Last autumn, I received an unexpected letter from one of the students in my first class as a teacher. Now a 21-year-old woman, she wrote that she was married, pregnant, working at a fast-food restaurant, and living in a rental trailer.
The news shouldn’t have startled me, but it did.
For two years beginning in 1983, I taught 7th and 8th graders in semi-rural Brown County, Ind. Most of my students came from poor or working-class families that had been living in the region for generations. They were the kind of students whose lives could have been changed by a good education: Most were eager and bright but, for some reason, struggling academically. Of the 32 students on my caseload, all had some kind of special “label.” Most were considered learning disabled; a few had been diagnosed as emotionally or mildly mentally handicapped. Mainstreamed for most of their classes, they came to my room only for math, English, or extra help in a study hall.
As I read my former student’s letter, I wondered about all the others, now at the threshold of adulthood. Were they working in minimum-wage jobs? Had they already begun families? What had their years of schooling done for them? Did their special education classes do any good? Were they caught in dead-end situations, or were they happy?
Now a Teacher Magazine staff writer living in Washington, D.C., I decided to do what many teachers would love the chance to do: I set out to visit my former students to see what has happened to them. I arranged interviews with the first 10 students I could track down and set aside 10 days to do them. As the leaves were just starting to blush with color, I traveled to Brown County, where I began my teaching career a decade ago. What follows are a few snapshots from the journey.
The young woman who steps out of the house to greet me is and isn’t the Penny I taught. I have chosen to visit her first because I think she will be the easiest. In junior high school, Penny was tiny and natural, eager to please the teachers she liked. That young girl has become a beautiful woman—still on the short side at about 5 feet 2 inches tall—with silky blonde hair and large brown eyes.
In the 8th grade, Penny got caught in the crossfire of her parents’ impending divorce. Despite her family troubles, I didn’t worry about her as much as I worried about some of the other girls. I assumed that she would find projects and activities in high school to help her get through hard times. I thought that she could have been anything she wanted: student council representative, cheerleader, homecoming queen, drama club star. And with the academic assistance available for learning disabled students at many universities, I figured that Penny could succeed in college. I always thought that she would make a great teacher.
Now, as I walk toward her, my stomach is dancing. I haven’t seen Penny since I left the county in 1985. I don’t know what to expect. I only know from my telephone call that she, like so many of the young women here, is already a mother.
“It’s so good to see you,” she says and hugs me. Her words trigger a wave of unexpected relief. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how unsure I was of my standing. I thought I had been liked and would be remembered, but I wasn’t sure; one sentence from Penny confirms it. In one of her many books, kindergarten teacher Vivian Gussin Paley admits that she needs to be liked as a teacher. I now realize that I share that need. I can tell that Penny liked me; and, even though that is not what I came here to find out, the discovery is gratifying.
Inside, I meet her tall, mustachioed husband, Tony, and gush over their 8-month-old daughter, Taylor, who is curled in sleep on the living room floor. This is Penny’s family now, her home. The rental house is modest. The worn, unmatched sofa and chairs are typical of relative newlyweds. But it is much nicer than the college apartment I lived in when I was her age. Everything is clean; the baby looks well-fed. I breathe a little sigh of relief. Penny and Tony are making it.
We chat for a while about Taylor and the three toddlers Penny babysits at her home during weekdays for extra money. Then we look over pictures in her wedding album. “Penny, you looked like a princess!” I exclaim as I see a photo of her in white lace.
“She did,” Tony says, looking at his young wife fondly. “She still does.”
This expression of love releases another wave of relief. Penny is OK, I think to myself, she is well-loved. I am surprised by the depth of emotion stirred from just this short encounter so far. Penny and I are not relatives, not comrades, but something lasting has linked us together. Although I haven’t kept in touch with her, I realize how deeply I care about what happens to her.
After a while, Penny and I move to the kitchen table and begin talking about school. She enjoyed elementary and junior high school, but as each year passed, she liked school less and less. I had always imagined that being pulled from the mainstream was most difficult in the elementary years when kids so openly tease each other. But Penny says that social pressures to conform to a “norm” were much fiercer in high school. And then there was the boredom. After years in special education classes, she felt that she was just going over and over the same material. In her junior year of high school, Penny asked, and was given permission, to try a regular English class.
