Thursday, April 3, 2014
As a retired teacher I have hundreds of young faces in my creaky, old memory banks. Even so, all of my students were special to me, at every age, every school and classroom.
Many of my high school kids were from middle class homes and some even affluent. But our attendance area also pulled from one of the oldest barrios in the southwest. Some of these students came from circumstances that presented them with extraordinary challenges. Many lived in the projects, had gang backgrounds, and parents or siblings in prison. I was often struck by how ignorant some of these young people were of the basic principles involved in how to live a happy life. They just could not connect the dots to some really basic pictures.
A simple equation like drug use and trouble of some kind was hard for them to put together. Or stealing isn't a good idea even if you really need it bad, and think you can get away with it. Or alcohol and gasoline don't mix. Or alcohol and sex either. Or sex at 14 even if you're sober. Or that hard work and income are related. Or that prison probably isn't a place you'd like to spend your 20's. And breaking even the laws you think are stupid can result in going there. And, it's very important to remember that carrying a gun for whatever reason is asking for trouble. That sort of thing.
Since my class was called "Lifeskills" we touched on all these and many other similar subjects. I remember struggling to find ways to teach basic "happiness" concepts.
Once after one of my kids spent his entire Thanksgiving vacation in jail where he was miserable and scared every minute I made a large poster. He came back to class swearing it wasn't his fault. The other dude made him mad so he had to do it. And he swore he was going to "get that **** who was really to blame!"
Didn't learn much behind those bars did he? Scary thinking, huh?
The poster was titled,
A HUNDRED THINGS YOU WON'T FIND IN JAIL
The list included, "Your dog, girlfriend, and car. Loud music. Christmas trees, the remote, taking a bath, Big Mac's and Taco Bell, weekends, your Nana's birthday cake, your cell phone, walking over to your best friend's house at midnight, raiding the refrigerator, cool shoes, etc. etc.
When the incarcerated student returned to class he looked at the poster thoughtfully and commented, "Mz Dub, the first day I went to Durango I called out to the guard to bring mustard for my sandwich. Everybody in the cells all up and down the hall started laughing like crazy. Put mustard on the list Mz Dub." I did.
I couldn't post or teach the ten commandments but I do remember a unit of study I devised based on the Boy Scout laws. I'm serious. Scouts and gangbangers. We talked about the "old fashioned virtues" versus modern ideas of right and wrong. At first my kids rolled their eyes and made comments about how I couldn't really be serious and how unbelievable, even for me, this whole idea was, and "You are really, really OLD, Mz Dub!" etc.
They started to quiet down a little bit though when we made side by side comparisons on one of my trusty little posters.
THE OLD FASHIONED VIRTUES
What Kind of Life Does a Person Have Who Is.........
HONEST A LIAR AND A CHEAT
THRIFTY DEEP IN DEPT
SOBER WASTED OR STONED
LOYAL BACK STABBING
HELPFUL WON'T LIFT A FINGER
"Well. Let's start with just a couple of these," I said. "What kind of life does someone have who cheats on their spouse and lies to their kids? What does the home of a person who's filthy and lazy look like? How long does somebody keep a job if they're wasted or stoned half the time? What kind of car or house does somebody own if they spend every dime they make and never save? How many friends does a person make if they're cruel, disrespectful, and won't lift a finger to help anybody? How happy can somebody be who's a lying, mean, broke, selfish, lazy, back stabbing drunk?"
They were thinking now. I could see it. Yippee!
I knew it was the "Light of Christ" born in each of them, helping them to know truth from error, that was making them pause. I was so very grateful for it with these kids. I couldn't tell them what it was but I counted heavily on it and was blessed often.
I made the point that the closer someone lives to those "old fashioned, geeky virtues," the better chance they have of living a happy life. They groaned. But thoughtfully.
Sometimes, though, my attempts to make them see the light came back to bite me. One day we were focusing on "Helpful. I made the bold statement that this one was so important that it was impossible to be happy if you didn't lend a hand regularly somewhere in this world. We had a great lesson on it and I assigned each student to do meaningful service for someone they knew and then give an oral report to the class. It was to count as the unit's final test. I was hopeful that my kids would get a glimpse of the joy of service.
We were in the process of hearing the reports when I called on a freshman girl who was obviously excited to tell us about her project. Her file listed her as FAS, which was sadly common in Special Ed. FAS being fetal alcohol syndrome, a lifelong challenge she would face due to her mother's alcohol use during pregnancy.
She stood to give her report. She began by saying that she remembered our recent study of drinking and driving. We were NEVER, EVER! to drink and drive and there was no excuse for ever letting someone else we knew do it either.
Well, over the weekend her mom got wasted again and was going to drive over to her aunt's apartment. This young girl tried to talk her mom out of it but she couldn't. "Finally," she said proudly, "I just grabbed the keys and drove her over there myself! So my service was to keep a drunk driver off the road." She beamed proudly at the class.
