Buried beneath the test scores, the rosters, the class lists, the attendance statistics, the roll sheets, the interim reports, the report cards, the serious incident testimonies, the counseling referrals, the truant officer’s legal briefs, the probation officer’s assessments, the lesson plans, the behavioral objectives and the specific learning outcomes, the five-step writing process, the think-pair-share activity, the split-page note-taking method, the SATs, the APs, the PSSAs, the benchmark tests, and the core curriculum – real people are gasping for breath.
Sometimes it is hard to come up for air. Often it feels as if we are living in a place that the rest of the world has forgotten. Except, of course, when the bureaucrats, careerists, reporters, and statisticians descend upon us like a post-mortem team, to dissect the numerical indicators of our “adequate yearly progress” or to count up the number of schoolchildren who have lost their lives to violence.
I was a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for 34 years. I stood in front of almost 5,000 different teenagers, in 15 different classrooms in five different schools in eight different grades. I have been known as Miss Rose, Miss Frozenfrogs, Mrs. Pincus, Marsha Marsha Marsha, Hey Teach, and Teacher of the Year (twice – the Rose Lindenbaum Award in 1988 and the Ruth Wright Hayre Award in 2005).
I have been hit, pushed, screamed at, and stolen from. I have been locked inside a classroom with 30 14-year-olds from 9:30 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, while crime scene investigators marked every drop of blood that had fallen on the floors of the corridors and stairwells, following the trail left by a terrified dying boy with a kitchen knife dangling from his neck. He died in the discipline office.
I have heard the pop pop pop of gunshots outside my classroom window. I have heard the blare of a frantic fire alarm and the words, This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill! as the halls outside my classroom turned white from smoke. I have huddled with a dozen teenagers under one umbrella in the pouring rain as the Fire Department extinguished a fire that started in a trash can and engulfed the wooden floor beneath it. I have heard a principal lose her mind over the PA system after that very same system had been hijacked by a student who calmly dismissed school and sent everybody home in the middle of the day.
I have read students’ stories of abuse, rape, incest, and murder. I have listened to the stories of girls who have sold their young bodies in exchange for a place to live after their crack-addled mothers threw them out of the house, and I have comforted boys who were abused and trying desperately not to give in to the violent urges bubbling up under their skin.
Through it all, though, I have been more learner than teacher. I carry my students’ stories in my heart.
So post-retirement, here is what I know: Even the angriest, most recalcitrant child harbors a spark of possibility buried inside his or her despair.
I have been given one of the greatest gifts any teacher can be given: I have had the privilege to continue to know so many of my students after they left my classroom. I have been to their college graduations, their weddings. I have seen them earn graduate degrees, become teachers and principals, businessmen, and community leaders. I have seen them with their own children and watched as they became role models for other young people.
Every child, no matter how old or seemingly jaded, starts the school year with the hope that maybe this year will be the one.
Maybe this year I will finally love school like I once did, when I was little and the teacher put smiley faces on my papers and my mother packed me lunch in my Peter Pan lunch box.
Maybe this year, people will see me for who I am and value what’s inside of me.
Maybe this year, I will connect with a teacher who will help me understand the ways to realize the dreams I barely let myself imagine except late at night, right before I fall asleep.
Maybe this year.
This is an edited version of an entry on her blog, “On Her Own Terms.”