There’s a rule. Whatever goes on the very first form of the very first day, that’s what you’re stuck with all year long. Misspell your first name, and that’s who you are all year.
4th period and I have my really bright kids, my honors class. I’m in Room 205, but, right at the beginning of the year, the very first form of the year put me down as Room 206. That’s Bob Spire’s room, a nice guy, special ed., went to Northwestern. I know where my classroom is, and he knows where his special ed. room is, so the room number mess-up doesn’t make much difference.
Or at least it doesn’t make much difference to me and Spire.
Some kids care. Like today. This new kid transfers into Dr. Publius’ 4th period honors class. So they sent him to Spire’s special ed. room. As the new kid takes-in Spire’s special ed. room, what he presumes to be a super-smart class, he’s thinking that this is going to be a really long four years. Spire is having them do a worksheet, “They’re, Their, and There”. The class is getting excited about the new crayons.
Meanwhile, I’ve got some new special ed. kid working on Christopher Marlowe’s “Tragical History Of Dr. Faustus”.
I’m sworn to secrecy on this, so I just had to tell everyone. Some secrets are just too good not to share.
So I ask a colleague about my old school, Metropolitan Middle. Her lover works there. She tells me that, thus far this year, they’ve had three principals. “The one they got now, and one who just walked off the job. The other one got fired.”
And I’m like, “Really? Fired? That school is gang infested, drug ridden, violent — what do you have to do to get fired from Metropolitan Middle?”
She swears me to secrecy. Then she tells me that the principal was paying a teacher to come to his office — and spank him.
I kept the secret for about fifteen minutes. I don’t know what more can be expected of me?
He wasn’t much of a father, but he was the family lyricist. He once described himself as sitting beneath “the dangling dick of destiny.”
Another time, speaking of my mother, he said, “The problem with Catholic women is that, when they get old, they become all priest infested.” This was followed by a shudder that, given his farmer roots, spoke to an intimate knowledge of infestation.
He had memorized the entire Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. On his deathbed, he recited from memory the whole of Bryant’s Thanitopsis.
He was a lousy father, a drunk and a wife beater. That said, the first memory I have of poetry is sitting on his knee while he read to me The Cremation Of Sam McGee.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
Where the men moil for gold …
I can still recite it …
So I say to my student teacher, ‘I know what my teaching looks like compared to the other teachers in my building. I see Art The Art Teacher and Mr. North and the others in these halls. But how do I compare to other supervising teachers? They’re like in other buildings, other school districts. I’m almost the only one around here. So when other student teachers talk about their supervisors, how do I compare?’
He thinks very seriously.
‘Well, the others say their supervisors are young, cheery and uplifting. But you, well, you’re none of those things.’
The following directives have come from the head office, known to all of us simply as “downtown”.
1. Downtown has mandated that 70% of all English lessons involve the teaching of non-fiction.
2. We are not to use our textbooks for the teaching of non-fiction. We are to xerox everything.
3. We need to cut back on xeroxing. Thus, we are given only one ream of paper per month. The two broken xerox machines will not be fixed.
4. We are to prepare an extensive semester pre-test. When I review the directions, I estimate that mine will be fifty pages. No one is to collaborate. Each test is to be individually prepared. All tests must be pegged to state standards. The state standards are things like, “The students will write in Standard English.” Nonetheless, each item in our test is to contain a justification of, for example, why I want my students to master Standard English.
5. We are to have a “word wall”, vocabulary words that we put up on our wall.
6. We are to prepare to have our walls painted.
7. The “company snitch”, our academic consultant, tells us that she will visit each class, following which she’d “like twenty minutes of our time” for a follow-up consultation. One year, she visited my class 38 times in one semester. Think about it. 38 X 20 = you count the hours.
8. I’m to attend an all-day meeting on Saturday, this to discuss how to teach college level courses offered in the high school. I mentioned to the downtown poohbah that I taught college, as an adjunct professor, for twenty-plus years. She just stared at me like I’d handed her my bowtie and asked for change.
