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Mardi Gras Weekend

written Monday, 2/27/2006 (Lundi Gras)

Whining and quitting

This past week was not as disappointing as the previous, although I’m still trying to regain some of the motivation I had at the beginning of my teaching journey. I can’t quite put my finger on why my enthusiasm has tanked. It seems too convenient and irresponsible to simply blame it all on the students. Aside from their startling lack of prerequisite math skills, I’m most frustrated by the incessant whining and threats of quitting. There’s no convincing many of them that a college prep math course is supposed to be challenging, yet every day I endure the gripes: “This is too hard… Why do we have to do this?... When are we going to have a free day?... You’re making it confusing… This is unfair…” Of course, a lot of the complaints come from students who’ve been frequently absent and/or asleep through many of the classes. Despite my imploring that everyone make up their minds whether they’re going to work hard or quit, too many seem to attend class for the sole purpose of bellyaching.

I suppose I should be more sympathetic. After all, in recent weeks I’m having to restrain myself from whining to any willing listener about my plights in the classroom. Furthermore, faced with a task in which success seems hopeless at times, I’m also fighting back impulsive desires to give up. Dangit, am I not so different from my whiny, quitting students? It feels like there must be a lesson to be learned here, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe when I figure out what cures my frustration and defeatism, I’ll be able to better address the same attitudes in the kids.

Mardi Gras Weekend

The Mardi Gras vacation has finally arrived. Normally we’d have this whole week off, but due to Katrina, school will be open on Thursday and Friday. I guess the thinking is that we’ll actually be able to get something accomplished during a two-day school week, even though at least half the students will probably be absent. Regardless, I’m trying to refresh during the time off.

I guess one naturally feels obliged to participate in the festivities during a first Mardi Gras in the New Orleans area, yet a couple rough weeks at school left me more inclined to stay home. Saturday morning, I had just decided to mope around my apartment for five days and avoid the hoopla, when my friend Sunday helped break me out of an emotional funk. We hung out that evening, catching up on recent events.

Sunday’s hopes of being a teacher appeared to be snuffed out by the Katrina aftermath, and she was already applying to other jobs and a graduate program for creative writing. Then about a month ago, the Nelson charter school where she had originally been hired was suddenly resurrected. She resumed her position as a middle school English/Language Arts teacher. After spending a week helping to prepare the school and her classroom, the school reopened on Monday with about 300 students and 23 teachers. Now she has four classes, teaching the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. In addition to tackling the gamut of student skill levels that almost all teachers in the region face this year, the mix of student populations is particularly challenging at Nelson. Previously the school served the neighborhood of only one housing project. Now at Nelson’s new location, in what appears to be an old church, students from different neighborhoods are being forced to interact for the first time in their lives. Already in the first week, territorial tensions between 7th Ward and 9th Ward students are running high, but Sunday is handling it all with her characteristic optimism. She’s good at seeing the bright side of difficult situations, and helps remind me that I ought to do the same.

The next day, I joined Sunday, Kelcy, and two friends of theirs for a couple of the larger Mardi Gras parades. About 60 krewes (private clubs that pay for and ride in the processions) put on parades during the couple weeks leading up to “Fat Tuesday” (tomorrow). Two of the most spectacular displays ran through the Uptown region, not far from Sunday & Kelcy’s house. The Bacchus and Endymion krewes ran about 30 floats each, with themes ranging from Wizard of Oz to various world explorations. We planted ourselves on Napoleon Ave., near the start of the festivities, where the atmosphere tends to be more family oriented than it is further down the route. If this year’s celebrations have been subdued by the monster hurricanes, I can only imagine how festive they must be during a normal year. Jazz bands, marching bands, gigantic colorful floats, and the company of friends helped me forget any frustrations of the classroom for the evening.

My height provided a huge advantage in snagging the beads tossed from the floats by masked krewe members. As partygoers stood along both sides of the street with arms outstretched, I repeatedly snatched beads out of the air before they could fall into the hands of people around me. A few times I handed “throws” to neighboring partygoers to sooth a slightly guilty conscience.

Looking ahead

The final float passed by around 10:30. We packed up and walked back to Sunday & Kelcy’s house. I eventually headed back home, wondering what use I could possibly ever have for a bag full of gaudy plastic jewelry. I had spent several hours enthusiastically collecting this loot, yet by the end of the evening, I couldn’t come up with a practical reason why any reasonable person would do so.

The effort of collecting beads reminded me a bit of my new career. Is teaching math here just another pursuit that will cause me to later question the value of all my hard work? For five months I’ve been feverishly lecturing the finer points of parallelograms, areas, polynomials, and exponents to children who largely don’t care about the topics. Given the demographics of West Jefferson, I know that a good majority of the students will never again use the information I’ve worked so hard to teach them, except in any future math classes. When I reach the end of the school year, will I look back and wonder why any reasonable person would do such a thing? Is teaching math to this particular student population really worth my time any more than gathering beads at Mardi Gras?

Admittedly, there’s a discriminatory overtone in those questions. Perhaps this is where I’ve recently lost focus on why I came out to the New Orleans area in the first place. If the primary purpose of Mardi Gras is the acquisition of gaudy beads, then I’d probably be wise to reevaluate how I spend my time. Likewise, I’ve probably wasted my time if secondary math skills are the only things that my students learn (and promptly forget) in my classroom.

I need to adjust my perspective: My primary purpose for attending a Mardi Gras parade was to have fun with friends, not to collect beads. I had a blast last night, so the time must’ve been well spent. My primary goal as a teacher has little to do with parallelograms and polynomials, and more to do with life lessons that will help children navigate their own futures a little better. It’s hard to keep that goal in mind when grades and high-stakes standardized tests provide such easier ways to measure success.

Ultimately, though, I crave any little indications that my students are learning more from me than just math. I suspect that the end of the school year will provide my best opportunity to assess whether this has occurred at all. In the midst of the year, the daily battles seem to obscure my outlook. As school winds down in late May, maybe then the students and I can finally let down our guards. Maybe then a few might thank me for inspiring them to explore their potential and work towards better futures. Then I can figure out whether the way I spent the prior year of my life was any more useful than my bag full of Mardi Gras beads.

Some photos from the Bacchus and Endymion Mardi Gras parades. Yeah, that's Willie Nelson in the first photo. Finally I remember to get a photo of Kelcy (left) & Sunday (right), and it turns out blurry. Shoot. If anyone has any suggestions for how to constructively use all those beads, please send me an email.