A teacher reflects on race, discipline, and the unwritten codes of the American education system.
Thinking we could order ourselves, we mapped good and evil into textbook geographies, plotting America as God’s bounty, Africa the black and savage void. We curated a literary canon of honesty and virtue, diligence and patriotism, hard work: Washington Irving and Hamlet’s soliloquy and the Sermon on the Mount. Not to mention arithmetic, hefty word problems meditating on frugality, the benefits of saving for old age; and history, which told of the goodness of the Pilgrims, Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson, the pioneers. Complications could be chalked up to disloyalty (see Benedict Arnold, Native Americans, Catholics). This is not to mention the timepieces placed on the wall of each classroom as admonition for youth’s wasting of it, teachers at poor country schools striking cowbells to announce the hour. This is not to mention that we did not know how to love them, only how to press our children into the shape of the people we had somehow failed to be. People who were moral and orderly, and also afraid, soldiers out of formless clay.
Reformists introduced the common school at a dynamic time in American history. In 1845, an influx of immigrants and rising wealth among an elite few widened the divisions between social classes. In cities, riots and public disorder were routine. A common school – which would educate not just the few, but the many – promised to restore social harmony, shaping the character, morals, and intelligence of the next generation.
Around that time, an immigrant wrote shortly after arriving in America:
Give to education… a clear field and fair play and your poor houses, lazarettos, and hospitals will stand empty, your prisons and penitentiaries will lack inmates, and the whole country will be filled with wise, industrious, and happy inhabitants. Immorality, vice and crime, disease, misery and poverty, will vanish from our regions, and morality, virtue and fidelity, with health, prosperity, and abundance, will make their permanent home amongst us.
It was thought that all of this character could be developed through Puritan ethics of hard work, punctuality, honesty, and sobriety, and when that failed, the rod. When the reformists talked about character, they were talking about the virtues of the poor, or rather, what virtues the poor lacked. They were talking about the unspoken rule that mandated how a person behaved determined what he could obtain.
When I first began teaching at age 22, I liked to think I recognized the absurdity of rules enforced in school. Asking permission to perform a bodily function, raising one’s hand in the air to speak: these were farces, scrupulous controls of the body’s operations to obtain power through the infinitesimal. So too, were rules that skirt hems must extend below the knee, and that no shoulder strap could be narrower than three fingers wide, as though morality could be measured by the millimeter.
I thought I knew something about teenagers and debauchery: cigarettes smoked in parking lots, drug-sniffing dogs, teenage mothers. When I was in grade school we were lectured on why it was wrong to wear t-shirts depicting drugs or alcohol or sex, and what a bandanna signified, or a single earring could mean. I thought I knew something about fights, two bodies locked against one another, toppling desks. I had lived through the era of Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Lancaster schoolhouse, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. During the Indian summer of the Beltway sniper, we were not allowed outside our middle school. We ran laps in the gymnasium’s stifling heat. So I thought I knew something about danger, too.
But I was not prepared for the winter morning when I saw a line of Kindergarteners standing with their breath clouding the air before their faces, waiting to cross the metal detector on their way to the classroom. I was not prepared to watch a wand move over the little bodies, not prepared to see their pockets turned inside out, the pile of single gloves lost in their wake. I was not prepared to see boys and girls, barely adolescents, in ankle monitors. I was not prepared for the day a teacher said to me, about a child, “I wish he would commit a crime.” I was not prepared to enter a profession in which children could be handcuffed for raising their voices; for “agitation,” for “stealing chicken nuggets,” for “doodling on a desk.” I was not prepared for the day I watched a teaching assistant splash water on an autistic boy’s face and tell me, “It is because I cannot hit him or spit on him.” I was not prepared for the day I watched school police converge on a teenager who would not sit in his assigned seat. I was not prepared for the notion that we would be safe if only our children wore the right clothes. I was not prepared for the day I watched a teacher stick a finger in a six-year-old’s face and tell him, “I can be meaner and I can be louder because I am bigger than you.” I carried Eula Biss’s essay “Land Mines” around like a holy tome. “The public school system, I discovered, defied theory. And this system, I became convinced, rendered individuals impotent.”
