For three years now, people have been reading about the midlife transition from corporate life to teaching in the public schools of New Orleans that my wife and I made in 2008. After reading my recent post on some of the more positive (a relative term, to be sure) student interactions of the past year, my friend Kay (a follower of this saga from day one) sent me a response e-mail which simply said, “Okay….now I’m beginning to get it”…
‘Get what’? Was my curiosity-piqued response, to which Kay responded simply, “How you find the pony in an extreeeeemmmmeeely challenging environment”…
‘Find the pony’ is a phrase I was not familiar with, even after spending a fair number of my years bouncing around the agricultural Midwest. Kay, who grew up in rural South Dakota (Eh – like there is an urban South Dakota!) suggested I pop the phrase into Google.
‘Find the pony’ is the familiar story of the optimist who is sent to Hell and discovers that he’s up to his shoulders in manure. He immediately jumps into the pile of manure and gleefully starts swimming around. A pessimist walks up (they always do) and asks the optimist why he’s so happy. The optimist replies, “Well, with all this manure, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere”…
Like a lot of kids, I always wanted a pony; maybe this is my Freudian way of getting one.
I think ‘finding the pony’ has always been a key part of my modus operandi – some would probably say to a fault, at times – and it is certainly something that comes in handy here; dealing daily with the incredibly difficult circumstances that decades of neglect and inertia that have resulted in New Orleans having one of the worst public school systems in America.
It’s beyond bad; classrooms full of kids who are, on average, 2-3 grade levels behind their grade level in most any subject, behavioral issues, anger, violence as a basic way life – we see all of that and more, every day. It was true with the fifth and eighth graders I spent last year with, the classes of fifth graders my wife has shepherded through two years at the same school, for most of our TeachNOLA and Teach for America peers that we have bonded with.
Yet, there are always ponies grazing – even during my current year serving as a substitute in the city’s high schools. There was the random conversation with a kid who out-of-the-blue tells you he likes to write poetry, but that I shouldn’t tell anyone that; the girl who confides that her mother and her teenage-mom-of-two sister set a horrible example, but that she is trying to make sure she “doesn’t end up like them two”.
His poetry is good – and I believe there is a good chance she won’t.
There are the young men who, while not doing any work for me when I am in front of their classrooms, nonetheless approach me in the hallway during my repeated visits to their school, mumble ‘Hey, Mr. Lucker” and give me a quick fist-bump.
There were the two aggravating but ingratiating girls who stopped me at the end of the day at a charter school I had been at a half-dozen times to ask me why I kept coming back. Informing them that I enjoyed teaching, and I specifically enjoyed coming to their school to teach them, looked at me with furrowed brows before one said, “Well, that’s a good reason I guess.”, before saying goodbye and walking out of the room with satisfied looks.
And it’s hard to forget the room full of eleventh grade boys I spent twenty minutes of class time on showing them how to tie their neckties – a new-this-year uniform addition that came without instruction manual. Subsequent visits at that school thereafter included at least one or two remedial sessions of Shelby knot instruction.
And there are the girls who stare at me blankly when I make an intended humorous remark, pause, then say, with stone-cold expressions, “Mr. Lucker…you aint funny” as I chuckle and walk away – then repeat their opinion of my wit as they leave at the end of class.
Over the past year I have corralled a small herd of ponies.
But my favorites are the guys that like to make a boisterous production out of first seeing me in the hallway when I show up at their respective schools. It usually occurs early morning, when I am first noticed outside a classroom door during passing period, clipboard in hand. A guy will see me, from a room or more away, yell my name and something unintelligible and/or profane, then walk towards me, giving me his loud variation on my name; “MissssssTAHHH, Luuuckahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh….” giving me an enthusiastic fist-bump in passing, as the last ‘ahhhhh’ of my name fades away down the hall the other way with the kid.
Sometimes, you just gotta let that pony run.