She remembers her first day vividly. “The teacher made it clear that he didn’t think I should be in there. He was doing verbs and all this, and I told him that they didn’t do that in special education,” she recalls. Her voice is quiet, gently plied with a slight country twang. Her vowels stretch out like warm taffy. “I told him that I would try but that I’d like to sit back and listen for a little while to catch up. He said OK. But then he called on me constantly. In front of the whole class, he said, `If you don’t know this, you shouldn’t be in here.’”
This humiliation wasn’t an isolated incident. Softly and slowly, Penny narrates other subtle and not-so-subtle occurrences. When she told a guidance counselor during her sophomore year that she was interested in studying child psychology after high school, the counselor told her to forget about it.
I am stunned. I never imagined that Penny would be so actively discouraged in high school. As a teacher, I spent all day in my classroom teaching a diverse and lively bunch of kids. It was easy for me to see them as students, not as special education students. I forgot that Penny had to weave in and out of the mainstream and that people with labels are often stereotyped.
“Did anyone ever explain to you why you were in special education classes?” I ask, realizing that I don’t know what she knows about her own label.
She says that she remembers taking special tests in elementary school and recalls hearing the word dyslexia. She wasn’t told much—except that special education classes would be easier. As she talks, I see how kids like Penny could mistakenly assume that they had failed the tests, that they were too dumb to make it in regular classes and were being relegated to a life of baby work.
I now explain the whole process: how a child is referred for testing, what kinds of tests are given, and how a conference is called to discuss the results. I let her know that having a learning disability doesn’t mean that her IQ is low. I watch her face as she absorbs the information. It is all new to her, and that strikes me as tragic. Undoubtedly, the single thing that most affected Penny in school was her label, yet she knows little about it.
The system is careful to consult parents or guardians when it applies a label to a child in need of special services. Legally, everything has to be explained, put in writing, and signed. But I’ve been at the meetings. School psychologists and special educators often use sugar-coated or vague words to explain what will happen to the child if he or she is placed in special education. The benefits are emphasized: Class sizes will be smaller, and the special educator will use a variety of modalities to teach lessons and modify standard worksheets, texts, and tests to help the child succeed. But the stigma of the label, the hazard it poses to a child’s self-esteem, is rarely even mentioned. The assumption is that the benefits of specialized instruction far outweigh any negative consequences. Now, the lack of in-depth, open dialogue between parents, teachers, and students seems like a travesty.
“Do you think that being in special education hurt you?” I ask bluntly.
Penny struggles with this. We talk for a long time about the pros and cons, but she keeps coming back to one point. What you are labeled, the kind of classroom you are put in, doesn’t really matter. What does matter is your teacher. She remembers some good teachers. But she also recalls the teachers who just picked up their paychecks, the teachers who didn’t bother to look her in the eyes, and the teachers who kept promising to give her extra help but kept giving her worksheets instead.
“Teachers need to be checked out more to make sure they’re doing their jobs,” she says. And then, pointing mischievously toward the ceiling, she adds, “Maybe there should be cameras in the classroom.”
We both laugh at the image. But pain is behind the twinkle in Penny’s eyes. I will see it in the eyes of many of my former students before the week is over.
As I listen to Penny, I find myself wincing. So much is expected of teachers. But I also share her frustration. I remember my own junior high history teacher who sat behind his massive desk droning every day. Although my friends and I were usually honest, we developed an elaborate system of cheating on his weekly multiple-choice quizzes simply because we were desperate with boredom. He never caught us—or bothered to try.
Whenever we mentioned the history teacher’s name to our parents and favorite teachers, they rolled their eyes and shook their heads, silently informing us that they, too, knew about him. But they didn’t stop him—or even try to change him. These were the same caring adults who told us that we wouldn’t get anywhere in life unless we strove for excellence. But our history teacher was proof to the contrary. His poor performance was rewarded not only with a paycheck but also the power to influence children. How many children? Perhaps 100 a day for 30 years; 3,000 children in a career.
I might not have learned any history that year. But I did learn about the hypocrisy and cowardice of a school system that purports to care about quality while shrugging its shoulders at its own demerits. Penny learned the same lesson.
