Mice, military, and wasted energy

Lyon Keating:

Have you ever noticed how incredibly dirty schools are?  How incredibly lowly maintained the place is that most children actually go to every day?  There are so many students per classroom, per school, per teacher, per custodian that it’s virtually impossible to keep the place clean.  Things like having on hand constant hand sanitizers, tissue boxes, soap, napkins, brooms, garbage bags, etc. do help but they are things that will most of the time come out of the pockets of teachers.  How does a teacher or student survive in an environment that is a prime area for disease, bacteria, and sickness to spread?

Went to a new high school in Camden, NJ recently.  It’s always funny when I drive up to these new places I have never been before.  Sometimes schools look like good places to be.  They can be new, have lots of fields, cool buildings and gyms, be open to the public, whatever, but most of the time when I’m looking for a school I’ve never been to before I look for the structure that looks the most like a prison.  Are there tall fences that surround the structure, maybe even barbed wire on the tops of those fences, how many guards do I see patrolling the parking lot, are there metal detectors?  Rolling into the parking lot on this particular day felt like a visit I had years ago to an ex-concentration camp in Germany.

Walking into the school I had to pass a series of metal detectors.  I always try to purposely not walk through them because I feel like the day they think teachers are packing weapons is an extremely sad day.  Usually I can walk by no problem with only hesitant looks at why I am not passing through the metal detector.  However, on this day I was apprehended by the police in front of the school.  The school was on lock down because it was testing day (more on that later).  I was told to turn instantly back around and head back into the parking lot and wait in my car.  I insisted that I was a teacher and had been asked to come here today because a teacher was out and I needed to go to the front office.  “Absolutely no visitors, turn around now, we don’t need you!”  I guess when you deal with kids who are packing weapons you have no patience for anyone that comes through your doors and you don’t want anyone extra that doesn’t look familiar to come in for the day.  I said I wasn’t a visitor and that I was a teacher filling in for someone today.  At this point, I felt like this wasn’t about who I was or if I was right or wrong but about the authority officer saying something and me not doing it.  There was no way I was going to be able to get past here so I said I would wait outside like a convicted person and wait.  I was followed at this point and all of a sudden I was threat number one for this school.  After waiting for about fifteen minutes I was greeted by the vice principal who informed the security guard of who I was and that I should be allowed in.  It was a sweet moral victory to be walking past the security guard at this point with a smile on my face.  With a disgruntled look on her face she barked that she “was only doing her job.”  I thought about this for a second and realized that this is actually exactly the problem here in a lot of these schools.  Everybody blindly following an urban public school process that is driving education deeper and deeper into the ground.

The classroom I was initially put in had an awful smell to it and the kids came rolling in.  There was a stir among the kids this morning which was unusual because usually high school kids are a little more subdued in the morning.  I asked what the hoopla was all about and realized that one of the kids had a recently tatted tattoo on his arm.  I asked him what it was a tattoo of and he said that it was a memorial to his cousin who was found dead in the river in Camden last week.  I didn’t really know what to say after this and just let the kids talk amongst themselves.  How do you say anything to a kid and a community who wake up to find their family dead in rivers?  I felt suddenly like a foreigner having no perspective for what these kids go through on a daily basis.  How could I relate?  How could I possibly say anything to let them know I understood?  I didn’t understand and I had no perspective to go off of and the kids knew it.  I am one of the only white people in these schools and that sort of says something about me and where I come from and how I am not one of them.  It would be a long road for these kids to look at me like I had something worth saying I thought.

After this initial communication, I sat down at the teachers desk upon which I heard a few squeaks and to my surprise looked over to my left and saw two huge mice stuck to a sticky pad and moving about trying to get away.  I jumped a foot in the air and was utterly disgusted and surprised a lot of my students in the class.  I couldn’t sit there and do what I needed to do in the classroom with these mice running about for dire survival.  I called a security guard to call someone to come and get rid of these mice.  Two periods later someone came and picked up the mice and threw them in the garbage outside.  I felt sort of bad.  I felt bad for the mice because they are creatures and I’m watching them head to a miserable death.  I felt bad that mice were just chilling in a classroom where students were suppose to be able to come and learn and get away from the problems of their community. It was such an unfortunate and nasty situation.

After my first class the school had testing and all teachers were supposed to report to in front of the main office.  It was an unusual site to see as the teachers were being herded up.  Talking to my peers that day I realized that these were state tests that the kids were taking.  A few years back the school got caught cheating on these tests from the principal on down to the teachers.  Because of this, the state sent its employees and guards to make sure the school was on lock down during these tests.  There were monitors in the hallways looking into every classroom which had two random teachers put in them.  The leftover teachers were separated in the halls to be thirty feet apart.  During this four hour time it was not permissible for teachers to grade papers, read, be on their phones or computers or do anything except stare at the wall in front of them.  It was one of the most excruciating boredoms I’ve had to sit through in my life.  I literally felt like I perfected the art of zoning out during this time.

During my zone out I couldn’t help but think about this situation.  There was an enormous amount of manpower and energy being directed at the school in this moment.  Everyone was being watched like a hawk.  Now I know the school was involved in a very serious cheating scam years earlier but instead of gripping the talons even harder and shoving the tests more down their throat what about looking towards the school at why they cheated?  Why did the principal, the teachers, the students take part?  For schools in these situations, the rewards are too high and the consequences are really nothing.  If you cheat and show good scores the school gets recognized as a model for success and receives more money, support, prestige, supplies, among probably many other things.  If you cheat and get caught well you are basically at where you were before you cheated.  You are still in your desperate, ghetto school that finds kids dead in the river and classrooms infested with mice.  You are still going to be behind compared to most other public schools with a very hard road at becoming better in the eyes of the state.  You will still have the hardest time shoving test important material towards a community that sees no connection between educating towards state standardized tests and what is actually happening in the communities and lives of the city’s citizens.  When will our government actually look at the cause and effect for why cheating occurred and what should be done about it and how certain schools need an enormous amount of help over others?  Or even more important, when will the state acknowledge that pushing to create a good school on paper has nothing to do with creating a good community for people to actually live in?

Watching this whole process go down I couldn’t help but feel that this situation could very easily be considered institutional racism and/or oppression.  Racism in the sense that most of the school and community were black and oppression in the sense that most of the community were lower to working class.  As if the school wasn’t prison looking and feeling enough now there were workers from the state monitoring the halls and keeping students and teachers in check.  In check for what?  To ensure that the school reported it’s dilapidated score to the state?  A score that would on paper justify its bad situation and make it a school that possibly needed to be taken over by the state or dished out harsher measures for or rewarded less money?  Either way, from here on out it was going to be harder for this community to be educated because of the state’s policies toward education.  How long will this go on and what will be the result of all of this?  What will happen to cities like Camden?  Will they eventually magically score brilliantly on their tests which will translate into their community being a safer, better place?  Or what seems more likely, will they sink deeper into despair by making Camden seem like their own victim where the state can then take little interest in their needs to create a specific effort and approach to dealing with their problems?  How will the latter really be avoided?  Does the state actually not care for Camden to suffer what they believe is them creating their own demise?

Guess I’ll go back to catching mice and practicing my zoning out skills while working in the wonderful, militaristic school district of Camden.


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