After a few months of teaching in Brooklyn, I was sufficiently overwhelmed to start looking for a way out. My roommates (R. and V.) and I were all TFA, so we spent our nights hashing and rehashing through what was happening to us. We were living in a shotgun apartment in Brooklyn, and my room was separated from R.’s by a curtain that I rigged up across a doorframe. There was no not-hearing arguments, so we shared them around liberally. My roommate-colleagues were more eloquent and much, much funnier than I was, so I decided to start writing about these conversations…and what I was thinking at the time. I really wanted a record of these desperate nights.
I remember trying to justify myself to my roommates one night along these lines, “Look—we’re young and smart and engaged in important work. Don’t you think that people across the country want to know what it’s like to be this age RIGHT NOW? Remember Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? People always want to know what it’s like to be young and idealistic and too-dumb-to-know-better…We’re a country that worships its youth, for better or for worse.” Wendy Kopp’s book on TFA (One Day, All Children) had only been out for a couple of years, and TFA was in the news a lot. Wasn’t there room for one more book on what it was like on the front lines? Didn’t everyone care about this stuff?
They thought I was daft (as I remember it), and as they were right. I was also talking nonsense about getting a second job working at a bookstore on the weekends (never happened either). Being a first-year teacher is a weird time in one’s life.
Anyway, I wrote about 30 ruled notebook pages, which I provisionally titled (in perhaps the only stroke of genius that permeated the stillborn work) Breaking Promises to Myself. It was the perfect title. That’s what it felt like almost every single day of my first six months in the classroom. I think it’s relevant to my last post. I think that it’s not very well-written, but that it’s as close as words can get to describing what it feels like to be facing the challenge of urban education as a 22-year-old first-year teacher. It’s self-absorbed and self-indulgent prose, I know. I’ve tried not to touch it up much so that it’s still accurate to how I was wallowing at the time.
SO-without further ado, here’s the never-before-typed Introduction to Breaking Promises to Myself [further ado: if you are a publisher and want to see the rest, or you know one who might be interested, I suppose you could email me—email@example.com—if you're willing to pay to see the whole draft, I'd be happy to share it]:
Worth reiterating: Copyright © Conor Williams. All Rights Reserved.
This all really got started—this book, I mean—with a conversation with an unenthusiastic stranger. Well, honestly, that’s not the whole story. It really started with a conversation with my roommate. We were lamenting our lives and I tried to get around the malaise by suggesting that while challenging, urban teaching was a great life experience, a worthy topic for a book. I mulled that thought over for days, so that when I happened to meet this stranger, I was already primed. He really cinched the thing.
I guess, to be truly honest, “it all started” when I chose to join Teach For America, but at some point going back in time doesn’t add anything to the narrative. Infinite (and detailed) regress makes for boring reading. Sure, it started when I was born, or when my parents met, or they were born, etc, but this is a book about teaching, not a full autobiography.
Anyway, I met this unenthusiastic stranger at a weekend Ultimate Frisbee game in Prospect Park. I arrived late with a friend, and the game started winding down almost as soon as we arrived. This was going to be my only chance at exercise this weekend, so we hung around to toss with a guy named Andrew. He was a junior at the City College of New York at the time, and had only been playing Ultimate for a year or so. Like so many, he’d fallen madly in love with the disc. I asked him about classes, his career plans, his past, but we only connected over the plastic disc passing between us. His future, as he told it, all revolved around “getting better at disc.” He said it in that all-too-familiar eyes-half-closed-head-nodding-zen-blasé way that infects young ultimate players everywhere.
But everything served the disc—from his weekend plans to his social life to his grad school choices: “I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” he said cheerfully. “But I need to find a good cultural studies graduate program where there’s a sick ulty club to train with.”
Silence. I was out of questions. Vapid answers breed stillborn conversations. After a few more tosses, he asked, “so, uh, what do you do?”
And I got myself ready, because here was this young kid—a kid who I used to be, a few short years ago—and he was obviously going to love hearing this. I mean, as a still-pretty-young male in New York City, my answer was never what people expected. I was going to wow this effete, immature chump by way of my devotion and sacrifice. CULTURAL STUDIES?!? What the hell was that anyway? Who did that help?
“I’m a first grade teacher in Crown Heights,” I explained. Not a lot of guys do that, I didn’t add. My chest might have puffed out. Syrupy modesty might have dripped off my lips. I might have hauled in his last errant throw with some extra flourish. I tossed the disc back and jerked my thumb over my shoulder towards my school in Crown Heights. Now for the praise.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “So you’re like, into social change and stuff?”
He must not have heard me. I tried again. “Yeah, it’s a great job because I get to see the tangible benefits the kids get from my actions every single day. Sure, I work twelve-hour-days at a minimum, but it’s worth it.”
No dice. “Yeah, I’m glad that’s working for you, you know. I tried volunteering this one time, but I really hated it. Where’s the fun in it, right? Life’s too short!”
I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I wanted to rip out his voicebox—it had been a particularly tough week at school. Anyway, we stopped tossing pretty quickly after that. I swear to you, I’m not embellishing this in the least. This guy was (probably still IS) an unabashed agnostic about the environment that exists beyond the confines of his own will. He’s not sure if there’s anything else out there that matters, and he doesn’t really care if it does. Yo, dude—lemme just snag the ‘bee one more time and we’ll hit the dining hall.
Or maybe, I’ve been thinking, he’s simply indifferent to my desperate ego and its attempts to get some attention. In either case, this interaction got me thinking about “the big picture” part of Teach For America again. What did it all mean? What were the ideals that brought me here? Could it be that my moral high ground didn’t tower so high? Could it be that my righteousness wasn’t so impregnable?
Most of all, I started looking inside my life to ask if it was worth it. Even if it wasn’t perfect, it was morally defensible in clear and well-defined ways. Somehow, though, facing someone who didn’t give me easy admiration for my service really swung the “I’m glad I’m doing this” equation out of my favor.
Because let’s be honest (I’m striving to make that a theme in this book), I was working from at least 6:30AM until 5:30PM every single day (so not quite twelve hours every day, no, and perhaps my inflation when narrating it to Andrew-the-disc-playing-stranger is telling…to be continued). With a thirty-minute bike ride commute on either side of those hours, the days were just packed. When I got home, I’d collapse, my body in a constant state of shock—and pain. My feet hurt. My back hurt. My throat hurt. My ego was always bruised.
It was true. Teaching made me feel awful. My main hobbies were cooking (since I had to do it anyway), riding my bike to and from work (again, part of not dying), and writing emails to my worried family and friends. The carefree college life of self-determined, self-development was a sepia-toned memory. Thoughtful, peaceful afternoons were the stuff of dreams and fantasies.
Somewhere along the first month of teaching, the political theorist in me kicked in. God bless my undergraduate major. It kept me sane—if it also drove me to distraction. Anyway, I remember thinking that as a society, as a political regime, our values were completely screwed up. Each day, the large majority of us get up and spend our most aware, most valuable hours trying to subsist by laboring. These are also the hours when the weather is the nicest. I tried to console myself with the assurance that at least my job was helping to “make a difference” (whatever that means) and thus my most potent hours alive weren’t wasted quite as pointlessly. Nonetheless, the despair drove me briefly to be a sort of secret, emotive Marxist.
The rest of the autumn I felt these demons trailing me. My convictions about my work deteriorated away, and for an urban teacher, that’s a dangerous thing.
Really, though, to tell this story well, we’ll need another angle.
So here goes. We’ll start from college and work forward. When this book first occurred to me, I realized that its central promise (aside from honesty) wasn’t going to be eternal, “capital-T” Truth. No, since I’m writing this from within the throes of the experience, from the bleak, dangerous depths of first-year teaching, the best that this can be is a series of cross-sectional ideas. These are the moments that define a short period of time—perhaps no more than a day or an hour, perhaps only an instant. Because of the four-hour nights of sleep and the 4AM wakeups, because of the constant lesson planning, and because of the utter shock that full-time work provides to a naïve 22-year-old’s system, I’m pretty sure that I’ll produce very little here that will be True all-the-time about teaching-as-a-profession. I am repeatedly shocked by how quickly the experience of teaching proves my theories about teaching wrong, even when I am at my most certain.
