Last week, I read an opinion piece by David Reber, a parent and educator in Topeka, Kansas:
In it, Reber points out the pernicious absurdity of much of our current dialogue around education. One quote from his article stuck in my mind.
For no other profession do so many outsiders refuse to accept the realities of an imperfect world. Crime happens. Fire happens. Illness happens. As for lawyers and coaches, where there’s a winner there must also be a loser. People accept all these realities, until they apply to public education.
If a poverty-stricken, drug-addled meth-cooker burns down his house, suffers third degree burns, and then goes to jail; we don’t blame the police, fire department, doctors, and defense attorneys for his predicament. But if that kid doesn’t graduate high school, it’s clearly the teacher’s fault.
I went to work this morning still pondering that point–thinking about the contributions teachers do make and are expected to make in the life of a child. As I went through my first-hour routine–adapt that homework, check in with that child about “expected” and “unexpected” classroom behavior, work with those two on decimal concepts–I thought a little bit about the long-term implications of what I was doing. Every day sets the stage for every school year, and those years, I hope, add up to success.
And then I went downstairs, to make copies while the kids were at recess. The office was abuzz–someone had just connected the dots about a story in the news last night.
The married couple, killed in their house by their own child. That child had gone to our elementary school. His name was said, quietly. It wasn’t in the papers. He was too young to name.
I hadn’t known him, but it punched me in the gut nonetheless. The bell rang, and I looked at the fourth grade teacher; he’d been in her class, she’d worked with him, I later found out she’d been meeting with him and his parents throughout the year she had him, conferencing about his needs and his behavior.
“I’ll get your kids. Take as long as you need.”
I took her 27 students upstairs, turning around halfway to the classroom to ask the closest kid what they were learning in math. Prime factorization. Okay then. We did a lesson on the difference between a factor and a multiple–how each number has only a limited number of things it breaks down to, but you could go without stopping if you wanted to make more.
Ten minutes in, the teacher came back–calm, composed, eminently professional. Somehow, she was able to file away the part of her brain that looked in that classroom and saw herself five years ago, sitting across from that child and his parents, in exactly that seat by exactly that table. The only adult left alive in that room.
I can only imagine what the teacher’s lunch room was like today: our school has so little turnover that most teachers would remember him. Would remember the parents–a psychologist and a physician’s assistant, by all accounts deeply involved in the life of their child and their community. I worked through lunch, settling a kindergartener into his routine, supervising a second grader who sometimes hits people. In the afternoon, I worked with my usual group of third graders on math facts–a quiz on the 4s table, a bonus question that asked them to list all the factors of 12. Third graders don’t do multiples just yet–for them, it’s enough to understand how things break down.
But in my head, of course, the multiples–one thing that repeats, again and again. The take home lesson I gave the fourth graders: each number breaks down to just some component parts, but when we keep making it, we don’t ever have to stop. I taught the third graders tic-tac-toe with the 3s table, and walked them to back to class.
As we walked down the hallway, we all heard yelling. A second grade child, tantrumming: whenever he became frustrated or overwhelmed, he’d scream so loud that every door in the hallway would need to close so the teachers in the other classes could continue to teach. Sometimes, the principal could come get him and talk him down, but today, she was off campus.
He’d been sent, during the tantrum before this one, to the fourth grade classroom to calm down–right in time for the entire first grade class to join that class for buddy activities. His teacher from last year tried to calm him; the fourth grade teacher tried to calm him. I tried and gave up when he turned away from me, still screaming. I suddenly remembered what his first grade teacher told me once: when he gets in school trouble, things might happen to him at home.
Did the boy who killed his parents start out as a tantrum thrower? What did this little boy start out as? And right then, in that moment–were we teachers to blame for what was happening in that classroom? The boy screaming and rocking, the kids looking at him. Doors closing everywhere; nowhere else to go.
Were any of us expected to make any of it right?
Yes. Yes we were. I realized later that night that we all expected it of ourselves, on some level, as a flurry of emails and facebook posts were exchanged, offering prayers and reassurances and heartbreaking confusion, teachers asking themselves and each other if something could have been done for the boy in the news. Memories of that child, running down the hallway, memories of his teachers, trying to reach out. And finally the recognition, comforting and bitter, that there is only so much that a teacher can accomplish. In a society so hampered by structural injustice, serving kids so often burdened by internal and external factors that are utterly beyond individual control, it cannot be our job to fix each child’s everything. Sometimes, all we can do is witness what is broken.
Factors and multiples, patterns taking shape.