the other kids find her annoying and overbearing, even though she has a big, loving heart. She can be hard to be around, though, for sure.

Because I am more patient today, I’m able to step toward her, touch her arm, and turn her to me.

“Hi,” I say quietly. “Yes, the books are here. Why don’t you have a seat while I get them ready for you?” I gently move her toward a chair, where she sits down and finally stops talking. I get her books for her, and she takes a deep breath before she dives in.

Wednesday, 10/14 – 12:30 pm
A former student comes to visit me. He hasn’t been in this school since 2005, when it was still condemned and looked like an abandoned elementary school: pre-library, pre-cafeteria, pre-cleanliness. He marvels at the changes, and compliments me on the library.

We catch up. He’s a father now, to a one-year-old girl. He shows me pictures, and I confirm what he doesn’t need confirming: she’s the most adorable child in the world. He stays home with her full time, while her mother works nights. I admire his strength; I could never be a full-time caretaker. I’m not nearly strong enough. He likes it, though he finds himself longing for a break at least a few times a day. He’s excited to be visiting me because it means he’s not running after his newly mobile child. I ask him what he’ll do when they move to daycare or preschool.

“I want to write,” he tells me.

This comes as a complete shock to me, his 9th grade English teacher.

He wants to write. He only realized it recently, but he feels in intensely.

He regrets not having read more, not having written more, not having paid attention in class. He wishes he could go back and do it all over again, knowing what he knows now.

I tell him he can start now. He’s home all day—use that time! (as if I don’t remember what it’s like to have a one-year-old). He seems excited, though, and we talk about next steps.

Both of us feel inspired by his visit, and I go online to find books about writing. He’ll come back in a few weeks, and we’ll inspire each other again.

Monday, 10/19 – 12:35 pm
A busy day in the library: C is here, along with two other ninth graders who come with her. New friends! Each of them turn in multiple books and check out multiple others. Then they hang out and look at what’s on the shelves. They’ve been here every lunch the past few weeks. I think it’s their safe space.

K has come in to work on her college application. I sit next to her and guide her through it. It’s confusing, and I don’t want her to feel overwhelmed. Meanwhile, another student is across the room, on a different computer, working on a scholarship application. Two junior girls are sitting at a table, exchanging gossip quietly, oblivious to the books around them.

A sophomore comes in looking for new books in the LGBTQ section. He has come out recently, and he is going through books faster than I can keep up with him. He’s told me about some of the stories he’s read, and he talks about the characters as if they are his friends.

A group of four sophomore boys come in once a week or so to look at the graphic novels/manga section. They don’t check things out, but they take books off the shelves and talk about them enthusiastically. I’ve learned not to approach them, as they scare easily. Maybe one day one of them will want to check out a book. When that happens, I’ll be ready.

Friday, 10/23 – 10:25 am
A few times a week, one of the resource specialists brings a small group of kids into the library. The students have individual learning plans (IEPs) and do well with some extra help. I like it when they visit, because sometimes I get lonely in my little library. I like to listen to the resource specialist, an amazing young woman I had the pleasure of teaching back when she was a high school student at LHS. Her patience and skill are astounding, and I am reminded of how lucky I am to have played a tiny role in this woman’s education.

The group finishes their review with a couple minutes left before class. A couple of them hover near the door, but some of them start looking through the shelves. One asks, “Do you have any books about hair and makeup?” I don’t, I tell her, but I will by Wednesday.

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more booksfavicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #11

“All parents love their children.”

favicon Wednesday, 9/16 – 8:30 pm
Having dinner with a friend and fellow teacher. We are complaining about our jobs, as we are wont to do when we get together. I bemoan how much work it takes to get my students to do anything, how being in a room with them is like herding cats. I can’t tell them, “Everyone needs to work on their EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) essays. Get to work!” because they aren’t at all self-sufficient. I go on and on about how exhausting it is to spend a mere hour and a half with them twice a week. I describe it as a game of whack-a-mole, where I’m helping one student fill out a college application online (“What does ‘D.O.B.’ mean?”), begging another to please PLEASE register for the next SAT (“I’ll do it later,” he tells me for the fifth week in a row, as he thumbs through a copy of Watchmen), and lecturing three others about making up their lost homework/missing quiz/failed test. Random students from other advisories walk in and out of the room for no apparent reason. And all the while, I’m flapping around with my whacker, trying to solve problems and whack moles and help them see their future.

