A Vicious Cycle

Friday, February 18, 2012

“11? Not-uh. In one visit?”  I was talking to my mentor teacher about one of my student’s dentist visits.  I’ve noticed that many of the students here have dental issues.  This particular student went to the dentist the other day, and they found 11—count them—11 cavities.  Just during that one visit; and he’s had teeth fall out and teeth pulled on other occasions.  Many of the students have the same problem and have countless “silver” teeth.

My 12 students have a lot more than minor physical ones.  Psychological and emotional abuse are common among these students.  Many students are neglected at home, and for many of them, social services have brought them here, or they live with family members, many of them single grandparents who simply cannot take care and provide for them.  These students receive three meals a day and have a safe place to live here at the school—something that they don’t necessarily see on the res (reservations).

It takes patience, patience, patience, and well, a little more patience with these kids.  When you tell them to sit down in their chair, feet on the floor, hands in their laps, eyes on the teacher, and ears listening, that could last for 10 seconds—if you’re lucky.  I have been told to focus on the positives and continue to praise the students who are following along and doing what is asked.  The other students will realize what they should be doing and eventually listen.  These students are smart kids, but they struggle with simply listening the most.  I give the students warnings, and if they are still not complying or disrupting the learning environment, or affecting the teaching, I send them to a disciplinarian until they are ready to come back.

The 8th grade basketball season is coming to a close.  We are currently 9-1 and have been recently told that this team could go down as one of the greatest teams to play at PILC.  In fact, the head coach of the basketball team sat down the players and talked to them about their futures.  There are a couple of players who have a real future in basketball—possibly at the college level.  On the reservation, there are said to be really good basketball players.  Due to the fact that they receive checks every month, it seems that there is no desire for more.  I’ve had some talks with faculty, and we wonder what the future holds for these people.  Is there hope?  It seems that there is a catch-22 with the government checks and the lax lifestyle of the Natives on the reservations.  If the government continues to give them money, many of them use it for drugs and alcohol—and the people seem to have no further drive.  If they didn’t receive the checks, would they need to get off the reservations and do something more?  Or would the lack of the checks further the downward spiral of the reservations?  Tough questions that we don’t know the answers to.  I’ve been told that some of the students that are currently enrolled at PILC, that their parents went here—meaning they haven’t made the strides needed to get out of that lifestyle.  The coach told them that they could be the ones to get off the res.

Being away from friends and family has been difficult during the past few weeks.  I wish I could have been there for my parent’s move to Arizona, and it was hard to be away from my girlfriend, Lisa, on Valentine’s Day—the day we celebrated 5 years together.  I realize there is a finish line and that I will look back and be proud of the dedication and commitment I gave to the school and my students during this time of my life.  If I affect one of the students and change their lives for the better—just one—and show them a positive role model—I think it would be worth it all.  It is nearly impossible to record all of the feelings, emotions, and experiences that I have had so far here in South Dakota.  Your thoughts and prayers are much appreciated!

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A Month In

Time is flying here in Pierre.  I’ve already been here for a month!  Teaching here is one of the hardest things I have ever done.  Everyday is a challenge.  Whether it is telling two girls to stop cursing at each other, seeing a first grader draw two people fornicating in their writing journal, or hearing that your basketball player was caught with marijuana, it seems to never stop.  Almost all of the kids in my class are IEP students, meaning they have an individualized education program.  Many of the students are on some sort of medication—the highest percentage being for ADHD.  The focus of the students can sometimes be for only a matter of seconds.

On a positive note, I feel like I am gaining the respect of my class, and getting to know these kids more and more.   I keep reminding myself that their home lives consist of little structure, and when they don’t listen to me at times, it’s because they just don’t know have that framework at home.  They are just in need of love and a relationship.  I have seen that especially with my basketball team.  I am an assistant coach for the 8th grade team.  Before I started to coach, I thought that these kids would be extremely aggressive and physical on the basketball court.  It turned out, I was wrong.  They put on this hard, thug-like front, and made me think that they were much tougher than they really are.  Many of these kids can be compared metaphorically to eggs.  They have this tough shell, but through time and dedication, you can crack their exterior.  The head coach of the team is real with them and knows that these Native kids are constantly being yelled at and berated by family members at home and teachers here.  It is so hard to find the balance of keeping your cool as a coach when they are not listening and to try to help them become better basketball players.  I’d never thought that I would see an eighth grader cry at practice, but it’s been done.  Another player ‘quit’ the other day when we were having a tough practice.  The coach positively criticized a defensive technique he needed to work on.  I walked with him to the locker room and told him how the coach wasn’t putting him on the spot and told him that we were there only to help them become better basketball players.  Ultimately it was his decision to quit, I told him, but that I’d see him at practice the next day.  He came to the practice, is working hard, and is now acting as a leader for our team.

I found out that the majority of the kids at the school live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota—the poorest county in the United States.  You can youtube ‘Pine Ridge’ or look at images of the lifestyle my students call home.

