Undervalued: The absurdity of teacher as scapegoat

“Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true: Teachers make a goddamn difference! What about you?” —From “What Teachers Make, or Objection Overruled, or If Things Don’t Work Out, You Can Always Go to Law School” by poet Taylor Mali

As I write this, the battle between the mouth-breathing governor of Wisconsin and American workers is raging. It’s my hope that, as you read this, the 14 Democratic senators necessary for a vote on Scott Walker’s union-busting bill will still be in their undisclosed bunkers, fondling their newly grown balls. It sure has been nice to see the Dems finally stand for something, even if it is too little too late.

Regardless of how this “brouhaha”—as Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal dismissively called this pivotal moment in American history— plays out, and aside from the larger issue of Unions: Good or Evil?, I am awestruck by the widespread disdain for teachers, a profession, as it happens, largely undertaken by women. But that’s another column.

The broad demonization of teachers is being underscored by the daily news cycle. It’s not just one or two states taking an antagonistic stance toward teachers; this is happening everywhere.

State education officials in Michigan have ordered closure of half the schools in Detroit, where class sizes in the high schools will swell to 60 students in the coming year.

In Providence, R.I., teachers were given a layoff notice last week. This doesn’t mean all 2,000 of them won’t have jobs next year (some of them definitely won’t). But it does mean they work the remainder of this year knowing they may not have jobs next year. Yay for workplace morale! I should point out that annual layoff notices are not uncommon and are, on the contrary, part of the fabric of our modern education system. They’re a yearly occurrence across the country. Sort of like Christmas. With lumps of coal. Delivered by Scrooge.

Back in Madison, Wisc., highly paid (non-unionized) administrators are refusing sick pay to teachers who were absent from work while protesting Walker’s proposed bill. Each of these administrators—who I know have never fudged on a sick day—is conveniently channeling an inner Helen Lovejoy. The poor children are not learning when a teacher spends a day in the capitol rotunda with her sign that reads, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

Never mind the civics lesson inherent in civil disobedience; these teachers should shut up and teach—and never deviate from mandated curriculum. Or else.

As if the headlines aren’t alarming enough, one little jaunt into the toxic waters of any comment section reveals a widespread derision.

“I love teachers…. for all their self righteous babble…” wrote someone calling himself Deucejack on The Huffington Post. “[T]hey don’t give two nickels about the kids they supposedly provide a service to. LMOA at teachers…. Now I’m laughing at the unions in their last nose dive.” One thing is certain: Douchejackass here could have used a better grammar teacher.

Comments like this are disturbingly abundant and wildly narrow in their vision. Just as in any other profession, there will always be what I call “driftwood” among teachers; there is a small subset who are underachievers, skaters, system-bilkers and incompetents. They exist and Sarah Palin is the poster child for this unrefudiateable fact. Her devotees serve as supporting evidence.

But, by and large, teachers teach precisely because they give at least—and usually far more than—two nickels about the children in their care. With a child six months into kindergarten, I’ve had an opportunity to spend time in the classroom and see what a teacher does when she’s set adrift by a society that progressively downgrades her worth.

With increasing class sizes, no aides, few support staff, absurdly limited supplies and resources, an endless barrage of new training requirements and too many too-busy-working-multiple-jobs-to-be-involved parents, a teacher puts a smile on her face and welcomes her children in the morning. Then she goes right on ahead and teaches her ass off.

While meeting district-, state- and federally mandated goals, she also acts as counselor, nurse, custodian, disciplinarian and parent. She manages personalities, fixes scrapes and cuts, wipes noses and tears. She helps her kids navigate ever-changing relationships and moods. At any given time, she’s attending to the hurt feelings of one child and attempting to engage another whose attention span is fleeting. She may be patiently problem solving with a child who struggles with a concept or assisting four others on a math test. Often, she’s doing any number of these things simultaneously, while teaching!

In addition to all of this—and her prep work and training and certifications—she responds to perhaps the most demanding customers in her equation: parents, both those who respect what she does and those who don’t. There isn’t enough money in the world that could entice me to do even that part of the job, let alone the rest of it.

For seven hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks each year, for 13 years, we put our children in the care of teachers. But from the way many folks are vilifying them, you’d think our little bumpkins were spending time with Osama bin Laden.

(As published today in San Diego CityBeat.)