9. I am to give individualized instruction to each of my 150 students, a third of whom are reading below grade-level, a quarter of whom have been speaking English for approximately an hour and forty-five minutes.
10. We may give a state test. Or not. But we are to prepare for both.
11. The art department was told to ignore all the directives this year, because that department is not involved in the state test, and, therefore, is not important.
12. The French and Spanish teachers have been laid off, because “Those aren’t important languages.” This from a principal who goes on to remind us to beautify our rooms with “decorums”, the same guy who periodically addresses the “freshmens”.
In education, we are fond of data. Data driven instruction. Data based results. So here is a bit of data. I have 160 students, seven classes. And counting. This is only the first week. But let’s say I stay at 160 students.
And let’s say I give each student a few paragraphs to write. And let’s further say I take three minutes to grade each paper. That’s eight hours of grading. That’s my Saturday. Another assignment, and there goes Sunday. If I am foolish enough to give each class so much as another sentence to write, then, come Monday, I’m behind on my grading. And I’ve got the data to prove it.
Oh, yea, and I usually don’t grade a lot of papers after school, because, for one, I supervise some after school activities, and, two, I’m in bed by nine because I’m tired. I get up at 5:30, and I’m at school around 6:30 or 7. I don’t grade papers before school. I use that time for planning. I only have one free period every other day. I’ve got data on that, too.
The other day, all the teachers had to put security checks on our payroll accounts. So there’s ten questions. Your mother’s maiden name. Your high school. Like that. Then there’s, “What was your first girlfriend’s name?” Three of us are doing it together, so North says, “Sally.” And Art says, “My first girlfriend was Emily. What about you?”
“I called her Mama-san go boom-boom five dollar?”
My student teacher is answering questions, explaining where his people come from.
“I’m 100% European,” he says.
A young lady who’s black says, “You come from England or some such?”
“Oh, no, I mean you have to go back generations …”.
“Oh, I get it,” she says. “You mean your family comes from wherever it is white folks get kicked out of.”
In the parking lot, maybe a half-hour before first period, just as I pull-up I see our crazed educational consultant pull-up in the parking lot. She has this way of hovering around the door, and, without so much as a “Good Morning”, just goes some onerous task she wants the teacher to complete. Our rule is that a minute of her time is an hour of our time. And it’s never a happy ending. Invariably a waste.
Like the other day she comes into my room during lunch, and promises, “This will only take five minutes.” She goes to my computer, fails to find this, fails to log onto that, and then freezes the screen for a bit. Finally, she manages to return my computer to its original state, and says, on her way out the door, “See, I told you this would only take five minutes.”
So this is all a long way of saying, first thing this morning, I see her in the parking lot, and go out of my way to avoid her. Instead of signing in at the front office first thing, I went to my room, taking as much time as I thought it would take for the consultant to sign-in and go to her office. Then I went to the office.
That’s when I hear the screams. In the distance, I see the consultant scurrying off like a rat with a ticket for the Titanic’s return voyage.
I go in the office. There’s this mother hollering at our crazed vice-principal. “You gave my son a three day suspension ’cause you say he sinks his pink into this girl on the bus yesterday. But everybody knows my boy is a butt fucking faggot! These charges are bogus. You gotta un-suspend his fudge packing ass, so I can punch-in work by eight.”
The vice-principal keeps mumbling incomprehensible ed. jargon. “ACT/SAT disambiguation data need we,” and such like she’s some crazed front office Yoda.
For my part, I think, ‘Student I know. Nice is he. Too bad this is. But out of here I need.’ So fast I sign-in, and unnoticed escape I make.
Over my shoulder, I see the vice-principal just walk away from this woman. In the hall right outside the office, she grabs Mrs. Hussein. (Hussein, it’s worth noting, is an observant Muslim.) The vice-principal tells Mrs. Hussein, “In the office talk to you a woman must.”
It’s Senior Prank Season. This year’s Best In Show goes to the kid who snuck out of class, and put lubricated condoms on each of the outer third floor doorknobs. I don’t approve of this, which is not the same as saying that it doesn’t garner a certain perverse respect on my part.