Put another way, this is a book that can provide only the brief glimpses of my first year of urban teaching and the excuses that I concocted to keep from giving up on everything: myself, my students, their parents, my school’s administrators, Brooklyn-as-a-residence, the world, living at all, etc. It’s probably good news for anyone who reads it that there are glimpses from my roommates as well. One of them—R.—went through the self-reflection process almost hourly. One moment he’d say, “The one thing that I know about teaching is…” only to back up, re-evaluate, and junk the theory entirely.
For example, once R. got really animated and said, “The one thing that I know about teaching is that I have thirty vampiric students who have only one objective. It doesn’t matter what objective I’ve written on the board. Their objective is to prematurely suck the life out of me.”
And then he stopped, shook his head, and told a pretty long, involved story about how young and cute and funny some of his toughest students were, and how they tried to have a rap battle with him after school and so on and so forth. So that might be the only Truth in these pages: first-year teachers spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the %(&* is going on around them, and they do a very poor job at it.
That’s why this is NOT a book about teaching, NOR is it a book for other teachers. This is a book about learning on the fly how young individual humans keep their sanity through a sort of moral juggling of allegiances. This is a book about surviving the cataclysmic feeling of real life proving your just-so stories about how the world works wrong day-in-and-day-out. This is a book about learning to get over yourself. David Foster Wallace has some striking words on a similar sort of project:
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your head. What you don’t yet know are the stakes of this struggle.
It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…the head.
And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.
Other than that, though, I severely doubt that you’ll find much Truth here. In place of this, though, I have other things to offer. I can offer you the snapshot view of what seems to me to be a highly-fascinating experiment: Take a group of talented, young college graduates full of self-certainty and hope, and throw each into a system that needs their idealism for sustenance. Throw them into a system that will all-but-literally rip their convictions apart.
Not novel enough, you may protest. Everyone falls from idealism sooner or later in their lives. This is what V. told me when I explained the concept behind the book to him.
“Ok sure,” I answered nervously (since I was more than a little self-conscious about the whole thing to begin with—another function of being 22, I think). “But this isn’t the story of young car salesmen. Who wouldn’t be interested in the tragicomedy of confident young teachers facing an intransigent world? Wouldn’t that be a novel angle to talk about the desperate fall from self-assurance?”
He didn’t buy it. He probably won’t buy this book (though I’ll send him a copy anyway). Neither will Andrew, that disc-loving clown that got this all started. As I see it, though, there’s a permanent relevance to everyone who is educated here in the U.S.A., because even though the book isn’t strictly about teaching, that’s the angle. After all, it probably does matter that the book gets its subject-matter from our education system. That’s where we look for the triumph of hopefulness, not for its nadir. But I’m writing circles around myself, and the cynicism in this introduction is one of the most thoroughgoing themes of this book. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves yet.
Here, then are the beginnings of what was to be Chapter 1: “Meet the Vegetarians”
As you’ll soon find out, R. is clearly the animating force of our apartment (and perhaps this book). He really was the reason that I had enough material to start writing. He’s a walking, talking, conversational highlight reel. I am sure of very little, but I know that R. is a character worth preserving in print somewhere. It’s almost a shame that he’s real, because I’d love to claim credit for having come up with such a character on my own.
Where to begin? Well, where others use “dude” or “man” or “girl” or any number of other human-referential nouns, R. usually uses “fool.” For example, when telling a story about a guy he knew in college, he explained casually that “this fool had just gotten too f*$%ing blunted to move…sat there the whole day, right, this fool—TOO BLUNTED TO MOVE.” Then he collapsed in laughter. This may seem common to all of you (or maybe not?), but to a Midwestern kid like me, it was beyond novel. “This fool, that fool, everywhere another fool…” I had never heard anything like it.
I’m already doing him a disservice, though, because R.’s broader working vocabulary is off-the-charts. He attended Berkeley and majored in English. He is a serious (how serious? I don’t know) student of Kierkegaard. He’s spent much of this year reading all the Nietzsche he can get his hands on. “Yo-Conor,” he yelled last night, “Peep this fool Nietzsche! He’s dropping KNOW-LEDGE so hard! He says that it’s the church and not its poison that offends us! Can you believe that s#$t?”
(I don’t really know how to transcribe the stuff he says. There’s no way to really capture it. There’s a lot of laughing, a lot of sarcasm, and a lot of unpredictable drawing out of syllables. Use your imagination.)
Anyway, he talks intelligently about the great classics of Western literature, historical events, philosophy, etc, etc. He reads cutting-edge fiction, hates New York Magazine and loves The New Yorker. He’s a smart guy. Talking with him can be exhausting, kind of like juggling water balloons. One minute you’re in a conversation about best practices for classroom management, and all of a sudden you’re discussing Thai food, and then it’s climate change, and eventually (inevitably?) indie hiphop (especially Aesop Rock).
I should note, however, that he got a minor in computer science at Berkeley, and that he cannot (to my knowledge) do anything quotidian with computers. He claims to know lots of sophisticated things about programming and networks and such, but he’s called me into his room before to figure out how to turn off the paragraph markers on Microsoft Word.
What else? R. is half-Lebanese, half-Oklahoman. He claims that most people who meet him mistake him for Jewish, which is sort of true. He has long, puffy, curly brown hair, and used to answer to “Football Head,” because his head is, well, shaped kinda like a football. He is a freestyle rapper. He is really good at this. I have learned—after trying to battle him a few times—that I am not. He occasionally comes home with artwork with names like “Dog Staring at the Second Step” (it’s a line drawing of a dog doing exactly that) or something like that. These cost him hundreds to buy and hundreds to frame. They prompt long discussions about how teaching is as frustrating as staring point-blank at a wall (or a step). Of course, everything prompts discussions about teaching. Let’s not dwell on that for now.
He has been single for most of the time we’ve been in Brooklyn, although women love him (seriously—at Teach For America events all sorts of beautiful female corps members come looking for him because of the impression he made on them at our early training meetings. He doesn’t see them for months at a time, but they still seek him out. It’s amazing). He swears that if he had a girl to come home to at the end of the day, teaching would be a cinch.
As I mentioned in the introduction, R. and I are separated by only a curtain. My room was once (probably) a walk-in closet. It’s barely big enough for my bed. It is also less than $600/month and still in the heart of Park Slope. Even given the good reasons to choose this sort of arrangement, though, it’s pretty low on privacy. I’ve reinforced the curtain by hanging up a straw mat, but it’s still a sieve for noise and light.
V. and his girlfriend S. (who is sub-letting with us under the lease) have the only room that can be closed off from the rest of the apartment. This means that V. and I have a door between us, so there’s considerably less spontaneous yelling than with R.. Our relationship goes at a more measured, normal pace.
V. and S. attended The University of Texas at Austin, and have been dating for a few years. V. is Vietnamese-American, and he grew up in Texas. V.’s voice is extraordinarily deep, with a slight Texas drawl. It’s the voice of a 6′ 5″, 250-pound cowboy. He is also unfailingly polite to the point of formality. All of this can combine for some very funny moments.
For example, one night, V. was calling a student’s family from the living room (which is probably the nicest room in the house). R. and I were playing chess or working or something quiet on the other side of the apartment, so we could hear him all the way down on our end. The conversation went something like this:
V. [again, deep and Texan): Hi, this is Mr. ____ from school. I'm calling to talk about Daquan. Is this his mother?
V.: Yes, well, Hi. So, ah, I’m afraid we had a small problem today at school. In the middle of a lecture, Daquan raised his hand to ask a question. When I called on him, he said—and I’m sorry to be using this kind of language—’Mr. ____, I skeeted in your face!’ Since we had—
V.: Yes, ‘skeeted.’
V.: Well, yes, see, I think that he didn’t think that I knew what it meant, but I do. So—
V.: Right, well, since Daquan and I have been working on his behavior and talking about how important it is to work hard in school, I was really surprised. He had been doing a much better job making good decisions with his behavior in class. You told me that you were serious about keeping tabs on his behavior, and I’d warned him that I’d be calling you the next time he acted out, so—
V.: Yes, well, um, sure, I’d be happy to talk to him.
V.: Ok, hi, Daquan. This is Mr. ____ and I’ve just been speaking to your mom, like I said I would in class today. Why did you say that in class today?
V.: C’mon Daquan. You know what I mean.