I am frazzled just describing this scene to my friend, and I realize I’m slipping into the “teacher-as-martyr” mode that happens so often when teachers talk to each other. I finish the tirade with my usual gush: “They drive me crazy, but I love them so much!” And I mean it. My love for them is the only thing that keeps me sane.

My friend, who works at a private school, wants to know more about the craziness.

“Why are they like this?” she asks. “Do their parents just not care?”

This is a common refrain in our culture: Where are the parents? When young people behave badly, or fail out of school, or don’t behave, many of us are quick to look to the parents. When my students are not doing as well as they should be, I call the parents. Of course!

I’ve met with many parents in my 15 years of teaching. I’ve met with doting parents, overbearing parents, and seemingly clueless parents. I’ve seen parents get angry at me, at the school, at the principal, at their kid’s friends. I’ve seen plenty of parents get mad at their own kid. I’ve seen parents cheer, yell, cry, and shrug their shoulders. I’ve seen lots of responses from parents.

I’ve never met a parent who didn’t care about his or her child.

M’s parents struggle because her family is still reeling from her mother’s stroke a few years ago. Mental illness runs in their family, and right now, the whole family is trying to keep its head above water. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about her and want what’s best for her. It means that they struggle. A lot.

K’s mom works all day cleaning houses. E’s mom is supporting the entire family, including her sister’s new baby. A’s mom goes to visit her husband in jail when she’s not at City College, working toward a certificate in child development. D’s mom is flying back and forth between San Francisco and her hometown, so she can take care of her own, elderly parents. All parents have a lot on their plates; some parents have more than others.

But all of them love their children. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #10

“They need lots of extra love this year.”

Michele Godwinfavicon Friday, 8/14 – 4:15 pm
Second day of student retreats. It’s so good to see these lovelies! It’s only been a couple of months, but they all look just a little bit older and wiser, somehow.

Yesterday, we focused on fun and reconnecting, with the warning, “There’s lots and lots of hard work ahead. Let’s relax a little bit before we dig in.” We played pub trivia and had a 12th grade Olympics at the park. Today, we split off into three different community service events. I took a wonderful group to the SF Food Bank. We had to take one train and one bus to get there, and many of them insisted on going into McDonald’s instead of taking the first bus. We arrived late and harried, but they let us box up melons and weigh out bags of pasta. We laughed together and wore hair nets. It was a fantastic way to start off the new school year.

Monday, 8/17 – 4 pm
First day of classes and we jumped right in. I assigned the first part of their UC statement, and I got a lot of pushback. T. loudly proclaims, “I’m not going to college!” N. says, “I’ve already done this. I’m not doing it again.” M. and S. tell me they’re not applying to UCs because their grades aren’t high enough.

I tell them in my calm voice, “All of you are writing a personal statement. All of you are shooting high, and all of you are applying to college because all of you have what it takes to get a college degree.”

Lots of grumbling.

I explain to T. that he can decide not to go to college at the end of the year, but I want him to be in a position to decide. I suspect he is scared of going, and that he can’t quite wrap his head around it; he’d be the first person in his family to go beyond high school. I’ll have to work hard to show him the possibilities.

I can see the fear in their faces: fear of rejection, fear of responsibility and hard work, fear of adulthood. It’s very real now, and they don’t know how to handle it.

They need lots of extra love this year.

Wednesday, 8/26 – 2:30
I see a former advisee, O., in the office. We ended on a bad note last year, when she moved out of my class because she was tired of me asking her to put her phone away. We’ve been avoiding each other ever since, which is why I’m surprised when she addresses me in the office.

“My mom’s cancer spread,” O. tells me. “She’s having surgery next week, but the doctors don’t think she has much longer.”

She says this with an expression I used to think of as a smirk. I’ve since learned that her half-smile is a defense mechanism, as is her belligerence and sharp remarks.

