Discover more from Year Zero
Taught For America
A Chronicle of Failure
The pseudonymous author of the following diary was by his own account a white male from a privileged background with a savior complex when he joined Teach for America out of college in 2008. I hesitate to call the experience he recounts here — of instantaneous and total defeat by a vast social breakdown far beyond the ken of any 24-year old to stem — the modal experience of the idealistic young people who joined the program. But anyone who has spoken to anyone who has ventured into some of the impoverished, segregated public schools into which TFA has sent thousands of graduates of America’s elite universities after a five-week bootcamp knows that his experiences are far from outlying. TFA, which built out an alternative pipeline into teaching outside of the schools of education, is one of the primary vehicles through which a cohort of elite college graduates have acquired first-hand exposure to America’s poorest, most segregated cities. For many like our author, no amount of prior reading or absorption of popular culture depicting those settings could prepare them for what they would witness.
The author learned what everyone who has spent time in one of those schools knows: that “non-school factors,” as they are called, establish the horizon of possibility of what happens within them, and that the prospect thus created by those conditions as they manifest in the lives of students in places like Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis have generated a prospect bleaker than anyone who hasn’t lived in their midst can quite bring themselves to fathom, or that those who have witnessed them up close can quite bring themselves to say. For the tenderhearted motives that put them in a situation where they could witness this world in the first place make telling others what they have seen feel like another cruelty heaped atop all the rest.
It is this unspeakable reality that forms the hard kernel around which various political fantasias have been constructed over the decades to varying degrees of good and ill effect. The soaring rhetoric attending the bipartisan neoliberal push to reform education and close the achievement gaps that preoccupied the Bush and Obama years for which Teach For America was an adjunct now seems, as Matt Yglesias put it in a recent post “extremely old-fashioned.” It is an artifact of the Before Times. But as Yglesias notes in his series on the sudden disappearance of this project, it is the decomposition of this project that fertilizes today’s ideological manias.
I asked the pseudonymous author of this piece to say what he witnessed in the form of a sequence of uninflected anecdotes. He responded with the often gutting chronicle that follows. It provides no answers and proposes no solutions, depicts its author as the well-meaning but comprehensive failure that he was, but gives us an unvarnished view of the reality on the ground that must serve as the foundation of any approach to this problem with any chance of doing any good. In the process, it suggests the enormity of the cultural regeneration that would be necessary to achieve what are alas in practice hugely ambitious goals like “most students read at grade level” — a proper appreciation of which would help us take the reasonable and proportionate approach to the questions of diversity and inclusion being posed much further down the pipeline that is at present sorely lacking. We are talking about the remedial impartation of what are now called “non-cognitive skills” that we have always relied on non-formal institutions (say it — families) to impart at scale that has defeated all such prior attempts. In lieu of any of this — and perhaps we have given up because it just can’t be done — we talk a lot more, none of it edifying, none of it useful or wise, about whiteness.
Year Zero is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
By Andrew X. Evans
What does true failure look like? There are so many anecdotes to choose from. But here is one:
It’s around one in the afternoon, and I am planted across my classroom doorway, feet wedged into the corners for leverage. It’s time for the daily math lesson. All twenty-nine of my fourth graders are behind me in the classroom, save for Deandra, who is in the hallway, screeching insults at me (“White motherfucker!”) and repeatedly trying to force her way back into class so that she can continue pummeling Justina.
Deandra takes three steps back until her back is against the opposite wall, and then launches herself into my torso. She does it again. She balls up her fists, screams, and runs at me again.
This was actually Deandra’s third fight of the day, each with a different student. It’s late January in my first year and fights are now so common in my classroom that the administration no longer sends help. This poses a unique problem where Deandra is concerned. For one, she can do real damage, so I have no choice but to physically stop the fight myself. A majority of my students are between 10 and 11 years old, but Deandra is 12 and well into puberty. She is a half-foot taller than most other students and weighs at least 120 pounds.
We’ve been told several times that it is against the law for teachers to physically break up fights without a specific certification. We’ve also been told that we are legally liable for injuries sustained in our classroom. I’m not sure if either is true. What I do know is that teachers and staff members at my school are constantly using their bodies to interdict violence. Not everyone agrees with this approach. I was in the process of breaking up a fight in the hallway the other day, when Mr. Greevis, a squat, balding classroom aide to the Emotionally Disturbed program, yanked me from the fray by the collar. “Let them fight,” he said. “Stupid asses.”
The other problem is that Deandra does not give up. Most students are ready to call it quits after a fight breaks up, at least for a while. If you can separate them and get them to different parts of the room, you’ve probably bought yourself an hour or two at least. The popular wisdom among the veteran staff is that this is particularly true of boys. Boys want you to break up the fight, they say, girls won’t stop until there’s blood. It’s always struck me as an exaggeration, but it is true of Deandra. She’ll wait until I’m back at the blackboard before attacking whomever she was just fighting again.
I glance back into the classroom. Its general chaos—students out of their seats, dancing, yell-talking over each other. Maybe three or four out of thirty-one are working on the multiplication tables I assigned. Some worksheets are on the floor. One boy stands on his. There will be no learning this afternoon. But, for the moment, there is also no violence.
Deandra’s shoulder thumps into my gut again, with less force than before. She is getting tired. There are dark sweat spots on her arm pits now. It seems to be registering that she cannot force her way through me. She tries to wiggle under my arm but I push her back. Tears start streaming down her face and she begins to scream even louder than before. Soon she’s sobbing, spit dribbling from her lips to the milk stains on her Hannah Montana t-shirt.
