Not much changes once you get to a certain point. I am still wearing a WAGE SLAVE T-shirt from un-American.com, and I got a new pair of pajama pants from CVS (cause that’s where you go for PJ’s, right?), lime green with little red ladybugs on them. Fuzzy slippers the color of a furry Kermit, and new blue plastic barbells in my ears that my students still love to see me take out and replace with a pencil, to show them how big the hole is. One kid asked me today if we have blood in our ears; he couldn’t understand how I could have this big old holes in there with no blood, not understanding yet that skin stretches very, very far without so much as a drop of blood
My husband always asks me, when I pick him up from the Metro station, if I’ve heard any news that day. He always knows the answer, because it’s been months since I’ve checked cnn.com, months since I’ve had time to listen to NPR or read a paper. The news of my life is the daily news of being at school, where I never seem to have planning, and where the day whizzes by so fast and leaves me so exhausted that I spend hours after school just putting my classroom back together, feeding that illusion that tidiness outside will reclaim the chaos in my heart.
There’s no way around it, no way to avoid seeming altruistic, or like some damn sitcom geared at people for whom no advertising is geared anymore. There is no way for this NOT to seem self-affirming or self-something. Dealing with 25-32 12 year olds at a time feels like taking on the world of youth every 90 minutes, and it’s tiring. There is a battle between the typical immaturity of that age group, the “this person’s touching me/my stuff” banter, and then it goes to something deeper: This Is Stupid, I Don’t Get It, I Don’t Care. That’s the stuff that breaks your heart most often.
It feels like swallowing the world of tomorrow all at once, some overflowing gurgle of the future in green bile. I look out at this sea of faces, and I just cannot remember feeling as angry, as disrespectful, as completely clueless about mundane tasks like homework and bringing a damn pen to class. I am clearly getting old. Or something.
Our school did not make AYP, or Adequate Yearly Progress, the last two years, which means a subgroup, in our case, Special Ed, failed to meet projected expectations that are rising annually. So now we are in the first stages of SIP, School Improvement Program. The education world loves its acronyms. This means people from the county pop in unannounced to check up on us, namely the Language Arts teachers (since it was our subgroup that screwed up last year), that we have “additional resources.” If we don’t make AYP next year, we’re a little closer to the county cleaning house and starting over. Already, the rats are fleeing the ship. The principal is likely not returning (but not because of the AYP, oh no, but because she has nothing to retire on and must double-dip to survive, working in another county while drawing retirement on this county), and Assistant Principal I love to death is applying elsewhere also. I can tell, like last year, that at least a handful of people will not be returning, either because they don’t want to see what a new principal will be like, or simply because the old one is gone. We have a high turnaround. Last year, two teachers new to the school lasted only one year. I manage to get recycled through different teams each year.
Imagine having to cook for a person with dietary restrictions, someone you love. You make this elaborate meal that is as good tasting as you can get it without salt, sugar, cholesterol, or fat. You lay out various courses and top it off with a dessert. The person you are cooking it for takes one look at it and, instead of simply saying it’s not what they wanted to eat, overturns the table and walks out of the room. That’s how it feels to teach some days. I know. I can’t expect teenagers to appreciate anything; they’re programmed by hormones to do the exact opposite. But it is the level of disrespect, the quickness to resort to base language, to be so volatile, to curse under their breath, to scream in your face, that bothers me. Some of the assumptions I am left to make is that they are either ignored at home until they do something bad, are berated and cursed at by their parents and therefore think it’s ok, or do not have anyone telling them that there are some thing all humans on this planet are expected to do, like it or lump it. To me, they are subconsciously craving someone to say no to them, to stand their ground, so that they can stop trying so hard to be like their ignorant parents, those litigious parents who don’t even know what litigious means, but will send you up the river if you in any way speak unkindly of their clueless offspring.
