I am a middle school teacher. I have taken to wearing red leather
boots that tie up my ankle and have thick, hoof-like heels. My
stride is long and loose and slightly dangerous. I have no
illusions except that this is war. And if I win, we all win. If I
lose, we all lose.
The bell screams and the teachers emerge like cuckoos from their classroom doors. We shout to the children from our posts up and down the school corridors.
"Bring your books and a pen!"
"Tuck that shirt in!"
"Do not push!"
"You dropped something!"
Occasionally we say, "Where you been?" or "Saw you at the game. Good job, man!" or "You go, girl!"to a few of them.
A darkness settles on the bodies jostling and being jostled along the hallway like cattle on a run. You can feel before you see and see before it happens. A momentary lapse like a cloud across the sun. You know what's coming.
This is when the boots come in handy, especially if you, like me, grew up surrounded more by books than people and learned about violence mostly from TV.
I throw my voice out ahead of me. It is my football coach meets
World Wrestler voice. Being the proverbial last pick of any team
sport and a frustrated ballerina, it's a voice I didn't even know
I had until I started teaching.
"Get to class! Right now! MOVE!!" I bellow as I goose step towards the nucleus, the tumorous eye of the storm. I get there in time for the first punch or slap or kick or scratch or lunge or grabbed handful of hair.
It could go either way.
The furious opponents and their surrounding crowd could dissolve like the darkness when the sun comes out again from behind the clouds.
Or the fight could intensify. A few bystanders get knocked down or stepped on. The circle widens. The center gathers force, gets wilder, more unpredictable. And then the teachers have no choice. We step in, insert ourselves physically between the swinging fists and kicks and tears and bloody lips of our feuding children before the storm becomes unstoppable.
Once the students have been separated and calmed down enough to stop kicking and swearing, we talk to them about consideration and forgiveness and the consequences of their behavior. To which they say, "Don't fucking touch me. I'll kill you," or something equally reconcilliatory.
We walk them to the assistant principal's office. The students get warnings and suspensions and expensive tickets from the city for fighting. But the fights go on.
"Only Monday," the teachers say on Monday as they pass each other in the hallway.
"Made it to Tuesday. At least it's not Monday," we say. And so on:
"Hump day. Halfway there!"
"One more day to Friday!"
"Thank God it's Friday!"
Then the weekend comes.
Even on weekends I am grading papers, creating lesson plans, calling parents. My children trip over piles of books on discipline and creativity and organization. There are bags and boxes in the living room of "materials" like paints and scissors and glue and construction paper and ribbon and buttons and glitter and stickers and a hundred other things that are for the classroom children.
My children listen sweetly as I tell them how Johnny made a bomb and blew up the stairwell next to my room, and they promise never to do anything like that. They play quietly in their room when I have to cry because I'm so tired and there's so much to do and I can't save everyone like I'm supposed to.
Almost everything we own is a hand-out or hand-me-down, and we live in an apartment. I could have been a lawyer or doctor. I was smart and hard-working and had the southern equivalent of an Ivy League education, but I wanted to teach. I believed in education. I believed I could make a difference.
And there is a kind of defeat in my children. First because they don't get to hate me in quite the same way children of other professionals might get to hate their parents. No matter how annoying or unfair I may seem, I am not only their mother, but a teacher. The have watched me struggle. They have seen what happens to their own teachers. They feel sorry for me. And next because they do not get away with much as I have seen it all. I have felt the pulse of adolescence as it strangles me.
Then it's Monday again, I think. Maybe one of the reasons the teachers call out the days to each other in the hallways is just to keep track. Our time is not measured in days or weeks, but in lessons, goals, tests. It is not Wednesday really, but another day working on basic sentence structure when the mandated lesson plan shows that the class should have progressed beyond sentences to paragraphs and be ready to begin essay organization. Still, over half the class cannot distinguish a noun from a verb and drops punctuation into sentences like pepper, sprinkling a few specks here and there for good measure.
So I read, go to seminars, xerox more. I teach harder. In my classroom, we color and cut and paste and run to and from the blackboard in complete-the-sentence races. We hand parts-of-speech mobiles from the ceiling and tape pictures and brightly-colored home-made posters to the walls. The room looks like a New Year's Eve party. And the earth turns and the seasons change, but in the classroom it is always the same day.