“You have to have something different in you to want to be a teacher,” Penny is saying. My ears prick up. “You have to want to be a teacher,” she declares.
I tell her that I had wanted to be a teacher, but that when I was I often felt the system didn’t take me or my students seriously. I relate how shocked I was by my first evaluation. I’d been hungry for professional feedback. But the principal didn’t even bother to come into my room; he just checked off the words “satisfactory” and “outstanding” on the required form. “That’s one of the reasons I left,” I say.
“That’s why you left?” She asks as though she has been wondering about it for a long time.
“Well, it’s more complicated,” I say, thinking about the various teaching positions I later held. “But I didn’t think the system really worked.”
“You shouldn’t have quit,” she reprimands. “I had two teachers who thought about kids as individuals—Donna Reed and you—but you both left.”
Her revelation catches me off guard. I had no idea that, for all this time, she has thought of me as one of her best teachers. I should be delighted, but I feel sad. I know I wasn’t that good. I was a first-year teacher; the students’ learning problems often stumped me. Still, I must have conveyed a sense of caring—and that is obviously what Penny believes is the most important quality in a good teacher.
I don’t know what to say. I try to imagine myself in Penny’s shoes. Was Penny’s greatest need to have someone in her life who believed in her? If she had had that consistently, would things be different for her now? My next question is awkward and vague. “Do you feel as though how people treat you has the greatest effect on what you do?”
“I like what I’m doing now,” she begins after a long pause. “I don’t have the same discouragement that I had in high school. My husband tells me I can do anything. I don’t know. I still feel like I’m not as capable as all the other people who have diplomas.” Penny continues, barely moving a muscle. “In high school, I had an uncle who said, `Enjoy it now.’ Sure I had some good times with friends, but the pain that you go through doesn’t pay for it.”
When I ask her to tell me her worst and best memories about school, she doesn’t miss a beat in relating a negative memory. “I was standing up at this teacher’s desk with some friends. And he was talking about a dream he had. I said, `I had this dream last night about snakes.’ And he said, `When you dream about snakes it’s supposed to be sexual. Are you going to have your first time or have you had your first time?’” Penny looks at me, blushing at even the recollection.
Then there is a long pause. “The best moment was probably my Enjoli commercial.” Penny looks at me to see if I remember. It takes me a minute, but I do. In math class, I had invented a game show to motivate students to practice solving word problems. The students were contestants, and I filmed the shows with the school’s video camera. “You were filming and said, `Now, let’s pause for a commercial,’” Penny says. “And then you turned the camera on me. I sang that song, remember?”
An image of Penny bursts onto my memory screen. There is this bright fireball of a girl framed by the blackboard, singing a gutsy perfume jingle that was popular at the time: “I can bring home the bacon! Fry it up in a pan! And never let him forget he’s a man! ‘Cause I’m a woman...Enjoli!”
We both laugh. But I am on the verge of tears.
Suddenly, Penny speaks again. She puts her slender hands on the table. “I had this dream in high school,” she says gently. “I had it twice.”
The dream was plotless and peaceful, she says. “You and I were just walking, side by side, down a long hill.”
On top of a hill of knee-high grass stands a red and white house. The old wooden frame looks as if it were blown in from Kansas by a tornado over 100 years ago and has since taken root. Except for the zigzag of laundry hanging in the front yard, the place looks completely abandoned.
I pause, uncertain. No path cuts through the thick grass to the front door; the back entry looks boarded up. I knock anyway and hear a gruff male voice inside, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. No one answers my call.
The voice inside is silent. All I can hear is the wind rustling through the trees. I look around and, for a moment, lose myself in the beauty of the countryside. No other house is in sight, only hills of prairie grass and the fierce tangle of oak and pine. I take it all in with heady awe. The wind shifts, and I am instantly aware of my isolation. According to the directions Greg gave me over the telephone, this should be his parents’ house. Did he forget I was coming? Maybe I am knocking at the wrong red and white farmhouse. I may have gotten turned around.
My heart races. What am I doing here, standing at the back door of a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere? What if the man inside is crazy? What if he doesn’t like strangers on his property? I get into my only resource—a rented car—and pull back onto the road. At the nearest farmhouse, a neighbor informs me that Wayne—Greg’s dad—does live in the old two-toned house.