And it’s not just the stereotypes. I am not sure what parents in our area are expressing to their children about education. More than once have I heard some young Hispanic kid tell me they can’t wait until they’re 16, so they can drop out. It upends me to hear teachers predicting of our young African-American and Hispanic girls that they will likely end up mothers at that age, falling in step with their own families. To be told by so-called seasoned teachers that we are seeing now the flood of teenage pregnancies in the form of our student body, raised by grandmothers who are hanging by a thread or teach by the belt, or worse, being shoved off on a an aunt who’s raised them for so long they call them mother. This is the wall shoved in front of me, a challenge, almost, to become some loathsome racist in a den of predictable outcomes. Children lie, and their parents believe them over an adult. Everyone plays the victim. Where do we learn this shit?
And how can we un-learn it? How do we un-teach it? I have considered leaving this area, this school, once I reach tenure next year. Maybe I am not the one to reach these kids. I’m not sure of anything anymore. And I am not alone. We have a great bunch of teachers here who work their humps to make things work in the midst of all these limits we are put under, who fight every day to get one of those damn bulbs to blink on in a classroom. We commiserate in those 20 minute pockets of time before the next wave of students of the difficulties we face, and not many people stop to tell us we’re doing a good job. You never get called to the office to be praised; you loathe that call on the scratchy loudspeaker to report to the office. Maybe if it was different, we might answer to the call with a little less bile in our mouths.
Our parents seldom come to school; most consider it a good thing if they go a year without seeing the inside of our dingy, yellow halls with their faded banners promoting global communities, those multi-cultured hands grasping a perfect Earth, the once-current lacquered photos of white, black, and Asian kids playing instruments in band practice (through all this, we are actually a CPA, Creative and Performing Arts, school). This, I fear, is part of the problem. Sure, on occasion, we might get a parent who comes to school to beat her child in the hallway because she got a call from school, and Goddammit if he’s going to interrupt her busy day with that shit, and so on. We have these open conference days once a month during our planning period when any parent can come and talk to any of the student’s teachers. The only ones that come are parents of children we have no real problems with; they come just to see how their child is doing, and while we’re glad to see them, but they’re not the parents we eagerly hope to see.
I mean, of course, it’s not just all the parents’ fault. It’s not about fault, really, it’s about responsibility, and ability, what we as teachers can do, what parents can do, and what the child can do with what time we’re given in each capacity. It’s about doing what you can with what you have, and I’m feeling that we all have less and less as we go along, and that, of course, scares me.
Classroom management. Some parents have called about my ability to manage my classroom. You have to show them who’s the boss, Laura. Your lessons are spot on, but you can’t be wishy washy in the classroom about getting the kids to quiet down. You have to stop talking, and wait, really wait, for them to stop. They often don’t mean to be rude; it’s just their age. There are a few new teachers who are doing a better job than me at classroom management. That hurts. I know it’s true, though. My classroom looks like a dorm room, with Christmas lights that change color with the seasons, a table lamp, stuff all over the walls and hanging from the ceiling. It’s my second home, and so I guess I don’t like yelling at home. I am working on it, though. Always working on it. I’ve been told before that I have to stop acting so young, because “if you dress in play clothes, the students will play with you.” But dammit, this is who I am. I AM a teacher who says, “dude,” who actually knows who Dave Chappelle is. These kids’ worlds is not completely unknown to me, and I can’t hide that, partly because of who I am and partly because I always think it will help if students can know their teacher is a human, above all things. I can’t not be what I am. So maybe I’m better for high school, where the kids are in your class because they want to be, because if they didn’t, they’d skip. It’s where you don’t have to continuously sweep up behind failing students, because they’re supposedly on their own. You don’t have to call home, nagging, begging, bothering.
But then there’s the other issue: where can I have the most impact? Kids in high school are either there or they’re not, they’re either going to get it and listen or shut you out. Kids in middle school are more malleable, they haven’t fully come to that place where they think they know more than you do, where you can tell them to sit down or get up and they’ll usually do it, that illusion of power.
I have my weapons. I take St. John’s Wort every day to combat the urge I have to yell a lot in class, and it works. I gave each table of kids a bucket of rocks, and every time their group talks out of turn or I catch one of them reading, making, or receiving a note, I take a rock; the table with the most rocks at the end of the week gets free homework passes. I try to have games and different activities in class, but it’s hard sometimes. At the end of the day I find myself where we find ourselves at the end of every school year, in our ladybug pajamas with loaded down with a pile of papers to grade, hoping tomorrow will be better than today.