[Pause--apparently Daquan's Mom yelled at Daquan to help him remember]
V.: Well, I DO know what it means, and you know that that’s not appropriate language for class. Why would you say something like that out of nowhere? I thought we’d agreed that you were getting focused on improving your behavior and your grades…
And so on and so forth. It was hilarious hearing just the one side, especially in V.’s voice. His mom made him apologize. V. told us later that Daquan showed up mad the next day. “Mr. ____! Why’d you call my Mom?”
If R. gives the apartment its spark, V. provides it with some direction. He’s focused and he’s disciplined. He works much harder on improving his teaching that R. and I, and it sounds like things in his classroom are showing the effects.
V. cooks adventurously. For no apparent reason (except perhaps that he and R. had a really serious discussion about how much they loved beets), he decided one day that he wanted to make Borscht. He spent hours researching recipes and putting it together. It was good.
He also takes New York City much more seriously than I do. He makes a point of visiting Gotham’s greatest pizzerias (from Totonno’s to Grimaldi’s to Joe’s on Bleeker, etc, etc), will be spending his summer “off” working at the NYC Tenement Museum, and spends weekends at cultural and historical hotspots. He listens to cool music and goes to even cooler concerts.
So that’s our little TFA family pod. We met at TFA’s Summer Institute in Philadelphia. I was getting desperate about not having a place to live or roommates to split it with, so I badgered them (who were both living in nearby rooms in the Temple University dorms) into it.
The apartment is pretty filthy pretty much all of the time, especially the kitchen. There are always dishes everywhere. Always. We have long-running arguments about whether or not it is sanitary to clean dishes using soapy water resting in the sink. Some of us prefer the “squirt detergent on each dish while water is running” method. We also argue a lot over sorting recycling and trash, and over turning off lights when leaving rooms, and such. Now that I’m writing it down, it occurs to me that we argue a lot more than I realized. Hm.
Those arguments are often environmentally-charged, I guess, because we are all vying for the “most green” crown. They are both vegetarians. R. is actually a Vegan, and is very proud of this, but he also admits, “but I can’t stop grubbing cheese, yo! Cheese is SO GOOD.” I eat meat, mostly chicken and seafood, and proudly ride my bike to work. We have ongoing arguments about which of our lifestyle choices has a greater effect on reducing carbon emissions.
It all seems trite, I know. We are (by the time you read this, “were”) young and probably very stupid. The alternatives for discussion are also bleak. “Oh, hey, how was your day?”
“Uh, fine. A kid threw up on my shoes at breakfast.”
See, this can be a pretty daunting way to unwind at the end of the day. Arguing about the relative merits of hummus with dry, presoaked beans vs. hummus from a can…well, that’s a topic with a little bit more restorative potential. So we argue about cooking, and about the dishes, and the electric bill, and whether we should change apartments, and whether Manhattan is a terrible place, and whether hipsters are redeemable characters.
Other things to include:
• R. and V. teach at the same middle school. V. teaches history and R. teaches math. They leave together in the mornings to catch the same bus after making a stop at the Bagel World. (R. recently wrote me, “Every morning as V. and I walked down the steep stairs of our apartment I fantasized about kicking him down them, just so I could take him to the hospital and not report to work.”)
• The Park Slope Food Co-op
• Takeout food from Song or Thai Kitchen, etc…
• R.’s pressure-cooker and other kitchen gadgets, dishes
• Our friends in the neighborhood
• Regarding the merits of sleeping from 6PM until 3AM vs. 10PM until 6AM.
Copyright © Conor Williams. All Rights Reserved.
Sunday night. Everyone deals with it in a different way. Some rage against their final moments, refusing to go quietly into the week. They get increasingly anxious every hour after breakfast. By the evening, they’re wound tight, lashing out at anyone in sight, unable to talk about anything else.
Others treat it like an execution. They prepare a sumptuous final meal and resign, like a chess king, to their fate.
Others mask the tension. They joke, salving raw nerves with sarcasm and silliness.
It doesn’t really matter which you’re watching, though. It’s almost as devastating to see it happen to someone else as it is to experience; what was once a vibrant, young, enthusiastic soul is suddenly withering away, losing vigor and personality with each passing second. Soon all talk is back at school and the horizon of possibility no longer “stretches” anywhere—it’s simply a short step (no leap) between past and future classroom disasters. All that matters is preparing for the new tragedies that are about to supplant last week’s.
In our apartment, Sunday nights aren’t silent, but they have a certain quietude. Everything gets muted sooner, rather than later. There’s always music. R. has speakers. So does V. I have an old iBook with a failing monitor, so my musical options are pretty limited. To put any on, I have to perch my computer on top of a set of plastic shelves next to another plastic box at the end of the bed. I lay on my stomach and try to adjust the angle of the monitor so that it flashes to life—and sometimes it does. Except when it doesn’t. Because sometimes, it just won’t. At that point I pray four-letter words to some unnamed god of fortune and filth, and plug the laptop into an LCD monitor that I bought for such occasions. It is also fickle. Sometimes I can face this push-me-pull-me electronic soft shoe. Sometimes I can’t. Most Sundays I don’t bother.
After all, the curtain doesn’t really block R.’s music. On Sunday nights, he usually puts on some airy, drifty, angsty stuff along the lines of Sufjan Stevens (before he was cool, I should stress, for R.’s sake) or Cat Power or Joanna Newsome or (shudder) TV on the Radio. There’s sometimes Wilco or Neutral Milk Hotel. He especially likes one song that starts out with a nasally guy wailing over a didgeridoo or a sitar or some other bizarre instrument: “AAAAAAIIIII LOOOOOOOOOOOVE YOU JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESUS CUH-RYEEEEE-EST!” The singer modulates his voice all over the place. This is probably best, since I don’t recall the background instrument being capable of changing notes.
Times like this are in part why I’ve printed out a copy of St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer and tacked it on the wall at the end of my bed, right next to the curtain. it’s just a wrinkled 8.5 x 11 piece of white paper, and it’s just a prayer from a faith I can’t honestly claim anymore, but it sometimes keeps me from ripping through the curtain and erasing the music on R.’s hard drive.
PRAYER FOR PEACE
LORD, make me a channel of your peace, that
where there is hatred,
I may bring love;
where there is wrong,
I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
where there is discord,
I may bring harmony;
where there is error,
I may bring truth;
where there is doubt,
I may bring faith;
where there is despair,
I may bring hope;
where there are shadows,
I may bring light,
where there is sadness,
I may bring joy;
Lord, grant that I may seek rather
to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand than to be understood;
to love than to be loved;
for it is by forgetting self that one finds,
it is by forgiving that one is forgiven,
it is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.
-Saint Francis of Assisi
So his music drifts through our curtain-mat-blockade between the two rooms. We have a rule about never (EVER) pushing the curtain aside without warning. Noise and light pass through, but corporeal matter does not. Nor does visual perception. Who knows what I/he might see? Nudity or worse. If I’m going to go visit him, I go through the door by the head of the bed and walk around through the hallway. This way we maintain the illusion that the curtain is much more substantial than it really is.
Anyway, drifting music now—no more battle rap, very little freestyling on a Sunday night. Sometimes he’ll megaphone over, “CONOR, peep this fool! PEEP THIS! He’s like, ‘I love you Jesus Christ!’ Nietzsche! Slave Morality! Dope!” I am not quoting him verbatim here, but I am communicating him accurately.
V., meanwhile, is a bit more subtle, cautious, even-tempered fellow. He spends most Sunday nights with S. (his girlfriend), inside his headphones, or on the Internet. He and I often compete over control of the kitchen on Sunday nights. We both tend to do a lot of cooking around then. This—as previously noted—leads to ongoing arguments between all three of us over trash, dishes, cleanliness, and such. These play out most of all on Sunday nights, which is as stupid as it is understandable. Even if short fuses explain conflicts, they don’t make for very productive ones.
We don’t have a TV, to my delight. It keeps our evenings “social.” Of course, as I was just saying, this can be as much curse as blessing. On Sunday nights it would be nice to be able to shut off the anxious brain. In the absence of alcohol (which is a really dangerous gambit for a school night), television would be really helpful. My computer, as you can probably imagine, is too old to be able to stream most videos smoothly (even when I can cajole it into working). R. and V. eventually become obsessed with “The Wire” (again, before it was cool—they’re both so effortlessly ahead of the times), and NetFlix changes this dynamic a little.
