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Adaptation

Mr. Jeffries

Staff-meetings are the absolute worst. It seems as if they are more for the administration to justify their checks than to actually add something of value to their participants. With meeting after meeting, I begin to feel over-developed. When I was a child, I used to arrange all the stuffed animals in columns and rows, imitating what I experienced at school. Teaching is in my blood, and these so-called “professional developments” are like mosquitoes: irritating, and sickening. I’ve tried adjusting my mindset. I’ve considered the fact that two-thirds of my colleagues are on their second or third career, and they might actually need this added scaffolding. But there are others here, like me, with teaching as the crown of our life’s journey. We, who can’t “turn it off.” We, who go to Walmart, with just enough money to put something in the refrigerator, but end up seeing something on an aisle that just could be that “missing piece” we need to strike the spark, which sets the next days lesson ablaze! Actually, we wonder if there are 30 or 40 of those pieces because we’ll need a class set, one for each student, and a few may get broken, or stolen, or eaten by the rotting corpse of the school building. And the condition of that 50 year-old building… that is a whole other matter.

“Our students are the priority. I know you get tired of hearing this, but yet again, the building’s on fire…”

The voice of the current administrator booms over the static loudspeaker and echoes with reverb off cafeteria linoleum and tables. More apocalyptic metaphors and prophecy of doom. This time, it includes warnings of low-performing teachers losing their jobs because of the districts sudden Reduction-In-Force (RIF).

“With all due respect.” Mr. Taeones responds, “we can’t make miracles with mud. These demands are demoralizing. You want us to teach, but we can’t even control the climate in our rooms. We have to open windows for air conditioning, but it’s a hundred degrees outside, and we have a fan in each corner in the room. When a student puts his head down in class, I don’t know whether it’s from heat exhaustion, or if they are tired because they slept at the bus stop, last night, because they couldn’t go home…”

This is the point when these mandatory meetings, designed for administration to provide development opportunities for staff and faculty, double-down on their demands. However, something triggers a response, which boils over, and the meeting turns into something like a villages’ town hall–bordering on riot. The teachers transform into the raging villagers with pitchforks and torches, and the principal functions like a mayor trying to keep the town from eating itself alive.

I look up, out of my haze, lean back, and, mentally, put my feet up. Mr. Taeones is right. He speaks for us. I feel a chill and a jolt of energy as the atmosphere in the room shifts from fear and intimidation to something like a quiet revolution. Taeones doesn’t always speak up, but when he does, he is on point. My colleagues rally behind him, with vocal affirmations of “that’s right,” and “yeah, come on man!”

“And now, because the district mismanaged the money, and they can’t account for 90 million dollars, teachers are being ‘riffed?’ How can we get anything done when we are constantly in a state of fear for our livelihoods?”

I don’t remember what the administrator said. It was the third boss I’d had, this year, and they all said the same kind of things. Messengers of the districts so-called “initiatives,” accompanied by the dogs of fear and intimidation. It was a good move for them to bring up these announcements after the 15 minute-update in teaching practice. Nobody would have been able to focus on an update in pedagogy after being told they may lose their job that day. I remember leaving the meeting with a rage, burning quietly in my bosom. I was not in fear of being riffed because my students’ test scores were okay. That’s what it all amounted to: how your students performed on testing day, during the allotted time. Their classroom progress was eclipsed by this one thing. The authority of the teachers assessment, replaced by an outside assessment. How they consistently performed in the course didn’t matter. How they demonstrated their knowledge and skills on a certain day, at a certain time was given all the attention. I wish there was a more holistic means of comforting legislators and society about the validity of the high school diploma. Unfortunately, this is the reign of high-stakes testing.

***

We were in the independent activity portion of the lesson, and students were to work, silently, on their writing responses. Things had gone as best as they could, given the students had little interest in the subject-matter, but they were, now, for the most part, quiet and working. Hopefully, I could get some grading done! Each week, teachers had to provide three (3) classroom assignments, three homework assignments, and three tests/projects. These assignments included grades, which needed to be updated online for parents and administrators to view at the end of the week. Out of the 150 essays I would need to score, within a few days, I was on number 36, and the only real time I could ever get my work done, was at home because we were to be on our feet, teaching from the beginning of class until the end, “bell-to-bell!” Odis, one of my easily bored and outspoken students, walks out of his row and approaches my desk at the front of the room.

