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One Day, I Will Evict Them

In fourth grade, I sat on the toilet in the girls’ bathroom

and kicked my shoes idly against the green and grey tile floor.

 

“She sat patiently,”

stated the narrator in my head.

“The time ticked by,”

he continued.

 

Other narrators, middle-aged, brown-haired men with thoughtful foreheads,

nodded and jotted down notes.

These narrators lived in my brain,

and, for some unknown reason,

carefully catalogued and commented upon my daily activity.

 

I wondered to myself at the epic nature of my life,

so worthy of attention and careful record-keeping.

By the grace of these narrators,

many who would one day wish to know of my deeds

would one day know of them.

 

My gentle narrators

allowed me to step out

onto the stage

and sing a gorgeous solo

in the fourth grade production of “It’s Music!”

“She bowed, and the audience roared,”

they murmured, taking it all down on yellow legal pads.

One added, with a quick smile,

“She was the best of all the soloists.”

 

These kind narrators

chuckled encouragingly

as I sat on the wooden cabin floor at fifth grade summer camp,

and,

“with a remarkable one-liner,

she reduced her fellow campers to howls of laughter.”

 

Senior year,

my narrators applauded vigorously

as I accepted the awards of

Impeccable Scholar,

Star Athlete,

and Class Clown.

“She’s really unstoppable,”

they all agreed.

 

But one day,

my narrators turned.

Without warning.

Without cause.

One day, their faces became solemn.

They no longer laughed at my jokes.

 

They are still with me,

these relentless critics.

They dog me.

“She looked nice in the mirror this morning,”

they observe.

“But at this point in the day,

her pants have loosened

beyond the point of being socially acceptable.”

The shake their heads sympathetically.

“Her look,”

they conclude,

“is now merely ridiculous.”

 

In my classroom, they murmur softly

to one another,

“Her students are tired.

They want to leave.

If only she could think of the right thing to say.

If only she were good at thinking up games.

That has never been her strength,

and students like games.”

 

These narrators pat

one another

knowingly

on the shoulders.

“Most of them probably hate her.

It’s not her fault

because her intentions are very good.

But she has a hard time

stopping her students

from hating her.”

 

I don’t know why they turned on me,

these narrators,

with their calm, all-knowing, literary tones.

I always wondered at their presence.

 

In fourth grade,

I thought

their existence meant

that I was going to be a writer.

I wanted to be

an author.

I thought

they were there to foretell

my future greatness.

 

Now I know different.

From the beginning,

they were there to trick me

into believing

that I only matter

from the outside in.

They were the gaze,

and they never stopped gazing.

 

First they lulled me,

took me under their wing,

made me trust them.

And then they agreed

that it was time

to hold up a mirror to my face,

a false mirror,

an ugly mirror.

That is not my soul in the mirror,

but they want me to think

that it is.

 

I am on to them.

I want them out.

I want them gone.

I don’t want narrators anymore.

I don’t want an audience

gazing at me while I sleep.

 

But they are in there tight.

They have dug in

for decades.

They have real estate in there,

condos, nice ones.

Why would they want to leave?

 

One day, I will evict them.

I will banish them.

And I will move in there myself.

I will lie back in a quiet easy chair

and scribble notes to myself.

 

I will be the narrator,

the author,

myself.

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Watcher for the Dying

“I will stay with you until the end,” my mom told my cousin,
who was bursting at the seams
with her soon-to-be baby boy.
My cousin was meditative, calm, but anxious.
While she breathed deeply,
my mom stood by her side
and coaxed that baby out.

“I’ll be there with you until the last moment,” she told her best friend Sherry,

whose body was failing. “I will never leave you.”

Sherry smiled, her beautiful blood-drained face

a picture of relief.
And so my mom sat at her bedside.
She laughed.
She adjusted Sherry’s bed
so she wouldn’t snore.
She entertained family and guests
who were without the skills of facing
the final stages of the life of a loved one.