She’s a child. I’m a 24-year-old man. And this is a normal day.
There is a classic sort of inner-city teaching fable where some over-educated, downtrodden man or woman defies the odds and “breaks through” to their hapless charges. Everyone is better off, everyone’s humanity is redeemed.
There is a Teach For American version of this story in which the teacher is less spiritual leader, more technocrat par excellence, coaxing untapped human capital from its stores, closing disparities like a reverse Moses.
Neither of these templates apply to my story, which is one of unmitigated failure. My story might be told in one of two ways. The safer way to tell this story would make repeated reference to the matrix of oppression into which poor, disproportionately Black, children are born. This is a story of deprivation that centers on the culpability of all those who live outside the sacrifice zones into which these children are released and where they will remain entrapped for the rest of their lives under the watchful eye of agents of the carceral state. It is especially about history and the unbroken line that gets drawn from a failing city school to the racist crimes of the American past.
I happen to agree with this story. But this is not the story I want to tell. I lived a different story, whose terrifying immediacy held at bay the grand abstractions through which we are urged to interpret our lives. When a second-grader’s grandmother sent him to school with a loaded gun because he was being bullied, I didn’t see a vestige of white flight. I saw a second grader bringing a loaded gun to school at the direction of his primary caretaker. When Kenyon was transferred into my class mid-second year with an enormous file explaining how his gross-motor problems were in part the product of his mother holding a curling iron to his feet as a baby to stop him from crying, I did not experience that as a consequence of redlining, whiteness, or bourgeois complacency. And when I learned soon after that Kenyon could not read past kindergarten level, nor write his name properly, I did not process these things as the byproducts of America’s system of funding schools through property taxes. I processed these things as horrors.
This is a story about horrors. I wish it weren’t. No other way of telling it approaches the truth. Richmond Elementary was a horror. I was a horrible teacher. I am sure that some people will read my story as “victim blaming” or “poverty porn,” as perpetuating an image of inner-city Black communities as defective or dangerous that is often used for nefarious political purposes. For just this reason, we were cautioned on several occasions by TFA higher-ups not to stress the negatives when sharing our experiences from the classroom. But I really don’t buy that anymore. Yes, the layers of hierarchy, responsibility and power that surround the horror matter, but the horror itself matters more. We must talk about the horror.
It is also a story about me. And while I am a white man, I did not interpret the horrors around me as my privilege made animate. I interpreted them as my fault, but only narrowly so, in the sense that I was a bad teacher who was stupid and arrogant enough to have thought that I could be part of the solution. Ultimately, my greatest privilege was the ability to leave at the end of every school day and then for good at the end of my contract intact. But I didn’t leave unscathed.
I first heard about TFA my senior year of college. I knew a few people who had been accepted, including my girlfriend’s best friend. She introduced me to the campus recruiter. We got a coffee and he invited me to an on-campus talk by Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder.
On stage, Kopp explained how TFA had begun as the topic of her senior thesis in grad school. She wore a dark gray pantsuit and an earpiece microphone. She talked about the “achievement gap,” the immense disparities in academic performance between affluent, largely white children and the rest of the population—disparities that remain largely the same today. She explained how studies had shown that the single most important driver of learning was not school funding or neighborhood income but teacher quality. Sometime during the talk, I made up my mind to apply.
The common critique is that people only apply to TFA to advance their careers or to play savior. The latter was closer to the truth in my case. At some point in college, I had adopted the plight of inner-city Black America as the keystone of my moral concern. I shared this aspect of myself whenever possible, shoe-horning references to James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time or incarceration stats into casual conservations and off-topic classroom discussions.
This was prior to Obama’s election victory in 2008. Race issues had not yet monopolized campus consciousness in the way they do now. And so my fixation on racism, my sense of having special knowledge and insight into American reality, were at least a somewhat plausible basis for a unique identity at the time.
I also happened to be watching HBO’s “The Wire” around then, the fourth season in particular, part of which takes place in Baltimore’s public schools, my future workplace. I wouldn’t say it inspired me to apply1, but it didn’t dissuade me either, which might seem strange if you’ve seen the show.
The main teacher character is Roland Prezbylewsky, a disgraced cop attempting a career change. Things don’t go so well for Mr. Prez at the start. His students take advantage of him, talk over him, insult him and just generally refuse to get with the program. In one scene, a girl who is sick and tired of being bullied by her more popular, pretty classmate, slices the pretty girl’s cheek open with a razor. Mr. Prez watches this scene unfold in horror, unsure what to do. A veteran teacher runs into the classroom and slaps the assailant in the face, who drops the bloody razor and collapses on the floor.
My fiancée and I recently re-watched the series, which she had never seen. When we got to classroom scenes, I couldn’t believe how quiet they were, how relatively calm things were despite the implied dysfunction. There were never any stabbings in my classroom, but it was also never as quiet in real life as it was on the show.
Our training was a five-week bootcamp in Philadelphia. We stayed in the dorms at Temple University and attended training sessions held on campus and at local schools.
In the last week, we joined summer school classrooms at those schools as teachers’ aides. This was the first and only classroom experience any of us would have before leading our own. I gave two 45-minute reading lessons in that time, each to a group of around 8 drowsy 10-year-olds and with an adult-to-child ratio of about 1:4. Over the next two years, that ratio would oscillate between one 1:24 and 1:34 depending on the day, until my school administration gave in and assigned me my own classroom aide late in my second year.
