I 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.