F Washington Irving for Destroying Public Education: A Tribute To Striking Teachers In Chicago


I worked in an English Department adjacent to the “crazy” drama teacher — eccentric, to those who grew up in the ‘60’s—who, along with her two genius daughters, saw men as useful for breeding purposes alone. Claiming to be an anarchist, she intentionally slept in a different place each night to avoid lapsing into dangerous, ritualized behaviors. Once past my initial shock over her houseful of homeschooled children with no man in sight, I grew into an uneasy appreciation of virtually everything this anarchic, matriarchal, drama queen had to say.    Her burn-down-the-house tirades had cathartic benefits my first year as an educator in a failing, inner-city school. Yet, I felt ominous portent in her random, theater-of-the-absurd performances; they made me laugh the laugh that hints at something darker.    She delighted in her power to reduce me to cathartic laughter, teetering on the edge of hysteria. (I’m sure she found me amusing, too, poised as I was to singlehandedly rescue inner-city Birmingham schools from imminent state takeover.)  However, my unofficial mentor seemed to be guiding me, assuming anarchists can guide, toward something heretofore unacknowledged, something that needed outing, some essential understanding of this strange new futile job.

But I had to pigeonhole that knowledge for about twenty years so I could attend to my emerging control over the world of teaching: the stupid f’in’ engine that couldn’t.

I worried about the increasing hints of violence in her outbursts, especially when played out in front of less tolerant audiences, i.e., virtually every other teacher, administrator and student in this Bible- Belt public school. Not everyone enjoyed or approved of avant guard, epate le bourgeoisie, teachers’ lounge, performance art. Like  Brom Bones’ driving from town of Ichabod Crane, I feared teachers would run her out of town all by themselves—with no assistance from town jock.  This was a system in which once–I kid you not–the superintendent asked an entire stadium of teachers to stand if they believed in God. My high school principal routinely pulled gang bangers out of class for invitation-only tent revivals in the auditorium.  Administrators seemed to be doing more than just talking about religion; they were acting on it. So, I worried over the drama teacher’s employment future, especially given the houseful of pregnant daughters and their children that she supported.

Nonetheless, I laughed with nervous delight when, one fine day in the teachers’ lounge, she did a dramatic re-enactment of herself chewing out some miscreant student earlier that morning. Drawing upon the high theatrics only a drama teacher could muster, she brought to life the whole, brutal upbraiding.  She puffed up in righteous indignation as she unleashed her “word hoard’ on this poor child.  “The beauty of it,” she trumpeted, “is that he seemed powerless to respond.  At the end,” she concluded, “I was a little surprised to discover myself alone…naked…and in the shower.  But it had seemed so real that I was momentarily disoriented.”

The lukewarm laughter that arose in the lounge may have been polite cover for a growing conviction that she needed drug testing…or worse.   I suspected, however, that many present harbored silent concerns that they had experienced similar teacher moments: rage-filled lapses of consciousness.  Yes, teachers are giving imaginary people the what for in their showers…and in their sleep, and –gasp– not all of them are students.   I’d just experienced a particularly virulent parent conference that morning, while alone…in my car.  To write off these outbursts of rage as a quirky, Mr. Chips-prepares-for-the-standardized-test-that-will-determine-his-future-salary moments would be to miss the point:  teachers are imploding with time-and-space transporting, reality-bending rage.   Barely beneath the surface of that corduroy  jumper with large crayon-appliques, just beneath the insipid “it’s-all-about-the-children” pose—which, by the way, throws me into irrational paroxysms of rage—lies a teacher in need of on-going anger-management therapy.  The startling revelation? It may NOT be “all about the children” at all; it may be about the angry-as-hell people who are teaching our children…stupid!

No degree in psychology is needed to ferret out the underlying causes of this epidemic teacher rage:  a vast bureaucratic system expecting highly personalized service to a veritable sea of students, parents, state and local administrators, blah, blah, blah….  We’ve heard it all before. Now, hear this: Teachers are the new Postal worker, seething over strict adherence to myriad petty demands while serving the masses with the kind of smile that says, “You’re really important to me.”   Caught between test-score-determined job security and a 150+ headcount that expects an impossible, individualized education plan (IEP for the untutored), most teachers teeter precariously on the verge of a nervous breakdown or its “saner” counterpart, abject rage.  “Sure, I can get your at-best, average kid into an Ivy League school, but I’m afraid I’ll have to avail myself of new scientific developments in serotonin uptake inhibitors to stay as comfortably numb as possible while keeping your massively deluded train on schedule.” Or, more apt to the situation in Chicago, “Sure, I’ll be happy to  single-handedly resolve the problem of urban poverty that’s plagued our nation for time immemorial—you know, by equalizing the playing field.” Then there’s this one: “Don’t worry yo’ pretty little heads over the conundrum that the tests you mandated mean I’ll be drilling the crap out of the urban kid with a worksheet while his suburban counterpart moves on to critical thinking and writing. It’s the new way we maintain a cheap labor force in this country, eager to give up union rights in a last ditch effort to save their jobs from Bain Capital.”

