DP817868.jpgI have wolves.  I went to the cathedral on this, Dr. King’s day, and the lesson was about caring for your flock, which was the last thing I wanted to hear, as I want to quit my job, I have wolves.

The first half of my career I was told I was a good teacher, so I think I was.  I felt I was getting better and then that I was maintaining a strong and useful program of work, I taught other teachers, I presented at national conferences.

Then I spent most of a year arguing about if I needed the books I ordered in my classroom, if I was losing students’ papers and if I was bullying them by asking them to be quiet so we could start class.

I have been a “bad” teacher because my lessons were not engaging and I could not control my students, these two things being frequently connected.  I never aspired to be entertaining or intimidating, though, I only try to be thoughtful and trustworthy.

Some of us must be “bad” to keep the show going, so we know who to hiss at.

When I was told I was good, I was better.  This is the story of your life as an agreeable white girl, I know, people tell you are good and so you are.

If a kid refusing to sit down, pushing me, throwing things, and using profanity results in leaving class for a good while, I am a good teacher.  I can control my students.

I hate that word, anyway, it should be that kids find it easier to decide to be productive because the environment they are living in makes that the easiest choice.  It should be hard to be bad.

I work hard at putting myself back together.  Still, I haven’t been sleeping more than two hours at a stretch, and I have headaches.

On my way up to the cathedral, I heard the begging-on-the-subway speech five times.  Three times from the same guy, a big guy with a deep, lovely voice.  I changed cars because something was buzzing unbearably in my car, and the beggars change cars, too, so that’s why I heard that guy twice.  The third time, I guess, I took the train so far, probably 3/4 of its route, that was my fault, too: we overlapped again.

I thought, I know I don’t have change, I just did laundry.  And I didn’t want to give any money today.  I don’t want to give anything.  Not a thing.  Not to anyone.

Then I thought: this guy’s job is better than mine.  At least no one was jumping up and yelling at him or calling him names when he asked for what he wanted.  No one was throwing things at him.  Then I thought: goodness, that’s an offensive thought.

If I wasn’t a city teacher, someone people admire for toughness and virtue, who would I be?  Maybe no one would admire me, maybe I would not be likable at all, if, say, I was a person who left urban teaching, like everyone else I know.

Exaggeration: I know one person who has taught in urban schools a long time, and is still teaching in an urban school.  Most of us, almost all of us, get picked off by administrators, our own exhaustion, financial pressure.

How foolish it was for me to borrow thirty grand and then take the lowest-paying jobs in my field, over and over for ten years.  I really did that.  And all the money on my own office supplies and stuff for the kids— notecards, pens and pencils, treats (bribes).  I’m stingier than most teachers, honestly, but it still adds up.

For a long time, I felt I was making up for something, paying back my great public school education, paying back being white, for having a good family, for being loved.

People say, you’ve been on the front lines a long time, it’s okay to fall back.  Maybe nobody should do these hardest jobs, caretaking at our fringes, for a long time.  Maybe it just isn’t healthy, or can’t be healthy, right here, right now.

Friday I packed up all my stuff in front of the kids.  I was that gone. I was telling myself, I’ll protect you.  I won’t let anyone scream at you anymore.  I won’t let them disrespect you.

I must have scared them, by doing that, and by being gone the last two hours of the day.

I’ve spent the weekend thinking in flashes that of course I will go back, I’ll figure it out, as I have many times before, I’ll figure some way to limp forward, if not to march.

Things you would not, could not do, then you do.  Move to New York.  Kiss.

I became a city teacher because my parents divorced at the same time I learned about the civil rights movement in school.  That’s not fair, I thought, and it was all launched, tied up together.  It wasn’t a bad reason.  When I started teaching, though, I promised myself if I felt I was becoming lost, I would quit.  That doing good shouldn’t mean losing yourself.  That I wouldn’t teach somewhere kids threw things or where I felt unsafe.  But I do.  And I haven’t quit.