I had been born to the “right” kind of people – which is to say my parents were affluent and white – the kind of people who know what their rights are and how to negotiate them, and who understand that success has everything to do with whether or not one recognizes a series of unspoken cyphers. My parents knew how to decrypt the right kinds of codes, and they passed their index on to me. So in 6th grade, when the dean called me to her office because she found my gym uniform in the lost and found—a detention-worthy offense—I went because I knew I would be okay. And when she told me to kneel on the ground before her and sort through the pile of abandoned clothes, I bent my knee. She made me look twice, because she was “sure that she saw it in there.” The codes had imprinted themselves upon me so I knew to hold my tongue, and bow my head, and mute the indignant brass bells clanging inside. I knew someone would rescue me. My grey shirt and shorts were not there, so the dean dismissed me without penalty, and later I found that my teacher had recognized my uniform in the pile, and because he liked the last name written in the waistband, he had hid it away for safekeeping.
For a year and a half while I was a graduate student, I worked in an urban school district as a substitute teacher, easily the worst job of my life. When people in power believe you are unimportant, they will say things in front of you that they would not say in front of others: that they believe a child is evil, for example, or a “real piece of work.” On some days I walked into classrooms where teachers had left a single sheet of paper to occupy hours. On others, they left only a red folder, with a tricolored packet of referral forms inside, and a note that if anyone “gave me a problem,” I could just send them away. Rarely did I know a single student by name. In that year and a half I found myself repeating “sit down,” and “raise your hand,” and “stop talking” most of all. In some schools I was afraid of what the children would do or say to me if they took action on the unspoken truth that I had absolutely no power over them. One day, a class behaved so poorly that I told them they owed me five minutes after the bell, five minutes of the time they would otherwise spend at lunch. I stood at the door to block them and they swarmed past me. A girl called me a bitch and told me to get out of the way. I did. I stood and watched their backs moving down the long corridor.
I was getting my master’s in secondary education, and when I began student teaching at a city high school I had thankfully never substituted at before, teachers often told me to raise my voice. “You have to be louder than them.” “Be meaner,” they told me, and, “You should not smile so much.” Because I had seen so many teachers yelling in my time as a substitute, I vowed that I never would. I also came to hesitate at counting students tardy. Those who were late too often were sent to a bare room where they served out a day’s sentence. Foucault said, “Discipline sometimes requires enclosure, the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and enclosed upon itself.” As with punishments for other offenses, a disproportionate number of black students were sent to detention for minor transgressions like tardiness. Repeat violations culminated with a red bar marking the top of their file, indicating they were failing and “at risk.” The label itself suggested a kind of moral decrepitude, as though it were difficult to imagine they had any good qualities at all. I never filled out the tardy slips for the students under my charge, but my mentor teacher did on my behalf. She took great pleasure in checking to see whether they reported for in-school suspension. When a student did not report, she called into his class on the intercom. “Is Rayquan present? He is supposed to be in in-school. Please send him down.” She told me to wait with her at the door to hand Rayquan his assignments. When he arrived, he knocked my feebly proffered sheets of paper aside. “I don’t care,” he said, with a note of iron in his voice.
My mentor teacher waved over an administrator. “Please watch what Rayquan does when Miss Christensen tries to hand him his assignments,” she said. I was to try again.
When I walked in the room Rayquan was leaning back in a chair and staring dully at the desk before him. When I said his name he made no motion to indicate he had heard. I asked if he could use this time to write a vignette he had never completed because he had missed so much school. He nodded. I passed him the assignment and asked if he had a pencil. He nodded again. Paper? Yes. I told him I would come back in two hours to check on him. When I did, I would find that he covered two pages of lined paper in even, soft handwriting, paper on which he wrote the words, “Quicker than the breath of air I miss my family already.” He wrote the page numbers in the top left corners, his name on the right. When Rayquan turned 17 two months later – he was still only a freshman – he was informed he was too far behind to possibly graduate from high school. When I looked at his file I learned that Rayquan had been held back in Kindergarten, and then again in the Fourth grade, his academic future essentially determined for him at the age of 12.
