“Sarah,” “Patrick,” and “Meg”–an algebra teacher, an English literature teacher, and a librarian–work at a mostly Hispanic high school, one of the city’s poorest, in the Humboldt Park area. They have agreed to talk about their careers for publication.
Sarah is a young 32, dressed casually in jeans and a red sweater. Patrick is wiry, 36, his short hair dark. He wears a leather jacket, a sport coat, no tie.
Meg, 50, is an attractive woman with smile lines etched beside her eyes. She has laughed often.
When the session is scheduled to end, they do not glance at their watches or clear their throats. They continue talking.
“No one,” they explain, “ever asked us to tell our side of the story.”
How long have each of you been teaching?
Patrick: Meg’s been teaching since Christ was a kid.
Meg: I think consistently Patrick’s been teaching the longest. I mean, you started when you were just a baby.
Patrick: I’ve been doing it 16 years. How long have you been doing it?
Meg: Well, I came in the system in ’66.
Sarah: I started in ’79. Then I left for about two years, and then came back.
Why did you come back?
Sarah: To tell the truth, I kind of missed working with the kids. It’s rough, but it’s kind of a challenge. I grew up in the inner city. I went to Chicago public schools. I know how bad they can be–
Patrick: Which one did you go to?
Sarah: I went to Westinghouse High School and Ryerson Elementary School. But at the same time, I had some good teachers, some damn good teachers.
Patrick: Yeah, but they were getting paid too much.
Sarah: Yeah, right, right. I don’t know, I kind of wanted to get back and do some of the things I had seen done for me. Maybe I like punishment. I don’t know, they say women like to be punished or whatever, I think that’s bullshit, but I enjoy the work. And yet, even though I enjoy working with the kids, I still sometimes think of leaving.
Patrick: Yeah, morale’s real down. I don’t know any teacher today in that school who’s having a good time this year [in the wake of the teacher’s strike, the longest in Chicago’s history]. I don’t know one that wants to come to work. We’re really depressed after this one. It’s not just because we didn’t get enough money, it’s because of the way we were manipulated–
Meg: And yeah, we turn on the radio, we’re awful, we’re greedy, we can’t do anything right anyway, why should they pay us? These kids aren’t coming out the way they want them to come out–
Sarah: Yeah, but to have the kids come back and say “Hi, Ms. Cutting, why did you greedy teachers strike? You just want more money”–blah, blah, blah. And these are the kids that like you!
Patrick: And they demand to know, how much do you get paid? I tell them.
Meg: And, compared to what their parents bring home, it seems like a lot of money.
Patrick: You’re rich.
Sarah: Yeah, yeah.
Meg: Even when you talk to your friends who are in business, they still think you have it made. They think you have a mission, that you’re really helping these kids. Lucky you. “Poor me, I’m in advertising, and of course I make a lot of money, but you have your summers off.” These are your friends! Even your friends don’t support you. I’ve been in the system since ’66. These are people that’ve been working maybe five or six years, and they’re making more money than I. Even my kid was only working two years and was making almost as much money. It’s like, well, you chose it, and fine, I did choose it, but I’d like to make more money and so why not? Why not try to make as much money as I can doing the job? But they look at you like, well, you really have a good purpose in life, and that counts for something more than money.
Why do you stay?
Meg: Because I like working with those kids. I like being around them. And I do feel I have a purpose. But I’d also like to get paid for doing it. And I would like the public to support these schools and I would like the board to support the teachers. And it’s such a joke, it’s such a joke.
What would you say to the board if you could?
Patrick: Go to hell! Go to hell, you lousy, rotten bastards! You ruined my summer, you ruined my autumn, and I’ll tell you what, they deserve to pay my MasterCard bill.
So they say “OK, we’ll pay your MasterCard, we’ll go to hell, now what? Let’s talk. Can we talk?”
Meg: I think they need to ask the teachers what they want. I think the board should be there to support the teachers, not the other way around. I think they’ve got that huge building on Pershing and they’ve got to fill it up with bodies so they keep bringing more people down there.
Patrick: And they do nothing. I swear, I never see any of these people all year long but they’re in charge of coordinating this and coordinating that, of these teacher-support services–what do they do to support us? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Meg: Except paperwork.
Patrick: You’ve got thousands of people down there on Pershing doing absolutely nothing, and they know it. Try a little experiment sometime. Take a day off, take a sick day, what the hell, you’ve got them coming to you, right? Call in sick, go down there in a business suit or something and walk around. Just look at them, and as soon as you show up there in a suit, they all get paranoid and group around their little bureaus. They all get paranoid, afraid that somebody’s checking up on them, afraid that they’ll lose their jobs. It’s hysterical. See how fast they get busy. And they just keep staring at you out of the corner of their eye. They just push paper.
Are these former teachers who’ve been promoted into administration? Where do they come from?
Patrick: Most of them are former teachers.
Meg: See, the only way you can make more money in the school system is to be promoted out of the classroom. Promoted out of the school. That’s the only way.
We still haven’t answered the question. What if the board were really listening, really interested, really trying to find the beef? Does the whole system need to be scrapped? Or does it just need some minor repair?
Patrick: You’ve got to cut the top. You’re going to have to cut all those coordinators that we never see and don’t need. You’re going to have to find some reliable system for managing the money that apparently they have but can never find or never know what to do with. And they need to fill our book orders and care about whether we get new textbooks, I never get new textbooks–
When was the last time you got new textbooks?
Patrick: A year and a half ago. But that was one title I requested.
Out of how many?
Patrick: Five. I’m teaching copies of Franny and Zooey right now that look like somebody’s eaten them. And they need to know what we need. We’ve got to sit down with them and say to them “Look, I need x number of dollars, and I’m not being facetious, I can’t do a good job unless you give me x number of dollars. I need less of this paperwork that I have to fill out for you every day.” I’ve got three forms to fill out every day in division. Three. That’s homework. I’ve got ten minutes to do that, and during that time I’ve got to take attendance, distribute ID cards, distribute notifications, read the bulletin, and I’ve got to do that with 36 kids in a room with 25 chairs in a room. Eleven kids have to stand while I’m doing this.
Does anybody come down and say, Mr. Mencher, do you have enough chairs? No. Mr. Mencher, could you do without less of this paperwork that’s just double-work, anyway? That’s just duplicating the same information three times, anyway? Yeah, I could do without that. And they’re three different forms, so I can’t even use a carbon. I’ve got 25 desks in a room with 36 kids, which is a violation of my contract to begin with. If I were a real gung ho union guy, I’d say get these damn kids out of my room. I don’t know, what’s the limit? Thirty? Thirty-two?
Sarah: It’s 28.
Patrick: Well, I got 36. And they tell you, don’t worry, we’ll level them in a few weeks–
Patrick: Send them to other home rooms, or create a new home room. They’re probably saving enough kids for a new teaching position, if they level us all out like this. I don’t want to get involved in the high school’s politics, because I have a lot of respect for them, and they have to do a lot of fudging just to keep things going. But we get burned out, too. We get real burned out. I know that at the end of a day it takes me an hour just to think straight. You’re interrupted all day long by kids. It gets to the point where you can’t even complete one of your own thoughts, you’re so used to being interrupted. I don’t know if it’s just me, or if it’s everybody else, too.
What does a good day of teaching feel like? How do you know when you’ve had a good day?
Patrick: I walk out happy. I’ve had fun. You walk out feeling good.
Sarah: If I haven’t had to pull three or four kids over, and do everything but cuss them out, I’ve had a decent day. A good day is when I haven’t had a lot of immature behavior. They’re all 14, 15, 16 years old, but the average kid acts like he’s two years old.
