Teaching ate me alive

Angry students, selfish parents, incompetent administrators. Was I too smart for a public classroom -- or too dumb?

Topics: Education, Life stories, Public Education, public schools, teaching, Editor's Picks,

Teaching ate me alive (Credit: Larisa Lofitskaya via Shutterstock/Salon)

It wasn’t one single incident that made me quit teaching in a public middle school. It was the steady, moldy accumulation of dehumanizing, lifeless, squalid misadventures of which I was a part. Like that time with “Carlos,” to pick an incident more or less at random.

I can’t even remember what it was that happened between Carlos and me. Anger, impatience, frustration, stupidity — and that was just me. Probably just another student who categorically refused to do as he was perfectly reasonably asked — open a book, pick up a pencil, hand in homework — or a teacher’s ineffectual attempts to come up with any good reason at all to learn the Pythagorean Theorem, or some such timeless knowledge. OK! Let’s say you have a ladder leaning against a wall. Suffice to say, our “conversation” ended without closure. But, evidently I said something that upset Carlos.

The next day I saw my friend the Dean of Students. He told me that he ran into Carlos’ father and a couple of his uncles; they were looking for my classroom. They had baseball bats. I am not the coach of the baseball team. There is no baseball team. In fact, there are no teams at all.

My friend the Dean of Students had diplomatically suggested that Carlos’ father and a couple of his uncles accompany him to his office, where the matter could be discussed at leisure. My friend the Dean assured me that the bats were for dramatic effect only; that they did not intend to use them and that they only wanted to put the whammy on my head in a metaphorical sense.

“Mission accomplished,” I said. But you can’t suspend a kid just because his dad and an assortment of uncles threaten to metaphorically beat you to death with baseball bats. So the next day, there was Carlos, in class. No notebook, no pencil, no homework, no nothin’. Just a metaphorical baseball bat poised over my head. And the distinct sense that I had to mind my p’s and q’s with Carlos because the folks at home cared about him, after their fashion.

So, I have to leave the Los Angeles Unified School District. Quite literally, my physical and mental health, and the continued viability of my family, demand it. I can’t be the last man to die on the last hill. I couldn’t make it that far, anyway.

The end of winter break came last January, and my wife saw the state I was in, and she said, “You’re not going back.” I’m all, “Works for me!” So I’ve called in sick ever since. (Fret not, taxpayers! After I zeroed out my 10 sick days, the LAUSD stopped paying me.) Did some soul searching. Intensive therapy. Medication. The usual.

In the final analysis, I’m too sensitive for a public, inner city, “high-needs” middle school. Or to put it in a more accurate (if less flattering) light, I’m too thin-skinned. I guess I never really belonged there — I’m too suburban, too white, too ’70s, too New Jersey, too old, I don’t know. Too smart? Or too dumb? I was eminently capable of leaving it all behind at the end of the day, but 7:59 to 3:01 was hell. Minute-counting hell. Mephistophelian, stygian, unalloyed hell.

That was not what I had envisioned. As a “mid-career” architect in the early 2000s, I was beginning to understand that it’s not easy to change the world through architecture, Ayn Rand notwithstanding. Either my ego was too big, or my talents were too limited (though neither is a detriment to a successful career in the arts, if you ask me). But the facts being what they were, I saw that a change of careers was indicated. I wanted to do something meaningful with my life.

There was a time, however brief, when I first started teaching 10 years ago, that I thought I could save humanity from its ignorance, cupidity and deceit one youngster at a time. Or, at least I thought I’d be on hand should the opportunity arise to do so. That I failed on all counts is no one’s responsibility but my own.

But, heck! As long as you asked — let the finger-pointing begin.

The kids — most of them are fine; after all, they’re just kids. I blame them for little or nothing, or just maybe I can forgive them everything. Even when I heard 12-year-old girls in perky pigtails say “fuck you” to me and had 13-year-old boys promise to kick my ass and key my car, and worse, while alarming, at least it had some context. Hell, maybe I deserved a serious beat-down now and then.

