Friday, January 11, 2013

Into the Breach

‎"Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

It sounds like its from the News of the Absurd. Yesterday, as Joe Biden began his discussion with the National Rifle Association about how best to keep students safe from gun violence, a young man with a shotgun was leveling his barrel at a fellow student in a California high school. Feeling bullied by his peers, and having made a kill list of students, the young man entered the science classroom to get revenge. The shooter shot one student, aimed at another and missed. Ryan Heber, the science teacher in front of the class did not run, lead a stampede, hide or pull out a semi-automatic firearm. He engaged the shooter in a conversation, allowing his 28 other students to escape out a back door. Heber had been hit by a stray shotgun pellet and was bleeding from the head, but convinced the shooter to lay down his weapon, saving the lives of the students in his classroom and the shooter himself.

I teach in a school that is in full melt-down status. It absorbed 200 children from a school that was closed this year and is bursting at the seams. Kindergarten classrooms have 33 children each on their classroom rolls. The ISS Room rolls are bursting and keep growing. Last week there was a terrible fight that resulted in a kid leaving school in an ambulance. Now no one in 3-8th grade is allowed to go to outside recess. Teachers who take kids outside for recess will immediately get a "critical incident"-- a very serious consequence. Hall Angels roam the halls. Managing disrespectful behavior from students is one of the highest priorities in the building. Teachers are breaking down and sending out infuriated and frustrated emails of protest to the entire school list-- a risky move that happens when teachers are driven crazy.

The Principal, a kind and loving man, is driven to make AYP twice in a row. He has the teachers doing test prep constantly. The kids have done two mock PSSAs already--its the beginning of January. They've taken their CBAs--curriculum based assessments, they will take their Keystone tests, eighth graders have special tests just for them--and real PSSAs are in Spring. A significant number of days this year have been devoted to filling in test bubbles or preparing for it. Art, music, library-- all are rare and low-level. You can't endeavor to thoroughly teach clarinet or oil painting or research skills  if you see kids once or twice a month-- at most.

This week began at this school with a former student, who came to pick up younger siblings. The former student got into an altercation with a current elementary school child. The former student's father showed up to help mediate the altercation with a baseball bat--and a swastika tattoo on his head. He shouted racial epithets. A bus driver had to come to the rescue of our elementary school student. The Principal's response was to place more teachers along the sidewalk at dismissal to, I suppose, form a human shield against this dangerous parent or others like him. When the Principal asked for additional school police, he was told that the department had been cut so much that there were no police to spare. Those teachers will stand alone, middle aged women in comfortable shoes in the blustery cold, to face that parent and any other threat.

At Garfield High School in Seattle, an entire school staff has decided to unite and conscientiously refuse to give one of the standardized tests they are required to give. The teachers feel the test is superfluous, damaging, and a blatant misuse of their students' time and talents. Never mind the extreme conflict of interest that exists between the former Superintendent and the test-maker-- let's save looking at that man behind the curtain for another day. Today, those teachers stand in solidarity. They might lose their jobs. They might be bullied individually by their Board of Ed. They might be threatened with losing their teaching credentials. I don't know what havoc will be wrecked upon them-- especially as news gets out about their rebellion and other teachers in other districts begin to follow suit. For now, these teachers have acted heroically, and they stand alone, without legal protection.

I am sure there are some doctors who have turned in their medical licenses because of undue and unethical pressure from hospital boards and pharmaceutical companies, but I don't know any. If you are reading this, you now know, however, of teachers-- who not only stand willing to lose their livelihood and cherished profession-- but their very lives if need be to protect their "patients"--their students. What other profession does this? Do dentists? Do lawyers? Now compare the prestige, power and earning potential between teachers and the other professions.

Here is what I've decided today. My two oldest children, finishing college at Temple University, have long talked about being teachers. Their father has encouraged this, and I have done everything possible to discourage it. I don't want them to live far away from me (because there are no teaching jobs in Pgh) get treated like pariahs and be paid unfairly. I don't want their faces to be targets for Neo Nazi parents with baseball bats because our Governor cut funding to schools (ensuring there wouldn't be enough security police.)
I have been willing, however to honor my youngest child's desire to join the Israeli Defense Force after high school. She wants to defend her "other" country. My son, home for winter break, threw an astringent rinse on my thinking. How can I support my youngest going to war? And with that thought, I have to acknowlege this: if I encourage my youngest to join an army, how can I discourage my two oldest from teaching? I must acknowledge his point. Especially when ultimately, in our country today, these two are almost the same thing.

I have changed my mind. Thank you, my son. I will no longer discourage you and your older sister from being TEACHERS. There is no more ardently valiant, brave, patriotic occupation in this world. I don't think that for those who truly know what it is to teach today the following words will seem hyperbolic: we are engaged in the civil rights fight of our time when we dare to teach well. We are striking a blow against the corporate deformers who would ghettoize our poorest and most vulnerable students in a world of violence and despair. A world of endless test taking, stripping art, library, music, joy, love and pride from their days.

When we go to teach, we go to war. We arm ourselves with a vision of love in the way all major religions understand it: as a way to live shalom--wholeness--Dr. King's vision of peace--the presence of justice, not just the absence of conflict. We go to possibly lay our investment in our education, certification status and family finances on the line in service to the children of our country. We go to place our bodies between violent students and parents and those they intend to harm. Most often, we fight our own failing will in the face of withering disdain from the general media, mayors in major blue states like Bloomberg, trusted and esteemed union leaders, NYT columnists, our own President. We fight a spiritual, financial, professional, emotional battle-- and we fight alone. No majority political party will come to save us. No majority of parents of kids we teach will save us. We save ourselves by doing the fighting.

Those of us who want to TEACH-- not test--are ALL those middle aged women in cheap coats and comfortable shoes, standing along a sidewalk alone-- ready to face the attack. In homage to them, I thank God for making me a teacher. To stand in their ranks is an honor, no matter what the world calls us-- union thugs, "just like the NRA", lazy, incompetent child-haters. Thank God for allowing me to have personal children who see true, call it square, and make me face my own self. I will always be frightened for you should you decide to become teachers. There is a lot of fear to go around in teaching circles today.

Into the fray, my children, my colleagues. Into the breach. We'll throw our bodies into the machine-- because that is how we have chosen to live. We'll stand alone for children because the rest of our nation sleeps. The corporate media lullaby calls out a dark and irrestistable call to our country: be afraid, don't dare to challenge authority, obey, submit. We won't. We'll stand, even alone. Thank God. Amen.
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