TFA’s training was excellent in a way. In terms of pedagogy, it was far more rigorous than what I got while getting my masters in teaching at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The curriculum was cutting edge. Our instructors were all veterans of the program who had stayed on in education. Each had achieved the gold standard of TFA success: over a year of learning in a single school year (anything less leaves the achievement gap intact). Much of what I learned, I still use today in my undergraduate classroom, and it works. But it didn’t matter back then. Nothing matters if you can’t control your students.
We were given a stack of booklets to read before Philadelphia. One included a lesson plan that used concepts from research into intelligence to disabuse students of the damaging idea that “smartness” is a fixed trait. People aren’t born smart; intelligence comes from practice. At the end of the lesson, the teacher leads the students in a chant.
“Work Hard!,” the teacher shouts.
“Get Smart!” the students shout back.
In one training session, we watched video of a former TFA member delivering this lesson. The tape was shot from the back of the classroom, but you didn’t need to see the kids’ faces to get the point: This was a master at work.
“Work Hard!,” he shouted.
“Get Smart!,” his students shouted back.
Work Hard!,” he shouted.
“Get Smart!,” his students screamed, nearing hysterics.
He grabbed a stack of papers off his desk and shook them.
“Who wants extra homework?”
“I do. I do,” they screamed, reaching for the papers. “Me, me, me.”
I taught the brain lesson in the first week of my first year. I cut the words, “Work Hard, Get Smart” out of colored construction paper and pasted them in an arc over the classroom door.
“Work Hard,” I shouted.
“Get Smart,” my students shouted back.
For strategies like this to work, they need to become routine. I doubt we said those words more than once more. Still, they stayed up above the classroom door, gradually wilting and fading, until I found them on the floor when I came back from Christmas break. By then, my classroom walls were an obituary page to behavioral management strategies. The “Classroom Rules” posted above my desk read like deluded state propaganda (“Rule #1: In this classroom we…treat each other with respect.”). October’s student of the month honoree was still vaguely visible in dry erase marker. Students with tests were stapled to the ‘Hall of Fame’ board had transferred to different schools, leaving transfer-ins to point at the unfamiliar names and ask, “These from this year?”
Being in Teach for America doesn’t guarantee you a job, at least it didn’t in Baltimore that year. You actually had to be hired by a school, which meant you had to attend a job fair.
The night before the fair I steamed my shirt and picked out a tie. I typed out answers to potential questions and looked over my notes from Philly. I went to sleep early.
The fair was held at a middle school in West Baltimore. Cafeteria benches lined the halls, where principals sat, their school name taped to the lockers behind them.
I walked the halls with a group of fellow TFA corps members who had been designated as elementary school teachers. As a political science major, I had hoped to teach high school history or government (but would have settled for algebra). But since Maryland law requires that elementary school teachers have a wide range of undergraduate classwork, pretty much anyone who happened to take, say, both Astronomy and American Lit, as was my case, was automatically assigned to the primary ages.
With an hour remaining in the fair, I hadn’t had too much luck. I’d spoken to a few principals, but they didn’t seem very impressed with me, which they of course shouldn’t have. One principal, a young Black woman in a colorful head wrap, asked me to describe my philosophy of education. I responded with a meandering recitation of TFA-isms (“Data-driven best practices,” “close the gap,” etc.). I may have even referred to my future students as “scholars,” a common practice among TFA true believers.
Then, we got the news that a new school had just shown up to the fair and was, essentially, giving jobs away. A corps member named Claire came up to a group of us, waving a sheet of paper and telling us she’d just been hired to teach second grade.
“She said to bring my friends over.”
The principal of Hancock Elementary and my future boss, Mrs. Washington, greeted us and asked us to make a line in front of the desk. As always, she seemed bored, like she had a yawn coming on.
When it was my turn she asked me, “So you ready to teach with us?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I answered.
“It ain’t easy, you know.”
And she took down my name.
A week later, Claire, three other corps members, and I carpooled to Richmond Elementary to begin our two-week orientation. Richmond was in East Baltimore, about two miles north of Johns Hopkins University Hospital, next door to a McDonalds. It was a low-slung concrete building with a brick façade and wired windows. It was one of the larger elementary schools in the city, but since the second of its two floors was hidden partially underground, it looked small from outside, like a post office.
There is a great deal of poverty in Baltimore. But there are also clear gradients of poverty, and as we drove through the neighborhood surrounding Richmond, the increasing severity of the destitution became apparent. On some blocks, all but one or two of the row homes were boarded up. I soon learned that the houses being boarded up did not mean that people did not live within them. The sidewalks were treeless, littered with discarded bottles, candy wrappers and chicken bones. Other than the McDonalds and a Wendy’s up the road, the only businesses were a mechanic and a handful of dilapidated corner stores.
I was setting up my classroom later that day when the neighboring fourth grade teacher, a multi-decade veteran named Mrs. Holmes, came over to introduce herself.
She waddled in slowly, eating a bag of chips. She was often eating chips – sometimes while she taught. She ate them deliberately, one-by-one so as not to ruin nails which were always colorful, plastic and three inches long. In all things, Mrs. Holmes took her time. She held her chalk how she held her chips, with the skin barely touching. Sometimes I’d look into her classroom on my way back from dropping my kids off at art or gym class and see her carefully writing out the pages of the textbook in perfect cursive on the blackboard while her class watched in total silence and, presumably, fear.
