By Bill Rich
Teachers can design and lead authentic and nurturing classrooms, but they are collected into organizations called schools that are bureaucratic, alienating and dehumanizing. This difficulty can be summed up in the fact that most kids love their teachers while feeling ambivalent about or even disliking school. The paradox between the life of teaching and housing the life of teaching in school is one of the most difficult to reconcile.
Islands of classroom life within large bureaucratic schools provide places where children are appreciated, cared about, feel loved and accepted, belong and attended to as individuals in many nuanced but important waysAs a principal I often wondered how my school could become a kind of nurturing, conscious and compassionate community for all its people? How could we move beyond rules and regulations to be able to work in ways the generate love for one another, think deeply about subject matter and encourage real world action?
At the concrete level, is the need to be certain the basics of the school infrastructure are doing what they are supposed to do. This means toilets work and the students have clothing, winter coats and shoes and food to eat per Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Many schools have unsanitary, overcrowded and vandalized bathrooms without privacy or safety. The Pavlovian bell schedule, the ever present symbol of school as an industrial training ground, rings for adults and students alike. If you can’t pee on time, then you can’t pee at all. Paradoxically, school communities must turn Maslow’s hierarchy upside down and let the quest for meaning per Frankl drive and pull individuals through whatever dehumanizing or alienating conditions exist.
An issue besides the typical bureaucratic barriers to authenticity and belonging is the sorting of socio-economic status and cultural groups into neighborhoods that are mirrored in school attendance boundaries. This results occasionally in ‘sink hole schools’ made up of students and families in the worst socio-economic situations. Middle class families and students are in the desirable schools where political clout translates into influence and resources. But even in these schools there can be a mix of children. The poorest children, scattered among the children of the consumption-focused middle class, and even the country clubbers. How could we deliver authentic teaching to such a range of children?
The most successful solution I undertook as a principal to address this paradox of bureaucratic organization vs authentic teaching and compassionate learning environments came about kind of by accident. I always loved Thanksgiving for two chief reasons. First, it was short; no interminable holiday season of commercialization. Second, it focused all of us on gratitude. As a school leader it was short hop from gratitude to helping others and this is what we needed as my school tried to improve its culture. The attendance area consisted of all manner of housing from the country clubbers to run down trailers to crack and welfare apartments—we would have the chance to bring the middle class into the world that some of my students lived.
The parent club was a vehicle for political support and consisted of middle class women. Several of the parents who were new to the school and on whom I counted to add middle class children, were critical of the program funds and materials that were allocated, not to their children, but to children in poverty through federal compensatory funds, Title 1. I hoped to increase their understanding of the needs of these students. The parents liked the idea of a Thanksgiving food drive and I suggested we dedicate a turkey and food basket to some of the needy families. I would contact these families confidentially based on teacher and school secretary recommendations, and manage the sensitive issue of asking if they would like to receive a basket and turkey. This all went well. The parent-club women were eager to help deliver the baskets and I was eager for them to see the living conditions of some of our students. I hoped they could become more generous in their consumer style advocacy for their own children alone.
The day came to deliver baskets. The school secretary called ahead to insure that someone would be home to receive the Thanksgiving baskets so our job could be completed in one day. We also strategically left just after classes started so only parents would be home to receive the gifts. Grateful, tearful mothers greeted the parent clubwomen as they stood with me at the doorsteps and brought the baskets and turkeys inside. Apartments or trailers were in all manner of condition inside, from messy and dirty to tidy and neat. All had a tv, none had a visible book or magazine to read. One-room studios had mattresses on the floor. One parent club mom whispered she had seen roaches on the floor and on a kitchen counter after we left. They were generally appalled having never seen this kind of living conditions before.
We came to our last apartment where the door was on the second story up a long narrow outside staircase. The family had four children so the food basket and turkey were large. Since the staircase was narrow, I suggested that I go up first with the big box and I would ask another person, one of the parent club moms to come up with the turkey. I confided that lice had been an issue with this family and Dad was “away” so perhaps I should go in by myself. After all “away” of course meant prison. All agreed. I struggled to balance the big box as I hiked up the stairs and rang the bell. No one answered so I rang again. I balanced an edge of the box on the rusted railing so I could talk with the mother whom I hoped would answer the door.
In a moment she came to the door and opened it. She stood in a transparent, short and decidedly sexy nightgown that was light purple. I could see her breasts and the shape of her hips and then I stopped looking. Her hair was long and a bit disheveled as it hung across her shoulders. Just inside her door, she was out of the line of sight of the parent club mothers below. She smiled but said nothing. I glanced at the smiling mothers at the bottom of the staircase and smiled back at them to let them know all was well.
I said, “We brought your Thanksgiving basket and turkey. Can I bring it in?”
She stepped back and opened the door so that I could take the box off the railing and carry it in. I walked across the little room and set the box on the kitchen counter as the mother closed the door.
She said, “Thank you so much.”
Making principal style conversation I said, “You are welcome.”
After and awkward pause, I said, “I’m so glad you have been able to control the lice. They can be such a pain.”
I didn’t have time to try to fix that stupid statement because a man’s voice from the one bedroom called out, “Lice, God Damn it! Lice!” I don’t want no stinkin’ lice!” I could hear some scuffling around in the bedroom and the mother lowered her head.
He jumped out on one leg with the other leg in his camo army fatigues and held his boots at the same time. He continued to curse as he put on his pants. Without putting on his boots with many laces, he banged out through the door and faced the parent club members who were starting to climb the stairs. I stepped to the door to see him barreling down the stairs continuing to curse and the parent clubwomen beating a hasty retreat down the stairs ahead of him. I followed him down the stairs. He took off through the apartment parking lot and I took the turkey from the arms of one of the parent club women and carried it back upstairs to the apartment door. It was ajar so I pushed it with my shoulder and again moved to the counter where I set it next to the box of other food. The mother emerged from the bedroom in a robe.
In this second awkward moment she faced me with the low affect mask I had already seen so often as a school principal. She said ‘Thank you,” again. I said, “We are so glad to help. Happy Thanksgiving!” Feeling even more stupid than earlier, I exited and walked down the staircase to the group of mothers below. I knew she was ashamed and I knew I had not helped her with her shame. She was earning money as a whore because her husband was in prison.
In the car the group first laughed and joked about the guy leaving. It was obvious this woman was a hooker and we had interrupted her trade. And what a joke that the John was concerned about lice! God knows what other disease he might really catch. Then we sat in silence as I drove. When we arrived at the school the group wanted to talk in the car. They shared how awful this situation was and I shared that this was the life of many of our students. There were no jokes and they shifted to make caring comments about the woman. One of the most vocal of the country club parents was in that car and this moment served as a kind of epiphany for her. These parent-club women, consumers at our school suddenly became advocates for the Title 1 students. I was amazed at the way they grew and and incorporated their advocacy for their own children with advocacy for the others. In one moment they exited the world of noblesse oblige and entered the world of compassion by seeing a woman, another mother earn money for her children at the holidays through prostitution.