Saturday, July 26, 2014

Chalked: A Philadelphia Vocabulary Lesson for Governor Tom Corbett

Chalked: A Philadelphia Vocabulary Lesson for Governor Tom Corbett

1. Definition
Governor Corbett: I imagine that you’ve never heard that word, the way it resounds from the mouths of Philly kids. “It’s so chalked”—adjective, declarative.  “Chalk it!”—Verb, imperative. “He chalked me”—Verb, linking subject and object.

I’ll give you a few examples—the word in its context. With only two counselors for 600 seniors, many of our students consider college chalked. Or: Given the large class sizes, certain innovative projects must simply be chalked. Or: This austerity budget, combined with moves toward privatization, will eventually result in the School District of Philadelphia being chalked.

To be more specific, in usage, I could say that you, Governor Corbett, chalked your scheduled appearance at my school this past January. Remember? We had to re-do the gym floors. We had to shine those floors up, maybe so you could look down and see yourself, smiling, with all of those good-looking minorities smiling behind you. Those floors were so polished, you could’ve probably seen your own winking blue eye, seen the flash of the press photographers’ cameras going off. But your helicopter came around, and its noise hacked and cleaved my lesson on archetypal themes, and then nothing happened. Because you chalked it.

I went to the protest that was meant for you, and I stood outside, in the weirdly warm ice-melt air. Frankly, I’d found your interest in coming to my school pretty inscrutable from the get-go. So, the kind of sighed, bemused word, the way it slipped, lazy, from me, was the perfect way to describe your no-show. I stood there, confused mostly by the fact that I was standing there—outside! when there’s work to be done!—in the noncommittal January sun. “Wow,” I said to someone, “I can’t believe he chalked it.” Sadly, that half-yawn slackerly slang was all the outrage I could marshal. I had other things on my mind, because, as I’m sure you must know, teaching is pretty all-consuming—especially these days, in the School District of Philadelphia. Honestly, I was distracted with wondering how my kids were going to do in their debate next period (the topic, if you’re interested, was: “does American literature prove that the American Dream is accessible to all people, regardless of race, nationality, gender or class?”). I know you said that your visit was cancelled due to “adult theatrics,” but if there were any theatrics going on, I totally missed them. I do wonder, though, Governor. Were the theatrics all lady-swoon and tearful murmur? Or maybe a Brecht-esque explosion of firecrackers under complacent chairs? Perhaps the biggest showing of theatrics is just us—teachers and students in Philadelphia—going about our days as if your budget cuts hadn’t utterly decimated and demoralized us.   

The thing is, I’m an English teacher, so I think carefully about words, their smoothness and consistency and odd-colored underbellies. And, really, chalked doesn’t describe what you did—any more than theatrics describes what we did. When one chalks something, one doesn’t just sidle away. The word—chalked!—spirals out in cyclones of snow-day laughter, right after the early dismissal’s been announced. Or it cracks from behind teeth when there aren’t any other choices left. True, it’s the new equivalent of screw it—said, maybe, with the force of a fist that punches a wall in its frustration.

 So, Governor. You might’ve chalked our entire School District with bluster and bravado. But, on that haphazard, anxious-making day in January—you didn’t actually chalk it. Your helicopter just looped up in an elliptical retreat. The congratulations you supposedly came to utter trailed off in a lame dot-dot-dot. There was no chalking; there was only the empty sky where you—The Honorable Tom Corbett—hummed tentative and metallic, further and further away.

2. Etymology
I wonder about that word—chalked. I’ve come to like it, the way it feels like a heavy book—maybe a dictionary—thrown to the ground. So I’m curious about where chalked came from, how it found its way to the tongues of young people here. I have a few rather morose associations. I’m know that the word probably doesn’t come from the devastating places that I’m imagining. But still, Governor. It’s been a hard year, here in Philly. So it’s difficult for me to avoid thinking about worst possible origins, the worst possible outcomes.

