Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, "L.A. Unified board picks Richard Vladovic as new president. By replacing Monica Garcia with Vladovic, the LAUSD board signals the waning influence of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This begs the question: Are days numbered for embattled Superintendent John Deasy?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Principal Turns Up the Heat on Weary English Teacher While Across the Street a Dog Lies Down in the Sun

Weekly Vocabulary Words Spell Trouble As Do the Bare Walls of His Drab Classroom Inside Low-Performing, Demoralized School

The following is the 10th installment of a series of “fictional” stories detailing the final days of a teacher’s employment within the Los Angeles Unified School District. The names of the characters and locales have been changed because when the series started, the author was still employed by the LAUSD and thought it wise to cover his ass in case somebody with power read this blog and decided to fire him despite what would, of course, be disapointingly futile intervention by his expensive union that is always too busy anyway resisting sensible change. Now, after resigning and enjoying gainful employment in another, highly functioning public school district 200 miles away, the author is considering naming names and identifying the fouled-up schools. Until then, enjoy the story which is written more to amuse the reader than promote a political agenda.

By Mark J. Blocker

So called “experts” in the field of contemporary education advocate doing away with weekly vocabulary words. Instead, they recommend teaching vocabulary solely within the context of what the students read. Meaning—no weekly vocabulary words pulled out of a teacher's ass. Teach words gleaned from the literature surveyed during the course.
Harry Mills, a nine-year veteran teacher and refugee from the publishing business only partly agrees. By all means, study selected words from reading materials, but also instruct students on how to identify patterns in words. Do this by employing a systematic, weekly vocabulary program stressing spelling and usage of words with common structure.

Some would agree
It was early in the 2009 academic year when Mills was sitting in the office of Ms. Moon, his principal at the now-defunct Missouri Compromise Middle School asking her permission to continue augmenting his curriculum with weekly vocabulary words—in addition to vocabulary from that year's literature.
She answered, “Although the (Big City School District) prefers you teach vocabulary in the context of literature, I’m not going to dissuade you from continuing your vocabulary program, Mr. Mills. It seems you’ve thought this over well and have planned out a rigorous course of study with high expectations for your students. It also adheres to California content standards for language arts in your grade level. So I’m fine with it.”
“Thank you, Ms. Moon.”
Getting up from her desk she smiled, “Besides, I had weekly vocabulary words as a child. So did you. And we turned out fairly literate and educated.”
Mills liked and respected his principal Ms. Moon. He admired the way she administered a tough urban school despite her diminutive stature and quiet demeanor. She was the opposite of Harry, who used his big size, loud voice and bombastic instructional style—and a lot of self deprecating humor—to disarm his ghetto born-and-bred students—plus the ESL children secreted across the border sometime during the not-too-distant past.
It was a shame the BCSD Board handed over Missouri Compromise to a private charter operator, despite the retiring superintendent’s recommendation that Ms. Moon and her faculty be awarded stewardship of the school.
A study later released by the University of California suggested schools operated independently by district staff outperformed charters. Furthering the insult, crooked charters were getting popped left and right for doctoring scores and giving students the answers to State standardized tests that measure a school's performance. Furthermore, members of the public and some staff were complaining about the School Board’s collusion with charter operators. The relationship was so fraught with illegalities that, after conferring with the teacher’s union, the new superintendent issued an edict declaring that proposals from current BCSD employees “should be strongly considered” before bids from private, for-profit charter school companies. To avert yet another lawsuit in an otherwise unending series, the Board agreed via a unanimous vote conducted out of the public eye. That's about as much consolation now to Mills as a low-tar cigarette and cure for cancer are to a cooling corpse.

Back in the principal’s office
So there he sat, now late September 2011, in the office of Wanda Sharperson, his new principal at his new, low-performng school--defending his vocabulary lessons once again. But this time it was to no avail.
“Please understand that I also teach vocabulary in the context of the literature," Mills pleaded. "It’s just that I believe students need a program where they are taught patterns of words. I start out with long and short vowel sounds, then cover singular versus plurals, then we go on to Greek and Latin roots and so forth,” Harry explained while Sharperson closed her eyes and shook her head side to side.
She bared her teeth. “You must teach vocabulary in the context of the literature, sir. It’s a mandate from the district. It’s a mandate from me.”
“But these kids need . . .”
These kid,” she interrupted, “They are our students, our children, sir!”
Mills momentarily imagined he was married to Sharperson, and they were fruitfully multiplying, producing offspring. Little Mills-Sharpersons running around greater LA. She wasn’t bad looking, but God, was she turning out to be a bitch. Mills, now wizened in his mid 50s, chuckled to himself trying to calculate how many young dopes eventually end up with a similar mantra.
“Is there something amusing, sir?"
“No ma’am”
“Well, I don’t need you here dumbing down my curriculum and laughing about it,” she snarled.

Deployed to a dying school
Mills absorbed the reality of Sharperson’s hostility. He also contemplated the irony of dumbing down a school which the previous year had an even lower API than the school from which he came. Yep. The BCSD had displaced Mills from one abandoned sinking ship, Missouri Compromise, to another that was in the final year of “program improvement.” Only this one was so demoralized that the staff wasn’t even bothering to write a proposal to operate it. What’s worse, no private charter operator wanted it. And here was Sharperson, a raving lunatic of a captain, waving her verbal sword at Harry while he considered his options: 1) Kiss the bitch’s ass and suck up the shit; or 2) Roll the dice like he did 10 years ago at the shrinking newspaper and switch careers in mid-life.

Your room is ugly, too
Then Sharperson raised the ante higher. “And what about your room? You’ve been here two weeks now, and except for those posters your kids made the first day the walls are still bare! May I remind you, Mr. Mills, that State standards for the teaching profession require you to create a text-rich environment conducive to learning? A pleasant, culturally inclusive environment for your students.”
“I know, I know,” Mills stammered. “It’s just that I spent two weeks and over two hundred dollars of my own money at the start of this academic year to get my former classroom at Gibson prepared, and then I was abruptly transferred here.”
“I had nothing to do with that! You could’ve brought your materials along with you.”
“I suppose so, but it seemed a shame to rip apart the room after the children seemed to enjoy it. Those materials were geared toward 6th graders anyway. I’m now teaching 7th.” Harry thought about the 10 years worth of class decor and supplies he left behind at Missouri Compromise.
Mills assured Sharperson he'd set up the room, then he walked out of her office about as pissed as he had been in years. He placed his hand over his heart to check if it was pounding. It wasn’t. He slid his tongue over the top and bottom molars on his right side to see if they were grinded down to nubs. They weren’t.

Life beyond school
As he walked along the grimy, hock and gum-stained halls of Darwin MS toward his unprofessional classroom, Harry gazed though the 10-foot-tall, fortified-iron fence and across Payton Avenue toward the business across the street. There was the garishly painted “Rodriguez Tranmisones” in hand-rendered red letters across high-gloss blue enamel on cinderblock walls. Ol’ Rodriguez was there, legs sticking out from under a 32-year-old, root-beer-brown dented Toyota Corona. Lounging in the sun was Rodriguez’s German Shepherd who, despite his apparent freedom from chains and fences, seldom ventured far from the patch of sunlight that moved back down the driveway as the workday wore on.
Harry unlocked his classroom door. Despite the summer sun, the hall and room were cold and dark thanks to overgrown fichus trees planted years ago along the parkway and now lifting up chunks of sidewalk and street causing tires to loudly slap as they rolled over the ripples and cracks all day.
Harry turned back to the dog he nicknamed Sunshine. Miraculously their eyes met despite the ongoing traffic between them. The prostrate dog’s tail lazily lifted up then fell back down. He slowly gathered himself and sat up to look at the strange teacher across the street. It was almost like he wanted to come over. Then he lied back down again. Harry observed the dog's deep sigh, and took a nice deep breath himself.
There was about 20 more minutes until his first batch of students would arrive, so Mills went over to the Title 1 room to see if there were any available materials with which to decorate the room.
Ms. Jefferson, who reminded Harry of Red Fox's antagonistic sister in law on Sanford & Son, sternly stared back at Harry. She listened to Mills, frowned, and shook her head no. “You need to go to a teachers supply store. We don’t have anything like that.”
“OK, thanks.” Mills muttered before returning to his room. Back inside he sat down and surveyed the drab walls. Sharperson was right, the room is ugly. This whole school is ugly. My entire career is now fucked up and ugly as all hell, Mills fumed.
He shrugged, went back outside and gazed across the street back at Rodriguez and his decrepit cars and satisfied dog. Then the bell rang, and soon the students would arrive. They'd make Mills feel better. They were they reason why he got into this business in the first place.
First to arrive was Aaron Rodriguez, a big boy with a tousled mop of black hair who kind of reminded Mills of himself when he was a kid.
“Hey Rodriguez," Mills asked, "is that your dad’s shop over there across the street?”
“No. My Dad’s in jail, mister.”
“Oh, ho! His Daddy be locked up,”taunted Ray-Ray Jackson. Ray-Ray was the kid in the previous story with a fist full of Red Vine licorice who was the first student to introduce himself when Harry arrived at Darwin three weeks ago.
“Shut yo ass, Ray-Ray! Yo’ daddy a muthahfuckin dead nikka cuz he . . .” With that, the two lads tore at each other and commenced fighting like a pair of bucks trying to sharpen sprouting horns.
“Here we go,” Mills said while thrusting his arms between the two.
It was going to be a trying day at Darwin MS—where only the strong survive.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Is This New Principal an Insufferable Bitch or Does Harry Mills Have a Red Ass After Getting Jerked Around ?

Read and Decide for Yourself!

The following story is written by a teacher who recently quit the Los Angeles Unified School District figuring LAUSD is a conflicted, rudderless sinking ship captained by fools clueless about public education. The following are fictional characters intended to resemble actual people. Thank you for visiting Blocker’s Blog after its hiatus during which the author was busy relocating halfway to San Francisco. Happy reading!

