Displaced Veteran Teachers Hunting for Schools Willing to Take on Larger Salaries
Second installment of the adventures of Los Angeles public school teacher Harry Mills
The following is a work of fiction written by Mark J. Blocker. Its sole purpose is to entertain the reader. Any similarities to real persons either living or dead is coincidental. It's a strict coincidence, too. We have rules around here.
"You're fired . . . kind of"
Last March the school board decided to "reconstitute" Missouri Compromise Middle School. They tossed everyone from the principal to the crossing guard because academically the place stunk. The kids, virtually all of them living below the poverty line and north of the 105 Freeway in South Central, flunked the State tests. At least the majority did every year Harry Mills was teaching 8th grade English. How this was the janitor's fault, Harry didn't know--but he did know the next custodian cleaning the place wouldn't have medical benefits nor a retirement plan while working for Bright Spot charter schools.
So when school ended June 24 everyone was out on their cans--even the students, though Bright Spot won't admit that. While the teachers, principals and support staff were all simultaneously kicked out; the kids will be expelled one by one should they look at an administrator cross eyed or light up a blunt in the back of the class. Students have carte blanche, however, to physically and verbally abuse teachers dumb or desperate enough to work for minimum wage at a charter school. If their employers don't have any respect for them, why should the students?
Find another school
So here's the deal: All displaced staff are still employed by the the Big City School District, but they must secure a position at another school, or they will be placed at a site where there is a vacancy. The BCSD serves every economic strata from Brentwood's coastal canyon estates to South Central's flop-house tenements in Watts. "Good" schools fill up immediately. You don't want to wind up at a school that can't find teachers. That's actually just one of many issues upon which administrators and faculty agree. The school district also serves middle-class San Fernando Valley on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. The Valley was out of the question for Harry, though. To arrive at a school before 7 a.m. he'd need to fly from Long Beach to Burbank. It's a big district selling itself off piecemeal school-by-school to the highest bidder.
Willing to work in Watts
Harry's first interview was at Nickerson Gardens High School in Watts. NGHS was also reconstituted, but reformed as a charter that still allowed BCSD teachers to maintain their seniority and benefits. So Harry applied. The interviews were held at Track Star Elementary near 103rd & Wilmington. Mills didn't want to make a U-turn so instead he made three rights and a left on side streets. That was a mistake. Local gang members freely defaced exterior walls of dilapidated bungalows that seemed to lean one way or another. Groups of sneering young men, each holding a 40-oz or blunt instead of a tool, loitered around junk cars in various states of disrepair. Harry, after giving a double take to a pile of rags thrown in the middle of the street, realized a wino was literally sleeping amongst the potholes. As he steered around the lifeless figure, Harry hoped the man was merely sleeping.
Harry shook his head and paid attention to the radio. KFI. That was another mistake. A pair of right-wing demagogues were complaining that unionized city teachers were "hogs at a trough" and should be "forced to take a 25% pay cut." The 6 furlough days already accepted by the union? Not really a pay cut, the pair maintained, since the teachers were working less hours. Soon the hosts' anger--real or fake--became palpable as they pounded their fists and screamed vindictive insults at local educators through the publicly owned airwaves. Virtually throbbing through the car speakers, the highly rated hate-mongers took a call from a teacher dumb enough to argue with them on their own turf. They cut her off and launched into another scripted, vitriolic dialogue with each other about evil public schools and collective bargaining. That segued into commercials hawking divorce lawyers, rat exterminators and cosmetic dentists.
The school locked its parking lot. Mills had to find a space on the street. He walked along the sidewalk while noting the 12-foot tall, steel-barred fence securing the school. A Crip in a do-rag, low-slung trousers, immaculate high top basketball shoes, and a Manny Ramirez jersey sized him up. Harry gripped his brief case tighter.
"Hello, sir, may I help you?" inquired the courteous gang banger.
"Yes sir," Harry replied, ashamed he had stereotyped the young Black man who graciously escorted him through the doors. Harry signed in, applied a yellow "visitor" sticker on his snug suit coat, then proceeded.
The room doubled as a waiting room and office. Pristine books about various bullshit pedagogical theories no one believed in anymore lined the shelves. Motivational posters covered the walls. One showed a seagull soaring above a seascape at dawn. "Each day is a fresh beginning!" Pretty tableau, Harry thought. What a shame some kid wrote "48er Crip" by the tide's edge. A table offered nutritious snacks and room temperature bottles of water. Christmas music piped in through the speakers. It was mid-June.
Harry carefully sat down on a chair with casters and waited.
A perky, attractive brunette in her 30s entered and apologized for running late. "Are you in a hurry, do you have somewhere else to go?" she enthused more than queried.
Harry admitted he didn't have anywhere else to go. The lady assured him she would be back "in about 10 minutes" and encouraged him to help himself to a delicious snack in the mean time.
Another woman who looked like she had been seated in that room for 40 years was typing something in a computer. Her workstation was situated by the windows, but the windows had been painted over. She wore Coke-bottle-thick Malcolm X glasses and had graying hair pulled tightly back into a bun. Harry didn't know for sure, but he could've sworn she was eyeballing him.
"You know, I could've sworn a few minutes ago I heard "Silver Bells" over the intercom," Harry announced, trying to make small talk.
