This Ain’t Freedom Writers

I work at a small alternative campus, the school where the kids who break the rules get sent as punishment. They’re placed with us for a specific amount of time, depending on lots of rules and codes and nonsense. Most of them are sent for drug possession or intoxication but we also get them for fighting, making threats, hazing, sex at school, and, even once, for peeing in the school elevator. While enrolled, they’re on a points system that’s too complicated to explain in detail but the gist is that they try to get 100/100 points per day for things like staying on task, being respectful, and generally keeping themselves together.

Before they leave, they’re asked two questions about each teacher: 1) I learn in your class because ___________________ and 2) I would learn more in your class if ______________________. The surveys are supposed to provide us with constructive criticism that will help us in the classroom. They don’t write their answers down; the administrators ask the questions and write the answers. They’re anonymous and since admin does the writing, I can’t even use my handwriting analysis skills to figure out who called me a bitch. Kidding. It’s betch.

Usually, I get pretty standard responses for question one, like, “you were strict but cool,” “you explained the stories to us and that was helpful,” or “you were really excited about English and that made it kind of fun.” All true statements because I’m definitely strict, I try to explain things, and I’m super excited about English.

Other times I’ll get answers like (and this is verbatim), “Bomb outfits. Style is on point.” I suppose here I am to assume that they learned better as a direct result of my clothing choices. Obviously, the trendier I am and the better I dress, the more they respect me as an educator. I’m pretty sure it’s science.

And every once in a great while, I’ll get something along the lines of “You made me love reading. You were the best teacher I’ve ever had.” Since I’m working on building up my army of well-read minions, this means that I’m one step closer to world domination.

They either leave question two blank or fill it in with things such as “I understood the British language better” (in senior English which focuses on British literature) or “you graded us easier and gave us candy” (in senior English where they think they’re still in elementary school). They also claimed they would have learned better if I’d let them sleep, not written them up, and not taken their points when they didn’t do anything. Like, at all.

Sometimes this is the moment where the kids who hated me can be brutally honest about it. Here is the moment they can unleash the hounds of hell and verbally abuse me to their heart’s desire. Normally, their callousness would sting but I’d shrug it off fairly quickly, but this is not a normal time for me.

A couple of weeks ago, I got this gem: “I would learn more in your class if you were not rude, stuck up, and stressed out. She brings home issues here.”

It felt like someone had punched me in the throat. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I was just a swirling ball of rage, confusion, and pain. I immediately knew who wrote it but I couldn’t understand why this girl had written something that’s entire purpose was to hurt me. I couldn’t fathom this desire to deliberately cause me pain.

Was I stressed out? Obviously. Because cancer.

Was I rude and stuck up? I literally can’t even right now. I’m not, after all, her mean girl classmate who looks down on her and doesn’t let her sit with me at lunch because it’s Wednesdays and we wear pink. So, no.

Did I bring home issues to work? Other than being a little more on edge and having a bit less patience for laziness, whining, and apathy, nope. But if I had? Hello?! She, along with every other kid, brought their “home issues” to school every. single. day. They talked about them in detail, seeking whatever it was they needed – an audience, approval, attention. I knew about their drugs, their hook-ups dates, their parents, their fights, and their jobs because they a) have no filter and b) don’t seem to care if their teachers hear them.

I couldn’t let it go. I’ve let it eat at me ever since. And I’ve let it fester in this place where I hold onto things until I’ve begun to question my desire to teach. Not just in the abstract way that we do when we’re bored or antsy, but in the kind of way that makes us find new jobs.

Because right now, my job is both difficult and discouraging. I spend more time on discipline than I do teaching. I write someone up at least once a day. I have to ask kids to stop cussing, talking about drugs, harassing “females,” and calling me “man” or “bro” on the reg. It’s exhausting.

I became a teacher because I love English and I wanted to share that love with others. I wanted them to know what it was like to fall in love, and save the world, and become a wizard, a thousand times with a thousand different characters. I wanted them to know that the written word is longer lasting and, sometimes, even more powerful than the spoken one.

But I’m lucky if I can make them understand that it doesn’t make any sense to say, “She be a THOTy.” As in what? She be a That Ho Over There-y? WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?

I love English and I love talking about it but I fear that my army of well-read minions won’t make up for all the others because guess what? I’m not Erin Grewell and this ain’t “Freedom Writers,” bro.

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