After I left the city and moved to the burbs, I went to teach at the All-American High School. It was All-American because it was wedged between an ultra-rich college town and a perpetually dying small city, and there were mansions and prep schools and boutique farms at one end and dollar stores and free clinics at the other, and in between cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of 60s split-levels and other regular suburban homes. It was racially diverse but not entirely socially mixed, except on the sports teams and the cheerleading squad: America.
The school building was mostly brand new (my classroom was in the old hallway, and was ugly and windowless but functional enough) and it was a desirable enough job that the line at the county hiring fair snaked out the door. I told the principal about teaching in the Bronx, about what I thought was important in a classroom, and he was from the Bronx and that was enough to get me another interview, and then another, and another, with different groups of assistant principals or district personnel, until finally I was hired. It was near the beginning of the last recession, when districts were still flush but everyone knew the good times were coming to an end, so they could be choosy. In the end, they hired three new biology teachers, and told us two of us would only have a job for a year, while they transitioned from 10th graders to 9th graders taking the class.
The teachers were, by-and-large, miserable. Not individually, of course: individually plenty of them were able to make the bargain with the students and with the laws of time and gravity that would allow them to spend the period or the year enjoyably enough, and enjoy a good laugh while factoring quadratic equations or talking about To Kill a Mockingbird or memorizing the names of cell organelles. But as a group they felt at siege, pulled between parents’ demands to get everybody into college, the administration’s demands to differentiate every lesson for every kid, and the kids’ demands to have a good time and not work too hard.
The Bronx-raised principal was a big part of the problem. He was comically out of place: in a mafioso dark suit, red shirt, and red tie, he’d drive across the state in an Audi sports car and then spend the day walking the halls and handing out red ballpoint pens embossed with the words “My Principal Believes in Me.” All correspondence went through his secretary, and the one e-mail I knew him to have written himself was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, yet a famous education school gave him a doctorate partway through my first year, proving everything we already knew about education schools. (As my wife remarked, “that guy’s a doctor the way Doctor Pepper is a doctor.”) He was decent enough at gladhanding with students and patrolling the halls, and he loved to bring groups of popular kids into his office for one “leadership initiative” or another, but he would badger and harangue individual teachers at faculty meetings and in their classrooms in ways that seemed wildly out of control. Once, when a local newspaper printed an article critical of the school that voiced some of teachers’ concerns, a female teacher in her late 60s stood up to say that it was something worth discussing as a group. He became almost apoplectic, screaming “You don’t know me! You don’t know who I am!” while shaking his finger at her, like an audition tape for a Sopranos role.
The Thunderdome nature of my job for the year (three come in, and only one will remain) worried me for a little while, and then stopped. It wasn’t that my class was so great- having taught middle school science for so long gave me something to work from, but I was still faking it when it came to high school classes and figuring out what in the giant textbooks was most important and what could be easily forgotten. But I was fairly happy, and so the kids decided to be happy, too. Meanwhile, the other two new teachers ran themselves ragged running after-school sports teams and activities, and got fired at the end of the year for their troubles. It wasn’t fair, but what is?
The next year, since they didn’t need a biology teacher (half as many students were taking the class), they switched me to teaching the 12th graders who needed an extra credit of science to graduate, along with a new AP class. The 12th graders were sick to death of school, but no longer kids in any meaningful sense, biding their time until they could move to the great beyond of college and become teachers or cops or firemen or doctors like they planned.
It was time for me to move onto my great beyond, too. It might have been the “you don’t know me! you don’t know who I am!” outburst, which was hardly directed at me (for whatever reason, the Bronx connection among other things meant I was always a favorite of the red shirt/red tie-wearer), but who wants that to be what you look forward to if you stick with the job for another three decades or more? Anyway, it was an excuse to try something new.
The football team was good but not spectacular my two years there: good enough to win the county but then get overmastered in the state tournament, both times. Some of the kids would go on to play in college, but most wouldn’t. The one time I went in to see the team an hour or two before a game, to hand over some work that a kid who had been in in-school suspension had missed, it was obvious that the players I knew, goofballs and slackers in science class, were deadly serious, preparing for what they saw as the most important thing in their life, all the more serious because they probably wouldn’t be playing again after that year. I’ve never been much of a fan, but the one Friday night game I saw was similarly riveting, the team solemn and precise in their play and the crowd of parents and fellow students on the edge of their seats.
School is about what school is about.