Saturday, January 22, 2011

updates: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Back in October on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday, room 137 suffered the theft of its infamous illustrated toilet seat hall pass. Recently, a diligent young man reported a sighting (which I appreciated) but didn’t tackle the perpetrator (which I would have preferred).

Then, last week, Daniel, one of my former students who had heard of the disappointing loss, came into my room after school with a gift and a story. He and a friend had been driving and caught a glimpse of a detached hubcap on Front Street. Daniel had shouted, “Let’s get it!” (Who wouldn’t?) After procuring the filthy prize, they decided it would make a suitable replacement for my hall pass. And since it was already covered in grime, Daniel explained, it would deter students from choosing to leave my class, for they wouldn’t want to touch it. “But if they absolutely need to, they can just pick it up with a Kleenex like this,” Daniel said with a demonstration.

As a testament to poor timing, our school is moving toward a uniform hall pass system next month, with a nondescript, plastic pass for each room. My principal, who walked in toward the end of my conversation with Daniel, said that Daniel’s idea of gluing the boring plastic pass to the hubcap wouldn’t fly. So there’s really only one thing left to do: assemble a decorating committee to doodle on and bejewel the hubcap, then hang it on the wall until I retire.

November was a month of heated exchanges at New York City PTA meetings. Cathie Black, who has never worked in or studied education, took the helm as the new school chancellor. I wrote at the time about the irony of teachers being pressured under NCLB to be deemed “highly qualified” while Black, who wears $47,000 bracelets, is tasked with slashing costs in her school districts.

I wished NYC the best as Black and her deputy (who, unlike Black, did not need a waiver to serve in his position, since he has been a teacher, principal, and school founder) presumably buckled down. I read an article where she challenged the public to give her a chance, which seemed fair enough. But then she opened her fat mouth and shoved her Manolo-Blahnik-heeled foot into it.

I should point out that I’m not someone who typically gets riled up over verbal gaffes, be they by students, colleagues, pundits, or politicians. The outrage and media coverage following slips of the tongue are usually more irritating than the slip itself (which is often funny and more than a little true). Further, people make jokes within their professions that would be misunderstood by those outside, even if they were taken in context.

But when you’re in Cathie Black’s position, starting out in the red on the ledger of public opinion, you don’t assume you’re part of the fraternity that can now make “insider” jokes, and you certainly don’t arrogantly try out your humor at community meetings. Her joking response to the problem of overcrowding in classrooms was that birth control “would really help us.” My jaw dropped when I read it, and not because it wasn’t mildly amusing, but because it underscored her detachment in so many ways, not the least of which was implying that she was overwhelmed and had thought—however briefly—that her job would be easier if only there were fewer kids.

Again, as with many solecisms, her comment was true: education would be helped if we didn’t have to spread our resources so thinly. But in this economy, I doubt that any teacher less than two months into her job would venture to make such a thinly-veiled complaint. Black needs to shut up and swallow this bitter little pill . . . and leave others’ pills out of it.

November was also a month of heated exchanges in my school community when a stolen 9 mm gun was found in our building, a case still unsolved by local police. Partly as a result of three years of my nagging about the dangers of potential violence on our campus, we were two weeks away from a scheduled lockdown drill (complete with a half-hour, school-wide lesson plan) when the handgun turned up. Those of us who had worked on the drill watched in bemusement as our administration announced and reiterated countless times that “this drill has nothing to do with the gun found on our campus.”

What could be so terrible about scheduling a lockdown drill in light of recent events? Isn’t that, one of my colleagues wondered, what we call a “teachable moment”? We never received an explanation about why connecting the gun and the what-to-do-in-the-event-of-a-shooting lesson was such a bad thing, but it’s not surprising in a school and a district that has turned a blind, na├»ve eye to reality for years.

Recently, one of my colleagues interrupted a brewing fight in the hall. A student removed his sweatshirt, and a knife fell out. Warning nearby kids and alerting two other teachers on their way over, my colleague yelled, “Knife!” The kid picked up the weapon and ran, with the three teachers chasing him through the halls (over a girl) and out the building. They didn’t catch him, but they knew who he was, and those of us hearing the story that night were not surprised when we learned the name of the fugitive.

Three days later, the student strolled past me in the hallway. I learned that he had received only two days of suspension—not for the knife at school, but for running from the teachers. An administrator told me that the teacher wasn’t certain he’d seen the knife, so there wasn’t any solid proof of its existence. My BS meter pointed at red for two reasons: [1] when I heard the story from two of the teachers who pursued the kid, there was no expressed doubt about what had fallen on the floor; [2] if what had fallen was, as the kid later claimed, a skateboard tool, why would he run like hell?

My district touts a “zero tolerance” policy regarding weapons that’s been in place since 1993. I can easily explain the policy, as their application of it mirrors my own zero tolerance policy toward mushrooms: I loathe them, but if I’m at someone’s house and it’s just too inconvenient or awkward to mention my distaste for mushroom casserole, I’ll eat it. And that’s what happens in our public schools time and time again. They’re not fans of teenagers with weapons, but bad press about expulsions makes principals look bad, makes good athletes get transfers, and makes the front office frought with phone calls from worried parents. Therefore, they swallow the nasty truth and wash it down with a big gulp of denial.

So what is more terrifying: the knife or the placid response to it?

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