Saturday, November 7, 2009

Another thing you need to tell me

I've said a few times that parents need to tell me beforehand if their child has any issues I need to know about. Parents tend to be very good (overly good) about alerting me to allergies. However, they're not as good at alerting me if their children have developmental or behavioral issues. Autism, ADHD, whatever. The kid might just be A Great Big Jerk -- I like to know that in advance, too.

Parents: One thing that you might want to bring to my attention is if your child has a severe anxiety disorder of some kind. Let me give you an example.

Last week I was teaching my favorite class of kids. One of the girls, a nerdy, bespectacled whiz kid named Beth* started to tell me halfway through that she missed her mommy. The girl is in third grade. She looked fretful and because she'd pulled the same thing last week, I told her that her mother would come for her in half an hour, and she only had to wait until then.

Five minutes passed. "I miss my mommy."

Fifteen minutes passed. "I miss my mommy."

Twenty-eight minutes passed. Two minutes left in the class. By now, she looked really troubled. She started crying. Her face got hot and flushed----she up and told me she was "feeling very hot." I sat her down and asked her to just breathe, and that her mommy would see her in two minutes and she didn't have to worry. She continued to stress, hyperventilate, and freak out----until she looked at me and told me she had to go to the bathroom.

I reached for her hand and said we'd go together. She shook her head and said, "I'm leaking." All of a sudden, she wets her pants. An eight-year-old girl just wet her pants. Not a little bit, either. Her bladder exploded. In the span of three seconds, there was a small puddle of urine on the floor. Five seconds, and it looked like someone spilled a two-liter bottle of lemonade.

This is not the first time I've had a child wet herself in my class. I had a five-year-old girl fuss and whine for a few seconds and then wet herself during a summer camp----weird, because she'd been just fine about using the bathroom before. But she was five. Five! I remember having accidents when I was five. Beth, on the other hand, is eight, and the accident clearly came as a result of some kind of freakish panic attack.

Immediately following the accident, it was like the dam breaking had relieved all her pressure. She immediately felt better. She didn't seem remotely concerned that she was sitting on a urine-soaked bench in urine-soaked pants, swinging her feet above a urine-soaked floor. The other students were starting to make comments and I had to swoop in and keep them occupied while one of the dads (the school janitor!) was kind enough to grab his mop and clean it up without me even thinking to suggest it (the last time I had to clean it up myself, so I'm so thankful he was there). She looked up at me, the red color fading in her face, and said: "Hey, at least it's cooling me down!" I appreciate the optimism, I suppose.

When her mother finally arrived, we were still cleaning up the mess. Beth still had wet clothes. Her mother didn't seem the least bit concerned. In fact, she acted like it happened all the time.

HELLO? If your child has a disorder which causes them to have panic attacks until they wet themselves, I NEED TO KNOW THIS. It would prepare me. Maybe give me a tip on how to help her cope with it. Maybe I could send her off to the bathroom before she pees all over the floor. Maybe I just wouldn't be fucking horrified by the situation if I knew it was coming. Do her teachers know? Did they find out the hard way? This is something you NEED to mark on her health form. Seriously.

Just... fuckin' seriously.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The stuff nightmares are made of

Do you ever get nightmares about work? As an actor, I grew up with the "actor's nightmare" --- the dream that puts you on stage without knowing any lines. This kind of thing is common. It's the dream where nothing goes right, where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. When I started working for this company, I started to get nightmares about what would happen if everything went wrong. If I wasn't prepared, or if the children didn't respond. Sometimes I have bad days at work, but they're never as bad as the ones in my nightmares.

Until today.

Today's party was surreal. Another Halloween-themed party, the day after Halloween (oh, goody). Now, the Halloween party is a little juvenile. It requires suspension of disbelief. I have to tell stories about imaginary characters and act like witches and vampires are real. For little kids, they are real. But once you hit nine or ten, or if you're just a jaded rebellious pain in the ass, this party becomes downright stupid. My first warning bell was that the birthday child in question was nine years old. That's a little old for this kind of thing. But... okay! I was feeling good, because the party also was only supposed to have ten kids. Easy peasy, despite the cotton candy add-on. (Cotton candy is the worst add-on to a party. It's sticky, it's messy, and the equipment is heavy as hell. Also, kids are assholes about it and pretend to get sugar rushes. They think it gives them the right to act like monkeys. But anyway.)