By Mark J. Blocker

Harry Mills’s classroom at Darwin MS in the Beatrice-Burnwood section of Big City faced east toward the rising sun, but thanks to a row of overgrown fichus trees the place is in perpetual darkness.
His first period conference over, Harry was standing outside his door to greet the arriving parade of 7th-grade students for second period. They all paused before entering to eye their new teacher--his long ponytail, gray goatee, western style shirt with snap pearl buttons, khaki cargo pants and sneakers.
“Who da fuck are you?” It was an honest but vulgar inquiry shouted by a short, wiry lad with caramel skin and matching hair. He bit off another chunk of his Red Vine licorice rope and chewed with his mouth open waiting for an answer.
Harry slumped his shoulders and shook his head to display disappointment at the boy’s selection of words.
“I am Mr. Mills, and you are . . .”
The boy interrupted, “You a sub?”
“Nope. I am here for good.”
“Damn,” he muttered before entering the room.
Harry thought about calling him back to discuss proper classroom vocabulary, but he let the inquisitive student walk since virtually every passing child in the hall was insulting each other using profanities and epithets describing genitalia and excrement.
“Don’t get too comfortable. We will have assigned seats,” Harry warned students milling about the room. They responded with groans and a chorus of cursing. He knew it would take days to screw down pupils running amuck after a parade of indifferent substitute teachers mostly concerned with surviving til the day’s final bell.
Harry tried to log on the school’s aged computer to scan his roster and build a seating chart. Access Denied—Username and Password Terminated. Nobody at Darwin had yet set up his account. His prior school, high-performing Gibson MS in posh Green Tree Estates, wasted no time in shutting down his access when he was transferred back into the ghetto. Mills thought it would be nice if the district were equally as responsive in setting teachers up as it was at shutting them down.
Mills told the class the seating chart would have to wait for another day. The kids cheered like it was New Years Eve1999. The kid who previously interacted with Harry at the door pulled out a fist of Red Vines, bit off the end of one and began offering the remainder to surrounding colleagues. Harry admired his generosity while frowning at the inconspicuous flouting of a common classroom rule.
“Hey! No eating in cla . . .” Harry quit. No kid could hear him anyway, and he didn’t want to yell above the din. It would only increase the volume and raise his blood pressure. Instead, he folded his arms and silently frowned at the bedlam. In less than a minute the kids sheepishly returned to their desks.
“This shouldn’t surprise you, but just like all your other teachers I’d prefer you refrain from eating in class.”
“What the fuck ‘re-frain’ mean?”
The rest of the day unfolded with no surprises. Mills was pleased that each class eventually settled down enabling him to launch a discussion of class procedures, rules and consequences. Afterward, he assigned each class their first project—in groups of four construct cause-and-effect charts detailing reasons for each rule. While the students were busy in groups of four planning and drawing their posters, Mills surveyed each class confident he could establish reasonable control and in a few days begin the business of teaching what the State wanted 7th-graders to learn.

Waiting 45 minutes for a 3-minute meeting
Two days passed. On Wednesday during his first period conference Harry was planning curriculum when the classroom phone rang.
“Mr. Mills? Ms. Sharperson, our principal, wants to see you in her office immediately.”
Harry went down to the front. Her office door was closed. A tall woman who seldom looked up from her computer told Mills, “Have a seat, Ms. Sharperson is in a meeting.”
Harry turned to a bank of plastic chairs along the back wall. All were marred with nauseating stains; pressed gum; and threatening graffiti scrawled with thick, felt-tipped pens. Harry found a reasonably clean chair and carefully sat down. It was missing a screw. He nearly fell on his ass. He hoisted himself back onto his feet, clasped his hands and began perusing flyers tacked on a cork bulletin board.
Several notices warned against discriminating, sexually harassing, and leaving early. One listed names and phone numbers of staff charged with fielding complaints about offensive behavior. The rest promoted events that occurred last year.
Harry also watched the clock. Its second hand fell down then began climbing up again signaling a half hour had passed. Harry started wondering what Sharperson’s closed-door meeting was about. Maybe she was getting ready to fire his ass. Had he discriminated against a student? Alarmed, he was soon internally fretting over whether he sexually harassed a child. Sweet bearded Jesus, I could be a racist pervert! Inside that shut office a sheriff’s deputy could be writing down charges while Sharperson nodded, a parent fumed and a child shed tears.
Harry was relieved when the door opened and three testosterone-drenched, crew-cut PE teachers--one of them male—exited and strode out toward the gymnasium. Sharperson, after glancing at Mills, shut her door leaving him outside. Realizing his new boss was wasting his time Harry’s relief morphed into anger. He mutely tried to make eye contact with the office lady, but she remained focused on her screen.  So Harry approached, and she quickly tapped her keyboard before springing off her chair. She smoothed her skirt before walking over to Sharperson’s solid oak door. Harry noticed she had long legs wrapped in lacy stockings. Stiletto heels of her glistening black shoes echoed off the worn, beige linoleum. Harry calmed down a little.
“Yes?” the principal replied to light rapping upon the door.
“Mr. Mills is here.”
Sharperson let silence fulminate before she answered, “I’m aware, thanks.”
The office lady shrugged before strutting back to her computer.
Five minutes later Sharperson opened her door again. “Come in, sir.”
Harry wondered whether he was overreacting. Never in nine years at Missouri Compromise had any of the six rotating principals kept him waiting. They usually dropped by his classroom, affably smiling and unnecessarily apologetic. Harry assured visiting administrators that they were always welcome in his classroom. This odd environment at Darwin MS offered a stark contrast to his prior working conditions.
“Sit down,” Sharperson said from behind her desk while scratching the tip of her expensive looking pen against a stack of papers. “I wanted to ask you why you thought you had to call . . .uh . . . Ashley Gracia’s house.”
“You mean Monica Garcia,” Harry corrected.
“Yes, that’s it. I apologize.”
“She’s been tardy every day.”
“I looked at your attendance forms and saw you were always marking her tardy. By the way, why are you submitting your attendance manually? We’re on an automated system here.”
“I can’t log on.”
“And you contacted Mr. Nerlman to set up your account?"
“Everyday I go by the attendance office asking when I can get on.”
“It’s not the attendance office’s responsibility to get you on.”
“I thought they could point me in the right direction.”
Sharperson sighed, picked up her phone and pressed a couple buttons. “Mister Nerlman, this is Wanda Sharperson, principal at Darwin Middle School.”
Sharperson held the receiver away from her ear. Harry gazed at her long red fingernails and the large golden hoop earring that swung behind corkscrew curls that reflected light from the bare incandescent bulb dangling from the ceiling of yellowed acoustic tiles.
She hung up and announced, “That took all of two minutes. I’d really appreciate if you could take care of things like that on your own Mr. Mills. I’m very busy.”
Harry didn’t respond. He furrowed his brow. He spent a few moments trying to read the spreadsheets she was signing. Harry looked up and Sharperson was staring at him over her lenses. They locked eyes. Sharperson leaned back in her creaking wooden armchair.

To-do list: 128 phone calls
“How are your other calls coming along?” she asked.
“What calls?” Harry answered, knowing full well she was inquiring about. During their initial meeting Sharperson apprised Harry that she required all teachers to telephone their students’ parents to introduce themselves. She even made Mills sign a form agreeing to perform the calls. Harry figured it was forgettable bureaucratic bullshit no one really expected to get done. Wrong.
“I’ve made several calls. Mostly about behavior and attendance.”
“You’re supposed to call every parent and introduce yourself. Have you accomplished this yet, sir?”
“I’m unclear on the process. Is there an office and school telephone I can use to make these calls? The phone in my room only connects to campus phones. I also need to know when I’m supposed to do this--during my conference period? After school?”
“To answer your first question, most teachers prefer to use their own phones and make the calls from their home during the evenings or on weekends. May I remind you your conference periods are for just that—conferences, so yes, you may call parents during that time. But you need to get this accomplished soon, sir, or you will be subject to punitive measures. You signed a binding agreement that you would make these calls. Would you like to review it?” With that Sharperson slid the form across her desk toward Harry.
He stared back at her. She was going to be a hostile boss.
By the time she let Harry get back to his classroom, the tardy bell already rang. His unsupervised kids were chasing each other around the empty corridor, tossing candy wrappers, conducting loogie contests and slamming their fists into rusty lockers. Mills unlocked his door so the kids could shove each other inside.

The “secret” solution
At lunch, Mills saw Ms. Simpson, a 30-year-teacher also displaced out Missouri Compromise when the school board handed the place over to a charter operator. But unlike Harry, Ms. Simpson was personally hired by Sharperson months earlier. Ms. Simpson was friendly, but she let it known she didn’t like bullshit. Harry heard she once verbally bit the head off a condescending assistant principal at Missouri Compromise who had blamed her for an incident where a student hid behind in her classroom and while she was gone for a few minutes ransacked her purse and trashed the room. Harry never did ask her about that, but he did inquire about her relationship with Sharperson.
“I’ve never had any problems with her, “ Ms. Simpson shrugged, “but nobody better mess with me or I’ll walk out. I have loads of sick time in the bank and enough years to retire right now.”
“What about these phone calls we have to make to parents?”
“Use Ed-Connect. Don’t waste your time dialing every number! Half of them won’t answer, and if they do they’re drunk or crazy or something.”
Harry had forgotten about Ed-Connect. Back at Missouri Compromise he used the automated system all the time. To phone a student’s house, a teacher simply clicked a name and selected the appropriate message from a long menu that offered a variety of common teacher-parent missives for both good news and bad. Harry remembered that one available selection was an introductory call to welcome the parent’s child to class.
The million-dollar price tag of Ed-Connect garnered the attention of the city’s newspaper, which soon began a series of articles examining all Big City School District expenditures. This generated letters from readers complaining that the teachers’ union was controlling the budget and wasting taxpayers’ money on unnecessary luxuries instead of investing in the children. Why couldn’t these lazy communist teachers who are ruining our country dial a telephone like their predecessors?
But Harry had another big question. Why didn’t Sharperson suggest he use Ed-Connect instead of demanding he personally dial each parent? He asked around and sure enough every teacher used the system. None used their own phone. Sharperson was apparently trying to make Harry’s job more difficult than it already was.
Two days later, Sharperson and some suit from downtown visited Mills class and turned the heat up even higher.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Harry Meets the New Boss, and She's Not the Same as the Old Boss--Any of Them

First Hour at New Campus Brings Gaffes, Sharp Reprimands

Part 9 in the fictional story of Harry Mills, a teacher displaced when his employer, the Big City School District, voted to hand over his formerly public school to a private charter operator. For earlier chapters click the archives to the right. DISCLAIMER: the following characters and situations are made up. They shouldn’t remind you of anyone you know, unless you know somebody like this. Good fiction mirrors real life. Hopefully, this is good fiction.

