The happiest day of my life was the day I was the filthiest and the cleanest tired. I woke up jittery on the floor of a Mexican church, and pulled on overalls. All day we nailed two-by-fours and I drank gallons of water without ever having to pee. In the desert, you don’t pee or sweat. This was kind of a shame because the toilet at the work site adjoined a pig pen, and everyone who visited remarked on the novelty of hearing porcine grunts while doing their business.
The group I worked with built a small house– a shed by American standards– for a family on the outskirts of Juarez. I was more physically tired than I had ever been in my life. But my mind was clear, and my heart was full. Their old house was flapping cardboard. Their new house was strong wood.
On Friday, three of my students came up to me to contest their quiz grades. “Uh, didn’t I get this right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.” I had written a big angry red “G” next to the student’s neatly penciled “G.” Yes, indeed, the answer was “G.” Yeah, a quality of a tragic hero is “noble.” Yeah, that is an “e.”
“I’m really not out to get you or anything,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” they said. At the end of the school year, I make mistakes, constantly lose things, and can’t ever get enough sleep. This frustrates me, just like when I have a long bout of the flu. I’m mad at my brain for its dullness, and I’m mad at my body for its slowness.
Sunday morning, I turned on the radio when I woke up. I often turn on NPR and then fall back asleep, which results in a lot of strange dreams about politicians. I didn’t dream this week, though. I heard President Obama praising a school board for firing the faculty and staff at an “underperforming” school. This was a sign of “accountability.”
I was so angry that instead of falling back to sleep, I yelled at the radio. I struggle at the end of the year to forgive myself. Forgive myself for being so slow and fuzzy-headed. Stop worrying about what I didn’t teach, what went badly. Try to let go of the students who never got it together, didn’t learn, flunked both semesters. Was there something else I could have done? The president confirms it: teachers, when the kids don’t succeed, you’ve screwed up. If you had done better, those kids would be fine.
Some teachers should be fired, sure. But that’s so they can move on to jobs they are better suited for. Don’t encourage the delusions of the ones who remain: teachers can’t do the work for the students, and without administrative support, teachers can’t make a bad school good.
The reason I was happy in my sleeping bag on the floor of the Mexican church, even as the swamp cooler gurgled uselessly and my right hand shook with fatigue, was because I knew I had done what I could.
The family we built for may have fled from Juarez. Many people have. The intensifying violence of the drug business has turned their city into an unliveable place. Maybe that house is abandoned now. Maybe dogs live in it. I still know those were good days. I know I did what I could.