The fact is, being a teacher is the same as accepting the necessity of failure. Yes, I know it is a sort of metaphorical nightmare to say that, and I don’t mean that I am planning to give F’s to kids. I would prefer never to fail a kid, because it means I failed the kid. Failure is, however, the ruling factor in teaching.
In my teaching Paffooney which I call “Reluctant Rabbit Teaches a Few Good Notes”, you see me as a teacher with my pack of very diverse and desk-hopping students doing what I do best. I teach reading by making them read, reading with them and to them, helping them to ask questions about what they read and never answering those questions for them (after all, they learn better if they do the work rather than having me do the work for them). I teach them to write by reading what they write and responding to it, and by writing myself and sharing that with them too. Reluctant Rabbit teaches in these two ways by using his giant magic pencil of cartoons and music to create the Great Symphony of Learning. It turns out that teaching like this is often considered a subversive act.
But teaching is all about failure. In Texas Education, the powers that be have constructed a system of education designed specifically to make teachers fail. It really began with Mark White as Governor and H. Ross Perot as the mad troll of education. Back then they decided to get rid of incompetent and idiot teachers by giving State-wide teacher idiot tests. They gave us basic reading and writing tests to determine if we were worthy to keep our jobs. I remember trying to comfort a very wonderful Hispanic Science teacher who was worried that her language skills would take away the job she loved. But what they didn’t realize about teaching is that if a teacher is not basically competent, then the students will eat them. Teaching in the classroom will remove the incompetent teacher (though not necessarily the ineffective one).
When George Bush and then Emperor-for-Life Rick Perry took over the drive to make teachers fail, they added the notion that you had to give students idiot tests and punish their teachers for the fact that students are naturally immature and basically idiots. Teaching became less about learning stuff and more about idiot-transformation. Stamp out idiocy by teaching them how to pass the idiot tests.
When we reached the point we were about to master the TAAS test (Texas Assessment of Donkey-hole Students), the State decided they had to change to the TAKS test (Texas Assessment of Kooky Stuff). We closed in on mastering TAKS, and the State quickly switched to End-Of-Course STAAR Tests (Stupid Teachers Aren’t About to Rejoice). What has been the point of all this testing? It is like trying to measure your child’s growth with a ruler that is constantly getting bigger. No matter how much progress you make, it will look like the child is shrinking. This, of course, is exactly the goal of this red State’s education system. Public schools have to fail so the Republican masters of profit can privatize and make schools run for profit (except for poor people’s schools which are intended to properly prepare poor people for prison).
It breaks my heart, but schools are increasingly places for boosting the rich and busting the poor. Schools that have high poverty populations, like the schools I have worked for, are left to struggle and die on their own, grinding up young and idealistic teachers as well as old and cancerously cynical teachers that don’t believe in following the rules. My State is not the only State trying to do away with a free and valuable public education.
Consider the case of Ruben, one of my students I once tried to help and simply couldn’t save. Ruben was a skinny Hispanic fourteen-year-old who wasn’t living with his parents. He bounced from grandparents to aunts to uncles and back again. He was extremely bright and fiercely independent. But he wouldn’t do schoolwork and didn’t seem to care if he was dooming himself to a lifetime in the seventh grade.
A boy from a better household, a more privileged boy, began picking on Ruben. I caught Victor pushing Ruben around and trying to goad him into a fight, a fight he knew he could win because he was bigger, heavier, and training to be a Gold Gloves boxer.
“What can I do to help, Ruben?” I asked.
“No stupid gringo can do anything to help. I can fight my own battles.”
He had a point. I could stop the behavior from happening in school, but once he left campus, I had no authority and the police didn’t figure it was a police matter. So, what would the outcome be?
Ruben took care of the problem by joining a gang. The Town Freaks in San Antonio was actually a local chapter of the Bloods from Los Angeles. They would go on to become the San Antonio Kingz. When Ruben was being initiated into the gang, they stole a pickup truck in South San Antonio. They got into a car chase with the police. The truck rolled over under an overpass and everyone in the back of the truck was killed. Ruben was one of those.
It still makes me weep to write about it, or even think about it. If I had had any resources at all to help that boy… If I could have … Why did I have to fail? But blaming myself never gives me any comfort. I learned to do whatever I could to help kids stay away from gangs, to learn in ways that were painless, and be able to talk to an adult instead of trying to handle everything themselves. I mentored a number of fatherless boys, or boys who had alcoholic fathers and mothers, poor kids who had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. We played computer games and Dungeons and Dragons, replaced by a science fiction role playing game when the Baptists objected to the original game. I was even accused and investigated as a possible child molester because so many boys visited my apartment before I got married. Of course, the authorities found out the truth (some of them knew before I was accused) and were a little bit embarrassed to be asking me such questions when so many people were willing to come to my defense. I learned to dream the impossible dream. You can actually save a kid from poverty and self-doubt. One of my boys went to Notre Dame University. Another went into the Marines and specialized in intelligence. I recently learned that a couple of my former students have become teachers for the same school I labored at for over twenty-three years .
Okay, Mr. Rabbit, you have tooted your own horn, now. Are you going to tell us that teachers don’t ultimately fail?
Sorry, I’m afraid that they do. I am facing the end of my teaching career now. With diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, and three more incurable diseases, I am trying to teach with diminishing energy, making a forty-five minute commute to my school across north Dallas twice every day that is going to kill me, and skills that are becoming somewhat shaky in the face of stress at work. I am human. I will not last much longer. The State is busy trying to reduce the retirement that after thirty-one years I think I deserve. It isn’t enough money to keep my family going as it is.
And part of that failure is not entirely bad. A new generation is bound to take over and carry on. As I diminish, someone will rise up to take up the torch. In fact, I need to vacate my position so someone who needs a classroom to start their career can begin to learn how to reach out to the Rubens they will encounter. So, I apologize for promising humor and then trying to make you cry. I probably only succeeded in bringing myself to tears. Teachers ultimately fail just as all men eventually die, but the War on Ignorance is not yet over, and we will never have to admit defeat.