The SMITH Diaries Project

Growing Pains

Monday, July 17th, 2006

By Jason Thompson

Six black girls dance to a rap track in the middle of the classroom, while three Latino boys fumble with a digital video camera. Another 15 students sit idly around the classroom perimeter, some asleep, others watching a DVD on television, while still others walk aimlessly in and out of the room. While I try to wrangle the students into some kind of order to shoot a documentary on the Bay Area “Hyphy” movement, as we had planned for the last week of term, the school principal telephones me to ask if I have entered my grades into the computer system. My grades are a day late and I am holding up the entire school, he says testily. Before I get a chance to respond I get a call on my cell phone from the passport services agency in Los Angeles I had hired to expedite my British passport application. (Having let my passport expire, and not being organized enough to get my application together with the one month’s notice required by the British Consulate prior to a planned vacation to visit friends and family in Europe at the end of the school year, I had hired an agency that promised — falsely, as it turned out — to expedite the application in a mere five days). “I’m sorry, Mr. Thompson,” says the agency rep, “but our Washington contact went to the Embassy this morning and your passport still isn’t ready. They say we should come back tomorrow.”

I am due to fly to see friends and family in Europe with my wife and three month-old daughter the following evening. My passport will not be ready in time for my vacation. Surveying the chaos of the classroom, gazing at the stack of ungraded papers piled on my desk, thinking of my London friends’ reaction to my passport screwup and my principal’s dismay at my tardy grading, I feel a wave of anxiety and gloom crash over me and sense that I am being dealt a long overdue life lesson about responsibility to myself and others. As I leave teaching — a one-year experiment, following an unsatisfying three-year stint in the nonprofit world — for yet another career, will I ever learn to feel at home in my work, without wanting to run away? Aged 35, a husband and father, nominally in loco parentis for 55 teenagers as a Humanities teacher, will I finally grow up?

Cut back to a month ago and the first signs that my fledgling attempts at classroom crowd control are actually beginning to take effect: how did I end up in such chaos? Well, it crept up gradually. For roughly a week after I made my students line up outside class in the blazing California sun to practice “standing quietly” before I let them inside, they start to behave themselves. The jellybeans and paper planes stop flying; I don’t have to shout over a chorus of chatter to make myself heard. But the respite is short-lived and soon I am again facing a constant fight to hold my students’ attention. With three weeks remaining until the end of the year, and the prospect of low grades apparently not acting as a deterrent, I begin to lose hope. Then a professor from California State University, Stockton, comes to observe me for my teaching credential and is so mortified by the extent of misbehavior that he asks the vice principal to give me more support. (The students, if you remember had had eight months with another teacher, who eventually left because she couldn’t handle them, prior to my taking over in late April; I was facing an uphill battle to get them back on track.)

The vice principal, embarrassed by the complaint — the misbehavior potentially reflecting poorly on the administration rather than on me, the rookie teacher — agrees to take action. Within a week, six students have been suspended; one expelled for smoking pot on campus (he had the bright idea of recording the act on a cell phone camera, which ended up in the hands of the vice principal via a friend turned informant); that same student arrested by a security guard — handcuffed in the computer lab, right in front of his astonished and somewhat intimidated peers — after mysteriously turning up in class fully dressed in school uniform the day after his expulsion for tagging another neighborhood school; a second student also expelled for the tagging incident.

Make no mistake, mine is by no means the only eighth grade class with problems. At the end of the year, only 50 percent of eighth graders will be promoted to ninth grade. And the students are being suspended for more than just misbehaving in my class. Yet I sense that as the newbie I have borne the brunt of the acting out.

My reaction to the suspensions is twofold. The class is more manageable and my day less stressful. But I wonder about the efficacy of a public education system whose only ultimate reliable behavioral lever is to kick the bad kids out: isn’t that precisely what progressive educators were working so hard to avoid, the school as sorting machine? At the same time, from my own perspective as an overwhelmed teacher, I’m not quite sure of the realistic alternative. Smaller class sizes definitely help, allowing teachers to give more individualized attention to students and concentrate less on crowd control, but that means more money, which is sorely unavailable. Ideas, anyone? Anyone?

