The following is an excerpt from Ari’s upcoming publication: “The District.”
September 27, 2013
(Friday) – 2:57 p.m.
We’d just had a fire drill and I was exhausted as I finally reached my classroom amidst about 700 rambunctious 9thgraders. No sooner than I unlocked my door and took a seat at my desk, in walked Santos…
In just five weeks Santos had emerged as one of my favorite students. Whenever we spoke, be it in person or via email – I never got the feeling that I was talking to a 14- year old. He has a serious demeanor about him, yet the respectful young teenager is genuinely pleasant at all times.
Something on his face this afternoon told me that he was bothered. Before I could ask how his day had gone, he asked me: “You okay Ms. Talton?”
I looked up from my stack of papers and over the rim of my glasses and responded with a fake grin, “I’m okay I guess.”
The young man pulled his long black hair back with both hands and sat up in the chair.
“Need me to do anything while I wait on my dad?” He wanted to edit some stories for our developing newspaper or straighten up the classroom for me.
“I think I’m okay Santos,” I urged. Suddenly I noticed that Santos was staring at the floor and not directly at me as he usually does. There was a comfortable silence until I interrupted: “Can I ask you something Santos?” He nodded yes.
“Do you like it here?”
Santos lifted his head and responded, “no I don’t Ms. Talton.”
“What don’t you like about this place?” I quizzed.
“There are too many black people here,” he responded confidently.
Here we were at 3:03 p.m., me – a black woman and teacher and him – a 14-year-old Hispanic student. No offense was taken. I think I even chuckled a bit, as I was so impressed that he had the courage to say such a thing to me.
Before I could respond he clarified, “not that there is anything wrong with black people – I just don’t think any one school should ever be dominated by one race.”
In my mind I was telling Santos to GET OUT OF MY HEAD! I’d just told my mom the exact same thing the night before. The very articulate young man went on to explain how each day he stepped foot on the DeSoto Freshman Campus – he wanted to walk right back out.
I explained to him that my previous campus was the same way, only it was dominated by Hispanic students, with only a small number of black and white students. He was very adamant in saying, “I would hate that too.”
He revealed to me his innermost personal feelings about each of his teachers, myself included. “Ms. __________ clearly knows math, but she has no clue how to teach it.” “Mr. ________ thinks he knows _________ better than anyone in the world, so all I see in him is arrogance.” He went on to tell me the bad, the ugly and the tragic.
“And me?” I laughed.
“You make class not boring,” he smiled. “And I appreciate that, but it’s clear you can do better for yourself than this place.”
My expression must have puzzled him. My eyes must have revealed traces of the tears that began to form before he walked in. I didn’t have to say anything – he expounded voluntarily.
“I’ve researched you on the Internet and looked at all of your photography. You were valedictorian and class president and you have your own studio…”
I sat motionless, watching Santos recite my résumé to me.
“You try really hard in the halls to smile and to act like the ghetto rantings of these students don’t bother you,” he proclaimed. “And I appreciate how you don’t let your other annoying classes dictate the way you treat us.”
We both sat, staring at opposite walls for a few minutes. Silence.
Santos interrupted the silence to tell me how he’d like to go elsewhere, somewhere with more diversity. He revealed to me that he’d like to be among a different class of students. Each night he’d been tempted to ask his parents to transfer him to another school, but he didn’t want to burden them since they moved to the area for a better job opportunity. He was resolved to just make the most of his collegiate program and hope that high school passes as quickly as adults always claim.
“So, are you going to stay here?” I asked him.
“Are you?” He retorted.
“It is a lot to deal with Santos,” I replied. “I really don’t love the profession, but I like students like you and I’d hate to leave you!”
“We’re only fourteen Ms. Talton,” he interjected. “What we think shouldn’t determine your happiness.”
I gasped. I was for the first time in my 28 years on this earth – speechless. Fourteen and he was so well spoken and so sincere.
“Don’t get me wrong – it’ll suck for my favorite teacher to leave,” he confirmed. “But I want you to be happy with what you do each day.”
Before I could get up to offer a hug, his phone buzzed and he had to go meet his father in the parking lot…
Maybe It Was a Sign…
When the door closed behind Santos, the tear I’d been holding back fell onto one of my stacks of essays. Several more tears followed.
The essay assignment was:
Explain why it is important to be content with our decisions…
I skimmed several of the essays and to my surprise many of my English I students had followed the essay -writing template I’d assigned them to a tee. They listed many reasons why it is important to be content with our decisions, including: happiness ensues, avoid stress, capitalize on opportunities andavoid a life full of what ifs.