Skills that most of us lack.

When my grandfather was dying, I crafted my final message to him.
That I loved him, that he had shaped me,
that I would read the many-paged book he had sent me.
But the dying was not over for him after my finely crafted final words.
Because at that point, he was merely preparing for death.

He still had to die.

He had to lie in his bed, praying, and scared.
I’ll admit, that I did not want to see my grandpa scared.

Sherry’s dying continued long after
she had said her final goodbyes.
My mother sat at her bedside
and listened to her moan,
though she had been non-responsive for hours.
Her moans were uttered with the timber of her own voice.

Again, not in my wheelhouse.

My mom demanded more morphine from the night nurses.

She held up her phone to the moaning

so her expert friends could listen and opine.
She turned on the Mama Mia soundtrack, Sherry’s favorite CD.
I think Sherry may have died to this music.

My mom is a watcher for the dying.

Two weeks later, like clockwork,
our beloved family friend also found himself
on his death bed.
And again, without a moment to unpack her previous hospital overnight bag,
she was by his bedside,
laughing with him,
wrangling the nurses for him,
watching him die.

He was a lucky man. He had a death doula.

My mom sobs in spurts—in the car on her way to the next death bed.

By the time she arrives, her eyes are clear.
Not everyone can be a watcher for the dying.

HA!

Some things are very funny about all this.

We have always wanted to play this out. It’s always been our fantasy. Who would I have been if I had been alive during the Civil Rights Movement? The lady screaming at Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine? A nondescript bystander? Malcolm X? Or someone who was afraid to die and so didn’t join the march?

And 1930’s and 40’s Germany? Would I have been Miep Gies, or would I have been that little old lady who snickered on TV about turning in her Jewish neighbors? Would I give my life for my principles?

This is almost too perfect. It’s like a movie. An historical reenactment. Almost as if we have willed this into being so that we can have the chance to be heroes too. But really folks, we don’t need to play this out. We already know who we are and who we would have been. And besides, it’s not really a fair comparison. We have hindsight. We know what’s right and what’s wrong, what works and what doesn’t. Rosa Parks and Oscar Schindler had to play it by ear. So did the cowardly bystanders.

Let’s face it: Donald Trump is no Hitler. Hitler was not funny. Hitler was organized, purposeful, focused, systematic, well-respected, trusted. He was unassailable. But Donald Trump, God bless him, has shown us all of his weaknesses. He is so, so funny. His cabinet picks are so bad that it’s almost like the King of Goblins picking a goblin squad for a game of goblin kickball. There are so many funny stories about Donald Trump it’s almost magical. Breaking his mystique is child’s play. So, no more moral outrage. Let’s just whittle away and whittle away. He’s a baby. He’ll crack, and so will his hypnotic spell. We don’t have to fear him. And when his spell is broken, we won’t have to fear his goblins either.

So, that leaves the things we do have to fear. 1.) Racial and ethnic violence 2.) Deep political divisions caused by gerrymandering  3.) Gutting of public services and civil rights 4.) Deportations  5.) Environmental harm  6.) The nuclear codes

And here is where we get to dress up and reenact and use the lessons history has taught us.

From the Civil Rights Movement: civil disobedience works. We know this. And we are already doing it or planning to do it. We need all hands on deck. We need Martins and Malcolms. We must have both, and more, or it won’t work. We need everyone to chip away at the specific injustices that fire them up. We need people knocking on the door of underfunded and abused public schools. We need people pushing for criminal justice reform and for justice for victims of police brutality. We need people to keep an eye on hate groups. We need feminists and abortion rights activists. We need intersectional feminists. We need LGBT rights activists. We need people fighting for economic equality. We need disability rights activists. We need Native rights activists. We need refugee and immigrant advocates. We need environmentalists. We need angry people. We need empathetic Zen people. We need all people working in their areas of expertise. Even if we can’t work together, we need to all be working.

