The F Word

 

I was speaking to an acquaintance of mine yesterday and we began a conversation about Gay-Straight Alliances, groups that are forming in schools. We both focused on the positive nature of such organizations, seeing that there are so many suicides by gay teenagers and how such groups can be extremely supportive.

This acquaintance and I work in a hospice for people who are HIV-positive. Not all of them are gay but many are and they have faced stigmas and misinformation all of their lives. Which made our conversation all the more intense.

As a supply teacher, I go into all kinds of schools. Although the treatment of homosexuals by staff and students has improved over the years, there is still a lot of work to be done.

I never hear the N-word raised in hostility in schools any more. This is a bonus. Unfortunately, the F-word, Faggot, still gets bandied about, sometimes in anger, sometimes in jest.

homophobic language

About three years ago, I was in a grade 8 classroom and I told the students that the F-word was becoming the new N-word.

After the fact, I realized I had overstepped my boundaries. After all, it’s not my job as a substitute teacher to come into a classroom and start preaching politics.

The black students in the room took offence and I almost had a riot on my hands. They argued that “they were born black but that gay people choose to be gay,” a common misconception that many people still have.

No wonder some ignorant people still think that using the F-word is less harsh than using the N-word. As adults, we need to guide them in their thoughts.

Just this past week, I was in another grade 8 classroom and a male student called another one faggot.

When I confronted him about this, he simply said, “Well, he made me angry.”

I spoke about his right to be angry with someone but not to resort to homophobic language to express himself.

He didn’t seem to get it.

Come on people, do you get it? If so, educate others because homophobic teenagers often become homophobic adults.

Then, this week, there was also the incident in which one grade 8 student started calling himself a slut because he thought this was humorous.

That’s another topic for a blog.

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Haven’t Quite Figured Out Kids Yet

 

Kids are a fascinating study.

I would have thought that by now, being a substitute teacher who goes into all kinds of classrooms, I would have figured them out.

In my last blog, I wrote a discouraging account of a grade 4 class in which the kids seemed blasé about stickers as rewards. Most of the kids were feisty and not too concerned about classroom rules. When one student called another one stupid, I took a teachable moment to talk about how we’re all smart at doing something. I then proceeded to ask various students what they were smart at.

One replied, “I’m smart at kickin’ butt.”

Teacher with Students

Uh, the joys of choosing wrestlers as role models.

Yet, I taught another grade 4 class this past week and the kids were joyful, kind to each other, and welcomed the possibility of receiving stickers.

There had recently been a big snowfall in the city and when I took them outside, they played happily with classmates, rolling in the snow, laughing, not caring about getting wet.

Nice to see at this time of year.

So although my career is in teaching, I guess I can say I haven’t quite figured out kids.

To most teachers, grades 6-8 are the toughest to supervise, as students are going through puberty. Yet, I’ve seen some extremely polite classes in this age range.

And, as I have already indicated, I’ve witnessed some very turbulent students in the junior grades.

So when I go into schools for the first time, I never know what to expect.

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Immune to Incentives

The other day, I was supply teaching in a challenging school. I was in a grade 4 classroom that, among other students, contained three children with behavioural problems and one with autism. Even without these four, the class was challenging.

I often bring incentives in case I face situations like this. We supply teachers often go into schools we’ve never been in before and don’t always know what the day will entail. I had some stickers with me and when I saw that my day might be difficult (Before I even introduced myself, two of the children ran out of the room and had to be roped in by a Special Ed. teacher), I addressed the class.

I told them that I had stickers and that I’d be handing them out at the end of the day to the students who were behaving and who were focused on their work.

Most of the time, stickers still work with grade 4 students. Usually when I make such announcements to this age level, I get a number of excited nods and lit-up eyes. In this class, students stared at me vacantly. Two of them actually told me they didn’t care for stickers; they really didn’t interest them.

incentives

I have had other experiences like this, though very rarely. Once, I went into another slightly troubled class, this time a grade 4/5 split, and offered to read to them when I saw that they were restless and beginning to get out-of-hand. I held up my book, a children’s fantasy novel with an engaging cover. I got some mumbles and a few outright No’s. Nobody was interested or even a little intrigued.