“You should have been meaner,” my mentor teacher said to me as we walked away from the bare room. “You should have yelled.”
We are living in the latest of a series of school reformation eras. And yet, with regard to the rationale underlying discipline, little has changed since the time of the common school. This rationale has several component parts:
- Discipline is intrinsic to academic mastery;
- Discipline establishes order, and order is necessary for learning; and
- Discipline is an independent good.
Without school discipline, there is no self-imposed discipline. Tardiness, talking, and chewing are actions considered to be disruptive or disrespectful, and thereby delinquent. A short hemline is perceived as immodest; a hood over the head, dangerous. It is unquestioning obedience that is admirable, and rules requiring restraint, delayed gratification, inhibition, and moderation encourage it. The logical links that bind the actions of orderliness to morality, and then to academic skills and subject matter, are weak. There is little to stop overzealous or abusive teachers. “Disrespectful,” wrote my mentor teacher at the top of every disciplinary referral, acting as an instrument of her own ideas about social order. Sometimes she filled out the forms before students even arrived to class, predicting their future transgressions. “Defiant,” she wrote. “Obnoxious.” “Rude.”
Each afternoon, after the students had left school, I stood in the staff room making copies and stared at a sign someone had posted above the machine. It bared a quote I was sure I had seen somewhere before, and it read something like: These days schools are publicly operated holding cells where teachers are afraid of their principals, principals are afraid of their superintendents, superintendents are afraid of the board, board members are afraid of the parents, parents are afraid of the children, and children are afraid of nobody. This seemed a dismal kind of philosophy to occupy the space where teachers took their lunch breaks, as well as fundamentally inaccurate. Each day I read it and thought that while teachers might be afraid of their principals, they were surely more afraid of the children they were with each day: afraid of their rudeness, their defiance, their disregard. And students were far from fearless themselves. They carried a palpable, amorphous terror cloaked as anger, and indignation, and attitude. Like all humans they were creatures of want, a series of mouths asking for – what? Both things desired and things required. They were afraid that they would be misled, or were afraid that they would go unfed, or afraid that they would be misunderstood. But most of all, what struck me about the sign was the way in which it ascribed fear with a weighty importance, as though fearlessness could be the reason for a lack of order, and therefore cause great and unparalleled failure.
The first time I heard about the district’s alternative school for students deemed too disorderly for an ordinary classroom, I was working in a particularly impoverished school. I was there for maybe three months in all, and at some points it seemed that every day another student was disappearing, sent away to be reformed. One afternoon a group of girls would be sitting in the principal’s office, hands folded in their laps. By the next, someone would have seen them in the neighborhood wearing the alternative school’s uniform of skirts and button down shirts, already rumpled and already stained.
Not much was said about the school. The most damning article I read dated to 2008, when the school first opened. It referenced daily riots and brawls; the police were called 36 times in a single school year. The students told me that at the school, they made you walk with your hands behind your back. Those who spoke of it seemed less concerned with discipline, and more afraid that the school would change them. Perhaps they feared that whatever spark in them, the one that allowed them to see the unfairness of their own circumstances, would be extinguished. Perhaps they feared that the school would make them evil, instill them with the malevolence authorities had already attributed to their names. What the students did not realize was that the nonprofit company running the alternative school had a consultant working at their own school already. I think this is why it was so easy for a bothersome student to be sent away. The consultant ran a daily morning assembly in which teachers had an opportunity to address, but mostly berated, the gathered students. I stopped working at the school after I saw the consultant put his hands on a child who had refused to take off his hood. He lifted the boy from his seat and wrestled him out the doors of the gymnasium. The boy hung limp from his hands, black marks on the floor from his dragging shoes. I left because I knew the student did not have parents who would tell, and I did not know who I could. “The classical age discovered the body as an object of target and power,” wrote Foucault.