By Mark J. Blocker

The first morning at his new school deep within Big City’s impoverished urban core Harry Mills parked his car, pulled out his briefcase and clicked the “lock” button on his high-tech key. Then he clicked it again.
Harry tried to make eye contact with everyone--fellow adults striding purposely or shuffling regretfully into the day; several dormant students dropped off in the pre-dawn hours by overburdened parents obeying early work schedules.
At 6:50 a.m. the brightly lit front office was a conspicuous beacon within the fog-shrouded campus.
“Hello, I’m Harry Mills.”
“Mr. Mills! Glad to meet you,” enthused a lady who doubled as the textbook coordinator. Budget cuts are forcing schools to require support staff to work dual jobs. “Let me get you your room key, you can sign in here,” she pointed to a familiar looking folder that contained all personnel time cards on the counter top. “You’re in Room 5. Classrooms are numbered on the buildings. You shouldn’t have trouble finding it, “ she smiled. “But Ms. Sharperson will be here any minute. Perhaps you should wait. She can show you to your room”
“Oh, I’ll meet her over there. I want to get inside and see what I have.”
“Actually, I think it would be better if you waited. Ms. Sharperson appreciates that. Have a seat. Relax.” Her tone downshifted into a mumbled warning.
So Harry did as told and waited in a chairs backed up against the wall by the double door. Several teachers whom Harry recognized from his old school entered, signed in and quickly left.
Eventually a short woman with Medusa-like, lengthy coils of pitch-black oily corkscrew curls cascading out her head toward her shoulders barged in like she owned the place. Must be Ms. Sharperson, Harry surmised. Everyone ceased their conversations, sat up straighter and busied themselves straightening any stack of paper within arm’s reach or staring into a nearby computer screen. Out of the corners of their eye, they cast furtive glances at the short woman upon stiletto heels who, with her hands on her hips, surveyed them all. She had long nails, the kind painted and glued down by Asian artisans toiling behind masks under fluorescent lights in malls on the better side of town. She was boxy with a pillow ass bulging out polyester pants. It contrasted sharply with unremarkable breasts. Her skin was color of caramel; hair the texture of rich licorice. Harry momentarily chided himself for sexually assessing his new boss. But, a man is a man, and a woman is a woman. This woman seemed intense. Angry. Oddly, this middle-aged black woman reminded Harry of the late British heavy-metal rock star Ronnie James Dio. He wasn’t so attracted anymore.
She turned to Mills and announced, “I’m Wanda Sharperson, principal of Darwin Middle School.”
Harry stuck out his hand. She ignored it.
“Follow me and I will show you to your room.” The 7:30 bell had already rang so classes were in session. The lady at the front told Harry he had first period conference, which meant that he was free during first period--sort of. Teachers with first period conference often found themselves covering for colleagues who had either slept late or were stuck in traffic.
Without a word, Sharperson and Mills walked together down the hall, passing rooms 1, 2, 3, but stopping at 4. She stuck her key into the door and opened it while Harry looked over at darkened Room 5. She silently motioned for Mills to enter. Immediately the teacher, a tall, lanky fellow who reminded Harry of an elongated Morgan Freeman began stuffing items into his briefcase for a quick exit.  Ms. Sharperson frowned. There were numbers and equations all over the white board. Posters promoted the fun, and value, of learning algebra. Others offered a hard sell on the merits of being polite and demonstrating good citizenship.
“Hey,” Harry asked the kids in the front row, “is this an English class?”
They enthusiastically nodded yes turning to each other with raised eyebrows.
“Oh, yeah?” Harry countered, “then what are all these numbers doing all over the place?” He pointed at the numbers and problems on their papers. “These don’t look like paragraphs to me! This ain’t no English class,” Harry declared with mock indignation.
A bossy looking girl, quite a bit larger than the nearby boys, intoned, “Well, for your information, these aren’t math problems; they’re algebra,” She added while wagging her finger, “and you aren’t supposed to say ain’t when you an English teacher.”
“Well,” Harry winked, “you got me there, sweetheart.”
She immediately smiled revealing a row of gleaming braces. Harry was making a mental note of the child’s leadership ability when Sharperson barked, “Excuse me, young lady, but what kind of way is that to talk to an adult? You keep yourself quiet in a classroom unless your teacher calls on you to speak!”
The girl’s victorious smile collapsed, and she cast her eyes down on her paper. Harry regretted setting up the gregarious child for a fall. It was his fault.
Then Sharperson turned on the teacher who was now clutching his briefcase while standing halfway out the door. “Leaving so soon?” she asked.
He quietly replied, “No m’am, but I’m a sub. I thought y’all were the regular teachers.”
“How long have you been here?” Sharperson demanded.
“Since Monday.”
“Well, by now you ought to know I’m not a ‘regular teacher.’ I’m Wanda Sharperson, the principal of Darwin Middle School.”
Sharperson turned to Harry, “Exactly what room are you supposed to be in Mr. Mills?”
“Five, I guess.”
She repeated slowly, “Five. You guess.” Then she tilted her head back and cocked an eyebrow. It was threaded—tapered, too. Her credit card bills must be astronomical Harry thought. The more money you make; the more you spend, Mills remembered hearing his grandfather complain years and years ago.
He had been here at Darwin MS for less than an hour, and knew his new principal for only a matter of minutes; nonetheless, Harry longed for the fast lane of the southbound Long Beach Freeway.
Sharperson stiffly apologized for intruding, she grabbed Harry’s arm, and together they backed out the door. Oddly the physical contact comforted Mills indicating she didn’t find him repulsive. Without a word, she unlocked Room 5 and motioned for him to step inside. The lights went on, and he heard the door shut behind. He turned expecting to see Sharperson, but she was gone.
Harry sighed and surveyed his new classroom. The color a nondescript beige favored by the Big City School District for all its thousands of classrooms from the mountains to the sea. A white board graced the south wall, while an antiquated, heavily marred chalkboard stared back from west. All bulletin boards were adorned with a single strip of colored paper that failed to reach the top or bottom, exposing pocked corkboard. Scalloped borders stapled along the edge emphasized the gap. There was nothing else on the walls.
During the previous week while temporarily parked at high-performing Gibson MS, Harry, hoping to the last the year, spent several days and nearly $100 of his own money decorating his classroom only to be transferred out Friday. He couldn’t justify tearing down all the new décor he dutifully hung to create a print-rich academic atmosphere for the students. Now, pone week later in a bare classroom, he wished he did because he would have to repeat the entire process and expense. Harry knew he wouldn’t be transferred away from this dreary, low-performing school--unless a charter operator put in a bid to run the place. And that wasn't going to happen until the end of this academic year.
At least the room was relatively clean. The exterior campus was coated in the grime of relentless urban traffic. Countless cars, delivery trucks and busses rolled forever to individual destinations. Overhead, an endless parade of behemoth, lumbering passenger jets arriving from around the world loudly descended into the international airport a few miles west.
Harry shut the door and in the welcomed ensuing quiet considered the clock on the wall. It was wrong. He checked his watch. The school’s block schedule meant there was less than a half hour left before his first students arrived. He walked over to the Title 1 room, where he would find government-funded supplies for teaching in a school serving poor people. Harry was one. He got some white butcher paper and marking pens, plus some chalk.
It was the first day for Mills, so he needed to set the kids straight on procedures, rules, and consequences. Rather than stand in front dictating, he figured he would let them vote on what rules they preferred. Of course, he would discreetly steer the discussion to his five favorites: bring your own paper and pens, get there on time, immediately write down the agenda, raise your hand to leave your seat, and complete all assignments
Once that was clear and the students thought it was all their ideas, Harry would break them into groups where they would create poster-sized cause-and effect charts describing each rule’s contribution to a pleasant academic environment. Then he would hang the kids’ posters on the wall. Viola: instant student-produced décor, which would also serve as reminders of proper conduct! Harry had learned a few tricks in the previous decade teaching middle school. It was now minutes before his first students arrived. He took comfort in knowing that soon they would all be one big happy family.
Or so he thought. Principal Wanda Sharperson’s abrasive, in-your-face management style was unbearable—even if it was gussied up in stylish clothes and multi-hundred-dollar spa treatments performed by stoic Korean women who stood over the supine, naked Sharperson slathering her with expensive mud while wishing they were back working in seedy massage parlors/whorehouses of Gardena and North Hollywood--because the tips are more generous.

Look for Part 10 in a few days!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Harry Mills's Free Fall Through the Big City School District Takes Him From Heaven to Hell

Actually, School Kids are All the Same. It's the Principals That Will Devil You

Part 8 in a series of fictional stories depicting one teacher’s experience working in the nation’s second largest school district. Once again, the characters are made up and should not resemble anyone you know. This story is meant to entertain; not piss off.