Today at lunch, we had nominations for the annual Millardian Award.
Mr. Avril calls us to order, and begins, “First, an announcement. The last day of school will be March the 3rd.” Which is to say that it will be the last full day of instruction before — field trips, more fields trips, emergency field trips, cramming for the state exam, the pre-state-tests, the state test, the post-state-tests, benchmark tests, preparing for senior prom, senior prom, preparing for junior prom, junior prom, Culture Week, and senior skip day, just to mention a few.
Then the Millardian Nominations.
The Milliardian is named in honor of Millard J. Fillmore, deemed by our Social Science Department to be the president who came — and here is our single criterion for the award — as close as is humanly possible to doing nothing at all while still breathing.
In the administrator category, one nomination went to Dr. Hendricks, who, during her professional development session, showed a half-hour film without turning on the sound. It was like some bizarre silent flick without the sub-titles. And nobody in the audience said anything either. The session was so inane that the silence was greeted as a relief.
In the teacher category, we nominated Mr. Martinez. He was asked to sub for a language class. Since he’s Mexican, he goes in, lectures for a whole hour in Spanish. It was a Chinese class.
Mrs. Lane, our next nominee, began a lecture on Melville by saying, “Moby Whale is a big white dick.” Then she just dismissed the class. What would be the point of carrying on? The sweet little detail I love is that, during this one sentence lecture, she stretched out her arms as a kind of measure of length. Or perhaps hung-ness.
In the Total Dissociation category, we have Mr. White. He had a meeting with our batty vice-principal. She talks, and he stares. And stares. And stares. He becomes so dissociative that she runs into the hall for help, because she thinks he’s had a brain seizure.
The nomination for Best Announcement goes to Mr. Danbury. Danbury read a list of maybe fifteen foreign students. Slaughters, just slaughters, every single name. Then he gets confused and announces, “Ah, the names I just read, ah, you don’t need to do anything. Everybody else needs to go to 314.”
Avril concludes, “Nominations will be open until March 8th, the day Millard Fillmore died, as near as anyone can tell. Lunch is adjourned sine die.”
There’s an announcement, an “emergency faculty meeting” immediately after school. On the way, North mumbles something like, “Somebody better be having sex with a student, because I was planning a barbeque.”
It turns out that we, the district, need to spend half a million dollars by Friday. Someone downtown didn’t read the bit that said this grant money had an expiration date, Friday. So now, rather than spend it over the course of a year, we’ve got Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
There are some conditions. The grant it’s not for core academics. It’s for stuff like field trips, extra-curricular activities and like that. All of which have to be ordered and done by Friday. So field trips are out, as are 99.9% of all extra-curricular activities, because we couldn’t possibly get a bus, plan, get the thing done and all that by Friday.
We can also spend it on “perishables”. No one knows what a “perishable” is. North mutters, “Can you spend it on me? I’m perishable.”
There’s some talk about educational movies for the kids. I suggest “Into Great Silence” and “Last Year At Marienbad”, both of which are duly noted. I’m asked to spell Marienbad. No one ever explains “perishable”.
In the end, we settle on are three huge pizza parties for the entire school. For three days, every day from one to three. It’s being billed as a celebration. North asks for his pizza to be vegetarian. The principal gets so mad he puts North in charge of the events.
Last thing I hear is North on his cell phone ordering “854 pepperoni pizzas, and one vegetarian, for tomorrow at one. And the same order for Thursday. And the same order for Friday.”
I’m guessing that , for the first time in human history, by Friday there will be teenagers who will be tired of seeing free pizza.
The rest of the money we just throw back.
Debbie came to work with her sweater tied around her waist. For that, she got a letter of reprimand from the principal. Debbie is beautiful, Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern, and extraordinarily competent after only two years on this job. So, of course, the principal hates her. But she doesn’t ask why.
I miss The Why Jar. Lenny Gates used to keep The Why Jar. But, sadly, it is a custom that has, like so many great customs, fallen into disuse.