Why don't they learn? Why is it that no matter what I do, so many of them do not seem to learn anything? And worse, they don't seem to care. No. Worse. It's almost as if learning would be giving in. It's as if by teaching them, I am trying to take something away, their dignity, personality. It's as if am trying to change them into me. And they like who they are, the way they are. They can see no advantage in being like me.
There are 175 of them (total, in five classes) and one of me. In every classroom around us, it's the same story. One lone teacher amid a sea of children. We are outnumbered, weird outcasts. I am one nerdy girl trying to convince an army of teenagers to come to my party. They have friends and activities and love lives and drama and all of the things that make life rich and interesting. I have nouns and verbs and glue and paper bits and chalk and an overhead projector. I've got nothing they need.
And they steal from me. Not all of them. But enough of them so that I am constantly replacing my stuff because I cannot bear the thought of letting them do without and because the music and color and pens and markers and pencils and paper and stickers make my job more fun, too.
When I ask John or Juan or Jamaica to sit down for the eleventh time today, they write about it in their class journals and read it to everyone possible during share time. They don't seem to realize I'm listening. My problem, as they see it, is that I don't get any dick at home, or something along those lines.
It's upsetting. The bells sounds and I walk over to tell the teacher at the next door. She is a nice, religious woman, and she bursts out laughing. She says I should get a t-shirt : Got dick? and wear it to class tomorrow. When we pass each other in the hall, she asks "Got it?" and we laugh. I guess even if you're religious, you have to have a sense of humor if you're a teacher. (There was a time when that kind of comment would get a child sent to the principal's office or worse. But these days teachers do better to ignore all but the very worst or dangerous behavior problems. Teachers who cannot handle their own discipline do not get good evaluations.)
Maybe it's the age. Maybe it's just human. But the students' moods swing back and forth like weathervanes or psychopaths. One minute, out of the corner of my eye, I see Sabrina shooting me the finger. The next minute she is patting my hair and telling me I remind her of Stargirl, the heroine of the story I am reading them out loud.
Then there's the boy who just smacked me in the chest with a thick wad of spitty paper. I sit down next to him to see how far he's come with his writing. As I read and absentmindedly snap the rubber band I have confiscated from him against my wrist, he starts to cry. I see that he is not anywhere near finishing the story. He has the set-up: plot, setting, characters, but it's an ambitious story and it's going to take longer than a week for him to get it together. I tell him how strong his work is so far and how much he is learning. I tell him that I will take his planning notes as a first draft and he sniffles. I say, "Smile," and he does.
The skinny, double-jointed girl with the long face and learning
disability who is so tough that I imagine the shape I see jutting
out of her backpack is a machine gun and the bulges in her loose
pockets are hand grenades. She is rarely in her desk, but leans
against the desks of her friends, her arms and legs bent
backwards like she is turned inside-out.
I ask her to come in during lunch one day so that I can asses her reading. She can't come before or after school because she rides the school bus and there is no one available to drop her at school or pick her up after.
I hope to discover her strengths and weaknesses and that way be better able to adapt the curriculum to support her specific needs. Teachers are required to do this, to address the specific needs of special needs students as well as teach to the wide range of levels present among the so called "regular" students.
She slinks into the classroom halfway through lunch, slinging her backpack menacingly. I motion for her to come sit next to me at my desk. She falls into the chair as if she has been pushed and sprawls there with her arms hooked over the back of the chair, the soft inside of her elbows protruding upward as if both her arms have just been broken. I put the text in front of her. She reads a few words and I praise her. I tell her what a good job she's doing. I can tell she is trying.
She is sounding out four letter words. For all practical purposes, she can't read. She is illiterate and in the eighth grade. I have 175 students besides her and many of them need extra help as well. I smile and try not to show my panic. But she knows how she sounds. Like a five year old. Nothing like the street smart, tough girl image she presents to the world. Now I know the truth. I don't know how to help her.
She cannot forgive me for knowing her secret. In the days that follow, when I ask her sit down, she says: When I'm ready, or I will when I feel like it, if I feel like it. When I ask her to be quiet, she says: Why don't you? When I say that I can't keep putting up with this, she says: Neither can I. She writes in her journal. Her letters are beautiful with curly tips and little hearts for the dots. Once a week the students turn in their journals for me to read. I have to read hers out loud to myself and still have trouble understanding it. Everything is spelled according to how it sounds to her.
I read about how much she hates me and how her life is so empty that she feels just like one shoe by the side of the road, not a pair, just one. I sit with the pain and honesty of this metaphor. She is not stupid or bad, really. She just needs more help than I can give her.
