I’m subbing at a new high school. It’s often written up in the local paper, but not with glowing stories of promising young athletes. Rather, it’s “Student Assaulted Teacher” and “Teacher Molested Student.” I did my first 3 years of teaching at a school with metal detectors at the door. I’m not afraid of “bad” schools. More like, I’m afraid of the pain-in-the-ass subbing can be at a school where teachers are so miserable, they’ll just not show up one day. But maybe it’s my kind of place, I thought. I kind of like mayhem. So I decide to check it out. Here’s what I find.
First period class is big. Like, 33 kids-big. One guy tells me they’ve had a sub almost every day since the start of the semester, which explains why there are no lesson plans. I say hey to the kids and start taking attendance; everybody’s acting fine. Then the classroom door opens, and three adults step in: a teacher, an administrator, and a security guard. Now, it might be worth telling you that the class is like 98% black kids. It also might be worth telling you that 2 of the 3 adults are also black. And it’s probably a good time to keep it real.
Whether we want to talk about it or not, there are big differences in how white people and black people are living in this country. I’m saying, look up some statistics about the people who are stinkin rich. What are they? White. And look up the rates at which white folks graduate college, and compare them to the rates for people of color. Or just go straight to the heart of it: look up the incarceration rates for black males. Hint: on any given day, 1 of every 10 black men in their 30s is locked up. Bottom line? As a general rule, white people live easier than black people. We all know this, right?
I’m no social scientist. I don’t think I understand the problem, or have the solution. But I do know what worked for me.
I didn’t live the “easy white life.” I had free lunch in elementary school and junior high. I shared a bedroom with my step-sister and step-brother. I got smacked more than I got praised. I was homeless at 13. For a long time, life was hard. The one good thing I had? School.
My teachers saved me. They made learning fun, so school was an escape. They gave me good books to read, which were better than drugs. They told me my writing was excellent, which was sweeter than a hug. I was really, really lucky. Because of my teachers, I had something besides the ugly. Because of my teachers, I pulled myself out of that mess.
Now, back to the classroom. Back to the 3 adults, the 33 kids. Refresher: the kids are acting fine. The adults? Not so much.
Trying to support the new sub, I guess, the administrator says, “These students need to behave and do their work. Do not hesitate to call security. If one student–ONE student–does or says something you do not like, you just pick up that phone and call security.”
“Um–I’m fine, they’re fine,” I say back. “I just don’t have any lesson plans…?”
The teacher shows me a stack of copies with carefully numbered Learning Objectives taking up half the page. Like, 3.01: The student will be able to assess and analyze the difference between blah and blah and blah. This jargon makes my eyes spin. And I’m supposed to force 33 teenagers who’ve had a sub for 2 months to take it seriously? Why yes, I am. I know this because the administrator speaks again.
“These students need to take this work very, very seriously. They have not been doing their work, yet they have a standardized test coming up, an EOC. In 3 weeks! If they don’t start caring about this work and taking it seriously, they will fail. They better start caring about that.”
I have to force myself not to apologize to the students for her words. And just like every time I’m in a classroom, I have to force myself not to teach like my teachers taught me, back in the 70s and 80s: with excitement and color and creativity and good books. I have to pretend 3.01 is what they must do, because that fill-in-the-bubble, there’s-only-one-correct-answer-to-every-question EOC test is the most important thing. Because in schools today? We don’t give kids an escape route. We don’t give kids a reason to want to learn, or inspire them to do more than just survive the ugly. There’s no time for such nonsense. There’s simply no room in the curriculum.
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