Patrick: Yeah, she’s not kidding you. If any middle-class person had to view the kind of behavior we do–what we accept as normal behavior–they’d think we were crazy! I had one kid come up to me the other day–“How many kids do you have?” I have one. “Are you married?” Yeah. “For how long?” Five years. “And you’ve only got one?” They look at you like what happened? Because the kids, they’ve got three!
Kids with three kids?
Patrick: I’m exaggerating. Many have two.
Sarah: That’s pretty typical, too. They come in pregnant, they’ve already had one. Or they come in their freshman year, they get pregnant, by their junior or senior year they’re pregnant again. Usually by a different boy.
Patrick: And it’s a real status symbol for the guys. Usually they have two or three.
A status symbol? Is this endemic to this culture, the Hispanic culture?
Patrick: You can’t say it’s culture, because it’s a mixture of cultures. So if you’re thinking of culture, I think you’re going to have to get ethnicity out of your head, because it’s more a class thing. And geographic. And you can forget birth control. I tried talking to them about birth control one time and they laughed me out of the room.
Meg: They think it’s wrong. They think sex should be spontaneous, and if it’s not that means you thought about it in advance, and that means you’re bad–
Patrick: I don’t think it’s that. I think they think it’s too much trouble.
Meg: Boys or girls? They come from different places.
Patrick: I had one girl tell me this week, she was on her second kid, I said haven’t you thought about birth control pills? She said “Birth control pills give you cancer!” I said what about the other? She said “Yuck. I don’t like that.” I said fine, have another kid.
Meg: But there are a lot of kids that aren’t sexually active.
Patrick: That’s true. There’s some. It’s just that we get confronted with so much we start thinking they’re all like that.
What about AIDS?
Patrick: That’s scary. We’ve had AIDS kids.
Has the administration sponsored any programs to deal with this?
Patrick: They’ve not been identified to us. I found out because I know this guy who’s in charge of a special program. She was a hooker. He knew she had AIDS.
Sarah: The kids will come in and say, Ms. Cutting, do you know so and so? She has, or he has, AIDS.
Meg: But you have to be careful with what kids tell you–
Sarah: Of course, that’s right, but many times these kids know exactly what they’re talking about.
Patrick: Well you can take a teacher’s word for it! And I’ve been told by teachers that we’re on, what?–our third or fourth case.
Is this discussed openly? Are there programs to deal with the consequences, to educate the kids?
Sarah: I think they try to hide it, I think Chicago as a whole doesn’t want to deal with it.
Meg: You can get the nurse to come in and talk about it. You can get speakers to come in and talk about it.
Sarah: But I think the board as a whole would like to just not talk about it.
Patrick: Oh, sure.
Meg: No, basically it’s the teacher’s initiative. I think that everything that goes on in that school, the teacher has to do it.
Sarah: So many kids think they’re immortal. Their age–
Patrick: It’s not just their age, this is a strange place. We have kids who walk around with guns and they think they’re immortal. They get shot at every day.
Meg: Every one of them knows somebody who’s died.
Patrick: This year.
Sarah: This is the thing that trips me the most–they get jumped by gang members, they’ll get jumped by five or six with knives, with baseball bats, and they’ll come back to school the next day like they’re showing off their muscles. Their bruises are their trophies, it says “I’m tough, I survived!” And it’s not even a big thing to them.
Patrick: And they’re not going to carry a book. A book will get in your way, man. How are you going to fight if you’re carrying a book? And, again, we’re not talking about a majority of the kids.
I understand that the board says that a kid must read at the sixth-grade level by the time he reaches the ninth grade. This is board policy, isn’t it?
Patrick: Most of my kids read between the fourth- and fifth-grade level. The tests that they take at the grammar school level–
Meg: They must doctor them, or something.
Sarah: If I can get a kid at a sixth-grade-level math, he’s a genius.
That must be frustrating, to have gone to college to learn a profession, and wind up teaching remedial skills.
Sarah: If the kid is really making an attempt to do better, then it’s not too bad. To me, it’s not nearly as frustrating as when that kid comes in and just doesn’t give a damn. It makes me feel like I’m not making any progress, and that’s hard for me to deal with.
Patrick: Literature’s hard, it’s real hard for me. We’ve got no middle ground. And, again, it’s not a culture thing. It’s a class thing.
What sort of cultural things might contribute to a disinterest in learning?
Meg: Well, the educational level of the parents, for one thing.
Patrick: Well, if we’re going to examine it that closely–(he pauses) there are no books in the house.
Meg: They don’t read.
Patrick: I’ve had situations where the girl had scholarships to go on to college, and the parents have been jealous and didn’t want her to go on. Sort of like “What’s the matter? It was good enough for me, you want to be better than I am?”
Meg: They don’t support college. When there are two parents at home the chances of the kid going through college are less than if the kid is on welfare and can get some kind of public grant money. So I’ve seen kids, bright kids, who will not get the chance to go to college because [their parents] won’t pay for education. But the kid who can get a free ticket will go. It’s so screwy.
Patrick: And that brings up another thing. How many of them actually graduate from college?
Meg: It parallels what goes on in high school [where over 40 percent of the students drop out]. Most of them are the first to graduate high school in their family. High school graduation is a big deal.
What about the teachers that I overheard speaking Spanish? Couldn’t that be detrimental to kids trying to wean themselves from Spanish in an English-based society?
Patrick: They don’t see society as an English-based society. And, at the risk of sounding bigoted, I can tell you stories of being in the teachers’ lunchroom, where there’s just myself and two other teachers, and the entire conversation will be in Spanish, even though they’re perfectly capable of speaking English–
Sarah: That’s exactly right–
Patrick: And what they meant to do was exclude me. I feel like slapping them in the face. So you pick up your coffee and you leave. We talk about it a lot.
Patrick: We talk about it [the Anglo teachers]. A lot of the bilingual teachers will actually cordon themselves off from the mainstream teachers and hang out in their own little clique. So we have little cliques with the teaching thing. And it’s funny, because it mirrors these kids who have cut themselves off, whether it’s been intentional or not, from mainstream society. That’s what I mean when I say that we have no middle ground. We don’t watch the same TV shows. We don’t listen to the same radio programs. They don’t listen to the news. There’s no common ground, no common culture. So there’s no need for history, because they don’t see things as having a past. When we teach them history, we’re teaching them part of a culture that they still don’t exist in. When you try to plug them in to mainstream music, mainstream art, mainstream news, mainstream literature, they don’t want any part of it.
Kids or teachers?
Patrick: I’m talking about the kids, but I see that mirrored in the behavior of the–dare I say this?–bilingual teachers. They’d call me an Anglo, and I hate that, I’m not an Anglo.
What are you?
Patrick: I’m Italian and French, what does that make me? Norman? Could they say I’m a Norman? I certainly don’t think of myself as an ethnicity, but I get assigned one. I’m white!
Meg: They used to think that everybody who was white was Polish. (They all laugh.)
Do the kids want you to speak Spanish, do they respect you more if you do?
Meg: No, not really.
Patrick: Sure, they’d like for you to.
Sarah: But once they find out that you don’t, they do tend to communicate more in Spanish when they don’t want you to know what they’re talking about.
Meg: I wish they’d confine their swearing to Spanish!
Patrick: Oh, God–the way these kids talk, and I’m not known for my sense of genteel speech patterns. But, Jesus, these kids have got no sensitivity–
Sarah: Even the cute little girls–
Meg: The cute little girls!
Sarah: Some of the stuff I hear! I mean, I can let go, when I’m among friends, but next to these girls–some of them on the pom-pom squad–we’re like little angels!
Meg: You do have to have a sense of humor to get through the day. But the most bizarre thing I’ve seen to date is this huge kid with a skirt on. I kept looking, thinking this was obviously supposed to be a girl. This was not a girl. This is crazy! They’re starting to go to school in drag now!
