relay races and affirmations

We had a tween girls’ group running around yesterday at my gym. It’s great to see a dozen multiracial 8-11 year old girls enjoying female-only activities; especially when the goal is to build confidence through physical accomplishment, but from what I saw I think they may be caught in the same dusty trap.

The first part of their activity was sitting in a circle with their coach, doing a short lesson on eating disorders.

“Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that makes people lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height,” one little moppet read aloud from the handout. “People with anorexia may have an intense fear of weight gain, even when they are underweight. They may diet or exercise too much or use other ways to lose weight.”

Cool, fine. It’s not like I expected them to get into patriarchal beauty standards as a method of male power, control and distraction (not that they’re too young; I’m just not expecting it) and at least they were getting a few facts before middle school starts eating their brains, but then they went out on the gym floor and started a relay race game. This involved starting at one end of the gym and running hell-bent-for-leather to the other, gasping and laughing and catching their breath before they yelled out an affirmation:

“I AM SOOOO SMART!”

Hmm. OK. This was not de rigeur when I was a kid, when the ego-stroking of oneself was known as “bragging,” and also we knew not everyone was smart, but then again we didn’t have 24-hour entertainment/celebrity channels or criminally-actionable cyberbullying. So maybe kids today need to really bust it out in order to offset all that.

“I AM SOOOO PRETTY!”

Shit. Really? No adult with this program thought that one out?

“EVERYBODY LIKES ME!”

Aw, no. This is not a good affirmation! This is not a good goal! If everybody likes you, either you’re a co-dependent shape-shifter, false  to yourself in order to please others, or you have no discernible personality at all, in which case someone’s bound to dislike you because you don’t have a mind of your own.

Plus: I happen to know that one indispensable ingredient to a full-fledged, weapons-grade eating disorder is wanting everyone to like you. Add that to believing “pretty’ = “desirable character trait that buoys self-esteem,” mix in some toxic misogyny such as these girls are steeped in every minute, and you’ve just undone your worthy goal of inoculating them against self-destructive dieting and exercise behavior.

Maybe I could volunteer with this program. My  affirmations will be:

“THE ONLY FEELINGS I AM RESPONSIBLE FOR ARE MY OWN!”

“I PICK FRIENDS BASED ON COMPATIBILITY AND SHARED VALUES!”

“WHEN I GROW UP, I WILL BE FINANCIALLY INDEPENDENT!”

“I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK!”

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.

I am not resigned

Dear Principal Armbruster (not your real name!):

You’ve made me cry five times over the last two years, but today wasn’t one of them. When I looked into your eyes, thanked you for everything, and quit my job, you said, “OK, thanks” with less emotion than you did last Christmas when I brought you a plate of Santa-head cookies. It was such a graceless, off-the-charts display of Diminished Interpersonal Capacity Syndrome (DICS) that I walked away laughing. It was like you’d run out of latex patches to keep the air from leaking out the holes.

I wasn’t expecting a hug or anything. Still, why not make an effort to be graceful? Of course you’re pissed that I’m leaving before the end of the year, but also? To you and your closed fist of a head, I was a regulation widget easily replaced by another regulation widget: I was a teacher.

You and I always disagreed re: the importance of the human touch in education (I am for it) but I always wanted you to succeed because you were an older woman with power; an older woman charged with making unpopular decisions. I’m close to several women like this — women who have far more power than you do — so I know: That shit is difficult. I figured, Of course she can’t be too nice. People will run right over her.  So when you shat on lesson plans I was proud of, or ordered me to “drill and kill” rather than have the kids write memoirs, I did the Christian/Buddhist/Reform Jew/Land Dyke thing and bathed you in a white healing light. Did you feel it? I’m curious about whether it works, or if it just keeps the white healing light-sender from crying a sixth time.

I used to picture you exhausted and stomped on by the little demon hooves of peri-menopause, dealing with demanding parents, antiquated facilities, and condescending doods. I imagined you going home, putting your feet up, having a glass of wine and talking to your buddies on the phone — finally able to be yourself. I thought there must be a “yourself” in there.

