Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 17 2012

Scary Thing #2

Here’s the other scary thing I’m doing with my kiddos (again, scary for me, not them). We’re reading a book.

Now, last year this would have been scary because it would mean we weren’t reading our basal reading curriculum. But this year it’s scary because of the book I chose. We’re reading Never Say Quit by Bill Wallace, a book I loved when I was their age. I wanted to read it as a whole class, but it’s out of print and Donorschoose doesn’t carry the book, so we’re doing it as a teacher read aloud instead. We’re using it to talk in-depth about characters and the difference between a character trait and a character’s current emotion (and how both of those are different from a plot summary…which is how my students answer all questions). We have a big chart with each of the characters on it, and we add information as we learn about them. My kids really like it so far.

Here’s why it’s scary. The basic plot of the book is that a bunch of somewhat misfitty kids get cut from the soccer team because they aren’t as popular as the other kids. They decide to start their own team, only no one will coach them. They end up asking their old principal, who used to be this great guy until his wife ran off with the preacher and he turned into a drunk. He almost won’t do it, but then the kids have the idea to pay him in beer they find in people’s dumpsters (one kid is an accomplished junk-hunter, and it’s his idea to find unopened beer in the trash). As the story goes on, the kids start to get to know each other really well (at the coach’s insistence) and learn some of the hard, real-life stuff their teammates go through: an abusive dad, illegal immigration concerns, kids who have to take care of more than their fair share of responsibility. Through it all, when something gets really bad, too bad to handle, the principal-coach steps in and helps them work it out: he gets the abused family into a new living situation, helps the illegal immigrants with papers, helps the poor kid get glasses, and so on. Meanwhile, he is trying his hardest to quit drinking. All is going pretty well, but then towards the end of the book he falls off the wagon and goes on a bender. It’s loud, embarrassing, and heartbreaking for the kids. But rather than ditching him, like they are tempted to do, all the kids’ families and them get together to clean this guy up, sober him up, and give him another chance, because in the end Never Say Quit means more than not quitting soccer, it means not quitting on each other.

I could see some parents not liking this book’s subject matter. I could definitely see my principal not liking it. It even makes me somewhat uncomfortable, in that I don’t love bringing up upsetting and unfair things to kids because I don’t want them to have to deal with so much bad stuff.

But at the same time, I feel like my kids are dying to talk about some of these things. I picked this book because my kids have really latched onto any tiny mention of alcohol that comes up in other books we have read. Booze is not even mentioned in Shiloh, for example, and still they describe Judd Travers as a big guy with dirty clothes who drinks too much beer, because that was the image they made of him. They really hang on the beer part, talking about how he probably smells like beer and maybe he is drinking a beer when Marty walks up. It seems like something they need to talk about.

Alcoholism is too big a part of things here. Never, before moving to New Mexico, had I seen multiple people wandering around, plastered drunk at 8 in the morning on a Thursday. We have way more semi-functional alcoholics here than is usual, but we also have “glonnies,” a slang term for drunk hobos taken from the Navajo word for drunk (adlaani). These are people who are so addicted they are homeless, panhandling for money for liquor. There is a volunteer branch of the police department that drives around picking up people who are so drunk they are a danger to themselves or others, because that is so common an occurrence that the real police don’t have time to deal with it. Lines for the cheapest liquor stores in town go around the block on paydays.

This kind of drinking is part of my kids’ experience. They have alcoholics in their families, they see glonnies on the street, they know what DWI stands for and have parents who have gone to jail because of it. At the same time, they are 9 and 10 years old. They don’t really know how to process stuff like this, don’t know it’s not typical in most of the rest of the country. They need to talk about it, especially about the really heavy drinking and the abusive situations, because even kids who don’t have that going on in their immediate family for sure know people who do. They may not even see some of that behavior as a bad thing, because it is so normal for them and so many people they know. They need to be able to express how they feel in a place they feel safe, or at least hear that it is OK to talk about it.

We went on a field trip yesterday to an outdoor ropes course, and my kids went nuts for it. They loved being outside, loved climbing on things, loved talking to the high schoolers who were our leaders for the day. The overwhelming feeling for me all day, watching my quiet kids grinning ear to ear, my bouncy kids running top speed, my challenged learners teaching juniors how to play string games, was, “Man, I love these kids.” It breaks my heart that these kids I love have to deal with so much heavy stuff. But we can’t just pretend they don’t.

4 Responses

  1. meghank

    My kindergartners answer all questions with a plot summary! I thought they were just weird. Glad to hear it’s more widespread than I thought.

    Also, you were talking about telling them the story of the first European encounter with the Native Americans. I was reading http://books.google.com/books?id=7AIWAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA19&lpg=PA19&dq=chicaca+1541&source=bl&ots=zz7Ow1BToe&sig=6-skhSKsJluUWHymgKlHdIbRBBY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=J3egUOsJx7DQAei4gfAG&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false (fascinating) and http://www.backyardnature.net/loess/ind_pox.htm

    You might mention to them how, similar to the case with smallpox and measles, alcoholism is a disease that Europeans brought to Native Americans, who did not have immunity to the disease that the majority of Europeans had built up over millennia (if you agree with that explanation).

    I sympathize with your position, having been the first person (apparently) to have told my first graders about segregation and slavery. It was a very uncomfortable position (I am a white teacher in a majority African American school), but I agree it needs to be done, and the sooner the better. My first grade teacher taught us about Martin Luther King (I live in Memphis), and I think that teacher (who was African American) and learning about that may have been one of the things that drew me to learning and to furthering my own education more than anything else.

    • eminnm

      Ahhh the plot summary is driving me bananas! It’s a combination language issues and low vocabulary, I think. They don’t understand what the question is asking, and they might not have the vocabulary to answer the question if they do understand it, so they offer what they do know how to do: summaries.

      I really like that connection of alcoholism being like smallpox. There are so many historical instances, especially around here, where the conquistadors/settlers/white people paid Native American workers in booze specifically to make them alcoholics and easier to handle. My kids know a lot about segregation and slavery, because it comes up in stories a lot, but they think of racism as something that only happens between white people and black people. We are slowly working on the idea that there’s more to it than that.

  2. Cornelia

    I hope you’re not teaching on the Navajo Reservation just to further your “career” in another field. I’ve worked with TFA teachers and many did not stay long enough to thoroughly know us.There are many natives who do not drink before eight because we’re helping you manage your class of beautiful Dine children. Yes, I am a Navajo woman and I am a teacher on the rez. Please don’t spread your stereotypical views, what you can do is teach, teach, teach and understand our history.

    • eminnm

      I totally agree! There are so many AMAZING native people out here who love their kids and work tirelessly to help them succeed. I do not mean to suggest in any way, shape or form that alcoholism is the norm. And I also fully recognize that I do not know the culture or the region very well–I have only been here a year. I do not mean to perpetuate stereotypes or ignore the history, just share observations. In fact, I’m trying to educate myself on the history of this area (got any book recommendations?) so as to better understand. I can only speak to what I have experienced and what my students tell me they have experienced. I am so proud and lucky to be here, teaching my beautiful class of Dine children. If my phrasing or description offended, I am truly sorry. At the same time, I think it is important to talk about alcohol, because my students bring it up and ask questions. To ignore it or brush it off feels…wrong.

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