By Mark J. Blocker

Teacher Harry Mills was living a dream. His students were raising their hands before they spoke. Without exception, their utterances were reasonable and offered the class discussion insights well beyond their 12 years. Former newspaperman Mr. Mills stood before his journalism class at high-performing Gibson Middle School marveling at his pupils—and his luck.
What a turn of events from the malaise seen three months earlier when he—along with the rest of the faculty—were sent packing out of perennially low-performing Missouri Compromise Middle School when the school board voted to hand the place over to a charter operator under the Public School Choice program.
Making this current situation at Gibson MS even more surprising: numerous interviews during the summer failed to provide any job offers, so the Big City School District placed Mills at this school where the API score was an impressive 850. Mills was also enjoying the picturesque, 10-mile commute to posh Green Tree Farms Peninsula.
Perhaps the BCSD figured it was his reward for his 9 years of tough service at his former school. Receding far back into his mind’s rear view mirror were the memories of shaking hands good-bye to colleagues at the Gold Coast Star when he embarked on this new challenge teaching in the beleaguered BCSD which was desperately recruiting teachers willing to serve in public schools operating inside the nation’s worst crime-ridden and gang-infested shit holes. Mills was proud he had the balls, because the students and the job put new energy and meaning into his 44-year-old life.
About six years later inner-city public school teachers weren’t heroes anymore. Media complained. These teachers are parasites . . . no wait, they’re union thugs stealing money from taxpayers. Teachers secretly hate children and buy off corrupt politicians who rubberstamp exorbitant pay and benefits. Fire all lazy and inept veteran teachers. Look at dismal test scores and high dropout rates. Bring in some young blood with fresh ideas, and pay them less. Strip away retirement and medical benefits. No one in the private sector gets summers off. In fact private sector workers never get two weeks off at Christmas nor a whole week at Easter. Mills read editorials written by unionized journalists hoping the State would go bankrupt so all public-employee contracts could be voided. Radio talk show hosts were even more repugnant and hateful in their effort to pander to their frustrated, exploited audience. Media had changed for the worse in the past decade. So had the public's perception about education.
On that sunny day at Gibson MS, Mills couldn’t care less. Ho ho.
As big, burly Mills was striding comfortably to his car after the three o’clock bell, the new principal called him into his office. The young principal was a pale, diminutive fellow. He was also the son of the local school board representative. Informing Harry of the inevitable news, the impeccably dressed and coiffed man-boy smiled while apologizing profusely. Harry listened, but he had heard it all a week before from the former principal Mr. Dooley.
“What school am I being transferred to?”
“Drawn Middle School,” answered the kid. Harry gazed around the young man’s office. The last time he was in there, Dooley was moving out and the place was bare. Now all sorts of military aircraft adorned the walls and shelves—even the desktop.
“Were you in the Air Force?”
“Oh, no,” the principal replied. “I just thought it would go well considering our proximity to the harbor. You know, maintain a maritime type of motif, heh, heh.” Harry scratched his head over that before the kid queried, “What branch of the service were you in?”
“None. When I turned 18 Carter called off the draft. We had just lost Vietnam. It was all a big mess. I just went to college,” Harry shrugged. In his younger days drinking in bars he would test potential adversaries by telling them all about his aversion to taking orders from assholes. There was no point in doing that today.  Besides, such a proclamation would require a segue into Harry bragging that he never played a down of high school football because he hated the idea of reporting to school early and having to run around in Pasadena’s August heat and smog while some burr-headed prick screamed at him. Shit, he hoped that fucker lost all his games. When young Mills thought about football, he always fantasized he was the one throwing touchdown passes, kicking game-winning field goals from 50 yards out, or delivering a bone-crunching tackle to an arrogant back who coughed up the ball recovered by, of course, Harry, who would run it back for a touchdown. But big, slow Harry Mills knew damn well that his destiny on a gridiron was anonymously blocking for every glorified jock who demanded—and received—the ball.
Fuck that. In fact, that expletive is Harry’s motto about a lot of things in life--but not about teaching ghetto kids. Harry wanted to teach kids born into disenfranchisement how to beat The Man at his own game. It was why he worked at the BCSD. So perhaps it was only fitting he was being sent back to the 'hood. But he didn’t relish the idea. He was 53 now.
Mills failed to report to Drawn MS the next day, and nobody noticed. He did, however, case the joint. He drove west along Burnrock Boulevard, past the town of Southwood, a working class burg boasting warehouses, trucking companies, factories and 2X1 tract homes built right after World War II. Many of the houses had been expanded, often without concern for maintaining architectural integrity. Oh well, if the code enforcers didn’t mind, neither did Harry.
The road curved slightly and Harry entered the area called Burnrock Gardens. The houses became old bungalows and a few two-stories with the wood siding replaced by stucco. The larger homes were long ago converted into apartments. Every window, even the vents, had bars. Storefronts became vacant or peddled second-hand junk. Mechanics hand painted their signage with misspelled words. Within a few blocks, Harry couldn’t differentiate between business signs and spray-painted graffiti.
The next day, rather than report, he phoned Drawn MS to introduce himself to the principal. She wasn’t available. The lady who answered had Mills repeat his name and took his phone number.
A half hour later his cell phone rang, and the words shot out like a barrage of gunfire. It was the first of what would be many salvos aimed at destroying his will to teach.
“This is Wanda Sharperson, principal at Drawn Middle School. I have a few questions to ask just to be sure were on the same page.”
“First off, are you a problem identifier or a problem solver?”
Mills figured she wanted to know if he bitched a lot.
“I pretty much mind my own business,” he said.
“How do you get along with parents?”
“That’s good, because if you come to work here you will have to sign a memorandum of understanding that you will call each and every one of them to introduce yourself.”
Harry didn’t say anything.
“Yes, ma’am.”
“What is your attendance like?”
“Well, average, I guess.”
“You need to be here before 7:20. Classes start at 7:30 sharp, and I don’t like it when teachers come rushing in at 7:29. I will dock your pay.”
Harry got there at 6:40, but the gates were locked. He parked on Burnrock and waited. At 6:45, a custodian drove up in a golf cart and unlocked the gate. Mills drove in, and things went down hill from there.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

After Fruitless Job Interviews Yield Sour Grapes, Harry Gets Parked Inside High-Achieving School

A take on the ol' bait-n-switch routine gives displaced teacher a peek inside the front office of a high-performing school

By Mark J. Blocker

The following is Part 7 in a series of fictional stories depicting the odyssey of displaced teacher Harry Mills of the Big City School District. It is written solely for the entertainment of readers. Any similarities to persons living or dead is coincidental. Click the archives on the right for previous chapters. Enjoy!