Patrick: They had this problem in night school. There were a band of about four or five of them, they didn’t know where to let them go to the bathroom. This is true!
Wouldn’t that threaten the more macho males, wouldn’t these cross-dressers get jumped?
Sarah: They’re tolerated more here.
Patrick: We’ve had a long history of very open homosexual behavior.
Meg: Gay and lesbian.
In a gang environment?
Sarah: I know, I don’t understand it, either. It really shocked me. I thought they did this only outside of school. But when I started chaperoning school dances, this group would dance together, with each other, and no one would beat them up. I couldn’t understand it.
Patrick: Well, they admire their dancing skills. They’re really hot dancers. They’re really down.
Homosexual students or the cross-dressers?
Patrick: No, the homosexual students. This cross-dressing thing is so new, we’re really going to have to watch it. But the homosexual thing was a big deal a few years ago. [Gay] students occupied the whole fifth floor [of the school]. It became like Broadway in Chicago.
Meg: You see, we have all these different factions. We’ve got the Pentecostals, we’ve got the gang-bangers.
Sarah: It’s so funny to see how the girls–we call them church girls–take off the long dress and become hot mamas.
Patrick: And it happens like that–
Sarah: It sure does, there’s no transition. All of a sudden, it’s just pow! She’s got on a short skirt, or very, very tight pants, and she’s hanging out. That’s strange.
When does this happen?
Patrick: By the time they become juniors, when they’ve watched all their friends.
Sarah: Not even that late. I watched one little girl, the cutest, quietest little girl, and by the end of her freshman year she was completely different.
Meg: They go from long, black skirts and no makeup to tight, tight jeans.
Patrick: We’ve got the cross-dressers, we’ve got the homosexuals, we’ve got the Pentecostals, we’ve got the gang kids–and the gang kids are pervasive–and then we’ve got just your normal, average kid. A kid kid.
What’s the percentage of the average kid kid?
Patrick: Oh, I don’t know, it’s not very high. The gang culture dominates.
What percentage are part of the gang culture?
Sarah: I would say 50 or 60 percent.
What constitutes gang culture? How does a kid identify himself as part of a gang? What are the gang rituals, social customs? Educate me.
Sarah: We’re lucky in our school, because it’s pretty much neutral.
Patrick: They all belong to the same gang. The nation is Folks. You know how the world is divided between the Warsaw Pact and NATO? The city gangs of Chicago are divided according to the Folks and the People. And we have a Folks school. The Cobras, the Disciples, and the Dragons are all Folks. So they don’t get on each other’s cases. They only fight People. And the People are the Kings, the GBOs [Ghetto Brothers Organization], and the Vice Lords. So we don’t have a lot of roaring factions at this school, because they’re all on the same side. But if a new kid comes in, let’s say he’s a King, and the word gets out, he’s finished.
Sarah: Yes, but I also think they’re henpecked. If a kid is not in either gang of the nation, they peck him. If you’re not in either one, that’s just as bad as being in the wrong one.
Why would a kid feel compelled to join, other than the peer pressure you just mentioned?
Patrick: So he doesn’t get beat up or killed.
How do the other 40 percent not in gangs manage to survive, then?
Sarah: A lot of them really don’t. But just because they’re in a gang, it doesn’t mean that they’re all on drugs, shooting and selling. It’s like being in a club, some are just more active than others. It’s interesting to watch a kid, who had previously had no gang affiliation, suddenly included on some of the activities. They start this Audy Home strut.
Audy Home strut?
Patrick: It has a lot to do with the shoulders–
Sarah: It’s a different walk. They start taking tough pills or something. It’s so funny. It’s a tougher kid, like they suddenly get wise to the street. They know what’s going on.
Meg: You hear such horror stories. When a kid sits down to talk to you, you’re almost afraid. When they open up to you, you know a horror story is there. This one girl, she was telling me she had to sleep on a mat on a floor, her mother had to sleep on a mat on the floor. She got a scholarship to college and they had to practically sneak her out of the house, her father was so against it. I tell you, when I hear stories about a family that’s still intact [with a male still at home], I get worried because I’ve heard so many stories about incest.
Sarah: And I’m beginning to hear new stories now about cocaine addiction. One little girl came in and talked to me, a nice kid, and her mom’s a cocaine addict! And I worry, how’s she going to be this year? In the past she’s been a pretty good student, but it’s like watching a time bomb.
Meg: And you meet kids who live on their own.
Patrick: We had a girl last year that was living in a car. She and her mother were living in a car. It’s real hard to get your mail that way.
Meg: You hear such awful stories, it’s almost like you don’t want to hear any more–please don’t tell me, don’t talk to me . . . !
Patrick: Or you get desensitized. You know how it is when you watch M*A*S*H, and Hawkeye is ridiculing the entire situation, everything is like the Marx brothers, it’s all so unrealistic and bizarre? That’s how I get by. I just joke my way through the day. Everything’s hilarious by the time I walk out of there.
Why do you stay? You could go to Lake County, go to a place with a lot of money.
Patrick: Could we? Do you know what kind of pay cut we’d be taking if we did that?
Sarah: I wouldn’t. I’ve been teaching less years than you guys have, it might even be a pay increase. I stay because there’s nothing like the challenge of it. Maybe sooner or later it’s going to wear me down and I won’t be able to take it anymore, but that’s why I stay.
Patrick: I can’t claim that.
Meg: But I think there are a lot of teachers who really do want to make a difference.
Patrick: I didn’t say I didn’t want to make a difference. But I can’t claim it’s because I need the challenge because, man, it’s more than a challenge. I get steamrolled every day. I’m beaten.
And still, you stay–
Patrick: I’m boxed in. I don’t have that many options. I’ve bought so many years into the board–
Sarah: A lot of teachers do feel that they’re boxed in–
Patrick: I do, I really do. (He pauses awhile.) But I’ve used so many strange devices of teaching over the last 16 years, I just don’t know if I’d get away with it anyplace else, and I’m just not willing to change my methods of teaching. I’m not used to watching my language, I talk like the kids, I’m so used to having absolute freedom in the classroom, nobody’s looking. But there, they actually look at you, and they listen and they watch. That would make me nervous.
Meg: We do have a lot of freedom.
Sarah: You do have to try a lot of different avenues–
Patrick: You have to try just about everything just to get their–
Patrick: So in that sense, it’s cool. But that’s not why I stay. I stay because I’m boxed in. I figure I have about another good two years of teaching left in me.
And tell me if I’m wrong, you look at these older teachers, many of them very sweet human beings, but how many of them have turned into zombies? There’s a guy who stands there every day, as he’s closing his classroom door, and tests it about 40 times to see if it’s locked. He does the same thing in the parking lot every day. He gets out, locks the door, and stares at it, as if it’s going to do something. After about ten minutes, he’ll cross the street and go into school. He’s lost it.
Sarah: There’s a teacher in our department, the kids throw chairs across the room at her and she just keeps writing on the board. How she can do that, I don’t know.
Patrick: I love her hairstyle!
Sarah: The kids have come to me complaining about her. I told them it couldn’t be that bad, to just hang in there. Then the kids came back and said, I know you told me to be patient but the kids threw a chair at her–
(Sarah is interrupted by gales of laughter.)
Sarah: I know she’s very intelligent, and I think she’d be very good teaching at a different level. But with our kids, she’s shot.
Meg: You see teachers who you know were terrific teachers at one time, and they do, they look like zombies. They have no color, the color’s left their face, they’re gray all over.
Sarah: Not only that, look at the way they dress–
Patrick: They turn gray all over.
Sarah: They dress like they don’t care. The same thing all the time. The same pair of pants every day.
Patrick: Their clothes aren’t clean, their shoes aren’t shined, their pants aren’t pressed.
