tale of toil by peter wentworth
The clangor of the nine o'clock bell jerks me out of my seat in the warmth of the Teacher's Room and hurries me down the corridor and out into the playground. It is a raw, gusty November day. I clutch my mug of tea like a talisman as I approach the wobbly, wriggling line of kids back up behind the big white "20" painted on the worn asphalt. All down the length of the building, the other teachers are doing the same with their lines of kids.
"Good morning," I say, unconsciously slipping on the teacher's mask (impartial friendliness, enthusiasm, and firmness in equal part) and the teacher's voice (the same mix, pitched to carry without effort, pushed out by the belly muscles like an actor's). A couple of rather desultory "Hi's" and "Good morning, Mr. Wentworth's." Antennae up, I move down the line of kids like a politician, shaking hands, checking body temperatures. This is the toughest hour of the day. If we can get through this without any major incidents, it's all downhill until 3:15.
The typical day in Grades 1-3 kicks off with an hour for Reading. At Warren G. Harding Primary School (a pseudonym, as are all the other names associated with the school I'm writing about) we have "split reading." That is, about half the children in my second-grade class come in for reading and "Language Arts" at 9:00 and leave at 2:00 while the other half arrive and leave an hour later. Following the near-universal practice, my slower group is the one that comes in early. When the faster comes in we have roll call, "sharing time," and the baroque business of
collecting lunch money. This involves sorting through the change that flustered parents scrabble out of purses and pockets while the school bus mumbles and honks fretfully at the corner, and passing out the tickets (free, half rate, full rate, single, multiple, milk only). If a teacher is lucky, she/he has an aide to deal with this. If not, bang goes teacher's recess.
After recess, usually Math. After Math, lunch - a blessed forty-five minutes at Harding, most other places only allow half an hour. Then comes the loosest hour in the day - Science, Social Studies, Art, or whatever usually in half-hour chunks. At two o'clock, the early group packs up and heads for the bus while the late group gets ten minutes recess before struggling back in for its dose of Language Arts. After dispatching this last group at 3: 10, most teachers spend a couple more hours preparing lessons and materials for tomorrow, correcting children's work, and cleaning up the classroom. Depending on the complexity of the plan, one may be there as late as 4:45 to 6:00 pm. Bilingual teachers, who have to plan two sets of reading lessons routinely stay until 5:30.
As I walk down the line little Teresa Paganloc wraps herself around my hip with a joyful grin. Richard Guiton, handsome as an Ashanti warrior, shows me an elaborate paper airplane his dad helped him to make. Aminah Freeman, big and sassy, grabs my hand and tries to yank me next to her. Billy Erskine stands glowering, hands jammed in pockets, jacket hood up.
"Hey, Billy," I say. "Looks like somebody hit you with the grumpy stick." No response. "What's the trouble, Billy?" I insist.
"Ma-a--a-n," he growls softly, staring at the ground.
"Spit it out," I urge him.
"These two kids been teasin' me on the bus. I didn't say nothin' to 'in, but they won't leave me alone., Ma-a-a-n, after school I'm gonna kick their butts! " He smacks his fist into his palm two or three times, sealing his resolve.
"Relax," I say - a word I probably use with him more than any other. "During recess you tell me who those kids are and I'll talk to their teacher. Meanwhile, we've got work to do, OK?" Billy nods sullenly.
My heart sinks. If Jaharie and Angie are in the same kind of mood, the chain reaction will blow their reading group clean out of the water. It will also probably mean the Principal's office and parent call before the end of the day.
An increasing proportion of children in urban public schools are from what used to be called "broken homes." That is, they are being raised by their mothers, sometimes in tandem with grandparents and aunts. Father is (check where applicable, as they say on Welfare applications): separated; on the lam; in the joint; psychopathic; alcoholic or heavy drug user; and/all of the above.
Nowhere are the deeper consequences of "Reaganomics" (i.e. current capitalist reality, whoever's in charge) more visible than in public schools. The decrepit buildings, obsolete textbooks, and overworked, underpaid staff are trivial side-effects compared with the havoc the 80's corporate counterattack is wreaking on poor and working-class children in the home. 55% of Black children are born to single mothers, many in their teens; unemployment for Black men is officially around 20%; men are leaving the labor force at about the same rate as women are entering it; rape and child abuse are on the rise. In my classroom, these statistics take on a savage three dimensionality.
Billy is a case in point. Mrs. Erskine is a computer programmer in a downtown office, clinging to job and income
by the skin of her teeth, but at least making the same rate as her white female counterparts. Billy's father hasn't had regular work in four years. They separated two years ago, after a good deal of misery and some violence. Most of what I know about him comes from Billy, since Mrs. Erskine hardly speaks of him. I've met him once on the street, a soft-spoken, gentle-eyed man in worn slacks and watch-cap, taking Billy out for a cheese-steak sandwich on a Friday night. Billy introduces us, with surprising pride in both of us. My teacher. My Daddy.