There are plenty of negative things I could say about Mrs. Holmes as a teacher. I honestly doubt her kids learned much more than mine, despite the relative tranquility of her classroom. Still, for two years, she was my savior. I can’t even remember the number of times she had abandoned her classroom and come to my rescue, appearing suddenly at the back of the class and silencing the storm with a mere “Excuse me!”.
We chatted for a bit about where I was from and whether or not I was a Christian (I wasn’t). Eventually I asked her about the reputation of Baltimore schools.
“I hear that Baltimore is a tough place to teach,” I said. “Like one of the tougher places.”
“Well Mr. C, it might not be the worst,” she said, unbothered, popping another chip into her mouth. “But it don’t get no worse, if you know what I mean.”
In teacher parlance, the “honeymoon” is the period in the beginning of the school year—usually, the first 2-3 weeks—when the students are abnormally well behaved, still feeling you out, getting a sense of what they can and can’t get away with. As the honeymoon fades, the behavior problems emerge. Ideally, you have built a strong enough foundation to weather the storm. My honeymoon period consisted of a relative dearth of violence in those first three weeks. It was, however, chaos from day one.
My first day, I taught a lesson called “Making a Million” that Mr. Coleman, the curriculum coach for grades 3-5, had picked out. Students would cut sheets of 1,000 paper squares into combinations of 1s, 10s, and 100s, and stick them to a corkboard (with tacks) to build up to 1,000,000. The idea was to promote number sense, intuitions about what numbers mean. It was exactly the type of lesson—heavy on movement and materials, sharp ones no less—that the TFA school of thought would strongly advise against teaching at the beginning of the year. If there was a single key to a successful school year, we were told in Philadelphia, it was not teaching any real material--not math, not reading--for the first two weeks. Instead, focus exclusively on “procedures”, the classroom routines such as lining up, going to the bathroom, handing in homework, and storing materials. Without strong procedures in place, gap-closing levels of learning would likely be impossible.
Mr. Coleman disagreed. “You better be teaching, boy,” he told me, when I mentioned my plan to delay full lessons. “That MSA is right around the corner.” The MSA is the Maryland State Assessment, the standardized test that all students take at the end of the year. If a school scores poorly enough over a certain number of years in a row it gets taken over by the state, and likely everyone loses their job.
For the lesson, I had devised a system in which each student had a specific job. So long as everyone followed their job, there would never be more than 4 students out of their seat at any time, and the level of commotion would be low enough so that the students in their seats, whom I envisioned dutifully and quietly cutting away, would be able to follow what was going on at the corkboard. This was critical because if they weren’t following along, the lesson would be pointless.
As I was explaining this system to my new students, I could sense that what I was saying wasn’t exactly getting through. I felt a soon-to-be familiar panic germinating in my lower gut. Nothing, I realized, would be going to plan. Minutes later, half of the class was out of their seats, milling about, and everyone, it seemed, was talking at once. I started shouting orders over the noise, moving frantically from student to student to correct whatever it was they were doing. As I tried to restore order, Malik, a small boy with dreadlocks and large round eyes who I later learned could not perform basic arithmetic, followed me around the classroom, asking again and again if he could be in charge of tacking the squares to the corkboard. Frazzled, I caved in and told him yes. Two weeks later, I found a 50-count package of tacks in his desk after he had placed several on a student’s seat just as the boy was sitting down.
Eventually, I stationed myself by the corkboard, doing my best to draw attention to it while simultaneously correcting each piece of paper that Malik and his partner were adding to the board.
“So as you can see,” I yelled over my shoulder, removing a 10-square strip from the 100s space. “Each space in the number is worth ten times the space before.”
Later that afternoon, I returned to the classroom after dismissing the students out the back door. I had sweat through my shirt, my throat was sore and my thumbs itched from tack pricks. The floor was coated in ribbons of paper interspersed with scissors, tacks and several empty worksheets on place value. The majority of desks, which had been neatly arranged in groups of 4, were now several feet from their original location. In one, I found a soggy pile of sunflower seed shells. On the corkboard, a mis-arranged constellation of paper squares was not anything from which anyone could learn. I looked through the pile of successfully collected worksheets on my desk, at least half of which were blank except for a name.
My memories of those two years are overwhelmingly negative. I can picture best the faces of my worst behaved and most academically challenged students. This is exactly the negativity bias whose problematic effects we were always being warned about. To be sure, my best remembered moments are likely more awful than the average moment in my classroom was. This is how memory works, of course. Memories with intense negative emotions attached to them lodge deeper and more securely in the brain. Still, I am not sure if the word “bias” really applies. If you snapped your femur on a heretofore pleasant hike, or if an otherwise ordinary work week was interrupted by an enemy airstrike, how much of a distortion is it really to focus on the broken bone or the bombing? Maybe they aren’t the whole story, but they compel attention for a reason.
Some of my strongest recollections from my time in the classroom are single images, what psychologists call flashbulb memories – the blips of recorded experience that pop into your mind when you think about, say, your daughter’s wedding or where you were on 9/11. A flashbulb memory from my second year, for instance, depicts how, on the way to pick up my students from lunch, I came across a large fifth grader named Dante holding a small third grader against the wall by his collar and bouncing the boy’s tiny head against the concrete with his fists.