When I first began at this school, everyone had to put a quarter into The Why Jar every time someone asked a why-question, a how-question, or tried to use logic when confronted with absurdity. For example, one might ask, “Why am I making two copies of lesson plans nobody reads?” There’s a quarter for The Why Jar. Or, “How am I supposed to answer the vice-principal when she says, Don’t forget – What was it? – you’ll remember then remind me”? Cha-ching goes The Why Jar. Sometimes you can compound a Why Jar Violation, like “Why do they make announcements before school? How are the kids supposed to act on that announcement when some of them are not even off the bus yet? Here’s what they need to do …”. Such a compound cost Sullivan about sixteen bucks one lunch. Art The Art Teacher just drops-in a saw-buck every once in a while, this for violations he makes while ranting to himself. At the end of the year, we treat ourselves to lunch. I think the year we started state testing, we treated ourselves to The Ritz.
Speaking of the state test, rumor has it that The Great State is opting out of No Child Left Behind! Instead, there will be a leaving exam created by the state. This does give rise to consideration of Publius’ Third Law Of Educational Dynamics — A bad idea in motion tends to stay in motion until it is acted upon by another bad idea. Nonetheless, there is some cause for celebration.
I’m also a little worried about the loss of material for my blogs. Some folks are inspired by beauty. I’m inspired by absurdity. That said, beauty comes and goes, but absurdity is forever. I’m actually somewhat comforted by my wife’s notion that “We live in a stupid state,” because there will always be fresh material. And we do live in a stupid state. I thank Jesus for Arkansas and Alabama, because that’s the only reason my state comes in 48th on most shit lists.
On a brighter note, the School Board and the City Council today are honoring our basketball team for being State Champions. I’m also touched by the comment of one sports reporter, who notes how polite our kids are. And it’s true — they clean-up real good. It’s nice to have something unequivocally good to celebrate.
Speaking of good news, I just heard that Valerie this year graduates from Howard, and is going to Georgetown law school next year. I almost cried when her mother emailed me the news. I taught Valerie in 7th grade. That middle school had all the sadness, indeed tragedy, of a Black ghetto school in America. Three of her classmates were killed in drive-bys. One got killed when her older sister was driving 90 down Lakeside Boulevard. But Valerie made it to law school. And her old teacher almost cried. Why? Because today I didn’t need to ask why I do this job.
This afternoon, we had a faculty meeting, during which the vice-principal explained that we need to be nice to foreigners. This is because, “When Ho Chi Minh was in Wisconsin, he hated it. They weren’t nice to him. And that’s why we had the Vietnam War.”
I found this weirdly inspiring. For decades, I’d wondered why I fought in Vietnam, and now I had the answer — people are just not nice enough. Her remarks reminded me of a poem by Ernesto Cardenal in which a lonely Hitler waits for a young lady to pass. Below is my poem followed by Cardenal’s in Spanish:
for E. C.
every afternoon she’d stroll with her mother
along Mockingbird Lane and every afternoon
where Mockingbird crosses Bishop
Boulevard there at the corner
George Bush waited for her to pass
as university students learned how to kiss
and even the little children held hands
W. never learned how to dance
and he never dared a word with her
one day she passed without her mother
one day she passed with an ROTC cadet
then one day she didn’t stroll by at all
that’s why he bombed Iraq
that’s why he tortured anyone with answers
Todas las tardes paseaba
con su madre por la Landetrasse
Y en la esquina
de la Schmiedtor
todas las tardes
esperándola para verla pasar
Los taxis y los omnibus
iban llenos de besos
Y los novios alquilaban botes
en el Danubio.
Pero él no sabía
bailar. Nunca se atrevió
Después pasaba sin su madre
con un cadete.
no volvió a pasar.
De ahí más tarde
la anexión de Australia,
La guerra mundial.
Over the years, I’ve had several principals and vice-principals who were truly mentally ill. A drug addict. A sadist. Tons of narcissists. I’m no diagnostician, but I believe my current vice-principal had brain damage a few years ago, when she had two severe back-to-back falls. Some days, that makes me sad. But it doesn’t make the day easier.