In Southern California, late August and early September will mix steamy air from Mexico with exhaust from a million indigenous engines. Harry Mills, wondering where he was going to be teaching English the following week, stood on his condominium balcony in the mid-day September 1st sun gazing across Long Beach at the opaque air that saturated the industrial harbor.
Interviews over the course of summer netted zero job offers for Mr. Mills, a 9-year veteran displaced from the only school he had ever taught, after the Big City School District decided to disown the place and give it to a charter operator which promised to cheat during the annual State academic tests by illegally showing to students answers beforehand so interested scholars could memorize them. The clandestine endeavor can sometimes pay dividends in poor neighborhoods where students are often motivated with coupons for 5% discounts at ubiquitous fast food outlets offering prefabricated junk food, high in saturated fat, slid under graffiti-marred yet bullet-proof, thick panels of polymer-resins.
On this late summer day, a solitary seagull reigned atop a telephone pole eyeing Harry who was momentarily fascinated by the flock of pigeons balancing themselves on a wire stretched above the summer traffic inching north and south along Pacific Coast Highway.
Harry thought he smelled a little marine salt air through the smog. A car alarm was blaring from somewhere off in the distance. He wondered who had the balls to break into cars in broad daylight. Then from inside his condo, the phone began ringing through the open window.
“This is Sapphire Townes with the BCSD personnel division. May I speak to Harold Mills please?”
“This is he.”
“Mr. Mills, I’m calling to inform you that the district has placed you at Gibson Middle School for the coming year.”
“That’s what I said, sir.”
What’s the catch? Of course Harry didn’t ask that out loud. He didn’t want to piss her off. She could retaliate by sending him to some sinking ship--like Drawn Middle School on the northern border of the slum, Volts. Before the previous academic year closed, Harry was warned by other teachers in the know to avoid any schools moving up on the District’s list of lost causes to be auctioned off to interested charter operators poised to convert them into cash cows for crony administrators ready to exploit the next generation of laid-off teachers willing to sign one-year contracts bereft of union protections and benefits. Harry merely thanked her and hung up.
Gibson is located in the posh Green Tree Farms Peninsula of Big City’s expansive school district. The area hadn’t cultivated a wholesale crop in decades. It is all ocean and harbor view estates inhabited by people who sent their kids to private schools while frowning every morning as big yellow busses arrived delivering children from working class neighborhoods and housing projects from the flat lands.
But those kids, 90% Hispanic and Black, went into that predominantly White and Asian neighborhood with business on their expanding minds. They maintained an API score of 850; meaning, they were excellent students operating at or above grade level. Harry’s last venue, Missouri Compromise Middle School, slouched every year to an API in the low 500s. A score of 1,000 is perfect; and any score higher than 900 is rarely seen in California outside of a few affluent enclaves.
Back now outside leaning on the railing, Harry calculated the numbers while gazing toward Green Tree Peninsula less than 10 miles west. He could barely make out its prominent peak through the midday haze. So close yet so far away, he thought while looking down toward the sea of cramped apartment buildings and their chalky, cracked stucco rising above the curled tar paper roofs and rotted wood siding of two-bedroom bungalows centered upon expansive, dead lawns.
An hour later Mills was eagerly driving over to Gibson to introduce himself and verify whether his good fortune was real or just a mirage.
“We don’t know anything about that,” answered a woman whose hair switched from black and gray after a quarter inch to a luxuriant brown that fell to her tanned shoulders. She turned to her partner, a bleach blonde busy frowning at the aged CRT that took up more than half of her desk. She distractedly shook her head, never removing her squinting eyes from the tube. Harry maintained his smile while drumming his fingertips on the front counter. During the ensuing awkward silence Harry’s tapping became the major sound so he abruptly stopped.
“Perhaps the principal knows something?” Harry suggested.
She shrugged and strode off to an adjacent office.
“Huh?” boomed a man’s voice from the room. After a pause, “From where?” More whispering. “Missouri Comp . . . aw, hell n…”
He was cut off by the woman’s urgent, breathy, “Shhh! He’s out front.”
She returned, smiling. “Mr. Dooley will be right with you.”
Dooley wasn’t smiling when he came out. He had beads of perspiration on his ebony forehead that was framed on three sides by a three-inch Afro. Harry hadn’t seen one of those in years. Meanwhile, Dooley could have been thinking the same thing about Harry’s archaic ponytail, wondering whether this fool was a burned-out hippie or bad-ass biker. Sweat off Harry’s own brow rolled down to flood his right cornea. Harry pulled his glasses away before wiping with the back of his hand his stinging eye. Harry blinked, worrying that Dooley might think he was winking at him.
Dooley stood in the breeze of the ladies’ oscillating fan and apologized. “Sorry, Mills, we don’t have air conditioning around here. We’re supposed to rely on the sea breeze, but it doesn’t come around much this time of year.”
Harry looked around and saw all the windows closed.
“Making matters worse, none of the windows open up,” Dooley noted. “The district sealed them up for security years ago when they installed all these expensive computers.”
“So Brenda and me pooled our money and bought this fan yesterday,” interjected the 50-something blonde.
Dooley invited Harry into his hill-top office where an open door provided some relief and a picturesque view of the harbor cranes and silo-sized storage tanks of highly flammable butane. It sure beats graffiti and cinderblock walls, Harry thought, as Dooley excused himself to dial district headquarters on his rotary phone to confirm Harry’s placement.
Through the receiver Mills could hear the woman on the other end. He recognized the voice as the same lady who called him two hours earlier. Mills overheard her informing Dooley, “It’s just until we can place him at another school where there’s always leftover unfilled positions.” Dooley nodded at this while watching Harry to see if he heard it too. Harry’s cheer rapidly dissipated. Dooley gently cradled the receiver.
After a pause, Dooley announced, “Welcome aboard, Mr. Mills!” It echoed off the bare walls of the sparsely furnished office. Dooley extended to Harry a hand as empty as his proclamation. Expressionless, Harry stared at the hand before lifting his gaze toward Dooley’s faltering grin. Dooley exhaled loudly and plopped back into his executive chair, which creaked while he slowly leaned back to prepare his confession.
“Look, Mills. This is Gibson—the jewel of the BCSD. No teacher gets in here unless they’re National Board Certified, have a master’s degree, 10 years unblemished service within the district. Hell, even then you need to go through a series of interviews downtown to be considered. We haven’t had an opening in years.”
Harry nodded sadly.
“Even I’m out of here,” Dooley offered while gesturing within the nearly vacant office. Harry had been wondering why the room was devoid of personal artifacts. “The incoming principal is the son of the school board member who represents this local district.”
“Where are you going?”
Dooley nodded gravely, “District H. North of the 105."
The 105 Freeway is the southern border of Big City’s urban core that 15 years ago was damn near burned to the ground during riots sparked by the acquittal of five White cops secretly videotaped clubbing the shit out of a lone Black drunk who tried to flee from them in a gutless, four-cylinder car on an empty stretch of suburban freeway in the middle of a weeknight. No one would have known about the beating had not the amateur videographer offered the tape to a local TV station.
Harry’s last school, Missouri Compromise was a stone’s throw south of Big City’s former economic demarcation line that was rapidly fading as more of the metropolis sank below the poverty line.
Which brings us back to Drawn Middle School. On the third day of school, Harry received another phone call. He was being transferred to the dilapidated campus located on the north end of the infamous slum, Volts. Drawn MS was a long way from the freshly painted and meticulously swept campus of Gibson MS.
Perhaps more importantly though, it was also far removed from the gleaming high-rise downtown office building that housed elite administrators running the nation’s largest school district.
Inside the elevator descending down through the bowels of BCSD headquarters stood Wanda Sharperson clutching her purse and grinding her teeth. Her days overseeing 25 principals dispersed far beyond her 25th floor window were over. Now she would be down and dirty as the principal overseeing the faculty, staff and students at low-performing Drawn MS. She was going to clean house. Within 10 working days she had some old ponytailed bastard named Harry Mills in her crosshairs.

Look for the conclusion in less than a week! (Hopefully) -- Blocker

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Latest Job Interview Has Harry Seeing Ghosts

. . . Fearing the Cadaver Could Be His Career, Mills is Last Seen Cleaning His Fuel Injectors Southbound On The 110

The following is the 6th installment of a series of stories depicting the odyssey of teacher Harry Mills as he searches for a new public school from which to resume his teaching career after his previous school was handed off to a private charter operator by the Big City School District after years of low scores on standardized tests. Previous stories are available by searching the blog archives to the left (scroll down a little.) It is a fictional story, as are all the rest. The characters are not intended to represent any individuals you may know. Coincidences do occur, however. These stories are written solely for the reader's entertainment.

By Mark J. Blocker

It was nine Wednesday morning in mid August, and Harry was sleeping lightly--his head sandwiched between two pillows successfully blocking the cacophony of jackhammers and wrecking balls across Pacific Coast Highway tearing down an abandoned boat dealership. The phone started ringing. A 310 area code meant it was another school calling for an interview. English teacher Harry Mills, unemployed since June, gladly picked it up.
“Yes, this is Harry Mills.” The clarity and the energy within his voice surprised Harry.
“Yes Mr. Mills this is Samantha Richards at Yardin High School how are you this morning are you still looking for a teaching position?”
Harry immediately recognized the rapid-fire staccato voice as that of his favorite ex-principal who left Missouri Compromise Middle School three years ago. Although many teachers disliked Ms. Richards, some even transferring, Harry always enjoyed her. She seemed to like Harry, too, taking time out, after reprimanding him for some chicken shit reason, to learn about the man's personal life. She was an attractive, energetic woman probably nearing 50, with skin the color of coffee and cream, who favored golf attire—even while on the job. Through conversation, Harry learned Ms. Richards was raised on a truck farm outside Beaumont, Texas, the middle of 7 children. She got a full scholarship to the University of Houston where she had the lowest handicap on the women’s golf team. She and her husband still played weekly at any given course anywhere in Southern California.
“Well, hello, Ms. Richards, remember me, Mr. Mills from Missouri Compromise?”
“Well, I’ll be! Mr. Mills! I thought I recognized that name. How are you?”
“Better now that you called. I’m still looking for a job.”
“Well, Yardin has a position to fill. Are you available for an interview Friday?”
“Yes ma’am.” The idea of working for Ms. Richards once again was exciting. Mills remembered giving an annual test years ago to his ESL students which could qualify them to enter regular English. It was illegal to provide answers to the students, so during the oral portion he set a table outside the classroom door so they couldn’t hear the answers. Ms. Richards didn’t like that. Harry had to be inside supervising his class. She told the ESL chairman Mr. Superna to have Harry figure out another way. Harry suggested the school provide an aide to either administer the test or supervise the room. The next day Superna told Harry Ms. Richards said there wasn’t any money for aides. So Harry moved the table halfway into the doorway, with him and the student still outside the room. No, Ms. Richards told Superna—that is a safety hazard because the table blocks the exit in case there’s a fire. Harry said to hell with it and moved the whole god damned table inside figuring nobody gave a shit if kids heard the answers.
Approving this new set up, Ms. Richards herself stood outside the door, smiling, flirting with Mills, telling him “Not only is Mr. Mills smart, he’s downright handsome too! Right class?” To which the class responded with a lukewarm endorsement smattered with outright denials. After that Mills was one of Ms. Richards’s minions. Maybe the only one. When she announced her transfer the following June, the faculty’s reaction was quite a bit more jubilant than that tepid display by Harry’s 5th period on that hot and windy October afternoon.

Mr. Mill's, tomorrow's not Friday!
“Very good, I’ll see you tomorrow at 10,” Harry confirmed.
“Err, yes,” Ms. Richards answered, “Friday at 10.”
“See you tomorrow.” Harry hung up, enthused at the possibility of reconnecting with Ms. Richards. She had life. Personality. Something he had not witnessed out of an administrator in a while. Just then the phone started ringing again.
“Mr. Mills, this is Samantha Richards again. The interview is Friday! Tomorrow's Thursday. Today is Wednesday!”
“Ooops! I’ll be darned. I’ve been on vacation so long I’m losing track of the days.”
Just like old times, Harry thought.

