Here’s a story from my earliest days of teaching the Cartooning Class.
Sometimes there are bad days.
It happens. Some days the kids just aren’t interested. Some days the school isn’t backing me up the way they should. And honestly, sometimes I’m just a bad teacher.
But for the most part I’m lucky. The cartooning classes I teach are, after all, in a subject that almost every kid in the world has at least a passing interest in; and the school bills me as “a REAL working cartoonist,” which gives me an extra celebrity edge that I abuse relentlessly, even though the truth of the matter is that I am only an occasional advertising and illustration artist. All this means that I have a far easier time of it than your average public school teacher. Yet even I have days that are so frustrating I want to go home and bang my head against the wall and scream, “Why the hell do I even bother?”
Part of the problem is the public school system itself. The system is geared not to teach kids, but to, well, store them. Average class size in the middle schools where I teach is somewhere between twenty-five and thirty kids. In addition to that, there’s no way to sift out the smart kids from the slow ones, which means if you try to go too fast, you lose the ones that can’t keep up, and if you go too slow, you lose the ones that already get it and want to move on. Trying to really teach anything in those circumstances is almost impossible. So what ends up happening is you play to tie rather than to win, you settle for not actually losing ground with kids rather than trying to gain any. You resign yourself to the fact that your classroom is largely a holding tank, a glorified day care for working parents, and you treat the actual act of teaching as being the equivalent of putting a note in a bottle and tossing it in the ocean.
And in recent years we have seen the effects of things like video games and television on young people’s attention spans. There is simply no getting around it any more; despite all the apologists’ angry protests to the contrary (and I love cheesy TV shows as much as the next guy, so don’t yell at me about this) but facts are facts. The ugly truth is that a modern schoolchild’s attention span is geared towards the two-minute music video. If you want to capture their interest you had damned well better be AT LEAST as interesting as the flash-bang-noise of the media monster that is relentlessly bombarding them all the time outside of the classroom. When I start my classes each quarter I have roughly ten minutes, that first day, to get the kids on my side. After that, well, forget it, game over. Ten minutes is my window.
In a weird way, it’s almost like being a stand-up comic, or even a stage magician. The skills are roughly the same, working a room, keeping their attention, getting them to fall into your rhythm and timing the same as any other audience. You have to have a sense of showmanship.
A lot of teachers can’t or won’t acknowledge that. Which brings us to problem number three – the teachers themselves. The public school system, in many ways, is harder on them than it is on the students. It used to be expected that a teacher was working in collaboration with parents, but in recent years parents simply aren’t available. Many are divorced, many more are simply working long hours, and there are quite a few who should have never been parents in the first place. Teachers are required to pick up the slack for all of these. . . and we handicap those teachers by overloading them, paying them less than your average cocktail waitress, and then blaming them when kids turn out to be ignorant sociopaths.
So you get burnout. The bad ones stay, protected by the union, just marking time. The good ones leave, for the most part. They go into other fields, or they transfer to private schools with smaller classes and bigger budgets.
But some of the good ones stay. They do it for the corniest reason of all – idealism. They never admit it, not even to each other, but they believe in the job and the kids and the nobility of the profession. You’d never know it to hear them talk – in the teacher’s lounge, or after hours, they will shrug and sneer and grouch off about the workload and the damn kids and that stupid son-of-a-bitch of a vice-principal, but they are the ones that, more than anyone else, are shouldering the burden of making sure that every kid there has a shot at some kind of a future.
So when I’m having a bad day, those are the ones I seek out.
It had been the worst day I’d ever had teaching in the last five years, and it was only my second day at Madison Middle School. I was tired and hoarse and cranky and I had a headache that could stop a train.
And to think I’d thought that the job had sounded like FUN when they offered it. Come teach the cartooning class you do at the art studio as part of the after-school program, they’d said. Eighteen bucks an hour, ten hours a week, we’ll buy all the supplies. It had sounded like easy money – after all, I’d been teaching this same class at the Alki Art Studio for four years now, and a semester at Gatzert Elementary before that; how hard could it be?
But in my easy confidence I’d overlooked two things – at the art studio, I had the luxury of working with kids who wanted to be there so bad they’d had to persuade their parents to spend cold hard cash to put them there; and, more importantly, I had vastly underestimated the difference between working with elementary-school kids and middle-school kids.
At Madison I was dealing with teenagers, not little kids. All the tricks and gimmicks I had evolved to grab and hold the interest of my younger students were useless – worse, they were corny. I’d realized, sickly, that I was going to have to learn a whole new way of doing my job, and I had no grace period to do it in. These kids had put me on trial for my life within thirty seconds of my walking into the classroom, and I was failing the test miserably. After just two days I was grimly sure that the only words I’d be uttering to my students for the rest of the semester would be SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN!…and the hell of it was, I couldn’t even get them to do that.