One Sunday night during our first fall as teachers, we watch Samuel L. Jackson in “One Eight Seven.” It’s a movie about a teacher whose students drive him to violent, pathological retaliation. It feels true, but it feels awful. It’s too recognizable. I understand Jackson’s character’s response way too well for my own comfort. I try to avoid movies on Sundays from then on.
Visual entertainment or not, the elephant is still in the room. Everyone knows that 4AM is coming. It’s an immutable, unavoidable reality. It hurts to think about—but it’s all that you’re thinking about. At some point, usually somewhere between 4PM and 8PM, someone brings it up.
Years later I will get nostalgic for these Sunday games. I never reliably play that well again.
But as Sunday night rolls on and the voices in V. and S.’s room dwindle, as R.’s trance-y music wanders through the apartment and reality bares its fearful teeth, as the Manhattan lights come on in the distance, it becomes clear that there will be no pardon. School starts again tomorrow.
Once I turn off the lights, shadows flit across my sheets from the light through the curtain. It gets tempting to retreat into some over-intellectualized fantasy world to avoid the truth of the matter. “Tomorrow,” I think, “I’ll wake up a starving absinthe-addicted artist in Montmartre. Perhaps something will sell. Perhaps I’ll find a wealthy patron. Perhaps I can escape from living on this knife’s edge.” Somehow a lot of these fantasies end up involving an escape from living on the edge. No in-depth psychoanalysis needed to decode that one. Sometimes these dreams-though-not-yet-asleep come from war (more on that later), sometimes sports, often abstract us v. them violence.
The key part of these strange wishes, though, is that I can imagine the knot in my stomach comes from something dramatic, something spectacular.
Sure, you’ll say, but teachers ARE spectacular! They ARE special! This isn’t a shameful profession! You convinced me back in the Introduction that you were engaged in real, world-changing activity!
And you know, you’re right, but I warned you about the things I write about teaching. Remember this part from the Introduction?
Because of the four-hour nights of sleep and the 4AM wakeups, because of the constant lesson planning, and because of the utter shock that full-time work provides to a naïve 22-year-old’s system, I’m pretty sure that I’ll produce very little here that will be True all-the-time about teaching-as-a-profession. I am repeatedly shocked by how quickly the experience of teaching proves my theories about teaching wrong, even when I am at my most certain.
Right. I’m not sure I have a lot of Truths for you. What that means here, you see, is that the glory and nobility and power of teaching are never dimmer than they seem on a Sunday night. Those are moments for panic and self-doubt to reign.
At times I can find the beautiful, spectacular stuff in teaching’s smaller moments, but this is only on those days when my idealism is a little less bruised than normal. Sure, even Alexander the Great wasn’t always conquering, and no hero spends all of her time in the sunshine of enviable, memorable triumphs, but teaching seems uniquely low on those moments of unambiguous success.
No. Teaching is not a place for home run hitters. This, by the way, is why so many movies about teaching are pernicious and should be hidden away in some dark closet (Freedom Writers comes to mind). Teaching is a place for slow, hard work. Max Weber once said that “Politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards.” So is teaching.
One of my “not-True-all-the-time” postulates about teaching is that it is entirely a matter of patience and details. Look, I don’t know if I’m a great teacher, but my students are making significant progress this year, and even on my worst days. I sweat small details, and that gets the job done. This is gratifying, but it isn’t triumphant. It isn’t a dramatic success (even if there is lots of drama).
In part, it has to be this way. If I took a moment to revel, if I stood “up” to see how my work stood “out” from the average, I’d completely lose track of the grinding necessary to stick with the job. If I stopped and took the long view, I’d lose my vision for the necessary and near-at-hand. My nose is married to the grindstone.
At some level, this frustration comes back to a question of wills, a question of human volition. We all want to force our actions on the world. We all want to determine our own consequences. We all want to “freely will” our own choices, etc. You get the picture. Teaching reluctant students (whether or not you can adjust that adjective is important) puts these “wants” in grave peril. My day is full of small ambitions and frustrated intentions. The last-minute dread at the end of the weekend is largely a product of losing control. Fridays come around, and teachers check out their freedom from the existential library. On Sundays, they hand it back.
Once in January, I overheard V. explaining to an outsider (i.e. not an urban teacher) on the phone about teaching and individual will. To paraphrase, he was discussing TFA’s demographics and the effect that teaching has on them. “These are the cream of the American crop,” he said, “Kids who have waltzed through ever scholastic experience they’ve ever had. The big challenge for corps members is accepting a job, an environment, even a world where they spend a lot of time failing.”
A lot of time failing? Check!
So each Sunday night, I go to bed knowing that I’m about to lose my free will for the duration of the week (weekday evenings don’t really count, for reasons I’ll explain later). It becomes a war, not for control of my actions, or even the classroom, but—on an elemental, existential level—for my status as a human being. Teaching can very truly be dehumanizing.
Okay, you’ll say, now you’re really being dramatic. And sure, that’s probably right. Again, I can’t prove that this is what teaching is about all-the-time. I can guarantee you, though, that these feelings are as authentic, genuine, and legitimate as any I’ve yet had.
Just as I write this, I realize that my whiny, desperate-sounding response is largely part of what V. identified as a reaction to repeated failure. I beat my chest, I stomp around, I throw my body after a plastic disc in the Park, and then I construct an enormous intellectual explanation to justify my own frustrations. It’s a sort of insulation against the immovable challenge that’s coming tomorrow morning.
One Monday night, after a particularly rough day at school, I came home and face-planted into bed. I though I was the first home, until R. asked (through the curtain), “Long day, dude? Yo, Conor—you were so funny this morning!”
And he was right—that morning I’d stumbled out of bed and decided that I’d rather eat corn chips and salsa than a normal breakfast. When R. came into the kitchen, I was about halfway through a 1 lb. bag, my tie thrown over my shoulder to keep it free of salsa stains (why I worried more about stains on the tie than on the shirt I’m not sure). I was slumped against the fridge, neck craned over so that my head could rest, eyes closed, just annihilating those chips. R. came in and burst into laughter (rare in our house before school) and then ended in a groan. “Dude…tortilla chips for breakfast? OH S&^$! S$%# is really bad now!”
But no, R. said, he was talking about before that. I had been funny all morning. “Yo—do you remember what you did when your alarm went off this morning?”
“You sort of moaned, like trailing away into despair, ‘Nooooooooooooooooooo…’ I thought, OH S@%$! Look at what teaching has done to THIS FOOL! LOOK AT WHAT IT HAS DONE to this fine, upstanding Midwestern boy!!!”
And that’s what Sunday nights before teaching are really all about.
The way that I had the book diagrammed out when I was writing in 2005-2006, this chapter was sort of a second go at the Introduction. I’m not sure where it fits at the moment, but it could be another standalone chapter also. I get the sense that this could be too much head-heavy rumination and not enough “funny things that happened on the way to/in the classroom.” By the time I’d typed it up, I wasn’t positive that it was worth including…Let me know what you think!
Copyright © Conor Williams. All Rights Reserved.
It’s probably well beyond time to tell you what put me in this state (into TFA, not into writing this book. For the latter, see the Introduction.) Indeed, I haven’t served TFA’s cause very well to date. I hope that you keep reading, or their recruitment numbers could be in trouble.
But after all, TFA is an idealist’s dream (goes without saying that I’m talking “common usage idealism” here, not philosophical Idealism. There’s a time and a place for Hegel, and here is not it. He comes up later.). As an inner-city school teacher, you’ll have the chance to face up to injustice, spit in its ugly face, and trample over any obstacles that might prevent you from destroying the bastard. In the first days at TFA’s summer training Institute, I remember telling my roommate, T., that I was pretty sure he and I would have the Achievement Gap closed by the end of our first year of teaching.
“Not just in our schools. Not just in Brooklyn. I’m talking nationwide, SON!”
He agreed. Hi-fives all around!
We were young, we were dumb, we were stupid—we were showing the bravado of serious nerves. TFA courts young students who respond to the insane injustice of American urban education with fury (anxious or otherwise). This is no cushy non-profit research gig, no wussy lobbying organization—this is the big-time, kid. This is civil rights in action. It’s no accident that TFA recruitment literature often hangs around talk of Movements. Urban education reform is “the civil rights movement of our time.” “Come be part of the movement,” and other such lines.