The boy with the perfectly round dark head and big smile. He won't stop talking. I tell the boy that he is losing points every time he talks during the lesson.
"Points?" he asks,"What are points when we're talking freedom?"
I have to laugh hard at that. I think I know what he means. But I also know that if he keeps it up, he will miss out on all that I have to offer him and all that he has to offer himself. Still I laugh and hope that I will reach him some way.
At the end of the day, I feel as if I have been feeding mosquitoes, giving them little sips of me until my body is loose and sagging, half empty. I go out to the teacher's parking lot and check my car for graffiti or scratches with sharp objects like a knife or key. There is still the one long line scratched across the two passenger side doors that I found at the end of the first day I drove my first new car to school. I pile the stacks of papers to grade in the back seat and drive away. I fall asleep at any stop light over 10 seconds and people honk at me.
On the way home everyday, I drive past a field down the street from the school. As usual, I slow down to see the cows. It makes me feel good to see cows so close to the city. And there's something about cows that makes life seem simple and slow and potentially happy.
Today the cows are clustered around the gate that faces the road. There's something strange about seeing the cows like this, pressed together in a little clique like the girls at school who paint stars and hearts and moons on each other's temples and chins with glitter pens and sign up and down each other's arms with words like "best friends 4 ever," or "Bethany rocks!!!" But cows are different, right?
I take a closer look. No glitter pens that I can see, but there is one gawky, adolescent-looking cow who has gotten his boney head stuck in between the bars of the gate. The other cows are standing around nudging it or resting their chins on its back.
Without thinking, I pull over onto the gravel shoulder and get out. The cows all back away nervously, except for the little guy who is stuck. But he pulls on his head so hard, I'm afraid he will break his neck, and his eyes bulge out with a kind of desperation I recognize. That's the way the kids at school look just before they start a fight. I talk softly to the little cow. I say "It's okay. It's okay. It's okay." I'm also talking to myself.
I'm an English teacher and a city girl. I know nothing about cows. I touch him softly between the ears. His hair is wiry and dusty. He looks terrified even though I doing my best to be kind. It hurts my feelings a little that he's still so scared despite how hard I'm trying. But I'm used to this, too. It's not so different from what I do everyday at school. I hold his big-boned head between my palms and try to push it back through the rusted iron rungs of the gate. It doesn't fit. I have no idea what I'm doing.
I scan the passing cars for someone in a cowboy hat, someone who looks like they might know something about cows. A few people look my way. Their eyes flick for a minute in my direction and flick back with the sort of half-smile that says it's not their problem if I'm dumb enough to care. I know that smile. It's the one I get when I tell people that I'm a teacher.
Then a teacher drives by that I recognize from the English departmental meetings. I look out across the field like I am waiting for something or someone, like I'm exactly where I want to be and in complete control of the situation. I do have some pride. The rest of the world I don't mind, but I don't want to look this stupid in front of a colleague. I hear a honk and turn my head towards the sound. The teacher is signaling me to wait, her upturned palm shaking in my direction. She is turning around. She doubles back full circle and pulls up behind my car.
We stand side by side. Together we hold the calf's head and push. It won't budge. The calf is yanking his head away from us harder than ever. It can't believe that we are trying to help. It thinks we want to kill it. This is so familiar.
I walk back to the edge of the road and attempt again to stare down passing drivers. I make eye contact with three high school boys in the front seat of an old truck. They swerve off the road and slide to a stop next to me, bits of gravel popping and flying out from beneath the tires. I hope they haven't gotten the wrong idea. But they hop out of the truck and head straight for the fence. Their eyes are as bright and clear as the sunny afternoon air today.
Two boys jump the fence and pull the calf from behind while the other boy, the other teacher and I push the calf's head forward. The calf's head is just too big. It seems impossible to save him. I am about to apologize to everyone for getting them involved in this crazy, hopeless situation, when the boy on our side grabs the calf's stiff ears and squeezes them together mercilessly. There is a pop like a cork off a bottle and the calf is free.
I realize I have been holding my breath. I breathe in deeply. This reminds me of teaching, too, when a student suddenly sees. There is that pop of recognition and a feeling that being human is so rare and such a responsibility. We are transported momentarily to the realm of what's best in humanity. We set each other free. This is what makes me go back everyday, is what makes life worth living. For teachers. For students. For high school boys in trucks.
The gawky little cow runs free. We don't win them all. We don't lose them all either.