But every time you made it true, what people say about women in charge, I cringed. I saw a lot of people leave your office furious; in tears. I thought about putting up a sign: CALM DOWN. SHE’S LIKE THAT TO EVERYBODY.

So when people said you didn’t like women, I filed your vibe under “internalized misogyny.” Or Asperger’s, which often goes undiagnosed until midlife. I suggested this theory to one of the Exceptional Ed teachers, who sniffed and said, “Oh, she’s an ass burger, all right.”

I was on your side.

I wonder why you never used my Great Wall Of Mommy Issues — WHICH YOU CAN SEE FROM SPACE! FROM OUTER SPACE! — to your advantage. You belong to a micro-generation (1957-1962) that I love — a hiccup of women too young to be Boomers but too old for Gen X; too dark and fucked up for the ’80s but not dark and fucked up enough, or for the wrong reasons, for the ’90’s. You were shaped by social changes you didn’t create but had to bend your lives around:

like this

I’ve spent a lot of time naked with your generation, Principal Armbruster.  I’ve curled up on your generation’s chest, traced little fingertip designs in its sweat, and listened to its vague, pre-verbal memories of the Kennedy assassination. It was dresses to school every day for you, and Vietnam on TV every night. It was gym suits and maxipads with belts; Steely Dan records; Title 9; Pong. It was a growing suspicion that, not only were the people in charge a bunch of liquids trying to do a solid’s job, so were the people trying to take charge.

This created one of two (or both!) things in you: An un-killable, side-eyed hope you lace into the steel-toed boots of your souls, or a white-knuckled conviction that life isn’t about what you have or could become, but about what you’re in danger of losing. My girlfriend (b. 1959) posits that the latter has something to do with growing up without real job security. The sands were always shifty, so you either accepted it and developed an edgy sense of DIY absurdity or became the sort of person who soothed herself by crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s and just generally micromanaging the shit out of everything. Hypercontrol over yourself and others = a charm you weave against disaster.

Lorrie Moore, my favorite writer, describes your generation pretty well: “We used to watch you guys, the eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, on LSD at the public beach, or playing Duck, Duck, Goose in Horsehearts Park with your beads and long-flowing Indian smocks. But when we got to be that age, and we went to the park, or to the lake, and there wasn’t a Duck or a Goose or a hit of acid anywhere. There was only Ford pardoning Nixon.”

All of which is to say: YOU’RE MY KIND OF GIRL.

So I’m sorry you never warmed to me. The students did, though. I have a drawer full of their letters and cards; their photos and silly little gifts (although nothing from Exam Thief; his friend The Knife Dude; and Janessa in 6th period who always says “Fucking Dyke” before my name, like it’s my official title. An honorific).

Which is kind of cool, actually. I want it on some business cards.

Anyway, every experience is improvement kibble, so here’s what I’m going remember about leadership — and women in leadership — in case I ever have the role:

1. Any organization takes on the fundamental character of its leader.  Employees are like tofu, which as all dykes know takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with. A leader is habanero chile or chocolate mole or absolute fucking poison, and that’s what her organization becomes a hot, steaming potful of. We like to think we can work as professional islands, but every workplace has a culture and nobody’s immune.

2. People always remember how you treated them, even if they pretend they don’t.

3. People never forget being humiliated — or treated well.

4. If you humiliate subordinates they’ll do as you ask to your face and sabotage you quietly. If you treat them well, they’ll support you even when you aren’t asking them to. You’ll have built up a goodwill savings account instead of a debt.

5.  Make standards and expectations the same for everyone. If you like some employees better than others, HIDE IT. Pretend you’re a movie character: The Supervisor Who Likes Everyone The Same. It’s acting! Have fun with it!

6. Don’t shift blame. It’s transparent and it’s cowardly. No one will ever say “coward” to your face, but they’ll think it real loud inside their heads.

7.  Catch employees doing well and draw attention to it. Know when their birthdays are; send hand-signed cards. Be a human.

8. If someone screws up and you need to have a Conversation, let them keep their dignity.  Don’t make it personal, don’t be petty, don’t hold a grudge. Women, despite what people like to say, have great empathic skills. Use them. Don’t make it true, what people like to say.