An image that nearly always returns to me when I think about the early parts of my first year is Darian’s tear streamed, expressionless face. Despite being one of the smaller boys in class, Darian was the student I was most afraid would seriously injure a classmate. This wasn’t because he fought more; plenty of students engaged in violence more often. It was because when Darian got mad at another student two things would happen: tears would start pouring down his cheeks, and he would grab the nearest metal desk chair, raising it over his head.
He never actually hit anyone with the chair, maybe because he wasn’t strong enough to bring it forward or maybe simply because I always got it out of his hands first. I’d be helping a student in one corner of his room and another student would shout out. “Mr. Evans! Darian got his chair again.” Then, I’d sprint across the room and pry the metal bars from his slippery fingers.
Usually, there was a lot of talking before a fight. A lot of insults or threats to “knock your ass out” or “fuck you up.” But Darian never said a thing. He’d just stare blankly at whomever had offended him, his chin tucked in, with oddly linear streams of tears coursing down his cheeks. The advantage of his catatonia, as I eventually figured out, was that I could deal with these episodes without breaking the flow of a lesson. I’d just continue teaching as I walked over to wherever he was, which by design was usually right by the front of the room, take the chair out of his hands, wrap my arms tightly around his shoulders and walk him to the blackboard, where I’d hold him for the remainder of the lesson. He never resisted this.
Part way through the first semester, Darian’s mother began keeping him home from school several days a month whenever it seemed like he was in an especially bad mood. She’d come up to school to pick up his work for the day, still wearing her nurse’s scrubs. She was a conscientious and dedicated mother. She was also somewhat of an outlier in the sense that she took seriously the idea that her child was responsible for avoiding fights.
With other parents, you’d get maybe a one- or two-fight window where their child is clearly to blame. After that, they’d begin to suspect that you had lost control, that their child was at-risk, or that you were singling them out. Other parents took it on faith that their child had every reason to act as they did.
“I don’t let no one touch my child,” one mother told me.
“If someone hits you, you hit them back. Simple as that,” a father said.
“Someone puts their hands on my child, she’s gonna put her hands on them.”
“You can get killed around here if people think you’re a punk.”
There was clear rationality to this mantra. In the neighborhood around Richmond, a primary task of the ‘good’ parent was to prepare one’s child to avoid being killed. My students often discussed the shootings that occurred in the neighborhood and sometimes acted out what they had heard happened – or in some cases seen. Once, I saw two boys giggling and making finger guns at each other under their desks during a lesson. I shook my head at them and they picked their pencils back up. But as I walked past, I heard one boy whisper excitedly, “He got killed.”
Though it may be helpful for surviving the mean streets, this ethic of deterrence through massive retribution is utterly corrosive to the order of a classroom. It is far too ambiguous a code of conduct to let children adjudicate on their own. The rule governing rough play, which holds that “If someone touches you, touch them back,” turns into “if someone throws a crayon at you, you are perfectly justified to punch them multiple times in the face.”
Early in the fall of my first year, a rumor began getting around that TFA’s 2008 Baltimore class had broken records for the most people quitting in the first month. Whether that was true or not, a ton of people had quit. One was a friend of mine from training in Philly. He’d been assigned to teach English at a large high school on the West side. On his first day, he’d become so frustrated by his students’ disrespect that he felt himself fighting off tears mid-lesson. One of his students got up to leave five minutes before the bell. When he asked the student to return to his seat, the student had responded, “Go fuck yourself.” My friend had kicked a nearby desk chair at the student, which just missed him, clattering into the wall. Terrified of what he’d done, he quit that day.
I thought about quitting all the time. TFA’s main strategy to dissuade people from leaving the program was to stress the deep harm this would do to your students. The urgency underlying this messaging was justified. Most of my children were staring down a lifetime of functional illiteracy, poverty wages, and a likelihood of incarceration or early death, particularly the boys. But once I was in the classroom, from that first day in fact, the idea that my students were better off for my presence evaporated.
Obviously, I expected things to be bad. I’d heard the horror stories. I had watched the fourth season of the Wire twice. But before you’re living them, the horror stories are just the unpleasant first act of the redemption tale you assume lies in store for you. I expected to fail, but I also expected to succeed eventually. It did not take long to cease feeling this way. What difference would it make if I quit? More likely it was not concern for my students that kept me at Richmond, but fear of the self-loathing and shame I expected to feel if I gave up. As it turns out, these feelings were inescapable no matter what I did.
One afternoon in the Spring of my first year, a school social worker delivered Shawn back to class during the math lesson. Shawn had been “running the halls.” I knew he was out there. I’d seen him leave about 20 minutes earlier, staring right at me and grinning. Afternoon was the usual hall running time. At that point of the year there’d be anywhere between 6 to 20 kids out of class, completely unsupervised, on any given day. There was no recess at Richmond, because it was not considered safe for the students to be playing in the neighborhood.
Shawn had a pretty severe numerical learning disorder and really hated math. To say that I hated him would be going too far. It would be a horrible thing to admit that you hated a 10-year-old who was under your care.. But I was terrified of Shawn. I’d see his face in the morning and my gut would sink. And even though he was never absent—he was very proud of three years of perfect attendance—I fantasized about the day he transferred to another school.
