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

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Letter from my April self to my August self (and to first-year teachers everywhere)

Dear August 2013 self,

So, girlfriend, you all rested up from summer vacation? No? You taught summer school? Damn. Well, I hope you did something chill like Literature in Film (Cameron Diaz Bad Teacher-style) because the 2013-2014 school year is ON for the next 180 days. Do yourself a favor and implement the following sanity strategies, courtesy of your exhausted, feverish April self; the self sitting in front of the computer in her underwear, counting the hours left in the 2012-2013 school year (82.5, plus Senior Breakfast and Graduation:

  • Be a hardass about cell phones on the first day of school. The first kid you catch using their phone in class? TAKE THEIR PHONE FOR THE REST OF THE DAY. If you don’t, you’ll be fighting those phones ALL YEAR LONG, and by November, the kids will be egregiously texting two feet from your face. Buy a lockbox; take the phones; stash them in it. What you didn’t fully grok your first couple of years teaching is: It’s not enough to post a rule; you have to enforce it. Tirelessly.
  • Be whine-proof. Kids want to whine? They should join a European soccer team.
  • Late work loses 10% of points for each day it is late. The only exceptions are residential drug rehab or the violent death of a first-degree relative. The minute you make an exception for one kid, the other 175 will smell your weak blood in the water. “My computer crashed, Miss,” they’ll say, like you’re some kind of moron. “Miss, I’m just really stressed out right now.” Giving in doesn’t prepare them for adult life. When was the last time anyone gave you a break?
  • Limit bathroom passes. I know you hate being in charge of when other people go to the bathroom and you never want to say no — you resented having to ask when you were a kid — but they’re taking advantage. People with active bladder infections and raging cocaine addictions go to the bathroom less often than your students do.
  • The first time a group does more socializing than working, warn them. The second time, reassign them. Do not apologize; do not explain. You don’t need them to like you — just to respect you. In fact, it’s better if they don’t like you at first. Less room for disappointment; more practice for the top-down management style of the real world.  We’re not a self-paced charter school in the strip mall, or a groovy Waldorf edu-farm with goats and conversational-Esperanto classes and shit. Sorry.
  • Load up your AP class with serious, rigorous academic reading and writing during the first week of classes. Load it up enough so that the kids who don’t want to do AP work; the ones pushed into AP by parents or counselors or boyfriends or girlfriends, will beg to switch to a regular section. 35 kids are registered for your AP class. This is too many. Your goal is 26.
  • 18 years old is not as grown as it thinks it is. It comes in a large, adult package, but in general, 18 = emotionally 15 in girls and 12 in boys. Remember the farting contest last month?
  • Nine months is a long time for a kid. You’ll have students who start out paragons of academic integrity and social maturity, and end in a counseling-office mess, so don’t trust easy. And don’t make  hard-and-fast judgements about kids who start off like jerks. Because at least a few of them will surprise you.
  • Four percent of the population are sociopaths — they literally have no conscience. This is a comforting statistic when trying not to take other people’s behavior personally. And, yo, that’s not even counting the vast array of personality disorders and sundry addictions that 21st century American flesh is heir to (plus food additives, toxins in the water, and quick-cut video graphics). Whatever’s happening to the bees is happening to the kids, too. Ditto re: the fish with ambiguous genitalia.
  • You are vulnerable to emotional manipulation, especially when it’s intentionally subtle or if the manipulator lacks the self-awareness to know s/he is being manipulative. Work on that. I don’t know if your insurance will cover working on it, but you could at least call up and ask the guy about co-pays.
  • When a kid wants to talk to you — really talk, not whine, manipulate or complain — stop doing whatever else you’re doing. The grading or emailing or whatever it is can wait. Listen to the kid. Give the kid your eyes. This is what you are here for.

Have a good year — and remember, 79% is not a B.

Love,

Your May 2013 self

Depend upon it, it is quite the thing.

Fiduciary concerns stemming from Kreacher’s dental surgery led me to accept a Weekend School teaching gig. Remember Kreacher?

