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Published in Print: November 1, 1999, as Unforgiven


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Overwhelmed by the pressures of an inner-city school, a teacher blames no one as much as herself.

My students lived in a world of anger. Instead of offering them patience, I gave them more anger.

Laurel Street Elementary School stands at the intersection of Laurel and Tama rind on a few acres of dirt in South Central Los Angeles. The surrounding neighborhood, with its wide streets, ample sidewalks, and single-family homes spaced neatly apart, could pass for a comfortable middle-class suburb. Until you take a closer look: gang graf fiti scrawls across abandoned homes, garbage rots in the alleyways, and aimless boys roam the streets on pieced-together bicycles.

Laurel Street Elementary is where I first taught. At 22, I accepted a job with Teach for America, an organization that places recent college graduates in "underserved" inner-city and rural public schools for two-year stints. With just six weeks of training and a crisp red, white, and blue T-shirt, I was assigned to teach 3rd grade.

My lessons did not go as planned. I had enthusiasm and energy, but those qualities didn't count for much at Laurel Street. What counted was the school's lack of supplies, the bullets found on the playground, the death of an older brother in a gang fight, the little girl with a knife, the boy with welts like a ring around his neck, and the rotting teeth, the chronic ear infections, and the lice. What counted was my lack of experience, their lack of self-control, the chaos in the school system, and the violence in the neighborhood. I wanted to teach, and they wanted to learn, but too much stood in the way.

The second year, strangely, was the worst. That year, the district decided to track all the elementary classes by reading level. Experienced teachers would be assigned the "lowest" readers in each grade, and unbelievably, as a 23-year-old, second-year teacher, I was the most senior 3rd grade teacher at the school. And at Laurel Street Elementary, the lowest readers meant nonreaders, and nonreaders meant 8-year-olds who had emotional, behavioral, and even physical problems. All of these kids--more than 30 of them-- were in my class.

It was overwhelming. Teach for America sent a retired teacher once or twice that year to help, but she just sat in the back of the classroom and suggested that perhaps I needed decorative bulletin boards. What I, and Laurel Elementary, needed was a full-time school psychologist, a licensed nurse, and a special-education teacher.

But that's not how I remember it. I don't look back and tally up the policy missteps, the school's shortcomings. If I did, perhaps I could put the experience behind me. "It was a no-win situation," I could tell myself. But I don't remember it that way.

I remember it in fragments, like the images plastered on a roadside billboard--there in an instant, as if from nowhere. Sometimes I see a child's dark eyes or a scuffed knee, or I remember the feel of a warm forehead, the sound of an eager voice. I remember the day that Albertneisha--who could not count, whose little brother had been killed by a speeding car--recited a poem by Langston Hughes. For the first time that year, her voice was slow and proud, an actress blooming. I remember when Sergio interrupted my lesson on multiplication to blurt out, "Sergio's my name, learning's my game."

I remember Jerome-who lived with his aunt (the one with eyes that oozed and lips that smelled of old liqueur)-and his artwork. He used crayons like they were a tool to another world. He'd stand at his desk and press down on the crayon with all his strength, making brilliant lines of deep color and often ripping his paper in the process.

I remember the day Jawain wrote a Christmas story that made me cry.

Giving to Poorby: Jawain Tousant

Once upon a time a poor came to my door and said to me, "I am poor can you help me? I have no home can I live with you?" "And I said you can live whit me." The End

Jawain, the youngest of nine children. Jawain, who lived in a trailer and slept in a bed with four siblings. Jawain believed that there were others more destitute. When he saw the stumbling, homeless men in his neighborhood, he considered himself lucky, not poor, and felt charitable.

Each triumph, however small, seemed always to be followed by five disasters. One day, Jose called Drayvonne a name. Drayvonne, whose mother was in prison, took a swing at Jose. He grabbed Jose's hair and yanked, tears streaming down his face. In desperation, I grabbed Drayvonne from behind and wrapped my arms around him in a bear hug. He struggled, desperate to strike anyone, anything. "Stop, Drayvonne, stop," I whispered. We danced around the playground--Drayvonne, pushing and pulling with all his might, and me, afraid of what might happen if I let go. The other kids laughed and ignored my commands. "Children, get in line. Do not tease him!"

Finally, Mrs. Jefferson rescued me, to my humiliation. She spoke to my class in her patient, veteran teacher voice, "Y'all should be ashamed of yourselves," and took Drayvonne by the arm and led him away. And he went without a word, suddenly a sad, confused 8-year-old again. I stood in the dirt feeling my failure swell around me.

Another day, Marcus' mother came to school threatening to beat her son and have me fired if he didn't get better grades. I remember thinking that she might beat me, too. The next morning, Marcus kicked his chair and stomped out of the classroom, screaming at the other kids, "Stop looking at me!" Marcus had hands that shook. Marcus had a good day at school when he could write his name, once, on a piece of paper. I could not help Marcus.