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Meeting My Students

My first meeting with my students was something that I was excited for and dreading all at the same time.  Questions like, Will they like me?  How will they react to me?  How will I find ways to relate to these kids? ran through my head.  As soon as I met my 5 boys and 4 girls, I was relieved.  Although these kids have been through a lot in their short lives, their big eyes and their smiles seem to overpower it all.  A significant percentage of students have been sexually abused or molested.  A horrific statistic that makes one wonder, how can these kids even trust adults?  As a teacher, we want our students to be good listeners, to follow directions, etc., but if they do not have any of these kinds of structures in their home lives, can we expect them to meet those expectations in school?  Patience seems to be the key for me and my students’ success.  Even though I may want to yell and scream, when they are constantly in and out of their seats, talking when I am, fighting and hitting each other over a game, I have to remember where these kids are coming from and try to consider what they know from home.  Moms and dads are sometimes so drunk at home that they may have sex right in front of the kids.  No wonder they curse and know seemingly too much in terms of sex for just being 5 and 6 year olds.  That’s what they know!  I have to try to understand that and take one day at a time with these kids.  If I show them unconditional love, just a little bit each day, show them I won’t hurt them, I won’t yell at them, but that I am there for them to learn, those relationships will be that more concrete at the end of these four months.

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The Pick-Up

As we pulled up to my ‘double-wide’ trailer, I was apprehensive.  This whole experience was so new to me.  A new school, a new place to live, a new state.  All of it.  We walked in, and to my surprise, found an incredible space to live.  With a living room, kitchenette, washer and dryer, and three separate bedrooms (my own room!), this was better than any place I had lived throughout my college career.  Lisa helped me move in, and the next day, I had to travel to Nebraska to pick up students who attend the Pierre Indian Learning Center.  Just what I needed, another overnight trip.

A group of five teachers, including myself, took a Suburban to Sioux City, Iowa to stay the night.  The next day, we drove the rest of the way to Macy, Nebraska, where we met our first group of students to be picked up, as well as a large commercial bus to take us back to Pierre.  I was nervous.  Coming with either their grandparents, their older brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and sometime parents, the students were dropped off.  Just as soon as one of the students arrived with what looked like her mother, she started yelling at another woman who dropped off a child from lunch.  “She better give me my f&$*ing money!” she continued to yell.  “She owes me $17.”  Apparently the school gives food to the students to buy lunch and snacks on their long trips back to Pierre.  This woman was accusing the other student, and consequently that child’s family, of stealing from their drop-off at Christmas break.  In reality, though, one of the teachers told me, that student lost the money along the way.  This is just a glimpse into the vulgarity of what I would be hearing throughout the day.  Old, rusted vans, and pick-up trucks came and went dropping off more students.  Some of the parents, or whoever it was who dropped them off, never even hugged their kids goodbye.  I can’t imagine saying goodbye to my child, especially a 1st or 2nd grader for more than four months at a time.   As the bus went to more pick-up spots like Winnebago, NE, Crofton, NE and Wagner, SD the bus filled to about 30 students.  I’ve never seen such a disruptive, violent, and a vulgar group of kids in my whole life.  As I was trying to spark a conversation with an 8th grader, and a 6th grader, one of the boys turned and looked at me and asked, “Are you calling me a n***er?”  I was taken back.  “Of course not,” I replied.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  “Sit down!” “Take off your hood” “Excuse me, what did you just say!?” were the norms and background noise of the ride.  What I needed to start realizing was where these kids were coming from.

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Student Teaching in Pierre

6am—Lisa and I made our way from Quakertown after a full breakfast with our families at John’s Plain and Fancy Diner, and made it through the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana on our first 12-hour day of travel.  We stayed with Lisa’s aunt and uncle for two nights to rest up for the second ‘road trip.’  On the last day of the year, we started our trip from Kouts, Indiana by Chicago and went through Iowa up to Minneapolis in Minnesota and got on route 90 to Pierre. As we were about 300 miles out from Pierre, a white-out kicked in on the interstate.  I could hardly see and it seemed extremely dangerous to keep driving.  Soon enough, we saw flashing blue and reds on the interstate and police were taking everyone off the road.  We had no idea what was going on, but stopped at a McDonald’s to ask.  The locals in the golden arches told us that a tractor-trailer had flipped and there were several cars involved in the accident just three miles or so up the road.  If we were just a couple minutes more ahead of schedule, we would have been in that accident.  We met a woman with her kids in the McDonald’s who was asking all of the people in the restaurant how we could get to Pierre.  We followed that woman, who followed a local, through some back-roads that eventually got us back on the interstate.  She was so helpful and it felt like she was an angel in disguise.  After 16 hours in the car, we made it to a bed and breakfast in Pierre.  What a way to spend the last day of 2011.  I’m so grateful that I could have Lisa join me in the journey to South Dakota—not only for her company, but to switch off drivers.  I don’t know if I could have done it without her.  We made it to Pierre just in time to watch the ball drop in Times Square.  On January 1st, we drove just a couple miles down the main drag and pulled in to the Pierre Indian Learning Center.  My home for the next four months….

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