From World War II: we need to craft our message. We need publicity. We need our cell phone cameras so the world knows what’s happening. We need to take the moral upper hand. We need the world to know we have the moral upper hand. Social media is on our side if we know how to use it. During WWII, the government shaped the message and got the country working like a well-oiled machine. Now, we can shape the message if we can convey clear moral differences between the sides.

So yes. We must fight. But PR is equally important. We must see the humanity in the other side. Some people among our ranks will not be able to do this. It’s hard to have a heart-to-heart with a white supremacist if he or she is verbally abusing you or trying to kill you. But a white person can sure as hell have a heart-to-heart with a white supremacist, and this is our duty. We can resist unfriending our racist acquaintances. If we can see the humanity in them, we have a pretty good chance of allowing them to see the humanity in us. I’ve seen it happen, even since the election. It can be done.

And on that note, try to picture Donald Trump as President of the United States. Scary, I know. But come on. You also have to admit that it’s kind of hilarious.

Stretch

I walk outside barefoot

on the smooth concrete steps.

In the morning air,

I lift my arms and stretch,

my right arm towards the sky,

my left arm towards

a bush with pale purple leaves.

I wear a soft, lumpy nightgown

that billows out at the waist.

I don’t care who sees me.

I watch the dog

who is sniffing

at patches of grass

and holes in the lawn.

The day will come,

I know.

I am up too early.

I am irritable.

I am underprepared.

I can think of people

who may dislike me.

Today, things that should be

won’t be.

But for now,

I stretch

because

I am up so early,

I still have half an hour

before my shower.

I don’t have to question myself

for another hour and twenty minutes.

I breathe morning air,

and I stretch.

Flat Tire Blues

My need to assert my masculinity
(which I guess is a thing for women too)
got me in trouble today
with a Mack truck.
I didn’t count its wheels,
but I can tell you

that there were many.
The impact was soft,

low speed,
but depressing,
my tire cut into slices
like a salami,
my mirror decapitated,
a long white scratch along
the poor gray body of my trusty station wagon.
I should have slowed down,
“yielded” as they say.
But I let the voices in my head
spur me forward.
“You’re no one’s fool!”
they cried, gnashing their teeth.
“That truck wouldn’t dare!
Seize the road!  Seize it!”
But the truck dared,
and so I skulked to the side of I-45,
watching the snarls of traffic
(which my swashbuckling had created) build,

until cars blanketed the highway for miles behind me.
Hunched low in my front seat,
I waited for the police
and for the wrecker
to tow my bruised car
and my bruised ego
six miles to the tire shop
for partial repairs.

The Green Ribbon

Last year, I taught 7th graders who were, to use the popular euphemism, “reluctant readers.”  I found myself scrounging around for things that they would read with very little success.  Finally, I decided to write them stories and essays myself.  The following was probably the most popular one that I wrote for them.  I took the plot line of Alvin Schwartz’s The Green Ribbon and expanded it into a longer story geared towards older kids.

If you read The Green Ribbon as a child, you will most certainly remember it.  If not, please see the blog post below, where the blog writer kindly posted what is most likely the creepiest children’s story ever written.

http://okayquitmadstop.blogspot.com/2010/09/alvin-schwartz-green-ribbon.html

When you’re finished reading that, read my version of the story written for older kids.  Feel free to take it, change it around, and use it in your classroom.  It’s high interest for middle school students and perhaps for other ages as well.  The Word document below has embedded questions that I put in there to slow my kids down and check for their understanding.

The Green Ribbon

A little girl named Jenny started Kindergarten on a fall day as warm as bath water. Like the other children in her class, she entered the building with a plastic lunch box and a bucket for pencils and crayons. She had long hair that fell like a dark waterfall to her elbows and light brown skin. At first glance, she looked like many of the other little girls in their first day of school frilly dresses.

As the year went on, Jenny became widely liked by both her teacher and her classmates. She played dress up with the other girls and sometimes liked to sit in the corner and look at the picture books. Whenever the children played tag or wanted her to join them on the swings, she politely shook her head and watched them instead.