"I know Billy got some problems in school, but we always tellin' him to study," Mr. Erskine said. We shook hands. Walking away, I thought about the millions of women working for five and six dollars an hour in offices while their men, workers who once pulled twelve hundred a month before tax, along with health, dental and retirement plan, mope in front of the TV or haunt the corner by the liquor store. Now the rage and humiliation accumulates - inside them, abruptly grounding its voltage through the bodies of the very women and children they have been trained to believe it is their masculine responsibility to "provide for." These are the actual human consequences of what economists call "the shift to a post -industrial, service-based economy.
The other children in line are getting restless and testy. "Hey, Mr. Wentworth, can we go inside? It's freezin' out here!" Thomas yells. There is a small chorus of agreement. "OK, let's go," I call. Behind me the line shuffles toward the door.
It takes three minutes to get everyone up two flights of stairs. Mrs. Atkins, my aide, lets in the first arrivals, while I break up the two quarrels that have developed at the rear. This is a worse morning than usual, but not an exceptional one.
Mrs. Atkins is fairly typical of the classroom aides in our district - a tough, shrewd, good-humored Black woman of about forty. I was an aide for about a year and a half before I became a teacher, so I know the group pretty well. Most got their jobs when the district was integrated in the mid-sixties. They were mothers of children in the same schools in which they now work, who came in (initially often as volunteers) to save White teachers who had not the faintest idea how to cope with working-class Black children.
The aides' miserable pay - $5.33-6.20 per hour for what are usually twenty-five or thirty-hour-a-week jobs - and low status is a result of this situation. While most aides have become literate enough to teach elementary school children, few have formal qualifications beyond a high-school diploma. Nevertheless, they are indispensible - and to a young, inexperienced teacher like me, invaluable. I learned more about managing young children from the aides in three months than I learned from my "master teacher" in a year.
When I was an aide, I once asked our Business Agent, a puffy, thirty-fivish little bureaucrat, why our pay was so bad. At first he took this a personal affront, but after a little he settled into a confidential, one-white-man-to-another knowingness. Without actually saying so, he implied that "these ladies". couldn't possibly earn more anywhere else, that after all they mostly weren't too bright, that besides, the fringes were good for part-time and that when you came right down to it, they were pretty lucky. I walked away cursing myself for being too cowardly to tell him what I really thought of him: but at the time I needed the job and knew he could screw me with the district if he took a disliking to me.
Mrs. A takes the most advanced subgroup to read a story out loud together from the reader. I assign the middlelevel kids some pages in their workbook and steel myself for the lowest group Billy, Jaharie, and Angie. I've tried some "Language Experience" when I've had time - getting Billy to dictate a sentence which I write down, then having him copy it over and read it out loud, then draw a picture of what it says, that kind of thing - but I can't work one-on-one very much of the time. So the Reading Specialist (who can't work with them himself until they've gone through the lengthy bureaucratic procedure of Referral to Special Ed) has prescribed a "linguistic reader. " This is a simple narrative that builds on "word families" (chub/cub/tub, hen/Jen/ men) via extensive repetition of a tiny vocabulary. The group has already read the story about three or four times and is crawling through the workbook an inch at a time; filling blanks, checking boxes, tracing letters.
I settle the three of them around me in one corner of the room.
Billy groans. " Oh man, not again! I don' wanna read this dumb book!"
Jaharie sees his chance to score off Billy." I do, Mr. Wentworth! I do! I wanna read it. I can read this book good!" Billy scrunches down in his chair with his arms folded tight across his chest, pouting, Angie makes a face at him and giggles sneakily.
"Be quiet, Angie!" Billy snarls. Angie grins triumphantly.
"OK, let's read," I say. "Jaharie, you start." I have long ago given up trying to get Billy to read when he refuses like this. Jaharie reads a page at a reasonable pace with few errors. At the end of the page he pauses triumphantly.
"I did good, hub, Mr. Wentworth?" Before I can say a word he goes on "Hey, Billy, you only doin' that 'cause you can't hardly read nothin! "
Billy does his fist-in-palm routine and throws his book on the floor.
"Knock it off, Jaharie!" I say, sharply. "Now Angie, you read a little." Angie, as usual, has not been paying attention. She divides most of her time between day dreaming and trying to get attention from the boys in the class - mostly by flirting and "love notes," sometimes, as with Billy, by provocation. Now she giggles again and starts reading, stumbling over every second word.
"Oooh, you readin' bad, Angie!" Jaharie coos, with a brilliant smile on his guilelessly beautiful face. "You almost as bad as Billy."
