I well remember meeting my friend, Bill Atkinson, for the first time. Seems like just the other day. We were both new teachers in a public school district. I was a brand new teacher, but he was a bit more experienced, having taken the job to get back to his hometown to help his ailing mother. We both had high hopes for the new school year. Young minds to enlighten, young lives to encourage and shape. Facts to teach.
My classes were small, as I had some of the poorest performing students. I had about 15 students in a class. Bill had about 30. It only took a few days of the year to enlighten both of us. In fact, I’d say it only took a few hours.
I’d like to get to the bottom of this right away. At the school, there would be precious little enlightening of students or shaping of young lives, or even facts taught. The students, junior high kids, were out of control from the get go. Fights were common. Many of the kids had been held back so many times due to failure they were already 18 years old. Eighth graders, mind you, who were 18 years old.
The school had a breakfast program in the morning. The kids filed into the auditorium to wait to be dismissed into the cafeteria. They sat with an open seat between each student. Plus, each student had an open seat in front and in back. This was required to minimize fighting. Metal utensils were not used for either breakfast or lunch, so that when the inevitable fight did break out, there was less chance for serious injury.
Quite a few of my students had children of their own. One girl had two children already. That’s right. Eighth graders, mind you, already parents.
How was I expected to teach the basic skills of English to kids who lived in such chaos? I was hopeful; I did my best. I failed. But did I fail, or did the students fail, or did the parents fail, or did the school fail?
I remember the faculty-student basketball game. Here we were, young to middle-aged male teachers in our shorts and t-shirts, up against athletic youngsters entering their physical prime. Our opponents, made of up eighth graders, had no mercy on us. It was my first experience seeing an eighth grader dunk, two handed, and it happened more than once, much to the delight of the student body in attendance.
Sometimes, a student’s lack of common knowledge would lead to humorous, but pitiful situations. I remember one day having my students fill out a form. In the space for the student’s height, the form read, “_______ feet, ________ inches.” One girl piped up, confused, “Why they wanna know how big my feet is?” How to best correct her logic?
One of my students, a boy, wore house slippers. He also wore a bra under his t-shirt, everyday. I never asked him why. I do remember asking him a question related to the subject at hand once, to which he angrily replied, “Boy, I’m gonna knock you upside the head!!” Should I correct his grammar?
Very few of my eighth graders, maybe one or two, could tell time. I tried to explain the big hand and little hand, but they had no patience for it.
I dreaded lunch duty and bus duty the most. My nose was bloodied breaking up one fight during lunch duty. How the onlookers did howl. Eager minds, enjoying the last vestiges of their taxpayer-funded lunches, waiting and hoping for the teacher to go down. I felt like the dog Buck in Call of the Wild, when he battles it out with Spitz and the other dogs circled around, waiting for the loser to go down. Of course, none of those students would ever enjoy a Jack London novel. How could they?
It was expected for male teachers to jump in and break up fights, plain and simple. It’s hard to singlehandedly break up a fight between two 18 year-olds. Grab one guy and the other one is free to pummel. Get in between them and get pummeled by both of them. I remember being on bus duty in the afternoon and being so sick of it all that I went and hid inside my classroom. The next morning, the principal called me in and asked, “Why weren’t you on bus duty yesterday afternoon?” I lied and said that I had grown sick and had made an emergency trip to the bathroom. More than once I considered pulling the fire alarm, just to get the school evacuated so I wouldn’t have class. I mean, I really considered it.
One particularly telling incident occurred when a community member tried to put together a father-son breakfast. With over a hundred boys in attendance, there might have been ten dads who showed. There were no follow up breakfasts.
Twice, we had teachers attacked at the school during the two years I was there. Both were women. Actually, one was attacked and knocked down by a group of students. The other teacher locked herself in her classroom just in time to escape one of her student’s wrath. The principal came to her rescue. He found the boy, almost fully grown, clawing and beating at her door, trying to get in and attack her. I doubt her lesson plans for the day included “self defense for when Johnny comes looking for me.”
The students were polite verbally, usually. I was called “sir” quite often. “Did you do your homework?” “No, sir, Mr. Bach.” “Did you see who stole my lunch from my desk drawer?” No, sir, Mr. Bach.”
The principal even led the student body in the Lord’s Prayer before assemblies. The Lord’s Prayer. Public school. Indeed. Dry crumbs on society’s floor, dropped from an earlier feasting time of cultural décor. “Yes, sir, Mr. Bach! Thank you, Lord! Now I’m gonna go knock somebody out!”
Teachers were allowed to spank the kids. If a youngster acted out sufficiently, that student would get a choice: three swats with a board, or detention. The kids almost always chose the swats because they were quicker than staying after school. I only did it one time. The boy really crossed the line, I don’t remember how, so I gave him his options. He chose to be spanked, and I followed protocol. I went next door to get the teacher to witness. I took him into the hall and had him lean against the wall. I grabbed the board…
I didn’t know how hard to hit him, so I kind of went easy on the first swat. He looked at me as if to query, “Is that all you got?” I answered said query with two swats more in line with what he was accustomed. I remember feeling bad about it afterwards, not because I don’t believe in corporal punishment; I do. However, I am a firm believer that corporal punishment, if correctly applied, leads to acceptable behavior patterns well before eighth grade. Once, I had a student, a known gang member, stare me down, point his finger at me and pull an imaginary trigger. I chose not to spank him.
