The accusation was written in a childish scrawl across the middle of a battle scarred wooden desk in the center of the neat rows of student seating, serving as a caption to an unflattering drawing of the act it described. I noticed that my attempt to present myself as Ms. Kelly had fallen short. Also, evidentially the young woman who had been seated in that desk moments earlier thought I didn’t have the good sense to seek payment for services rendered. These were the details I would share with my friends when I attempted to laugh off the incident at happy hour at the end of the week.
I discovered the graffiti after escorting my seventh graders to the cafeteria during their split lunch. The author of this editorial cartoon would be returning to her desk in less than 30 minutes. What should I do? After a lifetime of cable TV and R rated movies I was not offended by the explicit content of the message, but I decided I had to report the incident to a higher authority. I cringed at the thought of sharing the graffiti with Officer Estrada, who I worried viewed me as both helpless and hopeless.
I had accepted a job at a barrio middle-school school because I believed that not only could I change the world, but that I was morally obligated to do it. The summer before my senior year in college I had served as one of the student orientation coordinators at my university, and one of my responsibilities was to match roommates using an all too brief form. One night I called a young man who had failed to provide us with this basic information, and I ended up speaking to his father. The parent made one request: he wanted his son to room with another black male. The school I attended divides its students into residential colleges to build a sense of community in lieu of the Greek life that was banned on campus, and that year the young man in question was the only black male assigned to our college. Telling that father I couldn’t honor his request forced me to confront the racial composition of the freshman class at my elite private university. I abandoned my plans to apply to graduate school to study Renaissance Drama and instead enrolled in a teacher certification program. I was confident that my good intentions and engaging lessons about canonical texts would be enough to transform the lives of underprivileged youth. More youth of color would be admitted to college after being in my classroom. Where had I learned these lessons about teaching? In the local multiplex. My first years in the classroom taught me that not only does Hollywood rarely get it right, but that they have formulated a dangerous fantasy about the impact of individuals within a system plagued by institutionalized racism and classism.
In the Introduction to City Kids, City Schools, the authors mention a skit from the 1990s variety show MadTV that spoofs the teacher as hero movies that helped form my false impressions about the profession.