I return. This time, an old man, wearing a T-shirt, torn, faded jeans, and a denim jacket, appears at the front door. For a moment, I can’t tell if I am welcome. Then he grins and waves me forward. I scuff through the grass and duck under a scallop of plaid flannel shirts hanging from the clothesline. The man steps out and stares at me.
“Why, you’re not old enough to be Greg’s teacher!” he says, an absence of teeth slurring his speech. He looks about 70 years old. He has wide eyes, a pointed nose, and scruffy gray whiskers.
I remember him. Faithfully, he and his wife attended every parent-teacher conference. They always wanted to know if Greg was behaving. I had assumed they were Greg’s grandparents.
As the old man repeats his surprise at my youthful appearance, my eyes take in the living room. Clothes are strewn everywhere. They must not have a dryer; I wonder if they have a washing machine. With its wooden frame and hand-planed doors, the house itself qualifies as an antique (Greg later tells me that it was built before the Civil War), but there are no quaint adornments—no gingham curtains, dried wildflower wreaths, or wrought-iron candlesticks. The wood burning stove that dominates the living room and the patch of dirt and wood chips beneath it speak only of cold winters. This is shelter for an aging couple and their only son: a nest in the wild.
Greg’s mom, Pauline, steps into the room, apologizing for the mess. She must be about 60, slightly crippled by bad knees. She is clad in a dress as black as crow feathers. “Greg’s just gettin’ out of bed. He was out coon huntin’ last night,” she explains.
I perch on the edge of an old easy chair by the door. Greg appears, rubbing his eyes. He is a tall, handsome young man zipped into a pair of jeans and pulled into a T-shirt. He nestles a green cap over golden blond hair that has grown past his collar bone.
“Good morning,” I say. We smile silently at each other, both aware how strange it is for me to be here. He picks up a couple of sweat socks from a pile of clothes nearby and sits on the floor to pull them on while his father rattles away.
The old man’s questions about my age and marital status make me blush awkwardly. Greg jumps in—perhaps sensing my nervousness—and changes the subject, telling his dad the story of last night’s hunting adventure. Colloquial language rolls off his tongue as wild and fast as a careening pick-up truck. I am left in the dust, my mind wrapped around the only word I can understand: coon. He laughs as he tells his tale, oblivious of my incomprehension.
I am dumbstruck. This is the Midwest, not a foreign country. I grew up in neighboring Illinois and spent seven years here in Indiana, and yet I can’t understand a word Greg is saying. The 13-year-old Greg who walked into my classroom every day must have adapted his language for me.
“Greg was always a good boy, wasn’t he?” the old man suddenly asks, and I snap out of my daze.
“Yes, he was,” I say, smiling again at Greg. I get up to look at the many photographs tacked on the paneled wall. “There you are,” I say to Greg, pointing at his 7th grade school photo. I stare at the blond-haired boy in the picture—the one I knew—and find it hard to believe that he grew up in this setting. I knew Greg as a boy with a cute sense of humor who preferred being outdoors to reading a book. Yet this environment is a shock. How could I have taught him for two years without knowing what his life was like?
Pauline fixes me a cup of instant coffee while Greg and I sit down at the kitchen table to get reacquainted. The kitchen is crowded and dirty, so cluttered that it’s hard for my eyes to focus on anything. Pauline stirs powdered milk into my coffee, and I wonder how far it is to the nearest grocery store.
Greg yawns. I can’t tell if it’s a genuine or a nervous reaction. I search my brain, trying to figure out where to begin. In this setting, we seem so far away from school. I try to imagine Greg as a kindergartner, hopping on a school bus. “When you first started school,” I venture, “did you like it?”
“Uh-uh,” he grunts negatively. His mom laughs.
“I guess I’d just ruther be out here runnin’ around all over these woods than bein’ in school,” he says. His mom nods her head in perfect agreement and swats at a fly that has landed on the table.
Greg tried to make the best of it, though. Although he admits now that he didn’t always try as hard as he could have, he did his schoolwork throughout the years and enjoyed being with friends. In the 6th grade, he was referred for testing because he was lagging behind grade levels in both English and math. He was told that special education classes would be better—slower. He and his parents agreed. He had always thought of himself as a slow learner—not dumb, just slow. If anyone made fun of him, Greg says he didn’t notice. “I didn’t think nobody was better than me or that I was better than anyone else.”