I heard the alternative school mentioned again when my mentor teacher and I called the homes of students who were failing. It was Valentine’s Day. One mother wished me happiness on the phone, despite the fact I had called to say her son had a grade of 23 percent. “These are the behaviors that will land him in the alternative school,” my mentor teacher said to another mother she had on the line. “He is disrespectful. The hood never comes down. The headphones never come out.” She told me that the family used to be her neighbors, the boy who was now her student “always snotty-nosed.” Since he arrived in the classroom I had not noticed any defiance. He spoke, but softly. He rarely handed in his work, and as the weeks wore on, became less and less responsive, barely picking up a pencil, hardly looking at me when I asked if he understood what was required. His countenance bore an expression of feigned fearlessness, but he looked more like a person who was drowning.
Administrators sent students to the alternative school because they thought they needed fixing, or saving, or to be made in some way right. It was the same reformatory urge that prevailed in the freedmen’s schools of the Reconstruction South. The majority of teachers working with newly freed slaves were former Confederates, sometimes previous slave owners themselves. They took the jobs because the war had left them devastatingly poor, and they used the classroom as a means to reinforce the pre-Emancipation hierarchy. Texts and tracts encouraged a spirit of paternalism. The Reverend Isaac W. Brinkerhoff’s Advice to Freedmen instructed African Americans to keep clean homes, abstain from lying and infidelity, and to defer to Southern whites. But other teachers were Northern women, driven from their sheltered homes by a pious impetus to teach. They believed that the ignorant freed slaves needed redeeming, but more than that, they believed the work would offer them some deliverance for their own lives. They wanted to save themselves. Wrote 20-year-old Maggie Webster, “I am eager, impatient, to begin a service to which, if God will, I solemnly, joyfully consecrate my life.”
It was with some frequency that I heard teachers utter the phrase, “I just wish that I could save them all.” The sentiment disregarded any notion that the students had some authority or autonomy over the course of their own lives. “I just wish that I could save them all.” They said it as they sat beneath the fearful workroom sign, forking lunch into their mouths. “But some of them don’t want saving.”
But of course I wanted to save them too. Those students who missed weeks because they had stayed at home to care for their siblings, with their parents just out of surgery. The girl who brought mace to school, who was suspended, whose only question after was whether she could get the money for her dance ticket back. The boy who called me “ma’am” in a tone that somehow managed to make me feel small. (He calls us ma’am when his father beat him, another teacher at the school would tell me later.) I wanted to save them. Of course I did, even as I recognized that my own impetus came from a place of feigned piety, even as I recognized that I only wanted saving for myself. One day I asked my class to make a list of things in life they would like to escape. I was surprised to see how many wrote down ordinary things: death and taxes, gossip, drama, stress. And I was surprised by how many could not think of any part of their lives they did not believe was worth living. No, they did not want saving. And why would they, from us so unequipped to tell them the way in which they should be living?
One afternoon after dismissal a fire alarm sounded. I was sitting on a desk talking to my mentor teacher about the plans for the next morning. The warning went off with a shriek, a rhythmic demand for us to leave. My mentor teacher raised her voice above it and continued to speak. “We can climb out the window if we need to,” she joked. We did not know whether this was a drill, a test of teacher compliance, or whether, somewhere, there were actually flames. I did not move from the table. I let her keep talking because I did not want her to see that I was afraid. When I left the school, perhaps ten minutes later, the alarm had stopped sounding and the parking lot was mostly empty. I doubted that anyone else had evacuated, but I told myself I would have, if only I had been alone. And driving away I wondered whether my inaction was all too indicative of the person I might become as a teacher. Rats, too, will fail to notice the scent of their poisoning. We could see no smoke around us. So we had made no effort for even our own salvation.
Photo by Kevin Krejci.