Teaching the rural poor, I'm filled with rage

The drug arrests, the teen pregnancies: How long can I go on?

Published December 7, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

For two years I've been teaching in a very poor, rural area. The past two years have seen amazing accomplishments and the lowest of defeats. Right now, the defeats are winning out. I'm tired of seeing my middle-school students arrested for selling drugs. I'm tired of seeing my 13-year-old girls impregnated by adult men. I'm tired of having students who have grown up in American schools unable to speak English fluently.

I'm feeling frustration and rage toward the system, toward the schools that let students down constantly. I'm angry with the teachers in my school district, with the parents of my students, with my students themselves and, mainly, with myself. How much can I do in two years? Do all of my accomplishments leave with me? If I haven't made a fundamental change in my students' lives, have I failed all 260 of them?

I believe completely that education is the only way to break the cycle of poverty, but how can I change the entire school system? I came into teaching with the idea that testing is a horrible idea. I now realize that the only subjects taught, at least at my school, are those that are tested. But that isn't a cure when students aren't learning half the subjects they need. It's a Band-Aid for a much wider problem.

My main problem now is what to do. I find myself so angry and frustrated at times that it's difficult to get through the day. I know that I'm the best teacher some of my students have ever had, and that makes me sad. I want to leave, but I find myself chained to this place. Someone needs to step up and break this cycle of ignorance and poverty, but who? I need my kids to feel anger instead of hopelessness, passion instead of apathy. But how much am I forcing my biased, liberal viewpoint on them, and how much do they need to hear? How do I tell them how to stop being victims? How do I fix the root of the problem, not just the symptoms?

Exhausted (enraged?) Educator

Dear Exhausted Educator,

I do not think it is possible to do the work you are doing without experiencing the frustration and doubt that you describe. If it were, all your former classmates would be teaching fifth grade in the Appalachians instead of selling real estate in Malibu. Soon society would be completely fixed and you'd be out of a job. So you are in the right place and are doing the right thing, and are experiencing the expected emotional challenges. The problem before you is practical, not ideological: How can you go on without succumbing to despair?

You come up with day-to-day ways to keep going: Vacations. Massages. Camping trips in the hills. Sandwiches eaten on the roadside. Memorable bugs watched for hours on the sunny porch of your sister's house. A book that takes you somewhere you didn't know existed. And you keep dreams alive: A student suddenly begins to sing like an angel right in the middle of class. Years later an anthropologist sitting in a tree in New Guinea writes you a letter and says I remember what you taught me and I'm teaching it to others.

Get a box and put these things in it and keep it. Look at it when you're down. You know what Jesse Jackson says, keep the dream alive? Well, it's corny but it's true. Because you're not doing it for the trips to France and the 401K. You're doing it because you wouldn't feel right if you didn't. You're doing it because it has to be done. You're doing it because everybody else is in France, drinking wine while the kids are starving.

The rest of us are counting on you. If we were in your shoes, we would drop of exhaustion, or lash out in frustration, or lapse into catatonia for lack of good cappuccino. So you find ways to keep going.

Maybe you'll find just one genius who changes the world. Wouldn't that be enough? Maybe you'll come to work one day and find that your favorite dour, gloomy victim of poverty and abuse -- who can hardly read, whose eyes seem empty of all childhood curiosity as though he'd already seen more than any of us could bear! -- has pulled his dastardly dad's guitar out of the back of his truck and started with a few blues chords to cook up a boogaloo that will change what's on everyone's iPod. Maybe you'll find a dancer who goes to New York and between classes happens to cook supper for a composer who needed just that one meal to finish a sonata that heals an ancient rift in the soul of a diplomat who goes on to bring peace to Israel and Palestine. Who knows? You've got to feed yourself with dreams of change. You've got to be the butterfly wings that start a typhoon.

You're dangling off the side of a mountain, exhausted and dizzy for lack of oxygen and dreaming of the feel of the sheets in a bed in a suite on the top floor of the Four Seasons, and you are seized with the thought: Maybe this is not what I should be doing!

It's just the exhaustion talking.

I know it sounds corny when you're up to your armpits in failure but what did you expect, "Mr. Holland's Opus"? Speaking of which, actually, I suggest you seek out uplifting experiences in film, music and literature. I don't know about Mr. Holland, or "Dead Poets Society," but I just saw "Les Choristes (The Chorus)" and it was wonderful, and I suggest you see it if you get the chance.

And while you're looking for inspiration, read the short story by Rick Bass called "Field Events" in the "Anchor Book of New American Short Stories":

"Lory ... taught in a little mountain town called Warrensburg, about thirty miles north. She hated the job. The children had no respect for her, no love; they drank and died in fiery crashes, or were abused by their parents, or got cancer -- they had no luck. Lory's last name, her family's name, was Iron, and one night the boys at her school had scratched with knives onto every desktop the words 'I fucked Miss Iron.' Sometimes the boys touched her from behind when she was walking in the crowded halls."

Sound familiar? The children at her school were "foul, craven, sunk without hope. She would resurrect one, get a glimmer of interest in one every now and then, but eventually it would all slide back; it had all been false -- that faint progress, the improvement in attitude. Sometimes she hit her fist against the lockers after school. The desks with 'I fucked Miss Iron' on them were still there, and the eyes of the male teachers were no better, saying the same thing ... She was up until midnight every night, grading papers, preparing lesson plans, reading the barely legible scrawled essays of rage -- 'I wont to kil my sester, i wont to kil my bruthers' -- and then she was up again at four or four thirty, rousing herself from the sleepy dream of her life."

Expect the unexpected rescue: Hers comes in the form of a giant naked man swimming upstream, doing the butterfly, pulling a canoe full of darkened cast-iron statues. You just have to know that sooner or later something marvelous and unexpected will happen. If it doesn't happen often enough in real life, well, that's what art is for.

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