When I think of chalked, I think of white lines, in bundles, on the beige cinderblock of a prison wall. I think of a life, or five years, or six months, ticked out in that way—another day chalked, done with, slashed down and dismissed. Have you ever had that feeling, Governor? That each day is the same—that each day amounts to nothing but another cross-hatch, another one over, a ghosting of useless white across your life? Have you ever wondered, while you’re having your sunlit breakfast, what the 51,500 prisoners of Pennsylvania think about the days that they are beginning? I myself can’t pretend to imagine what it would be like, to wake up that way and try to convinced yourself you actually want to be awake.

I can't tell you much about the day-to-day lives of incarcerated people, but I can tell you something about teachers in Philadelphia. How an elementary-school teacher awakes to another day of: 33 kids in her class, 8 kids with extreme special needs, 0 support staff. You’ve heard, and I assume summarily chalked, such statistics plenty of times. But I can also tell you how, as she prepares her blackboard in the morning, her lungs expand and take in the feeling—again, awful. How she writes out vocabulary words in white, controlled curls, knowing that this will be the most peaceful moment of her day, that the hours ahead will be all unwieldiness and yelling. And how her brain will get encircled in the desperate, claustrophobic mantra of please stop—make it stop—please stop. Governor Corbett, let me tell you: she’s marking down the days till summer break. And if she’s not, she’s marking down the days till she quits the District for good.

Governor Corbett, when I think of chalked, I also think about the negative space traced on a pavement, when the cops chalk the contours of a body. It’s true—I’m sure you know—that the chalking thing, when it comes to violent deaths, is now merely a trope. But its symbolism remains. Its tension between here and not-here, the way it renders a life into two-dimensional, the crimson contrasted against the precise white. It reminds me of that late-May night—when the curtains on my office window were gusting around, and I was trying to get work done, and a young man was shot in the street below me. I imagine that you’ve never experienced someone being shot dead right outside your home, so I’ll tell you what it was like. That young man’s mother found out about her son’s death right under my window, as she was rushing around the corner to see if he was all right. The sound she made—like a laugh sucked backward through an echoing drainpipe; like a god’s lung collapsing; like a creaturely, wordless flaying, with everything being rent from everything. Like none of that, actually. Like nothing—believe me, Governor—that I can actually describe. I tried to bring her a cup of water—a blue plastic cup—but she was already locked inside someone’s arms, and being led away. Later, a neighbor, as if to reassure me, told me that it only happened because the kid was involved with drugs.

But, Governor Corbett, I think about the outlines of each kid in this city who died before his time, her time. On what wall could we trace the silhouette of Laporshia Massey, 12 years old, who died of an asthma attack when no nurse was on duty at her school? Where could we draw a likeness of the little boy, unnamed, who lay down in the hall at Andrew Jackson Elementary, and died later that same day? Of course, each child surely deserves a better monument. But—these days, in Philadelphia—kids get sick in school and then they die. This is, in part, because they seem to be of very little value to those who are in power. So then, perhaps chalk—so easily scuffed away, so quickly washed off—would be a fitting monument for those whose importance is, apparently, ephemeral.

Governor, I’m sure you’ll say that I’m employing the typical adult theatrics, or exploiting tragedy for political purposes, or simply using faulty logic. But try listening to the sound I heard, that May evening. Think about how the mothers of those two children must’ve cried with that same throat-turned-inside-out kind of keening. And then imagine listening to that every single time a kid in Philly dies or is sent to jail. At the very least, that cry—multiplied by hundreds, thousands—might give you a sense of this city, these schools. I’m saying this only to be helpful, to give you a sense of what Philly feels like for a lot of folks. Especially since you don’t come here very often, and you seem to prefer the Bellevue to the streets, and you’ve never, ever been inside a Philly public school.

But back to the word chalked, its derivations. Nobody knows where it came from. It’s probably something more innocuous, though, like chalk it up. Chalk it up to the Tea Party and partisan politics. Chalk it up to four years of a terrible governor, but— hey!—at least a new one’s on his way!  Chalk it up to the economy or the Federal Government’s stimulus funds. Chalk it up to what happens when Philadelphians don’t vote.

We will chalk it up and chalk it up. But there might not be enough chalk—in the District, the State, maybe even in the whole country—to chart everything that has been and will be lost.