Like yesterday, when she goes up to Brian, and says, “Mr. Reuther, we need to” then just stares, then concludes, “you know.” Then just walks off.
We had “an emergency faculty meeting”. So I took these notes.
“– The state test is coming up. Get worried.
– Teach the test and nothing else.
– We need everyone to pass the state test. So don’t give it to any kids who won’t pass.
– According to a new state regulation, we can now exempt some kids (they’re described as the lizards) who we know will flunk. Kids, for example, who have been speaking English for an hour fifteen minutes. So flunk anyone who won’t pass the test.
– On the other hand, the state mandates that we have a 95% passing rate. So don’t flunk anybody, because that makes us look bad.
– Also don’t give anyone a D. That makes us look like we’re passing kids we would otherwise flunk. Which, of course, is true.
– So if a kid is going to flunk, give the kid a C.
– Everyone is here all the time. We also need a 95% attendance rate. The last two weeks, we will have 100% attendance.
– To repeat. Do well on the test, and get the lizards out. But don’t flunk them. And everyone is here all the time.
– Oh, and don’t write the answers on the board. That made us look bad last year, because it made us look too good. That’s why we have to get a 91% this year. We got an 81% last year.
– Have a good day.”
In the dream. I work in an office. The company has something to do with aerospace inventions, which I know nothing about. In any case, it is my job to meet with clients, who are satisfied with my work. I have an elaborate office with a living room and a dining room. I go out for coffee. I go down a long corridor filled with people, down two hills, one after the other. I order my coffee, go to put on the lid, and spill the coffee. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by coworkers, who reassure me and buy me another cup of coffee. It is longer to return than it was to leave. My mother abandons me. I feel both sad and relieved. My work buddies and I rest in a large room, and chat. I ask them, ‘Is this job as simple as it seems?’ They laugh almost shyly, and ask me not to repeat this truth. Someone says, “Let’s have fun.” Women go out on the lawn, and dance right in front of the window. I’m about to join them. I wake up. 5:30.
My student teacher gets back from a meeting at his university. So I say to him, “I see other teachers in this building teach all the time. So I know what I look like compared to Mr. North, say, or this one and that. But I have no idea how I compare to other mentors of student teachers. So how do I compare to what your peers say about their mentors?”
He thinks seriously for a second. “Well, they say, for the most part, that their supervising teachers are young, perky and uplifting. And you’re — well — you’re none of those things.”
On Fridays, it is my custom to do a reading for my students. I’ve done this for years. I am on the state arts council, which means that I get free subscriptions to great literary magazine published in the area. I also subscribe to several national journals, and am familiar with the production of respected publishing houses. My point being that I often read what I receive, and like, during the week. I tell my students that, on Friday, “I bring you my mailbox.”
So I do a poetry and/or short story reading. The instructions are for the students to simply lay back, enjoy it or not. “Think of it like a song on the radio. You like it. You don’t like it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, there will be another song. In any case, you will hear what folks, alive right now, are writing.” Thus do I expose my students to W. S. Merwin, Amiri Baraka, Yusef Kumanyaka, Jo McDougal, Tim Seibles, Rita Dove et al. “So lie back. Pay attention. Enjoy.”
Last Friday, I get inspected by district pooh-bah. The class was Advanced Placement English. My evaluation reads –
According to Mr. Publius, the class was just “chilling.” All the teacher did
was read poetry to the students. The students were asked to reflect with
their hearts and minds. That’s all.
How does the teacher test that? The teacher needs to add rigor — what skill
is being taught? How do you measure that skill? How does this help the
school, and/or the district, with the state test?
It is worth adding that I have edited slightly the district pooh-bah’s remarks — edited for grammar, mostly sentence structure and punctuation.
These reports just go into a drawer. That’s all.
I love working with student teachers. Perhaps, in part, it’s a way of revisiting my youth. Perhaps, in part, it’s an act of hope.
Today, Mr. Palmer, my student teacher, made one of those mistakes we all make when we are young teachers.