At this point my clock read 3:47 p.m. Technically, I was allowed to leave 17 minutes prior, but I was too consumed with thinking and over-thinking and weighing my options. It felt unnatural to even be at my desk, in my classroom after my go-time. For five weeks I had stood at the door at 3:29 p.m., no longer that teacher who sticks around for hours planning out the next day.
I needed to get up and move in some direction, but I just couldn’t. “Hey Talton,” a voice entered the room. It was the first year teacher from across the hall. She wanted to know about my lesson for the day and my plans for the following week.
“No idea what I’m doing next week,” I told her.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah my allergies are just bugging the crap out of me,” I suggested. I didn’t want to tell her what was really on my mind, as she was trying so hard to be a positive new teacher.
Once she left I was finally able to get up and gather my belongings. I looked around my classroom. Glanced at all of my decorations that I’d spent a few hundred bucks on at the teacher store and then I shook my head. Just three months earlier I’d given the same onceover to my room #338 at Molina High School. I knew that was my last day after being terminated. But this day, September 27, 2013 was a Friday leading into the weekend of decisions.
Truth be told every public school teacher has three categories of students: (1) The Natural Intellects (2) Those who Try and (3)Those Socially Promoted.
My first week at the DeSoto Freshman Campus I was informed that I would be the English teacher with the majority of special education students. When I questioned it I was told that this was common practice in the DeSoto Independent School District.
I hissed and moaned about it in the most affectionate way possible. Luckily for me I now had administrators who were approachable and who didn’t brand a teacher with a scarlet letter for asking a question like those I had in Dallas.
That first week I accepted the fact that this was a new challenge and I was resolved not to walk away. Then one Wednesday I asked a boy to read his answer to the journal activity. He just smiled at me. “Hellooooooo,” I smirked in return. “We’re waiting.”
Apparently at some point of the awkward interaction a student called the boy stupid. I quieted the ensuing argument and moved on. Or at least I thought I moved on, until I received a phone call.
HELLO, my name is _______ _________ and before I get angry I need you to explain why you put my son on the spot in class. My son is autistic. He can’t read and write and you’re not supposed to make him do anything in front of the class.
Now anyone who has known me longer than five minutes is aware that only Jesus, my mother and those who direct my cash flow can tell me what I should do. This woman was angry. She thought her son had been mistreated. So how did I respond?
My inner “four-legged female dog” wanted to ask: “If he can’t read, write or speak why the *#^$ is he in a regular English class?”
But I consulted Jesus. I asked him to allow me some room for a little white fib. I obliged her attitude. I reached into my desk for the green binder I’d been given with “accommodations” for all of my special education students. Sure enough, there was his file and it stated that every single piece of work assigned to him was to be modified greatly. “I’ll make sure that he never feels singled out again ma’am,” I said calmly. “Thank you for calling.”
In five years at Molina I only had one parent to call me. She wanted to know why her son was failing. I told her “he can’t read and he’s annoying.” She said ‘thank you’ and hung up the phone.
After hanging up the phone with the mother of the autistic boy, I finally thumbed through the binder. I resented the fact that I even had one, and hated even more that I was being told I had to modify work for 30 + students. As teachers, we’re already faced with having to teach 120+ students who learn differently, but now to see that I was supposed to modify everything even more was disturbing.
When I was in school the special education students had a special room, with a special teacher, who had a special amount of patience. No child was left behind back then if you ask me, but now there is a thing called “Inclusion.” I won’t elaborate too much on my feelings regarding such an aspect of education, but I never really acknowledged how much of a factor it is until it hit my classroom.
Don’t get me wrong – some of the special education students I wouldn’t have even identified as special education had it not been for that binder. Many of them work and are sweethearts. Some have just been labeled as such for someone else’s financial gain.
I would look at that binder for 16 more days after that second week of school. The inclusion teacher and I got along perfectly, even though the idea of having a second adult in the room took some getting used to. She’s a jewel and is very much invested in the education of her special education students. I, on the other hand do not have such patience.
In my five years of teaching I took on the whole philosophy that if I explain well twice and you still don’t get it – maybe it’s not meant for you to understand.
Perhaps one needs to be a good parent to be a teacher in 2013. I often look at my mother and I see in her a patience I just don’t have. I don’t know why students gravitate toward me. I can spend hours chasing around a child for a photo shoot, but we have a completely different story in the classroom!