9. Know that everything you say gets repeated, verbatim, all over the building. Don’t talk to people in a way that ensures, when your words are repeated, the audience begins to shriek, “NO! NO!!” in rising horror and disbelief. For example, when an employee requests a day off for Rosh Hashanah, don’t request a doctor’s note. This will become legend.

10. Your employees are fundamentally on your side. Don’t assume they’re always trying to get one over on you, or that they’ll slack off as soon as you leave the building. They want to go home feeling the satisfaction of a job well done as part of a well-run team. They’re motivated to please you out of pride and integrity– not out of fear, unless you make it that way. Don’t make it that way. Don’t make it so that, at the staff meeting, one employee turns to another and whispers, “Hey, what rhymes with ‘sociopathic twat’? I’m writing a poem about Armbruster’s people skills.”

All the best to us both,

Phonaesthetica

How To Attend Teacher In-Service Day

8:10 a.m.: Sign in to welcome-back meeting 10 minutes late. Take a doughnut. Don’t bother looking for a jelly-filled or chocolate one –all that’s left is half a cruller. Goddamn it. Find your friends at the back table and think for the thousandth time how much teaching high school is like being in high school, clique-wise. Sit between your Music Dept. friend and the AP Language guru, who’s wearing his best ironic T-shirt with tiny letters; something about Idaho and soccer. Fist-bump him. Say, “Dude, how many kids you got this year?” When he says “A hundred and seventy-eight,” nod like that’s what you expected. Do not smile. You only have a hundred and sixty-two. Score.

8:14 a.m.: Big news: No one is allowed to have microwaves and refrigerators in their rooms anymore because electricity bills. Think about salads and get indignant: If they think you’re bringing soggy PB&Js to work every day, they have another think coming. Start sketching preliminary drawings vis a vis how to hide a fridge in your supply closet. Maybe if you took a screwdriver and removed two of the shelves?

8:58 a.m.: Resist the urge to check your phone. Last year, some guy from the Science department texted during the welcome-back meeting and some bad shit went down. Hide your phone in a side pocket of your bag and kick the bag real far under the table.

8:59 a.m.: Your Idaho-shirt friend thinks you nudged him in response to something that was just said. What? you mouth. School trips, he mouths back.

9:01 a.m.: Someone from the History Dept. (you can never remember her name but she’s conservative and long-winded so you call her William F. Buckley, Jr.) is APPALLED about the cancelled-school-trip situation. “This is unacceptable!” she’s saying, and you zone out, thinking of a hundred and sixty-two names to learn. Somewhere in the mid-90s, everyone started calling their sons Jaden/Kaden/Aiden; such a pain in the ass. Yada yada learning opportunities; yada yada curriculum, blah blah Spain blah France. You have been to France. You want to tell her Italy is better. Gelato!  The David! Venetians peeing grand arcs into the canals!

9:02 a.m.: Your Music friend passes you a note re: the complaining History teacher. NEMESIS!! it says. I HATE HER. Nod sympathetically.

9:15 a.m.: Restroom break. Check your phone. You have a text from Idaho Shirt. Educator Bingo, it says. I made squares. Get M&Ms from vending machine plz k thx.

9:35-10:28 a.m.: Play Educator bingo with buddy, who has laid out two copies of 25 hastily-drawn squares with edu-speak buzzwords. “Loser buys drinks,” he whispers. You are both listening intently now. Rigor, you hear. State standards. Best practices. Evaluation. Value-added Measurement. Achievement gap. The hot Theatre teacher stretches languorously. Your buddy gets distracted, misses Assessment, and you move in for the kill. “Dos Equis on Saturday,” you whisper. He points at you, traces a heart in the air, and presses his hands to his chest. “You complete me,” he whispers back.

10:38 a.m.: Make three (gramatically-correct, as befits an English teacher) lists on back of syllabus: (1) With Whom In This Room I Would Sleep; (2) With Whom I Would Never, Ever Sleep; and (3) With Whom I Have Already Slept. Wish that the third list was shorter.

