Two years ago, I accepted an offer to teach seventh grade English at an urban middle school. I remember following a woman into a little office to sign papers, papers for a regular job not headquartered in the spare room in my house, a regular job with a designated lunchtime and human beings. The last time I did such a thing was in 1986. When the woman left to photocopy my signature, I translated the salary I was to receive on the back of her business card. It seemed low. It was low. But I had not arrived in that spot -- a table pressed into the corner of the Dallas Independent School District personnel office -- because I intended to make lots of money. I was going to change lives, I reminded myself. You do not make a lot of money when you change lives.
“Are you ready to start today?” asked the woman, returning.
“Today, gosh. That’s fast.”
She waited. I could be ready. Yes. I could be ready. She checked her watch.
Not an hour later, I clicked up the metal steps into Portable Room 1464. Twenty-five 13-year-olds whipped their heads around, like ballerinas doing chaine turns.
My mom was a teacher, and I grew up watching her take off in her Chevy Monza each day, a blur of fabric and scent. Cristal, by Chanel. She had a carpet bag, with leather handles, made from a remnant of a real Oriental rug. Each evening, she lifted the flap and spilled papers onto the floor of my parents’ bedroom. Dittos, they were called then. Worksheets made on a machine that cranked out copies from carbon paper, by hand. If you held the paper by your nose, you could smell the fluid. Intoxicating, it was, like rubber cement, but fruity. A bottom drawer in our kitchen was filled with unused sheets, for games of tic tac toe, or shopping lists.
But for the past 20 years, or so, I have spent all of my time writing. I am a journalist. I have seen my name in many places -- magazines, newspapers, TV sets — but never on a middle school blackboard. I did what Ms. Spidell did in kindergarten and wrote my name up high, in the right-hand corner. I will need to say something meaningful, I realized. I turned around and said hello. Then, I said the meaningful part. “I am your new teacher.”
Wow. That sounded crazy.
Before I arrived, a month into the school year, the students had had five substitutes. The one there my first day took off within the hour, leaving me to navigate solo. “They are not bad kids,” he said before the door closed behind him. He didn’t say what kind they were. I would complete the rest of the sentence in time.
I felt the way I did when my dad left my first Manhattan apartment the day after it was robbed. He came into the city and we went to the lock store on Third Avenue to select proper barricades for New York living. A few hours later, men installed a wrought iron gate on one window and a chain and padlock the size of Montana on another, the one through which my stereo, speakers and garnet necklace had vanished while I was at the beach. Then, Dad said he was going home. Just like that. And he wouldn’t take me with him.
The classroom was painted navy blue, on three walls. The fourth was red, like blood, and streaky. Imagine that you cut your leg on a piece of metal, maybe jutting out from a car in a parking lot. You feel something, so you bend down and touch your thigh with your fingers, sweeping them over the wound. This is what the paint on my wall looked like, that swath of red, lined from discovery.
On the floor, tiles peeled, exposing the plywood underneath. Windows stuck shut, and an 8-foot metal cabinet door flapped off a hinge, making it treacherous to retrieve a paper folder, or a crayon. The class door wouldn’t lock from the inside without a key. When an emergency announcement boomed over the loudspeaker for window shades to be drawn and students to go to the corners and all noise to cease, I couldn’t lock the door without first rummaging in my purse for the key. It was fortunate that whoever was doing bad things in the neighborhood skipped over Room 1464.
The students behaved the way people might in such an environment. When you wear pretty shoes, you walk with poise and care. These kids pushed each other out of seats, fell on the floor, hurdled over desks, stepped on each other to come in and go out. By the time my second class had entered -- properly, after three tries -- I saw what I needed to do. Sentence structure and plot development would be easy. Convincing them that they were worthy of respect would be a task.
I stood in front of the board, and told the students about my sun room. I told them that for seven years, I have written stories in the room, on the side of my house, with arched windows that look onto the street. I think that people should know who is standing in front of them telling them to do things and not do things. Many teachers, I’ve seen and heard, hide who they are. They put photographs on their desks, of husbands and boyfriends and pets -- pets, mainly -- but that is it. My daughter’s sixth grade social studies teacher liked turtles. Everyone brought her turtle objects for Christmas. Paperweights, necklaces. We did not know much else. I can’t remember her name.
Some people might think that my students knew too much. They knew that I’ve been divorced, that my dad died way too early, that I love to dance. They knew that my daughters don’t have boyfriends, thank God, and that I believe in speaking up when you believe in something, as long as you say it politely. They didn’t really know what I like to eat, or that I derive joy from the color blue and am on the search for a classic navy pea coat. But they knew that I hate guns and that all of my friends, and my mother and brother, live a plane ride away. They knew I’m afraid of planes.
I think they learn better when they know these things. I think they are more invested on some level, even if for 45 minutes. It’s just the way most human beings are wired. My purpose in that classroom, I determined after one morning, was to change the way these kids might think about themselves, and the world, whether they could put a comma in the right spot or not.
