What Colleen Ritzer and I learned (and didn’t) in our Education classes

As more details of what happened to Ritzer start to surface, I think about the material we covered in my Master’s program:

  • How to write a five-part lesson plan
  • The importance of regular parent contact (with role-play drills!)
  • Basic methods of differentiated instruction for kids with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, or who are learning English as a second language
  • The highlight reel of classroom management/discipline skills (greet students as they walk in; post all rules and regulations in a visible spot)
  • “Teachers can make a difference!”

…and the things I learned on the job:

  • An idealistic young female teacher who wants to “make a difference” is a perfect target for a disturbed kid who wants to take his rage out on someone.
  • Poverty — and its ugly little friends, substance abuse and domestic violence — have great bearing on child development and behavior.
  • About 20% of parents are unreachable — emails bounce back; phone is disconnected; voicemails go unanswered.
  • Some students emigrated recently from parts of the world where women are chattel.
  • Some students have been marinating in ultra-violent, misogynistic American music and videos since early childhood.
  • Some students have extensive criminal histories (teachers will not be informed of this).
  • Some suffer from profound mental illnesses.
  • Some are violent.
  • Students whose behavior frightens a teacher – behavior which in any other workplace would result in legal action– won’t be permanently removed from the classroom. Students who use aggressive profanity, make sexual remarks, or use a cell phone to surreptitiously record/film a teacher will merely “have a talk” with an assistant principal and be sent back to class, emboldened. The teacher will be told that everything is now fine.

I didn’t know these things when I started teaching, and I was 35 with extensive life experience under my belt. Young teachers like Colleen Ritzer don’t know, either. They have huge hearts and they saw “Dangerous Minds,” plus they’ve been told by corporate educrats that kids’ success or failure depends entirely on teacher commitment and skill (no talking about poverty! That’s just making excuses!) Therefore, they enthusiastically and solemnly believe that sheer force of CARING can un-do everything that’s been done to a kid.

But caring can’t un-punch a child’s face. Caring go back in time and read to him when he was a baby. Caring can’t fix a shitty diet or cure asthma acquired from living in a roach-infested apartment.

Caring can’t heal a sociopath. The crazy ship has sailed, and once sailed, sails on.

So I wish that the truth about violent criminal juveniles was part of the Education curriculum. I wish that the truth about protecting ourselves as teachers was part of it too.

I wish that parents were legally liable for their children’s violent behavior at school, and that teachers enjoyed the same protections against workplace harassment and assault that other professionals do.

And I wish that the gifted and passionate Colleen Ritzer is the teacher who finally makes that difference.

But she won’t be here to know.

On E. coli, the grassy knoll, and the second wave

I got food poisoning Friday night via some artisanal microgreens I paid too much for and was reluctant to trash. They smelled suspect but the date was OK, so I thought, “maybe it’s just one bad leaf,” and put vinegar and oil on them. Six hours later I exploded. Awful things happened to me; things I can never un-see, so I am evangelistic tonight; the Chuck Colson of food safety: If in doubt, throw it out. Fuck a triple-washed basil/fenugreek mélange if it doesn’t smell perfectly fresh, because know what’s pricier? A cart full of bland foods and E. coli-killing cleaning agents:


It was the kind of sick where your entire body gets involved in a full-court, military defense against death by bacteria; a cycle of PUKE —> 30 minutes relief —> 20 minutes moaning nausea —>PUKE —> try not to poop on your feet —> repeat for eight hours. So I couldn’t sleep, and the only thing on TV besides infomercials (Don’t Let Your Neck Reveal Your Age!) was a Kennedy assassination documentary. It’s a big anniversary. Fifty years.

I rode with the show and another like it throughout the night, trying to distract myself. During each 30-minute nausea-relief period, I’d get interested, like, Wow, Oswald had 11 seconds to fire three shots, not six seconds, which makes a huge difference, especially if one of the bullets deflected off the traffic light — and then the nausea would build oh god oh god as Jack and Jackie landed in Love Field, and then they’d turn left on Elm Street oh noooo and then Kennedy would be shot just as I puked into a mixing bowl.

The Zapruder film looked worse on my bigscreen than it did in 11th-grade history. Another thing that looked worse: Every journalist, every doctor, every government official (except Judge Sarah Hughes who swore in Lyndon Johnson; she’s the exception who proves the rule) is male. Fifty years ago, that wasn’t jarring; most people didn’t think twice about it, and they wouldn’t until about 1967. Until the second wave.

Which is why I get scared and angry when women shrug the second wave off like it’s irrelevant to their lives. Like their safe, legal birth control; sports scholarships; and law degrees just sort of…happened! A gift from an enlightened Universe! Too many women think that fifty years ago, every single one of them would have been Sarah Hughes. It’s a weird kind of exceptionalism.

The truth: No matter how special or smart you are, on Nov. 22, 1963 you’d be in the background shot, sweetheart. Most likely you’d be home crying in front of the TV, but if you “had to work,” you’d be teaching sixth grade or pounding out your nursing shift or transcribing on Dictaphone things men said. You wouldn’t get anywhere near the Warren Commission or Air Force One, or even the city desk of the Dallas Morning News. And if you did, you’d pay dearly in terms of your personal life. Men didn’t want to marry career girls; just ask Life magazine and the Ladies’ Home Journal.  And career girls who loved other career girls? Yeah, have fun. Pregnant and didn’t want to be? Raped and trying to report it to the police? Good luck with all that.

This is in the past, like nausea that’s hard to remember after it’s over. But we must remember, because lots of people would be delighted to return to that past; or can’t be arsed to imagine how it felt to actually live in that past.

If we’re smart, we’re afraid of a recurrence. We snap our heads up fast upon smelling the slightest waft of patriarchal funk. We don’t say “it’ll be fine,” and ignore tiny signs of rot in our healthy, verdant lives. Because, by the time we smell it, the rot’s gone pretty deep; and once we start to feel sick? We’re in for an ordeal.