Along with “That’s not fair” and paying back my good fortune, there is also enjoying the weirdness of teenagers, their openness and fear together, their first shoots of adult life coming up, enjoying being a person they go to for help, and knowing the answers.

I think Dr. King would say, we are all sheep, but there are wolves in us.

I know they are sheep.  My meanest kid sneers, “She’s still here?” but there is a hint of relief mixed with his nastiness.  I hear it.

Image: Wolf, Anonymous, 17th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.



DP278210.jpgThis kid was sitting in my room, I realized it was his lunch time.  “Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?” I said.

New teacher to the school, here is a list of things I didn’t know this morning:

  1. If not going to the cafeteria during lunch is a punishable offense.
  2. How to print anything.
  3. How to make my fancy Prometheus board do anything, up to and including getting fire from the gods.
  4. Where on earth yesterday’s attendance sheets were.
  5. If Baz Luhrmann, bless his heart, was going save my life again with his version of “Romeo & Juliet” that could entrance anyone, anyone.
  6. How many kids were going to show up today without anything to write with.
  7. Really, any of my students’ names.  Well, I might know like five of them.
  8. What I did with the 8th period assignments from yesterday.
  9. How many kids were going to say, “I already read Romeo & Juliet!”
  10. How quickly the kid who was nasty to me in the morning would change to a mild-mannered sort when asked, in the afternoon, what kind of candy she liked best.
  11. That one class finds stickers insultingly “babyish,” and another is quite satisfied with them.
  12. That a pen could get caught under the classroom door, and when a kid and I would try to free it, we would break it instead.
  13. How many kids, when offered the opportunity to ask me anything, would say, “How old are you?”

There were two moments today I really lost it.

The first time, there was another adult in the room, and I walked right over and said, “What do you think I should do?”  I don’t know if that was the right thing, or if that made me look bad, but I’ve wasted enough of my life being too proud to ask for help.

The second time, I walked around the room for a bit, pretending to be checking kids’ work, in reality completely out of hope.  While I was walking, I found a few kids were working and appreciated attention and help.  I went to get the Starbursts– our currency of choice– and handed out a few to those kids.

“Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?”

I bought the big box of golf pencils I knew I would need, and the ocean-scented air freshener, the scent my 7th period class chose, over Flowers or Xmas.  And some of those fancy wipes to clean things to keep us from giving each other the flu, since we’re in, for the winter, where we are, where, let’s say, we’re supposed to be.

Note: Luhrmann came through again.

Image: Hercules or Atlas Supporting the Globe, possibly by Clodion, Metropolitan Museum of Art






The War

All my growing-up years, guns were in movies and (I imagined) in the hands of people less interesting and educated than me.  I had no idea why anyone would want or need a gun.

I moved to the city eleven years ago.  I remember hearing someone got shot in the parking lot of the drugstore where I usually shop, the parking lot right by where I often have dinner with friends.  Most of those shootings were personal, like most shootings in the city are personal.  It’s possible to get in the way, but most of the time, people in the city who shoot at you have a reason.  I find that comforting.

The difference between my city living (moved here by choice) and my students’ city living is that I estimate half of them have lost a friend of family member to gun violence.  Half.  Half of the sixteen-year-olds I teach have gone to funerals where the deceased was shot to death.  I still find that hard to believe.  I haven’t lost anyone.  Except a student.

I have friends who have guns and go hunting.  I understand the desire to participate in the old “Lion King” circle of life, hunting and killing and eating, but I don’t understand why you would actually do that when not killing works just fine.  I asked to hold my friend’s shotgun once.  It was heavy.

Two of my students were shot.  One killed, one paralyzed.  That was maybe four years ago.  Guns were real to me then.  If guns were harder to get, things might be different.

Rumor has it that my students who were absent this week got caught with a gun.  Two of my solid students– one a joker, one a quiet guy.  Smart enough kids, active in sports, rarely in trouble.  They’re in jail.  Maybe they sold drugs, maybe they robbed someone, maybe not.  I don’t know.

I am always so numb with exhaustion by this point in the school year that I feel very little.  After I learned my students were in jail, which I tried to muster up some energy to process, I heard about the Connecticut stuff. How many gun incidents could I get upset about in one day?

