Chalked: A Philadelphia Vocabulary Lesson for Governor Tom Corbett
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.
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.