by Peter Richmond
My friend Alison is a very good teacher in a very troubled inner-city high school — the kind of high school where the Thanksgiving-weekend football game against the archrival had to be cancelled at halftime because of gang gunfire in the stands, wherein the faculty were herded into the school and the doors were locked with the kids still outside, because of insurance concerns about letting kids inside on a Saturday.
It’s the kind of school where Alison’s students kept asking in this, her first year, “Are you coming back next year, miss?â€ť because traditionally, at her school, no good teacher voluntarily returns after a year in a school like this, in an underfunded district, where instructors who want to make a difference simply aren’t allowed to, and quickly move on, leaving the least committed teachers to teach those who need and deserve the most commitment. That’s when those teachers don’t “call out” — as in, fail to show up on some days.
Alison’s idealism could light up a large Midwestern city. That her spirit was broken last week speaks worlds about how tragically the system is rigged against the underclass. When a large city high school can fail its students so heartlessly that it can bring someone like Alison to tears, it’s time to stop pretending that the American Dream exists for one and all.
This past term, determined to bring art into the lives of her intervention lab — a class where the students need extra academic support — Alison applied for a grant, on her own, and got it. She used the funds to purchase an art vocabulary curriculum and pay for a trip to an art museum. Kids who’d never seen art, let alone talked about it, were now immersed in class discussions about the great masters, about graffiti artists.
Then she designed a research guide — 20 pages long, for kids who’d never done a research paper. Then she bought them art supplies. Then they created some astounding art, and on the bulletin board, wrote notes complimenting each other’s work.
Last week, the big day arrived: The field trip to the art museum, where she was going to be able to see their faces as they saw the real stuff. As, yes, in a very real way, all of their lives would change. She’d been looking forward to the trip as a beacon in the fog as the wearying year wore down.
But when she got to school, the principal told her that no fewer than 19 other teachers called out. Nineteen absences, because the school term was virtually over, so why bother to keep showing up. So instead of Alison and a colleague taking the trip, a guidance counselor and a security guard replaced them.
She watched her student’s faces fall when she told them she wouldn’t be coming, and tried not to let them see the devastation on her own. Then the trip went on as planned. Alison wasn’t there to see Anastasia’s face when, after working her tail off for a paper on Picasso, she saw her first Picasso. Or what Wilber thought, after diving into his research paper on Banksy.
While her kids were at the museum, Alison sat at her desk and cried. She lives three hours from her hometown, in a tiny apartment with a ceiling that’s falling down. Her work is her life. The satisfaction of making just a small difference in a student’s life is what keeps her going, day in and day out.
“But at the end of the day,” she told me, “the kids came out on top, and that’s what matters.”
Is she going to return? Of course. Alison doesn’t give up. Anyway — she got the gig through an organization that recruits recent college grads called Teach For America, and that’s what Alison intends to keep doing.
The trouble is, after just one year, she’s beginning to see what the America she’s teaching for really cares about: the kids in one-percent school districts where the “good” teachers reside, appreciated and compensated.
I suspect that there will come a day, all too soon, when Alison will take her impressive resume (after her first year, based on student evaluations, she was rated “accomplished” — unheard-of for a first year student in a huge city high school) to just such a district, where she’ll be out of the line of fire, and the school will be able to afford the best art supplies available — leaving her former high school, and all of its students, in an even worse place. As if that were possible.