First Person

The Empty Feeling Of Not Knowing

Audrey Bachman is an eighth-grader at MS 51 in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Last week in Hebrew school, I was sitting with a group of friends who all knew what high school they are going to next year.

They all had such poise.

Because they all knew what schools they were going to, all of the worry and stress for them was gone. But while they were feeling relaxed, I was biting my nails, anticipating this Thursday, March 31, when I’ll hear what school I’m going to.

The New York City high school admissions process is crazy. Two rounds: In the first round, which ends in February, you hear back from specialized schools (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, etc.). You can take the specialized test to get into these schools and/or audition for LaGuardia, an arts school. If you’re accepted into a specialized school, then you will also hear back from your regular list of schools. This, according to the Department of Education, is to give a student some time to decide between the two schools you were accepted into. (It also gives the schools a way to figure out how many spaces they have left.) If you are not accepted into any specialized school, the city has no reason to to let you know what regular school you were accepted into, so they make you wait another six weeks. That’s the position I’m in right now.

Being at Hebrew school was just an example of how uncomfortable it is for me to have to be with people who are so confident and happy while I l feel like I don’t know what’s going to happen in my future. Lucky for me, the schools that I want to get into are ones that I haven’t been rejected from. Unlucky for me, I still have to wait to hear while other people get to relax in the feeling of knowing.

I have mixed emotions about being excited for high school. Even though the friends who know what school they’re going to aren’t afraid to show it, they don’t brag. In any case, it’s the adults who ask me most about what high school I got into. And when I tell them I’m still waiting, I can’t help but wonder if they think any differently of me.

My dad told me a story from when he was in a Latin class in high school that he just couldn’t ace. There was always one kid who did well and one day when my dad asked when he studied and for how long, the guy answered, “On the bus this morning.” My dad learned from that experience that when it comes to taking tests, either you are good without trying, or you have to work really hard to do well.

I keep asking myself if I’m the same smart kid I thought I was, and if I’m the same smart kid everyone else thought I was. What does it mean that I didn’t do well on a test? Do the people who know what happened think that I’m not smart anymore? No matter what the answer is, there’s still that unwanted feeling of failure that lingers in the air, whether or not it’s true.

It’s scary to have such strong expectations about something that you really want. No matter how much I want to go to the school I want to go to, I have no idea and no control over what is going to happen. All I know is that come Thursday, there aren’t going to be the people who know and the people who don’t. Instead, everyone will know. The fact is, you’ll either get your first choice, your second choice, and so on — or one that you didn’t want at all. Everyone is going to get into a high school. The scary part is whether or not you get into one that you want.

But when I think about all of this, all this drama and emotion … all for one thing that is determined by some test?  What 13-year-old should have to deal with this? The fact that the high school process in New York City is set up in a way that makes some kids feel like losers and some kids feel like winners in the end is not a very good life lesson. In the end, no matter what happens, everything is actually going to be okay. And trust me: I know that’s terribly cheesy in every way possible. But it’s true.

First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.