Falling Flat on My Face

I turned the faucet at the back of the classroom and a brown liquid sputtered out, smelling of eggs. Fly paper swung from the ceiling when the air conditioner kicked on. My teeth felt gritty with dust from the twenty miles off the highway, through the orchards, past the dairy farms with their relentless clouds of flies. I smacked my hands past one another and put them on my hips, looking around the room like Mary Poppins. I had flown in just in time to help these sad children.

If you’ve ever been asked to complete an impossible task, you might know that at first it just seems very difficult, rather improbable… a thinker, you’ll have to look at it from every angle. You might have thought, like me, that it just needed a creative solution, a fresh pair of eyes. You notice the tangles on the outside first and tease them apart with a hopefulness inside until you get past them and see it’s a rat’s nest and you might not get out alive.

The class was comprised of 27 seventh and eighth grade students. Due to low enrollment, grades were combined and teachers instructed in all subjects. Five content areas, two grade levels of content, one day. It seemed difficult but not impossible. I became obsessed with time management, rotating my students around the room like a mad dance. This grade receiving instruction while that grade practiced independently. This group receiving remediation while the others worked collaboratively. The students were gangly and startlingly distractible. They were dazed at first, by my determination and the expectation that they would and could actually learn. Some fell in love, most fought back. After five weeks and a class novel they were mostly on board. They were thirsty after all. Their struggles and small victories were always on my mind.

As we studied medieval Europe, I wondered if they might see their reflection in the feudal system. Children of fieldworkers, they rode the bus home after school and let themselves in to the trailer with a few younger siblings following behind. Squeezing onto the couch with a bag of Taquitos and bad TV: the American dream. Their parents, pulling double shifts, would stay in the fields ’till dusk so that they could be at their kid’s volleyball match on Friday.

Interpersonally, I had a lot to learn about a career in education. I had a lot to learn about adulthood. I had a lot to learn about people. Like how dangerous they can be when they are given a position of power and lack the skills to succeed there. Naively, I went to my administrator with some questions that stemmed from genuine confusion on my part. I wasn’t in Chicago anymore and I couldn’t quite figure out why, for example, athletic competitions took place during the school day every Friday – reducing my classroom to four students, while the rest splayed on the brittle grass near the soccer fields or hustled up and down a painted football field. How was I to recover the years of instruction they’d missed from teachers who sat behind their desk, telling them to turn to page 74 in the text and complete the questions at the end of the chapter with a partner?

No, I shouldn’t have asked that question. I shouldn’t have wondered aloud why weekly staff meetings required early student dismissal, additionally cutting a full two hours of classroom time from my already shortened week. What’s that phrase, squeezing blood from a turnip? I was picking at the wrong knots. The administrator told me so. With a slam of his fist on his desk, he demanded I not disrespect him in such a way at staff meetings. I left stunned like a fly that had smacked against the glass; thinking I was soaring free and realizing I was woefully trapped.

Thankfully, I had a mentor here too. “Keep your head down, Adrienne. That’s how we get by here. Just nod and smile and then go to your classroom and close your door.” I became aware of a buzzing in my head at that point. A rising panic and awareness that I was trespassing and needed to tread lightly, but surely that was just my imagination. Surely, it really came down to the students and their needs. I pitched myself forward, wholly committed to them, to helping them find a way out.

Each morning began with P.E. Yes, I taught that too. First thing in the morning, before the air quality became a serious threat to their health – the sun shining against the fruit trees, green leaves aspirating pesticides. On a Monday in October, my students’ feet dragged against the pavement on our way out to meet the rest of the hundred-odd students for stretches. “Come on!” I shouted, smiling, desperate to make them care, desperate to continue caring. “Anyone who doesn’t beat me to the line has twice the laps to run.”

I laughed and broke into a run. Some of them laughed along and a few dozen feet slapped the pavement behind me. Then, in my slacks and my respectable leather flats, I felt my foot land a bit wrong on a weak ankle. My knee crumpled and I skidded against the pavement. So much weight hitting the hard, unforgiving surface. I had forgotten what it was to fall after so many years. The pain, the pride, it was excruciating. I pulled myself up, my students forming a half-circle around me. Concealing laughter, expressing concern… mostly just staring stunned at the unlikelihood of it all. Their pretty white teacher having to pick herself up from the ground, her pants ripped and bloody. “Okay, Carla, looks like you’re leading stretches today.” Baffled, bloodied, I limped to the office.

A half-hour later, all of us back in the classroom, I cut into my Algebra lesson by telling them to just go ahead and get it over with. “I know you want to laugh about it. Go ahead, tell me how ridiculous I looked.” Nervous chuckles gave way to exclamations and vivid retellings. “You see,” I said, “You see what I’ll do trying to get the very best out of you?” I’ll break myself in the process, I thought. Foolish, foolish me.

The next day, during Algebra, my administrator came to observe. Sitting in the back of the classroom, taking notes on a tablet bought with grant-money. All the teachers had one. As I had always done, I continued teaching as though he wasn’t there. Leaning in to address a student question, I didn’t realize until he was a few feet away that he had moved from his spot in the back. I tried to continue, moved to the next slide, then he caught my eye and motioned me to step aside. The buzzing started in again in my head and I stopped mid-sentence and stepped to the side as he walked to the front and continued my lesson, straight from my own slides. After a few minutes, he nodded to my students and to me and walked out of the room. Shakily, I wrote the practice problems on the board and slid into a chair. What could it mean? A critique? Feedback on my teaching style? Meant to be a teachable moment to me as a young teacher? Reminding me of my place? Somehow, the day eventually ended and I sat at my desk with hot tears streaming down my face. I called my Chicago-mentor. I said many things. I resolved to walk out of there and never return. “Now don’t be reactive, Adrienne. You have a tendency to do that. Think of the kids.” So I loaded my bag and got in the car and drove home. The experience wasted me. I felt like a husk, hollowed out and tossed around by a small breeze claiming to be a gale force wind.

Gains were made and warily reported during parent teacher conferences. If I was lucky, someone might be available to translate. My students were unreliable at this not only because of their incentive to bend the truth, but also because a number of them also did not speak Spanish. Older siblings bridged the gap and had, apparently, taught them to speak as a toddler using only English. Language aside, parents are parents. Flawed, well-meaning, hopeful. I committed myself to them, set goals, made promises. Silly, stupid me.

In the end I learned that I had been unsuccessful at keeping my head down. The administrator – burdened as he was with a school board dotted with parents of students in my class who had seen first hand the gains I had made with their children – had to get inventive. He gathered together a group of boys I had sent in for a referral and got them to make a professionally and personally damning complaint. He looked right into my eyes as he pulled the report from a file beside his desk. “The adults present stated that this report was untrue,” he said. “Of course it isn’t true,” I replied. And yet he replaced the paper into the file. Later a coworker recounted a man-to-man conversation with this administrator regarding my time at the school. “I just don’t do well with strong females,” he reportedly said.

The following week I handed in my letter of resignation. My students were told I was needed at home and assumed I must be pregnant. A few of the girls hugged me and cried, the rest of them looked back at me with dull eyes. I was doing just what they had known I would do all along – leaving them behind.The buzzing stopped, left me numb from all the promises I had broken. I packed my bag and drove away for the last time. Pomegranates rolled along the road. I had only made it to November.

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