3. See Also
This past school year, that word—chalked—kept on overturning in my chest; kept on milling itself, phlegm-like, through my lungs. I had five classes and four different preparations. On Sundays, when I’d sit down at my desk to plan my lessons, the windows of the church across the street streamed with early morning light. I was still working when the windows went pink and opaque in the afternoon. Kids on the street below played before dinner and then played after dinner, and played past their bedtimes. And still I was awake, past the bedtimes of those kids, the bedtimes of their parents. I watched as blinds slatted and people had other sorts of Sunday nights. A sort of desperation circumvented my breath. It was 2 AM, and I still wasn’t done. And, so—I chalked. I chalked great grammar lessons that were too complicated. I chalked whole units—Their Eyes Were Watching God; Fahrenheit 451. I chalked assignments that I’d been excited about and I chalked interventions that I knew were necessary. I chalked and chalked, and just kept chalking.

Governor Corbett, I will tell you: for pretty much the first time in my nine-year career as a teacher, I made decisions that I knew wouldn’t be the best for my students. I made these decisions because—at 6 PM—I needed to eat my first meal of the day. Or because I had to call someone who was dying. Or because I just couldn’t keep going. And I just couldn’t keep going a lot of the time.

And this whole year, Governor, I felt like I was suddenly a terrible teacher. I felt like someone had erased the board, and there was only the dimmest imprint of the teacher that I used to be. Sometimes I didn’t even feel like that. Sometimes I just felt like I was the annoying cloud of chalk dust that got left behind, after all the erasing. I saw everyone else still teaching, still doing their thing, and I didn’t understand how they were still so vibrant, so clean-lined and defined. Many days, I felt like any word that I could write on any board had been obliterated. This very blog, even, was chalked for the entirety of the school year. I was so worn-down with the day-to-day, I couldn’t even write about the larger injustice—which is, I suppose, the method by which injustice thrives. (I wonder, Governor Corbett, whether you’d agree.) But I also felt that, in writing the blog, I’d be false, a fraud, since I was no longer the teacher that I’d been.

You know that bare-bones budget they keep talking about? The one that you, Governor, have instituted over the past four years? Well, to me, it feels like those bones were not only bare—they were ground-up, scattered, turned into some kind of fine white dust.

And that’s why I’ve been thinking so much about the word chalked. I like the way it breaks, smashes like rock-slabs, gives its granite anger in the generous way that breaking goes. In the chalked, there seems to be strength. And sometimes I feel like that strength is the only strength that I have left.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Dear Freshmen

Dear Freshmen:

Twenty years ago, I put on what I assumed would be friend-making shoes, and walked into Central High School, determined to find the kids who also listened to WDRE, 103.9, which was then the Modern Rock station. On that first day of school, it turned out that the Chucks I’d put on were too new—too un-scrawled-upon, too black where they should have been frayed grey, and too white where they should have been smudged and cinder-like. I didn’t know anyone in my class, and I didn’t know anyone in the school; that not-knowing felt so pervasive, I felt as if I didn’t know my very own cells—as if I didn’t know my fingernails, the tips of which were trying to pass handouts that flew silently by. I was from a super-small middle school. It seemed that high school was, horribly, about being invisible, and being way too visible, all at the same time.

That was me—my toes coated in two rubber nubbins of awkward white. That was me—wondering where the other kids who liked Nirvana were, wondering how there could be so much hallway, and so very little of me. That was me—slumped over dismal sandwiches (apple butter on multi-grain? really, mom?), in the exclusionary jubilance and fake wood folding tables of the lunch room (how did I know they folded? because I sat alone, in the lunch room, thinking, If only I can make it seem like I’m just carefully figuring out exactly how this table folds up). That was me—clot-mouthed from 8 to 3, and crying in the evenings.

I mean—it got better after that. It got a lot, a lot better. Every morning I would flap whatever shoes I wanted—corny plastic sandals, or my dad’s snow boots, or some befuddling thrift-store shoe, held together with Duct Tape—happily up Central’s indomitable granite steps. With my friends who liked Modern Rock—and with some friends who could care less about Courtney Love but were really into Magic Cards, or God, or Queer Theory—I stalked around this school’s halls. It got better, and my feet came to believe thoroughly and entirely in their ownership of this place. Perhaps, actually, my feet communed with the slick of these shined floors too much—I would not, my friends, recommend spending weeks going barefoot in school, as I did, in the Spring of Junior year.