Greg relates no particularly negative memories, no complaints about his regular or special education classes. One positive experience stands out: high school shop classes—woodworking, drafting, metal shop, and especially a class called Building Trades. “In that class, we built two houses from the ground up,” he explains. “It was three hours a day, and I did it for two years.”
I am impressed. I didn’t know the high school had such comprehensive vocational classes. “Would you have learned those skills anywhere else?” I ask.
“No. We did electrical wiring, hung lights, everything. It was moved into after we got done with it,” he says proudly. Just then, Greg’s mom whops him on the arm with her fly swatter.
“I’ve been wantin’ to kill that fly!” she exclaims triumphantly. I burst into laughter, and they join in.
We talk for a while about what happened immediately after high school. He tried married life and even had a baby boy; but he and his wife couldn’t get along. When they divorced, he moved back in with his parents. He tried working at a veneer mill but missed the freedom and joy of being outside, working the land. Now, he picks tobacco for a local farmer. During the winter, his boss will probably keep him on to cut firewood. Greg says he is content to live one day at a time, just making enough money to get by. He imagines that he’ll always live in this house.
His mom nods pleasantly. “I need him. It’s hard to keep up,” she whispers, gesturing toward her husband who is sitting in the next room. “Wayne has had four heart attacks and a stroke, and now his mind isn’t so good.”
Wayne—a farmer who made his living growing sorghum—was born in this house and was given the deed to it so long ago he can’t remember when. With no rent or mortgage payments, all the family has to worry about is food, electricity, and phone bills. They get by on $500 a month—the combined total of their social security and disability benefits. Greg kicks in whenever his mom needs extra money.
The family does what it can to cut down on expenses. Out in the barn, for example, Greg and his parents raise and butcher all kinds of animals. Pauline can hang a hog on a hook and have it ready for the freezer in a couple of hours. “Ain’t no sense sending carcasses over to the locker plant so that they can spend your money when you can do it yourself,” says the practical Greg. Although he hunts mainly for sport, rabbits and squirrel occasionally end up in the frying pan. And if he gets a deer, then there’s a feast.
When I ask him to tell me more about hunting, Greg warms. Hunting is what keeps him out late on Friday nights and talking about it is what wakes him up on Saturday mornings. He proudly shows me his rifle, which has an elaborately engraved wooden butt, and the secondhand bow he bought last week for 117 hard-earned dollars. When we step outside to meet Belle, his hunting dog, I notice an immediate and utter change in Greg. He opens. Suddenly, he is able to breathe.
Greg stoops down and points out the nicks and scars on Belle’s ears and face, all from fighting with raccoons. “Me and her get along just fine. She don’t gripe, she don’t grouch, and she does what I tell her to,” he says with total admiration. “The other day, my girlfriend asked me if I thought more of my coon hound than of her,” he adds with a smile.
“What did you say?” I ask curiously.
“I pleaded the Fifth,” he says. We laugh.
Then, he shows me the wild red fox he has captured and is trying to tame, the barn (which has at least 200 squirrel tails hanging from the rafters), and the cleaning shed. I stare up at a menacing-looking hook used to suspend carcasses ready for skinning. I try to imagine myself functioning in this environment. I wouldn’t know what to do, how to behave, or how to occupy my time. On his territory, I am learning disabled.
The bewilderment must show on my face because Greg is grinning, obviously getting a kick out of hosting a city mouse like me.
“I didn’t know it was this different here,” I confess. “Indiana University, where I went to college, is just in the next county. When I got the job at Brown County Junior High, I thought, `This is only 16 miles away. It’s going to be just the same.’” Greg nods.
We walk through the grass in silence. I think about Greg and wonder what it was like for him in my territory—the school. It must have seemed foreign. The consolidated junior high was housed in a brand new building, spanking clean with bright walls, matching furniture, wall-to-wall carpeting (even in the cafeteria), and manicured lawns. It looked a lot like the junior high I attended in a modest suburb of Chicago. Back in 1983, the sanitized familiarity of the school environment deceived me. I saw Greg only in that environment, so I assumed that his life was more like mine than it really was. Seeing him there was like watching a Disney version of Huck Finn.