If all this isn’t enough to get your blood racing, you young justice fighter, you…you’ll also get PAID! Teachers aren’t living like investment bankers, but they aren’t starving either. For a just-out-of-college kid who wants to change the world through service, teachers’ salaries are actually relatively good. When I started in New York, first-year teachers were paid $39,000/year, a number that went up by several thousand about midway through because the city signed a new union contract giving raises through the scale. Beyond this, the federal government provides nearly $5000/year in a stipend that TFA corps members can use for educational expenses. I’m getting a free Masters degree with mine. Conor Williams, M.S. Call me a dork (seriously…I’m a dork), but I like the sound of that.
Sure, even with that added sweetening, this isn’t a ton of money in NYC, but it’s enough to live in Park Slope, just a few steps from a neighborhood Alehouse and a laundromat (Park Slope is often ranked NYC’s best place to live, including this year). It’s enough to (for one of my roommates) finance a trip to Peru during one of the summers. It’s a lot more than you’ll make at an entry-level non-profit job. It’s competitive with lots of other starting salaries.
The financial side is even sweeter if you have college loans. Since you’re teaching (almost 100% certain) in what the federal government calls a “Title I” school (i.e. high levels of low-income students), you can get up to 15% of your loans canceled each year. Though it took me somewhere on the order of several geological epochs on the phone sorting out the paperwork with one loan company (I’ll do them a favor and leave their name out), I saved a lot of money on loans that way.
Money aside, though, let me admit to this first charge: I am an idealist, even if a tempered one. It all started in a church, or rather—in The Church.
Growing up Catholic is, well, an experience that you’ve heard covered elsewhere and better by many other older and smarter people. I don’t want to go too far down that line. To grow up Catholic implies all kinds of terrible things, perhaps, but it isn’t without its benefits. My childhood congregation was a worldly one. We sang each Sunday about uniting men in abiding love for the Lord our God, and then we spent our weeks volunteering at local migrant camps. We visited local soup kitchens and maintained connections with several orphanages in Latin America (my bitter distaste for Ronald Reagan has always been linked to the Óscar Romero story…some of the children in one of the orphanages were collateral damage of Reagan’s Latin American policy).
At a church like this—ably led by Frs. John Grathwohl and Ken Templin—I couldn’t help but develop a fair amount of faith in humanity. By the time I was ten years old, I believed that injustice was indeed certainly conquerable, that serving others was the undoubtedly the highest purpose of life on earth, and that if I ignored this—I’d burn.
And yes, I’m not sure that that last bit was helpful. I don’t know where it came from. Frs. John and Ken were kind, sunny-minded men who never terrorized children with such threats, and my parents were liberal, compassionate, open-minded sorts. I don’t know why I was so afraid of not-serving. I don’t know who made this hell so real in my head. I don’t know how I got to feeling so guilty. Literally have no idea whence it came.
But I promised to leave the Catholic-upbringing-analysis to my elders and betters. Suffice it to say that I believe in service, I believe it’s a moral imperative to help-not-harm. Whatever else the Church laid on me, it left me with that, and I’m grateful.
But this is the wisdom of hindsight. I spent most of the time between fourteen and twenty-one years old running from anything remotely linked to the Church.
And that’s why I needed John Dewey. You’ve heard of him, right? The famed political theorist? The famed pedagogical theorist? The famed logician? The famed, um, droopy mustache-grower? Well, he’s also the man who relit my fire for service (and my interest in political change) during college. Someday I’m sure this will be his most well-known accolade.
The left side of American politics took a beating during my time at Bowdoin College. Not only had George W. Bush been successfully reelected on the strength of a largely-useless invasion of Iraq (I’m tempted to write “Afghanistan” as well…but let’s save the real hard-knuckle politics for some other time), but the American Left was spending most of its time playing along. They’d struggled to get any purchase with the American electorate for two or three elections, and they were still losing most meaningful public arguments. There was a new American political wind blowing, and it was heading directly backwards. Looking back now, this is easier to write than it would have been in 2003 or so, but I’m proud to say that I was pissed off then also. It’s a bittersweet vindication—being right about pointless wars or terrible fiscal policy means that the country is still in a desperate position—but it’s vindication nonetheless, so I’ll take it. I don’t have a guilty conscience for having supported either of the George W. Bush wars, which is some small consolation.
Anyway, by my senior year (2004-2005), political life looked pretty grim to me. Everything that I cared about, everything that I took seriously, was in crisis. This included, but was not limited to:
No one seemed to care about these things. The world was going to hell. I was going with it. The United States was suddenly a foreign, hostile, even violent place to live. The fact that I felt this way while living in New England is probably proof of how shortsighted and self-absorbed I was, or how nervous I was about not having a post-college plan, or something like that. Maybe the country was as badly off as I thought. I don’t know. I was wrong about the Tigers, as they proved in 2006, but almost no one saw that coming.
My best excuse for the pessimism was that I was desperately busy. I was double majoring in Government (Political Theory) and Spanish, I was working three jobs (interviewing at the admissions office, helping at the Maine League of Conservation Voters, and tutoring in a local school), playing Ultimate Frisbee (five practices a week at two hours a practice, approximately), writing weekly for the Bowdoin Orient, and sampling the occasional Shipyard Export Ale. I was also applying for fellowships and jobs and generally getting turned down across the board.
Nothing, but nothing, though, took up time quite like my honors thesis. Since coming to Bowdoin, I’d been searching for a political thinker who was concerned with empowering communities by attending to the needs of underserved individuals. From the Greeks to Augustine to Hobbes and Locke to Hume, Smith, Mill and later moderns, none of them provided anything like the justification I was looking for. Even the Germans (esp. Hegel, Marx, and Nietsche) fell short of what I was looking for.
Anyway, there’s a lot more boring political theory category-shuffling to include there, but I’ll spare you. If you want to hear about historicism, relativism, and the centrality of epistemology to modern political thought, I can point you towards some snoozers of academic papers that I’ve written on these topics in later years.
The simpler way of putting all of this is that I was looking for a political philosopher who could justify the welfare state, public education, and the modern Democratic Party. So many of the other thinkers that I’d read either didn’t fit on the American political spectrum or were more comfortably read on the right (my view of many of these thinkers has since changed). Since the modern American Left kept losing, I thought that perhaps the problem could be in the intellectual foundations behind its rhetoric (my view on this has NOT changed).
At the beginning of my senior year, I went to my advisor, Professor Paul Franco, and begged him again for help finding this nebulous thinker so that I could write an honors project on him/her. “You know,” he said, after some discussion, “I’m thinking that John Dewey just might be your guy.”
And, to his credit, he was absolutely right. Franco is NOT a Deweyan or a pragmatist, but he is a great professor, and this meant that he was perceptive enough to see that I was yearning for something that fell outside of his immediate research interests. More importantly, he was generous enough with his time and energy to agree to work with me on the project.
So, after so much throat-clearing, let me try to connect Dewey and my decision to join Teach For America.
Dewey was one of the most public-minded philosophers of his—or any—time. Along with William James and Charles Saunders Peirce, he developed pragmatism—America’s sole unique and systematic contribution to the world of political philosophy (No, Rawls doesn’t count. He’s still building from the analytical and contractarian traditions, even if he’s making big leaps. We can argue this some other time).
