This is a story by Madaline Dreyfus about her work as a teacher. Madaline writes about this story that it came when a friend asked to spend ten minutes writing about her job. She says, “When asked me to write ten minutes about work, I didn’t think I could do it. It sounds simple on paper but I sat down to the computer ready to type, fully expecting that I would find I had nothing to say and simultaneously believing that all my thoughts were much too detailed to fit in to ten minutes. What actually happened was that I found the ten minutes stretched out much longer. I decided not to be “political” about what I wrote, and just to speak as frankly as possible about my feelings about work and my relationships with coworkers.
Incidentally, what I wrote turned out to be very political. Writing about our workplaces allows us to look with honesty at our own lives and the forces within them, and to connect with others experiencing similar events. Talking about the characters of our coworkers results in a kind of narrative social map, that allows us to reflect on the relationships that organize our job sites. Inherent in all narrative writing is conflict, and the central conflict of all workplaces is between the workers and the employers. Rarely do we see this politically significant conflict spelled out more clearly then in the stories we tell about our work to our families, friends, and comrades.”
I spent Friday cleaning diarrhea out of a one-piece batman costume, and I love my job. Really. It isn’t glamorous, and it is often gross. I wake up at three in the morning and worry about my kids, and wonder if they will make it through all the tough stuff that our lives are inevitably composed of, and when my alarm rings at five, get up excited to spend the day as an early childhood educator.
Across the hall from me is the other early-childhood educator, Alan. There are only two things that will ensure that Alan doesn’t like you; not being “calm” and not being “kind”. From Alan I learned to give suggestions in the following format: “Something that has often worked well for me in the past is…” I have never heard him raise his voice when speaking to his children, and he is (magically) always perfectly dressed and groomed. He and I stay at the school until six thirty most nights planning lessons and preparing our classes. When I had to stick my fingers down a choking child’s throat, Alan appeared to watch my children. And when I went toe-to-toe with my administration, Alan had my back.
Alan’s boyfriend owns a company that installs microchips in the hard hats of temporary foreign workers so that they can be tracked by satellite. If they take extra breaks, or use the company truck for a personal errand, they can be fired and deported. He makes all the decisions at home, and Alan makes none. He makes list of things for Alan to do, and last week he complained that for some reason he didn’t want Alan wiping the tables at school with disinfectant without wearing gloves. Now Alan wears rubber gloves.
Maria teaches first grade in the Spanish immersion stream. When she first came to the United States, she spoke no English and was about to give birth to her first child. During the birth, they used a fetal monitor to check the baby’s heart rate: it was dropping each time she had a contraction. Without explaining what they were about to do, they gave her an episiotomy so deep and wide that she needed three blood transfusions and was confined to a wheelchair while her stitches healed. They told her that her baby had brain damage and took him away without letting her see him.
Her son does not have brain damage, and she had two more healthy babies afterward. Maria never took shit from anyone again, even with her broken English, she is the first to speak up. When a school representative asked what Anne-Marie Cameron, our superintendent, was spending the district budget on, Maria stood up and yelled “ANNE-MARIE’S PURSE COLLECTION!” and we all cheered.
After Maria comes Louise. The first time I walked into Louise’s classroom, I almost had a heart attack. It is absolutely completely trashed. All the time. On the wall are peace signs and paintings, and about a thousand letters from kids thanking her for being their teacher. Louise comes to work in sandals, tie-dyed skirts, and sparkly hair scarves, and she has hardly anywhere left to tattoo. Once a week she brings me really yucky-tasting health food and I always eat it. Louise is our representative to the American Federation of Teachers, and last week at professional development, she held up a sign behind our assistant superintendent’s head that read “bullshit” while he was speaking.
Sometimes Louise is hospitalized and medicated for severe depression. She keeps everything in her classroom because she has an anxiety disorder that prevents her from throwing things away; “sort of like Hoarders”, she says. Her dad volunteers in my class three days a week, reading about cars to my little boys and girls. He worked in a Ford dealership for 25 years
Most memorable is Mel. Mel was the school principal when I was hired at Willard Pre-K. He is a physically imposing man with the build of someone who in his younger days could have been a professional athlete but has since gone to seed. When he walked through the school he picked up stray books, and wiped up spills, and said hello to all the kids and the teachers. He was very quiet and spoke with a low voice that was not intimidating, but very final. One day one of my special needs boys deliberately peed on the bathroom floor for about the tenth time, and I had to take him to see Mel. Later, walking down the hallway in a blue shirt, I ran into my little boy coming back from Mel’s office. He looked at me and said “Hey, Miss Dreyfus! Nice red shirt!” and I was stunned.
The boy in question was very bright, and my shirt was obviously blue. Later I asked Mel what had happened in the meeting and he told me that he had modeled seeking attention in positive ways by complimenting a passing teacher on her red shirt, which she was flattered by. My child didn’t understand that “I like your red shirt” wasn’t a compliment that could apply to all people, regardless of shirt color.
The district administration hated Mel because seven years ago, the school principals were instructed not to express support for a strike in our district. All the schools here have to settle in order to ratify the new contract. All the other schools had been bought out with a raise, but my school refused to settle, holding out for smaller class sizes (the original issue of the strike). There was incredible pressure on our school, and the principals were seen to be able to influence the direction of the strike by failing to support it, so they were told they must not take a stance. Mel went to the strike offices and verbally expressed his support, and then walked the picket line with his teachers.
Mel was forced out of his position by the district last year. I went to visit him in his office before he left and as I was leaving he told me “As teachers, we believe we have a higher calling to do this work. That we were meant to care for children. Never forget that to the district you’re just another employee.”
I was laid-off three days later, and rehired on a new contract, with almost no job security. I have been battling with our new principal ever since.
I don’t entirely know what conclusions I could draw about everything I typed here. Mostly I want to say; we are fighting. I know how some people feel about teachers, and many folks blame teachers for not being louder or struggling more obviously. It is a difficult job. Schools often see the first effects of social and economic pressures, which usually hit large public institutions before they hit private workplaces. When the price of food goes up, I see it in lunch boxes before I hear it on the news. Like any concerned parents or caregivers, teachers try to protect our kids from as many of these ups and downs as possible, and we have our own personal struggles too. It’s not an excuse, but like any other industry, it’s slow going.