11:15 a.m.: Meeting adjourned! Go to your classroom. Be thrilled that the pile of cockroaches is gone — the last one you killed in late May was so big, it made direct eye contact with you. You felt like a murderer. Start cleaning out supply closet. Try to find last year’s examples of great college application essays, the ones that begin with “When I left my small village in China to find a better life…” or “Having a prosthetic leg has taught me all about awkward conversations…” Make a file.

11:57 a.m.: Notice that someone has absconded with your stapler. Dicks! You will never trust again.

12:01 p.m.: Meet the new Math teacher on your floor, the one with career terror in her eyes and an apple applique on her blouse. She has transferred from the middle school and refers to her husband as “the hubs.” Give her all your extra rulers. You have, like, 800 rulers. You do not know why that is.

12:42 p.m.: Lunch with friends. Compare new tattoos and syllabi. Using subtle emotional manipulation, lobby to teach Macbeth. Lose. You get Hamlet. You are justly kill’d by your own treachery.

1:48 a.m. Check your e-mail. Learn that your state is changing its evaluation criteria. File this away under Things You Can Do Nothing About. Soon, you know, they will replace teachers with robots. Wonder what else you can do with a Master’s of Education. Wonder about homesteading in Oregon. Wonder about raising alpaca goats. Weigh how bad things would have to get for you to join the Peace Corps. Resolve to never do any porn, no matter how fierce the demand for 38-year-old women with big traps who can do a back handspring.

2:30 p.m.: Attend club-advisor finance meeting and tell horror stories like you’re sitting around a campfire: “You guys, I heard there was this teacher one time who sponsored anime club, and he forgot to fill out juuuust onnnne form when he took the kids to see ‘Totoro,’ and then, oh God, the district stuck him with three hundred dollars in matinee tickets.” Gasp. Say, “That’s pretty bad, but also? This other guy? He borrowed a set of supplementary textbooks for Science Explorer Club, and when the kids didn’t return them? He got stung for three THOUSAND dollars.” Shudder. Resolve to be totally strict about the forms this year. Barter with the Art teacher — if your GSA club can have a bunch of pink and purple glitter, his manga club (???)  can use your poster boards for whatever the hell they need poster boards for. Pinky-swear. Wonder for the thousandth time if he is gay or just exceedingly well-dressed, for a teacher anyway.

2:52 p.m.: Wonder if you’ll get in trouble for leaving (“ghosting” as the kids say) before exactly 3:05. Decide to risk it.

2:53 p.m.: Decide you better not. Start designing a unit plan: Dystopias And How To Prevent Them.

3:45 p.m.: Wonder why you’re still in the building. This unit plan is going to ROCK, though.

4:48 p.m.: Decide you are definitely leaving now! and you are Not Kidding!

4:58 p.m.: Wonder: How come there are no cats in “Animal Farm?” Also, is the asexual reproduction scene in “Brave New World” too much for sophomores? Flip through the books again.

5:02 p.m.: Remember that this is when they lock the parking-lot gates from the outside. Race to your car. Drive home imagining what you would do if you were locked in the school overnight. Decide that you would go to the Science lab and lie down before the soothing black lights of the reptile terrariums. You would fall asleep listening to the snakes and frogs cold-bloodedly rustle and settle; to their thin black tongues reaching out and tasting air; to the quiet clicking of pebbles.

An Open Letter to Maddy Blythe, Whose Christian School Won’t Let Her Play Football

Dear Maddy,

Jesus is fine with you playing on the middle-school football team. I spent four undergrad years with the Southern Baptists, so I know the Word (Old Testament and New) and I’m telling you, nothing in there says you can’t play football with boys. Patrick Stuart, the  guy who runs your Christian school (and who, unfortunately, has nothing in common with Patrick Stewarthas a problem with your athletic goals because he has another kind of problem. Don’t think too much about this. Just know that people who install bars on their windows are the ones most likely to rob someone else.

Mr. Stuart no doubt knows the following verse. It’s from the book of Titus:

“Everything is pure to those whose hearts are pure. But nothing is pure to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, because their minds and consciences are corrupted.”

You like football? Play football. The world is full of women who play sports with men; who coach and are coached by men; who sweat and lift and run alongside men every day. Sports aren’t sex. Any adult who confuses these things is wrong. You, at 12 years old, aren’t responsible for any boy’s “impure” thoughts, just as you will never be responsible for any man’s sexual or physical violence.

