Optimism & Pessimism In The Schools

Frank's voice is so quiet I barely hear it over the whir of the space heater trying to keep our cold classroom warm. This is how he speaks in class but when angry he screams the most awful and threatening things you can imagine. Even then it's tough to understand the words because he doesn't form them with the practice of someone who speaks regularly. His quiet voice leads me to believe he wasn't spoken to much as a child and his dangerous tantrums show me he has not known much love. I feel for him but know better than to get close. I've seen the danger of his eruptions and know there is little chance of changing the trajectory of his life.

At school I like to think I'm optimistic, pessimistic, and every shade between. I believe I can be kind to kids and help them become kind to themselves and others, but I don't think anything we do can overcome the harm that has come to them and continues to come, wrongs perpetrated by family and society. In school I move all along the continuum of optimism and pessimism depending on the moment. Frank is a kid unlikely to ever do well at school. I imagine that his chances out in the world are pretty slim too. Yet right now, speaking in a garbled whisper, he is calm and seems reachable except that he's lost in his phone. So it goes.

There is no making any kid do much of anything. I can request, cajole, or even threaten, but there's no guarantee that I will catch kids in a moment when they feel enough trust to follow me into darkness that has so often hurt them. I represent classes of people &mdash teachers, adults, even parents &mdash who have done them wrong, hurt them, made them feel unworthy. I represent people who should have been kind or even loving.

As I'm having these thoughts another kid, Mike, hands me a note saying that he wants me to be with him during a meeting about some legal matter because "you have been good to me and being around you makes me feel stronger." I'm touched but the idea of the meeting repulses me. I work for people who don't let me make such decisions. I write back to Mike that I'm honored and will write to my supervisor asking for guidance. I write that note in pessimism. I would rather not put myself in the crosshairs of management any more than I already have. Mike writes back, "I come to school mostly to be around you. You makes me a better man." I'm optimistic but not too optimistic. My effect on him is less than he thinks and any good we accomplish here can easily be erased. Still, the note helps me go on.

The accounting books on Mike and Frank are all red. They are owed so much more good than they have received and so much less trouble than they have been put through. My teaching amounts to pennies that leave the ledger still bleeding red.

Hours after I wrote the first paragraph about Frank he drew a giant penis on a board in the office, opened the defibrillator setting off an alarm, and ran at a social worker as if he might attack. He stormed out the front doors cursing everyone, swearing vengeance for what we aren't sure. Frank is too unstable for our meager skills and facilities. He needs special education but I'm pessimistic he will receive it. Instead, he comes here, whispering and muttering while lost in his phone until he loses control and storms out of the building. I'm pessimistic enough to believe he will hurt one of us, optimistic enough to hope it won't be me.

Balancing faith and hopelessness isn't reserved only for students. I vacillate between believing and doubting my abilities too. I used to go through a blues toward the end of each school year thinking of what I could have and should have done to make things better. This was back when I was green and long before I arrived at this school. These days I put my faith in surviving the day. I like to believe that I can leave the job behind after 2:45 but the last few weeks it has followed me into the darkness as I lie in bed waiting on sleep and gently pushing school thoughts away.

I'm less and less able to push aside thinking this is all for naught. I've taught for twenty-three years and need five to ten more before retirement. In the beginning of my career I soaked up my colleagues' wisdom while developing my craft. Now I just hope to maintain a balance between pessimism and optimism.

About Frank I'm largely pessimistic but feel absolved since he came to us with needs beyond what we can provide. I'm more optimistic about Mike who has enough skills to help himself and recognize we are trying to help.

I hear the echoes of Frank screaming curses and threats. I still hear Mike thanking me, calling me "my guy," and saying "see you tomorrow" as he got on the bus. I'm alone in my classroom with only the sound of the heater still trying to ward off the chill. I'm sure it all means something if only I can listen closely enough to hear.