"I said, I think Christmas carols were playing over the loudspeakers and it's almost summer, heh heh."
She cocked an eyebrow, frowned then returned to entering her data.
Harry, 53, and 10 years into teaching, thought about the road that brought him to Watts. He reminded himself, you didn't get into this business to teach The Brady Bunch. Mills wanted to teach poor kids living in the mean city because he went to school with them as a kid in Pasadena's integrated schools. Although he got in fist fights and name-calling contests regularly, Harry found kids from the other side of town interesting. Many adversaries and spectators became ironically friendly after the fights. Mills admired their fortitude growing up in a hostile, sometimes overtly racist town where nothing on the other side of Lake Avenue ever came up roses.
Harry the Humboldt liquor clerk
Harry thought about the jobs that led him here. His favorite: working as a night clerk in a liquor store up in Humboldt County. It was just him standing between a bunch of conniving hippies and $10,000 worth of liquor and food. What a game! At 24, 6'3" and 250 pounds, Harry knew why the red-haired and red-nosed proprietor Dan McCorkle hired him.
"Don't take any shit from those bastards or they'll steal you blind," McCorkle advised after about a week. "If you have to kick their ass, I'll back you up in court."
Luckily, fate never tested that promise. Reason one--Harry didn't believe McCorkle. Also, you never know who is a karate champion. Nonetheless Harry became quite adept at catching shoplifters. Most were his friends. So he learned long before entering a classroom that the world is full of desperate characters wanting something for nothing.
Sales skills come in handy for a teacher
Then, during his 30s, there was a stint editing, Pre-Fab World, a magazine for moguls who manufactured mobile homes. Harry traveled the nation writing stories about how trailers without wheels were going to be our homes of the future. He profiled the men leading the way. Harry's boss, a septuagenarian named Lonnie Cason, had a glass eye. It seemed to look right past Harry. Cason had a knack for telling people to fuck off while making it sound like a compliment. Cockeyed Cason was a great salesman, and Harry's family lived off that skill. The job lasted a quick 7 years. Each one earning Harry a 5% raise. Finally, Harry's price was too high for Cason. He called up Harry one Sunday morning and over the phone told him to fuck off. Cason would mail Harry's final check. It didn't feel like a compliment. The check and two weeks severance did eventually arrive. Two weeks severance pay after seven years. Harry was grateful he now had a union job.
He never forgot the main lesson he learned from Cason: Salesmanship. Earn people's trust by emulating them so they will like you. Avoid confrontation. Always use the pronoun, "we"; never, "you." This builds teamwork and cooperation. Harry rarely had trouble with parents, even when they came in angry. Over the years, he noticed even the most street-smart, resistant students responded positively to kindness and cajoling.
Harry the hard ass newspaperman
After Cason fired him, Harry got a job with the last remaining local newspaper. A few years back some big media conglomerate bought the Gold Coast Telegram, the biggest local daily serving the biggest local town an hour up the coast. It immediately expanded into adjacent towns by offering local businesses cheap ads, thus lowballing competing newspapers. After three years, the Telegram was the last daily newspaper in the county. So the conglomerate's board of directors authorized the purchase of a city-block-long printing press which allowed a separate section for each town, while sharing sports, entertainment and classifieds. The conglomerate voted to move operations to what once was a strawberry field in the center of the county.
Harry's job was to make sure every ad ran in the correct edition. He also had to supervise three chicks hooked on speed. When Harry arrived, very few ads were running in the correct edition and the girls took turns calling in sick. Harry implemented procedures that corrected the flaws. Since these measures relied on deadlines and accountability, soon everyone but the publisher hated Harry's guts.
2001: Big City School District can't find enough teachers
At that time, a teacher shortage rendered the the BCSD desperate. It offered free credential classes and you could work at full pay the same time. Harry figured, if everyone was going to hate his guts, he might as well get summers off. The move also came with a 30% pay raise.
2011: too many teachers
Ten years later Harry sat twiddling his thumbs waiting for another interview. He knew for certain that working for the BCSD was the best job he ever had. Harry hoped his English instruction had benefited the students as much as their unbridled energy has infused his life with meaning.
"Mr. Mills? We can see you now."
Harry got up and followed the perky brunette down the hall, listening to her heels tap upon the freshly waxed linoleum floor. Harry's black sneakers made no sound at all, as he checked to make sure his dress shirt was still tucked in, his suit pants hadn't rolled over at his waist, and his fly was zipped.
There were three women in the room. All very ironed, bejeweled and studious. The questions, though, were all abstract bullshit and so were his forgettable answers. The key to this teaching business is how well a man or woman commands a room and builds a personal relationship with the students. They need to buy into the information--believe it is important, or "cool" to know. Regurgitation of theorem, pedagogical or otherwise, was never Harry's interest nor strength. After leaving, he was startled about how little he could recall of the conversation.
Harry did remember how the principal, a voluptuous looking African-American woman dressed in colorful African attire and Rodeo Drive cosmetics, warmly cupped his hand inside both of hers and seemed to sincerely thank him for applying for the job.
Then, he never heard from her again.
Part 2: "Another Interview" to be posted in approximately 1 week