The Defender (a throwback piece)

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I wrote the first version of this in April 2014 in Tim Wendel‘s Nonfiction Workshop. I don’t really have a reason to pull it out right now other than it has been rejected from some publications, so why not post it on my own publication?

Also, it’s almost time for Back to School. Here’s to all my teacher-friends! You make the world go ’round. 

 

The Defender

I have a recurring fantasy. No rose petals or white candles, no marathon win or gold medal. No. My fantasy is one in which I get respect.

This dream starts with a real memory. I am at a wedding reception, one that I attended in August 2013. In a recycled bridesmaid dress, I’m in a money-themed Boston hotel, a former Federal Reserve. Colossal reproductions of American currency cover the walls. Grover Cleveland on an old one hundred dollar bill, Hamilton on the ten, Grant on a seventy-five—who knew? Chandeliers the size of Ferraris float above our heads. And I just take it all in.

These are my boyfriend Chas’s people. Someone related to the groom owns the Phoenix Suns. These are not my people. Someone asks if I am wearing a J. Crew bridesmaid dress from last season. I’ve been discovered and I am on edge.

Chas returns from the men’s room and tells me about a man he overheard. The man had been spouting off to a friend during urination. About teachers.

Chas recounts the conversation for me at our table—overpaid, underworked, lazy, freeloading, whiny. Demanding, but not deserving. I beg Chas to show me this guy. Just tell me where he’s sitting, what he looks like. In my fantasy, not as he did last year, Chas points him out.

Here is that fantasy. As I suspected, he is tall and attractive in my imagination. I find him near the coffee. He’s a softer version of Clint Eastwood. I tell him I’d like to speak with him. His smile wrinkles all collapse toward his nose.

“I’d like to discuss something with you,” I say, in my seventh-period-on-a-Tuesday-voice. One hand on my hip, the other gripping a beer of the common folk—Coors Light or Bud—I tell him about teachers.

And I let him have it, “I heard you have a thing or two to say about my job. Well let me tell you, Ca-linttt. I work sixty hours a week, but I’m paid for thirty-five. I work weekends, holidays, snow days, late nights, early mornings. Most weeks I work seven days. I’ve had seven hundred and fifty people walk in and out of my doors in five years and each one left with something. I give out confidence and knowledge. I hug with my words and counsel with just a look. Literature dances on my tongue. In a given day, I am fourteen different people for one hundred and forty different children. I produce progress. I make learning fun. You had teachers once. Look at you now! Owning the Phoenix Suns and shit. You want to talk about teachers?”

For some reason in the past year, this reverie has crept its way into my brain. I get to be the Defender of Educators. Teaching for me has become an identity, a persona, a comforting cloak, a crusade. In the deepest depths of my heart, though, I am starting to truly hate it. 

***

I was newly twenty-two when I walked into Homeroom 29. I was their sixth teacher in as many months. After four and a half years of college and five months of internships, I would take my rightful place in front of the class. No, I’d take my place throughout the classroom, because truly good teachers don’t teach from the front.

I would save the world, and I’d start by coming prepared. They didn’t have a classroom for me. Instead, I worked from a cart and taught in four different hallways. If two shelves and four wheels would be my “room” then, by God, I’d decorate those shelves and wheels. On day one, I brought all the writing utensils Staples offered and in every color they had, none as bright as my fluorescent optimism.

Through the education grapevine, I had heard my new school was tough. Behavior issues, academic deficits. Low socioeconomic status, a high free-and-reduced-meals population. Tough was just what I was looking for, to be needed, to be in a place where I could affect change. I’d reverse the odds for my students. Yes, their lives would be better, and they’d always remember Ms. Doran from seventh grade Language Arts.

Colleagues and administrators alike cheekily told me to start by burning sage to ward off the evil spirits. A state Teacher of the Year had walked out forever the morning before I walked in. One of my classrooms was nicknamed “The Vortex of Death” because of how many teachers had disappeared from that room. I asked kindly to move that class around the corner.

“Don’t let students work in groups,” they said. It was January. The months of anarchy and abandonment by five other teachers meant these kids could only handle deskwork. Make them packets of deskwork. Desk. Work.