I feel bad for the kids. Their lives suck in school and pretty much always out of school, as well. An hour and 45 minutes of math, an hour and 45 minutes of science, an hour and 45 minutes of history with several minutes of frantic, demeaning bedlam in the cafeteria mixed in. I wouldn’t subject my own children to a single day of this foolishness, and most other people wouldn’t either.

Parents — incompetent, uncaring, selfish, thoughtless, immature (the ones who are there and sober anyway) — let’s call ‘em as we see ‘em and tell ‘em to get it together. The sooner the better. The world depends upon it. They have to answer to themselves and, in my personal opinion, God. And all too often, the criminal justice system. Many of them are doing the best they can under very trying circumstances. Poverty is a soul-sucking quagmire of desperation and ineradicable exhaustion. But the fabric of our urban communities is unraveling, one family at a time, and the facts cannot be wished away by calling them “welfare fraud.”

Teachers — the saints who volunteer their lives, treasure and mental health to stand in front of a classroom in an American public school. Saints, heroes, paragons, role models: That’s what I saw daily. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. The teachers I see do more in one day for our community and the human race than most people do in an entire lifetime. As long as we teachers fight to keep the big picture in focus, we are righteous.

On the other hand, how is it possible, for instance, to pass another teacher in the hall, without another soul in sight, at 7:30 on a Monday morning, and not say “good morning”? That type of thing really took the wind out of my sails. When we have each others’ backs, we are invincible. So I hope all the teachers continue to be kind to one another, because one kind word was very, very often the only thing that got me through the day. And I apologize for having been guilty of unkindness too often myself. I was besieged: I know what it’s like to be in a fox hole when they start lobbing the mortars in, and the details and the niceties get lost in the trench. Survival is strategically paramount, but on a tactical level, it does no one any good to hide alone in his bunker.

Administrators! And now to uncork my particular wrath for the administrators! First, there are far too many of them. Far, far too many. A lot too many. A toiletful too many. Put ‘em out to pasture. Paying for early retirement has got to be cheaper than paying for their mistakes. As they say about the government in general: If you hate the problem, wait ’til you see our solution!

Second, they are all, in my experience, more or less the same interchangeable, vaporous nonentity. Drifting through the halls with a walkie-talkie, unburdened by care or shame, hurrying off to some monumentally inconsequential three-hour off-site meeting, with nothing but a pot of coffee and two brain cells between them, where a plan will be hatched with no purpose, no effect and no follow-through. Leadership begins at the top — simple as that. Schools drift in the fog as a direct result of the log-rolling incompetence of our erstwhile captains and their first mates.

You can tell by the blasé, sour, glassy-eyed look on their faces that they’re simply marking time. I can think of but rare instances to which they added any positive value. To the contrary, they appear at times to be deliberately undermining our best efforts. A suggestion: Maybe at a faculty meeting one of them could vaguely suggest that it’s possible that some of us are perhaps doing an adequate job? A little encouragement? A compliment? And by the way, a five dollar Scratcher at the annual “Faculty Appreciation Day,” or whatever it is, doesn’t mean anything. I don’t want to spend any more time cogitatin’ upon those molecules. It all goes without saying.

But if there’s one single place in which blame for this state-wide stinking mess can reside, it’s Proposition 13. Time was, the California education system was the jewel in the crown of public education in this Universe. From pre-kindergarten through post-graduate school at Berkeley, the state of California had a lot to be proud of. But it cost money. And let’s face the truth of the situation: The pupils were getting less beige and more brown, and as they got darker and darker, the taxpayers got more and more reluctant to foot the bill for their education. Even though others had picked up the check for their education.

Sometimes things need to be called by their names: in this case, racism, fear, ignorance and greed. Today the education in this state is an embarrassment — tomorrow it will be a tragedy. A national disgrace. No better than Mississippi, by golly! In the 20 years since I left Berkeley (M. Arch., ’91), I’ve seen a marked decline there as well as at the middle school at which I taught. Don’t assume it’s just the classrooms at K–12 schools that don’t get mopped. And Telegraph Avenue, once the Harvard Square of the West, is a ghost town. It’s all a part of the conspiracy — no, it is not too strong a word — to destroy public education in this country. Are we gonna let this happen? Are we gonna let this happen?! Sadly, the answer appears to be, “Sure. Why the hell not?”