The disequilibrium (euphemism for insanity) of my former English Department colleagues became apparent when I tallied that 13 out of 18 were on mind-altering pharmaceuticals (mostly legal)—that is the 13 who admitted to it. Keep in mind, no teacher really wants it generally known she isn’t coping well with the huge pile of shit routinely thrown in her path.  As if!   As if equilibrium could be maintained by someone on stage all day, Michelle Pheifering some f’in’ amazing product from children who live in warzones, only to arrive home with that night’s spontaneously regenerating Russian novel to grade and annotate.  As if equilibrium could be maintained in a job in which one’s own inadequacies are encrypted in the piece-of-shit paper that just exacerbated one’s TMJ… with the understanding, of course, that one will be grinding through the same crap for another 100 essays.  Slowly reduced to obscenities as you grade, constructive margin notes are soon abbreviated to a huge, red “NO!”

What makes teacher rage so volatile is that there is no time to process the extreme anxiety and resulting anger that plagues the profession.  As one clever colleague, who jumped ship to work in business, explains, “I never made more–or more instantaneous decisions of such major import as I did as a teacher.  The sheer volume was mind boggling.”   Her new luxury of having a few minutes to deliberate over important decisions had gone a long way toward soothing jangled teacher nerves.  While delighted that someone from the outside understood, we all hated her because she had found a way out.   No bile is as bitter as that which teachers cough up upon realizing public perception of them:  lazy, civil-servant functionaries, stoking the furnaces of pre-fab, state-mandated curriculum materials while sneaking a bite of fried chicken wrapped in a greasy napkin in their desk drawer.

Providing time off for teachers to seek medical help for the psycho-somatic illnesses that erupt from repressed rage is both an inconvenient and unwelcome expense to school systems.  One art teacher, angered at the indignity of having to explain to the principal the exact nature of a medical absence, snapped, “It was for irritable bowel syndrome. In fact, my doctor said he had so many teachers with this problem in his patient load, he’d re-named it ‘teacher bowel syndrome.’  We’re all oozing liquids from orifices and can’t even take a bathroom break for fear we’ll be sued when Johnny beats the crap out of little Ralph.”  Her righteous pleasure at the way this angry outburst had silenced the shocked administrator was dutifully reinforced as we barked our approval with a laugh, or, rather, a cough of Baudelairean spleen.

So, why had we pulled the trigger, chosen the teaching profession?  Though few can turn the noise down long enough to even remember, there were points of light that guided us out of the Platonic cave…and into…the chains of yet another shadowy area. Hidden deep within the collective unconscious of all teachers sleeps the ideal form of TEACHER, the Platonic form we envisioned when choosing the teaching profession over other important 21st century employment opportunities—like barista.  Many envisioned glib professorial exchanges with like-minded intellectuals.  Others anticipated the day they would become the crusty-but-beloved Mr. Chips cum leader of the Dead Poet’s Society, challenging young minds with endlessly inspired, student-generated Hegelian dialectics.  But as all good Neo-Platonists know, the highest ideal is IDEAL JUSTICE, defined as knowing one’s proper place in the social hive. It may well be that America’s public schools have never been terribly interested in creating future philosopher kings, focused as they were on more pressing concerns…like teaching Honey Boo Boo how to read.  Now we have even bigger fish to fry, like how to mold students into compliant middle-class citizens who pay the bills on time that support entitlement programs for the rich and the military.  Of course, any close analysis of Platonic idealism must point to the fact that the concept of  idealism itself is critical to keeping inhabitants of the Republic chasing those carrots on sticks– everything and everybody running, running, running…in place.  Idealism fuels the whole operation, the most bitter and most ironic teacher pill to swallow of all. But, hey, don’t stop believing.  It’s all about the children.