“Mister.” He whispers.

“That’s not my name, Odis. Why are you still calling me that?”

“Oh, right. Sorry Sir,” he laughs. My irritation always amuses him.

“I’m finished,” he continues.

“You finished the whole assignment?”

“Yeah, it’s right here. Can I turn this in, now?”

I review what he waves at me like a used napkin, and breathe a sigh of exasperation.

“Odis, this is not complete. Why didn’t you use the template gave you?”

“Oh, I didn’t know.”

“What do you mean? I just demonstrated this on the smartboard, and you all worked one example as a group. Do the same thing you did in your group, but by yourself.”

“Oh man, I don’t feel like doing all of that. Can I just turn this in for a low-grade. You gotta give me at least a 70, right?”

It was at this point that I lost it. This aspect of the job was not covered in my college courses. It wasn’t the fact that this student was arguing for a passing grade for something that didn’t meet standards; it was the fact that this student was one of many who expected that the teacher would acquiesce to their demand. In our district, on our side of town, we could not give the students a grade lower than a 50, and it was even harder to hold students accountable for their classroom activities when they were accustomed to getting 70s on their assignments, which were mostly worksheets. But I didn’t give worksheets. Additionally, a student failing a course was only more work on the teacher. You had to be as prepared as a defense attorney to navigate the scrutiny of the administrators. Grade issues like these rarely went to the parents because most of them didn’t look into how their children were doing. Low-success in the classroom meant that if they passed the state assessment, you were in the way of their making progress. Alternatively, if they failed the state assessment, and they had a history of low scores, you were responsible for not “recognizing the signs” and intervening early enough for the student to be prepared to pass the exam. And there are many more variables, which equated to the practice of not failing athletes or students with special needs. Odis was neither. He was like a lot of his peers, however, a few grade-levels behind in his reading and writing. He needed to complete the assignment as instructed so that he could catch-up as quickly as possible. I refuse to allow the students in my classes progress with the same issues I inherited them with.

‘Hell No!” I utter, passionately. And I feel a twinge in my chest as my face darkens and my eyes begin to cloud.

The class erupts in laughter. It was the most shocking thing they had ever heard me say, and it filled their bellies with joy. My belly, however, was flooded with a cold sick feeling of regret and remorse. I laughed a genuine laugh while I held my head in shame.

“I apologize, Sir. that was unprofessional of me.” I said to Odis, peering from underneath my blanket of shame. But Odis didn’t care, and neither did the students. They didn’t perceive it as an insult. They saw it as what it was–I had lost control of my tongue, and class ended with that lesson in irony. With only 10 or so more minutes left in class, there would be jokes and recollections of what just happened.  Whatever work they had not finished at that moment was going to be extended into homework.

When I was hired, two of the administrators joked to each other that I was assigned to “Beirut,” when I told them my classroom location. The experiences I had in that room and hallway did, in-fact unfold like it was indeed a war zone. I often went home with blood on my clothes from breaking up fights. All of the teachers in my corridor were women, and I would often have to disrupt the physical encounters of the much larger boys in and around their classrooms. I was always professional with them, however. I never spoke to the students in the manner that they spoke to each other–even though I had come from a similar environment, which had the same kind of dialect and colloquialisms. I looked down on the adults who cursed at the kids and berated them. Professionalism was one of the golden hallmarks in my paradigm of the educator. The teacher, and administrators were to be models of how to be, and how not to be. This was paramount for these students–especially since the student body was made up of mostly African-Americans and Hispanics. Outside of the school environment, students rarely interacted with adult versions of themselves. Where they shopped, ate, and spent their recreational time was, mostly, in the company of their age-group.  Odis and other minority students like him needed to see examples of how to be better than their environment. There was a solid line between informal dialogue and Standard American English, I tirelessly lectured the students. There was a place for both, and these environments did not overlap. I had crossed the line. I had lost control of my impulses. Now, of all the things that I had taught and modeled for them, that year, would be eclipsed by this incident. In their eyes, “The real Mr. Jeffries” had shown himself, and I was doomed to be held in that regard from that point-forward.

