In Baltimore, I live in a cheap condo in between Hampden and Mount Washington. I live across from a cheap pool with a torn green plastic cover on it that remains there for most of the part of the year. During the summers, the pool is filled with mostly kids, yelling and splashing and not knowing how to swim, so floating along in the shallow end in plastic floaties. I like to do laps but since its this way, I usually just hop in and swim to one side, then the other and float for a minute or two, before getting out and walking across the street to my place.
I haven’t always lived in Baltimore. Before, I lived in Orlando, Florida. Right around from where Disney is, but actually from about 45 minutes in from where it’s located. Where I’m from there are a lot of strip malls, new restaurants, like the Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Changs and a Borders by Ruth Chris steak house. There’s a high school where I went to , Winter Park , and most of the kids were transients, kids who’d come into town mostly cause of their dad and who would usually either finish out their senior year there, or transfer and go back from where they came, like New York, or Alabama or Georgia , mostly. But I lived there my whole life. I’d known the street names around town by heart so much that I purposely forgot them. Maybe my head felt big at searching the skyline for big, maybe abandoned buildings with intricate deteriorated sinking floors, but which showed birds flying slowly across saturated dark clouds. Down 17-92 were too spaced apart, short, one story buildings that held no more than a real estate company, or a dry cleaner, or a Subway, just trying to make to make it.
When I moved to Baltimore, it was for excitement. My brother was going to George Washington in Foggy Bottom, in D.C. I’d ruled out working as a teacher in that city, because my major was English, since I heard it was dangerous, that you’d have a hard time making connections with the kids. So I moved to Baltimore, having it in my head that I’d get into a school where I could make a difference. But when I got up to Baltimore, the county told me that I couldn’t get a job anywhere since I didn’t have my certification. I had explained to them that I had applied and received an eligibility form in Florida that I was enrooting to getting my certification. But instead, they told me to go to the city, where’d they’d take teachers and where they’d even put me through school. I was in the parking lot at an Applebee’s next to a location that gave the Praxis tests to eligible teachers. I was getting a call from a woman at Baltimore County insisting that I’d have better luck applying to Baltimore City. I applied to Baltimore City and got in quickly and spent more money than I had on simple things, markers, pens, sticky notes and greeted a class with a substitute with these bags somewhere around the end of October.
My first few days were hell and then again maybe my first years too. The kids lacked motivation, came in late, fell asleep at their desks. I raised the bar on how much work I did. I created my own worksheets, I designed handouts, changed the layout of my classroom, painted desks red, painted walls orange, bought extra credit tickets that I gave out when students volunteered an original thought. But I was still slinking under the pressure. Classes were 90 minutes long and there were endless; END-less papers to grade. There wasn’t help from parents because most of their numbers were disconnected, and when a kid got unruly or cursed me out, I couldn’t get a hold of them, nor feedback from the write-up slip I’d submitted from my academy principal. Here I was, grading papers up to my elbow, submitting the grades all by hand and at the end of the quarter, using a calculator to manually count up each student’s grade points. I felt that I was doing 75% of the work, while my students MAYbe did 25%. I started to watch program re-runs “Head of the Class” lol, or “Saved by the Bell” and would envy students who begged their teachers for questions that might be on an upcoming test so that they could study for them. I was usually lucky to get 2 or 3 students to study for a test during mid-terms.
Now, I’m still in the same school, still struggling, still seeing Teach for America teachers or education students apply through Baltimore City Teaching Residency who enter our system and who try to make it right and make a change, just like me. Except, now, which was different from before, my breaths are more short when my kids put on their headphones rather than pay attention in class, when they yell out across the room to another student about a conversation another students had, verses a conversation a character (say) would have in one of our novels. I know what to expect and I don’t expect anymore. At the same time I try up to a certain point and expect in my classroom, that this is as good as it gets. Once, when I was in college, I daydreamed that an English teacher’s primary role was to extend beyond the literal with students, but now I felt that my role was skewed from this, that I was doing something else.
I still love English, I read and write and study it every single day. I put myself into conversations and dig it up from friends to start discussions about situations, fictional, theoretical circumstances. But, I keep my head half-way high at school. I want to keep teaching. The burner under my ‘I Will’ is just on low. I still feel that somewhere, I could get a pair of eyes to look up at me that like to imagine, that liked to feel that characters in books are ‘escapes’. That, if you want to escape to an island to get away from everyone, try reading Lord of the Flies or Life of Pi. I’ve seen a number of movies where an inner city high school teacher changes the heart of a high school system. Maybe I thought I could do this when I came to my school, or maybe I had intended to get from it something else. Somewhere, I’ll get someone to really, really love reading. And then they’ll have a discussion and be able to see themselves through someone else’s…..socks.