My students, his students now, are writing non-fiction. So Mr. Palmer brought in a love story he studied a few years ago when he was an undergraduate. My class, his class, is an A. P. comp. class, in theory a college class. In theory.
In any case, a love story. A young American, lonely, taking a train from Paris to Beirut, meets a young man, and falls in love. They want to be alone, so they head for the bathroom.
This is the point at which I perked-up, stopped grading papers and –
It turns out that the young lover is a cross-dresser. In the bathroom, they fire-up a joint. At which point the Lebanese dude bends the cross-dresser over, and humps his ass. He rather tenderly gives the American a reach-around. The story ends with the narrator, years later in a gay bar in New York, sadly recalling his one true love.
In truth, the story is narrated with great tenderness and nostalgia, to the extent you can get nostalgic about a reach-around. That said, I see why my student teacher recalls it as moving. I also believe it to be the only story to which my students paid unflagging attention.
When the bell rings, when the students are gone, Mr. Palmer says, “You don’t even need to say it.” I give him that ‘We all make these kinds of mistakes when we’re young’ speech — then I immediately run to David North’s room with that whole ‘You wouldn’t believe’ thing going on.
On Monday, the faculty of the Social Studies Department was informed that they wouldn’t need to teach for the next three days. Instead, they are to give a test. A standardized language test. The students will be shunted into the music rooms, because those rooms are big. There aren’t enough chairs, but there is enough space.
Some pooh-bah somewhere downtown decided that a standardized test, this one to be given to the immigrant kids, should not take so much time. Right idea. So, instead of administering it bit-by-bit over two weeks, they decide to give it all day everyday for three days. This is where the fuck-us bit comes in — if you’re a social studies teacher. Someone decides that teaching psychology, or, say, the constitution, isn’t as important as giving a standardized test. Thus the social studies teachers have to give the reading portion of the test. All day. 8 AM to 3 PM. For two days, plus a make-up day..
The test is for the kids who speak English as a second or third or whatever language. The reading bit involves listening to the kid read a paragraph. A paragraph. The same paragraph. For two days. Plus a make-up day. 8 AM to 3 PM. A paragraph. The look I saw on Mr. North’s face when he heard this will forever define for me the concept stupefied. I mean the poor dude had to lose at least fifteen permanent I. Q. points in five minutes.
Thursday is make-up day. And it’s really strange, because nobody can find the immigrant kids. Someone gets the idea of checking out the bathrooms. And, Allah Akbar, the bathrooms look like Little Baghdad. Yea, you gotta love these kids. They can’t do that she sells seashells by the seashore thing – but that doesn’t mean they don’t know when to run and when to hide. Unlike some social studies teachers I know.
There are rules and procedures. Whenever something is confiscated, say a cell phone, we’re required to tape it to the referral form, make a xerox copy, then send said form, said contraband, and said kid to the in-house suspension room.
So this morning a wet kid showed up to the in-house suspension room with his referral form reduced to soggy wood pulp. The teacher confiscated a water balloon, wrote the kid up, and taped the water balloon to the referral form. The kid, and the balloon, made it about half way down the stairs. Luckily the damn thing didn’t break while it was in the xerox machine.
Then there’s Kim. This afternoon she tells me she referring this kid for having a tampon on her forehead. I don’t even bother to ask. At which point she shows me the referral form, the tampon, and asks me if I have any tape because she’s out. I tell her to not forget to xerox the referral, making sure it’s xeroxed with the tampon attached, and ‘I just got to have a copy. Please. Really, please.’
Christine got called downtown for a disciplinary hearing. The central office was looking to fire her. Her offence? An email which reads, “I hear you. I’ve also got a class of 42. Fuck us!”
Apparently, there is some policy somewhere someplace against saying “fuck”, although there doesn’t seem to be any policy against getting fucked.
Christine survived. As did most of the thirty other teachers whose emails were flagged. They are untenured, young. In other words, vulnerable. But they also have choices, choices not available to the many of us who are older, tenured, and getting close to a pension. Meaning that, instead of “Fuck us!”, Christine’s next email might read “Fuck this.”
