A Schoolteacher Surrenders

A personal essay by Paul H. Belz

America is the world’s lone superpower in 2002 but it’s also a place where one urban English teacher is spending his career’s fortieth and final year not eagerly sharing each day with students and colleagues but utilizing accrued personal leave days to play bridge each morning at the mall. The lone superpower’s public school system is disintegrating as teachers futilely search for coping mechanisms.

When conversation turns to education at the little table by the front window of the Starbucks Coffee shop, he struggles to recall his last fulfilling teaching experience. It hasn’t been a career he’s enjoyed. It’s been one he’s endured to support his family. That’s significant in America because the sentiment is common in the profession as the nation’s world educational ranking plummets.

I first met Larry at the mall a year ago, the day he animatedly joined a mutual friend with whom I was walking. That introduction has lingered in memory because it incorporated a strange manifestation of athleticism. The mutual friend never varies her walking pace once she achieves a targeted pulse-rate, and that pace is borderline breakneck. Larry effortlessly maintained that speed, avoided structural obstacles and pedestrians, carried a fully-opened high school yearbook and excitedly pointed to his senior portrait and that of his teenage heart-throb, Janice.

He hadn’t spoken to her in forty-two years but recently encountered her at the mall and discovered that she too was a regular mallwalker. While both live in a Jewish neighborhood eight miles to the west, he began frequenting this mall because it’s midway between home and the school where he teaches, and for Janice the lure was proximity to the thriving temp agency she founded after a quick burnout from her own teaching career.

Decades ago each had chosen a Catholic spouse during a period when neither religion graciously countenanced mixed marriages. As with most such families, children were raised in the religion of the mother. Now empty-nesters, both had been loyal to church and spouse, and in Larry’s case, his profession.

The institutions had not been as kind to them.

Jewish/Catholic marriages in the 1960s marked couples as pariahs in both communities. Both marriages were ultimately drained of physical and emotional vitality, evoking the musical Fiddler on the Roof: “Do I love you? I’m here aren’t I? Don’t I cook your meals and wash your clothes?”

Meanwhile the educational bureaucracy, driven by court-ordered directives, was stripping teachers of respect and dignity in the classrooms as society made them low-paid scapegoats for its failures.

Unlike this fortieth teaching year, Larry’s thirty-ninth had been spent on the job, but in a somewhat unconventional manner.

His first class began either at 9 or 10 a.m. each day but he arrived at the high school only minutes prior to the period bell. Adamantly he refused to accept a homeroom class; attend PTA, faculty, or department meetings; monitor halls, cafeteria, or bathrooms; moderate extra-curricular activities; prepare lesson plans; or administer tests and exams for his classes.

The self-tailored job description was limited to showing up on time for classes, maintaining order in his assigned rooms, and submitting grades based on a nebulous formula incorporating attendance, class participation, behavior, and homework.

When asked if he risked his job with such an approach he replied: “The teachers’ union makes it impossible for administrators to fire a veteran, certified teacher short of committing a felony.”

A principal can have a teacher transferred but Larry was already teaching at the most violent school in the city and his classes were that senior high’s most orderly.

A physically fit one-time major-college baseball player, he attributed his classroom control to a mix of factors including lengthy experience, natural body language, and a simple gift for teaching and commanding respect.

Making it a little easier, he noted, was the fact that about sixty percent of the students were usually missing from his classes.

Another stress-diffuser was the phenomenon in inner-city schools whereby motivated minority students are mocked if they display a love for learning, because that is deemed “a white thing.” Therefore a lack of learning upsets neither students nor parents as long as grades are acceptable and a diploma forthcoming. Placated or apathetic people don’t demand confrontations with teachers.

Swimming twice a day combined with an hour of mallwalking keeps Larry trim. His athletic bearing and lack of any physical anomalies gave troublemakers nothing to mock.

Students who were obviously on drugs he allowed to sleep in the classroom, rowdies he asked to leave, unconcerned with their destinations, and, for those belligerents who were controllable, he was careful never to reprimand them in front of peers. That could be life-threatening in an urban high school in 2002.

For a late-middle-age white man in classrooms of predominately unruly black teenagers taking required courses, controlling those classes was no inconsequential accomplishment. In desperation, even his black principal once suspended over five-hundred students, sending them home when they defiantly refused to obey a public-address directive to return to classes following an assembly which agitated them.

In a school system in which, in Larry’s estimation, fifty percent of the teachers are uncertified, in which the classroom environment of many of the certified teachers is marginally controlled bedlam, and in which a preponderance of the newly hired young teachers are “as ignorant of their subject as their students,” he considered himself a precious resource for the school, even on his restricted terms.

How bad is the violence? Between January 1997 and January 1998, there were one-hundred and thirty-one police reports filed for assaults occurring inside Larry’s high school. In February, 2002, the residents in the neighborhood surrounding Larry’s school complained bitterly to the mayor about their long-term victimization by students who were leaving school during the middle of the day to burglarize nearby homes.

