Hoarding

I never understood why on earth teachers would get so irritated when they had to stay after school for a meeting, administrative workshop, or conference. I mean, I stayed after school every day for sports, yearbook, and all sorts of reasons so why couldn’t they? Then I became a teacher.

All of a sudden, every free hour of my life is a precious gift, not to be squandered on such activities as “commuting” “working out” and “cleaning,” but intensely guarded and cherished for things like “lesson planning” and “sleep.” Leaving the two hour informational meeting about a Master’s degree from Florida International University, I returned to my apartment feeling as though those two hours had been violently robbed from me. I wanted to physically snatch them back, wind the clock with my bare hands, or whatever other physical force I could muster, and go back to 2:30 when the bell rang after my 4th day as a High School teacher.

The first day was [relatively] easy, as predicted, because who wants to be an asshole on the first day? Day two slid downhill as my 5th period class of now 31 decided that they would rather throw things at each other and scream rather than interview each other. I decided that we should write an essay about working in a group. Day three with 5th period was a definite improvement over day two, especially with the implementation of the “clap once if you can hear me” policy. Then, I got three new students. Every day, in every class, I have a new student. I don’t know where the come from; they seem to be hiding in the walls, ready to pop into my doorway schedule in hand. Sure enough, they all say “WILLIAMSON T” on their schedule, and should all be in RM 0014. To my dismay, I fill out another column in my gradebook, hand them a numbered index card with their assigned seat, and (of course) forget to hand them the rules and a letter for their parents.

Today, 5th period was a little better, but both Reading classes almost fell apart. I teach 3 sections of English 1 for 9th graders (and four 10th graders who failed the FCAT) then 2 sections of “Intensive Reading” which is essentially remedial English. In the past two days I have given a lecture on the word origins of “faggot” three times, explained the latin derivation of “bisexual” “autobiography” and “scholarly,” as well as taught the proper procedure for tearing paper out of a notebook; using a pen; and saying one’s name. Yes, I’m teaching high school.

As the first week ticks by, I laugh when veterans joke at the end of the day “178 days left, huh?” but I won’t lie and say that I haven’t thought about counting down too. I know intellectually that things are improving, and that at some point there won’t be so much work to do at school that I want to sleep immediately after unlocking my front door, but right now that’s hard to imagine. I know that there will come a time (hopefully not in the too distant future) when I won’t be planning the night before each class, and decorating at 6:40 am before the students get to school, but right now that’s where I’m at.

Another thing that is astonishingly difficult to comprehend is what exactly it means to earn a 9th grade student’s respect. It was clear at the outset that it would be “hard” to do, but knowing that a task will be difficult is categorically different from confronting that difficult task. When I stand in front af 34 students, some of whom have probably been arrested, seen a friend shot, or don’t see their parents every day and tell them “you may not leave my class until I dismiss you, not the bell” there is a certain degree of incredulity that these children will ever respect me. Perhaps the first thing to remember is that they are indeed children.

They like cartoons, Sponge Bob is a favorite; their parents drive most of them to school, even if they might drop them off an hour early because they have to be at work by 7:00; most of them care more about their hair and the brand of shoes they wear than about who’s paying the electric bill; a ‘teacher look’ can still make them squirm in their seat.

I wrote my first office referral today, shamefully, because I couldn’t maintain discipline in my class, but what frustrated me is that it wasn’t indicative of the progress that we’ve made in 5th period towards becoming a functional unit. 90% of the class seemed willing to stay until I had explained the homework assignment, but when one student sprinted out the door, I lost them. 34 students streamed towards the two exits to my room, and I could only block one. In a last-ditch effort to regain some sense of authority, I reached for the outswung door handle which that energetic little thing had opened, and yanked, pulling a little harder than was necessary.

The heavy iron door began to swing, and once I had set it in motion, I knew that there was no going back. Oh well, at least I was going to prove a point. My frustrations flung into that door, and as it gained speed I prepared myself for what was about to happen…THWAACCKKKKKK. It sounded almost like a gunshot as the metal door hit the metal frame, and immediately the 90% of my class that was in the room whipped around. I think I even saw several students scurry back to their seats. To any seat, as long as I didn’t see them trying to leave. A curt “get back in class” rounded up a few more stragglers, who sat wide-eyed as I explained in dulcet tones (and I do mean drippingly sweet and mild-mannered) that they should save their classwork to use tomorrow, and that there would be a quiz on rules and procedures the next day.

One of the girls who had refused to do her work for the past two days even looked a little taken aback. In almost schizophrenic fashion, I told them that they were now dismissed, and to have a nice day. As a slightly more orderly mass of freshmen moved to the door, I heard that same girl remark “dang, she feisty!” At least I’m not a pushover, right? A fellow ’04 corps member from Haverford told me at the end of the school year that I’d be fine, because I’m supposedly “tough as nails.” It’s not often that I feel that way, but I like to think that I hoard little bits of it to save for the right moments. Hopefully today was one of those moments.

Every day I suppose that things get a little bit better, but it’s pretty sad when an accomplishment is not having students yell at each other too much, or walk across my room in the middle of class. I should also probably be thinking more from my students’ perspective; maybe they’ve gathered up all the respect that they’re going to give to authority this year, and I’ve got to bargain for it no matter how high the cost. I hope they’ve saved at least a little for me to earn.

Abstract concepts like “trust” “free time” and “respect” become so much more tangible, infinitely more important in the midst of an arbitrary bureaucracy and completely opaque administration caught up in state audits and local politics. I get the privilege of seeing amazingly beautiful Miami sunrises every morning, and every second of sleep is that much more precious. I also haven’t spoken to old friends in a long time, and have to take 20 or 30 minutes after school to even fathom organizing the 6 new memos on my desk, let alone alphabetizing 5 classes of homework that I need to take home and grade.

At least we have gas for our stove (but the oven is still broken) and an internet conection (although the router won’t function), and I have a desk to sit at (if not a real chair). Shit, and it’s late already; I’ve got a quiz to write for tomorrow, and I need to leave my house in 8.5 hours so there’s no more time to waste!

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