He knew I was afraid of him too. “They’re like dogs,” Mr. Coleman had said in a staff meeting on discipline. “They smell your fear.” Several teachers in attendance had nodded their heads. “Hmm-mmm,” they said.
I tried to ignore Shawn’s return and keep going with my lesson. A minute or so later, I was pointing at a problem on the board with my back turned, when the class erupted in laughter. I turned around and saw Shawn next to me. He was sticking out his butt out to one side, eyes rolled up into his head while he mocked pointing at the same problem.
“Uh excuse me, class,” he said, in a goofy stage voice. “The numerator is’a this thing a’right here, and the denominator is’a this thing a’right here-ah.” He poked his butt out even further and made a fart sound.
The class exploded. I had to stifle a laugh at first.
Over the next hour or so, Shawn continued to mimic my every movement and utterance.
“Julian, will you please pass out the division worksheets on my desk.”
“Uh, excuse me Julian. *fart sound* Please-ah pass out the’a worksheets on my cruddy-ass desk. *fart sound*.”
The classroom order started to deteriorate. Students were out of their seats, talking to each other as if I wasn’t there. I threatened to call Shawn’s mother, the greatest threat of all for some students but an empty one for Shawn, as both of us knew.
“Go ahead. Call her,” he said. “I don’t care.”
His mother seldom picked up my calls, and in the few instances where I had gotten through, she was hardly an ally. “He tells me what goes on up there,” she’d say. “How you pickin’ on him all the time?”
Eventually, I sat down at my desk, and resigned myself to violence prevention. Shawn dragged a student desk next to mine and sat down, imitating my defeated expression. I felt a jolt of rage, but fought off the instinct to act on it. I had worked hard on this lesson. Though it made little sense, I always did.
Shawn stood up on his desk and started stomping out a beat.
“Spring Break!” he chanted. Boom-boom boom-boom. “Spring break!” Boom-boom boom-boom. He kept going and soon a good deal of the class had joined him, matching the beat with their fists.
“Spring Break!” Boom-boom boom-boom “Spring break!” Boom-boom boom-boom.
I sat and watched all this. Several students, Deandra included, took turns getting out of their seats and dancing to the beat. “OK, Deandra! Get it, girl.”
At one point, I put my head in my hands. “He’s crying ya’ll,” someone shouted. “Don’t cry Mr. Evans.”
I wasn’t crying, but I wanted to.
A conceit of the TFA enterprise is that it exists to prepare students for a different world than the one they currently occupy, whether the physically different world of college and green space, or just a world with day-to-day problems that look nothing like their current ones. I do think that in some TFA placements, perhaps even some in Baltimore, it would not be hard to envision such futures for many of one’s students. This would go a long way to lending meaning and purpose to the grueling work closing the gaps. Save for a select few, those futures seemed unreachable for the students at Richmond Elementary. Their urgent and unmet day to day needs eclipsed any such horizon.
One day in my second year, Chris, a pudgy boy who was sweet but playful and therefore disruptive, showed up at school with a large weeping sore on his cheek. When I asked Chris where the sore came from, he shrugged. The school nurse later informed me that it was a consequence of malnutrition. Like many students, Chris’s most common breakfast was a miniature $.75 bag of chips from the corner store. For many students, rumor had it, this was also a common dinner. On any given day, if you took a walk on the school grounds before the morning bell, you’d see a large number of students with their little hands in bags of Hot Fries and Cheetos. My students complained about hunger all the time.T Though they were clear-eyed about the disgusting quality of the school lunch (“Mr. Evans, this food ain’t right”) they snarfed it down..
Later in the year, I walked Chris home after detention. His sore was somewhat smaller but still not healed. He told me that he lived with his grandmother and that she used a walker and had trouble getting around, which is why I had never met her. When we reached a certain corner, Chris told me that he was fine walking the rest of the way.
“My house is just down there on the, uh, left,” he said, pointing to a group of crumbing homes on the right side of the street.
‘You mean right, buddy.”
“I never can get that one,” he said, laughing at himself. I showed him how if he made L’s with both hands, the left hand was the one that made an L facing in the right direction. He was excited by this trick and thanked me before heading on his way.
That same year, I was in my classroom getting ready for the day, when Cynthia, a tall girl who looked and acted much older than she was, came by to see me. Cynthia was a decent student by Richmond’s standards, which meant she was only a grade and a half behind. She was also easily my best behaved and most mature student in my whole time at Richmond. I often wondered, and still do, whether this would be enough.
“Morning, Cynthia, what’s up?” I asked her as she walked in, arms folded around the Trapper Keeper at her chest.
“My father dead,” she told me, flatly. She was rocking side to side, half smiling. “He got shot last night. But it’s OK. He don’t come around much.”
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I let her sit in the classroom while I finished preparing for the day. The hour of prep before the morning bell was the most important hour of the day for me. The difference between a “normal” bad day and a “dance-party-on-the-desks” bad day often rested on whether the worksheets and crayons were in the correct place, the behavior chart re-set, and the day’s schedule written on the board.
I tried talking to Cynthia as I went through my routine. Her answers were short and impassive.
“Like I said, I don’t really know him like that.”
“But how are you feeling, though?”
As soon as I had the chance, I went to the social worker to let her know what had happened. She brought Cynthia into her office for lunch that day and several more times over the next few weeks. I don’t know what I should have done differently, but I still feel ashamed when I think about how I continued to work with her there, attempting to split my time between her and my ordinary, probably fruitless everyday tasks instead of dropping everything and being with her.