During the following week, I questioned some of the routine practices that I noticed at the school. I asked the administration why security guards yelled at kids on the way to their portable classrooms, about loitering, or tucking in their shirts. I asked why no one was coming to help the five special education kids that I learned I had in one class. I asked why my seventh graders wouldn’t be reading novels and were told to use five adjectives in one sentence. One sentence! I asked why an administrator took a kid onto the porch and screamed at him. “Shut your mouth,” she said, for all to hear. I asked why the six disruptive kids from my class couldn’t be combined with the six disruptive kids from another class, so that the rest could learn without interruption. I asked why the kids were rushed while they were eating breakfast in the cafeteria. It was bad enough that they had to eat breakfast in the cafeteria.
By the end of the week, the principal and assistant principal had had enough questioning, apparently, so they called me into their office and yelled at me, too. During the following eight days, assorted administrators observed me in class six times. Soon after, one of them handed me a legal document, a formal evaluation of my teaching ability that would be submitted to the school district. I was sub-par in every category. Despite my Ivy League English degree, master’s, and 25 years of professional reading and writing experience, I was unfit to teach reading and writing to impoverished minority kids who, at 13, were reading and writing at about a second grade level. I had performed “Below Expectations.” I didn’t instruct the 26 kids to use the one working computer, so I had failed “to use technology in the classroom.” A student “twirled her hair,” so I was “ineffective.”
I would, for the entire school year that followed, make public what I perceived as illegal and unethical activity. I filed grievances with the school district and wrote stories in the Huffington Post, which were picked up by other mainstream and education-based media outlets. In the end, because I would never yell at a kid on a porch or anywhere else, and because I got the room painted and the lock fixed and ignored the inane prefabricated curriculum that the other folks followed like an Amtrak train schedule, my limited English students soared. I painted the dingy brown door yellow and tied it open with a computer cord. Technology in the classroom.
I remember when my mother and the other teachers went on strike in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1967. We drove by in the Bonneville to lend moral support. Mom was on the sidewalk, marching with her fellow teachers, holding a sign. I remember stretching my hand out the window, making a “V” with my fingers. Dad honked the horn and we cheered, like loons. At age 7, I got a sense of justice, and what you do when you don’t have it. And I felt, from the back seat of Dad’s sedan, the mettle of my mom, underneath the Sassoon haircut and geranium pink lips.
But the teaching world that I saw was different. Teachers are not revered the way they used to be, and the ones I met were not bound together the way they used to be. As they head back to the classroom this week, they face longer hours and less money. Last January, the Dallas Independent School District announced that it would be extending the work day by 45 minutes, and not paying them for the extra time. One tried to rally his fellow educators to stay home on a designated day, to call in sick in protest. That day, the attendance rate was higher than it had been in months. Teachers who were legitimately ill arrived for duty, so as not to appear to be participating in an organized demonstration.
In all but 13 states, striking is banned, and teachers who disregard the law face penalties. Though the spirit of protest is alive in places such as Wisconsin -- where tens of thousands of people rallied in 2011 against a proposed budget bill that would limit state employees’ bargaining rights -- as well as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, most of the country’s educators are prohibited from taking to the streets during a workday. In Florida, they can be terminated. In Georgia and Tennessee, they can be fired and prevented from reapplying for employment for three years. At the school where I taught, women who felt persecuted by the administration whispered to me in the ladies’ room. When the door opened, they’d hush.
Teachers everywhere oppose the No Child Left Behind culture of standardized testing, yet where is the unified uprising against it? Instead of refusing to administer the exams en masse, teachers nationwide have gone as far as erasing wrong answers under orders from principals, fearing firing if they balk, cheating their students in the process. A Save Our Schools convention held in Washington, D.C., this August attracted just 150 people. Teachers, the people who should be showing kids how to stand up and make their case, bravely, have lost their courage. It is not entirely their fault.
But I also know something about teachers, and always have. They are compassionate people, drawn to the profession because helping kids learn is a basic and moral thing to do, not because it will buy them convertibles or plane tickets to Paris. Most truly love spending seven hours a day in a room with other people’s kids. Most worry about them. Most try really hard to reach them. Most take enormous pride in their work when they do.
Since 2001, when, for the first time in the history of federal education policy, George Bush’s No Child Left Behind linked school and teacher assessment -- and cash rewards -- directly to children’s standardized test performance, teachers have been, too often, nothing more than the getters of the scores. What matters in this calculation isn’t the person in front of the class, what his expertise is, what he thinks, about anything. Teachers are no longer the scholars. They are not wise or trusted. They are not valued for their knowledge or ingenuity, but for their ability to abide, to “buy in,” to “manage” a classroom, punch the biometric clock and agree to all things. They are the middlemen, only, the vehicle through which pre-set processed information is handed along. The vehicle that would rarely question an administrator, let alone carry a sign. The vehicle that can be replaced, as I was, when my principal “released me from my assignment.”
I had grand plans that first day in Room 1464, and a feeling that I could accomplish them, despite the poverty, the shaky lives at home. Mom came to visit during the winter and she, too, saw promise, taking over the classroom like she was putting on skates. No lesson plans, no scripts -- just stories, questions, connections. Learning, the way it happens best, without knowing it’s happening.
My room was at the end of a row of similar buildings, next to an enormous playing field. At the final bell before summer, I drove out of the parking lot and made a left at the corner. From the distance, my painted yellow door screamed goodbye.