The great thing is, Maddy? There are TONS of other middle and high high schools out there (Christian and not) and most of them have football teams. You go earn yourself a spot. Eat your protein, get your sleep, see how big/strong/skilled you can get — then hustle out as a…quarterfielder? Runningliner? I don’t really follow sports. Just make sure you wear a helmet, because? In this world? You’re going to need your brains for the fight.

Love,

Phonaesthetica

The Flying Bartleby Armbar Of Slack

Everyone knows that the adolescent brain is only 60-80% baked, like those baguettes you buy at Trader Joe’s that need to go in the oven for 20 minutes before you serve them. They’re sort of edible beforehand, but not very, and that is what makes teenagers (1) a total joy and (2) screamtastically frustrating. It’s also why God made summer school.

Let me ‘splain, in case you are over 35 and recall summer school as the fate of the intractably slow and/or criminal: Nowadays, most summer school students aren’t either — they invited the vampire in by resisting their regular teacher’s Herculanean efforts to pass them. It’s labor-intensive to flunk a kid in a core subject, especially an ostensibly-graduating senior — teachers give students 1,690,721 chances to succeed, and we document every missed opportunity/failure notice/call home/parent-teacher-counselor conference/emergency makeup assignment/alternative assignment/hoodoo conjure ceremony, etc. If the kid ends up with a 55%, there will often be pressure to round up to a D, especially if the alternative is another year of high school and he’s pushing 19 or 20 years old.

This is fraught: If I pass a kid with a 55% average, am I failing to do my job with integrity? Should he stay until he’s learned what he’s supposed to have learned? On the other hand, what is to be gained by digging my heels in and retaining him if he’s this much of a square peg (for whatever reason) at school? Isn’t it better, if he’s absorbed all he’s able or willing to learn, to let him go ahead and take on the world? A world where his manager at Burger King won’t bother to call his mom to see why he doesn’t feeeel like flipping the burgers today? Because maybe that’s exactly what he needs. Or a backpacking trip through Asia, or something. Too bad shoestring-budget travel isn’t a thing anymore.

Anyway. I have one student this summer — I’ll call him Curt GeGambals — who claims he failed English last year because he had “a bad teacher.” Heh. When he started failing my class, I picked up the phone and called his mom. I felt ridiculous even describing some of the assignments he’d skipped or failed — so simple!  so high-interest! so hippie-trippy-feely! and I could tell she felt ridiculous, too. And angry.  The tone of her voice, and his, were the soundtrack to a power struggle during which she has cajoled, pleaded, threatened, rewarded, and begged this kid to grow up, and he has chained his own feet together like a passive-aggressive Earth Firster. No redwood tree, just attitude. She was ready to cry. He was inert as clay.

During the entire phone call, Curt had an excuse FOR EVERYTHING. It was the most intricate, multi-layered, Byzantine, stonewalling, gaslighting display of cognitive dissonance I have ever witnessed. Very high-concept. I was forcibly reminded of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, when your instructor absorbs and deflects all your force back to you until you’re exhausted on the ground but he hasn’t broken a sweat. If Curt would use his fearsome powers for good instead of evil, he’d be halfway done with college and editing the Georgetown Law Review by now.

The best part was, he actually believed what he was saying. He had no shame of any kind. He is a Ninja of Inertia; a solid who flatly refuses to do a liquid’s job. Click on this recording, and you will hear the sound playing in my head while Curt and I spoke:

Q. Curt, I’m concerned that you’re not turning in any work. Your last worksheet was blank except for a drawing of a car. Please help me understand.

A. My work is in my bag, I think. I don’t remember about the car.

Q.  Curt, this happened less than an hour ago.

A.  Uh, I don’t really know what time it is.

Q. OK. Let’s move on to the bigger picture here. Do you want to graduate high school?

A. Yeah.

Q. Great! How can you accomplish that?

A. I don’t know. You’re the one giving the grades.

Q. I don’t give grades, Curt. You earn your grade. I just keep score. And I can’t do that if you don’t, for example, turn in your daily quiz so that I can grade it and record the points.

