Out of the fire into the frying pan

Lyon Keating:

When I lived in San Francisco I didn’t envision public education could be too much worse elsewhere.  Maybe the same but not overwhelmingly worse.  The mismanagement the SFUSD put me through during the last 6 years led me to question if public education could ever work in urban settings.  The bureaucracy was horrible and lost in itself and wasting as much money as any entity could.  Only a few schools possessed teachers who were good, trained, and willing to be good people and teachers.  Classrooms and teachers were pushed to the absolutes in terms of available resources, class size, patience, workloads, out of touch standards, tests, and policies to cater to, absolute ghetto and desperate neighborhoods and populations, among many other things.  For a place like SF that is suppose to be a beacon of light for liberal views and open mindedness, creativity, and looking out for people, one walked away thinking none of these things when dealing with the schools there.  Schools had no money, there weren’t able to pay for teachers, and everything was crumbling at the edges and foundation.  Really it was a pitiful situation and I needed a break and could not, would not, will not see my life being involved in such a shoddy environment.

Philadelphia!  The east coast!  What new possibilities await me here?  Excited to get going and seeing if the Philadelphia area is any different for job opportunities, schools, whatever, I was excited to see.  I wasn’t let down.  Philadelphia proved to be extremely different as in atrociously more worse.  Who would have thought I had it so good in San Francisco?

February 13, I sub at a charter middle school.  Instead of the lockers for the kids being in the hallways they are in the classrooms.  A good attempt but a horrible practical idea.  It leads to kids trashing classrooms, leaving shit in them that smells, and constantly disrupting classrooms due to students having to get in their lockers in between classes and even during classes.  The classrooms at this school smelled of sweaty feet and socks.  There were moments where I couldn’t physically breathe in the air in the classroom and had to excuse myself to the hallway as gag reflexes were starting to stir within me.  I had the luxury of being a teacher and being able to go into the hallways, the students did not.  I isolated about three lockers that proved to be the most dire, smelly culprits and called the office to send someone up to take care of it.  The person that came merely had an extremely cheap, aerosol spray can upon which the whole contents were sprayed into the classroom that also had no windows.  Now we were not only breathing in sweaty feet smell but aerosol chemicals and it didn’t make the smell go away but rather created an awkward smelling mixture.  Yeah, I didn’t want to yak as much anymore but now I felt as if my brain was being poisoned.  I called the office again and mentioned that this solution was not realistic and the smell had to be removed from the lockers.  A kid eventually was ushered into the room and told to open his locker.  He pulled out all his gym clothes and a pair of putrid smelling boots that he hauled out of the classroom.  This was honestly the closest time in my life that I’ve ever almost vomited in public and because of a smell.  The smell in the class did improve after this but the walls and other lockers were already coaxed with a skanky smell that had probably been there for years if not decades by now.

The day went on.  I was in survival mode.  The kids at this school were the worst kids I have ever had to watch over.  There usually were a few leaders who would organize an inquisition into some kid.  They would call the kid out and ask the kids all kinds of personal questions and gang up on, peer pressure, and socially ostracize them in front of all the others.  The kids who were picked on were defenseless.  I tried to intervene but the result was always the same.  “Fuck you” or totally ignored as if I wasn’t there.  An office call would have the principal or security come in and totally engage in a shouting match with the kids over what was going on.  It mildly worked but then as soon as they would exit the same behavior would start again.  I have never seen people yell at kids like I saw at this school.  The amount of hostility, hate, aggression, vulgarity, etc. directed at the student population was absurd.  Yes, the kids almost needed to be treated militantly but going as far as these teachers did is NEVER a good thing.  When the kids became bored with each other they turned on me and tried to pick on me at different times of the day.  I would try to confront them about what they were doing but they absolutely ignored everything I said to them.  Totally ignoring them was my only defense and as an adult interacting with children this was not the hardest thing to do but I can’t imagine being peers with these kids and having the will power to ignore most of everything that is going on around you and about you.

Every class throughout the day had these situations occur and the happenings in two of them made this particular day the worst teaching day of my life.  It usually started with this behavior of certain leader, instigator kids picking heavily on a certain kid.  Then most of the kids would slowly start chanting and getting louder and going faster.  At no particular point they would all jump up and literally “jump” a certain kid.  It sort of had a bit of playfulness to it but after about the first two seconds it dramatically developed into mob mentality and everyone moshing and slugging the shit out of each other.  Desks, chairs, computers would be thrown about, knocked over, damaged and there was nothing I could do.  The first time it happened I was in utter shock at what was going on.  The second time I actually tried to intervene but then instantly realized that I was caught in the middle of a fight and was fighting myself.  This day was also the closest I have ever come to being physically with students.  Every time it happened after this point, I would run out of the classroom and call and look for whoever was around.  Other teachers and adults would come in and belligerently yell but it accomplished nothing.  There was a moment that I was tempted to take out my phone and video record the whole thing as a safety precaution and also as an unbelievable display of beasts.  I wouldn’t believe this story if I heard it from someone, thinking they were embellishing there situation or what was going on, but I kid you not, this really did go down like this.

After two days at this school being very similar I decided there was no point or reason for me to ever go back to this school.  What was I accomplishing in this environment other than putting myself in harms way.  Life is unfair for these kids and a lot of them will end up in jail or in the streets or doing absolutely nothing with their lives.  If classrooms are like this, how are their homes like, how are the streets?  How do you make it in this environment as a student, as a person?  What kind of outrageously gifted, mature, zen like master does a kid need to be in order to be successful and defeat the beasts that will jump and pick on him?  It would be much easier for any kid to just go along with the fiasco and become part of the problem.  Not doing so would be too hard.  I can’t say I would have escaped this if I grew up in this environment.  It just goes to show that I could have been a drug dealing, gang banger just as easily as I was a good student and a good athlete growing up.  Environment is everything.

Philadelphia is a great city.  Well the center city and southern Philly part.  The parts that have been gentrified with new populations of people.  Most of Philly resembles more of a third world environment than it does a city in the U.S.  In most neighborhoods, houses are torn down and boarded up, cars are imbedded in houses where living room windows should be.  There is trash everywhere and nothing but broken down homes and shady bars and a McDonalds or whatever.  There is a level of utter desperation on the streets where anything can happen at anytime.  People are just hanging around and if ever in your mind you think about what ghettos should look like this is definitely it.  I am usually one of the only white people at these schools.  The people are not always shitty people.  In fact, I meet a lot of really nice and well intentioned teachers and administrators but the amount of energy that is needed from every one of these positive people is absolutely overwhelming and in no way sustainable for people to really try to be like.  They are flowers in seas of poisonous seaweed.  There comes a point where things become so desperate and chaotic that it doesn’t matter if you are in a classroom, a jungle, a store, a job, etc. you will do whatever it takes to try and feel better.  Every one of these kids and many people in general in these communities are energies that are just spiraling out of control and going in any direction that will take them.  There is no such thing as good or bad or right or wrong or any duality or combination of thinking, there is just reactionary ‘being’.  You will go in any direction you can because not going in it will lead you with nothing and a horribleness and consequences that are unthinkable and unfathomable to experience.


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