Bye-bye, little one: An argument in favor of the kindergartener

It’s official. Last Tuesday—after I helped thread her arms through the stiff straps of a backpack covered in more pink and white butterflies than were flitting around in my stomach—I walked my daughter one block down the street for her first day of kindergarten and, in doing so, became a cog in the busted-up, broke-down, rusted-out, caving-in jalopy known as the San Diego Unified School District. But this column isn’t about SDUSD, a bottomless well of editorial fodder; there will be plenty of time for my commentary on that hot mess over the next 13 years.

No, this is about Holy shit! I’m not the parent of a toddler anymore!

You know the first thing I did after leaving La Princesse at class that morning was to b-line for a cocktail. I wanted to bring a flask in my purse and take a nice, big draw from it just as I stepped off school property, but I really have made an effort to leave high school behind me. It would be a bummer to get blacklisted from my kid’s new school for drinking on campus. On Day One. I’d rather earn my banishment with some caustic columns.

Of course, I was a little misty as I watched my child’s giant backpack walk away from me toward her new classroom, the whole of her eclipsed except for two long, skinny legs in laceless, pink-sequined Chuck Taylors and a perfectly round Afro-puff topping it all off. It was downright cartoony, and I hummed “School House Rock” on my way to meet my Maker’s Mark, thinking of how far I’d come.

Oh, the memories: There was the time Ruby smeared poop on my face. And the incessant late-night wailing that forced Sam and me into garage exile for the better part of a year. Or the meltdown at the pumpkin patch— man, that was an illusion killer. In an act of self-preservation, I pretended I didn’t know her and just let her sob and leak snot on herself in the dirt amid hay bales and ponies, while all the other families sipped cider and took photos for their scrapbooks and happily picked out their gourds and corncobs and whatnot.

Those miserable days have receded sufficiently and are now humorous anecdotes I offer in conversations with new parents to explicitly convey that they are not alone, and to subliminally convey the fact that they are completely fucked. To this day, whenever I see disheveled parents maneuvering diaper bags and strollers and Snack Traps while hunched over trying to prevent their new crawler from tumbling head first into a menacing pile of fire ants, my first thought is always: Better them than me.

Babies might smell good, but let’s be honest: They mostly suck.

Having a 5-year-old is much more palatable. For one thing, they don’t pee and poop in their pants anymore. That’s a big bonus. Sure, there’s the occasional oops-I-waited-too-long leak that they neglect to mention and which you only find out about when you pick up their inside-out heap of clothes they left on the bathroom floor. FYI: Unexpectedly wet kiddie undies evoke the same kind of reaction as walking into an unseen spider web.

And as long as I’m talking bodily functions, being summoned to the bathroom to verify that, Yes, honey, you’re right. That is diarrhea, is only better than a diaper trauma by a number of degrees. But it is, unarguably, better.

Another plus is communication. When a baby doesn’t care for her food, she spits it out like an oscillating lawn sprinkler, and suddenly you’re washing walls while contemplating taking lovers, Seasonale and a secret apartment in Crown Point (a small dream, yes, but it makes visitation easier than an apartment in Positano). By contrast, a 5-year-old will keep the grilled onion on her protruding tongue, contort her face like Popeye and flail her hands in the air next to her head until you remove the offending bit with your napkin. After a long sip of water from her glass (no more sippie cups!), she’ll look directly at you and say, “What the hell, Mama? I said ‘No onions!’”

Getting dressed is so much more pleasant with a 5-year-old around: Not only can she dress herself, but she can also create ensembles. She has a will and is going to exert it. Giving in to her proclivity for pairing autumn-hued plaids with pastel stripes and primary polka dots, often layered and topped with a pink gingham belt and/or a tulle skirt, beats the hell out of onesies and baby-jeans with those maddeningly miniscule crotch snaps.

I stay out of the fashion choices in my home now and only venture into jacket-battle on truly cold days. And I do insist on underwear beneath skirts if we’re going to be leaving the house. I’m a stickler on that point. You never know when you might be exiting a limousine to the flashing bulbs of paparazzi. You never know when you might suffer that accidental leak.

The best thing, though, about a kindergartener, is that they can make you proud in deeply meaningful ways that can’t be dismissed as gas (a first smile is still charming) or natural progression (first words, first steps, first haircuts, first skull-shaped self-inking stamp pressed repeatedly along every wall in the house at a 36-inch height). A toddler is the drunken friend whom you must prevent from dying; a 5-year-old is the pragmatic one who hears “No” and offers 17 plausible ways the answer should be “Yes.”

