The day I almost got shot–this was just over ten years ago–I was wearing new shoes. Espadrilles, actually. They’d put a serious dent in my April salary, and they were hardly practical, making only a Carrie Bradshaw-on-lithium kind of sense with the dowdy knee-length skirt I often wore to teach in. Braided straw and flowing ankle wraps weren’t exactly common currency in Brownsville, my school’s Brooklyn neighborhood, but they were a pretty reminder of my former life–and of the life I could have in Manhattan, if I weren’t up before dawn every morning Teaching For America.
Don’t worry–I’m not about to launch any ed-reform-related polemics. All available positions in the TFA debate are so polarized, the whole conversation has ceased to make argumentative sense. But I am going to talk about a fact that that stymied conversation rarely, if ever, acknowledges: you can’t talk about class in the U.S. without talking about U.S. classrooms. And vice versa.
It was 2006, one of those crystalline May mornings whipped clean by the previous night’s wind. Even the cracked sidewalks sparkled. I was twenty-three, idealistic, and exhausted. So when I’d gotten to school that morning to find that my friend Delano was out sick, and that I’d have to take one of my precious prep hours to cover his class (we could rarely, if ever, afford to hire substitute teachers), I did what, by that point in the year, I had taught myself to do upon receiving bad news: I closed my eyes, allowed myself one full breath of pure hopelessness and rage, and then opened my eyes again and smiled.
Then I peered into Delano’s classroom. True to form, he’d left a neat stack of lesson plans and handouts on his desk. “It looks like everything’s ready to go,” I said. “I’ll teach from his notes.”
The principal was a tall, striking woman with a formidable temper who, prior to getting her principal’s credential through a fast-track program a few years before, had supposedly been a buyer for Ralph Lauren. She waved an elegant hand. “Nah. Just take them outside.”
Every fiber of my being (“One Day…!”) revolted against this idea. But–I was so tired. “Okay,” I said.
So, come second period, there we were: me, my espadrilles, and twenty-seven or so seventh-graders, enduring an unexpected recess in the high-fenced concrete schoolyard we shared with the two other schools in the building.
It wasn’t that I didn’t see the older kids enter the schoolyard; there was one way in and one way out. They were wearing the after-school version of one of our neighbor schools’ uniforms. We forced our kids into business casual–preppy embroidered maroon polo, pleated khakis, black shoes—but this other, rougher school had gone office-official all the way: white button-ups, dark pants. These kids had on the pants with white T-shirts, and what did I know about their recess habits? Our school wasn’t usually outside at this time.
The kids walked straight past where I sat on a bench to where a group of my students, almost all girls plus one boy, a smart and sweet kid, were jumping double-dutch. Before I could stand up, they’d knocked the rope out of his hand and were on the ground, on top of him. The girls started screaming. I beelined over, and the crowd cleared, migrating in a hysterical swarm toward the far end of the schoolyard. I knelt next to the boy. Blood covered one side of his face, and he was only dubiously conscious. His eyelids fluttered. “Can you hear me?” I asked. “Nod if you can hear me.” He nodded weakly. I glanced up, toward the far end of the schoolyard. Something was still going on, and it did not look good. I motioned to a few hovering students. “I need you to carry him inside, and take him to the nurse’s office,” I said. “Can you do that without hurting him?” They all nodded, their faces very serious. With amazing speed and gentleness, they hoisted their friend and carried him out the gate.
I stood and began to walk toward where my students and (it looked like) four white-shirted kids were roiling around some central action at the far end of the yard. It was impossible to tell what was going on. I had taken only a few steps when, like a flock of maroon and khaki birds, the entire group alighted, turning and fleeing towards me, towards the exit. Some of their arms were outstretched; some were yelling; some were crying. One student, who had hit me in homeroom earlier that year as I tried to break up a fight (and still hadn’t been punished for it), laughed as he ran. I stared at his passing face. Seeing my stunned look, he yelled gleefully, “A gun! He’s got a gun on her!”
What was I, an artsy, awkward kid from the south, doing teaching in Brooklyn? I asked myself that question probably a thousand times over the two years I worked there.
