Failure | Lauren Davenport
I work in a school full of ghosts and traitors. It is a failing school. It has the second lowest passing rate in the city–not a statistic the school cares to flaunt. The phrase, “This is my seventh principal,” is a badge of pride around here. The first person who said this to me said it with an extra curl in her lip because she knew that I’d joined this school at the behest of Principal Number Seven, my dear friend. Principal Number Seven believed (and still believes) that this school and the people in it can be salvaged. The place is littered with crinkled empty bags of Doritos, smashed Arizona cans, buzzing fluorescent lights, faulty door handles, and fragile hearts. Peel back the layers of chipped paint on the walls and watch the colors spiral down to the tiled floor. Perhaps Periwinkle Blue will save the place. Each coat of paint represents a promise, each layer calling on the indefatigable American desire for a happy ending or a fresh start.
This place has a particular odor. Sure, all high schools are smelly places. Hormones and sweaty armpits, the stench of onions and bleach. Teenagers smell. Adults smell. Poverty reeks. But the smell here, on the Lower East Side, is something stronger still. It’s the odor that connects us all. It cuts through race, through class, and rests not just on the epidermis–the smell lodges itself in the soul. Imagine the smell like a universal perfume. L’eau de Failure. It smells like the water left from flowers after they’ve sat in a vase for a week. It smells like something that may have once been beautiful, but is now decaying. It is a cheap perfume. No amount can mask what is underneath.
I do my best to clear the hallways. I tell the ghosts who are trying to cut class to go where they are supposed to go. But here comes one who has never stepped inside a class. He’s almost twenty. He’s told the staff that he’s transferring. He’s been saying that for months. At twenty-one, he’ll be released from roaming the halls and instead he’ll roam the streets.
“Where are you supposed to be?”
“You’re cutting ART? I don’t get it. You are so artistic.” He truly is. I blink and picture this kid selling Tarot Readings to Upper East Side stay-at-home moms.
“I am. But I don’t like drawing. I mean, the teacher, she helped me a lot but I just don’t like that kind of art.”
“You prefer the stairwell for its artistic value.”
“Exactly, Miss.” He gives me a hug.
He’s at least twice my height but such a child. He is radiant. His brown eyes are so wide. His white teeth explode from his goofy smile. I worry that someone will want his gold chain. Or that the police will catch him if he jumps a turnstile or does something typically adolescent and foolish. He does the “nay-nay,” the latest dance, and rounds the corner. I ask a few other kids to go to class. They respect me enough to at least go to another floor and let me save face. I could write them up in our anecdotal database if I wanted to convince myself that the writing would have meaning.
I smell weed from the stairwell. I open the swinging doors at the east exit to see if I can find the dealer. The ghosts are gone. What lingers is a wisp of smoke strong enough to make me lose my footing.
The ghosts take many forms. Some are names on my roster, marked absent day after day. These ghosts appear a few times a year to collect their free metro cards, or because the truancy officer showed up or a home visit was made, but they are apparitions. They float in, they float out. If I blink, I’m not sure they are real.
Others appear more frequently but are so angry, hungry, tired, sick or depressed that their full forms are hard to see. They are might-have-beens before they ever had a chance to be. I see their families in their eyes. The broken promises of that horrible phrase “a better life”–a phrase scribbled on poorly written formulaic essays that I teach them to write in order to pass the state exams. I see their parents who once floated down these same halls discovering themselves, fighting to have a chance to just be and often losing. “My moms get ratchety when the teachers call home. They hate that shit. They don’t give a fuck. They don’t want to hear nothin’.”
I love these ghosts. When I point out that the hallways are not actually where they should be, they laugh, shrug their shoulders and respond, “you right, Miss, you right.” I form cautious relationships with them because these ghosts hurt the people who love them.
One ghost let me believe I was helping him. His progress was astounding until the day of the state exam he stayed home for. He hasn’t returned. I called home to say that it was ok that he skipped the test. He’ll be nineteen soon. He wants to join the army.
Another ghost left after one too many suspensions. He’s out there somewhere and from time-to-time I think I see him on the corner when I’m walking to the subway.
Then there’s the ghost who writes brilliantly when he isn’t shoving students into lead pipes in order to steal their weed. He says flatly that his actions are part of the hustle, the game, and he has to do “what he’s gotta do to stay up.” Common phraseology around here. After each suspension he comes back determined to stay on target. He’s on time. His hand is in the air ready with insightful questions and comments and if I let myself dream, I see him going to college and succeeding there. Three days later, he’s high with blood shot eyes, stuffing Jolly Ranchers into his mouth, putting his head down on the desk, drooling.
