A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Sunday, August 27, 2006

When teaching school is like... a divine comedy


For me, the school year is back in full swing-- inasmuch as one can be when Labor Day still hasn't rolled around yet. For those of you who have forgotten, or who now look back upon your high school years through the rosy mists of fondness for that halcyon era when your head, not your back, was covered with hair and your tricep didn't flop around like a Tibetan prayer flag in a good stiff breeze, high school is organized into concentric circles of despair and Sisyphean drudgery which align quite nicely with the Nine Circles of Hell our friend and eternal optimist Dante Alighieri described so fully.

Circle 1- Limbo, the Home of the Innocent: The freshmen have already had most of the pranks pulled on them-- like looking for a swimming pool on the roof, or looking for the smoking area, or being told that we have open campus for lunch, and so on. They've lost a bit of that dazed look-- unless it's a permanent condition.

Circle 2-The Lustful: The "veteran" freshmen on the two- or three-year-plans are already falling back into their habits of trying to evade class as much as possible and still somehow be able to finagle enough credits to achieve sophomorehood. They lust for a way to get over. Those who lust for each other have tried to discover just where the security cameras don't work.

Circle 3- The Gluttonous: Last year's freshmen who made the cut to sophomores are hoping to have grown some-- the girls hoping to be able to fill out those teeny tanks they wear and the boys hoping to get closer to making that dunk on the basketball court. The boys can eat the weight of a newborn elephant in one sitting. Sophomores bear the grim visage of those who realize that they still must slog through an eternity of high school, and that as long ago as they were seventh graders? That's how long it will be before they graduate. The mathematically inclined have computed this sentence in Hell as the equivalent of 19.7% of their lives thus far.

Circle 4- The Hoarders and the Improvident: Most of the juniors are engulfed in a tsunami in post-high school planning, as the first deadline to register for the ACT was on the Friday after we started school, and they are frantically collecting honors to list on their aplications and recommendations from harried staff. Those who swear that they'll NEVER want to go to college or trade school or sit in a classroom again are sneering at their classmates who are wigging out. They can't wait to get out of school so they'll never have to do what anyone tells them, EVER AGAIN.

Circle 5- The River Styx; the Wrathful and the Sullen: The seniors have slogged their way through all these levels only to discover that they are merely on the verge of true Hell. They've figured out to take AP and honors classes their first semester, and as soon as the transcripts are mailed off to their fifteen dream colleges to "drop them like it's hot" and coast through the rest of the year. The ones who SWORE that they would never want to go to college or trade school have lost a bit of that sneer as they are slowly coming to the realization that after antagonizing Mom and Dad for the last six years, what with the brushes with the law and the suspensions and the phone calls from school and the poor grades, their parents are COUNTING the days until they can tell their offspring that their bedroom has become an exercise room, and seven bucks an hour at TWO part time jobs at fast food joints minus something called FICA and social security will get them a run-down one bedroom apartment with three roommates, rides to work on a bus, peanut butter sandwiches, no vacations EVER-- much less three months in a row off, no health care, and tennis shoes from K-Mart, not Foot Locker. No bling, no phat threads, and no pimpin' any rides. Suddenly four years of sitting in a classroom listening to someone drone on and on about 18th century British literature or the principles of accounting doesn't sound nearly as stupefying as fifty years of soul-destroying repetitive labor where you come home at the end of the day with the smell of fried food permeating even your HAIR, which you now have to get cut at Great Clips four times a year. They've asked their uncle about that job at the Ford plant, but it's shutting its doors in 2007 and outsourcing to Mexico under NAFTA, and soon their uncle may be delivering pizzas and competing with them for jobs-- and he, at least, has a history of showing up to work on time and following directions, which gives him a big leg up on them.

Gosh, is it too late to take the ACT?