I sit down next to her and ask some follow-up questions. Her dad is sick with diabetes and terrible habits, her toddler nephew has moved in while his dad is in jail, and her little sister is having a hard time. O. acknowledges that she will likely become the primary caregiver for her nephew when her mother dies. Her expression never changes.

A couple of things come to my mind. One: how much tragedy this 17-year-old girl has experienced already in her life, with more on the way. At the same moment she loses her own mother, she will become one to her nephew, as well as her little sister and, in a way, to her ailing father. And all she can do is sit back and wait for the other shoe to drop.

Two: While she’s practicing being the adult of the house, she’s reaching out to me, despite our difficult break last year. She’s doing what I should have done long ago to mend our relationship.

I’m embarrassed and grateful.

I hug her and tell her how sorry I am about what’s happening to her and her family, and I apologize for how we ended things last year. She hugs me back and tells me we’re cool. And then she walks away.

Friday, 8/28 – 12:30 pm
D. comes into the room and asks for the assignment sheet from Wednesday. He’s lost his and he wants to work on it this weekend. He’s leaving early with his dad.

D.’s dad is one of the only parents I’ve not yet met, so I follow him into the hallway to introduce myself. His father could pass for his brother, he’s so young looking. I tell him who I am and how honored I am to work with D.

His dad thanks me and proceeds to gush.

“I couldn’t be more proud of him. He impresses me every single day,” he says, D. standing patiently waiting, expressionless. “He’ll always be my baby,” the dad continues, and then he leans his face toward D., who immediately kisses him on the cheek. “See!” the dad says. It’s such a sweet and wonderful gesture to witness, I can’t help but well up.

I’m often overwhelmed by my love for my students. Now their parents too?

Friday, 9/4 – 10:45 am
Fridays are my real work days. I don’t have advisory, so I spend the whole day in the library, catching up on all the paperwork, unboxing books, organizing. Every once in awhile I step out for some air, but I try to stay focused and productive.

Today, though, when I take a break, I see a former student. T. (barely) graduated in 2006. He was funny and charismatic, short and skinny, with an enormous presence. He caused me a lot of frustration and grief, but plenty of joy and laughter as well. I think about him often, and wonder how he’s doing. When I see him walking down the hall, I shriek with happiness. It’s such a pleasure to see him, taller and wiser, but just as wonderful.

We catch up. He’s adjusting to being a new father. He says he’s the best dad in the world, which is wonderful to hear. He’s working on his music still, about to have a release party on a yacht.

“Wow!” I say.

“You gotta spend money to make money,” he tells me, and I agree. That’s what the tech companies do, right? He’s also working construction, to pay the bills. He tells me he had a rough couple years, but he’s got his head on straight and he’s doing well for himself and his daughter. He talks about the school wide outcomes and how he still refers to them (“Every job interview I’ve been to, I talk about social responsibility, personal responsibility, critical thinking, and communication. It works every time!”).

Again, I feel my eyes welling up. There’s nothing like seeing former students come back and visit. It’s one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.

I tell him goodbye and get back to unloading boxes and writing emails, reminded, once again, of how much I love my job. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 14th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 11th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #9

“It’s been a good year. And we’re ready for what’s next.”

Michele Godwinfavicon Friday, 4/1 3:35 pm
It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to work on library stuff. I’ve run out of fundraising steam, for the time being. My friends are tired of me asking them for money!

So we sit at the $20,000 mark. Students still request titles. I just bought some science-related books, thanks to a recommendation from one of our regular substitute teachers: Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, and The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, by Nathan Wolfe. There’s money in the bank, and the requests are slowing down. I should be happy with what we’ve got, right?

Wrong.

The library is just over half full. And many of the books are left over from the crusty donated books that have been with us for so many years. We have at least three copies of all of Shakespeare’s popular plays, and seemingly thousands of copies of Winter’s Tale. Great! But our kids aren’t reading those books.

I have to decide: Leave the shelves half-filled, but with high-interest books? Or put the old, crusty books in there so the shelves don’t look quite so empty and forlorn?

I leave them empty. Because too many bad books is way worse than barely-enough good books.

