Fueled by the renewed energy of my summer hiatus, I again entered the revolving door of Teacher Personnel. Somewhere in the Windy City, I was certain a school existed where students were not hostages and the principal knew his teachers by name. From a map studded with pins, each of which indicated a teacher vacancy, I spotted a prime location.
The beckoning pin was almost floating on Lake Michigan, just a hop from Chicago's Gold Coast where privileged kids enjoyed advantages that dwarfed their skyscraper abodes. The Magnificent Mile shopping Mecca beckoned from the east, Rush Street, haunt of hipsters, was a mile south and Lincoln Park, a miniature of New York's Central Park, was a stone's throw north.
"Excellent choice," the personnel advisor said, as I handed her the marker of my promising future. "It's an Educational Vocational Guidance Center. Sign this form; assignments are irrevocable. Good luck!"
A week later I reported for duty at the oldest school in Chicago, a weathered landmark which lent a bit of architectural romance to my vision, and reinforced my belief that I stumbled on a gem of a job. The center of the stone stairs was worn by the pounding of thousands of Buster Browns, and the dings and dents in the vintage hardwood floors added to the charm. The main office had old-time, school-house pendant light fixtures suspended over a shiny mahogany counter where employees signed in; a note next to the sign-in sheet announced that there were coffee and rolls in the teachers' lounge and a staff meeting was scheduled at ten.
Over a donut I met my fellow provisional teachers, both men new to the system. The first had graduated Princeton, and looked the part right down to his penny loafers. The other had just completed his doctorate at the Chicago Theological Seminary, and was awaiting ordination.
"The woman in Personnel gave this place a rave review," said the Doctor.
"Yeah, she said it was a great choice," said the Princetonian, dusting powdered sugar off his silk, Ivy-league tie, "but I noticed a lot of vacancies."
A man eavesdropping commented, "I don't suppose one of you brain surgeons thought to ask why there were so many empty slots? Trust me; you won't make it through the year."
"How long have you been here?" asked the minister.
"Fifteen years, but there aren't too many job openings for alcoholics. Don't ever light a match near me." His buddy guffawed. "Like you could pass a breathalyzer," Mr. Doomsday snapped, but he was cut short by the arrival of a man who asked that new teachers come to his office.
"My name is Mr. Sharp. Elijah Sharp. I'm the assistant principal. So what do you want to teach? You're on provisional certificates with no teaching credentials so you can teach anything."
"A college degree with no teacher training qualifies one to teach in all subject areas?" Dr. Divinity asked.
"Yep, pick whatever you want, we need everything. One of you guys want Math? I know women are no good at numbers."
"I'll teach Math," Princeton volunteered.
"Good. Room 204." He turned to Divinity, "You look like a scientist. Room 208. And you, Baby, Language Arts, 301. Now for policy. I'm in charge of discipline. If a kid is causing big trouble, send him down with a note; our intercom is busted. Don't send somebody down for petty nonsense, I'll send him right back."
"What's considered petty nonsense?" Divinity asked.
"Cursing, fighting, threats, pranks, refusing to work--you get paid to be in charge of your classroom."
"What constitutes a serious issue?" asked Princeton.
"Weapons. And only if you see one. If they say something like, 'I'm gonna blow your head off,' ignore it. They talk tough. But if you actually see a knife or gun, send down a note," he said. "And no smoking, but again make sure you actually see the kid with reefer. Sometimes the smell comes from 311 where the street people hang. Keep classroom windows locked. We had a kid who was pushed or fell depending on whose story you buy, from the second story last year. He lived, but he's pretty messed up. Any questions? If not, staff meeting at 10."
An attractive, forty-something woman sat down next to us as we waited for the staff meeting to begin. "Hi, I'm Renee Cross, the librarian," she said. "You must be the new teachers." I didn't know what signaled that we were newbies--Princeton's eye twitch, Divinity's knuckle-cracking or my hair-twirling.
At 10, there were only six of us in the lounge, and two were custodians scarfing down the last of the coffee cake.
The principal entered and launched into a Welcome to the Family speech. "Yeah, the Addams Family," a late arrival shouted as he headed to the buffet. "Hey, who ate all the eclairs?"
"Probably fat ass Fred. Pat him down," Doomsday ordered. Two men lifted one of the custodians out of his chair, and began rifling his pants pockets.