Then there was the day we had the "red alert." When the teacher next door told me, I sucked in my breath, remembering something ominous from teacher orientation. Flipping open the teachers' manual, I read: "Red Alert: Lock all classroom doors and windows. Stay inside. Intruders on campus." An emergency bell sounded. I locked everything, struggling to appear calm. Now, the classroom was a dark, stifling cave. The only fresh air seeped in through the bullet holes in the boarded-over windows.

"What's wrong, Ms. Mullan?" someone wanted to know.

"Um, open your math books."

"Why can't we open the door?"

My heart was pounding.

Bam, bam! Something like gun shots sounded in the distance. My jaw clenched. I sat hunkered down at my desk, remembering the teacher I'd heard about in the news, the one who was killed by a stray bullet while teaching a lesson on library skills.

I looked at the pensive little faces in front of me--so young, so energetic, so troubled. No one looked scared. They looked resigned. I was the one who was scared.

"That was bullets, Ms. Mullan."

"I think you're right."

"My mom says those are from the gangs."

"My uncle knows all the gangs," someone else added.

"I wish all the gangs would go away so we could play outside after school," someone said.

"Yeah, me too, I hate the bad men. My brother doesn't come home, and my Grandma cries, and I never get to go nowhere."

"I saw a man shot in the eye, he had blood coming everywhere."

As my second year of teaching wore on, my problems in the classroom became overwhelming. I couldn't relax. I constantly felt sick. At home, my bedroom was stacked with teaching materials. There was always something I should be doing to improve my classroom. If only I could figure out the right discipline plan or the perfect reading lesson, I could save these kids. I could teach them all to read. Looking back, I know I was delusional. I couldn't ensure success for them, but I couldn't stop trying.

Then came a Friday afternoon that I may never forgive myself for. It was after computer lab. The kids had been noisy and disruptive all morning. On the way back to our classroom, Christopher sprinted over to Susanna and whapped her on the head with a rock. Susanna, a quiet child, began to cry. As I tried vainly to comfort her and discipline Christopher, the rest of the kids ran about yelling in the corridor. I felt helpless, stranded, enraged. Someone had been hurt, no one cared, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

That's when I lost it. "Get inside!" I hollered. "Get in your seats! Put your heads down, and don't make a sound." They ran into the classroom, pushing and shoving. "You will write me an apology letter! You will not make a sound!" I tossed paper at them. Someone made a sound. "Who was that?" I sneered. I took my teacher's edition of the math book and slammed it down on the hard tile floor. Bam! It sounded like a gun shot. Everyone looked up. I saw fear in some of their faces and was glad. I threw chalk at the blackboard. It split into a million shards. The kids were silent.

"Do you see what you are doing to me?" I screamed. "Are you happy? Do you want me to walk out that door and never come back? Who wants to learn here? Raise your hand?" They all raised their hands. "Well, if you don't want to learn, get out! Get out right now!" Someone giggled nervously. I slammed my fist on the desk. "I can't believe it!" I roared. "You will have no recess all week! I don't care if you never have recess! You will write me a letter! You will not ask me how to spell anything! No one will leave until you are done! Not a word, or you will be out of here! Write!"

Most of the kids started at an eager pace, given something they could do to make up for the chaos they couldn't control in my classroom, the chaos in their lives, in their homes. Those children who could finished their letters and left. Marcus wrote his name, maybe. Jose put his head down and began to cry. Jerome drew me a picture. I sat at my desk and buried my face in my hands.

These children lived in a world of violence and anger, and instead of offering them patience and calm, I had given them more anger, more violence. I had strained my back. My throat was killing me. My head was pounding. I didn't want to teach, ever again. If I had to see Marcus or Drayvonne one more day, I thought I might kill them. I was blaming 8-year-olds for everything.

The next morning, I didn't get out of bed. I didn't go to school on Monday, either. It was March; there were still four months left in the school year. I wouldn't make it.

I wouldn't make it because I had nothing left to give. Before my teaching experience, I had idealism, a belief that all problems were surmountable if I simply worked hard enough. That March, I changed. I had to give up on something I'd believed in, someone I had been. I had to accept the chaos, the poverty, the inability to learn, the inability to teach.

In my dreams, I'm talking as loud as I can above a noisy classroom. I can't figure out what I'm teaching. Kids are yelling, hitting each other, running out the door. A few are even jumping out the windows. My voice disappears. I turn around, and one child is sitting at his desk. It's Margarito. He was in my first class and watched me with eagle eyes. He wanted to get everything I could give him. He wanted to get out.

"I'm sorry, Margarito," I say. "It's just too hard for me. Please forgive me."

Vol. 11, Issue 3, Pages 52-53

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