On Love and the Educational System

“…and equitably speaking, it’s abysmal. The system is failing them. Our children are being left behind.” I had pens lined up along my college adviser’s desk, modeling the achievement gap due to summer learning loss and income inequality. My hair was falling out of my ponytail and my brow was unnecessarily sweaty.

She blinked at me through her Sally Jesse Raphael glasses, and handed me a print off of my fall class schedule. “Here is what you should take next year.” Her pink finger nail tapped the top of the page with a click.

“Will these help me become a principal?” I asked her. I already knew how to look up my classes online. I had come to her for advice.

“I really am not sure.” She fumbled with a couple pamphlets in her top desk drawer and handed me one with crumbled corners that said “Graduate School and You” on the top in forest green letters. It had been stuffed in the desk drawer so long I expected a puff of dust when I opened it.

“Is there someone I can talk to today about how to–” she was closing her filing cabinet loudly. “How to ensure I am taking the right courses to set me up to become a principal?”

“You’re an education major. I’m sure you’re fine.” She stood and rotated her hips towards the door. The universal sign for get out of here, please. We are done.

These meetings continued throughout the rest of my 4 years in college. Advisers often having very little advice but to carry forward with my outlined courses, like robots at an airport, waving me through to my next destination without checking my ticket.

In my classes I learned how to teach geometry, pre-calculus, physics, chemistry, and I spent more practicum hours in the classroom than any of my peers at nearby institutions. Thanks to their robotic system, I was completely prepared to be a teacher but I was fairly certain I was looking to be something else.

I knew, mathematically speaking, I could teach approximately 1,200 students how to add and subtract negative numbers in 40 years of teaching. But that even if I did, that it wouldn’t change the centuries of systematic inequalities that were built to hold them back professionally, and personally after they left the K-12 system. I could write the most perfect lesson about the understanding the earth’s atmosphere, but my students absolutely couldn’t eat it if they hadn’t had a meal in two days. And what good was it to try to teach a bunch of hungry 13 year-old kids on a hot September day? I could spend hours with my favorite student, curbing behaviors ingrained in them after decades of abuse and neglect, only to have them derailed the following year by a teacher unprepared for their specific learning needs.

Every day that I spent in the classroom observing, interning, student teaching, I became more and more passionate that our education system needed a complete and total overhaul.  I read everything I could my hands on about community school systems, education reform, family assistance education programs, voucher programs, magnet schools, charter schools, teacher training.

After an undergraduate degree, a master’s license program, and a year at a middle school teaching math, I landed a job in a city school system working to “remove non-academic barriers” to education. It was a grassroots program that included teacher professional development, community building, parent education, and social services. Instead of a classroom of 30, I would have 500 students and I would be working alongside the principal, the city, and the district administration to reform the educational practices at our little elementary school. I would be working 60-70 hours a week and I was ecstatic. I felt like this would be the ticket to change. I knew that there would be red tape of every kind, from decades old policy to stubborn old white men, but I was optimistic and proud.

On my first day at the school, I thought back to my meeting with Sally Jesse Raphael and her pink fingernails and her useless pamphlets. I thought about how far I had come. I spent the day sorting through an old filing cabinet, searching for community partners and parent connections that might strengthen our school.

“Oh MY GOD.” I wheeled around at the squeak. His name was Gabe and he had just come running in from the playground. He was about 3 feet tall and was missing so many of his front teeth I would be truly shocked if the tooth fairy wasn’t bankrupt.

“What is it buddy?”

“This kid! This kid just spit on me! Right on my head! Right here!” He was pointing to the middle of his head, where sure enough there was a very visible spot of foamy white spit.

“Oh well, that seems…” I had never worked with elementary school kids before. Only middle school. I covered my mouth with my hand so he wouldn’t know I was smiling.

Gabe threw his hands in the air. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before!” Tears began streaming down his face as he paced my office. “What are we going to do!?”

He began to spin out, his tiny body shaking in sobs. As a single woman with no nieces or nephews, not even a friend with a dog, I truly didn’t know what to do in this scenario. I got down on my knees and looked Gabe in the eyes, “Gabe, honey, you’re just…you’re just going to need to get a grip.” He blinked. I blinked. “Okay?”

We stayed like that for the briefest of moments, Gabe and I.
I was crouched in front of him between my new desk and his acorn of a face, spittle dripping down the side of his ear. He wiped a few tears from his eyes, measuring my sanity, I think. And then he let out one, low, hollow sob.

I stood up with a sigh, draping my arm around Gabe’s shaking shoulders as he sputtered and screeched. I was completely prepared to dismantle the educational system, but I was not prepared for this.

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