But even more than these horrors, the realization that many, if not most, of my students were illiterate and would likely always remain so, underlined my sense of futility. The achievement gap is a relative measurement, pertaining to comparisons between groups. Illiteracy is absolute and personal. If you can’t read, what does it matter who can? If some new age of social utopia dawned tomorrow, you’d still be working at its gas station.
As children get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to develop reading skills and so with each year the urgency of imparting that crucial skill grows. If children are not reading at or near grade level by the fourth grade, it’s a genuine emergency, one that necessitates the highest level of instruction and the highest level of classroom management to make that instruction possible. And somehow what the system had to offer my children was a 24-year-old first year teacher, fresh out of college, who was hardly able to walk his class to the bathroom without violence breaking out, let alone provide conditions to allow for the mandatory forty-five minutes of daily quiet reading time. The urgency was lost on the students, of course. They couldn’t see their life prospects evaporating in front of them. But I could.
Part-way through the second year, the school purchased special leveled libraries for every classroom. The books came in shiny plastic buckets that were color coded by reading level. They also came with a diagnostic tool. Over the course of a month, teachers held students back from lunch to assess their reading levels. In the end, reading abilities in my classroom spanned 9 levels, from 6th grade to the emergent level – the classification for students just learning how to read. Only 6 students were reading at grade level. Second grade-level was the average.
In an attempt to avoid stigma, the buckets were labeled with the first letter of their color, rather than the numerical grade. The G level books in the green buckets were for first-grade readers, for example. But the students caught on quickly. When you ask an 11-year-old to read Hop-on-Pop, it doesn’t matter so much that it came from the Yellow and not the Purple bin. They get the picture.
Brandon, a B-level reader (kindergarten), sat next to Anthony, the lone W-level reader (6th grade) in the class. At some point, Brandon began surreptitiously borrowing Anthony’s W-level books to read, or rather to fake read during quiet reading time. He’d follow along with his finger, fake muttering the words he didn’t know under his breath and shooting glances over at me to make sure I wasn’t on to him. The first few times I caught on to this, I had gently re-directed him towards the B-level books. But then he began hiding the chapter books inside larger children’s books so that it looked like he was reading them.
When I caught him doing this one day and tried to correct him, he stood up and threw the children’s book across the room.
“I ain’t reading this baby shit no more,” he yelled. The class erupted in laughter.
This earned a call to his mother, a stout, boisterous woman who often volunteered at the school. Unlike Shawn, Brandon feared a phone call home. The last time I’d called his mother, she’d told me that I had her permission to slap him if he acted up, a privilege I never exercised. This time she had simply asked when quiet reading time was.
During quiet reading time the next day, Brandon was chatting with another student, a chapter book on his desk open to some randomly chosen page, when his mother appeared in the doorway wearing a baby blue velour track suit.
“Come here,” she said, beckoning to him.
He stayed where he was, turning to me pleadingly.
“Come here,” she said, more forcefully. When he didn’t come, she walked over to his desk and pulled him out of his seat by the collar. She stood him up and slapped him neatly across the face, not nearly as hard as she could have, but hard enough to make the tears flow. Then she dragged him by the collar into the hallway, where she screamed at him loud enough for the neighboring classrooms to hear, and slapped him a few more times.
I don’t think I ever called his mom again. When I’ve told this story before, people were usually shocked at this brazen act of child abuse. They are missing the point. The real tragedy is not that a mother would come to a school and beat her child in front of his classmates. Brandon’s mother worked in the schools. She knew what happened to boys from that neighborhood who didn’t learn to read. If there was any chance that slapping him could scare him into making progress, you’d have to admit that there was a logic to it. The real tragedy, as well as the real reason I never called her again, was that it probably didn’t make a difference what she did.
In my entire time at Richmond, there was only one six-week period when I felt that I might have turned the corner. This was in the winter of my second year, when Justin was gone.
Justin was that year’s Shawn. He was the most disruptive student in my class. He was also the largest student in the school, by a lot. He would do things like offhandedly yell out “Snit!” in the middle of a lesson and then flip his desk over when I moved him down a notch on the behavior chart because he had said “Snit, not the other word.” I was never able to reach his mother. There was a rumor that she was a gang member – a Crip. Her name was tattooed in dark black script across Justin’s forearm. When he was mad at me, he would cross his arms, the tattoo facing me, as if to remind me of the limits of my authority..
When Justin was out of class for a few days in a row that February, I didn’t think anything of it at first. Kids missed school for extended periods all the time. Maybe the water was turned off at home and their mothers didn’t want them coming to school smelling bad. Or maybe their primary caretaker had been locked up and there was no one to take them to school. So I’d usually wait a week or so before stopping by the office to double check if a student was still on my roster.
When I had asked about Justin, the school secretary Miss Albert seemed annoyed.
“His mother was up here last week,” she said. “Didn’t nobody tell you?”
Isn’t that your job? I wanted to say. But making copies was also one of her jobs and since I never brought her lunch from McDonald’s like so many other teachers, I was having a hard enough time already getting my dittos done in a timely fashion.
I bit my tongue. “What school is he at now?”
“He’s at Gilmore,” she said. “That’s good. My niece go there. The children ain’t off the chain like they is here.”