A.  —

Q. Curt? Are you there?

A. What?

Q. Let’s try this. Let me ask you a few of the quiz questions verbally. What is the basic plot of the novel “Brave New World?”

A. It’s, like, a lot of random words strung together. I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense.

Q. OK. Maybe you’re having trouble understanding the book.* Have you tried looking the book up on SparkNotes?

A. Uh, no.

Q. Please do that this evening, so we can try the quiz again tomorrow. Also, why didn’t you stay after class to speak with me about your  grade like I asked you to?”

A. “The parking lot is really crowded after school. Getting out ahead of the rush is my priority.”

That last one melted my face a little bit. His priority was getting out of the parking lot after class? Where the hell else does he have to be at 2:30 on a weekday afternoon in 115-degree heat? Beating the rush is a bigger priority than passing the class? The class he’s been sitting in for 7 hours a day for two weeks in order to get the credit and graduate? Are we in, like, negotiations here? Priority? 

You won’t be surprised to learn that Curt turned nothing in, not even the imaginary interview with an imaginary fictional character (of choice). He failed the class. My heart breaks for his mom. It’s easy to say that if he were my son, I wouldn’t put up with this crap. But. It’s just. Hard to extrapolate/untruncate/go to the ends of my thoughts (h/t FCM). Maybe motherhood, in its way, makes you a Sin Eater. Your child is your child, even if he fails himself in order to hurt you. Even if he’s cracked and there is no glue in the world strong enough. Even if something has gone terribly, even dangerously, wrong with him. You love him because you can’t stop. Because priority. 

 

*He’s not, btw. I was totally bullshitting when I said that; I thought he’d rise to the challenge or the bait or whatever. No dice.

“Well, you know, it’s really been, you know, quite a trip for me.” — Patty Hearst

The trope that women hate women never feels true to me, even though I read the Phyllis Chesler book and I work with teenage girls, who are supposed to be the worst bullies of all. They’re not. Teenage girls experience the gamut of human emotion including a desire for power, which they rarely achieve via any other means but their sexuality — how “hot” they are; what they’re wearing; which guys want to date them. When they behave badly, it’s usually a sane reaction to an insane situation — an understandable response to a toxic culture that ensmallens them; asks them to be sexy but not “slutty,” (i.e. sexual); to self-objectify and see themselves through male eyes. This isn’t news. Have you listened to any mainstream hip-hop lately, the kind they played at my gym this afternoon? Watched any cable TV? Seen what’s new in free online pornography? (Skip the vileness and check out one angry girl instead).

Anyway. The subject of single-sex education came up in a staff meeting today, and the other 15 people at the table agreed that they would ONLY teach at a boys’ school because girls are “mean.” They’re “bitchy.” They “turn on each other.” I was fucking horrified, of course, so I said I’d much rather teach girls because, when you take boys out of the equation, they tend to calm down, re-focus, and do amazing things  academically and socially.

Several of my colleagues laughed quietly at me. I could read their faces: Yeah, of course, she’s a dyke. The woman sitting next to me, who teaches a male-dominated subject required to succeed in most high-earning careers, hardly looked up from her grading but I saw her face as 60 years’ worth of rage and bitterness broke the tight surface and she said, with real hatred in her voice, “I hate women. They’re nasty and two-faced; you can’t trust them.”

“All of them?” I asked, thinking STOCKHOLM SYNDROME STOCKHOLM SYNDROME YOU HAS IT.

“Most,” she scowled. “I prayed to have only male children, and I got what I wanted.”

I gently posited that the world hates women, so naturally we begin to hate ourselves — had she listened to any rap or accidentally clicked on any porn lately; had she ever heard the term ‘internalized misog’–

“I don’t hate women because of porn,” she said, viciously inking an “F” at the top of a unit test. “I hate them because they’re shallow, petty bitches.”

What I wanted to ask, of course, was this: Are you like “most” women, or are you an exception? If you’re an exception, how — and by whom, and with what — have you been rewarded?  Does your special, non-bad-woman status make you feel more worthy? Does it make you immune to the dangers  and degradations “most” other women fear? Are you magic? Also, do you hate yourself, or just the rest of us? Where is your disconnect? Can you hear yourself? Do you know that the girls hear you, too? Every single day?