All of the children liked her, but there was certainly something a bit funny about Jenny. She wore pretty dresses and always brushed her hair, but there was still a strange issue with her wardrobe which was hard to ignore. No matter what the weather was, regardless of the rain, the snow, the intense late spring heat, she always wore a large green ribbon tied in an elaborate bow around her neck. It almost looked like a thick bow used to tie up a large Christmas present, except that it encircled her neck. The other children often asked her about it, but she would only smile and change the subject. It was always there, tied around her neck, but they never knew why.

As Jenny grew older, she remained at the same school with all of her friends. When she entered the fourth grade, a young boy named Alfred brought Jenny a card as large as a table for Valentine’s Day. When she opened it, it said, “Jenny, will you be mine?”

Jenny had always admired Alfred. He was kind and funny, and he could run faster than almost anyone else at the school. She immediately sent him a reply on a piece of red construction paper which said, “Alfred, I’m yours!”
From that day forward, Jenny and Alfred became the best of friends. The played together at recess, they shared their secrets with each other, and Jenny cheered for Alfred as he raced the other kids across the soccer field at lunch time. She herself would never run, but she cheered louder than anyone.
One day, after Alfred had run yet another race and the two of them were walking together toward the water fountain, he asked her, “Jenny, I’ve always wondered. Why do you wear that green ribbon around your neck?”

Alfred was hoping that their friendship would be enough for Jenny to open up to him. But, true to form, Jenny just smiled and asked him about what he had thought of last night’s math homework. Then, she added, almost as if it were an afterthought, “I’ll tell you when the time is right.”

By high school, they had become boyfriend and girlfriend. They told each other everything. They spoke on the phone to each other every night before falling asleep. They were deeply in love.
Alfred knew Jenny so well, and it frustrated him that she would not be honest with him about the green ribbon. On prom night, he picked her up from her house, and she wore a long, green gown which matched the green ribbon around her neck. She looked graceful as a willow tree. Alfred decided that this would be the night he would ask her again about the green ribbon. This would also be the night that she would tell him. Maybe prom night was what she had meant when she had said so many years ago that the time had to be right.
Dancing with her to the last song, he looked deeply into her eyes and said, “Jenny, I have to know. Why do you wear that green ribbon around your neck?”
She looked at him with sad eyes and shook her head. “It’s not time, Alfred. I can’t tell you yet.”
Years later, Jenny and Alfred, still in love, got married in front of all of their family and friends. Jenny’s green ribbon stood out against her white lace gown. After the wedding, impatient as ever, Alfred once again clasped Jenny’s hand and asked about the ribbon. Jenny placed her finger to his lips. “You will know, my love. When the time is right.”

Jenny and Alfred grew old together, and one day, Jenny got sick. She could barely lift her head off of the bed, and the doctor was called in. The doctor confirmed that she had a rare illness and would die, almost immediately, he warned. He gave her until the following morning. “Say your goodbyes now, my dear,” he said solemnly. “This is your last chance.”
Tears racing from her eyes, Jenny called Alfred to her side. Alfred’s face looked gray with grief. They held each other and cried for many moments. Finally, Jenny wiped the tears from her face and from Alfred’s and looked him directly in the eye.
“It’s time, Alfred,” she said, her voice quiet and calm. “It’s time for you to take off the green ribbon.”

His hands trembling, Alfred reached forward to her neck and carefully tugged at the loose ends of the ribbon. When the ribbon slid off of her neck, Jenny’s head fell off.

A Year of Teaching to a High Stakes Test

As we waited in line for the copy machine one morning during second period, one of my fellow teachers announced loudly enough for everyone to hear her, “This year cannot end soon enough for me. I can’t take this place much longer.” She said it firmly, without her usual smile. There were murmurs of agreement, and she continued. “On my way to work every morning, when I get close to this building, my stomach starts to hurt.”