I have bad teeth.

I got the job offer in a weak moment — I was looking at the $500 fang the vet took out of Kreacher’s jaw and thoughtfully preserved for me in a small plastic tube — and I thought, Hell, it’s only four weekends; I can do it.

But I can’t. Not well, anyway. Ostensibly, I’m covering an entire semester’s worth of material in four weekends, 12 hours per, but I don’t see how students can absorb so much so quickly. And oddly, there’s no set curriculum. The Weekend School denizens told me to “teach to (my) pedagogical strengths,” so I decided my strengths are (a) Sustained Silent Reading; (b) Outdoor Relay Races and Assorted Other Feats of Strength and Daring; and (c) Literature in Film. Happily, the other English teacher shares these strengths. Yesterday we combined forces; gathered the kids into one room with a projector, and watched 2.5 hours of glorious Sense and Sensibility (dutifully tied to a lesson involving Elements of Fiction and Drama.

Bonnets, tea, and the Byzantine intricacies of early 19th-century British landed gentry — quite amiable!

It’s my favorite movie. The kids HATED it, which made it doubly gratifying. Weekend School is supposed to be a bit punitive — students are there because they failed a semester of English — so there ought to be some intrinsic Guantanamo-ness. If you’re a 15-year-old who’s dying to be playing video games; skateboarding; or spray-tagging public property, two hours of Emma Thompson walking across the field in a bonnet will make you think twice about flunking Contemporary Lit ever again. Not to mention Kate Winslet in sausage curls, playing the pianoforte, followed by my 30-minute lecture on Beginning Feminist Critique. Yeah, have fun.

the newest surprise.

This week, we had an emergency lockdown at school after a gun was spotted on campus. The kids and I huddled in one corner of the room behind a barricade of desks as we waited for the all-clear; as we listened for noise in the silent hallway. Finally, we heard footsteps, followed by every classroom door swinging open slowly. The footsteps stopped outside our door. Someone turned the handle; came in. I’ve never been so glad to see a police officer in my life.

Everything was OK. But I realized a new thing about being a teacher: Something kicks in to make you fiercely protective of the kids. In that moment, those kids were mine; they were in my care; and even if I couldn’t save them all I was going to die using my body as a shield. It felt primitive; instinctual — like something that had been ready and waiting in me for years. Like generations of good mothers had prepared me.

I Touch The Future, But Sometimes I Want To Give It A Detention: One morning in the life of a high school teacher

7:25 a.m.: Unlock classroom door for a dozen teenage GSA queers, one of whom is weeping because she “just can’t take the drama anymore.” Comfort her while taking care not to make any physical contact. Let queers start Hot Cheetos party while I check voice and e-mail (both full. Grades are due today).

7:51 a.m.: Two girls come by to ask if they can do a “big extra-credit thing or whatever” in order to avoid failing my class. Final grades are due a week from today. I say no, because they each have a half-dozen extant missing assignments and are running a 23% and a 17%, respectively. They sigh and shuffle towards the door.

7:56 a.m. A student comes by — he won the scholarship I recommended him for! We high-five and get teary. Someday, he’ll be my heart surgeon or my tax attorney. No one wants to major in English anymore.

8:00 a.m.: Bell rings. Six students are in their seats. I start explaining what we’re going to do today: Theme vs. motif!

8:01-8:12 a.m.:  Fifteen more students wander in. They shuffle their bags and phones around, and chatter back and forth until I stop what I’m doing and tell them it’s time to focus.

8:14 a.m.: I finish explaining the day’s task. Students start working, but a confluence of hormones and distracting technology causes them to stop every 1.5 minutes to ask what they’re supposed to be doing. Here’s how they preface their questions: “Miss? Miss? MISS?” I refrain from responding with, “I AM 37 YEARS OLD. I HAVE A CAT AND THREE SWEATERS THAT ARE OLDER THAN YOU. I HAVE SPILLED MORE MARIJUANA THAN YOU WILL EVER SMOKE. DO NOT REFER TO ME AS ‘MISS.”

