Blog: Jeff Kass

Faltering English grades don't bode well for a state trying to foster a permanent class of young professionals. Author and teacher extraordinaire Jeff Kass delivers up Knuckleheads for the young men who'd rather work a backhoe than read a book. Jeff, writing program director for the Neutral Zone, also explains how the Ann Arbor Book Festival was revived by partnering with other non-profits.

Post 3: One of the Big Problems I have with School

For my final entry here, I thought I'd share a poem I wrote last spring. Our country is having a lot of conversations right now about so-called education reform. Most of those conversations seem to focus on teacher unions, benefits, merit pay based on student test-scores, and the tenure system. I don't really have a problem talking about any of those issues, but, honestly, I'm not sure any of them have much bearing on what needs to happen in order for education to improve in this country.

As a full-time high school teacher, I feel like most people currently designing educational policy have very little idea about what school is actually like right now. There are days, no doubt, where I adore what I do. Other days, I trudge home so emotionally and physically drained, I can barely trudge through my front door before collapsing. Keep in mind, I teach in Ann Arbor, a place where most people enjoy a pretty good standard of living and most of my students generally feel pretty safe. Still…

One of the Big Problems I have with School

Brian writes in his portfolio, is I dread waking up in the morning
so early to go to something that makes me so unhappy. I'm not
a morning person so I literally need some motivation to get out
of bed. I need to know when I wake up I'm looking forward
to something that’s going to make me happy and not miserable.
My girlfriend, of course, is motivation for me because I want
to see her, but sometimes even she isn't enough and I need a little
something extra. Well, your class was that little extra. I knew it was
always going to be fun….Thank you!

During February break, I was driving to Chicago with Aimee Le
so we could help out at the Chicago Youth Poetry Slam where 400
students read original poems, many of them about classmates who
shoot each other or about the one bludgeoned to death with a two-by-
four, and she asked me what I try to accomplish every day when I walk
into class. Aimee's a sophomore at Dartmouth and one of the most
powerful writers, of any age, I've ever had the privilege to encounter,
and one of her best friends tried to kill himself a few months ago
and then called for help but it ended up being too late to save him,
and it's a long drive to Chicago and I've got my own kids and won't
see them for three days so there's no way I'm going to B.S. Aimee
and I tell her, sometimes, I feel like the best thing I can do is concoct an hour
that makes most of my students feel happier walking out than they were
when they walked in. Aimee's one of the smartest people I know and not
afraid to wear enormous owl glasses to prove it and she looks at me
and puts a hand to her chin and says, that would be a pretty great teacher.

This winter, two of my students gave birth, and both eventually
brought their babies to class on days when they had no child-
care options, and both handed in their portfolios late and I've
got a boy named Daniel who often misses weeks at a time
to survive a body that's failing and only accepts food through
a tube and Aaron gets migraines on a regular basis which he
describes as leathery bastards that climb through your ear
with twelve suction cups on each tentacle and his portfolio's
late too – he has to take care of his three brothers
every afternoon and there's no privacy in his house at all,
no place where he can be alone with his thoughts even
when his head feels like its been latched on with fish hooks
with two sets of teeth and all this lurches into my classroom
and I take it home in the bookbag of my own head and Benji
got mugged and a black eye in the parking lot and Melissa
writes how her mother taught her to hide behind the washing
machine in the basement so she won't have to see her father
pound her bloody in the kitchen and Jonas describes his backyard
as the place where he's from, where his father pitched him batting
practice and caught his fledgling fastball and threw him touchdowns
but he hasn't seen him in four years even though he lives less than
two miles away and Angie's got a four-year-old brother and when
their father erupts fire because the boy stuffed too much bread
in his mouth, she feels guilty when he runs to his room terrified
and crying – she could have said something snarky to arrow
their father's seething in her direction but she didn't,
for once, she didn't feel like absorbing it and Jasmine's been
home for six days on her own, her mother said she was headed
out for a couple hours and hasn't come back, and this happens
once a month and Jasmine lies in the dark on the floor of her
kitchen, near the oven, curled up and waiting and Vivian waits
too, for her sister who ran away two weeks ago with a boyfriend
who hits her and there's been no word and she has no words
except empty, empty as the police lights flash through her
window and she merges into the doorframe, her forehead
calcifying into wood and she brings the stiff of that breaking
into my classroom and I bring it home in my bookbag and she
writes in her portfolio that Creative Writing kept her from skipping
school, she wanted to be there for sixth hour and Cheyanne walks
into seventh hour shaking. A boy called her the c-word in her previous
class and she got in trouble for shouting back and I don't know what
that story's about but I know her mother calls her fat a lot and she throws
up her food a lot and her father drinks a lot and her best friend had to move
hundreds of miles away from her own father, he couldn't keep his hands
off her, and all this I bring home in my bookbag and I grade papers
on the sidelines of my daughter's soccer game and Miguel's grandmother
passed away last summer and she gave him his first soccer ball but he didn't
get to say goodbye, she was still living in poverty in Mexico with no doctor
and Jason almost never speaks in class and never looks anywhere but forward,
dead straight ahead, and I wonder if he's the kind of boy who will detonate
like a pipe bomb and he writes how he once glued construction paper beneath
a buzzing fan and then dropped the Valentine anonymous on the porch of the girl
he was too shy to talk to, then watched another kid take credit in class the next day
and he didn't do anything except write about it five years later and I grade papers
during field hockey and flag football and look up barely in time to see my daughter
make a dazzling tackle and thank you, Brian, for saying my class makes you want
to wake up and even if you're just B.S.-ing and sucking up for a better grade,
thank you, anyway, for caring enough to do that, and thank you, Lauren,
for sharing how your twenty-four-year-old cousin molested you when you
were eight and how you survived it and thank you, Meng, for trying to fight
back against the boy who wrestled you to the grass on New year's Eve,
and I carry your stories in my bookbag and sometimes I lift weights
and wonder if it's to maintain the strength to do it but these stories feed me
too and how you muster the throat to tell them tells me to keep listening
and I try to make you laugh, I try to make all of you laugh, I try somehow
to make every hour better. It's what I do. I'm a teacher.