“What do you call the person that’s in charge of the school?” Ruby asked her dad during curriculum night while she and three of her new friends were pretending to play classroom. The role of “teacher” had been delegated and Ruby was unsatisfied as “pupil.”

“You mean the principal?” Sam asked. “Yeah,” Ruby said. She skipped back to where her friends were playing. “OK,” she said to them, “I’m the principal.”

Au revoir to those bruising toddler years. And bottoms up to the brutality ahead.

(As published today in San Diego Citybeat.)

Back to school: The unintended side effect of being a parent

If you were to offer me $10 million to do high school over again, I would turn you down before you could finish your sentence. It wouldn’t matter if I were allowed to take with me all the hindsight I’ve collected since tossing my mortar board out the window of my mother’s white Toyota Corolla with the lapis-blue interior. I suppose you could sweeten the pot with Elin Nordegren’s $100-million divorce settlement from her naughty little Tiger and I might entertain reliving the misery.

Oh, those many brooding days spent slumped against the cold brick of East High School on the corner of 13th East and Ninth South, bangs draped across my dark-lined eyes, chain-smoking clove cigarettes while skipping Mr. Koenig’s typing class. I never could stand his greasy comb-over or his resenting scowl or his plaid, short-sleeve, button-down shirts or, most especially, his shiny, shiny patent-leather shoes. I dreaded, with all the force of my scornful teenage angst, the way he trolled the rows with his hovering red pen, ready to slash it across my page of typos, his enormous belly pushing against my shoulder as he leaned in to make his mark.

Ewww. No. Not even Elin’s hush money is enough to make me endure the pettiness, the hormones, the mean people and—worse—the stupid people. God, those stupid people. And now they friend-request me on Facebook? Ignore. The irony in this scenario is that I am going back, and I’m not getting paid to do it. That’s right: I’m going to do it all again, gratis! And I’m not just doing high school. I’m doing K through 12.

Because I’m a parent, you see. And this educational do-over is the part of being a parent that nobody ever warns you about. It’s the part I certainly didn’t ponder with any amount of critical thought when I decided to be a mother. I sort of figured you just had to make it until the kid’s 5 and then send her off down the road with her princess backpack and her lunch box and she’d pop out of Harvard at the end.

But I cozied up to Harsh Reality last week as I sat down for kindergarten orientation in the library of my daughter’s new school.

By the time Sam and I filed in to the parents-only event, we were relegated to the child-sized seats at the front of the room. My ass didn’t fit on the chair like it used to, but I had no time to harrumph about this because I was suffering a flashback comparable with those once induced by the LSD I took in my teens. Hmmm…maybe it was me, and not Mr. Koenig, who was the jerk, after all.

The days will be long for my girl, jam-packed with math, reading (independent and aloud), writing (modeled, shared, interactive) and social studies. Granted, despite the endless budget cuts, there is one very generous 20-minute block of each day dedicated entirely to PE, music and art, so it’s not like she won’t have an outlet. Important, too, because when she gets home, she’ll need to focus on the homework.

There will be lots of that apparently—a weekly packet full of it—and You Know Who will be sitting at the dining-room table doing the math, the reading, the writing, the social studies. I started to sweat as I read the information packet, remembering too vividly the many nights of crying over Algebra III equations with my tense and utterly helpless mother next to me. Oh my God, people! What did I get myself into?

I was trying to snap out of my PTSD when I became aware of another thing I hadn’t fully internalized but which became shockingly clear to me that night in the library: Those stupid people from high school? They grew up and became stupid parents. And they were sitting behind me, not raising their hands, blurting out questions willy-nilly, talking over the teachers and other patiently waiting parents.

“But, my little Caeidyn has to eat before the 11:15 snack time. Can he just sit quietly at his desk and eat when he gets hungry?” No. He’ll adapt. “You said that there’s no food allowed on birthdays. But, can I bring cupcakes for little Makynzie?” No. You may bring pencils… “How about popsicles?” Nope. No food. “So, what you’re saying is that Jaelyinn can’t bring cookies for the class on her special day?” Collective gasp.

That was it. “Must we really engage in this line of discussion for 10 minutes?!?” I hissed at the clodpates. “They. Said. No. Food. Is it edible? Yes? Then you can’t bring it! And what the hell kind of name is Jaelyinn, anyway?!?”