Use stickers when you grade. Be tough but be gentle. Show them you’re going to stay. Assign detentions. Call home. Send “Good News from School” postcards. Learn their names—fast. Differentiate between the six girls named Destiny, the eight with the last name Johnson. Be consistent. Routine is important but vary when possible. See them as individuals but ensure equal treatment. Tell parents when the kids act up. Tell parents when the kids succeed. Remember your own needs. But eat your lunch fast. Allow yourself to care, but don’t, please no, don’t ever let them see you cry.

During my first week, from inside the faculty bathroom, I overheard a conversation between two of my new colleagues talking in the hallway. “She looks so young,” I heard while lathering up the public school soap. “You think she can do it?”

“There’s no way…” I opened the door to face the faithless. The complete sentence would have been something like, “There’s no way she’ll last.”

That week, someone put a Snickers bar and school T-shirt in my mailbox along with a note that read, “Your staff is completely behind you, Amanda.”

After both events, I went into the closet that they called my office and closed the door. I didn’t let them see me cry. The best part about your first year is that you never have to do it again.

My fifth period class looked like the opening scene from a movie stereotype about teaching. I was Michelle Pfeiffer shaking in my heels in Dangerous Minds. Paper balls sailed. Students walked around at will, danced if the mood struck, smacked one another for fun. Pants hung low, skirts rode high. They were wordsmiths though. “Fuck” and “bitch” were carved into multiple desks. Pens and pencils, who needs ‘em? And my voice was a lost detail.

I looked for opportunities to reward students. The first positive phone call I made regarded a boy named Dilon because, in the midst of the madness, there he sat. His face was serious, eyes bright, and concentration unfaltering. He was one of four kids who actually completed the work I assigned that first day. He wrote his name on his paper, included the date; he even handed it in. And he smiled at me. I rushed back to my closet to call his mother. I told her that Dilon was studious, respectful, a model for his peers.

“Oh, thank you so much for calling,” his mom said.

“Please congratulate him for his efforts,” I said in the oldest version of my voice.

“I sure ‘nough will,” she said.

Dilon became my fifth-period-ally. He’d pass out papers as though everyone would actually do something productive with them. He’d sit back down and complete whatever I planned for the day. He didn’t carve expletives into his desk.

Months passed. Some of the other kids started to sit down. Eventually though, Dilon’s mom couldn’t afford his medication any longer. So just as other kids were starting to realize I was serious, he became a baggy-panted, screaming, paper-ball-thrower. I suspect he wrote “shit” somewhere on my desk to add to the quilted array of “fucks” and “bitches.” I somehow survived the rest of that year. Dilon didn’t get any more positive calls home.

About a year later I saw him in the hallway. He was wearing shorts, bending over the water fountain. As I approached to tell him that he’d gotten taller, I noticed an ankle monitor around his leg. I froze. Then, I went back to my classroom and shut the door. I had lost track of him. The police had not.

Optimism dies an ugly death.

***

Gifted and talented classes came with their own headaches. On the verge of tenure during year three, I met with a parent one day after school. She wasn’t specific about why she wanted to meet. I had gained some confidence with parents, so I didn’t ask.

Mrs. Z wore a shiny green coat and a smile. I pulled up two student chairs, tennis balls on the feet, and sat, ready to talk about her son’s performance in Language Arts. She spoke first.

“You cannot grade,” she said in a thick Russian accent. “If you cannot grade, you cannot teach.” 

“Excuse me?”

“You are ruining their confidence,” she said, pulling out two of her son’s recent assignments.

I spend between six and eight hours every Sunday grading papers. I neglect my family. I shoo my boyfriend. I don’t hear Gram and Mom sing in the choir. No, I grade papers. Many times I find papers I’d poured over stuffed in the trash. My comments, numbers, notes, and “great thoughts here!” don’t even find their way into the recycling.

Mrs. Z placed the assignments on a desk and there was my cursive. Large lettering and suggestions for improvement were scrawled all over. I breathed in deeply and blinked to suppress what was coming. I met her tarantula-leg eyelashes and asked her what she was expecting out of her son’s grades.