It got better, and my body divested all memory of that first September’s wrong-shod unhappiness. But—freshmen, dear ones—the getting better isn’t necessarily what this letter’s about.

It’s the day before your first day of high school, and I think of you, in your homes. Your homes might be like the home I had: a house with a vestibule and cats’-eye colored floorboards, where big but rather disenchanted, itch-frayed furniture was slowly easing out the tacks that had kept it together. Your homes are likely to not be this, though, and they might be all the different sorts of homes that I traipsed through, as a kid in high school. Your home might be one where Monday is pasta night, and sauce splashes like the proliferating chatter on plastic tablecloths. Your home might be one where hallways are troubled by carpeting, a grandpa’s polyester slippers, and too many once-wheeled, bleached plastic things. Your home might enclose a venerated fridge which—itself—encloses endless, stately Tupperwares of Kimchi or Palak Paneer. Your home might be the type that has a den, or that has down-filled comforters instead of quilts, or that has periwinkle Lay-Z-Boys and cable. Your home might be like the one that we never went in, but just said goodbye near the trash-clotted hedges, outside the hair place, near the intersection.

Maybe none of these homes are your home, but you are somewhere—your thumb making a long print on the text message you don’t know how to answer, or the soles of your new kicks tamping down a double-dutch move that astounds everyone around. I think of you, as you’re ranging newly long legs over midnight lawns in Northeast Philly—maybe in trouble with your mom, maybe coming home to the silent kitchen tiles of a double shift. You are in church, with high-school hopes breathing through the hymn’s lower notes; or you’re clapping with a moon-bright, New Year happiness; or you’re grasping silky scraps of autumn festival red; or you’re lowering your forehead, in quietude, toward Mecca. I think of you, as the last night of your summer hangs pendular, like a question-mark, and you flip a page in your journal, with the streetlamp making its final punctuation, and you ask yourself what next?

School will be starting tomorrow. Perhaps your anxiety is stacked in the corner, plastic-smelling as all those new binders from Target. Maybe you’re worrying your fingers across the fabrics that hang in your closet, fearing that each of them seems too grainy, too swishy, too rigid—too obviously made for the poor. It’s possible that you’re touching the small grit of pimples on your cheekbones, your chin—reading them like a Braille that warns of four-year disaster.

Honestly, dear ones—I hope that these very fears are your fears. I wish you fears of wrong shoelaces and zippers ticking open. I wish for you the terror of occult locker combos, the dread of 12th grade elbows. You’re a kid, and, if I could, I’d bequeath you kid-worries—the worries that I, myself, owned, those twenty years ago. But you’re a Central kid, so your worries might be scored into a more iron, immutable furrow. You might’ve been told, by an honest and grieved grandmother, that Central is the way—the only way—for you to be loosed from the claustrophobia of your poverty. You might feel that the word Harvard is the sole redemption for your family’s crossing of oceans—for your mom to go from being an Albanian doctor to being an American secretary, or for your dad to go from being a Pakistani professor to being an American deliveryman. The flutter of your family’s language might have always been, as long as you can remember—succeed, succeed, succeed. You might just have an ambition that traces to no-one—that traces to nowhere but your own stubborn spine. You might long for the football field, so greenly different from your block, and the reverberating crowds in the stand, and your iconic shoulders heaped with praise. No matter what your need, no matter where you come from—the breathing of generations is all happening within your 9th grade lungs.

And—o hopeful, o ambitious, o thinking that perfection can be channeled through a well-kept daily planner—you’ve spent your summer listening to the news. You’ve watched Dr. Hite’s mouth unhinge its dire predictions—pronouncements that schools will not be safe, that these are unacceptable conditions, that no child will be able to learn. Your brain—so used to churning through word problems—has been calculating class size, dividing too many kids by not enough teachers and realizing that some of your math classes will have registers of 37, registers of 40. You’ve heard the phrase No Counselors, and wondered how you’ll apply to college—and then your breathing has done that thing, where it feels like a mesh bag is closing round your lungs, and your throat grips against the caustic sick that pitches up, and you wonder what you’ll do, in French class, if this happens and there’s no counselor that you can go and see. You’ve seen how your mother winces with disappointment when someone on the television asks How will students achieve in this environment; even though you didn’t make any of this happen, you feel somehow guilty, as if you’ve already failed before you’ve even begun.