This afternoon the day had culminated with one kid kicking a desk over, another one telling me that his parents were going to sue me, and – this was the worst – four more tormenting a little girl so relentlessly over her artwork that she had burst out crying and thrown her drawings in the garbage. That last one had hurt the most, it was too painfully close to what I’d endured from other kids at that age…and I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t been able to stop it until it was too late and Kamaria was in tears. What the hell kind of teacher was I to let that happen?
I’d been sitting at the front of the room, cradling my head in my hands, still cursing myself over that when Veronica Egidio returned to the classroom. It was actually her room – she taught in there during the day, and then went out to coach soccer while I borrowed if for my cartooning class. I envied her the luxury of having an activity where kids were SUPPOSED to run around and kick things. Maybe I should ask her to trade.
“Rough day, huh?” Ronnie asked, grinning.
“I suck as a teacher,” I told her, bluntly.
She burst out laughing. “Oh, come on now.”
“If you were that bad you wouldn’t care,” Ronnie pointed out cheerfully. “Trust me. There are teacher here that really suck, and you never see them looking as depressed as you do. They just plain don’t give a damn. You’ve met Mr. Aziz, haven’t you?”
I had to smile at that. I had, indeed, met Mr. Aziz.
“Tell me,” Ronnie went on. “What happened, anyway?”
So I told her. “It’s not the kids, not exactly,” I finished. “They’re mostly just being kids. I think it’s me. I’m just… I wasn’t READY for this. I got spoiled at the studio. The most I ever had at the beach studio was eight kids, I think. I’ve got THIRTY-TWO up here and every day it’s all about riot control, they’re kicking my ass. I’ve got about six in there that are tearing up the place so bad I end up ignoring the other twenty-plus that really WANT to be there.”
Ronnie leaned back and grinned at me. “Welcome to public school,” she said, laughing. “Try Special Ed sometime. When I started here it was the only thing open, nobody else wanted it, and after my first week I knew why. I thought I was going to need a taser.”
“I could have used a taser today, that’s for damn sure.” I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Got an aspirin?”
“Are you kidding? I eat ’em like candy.” Ronnie fished a bottle of ibuprofen out of her purse and tossed it to me. I caught it and dry-swallowed two of them.
“Look, you’re taking this way too hard, if you ask me,” she said. “You don’t have to do everything yourself, you know. If they’re really that bad, just kick ’em down the hall to Dr. Moreland. It’s his job, he’s the vice-principal. Let him handle the rough ones.”
“I know.” I sighed. “It’s just… damn it, Ronnie, I don’t want to run my classroom like a Turkish prison. And if I bring Moreland in on it – you know how he looked at me at the orientation meeting, he thinks the whole art-class thing is a farce anyway. He’s already sure I’m some dope-smoking beatnik who’s just in it for the money. If I go crying to him now, after just two days of class, he’s likely to just shut down the whole program.” I scowled. “And anyway…”
“And anyway, you don’t want a bunch of thirteen-year-old kids kicking your ass, do you?” Ronnie smirked.
“Well… that too,” I admitted. “I just… goddammit, I want to be good at this. I know I can do it. I just can’t get control of the room long enough to find a starting place, you know?”
Ronnie considered this. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “You’ve got to pick your fights. Middle-school kids, it’s all about bargaining and negotiating. You let them have one, they’ll let you have one. Give in on something once in a while and you’ll be amazed what you can get back in return.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I can see that – but Jesus, Ronnie, I can’t let them get away with bullying and kicking stuff over.”
“Well, that’s when you send them to Dr. Moreland. But if you’re not going to do that –” Ronnie thought a minute, then her eyes got a wicked gleam. “Well, then you have to fight dirty.”
Ronnie shrugged. “Well, when all else fails, I scare the hell out of ’em.”
I blinked. She was serious. “You’re not kidding, are you?”
“Hell no I’m not kidding. Look, here’s the thing.” Ronnie jabbed a finger at me for emphasis. “Half the trouble with these latchkey kids is that nobody ever holds them responsible for anything, they’re on their own all the time. You let them know that there’s real consequences if they cross the line and they’ll quit crossing it, believe me.”
“How?” I asked her.
“It’s not so hard.” Ronnie laughed again. “Hell, you have way more advantages than me and I can do it. You’re a guy, you’re six feet tall, you’ve got a deep voice. I bet if you really let yourself get good and mad in there, just once, you could have those little punks peeing in their pants. Quit trying to reason with them and just let ’em HAVE it. Trust me, you’ll feel better for it.” At my expression of horror, she added, “Really. It works. Try it.”
Well, it wasn’t as though I had a better idea.