I stood with my mouth open for a while, not knowing what to say. This girl was barely 14, without a license of course, and probably had never been behind the wheel before! Horrible images of what could have happened flashed before my eyes and a prayer of thanks that they didn't went straight to Father. I sat down and we began a long discussion that included praise for the intent but cautions about breaking the law and options for other solutions to her problem.
Then one day I had an epiphany of sorts about this happiness connection thing. (We call these "apostrophes" at our house in honor of Mr. Smee's comment to Captain Hook in the movie Peter Pan) It started when a student gave that same old excuse that I heard so often from so many of my kids,
"MZ Dub, it wasn't my fault!"
It hit me then. This was at the core of the whole "happiness rules" problem! How many times had I heard students whine this same tune? "It wasn't my fault!" "I couldn't help it," "It was the boy I was with!" "They talked me into it!" "They made me mad!" "He, she, they......"
Once a girl actually told me that it wasn't her fault that she got pregnant because she was drunk at the time! And a young man sporting an electronic ankle bracelet courtesy of the Department of Corrections explained that it was his friend who was to blame. He was only holding the knife for him! He was eventually tried as an adult and sentenced to more than 3 years.
This was at the heart of it, I was sure.
This believing that you're a victim of outside forces, that you're not in control of you're own destiny.
This was one of the most common threads in the lives of those kids who didn't have a clue of what it takes to live a happy life.
So I began a campaign.
A "Personal Responsibility, You Are the Captain of Your Own Soul," crusade.
It began that very day when my 7th period class (all boys) got into a discussion about how deceitful and horrid women can be.
This was led by a young man who had just been dumped by his new girlfriend. "Explain that! Mz Dub! How's that my fault? Women just stink that's all! (Apparently I was not considered a real woman. Too old I guess)
"My mom was the first and worst, he went on bitterly. She's a drunk who left me and my dad and ran off to Vegas with our neighbor when I was only 2 weeks old! How's that my fault..... or my dad's?"
I looked up quickly and saw pain in his eyes.
"I'm truly sorry that happened to you, Jeff. That's really hard to deal with. And I agree that it certainly wasn't your fault. How do you feel about the situation?"
" Well, women are rotten. They can't be trusted," he replied.
"That attitude's going to make it hard for you to build a happy marriage don't you think?"I suggested.
"I'll just be like my dad, I guess. He's been divorced 3 times."
"I see. Is he happy then?"
"No. He's a drunk."
"Jeff, I said that your mom's leaving wasn't your fault. But I didn't say that about your dad."
" What? How could that be his fault? He's not the one who ran off!"
"Well, I don't know. How did your mom and dad meet?"
"They met in a bar that my dad and his buddies liked to hang out in I think. They played pool there. She was my dad's friend's girlfriend."
I couldn't believe it was going to be this easy.
"So," I said thoughtfully, "She left the guy she was with in the bar and ran off with your dad?"
"Yeah. So What? They were both 21."
"Jeff, think. Your father met a girl in a bar where she hung out with her boyfriend. He knew what kind of person she was when he married her. He knew she hung out in bars and that she wasn't loyal to the guy she was with. It seems to me that the real trouble started with him. He made a poor choice."
The other guys chimed in that it's hard to know much that's really important about people before you get involved. Then it's too late.
I said, "Okay, can you know ANYTHING at all about a person just by where you meet them?"
"Not really," was the general consensus.
"You may be right. But maybe you have at least a little information," I said.
"For instance, if you meet somebody at work what do you know?
You know they work.
If you meet somebody at school you know they go to school.
If you meet them at church you know they go to church.
What if you meet them on a bar stool? or at a wild party? or smoking pot with friends behind the bleachers? What do you know? Anything important?
Does she know anything important about you?
Think hard about this guys.
And Jeff, think hard about when the trouble first started with your mom leaving your family. Did your dad have any responsibility because he chose to marry her?"
It was about this time that I posted one of my all-time favorite door quotes permanently on the wall. I'd run across it in a Steven Covey book. I don't know who wrote it.
"Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space lies our opportunity to choose.
In the choice lies our destiny."
My position was that there is almost always a choice. We are not helpless victims but masters of our fates. I also pointed out that the right choice wouldn't always be the easiest one. In fact it often may be the hardest.
After a while the, "Never Say It's Not My Fault In Mrs. Wagher's Class" got to be a "thing."
Nobody could say it without getting the business from all the other kids.
I loved it.
And I'll never forget the senior who came to say goodbye after graduation.
He hollered over his shoulder as he went out my door,
"I know, I know, Mz Dub.
It's always my fault. And I probably won't find Miss Right if I only look on bar stools!"