Circle 6- The City of Dis; the Heretics: The teachers have once again realized that no matter how thick the student behavior guide is, that the assistant principals have pretty much no interest in enforcing the policies on tardiness, dress code, attendance, cell phones, smoking in the john, or insubordination unless it's directed at them. These teachers will "dis" these administrators with considerable bitterness. They are already huddling in circles in the hallway, disputing the diagnoses buried in IEPs and 504s, and mocking memos from administration. They have their own vision of what the school should look like, but theirs is not a theology bearing the imprimatur of the powers that be, so they just appear out of touch with reality. Those who work hard and strive to inculcate their students with a love of learning are nonetheless vilified by the public and even some of their peers. Those who think that students should be accountable for their shortcomings are considered to be child-hating misanthropes.

Circle 7- The Violent: Many of the parents have already had all the phone calls from school they are going to tolerate. They have blocked calls from any building in the district. Others have been lurking malevolently in the counseling office since the end of July demanding that their kids' schedules be changed about five times, or that an entire class be created to fully meet the needs of their son or daughter. Already two hundred of them have tried to enroll their children in our district by claiming the address of the UPS store down the street, and if they don't get what they want, they will try to intimidate anyone within hearing, including our sweet little white-haired registrar.

Circle 8- Malebolge, The Fraudulent: The counsellors and principals fall into various categories listed by Dante. They either spent two years in a classroom and are 24 years old, or they spent two years in the classroom twenty years ago. But no matter what, they are experts in good teaching methods and writing curriculum, or so they assure the staff. Among them are:
Panderers, who just want to be the students' "friend;"
Flatterers, who will tell you that they think you're a great teacher only to dump more work on you;
Simoniacs, who shower dispensations for referrals upon kids, in a bid to supposedly "save" them from the "Heretics;"
Hypocrites, who will merely counsel a kid who calls a teacher that word for "a person who would engage in carnal activity with his maternal relative" but who suspends a kid for six days for calling the AP a sexual deviate;
Sowers of Discord, Scandal, and Schism, who hang out all day with their favorite staff members in their office, trading gossip and innuendo regarding the rest of the staff-- they think that teachers are all incompetent, hyperbolic, child-hating misanthropes.

Circle 9- The Traitors: The central office administrators and school board. They will bizarrely give permission for five hundred kids who supposedly live at the UPS store down the street to attend schools in our district, and they will refuse to investigate reports that students are being dropped off at bus stops in cars with license plates from a neighboring state. They will overturn suspensions upon a whim. They will go to the National School Board Association meeting in Miami with their entire families while they tell teachers there is no money for raises and their deductible for health insurance will need to triple. They think that teachers are all incompetent, hyperbolic, child-hating misanthropes who are overpaid.


And how would our friend Dante describe this abode?

“And when, with gladness in his face, he placed his hand upon my own, to comfort me, he drew me in among the hidden things. Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries were echoing across the starless air, so that, as soon as I set out, I wept. Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, accents of anger, words of suffering, and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands—all went to make tumult that will whirl forever through that turbid, timeless air, like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.” [Dante, as he enters the Gates of Hell. Canto III, Inferno]

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20 Comments:

At 8/27/06, 11:28 AM, Blogger CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

Your opening paragraph has left me laughing hysterically. What a way to begin my Sunday! Now I shall read the rest, hoping your rapier wit will lead me further into the realm of risibility.

 
At 8/27/06, 1:43 PM, Blogger Fred said...

So much to think about all at one time. Am I allowed to come back and read it again?

 
At 8/27/06, 2:04 PM, Blogger ms-teacher said...

my own two teens are in that list - one being an entering freshmen and the other a senior as of tomorrow.

The soon to be senior is scared. I asked her yesterday if she thought she was ready to be a grown-up. She looked at me with such terror! "Where did the last few years go, mom?" she whimpered.

Of course, dad is threatening her (jokingly, of course) that her room becomes ours in December, when she turns 18, even before she finishes school.

