A few months ago, I decided to change careers, for various reasons that I'll go into another time. This is my last year as a teacher. During my trip to Seattle, I had a chance to think hard about my decision and discuss it with one of my oldest, closest friends, and I'm satisfied I'm making the right decision.
In a little over 16 years teaching in various capacities and settings, I've had a lot of experiences, both good and bad, and had a lot of interesting kids as students. I've decided to tell about them over time in a series.
I started as a substitute teacher in the Chicago Public School system in Janurary of 1991. I'd been working before as a law clerk, waiter, and more recently, a construction worker. Since there was a recession around that time, the waiter and construction work dried up. I had found out that you could work as a sub if you had a bachelor's degree in anything. I qualified.
I'd started classes toward my teaching certification the summer of 1989, but had run out of money. I figured that not only would I be able to make a living working as a sub, but I'd get to know some principals who might want to hire me when I got my certification (which I did in 1998).
The first school I got sent to, my first day subbing, was Ravenswood Elementary, the school pictured at the top of the post. I remember walking into a nuthouse-- children running through the halls, lots of noise and a generally chaotic atmosphere. The school was clearly out of control. Later, I found out that the principal eventually had a nervous breakdown.
I frequently got sent to schools in Cabrini-Green, the notorious housing projects. Those were not fun days. On top of it, I was still in my party days, so there was often a hangover complicating matters.
One day I got sent to Andersen Elementary, in the West Town neighborhood (near Wicker Park). When they found out that I spoke passable Spanish, they were thrilled-- their student body was largely latino. They began calling sub center to request me, which was great-- every day I went there was a day I didn't get sent to Cabrini.
One day, they approached me and asked me if I'd be interested in a long-term assignment-- covering a maternity leave for the last 5 or 6 weeks of the school year. I was. For about a week, I worked with two teachers who were team-teaching a "reading recovery" program. One of them was young, latina and very pregnant. The other teacher, whom I was going to be working with when the other teacher left was a grizzled, old white veteran of the system. I was going to handle the day to day running of the classroom while she worked individually with kids in another room.
The first odd thing, to me, was that she was adamant that the kids were not allowed to go into the very nicely stocked classroom library. I found that odd-- that a bunch of kids who were struggling with reading were not allowed access to books.
The other thing that was odd was the presence of David O. David stood out from the other kids for a couple of reasons. First, with the exception of one Ukranian girl, David was the only non-latino kid in the class. He was black.
The other reason David stood out was that, unlike the other kids, he could read. In fact, he read very well.
David was probably one of the best-reading first-graders I'd seen in my time as a sub. He was polite, likable and well-behaved, but clearly bored with the assignments we had, which were ridiculously easy for him. I made the command decision to ignore the other teacher's instructions and let David spend most of his day reading in the off-limits classroom library. I put a chair where he could sit and read serrepticiously-- the other teacher couldn't see him as she popped in and out of the room all day.
One day, David showed up to school with a handful of rocks he'd picked up as he walked to school that morning with his older brother. I spent a couple of minutes talking to him about the rocks, pointing out one that I was pretty certain was volcanic-- formed by a volcano, as I explained to David. I told him that the study of rocks was called "Geology" and that I was pretty certain that there was a book on Geology back in the library.
The day started up, and we went through our routines. David walked up to me, clutching the Geology book I'd told him about. He said "Mr. Yen, I think that is an igneeus rock. It says here that rocks made in a volcano are igneeus rocks." (he was accenting the middle syllable of the word "igneous"). In astonishment, I told him that he was correct, and I told him the correct pronunciation of the word (first syllable emphasized). He went back to the library to continue reading about Geology.
Let me remind you that this was a supposedly non-reading first grader.
I was left to ponder again why in the hell was he in that classroom?
I got my answer a few weeks later.
It was nearly the end of the schoolyear. The rosters for next year's classes came out. A first-grade teacher whose classroom was across the hall from the one I worked in was looking at her roster as I stood nearby. "Good," she blurted out. "David O. ain't in my class next year." I questioned her-- "I've got David this year. He's wonderful. Why wouldn't you want him in your class."
"That damned kid don't do nothing but read. Every time you turn around, he's reading!"
I was stunned speechless. What an awful, stupid thing to say. And to make matters worse, she was black, like David.
It dawned on me that he must have been in her first-grade classroom at the beginning of the year; she'd dumped him into the reading recovery classroom to get rid of him. She was being reassigned to second grade and was glad she wasn't getting him again.
If I'd had my wits about me, I'd have come up with the perfect riposte: "Yeah, it'd be much better if he's doing something productive, like gangbanging."
At that moment, though, I thought, "Yeah, thank god David's not in your class next year."
That was about 15 years ago. I have worked in the Chicago Public School system at times in my teaching career and have seen incompetent teachers like her continue to teach. And at times I've seen hard-working, excellent teachers worn down by idiot administrators.
David is now a young man somewhere, and I think of him once in a while, and wonder how he has fared in life. I certainly hope that the teacher who disparaged him has retired, and isn't around any more to discourage intelligent kids. And there's a hope inside of me that David is in college, perhaps studying to be a scientist. Who knows-- maybe even a Geologist.