There’s another who talks to me about Kant and Locke but won’t come to class because he says it makes him too anxious. There are the ones who are taking too many meds prescribed by so-called doctors. There are the ones who self-medicate. There are the ones who post too much on social media. The ones who can’t put their phones away. The ones who can’t stop talking. The ones who coat themselves in lip gloss during class. They are typical teenagers but they don’t have money or support to get them out of the holes they fall in. So when they fall, and they fall, they stay stuck. After a while, they don’t want to come out even when I extend my hand. There are the ghosts who hide in the library. The ghosts who go to counseling instead of class. There’s the ghost who has a cousin who abuses her. There are ghosts here that I can’t even see.
I’m an upbeat person. I smile a lot. I laugh. I’m earnest. Optimistic. Idealistic. I’m giddy when I learn a new teaching trick, or help a student discover something. I love teaching. I love observing the way teenagers see the world. The way they all hate and love their moms. The way they hate and love themselves. I love trying to keep up with them.
“Hey you guys,” I’ll say. “I got zo’ed for my pack of gum today.”
“You can’t say it like that Miss.”
They love it when I try to speak their language. I score major points when I explain that Macbeth IS the original O.G., the Godfather of all the gangstas, the MAN. I lose points when I use the word telephone, when I say we should “videotape” their discussion. I love listening to them translate the academic into the street. I tell them I think they are much, much smarter than I am because they are apart of so many subcultures. They understand, on some level, how symbolic an education they are being offered.
I am the Literacy Coach for the school. I teach four classes to the lowest performing kids in the school. I write the school newsletter, I help the school develop the curriculum, I run the weekly professional training seminars with the school’s lead teacher, and like everyone else, I put out umpteen unforeseen fires every single day.
When I began working at the school last summer, I set up a Teacher Resource Room. I cleared out a space that had belonged to a beloved social work program for which there was no longer funding. I hauled out dusty books, swept away mice crap, chucked discarded shoes and shirts, recycled loads of old papers. I set up computers and networked a printer, filled a bookshelf with professional books on educational strategies and research for teachers to read and borrow. I sent out emails soliciting ideas, interests, suggestions. One person emailed to request that I please remove her from the email list. Another asked if the coffee would be free.
I knew that transitioning from one school to another would take time, but my reception wasn’t just cool, it was frigid.
3-1-1 is the catch all phone number for information and reporting in New York. In the world of ghosts and traitors, it’s an anonymous punch-in-the-gut. When I transferred to the school, I’d come from a place where teachers supported one another. No matter what. When one of the Tiffanys (I had three Tiffanys in my classroom one year, each notorious) was out of control, I’d take a piece of paper, write 3-1-1 on it, staple it, and send her to another teacher’s room. The teacher would hold Tiffany until class was over. We traded unruly kids constantly. It avoided the paperwork and most of the time, it helped the kid cool down.
A few months into the academic year at my current school, I learned about a different use for 3-1-1. One morning, my son was too sick to go to Pre-K and my babysitter couldn’t get him until lunchtime, so I had no choice but to bring him to work. The ghosts swooned over him. They fed him Skittles and juice. They kept him warm, they played along as he waved his toy taxi cab or drew circles with his green crayon. My son laughed and enjoyed seeing Mommy as a teacher. He told an unruly student to sit down and out of sheer amusement, the student obeyed. But the next morning, I was called into the assistant principal’s office because of an anonymous 3-1-1 call. A fellow teacher coerced a student into placing the call. She’d taught her what to say. I was told to just stay home if I couldn’t find a babysitter. I went to talk about it with the lead teacher.
“They don’t like you. You are friends with the Principal. You haven’t proven yourself. You’re an outsider.”
“I’m a teacher. We’re on the same side.”
“Not to them.”
Hall duty again. A group of kids stand outside room 255. “Where’s your teacher?” I ask. “He’s missing, Miss.” I open the door. The room is empty. I check the library. He’s not there. I run downstairs, upstairs but the man is nowhere to be seen. Finally, I knock on the door of the assistant principal’s office. I don’t want to get the guy in trouble, but I’m starting to worry that he went out for coffee and isn’t coming back.
I learn that teachers watch other teachers to make sure no one is late to work. Someone watches to ensure that each educator is teaching the exact same number of instructional minutes as every other educator. A teacher is watching to make sure that the assigned professional duties are distributed according to Union Regulations. Union Regulations. Union Regulations. Union Regulations. The traitors chant this phrase like a biblical verse. It is their truth. Their righteousness. Their Savior. The Union died on the cross for the administrators’ sins. Someone is watching. Someone is watching. Someone is watching. I need a cup of coffee. I ask my friend and co-teacher if she wants to come with me.
“Let’s use the back exit through the other school,” she says. “Because someone might be watching.”
Principal Number Seven tells me not to be discouraged. She insists I stay true to myself. She plasters the school with posters of inspirational quotes from Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. She puts potpourri in her bathroom and fills her office with plants. She can make anything grow. She has superpowers. She is the greatest listener on earth. She hears every voice. I will not be discouraged.