In the two years that passed, I elapsed into the same kind of dialect and dialogue that I had once condemned. I did not curse like a sailor, but I did employ the use of “hell-naw” as a signature phrase–much to the delight of the students. It had taken on a life of its own, and I was numb to all that it had meant before. One day after class, when I was particularly disillusioned by the apathy that was clouding my classroom, I decided to take a lap around the school during my off-period. I didn’t have to be at the door, greeting students or policing the hallway, while the students switched classes at that time, so I took advantage of this opportunity to clear the fog from my mind. As I walked by Mr. Taeneos’ room, my feed drifted into his doorway.

“Taenos.” I announced. “Might I have a word with you, good Sir?”

“Sure thing, Bro-tha!” he enunciated with his signature emphasis.

“Hey man. I’ve noticed that the things that used to bother me are starting not to bother me, anymore.

“Uh-huh”

“Yeah, like when I hear Mr. Parks [one of the assistant principals, mentioned earlier], curse the children out, I used to get upset, but now I find myself unbothered–and, at times, laughing at the way he handles the students. I even speak to the kids like he does, sometimes.

“I have one word for you, Sir: a-dap-ta-tion. You have adapted to your habitat.”

I looked at him as if he had just told me that a loved one had died.

“Yess-sir, Bro-tha! It happens to everybody. It inevitable. The good thing is that you have enough sense to recognize it. Most don’t. They think that they can just mosey on through Dante’s inferno, and remain untouched.” (We english teachers salvage every opportunity to make allusions to literature.)

I was stricken a state of unbelief: the first of the five-stages of grief: shock. 

“Man… I don’t even know what to do with that.”

“There’s nothing you can do,” he assures me. “Your only option is to accept it, or remove yourself from the environment.”

It was at that moment that the seeds of my decision to leave that school began to take root.

***

I was resolute. I kept my resume updated, but that was for the purposes of documenting my professional activities. Five years after I accepted my first assignment as a teacher, I was looking to leave the place I called home. I had sponsored the sophomore class, a literary society, the dance troupe, and the chess club, and now it was time to go. I had even survived the RIF. I saw my colleagues come to work, and then be called to the main office, where the assistant principal read from a script, and, at its conclusion, the attending police officer immediately escorted that teacher off campus. I saw the same thing happen to that very administrator at the end of the day! I lived through the weekly visits of the news anchors and their cameras, reporting the drama that unfolded from my school like an endless scroll. The apex of all of this, however, was what I noticed happening in me. The apathy of the students and the parents, accompanied with the disillusionment, created in my mind, was causing a change in me that I did not like. I was leaving that school. Things would be better in the suburbs, or in the charter school that had the three-year long waiting list. I would be treated better. Students would be surrounded by professionals. Apathy would not persist in those places, like it does in this ISD.   

I had just finished a letter to a charter school that I was particularly interested in, when a young lady knocked on my door. She came into my classroom like a strange visitor. Her face was wet. Her eyes, swollen with tears, which laced her soggy cheeks. I asked her what was wrong, and as if there were a note pressed between her teeth, she unfolded her lips and told me her secret. It felt as if she were gently placing little stones into my heart. Each stone was like a cornerstone to an upside down pyramid, and, within each pyramid, her lifeless body, but I also saw myself. Those stones buried me too, and I suffocated with her in my arms, her tears on my sleeve, my strength in her hands. We were both orphans, clothed with loneliness and sorrow. Her words cause me to feel the weight of my own shadow. This is how the day started. The school-bell rang, and this is how the end of spring began. Testing season.

She confided in me because her friend told her that I would listen to her. Of all the teachers at the school, I would be one she could trust. I would be the one who could actually help her. I actually cared. Not even the counselors. It was me. I was the only one that could help her through this crisis. I comforted her, but I felt guilty because I was leaving. She and the other students needed me. What would happen to them when I left?

***

Hannah

It wasn’t like I didn’t prepare. I ALWAYs prepare! My drive is how I was able to win the hundred-meter at the Allendale meet. It’s how I was able to pass Pre-AP English! I wished I could talk to Hailey. She was normally up late, finishing homework and scrolling through her Instagram, like me. But, she wasn’t responding to my DMs. I couldn’t believe that I was sucking so bad at the review material. No matter how many times I went over the questions, I couldn’t remember anything! That’s how my night started. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got that phone call.

