Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Change Is A Sound

Five years ago I was in the Bronx, staggering through my Teach For America Summer Training Institute, this 100-degree plus New York summer where the word that kept flashing through my mind was mistakemistakemistake. When I couldn't stand arguing with my collaborative teachers about the color paper we should use for a visual, when I couldn't drag myself to anymore workshops I lacked the experience to make sense of, when I didn't want to think about managing the behavior of fourth graders anymore, when I didn't want to wait on-line for the copier, or drink at the Jolly Tinker, or read Infinite Jest -- which induced near-crippling waves of simultaneous jealousy and disgust-- I walked circles around Fordham's main campus, beneath these over-hanging trees and listened to Strike Anywhere. Palm-muted chords and shouted sing-alongs replaced the mistake in my head.

"In the eyes in the heart in the mind freedom starts/ with our youth still in our hands/ and an earthquake in our hearts."

I must've played those two records a hundred time through, trying to think of what to teach the next day or contemplating strategies for teaching cause-and-effect, or the not strangling of that colab partner who referenced her mother's teaching experience every 47.8 seconds. It became the soundtrack to this whole undertaking, this multi-dimensional development of the self as teacher.

"Your children are shooting up society/ because you make money making killing a commodity.... kill the stain inside our heads/ we live in defiance of empty time."

When I lived in the 408, it was at the end of a cul-de-sac, an everyday symbol of everything I never wanted and consciously avoided, a commute, a route, driving home and getting out of the car with something that was either a briefcase, a man-purse, or an androgynous teacher-bag slung under my arm. There was a T.V. with over 400 channels, a pile of work that never thinned, and the ever-present question of how I somehow let myself get suckered into all this.

"Out of the gate we're all quick to defend/ the sell out positions white-washed of content/ to our hearts discontent/ too afraid of our failures/ faith and future unknown/ do we dare and reach beyond it?"

I'd drive up into the hills that are now choked with shiny developments, high-end grocery stores, and 900-schools, but then were just broken ground and the promise of sprawl, going too fast and making silly U-turns. You get up there and you can see a long way, a spread of lights from one set of hills to another; and I'd leave the engine running and the stereo blasting and sit and rethink the day.

"From the tidal forces of our positions/ not won (not one!) to take for granted."

And tonight, after teaching, then coaching, then sitting through a useless Masters class that was once again poorly structured, poorly conceived, another episode of trying to nail jelly to the wall where I had to explain (again) why my face was (again) all smashed up, I tore up 280, down Chavez, over the train bridge on third, and out to where the street ends to see Strike Anywhere rip it up, grateful I could do this, still, after all the adultafying that's occurred, still feel comfortable in a beer-stink industrial warehouse in the middle of nowhere jumping around and throwing my fist into the air at all the right parts. It wasn't even an hour, but it was an antidote to the October malaise, and perhaps the more damaging year-five malaise, a creeping impatience with things we should be better at by now, the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress, and this thing that when the kid doesn't get his book out on time, it doesn't feel like the first time this has happened, it feels like the 2,356th time -- cuz it is. I feel better now, sweating out some bile on that cement floor, my ears ringing, my shoulders sore: I'm gonna (re)sound the charge tomorrow, gonna lead us out of this no-skill wasteland, and the ones that won't come, I'm gonna climb into the bucket and drag em out, kicking and screaming.

"Did you promise the world that you'd change it?/ sounds like the way that I feel/ one brick thrown, one vote alone... we'll take back everything they steal."


Anonymous Jeri said...

I'm proud of you -- this is exactly the way you do not end up the way you fear ending up. Of course you're not seeing someone's approval, just reminding yourself of who you are. But it's who you are that the kids need, and you simply cannot lose that. You just can't. That's who they need.

6:30 AM  
Anonymous mrc said...

Damn, I got to download me some Strike Anywhere.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous a friend of a friend said...

I'm a 1st year corp member in Brooklyn and I was just wondering if you were this good at teaching from the start? I want to teach long term, but I'm not getting through to my kids and I'm so exhausted I don't know how to fix it. So I guess what I'm wondering is, as teacher quality is most important, any advice for a new comer to the job thats having a rough start?

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This blog should be titled "408 Martyr Complex"

:) :)

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A martyr is one who will refuse to compromise on central beliefs even when acting on them causes intense distress. I wonder just when that went out of fashion. In any case, this blog seems to do much more toward inspiring to work harder and teach better than it does toward making the reader inclined to sigh and die 'like a martyr'. TMAO, do keep writing about anything that provides energy to continue after five years in this profession. Because five years is precisely the time by which half of all beginning teachers have left, and the more gifted probably at higher rates. Any little insight about anything that inspires persistance and endurance at that point should surely be shared.

1:11 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

A friend of a friend,

The first year is hard. I don't think there's any way around that. The most general advice I can offer is, 1) it's never too late to start your year over. I started my first year over again in November, and again in February. "We need to do better. Tomorrow is the first day of the new year." And I introduced myself and did first day stuff again. 2) Next year cannot be your first year redux. You have to learn, improve, and move forward. I think people leave when every year is like year-1. That'd be awful.

This was probably not helpful

7:39 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

On martyrdom,

We should remember that I wrote that at like 1 in the morning, full of beer and andrenaline from the show, and wanting to set the world on fire, but it feels like it sometimes, ya know? If the original joking anon is the one I'm thinking of, you said to me that teachers donned the martyr complex to justify a "showing up is enough" ideology. I agree. At the same time, this shit's hard, and it requires sacrifices. I'm not gonna go into what those were, because then this then takes on that read-about-me vibe that I hate, but I'm pretty much working-driving-sleeping, and it's getting worse instead of better.

7:43 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Infinite Jest....

(Sound of Ms. Cornelius walking to bookshelf-- trod, trod, trod, trod, trod-- and back)

Yep. Still there.

I too read this book, and was alternatively enthralled and goaded to annoyance. It was almost another one of those Ulysses things for me: I know I should read it, and I know I should like it, but it just didn't totally do it for me.

Now, I loved A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I recommend that one.

You're still doing something meaningful. But where are a lot of you TFA colleagues? Where, for that matter, is David Foster Wallace?

7:40 AM  

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