It probably would have helped if my heart was more in the job, but to be honest I’d first started thinking about leaving only a couple of months after arriving back last fall. Maybe K-12 public school teaching in the American inner city just wasn’t for me; maybe the thought of escape is more an old coping mechanism I’ve developed to deal with difficult situations ever since my troubled adolescence in an unhappy home; presumably some combination of the two factors left me unable to fully invest myself in the daily grind of planning, grading and instruction. Whatever the reason, I must admit to finding my inability to ever get totally on board with my teaching gig a little troubling. Sure, the money sucks; the kids are out of control; the bureaucracy is maddening. But on a deeper level, the level where I’m looking at the trajectory of my “career” from documentary producer (1999) to technology journalist (2000) to FAO Schwarz toy demonstrator (2001) to grant writer (2002) to teacher (2006), I’m a little bothered by the fact that, finally landing in a position of some responsibility, those rows of impressionable faces looking up at me, (some) hungry for knowledge, I chose to bail and go back to school myself (this fall I’m starting a full-time, five year PhD program in clinical psychology).

Was I jealous of my students? An Englishman lost in America, a few years shy of 40, still lacking purpose and direction, somewhat recklessly unbothered by taking on close to 200 grand in debt? Okay, I’m excited about this new direction, too; proud of my GRE scores; confident that, after an episode of severe depression last year (now, mercifully, after extensive therapy and medication, in full remission), I’ll be able to learn more about the condition and ultimately help others with it. But in life, unlike in grade school, it seems the graduation from one level to the next is determined less by straightforward moves up a linear scale and more by elliptical switchbacks, weird turns in the path whose direction often only makes sense much later and sometimes not even then. If I’m promoting myself from public school teacher to psychology grad student, I want to feel that I got a decent passing grade in the gig I’m leaving behind, not that I’m anxiously exiting myself after a spell of bad behavior. I want to be the proud valedictorian of this phase of my life’s progression, or at least finally confident that the next phase makes sense, not the serial burnout.

But I make these self-analytical observations in retrospect. Back in the classroom, with two weeks until the end of school and my European holiday, my grades are due, my students’ research papers are past their deadline, there are three kinds of test to get through, Oakland is suffering a heatwave, I’m supposed to be planning a documentary production for the last week of term, my British passport hasn’t arrived from the United Kingdom Consulate despite daily anxious calls to my Los Angeles expediter and my wife is getting antsy about the prospect of a 10-hour transatlantic flight with our crying baby daughter alone, I’m getting worried about being stuck in San Francisco while my wife and child go to visit my friends and family without me, my students start asking how they can raise their grade from the Fs they got in their previous reports and hand in chicken-scratch scribbled essays for assignments due weeks before, my pile of ungraded papers stacks higher and higher. I find myself curiously mesmerized by online research papers about developmental neuropsychiatry, a subject somewhat germane to a memoir I’m writing, but extremely germane to my need to dissociate; to think about anything other than the 25 rambunctious adolescents in front of me (to read psychology, rather than practice it).

As my departure date draws closer, my desire for escape intensifies, and each passing moment grows increasingly uncomfortable. Thoughts of my reunion with old school friends in London loom larger than the occasion ostensibly warrants. I will be seeing friends I have known since I was younger than my students after two years on different sides of the Atlantic, during which time I have switched jobs, overcome major depressive illness, and had a daughter. The reunion with old school mates, emotional touchstones against which the story of my life seems simultaneously allied and measured, seems like a kind of psychic report card marking my developmental milestones. If I miss my flight to London because I can’t get my shit together to apply for a passport on time, what does that say about how much I value the people supposedly most dear to me, the extent of my supposed recovery, the state of my life? Will I make the grade? I call Los Angeles. The papers pile still higher.

Up Next: The money sucks. The kids are out of control. The bureaucracy is maddening. And Mr. Thompson heads to the Hyphy School Dance.

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