Little wonder that so many find themselves seething with rage as they cling pathetically to the beatific, Dangerous Minds vision of teaching.   They hold it close and dear, even when forced to confront the fact that they are merely warehousing kids whose names they will be lucky to learn by Christmas.  Even when moving pudgy, grain-fed, kids who just drank a Coke for breakfast through the mind-numbing drills that will determine their future employment, teachers cling to the ideal.  Even when casting the losing vote against colleagues who want to adopt the Post-Modern excuse for a textbook, replete with huge pictures, bulleted chapter reviews embedded in the chapter itself, and fun-filled, cross-curricular activities for differently-abled learning styles, one clings to the ideal.  Even when the not-so-subtle subtext of every department meeting answers the question “How can we make things easier on ourselves?” Even when looking at the placid, compliant, army of kids stoned on Adderall. Even when class is cut short for a pep rally that reinforces conventional gender roles in a grotesque ritual of premature sexuality that prepares kids for the oxy-condoned college date-rape scene… or the senior trip to Aruba.   Even when overhearing the football coach, who makes six figures to your low five, telling his team to hit that rack of practice dummies “like it’s your girlfriend on Saturday night.”  Even when every principal you’ve ever had harbors secret anti-intellectual beliefs that include teachers lightening the fuck up so kids can be as happy as they were in his do-nothing class before he saw the WAY OUT:  school administration. And, yes, I know this paragraph is filled with sentence fragments so you can shitcan the “I thought you were an English teacher” remark.  Yeah.  Quel suprise.  I’ve heard it before.

Yet, somehow, the ideal persists.  In spite of every possible obstacle and roadblock, it roils and festers like all unattainable ideals.  Or, to use that over-anthologized poem that ostensibly teaches kids what it feels like to be a completely disenfranchised African American—and, increasingly, an average Caucasian-American citizen–“like a dream deferred.”  Let’s face it; we’re all trying to quell the rage of promises not kept, though teachers may especially feel the sting of being duped by a career in which Robin Williams and Michelle Pfeiffer so self-righteously excel.

To question whether the education system itself may be somehow thwarting one’s efforts to succeed is to tread into some particularly nasty, rage-inducing conundrums.  Is there a systemic plan to destroy Public Education through test-driven curricula that fosters bored students, state takeovers, white flight, ghettoization of inner-city kids, and terminally pissed off teachers?  Once that godless, Humanistic project, Public Education, has finally and irrevocably failed, it can be replaced by vouchers for religious education and homeschooling—if those are indeed distinct from one another.  As much as I love conspiracy theories, it still seems farfetched that one would sacrifice generations of teachers and students just to put prayer back in school or, more aptly, teach young girls to be passive sperm receptacles. But, hey, people fly planes into buildings over this stuff. But surely those who detest Sharia Law can find a better way to impose Sharia Law on us all than watching teachers bloody their heads against the brick walls of a Sisyphus-like task, year after year.

Like a Washington Irving story, all cheer as the under-fed teacher is run out of town by the jock.  We have become the amalgam of anti-intellectual, ethnic folklore Washington Irving hobbled together into stories that some literary critics claim are America’s first purely American literature.

Better still, maybe we can mercifully find a way to expedite the whole bloody trajectory of failure that is Public Education, ending teacher torture once and for all.  The Savings and Loans pulled it off in half the time, though I suppose if Reagan had created more deregulated opportunities for corporate greed in education, we could have pulled it off, too, without this prolonged wailing and gnashing of teeth. I guess submitting teachers to slow torture feels like we have let the punishment fit the crime. Teachers get the karmic justice they deserve.   To those raised on Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones, that deepest of  our collective unconscious view of education, teachers have always been the enemy.   So be it.  I always wanted to hang something on Washington Irving besides utterly derivative, homogenized pabulum, pandering to the lowest common denominator. Here it is: F you, Washington Irving, for destroying public education.

Oh yeah, and that drama teacher?  She moved on to a teaching position at her grandchildren’s school, a Montessori-like school on steroids.  The kids made things by hand, and stayed with projects that interested them—gasp–for as long as productively engaged. The school jettisoned those fragmentary, snap-shot teaching methods and textbooks that pride themselves on reaching out to  Game-Boy kids with zero attention span.  The grandchildren of this matriarchal anarchist are now poised to be completely ill-equipped for the demands made in the treacherous, Post-modern world ahead–assuming Post-Modern worlds make demands other than the implied demand of “it’s all good.”     But, to hell with educational anarchist hippies… who look weirdly like conservatives!  “We back production; we shoot Coke-a-Cola…. One and one and one is three.”


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