Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My life in a Chinese prison gang

Ok, let me start by saying that I am not, have not ever been and have no plans on ever being a member of a Chinese prison gang.  This is for a few reasons:

(1) I'm not Chinese.  My husband does insist that I'm the most Asian person he knows - I was born in Okinawa, I lived in China, I speak some Chinese (no where near as much as I did a decade ago) - but I'm still probably about as white as they come.

(2) I've never been to prison.  In my life, I've had two traffic tickets & there was a bench warrant issued when I forgot to pay one of them, but I paid it.  I don't commit crimes, I don't hang out with people that commit crimes.

and (3) I'm not in a gang.  I don't think I'd be very good at it.  I don't like wearing the same color all the time.  I don't like following directions.  And I'm not good at those hand signal things.

Despite all of this, being in a Chinese prison gang is AWESOME!  This all started about 8 months ago.  It was getting hot and I'd started wearing my hair up while I was doing searches outside.  One of the girls noticed a Chinese tattoo on the back of my neck and freaked out a little bit.  All of my students see me as very conservative, so a neck tattoo was a bit more than she could handle.  She yelled "Oh my god!  You have a neck tattoo?  What is that?"  Before I could even say anything, the principal answered "Chinese prison gang" and then walked off.  I laughed; the bell rang and that was that.

Over the next couple of days, kids made comments, but I never said anything.  They could think what they wanted...

Fast forward to this year.  My 7th period class is a total pain in the ass.  Not bad kids, just a pain.  There also aren't a lot of them for some reason, so they got to be really good at distracting me from teaching by asking random questions.  One day, about six weeks ago, I cannot remember what happened - maybe a kid saw a tattoo, maybe it was something I said - but a kid said that he'd heard a rumor that I was in a Chinese prison gang.  I replied "Yeah, and?"

And so it began...

From that point forward, I've gotten random prison gang questions - and I've been creative enough and between Law and Order & law school, know just enough to convince a few kids that I actually AM part of a prison gang.  The beauty is, these kids convince other kids.  Some are gullible, others just think it's funny that other students are so gullible and perpetuate the story for me.  Nonetheless, it's awesome.  At one point, another teacher even asked me if I was really in a Chinese prison gang...  I actually had to give my principal the heads up... just incase a parent called.

So... here's the story as I've told it so far...

I was arrested in New York for an undisclosed non-violent crime & sent to prison about 10 years ago while I was in college.  I don't talk about the crime because there I turned state's evidence and there are still a few things pending.  I appealed and had the case overturned because of a bad search (these kids are all about the 4th amendment).  I was released and moved on with my life.

But, while I was in prison, I joined a Chinese prison gang.  Why Chinese?  Well, I'm not black or Mexican, so bloods and crips are out.  I didn't really want to go Arian Nation, so that left the Chinese.  I joined for protection, naturally.  I was friendly with some of the leaders because I was educated and helped some of them study for the GED.  Because of that, I got the protection without having to do anything weird.

Occasionally... a student will ask a question because something "doesn't quite add up".  Like...

"Where are your tattoos?  Prison gangs have tattoos."  (They also ask about colors)
Answer:  "Mine are mostly hidden.  We tried to stay on the down low so we didn't get in a lot of trouble.  Since I was a white girl, I didn't want to call any attention to myself."  (we didn't do colors for the same reason)

"Wait a second, if you went to prison, how are you a teacher?"
Originally, another student answered this with "That's why she's at Biltmore, genius".  That actually held up for a long time.  Eventually, I did have to amend my story to add the appeal part.  They're ok with it now.

My favorite though... "Why don't you swear?  If you were really in a prison gang, you'd swear."
Answer:  "I found Jesus in prison"
Student:  "What?  No.  That's dumb."
Another student:  "No, it's a thing.  My uncle did that.  He doesn't swear any more either."

The best part about it?  Random threats "Don't make me bring my people."  One kid occasionally challenges me to a fight.  We agree to meet and fight at a Starbucks later.  I'll usually call him out for not showing up... If he says he did, I reply "no you didn't, I was there drinking a frapuchinno while I was waiting for you"

Mike thinks that I should go to UNLV, find a few Asian girls and take some photos with them to hang up around my classroom.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day!

I'm going to open this up by saying that this isn't a political post.  I voted about 2 weeks ago while wandering through the mall.  I encourage my students and friends to vote... Don't forget to vote!!!!  (See, like that)

But, I don't get particularly political outside of my own four walls.  I could probably count on two hands the number of people that I've had true political discourse with.  It's ok.  That's how I like it.  America is the land of choices.  Each individual is free to choose their candidate and support said candidate.  The beauty of the system is that I don't have to agree with you.  That's it.

Nonetheless, today I was able to reflect on all the elections of my past - 24 years worth of them & while there are a lot of things in my life that I don't remember.  I remember past election days and the excitement that came with them - be it positive or negative outcome (in my opinion).

