When I look back, standing here 16 years later, it was never the students, at least not the ones in my room. Yes, Derek was born addicted to crack and never, in the year I knew him, developed a sense of empathy or the ability to learn to read, but all of the rest did to one extent or another. One girl in my class I grew to love and respect to the point that I named one of my daughters after her.
It wasn't the parents, either. Again, Derek's mother was scary. Trevaris' mother was scary. But Regina's mother read to her every night and was going to school to become something. They moved at the end of the year, out of the projects and into a grandmother's house in the county. Hector's stepfather moved his whole family out of the city. I sat down with Trinity Nelson's mother and filled out the deseg paperwork for her to get Trinity into a county school. Get her out of here. Langston's mother--I mean, she named her twins Langston and Martin--was so angry that her kids were bused in from the south side, that when I gave her information on homeschooling in April, she pulled her sons out and I never saw them again.
It was the system that dragged me down. The system and the circumstances. I ate lunch every day with the two other young white chicks--Karla had a different lunch and ate with the kindergarten teachers, all but one of which had windowless basement classrooms. And we sat, shell-shocked, completely unsupported in this warzone. The overcrowding was a bomb waiting to go off, a bomb fed by bad food and uncaring administrators and violence.
There was, in fact, a bomb threat, several in a row, which led to fire alarms that had never been practiced. The fact that my little first graders made it out of the building without being trampled to death is something I still can't chalk up to anything but miracle. Our answer for how to respond to a bomb threat was to walk around the block. For hours. Walk around the gigantic building that might just explode. And then come back in and find Jody's purse is missing.
Jody would drink at lunch, second semester. Nicole and I would pretend not to notice. We'd drink after school, too, all of us, at the mexican restaurant nearby. Sometimes on a Friday night I would down a bottle of wine before I went out with other friends, just to take the edge off. I didn't drink at school, but I wrote letters to friends out of town. I kept a diary. I did most anything to try to fill the vacuum that becomes your soul when you teach--most of the time it's filled with the business of the day, but at Henry it was just sucked dry. Laid bare.
The curriculum support administrator, essentially a vice-principal, never came to my classroom except one time. She came to observe and gave me a mustard-colored carbon copy of her evaluation. It said, "The room is print-rich. It is rich with print." That was all. That and a bunch of checkmarks that said I was doing the right thing. How on earth could she know? As she left, she told me she was going to send Mrs. Morris up some day to teach me how to make bulletin boards the right way. And she left.
We had a social worker, one social worker, for 650 children, that we split with a middle school and another elementary school. No special education paperwork came to fruition from my classroom that year. And when Leon Walker went missing for 16 school days in a row, with me up in my room dutifully marking him absent, it took a personal visit from me to the social worker to get her to make any sort of phone call or visit. He'd been abducted by his non-custodial father. But the social worker hadn't noticed the absences, nor had we found out, since his mother didn't have a phone. Oh, and the social worker had a broken arm. A middle school student had done that.
I was told that if I had problem students, I should send them to Mr. Newman, our blessed security guard. "Teachers can't hit kids, but security guards aren't covered by that rule." I never sent anyone to Mr. Newman. But I don't have much to be proud of beyond that.
I was 21 when I walked into that building. It's enough that I walked out.