I have to cover for another teacher who is out sick. A ghost comes in floating very high and before I can say anything, she knocks over a set of bookshelves.
“I just smoked the fattest blunt, yo.” She opens a window. “This is cooling off my soul.”
I ask her to sit down. She laughs at me. She grabs a bottle of water and begins to spill the water up the center aisle of the classroom. She stops at the computer cart. I warn her that if she can’t pull herself together, I’ll have to call security.
“Suck my dick,” she says. “I don’t give a fuck.”
A fellow student begins to play the popular “I don’t give a fuck,” song from her computer. Several students join in. I quash it. But the girl won’t leave. I have no choice. I call security. No one comes. I call again. Now there are two girls twerking in the front of the room. I thank the other ghosts for staying on task. The assistant principal comes in. The girl still won’t leave. Another teacher comes in. The girl ghost floats above us all.
She says, “Can you help me find the fuck I don’t give?” She cackles. She has become a ghost-witch. A mash-up.
The security guard arrives out of breath and perturbed. She shrugs her shoulders and says, “If that girl won’t leave for any of you, what do you think I am supposed to do?”
The ghost smiles. “She can’t touch me. None of you can touch me.”
She sings her fuckless song. Time passes. The other ghosts pretend to work. This is their latest viral video. It washes over them. They seem to experience every event as though it is on repeat, through a transparent sheet masking any authenticity.
The ghost girl walks to the door and says, “Right bitches, I’m out.” She leaves.
The security guard tells me later that the ghost girl will likely receive a glass of milk and some cookies from Principal Number Seven. Principal Number Seven will tell me that in some ways the security officer is right. Too many suspensions will ensure that the school doors close forever. A failing school is under endless scrutiny. We must improve attendance, test scores, graduation rates. We have to have just the right number of suspensions and the right kind.
We are supposed to supply rigorous academic content. Find complex, authentic texts to use. Apply flexible instruction. Support accountable talk. Ensure that the students know their daily learning targets. Recommend a growth mindset. Encourage the students. Mentor the students. Maintain high expectations. Scaffold student learning. Hold students accountable for their learning. Motivate students. Assess students. Provide students with rubrics. Leave students room for answering but not waste too many instructional minutes. Provide student-centered activities and avoid teacher-directed content. Deliver content through a gradual release of responsibility. We are not to teach to the test. We are evaluated by the test scores. We need word walls. We need recent examples of authentic learning that reflect higher order thinking.
Evaluators come in and out of the classrooms to make sure we are doing our jobs. They snap pictures and shake their heads. Where are our call logs to prove that we are contacting parents? Can they see recent evidence of data-driven decisions? Why didn’t we differentiate this assignment to meet the needs of each learner? We are not good enough. We aren’t good enough. We aren’t good enough. They distribute memos. They issue proclamations. They giveth, they taketh away.
In successful schools, administrators are learning partners. The most common phrase is “what do you need and how can I help you?” In this school, everyone needs someone to blame. The Superintendent points to the Principal who points to the teacher who points to the student. It’s a culture of failure. It’s cyclical. It’s insipid, malignant and possibly fatal.
I ask a boy ghost to please move tables so that he can focus and get his work done. He refuses to do so. I try humor, guilt-trips, silence, peer pressure. He will not budge.
It’s Wednesday. Time for our weekly full-staff professional training. I ask the teachers to move their seats so that they are sitting in departments. They refuse. I try humor, guilt trips, silence, peer pressure. They refuse to budge. One of the teacher calls across to her peer shouting, “what time is this over?‘” Another says, “how long do we have to be here?” Traitors. I feel ashamed to be a card-carrying union lady. I am developing TMJ. My migraines are getting worse. I start avoiding the Resource Room I created. It is windowless and stuffy in there and the stink will swallow me whole.
Bulletin boards are due by 3 PM. Principal Number Three had them all painted lime green. She decorated the building as if it were her house. The lime has a great deal of yellow in it. Combined with the fluorescent lighting, it’s like an instagram shot with a filter. I watch a student slug another student who trips just under the poster reading “Recipe for Success.” For an instant I feel that I might vomit. The moment passes. I wonder if I have enough typed student work to cover the green.
I joined this school because I thought I could help. Everyone here seemed to be trying to escape from something and I was trying to escape from something myself. My marriage was floundering.
A few years ago, my family moved to the West Coast in a futile attempt to escape my husband’s crippling depression. My two small children were on top of one another in our tiny space in Brooklyn. We were deep in debt. We thought we’d save money in Seattle. My husband needed a new job. Fresh air. More space. We thought that we could fix what was broken. We were tired of ten dollar orange juice and neighbors who bought into our housing complex in order to have guest houses or who bought from abroad and left them empty. We
were tired of watching our friends leave to be replaced by entitled, self-important assholes who hated noise. WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU MOVING TO BROOKLYN IF YOU HATE NOISE? We were ready to leave.
