Did You Bring Enough Ammo for Everyone?

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When a stranger asks me what I do, I try to resist the urge to overexplain. I used to eagerly respond, "I'm an inner-city teacher." Occasionally I'd attempt to simplify my answer to, "I'm a teacher," but I found that although it contained fewer words, it was not easier to pronounce. Without the "inner city" I felt awkward--naked. I've since struggled to identify the source of this discomfort.

I now believe that I needed to include that qualification because I was afraid of what they might think if I didn't. Saying "I'm a teacher," could provoke a series of negative thoughts: "Oh, a teacher. I've heard that education is one of the easiest majors. He probably wanted to study engineering, but the work was too difficult. Rather than drop out of school, he became an education major." By saying, "I'm an inner-city teacher," I hoped to trigger a more favorable line of reasoning: "Oh, an inner-city teacher. What a dangerous job. He must be an incredibly giving person, helping those kids and risking his life for so little money."

That I was saying "inner city" in an attempt to impress a stranger indicates I was insecure. That my strategy often worked, sometimes too well, indicates something more alarming. There is a growing number of well-meaning individuals who possess a major fascination with the "urban plight." They need their own pop-psychology movement, "Healing the Inner-City Child." They are overly impressed because they are misinformed about what it's like inside an inner-city school. They imagine a campus overrun by gangs, weapons, drugs, and pregnant teens. They feel for the students, unjustly robbed of a good education, unable to learn in such an unstable environment. By using the words "inner city" in self-promotion, I was reinforcing that oversimplified stereotype. I was exploiting the negative reputation of inner-city schools to inflate my image. Now, when I'm asked what I do, at the risk of being labeled an inferior intellect, I simply answer, "I'm a teacher."

That response rarely satisfies my new acquaintances. They were hoping, wishing, I'd said "inner city." But the conversation isn't over. Maybe they can get me to say the two magic words through careful cross-examination: "At which school do you work?" I tell them the name of my school, and since that name is not "The School for Inner-City Children," my inquisitors delve further: "Oh, where's that?" They are too tactful to ask more directly. And even though I understand what they really want, I merely answer the question. They pray that I'll tell them some notorious place like "Fifth Ward" or "Hell," but to their dismay I say the name of the street on which it is located. As they still don't know if they should be impressed, they ask, "What kind of school is that?" Though I am tempted to say "a brick one," I ask them what they mean. Finally they say it, "Is that a bad school?" They don't have to say "bad." With the appropriate inflection, any of the modern euphemisms will suffice: "inner city," "urban," "public," "at risk," "underprivileged," "underresourced," "low income," "economically disadvantaged," "Title I," and so on.

Though they didn't mean "bad" in the most negative sense, they didn't mean it in the street sense either. They simply wondered if the school is "rougher" than the "average" school, employing armed security guards and even metal detectors. In short, "Is it like the 'before' clips in one of those inspirational films about the rebirth of a school?" My responsibility, at that point, changes. As a teacher, I am unable to resist the opportunity to educate the well-intentioned stranger. As much as I'd like to say, "My school is not a bad school," I can't. I fear that they may misinterpret this answer as, "My school is not one of those 'bad schools.'"

Iwant them to know that yes, I teach at the kind of school they've just labeled "bad," but that their label is an unfair one. Though my school may suffer its disproportionate share of distractions, we treat them as conquerable obstacles toward education and graduation. I focus on the positive--the reassuring number of highly motivated and intelligent kids who are succeeding each day. I also mention how hard the talented teachers in my school are working; while it may be relatively easy to become a teacher, it's not so easy to be a teacher. By saying this, I hope to modify the stranger's stereotypes.

By conducting the discussion as I do, I realize I am taking a risk. I can never be sure how they will perceive my intentions. After I say, "I'm a teacher," they may not ask me to elaborate, thus robbing me of the opportunity to defend my school and my profession. Or, after my embellishment, they could still be dangerously impressed by me, a man so devoted to "the cause" that he doesn't even notice how miserable he is. They might be disappointed, for they don't want to hear that I enjoy it: They want tales of danger and violence so they can maintain their romanticized vision. Dejected, they'll probably reflect, "He must not be at one of those really bad schools." As I can't control what they think, I'll continue to risk these possibilities. I can handle it. As a teacher in a "bad" school, I'm no stranger to risk.

Gary Rubinstein is a teacher in Denver who writes frequently on issues in education.

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 41

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Did You Bring Enough Ammo for Everyone?
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