I read recently that the less privileged you are, the more likely you are to limit your violence to your own community.  Is lack of power so depressing that people  don’t have the energy to turn their anger outward?  It amazes me that with wealthy suburbs accessible all around, when people in the impoverished parts of the city get angry, they use their guns on each other.  Even when we’ve had riots, poor people started where they were and destroyed that.

Of course, I don’t wish they’d take their guns to my parents’ neighborhood.  But it amazes me that poverty brainwashes people that they turn their anger on themselves, time and again, with guns, with drugs.  Capitalism is good at doing that, I guess, convincing people that if you don’t have money, you are an embarrassment.

What I do wish is that the anger in poor communities could be channeled into demanding jobs and services and better schools and health care and parks and policing and grocery stores with the same sense of entitlement shown by people who grew up with money, who know no one is ever going to call them “entitled.”  “Entitled” is a word for people you look down on.

It makes sense to me that white men are more likely to be alienated.  For many years in our culture, they were barely allowed to have emotions at all.

During the last few years, public schools have cut back on mental health services, and this is an outrageously irresponsible move.  If kids don’t get mental health care at school, small problems easily erupt into bigger ones.  I think anyone who shoots another person is mentally ill, by definition, but that’s just me.

And, yes, guns should be more reasonably regulated: buying and selling records and insurance required, plus federal background checks for everyone, at every point of sale.

Americans love violence, they love shooting each other, they love guns.  Europeans took hundreds of years to lose their lust for killing each other.  They went at it large-scale for generations, until World War II finally kicked them down so hard they quit for a breather.  Although we aren’t close to that point, it isn’t the wild west around here, either.  We have grown a little.

After more gun violence, we go back to our own trenches, to teach how to tend anger.  To keep being polite.  And like people throughout history, with irrational optimism, we pray for peace.


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.

Getting Your Sea Legs, or The Secrets of My (Wobbly, Five-Year) Success

I know, you want to help people.  Change lives!  Reach out to the disenfranchised!  Create educational equality in an unequal world! My goal was to do all that, and to make it through five years in teaching.  More than half of our new teachers in America quit before five years.  In schools with lots of poor kids, like mine, it’s probably much worse.  I promised myself that I would quit if I was burned out or losing my mind.  I didn’t.  I’m now just a few months from achieving my goal.

Teaching has challenged me mentally, emotionally, and physically.  Many times, I wanted to cry uncle and say the challenge was too much.  I limped through these times, half-blind or sullen or broken, and eventually felt energetic and optimistic again.  How can you help man the ship of education through its always-stormy seas?  How can you keep your balance and hold the vomiting to a minimum?  Well, here’s how I did, anyway.

1. Where you work is everything.  You won’t survive as a lone crusader at a dysfunctional school.  You can’t set the world on fire for learning if the kids set fire to it first.  Don’t try to be a hero.  You’ll do more good with five years at an okay school than with six months in crazytown.  My school has 80% poverty, but it’s a pretty happy, friendly, comfortable place.  Just because you want to work with kids who really need you doesn’t mean you have to get treated like shit, or feel unsafe.

2. Your coworkers are your salvation.  No one else understand what you are doing, and the kind of tired you are.  If your coworkers (teachers, but also janitors and cafeteria people and security guards and adminstrators) are assholes and you can’t talk to them, you are going to be miserable.  Once you’re there, invest in these people like they’re Apple in 1980.  You can’t do it alone.  No one can.  My coworkers taught me a lot of the rest of this stuff, and thank you, thank you again.

3. Devote yourself to a mentor you trust.  Teaching was my first “career” job, so it was my first experience with locating a Yoda.  I was lucky to have two wise mentors right from the start, one a fellow English teacher, and one a fellow freshman teacher.  I asked a million questions.  There was no question I was too proud to ask.  I revealed my mistakes and how bad things really were.  Otherwise, I couldn’t get help.  (This goes for family and friends, too, who have donated time and treasure to support me through some rough times.)