Yardin High? More like nursing home
Harry parked across the street from the campus and killed 15 minutes listening to nearby traffic and chirping birds while admiring the newly planted magnolia trees establishing themselves on Yardin’s front lawn. He crossed the street against the gaze of a silent crow who flew off when Harry returned his stare.
Inside the front office a slow moving, heavy-set woman with her hair frizzing crazily out her head watched Harry from behind her desk. It was as if she was wishing he would simply walk out the other door without bothering her. Harry told her his business, and she shook her head as if to say, oh no, not more of this bullshit. Then she laboriously got up and shuffled off to disappear behind a partition that separated the principal’s office from the view of anyone on the street side of the front counter.
After a moment, the woman reappeared. “They’ll be with you in a moment,” she uttered, moving back toward her chair. “They’re in some kind of meeting.” Harry figured she was talking to him, but a head turn and a little eye contact would’ve confirmed his suspicion.
Harry couldn’t figure out whether it was the aged teachers who entered and exited the office, or their groans and sighs while they checked their mailboxes, but the place seemed as lugubrious and lethargic as the lobby of a rest home. The only things missing were the smell of piss and ammonia and simmering, poorly paid attendants wearing scrubs. But this was the Big City School District. And a high school, too.
Suddenly, Ms Richards burst in like sunshine. “Good morning Mr. Mills do you have a resume or anything for us?” She took the papers, smiled, turned around and marched off to the copying machine against the far wall. Done, she came back carrying the originals.
“You can keep those, Ms. Richards. They're all for you.”
“Oh, really? Well, thank you.” Her sincere gratitude struck Harry as odd. What the hell could he do with his own cover letter and resume after the interview? Autograph it and hang it on a wall as a souvenir?

Goodbye, Ms. Richards
Ms. Richards marched off, and Harry never saw her again.
Instead, a woman who was 8-months pregnant came and got Harry.  He enjoyed walking down the hall with her toward the library. Her youth, Harry guessed mid 30s, and her fertility made Harry feel better amongst an unmistakable pallor he couldn’t quite figure out. Even the rack of florescent tube lighting overhead seemed to cast insufficiently at midday. Perhaps it was the considerable fog that clung to the air outside. No, the cool, moist air felt refreshing. It wasn’t the walls; they were recently painted beige with forest green trim—just like his previous school. Strange.
They entered the library. Six people who all looked to be nearing retirement sat at a table waiting for Harry while reading his paperwork. The lady quietly introduced him to the assembled as Mr. Miller, and they silently returned his nod. After his escort excused herself and left the room, the sole remaining empty chair beckoned from the end of the table. Sitting down, it momentarily felt to Harry like Thanksgiving, and he was head of the household.
But this was no celebration of gratitude; he was just some out-of-work fool propped up for a cursory probe. In fact, the whole scenario felt more like a wake: somber and strangely reflective. Harry looked at the faces of those assembled. Nobody smiled. Their cheeks sagged into jowls. Eyes that looked like rocks sunk into threadbare, blotchy pillows stared at him but would drop once Mills tried to make meaningful contact.
Finally, a lady who looked like she never even bothered to brush her teeth anymore whispered, “How do you use data in your instruction?”
Since June, it was the sixth time Mills had to formally answer that question. It echoed in his head. He wanted to deliver a fresh answer, but all he could come up with were retorts that sounded sarcastic, so he stuck with the stock answer he had told so many others before but without any favorable results.
It was time for the next query, but nobody said anything. Instead, they cradled their chins in their palms, or bobbed their heads slightly as if surrendering to late morning slumber.
It was then that Harry noticed a man who looked like Abraham Lincoln: tall, wearing a black suit, old-fashioned shoestring tie and a stovepipe hat. He stood behind the others who were oblivious to his presence. He motioned Harry to come over. Harry did, and as he walked over Harry noticed the man presenting an open mahogany casket. Its interior was tuck-n-roll white satin. The handles polished brass. The man seemed proud of the coffin, and he motioned for Harry to get inside and try it out.
Harry looked back at the table. All the teachers and assistant principals were now rubber necked, dozing with their double chins resting upon their chests and breasts. Some were drooling.
Harry knew he was no spring chicken anymore. Sometimes his white and gray hairs, sizable gut and labored gait frightened him when glanced out the corner of his eye to a surprise reflection from a storefront windowpane while he strolled along downtown sidewalks. But he had a lot of time left-- a lot of work and a lot of fun. He was determined to fight for every hour, and he figured he had at least two decades of prime time left. He wasn’t going to spend any of it inside the tomb called Yardin High.

Light traffic and a lead foot
Pressing his foot upon the accelerator, hearing the pistons churning up a storm, Harry wondered whether Yardin High could be lively once neighborhood teenagers were back cavorting through the halls and raising hell in class. Harry gunned his silver Prius and was already passing traffic before the onramp leveled off. He merged left, and before his signal clicked three times Harry established himself as the pacesetter of the southbound Harbor Freeway. He was Mario Andretti; not the punk kid, but the old man, the patriarch, himself. Even the sun above positioned itself through the dissipating fog for a clearer view from which to admire Mills’s flight away from Yardin.
Two more interviews had passed when Ms. Richards called again a week later to inform Harry that he wasn’t hired.
“Thanks for letting me know,” Harry replied. She was the first principal who had the courtesy to call him back. Harry always liked Ms. Richards. He always will, too.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Displaced Teacher Harry Mills Endures Another Hostile Interview but This One's Different: The School is Ugly, Too

By Mark Blocker

The following is Part 5 of a fictional story detailing displaced public school teacher Harry Mills attempts at securing a new position within the Big City School District. But so far the only positions around here have been unappealing and difficult to assume. The earlier chapters are available in the blog archive to the right (scroll down a little.) As always, the characters are not intended to be descriptions of actual people working in, say, the Los Angeles Unified School District or some organization like that.

It's ironic that Nature Middle School is located on the corner of Burlington and 59th in the middle of Big City's hardened urban core. The difference between the area around Nature MS and Volts? Volts is a mile east. Also, Burlington and nearby intersecting streets are nice and wide to accommodate the tanks Detroit put out in the middle of last century. But these streets are just as mean as what you drive and walk in Volts.
So it was with a shrug and hard swallow that Harry Mills, English teacher displaced out of his previous school of 9 years by an egregious act of subterfuge perpetrated by the Big City School District board, accepted an invitation to interview at Nature MS for a job teaching English.
On its front, Nature MS had all kinds of rusty, grafitti-marred signs warning against vandalism and trespassing screwed into the chipped exterior plaster in dire need of a coat of paint: latex flat; not high-gloss spray from a tagger's can. Harry puzzled over what a blue RAC sprayed over with a brown X and SLOS meant while he retrieved his briefcase from the car. He pressed the wireless lock on his key. Then he pressed it again, just to make sure. Startled by a hoarse, angry shout, Harry turned to see a passing '85 lowered Lincoln Town Car sedan, primer-gray and suffering major dents. It was full of boys.
"BITCH-ASS MUTHAFUCKIN HO getcho ass . . ." As the heap passed further south, Mills lost track of what the young black was shouting from the rear passenger side. Harry immediately noticed their target, though: a woman, perhaps in her early 20s, dressed in blue jeans and a pink cotton blouse, with very elaborate, multi-colored corn row braids flowing down her back. Gold hoop earrings shimmered in the sunlight. She ignored the abuse and continued striding southbound on Burlington, but avoided eye contact, instead fixing her gaze upon her own sandaled feet negotiating the cracks and tilts in a side walk lifted up by the roots of a large ficus tree that sheltered a full nest of shitting sparrows. She seemed used to the abuse, but annoyed at the birds.
Harry climbed the steps to the interior of Nature MS. The main office was on the right. It was empty. Standing at the counter he gazed across through a doorway on the opposite wall. A woman sat shuffling papers, talking to others out of Harry's view. Seconds stacked to minutes. Harry gave up trying to make eye contact and turned around to busy himself scanning the mail slots looking for names of familiar teachers. Missouri Compromise had a heavy turnover and attrition throughout the years.
"May I help you?" The words were less a request than a declaration of annoyance. Harry turned. It was the same woman he had seen earlier at the table. Harry apprised her he was there to see the principal for a job interview. Silently, she turned and walked back to where she came from, pausing to gesture to an unseen person in an adjacent office that an intruder was in their midst. Harry stood for awhile, then sat down on a plastic chair and waited. And waited.
Finally, a tall lady with an attractive hourglass shape squeezed into a tailored, gray pantsuit approached.
"Are you Mr. Mills?" She wasn't smiling.
"Yes Ma'am." Harry liked the way people from India spoke, especially the women: launching each English syllable with distinction, playfully tossing each off their lips, finishing the Ts and Ps by snapping their tongue off the roof of their mouth to create a sweet click like that heard from a tap dancer's shoes.
Harry would've felt more at ease had she smiled during their greeting. Probably reluctant to show friendliness, he thought. Some people refrain from friendliness as a defense mechanism in a place of business. In the ghetto, predators interpret friendliness as weakness. Harry was just some poor old sap looking for a job. Maybe that was what bothered her.
She never told Harry her name, just motioned for him to follow her to a small desk situated in the middle of an otherwise empty alcove of huge room devoid of any furnishings or decor--except Rorschack-like stains and countless holes spotting four dingy walls. Harry looked up at the acoustic tiles. They were all there.
"I have five questions," she stated.
"How do you use data?"
She wanted Harry to tell her that he used it to improve instruction. So that's what he told her.
"How do you manage your classroom?"
Harry didn't know what she wanted to hear. Some principals like a tightly run class; others tolerate a more relaxed style believing it puts students at ease--thus lowering their "affective filter" or internalized barriers to new information and learning. He announced, "My main requirement is for students to complete their assignments. Students who are engaged are less likely to cause trouble or struggle academically."
"How do you engage them?" Harry's response apparently inspired her to veer off script. She must've found his answer interesting.
"I try to make my lessons culturally relevant by employing SDAIE methods," Harry uttered, proud he employed a fashionable buzz word. SDAIE isn't really a word per se; it's an acronym categorizing techniques teachers can use to make lessons understandable to students who don't speak English. When talking to non-teachers, Harry liked to describe it as drawing pictures and gesturing, just to see how they'd react.
The anonymous principal finished off her list by asking, "So, why do you want to teach here at Nature Middle School?" Her brief display of animation heartened Harry.
"Well, I spent my entire teaching career so far at Missouri Compromise. I got into this business 9 years ago after hanging around publishing for 20 years or so. At the time the BCSD was recruiting teachers willing to come into what I guess laymen would call tough, urban schools. I answered the call, so to speak. It was the smartest move I've ever made. Missouri Compromise hired me right on the spot. It was thrilling. But now the district handed over my old school to a private charter operator who wants to come in, hire a new staff at lower pay, without union protection. So that's why I'm here. This part of the mayor's charter operation, right?"
"Not quite, we're affiliated with another group, but our teachers maintain their BCSD union benefits and seniority."
Harry nodded and smiled.
"Any other questions?"
"What kind of textbooks do you use in your English curriculum?" Harry inquired, trying to stretch out the conversation and increase any chance she may immediately hire him.
"Uh, textbooks, you wrote something here . . " She glanced at his resume. "Prentice-Hall."
"Oh, good. I'm familiar with their program."
"All BCSD schools use Prentice-Hall, Mr Mills."
She was wrong, but Harry didn't correct her. He had come across materials from at least three different publishers in the five schools where he had interviewed.
"Anything else, sir?"
"No, ma'am. I think we've just about covered it all," he smiled, but inside he knew it was all for shit now.
"You may go," she stated, eyes lowered as she scribbled intently upon her checklist. Harry sat there a moment longer, watching. The only sound was that of a pencil scratching across paper. Silently, he got up and left the room.
Stepping out of Nature's front door, Harry smelled the smog and felt the heat. Then he heard another car full of young assholes abusing some woman walking down the street while minding her own business. Harry got into his car and hoped it would start. It did. Driving off, he never turned on the radio. He just wanted to listen to the motor carrying him away.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Harry Gets a Job Offer But 3 Weeks Later it's Yanked Away--Wasting Precious Time to Find a New School