But New York is its own kind of prison and recidivism is often self-induced. The escape plan didn’t work out. I missed the seasons. I missed the noise. I missed my friends. My husband was still depressed. I hated the grey. I hated large spaces. I missed our cramped little home. The holes in my life felt larger, darker. After three years, I came home with my two kids. My husband would look for work in New York. In the meantime, he would take care of himself. He would get some help. We would see what to do about our marriage. I spoke to Principal Number Seven. I toured the school with its lime green bulletin boards. I walked the hallways with the ghosts floating about. I shook hands with the traitors not seeing through their cracked smiles.
I envisioned a team of teachers working together to turn the school around. I imagined the inspired students able somehow to overlook their hunger, their rage, their neglectful parents in order to learn about hypotenuse triangles and homeostasis. And I’ve always wanted to teach on the Lower East Side. The center of the American Dream, the place where there were once seventeen yiddish newspapers. Where tenements and skyscrapers shook hands. The place where entrepreneurs and dreamers carved sculptures from desire and desperation. Where the resourceful could dig themselves out sans shovel. I could dig myself out. I could start over.
Two ghosts stand up to leave my class. We’re discussing Macbeth. His ambition is his downfall. A student is annoyed that Macbeth is trying to “punk out” and not kill Duncan. I remind them that in the world of the play, fair is foul, and foul is fair. The world of this play is topsy turvy. It is twisted, ugly and full of lies. In the world of this play, things are not what they seem.
“Why are you guys leaving? This is a class, you can’t just walk out.”
“Sorry Miss, we have business.” Fair is foul. Foul is fair.
Sometimes I think the place should be closed down. Get rid of all the traitors. Let the music teacher whose favorite song is the innuendo find something better to do with his life. Let the videographer go back to making movies. Let the science teacher with the unsatisfactory rating quit while he is ahead. Take a match to the place and start again. Let the charter school take over. They send their people over to measure the rooms anyway. They have their blueprints and their fancy flyers. They are ready to go. Let them have it. I’ll find another job. I’m not too worried about that. But I’m not sure I can just roll over and play dead. I know I can’t fix the school, but I’m not sure I can let it go either. Yet, I’m equally unsure of how long I can stay before becoming a ghost myself.
I love these ghosts. Will the charter school love them? I take them back time after time, misstep after misstep.
“I’m good today, Miss. Look at my eyes if you don’t believe me.”
I believe that these ghosts need a place to roam.
“Miss, I’m going to pass this marking period. I’m on my A-game.”
I stink too, now, and the culture of failure is a part of me. When my very best earns an F, it gets harder and harder to want to try for an A. Somedays, I feel that I don’t want to try at all. I don’t see the point. This is a lesson my students have known their entire lives, but that I am just learning. The traitors in my school learned it long ago. With each passing principal they realized that nothing that they did would ever be good enough, and in time they believed that to be true of themselves as well. And so it became true. It is true. The ghosts are angry and so they hurt the traitors. The traitors are angry so they hurt me because I am powerless and these are street rules. Survival is all there is to hope for. We wander around half-living, half-doing, half-caring. We are all traitors. We are all afraid of our odor.
My son crawls into my bed almost every night to talk to me about monsters or vampires or some other invisible fear. My daughter cries when she learns I am the Tooth Fairy. My husband is not next to me in bed. Our lives are filled with illusions, half-truths, disappointments, failures. There are so many moments gone, so many candles blown out, so many wishes wished. Before I know it, I will be gone. I want to start over again.
My husband is hundreds of miles away. He is getting treatment. He climbs mountains on weekends and sends me #SoHigh selfies. He is beginning to see how horrible it was for me in a grey city where he would stay in bed leaving me to the dishes, the kids, the bills. I am learning to treasure the moments when he feels like himself. I am trying not to dwell over the lost moments when he does not. I am not thinking about the person he used to be. I am trying to love the person he is. We are slowly finding one another again. I think.
I head to school each day and wonder which ghosts I will see, which traitors will be standing nearby, waiting to hurt me. I wonder if the copy machines will work. It’s Spring in New York but I no longer know what this means because it is snowing. Fair is foul and foul is fair. There are budding tulips, there is sunlight, and the smell of spring masks the failures I hide. A fresh coat of paint covers up a student’s graffiti spree. The new paint makes me wonder if just maybe, I’ll get that American ending. The ghosts greet me with questions, fist bumps, hugs, tears. I sip my coffee. Bulletin boards are due next Tuesday at 3.
About the Author:
Lauren Davenport writes fiction, creative-nonfiction, and some things in between from Brooklyn, NY. She is a proud NYC Public School Educator who has been serving high schools students since 2001.