Bad books are a turn-off. In my experience, it is only book lovers who get excited to comb through shelves and shelves of titles, excited to find the next good story. Reticent readers look at those shelves and see more books about boring people they can’t relate to. They see lots of big words and meaningless characters, and they confirm what they’ve always known: books have nothing to offer them.

I’ve got to get off my butt and get back to work. Those shelves aren’t going to fill themselves!

Friday, 5/1 2:30 pm
C. tells me, “That thing happened yesterday!”

I don’t know what she means.

She looks at me meaningfully and says, “That thing. Remember? I told you about it? I told you I was nervous. Remember?” She waits for me.

I think and think. When did we talk last? She’s not one to share much with me, so I struggle.

And then it comes to me.

“Yes! How did it go? Everything ok?” I ask.

She looks relieved.

“I had to stand up and talk to the judge. I was so nervous!”

“How brave! That must have been so scary,” I tell her.

“I cried,” she says. “I wasn’t strong. But I’m glad I did it.”

“I am too. And so is your dad, I’m sure. What was the verdict?” I ask, afraid of the answer.

“Five years. But I thought it would be 15, so I’m happy!”

I smile at her. How could I forget her dad’s hearing? She mentioned it when I met with her and her mother, in passing, like she wanted me to know, but not really.

“Five years, and then he’s deported back to Mexico,” she says, and puts her earbuds in. The bell has rung, and she’s done sharing.

Monday, 5/4 3:35 pm
A. has stopped coming to school. When I met with him and his mother a few weeks ago, it was clear that he wouldn’t be able to graduate with his classmates next spring. He’s failed too many classes, and he’s currently failing Algebra.

He translated the news to his mother. The counselor then told A. about a college to career program at City, where students can finish up their high school classes and get college credit. He got excited and translated for his mother, who asked some questions and looked doubtful.

Ever since, he has been to school only a couple times.

I miss him.

Wednesday, 5/13 – 10:15 am
Independent reading time. Every student in the room is silent, reading something he or she is interested in. Time and National Geographic cover stories about weed are a big draw. One student is reading Beloved, and I must resist the urge to try to make her love that book as much as I do. Someone’s reading The Oral History of Hip Hop, someone else The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I only had to ask them to be quiet a few times before they settled in and started reading. I don’t know what’s going on with them, but it sure does make me happy. And it reminds me: must get more books.

Thursday, 5/28 – 2:20 pm
They’re gone. We’ve had our last Advisory of the year, and now they’re gone. They’ve left their cookie crumbs and empty soda cups, as well as an entire, unopened bag of carrots (the Funyons and Doritos got eaten, though), and now they’re gone for the summer.

We said goodbye to A., who will go to City next year. I had to beg him to come today, and had to contain my excitement when he walked in the room. He promised to keep me posted about his life. I hope he does.

The others I’ll see in just a few short months, and we’ll do it all over again. But it’ll be different next year, as graduation becomes more and more real, and they have to make hard decisions about their life. All of us are looking forward to the summer break, but I think we all agree: It’s been a good year. And we’re ready for what’s next. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 14th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 11th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #8

“I’ve got too much pride. I don’t want help.”

Michele Godwinfavicon Monday, March 2 – 2:45 pm
M asks the visiting law school student, “Is law school hard? Because I want to be a lawyer and a doctor, and I think it will be hard to go to school for both.”

The law school student kind of laughs, thinking M might be joking. Law school AND med school? The visitor sees that M is 100 percent serious and responds.

“Yes. Law school is hard. It’s really hard, and I don’t think I could handle anything more than I’m already doing.”

M responds: “I want to be a lawyer to help put bad people away, but I want to be a doctor, too, because a doctor saved my mom when she had an aneurysm a few years ago.”

Wednesday, March 4 – 10:50 am
Someone from a college readiness program pulled T out of class today and asked him all kinds of questions: How are your grades? What is your plan? When are you taking the SAT? the ACT? What do you want to major in?

When I ask T about the meeting, he says, “That guy knew all kinds of stuff about me! And then he was asking me all kinds of questions. I don’t even know him!”

I explain that the man and the program specifically picked T out of the crowd to support him to get to college, that this was a great opportunity, that they clearly see something special in him and want to help him be successful.

T shakes his head.