8:59 a.m.: First period leaves. Second period arrives. Rinse and repeat. One kid in the front is peering at me from between his thumb and forefinger, making a pinching motion. What the fuck? Oh. He’s crushing my head.

9:41 a.m.: A girl breaks down in tears as I’m explaining the difference between “theme” and “motif” (because it’s Friday, the kids’ brains repel this information like Scotchguard repels cat puke — willfully and well). I take her into the hall, thinking don’tbepregnant don’tbepregnant pleasedon’tbepregnant. She’s not. She’s upset because her grandfather has been taken hostage by the Mexican Mafia. I don’t know how to respond to this except to say, “Maybe it’ll be OK?” I try to give her my full attention but can’t, because through my classroom window I see kids taking out their phones. They are MARRIED to those goddamn phones. Phones are severely Not Allowed, and my principal does frequent stop-ins. I fantasize about confiscating the phones, setting them on fire in the middle of my classroom, and making the kids watch the pile burn.

10:28: I have to pee. I have to pee. I have to pee. But I can’t leave until the bell rings.

10:35: Lunchtime! I pee with grateful fervor, then try to work up some enthusiasm for a tuna sandwich at this hour. Ech. I turn off the lights and hide in a corner so no one will come in and talk to me about grades.

11:03: Fourth period. The kids come in smelling like corn dogs. No fewer than four of them interrupt me as I’m trying to start class: “What did I miss yesterday? I wasn’t in school because I stayed home sick/had a chorus performance/was visiting my Nana in the hospital/thought it was Saturday.” I ask them to check the “What Did I Miss Yesterday? notebook, labeled as such and conveniently located at eye level at the front of the classroom. At this very moment, in other countries, people their age are marrying, gainfully employed, and raising their own children.

11:58: Fire drill. Fuck. As I gather them up like ducklings — “Can I take my phone?” “Are we coming back?” “Is the building on fire?” “MISS? MISS?” I realize that I won’t be able to get them back on task when we return to class. And that I’m going to have to surreptitiously spot-check hands for fire alarm ink spray.

Next, in Part II: One Afternoon in the Life of a High School Teacher: I am observed by the State Department of Education whilst running a 103-degree fever.

The people united will never be defeated, until it’s time for progress reports

What inspires me about teenagers is their passion for justice and rights; their belief that the way things should be is the way things could and will be, with the right punch-kick combo of mountaintop outcry and moral certitude. What irritates me about teenagers is their Jesuitically complex, dedicated hunt for any loophole they can find in The System.

I see it every day with school rules. “No hats in the building” whips them up into an indignant frenzy, as does “No cell phones out on the desks.” I re-iterate these rules, oh, I don’t know, 58 times a day. Now that they know they can’t wear me down, they’ve begun experimenting with Reasons The Rules Are Stupid and We Shouldn’t Have To Follow Them.

“What if you’re 18?” one kid asked, looking at me like he’d really backed me into a corner. “They can’t stop you from having a cell phone out if you’re 18.”

“I turn 37 on Friday,” I said. “I can’t have my cell phone out either.”

“What about personal freedom? I’m going to write a letter of protest!” he said, and took out his phone to start composing it. He didn’t have any paper, though, so I gave him a sheet.

The other day, I had to hand down a new school rule: No earbuds in ears during class time, not even if you’re reading silently to yourself. They lost their shit.

“We think BETTER with our music!” they howled, and they may be right — something does seem to be happening vis a vis the evolution of the human brain in terms of multitasking and attention splitting* — but it doesn’t matter. It’s the rule. I have to enforce it or I lose my job.

“It’s only five hours a day,” I said. ” You can handle it.”

What I’m trying to say, I think, is Get used to the system. It’s bigger than you are, and fighting it will only wear you out. For every rule that you don’t like; for every requirement that you resent, I have a meeting I dread, taxes I don’t want to pay, and a ration of shit to take from someone above me. If you want a free and independent life — which, in our society, means staying out of poverty — you have to decide carefully which battles to pick, make sure they’re worthwhile, and be ready for the consequences as well as the joys. You have to stay in school, fly low, and beat the radar. Sometimes the only choices life offers are (a). Compromise; (b). Acquiescence; and (c). Defeat. There is no (d). None of the Above.

