This essay is written in honor of the creative and courageous women and men who taught with me at an embattled middle school serving an economically distressed community. They performed beyond the call of duty and did so with a buoyant spirit and solidarity that gives the lie to the propagandist’s caricatures of public school teachers as indolent shirkers bilking the public. It was an honor to serve with these people whom I referred to as “the Few, the True, the Crew.”
“If I had a child who wanted to be a teacher, I would bid him Godspeed as if he were going to a war. For indeed the war against prejudice, greed, and ignorance is eternal and those who dedicate themselves to it give their lives no less because they may live to see some fraction of the battle won.” James Hilton
Only a few years ago, I had the honor of serving in a small outpost of the cultural war that consumes American politics in the second decade of the 21st century. This undeclared, but ceaselessly waged, war is a struggle for the soul and future of America. Within this decade it may be decisively won by those who, whatever their faults, seek to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people does not perish” or by those who believe the rich should rule and the rest should submit.
My battle station was an educational facility that herein shall be called Stony Banks Middle School [SBMS]. I taught Civics there and thrilled at the chance of doing so. In part my enthusiasm derived from the terrific group of women and men with whom I served. In part, it stemmed from the chance to work with a genuinely gifted educational leader. In part, it arose because I collaborated with a dedicated public servant and true champion of the middle school who served on the Stony Bank School District board. My elation and motivation, however, were mostly due to the students who were entrusted to the care of my colleagues and me.
To the utmost of our abilities we nurtured the intellects and sought to inspire the insights of the precious children who attended SBMS. None of our students came from privilege; many of them came from fractured families and turbulent neighborhoods. Our children were by and large deemed inconsequential and disposable by the party of elitism. We, who knew them, however, understood how wrong this judgment is. Despite their troubles and limited resources, our students had spirit and the ability to embrace the thrill of learning if we could only find a way to make it sufficiently vivid to drown out the numerous distractions competing for their attention.
The only things SBMS had in abundance were shortfalls, challenges, and solidarity. The constituent municipalities of the Stony Banks School District were largely impoverished; the state in which SBMS functioned had peculiarly inequitable funding methods. Consequently, funding was the first shortfall. This in turn led to scarce resources whether in the form of technology, supplies, materials, or enrichment opportunities. Another shortfall impeding our efforts at SBMS was the lack of affluence and stability in many of the households it served. So-called broken homes were common. Reading materials, Internet access, and study areas were by no means universal in the homes of the district. The emphasis placed on educational and academic effort among the families we drew from was less than optimal. These shortfalls led directly to the challenges we met on a day in and day out basis.
Because of the all-too-often unsupportive home environment, our students could not all use time outside of school to further their formal learning. Conferences and communication between the teachers and the parents were hampered due to lack of transportation and phone or email service. A residue of racial antagonism lurked beneath the surface in the minds of some families who had gone through the district in prior years and decades. Several students learned at home and in their neighborhoods that fighting was a way to deal with opposition, difficulty, or frustration. Learning disabilities and special needs were more common than was typical of surrounding districts. This prevalence aggravated the funding shortages because more special education was needed than the state funding method allowed for. This put direct pressure both regular education funding and the special education faculty at SBMS.
The funding shortfall also led directly to the challenge of integrating technology into the course work without sufficient technology to facilitate this. Comparable middle schools often have two or more technology labs for use in this process. SBMS had one lab and as staff was cut this was pressed into service to fill the class schedule and thus became unavailable for technological extensions of the core academic courses. This undercut the teaching-learning process in two ways. First, the students are attracted to technology and apply themselves more eagerly when they can use it. Second, enrichments and extensions of basic lessons were more difficult to implement without the requisite technological support.
Another illustration of a challenge confronting SBMS that was atypical for schools in the general vicinity was the library. At its inception, SBMS had a beautiful and spacious library. Unfortunately, it was almost completely lacking in books, periodicals, audio and video media, and computer resources. This lack was largely overcome through the dedicated fund raising efforts of SBMS’ first principal and the donations of the faculty. Nonetheless, it was one more challenge in an environment replete with challenges.
Due to the aforementioned less than optimal socio-economic conditions of the constituent municipalities, the SBMS student body brought the baggage of trauma, turmoil, and deprivation to school along with the customary turbulence and angst of early adolescence. Thus, the interpersonal aspects of the teaching-learning process were even more complicated than is regularly the case.
