Sunday, March 6, 2011

When Crumbling Infrastructures Attack

I have a personal story about the crumbling infrastructure in our public school system.  We all do.  Mine involves shock, bloodshed, and the haunting look in a student's eyes that became, for me, an unforgettable metaphor: You can't keep the outside from crashing in.

The lunch bell rang on a Wednesday.  I remember the day of the week because a group of colleagues were meeting in the library at 12:30 to share ideas about Teach Like a Champion and I had it on my calendar to attend.  That was not to be.  I was on an intellectual high after an especially good discussion with the kids about 1984.  Not every day is this way, but there are times in that class when I'm fielding so many provocative questions that one more would make my head explode.  In a good way.  The buoyant (not a word one expects to associate with 1984) energy in the class lingered after most of the students had dispersed, and as I hurried around the room putting things in order, I made mental note of various new avenues for future lessons now opened by our discussion.  In short, the sun was shining, I was in a positive mood, and as we are often told these days, positive thinking is all we need to move mountains. Brave New World, the novel my students read after 1984, grinds that proposition to dust.  But I digress, not unlike Holden Caulfield.

Holden needs no introduction as the stream of consciousness narrator of Catcher in the Rye, the novel we are now reading.  He is alienated and angry at the world's phonies, and many students find meaning in his existential crisis.  He may be unreliable, as you will read in the spark note style skywriting everywhere visible on google, but at least he is searching for authenticity in a world besieged by hypocrisy and lies.  In the midst of his emotional crisis and subjective appraisal of his environment, we can sense his humanity.  His point of view is limited, but he struggles to know reality in a deeper way where so many others will conform to what is on the surface; that searching quality, however frenetic, may be why Holden is so popular with so many students who hunger for the truth, no matter how grim.  But again I digress.

There are some prominent phonies setting education policy alright, people who want you to buy all that bull about "choice" and accountability, but by accountability what they really mean is selective accountability.  I mean when do you see the Wall Street Bankers holding themselves accountable? Never, that's when.  It kills me.  But I'm talking about infrastructure here, not people, and what I learned on that sunny Wednesday is that my classroom windows are phony.  That's right.  Phony!

Troubled adolescent that he is, Holden's voice nails it for me these days.  Every day I work with teenagers who are capable of cutting through the crap when a large portion of the rest of the society is conforming its way into moral, ecological and spiritual oblivion.  And I wish I could protect that questioning spark in them while at the same time protecting their feelings, but you can't always do both.  If it's a contest between happiness, (or more rightly comfort), and truth, then I'll side with truth.

Here is the truth: Our windows may give the impression of protecting us from the cold, the wind and the rain, but it is a false impression.  Sure, there are those days when my windows are tightly shut against the elements, the heater works for more than 5 minutes without coughing up a noise that would distract a meditating monk, let alone a hormonal teenager, and all is calm in my own private learning environment. But then there are other days, like that afternoon I went to let in a little air after my class had ended, and was startled by the glass shattering at the mere pressure of my hand pushing outward on the window handle.

Lest there be confusion, I'm referring to the kind of window handle that is designed for the very purpose of pushing outward on it to let air into a room.  As a teacher who believes in constant self-improvement, I am sorry to say I was not innovative in opening this window.  It was a lazy, automatic gesture and yet,  I did exercise a certain degree of force for a woman of my slight size and stature.  Full disclosure: I felt some resistance and for approximately 10 seconds pushed outward on the handle as hard as I could.  Many of my windows are stuck, so I was used to this strenuous pushing.  I did not push or even touch the glass, thankfully, or my hand might have gone right through.  I simply tried to open a window on a warm day and when I did, the glass shattered and gave me several puncture wounds, two on my right forearm and one on my right knee.  There was blood.  And there were students in the room.

Did I forget to mention the students?  The class had ended, but a few students stayed to hang out in my room; they had the misfortune of seeing me, their stunned teacher, getting paler as the pools of blood came into focus.  I struggled to keep up with the reality of this unreal moment.  "Has this really happened," I thought.  "Are you okay?" one of my students asked with real empathy and alarm?  I looked in her eyes and, in that instant, I had to be okay.  I had no idea how serious my injury was when she asked me because I was in shock. (Only later was I relieved to find out that my wounds were not serious.)  I knew only that I had to be okay because she had to be okay.  I wanted to create a screen between my wounds and this girl, to protect her from the figurative missile that had just landed in the room.  That is what teachers are supposed to do.  We nurture and protect our students while they are in our charge.  But I couldn't protect her from the flying shards of glass that day, and it haunted me.

The window that broke was promptly replaced by the district. The people there handled the accident smoothly and properly. Everybody at my site did everything right, from the beloved friend and colleague who escorted me to the office to the kind, reassuring nurse who bandaged me up for a trip to the emergency room.  From my caring, calm and efficient Principal to the concerned students at the scene, to the teachers who made sure to check in with those student witnesses, everybody did everything right.  In fact, nobody I know did anything wrong.  And yet the glass still shatters when it shouldn't, and in earthquake country that COULD lead to avoidable injury or even death.  I'm not saying it WILL.  I wouldn't want to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

I do wonder how much it would cost to replace the windows in a school with safer glass. Is there a rich foundation that wants to pump that kind of money into a very good public school?  It seems that brand of largesse is reserved for charter schools which, if they choose, can throw their struggling learners out the proverbial window.  Is there a Race to the Top competition for safety in schools our state can enter?  Should we train our students to compete on tests that will decide whether their classrooms are physically safe learning environments, among other things?  Oh wait, in a sense we already do.  Our kids deserve better, and it's not the teachers who are to blame. If we really want to protect our young people from poverty, or drugs, or racism, or homophobia, or any social ill, then we better start letting them in on the full picture that has only begun to come into focus in Holden's blurred vision.

Mine is only one insignificant story about the crumbling infrastructure in public education. We all have them, and I wouldn't want to turn a mole hill into a mountain.  I'd have to be Superman to move a mountain.  But that's only if I had to do it alone.


  1. Here are a few:

    The doors of the portables lock from the outside, which means if there is a shooter on campus and we are in a lockdown situation, teachers must open their doors to reach outside and lock themselves and their students safely inside.

    My classroom is part of a "wing" of portables which face each other in two rows. Outside my classroom, a lake appears every winter during especially rainy weeks. We joke about going sailing or fishing in the lake, but the reality is that when the lake gets to a certain point, the entire walkway between the classrooms is covered in water. It is a giant puddle that, due to the slant of the pavement, is about two inches deep right next to my classroom. Kids cling to the side of the ramp opposite my room, trying not to soak their feet as they walk. Others climb through the rails of each classroom's ramp to avoid the walkway entirely.

    When it rains and then is particularly freezing the next day, small patches of ice have formed in that same area. I saw a student slip and go end over end one morning. Thankfully, he wasn't hurt badly, just a little bruised, but he could have cracked his head or otherwise seriously injured himself.

    Lights. There is almost zero light in my portable wing. None of the outside lights on the classrooms have bulbs that work. They are all burned out. Well, maybe one works. I've been at school after dark, and that area is really scary.

    Aide from that, my situation is pretty good. Knock on wood, my roof isn't caving in or leaking, my heating and AC work well, and my desks are all in decent condition. But I know I'm lucky. And I know we shouldn't have to worry about things like this when we come to our place of work and when we teach our students.

  2. I just have one word for this thread: rats.