"Shut yo' mouth!" Angie snaps.
"Shut up yourself, faggot!" yells Jaharie, illogically. Angie begins to cry and kicks Jaharie. I send her back to her desk with her workbook, threaten Jaharie with being sent outside, and concentrate on Billy.
With me at his side, encouraging, giving total attention, Billy struggles through a sentence word by word, like someone crossing a river by leaping from one slippery, wobbly rock to the next, his whole body tense with the effort. Another sentence, the same way.
"Good, Billy, great!"
Billy shakes his head. "I don' wanna read this book no mo'! " He pulls his jacket over his head, which usually means he's going to cry. At her desk, Angie is sitting, eyes unfocussed, occasionally giving her head a little shake or giggling, otherwise doing nothing. Jaharie is actually writing in his workbook. In a few minutes, or tomorrow, I'll try again.
Every urban elementary classroom I've worked in has contained at least one or two "emotionally disturbed" children who "act out": in other words, angry, bitter, self-hating kids who can't get along with their peers, their teachers or themselves. Most I've met were Black or White, some Latino, very rarely Asian. Most also come from Billy's kind of home - raised by their mothers alone, by foster parents, or shuffled around between relatives. Many are also "learning disabled": that is, they have trouble learning to read. These three problems - damaged family, anger and self-hatred, and learning difficulties - interact in
complicated and destructive ways.
Declining test scores have forced a widespread recognition that the obviously "disturbed" and "disabled" children are only extreme cases of problems that afflict much larger numbers of children a lot more diffusely. In the recent flurry of anxiety over the decline in public education, the Blame Thrower has been trained in all directions - at teachers of course, at "permissive" curricula and parents, at TV, and so on. There are grains of truth to most of the accusations (except the idea, favored by Reaganoids, that the abolition of, school prayer is where everything went wrong) but none of them really get the whole picture.
It begins with parents - single or couples - under terrible economic and social pressures. Too much work or none at all, not enough money, isolation, frustration, boredom, despair. Children born into this set-up - often into a relationship that's already coming apart by the time they can talk - are chronically insecure. They depend for emotional sustenance on one or two adults who, worn out by survival, seldom have enough time and energy for them.
Mrs. Erskine, a handsome, welldressed woman in her mid-thirties, sits trembling at the corner of my desk for our twice quarterly conference, which we've had to schedule during recess.
"Often times when I get home I'm really exhausted," she tells me, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. "And, you know, Billy want to play, he's got, so much energy, but I'm just too beat, so he keep on at me and then I speak harsh to him... I just don't know what to do sometimes." She wants me to find some solution, some magic that will put Billy back on track. Every month or two a parent will unburden her or his soul to me as she/he never would to a psychiatrist ("I'm not sick!") and expect me as a "professional" to be able to sort it out. Even as teachers are denigrated in the mass media, workingclass parents are turning to them more and more as primary collaborators in the basic socialization of their children.
School is merely a continuation of the problem. Harassed teachers with classes of twenty-five to thirty children cannot possibly provide enough individual or small-group attention to make up for nurturing deficiencies in the home. Nor can they substitute for the home's crucial educational function. Children learn the essentials of language in the home, not at school. If the home lacks "complex verbal transactions" (i.e. real conversation) between its adult members, the child's early language learning may be critically impaired. Meanwhile, the child in the "language-poor" home usually winds up parked in front of the TV - a world of constant exciting violence, of flashy expensive toys dangled before her eyes, of reality chopped into three-minute segments. Children thus electronically weaned can only be infuriated by the relatively rigid collective structures of
the classroom, the static dullness of words on paper - and utterly unprepared for the complex tasks it requires of them.
By 11:45, Billy is in a bad way. He has thrown his books and pencils on the floor several times and is hiding under his jacket again. If I try to get him to do anything, he just shakes his head violently. Finally he mumbles: "Gimme a knife."
"A knife? What do you need a knife for? "
"I wanna cut myself."
In a horrified rush of understanding, I put my arm around his shoulders and speak very quietly in his ear. "Billy, it's not your fault. You've been trying hard, and when you don't get angry you do good work. You're a good guy, Billy, and I'm your friend."
In a moment his anger melts and he begins to cry, pulling the jacket over his head again. I stay with him for a while,
wishing I could just take him out of there - out of the noisy, chalky, faded room into the open air, and walk and talk with him. But I have twenty-seven other children I am paid to deal with . I get up and go back to the front of the classroom to line the children up for lunch.