I wouldn’t be so perplexed if both classes were made up of grade 7 or 8 students since they aren’t always moved by said incentives. But we’re talking 9- and 10-year-olds here!

What is most interesting to me is that the times such strategies failed have been in schools in areas of low socio-economic status.

I will not jump to conclusions here. I haven’t done the research and I don’t have enough evidence but I thought that this would make a great thesis paper: to study how and where and why incentives work. Or why they don’t.

One could say that parents with financial concerns cannot afford to buy their children what might be considered incentives. Or, since incentives do not have to cost anything and can include hugs and praise, are these kids despondent to the point where incentives don’t always matter? Surely, this cannot be true since so many needy children seek love and attention.

It’s all very puzzling.

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Book Talk in a Classroom

The other day, I was invited by my nephew to come into his grade 6 classroom and talk about my children’s fantasy novel, More Precious Than Rubies: The Return of the Norse Gods. This was the perfect venue for me to discuss the book since it was written for the age group in the room.

As a substitute teacher, I am used to addressing groups of children. I usually teach in the same schools where the teachers and students are so used to me coming in that they don’t see me as a stranger. So it was interesting that I felt out of my element, entering a school I’d never been in before, attaching an identification sticker to my shirt and being addressed by a caretaker as a stranger.

It is reassuring that staff are looking out for their students. This is necessary in all schools so I do not find it imposing to be questioned when I do enter unfamiliar territory.

I was greeted warmly by the students and proceeded to talk not only about the novel’s theme but also the process of writing: why it is important to write a rough draft, then revise, then do more drafts. Kids in school are used to these routines; what they do not realize is that some of their favourite books go through dozens of revisions before the finished product.

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With my book, for instance, aside from the characters, one might have trouble connecting my first and last drafts or knowing that they are varied versions of the same novel.

The students gave me a lot of respect, listening politely. Questions were allowed at the end of my talk: ones like, How did you come up with the characters? And Do you plan on making a series based on the subject material?

I tried to accentuate the importance of character development and how I often take the characteristics of people I observe and roll them up into a single character.

As I left the class, I ended my presentation with a hope-filled promise: that I’d be back when I was published traditionally. So far, I have only had success with self-publication.

And, of course, I told them to keep writing.

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Finding Empathy

Last night, I experienced a disturbing situation on Toronto transit as I was coming home from eating at my favourite restaurant.

I boarded the subway around 9:30 so the car I was on was still very busy with passengers. I took my seat beside a sleeping man. I had maybe 10 stops before I’d get off at Union station.

Like most people, I keep to myself on public transit. I take out my reading material and ignore my fellow passengers as best as I can. In a sense, our world has obscured the reality around us, blocking out the lives of others, causing us at times to be selfish but not necessarily to anyone’s detriment.

About three stops into my journey, I took notice of the sleeping man who was an arm’s length away from me. Or, at least, I thought he was sleeping. His neck was craned at an awkward angle so his head was pushed foreward, his chin on his chest. I thought I detected his body shuddering gently, in rhythm with his breathing. He was young and appeared strong which probably should have suggested that he was okay; only in a deep sleep.

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Yet, I could no longer concentrate any more on my reading. What if, in fact, he wasn’t okay? I asked myself. I looked around at the other passengers and they were all caught up in their own lives. No one seemed bothered by the slumped-over man nor did they seem bothered by my intensity in watching him.

I can pass homeless people on the street without much conscience, as they lay sprawled out on a sidewalk, motionless. Once I pass them, they are out of sight, out of mind.

But this man disturbed me. I felt I couldn’t get up and move to another seat, distancing myself from a potential problem.

When station names were called out, he didn’t stir. This struck me as odd. When I or others have fallen asleep on public transit, we usually wake up to the sound of our stop being announced and then get up in a slight stupor.