With Justin gone, my classroom management improved dramatically. Fights still happened, but they became much rarer, maybe three to four a week instead of two to three a day. Basic routines got easier. Taking the class to the bathroom, which had taken at least thirty minutes before, now took less than ten. The chaos leveled off. My lessons went smoother. You could tell that learning was happening.
I began to suspect that I was getting the hang of things. The dread I had always felt walking into school each day dissipated. The difference was most noticeable during math lessons. I stalked the room with purpose, laser pointer in hand like I was giving a TED talk on fractions. Maybe this was the second-year bump everyone talked about. I even had thoughts about staying in teaching.
Then, one day, as I walked into the main office, I saw Justin standing next to his mother, as she signed some paperwork.
“Hi, Mr. Evans,” he said, cheerfully.
“Hi Justin,” I said, trying to play it straight. “What brings you here?”
“We moved again,” he said. He looked up at his mother, who ignored us. “I’m coming back to Richmond.”
“Well that’s great news,” I said. “I’m happy to have you back.”
Justin was back in class the next day. He was oddly well-behaved in the morning, like he was trying to figure out whether the rules of engagement had changed in his absence. That afternoon, I caught him throwing a crayon across the room. When I moved his name down to yellow from green, he kicked his desk into the back of the smaller boy sitting in front of him. The boy turned and shouted at Justin, who stood up and stepped towards him.
“What you gonna about it, huh?” The boy turned back around, lips pursed and water-eyed. “That’s what I thought.”
After this, I moved Justin to red. I couldn’t have other students thinking that kicking desks into their classmates wasn’t a “red” level offense. Justin left to run the halls after that, ripping some posters off the wall on the way out.
Justin’s absence was a striking testament to the outsized effect one student can have on the behavior of others. His return had an even larger effect than his absence. Students who had never had behavioral problems began acting out. Destiny was a bright and cheerful girl from a very religious household. Her greatest offense up to that point was humming gospel songs too loud during lessons. If I asked her to pick up a pencil, she’d say “Yes, Mr. Evans” and smile. A month after Justin’s return, when I yelled at her for interrupting a lesson, she yelled back, “Who you talking to white boy?!”
About a month after Justin came back, the administration put me on my second Professional Improvement Plan, or PIP, in two years. Ostensibly, a PIP was meant to provide support for struggling teachers. But really it was a device for creating a paper trail that officially absolved the administration of any responsibility for poor outcomes that might follow.. If anything truly awful happened, or if someone higher up the chain in the district stopped by on a school visit to witness scenes of chaos, the PIP would serve as evidence that the administration had done their due diligence. Mrs. Washington had put me on a PIP in Spring of my first year, after visiting my classroom for only the second time that year. She sat me down in her office, shaking her head and sucking her teeth as she expressed her shock at the state of my classroom. She was gone the next year.
I don’t remember the details of my first PIP. But for my second PIP, the new administration had me watch 5-hours of classroom management lectures on DVD. For each hour-long session, I had to sign a piece of paper confirming that I had watched it and then fill out an online questionnaire. No one from the administration ever mentioned the lectures afterwards.
When those two years were finally over, when my system finally had a chance to gear down, a depression like none I’ve ever experienced fell over me. I lost 30 pounds in 2 months. For the first and only time in my life, I had suicidal thoughts. And like many ex-teachers, I had nightmares about the classroom. Occasionally I still do.
I was broke too, which was embarrassing since I was making more money a year than I ever have since. This isn’t saying much, but a single man on that salary living in a city as cheap as Baltimore should have something left over. I knew people in TFA who had saved up for law school or funded month-long trips to Europe with their excess funds. When I dismissed my students for the last time, I had about $200 to my name and had to get a job at a restaurant immediately.
One reason for my penury was that I had spent many thousands of dollars on school supplies, especially on copies at FedEx, where I’d stop at least twice a week on the way to school. To get copies at Richmond, you had to submit the worksheets 3 days in advance. But I was never that far ahead in my planning. The insanity of a first-year teacher paying for their own copies was not lost on me, but I never thought twice about the money. Facing a day not armed with worksheets and crayons to keep the students busy was simply out of the question.
Of course it wasn’t only the school supplies that ran me dry. In Philadelphia, the TFA trainers had urged us to create a list of “non-negotiable” activities and pleasures to help us keep our sanity. Their list of suggestions included things like running, cooking, making crafts, or weekday movie nights. My non-negotiables were food and booze – lots of both. I was in a group of about 20-25 TFA members who operated like a co-ed fraternity. Somehow we managed to stay mostly sober during the weeks, but when 3:30 pm Friday came around, the party began and didn’t stop until Sunday afternoon. We’d laugh about how we drank even more than in college. We knew we were coping.
My mother came to Baltimore to visit my classroom in the Spring of my second year. The kids were abnormally well behaved whenever there was a stranger in the classroom, and this was no exception. Before she left Baltimore, she told me how proud she was of me to be doing something so important and hard. I was angry. How could anyone be proud of this? The last thing I deserved was pride.
My mother took pictures of my students and gave me a photo album of all of them for Christmas. They looked so happy, as people often do in pictures. I still have the album, but keep it in a box under the bed. One of the more common questions I get about being in TFA is whether I wonder about what’s become of my students. The answer is I try not to.
A few years ago, someone texted me a news story from the Baltimore Sun about a 17-year-old boy who had shot two people to death as they sat in their car. It was revenge for a robbery. At the top of the page, staring back at me, was Justin’s mugshot. He looked the same.