Apathy Jack writes:
Evening all. Been offline for well over a month essentially for no reason other than I'm not so good at putting computers back together. I'll post something of my usual calibre again in the next day or so (no no, try to contain your applause - you'll make it look rehearsed) but for the time being, I figured I'd give the few of you still lingering around here something needlessly long to read. So, behind the cut is something I wrote last year, but never posted because, you know, it was too self-indulgent. But I figure after a month and a half of almost total silence, I can post what I want, and no one will notice.
You know, I’m beginning to get the feeling people think I’m not coping...
After I wrote this a very close friend of mine emailed me with real concern suggesting I get counselling. Now, this was remarkable not only because he is, in his own words, a constant smartarse, who had to break character to express his concern, but also because he hates counselling and the whole mentality behind it.
A few days later, a student told me that when I smiled, it didn’t reach my eyes...
Here’s the thing: I’m pretty good.
Am I still fucked up over leaving Hoodrat? Certainly. But that probably needs clarification.
I can, without expending more than a few seconds of brain-time, name half a dozen teachers – good teachers; most of them better than me – who were driven out of teaching by their time there. Didn’t go to another school, but actually jumped from the profession, pausing on their way out only long enough to make sure that everyone knew exactly where the blame lay. There were kids in Year 11 who, by the time I left, were onto their eighth English teacher. That’s eight separate teachers in two-and-a-bit years. Stats compiled in the last year or two showed that of the Year 13s, only thirty percent or so had been at the school in Year 9. This means that seventy percent of the students left, either for other schools, external courses, or, I don’t know, prison via the Dole office, and were replaced with kids who had been forced out of their first (and occasionally second, and more than once; third) schools.
And every year, we watched it get worse.
When I first started at Hoodrat, I was surrounded by an array of absolutely magnificent teachers – many of whom are now Deputy Principals around Auckland – and they all left, saying exactly the same thing (and I mean exactly: these people were friends, and had discussed the matter at length): Hoodrat was a good school, and, with the particular mix of staff and students, it had the potential to become a great school. However; after years of trying, they realised that they were unable to achieve this potential, so one by one they left.
But over the years, Hoodrat stopped being even a good school. We could see it happening, and a few of us tried to arrest the slide, but we couldn’t.
I mean, let’s go with Friday-before-last, where I ended up back at Hoodrat to run an errand. Story time:
Getting off the bus, I run into a group of students wandering out of the gates because, you know, school is boring. Walking past another bunch of aimless students, to the Marae, I am accosted by members of my old Classics class. They spend Classics there now, under the watchful eye of the Maori teacher, looking over the study notes I sent them a few weeks back. One gets a text from one of the several students who have actually gone to class. My replacement has walked out because the students won’t stop discussing adultery (this is not the first time he has left rather than face teenagers talking about sex – keep in mind he’s meant to be teaching them about the ancient Greeks...) and one of my boys is teaching the class.
I lose count of the students I greet on the two-minute journey to my old classroom – well over a dozen just roaming the corridors; and that’s not counting the two full classes that have simply been released over quarter of an hour before the bell is scheduled to ring. Threading my way through a maze of desks created by half a dozen students being exiled into the corridor, I burst into the room, announcing something English-teacherly like “Oi! I heard yous needed a teacher, ay.”
Non-entity that he is, it actually takes me a few seconds to register that my replacement, obviously having returned, is sitting at his desk. Any guilt I may have felt at so extravagant a faux pas is, of course, offset by the fact that by the time I see him, I’ve already noticed that yes, my boy is teaching the class, and he’s teaching them English.
I yell a goodbye, and go to sit in the back of a Dance class. It is being taken by the Drama Teacher, because, as she informs the class, the Dance Teacher is off somewhere in tears. The Drama Teacher is working the class furiously to get them up to spec for a forthcoming assessment, and at the same time taking calls from her tearful co-worker. As the students furiously step and turn, they are told that they are to be nice to the Dance Teacher when she arrives; that it’s not because of them she’s in such a state; it’s not because of them she’s leaving at the end of the year. And it’s not because of them that the other Dance teacher is leaving. Or the other Drama teacher, also exiting at the end of term. They all have their own reasons; nothing to do with the students.
“But I’m not going anywhere,” the Drama Teacher says with real tiredness in her voice. “I’m not leaving you.”
After the bell, I catch up with a few of mine, and deal with fallout from various crises. Not the least of which is that it’s just become public knowledge that The Creator is leaving at the end of the year.
On my way out, I get to talking to an old member of my form class. Well behaved and, when we last talked, the epitome of hard work, she tells me stories of being on daily report and getting stood-down. She tells me stories of conversations with my replacement; she’s an honest kid, so I know she’s not fronting when she reports saying things like “Fuck you, you can’t handle us!” She also tells me of the time the biggest boy in my class punched my replacement in the crotch, and was not punished.
So yeah, a typical day at Hoodrat High.
The staff who stayed for more than a year fell into two categories: hopelessly burned-out losers who were too afraid to try to get a job somewhere else (no, that wasn’t me, damn it!) and increasingly unhappy idealists who hated everything except the kids.