I tried to learn about Greg and the others by asking them to record their thoughts and experiences in journals. It seemed like a good idea. And I did learn some things. But there was no way Greg could have communicated all this. This is another world. Books, worksheets, tests, even pencils seem alien here. I ask Greg to be honest with me. Did my ignorance about his way of life prevent me from being a good teacher?
“No. I learned from you,” he says. “I’m being honest,” he adds when he sees my face twist into a question mark. Then, as explanation, he throws out what I know is a compliment: “You didn’t always stick to the rules.”
Undoubtedly, I would have been a better teacher if I had known more about my students. How would I have taught differently? I don’t know. Maybe I could have been more understanding. Maybe I could have chosen books to read in English class that were more relevant to Greg and the others. Great teachers are always the ones who are able to make connections—to link literature, history, mathematics, science, art, and music to students’ own experiences.
But then I stop myself. If Greg intends to live and die on this land, what does he really need to know? I ask him how he would redesign schools to better meet the needs of students like him. Would he add more vocational classes? Yes, he says, but they shouldn’t replace academic subjects like social studies and science. “There should be a balance. You can’t learn how to do everything through shop classes,” he explains.
Greg learned the basics—a little of everything—and that is extremely important to him. I am beginning to understand why. In his world, school is the only place for book learning, and the school years are the only time to get it. “That there is your last chance,” he says, referring to high school. “You better learn something there or you’re in trouble.”
When it’s time for me to go, I find myself wishing I had more time here. “If I ever get the chance to come back,” I say, “could I tag along on one of your Friday night hunting adventures?”
“Sure!” he says amiably.
As I get into my car, I feel a pang of regret. During the two years that I taught here, I missed an incredible opportunity. Greg could have taught me a lot.
Robert is crying. Although a box of toys has just been dumped out on the living room floor, the 2 1/2-year old wants to play with a calculator that isn’t in the pile.
“Go ask pap-paw for it,” Lisa says. The word pap-paw, I learned when I first started teaching in Brown County, means grandfather.
My former student Lisa, mother of Robert and 7-month-old Tina, lives with her husband, her parents, her unmarried, pregnant sister Chris, and Chris’ baby daughter, Ryan, in a small, tired house.
Robert waddles back into the kitchen with the calculator, jabbing the buttons contentedly.
“I think he’s gonna be good with numbers,” red-haired Lisa says with her Annie Oakley smile. “More than his mother was.”
Lisa was an 8th grader in 1983, so I only taught her for a year before she went on to high school. I remember her as being polite, good-natured, and energetic. Behind grade level in both math and English, she never set high academic standards but generally turned in assignments. I didn’t imagine then that she would drop out of high school.
As we sit at the kitchen table sipping iced tea, Lisa tells me her story. In her junior year, she got pregnant and became ill. One day, she hemorrhaged and lost the baby. The following year, she moved in with her boyfriend, Rick, and got pregnant, and sick, again.
Getting to school during this time was a formidable task. “Lots of times I was just so dog-tired—fixing breakfast for my boyfriend, cleaning house, being pregnant,” Lisa explains as she bounces Robert on her lap. “And I’d think, I can’t do it. But then I’d push myself to go, thinking that if I got a good education then I could get a good job.”
After a bout of absenteeism, she remembers the vice principal calling her in. “He said, `It’s your school or your child’s life,’” she recalls. Lisa quit school, but she still lost the second baby. Eventually, she married Rick—who had also quit school—and got a job as a hotel housekeeper. Over the next three years, the young couple had Robert and Tina. Lisa has worked on and off as a housekeeper; Rick, a hod carrier, has held seasonal jobs.
“It’s rough,” Lisa admits without a trace of self pity. “I make about $75 a week. I pay the phone bill, and we help with the groceries.” Food stamps and Medicaid for the children enable them to get by. She knows she needs a high school education to get a better job, but working and caring for two children leaves no time or energy to go back to school. She is “stuck,” she says. “I’d give anything if we could get good jobs and save enough money to buy a trailer of our own.”
I look around the cramped, one-level house and see only one bedroom off the living room. “Where do you sleep?” I ask.