One thing the mother did NOT tell me, however, is that the birthday child is mentally handicapped. I would have liked to know this prior to him coming into the room at the start of the party. I've done parties for autistic children before, or children with mentally and physically handicapped siblings/friends. I just like to KNOW. I like to know what's expected from the child, if their behavior is going to be out of the ordinary, or specific ways how to handle the child----warnings about what they can and cannot do, etc, notes on their attention span, etc. Is that too much to ask for? But no, not a word from mom! Birthday boy was loud, restless, and irritating. He couldn't control himself, and continued to get up and wander around behind my table to look at my equipment and TOUCH my equipment----something that is not allowed. He wouldn't budge when I asked him. He wouldn't budge when I told him. I don't blame him. He doesn't understand. But I would have appreciated parental assistance in handling this kid. I barely got any.

AND YET, our mentally-handicapped friend was not my problem. I can handle a child like that. I could NOT handle all his snotty friends. Only ten kids. Should have been easy. But remember what I said about this party being a little juvenile? At the start of the party, I let the kids know that I'm going to be telling some stories, so it's just fun to roll with it and pretend along with me, even if you may not think it's true.


These kids were bastards. They were skeptics. They were at that age where challenging authority is cool. There's a huge difference between questioning something out of curiosity and being a bitch just because you can be. Yes, I have a balloon the size of an egg. Yes, I'm telling you that it's a vampire. Look, I drew a face on him! Just roll with it. Don't be an asshole and tell me it's a balloon and the fangs are magic marker and that I'm stupid. I just want to get through the experiment and move on. Every single act went like this. I present a story, I get called on my bullshit, or Birthday Boy toddles up to the table and starts grabbing things he shouldn't grab and lo, reveals the secret of the magic trick. Or, while I'm in the middle of something, another kid wanders to the corner where I have things HIDDEN and starts pointing at it and going OMG WHAT IS THAT. These kids were contrary, they were rude, they made every act take longer because all they did was argue with me----or raise their hands to say really obnoxious stuff when I think they have an actual answer.

Children TOUCHED the dry ice. I was halfway through my spiel about how dry ice is dangerous. I was holding it with gloves, telling them not to touch, when the child beside me reaches out when I'm looking the other way. And touches it. He then has the audacity to say "It's not cold!" to everyone around him. I very seriously stop the party to let them know that this is a serious safety warning and that touching it is very dangerous. I let them know that they can experience it by blowing on it and watching the carbon dioxide gas come off of it. The third kid to do this sneaks a hand under my hands while blowing and TOUCHES IT AGAIN. "It's not cold at all!" he says. You want to know why you don't feel the cold? Because it's so cold that it's killing the nerves in your fucking fingers, you idiot. How much do you want to bet I'm going to get a call like this is my fault?

But oh. Oh. OH, the final straw.

I was making cotton candy, and some kids stood on their chairs in order to be tall enough to see what was going on inside the bowl. I didn't mind that. The parents said it was okay and they weren't trying to touch anything. But then the kid beside and slightly behind me snaps out a hand and knocks my cute bat deely-boppers OFF OF MY HEAD. Not like a child who is curious and grabs because they don't know any better, but like a disrespectful, obnoxious ten-year-old brat trying to be an asshole. This is akin to walking up to a clown and tearing off their red nose, or kicking a balloon-seller in the shins just because you think it's funny. I was ready to cry. I was ready to lose my mind.

You ever see party entertainers in movies or on TV where they're abused and it's funny? Fuck you! It's sad. Next kid who touches my deely-boppers is getting hit with a sock full of rocks.

Homey don't play that.

Um, hello?

The label for this says "birthday parties." That's not really true. Every once in a blue moon I do a party that's not a birthday. For example, we have Halloween-themed parties that are often used as birthdays in October. Sometimes they're just Halloween costume parties. It's fun to see all the kids in their costumes----you can always count on a few Transformers, a Spider-Man, a Batman, a ninja, and one or six of the Disney Princesses.

Today was Halloween! I had a party at 4:45, which struck me as a little odd (and not just because when I booked it, I was told by my boss it was at 1:45). Weren't these kids trick-or-treating? Or did they hire me as a substitute now that their whitebread upper-middle-class neighborhood was full of pedophiles and killers who want to give their kids apples with razorblades? As it turned out, I was not a substitute. I was a time-filler. I was the appetizer before the meal. I was the sideshow before the circus.

