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Class Notes
'All I see is amazing kids...'
(Published February 7, 2005)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

Looking out of my classroom window, I can see a homeless shelter, a dumpster, an empty lot caged with sagging chain links and full of snow-covered glass and debris, an apartment building tattooed in gang tags, the Columbia Heights Metro station parking lot and the corner of the construction site for the new Bell Multicultural High School.

Looking out my window at 3:30, I am filled with joy. Walking to the Metro, to the CVS on 14th Street, to the Chinese carry-out, to the bus stop, or just home, is a stream of students, my school's kids. Typically, about half of them I recognize on sight, 20 feet away, my students or kids I know from meeting them in the halls between classes as they make their way, armed with backpacks or handouts jammed down the pockets of denim jeans. Past the empty 40-ounce bottles left by the drunks on the corner of Irving Street and Hiatt Place, around the mural painted on the wooden hoardings thrown over the backless historical façade preserved on the south side of the empty lot, dodging the traffic flying down Irving from 16th Street, I watch my kids in their wool hats and baggy coats.

In twos and threes, or alone in a Walkman universe, they wander off, only to return the next morning for another day of school. Some turn up well before 8 a.m., bouncing around otherwise empty corridors, some trickling in at 8:50, 9 or even an hour after school started, for no particular reason but teenage-ness. So goes a semester at Bell.

The snow falls on and off as we exit January and start the back half of this school year. So much has stayed the same. Kids still have trouble turning in homework on time, if at all. I still have trouble managing my workload and keeping my kids interested and engaged the entire school day. My task is still to get kids, some of whom can barely read, to pass standardized tests at a 10th grade level, to teach to a high standard, to motivate and engage kids every day, whether the kids want to be there or not. The blocks around the school could still be footage for a documentary on urban poverty, with a half-falling down tenement just up the street on Park Road. Yet everything has changed.

Now, five months since school started, when I look out my window, I don't see an empty lot filled with trash. Sometimes, if I see the lot at all, I see the future site of a Target store and I wonder what will come from the gentrification rolling through the neighborhood like the tide. And I don't see the gang graffiti that's sprayed along the walls of the apartment buildings. That's blended into the background by now. All I see is amazing kids, individuals, really smart, creative, compassionate kids. I see them on their trajectories through the neighborhood. I sometimes see them in the Safeway on Columbia Road, or the Super-Save on Mount Pleasant Street, as I shop for groceries, and it's no longer a shock for them to find out that their math teacher actually lives and shops in the neighborhood just like them. Over the semester, I've gotten a chance to get to know well over a hundred kids. I can't say I like them all. I do really care about them, and each afternoon as they leave I hope the best for them, and I look forward to seeing them again the next morning (kids, if you read this, on time please!). I'm really excited about the 20 weeks we've got left together. Twenty weeks such a short time to spend together.

Last week I found out that one of my students from last year, one of the most difficult students I've ever taught, was transferring out of Bell to another high school. I won't see this student anymore at school. Sometimes students are astonishingly rude, angry at the whole world and themselves, but I'm still sad when they won't be back. It's taken a year and half, but I felt like this coming semester would be a chance for that student to find some inner peace and peace within the school the student had been assigned to a new math teacher known for his good relationships with kids who were otherwise tough to reach, and my hope was that 10th grade would bring some maturity as well.

Transferring schools may be a victory. I'm curious to see how my student does at the new school, but I can't help thinking that we failed, that we didn't provide what that kid needed, and that this failure was not an isolated event. I guess I question what I see before me, and what I don't see when I look around. Which is more real? The empty lot or the promise of 800 kids getting ready for a new day?

Each year, almost 5,000 students start 1st grade in D.C. public schools. Roughly 4,100 to 4,400 start 9th grade. Less than 2,500 make it to 12th grade. That's a 43 percent cumulative high school drop-out rate from 9th through 12th, or putting it another way, a little less than half of all kids in DCPS high schools don't make it all the way through. Nationally, the rate is about 11 percent (National Center for Educational Statistics http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/droppub_2001/6.asp).

As I start the new semester I think about the kids I see each day, the kids I sometimes see, and the kids I no longer see. Some kids I've failed literally by giving an "F" on their report card, some I've failed because I should have given them an "F" but didn't, and then there are some like my student who transferred out, with whom I failed to make a meaningful connection at Bell. And there are some of my kids that I soon won't see because they're off to college, kids with whom I've forged strong bonds; together we've learned a tremendous amount, about math and about life.

I'm still learning what the human mind is capable of. It can do amazing things, sometimes literally passing over what we choose not to see. As you share the next semester with me through The Common Denominator, I hope you will continue to look around with me, look into my classroom, and discover what it is we're truly seeing.

***

Wennersten is a third year mathematics teacher at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator