The two ten year old girls raced in, an hour late for school. Wendy, the brains of the outfit, signaled she was going to launch into the latest episode of "How the World Turns in the Projects." Janell, from her perfect little rosebud lips to her parakeet ankles, exuded a don't mess with me attitude.
"Miss S, don't expect me and Janell to do no work today. We was trick-or-treating 'til twelve o'clock last night."
"Twelve o'clock? You were out 'til midnight trick-or-treating?"
"Uh-huh, we was out from after school and was jus' finishin' up when some Kings ripped us off. Tell her, Janell. Our pillowcases was filled to the top and they just grabbed 'em and took off."
"Wendy ain't lyin', Miss S, them bastards got it all 'cept the fuckin' Skittles we was eatin' an' it was pass ten o'clock," Janell testified.
"So you went home without candy?"
"No candy?" Wendy flashed the same you-are-so-stupid look she'd bestowed on me when I told her that third-graders shouldn't wear lipstick. "We got us some garbage bags, Miss S, and started all over again."
"Go to your seats, we're on page forty-seven."
Go-to-your-seats? Two ten-year old girls had been out on the street past midnight, and I was beyond shock.
To a kid from Catholic school, public schools sounded like mysterious gulags. The nuns' favorite threat, "If you don't behave, you'll be sent to public school..." made an impression that went unchallenged until I went off to the University of Illinois and saw firsthand that the parochial system didn't have the corner on education. So when I heard of a special Chicago Board of Education program designed to address a desperate teacher shortage, I applied. While contemplating what to do with my life, I figured I could try to provide kids with a trampoline to a better future.
I agreed to take twelve hours of education classes in night school and, on the spot, received a provisional teaching certificate. Few "provisionals" were there because it was their dream job. The men wanted the Viet Nam draft exemption; the females had visions of LBJ's Great Society and summers off. I joined the ranks because my father had declared that I'd storm Broadway with my Theatre degree over his dead body, and I needed time to determine how I was going to maneuver around the corpse.
We were an odd lot from big cities and small towns—twenty-somethings who hadn’t a clue that we were the "ye" Dante meant when he wrote Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
A week long in-service, paid for by Great Society dollars, qualified us to teach. We got the CliffsNotes version of The Psychology of the Inner-City Child, role-played parent-teacher conferences, signed mountains of forms, and had a "you've got a pulse/blood pressure normal" physical.
The last afternoon we were given sensitivity training by a dashiki-clad Reverend who raged about nobody wanting goddamned stupid honkies teaching Black kids. "The best White teacher," he declared, "will never compare to the worst Black Teacher!" Some of us were a bit taken aback by his diatribe, but many of the Ivory recruits admired "...his honesty for telling it like it is." I thought the Brother had it partly right, without a doubt, many honkies were stupid.
The Reverend needn't have worried about me invading his no-fly zone. In Chicago, zip codes pretty much determine race, and my assignment's zip was smack in the middle of Latin King turf with a few residents tossed into the mix who’d have belonged to the Klan if they hadn’t left Dixie.
In the gangbangers' stomping grounds, I learned what made for a successful provisional teacher. Showing up for work qualified dead men walking as SATISFACTORY. Those who prevented the children from killing each other were labeled GOOD and those who did both were deemed EXCELLENT. If you were a male gym teacher, you were EXCELLENT PLUS.
NO GYM CLASSES TODAY scribbled on the teachers' sign-in sheet was all it took to put Coach in charge of the building while the principal ran off to a Cubs game. Bonding over sports and tales of frat escapades, plus the on-the-job training, guaranteed a man, whose IQ was equal to the final score of a Bears game, a slot on the executive roster. It was no wonder that administrators, who evaluated struggling teachers, were often more incompetent than their quarry. Long before William Bennett, then Secretary of Education, labeled the CPS “…the worst school system in the country,” pathetic administrators and pitiful teachers were diligently laboring to earn the title.
In fairness, though, they did not destroy public education on their own.
In the 50's, Chicago had the largest parochial school system in the country supported by the city's huge Catholic population which formed a monolithic voting bloc. Since these voters neither used nor cared about the public schools, the Chicago machine decided that the system, a huge drain on the city's coffers, was expendable. The politicians did not intend to eliminate public education, they just didn't want to fund it. There was no grand exit strategy, the powers that be just walked away. And no one blinked. Decades before George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act became law, Chicago implemented the Throw Public School Kids Under the Bus Initiative.
The system never recovered.
Now we provisional teachers, unqualified, untrained and unprepared, were being foisted on an operation that had long been tottering on the edge of a cliff.
The assistant principal assigned classrooms—girls to the lower grades, men to the Upper Grade Center. I was given a "kindofa third/fourth grade class," by Mr. Second-in-Command who, no doubt, yearned for the day when he could play dead in the principal's chair. But he'd have a tough act to follow.
The day after Martin Luther King was killed, Chicago’s Westside went up in flames. No teacher was to leave early, the principal dictated, but with the action less than three miles away, tension was high. After lunch, when the melee was revving up to a full-blown disaster, but before Mayor Daley's infamous "shoot to kill" order, Captain Courageous chose to jump ship and had Coach drive him home. Unfortunately, Coach drove his convertible straight into the conflagration, where the angry mob tore into the canvas top. Coach was unable to shield our fearless leader from the unruly crowd. The following day word of the incident provided the silver lining in the catastrophic cloud.
But on my first day, I was not privy to the history of dysfunction. I had to hit the ground running which meant inhaling the Chicago Public Schools’ curriculum du jour known as Continuous Progress. I was baffled by the concept; in a school setting I assumed continuous progress was a given. I wondered if Stalled Progress and Intermittent Progress had been tried and found wanting.
Continuous Progress was based on a “spiral concept.” If a child failed to grasp short vowels, for instance, the teacher proceeded to the next concept. The unlearned material would be repeated somewhere up the spiral as the spiral continued spiraling. I'd yet to take a methods course, but the idea sounded like teaching a student to merge in traffic when he couldn’t get the hang of starting the car.
The primary grades were organized in divisions of P1, P2, P3 and PZ. PZ stood for Primary Zero, code for third-graders who could not function in fourth. To protect their self-esteem, PZ was invented.
"So you're the new PZ rookie," the man said when I answered his knock. “Good luck with those morons tomorrow.”
"Yeah, I taught your kids last year. Well, I didn't actually teach them because they're incapable of learning. I tried for months to get them to add, and then finally I thought screw it and moved on to borrowing.”
"How did you teach borrowing if they couldn't add?"
"Well, I didn't teach borrowing because they couldn't get the hang of that either. They were hung up on place value so I just dropped math and concentrated on science."
"You just ignored math?" I asked, thinking he was pulling the newbie's leg.
"Yeah, Continuous Progress is great. If you get sick of teaching the idiots the same thing day after day, you just move on to something else. The fucking curriculum spirals."
"John Dewey would've put a gun to his head if he'd ever heard of Continuous Spiraling," I said.
"Speaking of guns, did I tell you I was a cop?"
"A cop? I thought you taught my kids last year."
"Well, I'm a cop too. During the day I teach, and at night I'm a Chicago cop."
"You cannot be serious."
"No, for real. I work the night shift for the CPD."
“You must be exhausted, teaching and holding down a second full-time job with so much stress."
“Nah, I just hide my squad under a viaduct and catch some z’s and, when I teach, I mostly sit. Gets a little tricky during tax season 'cause I do taxes too."
"You're quite the Renaissance man," I marveled. "How do you handle discipline? Pull out your gun when the kids act up?"
"Believe me, I felt like it sometime. These kids are wackos," he said. "I’ll give you a tip. If a boy acts up just make him wear a babushka, and stand in front of the class the rest of the day. Works like a charm. A little embarrassment, and they shape up,” he bragged. “Except for one kid, Ricardo—he really loves babushkas. He wants to wear lipstick too. I think he’s a fag—watch out for him. I called his mother in for a conference once, and she said he was the only one of her ten kids born with a veil over his head, and that's good luck. Tip number two--do not call parents--they're crazier than their fucking kids."
While the teacher/cop/tax man blabbered on, I fixated on a Thomas Jefferson quote on the wall behind him that said something like education is the antidote to the disease of ignorance. I wondered if the Renaissance man had come into teaching with a pre-existing condition or if he'd gotten infected on the job.
"Call me if you need anything," he said, "I'm the go-to guy around here when Coach and the principal run to Sportsman's to play the ponies."
"I'll count on you," I lied, closing the door. "Hey, by the way, what was your college major?"
"Phys Ed," he said, "I wanted to work for the Park District but teaching paid better."
I returned to reading the cumulative cards of my PZ students--thirty boys and eight girls, between the ages of nine and twelve. I expected to find scribbled notes about Eduardo's allergy to strawberries or Brenda Jean's routine tardiness, but the anecdotal comments, left by previous teachers, noted truancy, multiple school transfers, juvenile detention and incarcerated parents, trifling issues that indicated I just might be in over my head. That flash of insight was replaced by the scarier thought of the imminent influx of my PZ'ers. From the get-go, they needed to know that our classroom was open for business, they needed to think that I knew what I was doing.
I went to the Resource Room to find desks, textbooks, a blackboard and chalk.
“Materials?” asked the assistant principal. “Like what? Like what kind of materials?” He acted as if I’d requested chainsaws.
"Textbooks would be great," I said.
“Scrounge some second and third grade readers—they didn’t understand the books the first time around."
“I don’t even know where to start scrounging. I’m short thirteen desks.”
“Desks you need,” he conceded. “The kids have to sit somewhere, but you don’t need thirty-eight—absenteeism is high. I’ll send a few up later; I’m swamped right now. Downtown sent only half of our book order."
“Please could you maybe send up a blackboard and some chalk?”
"Do you think this is U of C’s Lab School? You have the dogs; just make sure they don’t get out of the kennel.” Noticing my shock, he changed his tone. “Look, I’m snowed under right now, but I think I have some geography books that I could send up when I get a chance. Use them until we get some readers.”
Just then the music teacher barged in. “Someone ripped out the keys on my piano. How am I supposed to teach music?”
“Use a flute,” the boss responded.
I staggered out of the Resource Room. An ancient busybody, who’d been looking for dictionaries with no success, followed me. “You new teachers kill me. In my day you made do with what you were given. When I didn’t have history books, I taught with puppets." She headed to the teachers’ lounge for a cigarette.
No readers, or blackboard, a piano without keys, puppets, PZ, spirals—by the end of the day, I figured the conscientious objectors turned teachers would regret burning their draft cards.
The next day school started more or less at nine o'clock though many students adhered to arrive-when-you-feel-like-it. It was not hard to identify the babushka brigade, amazing that Renaissance man got by with only one headscarf. By lunchtime it was obvious that the few students who wanted to learn had come to the wrong place. For the most part, the girls were passive, the boys' speedometers were set between leave me alone and watch out.
Often I wondered why I stayed. I wasn't earmarked for Saigon so I could have hit the door.
Maybe I stayed because I knew these kids could be subjected to much worse. After all, I was literate, drug-free, emotionally stable and I didn't inflict cruel and unusual punishment.
Maybe I stayed because I'd become attached to the kids. I respected eleven-year olds who fed breakfast to their siblings because mom was sleeping off a bender, students who missed school because they had to baby-sit and wrote their own notes claiming they were absent due to amonya. I had a soft spot for eleven year olds who read at the first grade level, for kids who were ten going on thirty. I was taken by boys who replaced lost textbooks with stolen library books figuring a book is a book, and besides, who cares? My heart went out to kids who trudged to school on snowy February days wearing gym shoes without socks.
And I adored spunky little girls who trick-or-treated 'til midnight.
I stayed, but for only the year.