The following is Part 4 of a series of stories recounting the saga of 9-year veteran public school teacher Harry Mills after he was kicked out--along with colleagues, administrators and support staff--from an urban school serving a poor, crime-infested neighborhood. Everyone was thrown out on their asses after the Big City School District board of education last March declared the place hopelessly mired in low scores on state tests, then gave it to a private charter operator which could run the place without accountability to the public for how they spend tax money, nor restrictions mandated by laws protecting civil rights of students and parents.
It's written as fiction so the author is reasonably protected from retaliation by people with such a bad self-image that they see themselves in these characters. The story is written more to amuse the reader than to inform. If you want non-fiction about the current self-destruction of the Los Angeles Unified School District, click "Fremont Watch," in the box on the right featuring our friendly sponsors. Enjoy!

By Mark J. Blocker

Harry Mills spent the past 9 years teaching at a public middle school where he was slugged, shoved, spit upon, cursed at, had his car keyed, and gravely insulted too many times to count. But the number of students with whom he enjoyed a mutually respectful and sometimes adoring relationship outnumbered these petty indignities, so year after year he kept returning to work at Missouri Compromise Middle School. It was now June turning into July, and he would have been preparing for his September return had not the Big City School District closed the school before immediately re-opening and handing it off to a charter school company so it could skirt around the State law that requires a school district to collect a predetermined amount of signatures from parents and staff before condemning a school and offering it up to bids from outside operators.
The move was illegal as a riot, but since the local media had been whipping the public into a lather about "expensive, poorly performing" schools in the Big City School District, the switch was executed before an opposition could be organized. The impotent teachers' union had long ago bumbled its way to the sidelines, and the community's elderly congresswoman shuffled into the issue too late. It was now a fait accompli.
It's not like Harry was out on the street shoving a shopping cart, though. He was still employed by the Big City School District, he just had to find another BCSD school in which to teach. If he couldn't secure a position on his own, the BCSD would send him where there was an opening for an English teacher with his credential. If he wasn't proactive, this fall Harry could be inching along a two-hour commute.
So far, the search wasn't going too well. He first interview was for Nickerson Gardens High School in Volts--an area even worse than that served by his former school. Nickerson High is a charter, but it's run by the mayor's Premiere Schools for Tomorrow which allows teachers to keep their BCSD seniority, pay and benefits. The same could not be said for the charter operator Bright Spot which grabbed the keys to Missouri Compromise MS. A month had passed since that first job interview, so Harry figured Nickerson HS had passed on him. He wondered whether it was because of all the disparaging posts he wrote about the mayor on the Big City Times newspaper web site after it reported that his campaign was financed by billionaires eager to turn local public schools into cash cows for themselves and cronies. The Times articles didn't describe the situation so succinctly, however.
Now was the last week of June, and school was over. But this was no time for reflection about professional lessons learned during the past academic year. Harry was having a bad time hustling a new gig, suffering through a pair of hostile interviews that left him feeling like an incompetent moron. Mills was starting to worry that this job search was going to become a degrading snipe hunt. (See Part 3)

Ring! Ring! Harry gets a bite in the same dirty lake
The phone rang again. It was a Mr. Humberto "Bert"  Suarez, principal at Blockburn Middle School in Volts. Volts again. Well, Harry didn't get into this business to teach in Sugarland, so he gladly accepted the invitation and looked forward to the interview. Like Nickerson HS, Blockburn MS was also operating under the mayor's Premiere Schools for Tomorrow. Harry shrugged, nobody reads the Times or its web site anymore. Good.
On the Friday before 4th of July weekend, Harry left his suit inside the closet and put on one of his loud Hawaiian shirts, a pair of black jeans, and drove once again deep into LA's festering pustule of Volts. It wasn't like the suit did him any good. Besides, it was summer, and it was hot. Only a moron wears a wool suit this time of year.
This section of Volts was nicer than where they held the previous interview. On three sides Blockburn was fronted by large, barren asphalt parking lots buffering humungous, nameless concrete shells Harry surmised were vacant warehouses. There were no ominous housing projects and boarded up store fronts once painted garishly but now faded with poorly rendered hand-painted signs offering in misspelled English various sundries to Hispanic pedestrians. Harry even spied in the distance a chain supermarket gracing the former premises of a burned down Korean liquor store and its unfortunate neighboring businesses.

Campus an oasis for students
Blockburn's inner campus was an oasis. Walking through an open gate of a heavily fortified fence, Harry stepped into a lush quad area. Immaculate green lawn and an array of California trees, running the gamut of oaks, palms and redwoods, made Blackburn's campus a wonderful place to spend the day for Volts's 12 and 13 year olds.
Harry knocked on the locked door of the main office. No answer. Then he went looking for the library figuring everybody must be over there at some meeting. The door was locked. He went back to the front to count cars in the parking lot, but was greeted by a man who reminded him of actor Eric Estrada in his "CHPs" TV show days, but with about 30 more pounds.
"Hi, I'm Harry Mills. Do you know where I can find Mr. Suarez the principal?"
"You're looking at him!"
After a firm handshake and a few pleasantries, Suarez turned around, unlocked the closest door, and led Mills into a storage room. Boxes were stacked everywhere, but a large table and two chairs offered a place to conduct the Q&A.
"Sit down, Mills. I'll be right back."
Harry sat. Before leaving the room, Suarez hurriedly set a pair of old sneakers on the table within whiffing distance of Harry, who tentatively resumed breathing very shallowly, after scooting further down the table while Suarez was in the next room busy gathering papers.
"So," Saurez called from the other room, "Missouri Compromise, huh? We just hired another English teacher from there. . . uh, Estrada? Ospina?"
"None of those names ring a bell."
Harry heard a paper ruffle. "No, no! Here is is, Elita Bermudez!"
"Ah, yes, Ms. Bermudez! She was two doors down. Great teacher." Harry then added, "Say, she's a lot prettier than I am, though."
Suarez guffawed. "Well, we try to balance things out around here."

Harry and Suarez hit it off
We're getting along, thought Harry. This guy's a principal who doesn't treat his teachers like shit. Suarez returned to the room, grinning. He tossed a folder holding resumes on the table, sat down, then leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head sticking his elbows out to the sides. Harry assumed the same relaxed body language. Then Suarez did all the talking. Once in a while Harry nodded to show understanding and agreement. Suarez didn't seem to notice. He just continued his monologue.
Blockburn, Suarez confirmed, was under the umbrella of Premiere. He himself was so sold on the organization's vision that he left the Compton district to take this job. The school day would be divided into 7 periods, with struggling students required to use the 7th to complete assignments and homework; others could take an elective. He had found a reading intervention program worth tens of thousands of dollars stuffed into a storage room. The program proved itself effective at other schools, so he was going to implement it. As part of Premiere, the faculty is required to participate in 100 extra hours of paid training and professional development during the year. Would that be a problem?
"Hell, no," Harry replied. "I'm always looking for ways to become a better. . ."
Suarez started in again. Most students, he noted, were what you call, ELLs, or English Language Learners. Spanish is their first language, but most can't read nor write it. So they speak street versions of two languages and are essentially illiterate in both. Meanwhile, the brand of English spoken by nearby African-Americans is also non-standard. That makes them ELLs too, though they're not permitted in English Language Development classes.
"Look, Mills, I can see by your resume you already know this stuff. You've been teaching ELLs for years. You have a Cross-Cultural Language and Academic Development specialist certificate. These letters show your principal and former lit coach both recommend you.
"I have one more guy to interview, but it looks like you're my man. I'll call and let you know one way or the other by the end of today."
They shook on it and Harry practically danced back to his car. Later that afternoon, Suarez called back and told him he did indeed have the job. All of the sudden intrusive charter schools, more frequent observations and endless training didn't seem so bad. Whatever it takes to get these kids proficient, Harry told himself.
But it all came crashing down like a propped up tree house three weeks later when Suarez called back and said BCSD was negating the previous teacher's transfer and sending her back.
"Maybe you can ask if they'll let you be in our pool of subs," Suarez half-heartedly suggested.
Harry said he would but didn't. He didn't want to substitute; he wanted to improve as an English teacher, and the only way to do that is to teach English everyday. Suddenly, Harry realized what went wrong. Thanks, Suarez, for sitting on the God damned intent-to-hire paperwork! Now I've gotta make up for lost time!
Harry could've bitched, but it wasn't his style. Instead, he sent resumes out to a wider circle of schools. He still had August to find a place willing to take him.

