Those Who Can, Teach

Like journalism, education is a profession famous for hollowing out its young idealists. “They both tend to draw people who are sensitive and creative,” says Leslie Baldacci. “Those are qualities that you don’t want to lose, and they’re qualities that get trampled out of people over time.” She thinks they’re “much more at risk” in a schoolroom.

Burned-out reporters chase stories that run on page 30 and nurse grievances the kids in the newsroom don’t want to listen to. Their work gets slapdash. “You start making mistakes,” says Baldacci, a former Sun-Times reporter. “You care less about the truth.”

For all that, a burned-out reporter is fairly harmless. A burned-out teacher might have your kid in class for nine months. “We can all think back over our school days,” says Baldacci, “and pick out the teachers who seemed unhappy, who were not effective for us. For every child, it’s a lost year.”

Baldacci is evidence for the proposition that sometimes the best way to remain idealistic about the work you do is to change it. In 1999 Baldacci was in her mid-40s, and she’d already been a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial writer at the Sun-Times. There was precious little left in the business that she hadn’t experienced, and a fair amount that she had no wish to experience again. “I’m not at a stage of my life when I care to chase people down the sidewalk hollering at them,” she says. “That’s undignified for a person of my age.” So she quit the paper to teach.

She entered the Teachers for Chicago program, which put her almost immediately in an elementary school classroom on the south side. For two years she was an intern teaching by day (seventh grade one year, second the next) and earning a master’s at Roosevelt University by night. Now a fully accredited teacher at another public school, which she describes as a wonderful place, she’s just published a book about those first two years, Inside Mrs. B’s Classroom. The subtitle, Courage, Hope, and Learning on Chicago’s South Side, promises a tale of inspiration, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find it. But the book is valuable because it’s salty and critical.

Baldacci was one of eight interns who reported in September 1999 to a Roseland school she doesn’t name. She and one other survived the year. “They felt they weren’t getting support,” she says. “It was just too hard.” The interns were needed but not welcomed, and Baldacci understood that she “might be somebody they didn’t want there most of all.” She says the principal never took the time to observe her as a teacher–he pegged her as a journalist who’d wormed her way into his school, and he didn’t trust her.

In Mrs. B bureaucracy and conformity are the trolls that lurk outside the classroom threatening all who go there. Baldacci describes the Board of Education headquarters on Pershing Road as a place where teachers who’ve turned too violent for the classroom wind up, a place where “they cannot abuse any more children, only adults–usually teachers.” She recalls the Basic Skills Test she took to get into Teachers for Chicago. She thought she’d written a “dazzling response” to the essay question, but got an 80 on it. Her grades for the other parts of the test were 100, 98, and 95.

“Standardized tests do not reward creativity or flair in writing,” she concluded. “They reward convention and conformity.” (I’ve been a judge for the public schools’ Young Authors competition for years, and until a couple of years ago the scoring sheet we graded the poems and stories by stressed neatness, spelling, and organizational principles. Creativity barely registered as a criterion.)

“The first time I left the Board of Education feeling beaten,” Baldacci writes. “I couldn’t believe I’d spent hours going from one counter to another, one office to another, and the only thing I had to show for it was a piece of paper from the State of Illinois allowing me to substitute teach for ninety days. The futility was one thing, but the insult of being given the slip and hollered at by the people who were supposed to be on my team was mind-jarring.”

Her nine-year-old daughter had come along. “If this is the Board of Education,” she whispered to her mom, “why does everyone here act so stupid?”

After lunch they took a ride on the lake on a Wendella boat. Baldacci looked back at the skyline and had “what the Rolling Stones described as a ‘moment of doubt and pain.'” The tour guide was rattling off the call letters of the stations that broadcast from the antennae of the Sears and John Hancock towers. “I had always been proud to be a part of an industry so powerful and important and so vital in people’s lives,” she wrote. Now she wasn’t. “I was officially an outsider….I wept at my spectacular folly.”

Were the mediocrities Baldacci encountered in public education born mediocre?

“I don’t know,” she says. “It could be they started out with all the best intentions, and just the day-to-day reality took away their joy, or their spark, or their ambition. Or their sense of mission got trampled along the way.

“There are not enough opportunities for teachers, who are their own best allies, to really support each other. It’s a very isolating job. You spend the vast majority of your hours alone, the only adult. You speak to colleagues in passing in the hallway or at occasional meetings. But you really need to spend more time working together or planning, and it doesn’t happen at many places.”

The work sounds infantalizing, I say.

“I hadn’t been in a work situation prior to teaching where my superiors spoke to me as a child,” she says. “I noticed it when I went into teaching. Instead of adult to adult it was more adult to subordinate. I felt I was being treated as a child. It’s a bad habit a lot of educators get into. My own children here at home have criticized me for that. Like when I’m explaining something to them they roll their eyes a lot. I get very specific and talk really slow. ‘Mom. We’re not stupid!'”

If she had her life to live over but were allowed only one career, she’d choose journalism. Who she is now is predicated on who she used to be. “I don’t think I could be as effective without the perspective of my first career.”

But she stubbornly defends teachers who were never anything else. “It’s a very hard, very delicate, very complex craft,” she says. “Here am I in my fifth year and just beginning to feel competent.”

Are teachers as interesting as journalists?