Were the kids rowdy? Yeah. I was also told there would be 15 kids. There were 20. Yay! Fuck you. They were rowdy, and there were a bunch of older kids (12+) who were mouthy, who set a bad example, and who goofed around in a mocking way----which doesn't get the younger kids in an excited-for-science mood. All in all, the party went OKAY. Not that badly, but not something to write home about. The kids didn't care! Of course not! All they cared about was going out and getting candy afterward.

Apparently, that was all ANYONE cared about, because the second my party was over, everyone left. Twenty kids and all the parents, including the host mother. They all left. LEFT. They closed me in the basement and left. They went trick-or-treating. I cleaned up alone, thinking it was awful weird to not get a follow-up from anybody. Half an hour later I went upstairs and opened the basement door. The host dad was enjoying some wine with his friend and was freaked out that SOMEONE was in his home.

He forgot I was here, too! Fortunately their invoice was paid, and Dad and Dad's Friend helped me take my stuff back to the car. Dad also tipped me in a check because Mom left for trick-or-treating without tipping me in the cash that he'd apparently given her. The fact that I walked out with a tip stunned me. I hate Halloween parties. I then went to a grown-up Halloween party, directly after. My costume was an Overworked & Underpaid Professor.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

This is the problem, see

I have a difficult child in one of my classes. He's seven years old, and for purposes of this blog, let's call him Nero. Difficulty paying attention, loud, fidgety, doesn't follow directions, and obstinate. OBSTINATE. Every so often I get a child who does not respond to any method of getting him to change his mind. Nero is this child.

Imagine the scenario: Class is just beginning, and everyone filters in, chitting and chatting and being little kids. Nero sits in the same seat he usually sits in, a spot that is designated by the regular teacher in that room as the "leader seat." The table leader sits in this seat. The kids give the seat special reverence and everyone wants to sit there. Louis*, another little boy at that table, asked me if he could sit in the leader seat this week, since Nero sat there the last two weeks. I politely asked Nero to move, and explained that it was fair.

He said no.

I asked him to move, less politely. He said no. This went on for at least a couple of MINUTES, because I'll be damned if I was going to let this child break me. The level of attitude was astounding. I've never met a child so stubborn. And then he said the one thing that made me understand him.

"When I'm at home, I get to do whatever I want."

Well, GEE. Ain't that just great. Dear Nero's parents: Your kid is an asshole. He disrupts the class, he's rude, he has no concept of proper behavior, and it's all your fault. Thank you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Chill the fuck out!, Part 2

Dear Teacher:

Thank you for letting us use your room for our program. I understand that allowing a group of children and a person you don't know into your meticulously-designed classroom. Any number of things could happen. Items could go missing from children's desks. Projects could be messed up. Books can be moved. A mess could be left all over the place. All of these things have happened in the past because children don't know how to keep their hands to themselves when they see something exciting, and very often the instructor doesn't catch it. Sometimes the instructor doesn't understand how to properly clean up a room.

I received a call about your room being disrupted, that some xylophones were all rattled and knocked over. We discussed that if this happened the day before, it was not my class. I made it clear to my students that they are not allowed to touch any of the musical instruments when not supervised by the music teacher. I have the fear of God put into me about this, and I also know what it would be like to go into my workplace and have all my stuff moved or disrupted. If they knocked things over while getting their backpacks, I didn't see it, and I am very sorry. I will have them put their backpacks somewhere else.

But you sat in on my class to use your computer. I understand you might have work to do, but that freaks me out. I was expecting a phone call to the office for one reason or another, because our classes don't run the way yours do. At the start of class, the kids came in to put their backpacks down. One of the kids went to get something from his backpack, which he'd put behind the piano. As he bent over, his butt touched some of the keys and made a noise.

You RACED across the room in three steps to give him a verbal whipping, the likes of which I don't think I have EVER seen. It was an accident. Everyone who saw it knew it was an accident. He told you it was an accident. Holy. Fucking. Crap.

The more I work in elementary schools, the more I think that every person there needs a lot more vacation time. Or an in-school massage parlor... or an open bar.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chill the fuck out!