At the most basic, pragmatism is just how it sounds. Dewey argued that philosophy and political life had become too distant. Philosophers struggled with problems that were meaningless to most humans. Meanwhile, American public life was increasingly alien to its intellectual underpinnings (he wrote between the 1890s and the 1940s). As he put it in Individualism Old and New [emphasis added]:
And if the culture pattern works out so that society is divided into two classes, the working group and the business (including professional) group, with two and a half times as many in the former as in the latter, and with the chief ambition of parents in the former class that their children should climb into the latter, that is doubtless because American life offers such unparalleled opportunities for each individual to prosper according to his virtues. If few workers know what they are making or the meaning of what they do, and still fewer know what becomes of the work of their hands…this is doubtless because we have so perfected our system of distribution so that the whole country is one. And if the mass of workers live in constant fear of loss of their jobs, this is doubtless because our spirit of progress, manifest in change of fashions, invention of new machines and power of overproduction, keeps everything on the move…
All this we take for granted; it is treated as an inevitable part of our social system. To dwell on the dark side of it is to blaspheme against our religion of prosperity. But it is a system that calls for a hard and strenuous philosophy. If one looks at what we do and what happens, and then expects to find a theory of life that harmonizes with the actual situation, he will be shocked by the contradiction he comes upon. For the situation calls for assertion of complete economic determinism. We live as if economic forces determined the growth and decay of institutions and settled the fate of individuals. Liberty becomes a well-nigh obsolete term…The philosophy appropriate to such a situation is that of struggle for existence and survival of the economically fit. One would expect the current theory of life, if it reflects the actual situation, to be the most drastic Darwinism…
[BUT] instead of materialism, our idealism is probably the loudest and most frequently professed philosophy the world has ever heard…Anyone who frankly urges a selfish creed of life is everywhere frowned upon…We are surcharged with altruism and bursting with a desire to ‘serve’ others.”
Phew! I know, it’s heavy sledding. Sorry about that. Dewey is a lot of things, but concise is not one of them. It’s something we share in common.
Anyway, the point of citing the passage is to illustrate the claim I was just making. As a pragmatist, Dewey was determined to close the distance between American political philosophy and American political practice. Then—as now—Americans were still clamoring about their “natural rights,” which are apparently given at birth (along with the birth certificate and a “onesie”). They were claiming that they had these rights naturally, or from God, because they were human. These rights supposedly pre-date political life. Political life is thus about guaranteeing that they are respected.
Dewey argued that these kinds of absolutes (such as the right to amass private property) were actually principles that we accepted because we thought that we preferred their consequences. In other words, we built up this set of “rights” because of some practical ends we had in mind. Dewey believed that this was broadly true of most human political and moral codes. We are always ends-based creatures.
How about an example? The American Constitution includes the right to free speech. But of course, we all know that the absolute right to free speech doesn’t exist. We see it curtailed everywhere in order to avoid more dramatic problems. Our rights become less natural, less absolute, when they interfere with the rights of others, but also when they interfere with other important community ends. We try not to completely close off the sphere of free speech, but we allow our values to change because they lead to results that we prefer (like increased safety or more stable political discussion). We can argue whether or not particular infringements on speech are appropriate or desirable, but we should stop pretending that there’s anything sacred about a particular level of tolerance for free speech.
This kind of thinking made perfect sense. Finally I’d found a political thinker who mounted a serious and sustained challenge to rights-based political argument. He’s a strange cat. He pushes the American notion of property rights without being a Marxist. He argues simultaneously for more scientific, technocratic public policy while also advocating for deliberative, local democratic debates.
Dewey argued (before Isaiah Berlin’s famous “negative”/”positive” liberty distinction) that liberty wasn’t only a matter of removing political obstacles. We might also consider helping individuals to develop their full capacities. Individual self-determination isn’t just about being left alone. It’s also about becoming capable, about growing competent. Dewey believed that this was a fuller, more complete way to discuss freedom.
Individuals develop as they make decisions and inform themselves about their options. Each choice affirms certain values and tests others. Repeated decisions start to suggest patterns and habits of behavior. These habits, if they work for long enough, coalesce into values and principles. Dewey believed that well-educated humans were more reflective about this process and better able to evaluate their options. This is—mostly—a complicated way of saying that individuals with strong critical thinking skills make better decisions than those without them.
This last point was the important part for me. We act on the world to see how it responds. This response informs our future choices. Communities that are highly developed tend towards interdependence, since new powers tend to spread consequences even more broadly. We know this. A 21st century economy is much more complicated and interdependent than an 18th century economy. This matters for our political life. Old interpretations of property rights aren’t going to work as well in the 21st century. Furthermore, why do we insist on treating individuals as if they were historically and culturally isolated?
So we need each other, because without other humans, no single human can live for long. Humanity hinges upon action and evaluation of its consequences. There is no individual without community. The good of each depends on the quality of all.
So I wrote 140 pages on Dewey, received High Honors, and decided that I couldn’t stand idly by while the nation’s low-income students were ignored. This is a country where we pay homage to the American Dream, a hazy ideal of a land of opportunity—this is our public philosophy. This is also a country where we perjure that Dream daily.
This is the most complete of the chapters from the book’s draft. As a standalone piece, it assumes a little more knowledge about the school where I taught than I’d like, but in final form this would have been outlined in earlier chapters. Please be warned that there are a few expletives/inappropriate words here. If you’re easily offended, maybe don’t read it? Maybe don’t bother with urban teaching?
This is the last nearly-complete chapter of the bunch. I have some other fragments from back then, but none are near completion. The best of the rest is a riff on similarities between teaching and the military. I used Tim O’Brien’s account of “good war stories” in The Things They Carried to explain what makes a good teaching story.
So that’s the end of this string of posts for now. I don’t know that I’ll do anything with them. To be determined…
Copyright © Conor Williams. All Rights Reserved.
I’ve already noted that I may not be a perfect candidate to write about the desperation of urban teaching; TFA placed me at a charter school with a strong school leader and a unified vision for what teachers should be doing in classrooms. As such, I’m set up to succeed in ways that can be rare in the urban education world.
I’m not sure how much the fact that I’m in a charter school matters as far as my state of mind goes (and by extension, how much it matters for my credibility in this book). Our school year is 11 months long and we have the kids for nearly 9 hours each day. I have better support than many teachers at traditional schools, but I work considerably longer hours. There’s plenty of mental drain for teachers in either situation.
Worth noting; I’m already seeing phenomenal academic results, so “the charter school variable” may matter a lot for the success of students. I’m just saying that it may not matter much as regards the psychological strain of teaching.
I have some proof that things are going well. Coming up on the year’s midway point, 22 out of my 27 students are on grade level for reading (WAY up from the numbers at the beginning of the year). Everything is going great! This meant (I thought) that I was having pretty smooth sailing dealing with my students’ parents. Not so…
Before I completely self-erode my urban teaching cred with this “I’m in a charter school” talk, I should note that my roommates aren’t having too many problems with parents either, and they are in traditional public schools. We all had challenging (a PC replacement for other words) parents-of-students, but none were particularly threatening.
So then it all fell apart. Well, it all falls apart. I can’t pretend that it won’t happen again.
Our friend H. came over one night while I was making dinner. R. had had a rough day at school, and they were sitting on the fire escape talking and watching the sun go down over Manhattan. We had a spectacular view. Sitting there, you could see everything from the Statue of Liberty to the Chrysler Building (and then some). When the sunset was good, there was no point in doing anything else until it was gone. That’s why I was making dinner instead. Because I’m a duty-bound, drudgery-loving Midwesterner (Why wasn’t I watching that sunset? Not my best choice of the month). Sure, I could see it from the kitchen, but only between stirring, chopping, sauteing, etc.
I should probably interject here and explain that H. is a friend of the apartment. We all met during Institute, and she lives a few blocks up 6th Avenue. She comes by once a week or so and everyone commiserates. While my roommates and I might be just surviving in the classroom, H. is different. She is by far the best teacher that I know in our 400-person corps (and maybe in even wider circles). R., V., and I might be serviceable by national standards (sorry guys), and even above-average compared with most teachers in Crown Heights and East New York, but it was one hundred percent clear that H. is an amazing teacher. She’s organized, she’s determined, and she’s outrageously creative as a classroom leader. She’s also teaching big middle-schoolers, and she is a not-big woman, which means that she tells lots of funny stories where she’s trying to discipline and manage students twice her size. It occurs to me that this is sort of the photo-negative of my funny stories about teaching first graders. I could go on, but then you’d never find out how “it all fell apart.” Even panegyrics have narrative constraints.
Anyway, she was listening to R. hold court on the fire escape while the sun went down. “This fool/that fool/etc.” Eventually he stopped for a breath, and I heard H. give some of her characteristically good advice: “But R., there are three people in every classroom situation: the teacher, the student, and the parent. You can only control your third and try to influence the other two. If they aren’t yet doing their part, you have to work on them so that they will.”
We started arguing, R., H., and I. From time to time, V. jumped in, but he was spending most of the evening on the other side of the apartment. At one point I said, “No, I think that if you’re doing it right, you could ignore the parents. Great teachers can get results even when parents dig in their heels.”