The decision made sense at the time of my college graduation. Like many of my peers, I’d considered on joining the Peace Corps. But it seemed wrong to leave the country. September 11 occurred the second week of my freshman year; the U.S. invaded Iraq when I was a sophomore, and I marched along with several of my distraught humanities professors in poorly attended protests in downtown Dallas, to no avail. I, and many of my friends, felt like our world had turned sideways and wasn’t going to stop turning until everything was upside down. The day after Bush’s reelection, I went to the gynecologist for a birth control prescription. The last thing the world needed, I told the doctor between the stirrups, was more United Statesians.
So, getting out to do international good felt like jumping ship. (Needless to say, the hubris of this sentiment totally escaped me at the time.) Teach For America seemed like a good compromise: hard work for an equally good cause, and in the States. I’d go somewhere new, and earn a salary, too. And the issue of public ed was one I’d been tangling with my entire life. I’d grown up in Florida and Georgia, and before I landed in a good high school, I attended several genuinely terrible schools, places where students were poor and teachers were desperate. We weren’t bad off–my dad managed a grocery store–and I’d been pretty comfortable compared to my classmates. But once I hit that suburban high school, I learned that others had more, a lot more. The lesson continued at the private college I attended on scholarship and loans, where it seemed like the entire student body floated through their educations on a raft made of money. Although I graduated at the top of my class, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and so on, I hadn’t escaped a small but potent dose of inferiority. Besides, my university wasn’t the most academically prestigious, and I still felt I needed some social stamp of approval. Teach For America went a little way toward meeting this need, and I didn’t see this as ethically problematic because I believed–I thought–in its mission. It was a good fit, and I felt good telling people about it. Post-graduate plans, it turned out, were just like clothes; and Teach For America was a good brand.
But as that first year of teaching got underway, I had to ask some tough questions. Who was I to get imported into the city and teach these kids, anyway? Why was my teaching them supposed to have some extra advantage? When I first arrived in New York in 2005, I found myself among all the people I’d always wished I’d been: Ivy Leaguers, international scholars, born diplomats, organizational powerhouses. Bloomberg delivered a special inspirational address in an NYU ballroom, just for us. We danced like maniacs on a harbor cruise. I impressed the insanely wealthy owner of a several-story Park Avenue penthouse with half-drunken wit at his expensively catered fundraiser. I knew the game. I was less traveled, less expensively dressed, without a family summer home, and hadn’t graduated from an Ivy, but I was every bit as sharp and articulate as the rest of them. Or so I told myself.
After the stampede of students pounded past, the morning grew suddenly quiet. Birds sang.
Thirty-five yards of poured concrete separated me from my tall female student, who thrashed in the grasp of two older boys. The larger one held a gun to her temple.
I closed my eyes, breathed, opened them. I like these shoes, I thought, and now I am going to die in them.
I squared my shoulders, lifted my chin, and began to stride slowly, purposefully (I hoped) toward the kids. I kept my eyes on my student and only my student. It was a miracle they hadn’t shot her already; she was screaming about the nastiness and stupidity of the neighborhood, furious they’d beat up her friend. But the boys stood there in a kind of trance, keeping her from running, knowing exactly how they looked and what they had in fact just become–this was, no doubt, a gang initiation–and yet there was an abstracted flat quality to their movements, a shortage of motion and a thick uncertainty, like a long take in a Tarkovsky film.
Those thirty-five yards were the longest I’d walked in my life. Any one step could have erased all the walking I’d done and would ever do, made my whole history into a stupid blip that ended there in that schoolyard, for absolutely no good reason. No reason at all.
I reached the three kids and stood there, gazing evenly at the girl. Deliberately, I caught her forearm, which was wrapped along the outside of her captors’, flailing. I said her name. She kept screaming, then paused. I said her name again, and dug my nails, hard, into her flesh. “Did you hear me?” I asked, loudly. “It’s time for third period.” As if nothing was wrong. The boys glanced at one another. And, miraculously, they let her go. We turned and began to walk toward the gate, me catching her when she tried to break into a run. “No,” I hissed. “We walk.”