Lisa hoists Robert to her hip and walks me through the kitchen to a utility room in the back. I poke my head inside the doorway. A double bed for Lisa and Rick, a playpen with cushions for Robert, and what looks like a doll’s bed for Tina occupy the small space next to the water heater. The room hums sadly, echoing the whispered dreams, full-blown fights, cries, coughs, love songs, and lullabies of this family of four. I suddenly want to close my eyes, to give Lisa some kind of impossible privacy; but I can’t even seem to blink. As a teacher, I knew that some of my kids were poor; but the word was just that—a word. As I stand in the doorway of this utility-room-turned-bedroom, the word becomes concrete.
Robert squirms in his mom’s freckled arms. I look at him and blue-eyed Tina gurgling happily on the living room floor. They are clearly the light of Lisa’s life and, ironically, also the reason she is stuck. Lisa, 22, is still young. It would have been so logical for her to have waited to start a family.
Unlike some teenagers, Lisa and Rick didn’t have a family by accident. They knew about birth control. So, why were they in such a hurry? Didn’t they get the message that it was better to wait? That life with babies in tow was going to be much harder?
“I wanted a family life, but I had it too fast,” Lisa admits, unconsciously patting her son’s chubby legs. I lean closer as she talks on, listening for the one statement that will explain her choice. But she isn’t really offering an explanation. Instead, she talks about all the other girls she knew who either became mothers during or shortly after high school. Many of the names I recognize—more of my former students.
“Is it peer pressure?” I ask, searching for an answer.
“A lot of it has to do with peer pressure,” she says, but then quickly denies that she felt pressured herself.
“If the girls could just get help, they could stay in school,” she adds. And as she talks, I realize that the question on Lisa’s mind is not the same as mine. My question is, why do girls get pregnant? Her question is, why can’t schools serve the girls who do?
“I’m not blaming school; getting pregnant was my mistake,” she states. But she wonders why her school didn’t offer more candid sex education classes. (She took the school’s only sex education elective, titled Interpersonal Relations, but calls it a “joke.”) She also wonders why in-school child care, comprehensive child-rearing classes, and better vocational programs for girls weren’t part of the plan.
School wasn’t designed with Lisas in mind. Based on what my other students have told me, there didn’t seem to be much available in high school for noncollege-bound girls who weren’t interested in shop classes—regardless of whether they got pregnant. A high school yearbook I borrowed from Penny illustrates this. Although only 30 percent of Brown County’s graduates go on to four-year colleges, references to college dominate the pages. The message for juniors reads: “Now that you’re juniors it’s time for preparing for life after high school. This is the year to decide what college to attend.” A few photos of vocational classes appear. But even in the caption under the photos of business classes, a college-bound bias is assumed: “There are a lot of business classes that any student would benefit from if they were going to college.”
The yearbook reflects a truth so obvious that I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before: Schools are designed by people like me for people like me. I might pretend to think about Lisa, and I might even fool myself into believing that I know what Lisa needs, but I don’t. It’s so easy to make false assumptions. As a teacher, I never asked my students what they needed to know. I decided for them. At the time, I thought I did a pretty good job. After all, I believed that I knew my students fairly well. I was an open-door kind of teacher who encouraged kids to come in and talk with me. And some of them did. I took what I learned from them and created a curriculum that I thought was relevant. In English classes, I drew up spelling lists from their own stories and used real job applications to check their reading comprehension. In math classes, we started our own business; students had to figure expenses, incomes, and their own time sheets. I required them to open and keep checking and savings accounts with me, using real banking forms.
Now, all those curricular details seem superficial. I might have been on the right track, but I was in the wrong train. I didn’t really understand their needs, their feelings, their realities. Sure, learning how to balance a checkbook seems relevant to me, but in reality Lisa probably doesn’t have a checking or savings account. She can’t afford them.
“What would you do?” I finally ask Lisa. “What would be the key to improve education for students like yourself?”
Her answer echoes Penny’s message. I will hear it again and again from other former students on this trip. She wishes she had had more teachers who really knew her. “I’d put in teachers who would sit down and talk to you and see what was going on in your life,” Lisa says. “Teachers should take time to see how kids are doing in life and in school, to see if they understand their schoolwork. Too many teachers push kids through just to get rid of them.”
