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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.

Photo Credit: Elena Schweitzer via


Two years ago, I accepted an offer to teach seventh grade English at an urban middle school. I remember following a woman into a little office to sign papers, papers for a regular job not headquartered in the spare room in my house, a regular job with a designated lunchtime and human beings. The last time I did such a thing was in 1986. When the woman left to photocopy my signature, I translated the salary I was to receive on the back of her business card. It seemed low. It was low. But I had not arrived in that spot — a table pressed into the corner of the Dallas Independent School District personnel office — because I intended to make lots of money. I was going to change lives, I reminded myself. You do not make a lot of money when you change lives.

“Are you ready to start today?” asked the woman, returning.

“Today, gosh. That’s fast.”

She waited. I could be ready. Yes. I could be ready. She checked her watch.

Not an hour later, I clicked up the metal steps into Portable Room 1464. Twenty-five 13-year-olds whipped their heads around, like ballerinas doing chaine turns.

My mom was a teacher, and I grew up watching her take off in her Chevy Monza each day, a blur of fabric and scent. Cristal, by Chanel. She had a carpet bag, with leather handles, made from a remnant of a real Oriental rug. Each evening, she lifted the flap and spilled papers onto the floor of my parents’ bedroom. Dittos, they were called then. Worksheets made on a machine that cranked out copies from carbon paper, by hand. If you held the paper by your nose, you could smell the fluid. Intoxicating, it was, like rubber cement, but fruity. A bottom drawer in our kitchen was filled with unused sheets, for games of tic tac toe, or shopping lists.

But for the past 20 years, or so, I have spent all of my time writing. I am a journalist. I have seen my name in many places — magazines, newspapers, TV sets — but never on a middle school blackboard. I did what Ms. Spidell did in kindergarten and wrote my name up high, in the right-hand corner. I will need to say something meaningful, I realized. I turned around and said hello. Then, I said the meaningful part. “I am your new teacher.”

Wow. That sounded crazy.

Before I arrived, a month into the school year, the students had had five substitutes. The one there my first day took off within the hour, leaving me to navigate solo. “They are not bad kids,” he said before the door closed behind him. He didn’t say what kind they were. I would complete the rest of the sentence in time.

I felt the way I did when my dad left my first Manhattan apartment the day after it was robbed. He came into the city and we went to the lock store on Third Avenue to select proper barricades for New York living. A few hours later, men installed a wrought iron gate on one window and a chain and padlock the size of Montana on another, the one through which my stereo, speakers and garnet necklace had vanished while I was at the beach. Then, Dad said he was going home. Just like that. And he wouldn’t take me with him.

The classroom was painted navy blue, on three walls. The fourth was red, like blood, and streaky. Imagine that you cut your leg on a piece of metal, maybe jutting out from a car in a parking lot. You feel something, so you bend down and touch your thigh with your fingers, sweeping them over the wound. This is what the paint on my wall looked like, that swath of red, lined from discovery.