Friday, August 12, 2011

School Ends, Clock is Ticking for Displaced Teacher to Find a New Gig Within the Big City School District

So Far, No One Wants Harry (He Doesn't Love Them, Either)

PART 3 of a fictional story written by Mark J. Blocker solely for the reader's entertainment. The following are merely characters. They don't represent real people either living or dead. Heaven forbid they remind you of someone you know, or of yourself; but if they do--that's life! If you haven't already, be sure to read the last two posts before you read this if you want the story in its entirety.

June 24. Last day of school, and last day of Missouri Compromise Middle School being staffed and administered by the Big City School District. From now on, it would still be funded by the BCSD but run by charter operator Bright Spot. Back in March the school board voted to wash its hands of the inner-city school, handing it over to an independent charter operator. This was particularly insulting to the school's incumbent administration and faculty since they had submitted a formal proposal to run the school--a proposal that was endorsed by the outgoing superintendent. Nevertheless, the majority of board members--whose campaigns were supported by the mayor who was a political rival of the superintendent--blew off the suggestion and instead implemented the mayor's mandate: Break up the behemoth BCSD and hand off the goods to major donors to his recent campaign. Surprise.
So the final day had arrived and BCSD teacher Harry Mills was officially without a school. Mills had to find another school at which to teach, or the BCSD would send him wherever it pleased. The clock was officially ticking.
The kids were cleared out, the classroom was swept, Harry's prized pencil sharpener and paperweight were safely ensconced in the trunk of his car, so Harry conducted his last order of business in the front office: surrendering his classroom key. Mr. Frost took it and checked off a box next to Mills's name.
Sticking his right hand out, Harry said, "Perhaps our paths will cross again Mr. Frost."
Frost glanced upward and to the left, cocking a brow at the thought. He silently grabbed Harry's hand and the grip was surprisingly firm. In fact, to Harry the handshaking ceremony was completely free of any awkward pause.
Then Harry moved on to the principal, who was standing at the end of the counter. "Perhaps I'll have the pleasure to work with you again, Ms. Moon. It certainly was too brief. Good luck, now."
She nodded and dabbed her eye with a tissue. "Thank you, Mr. Mills," she sniffed.
Again, Harry was surprised. All through her tenure, Ms. Moon seemed to value efficiency over emotion.
Exiting the office, Harry silently patted the shoulders of each teacher waiting in line for Frost.
Starting his car, Harry was surprised at how little sadness he felt leaving Missouri Compromise after teaching there 9 years. It was the only school where he had ever picked up a stick of chalk and tried to sell a kid on the importance of looking good on paper.
Speaking of looking good on paper, Harry sent out resumes to virtually every school in the southern area served by BCSD. He already had two bites: South Pole Middle School a few miles to the south, and Fresh Gas Middle School, in the town of Worthington--named for a famous car dealer whose business supplied so much sales tax revenue for the city the council renamed the town in his honor. Then they did whatever the fuck he wanted for 20 years until he got caught for Federal Tax Evasion and rewinding odometers. But it's still called Worthington. It's also where Southern California refines its crude oil into gasoline.
Cold wind at South Pole
The nice lady in a sweatshirt running the front desk at South Pole MS directed Harry in his cheap suit to a classroom where the staff was conducting some sort of professional development. It was the first day of summer vacation, so Harry thought it odd that they would be conducting a PD in June and not in September as a warm up for the new school year. Must be something to do with the budget and the fiscal year, he mused.
"No," answered a bubbly woman who looked like a professional soccer mom in her 30s, corn fed and with a toothy grin. "It's just, I believe, we all have separation anxiety." She seemed very warm and friendly. The kids must love her, Harry thought, I hope I get the room next to her.
Harry looked around the room and noticed something was weird. The teachers were all sitting at miniature tables. It was all classroom furniture for grade schoolers. The teachers' knees were up near their chests and many of their asses spilled off the chairs. If they dropped a pencil, they could pick it up without bending down.
They were apparently doing an exercise on teaching juvenile literature. They had big sheets of butcher paper spread out before them, and in groups they were cutting out pictures from magazines to make a collage depicting a scene from the book. Harry thought such endeavors were useless bullshit, but authorities maintained that it helped students with writing difficulties demonstrate that they had successfully visualized and interpreted the story. While everybody busied themselves with the task at hand, unwelcome memories of childhood revisited Harry. He was alone, left out and not immediately fitting in. Good Lord, Harry thought, you're 53 and the new kid in town all over again.
A few minutes later the PD was over, and they led Mills upstairs to the library. Harry thought it odd the library was up on the second floor. He certainly didn't envy the poor saps who lugged all the books up there.
Games begin
"So, uh," began a very stocky woman who apparently liked to shave her head, "Mr. Mills is it?" She double checked his resume, "tell us a little about yourself." Harry did, and the four adults sitting on the other side of the massive library table kept their eyes on their copies of Harry's rez, his cover letter, and three letters of recommendation. Were they checking to see that his stories matched?
The four silently stared at the bald lady. She began talking again, "Says here, on this letter from a . . . a Mr. Biting, that you, and I quote, 'bring new ideas to the table'." After a pregnant pause she continued, "Could you please tell us what some of these, uh, 'new ideas' are?"
Whether wittingly or by accident, the woman caught Harry off guard. He really had no idea to what Biting was referring. Harry considered all of his own ideas used. They were based on previous experiences and tried-and-true suggestions from past mentors. He frantically tried to reload memories of meetings with Biting, his former literacy coach, to come up with something good.
He shrugged, "Err, maybe . . . I guess he's talking about ideas I may have had during collaborations, how to . . . approach implementing lessons after looking at test data, things like that."
The woman frowned. She reminded Harry of actor James Earl Jones with too much estrogen. Man, what an ass kicking principal, he thought. If a kid ever got called into her office, she'd . . .
But she wasn't the principal. That was the Caribbean dude wearing the Belize soccer jersey who silently sat observing the unfolding tragedy. He escorted Harry out of the building where they had a nice conversation about how South Pole Middle School really is a nice place in which to work.
The principal told Harry the campus is divided into two sections: one for 7th and 8th graders; the other for 6th graders. The sections are separated by a narrow street, but joined by a pedestrian bridge that allows students to safely cross from one campus to the other when needed.
"During the last week of school," the principal proudly recounted with his refreshing Caribbean patois, "we have a ceremony where the 6th graders cross that bridge and they are escorted by the 7th graders around the campus to meet next year's teachers and visit the classrooms. They have lunch together and play sports and other activities all afternoon. It gives them the opportunity to formally meet  their peers for the following year."
"What a great idea!" Harry enthused. He told the principal he certainly would look forward to joining South Pole's staff. They shook hands, the principal patted Harry on the back, and that was the last Harry had ever heard from Antarctica Middle School. Or whatever it was called.
Hey! Come on down to Fresh Gas Middle School in Worthington just off the 610 Freeway take the Avalon exit go right . . .
Things didn't go much better later that week at Fresh Gas MS down in Worthington. The principal reminded Mills of his estranged brother's second wife: a size 2 shrew with flaming red hair and long, sharp finger nails. Those were also red. Mills's brother's wife hated Harry and forbade them to have any contact after Harry once said something nice about his brother's first wife. The way the principal eyed Harry, his gray beard, pony tail, ill fitting suit and black sneakers contrasting against his brown belt, she looked like she was going to declare a similar mandate, too.
Instead, she led him into a conference room where two other teachers were waiting. He remembered the woman from a week-long professional development they had together the previous summer. He waited for some acknowledgement of their previous encounter, but she offered none, so he let it rest. The other teacher was some young guy who looked more like Opie Taylor than Ron Howard. He even had freckles, tousled red hair and squinted while reading Harry's paperwork. Mills noticed something while gazing at the others seated around the circular table: they all had red hair.
Ding! Round Two
"So," the principal began, "tell us about your test scores."
"They're fine. I passed the SSAT and the CBEST on my first try. I have a CLAD, and my credential is good for another two years."
"No, no, no! I mean your students," she sneered.
"Oh, them! Heh, heh," Harry chuckled. "Did anyone tell you why I'm looking for a job? They closed down my old school, heh heh." Harry noticed he was a little too jovial compared to the others.
The red brigade just stared back at him. Then they smirked and dropped their eyes back upon photocopies of his papers. Before they asked a follow-up question, Harry threw up his hands.
"I'm not a magician. I don't have a magic wand. My students tended to score what is average for the district and what was average for Missouri Compromise." Then, like a fool, he continued. "These standardized tests are just one measurement of a student's capabilities. They don't measure his or her ability to come up with an original thought and defend it. They only measure how well he or she agrees with whoever wrote the test. And most of the students we teach in this district come from a different culture than the individual who wrote the test. There's a chasm, a disconnect that's affecting the results, so you can't use them as the sole measurement of achievement. Hell, I even have trouble with some of these tests for the textbooks, and I'm pretty confident I could argue that my answers aren't any more or less correct than those on the so-called answer key! Our kids don't have the opportunity to explain or defend their answers.
"Half the time I just write my own tests covering what the class and I agree upon as the important elements of an author's argument. Of course, it's not really a democratic consensus. Sometimes I have to issue a teacher's declaration."
There was silence. Harry punctuated the end of his monologue with another regrettable chuckle. No one else joined in. No one else smiled. They didn't even shake his hand when the interview was called to a conclusion, and Harry was told by his angry sister-in-law's doppleganger that it was time to go.