It has been 20 years since I began teaching high school in South Los Angeles. Twenty years of the noise, the grit of unwashed old classrooms, the darkness of windowless half-lit buildings, 20 years of gun-shots, lock-downs, helicopters hovering above while we fight battles on behalf of ill-prepared students whose motivation has been beaten down by an indifferent school district and city.
It has been a wonderful 20 years.
And I hope I can do this for 20 more — but the truth is that I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it this far without a few colleagues who have lightened me up when I needed it, who’ve helped me keep my perspective on things when I started to lose it.
And without those colleagues it is going to be a lot harder.
Yes, I love the students I teach and am committed to helping them and sometimes that is enough to keep going through the tough times. But teaching is work that isolates us from our peers. Sometimes we have to make the most of those few moments looking across a hallway or a breezeway or sitting around a battered lunch table and commiserating with another teacher.
I had some rough years in the late 1990s, when my life outside of school was in flux, and a colleague I’ll call CC (his initials) helped get me though.
He saved me with his sense of humor. With his appreciation of irony. And the joy with which he helped students, pushed them to be better, and laughed at their goofiness which was always just beneath the tough veneer they wore through the mean streets of their neighborhoods. He taught me that the greatest defense against burnout was to appreciate the goofiness, the anger, the craziness of teenagers at their worst — even as we were trying to contend with it — a way to make the most challenging moments the most fun and rewarding moments. Sometimes that is the very thing that can save a student — being appreciated for being childish just enough to make the child want to grow up.
I’m not sure I would still be teaching today if not for CC. Unfortunately, CC is no longer teaching — and that really sucks. He got sick with MDS in the spring of 2006. He taught until he couldn’t do it anymore. His wife had to drive him to work and give him his meds and monitor his vitals — but he refused to stay home. He wore a mask because his immune system had become so fragile — when he shouldn’t have been anywhere near our toxic campus wedged between an eight-lane interstate and a construction site with dirt and soot flying in all directions.
He passed away that summer.
I still miss him. I still find myself telling some of his jokes — and remain forever influenced by his outrageous sense of humor and his sensibility and his humanity.
I have tried to pass on that sensibility and that humanity and to share the humor with my students and with my colleagues, especially new teachers as they struggle to survive their first years in the classroom. As a mentor teacher I find that the sensibility and the humanity and the humor are as important as anything else. Not only to survive but to reach children.
The last few years have had the usual challenges and maybe a few extras — deteriorating working conditions, extra work, depleted resources and a shortened school year.
It would have been nice to have endured it all with CC — we would have laughed our way through it as we did everything else.
But actually I did have a colleague with the humor and the sensibility and the humanity — and we have laughed our way through.
One of those new teachers — who isn’t so new anymore. LW (his initials) and I have helped each other through some ridiculous challenges. We’ve helped each other to help our students through their outrageous misfortunes and just last week, at graduation, were like two proud papas congratulating our children as they get ready to go to college — one to Harvard, another Syracuse, others to Cal and UCLA and elsewhere.
And then LW got his layoff notice.
And we haven’t been able to laugh our way through this one. Not at all.
We are not amused by a school district that has squandered billions of dollars over the years. We are not amused by the education testing industry that keeps sucking dollars out of our schools and leaving us with less and less. We are not amused by politicians who say they want better schools and allow dedicated and highly effective teachers to get terminated.
I shouldn’t complain. I still have a job — though we may have just voted ourselves a paycut. LW, like thousands of other laid off teachers, has to figure out how to pay his mortgage and provide for his children.
Maybe he’ll get rehired in the fall. That is always possible. That the school district is terminating him temporarily to steal the summer paycheck he worked all year to earn — that they are balancing their bloated budget on the backs of their most vital assets, inflicting misery and stress upon those whose labor is the only real purpose of the entire system.
I hope so. Because otherwise I’ll have to explain to students why LW isn’t there in the fall to teach them history and Spanish and tutor them at lunch and after school and listen to their problems and enlighten them with his wisdom and brighten their lives with his sense of humor. I’ll have to try to convince students to believe in their education, even though the people in charge of their education so obviously don’t care about what is best for them.
Worst of all I’ll miss him. Damnit, I’ll miss him.