I will start with 1988, because that's as far back as I can remember.  I was in 4th grade at Roosevelt Elementary in Dickinson, ND.  I remember having a "school election", where we were able to vote for the president.  The principal announced at the end of the day that George Bush and Dan Quayle won.  We were happy.  After school, my mom took me... I have no idea where - maybe city hall - to vote.  She voted for Bush.  That's pretty much all I remember - but give me a break, I was 8.  :)

1992 was middle school.  I don't remember a lot about that election for some reason - probably because my mom wasn't particularly political.  Also, I lived in North Dakota. Everyone was a Republican.  I'm pretty sure that's probably still the case.  Come to think of it, I've always lived in "Red" states, though it seems that Nevada has recently crossed the line...

1996 - that was high school, senior year to be exact.  I remember some friends excited because they'd be 18 before the election and would be able to vote.  Sadly, I was nowhere close.  My friends and I were all in a before-school government class with Mr. Buback.  In retrospect, I realize that there wasn't as much learning in that class as there could have been, but it was early.  Ironically, my first class now starts about 30 minutes before that optional class did.  Despite that, I remember the obligatory red and blue colored political map as well as some general election excitement.  As it was the Clinton/Dole election, it wasn't as exciting as it could have been.

2000 - Bush v. Gore.  This was probably the election that forever cemented my realization that everyone needed to voice their political opinion by voting.  I was at U Mississippi (Ole Miss) and went to register to vote.  I was told NO.  Years later, I found this was illegal.  Despite this, I did an absentee ballot for Idaho and spent the evening sitting in the lobby of Guess Hall (and at the OBC, if I'm not mistaken) watching the returns.  It was incredibly memorable... especially watching the returns with all of my foreign exchange friends.

Four years later, 2004, I was working as a nanny in Millwood, NY.  Again, I voted absentee in Idaho.  I helped Ryan create his election day T-shirt... I'm still looking for that picture in hopes that I can post it!!  Ry and I watched the returns and had excellent political discourse... he was the first person I ever brought to my side of the fence when it came to gun control....

2008... yet another milestone year.  I watched the returns with Sarah, my German exchange student.  It was just the two of us, hanging out in my Las Vegas apartment.  She was so incredibly excited that I was reminded of the power of our political system.

And now, in 2012... I will spend the evening in my law classes, followed by a return home to my ultra-political husband... I'm sure it will be a late night!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why I'm in law school

There is an easy answer to this and a much more complex answer.

Easy answer:  It's Monday night and I'm not supposed to be skipping class.  For the record, class won't start for a while yet, so I'm not ignoring my responsible-student duties by blogging.  :)

More complex answer:  I'm here because of my students.  I actually spoke about this in one of my classes today.  In the past six years, I have seen countless students railroaded by the school district and the Nevada legal system.  I'm not blaming any one person in particular.  It isn't anyone's fault; it is, rather, a culture without forgiveness and without second chances.  Parents and students go blindly, assuming that the schools know best and will do what is fair.  For the record, they won't.  The school will do what it wants to do.

So, you may ask, what does all of this have to do with sitting in law classes?  More than you'd think.  I've seen too many students with poor representation in legal hearings.  The next thing you know, they're wearing khaki pants and going to school at Biltmore.  Or you're forever barred from college financial aid.  Or worse, you're sitting in a courtroom looking at 25 years in prison because you went on a Slurpee run.

That brings us to today's story... the danger of Slurpees.

Three years ago, I had a student named Bobby (he's probably 21 now, I can use his name).  Bobby was a decent kid.  He was smart, funny, social and likable.  That put him in a small group at Biltmore.  Most students are not all of those things.  I knew he was on probation; he had an ankle bracelet and had to have court documents signed on a regular basis.  I assumed he'd had a couple of drug charges or maybe had gotten into a fight which led to legal charges - those were the typical paths to Biltmore.

A few months later, he asked me to write a letter of recommendation.  I asked him why, assuming it was for a job & was thinking about what I should say - it was for a court sentencing hearing - he was begging of leniency because he was looking at 10-25 years in prison.

About six months prior, Bobby was hanging out with some friends & they were going out to do whatever it is they did.  Bobby was in the back seat of the car while his two friends were in the front.  The driver said he was going to stop at 7-11 for a Slurpee and asked Bobby if he wanted one.  Rather than go in, Bobby decided to stay in the car and text his girlfriend.  Little did Bobby know that his friends wanted more than a Slurpee.  While he was texting sweet nothings to his girlfriend, they robbed the 7-11 clerk at gunpoint.  They then came back to the car and drove away.

They were arrested less than 5 minutes later - all three of them.  The two friends were over 18 and had committed armed robbery.  Adults, felony, no question.  Bobby was 16 and his friends admitted that he had no part in the robbery - according to Nevada law, it didn't matter.  He was still committing a felony.  Because he'd had a previous brush with the law - a minor possession charge, I believe, he was certified as an adult and charged as such.