I nodded because I knew exactly what she meant. For me, driving to school in the mornings sometimes felt akin to moving my hand toward the burner of a lit stove, knowing that I would have to leave my hand on the hot plate all day. Sometimes, the heat would be turned up, sometimes down, but it would always be on. Usually I could bear it, but only just.

When I was hired to teach seventh grade at a Title I public middle school, I thought that the greatest challenge I would face while teaching there would be the students, 93% of which were classified as “economically disadvantaged.” And of course, seventh graders in general, regardless of socioeconomic status, are not known for being a springtime picnic.

In some ways, I was right. My students were a tough crowd. They experienced all the normal emotional upheavals that one would expect of middle school students. Many of them did not seem to be particularly concerned with how well they did in school. Some were mean. Some felt entitled to good grades but did not want to work for them. Some had fits of defiance that often subsided the minute after they began. Most could not see the relationship between their bad actions and the consequences that followed.

All that being said, there were good moments with them as well. Moments when they raised their hands and asked and answered questions because they were genuinely excited about what they were learning. Moments when they confided in me. Moments when they were funny. Moments when they were smart. Moments when they were proud of themselves for learning something, doing something right, grasping something. Moments when they worked hard. Every day there were at least a few of these moments, and when I took time to notice these, things became more bearable.

Though I knew coming in that the students would be challenging, I was not at all prepared for the real problems I would be facing, which mostly involved adults. When I accepted the job, I felt lucky to have been hired. The school had a good reputation, the principal was highly regarded in the district, the building was clean and new, and the hallways appeared safe. The faculty was young and vibrant.

At teacher orientation, the first few yellow warning flags began to pop up. First of all, I began to notice just how young the faculty really was. There didn’t seem to be any old timers in the mix. In fact, the longest tenure I could find amongst the teachers that I spoke to was three years. Second year teachers, it appeared, were treated like seasoned veterans.

When one of the new teachers asked a second year veteran why there had been so many new hires that year, she responded with, “Oh, you’ll see.” And then, before we could press her for more information, she shook her head and walked away.

Things continued to deteriorate when the students arrived. The school, it turned out, was run like a prison, and the teachers were expected to act as the jailers. School hours were from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., and every day, my students went the whole day without any break or recess. They got twenty minutes to eat lunch, but they were restricted to sitting at assigned tables in the cafeteria. Once they had their food, they were not allowed at any point to get up, run around, play, or hang out with friends. When they got too loud, the punishment was “silent lunch.”

As a result, student behavior deteriorated very predictably throughout the day, most noticeably after lunch because the kids had so much pent up energy. I became truly alarmed when I learned that a good percentage of my students were not even taking PE. Middle school students in Texas are only required to take PE for two out of the three years. This meant that many of my students got no physical activity at all during the day, except for walking from class to class. Some of my students who had failed their STAAR tests the previous year were not even allowed to take elective classes. Instead of art or band, they took two extra reading classes every day.

As an English teacher, I had each of my classes for ninety minutes every day. (Math, as the other highly tested subject, also got ninety minute periods.) However, I was not allowed to give my students a break, not even a bathroom break, during the entire ninety minute block. The administrators at my school emphasized and enforced “bell to bell instruction.” We were to “maximize instructional time,” allowing no room for breaks or any other funny business.

During the first week of school, unaware of this expectation, I gave my students a short break in the middle of class, and just as my students were standing up, an administrator walked in. When I explained to her why they were out of their seats, she snapped at the student in front of her, “Well! You must have learned a lot already if you deserve a break! What did you learn?” The student floundered around for an answer, but the message (intended for me) was clear.

If school was a prison for the kids, it was no better for the teachers, and I watched this take its toll not just on me, but also on my colleagues. As the year went on, we grew quieter, less bold, more washed out. People kept their cards close. It was not an atmosphere of collaboration but of shifting alliances and of trying to stay out of trouble. Asking for help was a sign of weakness, and appearing weak was a death wish. By the end of the year, we grew closer, not out of shared ideas but out of shared misery.

