A Teacher's Day

The day in the life of an inner city large urban school district teacher after the high stakes testing ends and there is still three more months left before summer vacation.

Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

I have taught school for over thirty years always in the inner city and for the most part always upper grade students. I have two children and I have been married for twenty years.

Friday, October 27, 2006


a growing fire begins in your nose
and somewhere at the back of your neck,
an intangible.

--the first four lines of HOW IT CAME TO BE THIS WAY,
Michael H. Brownstein,
written crossing the great empty lot near the 43rd Street Station, Green Line

And so it begins again.

The boy in the first floor primary room so terrified of walking home by himself, he flinches at the wind, the flutter of a piece of paper, the movement of an adult holding her son’s hand. And I am asked to make sure this child gets home safely.

Where is the danger? I need to know this. Why is he so frightened?

He cannot even wait for me. He walks ahead. Stops. Walks a few more feet. Turns at an imaginary sound. Stops.

I am reminded first of the only time I was unlucky enough to see a cat play with a mouse it caught. I can never forget the look in the mouse’s eyes. There was something there. A real something. A great fear? A lost soul? This boy has the same look. Only it’s not just in his eyes, its in the movement of his arms, the way his legs drag suddenly, the quick turn of his head as if the drizzle raining on both of us can cause blood to run down his nose.

Then I remember another time. A young girl leaving DuSable High School. She had long blonde hair and the look of someone who belongs anywhere else. It was her first day in that school—and her last. She had chosen to change the fabric of the school integrating it—the first white student.

I can’t tell you what started everything off. I don’t know why three older girls chased her down the street. All I know is I was walking to the tutoring center after my teaching day ended—this was a few years back (maybe fifteen years or so)—and there she was near the hardware store on 51st, frozen, the three girls getting ready to lunge at her, and she standing too still, her eyes like the mouse, her arms shaking visibly at her side, no expression at all on her face. Just a terrible fear, a terrible horror, a tangible smell. I blocked the girls—and grabbed their victim—but she was not whole. She had no weight. She could not move. I was forced to physically lift her out of harms way and I carried her into the store. She was no longer flesh and bone. No. She had become a piece of cardboard. I waited with her until the police came and drove her to safety.

Now I am with this child. He must be in third grade. This is my second encounter with him. The security lady tells me everyday other students attack him. Everyday she has to walk him home. She can’t this day. This day she has another fight to contend with. It becomes my responsibility.

I walk him home and he walks ahead of me. I tell him to slow down. And I understand his fear. Others from his class rush up and hit him. When he stumbles, they lash out with their feet. They swing their book bags to close to his face. I look for the head of this gang of boys. They are small boys, primary students, fast and quick. They fling books at him, slap his head, hit him on his back. One boy is orchestrating the entire event. I watch him for a few seconds. Then I move. I grab him by the arm and tell him enough’s enough. He tries to pull away, but I’m bigger. I’m stronger. You will leave him alone, I tell him. You will go home.

An adult in a nearby car opens his car door. What are you doing? He yells—not at the child, not at the gang of boys who have just now decided to leave their tormenting behind—but at me. I think I should explain myself, but the child I’m to protect is walking away. He reaches the corner. He crosses the street. I watch him as traffic stops me from crossing with him. Every ten yards he stops and turns around. Every ten yards. He is alone now on the other side of the street. Every ten yards he stops. Every ten yards he turns around. Every ten yards. Then he reaches Calumet and runs to his house.

Only then do I feel he has let go of his terror.

The man in the car curses at me when I walk by. I allow it to happen. This is how it begins.

The fight between parents making their children fight other children brought me back into the position of security. I stopped them from fighting twice—once with my presence and once with security. Today it is drizzling. They are not out. The children terrorizing the child have already been named to the assistant principal. Before I even enter the school, she tells me she has made a few calls to their parents.

This morning it is still drizzling. No one is out. I cross the great field full of puddles on my way to my school. Everything is colorless. I have already made arrangements for the child to come to my room at the end of the day.

I can still see the eyes of the mouse begging for something. I can still feel the teenager turning to cardboard, her very body corrugated paper, not the flesh and blood of a person. Nothing deserves to be this frightened.

Nothing and no one.

a great fear rising at the hairline,
the useless limbs at the end of the shoulder,
time a patient fool...


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