Sooner rather than later, we’ll get what we pay for.

Oh — and politicians — I hate you, too! I know you have comfortable, clean, well-air-conditioned offices, because I see pictures of you sitting in them, thinking big, strategic thoughts, all the time. Please come out of your offices some time and stop by. Preferably some time in June when it’s 85 degrees because the A/C isn’t working (again) and the floor hasn’t been mopped in four months and the trash can is over-flowing and the sink is backed-up.

I probably need to stipulate, for the record, that I really like teaching; I like being with kids and talking about math and life and other nonsense. I like being the one individual in many a child’s day who took a minute to listen and care and smile. There’s really not much to it. I like the teaching and the humanity part of my job. But at the end of the day, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, I didn’t leave the public schools — the public schools left me.

And again, for the record, not every day teetered between calamity and catastrophe. I had a boy in class named “Edgar” one year early in my teaching career. What a punk. Smart, mean, conscience-free and 12 years old, with a big, stupid, nasty grin on his face: thoroughly disagreeable. Unperturbed by any known, meaningful consequence. A kid with absolutely nothing to lose. Try as I might, there was no liking this dope. What can I say? Teachers are human. I figured the second to last thing this kid would do in his short life was smoke meth. I could see him lying dead on the ground outside a 7-11 in the gritty heat of Los Angeles with a big, stupid, nasty grin on his face. He would finally confront a consequence that had some meaning. What a relief. What a waste.

Eventually the teachers got so tired of him, so aggravated, so irked or bored, that the administrators could no longer ignore him and the trouble he caused, and he disappeared into the bureaucratic maw of the LAUSD.

A few years later there’s a knock on my locked classroom door in the middle of Period 1. What now? I opened the door — there was a boy who looked like Edgar: a little older maybe; same grin, crooked teeth, colorless eyes. All more or less the same except he seemed to be wearing some kind of official-looking, junior para-military uniform. Edgar, private first class! Or whatever they call it.

After being transferred hither and yon in the LAUSD for a few more years, he’d finally been sent to Lakeside “juvie” for six months but, he said, “It felt like 10 years.” For whatever reason, Edgar had taken a notion to pull himself together, pull himself up by his bootstraps, give it the old college try and win one for the Gipper! Hence the uniform: He would graduate from high school in June and be inducted into the Marines.

I can’t take any credit for his rebirth, as much as I’d like to: I had tossed him out of class and referred him to his counselor as often as anyone; and he had been transferred out of the school with such dispatch that I had very little actual class time with him. Plus, I hated him and, I thought, he probably hated me, too—if he’d ever even given me any thought.

But on the other hand, as a counselor pointed out to me, he took the time and effort to go out of his way to find me. Maybe — and only maybe — we had recognized some spark of humanity in each other.

Wrong profession? Lost perspective? Just another whiny, self-absorbed wool-gatherer? Guilty as charged. Hey, I’m a card-carrying, fellow-traveling union member! But I do have one suggestion for civilians. As a public school teacher, I considered myself a public servant, like cops, firemen, food service workers and other “heroes” who are willing to do difficult, thankless, vital jobs for very little pay and not much more than the scorn of their fellow citizens. Thus, the door of my classroom was always open to parents, administrators, politicians, journalists and passers-by. But I waited in vain for company, for visitors were scarce. All the jibber jabber about public education these days seems to be based solely on idle speculation, memories of a Golden Age and the bilge that the LA Times publishes in lieu of objective journalism. So please stop by a classroom sometime. You might be surprised. And you’re paying for it.

There’s a good reason that American slaves were forbidden to learn to read: Literacy is freedom. Free, high quality, accessible, equitable education is the bedrock of a free society. That’s not just Tea Party flag-waving; it’s the Incontestable Eternal Truth. Sadly, in the final analysis, historical and political forces are at work that leave us, the teachers and students, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. People, people, people! Can’t you see that The Man wants us ignorant? Unite, my friends! We have nothing to lose but our …  ohferchrissakenevermind!

But remember, if you’re there when the last dog reaches the last hill: Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.

Peter Hirzel is a teacher and artist in Los Angeles.

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