Teaching summer camp at the moment, or rather, a hybrid summer camp/summer school for Gifted and Talented Wisconsin kids, from all walks, really, and all skill levels within the actually quite wide range of G+T. The job is thrilling and fun, exhausting and draining, all at the same time.
I've a class of 15 junior high school kids - ages 12-15 - 5 boys, the rest, girls. They come to the class with really wide-ranging skill levels when it comes to writing - some are sensitive but don't express themselves clearly, some are insensitive to others' feelings but write a damned good story. Then there's the middle world - good with what they do, but are used to scraping by, bored in school. These are the ones it is hard to challenge - and I likened the experience of, along with my aide, assisting all 15 at once, to being like having 15 legs and two heads. Phew.
Two of the things that have come up, just today, that blow my mind in one way or another (and each day is full of stuff like this!):
WHERE EMPATHY ENDS:
One student my aide and I talked about at lunch with his RA. He's the highly sensitive and actually intellectually articulate type, but his emotional growth is clearly stunted. He keeps himself separate, actually talks to himself at times, and often, when he gets going, will go on and on (I told my aide that a "conversation" with him actually qualifies as a "monologue") regardless of whether or not (usually me or my aide) anyone is listening. His RA expressed similar observations, and we all agreed our only concern is that other kids will mock him or shut him out. I said "that hasn't happened yet," (this was at lunch) "but I know it will. We'll keep each other posted."
Then it did, slowly but surely throughout the very same afternoon. Bit by bit, they excluded him, talking about him while he was reading aloud, leaving him behind (today they are aloud to begin walking to and from class as a group) and snickering at his comments or walking style. Tomorrow I will give a general respect talk to back up my dirty looks, and begin speaking privately and directly to those who are doing it the most, before it catches on.
But here's the thing. What I said to his RA is this "I am mostly concerned for him - he seems to not be empathic, not connect with others. He speaks violently sometimes, and disjointedly, as if he doesn't realize others have feelings, though he is often aware of his own." Then it happened - doing Natalie Goldbergs "Be An Animal" chapter today in class, I asked this question "How many of you have imagined what it would be to be inside another human or animal's head?" Too vague, so I tried the opposite: "Has anyone NOT ever tried this?" Of course no one else raised their hand, but he raised his. "Never?" I asked, before I could stop myself, shocked. "No. I do not imagine myself to be other beings." he stated in his hyper-articulate manner.
What worries me isn't the kids mocking him, that we can stop. What worries me for him is him.
HOW CHIMPANZEES ARE *NOT* LIKE HUMANS:
We went to the zoo today, to the primate house. Long hot walk both ways, but the kids barely complained. And the primates were rich material - lazy lemurs, cute colobos and frisky chimps. Everyone had a great time - even if the great time involved becoming angry at zoos, and expressing that on paper in a real way. I was aiming for them to practice personification and anthropomorphism - many of them, in fact, crawled right into the primates' heads and really discovered some amazing observations. Lovely, in fact. Often heart-breaking.
Half way through our time there, a crew of Head Start teachers and kids came in, utterly recognizable (from my days doing school shows at the Overture) in their safety vests, and by the fact that every single child (though not all adults) were African-American. They stopped at each station, observing, correcting each other, squealing. In a totally non-racist way, you could see my students comparing the kids to the apes (as there were so many kids, and they were all in the way; later a student told me, too, that yesterday the Psychology class was TOLD to compare primates to people in front of them). As so was I.
Then families began to pour in, and the air got stuffier, filled with claustrophobia (for me) and heat and breath. The Head Start kids got lost in the crowd - you could hear them calling out for each other, and then at one point, in the peak of the busy-ness, a very loud, very frightening banging began - what turned out to be a ton-heavy gorilla responding to a threatening gesture from a small boy in the crowd, who had crawled past the ropes and propped himself illegally close to the glass. Then the chimps, in the room I was in, kicked in, with gorillas, chimps and kids banging on safety glass or plastic, and my kids jumped up, rushing to see the action, as of course, everyone was. Into this melee, just off to the entrance, walked a new school group, this time all white, adults and teachers, wearing often over-sized red tee-shirts with the name of their school printed neatly on the chests: "Le Petite Academy." I don't know this school but I could read what it looked like from so much of the groups' characteristics, just on the surface. I felt both a sense of equinimity - everyone gets to go to the free zoo - and sadness, though I still don't know why.
When we got back one girl in my group, who happens to be African-American (in fact her family is part of the Nation of Islam in Milwaukee) had noted what had happened; the ruckus and rushing, crowding and piles of black kids, then, in the wake of the crowd leaving, dispersing, the silent wave of white kids. No one other than me noticed, as I asked to see if anyone had, after she was done reading.
No conclusions. Just observations - or only a few conclusions, anyway. Will try to keep talking about this here as it is important for me to "download" as a friend calls it, with all the intensity continually ramping up with the kids. Shout out to Birdfarm who just got done doing what I am doing only with a much harder class, larger, often with topics she wasn't ready to teach and at an age she didn't know well or want to work with. This is exhausting even when you are doing just what you love with just the right group. And they are - just the right group. Amazing.