Class Dismissed

For kids caught between shelters and the street, the New Arrivals school has been a refuge from hunger, violence, and loneliness. Try telling that to the St. Paul School Board.

"Is this the only school out of compliance with desegregation guidelines?" Oertwig asks, though he already knows the answer. "If we're serving a major need at New Arrivals, we can go to the state and ask for a waiver"--as have several schools in Minneapolis. "There are ways to work around the issue." As late as May 28, Oertwig privately admitted that the chances of saving New Arrivals as a school proper were slim to none. Still, he promised a push, promised to make some noise. On June 2, 72 hours before the last day of school, teachers at New Arrivals received a letter from the administration informing them they'd been placed in a pool of applicants for involuntary transfer. It was the equivalent of a pink slip.

Character. In Mr. Altman's classroom this morning, it's everything. There will be no fractions before lunch, no spelling test, no rap session about the Boston tea party. All 10 students in class must finish writing their character sketches. Today. No excuses.

The assignment was due weeks ago, but it's been slow going. Most of these kids have never done writing like this. Their imaginations are driven by TV, not the written word, so coming up with creative details has been tough. To help things along, Altman tells them to write about themselves. The students push their desks into groups of two and three. They speak in whispers, repressing giggles and rolling their eyes at each other's tales. The only person talking out loud is Billy, who's been shuttled in from Laura Splinter's classroom. His nonsensical outbursts are a distraction, but Altman doesn't permit his students to use them as an excuse for blowing another deadline. "I know it's hard to concentrate when other students visit our classroom," Altman booms. "But we can't laugh at Billy. We can't encourage him. We have to do our best to help Ms. Laura. OK? One. Two. Three."

"I'm melting," the class roars with glee.

"I don't like myself," Cheryl confesses, fidgeting in front of a blank piece of paper. "I have mean thoughts. I want to hurt people." In no time, she's engaged in a monologue about her family. The paper is still blank, but the story she tells is arresting. "I haven't seen my Dad in a couple of weeks. He usually visits on Saturday. But we moved to a different motel, so maybe he couldn't find us. Or maybe he's dead. He's in the army so he could've been killed. But I've been watching the news every night and they don't say he's dead."

At the end of the day Cheryl hands in her fictional account about a girl she calls Samantha: "About seven months after her 11th birthday her parents split up. It was hard on Samantha. They split up because Samantha's mother said she couldn't take it anymore. She said she was only 17 when she had Sam. She claims that she is really sorry." In all the stories Altman collects there are common themes: single parents, drug abuse, child abuse, neglect, street violence. There is sorrow, and a desire for stability. In some of the work, like Elaine's story about an abusive mother named Nancy and her daughter Amy, the narratives read more like distress signals than creative-writing assignments:

"Mom, no Mom Don't," said Amy.

Slap.

Knock, knock.

"Now who is it?" asked Nancy.

"Your arrested for beating your child," said the police officer. The ambulance left.

"What will happen to my children," asked Nancy.

"They will be going to foster homes," said the other police officer. Three days later it was Amy's funeral. Nancy showed up so did Amy's brothers and sisters. When Amy's funeral was over Nancy was crying realized what she did.

That these kids are able to exorcise these kinds of demons in a school assignment, to share their secrets with one another, is unique to New Arrivals. Kelly K, an advocate working with foster parents who prefers to remain anonymous, says other schools single out her kids, make them feel like outsiders, encourage them to withdraw or provoke them into becoming troublemakers.

"George's staff expects to teach these kinds of children from these kinds of backgrounds," she says. "I think our other schools are more geared toward better-adjusted children--kids with two parents who aren't abusive, who aren't living out of their car or moving from shelter to shelter." Women's advocate Patricia Banks seconds the observation. "I don't think most teachers are trained in how violence affects the whole family. The kids may have not been abused, but they've certainly witnessed it and been affected by seeing and hearing what's going on. They're in a bad place. Schools aren't equipped to provide that special understanding. In fact, over the years, one school near our shelter didn't even want us to come in and give a seminar about what these kids are going through. They didn't want to hear it."

Banks goes on to say that most teachers she's met, those in affluent and inner-city schools alike, don't want to hear what they believe doesn't belong in the classroom. They don't want to hear a student talking about how his brother was killed in a knife fight. That a second-grader's guardian, her grandmother, is smoking crack. That a little girl, too young to wind her own pigtails, is being sexually abused. They don't want to hear about character.

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