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My Public School Beat-Down

As a girl, I saw my mom fight for her classroom. In my short time teaching, I learned how dangerous that could be.

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On the floor, tiles peeled, exposing the plywood underneath. Windows stuck shut, and an 8-foot metal cabinet door flapped off a hinge, making it treacherous to retrieve a paper folder, or a crayon. The class door wouldn’t lock from the inside without a key. When an emergency announcement boomed over the loudspeaker for window shades to be drawn and students to go to the corners and all noise to cease, I couldn’t lock the door without first rummaging in my purse for the key. It was fortunate that whoever was doing bad things in the neighborhood skipped over Room 1464.

The students behaved the way people might in such an environment. When you wear pretty shoes, you walk with poise and care. These kids pushed each other out of seats, fell on the floor, hurdled over desks, stepped on each other to come in and go out. By the time my second class had entered — properly, after three tries — I saw what I needed to do. Sentence structure and plot development would be easy. Convincing them that they were worthy of respect would be a task.

I stood in front of the board, and told the students about my sun room. I told them that for seven years, I have written stories in the room, on the side of my house, with arched windows that look onto the street. I think that people should know who is standing in front of them telling them to do things and not do things. Many teachers, I’ve seen and heard, hide who they are. They put photographs on their desks, of husbands and boyfriends and pets — pets, mainly — but that is it. My daughter’s sixth grade social studies teacher liked turtles. Everyone brought her turtle objects for Christmas. Paperweights, necklaces. We did not know much else. I can’t remember her name.

Some people might think that my students knew too much. They knew that I’ve been divorced, that my dad died way too early, that I love to dance. They knew that my daughters don’t have boyfriends, thank God, and that I believe in speaking up when you believe in something, as long as you say it politely. They didn’t really know what I like to eat, or that I derive joy from the color blue and am on the search for a classic navy pea coat. But they knew that I hate guns and that all of my friends, and my mother and brother, live a plane ride away. They knew I’m afraid of planes.

I think they learn better when they know these things. I think they are more invested on some level, even if for 45 minutes. It’s just the way most human beings are wired. My purpose in that classroom, I determined after one morning, was to change the way these kids might think about themselves, and the world, whether they could put a comma in the right spot or not.

During the following week, I questioned some of the routine practices that I noticed at the school. I asked the administration why security guards yelled at kids on the way to their portable classrooms, about loitering, or tucking in their shirts. I asked why no one was coming to help the five special education kids that I learned I had in one class. I asked why my seventh graders wouldn’t be reading novels and were told to use five adjectives in one sentence. One sentence! I asked why an administrator took a kid onto the porch and screamed at him. “Shut your mouth,” she said, for all to hear. I asked why the six disruptive kids from my class couldn’t be combined with the six disruptive kids from another class, so that the rest could learn without interruption. I asked why the kids were rushed while they were eating breakfast in the cafeteria. It was bad enough that they had to eat breakfast in the cafeteria.