 

Be careful of all the feelings

I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but all high school teachers have hit a point in the academic year characterized by an unholy marriage of slack and panic, for which the Germans probably have a word. The seniors are tired, antsy and have no more fucks to give. As one of them said yesterday, “I have allowed the field in which I grow my fucks to lie fallow and become choked with dessicated weeds.” (Honors kid).

They’re doing a lot of staring out of windows these days; a lot of frantic texting and crying in front of their lockers; a lot of skating by on purpose with a 59.5%. (Maddening). They want to grow up but they also don’t want to, and why, WHY are those their only two choices? They are testing and trying and fighting themselves and other people, on the regular.

The good moments are sweeter, this time of year. Last week, a kid I love for his sensitive poetry writing and guitar-playing asked me if he could leave class early, and when I asked him why, he told me that he’d broken up with his girlfriend last week so he could date someone else, but then during 5th period today he panicked because Girl #2 was SO NOT THE RIGHT PERSON, and he NEEDED TO WIN BACK THE LOVE OF GIRL #1, so he went out to the parking lot to put a note on Girl #1’s car but then! He panicked AGAIN because WHAT IF HE WAS ACTUALY WRONG ABOUT GIRL #2? What if he was OVER-THINKING IT? HE HAD TO TAKE THE NOTE OFF THE CAR!

Here was a problem I understood. I sent him out to the parking lot. He came back, panting. “Son?” I asked. “What did we learn from this?”

“Be careful of all the feelings,” he answered.

Today he stopped by to show me a poem by Amy Gerstler. It goes like this:

 

Fuck You Poem #45

Fuck you in slang and conventional English.

Fuck you in lost and neglected lingoes.

Fuck you hungry and sated; faded, pock marked and defaced.

Fuck you with orange rind, fennel and anchovy paste.

Fuck you with rosemary and thyme, and fried green olives on the side.

Fuck you humidly and icily.

Fuck you farsightedly and blindly.

Fuck you nude and draped in stolen finery.

 

Fuck you while cells divide wildly and birds trill.

Thank you for barring me from his bedside while he was ill.

Fuck you puce and chartreuse.

Fuck you postmodern and prehistoric.

Fuck you under the influence of opium, codeine, laudanum and paregoric.

Fuck every real and imagined country you fancied yourself princess of.

Fuck you on feast days and fast days, below and above.

Fuck you sleepless and shaking for nineteen nights running.

 

Fuck you ugly and fuck you stunning.

Fuck you shipwrecked on the barren island of your bed.  

Fuck you marching in lockstep in the ranks of the dead.

Fuck you at low and high tide.

And fuck you astride

                                anyone who has the bad luck to fuck you, in dank hallways,    

         bathrooms, or kitchens.

Fuck you in gasps and whispered benedictions.

And fuck these curses, however heartfelt and true,

that bind me, till I forgive you, to you.

school night

I don’t focus on the dark side of my job. Teachers who thrive are the ones who focus on the kids — what they need from us as they become who they’re going to be. They’re like blobs of cookie dough (all the necessary ingredients are there but they haven’t been baked) and because the blobs are all different sizes and flavors, you can’t treat them all alike. If you do, some will burn to a crisp and others will remain doughy. It’s why I never make certain kids read out loud; why I let others perform a rap as their final “Hamlet” project. I let the oatmeal-raisin be oatmeal-raisin, you know? I allow for pink sprinkles.

When discouragement wraps its slimy little arms around my neck and breathes its funk on me, I switch my thoughts to the 142 faces that look back at me every day; 142 faces who’ll go, go, go out into the world in June. I see the kids as they’ll be in 10 or 15 or 35 years, and I drop time-capsuled hints and jokes to those people; hints and jokes these adults-in-disguise will only understand long after I’m dead.

It’s like planting bulbs that lie underground for years before they bloom, in a season I won’t live to see.

The thrill of teaching lies in the fact that I have no idea who I’m talking to. It’s like a long mystery novel with a lot of detail in the first chapter: This could be important later.