As we were approaching Union, I touched the man’s arm a few times and said “Sir!” in an audible voice a few times. I really did not want to involve myself with a stranger, especially when my own world was snug and secure. In case he suddenly jarred awake, I started formulating sentences in my head as to what I’d say to him.

Perhaps I’d grin idiotically if he squinted at me with annoyed eyes and say, “Sorry. I didn’t want you to miss your stop.”

But he didn’t wake up. He didn’t even show a subtle response to my actions.

As I got off the train, I looked back as a multitude of people boarded, and he was still slumped in the same position. I reported him to a TTC employee and he promised me he’d look into it.

I was still troubled but I felt good about my decision to report the situation.

Which leaves me with an even more overwhelming concern.

As I get older and think of death more, I always come up with the same view: I can accept death, I just can’t accept dying alone.

What if I died on a crowded subway car…and people still didn’t notice?

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Tough Week for Teaching

Like most jobs, teaching can run smoothly on average but then throw a challenging week at you. For me, this was one of them.

I am a substitute teacher and the advantage of this is that if I have had a particularly rough day with a group of students, I may not have to face them again the next day. I am not disheartened by challenges: I just know that teachers and students sometimes need a break from each other.

My week started in a class where a boy hit one of his classmates in the face with his binder. He is 9-years-old. The girl who was hit had a red welt below her eye.

In another class, a grade seven student told me to “Shut up!” on two separate occasions. One was directed at me simply because I told him to turn off a laptop on which he was playing a game. The other when he threw open a door in a rage and it hit me and I cautioned him about it.

I am at an age when I take nothing personally any more. I still enjoy going into classrooms and gird myself for any potential problems but the world is a worrisome place when kids think they can solve problems through violence and aggressive confrontations.
Not all children grow from aggressive toddlers to aggressive adults. I’ve seen many change in a positive way.

angry child

But some don’t.

So what happens to the individual who continues using violence and bullying language when he doesn’t get what he wants? I pity the person he’s driving behind on a crowded freeway when he’s in a bad mood.

I wonder how such people would react if placed in a third world country where the children in poverty-stricken areas see going to school as a privilege. I wonder if they would eventually wear down if they had no food in their bellies.

They won’t likely have the chance. Perhaps they’ll never ever see beyond their sense of entitlement.

Am I reading too much into a boy hitting a girl in the face with his binder?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

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Art With Heart 2014

I had an eventful week previously.

On Saturday, October 4, I volunteered to help tell people about, and sell tickets for Art With Heart, the annual auction that donates money to Casey House, a hospice for people afflicted by AIDS.

The auction features art by well-known and up-and-coming Canadian artists. Artists from all provinces and territories are represented and there is always some art contributed by Aboriginal artists.

The reviews took place at Waddington’s Auction House near King and Sherbourne and it was here that I got to know Stephen Ranger a little better. Ranger is the Vice President of Business Development at Waddington’s and has been an auctioneer for Art With Heart for 20 of the 21 years the event has existed.

I already knew from the auctions I have attended that he has a warm sense of humour and a steadfast dedication to making money for Casey House. Having seen him afar for so many years, my face just another in a huge audience, I got to see him up close on Saturday. He is even more personable in one-on-one situations.

The Art With Heart auction happened on Tuesday, October 7 and, as always, was entertaining. The bids came fast and furiously and a few pieces of art reached or went beyond the $10 000 level.

One does not have to bid to enjoy the spectacle. He can simply sit back, take a glass of wine that rolls by on wheeled carts, and be enthralled with the marvel.

Rick Mercer and I - October 2014

Then, on Wednesday, October 8, I had the opportunity to meet Rick Mercer who has supported Casey House over the years. Last April, Rick was honoured by the charitable organization, the St. George’s Society. Rick asked for the money from ticket sales to be given to Casey House and this was a much-appreciated gesture, seeing that Casey House is expanding into a larger building, being constructed to accommodate more clients in more spacious rooms.

These are exciting times for Casey House, an organization that strives to make daily activities more comfortable for people suffering from AIDS.

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