It’s probably worth noting that we were NOT having the “Is poverty a primary factor in determining whether kids can succeed in school?” argument. I’m fairly certain that none of us—at least not then—entertained the thesis that poverty prevents students from learning. At the time, this wasn’t an argument that really crossed my mind. To accept that the socioeconomic backgrounds of my students could prevent them from succeeding would be tantamount to admitting that I couldn’t help them reach the goals we’d set as a school and as a classroom. I only bring this up because in the years since our conversation, the debate over education reforms has polarized sharply around that debate. It’s easy to read those arguments in, even when they aren’t there.
No, we were talking about the merits of outreach to difficult parents. We went back and forth for a while, mostly orbiting around whether or not “perfect teaching” was possible. R. and I agreed that H. was probably as close as anyone would ever get. I was cooking Puttanesca in the kitchen, and I missed some of it, but I’ll never forget “The Law of Thirds.”
Do I buy it? Well….hrmph. Sort of depends on how you read it. It can be an excuse, or it can be empowering. Perhaps if it was “The Law of Fourths,” and we included administrators as another “person in every classroom situation.” I also don’t know if I’m pessimistic enough to believe (and this gets back to why it’s NOT a discussion of poverty’s effects on education) that each of the “thirds” is as intransigent as all that. Who’s to say that a great teacher can’t capture and harness the attentions of students whose parents don’t participate? Also, no parent is completely impenetrable. No student is incapable of change.
No student is beyond saving.
I finished dinner, did a few loads at the corner laundromat, and hit the sack. H. left at some point when I was at the laundromat. It was a good night, because I was laying down at 9PM. It’s really reaffirming—as a teacher, at least—to be disciplined and efficient enough to go to bed early when you know you’ll be up by 5AM the next day.
So I felt great. The kids were learning, I was getting enough sleep, the errands and chores were up-to-date, and I’d eaten a half-pound of pasta only a few hours earlier. Even better, I’d had a great week of instruction. I’d won our school’s “World’s Greatest Teacher” faux-Oscar statue for the week. Shoot, I’ll even cop to having a little more of that first-month swagger in the classroom back. Confidence feeds success, and vice versa, you know? More importantly, I really love my job when I’m feeling confident about it.
How about that for a wave of success? These are healthy falling-asleep thoughts for a new teacher. See how they’re all about the small and important things? I’m sleeping and eating right, the big picture for the students is coming into focus, but only in terms of this week having gone really well, etc. If you’re teaching now and reading this, keep that in mind. If you’re stressed out and NOT teaching, keep it in mind. It’s self-administered psychological gold. Keep your mind’s worrying horizons close by, and make sure you’re taking care of baseline needs.
But of course, it’s much easier to talk this way (“See here, kid, that’s how you’ll get outta the doldrums!”) when you’ve got some stability and some resources (psychological, material, physical, etc) on hand. It’s much easier when you’re falling asleep with a dopey, cartoonish grin on your face.
And that’s what happened. I dozed off, the sound and light from R.’s room sifting through the curtain.
I don’t remember exactly what I was dreaming about, but it was something about driving a school bus to a museum for some unknown reason. Boring dreams. This is a good sign for me. Crazy dreams=high anxiety.
But then my phone rang.
Apparently it had been ringing, actually. R. was yelling, “Dude, are you asleep? Dude?”
Not anymore, you chump.
I rolled over, grabbed it, and saw a (347) area code. I also saw that it was 11:30PM.
For no discernable reason, I picked up. And that’s when my great week and my accumulated momentum began to crumble.
“Y’ALL TRYIN’ TO MAKE MY SON LOOK LIKE A PERVERT!”
My first reaction—which beat the hell out of my later reactions—was a sort of bemused gratitude. Finally! After multiple notes home, after frequent calls to long-abandoned numbers, after several failed attempts to meet in person, I had J.’s mom on the phone.
Her son is one of “the kids we love the most” at school (a euphemism for “a holy terror”). The first week of school, J. called a classmate “a faggot.” He’s instigated at least half-a-dozen fights with boys and girls in our school, including one with a middle-schooler on his bus ride home (several reports had him winning the bout). J. is self-assertive—a really sharp kid, in every sense of that word. He’s a talented reader, a strong mathematician, and he does well on almost all of his in-class schoolwork. He rarely does his homework. This has also been a bone of contention with his mom…except that she wasn’t answering our attempts to communicate, let alone contending them.
J. is acutely aware of his social surroundings, and has had behavior trouble with many adults in different settings throughout the school. He’s taken advantage of my trust on several occasions, as soon as he thought that I wasn’t looking. His high level of social awareness is both a blessing and a curse. While it helps him to make friends in class, it also means that his ego is all-too-easily bruised. He is highly aware of how he measures up against his peers, and he is very competitive. The real trouble is that our rewards systems throughout the school integrate both academic and behavioral successes. This means that the big rewards, the school-wide prizes, are outside his grasp so long as he keeps throwing punches and leaving homework undone. It’s hard for him to stay cocky.
Throughout all of this, though, I hadn’t been able to get in contact with his mother, so I was momentarily happy (through the just-woken-up haze) that she had called.
She was still yelling. “Y’ALL BEEN GIVIN’ HIM NOTHIN’ BUT CHECKS ALL WEEK EVER SINCE I SAID THAT HE WASN’T GETTIN’ ENOUGH REWARDS FOR HIS HARD WORK!”
This was true. She hadn’t been completely out-of-contact. A few weeks ago she wrote a note demanding that we give J. a “REACH Award” (one of the school-wide prizes). The note ignored our requests that she come talk to us about his behavior and incomplete work. I responded with a note asking her to come in and talk with us about the criterion for REACH Awards. Just as in the past, I included my cell phone number and asked her to call at her convenience. I followed up with the phone numbers we had on file, but without success.
“HE ALREADY DONE ALL THIS WORK AND Y’ALL KNOW IT. HE TOLE ME HE AIN’T TOUCH THAT GIRL’S BUTT. HE SAY HE ONLY TOUCH THAT GIRL BUT TO TAP HER ON THE SHOULDER. AN Y’ALL AIN’T EVEN AKSED HIM WHAT HAPPENED!”
Several girls in our class had complained that J. had touched them inappropriately. Two of them also told us that he’d tried to kiss them while they were in the hallway getting their coats and bags to go home.
I took a breath. “Ma’am, it’s 11:30PM. I’ve been asleep for two hours.”
In retrospect, I realize that this might have been the wrong thing to say. Since we hadn’t met, I didn’t know what J.’s mother did for a living. Perhaps she’d been working all day, and was calling me on her walk home? Perhaps she worked nights and was calling from the breakroom at work? Isn’t it callous to taunt someone who is tired with your recent sleeping? In still-further retrospect, however, I decided that the relevant social norm (don’t call someone at home after 10PM or so unless you’re sure they’re awake) probably put me in the right. It was also presumptuous of me to assume that she was tired and desperate. I literally had no information about her other than that she wanted J. to get a REACH Award.
Anyway, whether I was objectively or morally right, this was—tactically—the wrong thing to say.
“YOU F*%&ING A$$HOLE!” She screamed. “YOU A RACIST! YOU A GODDAMN LYING WHITE RACIST! WHY DO YOU HATE HIM?”
So look, try not to judge me too harshly here. I mean, try to imagine that you’re asleep and feeling pretty good, even though your nerves are frayed and you have been working too hard for too long. Try to imagine that you’ve been going out of your way to get in touch with her for months, and that her son has been disrupting class throughout the year. What I’m saying is, I wasn’t at my best in that specific moment.
I yelled back, “OH YEAH? Well…”
Nah, I’m just kidding. I didn’t. I wanted to, but I didn’t. Remember what I said about teaching as a profession which turns back your will, which removes your agency as a human? Bingo. The natural response here is to come back, all guns a-blazin’, etc, but that is not an option.
Rather, I explained that the latest incident between J. and a girl in our class had happened in another classroom (some of our students rotated between classes for on-level reading groups), so that I wasn’t really the person to talk to about what had happened. I started to say that I’d witnessed one of the earlier incidents when he’d kissed a girl in the hallway, but she exploded again: hosts of insults, questioning my motives, etc.
