Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Flight of The Para: An Inconvenient Return

All school names, student names and city names have been changed for privacy and anonymity.

Last I was here, Mel and I were confined to a room within a room, a 3-walled cove of sorts that rested right between the resource room and Room 100. Every school has a Room 100, it’s where you take a timeout, detention, timed punishment, or all 3. The teachers can phrase the reasoning however they want, and it doesn’t fool the students. At that particular juncture, Mel wasn’t a fan of anyone. He wanted out of Humbolt Middle School and to go back to the old middle school he was originally placed in, Armstrong. I, a paraprofessional, had little to no power over where Mel took his education. My position is simple, please the teachers, support the students. If it comes down to one or the other, I side with the student.

Now, entering a new school for a new adventure, I couldn’t shake the imagery of Humbolt, the 3-walled cove, and Mel. With each step I took toward this new school- this entirely different scenario I’ve never worked before, I flashed back…

The resource room hosted a dozen or less students, all ranging in a gradient of behavioral issues, mental illness, and histories of potential violence. Most the white students in the resource room had autism and were there for extra support and help. One white student exhibited behavioral problems, and that was it. Every black student in the resource room was there for behavioral reasons. 95% of the staff was white, so you can apply the reasoning to the resource room. Mel’s skin was a shade darker than my own, his hair texturized to tight curls, and his eyes brown like mine. Had it been up to me, I’d flip the resource room into a black leadership space, and turn the entire program inside out. Outside of my reach, I focused on what I could control: The relationship between the black students and the immediate world surrounding them.

Mel, fiercely screamed during this particular episode. It was like no other tantrum I’d seen him throw. It was a moment that little reflected Mel, and more so the resource room. The program had failed this young black boy, and he was shouldering the frustration. Ms. Finley, the lead teacher of the resource room, assigned me to Mel until he cooled out. Alas, there was no cooling down for Mel. The tantrum persisted, the screaming continued… and then… the tears.

I didn’t bother applying reason to him his ears in a moment where reason wouldn’t be had, so I simply blocked the opening to the room until he dealt with the reality of where he was at. Inversely, I’d collide with my own reality as well. As he tears rolled from his eyes, he breathed deeply. He was exhausted, and lost his breath from screaming so intensely. In that, he left an opening, and I stepped through it.

Sitting next to him, we both leaned against the wall. “I want to go back to Armstrong…” he murmured in defeat. “I know, but we’re not there. I need you to breathe, control your body, and show that to Ms. Finley. If she doesn’t see that you can do that, we’re stuck here for the day.” The thought of controlling his body was one thing, but to display it to a white authority figure in the next room was another. He looked away and gasped at an arrhythmic pace, slowly gathering sense. Piecing his consciousness back together, he acquiesced, looked down to his lap.

Right there, it hit me. I was in the foxhole with this young boy, as we both struggled to make sense of a program condemning people of color to rooms to control themselves. Humbolt meant to claim his body. Tears welled up in my eyes, and began to roll. Mel’s head still perched downward looking into his lap. “My middle school was called Windom. It was a good school, but… the detention room always had faces that looked like yours and mine. Dudn’t that seem weird to you?” I said to him, riding a streamline of clarity and conscious.

“Yeah” he murmured through his tears.

“I want you to get out of here. This room ain’t a place for any young person. You just… you just can’t let them put you back in here, y’know. We gotta figure out a way to not come back here. Ok?” I said.

“Ok” he whispered.

Our chests heaved, I wiped my face, and took note that our breathing had synced up in some weird way. I couldn’t tell Ms. Finley what I told Mel, it’d be my job. However, in a moment of truth, I wouldn’t lie to Mel.

Mel and I walked back into the resource room, settled the difference with Ms. Finley, displayed her definition of a controlled body, and proceeded into the day.

And that room still haunts me.

And I’ll never forget Mel. I’ll never forget a second of that day.

Eyes opened, opening the door to Honeybrook Elementary in a 3rd ring suburb of Minneapolis, it felt strangely unfamiliar. The culture was nothing like Humbolt. Could the unfamiliarity be due to the fact I’ve been out of the game for so long? Had I been working with kids on the spectrum so long outside of a school that it warped my perception? Or was it that Honeybrook presented an entirely different operation and budget than Humbolt? Whatever it is, or was, I welcomed the challenge.

Looking back to that  day with Mel, I vowed to never be complicit to a student’s solitary confinement or controlling of their body. We’ll see how that works out here.

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