She describes teachers who got so caught up in grades, rules, and details that they lost sight of the student. As I listen, I remember certain moments in my own classroom. I would be lost in a task, busily scribbling notes on the blackboard, say, or passing back papers. Suddenly, I would become aware of what I was doing and freeze. In that instant, I would picture all the other teachers in the school, scurrying around their rooms, trying to fit all these tasks into a 45-minute period. Then I would picture the students, shuffling from classroom to classroom—math in my room, science next door, geography down the hall. It all felt tragically wrong.
As educators, we were working so hard, teaching students skill after skill just as a mason lays brick upon brick. But in those moments of sudden and utter doubt, I saw that we were working without an architectural vision. I feared that instead of working together to cement a useful, strong, and beautiful structure, we were creating, in our blindness, a haphazard pile of bricks.
As Lisa articulates her idea of a good teacher, I also remember the pressure I felt every day in the classroom. I wanted to be a supportive teacher. I knew that some of my students had extraordinary needs. But getting to know 32 students, trying to individualize their work—spending evenings and weekends designing my own materials, writing my own texts, dreaming up new ways to motivate them—was exhausting. And on top of it all, I had to contend with what was happening to them in their mainstream classes. Most of the teachers graded on a bell curve, so no matter how hard my students tried or how much they improved, they still got Cs and Ds.
I remember one particularly frustrating day in 1984. It was the beginning of my second year of teaching, and the principal was evaluating my work. “Mrs. Kopkey,” he began gravely (in two years, he never pronounced my last name correctly or seemed to realize that I wasn’t then married), “you tend to become excessively involved in your work. And such involvement can lead to burnout.”
At the time, I was appalled with his critique. Why not reward me for my dedication? But it wasn’t long before I did burn out. I tried setting limits for myself—closing the door at 3:30. But decreasing my involvement didn’t make me any more effective. I was still haunted by the feeling that I wasn’t doing enough.
I confess some of this to Lisa. She sympathizes immediately. “I never saw a principal come into a class and say to a teacher, `You’re doing a great job.’” she says. “They don’t understand students or teachers. They just think about things like air conditioners.”
I laugh as she sums it up: “Teaching is hard as hell, and the pay is shitty.”
But she wishes it were different. Is it too much to expect teachers to know their students? Should a math teacher be expected to teach more than math? I don’t know. All I know is that math seems unimportant right now. I want Lisa to know basic academic skills, but I want other things for her even more. I want her to have confidence, to be able to solve problems, to know how to get information. I want her to be happy.
Lisa puts the children down for a nap. While her father and sister Chris fry up some sausage for lunch, Lisa and I sit on the living room floor and continue talking. She tells me about her childhood, her marriage, what it was like when she and Rick moved away briefly, and how she cared for her mother after she had a stroke. She talks about Rick’s family and the relatives her children are named after. She describes her connection to the land, the “country,” as she calls it.
Buried in these stories is the answer to my earlier question. Why did she get pregnant? Because “family life” is all she knows. Her cultural tradition is to stay close—to marry and have babies. She has no real model for any other way of life.
Who am I to judge? Who am I to say that waiting to start a family is the better way? Lisa’s strong family tie is beautiful—valuable. Still, there is no romance in being poor. Although Lisa is not ashamed of her chosen path, she is certainly not proud that she dropped out of high school.
“I love my kids and my husband. But I wonder a lot about what might have happened if I got my education,” she confides. “Maybe I would have become an interior decorator. I always liked changing the furniture around in here.”
Lisa longs for change—not a radical one, just one that will enable her and Rick to gain some financial stability and independence. But she isn’t sure how to make that change happen. She is hoping when Tina is in the 1st grade that she’ll have some time to get her GED. “I’d like to get it so I feel like I’ve accomplished something.” She stops herself. “But then I think about my boss’s nephew. He’s been in college for years, and he flips hamburgers at McDonald’s. So, what good did all that education do him?”
We both laugh. “But then I think, well, maybe it would have done something for me. I don’t know,” she says with a shrug. “All I know now is that I clean house here, and I go to another place and clean.”
She nods at her children. “I want them to have choices I didn’t have.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Back Home in Indiana