Read an Excerpt
A Life Among Schoolchildren
I was very happy that you wrote to me and I apologize for taking two weeks to reply. I was visiting schools in other cities in the first part of the month and I didn’t have a chance to read your letter carefully until tonight.
The answer to your question is that I would love to come and visit in your classroom and I’m glad that you invited me. I’d also like to reassure you that you didn’t need to worry that I’d think your letter was presumptuous. I like to hear from teachers and, as you have probably suspected, I feel very close to quite a few of them, especially the ones who work with little children in the elementary grades, because those are the grades I used to teach. I think that teaching is a beautiful profession and that teachers of young children do one of the best things that there is to do in life: bring joy and beauty, mystery and mischievous delight into the hearts of little people in their years of greatest curiosity.
Sometimes when I’m visiting a school, a teacher whom I may have met once when she was in college, or with whom I may have corresponded briefly, or a teacher whom I’ve never met but who’s read one of my books and feels as if she knows me, sees me standing in the corridor and comes right up and tells me, “Come and visit in my classroom!” Sometimes she doesn’t give me any choice. She simply grabs me by the arm and brings me to the classroom. Then, when I get there, typically she puts me on the spot and asks if I would like to teach a lesson or ask questions to her children.
I love it when teachers let me do this, but I almost always do it wrong at first, because it’s been a long time since I was a teacher, and I often ask the kind of question that gets everybody jumping from their seats and speaking out at the same time. Six-year-olds, when they become excited, as you put it in your letter, have “only a theoretical connection with their chairs.” They do the most remarkable gymnastics to be sure you see them. A little girl sitting right in front of me will wave her fingers in my face, climbing halfway out of her chair, as if she’s going to poke me in the eyes if I won’t call on her, and making the most heartrending sounds—“Ooooh! Ooooh! Ooooh! Ooooh!”—in case I still don’t notice that she’s there. Then, when I finally call on her, more often than not she forgets the question that I asked, looks up at me in sweet bewilderment, and asks me, “What?” It turns out she didn’t have a thing to say. She just wanted me to recognize that she was there.
The teacher usually has to bail me out. She folds her arms and gives the class one of those looks that certain teachers do so well, and suddenly decorum is restored.
It’s a humbling experience, but I think that it’s a good one too, for someone who writes books on education to come back into the classroom and stand up there as the teacher does day after day and be reminded in this way of what it’s like to do the real work of a teacher. I sometimes think that every education writer, every would-be education expert, and every politician who pontificates, as many do so condescendingly, about the “failings” of the teachers in the front lines of our nation’s public schools ought to be obliged to come into a classroom once a year and teach the class, not just for an hour with the TV cameras watching but for an entire day, and find out what it’s like. It might at least impart some moderation to the disrespectful tone with which so many politicians speak of teachers.
In my writings through the course of nearly 40 years, I have always tried to bring the mighty and ferocious educational debates that dominate the pages of the press and academic publications, in which the voices of our teachers are too seldom heard, back from the distant kingdom of intimidation and abstraction—lists of “mandates,” “sanctions,” and “incentives” and “performance standards” and the rest —into the smaller, more specific world of colored crayons, chalk erasers, pencil sharpeners, and tiny quarrels, sometimes tears and sometimes uncontrollably contagious jubilation of which daily life for a real teacher and her students is, in fact, composed.
I’m often disappointed, when I visit some of the allegedly sophisticated schools of education, to recognize how very little of the magic and the incandescent chemistry that forms between a truly gifted teacher and her children is conveyed to those who are about to come into our classrooms. Many of these schools of education have been taken over, to a troubling degree, by people who have little knowledge of the classroom but are the technicians of a dry and mechanistic, often business-driven version of “proficiency and productivity.” State accountability requirements, correlated closely with the needs and wishes of the corporate community, increasingly control the ethos and the aims of education that are offered to the students at some of these schools.
But teachers, and especially the teachers of young children, are not servants of the global corporations or drill sergeants for the state and should never be compelled to view themselves that way. I think they have a higher destiny than that. The best of teachers are not merely the technicians of proficiency; they are also ministers of innocence, practitioners of tender expectations. They stalwartly refuse to see their pupils as so many future economic units for a corporate society, little pint-sized deficits or assets for America’s economy, into whom they are expected to pump “added value,” as the pundits of the education policy arena now declaim. Teachers like these believe that every child who has been entrusted to their care comes into their classroom with inherent value to begin with.
Many of the productivity and numbers specialists who have rigidified and codified school policy in recent years do not seem to recognize much preexisting value in the young mentalities of children and, in particular, in children of the poor. Few of these people seem to be acquainted closely with the lives of children and, to be as blunt as possible about this, many would be dreadful teachers because, in my own experience at least, they tend to be rather grim-natured people who do not have lovable or interesting personalities and, frankly, would not be much fun for kids to be with.
A bullying tone often creeps into their way of speaking. A cocksure overconfidence, what Erik Erikson described as “a destructive conscientiousness,” is not unfamiliar too. The longer they remain within their institutes of policy or their positions in the government, the less they seem to have a vivid memory of children’s minuscule realities, their squirmy bodies and their vulnerable temperaments, their broken pencil points, their upturned faces when the teacher comes and leans down by their desk to see why they are crying.
