Memory #8: The Dust Bowl

Listening to C________ read to me about global warming from her 8th grade project, an idiotic idea dreamed up by our administration as a pathetic attempt at academic rigor. All 8th graders were expected to write a 5-page paper on a topic chosen from an arbitrary, randomly-selected list, while also preparing a 10-min presentation with either a trifold or a PowerPoint presentation. Failure to complete said tasks would supposedly result in being detained in 8th grade–a laughably idle threat. That many of our students could barely speak English, navigate a computer program, or write a grammatically-correct sentence, never seemed to cross our administration’s mind.

The onus of seeing our students through the projects invariably fell upon us, their classroom teachers, who were already busy teaching our own subjects. And so the help we gave our students really only extended to those who possessed the motivation, discipline, and initiative to ask for help after school or during lunch or in homeroom. I had spent 2 hours after school teaching C________ , T_____, and J___ to create PowerPoint presentations. They were some of the only students from their class to bother to finish the project, and some of the only students in the school to bother trying most days of the year. I snuck pizza into the computer lab. It was my pitiful attempt at matching the image of the caring, selfless urban schoolteacher that so many of us had hoped to embody when we embarked on our journey two years ago.

I had never quite reached that goal, never had a moment in class when my students were all joyfully engaged in learning, never had students hug me and thank me and call me their favorite teacher. As a social studies teacher I had failed. I didn’t want them to memorize endless dates and names and create giant elaborate projects and papers and partake in carefully orchestrated mock trials and debates (not that I hadn’t attempted to do all those things). All I had wanted for my students was for them to sit up and take interest in the world around them, to become enraged with the direction in which our country was heading, to become young voices for their community. To make connections between then and now. To become as fascinated with humanity, its endless circular themes and little dramas being enacted and mirrored on bigger and bigger scales like the rings on an ancient oak tree. To wake up and realize that even the paltry freedoms they enjoyed as Americans were based on such a tenuous, fragile framework. But instead I floundered when it came to such simple tasks as getting my students to take enough interest in my class to even memorize state names. I was dogged by the scarlet letter of the Unsuccessful Teacher, convinced my more felicitous colleagues mocked me behind my back, dejected when I thought about all the people I was disappointing back home and humiliated when I thought about all the people I was proving right back home, and panicked when I thought about the hundreds of students whose futures were in my inept hands. The sting of shame ate at my heart relentlessly day after day.

“Miss, you look tired,” C________ said hesitantly when she caught me with my head drooping. It was hard to remember a time when I wasn’t always so tired.

In the May afternoon torpor of my stuffy classroom, C________ reads to me from her paper in a voice like cats gently pawing across a kitchen floor. She wants to be a scientist or a doctor. In careful, heavily accented English she tells me about places she has never seen in her life and may likely never see: icecaps melting and polar bears drowning, noxious fumes and disappeared ecosystems, sunken states and searing deserts. At the mention of the latter, she looks up from reading her paper. “Miss, that’s going to be just like the Dust Bowl!” she says in muted horror, eyebrows raised disapprovingly.

A brief thrill flutters in my heart and I am stunned. “That’s right!” And C________ continues reading.

My nose is stinging and I blink my eyes several times. I bend down and pretend to adjust something on my shoe so C________ can’t see me. How could I ever explain the effect her comment had just had on me? In a split second everything from the past two years flickered by in my head like flashing lights in a subway tunnel: the wonderful ideas that never went into action; the nights of two, three, four hours of sleep; the mute shock of Sunday evenings spent in denial on the couch; the failed relationships that had taken a backseat to teaching; the lost 15 pounds from hardly eating for two months; the hurtful graffiti; the profanities; the complaints; the gifts; the tears.

When I sit back up, C________ is reading the concluding paragraph of her middle school opus. And all of a sudden, I feel very tired.


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