Dear freshmen: it’s the night before the first day of school, and I find myself unable to sleep. I clamber through the anxious rungs of the midnight hours, one after another. I wonder how I might console you—how I might promise that everything will be the same, that everything will be all right. I wonder how I might speak of what you’ve lost, of what’s been taken away from you—of the opportunities that you’re not even going to know you’re missing, because you’ve never had them. Those twenty years that have elapsed since my own freshman year seem, now, to be compressed, calcified in each of these sleepless hours. The late-night clock works its ticking into my throat; what was once my pulse is now the desperate, repetitive jolting of time.

Here, freshmen, is the thing. If you’re frightened and lonely, I’m frightened and lonely too. This is my ninth first day of school, and I have no reason to be thus afraid. But, right now, the abandonment I feel just makes a space that is vast, and rust-buttressed, and clanking with indifference. It’s as if my vocation is just receding, dizzyingly, away from me. Anything I try to do just feels like flab-handed grasping, an ineffectual, repetitive, flipper-like slapping. It’s hard to imagine being brave and strong in my waking, and being able to tell you it’s OK, when my night’s been so winnowed.

Nonetheless, freshmen, we will cross a threshold tomorrow. We will be there together. In whatever shoes you wear, in whatever school we’ve got—we’ll be there, we’ll take a step, and after that stepping, yet another. 

- Ms. Toliver 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lists for the Beginning of a School Year