“Why are you shaking your head? What do you have against people helping you? This is a gift! This is a wonderful opportunity!” I screech in my old white lady voice.

“My pride,” he says. “I’ve got too much pride. I don’t want help from him. He don’t even know me!”

Screeching: “He wants to help you!”

“That’s what you’re for,” he says to me. “You’re going to help me get into college. I don’t need another stranger in my life, getting all up in my business.”

I let him go, shaking my own head this time. I suspect he doesn’t want more people in his life because he doesn’t want more people knowing about his hardships. It’s true: It’s my job to help him get into college. But I can’t do it on my own.

Thursday March 12, 2:45 pm
It’s study hall today. I write passes for students to go see teachers and get homework help, and I offer my assistance to the students who stay in the room. It starts out as chaos, but it always settles down to some good productive work time. I get out from behind my desk and sit at a table with students. Without trying to talk over them, I get a chance to observe and appreciate them:

D  goes out of his way to say hello to me and hug me goodbye. He is an only child and lives with his mother in a one bedroom in the Mission. He has been playing the drums his entire life; he lives to make music.

B is everyone’s favorite. Despite the attention, he always comes to class and puts his head down and churns out his work. He tells his dad, “I love you” every time he talks to him on the phone, ever since one of his best friends was killed.

J is going to enroll in an art class this summer so she can take the maximum number of AP classes next year. She volunteers just about every weekend, and she’s constantly working on homework. Somehow, she manages to accompany her mother to her oncology appointments.

T is the funny guy, constantly cracking inappropriate jokes and then apologizing. He and D are music-making buddies, always talking beats and rhymes in class. He’s a natural performer, and I can never stay mad at him for more than two seconds.

N is too smart for his own good. He gets Fs in all his classes, then at the very last minute, pulls them up to Cs. He read The Divine Comedy earlier this year, and just recently finished A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. He works at the Academy of Sciences and plans to be a research scientist. But his GPA is terrible.

S came to us from Mali in September. He barely speaks English, but he speaks way more than he did seven months ago. He is unfailingly polite, always greeting me with a “Bonjour! Ça va?” in the morning. All the kids love him so much. I worry a little bit about the words he learns from them. He’s six-foot-eight with blue-black skin, thin as a rail, so he stands out even before he opens his mouth.

A won’t let me get close to him. He won’t let anyone get close to him. He’s all toughness and surly on the outside, but every once in a while, he’ll show some vulnerability, like when he talks about his new puppy, or when his mom comes for a meeting and he kisses her on the cheek. He’ll be a great lawyer, once he decides to do what it takes.

C is a straight-A student. He gets his work done without fail. But he’s bored by schoolwork. He’s got big dreams to go away to college—maybe out of state or even out of the country!—but I worry that his SAT score will keep him from getting into the schools he wants. High school has been easy. College is going to kick his ass.

Monday March 16 – 2:30 pm
The counselor, Ms. S., tells the other junior advisers and me that the registration deadline for the April ACT is fast approaching, and the SAT registration is coming up in a few weeks. Do we want her to come to our class and help sign kids up?

I tell her, “But they’re not ready! They haven’t studied! They’re just babies!” I don’t really call them babies, but I’m thinking it. Obviously they are not babies, with their cell phones and their surly mouths and their near-adult behaviors. But it seems crazy to me that it’s time for them to take the SAT and start thinking about college applications! How can that be? They are barely juniors!

They are not barely juniors. They are in their last quarter of their junior year of high school, and it is time for them to think about college applications and SATs and moving on with their lives.

I can only imagine how their mothers must feel. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 14th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 11th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #7

“I want to make it big.”

Michele Godwinfavicon Monday, 1/12 – 2:35 pm
My advisees are subdued today. Not uncommon for a Monday, but they are even quieter than usual. They seem more serious, maybe even older. They are maturing before my very eyes. All of them talk about how busy they are, how much work they have to do. It’s nice to see them so focused.

One man/boy pulls me aside and tells me he has so much work to do, he’s not sure he’s going to be able to finish the application for the scholarship program I’ve nominated him for. “I have to study for my pre-cal exam, I have to make up some chemistry work, and I am missing some assignments for Spanish. I don’t know that I’ll be able to finish the application by Friday.”

