by DC Lambert
Every day, as I drive down Main Street and then turn in to the high school where I’m a long-term substitute teacher ($65/day), I pass rows and rows of $2 million houses. It’s a fairy tale I can see but can’t join. The houses are sort of like Candy Mountain and Gumdrop Hill.
A few years ago, in fact, Money Magazine voted the town a Best Town To Live In, a watershed achievement that was trumpeted in a banner across its Main Street and plastered on its idyllic, quaint storefront windows: the Starbucks (needless to say), the adorable toy store, The Happy Hippo, the obligatory “Oriental rug” shop with $10,000 area rugs “on sale” in the front display, the upscale consignment shop, Jamaican Me Crazy, where a used shirt costs more than three brand new outfits at Target. Did you know the town’s schools are “top notch,” according to Money Magazine?
In my top notch classes, the kids talk endlessly of 1) The size of their houses (“I went to Bryce’s yesterday—Oh my God! Have you seen his house?”) and 2) The vacations they’ve been on. Europe, cruises, Disney, and any number of fortress-like five-star resorts in Mexico, Belize, Antigua, surrounded by high walls and guards to protect against the intrusion of poverty.
Fiscal crisis? Economic meltdown? What?
Once, in a fit of a frustration, after some particularly long gush about some party at this kid’s brand new pool with fantastic sushi, I said: “Guys, there’s more to life than a big house!”
They cocked their heads as though hearing something interesting for the first time: “Like what?” one of the boys said, half joking.
Today, the kids are apparently watching the movie The Pianist, with Adrien Brody, as part of their “Holocaust Unit.” I’m standing in for a Special Ed teacher, and I’m ‘helping’ the students with their study guides; I sort of dart from need to need. I try to pretend I’m cheerfully indispensable.
As the kids watch the movie, they become more and more incensed. Incensed? At whom? The Jews, of course. “Why didn’t they just run away?” one boy asks when the Jews are lying down at gunpoint in front of the Gestapo while he shoots them in the head. “I’d run away.”
I start to explain, but another boy says, “Why doesn’t the Adrien Brody guy get a nose job. Then no one would know he was a Jew.” Several boys snicker. I’m Jewish, but I don’t dare say that. I may be Jewish, but I’m no fool. The teacher is at her desk, her plump arms crossed, a glazed expression on her young, pretty face; she’s from Swedesboro, working class, like most teachers. Her father says teachers are lazy shits who sit around all day and then whine they’re underpaid. “Why don’t you get off your butt and get a real job,” her father tells her, meaning office work, perhaps nursing.
“Teaching isn’t at all what I expected it to be,” the teacher tells me sadly, often. “I feel like my soul is being sucked dry.”
I nod. As for my soul, it was sucked dry so long ago it blew away like ash. My husband hates my guts—I hate my guts—but we stay together for now because I need his health insurance and he needs my body. I used to be some sort of genius. I got straight A’s in my graduate school classes in Special Education too, but I still can’t find a teaching job. I’m supposed to be grateful for this long-term sub job. “This could be your foot in the door!” the entire world constantly exhorts me. “Never give up! Visualize your goal and the universe will align with you!”
The principal’s son is in this class. The teacher’s very first marking period on the job she made the colossal error of giving the boy his real grade, an 83. She was hauled into the principal’s office at once and made to sit on a low student chair in front of his desk. The principal said her assignments were “unprofessional” and “pointless” and then personally did her next observation. He wrote, “Needs improvement” in every category, which is eduspeak for paving the way for denial of tenure; and once your tenure is denied, you are blacklisted. It becomes very hard to get a job, particularly if the superintendent or principal has political aspirations and/or knows a lot of people, like Mr. Principal of Top Notch High School in Best Place to Live In Fairyland. I’ve seen the best teachers of my generation driven mad by… well, you know what I mean. Dare I disturb the candy universe? Yes, T.S. Eliot and Ginsberg were on my teaching qualifying exam, and yes I got a perfect score on it, not that anyone cares.
The other day I met a failed teacher at an Apple store where I was applying for a real job (no luck). He hummed as he interviewed me. He said he was paid about as much to do this job as he was when he’d been teaching. He looked happy. I was jealous.
