Friday, September 3, 2010
The Teaching Life Revisited
Teaching in Philadelphia: In Retrospect
Maybe This Year
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, Bloom’s taxonomy of critical thinking skills, Directed Reading Activity, and the 5-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 school children who have lost their lives to the violence that makes parts of Philadelphia more dangerous than parts of Iraq.
I have been a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for over thirty years. I have stood in front of almost 5,000 different teenagers, in fifteen different classrooms in five different schools in 8 different grades. I have been known as Miss Rose, Miss Frozenfrogs, Miss Rose Twig, Mrs. Pincus, Pink-Ass, Yo, Marsh! Marsha Marsha Marsha, Hey teach, Pinky-poo and Teacher of the Year.( twice 1988 and 2005).
I have been called a racist bitch, a moron, a loser, a pussy. I have been punched, pushed, screamed at and stolen from. My car has been broken into three times. Three different cars in three separate school parking lots. Curse words and threats have been scrawled on my classroom walls, doors and blackboards. I have been locked inside a classroom with 30 14 years olds from 9:30 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon, while crime scene investigators from the Philadelphia Police Department 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 nurse’s office.
I have sat in a darkened classroom room with a teen-age girl as she showed me pictures of her still born daughter whom she named Angel. I have hugged another teen-aged girl, comforting her after the death of her grandmother then one month later, listened as she told me of her dream where her grandmother welcomed the child she had aborted into her arms in heaven. I once helped a teen-aged boy select a name for his yet to be born daughter from a book of baby names, a girl, it turns out wasn’t even his.
I have heard the pop pop pop of gunshots outside my classroom window. I have heard the urgent 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. I have huddled with a dozen teen-agers under one umbrella in the pouring rain as the Philadelphia Fire Department extinguished a trash can fire whose flames had jumped the 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 dismissed school and sent everybody home in the middle of the day.
I have read their stories of abuse, rape, incest and murder. I have seen the marks on their bodies from childhood diseases, acne, bullets, knives, razor blades and scalding water and I have seen the other scars which are much more difficult to discern. I have taught the daughters of policemen and sons of cop-killers. In the same class. I have taught children whose only contact with their fathers has been through the armored glass in a prison visiting room. I have listened to the stories of girls who have sold their young bodies in exchange for a place to live after their crack addicted mothers threw them out of the house in a jealous rage and boys who were abused and trying desperately not to give in to the violent urges bubbling up under their skin.
I have been laid off, transferred, written up, reprimanded and left to fend for myself. I have been praised, awarded, documented, televised, published and ignored.
But through it all for the past thirty four years, I have been more learner than teacher and my classroom, filled with the children that many people outside of their communities have already written off, has been the center of my intellectual, emotional and spiritual life. And it's shaped the parent and the person that I am today.
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I retired from full time teaching two years ago, but the lessons I have learned and the people I have encountered remain with me. I carry their stories in my heart.
Two years out, here is what I know. That hope springs eternal and with faith all things are possible. Even in the darkest moments there is always a light shining through to the classroom. Even the angriest, most recalcitrant child, harbors a spark of possibility buried inside of of his despair. And that human beings have the capacity for enormous resilience.
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 in their communities. Yes, I have also been to funerals. More than I want to remember. But such is life in all of its complexity.
Every child, no matter 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.
Hope you all have a generative, positive, healthy and loving year.