“You are too harsh,” she said. “They are only in sixth grade.”

“I know what grade they’re in, ma’am. This is a gifted and talented class.” 

She continued with “your lack of compassion,” your unnecessary strictness, your flawed grade scale, your inexperience, your inability to listen, your, your, your. By the middle of this tirade I could not hold back my tears, which had been welling since her first comment. She kept going, pointing over and over to where I had written three out of five points. I began to sob. She continued her chorus of insults as I stood up to get a tissue. Mascara had bled onto my cheeks.

I didn’t tell her that her son’s class had thirty-five students and, when they added a thirty-sixth a few weeks ago, I had to search the school during lunch to find an extra deskforegoing my sandwich. The desk had writing all over it and gum all under it. I didn’t whine that I was working my ass off keeping all of them engaged. That I found ways to integrate technology, to encourage them to work collaboratively, to make their learning meaningful. I just cried.

Eventually, she must have felt satisfied and left. I’m not sure how I got her to go, but I was still crying for an hour after she’d gone. Alone in my room and trying to catch my breath, I checked her son’s overall grade. He had a B+. Never schedule a meeting without knowing the reason.

***

The first time a fight broke out in my classroom there were no warning signs. I was helping a student in the front row complete her work. I heard something strange, looked up. Two boys in the back of the room had become frothing monsters. To this day, the fights sicken me. The children watching the brawls become ugly versions of themselves, cheering and gleaming.

This time it was was Ronnie versus Deonte. I sprinted the four steps to the back of the room. For me, the next twenty seconds on that linoleum, under those fluorescents, felt endless.

Ronnie’s mother was a drug addict. I’d spoken to her on the phone, and each time it seemed as if she’d taken a hit of something hard just before answering. “I’m really concerned about his grades. He just doesn’t seem to care at all.”

“Ohhhhh. Really? I’ll sp sp speak with him. What’s your name again?”

“Ms. Doran. I’m Ron’s Language Arts teacher.”

“What class is this?”

“It’s Language Arts, ma’am. I am Ms. Doran.”

“I appurciate you carin’ about Ron. Thank yaaa for callin’.” She hung up. No change in Ronnie.

Deonte was quiet. His foster mother was a small, fiery Indian woman. We’d met before. She told me she’d already “given up” Deonte’s brother who was one year older. I later found out that “given up” meant she sent him back to the placement agency. She told me she would give up Deonte too if he kept skipping homework. I reminded her that he was a nice kid who cared about school. “Yes, yes,” she said, “but the homework.”

I reached the warring students and stopped for a split second. It was like waiting to join Double Dutch—the second jump rope always gets in the way. The second jump rope was Ronnie. Arms flew, punches landed and missed, hands ravaged shirts, faces contorted. Most of the class had sprung out of chairs and formed a circle around the boys and, now, me. The three or four pacifists who remained seated weren’t interested in risking their safety for a tussle between two featherweights.

In contrast, the circle of twenty-five was grateful for the show. Most grinned as they mosh-pitted closer and closer to the boys who had now stumbled to the ground in a tangle. Now Ronnie was winning. He threw his final fist while on top of Deonte.

I wrapped my arms around Deonte’s sinewy middle, which was about the size of a jug of apple juice. Another student bear-hugged Ronnie. And we both pulled. One school rule is that teachers are not actually supposed to intervene physically in fights. So I also yelled, “STOP,” in a loop. My one official duty. It wasn’t enough, and they swung and pulled as two other rational people tried to calm them down. When Deonte realized it was me holding him back he started to relent. We backed away together. The boy who had grabbed Ronnie was saying, “It’s not worth it, man. Let it go. Let it go.”

Later, when the boys had both settled on clenching their little fists at their sides and breathing through their noses like horses—attempts to seem tough—the principal came to my aid. To her surprise, having dealt with countless fights in a decades-long career, I was crying. Crying because they were no longer fighting, crying because they did fight, crying because I cared about them. Crying. I don’t remember what she said to me in that moment when she saw my pink, moist face, but I know that when she touched my shoulder gently, her look was one of: “Honey, I’m sorry I brought you into this.”