Most of the administrators were mean and petty and ruled by intimidation. The first week of school, all new teachers were dive-bombed by a horde of five or six administrators who barged into our classrooms unannounced to observe whatever was happening. Fortunately, things were always running smoothly when they happened to dive-bomb me, but I heard stories of some teachers’ classes being interrupted and the teachers being criticized soundly in front of their students. In some cases, the principal actually took over the class and began teaching it herself.

The teacher evaluation process was also a nightmare. The seventh grade assistant principal was my evaluator, and all visits to my classroom were unannounced. I was used to getting strong evaluations at my previous jobs, but I saw very quickly that this was not going to be the case at this job. My evaluator stuck to a district-issued rubric which was vague and arbitrary and filled with jargon. I was berated for not having my objective written correctly on the board and for not demonstrating in a very specific way that I had high expectations for my students. I do not recall him giving me any positive feedback. He rated me as an OK, but not great teacher. Based on what I had heard from colleagues, this was pretty well par for the course.

I learned later in the year that my school “hemorrhages” teachers after every school year, and that low evaluations was one way that the principal could keep people tied to the school. It becomes much more intimidating to look for another job when you are concerned that you won’t get a good recommendation from your current supervisor. Rumors abounded that the principal would try to sabotage people who wanted to leave by giving them poor recommendations.

Though it became quickly evident that my new job was not all I had imagined it to be, I still subscribed to the old “shut your door” mentality of teaching and believed I would be able to do my own thing in my own classroom. I had big plans for teaching reading and writing, plans which had worked beautifully in my previous six years as a teacher.

But at this new school, the day after my students had begun brainstorming moments in their lives which had been truly important to them, my principal came storming into the seventh grade English meeting and shouted at us at the top of her lungs that last year’s writing scores had been unacceptable, and that we clearly did not know what we were doing. She told us that now we needed to do things her way.

Her way meant that we were now to give our students a number of standardized test prompts and have them write in response to those. In other words, instead of my students writing a personal narrative about a moment in their lives that was actually important to them, they would be writing a personal narrative in response to a STAAR test prompt, such as, “Write about a time you overcame a challenge,” or “Write about a time you made a decision.”

Writing, which had once been my favorite thing to teach, quickly became my least favorite. Instead of becoming independent writers who loved and felt empowered by what they were doing, my students became dependent on me to teach them formulaic ways of responding to formulaic questions. I was miserable and so were they.

Before taking the job, I had been told over and over again that public school teachers “teach to the test.” I had always believed that it was the teachers who were choosing to teach to the test because they misguidedly thought that that was the most effective way to do things. But that year, I realized that it was not the teachers who were behind it at all. I myself often taught to a test, not because I wanted to, but because I was forced to.

Ironically for a school that valued “high expectations” for its students, the principal did not seem to think that our students were capable of authentically learning and then later demonstrating this learning on a standardized test. All learning had to be in the context of the test or it didn’t count. Our students didn’t read books. They read test passages. We were meant to use our planning time to analyze old test questions and look for words and phrasings that might trip them up.

The principal instructed us to administer mock STAAR tests to our students twice every two weeks. She explained that if they did not have enough experience with the test, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves on test day. Each mock STAAR test took my kids three ninety minute class periods to complete. Then, to make certain that we were doing the mock tests and taking them seriously enough, the principal ordered that the averages of our students’ scores on each test be posted in giant print in the seventh grade hallway with our (the teachers’) names under them. The assumption was that teachers with poor scores would be humiliated enough to work harder to bring their students’ scores up.

Public humiliation was one of my principal’s tactics of choice. She often shrilly reprimanded teachers in front of their students and colleagues. She once tried to bully me into doing a job I was not contractually obligated to do by claiming that I had promised to do it during my original job interview. My colleagues squirmed uncomfortably in their seats as she grilled me.

