Commentary — September 26, 2011, 10:41 pm

An Excerpt from “Getting Schooled: The re-education of an American teacher”

Garret Keizer is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent book is The Unwanted Sound of Everything. This is an excerpt from his essay “Getting Schooled,” which was published in the September 2011 issue of Harper’s. Subscribers can read the full piece here.

On the first day of school I begin my classes with John Coltrane’s “Welcome,” at the closing bars of which a palpable attentiveness comes over my chattering students, proof of what I’ve always believed about the source of Coltrane’s genius and the wellspring within even the dopiest-seeming kid. “This is nice music,” one boy remarks, and no one sneers. As I will do with the other musical introductions I play throughout the year, all chosen to fit the interval between passing bells, I key in my selection on a purse-size CD player, as quaint to the iPod generation as a Victrola is to me. I write the name of each artist and piece on the blackboard, including the date of composition when I can find it, usually a year predating that of my students’ birth (circa 1995).

I wear a jacket and tie almost every day, one of the few adults at school who do. To these I add a pair of well-oiled work boots, an offhand expression of solidarity with the parents of our community but mostly a concession to my falling arches. For the first time in many years I have what can be called a “look”—like me and like the white-collar trade of teaching itself, a strange amalgam. A girl passing in the hall remarks that I always look “spiffy.” I reply that I would have thought I looked old. “Hey, how old are you?” she counters. “Thirty?” I take this as a compliment and beam accordingly, though on reflection I wonder if she is simply trying to agree that I am old.

In this exchange and in countless other particulars, I find confirmation of the maxim that “kids are kids.” I have been warned to expect big changes between now and the old days, but for the most part the students I meet are interchangeable with types I taught more than twenty years ago, even down to the baseball caps. I’m a bit surprised by the ubiquitous display of décolletage, the respectability of the word sucks, and the number of students who readily identify themselves as “attention deficit.” If such a disorder exists, as I’m inclined to think it does, I’m glad there are medicines to treat it, although hearing someone say “I’ve got ADD” in a culture of such vast distractedness is a bit like having a fellow passenger on an ocean liner tell you that she feels afloat. Who doesn’t?

As I expected, there have been a number of changes in the school itself. A sophisticated alarm system needs to be deactivated if you’re the first person into the building and set again if you’re the last to leave, and as I am reminded on one particularly flustered Saturday morning, it’s linked to the Office of Homeland Security. In accordance with state standards, paragraphs are now called “constructed responses.” A staff meeting to discuss students in academic jeopardy is called an EST (Educational Support Team). A kid out of jeopardy is making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). This profession-wide penchant for jargon in general and three-letter shorthand in particular, a pidgin derived from government commissions and gypsy consultants, makes the school seem forbiddingly foreign to me at first. My skepticism shrinks somewhat after attending my first morning EST and listening to my colleagues discuss how to make a more collaborative effort on behalf of the drowning students they share. Call it what you will, it can be a PIS (Pretty Impressive Sight).

By far the most noticeable and happy improvement is the number of places to which students can turn for academic assistance. What had previously been one highly stigmatized “special ed” room is now a bustling network of study areas, all staffed by unflappable, diehard tutors, most of them proficient in several subjects. Some of these areas are devoted to students with identified special needs, but there’s a laudable blurring of the boundaries, at least on the surface, that seems to make it easy for kids to feel comfortable in any given room. The word retard sadly persists in the hallways but is used mostly as an all-purpose, gender-neutral alternative to peckerhead.

Not surprisingly, many of the more salient changes are technological. The library looks like a NASA control center in which the controllers occasionally spend their break periods with a book. The proverbial dog who ate the homework is now a flash drive. Smoking in the boys’ room is now texting in the boys’ room, though to their lasting credit the addicts of yesteryear were usually able to survive at least an hour without a drag. I frequently hear the phrase “school of the 21st century” and understand it to mean the school with more wires. During one of the first staff-training days, the district superintendent tells us that 10 percent of all high school education will be computer-based by 2014 and rise to 50 percent by 2019, the implication being how close to obsolescence our methods and we ourselves have become. No one ventures to ask what would seem to be the obvious question, which is what sort of high school education Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had and what they might have failed to accomplish without it.

Such caveats aside, I come to appreciate the advantages of a computerized grade book, though like other old-timers on the staff I keep an antique paper ledger “just in case.” The end-of-marking-period all-nighter with a roped-in spouse doing backup duty on a calculator has mercifully gone the way of the mimeograph blues. Naturally, the resulting expectation is that the emancipated teacher will gather more assessments and record them in a more “timely” fashion.

In the increased emphasis on data and the imposed emphasis on standardized jargon and tests, including the standardized inanities that result (no student I meet seems to believe that the universe formed in six days but a disturbing number insist that an essay is always formed in five paragraphs), I sense the encroachment of the totalitarian “business model” that has destroyed family farming as a way of life, of the same itch for arcane nomenclature that has turned literary criticism into a pseudoscience. A veteran foreign-language teacher still going strong since my last stint at school says to me with a sigh, “I’m afraid the day of the teacher-as-artist is drawing to a close.”

That seems to be the theme of the text we study together as a faculty. According to its authors, who shamelessly recount their exemplary and now franchised successes in a middle- to upper-middle-class high school, the day of the “lone wolf” teacher is done. We must shift from “an external focus on issues outside of the school” to a focus on what business consultant Jim Collins calls “the brutal facts” of our “organization.” The notion that the very same teachers who made the greatest difference in my life need to be purged from the ranks is dispiriting enough, but the outrageous suggestion that the “brutal facts” of education have more to do with the schoolhouse than with the larger society in which my students live is enough to make me want to spit. Or teach.


To read the rest of “Getting Schooled,” subscribe to Harper’s Magazine.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Garret Keizer:

From the September 2018 issue

Labor’s Last Stand

Unions must either demand a place at the table or be part of the meal

From the July 2017 issue

Labor’s Schoolhouse

Lessons from the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913

From the February 2016 issue

Left of Bernie

You say you want a revolution

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

In response to a major volcanic eruption, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines vowed he would “eat that ashfall. I’m even going to pee on Taal, that goddamned volcano.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today