She took the boys and within fifteen minutes my class sat back down, and I tried to keep going with the lesson. My heart still fluttered. I couldn’t eat that day. A week later they were both back in class, peacefully sitting a few rows away from each other. At least there was no permanent damage.

Sometimes you have to break the rules.

***

A few months ago, in third period, I again heard something I hear all the time. “I hate reading.” This time the words sprung, proudly, from the mouth of one of my best students, Abbey. She was holding court with a group of kids who did not have As.

“I’ve never finished an entire book,” she said, like they all say. I walked up and started in on my doctrine about reading being essential to life. I share books from my own library all the time, but the student often loses it or puts it back without me looking, the spine untouched, pages unread. In this moment though, I thought of something and retrieved The Fault in Our Stars by John Green from my own bag. I was fresh from this cathartic story about two sixteen-year-olds dying of cancer and falling in love. The characters speak like adults and feel like witty friends. Its cynicism, sorrow, and raciness totally matched Abbey. I pulled it from my bag and handed it to her. “Take it home. If you can’t finish this book, I will leave you alone,” I said. It was Friday. The following Tuesday Abbey came to my room, handed me the book back, and said, “You win.” 

What if books kids wanted to read were part of the mandatory curriculum?

***

By the end of my first year they called me the Doranator simply because I stuck it out. Since then, I’ve broken up countless fights, staved off angry parents alone, mentored children of drug addicts without calling home. I can monitor a hallway full of hundreds of hormonal middle schoolers with the best of them and deliver an impromptu speech about effort and diligence. After a recent snap speech a boy in my class told me I sounded like a poet and said, “Ya know what? I’m actually gonna do my homework tonight, Ms. Doran.”

Five years in, I’ve proven myself to my colleagues. They even give me the kids other teachers can’t control. I have taught five interns, directed two school plays, produced four literary magazines, written my own course proposal, and won Teacher of the Year at my school. And yes, I am proud.

But five years into this career, I receive acupuncture and talk therapy. Anxiety haunts me like a jittery specter. Even when I feel okay, I’m just a bad day away from rounds of harsh self-criticism and obsessive self-doubt. My perfectionism is a sickness. I lose sleep over small nothings. I get angry at work. I will obsess over one negative comment from a peer for a week. I have nightmares about being late, though I’m usually the third teacher to arrive in the morning. I get home from a long day, and I keep working even if mine was the last car in the parking lot. I furiously pick at the skin around my nails. I forgo all those dates and dinners out in favor of grading reams and reams of papers. And of all of this, I am sick.

So you know what, Clint-wannabee? There’s a lot of fun in teaching. But there’s self-sacrifice too. If you think we’re all freeloading, lazy do-nothings, know that many aren’t that way. The level of optimism required to teach isn’t even sustainable. The mountain of forces against us is mostly to blame: the testing, the class sizes, the lack of parental assistance, people like you, ubiquitous violence in our world, people like you, fickle administrative support, tough curriculum, unrealistic standards, and inconsistency between teachers, schools, counties, and states, and especially people like you.

Still many of us, we just blame ourselves in the end. That’s why it’s hard to get good teachers to stay—myself included. We can’t help but pine for the nine-to-five-world. So if you want to denigrate an entire profession while you’re peeing at a wedding, maybe you should thank your teachers that you can put a sentence together while drunk.

Deep down, teachers know the thin line between love and hate. And I’ve learned that five years in, I’m too often on the wrong side of it.

Gram and Amanda

Please keep our girl Gram in your prayers and/or nondenomenantional thoughts. (Look at that crazy uncle who snuck in there for appearance #2!)

3 thoughts on “The Defender (a throwback piece)

  1. Amanda, have you reread this blog lately? It leaves little wonder to why you think you are crazy. You have lived a lifetime of stressful, ‘crazy’ situations acting as teacher, mediator, instructor, mother, guidance councilor, in 5 short years. Too many hats for someone fresh from school. I am happy you stuck with it. I hope that you have another opportunity to meet with the likes of “Mr Phoenix Suns” and can really give it to him!!

    Like

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