“That’s not an option. You have to finish it,” I say.

I check myself when I see how flustered he gets. He does have to finish it! If he is accepted into the program, he gets $7,000 AND the an excellent bonus on his college applications. Plus, I spent a solid hour writing the teacher recommendation, emphasizing his story, working to convince the readers that he is absolutely worthy of being one of only 10 students for this program. His teenage brother was killed a few years ago. He takes his toddler nephew and niece to daycare every day, on his way to school. He has miraculously kept his grades at As and Bs, until recently. He has ambitions, but he has very little idea what happens after high school.

HE NEEDS THIS.

“You need this!” I almost yell at him as I try to talk him into pushing himself just a little bit harder to finish the application. I don’t though. He doesn’t need me yelling at him, reminding him how hard life is sometimes.

We make a list: THINGS YOU NEED TO DO BY FRIDAY. It’s not that long, and he remembers that the Spanish homework isn’t that tough.

“I’ve started the application on my phone. I can work on it while I’m on MUNI,” he finally says.

Tuesday, Jan 27 6:30 pm
Today is MY first day of school; I’m finishing up my Masters in Literature at SF State, and I took last semester off, so I haven’t been on campus since June. I’ve been looking forward to getting back to school and working that part of my brain again. I arranged a sitter to pick my child up on Tuesdays, bring him home, and get his dinner under way. I’ve purchased one of the several books for the class, and I’m ready to get started.

When I walk into the classroom, though, and ask the very young woman who is sitting inside if she is there for the Emily Dickinson class, she says no, she’s there for English 214. Not English 760.

Oh, I say. Maybe I’m in the wrong room.

I check my schedule and confirm I’m in the right place. As more people come in, though, it becomes clear that I am not in the right place.

I walk up to the professor’s office, on the fifth floor, to see if I might catch her before she goes to class. She’s not there. I walk back down to the second floor, to see if the English graduate office is open. Nope. I walk back down to the first floor, to see if there’s a directory or something that will tell me what I want to know. Of course there isn’t.

I see an older woman who looks like she knows where she’s going, so I hop on the elevator with her and assail her with my struggle. I ask if she can help me figure out where I’m supposed to be. She, of course, says yes, and I follow her back up to the fourth floor. She checks the master schedule.

“English 760 meets on Monday night, not Tuesday.”

I can feel myself about to cry, so I thank her quickly and leave. I drive home too fast, yelling at cars who get in my way. I don’t cry, but my frustration is overwhelming. I can’t take a Monday night class! That doesn’t work for me!

After I let the babysitter know she no longer has a steady, Tuesday-night gig, I go online, find another class that, honestly, I’d rather take, that happens in the middle of the day, Tuesdays and  Thursdays. Perfect! I try to register, but I need a permission code, so I email the professor (who I’ve had before, so I happen to have her email address AND a nice rapport with her). She sends it to me, along with a warm greeting and the make up reading assignments. I navigate the ridiculously user-unfriendly website to drop the Monday night class and add the T/TH class. Voila!

I realize: This is similar to what my students will go through when they go to college, but it will be even more overwhelming. What will they do when they need to change their schedule? when they can’t find their class? I have the time, experience, and patience it takes to navigate this kind of situation, and STILL I almost flopped myself on the floor of that woman’s office and had a temper tantrum. Many of our students don’t have the attention span or the technology or the willingness to engage with the middle-aged lady in the elevator to say, “Do you work here? Will you help me?” I worry about them.

Wednesday, Feb 11 – 2:00 pm
Overheard between two seniors and a sophomore, as we are walking the track for the women’s fitness class we are participating in:

Senior #1 to Senior #2: “But I want to make it big!”

Sophomore, who didn’t hear the first part of the conversation: “You want to make what big?”

Senior #1: “No, I want to make it. Big.”

Soph: “Right. Make what big? Your ass?”

Senior #1: (frustrated) “No! I mean I want to make it! I want to make it, big time!”

Soph: “Right. What do you want to make big?”

Senior #1: “I want to make it in the world! I want to do it in a big way!”

Soph: “Oh. Yeah.” favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 14th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 11th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!