Sarah: And that’s scary. If it ever gets to that point, I know I’m gone. I’m going to leave.
What will it take for you to leave?
Sarah: I’ll tell you what it’ll take. When I feel as if I’m making no progress at all. And I’m only making a little bit, as is. But when that’s gone, I’ve gotta go.
Patrick: Then I should have left five years ago.
Sarah: I couldn’t stand it after that point. If I’m not making that inch of progress, I know it’s time for me to go. I’ve had a lot of jobs, putting myself through high school and then college. None of them meant anything. My other jobs were just jobs. I dreaded getting up, going to them. But this is not a job. I love it. I do a lot of little extra things, but they’re fun, too. Sometimes it’s depressing, yes. When this becomes a job, then I’ll quit.
And you, Patrick?
Patrick: You mean kids throwing chairs at me? (He laughs.) I don’t know, I don’t know. I figure I’m good for another two years, another two good years. I’m already starting to forget stuff during the day.
Meg: I’m starting to forget lots of things–
Patrick: Have you noticed how much paperwork there is this year?
Sarah: I work on one of those ECIA programs, so there’s a lot more work. [The Educational Consolidation Improvement Act of 1981 provides federal funds for special programs such as remedial math and bilingual education.]
Meg: It seems the more computers come into play, the more work you have to do–
Patrick: They keep generating paper! The goddamn things keep generating paper! We have 80 minutes of class time–after all the paperwork and everything else, that shrinks to about 20 minutes of teaching time that I’ve got left.
Meg: I know that the board makes all this stuff up. I’m in the library, and we used to get everything sent directly to the schools. But somebody down at the board got the great idea of, no, we’ll send it to the board first, and then we’ll send it to the schools. It’s ridiculous. You don’t get your orders, you don’t know where anything is, and it takes up so much paperwork. But it’s obviously saving some jobs down at the board.
Patrick: What a scam.
Meg: They do seem like a bunch of scambos down there.
Patrick: I don’t know how they can look in the mirror, I swear to God. We’re not indicting everybody down there. There must be two people doing something.
Meg, you never answered what it would take for you to move on to greater things–
Meg: Well, I just went back to school and got another degree. But I’m also reaching an age, I’m a lot older than these two. In five years, I could get out. Of course, I’d only be making $12,000 a year. (She laughs.) But it’s a possibility.
So, you all don’t want to hang around long enough to become “gray”?
Patrick: No, God no. Poor people. Poor bastards.
Sarah: Of course not. Sometimes I think the only reason they hang on is for retirement.
Patrick: That’s all they talk about! Is it depressing!
Sarah: They don’t care about the kids or anything else. They can’t think of anything else. “I’ve got to come here, I’ve got to be here, damned if I’m going to be here in mind, but my body is sitting here, and I’m just going to hang on until it’s time to retire.”
Patrick: They talk about it every day. They save up their sick days, so that they can get out a year early.
Sarah: Speaking of sick days, there are some times when I do feel a little burned out, or tired, at the end. I take what I call T-days. I call them my therapy days. On those days, I stay home and do whatever the hell I want to do. I take them. But I’ve noticed that people are saving them. Saving them for what? If you go into the hospital for a long-term illness, you’re going to eat them up so fast you won’t even know they existed. And I won’t be aware of it then, if I’m in a hospital unconscious. So I take them. And I wonder, what in the hell are they saving them for?
Meg: But they do get sick, what we’re calling becoming gray. It’s because they don’t know how to take care of themselves.
Patrick: But you get to know them by name and as people, and you care about them. How can I not care about these people? Even the people I hate at that school are my favorite people to hate. I don’t want to go to a new school and have to hate new people. They become like an extension of friends. It’s a warm kind of hate. But then they get burned out, and you watch it happen to them, and you know it’s going to happen to them. Or they become alcoholics, and that’s real easy to spot–
Sarah: It sure is–
Patrick: Even the kids know it.
How do you spot it?
Sarah: The coloring, the odor–
They drink at school?
Sarah: They carry that thermos all day long–
Patrick: If it’s not a thermos, it’s a cup with a straw in it. “Oh, I just happen to like my coffee with a straw in it.” Right.
How many teachers are like this at your high school?
Sarah: I can think of five, and it’s taken me at least four years to be able to spot it.
Patrick: I can think of 15. Take my word for it, Sarah, it’s at least 15–and I’m probably being kind. It’s an old faculty, for the most part. I’m considered one of the young teachers, and I’m going to be 40 next month.
Meg: I’m considered a young teacher! I’m treated like the new kid on the block, I swear. They treat me like I’m one of the teenagers in the school.
Sarah: You go to one of those in-service district meetings, where there are about 3,000 teachers. I can count the teachers in my age group. There are maybe four of us. Four!
Patrick: We were talking about this the other day–
Sarah: There’s no fresh blood.
Patrick: Where are the new teachers? We need them–
Sarah: There aren’t any!
Meg: When we get a new teacher, it’s a teacher that’s been pushed out of another school. And they’re as wacko as they come.
Sarah: And that’s the inside joke. If a teacher comes in from another school, and they’re in their 40s or 50s, we know there’s something wrong. You just wait and see what’s going to happen.
Meg: Why would someone go into teaching today?
Which brings up a question. Some schools have just launched a policy requiring teachers to go to school five years, instead of the normal four, to attain an undergraduate degree. What do you think of this?
Patrick: It’s fine with me, as long as they pay them accordingly.
Sarah: It might just be passing the buck again, passing the blame–
Patrick: But it’s a pseudoprofession, anyway. No one takes us seriously as professionals–
Sarah: They sure don’t–
Meg: But the point is, why would anyone come into our school today? If I were starting out today, I would look for a working-class neighborhood that had an industrial base.
Meg: Because they pay more. Elmwood Park, Melrose Park–all those neighborhoods which are working-class–their teachers are making $40,000 a year. Even if people do go into teaching, they aren’t going to come to the inner city. Why would they go into a school system like ours, where they aren’t going to make any money? The most money that I could make is what?–$35,000?
Sarah: My little sister makes that, and she’s only been working for five years. Matter of fact, she makes $38,500. She’s an accountant. It’s depressing.
Patrick: And it’s not safe anymore to leave the school in the afternoons.
Sarah: It’s not?
Patrick: It’s getting worse. Because of the gang activity across the street.
Sarah: Oh–and I’m working with the pom-pom and cheerleading squad after school? But you know what I do? I park right there on the street, so that as soon as we finish practice I can just walk right out of the gym, into my car.
Patrick: What time do you finish?
Patrick: That’s cool, because you miss the crowd. They hang out there right after school, all the gangs congregate right there in the parking lot. And I keep thinking, when is there going to be a gunfire? Jim had to duck a bullet at the bus stop, waiting for a bus!
Sarah: That’s why I bought a car a lot sooner than I intended to. I’m only two miles from the school, and I used to take the bus because it was so easy. The first year the new principal came to the school, that’s when the gang tension got very tight. Anyway, I would be on the bus, and I would notice these kids get on the bus and–(she demonstrates taking several large panic-filled gulps of air) I wondered what was going on. The gang-bangers were hanging out at each corner! I started looking around and noticed squad cars everywhere. I wondered, why didn’t I notice this when I first walked out the door? Here I was, laying my life out on the streets, and I could have been killed!
Patrick: And they’re lousy shots, they never hit who they’re aiming for.
So it’s the kids who were breathing hard?
Sarah: Yes. The kids were running, trying to get up onto the buses. They were scared. And when the kids are scared, it’s time to take cover. Something’s going to happen.
Is it still as tense today?
Patrick: It bounces back and forth.
Meg: It was tense for a while last year.
Sarah: It sure was. But the first year–this may be my imagination–a lot of kids were allowed to come back who had been kicked out of the school system.