Finally, at the outset of my tour of duty, high-stakes testing was sold to a gullible electorate and foisted upon an already beleaguered district as well as every other district in the nation. This was the virtual equivalent of coming onto the battlefield during a lull in the fighting and bayonetting the wounded. The testing was never helpful, nor was it ever intended to be. In short order, SBMS was characterized as a “failing school” due to the achievement of 25 of 27 stipulated targets to make Adequate Yearly Progress [AYP]. It is ironic to say the least that a rate of 93% achievement is construed as failure. The aforementioned plethora of special education students was largely, though not exclusively, responsible for this situation. These tests warped the academic year and when they were administered, teaching-learning days were lost for no good purpose. Although the tests were given annually a couple months before the end of the school year, the results were not returned until a few weeks or even days before the beginning of the following year. This gave the faculty the chance to apply the results of the previous year’s students to the education of this year’s students. Can anyone say: “apples and oranges?”
SBMS was not an easy place to stand a post. Nonetheless, serving there was one of my life’s most rewarding efforts and the time spent there I count among my finest hours. It took character to engage in the teaching-learning process at SBMS. It took courage. For 3,000 days it was my distinct privilege to willingly “march into Hell for a Heavenly cause” alongside some of the finest human beings it has ever been my good fortune to know. It was my joy to “feed the fire” of curiosity and reach the hearts and minds of children the prosperous and the powerful seek only to deprive and deride. It made my heart swell with pride to experience the cohesion achieved by this dedicated group of professional educators.
The never-ending battle against prejudice, greed, ignorance, hostility, and suspicion raged daily at SBMS. The setbacks were numerous, but the advances were exquisite. The harder the struggle the more glorious the triumph fully applied at SBMS.
The music teacher enlisted and taught a group of aspiring musicians and led them in two superb concerts each year. The art teacher fanned the spark of creativity and facilitated her students in the production of works of genuine artistic worth. The foreign language teacher introduced the students to Spanish which really should be America’s second language. The physical education teacher and the health teacher instilled the concepts of personal responsibility, human interaction, sexual responsibility, wellness and mental and physical fitness. The language arts faculty developed written communications skills and closed looming gaps in reading proficiency. The special education faculty guided particularly challenged students toward full participation and real progress. The science and mathematics faculty gave students exposure to the scientific method and the symbolic language of the Cosmos. The social studies faculty engaged students in the exploration of world cultures, American history and the opportunities and obligations of citizenship in a Republic. The guidance counselor went several extra miles and actively facilitated resolutions to the abundance of conflicts and quarrels which erupted among stressed students who carried neighborhood disputes into the school. The gathering fog of foolishness, spitefulness, and credulity was held at bay and in places pushed back. The lights of curiosity, critical thinking, and cooperation were turned on.
At the end of each week, each quarter and each year though weary, battered, and running almost on empty emotionally, my treasured colleagues and I knew the endeavor had been worth the effort. We had come together, stuck together, and made progress together. We had made contact with intelligent life on Earth in the persons of our students. We left them a bit more informed and a bit more inspired than they were when we first met them. We got them to be a bit more able to distinguish fact from fabrication and treasured truth from treacherous falsehood.
No celebrations acclaimed our efforts; no awards rained down upon either us or our students. But the world was a tad better for all of us having grappled with the teaching-learning process. In the face of countless temptations to unleash heat, we had instead shone some light. The next day, the next week, the next year, we would go back at it. We would endeavor to feed the fires of curiosity and creativity smoldering within the children entrusted to us. We would shield the flickering flame of learning from the rampaging winds of an indifferent culture and guard it with our efforts, our talents, and our professional honor.
SBMS stills stands, but the intervening years have not been kind. Previously significant resource shortfalls have become critical. The team structure, a key and unappreciated source of strength, has been ripped asunder. The leader and the champion are gone as am I.
The idea of doing more with less has become a vicious excuse for loading an already overloaded group with greater demands. Still the brave men and women with whom I served insist on soldiering on. They refuse to submit to uncontested disasters. I feel for them. I salute them. Rarely in the annals of human endeavor has so much been done for so many with so little as has been done by these few, these happy few, my band of brothers and sisters.