I suspect that you and I will come back to this matter many times. For now I simply want to say I’m very, very glad you’re teaching here in Boston, because that means that I can visit sometimes in your class without needing to make plans long in advance. Thank you for saying it’s okay if I stop by one day without much prior warning, which makes things a whole lot easier for me. As you know, you’re teaching in the neighborhood where I began to teach, so I definitely will not need to ask you for directions!
I promise to visit as soon as I can. Meanwhile, I hope the next few weeks are not too intimidating for you. You said you like your principal and that she’s been kind to you. That’s one big victory to start with. I’m sure there will be many more during the weeks ahead. In spite of the butterflies you said are making “many, many loop-the- loops” within your stomach almost every morning as you head for school, try hard to enjoy this first month with your children if you can.
It will someday be a precious memory.
Establishing the Chemistry:First Days in the Classroom
You asked me how I felt the first day I ever taught in a public school.
The truthful answer is that I was terrified, even more than you were, I suspect, because I’d had no preparation as a teacher. I had gone to Harvard College, where I was a literature major, then had studied briefly as a Rhodes Scholar in England and had lived in Paris, where I’d studied writing in the company of older writers who were living there.
When I came back to the United States in 1964 and decided I would like to teach in public school, I knew nothing about teaching and had never had a class in education. But my lack of qualifications didn’t seem to matter to officials in the Boston Public Schools, who were so desperate to hire almost anyone who would agree to teach in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods that my application was approved without much questioning.
I found myself, within three weeks, assigned to teach a fourth grade class in Roxbury, the section of the city where the black community of Boston was confined to live, a pattern of confinement, as you’ve noted, that exists unaltered to the present day.
My school was in a ghostly looking, badly overcrowded and physically decrepit building where my students couldn’t even be provided with a classroom of their own. We had to share an undivided auditorium with 35 other children in another fourth grade class, and with a choral group, and sewing class (fifth grade girls, all black, were taken out of academic classes for an hour every day to learn to sew on old machines like those my grandmothers had used), and with a group rehearsing almost all fall for a Christmas play that somehow never was produced.
One windy afternoon that fall, a rotted frame of windows in our make- shift class collapsed. I was standing close enough to catch the frame before the glass could shatter on the children sitting just beneath it.
Some of the children seemed to have accepted these conditions or, at least, did not appear to feel they had the right to question them. Others did not suffer these indignities so passively but seemed to simmer with hostility toward many of the teachers and the principal. When the anger of these kids erupted, they were taken to the basement of the school, where whippings were administered by an older teacher who employed a rattan whip which he first dipped in vinegar in order to intensify the pain that it inflicted on a child’s outstretched hands. The year before, one of the students in my class landed in the hospital after one of several whippings he’d received. His right forefinger had been permanently distorted as a consequence.
In the spring, the principal assigned me to another fourth grade class that had a classroom of its own but was in an even worse condition than the class in which I had begun, because the children in that room had had a string of substitute teachers almost the whole year. In the course of the preceding months, twelve different teachers had appeared and disappeared.
One of the most unhappy of these teachers, an emotionally unstable person who had no experience in teaching and an oddly frenzied look in his eyes, seemed to be a kindly man, but he could not control the pent-up anger of the children. One very cold day he made the bad mistake of stepping outside on the platform of the fire escape to clap the chalk erasers. One of the children slammed the door shut while he was outside. He banged on the door and shouted warnings at the children, but they wouldn’t let him in. A teacher, alerted by the noise, who came into the room at last, said that he was red in the face and stamping his feet—“like Rumpelstiltskin!” in her words—until she opened the door to rescue him.
That was his last day at the school. Seven additional substitute teachers came and went during the next ten days. At that point, the principal told me this would be my class for the remainder of the year.
As you can imagine, I began my first day with those children with the deepest trepidation. I knew how angry and distrustful they’d become— rightfully so, in view of all the damage that the school had done to them by now. But I also knew it was essential for me to suppress the self-doubts I was feeling and do something, anything I could contrive, to give the kids the confidence that a new beginning had been made.
It wasn’t easy at the start. I literally had to shout the children down during the first few days in order to be heard. I think they were shocked by this, because I’d worked with some of them in small groups earlier that year, and they’d never heard me raise my voice like that before.
Once the class calmed down a bit, I sat on my desk and made a promise to the children: I told them that they would not be abandoned. I told them I was there to stay. I don’t know why it is that they believed me. They had no reason to accept such promises from yet another teacher. I do know that, from that point on, I did my damnedest to exploit every bit of personal theatricality I had at my disposal in order to infuse that room with energy and, as best I could, with the exhilaration that might bring some smiles to the very sullen faces that had come to be their adaptation to conditions that most children, rich or poor, in any school or district would have found unbearable.
Francesca, I don’t want you to imagine that I was immediately successful. There are too many stories about “super-teachers” who walk into hopeless situations and work instant miracles. Those stories make good movies but don’t often happen in real life; and I know that, in my own case anyway, I did not work any miracles that spring. Some of the kids remained resistant to me for a long, long time, and there were two or three who never really opened up to me until the last weeks of the year. But I did discover—and I still don’t understand the chemistry that made this happen—that most of the children seemed to trust me, and one reason for this, I believe, is that they could see that I did not condemn them for the chaos and confusion they’d been through, because I told them flatly that they had been treated in a way that I thought unforgivable.