Patrick: They were, and you know why? The community forced the principal to take some of these kids back.
These kids had been previously expelled?
Sarah: Yes, they had.
And what did these dropouts do to the rest of the student body, once they returned?
Sarah: They terrorized them, that’s what they did. There were some kids who’d been kicked out who really did want to return to school. But most of the gang-bangers had no intentions of going to school. They wanted to come back to push drugs, recruit new kids, whatever.
Patrick: And the community wanted us to service their youth. But the youth that they were siccing on us were undesirables, who didn’t make it in a school environment. Dammit, they had no business being with a bunch of innocent kids trying to learn–not that we had a bunch of innocent kids, but we had some. Throwing these hard-core members in with those inexperienced young kids, what do you have?
Sarah: Mayhem. Remember when there was a fight on the sixth floor? It wasn’t just a fight between two people, it was a fight between the whole floor. It started there, and then the kids just ran out of the building.
And there’s only one exit, right? One centrally located escalator that services all seven floors? Does that add to the panic?
Sarah: There are other exits, but that’s the one that’s used.
Was your principal the one who invited the dropouts back to school?
Sarah: They put pressure on him.
Meg: He’s under a lot of pressure. They got him the job.
Patrick: He had to. He was doing what he was hired to do, which was service the community. And if the community wanted this, he had to represent the needs and the wants of the community. He said, OK, I’ll try to live with that.
So he didn’t want the dropouts back in school?
Patrick: I don’t know what he wanted, I’m not in his head. I know the position he was put in. And I know the empirical reality he was faced with every day. I know how much tougher it made his life, taking these kids in. I don’t think anybody’s got a kick against this guy. When a new principal comes in, and he came in two and a half years ago, everybody’s always suspicious. I was scared, because I’d had a lot of freedom under the old administration. But after working with him for a year, he’s a real easy guy to work for. He’s great.
Patrick: He’s cool, I can hang out with him, he smokes cigars.
Sarah: He’s OK, yeah.
You don’t seem to be agreeing, Meg.
Patrick: She’s uncomfortable about going on record with this.
Meg: No, I’m uncomfortable about all the awful things we’re saying about the kids, even the gang-bangers.
Patrick: Because you picture it being read back in print, right?
Meg: I just think these kids come from such awful environments. I think something has to be done at a governmental level. I don’t think it’s the school, I think it’s society, and these kids are just symptomatic of what’s going on in society at that level.
Patrick: None of us is saying that that’s not true. We’re not blaming the kids for being the way they are. But to say that we’re not faced with all of these problems every day would be to whitewash it and lie.
Meg: It’s true. But these kids have incredible, incredible problems. And to think that they can come to school and suddenly learn all this stuff, it’s just not going to happen.
Patrick: Right. But then they become our problems. And to deny that would be to whitewash the situation. The problems are there, we’re stuck with it, it’s frustrating. But what are we going to talk about when we view the students, if we don’t discuss what we see within them? It’s bizarre. Bizarre. We’re talking about cross-dressing kids, kids who carry knives, kids who carry guns, kids who belong to gangs, kids who know somebody who dies every year from gang violence, kids who have experienced incest, drug addiction, you name it–
Meg: But then I see these kids who are too afraid to try and make a better life for themselves. They’re too scared to even leave this awful neighborhood.
Patrick: Well, that’s the other thing. They get trapped here.
Meg: They don’t even go downtown–
Patrick: I took some kids downtown one time, into the Standard Oil building. We were going to go to the 69th floor. I had two kids who wouldn’t go on the elevator because they were scared of elevators. They walked up 69 floors, they walked down 69 floors. We had to wait in a bus for 45 minutes. I could’ve killed them.
They’d never been downtown?
Sarah: No–they don’t go out of the neighborhood.
Patrick: The world ends at–it’s amazing–
Sarah: It doesn’t go beyond Chicago Avenue–
Patrick: Yes, and Ashland, and on the north–maybe Belmont, Addison?
Meg: I think the gang turf determines how far they get.
Patrick: They could get on a bus or the el, go to the library or the Art Institute, get in for free, and have a nice time!
Sarah: I have girls on the cheerleading squad who I thought would benefit from a cheerleading clinic. It was on a Saturday, and I thought, wow, this will be great; they can all get on the train together, and take it to 95th. How naive I was. When I mentioned it, they were all for the clinic. But when I told them where it was–panic. What’s the big deal, it was a train ride! But I forgot. These kids don’t get out of the neighborhood. Ninety-fifth was the end of the world to them.
Patrick: You know how close downtown is? You take the Chicago Avenue bus to Michigan Avenue, there’s a whole new world. It’s legally their city, it’s in their backyard. Why don’t they go and see what’s going on? They don’t want to.
Meg: But I took a group downtown, and it was great. We toured the Foote Cone & Belding advertising agency this summer. One kid had a car, and he took a group with him. These kids didn’t show up at the corner of Chicago and Rush. I thought these kids were lost, I thought, uh-oh. About 20 minutes later, they came breezing in–
Patrick: Did they have a good time? Were they amazed by what they saw?
Meg: Yeah. Some kids get around. They go to the lake.
Patrick: But that’s just a straight shot down Chicago Avenue.
Sarah: I run into a lot of them during the summer–
Meg: But the point is, you have to take them by the hand and take them down there, because their parents don’t go down there.
Patrick: Their parents don’t read books, either–
Meg: You’ve got to take them by the hand and push them into the car. You’ve got to constantly take these kids by the hand. It wears you down. Year after year, it wears you down. It’s just not in their experience.
Patrick: John tells the story of how he took some kids down Michigan Avenue, and one kid approached him, saying, Mr. Smith, what’s that big, white castle doing here? The kid didn’t even know what the Water Tower was!
Meg: Joyce tells the story of taking one girl downtown around 9 AM. She wanted to know where all the people were from, and where they were going. When she was told that they were going to work, she asked, you mean this many people work? In her neighborhood, nobody works!
Patrick: That’s why I say we have no common ground to reach them on. If we could share, if I could say, OK, here’s some of my culture, now I’ll take some of yours, let’s talk about it . . . But there’s none.
So what’s the answer? Have only Latin teachers teach Latin kids?
Patrick: Think of the favor you’d be doing them then. They’d never be able to succeed in this country. I think the idea is to be able to function in this society. And none of our former graduates come back and teach. I’ve been there 16 years, and I’ve yet to see one.
Meg: I ran into a gynecologist who was a former student.
Patrick: Come on–he was one of our students?
Patrick: She? Really? One of our kids? That’s great.
Meg: I run into people, kids who’ve graduated. In fact, in my class I have a homecoming day where I invite them back.
What do most of the students who graduate go on to do?
Sarah: A lot of them do, unfortunately. Or have kids and live right there in the neighborhood.
And send their kids to the same high school years later? Does the cycle ever end?
Meg: There’s a whole group that never make it through school. Then there’s a small group that do make it through. And those kids do go on to do other things.
Patrick: I had a student by the name of Louise Ramirez, who was a cheerleader when she was in school, who graduated in ’77. I ran into her not long ago, I said, hey, how ya doin’? She said she’d just had twins! She had graduated from Northern Illinois University, gotten married, and was a gym teacher at a school not too far from ours. She’d bought a house, and she had a nice, middle-class life. Not that everybody has to be middle-class, but it beats the hell out of poverty. She succeeded. I thought, damn–that’s the first one.
Meg: She’s not the first one.
Patrick: I know it.
Meg: There are a lot of kids who get out and make it.
Patrick: But you don’t get to see them, you just don’t get to see them.
What’s “making it”?
