That bomb threat icon on your computer is ridiculous. Who does that? Which graphic designer in what software development company decided, “No, let’s not use a red button or a regular-looking hazard symbol of some kind. Let’s use a cartoon bomb”? Does the fuse light over and over and send cannonball pieces across your wallpaper?
As for your question—How do we go on teaching, and tending to our students, in a place where crazy people put bombs in the bushes?—I immediately wonder, how do we go on teaching in the midst of any sad or extreme circumstance? I mean, a bomb. Is a bomb is a bomb is a bomb. But it’s also, in this case, an animated gif.
We had a threat of gun violence at one of the schools in our district recently, and my aunt, who teaches middle school in a nearby district, told me her school received what the media is calling a “general threat,” placing her school in a modified lockdown. These threats were thrown into the air by unnamed accusers the day before Christmas break.
So everything is going to shit, and everyone’s getting shot or blown up. That’s how it feels. Or what we’re supposed to believe.
Not surprising, really. Images of devastated schools are everywhere—and not just from Sandy Hook. Politicians, movie directors, broadcast wonks, and boy billionaires make public displays of grief when shootings like the one at Sandy Hook happen, but such men also work to make sure Americans believe schools are devastated the rest of the time by producing and dealing in images of schools as cracking, crumbling wastelands populated by fat kids and lazy teachers who spend their days working with outdated ideas.
Follow the camera as it pans across the ruins: one hung-over teacher kicks up her feet in an overstuffed classroom; another teacher attempts to read an important book in an empty classroom of overturned desks; an attentive schoolgirl sits upright in her chair and raises a hand while chunks of cement fall away beneath her feet. Meanwhile, a little boy competes in a sprint with no apparent end or destination.
Sounds like a depressing working environment, if you ask me.
I have an idea. Let’s get a picture of a tow truck pulling an old schoolhouse down a road, mount the picture on poster board, and ask people on the streets what they think. After we let each interviewee ramble about schools needing to be more globally competitive, or needing to generate more productive members of the workforce, we’ll respond, “That’s nice, but we’re still wondering… this building, this schoolhouse here… is it a disaster zone, a crime scene, a house of ill-repute, a national monument, or an archaeological artifact? Whaddya think?” If they refuse to answer we will show them this photo slideshow of even more dispiriting pictures. This is a picture of an abandoned school bus taken over by vines, you’ll say to the person. And this is a picture of books eaten by moths, I’ll chime in. (Full disclosure: We will show the slideshow on a new technological device capable of projecting slideshows anywhere. A corporation gave me a box of TechDevs™ because I said TechDevs™ would help my students do the kind of sophisticated problem-solving that requires long periods of sustained focus. I agreed to use TechDevs™ in my professional endeavors.) (TechDevs™.)
What do you think?
Our goal will be to make people finally say what we keep hearing everyone imply: that schools are dilapidated and devastated and not worth saving.
If the people on the street refuse to choose from our menu of labels—disaster zone, crime scene, house of ill-repute—we will use our TechDevs™ to show scenes from Detachment, a movie narrated by a substitute teacher who at one point, referring to public education, says, “The whole thing is fucked… the whole thing is fucked.” You won’t believe this film, Betsy. A kid puts a cat in a backpack and punches it to death. A counselor played by Lucy Liu says to a student, “You are a shallow, disgusting creature.” One parent shows up to open house. (When a teacher wonders, “Remember when parents used to show up?” a colleague responds, “Remembrance of things past.”) During one transition between scenes, the substitute teacher says, “The jungle gym, the slide, and the swing have rusted together…” To top it off, the student who shows talent and spark through most of the film, the chubby girl who loves photography, ends up killing herself with a poison cupcake.
The Land Devoid of Hope is not worth saving and not worth living in.
Of course, the two wastelands we’re talking about are different. Actual domestic terrorism is not the same as the perceived lethargy and ineffectiveness of the institution of public education. But similar questions about the resulting post-modern malaise can be asked: Who’s to blame? What do we take from the wreckage? Where do we go from here?
Given the endless reports of bad teaching, we can probably blame teachers for the hulking, ineffective institution. Teachers don’t teach skills. Teachers don’t teach character. Teachers don’t incorporate technology. Teachers don’t make kids put away their phones.
The teachers at Sandy Hook, though, are heroes.
Lisa Myers pointed out the irony of the gap between the superheroe teachers of Sandy Hook and the slouchyslump teachers everywhere else on a blog hosted by Diane Ravitch. Teachers are usually portrayed as lazy and useless, but after a deranged man shoots up an elementary school and the teachers at the school save the lives of many students, they are America’s heroes. “We are the same people we were last Friday morning,” Myers wrote on behalf of teachers, “doing the same job we’ve diligently done since choosing our career.”
Myers could be right. Could it be that most of America’s teachers, if put in a similar circumstance, would be like the teachers at Sandy Hook and give everything they had? Could it be that most teachers are the type of people we want our children to learn from—and not the name-calling molesters we see on the news? Could it be that schools are doing good work? Why do journalists get to press the emergency icon on their desktops every time a new round of test scores comes out? Why do we see two types of teachers in the media to begin with, the superhero savior and the vacation loving slug?
Could the real emergency be the frequency with which we witness the wasteland of the human heart—and do so little?
We have even more reason to protect and steward our young people now, to believe in the character of those who educate them, to stop pretending like we’re standing on the edge when we’re not. We watch end-of-the-world movies and wait for the main character to find some hope after the supposed “end” comes and goes. An oversized grasshopper alien finds a flower thriving in a pile of rubbish, or a cute robot discovers a plant growing in a dirty shoe. We wait for the phoenix to rise. I don’t think the imagery fits our schools. We don’t have to be that dramatic. The End of Education hasn’t arrived. To say we’re at the end disorders our ability to identify real emergencies and losses and to feel the right things about them when they happen.
Then again, maybe the real lesson is that none of us, including me, can say. Outside the sphere in which we live and care for others, how can we? I don’t have to walk by the bushes outside Building 410, after all.
All the best to you,
P.S. Maybe our readers have some thoughts?
Derek Smith is the editor of this blogazine. This is his eleventh year teaching high school Language Arts.
Elizabeth Kalman is the great-great-great granddaughter of a Cherokee Indian maiden picked up by a wagon train on its way from the Trail of Tears in Texas to the Kentucky coal fields. Her great-great grandfather was one of the first merchants to bring silk worms to the U.S. He kept a detailed hand-written journal that Elizabeth recently transcribed and is in the process of editing. She frequently wishes she could have accompanied Henry David Thoreau on his excursions to Cape Cod. She grew up on Nantucket Island and is now an adjunct English instructor at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina, with an MFA from Seattle Pacific University.