As I looked back at my blog posts I noticed that I never finished posting chapter 1 of my one-day-to-be-published book. Ironic that it was about a year ago that I last posted a piece of it.
Behind the fading whistling comes the staccato drum of alternating light and heavy, running footsteps. “First!” yells Damarcus, a skinny, light-skinned and light-hearted black kid who punctuates it with a joyous whack of his bony knuckles against his locker.
“You cheated,” puffs Jose, a short, heavy Dominican kid who is a little too out of breath for a twelve year old who has just run up only one flight of stairs. Damarcus most likely did not have to cheat.
Without realizing I am doing it, I shift my stance a little, taking my weight back just enough to go from combat ready to merely alert. I know the routine so well by now I do most of it unconsciously, sometimes with my eyes closed. Day after day, one hundred and eighty times a year, things rarely vary from the predictable. This is a good thing as around here the unpredictable is hardly ever something warm and welcome, like the principal skipping down the hall in a pink party gown giving us all bonuses for our hard work. The next ones up are always the good kids and my head starts to nod. “Yes,” I say softly but aloud, maybe to convince myself that it is true, “there are some good kids”. I smile my first genuine smile of the day and make sure to make eye contact with the far too few kids that always help to make the day worthwhile as I sincerely say, “Good Morning”.
The respite is short lived and I feel it like an unblocked punch in my gut as I hear the squeak of rubber on the tile floor. It is not the quick, high pitched normal squeak of sneakers on tile but somehow more like a keening wail that cuts through me making me wince. This auditory trick is accomplished by taking every step by slowly turning your whole foot in a wide arc across the floor, preferably while encased in new or wet rubber soled sneakers. I snap back to combat ready as a reflex, but the loud ones are never the violent ones. Even at the tender age of twelve the hardcore kids have already learned the value of silence.
I don’t know why I am suddenly hyperventilating, deep breaths in through my nose and forced out quickly through my mouth, but I am. I try to control it physically by closing my mouth and forcing myself to breathe out slowly through my nose but that just makes it sound like a more nasally sigh. I am so frustrated by everything about this school that I can feel it making me ill. Twenty-five years ago when I first started, I felt like I was making a difference. Now I cannot justify what I do that way. It’s as if everything about this place is against me. I hate that they are forcing me to get my children to pass meaningless tests instead of teaching them how to think. Through a supreme effort of will I barely control my urge to vomit at my own sense of inadequacy.
The truth is that I feel I am losing the battle. It’s hard to watch it get worse every year and not be affected by it. I started teaching in 1989 in the middle of South Central L.A. In 1992 I was teaching middle school science at Chester Nimitz Jr. High. In what I still call the Rodney King riots, the pizza joint that delivered to my one room apartment, my bank teller machine, and the family-owned Mexican restaurant I loved were all burned down. When school reopened that Monday morning, May 4, some of my students offered me a car stereo saying they had more than they needed, which they actually followed with a heartfelt though misplaced in May, “Happy Hannukah!”. The sad truth is that those kids were much better behaved in class, more respectful and thankful towards good teachers, and had more concerned parents than my current students.
And we don't have time to teach them. The walls seem to close in on me and I can't breathe as I do the math. This year we have to give the kids the new week long PARCC test, a pre and post test used to measure the children's growth and evaluate teachers and five separate one day state tests in addition to the minimum of two major assessment tests every marking period that is mandated to give the children their report card grades. That means that out of the 180 days that I will see these kids I have to spend 1/9 of our time administering tests. Even if we only spend two hours preparing the students for every one hour test, this is another 2/9 of our short time together. Add them up and we will spend at least 1/3 of our time, or a full 60 out of 180 days preparing for and administering tests.Help!
Finally breathing slow and steady again I look around and see that, while I was freaking out, the hallway has filled up. Where there were empty hallways what seemed a moment ago there was now an ironically preppy flag of moving blue, white and khaki. Since the implementation of our uniform policy two years ago, most of the kids now dress alike with khaki or dark blue pants and light blue or white polo shirts. That fact aside there is a plethora of uniqueness to be seen. The variation in hair alone is staggering. The boys run the gamut from almost bald fades to the tallest afros to long flowing locks either freefalling or pulled into ponytails. There are no natural blonds or redheads in our student population but all shades of brown and black are well represented by these boys. Thanks mostly to hair dye and ribbons, hair ties, and even rubber bands, the girls fly all the colors of the rainbow. Yellow, purple, red, blue and green show up as streaks or waves or even spots against a mostly darker palate of largely long flowing tresses. This plus the decidedly different anti-uniform of jeans and wild t shirts of the openly defiant kids makes for an eye catching spectacle.
The two girls who are closest to me both have simply dark brown hair, but they make up for the lack of color with their makeup. It is bold and thick and it strikes me as too dark, all blues and purples and long black lashes with extra black brows. A pair of seventh grade girls, they both have the same zombified blank seen-too-much-at-too-young-an-age stares. Their arms are linked defiantly together daring anyone to get in their way as they strut towards their lockers, swinging their hips like Lady Gaga on stage. As they pass they coo at me. “Hey Mr. E,” they say in almost perfect unison.
I bow at the waist. “Good morning ladies,” I say in what I hope is a chipper tone. Truth be told I am still shaking a my head a little wishing for the good old days teaching in the war zone that was South Central LA, but sometimes just putting on a mask of happiness leads to a change of mood, so I carry on.