“But that life, that time, seems like a dream now, even to me, like some long-dissolved rumour.” – Khaled Hosseini, Sea Prayer
Back when I taught middle school an older community member came to my class every week and gave us one hour of his time. At first I was confused to why he wanted to help, but he told me he only wanted to be useful. After a couple weeks we found a rhythm. He would come in without expectations. He would read to kids in the library. He would review an assignment someone had missed. He would shelve books. He would photocopy. He would sort papers. He would tell students about his work. He would listen to the stories of their lives without judgment. He never asked for anything. He never said the work was beneath his pay grade. He was solely interested in showing up every week and doing what he could with that one hour regardless of how small the effort seemed. Every week for the entire school year, maybe 35 hours total, he was present. I’ll never forget how much that meant to me and to the students he worked with. It was a powerful reminder of the impact that the consistency of purpose can have.
It’s been a year. I deeply miss the kids and my co-workers and the energy we created in that yellow classroom looking out over the trees and traffic of Green Hills. It’s been another year and still the high school kids report at 6:50AM. I’m sure the buses still drop kids off to locked front doors at 6:25AM. It’s been another year and still metro teachers don’t have any form of maternity leave (besides sick days) or even a plan for bettering compensation. Another year of rising housing and healthcare costs. It’s been another year of nickel and diming teachers, prohibiting the use of online fundraisers and removing tax exemptions for classroom supplies. It’s been another year of sexual harassment lawsuits brought against central office and schools. It’s been another year of HR bumbling and school board infighting. It’s been another year, and yet again I think I was present at more board meetings than one of the board members. It’s been another year of half-truths and (while maybe not illegal) unethical behavior from the director.
I’d like to hear from my teacher friends back home that nothing’s changed since we left. But that’s not true. A year later and teachers and students are worse off. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still great work being done, but it’s a result of the sacrifices and the Herculean efforts of amazing people in-spite of the hurdles and problems created by central office and the board. I wish I could say that metro schools are a place I would like to return to, a place where I would like to enroll my kids and to work and grow as a professional. But that’s simply not the case right now. Besides the family of teachers and school administrators I know and respect, there is nothing attractive about the prospect of working there again. Based on the teacher turnover and vacancies, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Three years ago I felt that the district wasn’t moving, a rudderless ship. Now I can see it’s moving in the wrong direction. And as a teacher, a parent, a tax payer, and a voter, I don’t know which is more infuriating. It’s been a year.
“Over the last two hundred years there has been a great improvement in personal and public hygiene and cleanliness; and this was largely brought about by persuading people that the results of being dirty and apathetic in the face of disease were not acts of God, but preventable acts of nature; not the sheer misery in things, but the controllable mechanisms of life.
We have had the first, the physical, phase of the hygienic revolution; it is time we went to the barricades for the second, the mental. Not doing good when you usefully could is not immoral; it is going about with excrement on your hands.” – John Fowles, The Aristos.
I look at these pictures and think about what public education could be, what it should be. Not for I.B. or magnet or charter kids. For all kids. I’m only a day’s travel away from where I taught, but I feel so far removed from the struggles that my teacher friends still endure. I don’t want to, but I still find myself reading the blogs and newspaper articles and the tweets. I still text with teachers and students trying to support and empathize. The reality is that a year later I’m still overly invested in the work of that community like some sort of co-dependant ex-boyfriend. It’s a manifestation of survivor’s guilt I think.
So here is my request. If you have the means, please consider loving on a classroom or a teacher or a kid for the rest of this year. Say thank you by giving a little of your time or a few of your resources or even your attention to the needs of our teachers and students. Choose to donate a book, new or used, each week to a class library, buy a pack of copy paper or tissues or hand sanitizer when you are grocery shopping, or offer to volunteer at games or concerts or arts events. Reach out to specific teachers at your school and ask what they need. One hour a week, one book a month, listen to one student story at a time. As a species we seem to like the myth that big efforts lead to big results. But that’s not how lasting changes happens. I can’t run a marathon because of one good workout. Small efforts over extended periods of time result in big changes. Want to get fit? Don’t go to the gym for eight hours. Go for 20 minutes every day. Want to write a book? Don’t aim for 85,000 words in a week, write a good paragraph every morning for a year. Want to change education? Invest your time and energy in one kid, in one classroom teacher, in one school consistently and repetitively.
This is the only answer I have to frustration that comes from paying attention. In between the distracting news stories, I’m putting my head down and continuing to work where I am. I know that a year from now the board will be the same. The director will probably get a contract extension. Salaries will remain the stagnant. But I also know that those kids you read to, those books you donate, those teachers you support will be better off because of your small commitment to change. Be good and keep in touch.