“Well, teachers don’t know famous people, and they can’t drop names. But they are always taking classes. They are always in learning groups. They are always taking on projects. I find them fascinating–and very spiritual. They are so much fun to be around. They are very interesting, and a lot of them, because they’re lifelong learners, do these crazy things in their spare time. They may be sculptors. They may be gardeners. And they never stop. They just keep rolling.”

She goes on. “I think a lot of journalists are happy to sit down and do everything by phone. And Thoreau said, ‘How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.'”

But Thoreau might also have called it vain to stand up to teach when you have not stood up to live.

“But I don’t think he would have knocked anybody who did both at the same time, do you?”

As Baldacci knows, a lot of people don’t give teachers credit for being able to. “How unfortunate,” she says.

Baldacci says she had no intention of doing a book until a teacher friend read a speech she’d given and told her to turn it into one. But from the start she kept a journal. She contributed occasional op-ed pieces to the Sun-Times and never felt for a second that becoming an educator meant saying good-bye to writing. On the contrary, she says, “when I worked as a reporter, no matter what you wanted to do in your spare time, when you come home from work you’re out of words and it’s senseless to try to cough up another hair ball.” Teaching offered her “blocks of time” to write in, and the book brought moments of exhilaration she’d never known at the Sun-Times. “It takes you places you don’t anticipate. Some things just come out, and there they are on the screen. And you’re thinking, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ It’s there and it’s fine and unexpected and good. That was something I never experienced as a daily journalist, and I want to feel that again.” So she’s just started a novel. “It asks the question, ‘Does love last?'” she says.

She wants to know why I haven’t asked about rock ‘n’ roll, which “stiffened my spine to go in the schoolhouse door every day.”

Baldacci’s married to a musician, and rock runs through Mrs. B. “We did ballet to Otis Redding and mastered all twelve verses of ‘Over in the Meadow’ (and God knows the Rolling Stones sustained me more than anything else),” she writes, “but in second grade, we listened the most to the Beatles.” The first thing she put on the walls of her seventh-grade classroom was a framed picture of Steven Tyler. “Eat the Rich” said his T-shirt.

“I do gain guidance from pop culture. There’s a lot of wisdom there,” she says. “I was backstage at Aerosmith Friday night trying to explain the concept of a blurb to Steven Tyler.” He didn’t get it. “He gave me butterfly kisses and told me that was a blurb.”

What good’s a blurb anyway? I ask. The book’s already out.

“They’ll reprint the cover if someone has something nice to say.”

News Bites

Hot Type went one for two last week in the eyes of the Tribune’s Eric Zorn. Writing in the ambitious blog he launched this year on the Web site (click on “columnists” and then on Zorn), he agreed that the Tribune should treat letters to the editor as the paper does direct quotations and allow language that might otherwise violate the paper’s stylebook. In the matter at hand, the Tribune shouldn’t have replaced “Pro-Life” with “anti-abortion” every time the former appeared September 7 in a letter from Bill Beckman, executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee.

But Zorn disagreed with me when I agreed with the Illinois Family Institute that the change was censorship. Zorn explained: “Censorship is an active attempt to suppress a point of view either through legal means or guerrilla tactics. Editing, which is what the Tribune practiced here, agree with it or not, is the refusal to cooperate in the dissemination of a point of view or particular form of expression. The former is pernicious, vile and un-American. The latter may be ill-advised and even unfair in certain circumstances, but every publication–heck, nearly every person–practices it all time.”

Zorn is defining editing and censoring as something they’re not–alternatives. Editing can rise (or sink) to the level of censorship, and in the case of Beckman’s letter it does. “Pro-life” asserts a self-regarding, seize-the-high-ground point of view that the Tribune, by deleting every single use of it, is actively suppressing. When editing distorts the text, when the distortion’s deliberate and systematic, and when a provocation is expunged, then editing becomes censorship.

Consider the essay by Alan Cheuse on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 that ran in last Sunday’s Tribune. In the novel, books are burned for the best of reasons–to keep the peace in a multicultural society. “It’s censorship on behalf of a multiplicity of minorities,” Cheuse observes, and quotes “fire captain” Beatty on the subject.

“Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen….Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it.”

That sounds like the spirit in which the Tribune edits its letters–no sense in stirring up readers. If that isn’t censorship I don’t know what else to call it.

The east coast came through. Its distinguished aesthetes rose to the challenge, as I knew they would, and set straight the local rustics who’ve been writing for months that the new football stadium looks like an alien spaceship that crash-landed on old Soldier Field.

Last Friday the Tribune, which has led the attack, gallantly published the assessment of Joseph Giovannini of New York magazine. Giovannini marveled at the rakish “asymmetries” of the new stadium, at the “intriguing Piranesian complexity” of the new public plazas, at the “beautifully restored tempiettos” and the “architectural palimpsest,” which reminded him of what “Renaissance architects in Rome did when they built the Palazzo Orsini atop the Teatro di Marcello.”

This Tuesday, Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times rejoiced at Chicago’s “daring study of urban America in extremis, precariously poised for a future beyond its widely unlamented demise.” To Muschamp, Soldier Field is a perfect symbol of the collision of two great forces: “the impulse to preserve and the need for economic development.” He wrote, “This is a place of extremities held in a dynamic state of imbalance.”

But neither one said it doesn’t look like a spaceship.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.