I went the entire summer happy, peaceful, telling people about Christ and inviting them to church. Within five days at the DeSoto Freshman Campus I was cursing and revisiting the idea of drinking hard liquor once again. Being a black woman at Molina, around all Hispanic students gave me an edge because they had this idea that all black women are mean or can be mean.
With predominantly black students – many of them have THAT black mother, aunt or grandmother. Some of them didn’t understand “please be quiet,” or “I need you to have a seat.” The only thing they understood was “shut the ____ up” and “you better sit your ___ down.” Every profane word I uttered flew from my mouth with about ten pounds of guilt. It wasn’t all of them, and I could tell that my words stung for some. Then I would think my mother was able to parent and teach me for all those years without ever cursing at me. But the bad outweighed the good and at some point of each day I spit out words that I’d regret almost as soon as they landed.
Friday, September 27, 2013 at 4:02 p.m. I reached my car in the teacher parking lot. I waved to a few fellow teachers in the lot and drove away quickly so that they wouldn’t see what would soon ensue. Within fifteen minutes I sat in front of my photography studio. I cried. I sweat feverishly. I pulled my hair. I felt my heart trying to beat itself out of my body. I grit my teeth to the point of almost chipping them. I cried some more…
For six total weeks I’d gone to bed at around 2:30 a.m. after editing photos only to wake up at 5:40 a.m. I had to be somewhere I didn’t want to be, and doing something I didn’t want to do each morning at 7:00 a.m. That had to be the worst feeling I could recall in some time.
I looked at my studio and contemplated so many things. What about all of your financial obligations Ari? Look at this new car you’re sitting in that takes about $80 of premium gas. I reached under the passenger seat for my S4 that I’d thrown during my moment of frustration.
There were several texts awaiting a response, but I first read the one from my mother:
I Want You To Be Happy Ari.
She knew before I knew that I was discontent.
Like so many teachers who have no business being teachers – I’ve become comfortable with a decent salary and summers off. Let it be known, as a teacher I made more money than most of my friends who occupy cubicles and work in entry to mid level positions, but it’s not enough.
There is no reason a public school teacher in this country should make less than a six-figure salary. Most of the parents who were so excited to post photos of their children on the first days of school wouldn’t dare want to teach their own children for multiple hours per day.
I won’t dare say I was a mediocre teacher like others, because even on my worst day – I gave more than most. But, on September 27, 2013 I decided that today’s student simply needs more than I can give at this point in my life.
I began to pray that my heart was in the right place. I was hoping that the Lord would look past my potty mouth and my selfish ways and show me which way to go. Yesterday, early in the afternoon – I rushed out of church and headed to the DeSoto Freshman Campus. I only made two trips to my car. I only loaded my personal belongings. The money I spent to personalize the room can serve well for the next teacher. I finished my grades and made sure I passed everyone, even those who didn’t deserve it. After all I was told NOT to fail a student if I didn’t call the parents.
Before I walked out of room 203 for the last time – I left my classroom keys in the desk drawer and turned the lights off. Unlike my last day at Molina, I didn’t go back and peak through the window. I was done this time and I knew it with every fiber of my being.
Some of my fellow teacher friends will think I’ve made a foolish decision. True, the job was not terribly hard, but my health is more important to me than a job. Someone in my own family will call me crazy. Someone in my own family has already suggested that I did the wrong thing and keeps asking me “what are you going to do now?” My mother supports my decision and I’m investing in myself this time.
It was very difficult to tell the most supportive principal of my teaching career that I was leaving, but I did. It is even more difficult to walk away from several students I’ve already grown fond of. I can’t tell you how many faces I’ve had to wipe free of tears in just over a month. I’ve had to buy lunches for hungry children. I’ve had to break up girl fights over boys. I’ve had to apologize to the quick learners for having to teach at a slow pace. Tomorrow I’ll have to answer emails and texts that ask me why I left.
The bottom line is we have to do what is right for us. I went to bed around 2:30 a.m. and without an alarm I woke up at 8 a.m. this morning. I was able to move about my day freely and negotiate work opportunities within my craft. I don’t know what will happen when this last teacher check runs out, but I know I’m not interested in settling for just an overtaxed paycheck anymore. If I didn’t walk away now I would’ve been stuck forever.
It is my sincerest prayer that all of the teachers have a successful school year. Education is not going in the right direction and I hope someone grabs hold of it before the values are lost forever. I am honored to have been a part of the molding of so many young minds.
God bless all of the people who keep doing to keep living. I’ve decided to live and to do great things with the way that I live.