Misery Money

I remember the day A.J. first drew a portrait of me.

We were supposed to be doing math, but that year, we almost never did what we were supposed to be doing.

It was my first year teaching, and I had no idea what I was doing.

Somehow (for reasons I am only just now beginning to understand) the City of New York deemed it reasonable to put a twenty-two year-old with no background in education at the helm of a special education class for children who were, according to their IEP’s, “severely emotionally disturbed.”

For the first few months, I spent most of my time watching in disbelief as the kids threw punches at one another, screamed curse words at me, and even, once or twice, held scissors to my neck for a few terrifying minutes.

A.J., ordinarily distracted (watchful, really) by every movement in the classroom, was meticulous as he drew his picture of me.

He drew my ponytail, the polka-dotted blouse I had on that day, my flats.  He even made a smile and rosy cheeks, which delighted me.

But then, inexplicably, a flare of anger flashed across his eyes.

Beside the portrait, he drew a car.

Then, he flipped his pencil around and vigorously began to erase the image he’d made of me, so hard that the paper tore.

Turning his paper ninety degrees, he then drew me a second time – just as meticulously – but this time lying flat beside the car.

Finally, he took a red crayon and scribbled imaginary blood across the picture.

When he was done, he ripped the entire piece of paper into a hundred pieces and, without saying a word, threw them in the trash.

I watched the whole thing without saying a word either – dumbfounded and horrified.

I spent the next three years in the same classroom, looping with the kids from third all the way to fifth grade.

And things did get better over time.

A.J and the others slowly decided to trust me, and then eventually even to like me.

I have a whole folder full of pictures that A.J. drew for me over those three years, and most of them aren’t bloody.  In some, we are even hugging.

But, even with all the time we spent together, I think I only barely glimpsed just how far and deep and wide the pain of some children can be.


Nationwide, there is a movement afoot to focus on the “social and emotional” needs of students, and teachers – many like me, who know the hurt and brokenness of so many children – are falling for it left and right.

But it makes me feel sick to my stomach, in part because it is filled with insanely terrible ideas.

For example, there is a push to give kids digital, game-based avatars that they can use (for a fee) to “practice” social skills.

I’m serious.

There really are people out there – powerful, absurdly wealthy people – who think that the best way to help hurting kids like A.J. is to isolate them on a computer, ask them to choose “thought options” from a drop-down menu, and then to collect data on their “growth.”

Ultimately, the goal is to monetize the “evidence” they’ve gathered.

If you think I’ve lost my mind, or if none of this makes sense to you, I implore you to watch this short video from a fellow blogger:

The packaging is glamorous, and they know all the right words to pull on your heart strings.

But the product is the same as it so often is: a gimmick designed to exploit our most vulnerable populations.

A.J., and millions of kids like him, don’t need digital avatars. They don’t need drop-down thought-menus to choose from while they are plugged in, alone, to an electronic device.  And they don’t need data-wells built on their backs that are designed to make the rich even richer.

What they need are grown-ups – like us – to demand that the exploitation stops.



Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

3 thoughts on “Misery Money”

  1. Everyone must understand this!! Children suffering from trauma, anguish, and fear cannot be mended by digital avatars. They need time with truly compassionate, sensitive, insightful people. If those people are not their families, then they need to be their teachers, school nurses, school psychologists, school social workers, and school librarians. Public school children need human beings to nurture and educate them, not algorithms, and certainly they do not need to be preyed upon by data vultures.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This speaks so well to my experiences this week. I spent the day with a student with extreme anger issues. Fortunately he connected with me and we spent our day reading, writing and interacting with people in a positive way.
    Knowing the impact technology is playing on our children’s lives I felt very fortunate to spend my day in this way. It lifted my soul. Computers will never impact any child or adult in a way that human connection can.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for the youtube video. It should go viral. Anyone on Twitter or Snapchat?
    I got “retired” at the right time just when everyone but the classroom teacher knew what and how I should be teaching. As a special ed teacher, I was already drowning in paper documentation. The computer just made it easier to generate more. What a shame that a useful tool is being touted as the new paradigm for education delivery.


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