The students who stayed became close to us, because we were their best chance at an actual honest-to-god education. I had students tell me I was the only teacher who they had learned something from – students who had never actually been in my class, but through the years that they had a new teacher every term, or had inarguably incompetent clowns who couldn’t tell Shakespeare from a Bacon sandwich, I was the one who kept coming into their class to check on them, to make sure everything was running smoothly...
It’s sort of hard to explain how close you can get to people in that sort of situation. Staff and students alike became sort of like burned-out Vietnam vets; you know, not talking about it with anyone except each other; screaming out: “You don’t know, man! You weren’t there!” at random passers-by. I know that sounds at the least a bit dumb, and at the most quite comedically melodramatic, but, well... you don’t know, man, you weren’t there.
Like drugs, I guess: the lows were unspeakably horrible, but the highs made you forget about them. And, of course, like drugs, the highs were always shorter than the lows...
Like I said in that other post, while many of the experiences I had at Hoodrat were certainly not good, they were intense. Hell, the really interesting shit I got up to there, I’ve never blogged about. While a lot of it is the sort of stuff that could tip my stories from “that guy’s a weirdo, but he’s an interesting weirdo” to “holy, shit, that’s like in movies!”, it’s also stuff that could have gotten me fired if any of my less sympathetic workmates found out about it. (And by sympathetic, I don’t mean “who liked me”, I mean “who understood how things had to work at Hoodrat” – another one of those “you weren’t there” things, I guess...) Hell, there’re a few things that were serious enough breaches of professional conduct that even my new employers probably shouldn’t find out about them, just in case.
Was it hard to leave that? Yes. Especially given that I left in a hurry – I made the decision to leave on a Friday, and had accepted another job by the following Tuesday. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I made promises to the Hoodrat kids. Like the Drama Teacher, I promised them, that I would be there for them, that I would make sure they were alright.
And sure, I was just a teacher, and the world is still turning without me, but you know what? To hell with four or five kids standing on their desks and saying ‘Oh Captain my Captain’ – two students dropped out of Hoodrat on my last day, specifically because I left. I never mentioned that one because it sounded too implausible; like I’ve said in the past, the best stories I have are the ones no one would ever believe. Sure, like everyone, the stories I tell about myself are designed to cast me in a good light, make me the hero of my narrative, but they also happen to be entirely true. At the New School I’m just some guy who could never live up to the reputation he arrived with – and I’m surprisingly fine with that - but at Hoodrat, I was what I said I was, and I really made a difference in the lives of a lot of those kids. An old mentor of mine said that you need a lot of faith in teaching; that the effects of what you do may not be evident on the students for years, and they may never consciously acknowledge them But at Hoodrat I slept the sleep of the just every night with empirical evidence I was changing lives – even if only slightly – for the better.
Now, I had to leave for my own sanity; I was angry every single day. When I was actually teaching, I was happy, but every other second of every day – from when I woke up to when I went to sleep – I was angry at the Management of Hoodrat, and what they were doing to the education of my kids. I miss some of my old workmates; I look around the New School and think “Wow, think what (insert-name-of-Hoodrat-loyalist) could do with these resources/this pack of kids/whatever I’ve found that day”. And of course I miss the students. Sometimes I miss them so much it’s like a physical weight, and putting one foot in front of the other seems an impossible effort. But not even for one second in the last several months have I missed Hoodrat High as an institution.
It was the right thing to do to leave: I’m having a good time at the New School and there’s an interesting bunch of kids, whose futures I’ve already planned for them. I can see myself spending a couple of years here – if I don’t die of boredom from the lack of gang-fights, anyway. Hell, I wasn’t going to be of much more use to the Hoodrat students; spectacularly self-destructing some time in term three might have been pleasantly messy, but it wouldn’t have helped them get any credits.
Which is a needlessly long way of saying that I’m pretty good. I have bad days. But they’re mainly due to my famous lack of coping mechanisms rather than any real problems – and they are fewer and further between all the time. The rest of the time: I have a good job, I have many good friends, I live in a nice house with flatmates who like talking about books, and I have a beautiful girlfriend whose taste in men is so bad that she thinks I’m quite the catch.
Sometimes, though, the bad days leak onto the blog. You may have to live with that, but most of the time you probably won’t.
Of course, just by way of a coda: The other day, I had a long meeting with one of the New School’s broken-student-specialists about one of my form class. She started to list the problems this kid has – and just didn’t stop talking. This kid doesn’t have one problem, or even a bunch of problems spoking out from one original issue; this isn’t dominoes, it’s a multi-car pile up. Clearing my head from that, and another of mine came to tell me how upset she is over the disappearance of one of our girls. I don’t teach her – I don’t know her – but she’s vanished, and her family and friends are worried about her, and just want to know if she’s alright. I went to my class, and sat there, letting the students get up to more than they should because it was last period and my head was still spinning slightly. One of the girls asked if she could go to the bathroom, and I waved an acknowledgment. As she started to leave, one of her friends asked her how to do part of the work. She sat back down. “It’s okay, Sir,” she called out to me. “I didn’t really need to go to the toilet – I just wanted to go for a walk, but now I’ll do this.”
I tell you, kids, it felt like coming home...