The following afternoon, I addressed my class. “I want to talk a minute about what went on here yesterday,” I said. “We need to clear up a few things about what goes on in here.” I was talking to the whole class, but my eyes were on Tommy and Adam, in the back of the room. The two of them were the source of most of the trouble I’d had the last couple of days, and today, they were my targets. I went on, “I don’t care if you guys talk and laugh and kid around – as long as you’re working. But one thing that I absolutely will not stand for is making fun of someone else’s work.”
“What if it sucks?” That was Tommy, in the back of the room.
A chorus of giggles erupted.
I picked up a textbook and slammed it down, hard, on the top of the desk. It made a sound like a thunderclap. The kids fell silent, shocked.
“Tommy,” I gritted. “You know what it means when I’m talking?”
“Uh–” Tommy looked a little taken aback.
“It means you keep your GODDAMN MOUTH SHUT!”
Now the silence was palpable. “I’ve taken your crap for the last couple of days, Tommy,” I went on, conversationally. “But you know, I’m about out of patience with you. If you open your mouth again before I give you permission to speak, I will haul your ass down the hall to Dr. Moreland’s office and he will roast it over a slow fire.” I glared at him. I put every ounce of anger and frustration I had been building for the last two days into that glare. If looks could kill it would have reduced him to a smoldering puddle of protoplasm.
It shriveled Tommy into his seat. He hunkered down, waiting in mute terror for my next psychotic act. I had to smother a snicker. Ronnie had been right – not only was it working, but , God help me, it did feel great.
“Okay,” I nodded, satisfied. “As for the question, I don’t care if it sucks. But – and don’t forget this – I decide what sucks and what doesn’t. I’m the professional here. There’s not one of you that can’t stand to improve. The whole point of being here is to get better at this. If I think something sucks, we’ll figure out a way to make it better.” I put a hard, drill sergeant’s edge into my voice. “But YOU are to keep YOUR judgments of other people’s shortcomings to YOURSELVES. Clear?”
There were murmurs of assent. For a moment I had a ridiculous urge to add, I– can’t – HEAR – yooouuuu–!! the way they did it in the Marines, but instead I spread my hands and grinned at them. “Look, you guys, you all volunteered to be here so you could draw stuff, remember? I don’t WANT to be a hardcase. I don’t LIKE yelling. But you have to at least meet me halfway. Talk and laugh all you want, but jeez, draw something too, willya?”
There was a ripple of relieved laughter. I grinned at Tommy, and he stared at me for a moment in disbelief – what, you don’t hate me? – and then, shyly, he smiled back.
And just like that, they were on my side.
It was as though I had flipped a switch. Even Tommy settled down and worked like a demon on his drawing all afternoon.
I wasn’t quite ready to declare victory yet, though. There was one other matter I had to address.
Once they were all settled in, I beckoned Kamaria up to the front of the room. “I think these are yours,” I told her, and handed her the pages I’d fished out of the trash basket yesterday afternoon.
Kamaria scowled. “These are bad,” she said. “ I don’t want to work on them.”
“No,” I said gently. “They’re just not finished. You gave up too soon. Look what happens if you black in the background here, and here – see how that brings out the dinosaur? And here, you want to thicken up this line a little bit…”
Kamaria goggled. “ But you’re a GOOD drawer,” she protested. “I can’t draw like that!”
“Not yet,” I said, smiling. “Don’t be so sure. YOU drew that dinosaur, not me. All I did was ink it in a little bit.”
Kamaria considered it, still looking doubtful.
I went on, “Look, Kamaria, a pencil goes where you push it. The only way you can’t learn to draw better is if you quit. Are you going to quit on me?”
“Huh? No!” Kamaria looked appalled at the suggestion.
“Well, then.” I nodded at the drawing. “I think you should finish this.”
She hovered a moment longer, still wavering, and then nodded briskly once and snatched the drawing, up, returning to her seat with an air of fierce determination.
I stood up and looked out over my group of thirty-two students, some talking and some laughing and some whispering – but all of them drawing. Damn, I thought. I made it. I passed the test. How about that?
As I glanced around the room, Adam caught my eye. He raised his hand. “Hey, mister Greg,” he asked me, “could we turn on some music?” He indicated the portable AM-FM radio on Ronnie’s file cabinet.
“As long as you’re drawing, I don’t care,” I said. Adam got up and headed for the radio. I thought better of it and added, “Anything but rap. No rap.”
“Okay,” Adam said agreeably, and I leaned back and really relaxed, for the first time in a week.
Maybe I didn’t suck as a teacher after all.
I was still grinning when Ronnie arrived from the soccer field. “Better today?” she asked.
“I scared the living daylights out of ’em.” I said with mock viciousness.
“Works every time,” she said smugly.
These are bad days. But the good days more than make up for them. They’re addictive. That’s why we stay.
See you next week.
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