4. Take care of yourself. This isn’t a good time to skip meals or exercise.  I know, you’re so, so busy, and so, so tired, but you’re just going to feel worse if you don’t eat and sleep properly.  I’ve tried to get a massage once a month (a student massage at a place nearby is $30), and I really think those should be mandatory for teachers.  You have to exercise.  I have to go to church and meditate and do yoga and take long baths.  I can’t eat junk, or I will not have the energy to make it through the day.  Part of taking care of yourself is also attending parties, seeing friends, and keeping up your hobbies.  It’s better for you, and your students, long-term, to keep your sanity with a healthy lifestyle.

5. Don’t even think about teaching summer school after your first year.  I don’t care how poor you are.  Dig ditches.  Anything.  I would avoid summer school in the subsequent years, too, if you can swing it.  It’s a grand or three versus the risk of complete burn-out.  Dangerous.

6. Be patient with yourself.  There is no perfect teacher.  There is no perfect student.  You don’t know what effect you have on students.  It’s impossible to judge.  Life is too complicated.  You’ll never really know– for good or for ill.  All you can do is try your best and know you’re part of something positive in the world.  Be thankful you have a job that gives you a sense of purpose.  That has to be enough.

7. Take a day off. No one needs you that bad.  Get over yourself.  Let the kids go crazy with a sub and do nothing for one lousy day.  Take that day off, even if your pay is docked.  If you’re maintaining your healthy habits (and washing your hands), you can save your days off for mental health recovery, rather than physical health.  Get your head back on straight.  Sometimes when the kids think you’re being a bitch, you are, and you need a day off.

8. You’re not going to like this, but you can only control what you can control. See?  I told you it was rough.  The main thing that will waste your time and burn you out is obsessing and slaving away at problems you cannot fix.  Your time and energy are invaluable.  Think carefully before you take on an extra project.  Don’t do extra work to “save” a student who won’t work for you.  That’s not helping– that’s enabling.  Especially because students and administrators might not respect your time, you have to guard it carefully.  It’s more valuable than money.  Which you already knew, or you wouldn’t have taken this career path in the first place.

The Heights

I guess movies about teachers are made for people who think they could never be teachers, so that they can imagine how great a challenge  it would be.  Like I would watch a movie about climbing Mount Everest.  Real mountain climbers probably don’t spend a lot of time watching the Discovery Channel, either.  They probably are busy rebandaging the stumps of their amputated toes.

Or maybe I should say, I hope those movies aren’t intended for teachers, because they make this teacher want to board a plane for the south of France and lie on the beach until my money runs out.  I am nothing like those inspirational teachers.  I’d like to be.  Who wouldn’t?  Challenged, celebrated, beloved.

A recent meeting forced me to sit and watch portions of “Stand and Deliver.”  I know this was supposed to help us and inspire us.  But I can be crochety and sensitive, even in the afternoon.

We were told to notice what the teacher did to make his students successful.  All his AP students got 4s and 5s (out of 5) on the Calculus AP Exam, you see, even though they were poor.  Lesson learned: poor kids can achieve, it’s just that their teachers don’t work hard enough and don’t care enough.

My students are socioeconomically and academically poor, and for the last two years, they have mostly gotten 1s on the AP test.  I’ve had a couple of 2s and 3s.  I think I work hard.  I think I care.  I hope their scores will get better as I get more knowledgeable and experienced.

It hurt to watch that stupid movie, though.  Me and my lame little half-wit urban teaching thing.  How well could the kids do when I am sleeping late, writing essays, watching television, and attending parties on the weekend instead of running extra tutoring sessions?

In my saner moments, I think it’s better to have a teacher who is happy and well-balanced than a Type A neurotic lunatic with a one-track mind rabidly chasing one test score.  How can kids know how to lead a balanced life without balanced role models in the community?  But then a silly movie pulls me back into my favorite self-flagellating loop, reinforces the message often sent to teachers.  Work harder.  Care more.

(There are people who are happy to be Type As and use tests scores as motivation without becoming neurotic.  I’m just not one of those people.)