Patrick: Being able to replenish yourself with a decent life, where you’re not being intimidated by the problems we’ve talked about. Where you can break away from incest and drug-dealing and ignorance and poverty and cruelty and gang beatings and death and–
Patrick: All the shit. All the shit that that neighborhood has in abundance.
The experiences that we’ve been talking about that so plague your high school–are they shared by all the schools in the inner city?
Sarah: Not all, but quite a few. I would say almost all of them.
So your experiences are not uncommon?
Sarah: Not at all.
Meg: With schools in New York City, in LA, I think they’re similar.
Patrick: I think so, too. A lot of teachers are afraid of us, because we have this bad-ass image. Truthfully, a day at this high school is not as bad as anybody with that kind of frame of reference believes.
Patrick: But I like to play up the bad image, just because I’m tough. (Everybody laughs.) “You still work down there?” “Yeah, man, ’cause I’m tough!”
Have teachers ever been attacked by kids?
Sarah: Yes, though I’ve only heard this and not witnessed it. Two teachers were walking into the parking lot last year, toward their cars. To get to the parking lot, they had to walk through a crowd of guys. One of the guys hit one of them on the back. No one was hurt, but it sure rattled the teacher.
Were they men or women teachers?
Sarah: They were both women.
Meg: And there was a music teacher, he was on hall duty at the time. This guy had walked his girlfriend to class and this teacher was urging the kid to let the girl go into the classroom. The kid punched the teacher out.
How often do incidents such as this occur?
Meg: Rarely. Maybe once or twice a year.
Why did you choose teaching? At some point, you made a conscious decision to become a teacher–what was that process like?
Sarah: I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy, but I always wanted to be a teacher.
Meg: You are crazy!
Sarah: When I was a kid, I didn’t play house. I didn’t like diapering, and all that stuff. But I didn’t mind being a teacher. I always knew I would be a teacher, except for a brief time during my junior year in high school. Then I thought I might be an office executive. But that didn’t last long. I really did want to be a teacher, and I did it. It’s something I always wanted to do.
And how have your expectations been altered, fulfilled, or unmet compared to those you held while you were in school, training for your profession?
Sarah: It’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be. In order to teach in Chicago, you have to have some kind of knowledge about street life. You have to be realistic, and know that kids aren’t going to listen. It’s just not as easy as they told you it would be in college. It’s nothing like that–not even close. That’s how it’s been disappointing.
And expectations that have been fulfilled?
Sarah: Coming from the inner city, from Chicago, combined with the college education, I feel that I can make a difference, or at least attempt to make a difference. Most of them know by the fourth week or so that I’m from the ghetto. I was second to the oldest in my family. I was in charge of everything in my family. My parents had ten kids, they both had to work. And we were poor.
When they start cutting up, I’ll say, all right, I’m going to get the ghetto out of me! That means she’s going to get real tough. It’s an inside classroom joke. Once they feel that there’s some sort of connection, it’s OK.
Meg: I come from a different generation, a different experience. I never really thought too much about what I was going to do. I come from a working-class background, so it wasn’t that I thought I would marry and be taken care of. I just never thought about a career. I thought about entering the foreign service. But I had a kid to support, I was majoring in history, and finishing up at Roosevelt University. A teacher thought I’d make a good teacher. The thought had never crossed my mind. I never really liked high school, I thought all the teachers were jerks. So I never thought of being a teacher. But this teacher convinced me to be a teacher–I’d be off summers with my kid. That was how I started thinking of it. But I also thought, since I disliked both high school and my teachers so much–they were all real old–I wanted to be there for kids. I wanted to be that person that they could come to and talk to. That’s the only reason I became a teacher. Then I went through some ups and downs. I thought teaching five classes was insane, if you really wanted to do a good job. So I got a degree in library science and went into the library system. Now, I want to get back into teaching. But I still think teaching five classes a day is insane.
Why do you want to go back?
Meg: I see it as more creative. And yet, I hear and I see these two teachers. But there’s an excitement there that you get from being with the kids. I still enjoy it. I still love being with them. And I want to really be with them. In the library, it’s different.
Patrick: Yeah, you’re around them going ssh! ssh!
Meg: Exactly. I want to have more of a direct impact on the kids, and I could do that as a classroom teacher.
Patrick: You’re so funny!
Meg: I know, I’m straight out of the 60s, I still have my idealism, I’m sorry! But it’s going to keep me from becoming one of those gray people!
Why did you become a teacher, Patrick?
Patrick: I came out of the 60s, too. I was playing rock ‘n’ roll bands in high school, and it began to look like I wasn’t going to be a member of the next Beatles. I thought, what the hell am I going to do? The Vietnam War was going on. There was this teacher at my high school, I went to Highland Park, he was a really neat guy. He had a real presence. I said, I’d like to do that. I took education classes in college, and I read Summerhill. I became a flaming liberal radical and decided that I had to free up the high schools. I had gone to parochial schools earlier and had a pretty nasty impression of the way schools were. I was going to be the guy who would liberate the schools, and turn public education into Summerhill. I was going to transplant A.S. Neill in the United States. And for my first five years of teaching, I had nothing but fights with the teachers at my school. I would just wait for one of them to say something conservative or reactionary. I would just blast them with my liberal rifle. I had long hair down to my shoulders, love beads–
Meg: Granny glasses–
Patrick: Granny glasses, and the kids would call me by my first name. I irritated the shit out of the other teachers. I had an open classroom and I didn’t fill out attendance sheets. I really tempted authority every chance I got. But I got really close to the kids. I hung out with them, I went bowling with them, and I took them to rock concerts.
Meg: Well, what happened?
Patrick: Well, Meg, I turned gray. (They all laugh.) No, really. I got married, had a family. My priorities shifted. Now the most important thing in the world is my kid. My wife, my home, and my writing. I’m getting from writing what I used to get from teaching. And a lot more money! So, eventually I’ll be pulling out of teaching. But it was good. I just can’t keep gunning both engines. I can’t be hanging out with the kids full-time. I’ve done it. It took a lot out of me, it was fun, I learned a lot. But I can’t go back and pretend to be teacher-a-go-go again, I just can’t.
Meg: I don’t know, they’re still saying you’re cool–
Patrick: Sure, because I get up every morning and it’s a performance. I love to hear laughter, I love to be center stage. There’s an ego thing involved. So I get them laughing, and I shoo them out the door laughing, carrying their little books home with their little assignments. Then I collapse in the teachers’ room, have a cigarette, and turn gray.
Meg: Do you have Carmen in your class? She was over at my house one day, with another kid. We went walking around the neighborhood. And we came up to Ernest Hemingway’s house, the one he grew up in. I said to them, here’s Hemingway’s house. And Carmen got so excited, she said “You’re kidding! Ernest Hemingway’s house!” And the other kid said “Who’s Ernest Hemingway!” I knew that Carmen must’ve been in your class.
Patrick: Yeah, we read The Sun Also Rises.
Meg: She got so excited, she went on and on about it.
Patrick: Well, it worked on her.
What are the kids who like to learn like?
Patrick: Like any other kids.
Meg: Just regular kids. Real sweet.
Patrick: They trust you more than they probably should, because they think you know a lot more than you really know. They’d like to be with you.
Meg: Many times, they can’t talk to their parents, so they talk to you. They transfer their affections to you.
Patrick: They read the newspaper, they know what’s going on. They at least know there’s an Iran, there’s a Central America, that there’s a man falling asleep at the White House.
Sarah: And those are the kids more aware of each teachers’ strike. They’re more likely to challenge you after each one. They want to know what we’ve gained, what happened. I spend a lot of time explaining to them.
Patrick: Well, kid, we got screwed!
Sarah: Then they’d just say, well then, why did you come back?
Is it for the good kids that you remain teachers?
Meg: No, I like all of them.
Patrick: There’s something about street kids that’s kind of neat.