She maintained that J. hadn’t “BEEN ACTIN’ UP NOT ONCE ALL YEAR! Y’ALL ARE RUININ’ HIM!”
And that cut deep, because I still take (took?) teaching as a sacred endeavor. I still think (thought?) that I’m doing this work to make sure that every student in the United States has a chance at an excellent education (to paraphrase the TFA mission statement). If a parent tells me that I was ruining their kid, no, RUINING THEIR KID, my hard-working-selfless-servant narrative won’t going to hold up very well. Another promise broken to myself? Another self-deception?
I tried to explain that J. had been repeatedly recognized as a great student, but that our REACH Award isn’t only academic. The acronym stands for: Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship, and Hard Work. I outlined the requirements. Students must have: completed all of their homework for the month, had no major behavior incidents (i.e. nothing that led to a checkmark on their behavior tracking sheet that we sent home each night), and demonstrated commitment to the five REACH elements. I didn’t tell her that J. has certainly been achieving, but that he wasn’t in particularly good standing regarding the rest.
“The biggest obstacle between J. and a REACH Award are the major behavioral incidents that he’s been having at school,” I said. This was mostly true. The homework was also an issue, but I wasn’t getting a lot of airtime, so I started with the highest priority.
“HE AIN’T HAD NO BEHAVIOR INCIDENTS ‘CEPT Y’ALL STARTED TREATIN’ HIM LIKE HE WAS A PERV,” she yelled.
She was wrong, but that really didn’t matter, I guess.
So when I said, “Ma’am, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere right now, and I doubt that we’re going to resolves this over the phone. Why don’t we set a time to meet and discuss J.’s behavior with the principal?” she was having NONE of it.
“See,” (she wasn’t yelling now), “Y’all just want the kids to be PERFECT, HUH?” (Now she was), “WELL GOOD LUCK WITH THAT! I DON’T KNOW NO PERFECT KIDS NOWHERE, AN’ I BET YOU AIN’T GON’ GET NONE AT YOUR SCHOOL NEITHER.”
And sure, I probably shouldn’t have, but I said, “No, ma’am, we know that first grade students aren’t perfect, but there’s no place for fighting in our school, and we will not tolerate any student touching other students in a way that is inappropriate or makes them uncomfortable.”
Explosion! Anyway, we went in circles for awhile, me explaining that I could show her daily, weekly, and monthly documentation of J.’s troubles if she would only come in to the school to talk with us, and her refusing to come if we didn’t agree to give him a REACH Award that week. She threatened to send “MY BROTHER TO COME AN’ F$%&IN’ MAKE IT HAPPEN UP AT THE SCHOOL.” At that point I said a silent prayer to the good health of our school security guard, who I usually met at the front door first thing in the morning. You’ve got to be on good terms with security guards, receptionists, and janitors if you’re teaching. Otherwise you’d better get good at self-defense, onerous paperwork, and cleaning things up yourself.
She promised that she would be telling J. that he didn’t need to worry about REACH Awards or the school’s rewards system; she would be rewarding him at home. She yelled at J. that he’d better get over there, because his teacher “WANT YOU TO DO YOUR F$%&IN’ HOMEWORK AGAIN!” It was nearly midnight. I heard video games in the background. I heard J. try to blow her off, “Jus’ a minute.” (He got the same treatment I’d gotten when I tried to slow her down. Yikes.)
Eventually she hung up on me. There was a long, slow silence; no one was typing, no street noise came in through the window. I lay back on the bed and stretched my eyelids all the way back. From through the curtain, R. let out a long, slow whistle. “Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuude…what the f$%& was that?”
The phone call was over, along with so much else. Next year I won’t be giving out my home phone number. That much is certain. My sympathies will be more selfish next year. I’ll be privileging my own ego. The “selfless-servant” account of my work died for good that night.
And I cried after that call (quietly, muffled into my pillow, trying to hide it from R.). I wish I could say that the tears were for J., for his situation. He would be at school in approximately seven hours, and he wasn’t asleep yet. He was apparently going to do his homework now. He was six years old, and this was his life. No matter how bad the phone call had been, I still could get back into my cushy bed. Once the phone call was over, J. was going back to hearing from his mother how useless Mr. Williams and that “F#@$IN’ SCHOOL” was. I should have cried for him.
But I didn’t. I felt bad for J., but I didn’t cry for him. I cried for myself: first because I felt bad for myself, but also for my loss of meaning. I had been working hard, and she didn’t appreciate just how much I cared. Perhaps less nobly, I wept for the lost myth, that self-deception that I’d been peddling. It was pretty hard to feel smugly proud of my selflessness in the face of the obvious pain J.’s mother was facing. She could be wrong—and I still think she is—about my motives, about the school’s actions, about our decisions, but she was making it clear that she didn’t appreciate our work. She made it clear that we weren’t serving her. And I wept because I’d been sustaining myself by believing that I was making a positive difference in every one of my students’ lives. I needed her to tell me that I was helping.
Score a point for the cynics. Her call fatally wounded my idealism. Until then I’d thought I was making a difference in the world—and especially in my students’ world. Urban teaching seemed to be a point of unchallengeable moral legitimacy. Clearly, so long as my students progressed and I suffered, I’d arrived at noble selflessness through sacrifice to the community’s good. John Dewey and Jesus Christ would be proud, watching from Heaven.
Then it shattered against reality’s rocks. The truths I’d developed to make sense of my experience lay broken by her invective. Until her call, teaching was a spartan endeavor: it was sanctified by the toiling and grinding. Great teaching was—and I suppose I still think this is mostly true—a matter of overcoming the world’s stubborn resistance to justice. To that point, I’d faced and overcome nearly every obstacle to my students’ success. I worked hard, I stayed persistent, and I refused to make excuses.
Now this narrative gave way to the darker ones, shameful truths whose existence I’d rather not acknowledge, let alone admit that I agree. This will all probably sound very New Age. I’m not sure how else to talk about them just yet.
These are teachings’ Shadowlands, realist admissions that negate moral superiority. Here is how/what I feel now: when I get up in the morning, I feel only despair—a dumbfounded, confused self-pity. I feel trapped. I feel inadequate. When the alarm goes off, my first reaction is usually surprise. I simply can’t believe that I’m awake again, that I’m face-to-face with another day in the classroom. My lapsed faith notwithstanding, I’d pray some nights for a reprieve. How about an MTA strike? (That actually happened, thank God) How about a snow day? (Nope.) I looked for excuses. I expected to be forgiven for my failures in the classroom, since what happened there was obviously out of my hands. I swallowed the darkest version of the “Law of Thirds” hook, line, and sinker. I told myself, “There is nothing that I can do about this student, this parent, or this situation. If I invest my emotional energy in this, I’ll only suffer unnecessarily.”
These dark truths are woven with cynical fury and tinged with the acceptance of defeat. These are my new and secret bedrock, that level of certain disappointment that lurks to snatch teachers (and others) when they lose hope. Once stung, we never completely shake loose of their brutal grasp.
These are the acceptance of failure, the feeling of powerlessness, and the passion for self-deception that masks our fragile selves from blame. Instead of holding that “every student can learn, and will, if I work hard and reach out to them,” I now stood ready to write them off when circumstances threatened my ego. When I first fell into despair’s grip, it marked the end of being guided by ideals and the beginning of a collapse into reactive values…or “reactionary” values, perhaps. In any case, these are the principles that help us rationalize failure to maintain coherence for our worldview. Coherence for our new, defeatist worldview, I should say. They lurk in our souls’ darkest nights, waiting for hope’s light to extinguish.
As I wept, I finally knew why I was bothering to write all of this down. This couldn’t be a book about high-minded men and women honorably triumphing over adversity. That would be trite, forced, and wildly false (confusion on this point is why Hollywood makes terrible teaching movies). No, there is no great visible victory here. The real successes are within; the battles rage inside our hearts. It’s a war for our agency, for our own will to believe that our work matters in a world which makes this almost impossible to maintain.In the end it is almost always easier to switch our moral allegiances than to sustain attacks on our self-image.
The selfishness, the neediness of my servant narrative was all-too-clear. It failed on its very own terms. I was no more selfless than the average rapacious Wall Street banker. I cried for myself.
No student is beyond saving, right? Right?