Everything conspires to make children like Billy blame themselves for the disaster that is befalling them - the short tempers of exhausted, frustrated parents, the reproaches and punishments of exasperated teachers, the fact that the majority of their peers seem to be doing all right. When they see those peers outstripping them in reading, math, drawing - peers whose parents have time enough to talk to them, education enough to fill in for the teacher, money enough to stock the house with books and educational toys - they feel inferior. They are trapped
in a violent oscillation between selfhatred (manifested as depression, inability to concentrate, bitter contempt for every scrap of schoolwork they actually manage to do) and outbursts of rage (smashing things, verbal or physical attacks on other children). In between are more subtle symptoms compulsive lying and stealing. The fact that their parents often feel the same way about themselves slams the trap shut.
At 12:07, the Teachers' Room is already full of conversation, clattering plates and tobacco smoke. Most of my colleagues are women over 45, several only a few years from retirement. Since declining enrollments and slashed budgets resulted in a virtual hiring freeze throughout the late '70's, new teachers like me are still a relative rarity except in Bilingual, where the majority are young. As a result, there are cliques, pecking orders, unwritten rules that have evolved over decades of association. The same groups tend to sit at the same tables, day after day. I've long ago given up trying to spot the Invisible Shields around this or that chair, table, or conversation and simply plop down wherever I feet like it, ignoring snubs. Sometimes I'll select the most likely conversation, other times I'll seek out somebody who can give me advice on a particular student.
Most are glad to be asked. Teachers (like jazz musicians, field surgeons, and any number of other kinds of skilled workers) instinctively socialize their knowledge and experience, not out of ideological conviction but out of necessity. Standard openers over the Tupperware boxes of chicken salad and glistening mounds of Saran Wrap:
" What do you do with a child who ... ?"
"You know what Lamont did today?"
"How's your little Marina these days? Any further out of the zone?"
"How'd that egg-carton activity work out? "
Good teachers are obsessed. They trade advice, references, anecdotes about the children the way other people trade recipes and gossip. Mediocre teachers join in too, because it's easier than trying to go it alone. Yet in all this rich exchange of information, the amount of social reflection, of stepping back from the trees to look at the forest is generally negligible. Not that they can't make the connections if they get around to it. I once heard a group of aides and teachers go from the comings of the school lunch program, to increased military spending, to the risks of intervention in Central America, to the dismal future for their pupils, all in less than five minutes.
As a rule, though, primary teachers don't talk much about social questions. Nor do they think of themselves as workers, although some participate in union affairs. When a strike is called, they go along. Unlike high school and junior-high teachers, who tend to be militant, elementary teachers seem to regard teaching as simultaneously a profession (rather than a job) and as a duty, an extension of the mothering they have given their own children, part of their traditional role as women. For the most part, they do not question this role (nor the continuing grotesque sexism of many teaching materials, and, for that matter, of children's TV, books, etc.), any more than they question the content of schooling, the power relationships within the educational apparatus, or the class division of society which presents itself so painfully in the lives of many of their pupils. But also for the most part, and for some of the same reasons, they do their best within the terms of their situation.
I watch the "two-o'clockers" charging across the playground to where others are already lined up waiting for the buses. Billy, whose parents helplessly love him but can't live with each other. Jaharie, whose junkie father goes in and out of jail and in and out of marriage with Jaharie's mother. Angie, whose father from all the signs (extreme aversive reaction to adult male touch alternating with open sexual suggestiveness) molested her until her mother kicked him out. Brian and Jake, my two White working-class toughs, whose parents keep them awake screaming at each other. Aminah, bounced back and forth between an easygoing alcoholic father and an ultra- authoritarian Fundamentalist mother. Teresa, whose struggling immigrant parents punish her unmercifully every time her grades are less than perfect.
Then I turn back toward the room as the "Three-o'clockers" come in from recess - almost all of them cheerful, studious, cooperative kids. Kids who have at least one parent already there to welcome and talk and play with them when they get home at three-thirty. Kids who are read aloud to every night, who have their endless questions about the world patiently answered, who get to travel to faraway fascinating places, who are encouraged to dream, who are regularly celebrated as the center of attention. For them, the foundations of learning are so firmly established at home that the deficiencies of the schools - the insufficient individualization of learning, the dreariness of the classroom situation, the necessity for overrestrained and uniform behavior that is imposed by this situation - affect them relatively little. For them, the problems will come later when the kindly, luminous world of middle-class childhood starts to wither around sixth or seventh grade. Even then, for many, the pleasure they take in learning will survive the schools and everything else, though it may well be extinguished by the necessities of selling their lives away in order to survive.
Conversely, some of the "two-o'clockers" may find some emotional stability and some jump-start of motivation that will enable them to catch up with the others and escape the trap that has been prepared for them. But the fate of the majority has already been decided:
"Them that's got shall get,
Them that's not shall lose.
God bless the child
That's got its own."