 Usually, on an August Wednesday like today, the lists begin their churning. I wake up with my heart beating to the syncopation of the words to-do, to-do. I lift my small notebook off my desk. For the whole summer, my small notebook—my desk itself—has felt dormant, like a thing subsumed by hibernation. Smoothing out its spine feels strange to my fingers. I pick up a pen, write the words as cleanly as I can. To Do. I know this is the first—the only—time I’ll write so neatly in my little book. From September to June, I jot notes on the subway and in the hallway between classes, in the middle of dinner parties and while I’m trying to hold my coffee. During the school year, my scrawled To Do, in my little book, looks erratic, like an EKG chart.
In September, the crimson doors of my school flare open. Their red thudding continues its adamant rhythm till June. Those doors, with their muscled bustling, always remind me of a heart. A passionate, hard-working, unceasing heart.
I get together with my colleague Josh. He coaches the boys’ soccer team, and he was afraid that the team would be de-funded. He says, “We’re starting soccer pre-season.” He says, “When I say that phrase—‘We’re soccer starting pre-season’—my heart does this thing.” He says, “I can’t explain it. But I’m so excited, it really feels like my heart is skipping a beat.”
Usually, our school’s office is the thrumming pump that runs the entire building. But—in the way I don’t often notice my own heart—I rarely notice all the office does. Our five administrative assistants churn endless papers— the contents of which I cannot even begin to comprehend—over desks. The only chit-chat they have time for is the rattling-out of code letters and numbers; these letters and numbers are associated with various arcane pieces of paperwork; these pieces of paperwork direct my life. The hands flicker, with ceaseless adeptness, over drawers of inscrutable files. They navigate occult School District computer systems, surreal Telnet programs that pre-date the invention of the Internet. They issue early dismissals to students, calling to confirm the early dismissal with every single parent. Unlike me, they don’t even seem to need lists to organize all of this.
Here’s a list of the things I usually love about the first day of school:
1-    Providing the freshmen with directions, even—especially—when they’re too scared to ask for help. The 9th graders are always instructed: The school is laid out like a giant E, on its side. But when they’re wringing their printed roster papers in terrified hands, the giant E image is surrealistically, confoundingly useless. Sometimes I tell them about how I, myself, was a freshman here, subjected to the labyrinthine throttlings of this epic, monolithic E. I tell them about how I sat, in a silent panic, through an entire period of Chemistry, having mistaken it for my Bio class. The freshmen say, “Thank you,” and I say, “You’re welcome.” Actually, most of the time I say, “You’re welcome, sweetie.”
2-    The sound of my heels in the hallway as I’m rushing to class. The feeling of chipper, swishing efficiency. The moment—before each period I teach—of leaning, in my teetering shoes, toward the new.
3-    Learning my new students’ names. Even more than that, the moment of transformation—when the kids cease being names on lists, and become people. When I learn that Sara’s pet peeve is when someone taps a pen on a desk during a test. When Sebastian talks excitedly about Fight Club. When kids describe their sports, describe their break-dancing, describe their skateboarding and blogging and internet geeking. When I learn that Daniel is planning on becoming a competitive ballroom dancer.
4-    Picking out an outfit to wear, in the early-morning dark that feels so different on the first day of school. Standing there staring at my only business suit, and a sleeveless dress. Weighing professionalism against comfort; remembering that my classroom is not air conditioned, and has only one window. Choosing the dress, and inevitably sweating to death anyway.
Usually, from September to June, my blood feels mostly like a flow chart of the things I have to get done. I know this sounds like a terrible life. But for me, and for many of my colleagues, it’s like a galvanizing zap of zinc-tinged excitement, like an electro-magnetic jolt of focus. I used to work an office job, and, every day, I’d sit and wait for the clock to click to 5:00. I’d try to proliferate my paperwork—to muster a sufficient number of tasks— just to fill up the entirety of my workday. I never had to keep to-do lists. The main thing I had to do was to keep from falling asleep. Now, as a teacher, I’m always astounded when it’s 3:00—then 4:00, then 5:00. I snatch at the fleeting edges of the day—trying to make it last longer, trying to get more done.
Usually, the first day of school makes me aware of my cardiologic existence. Of course, it’s expected for my heart to skitter a bit with first-day jitters. What’s less is expected is the other stuff my heart does:
1-    Surging with joy at the sight of a former student, who’s walking into my office, yelling my name.
2-    Sliding into a strange calm when I pick up a piece of chalk for the first time.
3-    Feeling a click of gratitude as I’m moving, in the midst of tons of kids, through the super-crowded halls.
At school, I am quite famous for my little books—the ones in which I keep my lists. When we were in the preliminary stages of laying out the school’s literary magazine, the student editor said, “Ms. Toliver, do you keep your old little books?” In fact, I do keep my books of lists, going back a few years, on a self in my office. They are often surprisingly useful. She continued, “Can you look back to the list we had for the last issue? So that we know what to do?” My kids, too, are list-makers. Their planners are thick with lists—brambly addendums and adjustments and marginal notes to themselves. They add dark, thick, deeply scored lines, crossing out each assignment they’ve completed. This building, with its red doors, is a place for us—neurotics, compulsive over-acheivers. To-do-ers.
I guess that’s why this August is so odd, so uncomfortable. Now that it’s here, I’m expecting a rhythm to start in my ribcage—galvanizing, turning the first gears of fall. I want to look at my class lists, but there are no class lists yet. I want to enumerate the activities I’ll do with the kids on the first day of school, but—since the SRC eliminated my department—I’m still not entirely sure what classes I’ll be teaching. The lists of the missing, the lists of the laid-off—teachers and counselors and noontime aides—float in an enormity of silence. The administrative assistants—the logical brains that make the lists for my principal, for the kids, for all of us—are all looking for new jobs on monster, all creating Linkedin profiles. And then there are the other lists: lists that summarize our contract negotiations, lists of sacrifices that we teachers are expected to take on. These lists are bullet-pointed, emailed or printed—sometimes in clinical font, sometimes in the font of panic. In no particular order, these lists include: no guarantee of potable water in schools, no guarantee of supplies such as books provided to schools, %13 pay cut, no seniority, time added on to the school day, %13 reduction in medical benefits. 
This August, any lists I manage to make just feel like an admission of paralysis. Where a heartbeat once was, there’s only a panicky echo. If it sounds like anything, it’s maybe the backwards hitching of What to do? What to do? What to do? I can barely even list what’s missing. I can make no claim that it’s first one thing, then another, then another. My natural impulse to prioritize, to fix, just seizes up instead. There’s nothing but that same phrase—What to do? What to do? What to do? Against my chest, inside my lungs, it pushes its weight of blankness. And its weight—its weight feels like the weight of a drowning.