So a few weeks after her “observation,” when this teacher went to her online Gradebook, she saw the Principal’s son’s grade had been changed to a 93. Magic! But the teacher had learned her lesson and said nothing. The next ‘observation’ was “satisfactory.”
We learn our lessons well, we have-nots.
“Yeah, why doesn’t someone punch his nose and break it?” another boy offers now, leaning back on his chair, his long legs lazily outstretched. “If he had a broken nose no one would know.”
Ah, why didn’t the Jews think of this? All they had to do to avoid death was to break each other’s noses! Simplicity itself. All the Jews would be walking around Warsaw in their Bandaged Nose Disguises and no one would suspect! If only this Candyland kid had been there to plan it all out….
I say nothing to the boys, of course. I need this job. See under: food for my kids. You can’t say a thing, not a thing, because you just never know who knows who, who has connections to the board, the mayor, you name it. Last year, in a nearby Also Top Notch school district, a gang of about twenty kids broke into a girl’s house. She was on vacation with her family (Hotel Atlantis, on an island sealed off from the poverty of Nassau), and for some unknowable reason had given a copy of her house key to a friend. This “friend” and his pals and pals of pals then decided it would be fun to fill giant water pistols with urine, and spray all the rooms with giant arcs of pee. Oh, and jack off on to her baby brother’s stuffed animals, and defecate onto the Steinway piano keys. I am not making these details up. This is a true story. Every single person in the Also Best Place to Live In town knew who the kids were, but not one of the kids was suspended, much less arrested. Not one. They were connected. The mayor was friends with the ringleader boy’s family. The girl’s family settled for some undisclosed bribe.
In a Period 9 class, one of the kids offers to bribe me if I tell the teacher his PowerPoint presentation “crashed” when really, he tells me conspiratorially, he’d been “too whacked” to do it last night. When the teacher isn’t looking, he flashes me a $100.
He says, “Come on. I bet it’s more than you earn all day.”
As soon as I leave Candyland, it dissolves into fairy dust, and I forget about it.
I pull into my block. Our oak tree is dead and I’m worried its rotten branches will fall onto someone’s car or head, but we cannot possibly afford the $2000 to take it down; our heating doesn’t work either and in the winter I walk around in my down jacket all evening; the kids huddle in blankets. We don’t even think to complain, because that’s just how it is. Now it’s late May and my husband is out of work yet again, and all day long he sleeps on the recliner in the middle of the living room with the TV blaring endless reality cop shows, his favorite. It’s boiling hot, but it goes without saying that we don’t put the air conditioner on.
I pull into my driveway. My neighbor from Yemen is watering his tomato garden. He’s out of work too. His wife, in a head scarf and jeans, smokes a cigarette, staring at him with hostility. Across the street, three repulsive looking pit bull dogs are straining at their leashes from the slanted porch while their owner, a woman with M.S., limping around with her cane, caresses them. She just loves those dogs. Five or ten children ride bikes in the street, playing some sort of chase game, steering their bikes over an improvised ramp made up of plywood mounted on mulch. They have nothing scheduled, nowhere to go in particular. The other day I read about “kids today” in the newspaper, which is made out of spun sugar. According to the paper, “kids today” are too scheduled, too stressed about getting into “top schools,” also too coddled.
“You got him!” one of the kids shouts. “No, I’m safe!” “Liar!” “Faggot!” My youngest son is among them. I see him now, weaving in and out, a hesitant smile on his face, trying to navigate the line between the winners and the losers, the safe and the out, his small sunburnt shoulders already bearing the burdens of the world.
DC Lambert is a public school teacher serving an inner city school district and the author of War on Excellence: Our Giant Secret Education Bureaucracy and Me, a nonfiction narrative about the secrets behind the closed doors of our rapidly changing 21st century schools. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. Her award-winning writing has appeared in such magazines as Stand, ACM, Columbia and Connections, and her academic book, Point of View in Mrs Dalloway: Rooms, Corridors and Houses, was recently published by Edwin Mellen Press. Read more here.