Sarah: It’s easy to think that the “good kids” aren’t in gangs. But some of the good kids are in gangs.
Meg: You can’t break it down that easily.
Maybe I should say, instead, the kids who are interested in learning?
Meg: Well, that narrows it down quite a bit. (She laughs.) The kids just want someone to care about them. If you care, they’ll respond to you. But they aren’t exactly excited about learning. There are very few of those. So you wouldn’t term a good kid by whether or not he wants to learn. You can’t use that measure.
Patrick: If a kid comes to school, does the homework, tries to do the best he or she can on a composition, you can just spot them. They have good grades with no black spots next to their names. He may be quiet, he may have an outgoing personality–but there are all kinds of good kids.
Sarah: Sometimes I don’t get to know the good kids until weeks after the term has started. I get kids who come every day, but they sit just like lumps. But rather than writing them up, I get a little nosy. “What is it you’re thinking about? Why aren’t you doing the assignments?” And then, they’ll start to talk–
Patrick: But sometimes, they’ll tell you you’re nosy, too.
Sarah: Yes–“Why do you want to know?” But if not then, they’ll come back later and talk. I may not get an assignment out of a kid for 9, maybe 11 weeks. They may even fail the first half. But those kind of kids, they’ll only talk to you when they think you’re listening, when you’re interested in their life.
Meg: They’ve got to feel you’re interested in them, or they won’t perform.
Sarah: They sure won’t.
Meg: Because they aren’t really thinking about what they want out of life. They’re on automatic pilot, and you’ve got to shake them up a little bit. And there are 3,000 kids. How many of them can you run around to and say, wake up, kid! This is life! It’s a very difficult job.
How much of your class time is spent just maintaining discipline?
Patrick: It depends on the class. Each class has a group personality.
Patrick: With a bad-ass class it could be 50 or 60 percent of your day, just to keep them from hanging off the light fixtures.
Sarah: I find with my good classes, it takes about ten minutes. They’ll still come late, even if they’re good–
Patrick: And they’ll talk–
Sarah: Yes, and you have to get them settled in. So I spend 30 minutes doing real teaching. But with the bad classes, I can’t ever gauge. Sometimes they’ll be quiet for the first 10 or 15 minutes, then terrible for the next 40.
Meg: And it only takes one or two kids to turn an entire class around.
Patrick: And they are so ready to fight, those bad kids. Boy against boy, boy against girl, girl against girl. Have you had any fights in the classroom?
Sarah: No, I have never had a fight in the classroom.
Patrick: I have.
Sarah: I’ve always made it clear that, if there was a fight, there would be two of them. They’d have the first fight, and then they’d fight me. We were all going to fight.
Patrick: I had a girl just knock the shit out of a guy in my classroom–
Meg: You’ve had a hole in your wall–
Patrick: I threw the kid through that hole in the wall. I shouldn’t go on tape saying this, but he jumped a kid, I jumped over a desk and threw him into a wall.
Are these kids on drugs when they behave like this?
Patrick: Not always. It takes very little to get these kids upset.
Sarah: They’re angry from home.
Patrick: Yeah, they come in with a chip on their shoulder, they want to take it out on anybody that gets in their way. They just need an excuse. This fight sure was weird. This girl just stood up and popped this guy. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
Then what happened?
Patrick: Oh, a fight is like a Bears game.
Meg: Especially when girls are fighting–
Sarah: Then other kids look in on what’s going on, to see if that’s their girl or their guy fighting. If it is, they jump in. The floors just empty out.
The floors empty so that kids can run from the fight, or participate?
Sarah: To participate and watch! When I was growing up, we were always taught to run from a fight, that there might be a stray bullet, we might get hurt. But these kids run to a fight!
Patrick: To a fight, even if it’s outdoors–
Sarah: Remember that fight that I mentioned earlier, where I said I could hear kids screaming and running? My kids wanted to know who it was, and if it was their homee [a close friend] they were going to get involved. I had to stand in front of the door and threaten them! “If you want to get out this door, you’re going to have to run over me!” It was kind of funny, and eventually they sat down, but they wanted to run to the fight!
Patrick: And if it’s after school, in the parking lot, it’s like The Birds, they’ll just converge.
Meg: They love that stuff. Their lives are pretty bleak, so they look for any opportunity for excitement.
How many fights have you had this year?
Patrick: We’ve had a few, but mostly small stuff. Last week, there was a scuffle in the parking lot with two different gangs. Apparently, the Latin Lovers had defaced some graffiti of the Disciples. The cops came and broke it up in a hurry. It was a minor skirmish. This one was the most noticeable, because all the classrooms are on the second floor. You have a good vantage point.
Do they pull hair and call names, or is it switchblades and bullets?
Patrick: Inside the school, it’s just fists. But at one point two years ago, there was some debate as to whether a kid had gotten knifed. The official word was that the kid did not get knifed.
Sarah: I think that was a cover-up.
Patrick: I’m not going to use the word “cover up,” but my wife was in nursing school at the hospital across the street. The kid who got knifed was brought in there. It was the hospital security staff who caught the kid who did it. They had a helicopter at the hospital. The ground security crew was guiding the helicopter toward our athletic fields. The kid who had done the stabbing was running across the fields. My English class and I watched this helicopter chase down this kid on our athletic field. I watched as a bunch of hospital security guards and cops run onto this field and arrest this kid.
When I asked what happened, the official line was that there had been no stabbing. They said it had been a mop handle. Yeah, right. This kid came into the hospital, knifed. Another kid got arrested after being chased by a helicopter, and there was no stabbing? There just wasn’t any mention of it.
Sarah: My kids told me they saw the kid with the knife.
Patrick: They all said that. There were at least 50 witnesses.
Sarah: But “nothing happened.”
Why would the administration be afraid of this leaking out?
Patrick: I don’t know–they were afraid of the media. Maybe we’ve had enough bad publicity as it is. Maybe we’re going to get in trouble just talking about this. But I know it’s true–my wife was there when they brought the kid in!
Tell me a success story.
Meg: I know a girl, she’s a terrific young lady. She was a gang-banger, born in Puerto Rico. She’s real tough, it took her six years to get through high school. She was in a class that I taught which involved getting up in front of the class and making presentations. She was a real tough little chick, but she was scared to get up in front of the class. I told her she had to. Last year, she was appointed secretary of the senior class. At graduation, she introduced all the speakers. She works in a bank now. Her mother’s an alcoholic, and she’s lived with her boyfriend since she was 15. She’s 20 now. She’s moving out on her own now, and she’s determined to make it. She’s really proud of herself. She’s just a terrific kid.
I heard you say you’ve got one, Sarah–
Sarah: This kid was a freshman, and she didn’t give a damn about algebra or anything else. I can remember her sitting with other kids who didn’t seem to care much about passing. But for some reason, she stuck out a little. She just looked like she wanted to succeed. So I separated her from the other kids, made her sit closer to me. She then did her homework, and started asking questions. She passed first-year algebra with an A. And the first ten weeks she’d been failing. She’s now a senior, and she’s doing quite well. She hasn’t graduated yet, but she hasn’t failed any classes. So that’s success.
Meg: I think all the kids who graduate are success stories.
Patrick: That’s going to look good in print, Meg.
Meg: No, I’m sorry, but given where those kids come from, those are success stories.
And you, Patrick?
Patrick: I can’t top that. Maybe it would be a kid by the name of Luis Hernandez who was an astounding student all the way through. Now he has two law degrees. He works for a big firm downtown. But I didn’t work any magic on those kids.
Are there just bright people and stupid people? And no matter what you do, how you dress it up, bright people will be bright and stupid people will be stupid? Even given an upper-middle-class upbringing, parents that work, parents that love, parents that don’t beat, will a stupid kid stay stupid?