It’s been proven (by researchers at MIT, among others) that résumés topped with “black-sounding names” generate fewer job interviews than those bearing names more phonetically pleasing to the Aryan ear. But employers would do well to know that people with creatively spelled WASPy names that include lots of consecutive vowels (unlike mine, of course) tend to be coddled, entitled pricks who will call in sick to work on their first day. Or ask for a nap after their lunch break.

OK, so I didn’t really blow that night in the library. I rolled with it. I took my lumps and a lot of deep breaths. I sat quietly taking notes, since that’s what a good student does. I might have even thrown up a little prayer to the friendship gods asking, Please, I’ll do anything without complaint—even division of fractions!—so long as you don’t let my child become besties with Jaelyinn.

Because that fate might just drive me to black eyeliner and a carton of cloves.

(As published on July 7th in San Diego CityBeat.)

C’mon, Californian’s: Let’s demand better

I ran into the mother of one of Ruby’s little classmates yesterday when I was picking my girl up from school. We’d barely gotten past the daily niceties when she said, “Well, I got my pink slip today.”

She’s a teacher and like previous years, as the state of California faces a never-ending and unfathomable budget crisis, pink slips are distributed mid-way through the school year. This year was even earlier than last. Now she’ll finish her work knowing she doesn’t have a job in the fall, wait to see what budget our deadlocked legislators hammer out and then hope to be rehired next year. This is just one teensy, tinsy corner of the tip of the iceberg-of-a-problem facing the schools in this state. Good things kids aren’t the foundation of our society or anything.

Frosting on the cake

Think about this: The San Diego Unified School District is facing budget cuts somewhere in the $175 million dollar range for the coming year; the state is looking at a $3 to $6.5 billion-with-a-B deficit. (I know, your eyes are glazing. But I’m almost done with big numbers so STICK WITH ME, HERE!) Meanwhile, back at the ranch, certain decision-makers felt it was more important to put $300 million dollars toward digital whiteboards in classrooms of SDUSD schools, than it was to put it toward building repair. Now the teachers—those that are left—need additional training (with all their free time) on how to use the glorified chalk boards. And when a $200 light bulb burns out, the school is asking parents to pony up. It’s that or let the new-fangled technology gather dust and force teachers and students to get by with—gasp!—chalk. How primitive. Almost as primitive as trying to learn in a building with no heat or a leaky roof or which doesn’t have drinking fountains.

I’m not even in the public school system yet and the whole thing is totally demoralizing.

The news on education is bad. It’s bad everywhere but I’m speaking specifically of California. And to highlight just how dire things are, today is a nationwide day of action. My friend, the teacher, and her colleagues—and my daughter, but that’s pretty much a given—are all wearing pink to raise awareness. I’ll probably try to dig up something pink, too. (I’ve seen elsewhere that people are wearing red. Whatever. I think it would be best if people just make sure to wear clothes.) Throughout California, activists are going to be raising awareness about cuts to higher education through a flurry of activities.

Then tomorrow, a group of activists, including the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and other unions, labor leaders, religious leaders and business leaders (yes, business leaders, too!), will begin a 7-week march from Bakersfield to Sacramento. The purpose of this March for California’s Future is to engage people and create a dialogue about the realities facing this state and the dire need to change the course we are currently on. To understand the purpose and goals of this march, please read this short piece. This isn’t just about education. This is about the future of California (hence the name, go figure) and, too, the rest of the nation.

I will be writing about this over the coming weeks, and posting excerpts from an interview I did with Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College and one of the organizers of the March. And I will be hoping that that all this hard work pays off, that my friend has a job in the fall, and that the education system gets better before my child is ready to graduate high school.

Book smart vs. Common Sense

On the heels of the “ghetto-party” drama at the esteemed University of California, San Diego this week—which I will be writing about shortly, believe you me, oh yes I will—my husband’s business partner found a note on the ground, lost by, presumably, one of the University’s fine, over-achieving students. It concerns me how this individual is managing in life and more so, how she/he is going to get through tomorrow without the lost memo.

Hand written in pencil on a postcard-size piece of paper with violins and cats on it (see? Already, I question the functional capacity of this person), is the To Do list:

- 7:10am = Sleep

- 7:40 = Get ready

- 7:45 = Walk to school bus

- 8:00 = Get to class

- 8:50 = Class

- 9:00 = Walk

- 9:50- Class

I mean, where on this list is this person supposed to squeeze in breathing?

I almost have it memorized

Next week is Staff Appreciation week at Ruby’s school and since everything seems to be about Ruby’s school these days, I thought I’d share this gem, sent to me by my friend The Lethal Weapon. You know who you are.