The city police department organized a sting operation that was ballyhooed on the evening news after thirty-three arrests were made for truancy. The students’ punishment? Suspension from school. One cynical letter-writer to The Baltimore Sun wrote acidly: “What’s the point?”

In another incident Larry remembers vividly, a fellow teacher arranged a conference at school with a student and his mother. When the student didn’t like what he was hearing he began pummeling the teacher in the head with a plate as the mother cheered her son on. The televised evening news and The Baltimore Sun both displayed a photo of the teacher leaving the school building, face lacerated and shirt blood-drenched.

After several of the nation’s teachers were shot in cold blood by middle school students, the National Education Association instituted a new benefit for union members in 2001—a large cash payment to the family of any teacher murdered on the job.

How bad is the learning? One of Larry’s senior English students came to him for help after school one day. His problem? “I’m having trouble with my gerbils.” After differentiating between pets and parts-of-speech, Larry made no progress with this student’s tutelage on gerunds since such understanding is predicated on knowledge of nouns and verbs.

Similarly, it broke Larry’s heart when a conscientious twelfth-grade girl came to him for clarification of a mistake circled on her corrected composition. When he tried to explain why a singular noun must be followed in a sentence by a singular rather than plural pronoun, she confessed that her problem was more basic. She didn’t know what he meant by a noun or pronoun.

Larry’s pride as an English teacher always plummeted whenever a European, Asian, or Middle Eastern immigrant arrived for their first class in an American public school and invariably displayed English proficiency eclipsing that of the average native-born urban student.

Most ominous in Larry’s view, as he prepares to leave the profession, are those newly hired teachers who seem as ignorant of the language as their students. That trend, he fears, adds an element of irreversibility to the problem. As the cancer of government’s extraneous agendas and frivolous experiments grows unabated, and the middle-class white flight to the suburbs is reinforced by middle-class black flight, the vital organs of urban education are inexorably being destroyed.

He believes the school system’s collapse and society’s lack of will to do anything other than fund a cornucopia of commissions to analyze, then legislatively complicate the problem ad infinitum, has exacted a heavy toll on America.

One widely admired black Baltimore high school principal left the school system, lamenting: “I can no longer deal with youngsters whose crude behavior and language makes them more of a barbarian horde than children.” He had proposed a widely-scorned and immediately-dismissed initiative to eliminate sports and concentrate his insufficient school budget on academics, remedial classes, head-start programs, and school security.

Does Larry have an opinion on the primary cause for this dramatic deterioration of urban schools? To Larry the dynamic is simple but “politically incorrect” to discuss.

Slavery damaged the black family structure in America, burdening that minority group with a unique competitive disadvantage. Roosevelt’s welfare state and LBJ’s “war on poverty” exacerbated rather than alleviated the problem, and, without family support and positive role models, a disproportionate number of black youths were not ingrained with the motivation and self-discipline, or blessed with a learning-focused home environment to facilitate success under the existing educational structure.

Energized by Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights initiatives, America’s entrenched liberal ruling class determined that academic failure and the frequency of disciplinary measures were so skewed against blacks that immediate rather than long-term equalization strategies were necessary.

As a result instant-gratification measures such as social promotion, ungraded report cards, multi-culturalism, and affirmative action were implemented.

Instead of striving to elevate blacks’ academic performance with remedial programs and a “Marshall Plan” for urban areas, policy-makers’ schemes eliminated standards for all students and allowed anarchy to rule the classrooms in public schools.

Instead of inculcating America’s black youth with the ability to earn self-esteem by addressing problems, the new strategies cultivated the skill of problem avoidance by traveling the unpaved back-roads of victimization and entitlement while detouring around the highways of performance and accountability.

“Feel good” became the educational mantra by the late 1970s and to a steadily increasing degree thereafter. Larry maintains that it became impossible for public school teachers to elicit respect and maintain order in their classrooms because disciplinary measures and failing grades were now equated at worst with racism and at best with incompetent teaching or insensitivity toward the handicapped or disadvantaged.

Classrooms were no longer ruled by teachers, but by students and a cornucopia of rights. Classrooms had morphed from citadels of learning to witches’ cauldrons brewing sundry social engineering fads no more efficacious than if students drank stews of newts’ eyes, frogs’ toes, dogs’ tongues, and lizards’ legs.

Larry finds irony in the free speech obsession of a society which protects the Ku Klux Klan’s right to march and demonstrate and allows film and television producers to distribute thinly veiled pornography and unvarnished violence for airing to America’s youth, but would expedite his summary dismissal as a racist were he to publicly express his sincere, experience-derived views on school problems—as this essay does.

Nevertheless it’s his conviction that the liberal template for education, which has evolved dynamically and inexorably since the 1960s, has denied millions of children basic life skills, one product of which is the growing rage and incivility permeating everyday America. He believes America’s deadline to pay the bill for worshiping at the altar of self-esteem is looming.

Larry finds additional irony, and grist for self-flagellation, in his own lifetime of acquiescence to the prodding of rabbis seeking support for Israel. He became a one-issue voter. For decades the rabbis’ unrelenting dispensation of guilt over American Jews’ relatively blessed life vis-à-vis Israeli Jews led him to vote reflexively for the local, state, and federal liberal Democrat legislators and executives, who appointed like-minded judges. He doesn’t regret that his one-issue vote supported Israel but that it concomitantly enabled the Democrat party to maintain a congressional and Supreme Court monopoly for most of his lifetime.