That’s one of the saddest things about being an adult; not liking any of the choices open to you. Knowing that the world is going a particular (pornsick, mysogynistic,unjust, wasteful) way, and that you don’t have individual power to turn the tide. You can protect and nurture yourself as much as possible — build a network of like-minded friends; start a community center; boycott the homophobes at Target; get into guerrilla activism and fuck up an offensive billboard. But you can’t just…make it all be different right now.

I miss knowing I could.

 

*Thumbs are evolving into a sleeker, faster incarnation too. We can’t send billions of text messages a day and not see some biological revamping within a few generations.

Today I introduced 87 teenage girls to Ani DiFranco

…and some boys, too, but I got a bigger kick out of watching the girls hear Ani for the first time (and Dar Williams and Amy Ray).

It was a lesson on annotating literature, but I used music instead. The kids listened to a CD, reading the lyrics as it played, and wrote down their reactions. I threw in some not-mysogynistic-if-not-totally-radfem Kanye and Jay-Z amongst the lesbian icons, then sat back and watched everybody listen and jot.

Those who grokked Dar’s When I Was a Boy really grokked. The guy star of our dance troupe got tears in his eyes and said, huskily, “I love it.” The lesbians seemed pleased, as did the militant bisexual, but they were shy and no one said much beyond, “She was, like, a tomboy? And she wanted to climb trees? But then she grew up and had to look good all the time?”

One of the football players asked, “Is she, uh, a transgender who’s gonna become a man now?”

“Probably not,” I said, “but you’re in the right ZIP code, if not the neighborhood.”

Then I asked them to look at some of the lyrics more closely:

When I’m leaving a late night with some friends

And I hear somebody tell me it’s not safe, someone should help me

I need to find a nice man to walk me home

and

So I tell the man I’m with about the other life I lived

And I say, “Now you’re top gun, I have lost and you have won.”

I felt like the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, trying to get anything out of them. Everyone was suddenly shy. So I asked the boys to search their memories for a specific occasion.

“Think back to the day someone told you to stop skipping and picking flowers and helping your mom bake cookies,” I said. “Think back to the first time someone told you to be a man and not cry. Try to remember who told you, and how you felt when you saw that if you didn’t behave a certain way, there’d be trouble. You’d have been somewhere between the ages of three and seven.”

A few of them nodded in recognition, except for Sensitive Romantic Poet Guy. “I cry all the time,” he said, and looked around to see if the girls liked that.

Then I asked the girls to remember the first time they realized they couldn’t do something they wanted — walk in a certain neighborhood late at night; wear a short skirt without being catcalled on the street; date more than one guy without being called a slut — without suffering consequences. Then I listed more things because my head was flooded with them: Remember the first time someone told you not to act too smart around boys; that girls suck at math; that there should be three diamonds of open air between your legs when you stand up straight, or you’re too fat.* Remember the first time your best friend started ignoring you because she met a guy. Remember when you realized that your mother worked and did everything around the house, too.

I told the girls there was another day coming: the day they got so used to doing a split-second evaluation of every man they got close to that they’d forget they were doing it. I didn’t use the term Schrodinger’s Rapist, but I narrated my own internal evaluation: Is this guy OK — not just “nice,” but safe to be around? Does he mean me any harm? Can I be alone in a room/an elevator/a parking garage with him, or not? All these questions, I explained, would become as unconscious and as natural as breathing. Because they are about survival, as a woman, in this world.

The only girl who claimed not to feel that way was the militant bisexual. She’s a bit contrary. Also, SHE HAD NEVER HEARD OF ANI DIFRANCO. I set her on the path of punk-folk Righteous Babe-ness via Google and await the results with great interest. I give it six weeks ’til the first tattoo.

 

*October, 1988. Girls’ bathroom just off the high school cafeteria.