I’ve only seen one movie about teaching that I enjoyed.  I can’t say it will inspire you, particularly.  It does contain some truth about urban schools.  Lots of them are generally calm, happy places.

The grown-ups there are a fascinating collection of idealists who are constantly moving between optimism and despair, depending on the moment.  Many of them have a religious or political inspiration to teach in the city.  Some love a challenge.  And a few are too far outside the box to get hired by a more functional school system– for good or for ill.

The main thing urban teachers have in common is that they are tired, and they are some of the most calm and patient people you have ever met, or else they would have run screaming out the door before October.

The movie I did like is “Half Nelson.”  Now the teacher is a drug addict, which freaks people out,  but I found that reassuring, because while my issues are much less dangerous, I can also be self-destructive.  The “Half Nelson” teacher sometimes shows up at work and his eyes look dead like he just wants to crawl under the table.  But who among us has not shown up at work that way?

That teacher wants to be a good example, a great teacher and role model, but he’s just a human being with some common human problems.  He tries to save other people while he’s trying to save himself.

This is my fifth year teaching at an urban school.  It was always my goal to get through and past five years.  Somewhere I read that only 50% of urban teachers make it past five years.  So I’m almost to the top of my mountain, and I do want to focus more on toe-bandaging than nursing grudges against Hollywood.

Scenes from the Chemistry Lab

D and I often experiment in the chemistry lab together.  I have a student teacher right now, so I have the luxury of pulling out my most egregious troublemakers (like D) to give them my full attention.  The chemistry lab is usually unoccupied, and right across the hall from my classroom, so that’s where exiles retreat to.

Our school was built almost 70 years ago.  The cabinets in the science rooms are formerly gorgeous, glass and blonde wood built-ins.  Quite a few of the floor tiles are missing.  It smells mysterious and dangerous.  The windows are huge: maybe eight feet tall.  They present a panoramic view of fast food places, shops, and trees.  None of the windows have screens.  One of the windows has a neatly lettered sign that says, “Do not open this window.”  I think that’s because it would fall out three stories and break.  Half of the stool seats are chewed up, so the wood snags your clothes. 

In spite of all that, I find the lab generally pleasant.  There is one comfy orphaned office chair.  I sit in that, in front of the wrong side of a desk that has a splintered seat attached.  It’s a great place to look at the sky.  The lab is where the chemistry teacher maintains our the third-floor coffeemaker.  My coworkers drift in and out, and we joke and gossip about the kids and sometimes I pantomime wringing their necks. 

When the class is reading “The Crucible” and D gets kicked out, we sit on stools next to each other.  I read half the parts, and he reads the other half.  I hope that he will read John Proctor’s part, although I would prefer to.  I add some explanatory asides.  D tells me he doesn’t know anything about the play, but then I ask him questions and he generally answers them correctly.

For a while, D worked at the Jiffy Lube around the corner from my house.  I saw him one Sunday afternoon, holding up a sign advertising $19.99 oil changes.  He looked sheepish when I stopped to say hello.  Apparently he works at least two jobs.

D has drifted between homes.  We always have some kids like that, who are not always sure where they are going to sleep that night.  Whose parents and grandparents get frustrated and kick them out of the house.  I understand why you would want to kick D out of the house, though.  He’s smart, snarky, and stubborn.  He can really drive you nuts. 

The reason he’s still in school and not expelled is that in between driving you nuts, he is smart and good-natured.  He still has baby fat in his face.  When the teachers complain about him, they do it with an affectionate hint in their voices. 

Today D got yanked from class for yelling across the room while he was supposed to be listening to the instructions about outlining.  When I went over to give him a warning, he waved his hand around theatrically to show everyone how bad my breath was. 

Although he walked across the hall with all deliberate slowness, once he was actually installed in the chemistry lab, he asked some good questions and started his outline.  He will again say, “I don’t know anything about this,” and then I have to cajole him into admitting what he does know.  That’s what we do in the chemistry lab.  Put things together carefully, so they don’t explode.