The welfare society implemented by that monopolistic Democrat party created our educational moonscape under the guise of promoting egalitarianism. Democrats were moving America away from the goal of equal opportunity toward the goal of equality by income redistribution . . . from a democratic to a socialist republic. Democrats became “Santa”; Republicans became “Scrooge.”

It’s a simple human formula to Larry. Give an unruly child what he wants and you receive short-term peace and quiet at the price of an escalating spiral of capitulation and giving. Promise conflicting voter interest groups more than they’re asking and they’ll vote for you while overlooking the contradictions, past broken promises, bureaucratic corruption, counter-productive programs, and mounting government debt.

Larry succumbed. It’s classic Machiavelli but the anticipated egalitarianism turned out to be a cosmetic veneer both camouflaging and creating a multitude of structural deficiencies in schools.

No longer counted among the voting ideologues, Larry nevertheless understands their legitimate role—and that of political action committees (PACs)—in our governance. Now he votes in the middle of the political spectrum and sees a competitive balance between parties as the key to a healthy socio-political landscape. He wishes success to Republicans, Democrats, and third parties, but not monopolistic Microsoft-like success to any of them.

Larry’s school solution? As he caresses his bridge hand in Starbucks he opines that the solution shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone.

Mandating things such as patriotism and academic achievement creates resistance and resentment—the opposite of the intended effect. The logical outgrowth of this reality should be the scrupulous removal of disruptive influences from the classroom.

Students at the senior high school level who prefer to be elsewhere should be. In Larry’s paradigm, separate classrooms, and, in some cases separate schools, would be required for disabled students whose disabilities were deemed to be retarding or disrupting the classroom environment of the non-disabled majority.

Case-by-case discretionary authority within each school administration would be ideal, but, failing that, he would prefer a return to homogeneous grouping and a departure from the current chaos where profanity and violence are commonplace, tolerated, and rationalized.

Learning, not socialization, should be the highest priority. Let other institutions do the social engineering and if such institutions don’t exist, invent them. He’s realistic and insightful enough to understand that his preferences won’t be implemented.

Larry believes that high school in America should be an optional privilege available to all rather than a mandated legal responsibility. Schools should be open from 6-10 p.m. each evening so expelled students and dropouts can return for degrees if and when they find motivation, whether at age 22, 35, or 60.

Other institutions in society should be tailored to train or occupy the time of miscreants who are expelled or the unmotivated who withdraw. Learning—not individual aggrandizement, emotional fulfillment, or righting the wrongs of slavery—should be the sacred cow in the classroom. Anything else is politically motivated folly. Oscar Wilde said: “Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

Learning requires a thirst which must initially be instilled by a family until intrinsic motivation takes root. The institution of education can be no stronger than the institution of family, and that has become America’s weakest institutional link, particularly in urban cores.

Larry believes solutions such as vouchers, magnet schools, higher budgets, smaller class size, and the never-ending phonics vs. whole language debate represent politically-driven agendas obscuring what’s truly needed—a return to education’s original mission.

Tangential sociological mandates should be purged and the classroom teacher’s authority to demand performance and behavioral standards, regardless of a student’s race, handicap, or degree of deprivation in life, should be restored.

But he adds, “That will be another generation’s challenge, not mine.” Larry doesn’t feel guilt for deserting his profession. He feels that it deserted him. Although ethically dubious, his teaching strategy for his 40th year was contractually valid, having saved a year’s worth of personal leave days.

And so Larry continues his morning bridge games five days a week while collecting a school paycheck and waiting for retirement to embrace him officially when the academic year ends.

In his youth he was not just a talented baseball player and swimmer, he was a master bridge player, competing successfully in tournaments nationwide.

Once married he sacrificed competitive bridge and devoted the time gained to his family. Now in his morning mall sessions with Janice, he teaches her the rudiments of the game. It’s a ritual they rarely forego.

As mallwalkers circle the fourth floor and briefly gaze into the Starbucks Coffee window between 8 and 9 a.m., they can catch a glimpse of two people in an oasis of contentment—it’s no mirage.

For an hour each morning two essentially decent married people capture something that’s otherwise missing from their lives. Then like disciplined soldiers, the high school sweethearts reflexively resume lives immersed in a society with a self-indulgent ethos. They resume lives trapped in family, religious, and occupational institutions now flawed with antediluvian traditions and counterproductive—even self-destructive—mores.

Those institutions, however imperfect, have been the bedrock of their lives and to discard them would leave a void casting doubt on life’s meaning.

So as one schoolteacher endures in the face of a burned-out career, a burned-out marriage, and an unfulfilling religious affiliation, a bridge game which merely adds charm to the ambiance for morning mallwalkers becomes an indispensable palliative to him, without which he’d have to pursue or invent another.







An Urban Schoolteacher Surrenders

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