“Hey girl. Are you awake?” It was good to finally hear Hailey’s voice. I immediately begin my interrogation:

“Yeah bro, why have you been ignoring me?”

“What?”

“I’ve been calling you and DMing you for the last hour! What’s the deal?”

“Oh, I didn’t even know–you didn’t hear about Treavor?”

“What? No. What happened, what are you talking about?”

“Bro… Treavor killed himself.”

I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to feel. I had heard about other people dying, but this was the first time I actually knew the person.

“Hannah. Did you hear what I said?”

“Yeah… let me call you back.”

I immediately hung up the phone. This was too much. I had spent all day at school, and I had just made it home from track practice. There was no way I could study or focus. Treavor was dead. Somebody I knew had died, but I didn’t know how to feel about it. I didn’t know what to feel. I was close to him, for a time. But, what Hailey didn’t know… what nobody knew… Treavor tried to rape me. We were at a party, for a friend, and it didn’t even happen at night! I don’t think either of us knew what we were doing, but I knew that I wanted him to stop, he didn’t. I had to leave the party early, and nobody knew. And I was so ashamed I never told anybody. Treavor tried to apologize, many times, but I could never look at him. I still carry this knot in my throat… this sickness in my stomach when I think about it. And now he’s gone.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. I didn’t get any studying done, either, and we had the state assessment that week. This was supposed to be my year. I normally got all As in my classes, and I always did well on my tests. But senior year had been hard on me. There was so much pressure to make a decision about what college I would be going to, and I had to represent the school at our track meets.  We normally placed in most of the races, and I had been the one to carry us in the girls competitions. There was no way I could pass the assessments, and if I failed, I could be kicked off the team. My whole life was falling apart.

The next morning. I got up, with that sickness in my stomach and a headache. Mom didn’t even notice. When she dropped me off at school, I stood, frozen in the spot she left me for a while. Everything was hazy. A familiar voice broke me from my trance.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Hailey asked.

“Huh? Nothing, bro, just thinking about…”

“I feel you, bro,” she said, with concern in her voice. I’m going to talk to Mr. Jeffries today, after I get out of my 7th period.”

“Oh yeah. You always hang-out in there, during his off period.”

“Yeah, bro. You should talk to him, too. He listens, you know. Unlike those weak counselors. They don’t do anything but put you in the wrong classes and mess up your schedule. You should talk to him, though. He’s real, bro.”

The bell rings, and it’s time to head to our homeroom class. Hailey and I head in separate directions, and I decide that I will visit Mr. Jeffries.

I don’t know if he has a homeroom class or not, but I head to Mr. Jeffries’ class. As I get closer to the classroom, I hear the sound of piano, and a bunch of instruments… jazz music in the hallway. By the time I reach his door, the sound of saxophone blares out his computer speakers. It feels good. I don’t normally listen to this kind of music, but I like this feeling I’m getting, standing in his doorway.

Mr. Jeffries looks up from his computer. He’s young. I think he’s only 22. I hear a lot of the other girls talk about getting with him, but I never join those conversations.

“Hello. How may I help you?”

“Hi. My name is Hannah; I’m Hailey’s friend.”

“Yes, Ms. Johnson. How can I help you, Hannah?”

“She told me to come and talk to you…”

And then, I told him. By the time I was done talking, I was crying. I had never done that before. I told him everything. How I didn’t know how to feel about Treavor’s death. How I felt angry, guilty, and ashamed all at once. Mr. Jeffries listened to me, and it didn’t feel weird. I didn’t feel like he took anything from me. He just listened to me, and then he let me cry in his arms. I didn’t know what would happen when the bell rang, or when I had to sit for the test. I didn’t know if I would fail the test, or if I would fail my classes or get kicked off the track team. I didn’t know how the year would end. All I knew was, for that time I spent talking to him, nothing else mattered. And even though everything else was bad, that was okay. I saw what Hailey was talking about. I decided I would hang out in his classroom whenever I got the chance…

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