He was given a PD who didn't fight particularly hard; to his credit, he probably couldn't have won.  The law is rigid and the evidence against him was pretty solid.  His best chance was getting charged as a juvenile - but he'd lost that fight before it began.  In the end, there was NO WAY he could win.  The deck was stacked against him.  Bobby was going to prison, probably for a long time.

That is exactly what happened.  As far as I know, he was sentenced to 10 years.  I heard a rumor that he was appealing, but I haven't heard anything more.  I spent so much time thinking about how unfair the circumstances were, about how this kid's life was ruined forever, about how a good kid was in prison for nothing more than being in the backseat of a car.  How many of us could have been in the same position?

And THAT injustice is why I'm in law school....

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On teaching...

Ok, I always have thoughts on teaching.  I do it every day (mostly).  This week, I've gone through what is probably my 10th round of state proficiency tests.  I've never worked in a school where proficiencies come easy to the students.  There are a dozen schools in town where 80% of students or more are likely to pass/graduate/etc.  The graduation rate at Biltmore is less than 30%.  For every hundred kids that sit in my classroom, only 30 of them will graduate.  Another hand full will get a GED.  A few will go to college, a few more will join the military.  A few will pass through our doors and realize that they have NO INTEREST in ever coming back.  Some will stay for years.

I think this has been one of the most disheartening weeks in my career, but at the same time one of the most hopeful.  For the past month, I've been teaching my students to pass the writing proficiency test.  Realistically, it's not hard to pass.  Follow the formula, write in complete sentences, use reasonable arguments.  This year, I created a test class in which I went over the step-by-step of writing proficiency - not writing, mind you, but this actual test and how to pass it - every single day for 47 days (from the first day of school to the day of the test) in addition to regular English classes.  That works out to over 35 hours of direct instruction.  Most students can pull it off with 10 hours or less of review and "helpful hints".  My students had almost four times what would be considered standard.  

Many of them still won't pass.  Not for lack of trying, not for lack of instruction.  They just don't have the skills.  They have missed years of education, fallen through the cracks countless times, been given social promotions every year.  And now, as high school seniors, they've missed such large portions of the educational continuum that they cannot function at the appropriate level.  And it breaks my heart.  

I had so many students come to me today (after yesterday's test), so proud of themselves because they felt they'd done a phenomenal job on the exam and were sure to pass.  I didn't have the heart to tell a single one of them that I'd spent a couple hours reading ever single test and discovered that while they had tried, to that count there was no question, many wouldn't pass.  I was able to pick out half a dozen that would pass without question, about ten more that hadn't even tried.  The rest (another 30) fell somewhere in the middle.  Some of those would make it if their papers were read kindly.  I have one student that wrote a great essay - probably the best he's ever written - but the thesis is that "to be a good citizen, you have to be legit".  Some readers will be thrown off by the word, but if they can get past it, they'll see a kid that has realized that a genuine life is much more valuable than one lived fraudulently.  I want him to pass so badly, but I'm afraid he won't.  

Another student wrote similarly, about living within the law.  He used his mom as an example.  She was an immigrant but now works, pays taxes, etc. so she can be a good citizen.  He came to me today really impressed with himself because he'd remembered my carinal rule:  "If you don't have anything good to say, lie.  No one will ever know."  He told me, he was stuck for half an hour before he remembered that & came up with a good story.  He too, will likely not pass.  As an illegal immigrant with spotty education, he did his very best... which may never be enough.  

Through all of this, I thought of David Garcia.  David was never my student, but was Mike's student for four full years of high school.  During his senior year at Desert Pines, he was struggling to pass his writing test.  He'd taken it six times, to no avail.  I remember him coming into my classroom so frustrated because he just couldn't do it.  I would give my room full of Freshmen some random assignments to keep them quiet and sit at my desk with David so he could pass his test.  Ironically, I could have been suspended for it; I didn't care.

David did pass his test, and he did graduate.  Now, he's in Afghanistan.  I worry about him every day and think about him often.  I had one Biltmore student come back last spring telling me he'd joined the Air Force.  I was shocked to see him.  We'd butted heads all the time.  He was smart, but lazy.  I tried to push him into using some of the brain cells.  He hated me for it & left my class angry daily.  He left with an escort more than once.  He came back to hug me an apologize.  He told me that as much as he hated my class, it forced him to re-evaluate some of his choices - I was the first person that ever told him "Stop acting stupid.  You're smart and I need you to act like it."  He said that no one else had ever told him he was smart.  I don't think I'd ever been so humbled.  

I've only been teaching 6 years, so I haven't reached that point yet where there are a lot of students coming back to tell me they've succeeded.  A few, but not many.  I've had two tell me they've gone into teaching because they loved my class.  I get occasional e-mails.  Nothing makes me happier than hearing a student has found success.  I only wish there were more of them...