The great irony is that downtown is angry about the use of the word “fuck”. Nobody seems to care that a teacher has forty-two kids in just one class of her seven classes.
Then there was Mary, with whom I taught at a Catholic high school. Mary was called to the door by the principal, a nun. As they chatted, the kids behind Mary got boisterous. Mary was a bit embarrassed. The principal was right there. So, in frustration, she turned to the kids and shouted, “Will you shut the fuck up?!” The nun, in her wisdom, decided to treat it like a UFO sighting — think I saw something, but I’m not going to report it because nobody would believe it.
The school district asked us to propose a slogan for its letterhead. I emailed –
The Metropolitan Public Schools
Standardizing The Future One Test At A Time
My kids are so tired of taking standardized tests. Tomyko, a kid in my Advanced Placement class, devised a strategy to entertain himself.
Tomyko noticed that, on this computerized test, every time he answered a question right, the next question was harder. And the reverse if he got the question wrong. He did excellently the first time he took it. But he was bored.
Yesterday, Tomyko had to take the newest version of the same boring test. He thought he’d entertain himself, and see if he could reduce the test to asking him three word questions. But he felt himself a failure, because he could only get down to four word questions, like “Are you still breathing?”
The problem is that the results came back today. I am instructed to take this kid out of Advanced Placement, and send him to a special ed. class. The results of Tomyko’s test, if taken seriously, indicate that the school is responsible for little more that watering him once a week, and making sure he gets plenty of sunlight. And the school is taking the score seriously.
I’ve advised Tomyko to go to the test giver guru, confess to his smart-ass-ness, and throw himself upon the mercy of the school district.
In the meantime, the vice-principal has called “an emergency meeting” of the English Department. We’re to discuss all the kids who didn’t take the literature part of the state test last year. The meeting comes equipped with hand-outs. We’re each given a list with almost 900 names on it, plus some numbers and some blanks Just names and numbers and blanks. We’ve got to make sure the untested kids get tested. I presume the blanks are the untested, but nobody can really tell. The vice-principal, who is running the meeting, forgot the key. So she goes on for an hour about how important it is for us to get everyone tested. And we just stare at names and numbers and blanks. Finally Milford, who is sitting right next to her, notices that she has the key in her notebook. Long story short, I have three students total — three! — who have not taken the test. Two are immigrants, who, at test time last year, were dodging snipers in Baghdad.
The other is Tomyko. How he dodged the test, who knows? But my respect for this kid is growing exponentially.
I have 177 students.
I’d like my reader to pause for that number. 177.
I am an English teacher, and sometimes a history teacher. I teach seven periods. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I have no planning periods. I get about 30 minutes for lunch, 20 minutes of real time. Sometimes, when I have to meet with a parent or some such, I skip lunch. That and I have 177 students.
If in each class I give each student one page to write per day, by Friday I have more papers to grade than there are pages in some novels by Steinbeck.
By no means do I have the largest student load in the school. Some teachers have over 200 students.
Tomorrow, I have to go to an all day professional development, “How To Write A Lesson Plan.” Every teacher in the district has to go to this. My problem is that I don’t really have time to write lesson plans.
The up-side is that, with thirty-six years of teaching, I have hundreds of lesson plans in my head. The down-side is that I don’t have time to write them all down. I just know them and do them. An administrator told me that I need to start writing them out. I told that administrator that “If you take time for this, then you steal time from that. If something goes in, then something goes out.” Usually, what goes out is the student. I have to put in an all day meeting about lesson plans, so — What goes out? — I won’t teach Walt Whitman tomorrow.
I refuse to take time from my private life, from my wife, or, frankly, from watching a Star Trek rerun. And I’m not going to do what some of my colleagues do: take a day off work in order to get some work done. I have done both, and I won’t do it anymore.
If something goes in, then something goes out.
A kid comes up to me yesterday and says, “You’re Catholic. How do I break it to my parents that I don’t want to go to Mass anymore?”