Dear Parents:

I am trained to handle your kids. I am also trained to handle the materials in my programs. I understand that you love and want to protect your kids, but where the fuck are your brains? Apparently, when I say this:

"This is dry ice! It's frozen carbon dioxide and it's much, much, much colder than regular ice. That's why I'm wearing gloves - because if I don't wear any gloves, the dry ice will cause frostbite! So it's very important that you don't touch this! I'm going to put this in some hot water. You can touch the gas over the cauldron, and if your hands accidentally skim the surface of the water, that's okay! Just don't put your hands in the water and reach in! Remember, don't touch the ice!"

SOME of you hear this:

"This is dry ice! It's super awesome! Look at it! Why don't you touch it? Why don't you reach into that cauldron and grab that block of dry ice! It's totally awesome! Yeah, frostbite rules! Safety? WHO CARES! I'm not your parent! I don't care about your wellbeing at all!"

Are you serious?

This has not only happened to me, but several other instructors as well, and not just with dry ice. We give perfectly responsible warnings. We watch your kids. And then you call the office and say we're irresponsible and are putting your kids in danger.

A former coworker of mine told me last night that he went to a birthday party, for which he had left a voice mail confirmation call the day before, saying "Hi, this is Jake*, and I'm doing your party..." Et cetera. He arrived, only to have the parent blockade the door after he said his name was Jake. "THE VOICE MAIL SAID YOUR NAME WAS JAMES!" She wouldn't let him in because she misheard his name. Freaked the hell out, argued, until he could repeat his voice message verbatim.

Between this and the peanut panic, my brain could explode from all the tension. I know you love your kids. I know the media scares the shit out of you people. But honestly? Chill out. Chill. Out. I can't take your paranoid insanity anymore.

If only all kids worked like you do

When it comes to teaching, some techniques work on some kids better than others. I can teach one class one way, and the next day none of those techniques will work. It depends on the ages, the interest level, and the area where the school is. I have an amazing charter school that I go to - I have twenty-three children and they're angels. I have another class of twenty-three children the same age and they are monsters. I can't even wrap my head around how to take care of them. I know that they need to have lots of hands-on work, but part of my job is helping them LEARN. The kids don't shut up. They are impossible to quiet down, and it's impossible to have a discussion with them. They don't follow directions. They talk back. They destroy equipment for fun. They fight with one another and don't know how to share. This isn't the first class I've had like this, where they're completely unmanageable.

Unfortunately, my workplace doesn't believe these places exist. We're trained to use a series of techniques to get kids interested, to discipline them. All kids, they say, will respond eventually. You can get any class quiet. This isn't true, I'm sorry. This is complete bullshit. When you have twenty-three kids who all decide they want to talk over you? They're going to talk over you, no matter what you do. I don't know where it went wrong. Did I at some point make the one misstep that causes them to disrespect me? Once you do that, you can't get it back. On the other hand, I'm also convinced they're just bratty. Any class that has the majority of kids coming up to me and saying, "What are we taking home today?" and holding out their grabby sticky hands is a class that's going to suck.

I've been told that one way of dealing with problem children is to give them something productive to do, or make them a special helper. Sometimes this works. Most of the time it doesn't, particularly when you have a kid who's just so full of bitch attitude that you want to hit him. My other problem with it is that it sends a message to the other kids that bad behavior is rewarded. Sure, it redirects them, but it makes the other kids think they won't be special helpers unless they are jerks.

I have a six-year-old named Moses* at one of my classes. He's incredibly difficult and disruptive in a class where no one is over six. Most kids that age tend to listen to me and follow rules. They haven't figured out how to be rebellious. But Moses is wild. It's all innocent, but he's just so darn annoying and disruptive to the other kids. He was messing up equipment and keeping his group from doing a task, so I had him sit out for a few minutes and had a talk with him. When he came back, he suddenly turned into a master architect. He built a massive and sturdy and beautiful sculpture out of marshmallows and toothpicks. He was quiet, he respected the equipment, and it took him forever to leave because he wanted to keep working.

I love him.

As a rule, this task tends to make kids really happy. Some of the sculptures are epic. I naturally assumed that when I got to my out-of-control class, they'd all respond like Noah. After a long fight to get them to listen, they'd quiet down and love it. They didn't. Instead I ended up with kids squishing marshmallows, begging to eat marshmallows, getting toothpicks sticky and sticking them to their faces, and ending up with white gook all over their hands. These kids are seven, eight, nine years old. My five-year-olds with no knowledge of geometry or physics could do this without making a disgusting sticky mess. What the fuck?