Friday, September 19, 2008

Confessions of an American Teacher: Choking on it...

I’m not supposed to talk about this.

Guilt, wrapped in denial, and re-enforced by a federal court order are powerful ingredients that still induce my silence.  These words are leaking out, extruded under high pressure that’s’ built over the years.

I have to tell. I have to face what happened. I have to get the ugly reality written.

Maybe it will stop the headaches and the sleeplessness. Maybe I’ll be able to recapture my hope again… If I can just tell it, get it out on the page and expel this evil hairball that’s clogged my teaching spirit for so long maybe I can believe in American Schooling and stop seeing the whole system through the lens of my own experience.

As I look back I realize I should have stood up sooner.  Oh, I took a stand and took a major hit for my ethics. It cost me my job, most of my pension, a good chunk of my self respect.  Standing up also launched me. Cutting lose (and being cast out) made me build skills and muscle.  My life is so much better now. I’m more self realized, more articulate, better educated and making three times the money I made back in the classroom. Hell I should go back and kiss the sobs for kicking me in the jewels and waking me up. Ultimately they helped me find my way to a better life. As a friend told me just the other day: “’s an honor to be extruded from a dysfunctional system”.

But I still know that I waited too long. That when the test came, I stood and fought, but it was with an attorney and not my fists.  (And I do crave some vigilante justice.)  Instead, I fought fair.  And just like my lawyer warned me up front… I got no justice. There was no satisfaction.  Wrongs were not righted. There was a little money, but nothing was made whole.  My hired gun, the professional cynic, the street fighter in the three piece suit was so right when he said: “.. starting a lawsuit is going to war… and it’s a sin to go to war.”

It took many years to work my way out to the end of the plank. I have to remember that there were a lot of good years in the classroom building the learning world I’d worked my whole career to create. But with time, more and more of my energy was spent fighting for the freedom to do the good work.  More energy went into watching my back and fighting the system until eventually, most of my juice went to just coping with the controlling, totalitarian bastards set on destroying what they couldn’t duplicate or control.

I can remember thinking first they came for the…
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
~ Martin Niemöller (more or less)

It was all gallows humor when I began thinking that way. I didn’t realize how real it would become.

I was happy in my little enclave, my realm of responsibility, my small pond where I was the big fish in a remote school on the edges of the district orbit… we were the outlier, out of the way, easy to forget. The District Office was down the hill dismantling and reforming the other schools, instigating the strategic plan, rewriting the history books.. it would take them years to get to me and mine.

Still I knew that the Borg were coming… and that, by all accounts resistance would be futile.

One day I found myself holding a picket sign in front of the school board meeting. I don’t remember the cause.  Radon in the classrooms? Sick building syndrome? Some small pay raise?  I don’t remember a lot of what happened… denial is like this. Regardless walking a picket line was a futile thing to do in a ‘right to work’ state that had an unwritten school labor approach that basically came down to, “There are plenty of holes in the desert”.

Our pictures (complete with signs) appeared on the front page of the local paper. Within a few years all of us would be gone. A combination of psy-ops, burn-out, retirement, and despair would take us all. But at the time I didn’t see it coming at the time.

I just didn’t get it. I thought that doing the right thing would protect me. I didn’t understand that the leadership of my district would trade the welfare, the safety, the minds and innocence of the kids for the little bit of power they had.  Yeah I’d called them fascist lemmings who worshiped at the altar of appearances at the expense of common sense.  But like a fool, I didn’t get what it really meant to be right about them.

That’s why I got my Pollyanna ass kicked by the system.  It took me half a century to grow up.

Here I am still crying about it.  At least I’m not numb any more. At least I’m finding my voice.

At the heart of my anger is the betrayal I still feel. The Assistant Ass, who eventually became the Top Ass, was an old colleague… we’d known each other for years.  While we weren’t friends, I thought we at least had respect for each other.  I remain amazed and infuriated that this fellow, who was one of the smartest, most able, even brilliant educators I’d worked with would sell his integrity for a little piss-pot job in a backward school district out in the sticks.  I’m shocked and I’m angry that he became a banal, evil little man. By the time he reached the top, he was morally bankrupt. And what was he on top of?  A backwater, small town conservative, rural school district with delusions of grandeur.

So here I am again. Pleading with myself and ranting on the web about the betrayal of innocence I was part of as a public school teacher.

Why can’t I spit this out? I still can’t name it. 


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