Friday, June 28, 2013

Not with a Bang, But a Whimper

 The end of the school year. Once final exams are over, my school starts feeling downright post-apocalyptic. Time becomes a frail construct. Our synchronized clocks, when no longer watched by kids, become obsolete. The bells ring, but without the churn of crowds in the halls, it no longer matters whether it’s first or fifth period. As summer break nears, a sense of vagueness and distracted destitution pervades the building. Trash skitters through the corridors. Kids—mostly freshmen—roam the halls in plucky bands. They make strange, giddy alliances; I overhear their awkward chit-chat. It seems to be the diction of survivors. “I can’t believe I’ve never seen you before,” they say to each other. They ask, with desperation, “Are we the only ones here?”
 Every June, when I should feel relief, I always feel a weird sense of mourning, an uncanny wistfulness. As the school year ends, I wander the building, looking with the eyes of someone whose world has just washed away. I have so much to do—classroom items to pack, book slips to process, textbooks to count. And yet, I wonder what I’m going to do with myself. I feel like I should move things around on my desk or clean something. But then, the moment I pick up a stack of papers, I immediately feel that there’s no point. Each day seems to pass more slowly than the last, a sick trickle of boredom and purposelessness.
            Every June, I think—This is the way the school year ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
            This year, here in Philadelphia, though, there’s a bang. There are implosions, and explosions, and pyrotechnics. There’s one mushroom cloud, and another, and another. There are seismic shockwaves rending what once felt like solid ground.
            In their secret laboratories, the SRC cooked up a lethal concoction of school closures and austerity. We watched in terror as sports, then the arts, then counselors—each stronghold, each bastion of civilization—fell. Now, nearly 3,783 layoffs have rippled through the city, spreading like some dread plague from the red-X-ed epicenter at 440 North Broad. Surge after surge of unreality—how do we run our schools without secretaries? without Assistant Principals?—has washed over us. It’s played out with the stunned, slow-motion numbness of a zombie film. Those who were quick, and those who were naturally paranoid, realized what was happening, and reacted. The dumbfounded, and the optimistic, blinked a little, and said, “I never thought this would actually happen.”
            I know that these descriptions seem hyperbolic. But 3,783 people have been laid off. Ratios for School nurses are 1 nurse to every 1,500 kids.  The staff of my school has been reduced from 109 teachers to 89 teachers. We are expected to mange 2,300 kids, with our three assistant principals laid off, with our principal as our only administrator. Our five counselors have been eliminated, and next September, our 660 seniors—many of whom are children of immigrants, many of whom are first-generation college students—will have to somehow navigate the increasingly Byzantine processes of college application and financial aid.
What other language is available, when our reality itself is hyperbolic? Anything I might write feels inherently like an exaggeration.
I’m not the first one to apply apocalyptic rhetoric to the end of this particular school year. From the time the 2013-2014 school year’s budget was revealed, it’s been called the Doomsday Budget.
A month ago, after a protest, my colleague, Ken, and I were hunkered down at the Prohibition Tap Room. Mere blocks away, barricaded in the sterile School District headquarters, the SRC was passing the budget. Ken and I were talking, in hushed, shaky tones, about the future. Next year. Next year should have sensational movie-esque titles like Next Year: Countdown to Counselor Zero or Next Year: Corbett’s Revenge, Part III.
The bartender approached us and said, “Those people over there just bought your next round.” When we looked over, we realized that “those people” were the parents of one of our students. Judging by the red they wore and the placards they carried, they’d been at the rally as well.
As they raised their glasses, the dad yelled across the room, “Keep going. Please keep going.” I imagined it like a scene in a film. Ken and I would look at each other, say “Ok! Let’s do it!” We’d sling rocket launchers onto our shoulders and bound off through the rubble.
As we raised our glasses to them, I quipped, “There’s nothing like a Doomsday Budget to bring people together.”
             As we waited for the SRC to vote on the budget, the Prohibition Tap Room turned into a sort of impromptu headquarters—for the resisting; for the terrified; for the survivors. In other words, it was filled with Philadelphia’s teachers and parents. Even our student and her friends stopped by to share an anxious meal with their families. We were all there together, and it almost felt like we should barricade the door, stockpile provisions, and steel ourselves for the thing that was coming. We made bitter jokes:
“Hey, remember how Ackerman’s slogan was Imagine 2014?”
“So, I guess we’ll have to start using old School District memos for toilet paper next year.” All to distract ourselves, to pit camaraderie against the big, irrevocable thing that was, doubtless, on its way.
We knew it was coming, could hear its austere rumbling. It was moving, with insidious omnipotence, through the silent streets of Philly. We didn’t really have a plan for surviving it, and it was difficult to imagine how we’d fight it. So we figured we’d just stay put, and stay together. Even if we were to run, where would we run to? Philly is our home—even if it’s being utterly decimated, pulverized by this thing that’s coming.
            That thing is, simply, a sense of crushing nothingness.
            Now, it’s the end of the school year. Instead of being energized by the coming of summer, I’m crushed by this end-of-the-world malaise. The neat progression of my days becomes unfixed. I walk by vacant-eyed freshmen, all of whom are confused by what has happened to their classes, their school. They ask, “What do we do now?” and crouch in the hallways, shivering as if from PTSD. Shredded bits of notebooks and worksheets swirl in uncanny cyclones.
            I’ve spent the past ten months building; I’ve spent the last five years building. I’ve built feisty class spoken-word competitions and debates about the American literary cannon. I’ve supported my students as they built 20-page research papers on difficult critical topics like a Disability Studies reading of Flannery O’Connor or a Masculinity Studies reading of Fight Club. At the end of every school year, all of that feels decimated. But usually it’s a natural decimation, part of the typical September-to-June movement of planetary rotation.
What’s happening this year is not natural. I could compare it to melting ice caps, or an asteroid, or zombies, or the bright flash. But the enormity of this thing even eclipses my metaphors, makes my language go dark.
This year, everything I’ve built is muted to a muttered whine, a listless whimper. So this is how this school year ends. With a bang, and then a whimper.

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