"PETE" GOES BACK TO SCHOOL. . .
(Aug. 27, 2003)
My neighbor---call him Pete---is a third-grade teacher at an L.A. magnet school, as predictable as the White Rabbit of "Alice," and about as fastidious. He leaves his West L.A. home every morning at 6 sharp, dressed nattily in tweed coat, bright tie, and Ascot cap. Hops in late model two-door, beats gridlock to work. Home at 4 sharp, he heads up the street to his favorite Chinese joint for an early dinner, walks back, grades papers, and hits the sack early.
The next day, he gets up and does it all over again.
Every time I hear Pete's door shut in the morning, I think to myself, "give that guy a medal." He's taught for over twenty years in the LAUSD---second, third, fifth, and sixth grades---the first six in South L.A., and the rest in Crenshaw.
Then, as I hear his feet heading downstairs, I think to myself: "Nah---nobody cares."
Teachers are unimportant, after all.
Disagree? Then why is Pete so poorly paid? Why has he sweated for sixteen years in an un-air-conditioned bungalow? (He finally go AC just this year.) Why does he have no running water? No new paint? Why does he have to recycle obsolete textbooks? Why do the brand-new bungalows at his school have no cross-ventiliation? Why are teachers expected to fix up their own classrooms, out-of-pocket? Why must they follow deadly dull, scripted teaching curriculae geared to high test scores instead of higher education?
Why have you been reading this kind of article for decades?
"I was talking with a veteran colleague," said Pete one day last semester. "And neither of us could remember being so bored, so far from the end of the school year. I don't how I will survive the last 18 days, or the 4 more years I need to earn lifetime benefits. . .People need to see how it is in the schools, while Labron James, a high school basketball player, earns $90 million! For what?"
For throwing a ball through a hoop. It's far more valuable than becoming a veterinarian, architect, or. . .teacher. Of course, this is a cliché. As is this:
"The school board and the superintendent are politicians, not educators," said Pete, who does not want his real name printed for fear of retaliation from the board. "The top educators who advise them and come up with terrible ideas are former principals making big bucks, and who are light years away from classrooms."
One of the more terrible ideas, he says, is something called "scripted teaching." Yes, it's what you think it would be. Teachers must follow a specific script. Can you imagine? As if teaching is so inflexible, formulaic.
"Everyone hates it," said Pete. "It tells you what to teach, when, how, and how to align the desk in your room. . ."
He's not kidding about that last bit. The script tells you how to do everything except, oh, inspire a kid. How to improvise. . .Take a child who is withdrawn and get him motivated. . .
"(Administrators) have lost touch," he continued. "They get big dollars, and must protect their positions. They work under much better circumstances and conditions then they had (when they were teachers) in the classroom, and they do not want to go back. Plus there is always an adversarial position against the unions--especially the teachers'--among the board members, the superintendants downtown, and the superintendant himself."
(Yawn. Tell us something new, Pete.)
"The emphasis on test scores is nationwide," he went on. " For a while, the state would pay anyone on the campus money if the scores went up. I was appalled by this notion. . . Do the Board of Education members have bad hemorrhoids? Is this why they sit in those gigantic black leather chairs? How much do those chairs cost? The teachers hate the supervisor, the school board, the administration downtown, and many other things."
"The mini-districts! They divided the district into eleven geographic areas. Each has big honcho with powerful assistants and a large variety of specialists. Each of the eleven grabbed principals and teachers who apparently no longer wanted to be in the schools, and the bureaucracy just got bigger."
Of course, not only are valiant, redoubtable, dependable, relentlessly dedicated people like Pete up against poor funding, the bizarro decisions of so-called "officials" sitting in their leather thrones at Board of Education (starting with the $270 million Belmont "Learning Center" debacle), but they must combat something far worse: the suffocating onslaught of popular culture---the rap stars, the music, the movies, videos, commercials that render many a student little more than a quasi-hypnotized fledgling consumer.
Students? Can the term really apply to poor creatures whose attention spans have been fractured by mass media, whose concept of poetry tends toward obscenity-laden rap, whose enthusiasm for life has been kidnapped by the lure of acquiring designer labels? I mean, I read an article in the L.A. Times a few months back about how, and my fingers don't want to type this, rap "lyrics" are being studied as literature in L.A. high schools. Works by "dead white males," as I believe the article put it---you know, like Mark Twain---were deemed out-of-date.
It all horrifies Pete. Some days, it's harder to get out the door by 6-sharp than others. What keeps him going? Love. He takes his kids on field trips. He shows them programs from The Learning Channel, Huell Howser's "Visiting" and the L.A. historical documentary, "Things That Aren't Here Anymore." He tries to give his eight-year-olds, most of whom are black and latino and poor, some context. Tries to let them know that they are part of a community, and a city, and a tradition---that they are not there just to memorize facts in order to win high test scores for their school.
And not incidentally---in a district that has cancelled a lot of music programs---Pete also tries to do a little something to combat the effects of mass-produced industrial "music" pumped into delicate and impressionable heads:
"I bring them my love of music. I burn CD's and play them in class. Everybody sings along: to rock oldies, Ella, Louie, Duke, Nancy Wilson, Mongo Santamaria, Jimmy Smith, Bernadette Peters singing 'Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,' and so on."
And in the end---despite the sixteen years of 6 sharp and no A.C.---Pete swears that it is all worthwhile.
"Well, last year I had a white girl who was born in Iran," said Pete, "whose family was from Azerberyania. She was bused in to my school. Late in the year, she left because her family was moving to Atlanta. Her Mom brought a cake to class, and a video camera. At the end there were all the African-American girls squeezing her in a huge hug."
I take it back. Don't give this man a medal. Give him a damn raise. Along with every other public school teacher in the country. Better yet, ask LaBron James to donate some of that $90 million.
BACK TO PAGE ONE