I only had time to say, “Gently. Break it to them gently. Because you’ll remember this moment all your life. I was your age when I told my mother the same thing. Forty-five years later, I remember her tears.” The kid wanted to talk more. I wanted to talk more. But I had to go. Because I paused for this kid, I was almost late handing in a lesson plan.
I spent the morning watching genetically enhanced sharks. I came a little late, so I never did get the explanation about why it’s a good idea to make sharks bigger, faster and hungrier. That said, I spent the morning watching genetically enhanced sharks.
Freshmen (or, as my principal says, “freshmens”) and sophomores had to take a standardized test, and seniors had to sign-up for a standardized test. This left only the juniors unmolested. Since many juniors are mixed in with other classes, someone decided to show them a movie about genetically enhanced sharks eating stupid scientists with great abs and/or great breasts. It never seemed to occur to whomever that some of us, me for example, might just have a class of nothing but juniors. So, instead of reading Antigone, my kids and I spent the morning watching genetically enhanced sharks.
We no longer love you, boss,
but the reason – it’s just hard to tell;
though there’s one thing we know,
and we can tell this full well –
we’d all love to smash your ass, boss.
So I say to the kids, ‘Write three paragraphs about your favorite vacation. Introductory paragraph, development, conclusion …’. An assignment teachers have been giving since time immemorial.
Samantha raises her hand. “What if I’ve never been on a vacation? Never left the city?”
‘Ah, well, if you’ve never been on vacation, never left town, then write about someplace you’ve been that’s interesting.’
“Can I write about the first time I went to jail?”
‘That would be interesting.’
I get three such papers.
I get quite a few papers from kids who write about rooms where they feel safe. Two write papers in which they dream about where their fathers live.
The kid at the front of the class asks, “Do you love us?”
I’m really caught off-guard by this. I want to say yes, but I don’t, because I’m afraid of how the word will get misinterpreted. So I say something positive.
Then I‘m really caught off-guard.
“Do you hate us?”
Again I say something positive, I forget exactly what. But I know I’m making progress when they ask even the hardest questions.
Kevin asks me, “How long you been married?”
‘Going on twenty-one years.’
“How you stay faithful twenty-one year?” This from a kid who is all of fourteen.
Malcolm and Wanita volunteer to clean up my room. They sweep and decide to take a bit of a break. Leaning against their respective brooms, they chat and, in that way students do, forget I’m there.
“Yea, I know what you mean, Malcolm. My mama’s boyfriend was stabbed the other night too …”.
I know I’m getting somewhere with my students when I can leave the room for some time, and the room is still there when I get back.
“Because we want you to trust us,” Shakeisha says.
Which puts me in mind of Publius’s Rule # 21: Trust students implicitly — then check twice.
Donnell gets kicked out of another class. He’s on his way to the office, when he spies me in my room during my planning period. So he stops by my room to see what I can offer by way of avoidance. I say, “Let’s talk, but just for a few minutes. Consequences are consequences.” That said, this gives me a chance to chat, get to know the kid.
So I just listen.
In the course of five minutes, he tells me about his dad and his dad’s three brothers, Donnell’s uncles. Two are murderers. One is doing life. The other murdered his cellmate, but didn’t get caught. It seems that the cellmate had dis-ed the uncle’s sister-in-law when he was on the outside, and had the bad luck of getting this uncle for a cellmate. The third uncle, who wasn’t a murderer, boffed this other guy’s wife, and gets shot-up by the husband. But he isn’t killed. He eventually is released from the hospital, released in a wheelchair. Only to have the husband finish-up what he started. So now the third uncle is killed, dead.
The fourth brother is his dad.
“But I’m fine. My daddy works two jobs.” And, fortunately for him, the dad sounds like a good man.
But Donnell is paying a price. It’s in his eyes, his old eyes, the eyes no child should own. He has that same look in his eyes that I used to see in The Nam. A weariness that comes from carrying a terrible knowledge, the certain knowledge that there is nothing one human being won’t do to another. Or, at the very least, the knowledge that in his family even murder is possible.