Patrick: I don’t know. There’s a kid who doesn’t seem to have much going for him, but he gets this incredible determination. He just kicks ass all the way through. I’ve seen that.
Meg: Well, it’s like Patrick, who modeled himself after a teacher. So in that sense we do touch kids’ lives. But it’s in the kid.
Patrick: If they get turned on to something, if they get passionate about something, then they’re going to go after it. It’s like all of us. I read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and my whole life turned around.
Meg: There are a lot of teachers who really want to make a difference. They’re just going up against incredible odds. From the public and from the kids’ backgrounds. I meet with teachers all the time, with a group called the Chicago Education Network. These are teachers who really want to turn the school system around. They’re extremely dedicated, against all odds. They really want to do a good job. It would be nice if that story were told. We wouldn’t be there if we thought we were going to be killed. We wouldn’t be there unless we were having some kind of fun with these kids, if there wasn’t some kind of payoff. I want that to get across. Yes, there’s bleakness attached to this job. But it’s not that awful.
Patrick: Sarah was a big deal at one of our district-wide meetings.
Sarah: They wanted to select a group of teachers who they felt had motivated the kids academically. Somehow, my name got tossed into the bag. There were three or four other teachers, too.
Anything else I should know about?
Meg: I started a support group for teachers about five years ago. We did a lot of positive things in the school. It’s possible for teachers to band together and have an impact. We even got the temperature in the building fixed. We started the perfect-attendance assembly. But we were running ourselves ragged.
Sarah: Instead of rewarding each other–
Meg: But we wanted to make a difference. Well, I’m in a different group now. And we just go drinking together. And they surprised me with a birthday party not long ago, it was great.
Patrick: Meg, ever since you went through est–and what’s his name broke your ego–
Meg: (Laughing.) That was a long time ago. It was est people that started the whole Chicago Education Network.
Patrick: But she was like this before.
Meg: I have lots of little groups everywhere. When I took est in ’75, I got about ten people on the faculty to join me. And I know about an “options and the course of miracles” workshop–
Patrick: What’s this thing about miracles? My bullshit detector’s going off.
Meg: You can make miracles happen in your life.
Patrick: Jeez, we can do it, fellas! That’s too much for me.
What constitutes a miracle?
Meg: It’s bringing who you are, your enthusiasm, to what you do. When I teach my class to my kids–
Patrick: I love you for this, I love you for it–
Meg: I get so excited. And those kids get real excited. That’s why it just pisses me off that I don’t get to teach that class. I know I can have a real impact on kids.
Patrick: Well, maybe a miracle will happen.
Patrick: I love you for the way you are, Meg.
What is the class that you’re not allowed to teach?
Meg: It’s a class on self-esteem.
Patrick: Getting Naked I and II.
Meg: It’s about trusting kids, not telling them what to do. It’s about empowering them. It’s a lot of things I’ve learned over the years. I last taught it this summer. I even asked the principal if I could teach it after school, Monday through Friday. He said he’ll get back to me.
Why can’t you teach it during the regular school day?
Meg: I’m the librarian.
Are there too many chores to do in the library?
Meg: Yes. And I only get a 40-minute break, and that’s for lunch.
Patrick: Well, that’s not his fault. I hate to be the principal’s apologist all the time–
Meg: But I’m willing to do it after school. Every teacher needs that, it’s like a shot in the arm. It just makes you feel like you’re doing something, like you’re accomplishing something. I left the classroom because it was a lot of work. But when you’re not in the classroom, you don’t get the relationship with the kids that you came into the high school in the first place for. Now I’d like to get back in the classroom.
Is it because of est?
Meg: No, it’s because of my divorce. Now, I have all this energy. I’m really big on nurturing, so it’s an outlet that I want to pursue.
Patrick: It is the divorce. Your whole life-style has freed up. You have whole days to fill up.
Meg: Yeah, I don’t have to go pick up my ex-husband from the bar! (She laughs.)
A theme that I’m hearing again and again–if you want to be a good teacher, you’ve got to really want to be a good teacher? No one is standing by as support, anxious to help you achieve that? You don’t seem to get a lot of help from the administration or the board.
Meg: You don’t get much acknowledgment. And if you do something well, they always want you to do it.
Sarah: That was one reason I didn’t want to work in the special-ed area. I have a master’s degree in special ed. If I start working in that area, I’m going to be slotted there for life. Until I retire or resign.
Meg: There’s not a lot of flexibility in the school system.
Patrick: That’s why I quit doing the yearbook. I did it for two years. And each year, they kept loading me up. The yearbook made money each year. But the money wouldn’t end up in my account, because it was supporting 14 other projects. It got to where there wasn’t enough money in the account to produce the kind of yearbook that was going to make them money. They killed the goose that laid the golden egg. I could see the way that was going, it was destined to fail. So I got out.
Sarah: I just started sponsoring cheerleading and pom-pom. Everybody keeps saying, next year, it’ll be better. And the year after that, it’ll be even better. How long do they think I plan to keep doing this? I enjoy it now, it’s fun. But I can’t do it for the rest of my life.
Meg: That’s what’s so aggravating about teaching. In private business, you do more, you work your butt off, you excel, and you get paid more! In teaching, you don’t get paid more, you just get to do it.
Patrick: It’s not just the pay. If you’re doing a good job, you’re put into a position where you can really do a good job, but given no power. And the paperwork–where’s the form that says, did you have a good time today? did the kids smile?
Sarah: They forgot to print that one.
So they don’t give pay raises based upon ability? It’s an across-the-board pay raise?
Patrick: It’s like being in the army.
Meg: I get the same amount of money that the head librarian makes, and she’s been here ten more years than I have. We’ve both reached the top of the scale.
Can anything mitigate the salary scale, such as master’s degrees?
Meg: Yes, and I just got mine, so I’ll be making more money!
Does the administration put your master’s degrees to good use?
Patrick: You’re on your own.
Meg: We’re off on this little island, just like the kids.
(It is dark outside, and Patrick and Meg leave. Sarah lingers for a while, then asks for another cup of tea. While she waits for the water to boil, she continues to speak.)
Sarah: I don’t like to bring the negatives home, but there are so many good things to bring home. When I leave that classroom, I continue to think about how my lesson plans can be improved–it was OK this week, but how can I incorporate that? where do I want them in ten weeks? If I had to go home and think too much about dodging bullets, or writing this kid up, if I had to think in those terms, I wouldn’t do it.
But thinking about improving my teaching skills–that goes on and on and on–even on Sundays. And I don’t mind it. I take it home a lot. When I have to start thinking of little manipulative ways of getting the kids to participate more, or trying to catch this kid in the act of doing whatever, I won’t waste time on that. I like to think of better ways to motivate a kid. And there are times I have to turn the job off, and enjoy my life when I need to. And I can do that, too.
(She pauses, pours the boiling water into the teacup, adds sugar.)
Meg’s not frustrated. She wants to go back in the classroom! I have fun, and I know Meg has fun, too. This may sound crazy, but sometimes I feel like I have to keep quiet about that, like it’s not cool to enjoy it. But Meg gets fired up. Last year, she introduced this program, and you could see she was fired up about it. It was a career program, with graduates of our high school. I know when kids are turned on to something, and they looked turned on to me. I thought to myself, this is OK. I like seeing things in action.
I always thought Meg had had a nice, middle-class life, and today I heard her talk about raising a kid by herself. So she’s had to struggle. That’s one thing kids can identify with–struggle. And Meg can work so well with those kids, she’s so relaxed. So is Patrick. The struggle inside of them relates somehow to the kids. They let them know that they’re not on their own.
So it’ll be a real loss when Patrick leaves?
Sarah: (Pausing a long time, then releasing a long, slow breath.) It sure will. All the good teachers leave.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.