Her lack of professionalism was sometimes quite impressive. For example, during one seventh grade English team meeting, she falsely accused my team of making a minor logistical error. In the course of shouting at us, she uttered the following words: “Do you think I’m r*tarded?! You must think I’m r*tarded! Since these people think I’m r*tarded, let’s get this all down in writing so that they’ll know exactly what to do next time.” In spite of the fact that she was the principal of a school where a number of students actually did have Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, she thought nothing of throwing this word around in front of four teachers and three other administrators.

Though my principal was clearly steering the ship, the bizarreness did not stop with her. The work environment was always unpredictable, and never in a good way. One morning, my class was loudly interrupted by a brute squad of two administrators and one police officer. As they stormed into the room, I assumed it would be a drug raid. The students were ordered to step away from their desks and keep their hands at their sides. Then they were commanded to surrender any Sharpies that they were harboring. The students looked as confused as I did, but the brute squad was not smiling. The unfortunate ones who gave up their Sharpies were then sent promptly to the office for the “Saturday Morning Special,” which was my assistant principal’s jovial and affectionate name for Saturday morning detention.

This assistant principal, who was also my evaluator, had a number of affectionate names for the punishments he doled out. Along with the Saturday Morning Special, he also had “the VIP table,” which was where kids misbehaving at lunch would be sent to eat silently before receiving the Saturday Morning Special. To me, this seemed the equivalent of a prison warden ordering inmates to head back to their “penthouse suites” when it was time to go back to their cells. Or telling them they could have “a little time for themselves” before sending them to solitary confinement. In other words, the kind of humor that only makes the bully laugh.

By spring, every single member of my seventh grade English team had given notice that we would not be returning to the school the following year. We lived in fear because rumor had it that teachers who admitted that they were not coming back were considered disloyal and had huge targets on their backs. Retaliation could apparently take the form of bad evaluations or foot dragging with transfer forms—things which could compromise one’s ability to get a new job. Luckily for us, their revenge was minor. They told us that our lesson plans, which they had not looked at all year, were below par and needed to be completely rewritten. It could have been much worse, but we didn’t breathe easily until we all had our new contracts signed and in front of us.

I have never been happier to leave a job than I was to leave that one, but, in spite of everything, I’m glad I stuck it out. First of all, I am genuinely proud of myself for surviving. And second of all, I could not possibly have understood or even believed what today’s public school teachers are going through if I had not experienced it for myself. Speaking to other teachers at other schools in my district and even to teachers in other states, I quickly realized that my experience and the environment at my school were not in any way unusual. The other teachers were dealing with the exact same things at their own schools. Most of them were wondering how to make it through the year. Most had considered the possibility of leaving the profession altogether. A general refrain was, “I’m not allowed to teach anymore.”

During that year, I saw the unintended consequences of high stakes standardized testing, consequences which created a toxic environment for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. When my colleague felt sick to her stomach driving to work every morning; when my suicidal student couldn’t find a time to meet with the counselor because the counselor was too busy preparing the campus for the upcoming STAAR test; when the assistant principal wouldn’t move a victim out of the same class as her bullies because he didn’t want to have schedule disruptions so close to the STAAR test; these were some unintended consequences of “accountability.”

Certainly we want to “hold schools accountable.” But the system that was designed on paper to deliver this accountability, when put into actual practice, is bringing human beings to their knees. The new schools that we have created are cruel, and they are unprecedented.

I don’t claim to have the answer to the accountability question. But I do know that we need to start by listening to public school teachers, students, parents, and administrators who see the consequences of these systems every day. If you are outside of the system, you may very well have an opinion, but you haven’t seen the cut marks and the bloodshot pot smoke eyes of the students who are barely hanging on. You haven’t heard the confidence slowly leak out of the voices of your colleagues as the year trudges by. You haven’t watched once rational adults, given just a little bit of power, become ruthless. If you are outside the system, the best thing you can possibly do is to put your opinions to the side. Your job now is to listen.