Monday, September 03, 2012

High School, Part Two

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

High School, Part Two

You may have recognized by now that I’ve avoided identifying details whenever possible. In most of what I write, I eschew using names to prevent libel. Yet, I’m fairly sure that people can pick themselves out by the way I’ve described them. A life is surprisingly full of other human beings. Within the first fifty pages of the manuscript, I bet I could count fifty separate individuals that have had a part in forming its bulk.

Contacting them all, personally, is impossible. I’ve forgotten names and don’t know how to even begin a dialogue. Should this book reach a large audience, I wonder how many will appear out of the woodwork. Everyone will have his or her own reasons for piping up or staying silent. I don’t want to hurt feelings, but I do have my own strongly held convictions. This is my story, but I do want to seem fair; I am not intending to be sensational to win readers.

The story I am about to share requires some careful footwork. Because I worked among minors, I’m going to leave them out as best I can. It’s almost impossible to entirely eliminate speaking about high school students in a high school. I kept company with the greatly outnumbered adults on staff. We served as a notable contrast among the thousand or so enrolled. They were not quite adults, and not entirely children.

The principal who hired me was a good old boy and former football coach. A professional he was not, but taking into account the nature of many small city school systems, it wasn’t surprising that he’d been given the position. These systems often promote from within. If they’d really wanted to look after the best interest of the kids, in my honest opinion, they’ve have broadened their scope regarding hiring practices and standards.

I was woefully unsuited for the role as special education teacher’s assistant. Having never enjoyed high school much the first time around, I disliked being back among smelly bathrooms and strict social hierarchy. I had to chaperone the kids as they made their way to each class. Half the time was spent trying not to fall asleep. The other half of each school day was supervising the whole group of special ed students, in their own individual classroom downstairs.

I found myself on the opposite side of the desk this time, but felt it distasteful. In addition, I couldn’t help but absorb some of the hormonal behavior I observed every day. I was involved in the personal lives of multiple students, whether I wanted to be or not. One couldn’t help but be somewhat emotionally invested in their struggles and their successes. Every workplace has its own quirks and with time, I learned much.

The Family and Consumer Sciences teacher had a short fuse. She’d expressed consternation at a particularly vocal and at times disruptive disabled student and at the severely mentally challenged kids. In her words, she didn’t want to deal with the ones who “drooled.” The position would normally have been filled by a good-natured southern belle, but she was neither sweet-natured, nor especially genial.

She was instead hard-edged and gave the impression of being not from around here. Her accent was nondescript, not syrupy southern. Regularly, in front of her students, she talked about an inability to lose weight now that she was not as young as she had once been. Unlike many of the teachers I encountered, she seemed real and genuine, even with her especially tactless streak.

As before, antidepressant-induced mania was building. Flirtatious by nature, I began to engage socially with teachers and other assistants. The Family and Consumer Science teacher mentioned above was dealing with something of a midlife crisis. An attractive woman, she feared losing her looks and her figure. I often gravitated to women like this when my inhibitions were substantially suppressed.

Leaving the lunch table for the restroom, we crossed paths. I smiled broadly at her. Flattered and appreciative, her eyes shyly headed to the floor. It was as if she’d shed twenty years in an instant. After that, she made a great show of parading herself in front of me on the way to her classroom, every day. It usually happened in the morning, when I was helping the kids stock and arrange the cafeteria.

Principals who do not enforce discipline among faculty and staff ensure that teachers get away with anything. The flagrant dalliance between myself and someone else on payroll would never have been allowed with a steadier, more responsible hand at the tiller. I imagine everyone knew. How could they not? I was too manic to care by then. As always, it made me bolder than I would have been had I been healthy.

She was married, but may have needed an additional boost of self-esteem. Contrary to what some may have thought, we never became physically involved. For one, I didn’t have the confidence, and to her, it may have been only about the attention. She was the type to push things further by her own initiation, not sit back and wait for me to intercede. But what I will say is that, in all our interaction, she never once mentioned her husband.

I didn’t last very long. The special ed teacher I was to help didn’t prepare daily assignments. The students just sat there, implacably, reading a magazine or staring out into space. If I only wanted to earn a paycheck, I would have allowed the system to go unchallenged. It seemed wrong to me to imply that these kids were too defective to really learn anything or to have a structured learning environment in place.

A room over, the atmosphere could not be more different. A fanatical parent had threatened to sue if her severely autistic child was not schooled in how to function in society. A teacher worked with him one-on-one and had produced a system of communication involving pictures. The mother wanted her son to be able to, at minimum, roll silverware at a restaurant, which would seem to be a sensible expectation.

Some people come unhinged where their kids are concerned, and this woman easily fit that description. Consultants were hired to monitor the learning environment and note the smallest of possible problems. When a consultant was making rounds, teachers and assistants felt like they were being examined under a magnifying glass. This put undo pressure on everyone.

I left the job entirely frustrated and disillusioned with the state of public education. Too much deadweight was retained, then drew a pension after retirement. Too many teachers were only marking time until retirement, burned out and disinclined to break a sweat. I felt stifled creatively and entirely alone. The school itself had been built without many windows and every day it felt as though I was an inhabitant of a concrete-walled jail.

I did not have much rapport with my co-workers. When in high school myself, years before, I’d desired friendship with some of my teachers. At a young age, I’d associated regularly with adults. The same was true here. My efforts mostly produced disappointment. What I discovered back then is that I could not understand most of my teachers, nor most of my classmates.

While a student, I remember unintentionally intimidating at least one teacher who was wowed by my recall of information and general intellectual precocity. I retained fond feelings for three of my former instructors, whose influence was spread unevenly over the course of four years. Now a teaching assistant, I struck up an singular acquaintance with the art teacher, who was close to my age. It was not a perfect friendship, but neither was it a hopeless one, either.

In a different work environment, I might have been content. But the stuffiness and claustrophobia of a more-or-less closed community did not suit me. A Woody Allen phrase kept coming to mind. Those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym.

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