I can’t forget my own high school years. They marked me. If I’m any good as a teacher, it’s because I can’t forget — how one kind word dissolved me with gratitude back then; how one shitty interaction with an adult highlighted and underlined my general sense of powerlessness and how powerlessness was the worst feeling in the world; like emotional seasickness. I remember the sound of snickering echoing off the metal bathroom stalls. The taste of Sprite for breakfast; the smell of AquaNet hairspray mingled with cigarette smoke. The back library room; the cold one, where I found our school’s small collection of feminist non-fiction. Many of those books are still there. And you still need a jacket.

High school breaks your heart when you’re a teacher who can’t forget. So, during first period every day, I look out into the rows of faces (six long; six deep) and see artists; doctors, engineers; and one gifted professional athlete. Second period has a psychologist; a math professor; and the woman who develops a cheap, effective immunization against HIV. Third period is full of excellent parents and teachers, plus one Episcopal minister and a Peace Corps volunteer. In fifth period, the Democratic Senator from Arizona keeps her small group on task, and in 6th, the lead guitarist for a band that doesn’t exist yet (but whose first album will go platinum) slumps in his seat because his legs are too long for his chair.

I see ordinary people, too — people who will experience drudgery and setbacks and suffering, because nobody escapes it. I want to add something to their cache of memories to use against that time — maybe a line of poetry they’ll remember during a long day in the hospital, or a weird-ass short story by Flannery O’Connor during a long night in jail. I don’t overestimate my powers — most of these kids, in the rush to forget high school, will forget me — but for those who are being marked as I was marked, this could be important later. Anything could happen.

Misogynist blackface is OK because reasons

High schoolers can be low on empathy and they’re famous for poor taste, but sweet fancy Moses on a soda cracker, how did this pep-rally stunt get approved by teachers? By administrators? The mind reels.

Short version, if you can’t stand to read the whole thing: Three white boys, in blackface, performed a pep-rally skit re-enacting Chris Brown’s 2009  assault on Rihanna. And then?  People defended it as “a little bit inappropriate” that was “completely blown out of proportion” because “kids will be kids.” Dang, you high-strung little pussyflowers, it was just a joke; can’t you take a joke?

“I don’t think it was offensive at all,” said Chelsea House, who earned her high school diploma from Waverly last year and moved to Alabama but returned for homecoming last week and saw the skit.

“There’s nothing wrong with blackface. There’s nothing wrong with dressing up as a black person. Black is but a color,” House said.

“Black is but a color?” Who taught this kid her syntax? I thought, Surely the administration will apologize, if only for fear of lawsuits! but aaaahhh no:

Waverly Central School District Superintendent Joseph Yelich said Tuesday that he did not believe the students in the skit intended to offend anyone.

No, Captain Obvious, of course they didn’t intend to. They just didn’t care; didn’t think; didn’t know. Is this not part of your JOB, to help them care and think and know? I know it’s time-intensive and there are days you feel like giving up. People’s Exhibit A: Several kids laughed at photos of the (trigger warning) Nanking Massacre in class today, and it would have been convenient to ignore it but  helping them understand why photos of the Nanking Massacre aren’t funny was the most important part of my job today. Sometimes I’m late on grading and one week I showed a movie three days in a row, but I don’t slack on teaching them why victimization isn’t big yuks. Last week, some boy told his wittiest one-liner — “It’s not rape if you yell ‘Surprise!’ first” — and of course his girlfriend laughed in order to be the Cool Girl. Gillian Flynn wrote all we need to know about the Cool Girl:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”

But I couldn’t say all that to a pair of 17-year-olds, make them understand, and get them to Trig on time, so I saved it in the mental file that contains all the conversations about Chris Brown and Rhianna I’ve ever overheard between teenage girls:

“She hit him first.”

“She cheated on him.”

“It takes two to tango.”

“She wasn’t hurt that bad.”

“We don’t know his side of the story.”

“Chris Brown can beat me anytime.”

And yeah, Waverly High peeps, you might think, They won’t learn; they don’t want to see and so they never will, but you shove down the words rising like an itch in your throat and walk them through it. Break it up into pieces and hand-feed them if you must, but if you give up because reasons, you might as well leave the classroom because you’ve already abandoned the kids.