I hope I did well by those children. I know I tried. I gave it my all, or close to it. I told them they weren’t worthless, which was their default self-assessment, that they were better than they acted. I spoke of truth to them. I taught them English. A little, anyway. The difference between transitive and intransitive verbs probably got lost in the cacophony.
I believe my friend, Bill, paddled a few kids. He was more intimidated by the students than I was. He told me as much. He was a bit older, and he was of somewhat smaller frame. It didn’t help that one of his students was actually awaiting trial for taking part in a murder. I don’t believe he spanked that child.
He was understandably disappointed in what the school had become since he had attended it years before. The building was the same building, yes, but oh how different the school was. He didn’t finish out the year, and I was sorry for it. We both had great intentions. We did. We both dressed for success, including wearing ties. We both dutifully filled out our weekly lesson plans and tried to use our professional preparation as educators to enhance student learning and meet goals and objectives and utilize the resources available to us… and we both dreaded each and every day at that place. Each and every hour.
Those of you familiar with public education might recall Goals 2000. Goals 2000 was a document created and made popular in the 1990’s. It stated, among other things, that by the year 2000 the following would occur…
- All children in America will start school ready to learn.
- United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.
- Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
- All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, the arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation’s modern economy.
Wonderful! Yay, America! Go, public education! Let’s just come up with some worthy goals, and good things will happen!! Reading over the goals, one quickly realizes that not one goal was met. Not one. They are, in fact, pitiful. Laughable. The kids I had back then, the kids my friend had back then, they are now in their late 30’s. The babies those students had back then are now in their early 20’s, some of them undoubtedly with children of their own tearing up the current public school.
Our country is broken. Our society is broken. Does anyone think that rehashing the ideas of Goals 2000 in No Child Left Behind or Common Core will fix anything? Does hopeful planning and reorganizing and reform and continuous school improvement and good intentions do jack squat? Is there a magic fairy that can sprinkle the dust of knowledge over our schools and fix things? Can we shake parents out of complacency? Or, do we shake the parents before them? How far back should the shaking go?
The place of which I speak is a small town in Mississippi. I was there 20 years ago. But I have also taught in Iowa, where I was called a maternal procreator, in so many words, and told to go procreate with myself by one of the stellar students there. Top-notch kid. I’ve since read about his run-ins with law enforcement, now that he has graduated. His diploma is meaningless.
I currently teach in Nebraska. I haven’t run up against the problems I did in Mississippi, but I can’t say as the kids are exactly turning out to be rocket scientists or brain surgeons. There are a few, sure. There always will be. In spite of the public schools. But there could be more. Just today, we had a student in high school write a wonderful letter to the staff at the school stating just where we all could go. It was not a helpful suggestion. What’s wrong with kids these days?
Here, briefly, are a few other examples from public schools, one for each of the past three months, since this school year began…
November, West Philadelphia: “It’s mayhem. Students are in the halls, they’re smoking in the bathroom; cigarettes, marijuana,” said a worker at the school, who asked not to be identified. “We can’t contain them and it’s really hazardous for us working and these kids are not being educated at all… We’re seeing an increase in incidents at this school this year. The good news is we have actually more police staff at this school this year than last year.”
October, Chicago: Police arrested 29 students following a fight at the Percy L. Julian High School in Chicago Tuesday. Police were called to the Washington Heights school shortly after 10 a.m. for what they termed a “major incident.” Several students were seen in handcuffs being led into police vehicles.
September, North Carolina: A fight at a Caswell County school sent four teachers to an area hospital. The incident happened at Bartlett Yancey High School around 8 a.m. Thursday. The school’s assistant superintendent said it happened in the courtyard. He says (sic) a school resource officer and the four teachers jumped in to break up the fight between four students. The school later called the sheriff’s department for backup. “Certainly we regret that any incident occurred but everyone is safe, the grounds are secure and they should feel comfortable that everything has been done and resolved and that learning is taking place here.”
How many teachers, like my friend, Bill, quit early? They desire to do well; they desire to teach. They just can’t put up with it. How many others want to quit early? Honestly, in the privacy of their own homes, if no one was listening, how many would admit they would never go back?
This is not an indictment of public schools. Far too much is asked of them, and unfortunately they put up with it. We don’t want to get up and feed our own children so they can pay attention in class? You do it, public schools. We don’t want to discipline our kids or instill a love for learning? You do it. This is not to blame anybody except us collectively. Look around. Go to your local school and see for yourself the future of our culture. I don’t mean for an afternoon or for some parent-teacher conference staged like a dog and pony show. I mean go in, and stay in, for a few weeks at least. Listen to the kids talk. Visit multiple schools. Then tell me that you have high hopes for America.
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