 
At 8/27/06, 2:09 PM, Blogger Mister Teacher said...

Funny that you would use the word "halcyon." In a meeting last week, I counted four times that our principal used that word, each time mispronouncing it as "halycon." My strategery was to keep my mouth shut.

 
At 8/27/06, 5:39 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Ha ha Fred-- you see that this is my shameless way of dumping junk out of my brain and beating a metaphor to death. The scary part is, I started writing it, and then realized what form it was taking. See how that kind of stuff lingers in the heads of English majors? But come back every day if you want-- we like your kind of people around here!

Ms-teacher, I was eager to leave high school, but terrified at the same time-- especially since no one in my family had gone to college before. Talk about your uncharted waters! Beyond here there be dragons! Fortunately, society no longer requires people to b adults until they're about thirty.

Mr. teacher, all I can do is shudder. I would have to stuck my fist in my mouth. One wonders what book he read that in this summer.

 
At 8/27/06, 7:53 PM, Blogger Mrs. T said...

This was brilliant and frighteningly dead-on. My first day with students is tomorrow and I will be thinking of each Circle. Wonderful, wonderful writing.

 
At 8/27/06, 8:55 PM, Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I have spent too much of my weekend reading and responding to comments and blogs about education by people who obviously have no clue what it is actually like to run a public school classroom. Ms. Cornelius, you know what it's like! Outstanding post!

 
At 8/28/06, 6:36 PM, Blogger EdWonk said...

Execellent!! We simply had to link this post!

 
At 8/28/06, 8:29 PM, Blogger Mrs. Bluebird said...

That was one of the funniest, and well-written, things I've read in a long time!

 
At 8/28/06, 9:21 PM, Blogger Janet said...

Freshman still fall for the pool on the roof trick? Man I thought kids today were more sophisticated than that.

 
At 8/28/06, 10:46 PM, Blogger quakerdave said...

This is awesomely hysterical. A definite keeper.

Hope you have a great year, teachers.

 
At 8/29/06, 7:34 AM, Anonymous RedKudu said...

Brilliant, and so much fun to read and laugh over!

 
At 8/29/06, 7:38 PM, Blogger La Maestra said...

Oh were that it weren't true...

 
At 8/29/06, 10:06 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

I yet have a lovely picture book entitled "Dante's Infernal Guide to Your School," replete with Faure woodcuts. I'm not sure it's still in print, but is priceless if you can find a copy.

 
At 8/29/06, 11:31 PM, Blogger samuel said...

I love the idea of tricking the freshmen. As a happy lifer in the restaurant business we do the same thing to new people, bacon stretchers, buckets of steam, celery peelers, the basement door outside and around back . . . I'm no longer surprised by the things one can convince someone to look for.

 
At 8/30/06, 8:31 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

So where should we put the substitutes and the maintenance staff? The secretaries in my building are angels, so they don't get mentioned here.

And mike, I would love to see a copy of that book.

Thanks so much, everyone!

 
At 8/31/06, 5:30 PM, Blogger graycie said...

O, Bravo! Bravo! This is absolutely brilliant! I am sending the link to my fellow suffering Heretics.

 
At 9/2/06, 9:11 AM, Blogger GenaSuarez.com said...

Brilliant post. Stirred up some not-so-fond memories of my own high school days. I think perhaps at some point, I or my teachers fit into each of the nine circles. My own response to my public school nightmare was to end the continuum. I didn't want it for my own kids. We happen to home educate, and have managed to avoid the pitfalls of the circles, for the most part. Kids need to be individuals; I think that's where a lot of this spirals in the schools - they're a small extension off the larger group-think organism. Thanks for your post - made me think. I like your animated style of writing, and I'll be back.

-gena
www.genasuarez.com

 
At 9/2/06, 8:15 PM, Blogger happychyck said...

Wow! That is just too true! Bravo on your creativity!

 
At 3/2/09, 5:53 AM, Blogger sexy said...

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