And walk we did, our backs burning with imagined fire, until we rounded the corner and ran for the school’s front entrance.
Like most education, but more explicitly, Teach For America is about teaching socioeconomic class. Not that rigorous standards aren’t upheld by TFA teachers (or, as they call themselves, “corps members”); they often are, and there are plenty of stats to prove it. But the tacit gloss on the program’s whole aim is that it teaches kids how to act in accordance with upper-middle or even upper class standards–and to like it. In recent years, the program has tried hard to increase diversity in its ranks; but it loses its viability as a concept if it ceases to appear elite, beneficently upper-crust. The upper classes like education, they like school, they like winning, and they like success. If you have the attitude and the expectations, so went accepted wisdom in the corps, student achievement will follow. Teach them the upper-class code, if you will, and they’ll program themselves into a better life.
Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, isn’t it more expeditious to accept class inequality (and economic and racial injustice) as a fixed and rigid system, the better to help kids navigate it? No use wasting time waiting for the next proletarian revolution, which all evidence suggests is scheduled to occur on the heels of the Second Coming. Real action is practical action, and there are many U.S. kids who deserve a better life today.
But it’s not exactly okay, either. The descriptive term that came to me while I was in the program was “intra-neocolonialism”; I felt the U.S. educational system had much to learn from international history. And then I had questions about what it meant, in the long-term analysis, that TFA partnered with major corporate sponsors. On another level, it made me uncomfortable that our school district maintained some kind of mandated partnership with Kaplan, Inc., whose test prep materials were supposed to help us achieve the score standards laid out by No Child Left Behind.
I did finish my two-year teaching commitment, and the second year went much better than the first. Afterward, however, unlike many of my friends, I didn’t stay in the classroom, get on the administration track, or go to work for TFA staff. Ten years later, I’m still uncomfortable that I came, saw, and fled. I did what I fully recognized it was my privilege to do: packed my stuff, bought some flip-flops, and moved to Southern California to start work on an MFA.
So, if staying was so clearly not an option, what had brought me there in the first place? Certainly, I’d had a desire to do good, to try and help a system whose serious flaws I had already experienced for myself. But that wasn’t all. It was also that seductive whiff of elitism, the feeling of being included in a selective group of “outstanding young graduates,” the corporate-slick logos and slogans that smacked of legitimacy. I was tired of trying all my life to slide onto cultured scenes with my ability or interest in art or music or writing; I wanted to be able to stop trying so hard, stop feeling like a freak or a fake.
In short: I wanted to gain entry into a higher class.
After that school day ended, I sat alone on a desk in my classroom. Through the grimy windows, I could just make out the pale shine of the far-off financial district. The hot odor of jerk spice wafted from the beef patty factory a few blocks over. My head was spinning, not just from the morning’s events, but from the afternoon’s.
The principal had lined up the students in the long hallway that ran the length of our third-floor school. They slumped against the walls, their eyes following her as she strutted up and down the ranks, checking to see that everyone was present. Then she began to talk. She described the sadness of the day’s events, the outrage of violent incidents that had occurred in previous weeks. She became oratorical. I leaned against the painted cinder blocks, listening, watching my class listen. I had talked briefly with the dean, who had chased down the kids. Someone had said the gun was fake. A strange detachment kept me from feeling anything when the principal raised her voice, and not to react when her speech reached its rhetorical climax, describing the assaults by the other schools’ students, the injustice of this, the need for a next step whose exact words seared into my memory: We’ve got to protect our own!
I was too stunned to process the exhortations that followed.
I fully understood that the idea of “rising above,” detaching from violence, was a luxury. But this was too much. I could not condone the sort of campaign the principal was calling for, even if it was a defensive one. I felt helpless, a broken cog on a wheel that seemed to turn more and more sharply toward something sinister.
The afternoon sky slid into a dimmer shade of blue as I picked up pencils, stacked papers, erased the board. What had I done? There was no doubt in my mind that what had happened was at least partly my fault. Those kids had seen the young, clueless teacher outside with her class. They knew things I still don’t know, and all of us were there, more or less, for an initiation.