This post was originally published as part of the series Questions of Travel hosted at J.R. Goudeau’s blog Love is What You Do. There are some brilliant things being said, some great questions being asked. I would encourage you to check it out.
Why I Stopped Telling
I spent the first three years of my teaching career working at a school that is politely categorized as “high-needs.” What that really means is that 99% of the student population is minority, 99% of the population receives free lunch, and the vast majority of the students were unable to do the things the government says they have to do by the time they get to a certain grade. It means that there is never enough. Not enough desks, or books, or teachers, or pencils, or even toilet paper. It means there is not enough of anything you assume you will find in a school if you were educated in a middle- to upper-class public school in America.
To say that it was hard is putting it mildly. I used to drive to work and seriously consider getting into an accident just so I could call in sick. “If I broke my leg,” I used to think, “I could be out for a whole week.” When I was in labor with my second baby, in the midst of one of the worst contractions, I shouted that I had worked for three years at my high needs school and if I could do that, I could certainly birth a baby. Yes, teaching at my first school was that hard.
With a work environment that difficult, you can imagine the sorts of stories I came home with. I am ashamed to admit I spent the first year of teaching telling those stories with very little regard to the way my students were portrayed. I thought that one of the perks of my job was being able to keep everyone’s attention at a dinner party and I talked about my experiences with abandon. If I am going to be perfectly honest, I did it because I liked the attention.
Somewhere along the way I stopped telling those stories, the ones with the perfect punch line, the ones that made everyone gasp, the ones that people responded to by telling me how good I was. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me that those stories weren’t just entertaining, they were damaging. The way I spun those too true tales was disadvantaging my already disadvantaged students. The ones I was working so hard for. So I stopped telling them, even if they were true.
I stopped telling the stories of my most resilient kids, because I realized that people were getting the impression that because some of the kids were rising above their circumstances, it was okay to blame the rest for not being able to do the same.
I stopped telling the stories of my church donating cases of paper to my school, because I don’t want anyone to get the impression that it is ever okay for a school in America to run out of paper in October. The church should absolutely meet the needs of the poor, but the church shouldn’t have to supply copy paper for an entire school because the system is broken.
I stopped telling the stories of my most brilliant teaching, my most inspired ideas, because I did not want someone to get the impression that if I was just brilliant and inspired all of the time, I could save my kids. I only had them for 55 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Building the perfect teacher is like building the perfect Band-Aid. It needs to be a unique fit for each environment, and while Band-Aids do a lot of good, there are far too many wounds that need much more than a Band-Aid. Too many of my kids had too many problems that were too far beyond my ability to help.
I stopped telling about the time my friend’s car got stolen and she came back the next day, or the time someone was threatened, nothing was done, and she came back to teach the next week because when I told those stories I was giving the impression that the solution to the education problem is teachers who were willing to sacrifice everything. There is a reason that Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Dangerous Minds and Hillary Swank’s inFreedom Writers both got a divorce and lasted a very short time in the classroom. We can’t continue asking our teachers to sacrifice everything, because too many of them already have.
I stopped telling all of these stories because the students that I loved have seen Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds too. They too had been told that I could save them; they had been told they could not save themselves and they believed it.
People don’t want to hear about the system and how it is desperately broken. People don’t want to know that the same public school system that is benefitting them and their children, that is increasing their property value, is the same system that is failing a generation on the other side of town. They don’t want to know that the positive school experience that they remember may have come at the expense of shifting districts lines to keep out those with less.
People don’t want to know that as they fight for a spot to volunteer in their child’s kindergarten class, the school down the road desperately needs volunteers of all kinds. In a school full of the children of the working poor, no one has time to be the room mom the teacher so desperately needs.
No, no one wants to hear about the system and how they can and should right the disparities that are raging in their city. They want to hear about me and my colleagues, the outrageous and crazy situations I have been put in and how I handle it. They want to hear about the kids who are resilient enough to fight back. They want to hear these stories, of the bigger than life savior, of the brave and worthy victim who rises above.
I stopped telling the stories I used to tell, because when I started telling the stories in a way where people were not merely entertained, but were challenged to take responsibility, they didn’t want to hear them anymore.