"Hey, I found a Long John," yelled a poster child for decaf. "Oops, this isn't a sweet roll, but I'll bet his girlfriend thinks it's one."
The Principal droned on to the finale. "And, in the words of Dr. Seuss, 'Unless someone like you cares a lot, nothing will get better.' Now go get 'em."
Princeton's blinking was now a full-fledged tic. Dr. Divinity's clenched jaw suggested he needed to find a parsonage ASAP.
"Don't let those antics bother you," Renee said. "Some teachers behave worse than the students. We'll go to the Bowl & Roll for lunch, and I'll give you the scoop."
"Nice perk, being surrounded by good restaurants."
"Not exactly surrounded, Cabrini-Green is two blocks thataway," she pointed.
"The housing projects?"
"There's only one Cabrini-Green, the greatest failed social experiment in history, and we get the student casualties from the project's schools--fourteen year-olds reading below third grade," she said. "But things get tricky because Chicago principals get paid by the head; they don't want their numbers to go down so they transfer kids to us only when their behavior is totally off the wall."
Just then the Dr. Seuss enthusiast bellowed from his office, "Move it, folks, I expect appropriate bulletin boards by 3 o'clock!"
"Renee, what's with appropriate?"
"Last year the Shop teachers jig-sawed a life-sized nude and painted WELCOME BACK on a fig leaf."
A woman, with what looked to be an active blonde beehive, was unlocking 304. "Hi," I said, "I'm the new Language Arts teacher."
"I'm the music teacher. Good to have company up here, half the rooms are empty, and no one except the kids and derelicts ever come up to the third floor."
"Addicts, gangbangers--they hang out in 311. The room can't be locked because of the fire escape so all of the dregs in the neighborhood congregate there. Steer clear," she warned. "Can't talk now. I have to see if I got any of the instruments I ordered. There aren't many musical arrangements for kazoos."
"Yes, our trumpets were stolen, the piano has no pedals, the guitar has no strings. Mostly we watch videos--Sound of Music, My Fair Lady."
I decided to check out the 311 halfway house before the squatters commandeered the area.
"You haven't been assigned to 311, have you?" a man, in a Mr. Rogers' cardigan, inquired as I exited the room.
"Oh, no, just checking things out."
"Well, take a peek, then skedaddle. The room gets packed when it's cold out; you can get high just walking down the hall. By the way, I'm Louis Picaro, the art teacher. Everyone calls me Picasso. If you need anything, I'm in room 309."
"As a matter of fact, I do need bulletin board materials."
"Well, someone ripped off my art supplies, but I'll share what's left. Use newspaper for background and it'll be good through Christmas. Staple up paper plates, and tomorrow they'll draw their faces and print their names underneath, that way they get to know each other. In October, have them draw their faces on jack-o-lanterns..."
"You're kidding? Pumpkins?"
"Pumpkins, and in November, a giant turkey--they write what they're thankful for on the tail feathers."
The turkey-feather gratitude list was the last straw. I backed away to find Renee.
"I met Picasso and Beehive," I said. "Beehive told me about thieves and addicts and kazoos and squatters. Picasso gave me bizarre bulletin board tips."
As we walked to the restaurant, I asked her why she was teaching at the Center.
"Without getting too kumbaya on you, let's just say I believe in giving back."
"I understand trying to make a difference, Renee, but swim in a toxic pool, and you gulp poison."
"Sure, some teachers get warped, but there are good ones too, and a lot of nice kids. Chicken or egg? Politics, incompetence, social conditions, it's all in the water, but we can't just give up."
I liked Renee; she'd been around the block, but she didn't seem jaded.
"Okay, I'll try to swim with a snorkel," I said, "but I need the Cliff Notes on how this place operates."
By the time we left the Bowl & Roll, I was cycling between concern and curiosity, and running into Mr. Sharp upon our return magnified both.
"Hey, Baby, forgot to mention, no one enters the building before 8:30--safety issues, and staff vacates at 3:15 sharp; NEVER linger after school."
"But what if a student needs extra help or I have to hold a parent conference?"
He looked at me as though I'd said but what if I have to convene a NATO Summit?
"Girl, kick off those red slippers, and buy you some combat boots. You're on a different planet now."