This Bitter Earth

The city of Gary, Indiana was founded as a booming steel city as the twentieth century passed, and areas downtown saw the construction of several impressive buildings during these prosperous early years. In 1925, a cornerstone ceremony took place at 577 Washington St. to commemorate the construction of a Gothic Revival church called City Methodist. It was completed 21 months later, at the cost of one million dollars - $385,000 of which was contributed by the United States Steel Corp. (which also founded the city). Elbert Gary, the chairman of U.S. Steel and origin of the city's name, donated a Skinner organ as well. The Bedford limestone structure consisted of a 50-foot tall sanctuary nave and elaborate stonework, and was able to seat 950 worshipers; City Methodist had a congregation of nearly 3,000 members in its heyday. The building was also home to Seaman Hall - a 1,000 seat auditorium, and a gymnasium with a full size basketball court. Storefronts were built into the building, with hopes that the income would offset the enormous maintenance costs. During the 1920s, Pastor William Seaman rallied against the power of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, and welcomed black worshipers into City Methodist during a time when African Americans were not permitted in "white churches." Gary entered a downward spiral during the 1960s, like many other industrial cities during the period. As U.S. Steel employment dwindled, the residents of Gary moved to nearby suburbs; then as jobs left downtown, city many residents moved out altogether while crime and poverty rose. By 1973 the church's congregation had only 300 members and by 1975 the Methodists moved out of the structure. A second congregation occupied the building until they left in the early 1980s; some storefronts and office space was utilized for a while but soon the entire campus was completely abandoned. City Methodist was burned in the Great Gary Arson of 1997, resulting in a large portion of the roof collapsed or missing. It is now owned by the city of Gary, and its future remains unclear.

It is one-thirty in the morning and I have mostly finished prepping my classes for Monday. Anyone who tells me how much free time teachers have is going to get my worst "teacher look". This last month has been a hell of a ride. Teaching at my new school is like starting from scratch, making all the basic mistakes again and feeling like a fool. It is large, slightly chaotic, has tough and underprivileged kids is a huge range of abilities, all the management got changed last year and they use a suite of different applications for registration and class admin that I have never seen before. My mentor and my coach have had major personal emergencies, my boss audited the lesson where my beamer died, taking my carefully prepared slides with it and I am not sleeping. I am fighting on four fronts and losing.

Education is staffed with people who started as morons like me. They remember making those mistakes themselves and even the mangers are pretty merciful, but they also cannot carry dead weight: the whole business is too precarious for that. It is a tough call: I do not believe there are teachers that shine from day one, or they are extremely rare. I think that teachers either bump their way over and through the first obstacles in order to find their style or they blow up, burn out and leave the game.

I nearly left the game.

This job is my love, my central meaning, but it has been harsh. There is no screen, no sheltering rock between you and your failures in teaching. There is no nuance, no aspect of a mistake that does not immediately swing round and bludgeon you. The slow delivery, the spelling mistake, the too-harsh correction, the careless word, the misremembered name, the too-complex explanation have instant, unmistakable impacts. You go into a class well or badly prepared and the extent of that preparation swings the outcome but does not decide it. You go in and roll dice, not because you are incompetent, but because the class that walks in today has shifted in composition (the nerdy guy made it, the tough girl didn't) and part of it did, or did not, go to the party, wipe out in the Biology test, get rained on, lose a bicycle and watch it's parents fight tooth and nail.

..and of course your beamer may be busted.

The difference between me and the experienced teachers is that they smell the class that walks in and brace for it. They look into the sixty eyes with a good semblance of confidence. They can swing more classes in the right direction and have more coping strategies for when that does not work. They roll with the mood and have learned the robust caring of the surgeon, the nurse, the professional: not indifference, but a mental triage that preserves you from losing little chunks of soul all the fucking time. I want to be like that, but the wanting is not sufficient. The other day my class was going solidly wild when the small blond lady from next door came in and LOOKED at them. They fell silent. It was like all the air in the room had been replaced by a thick plastic block of caution and waiting. I was ashamed, both of them and myself, but grateful for the help.

Later, when I asked her how she did it, she could only say: "I have been teaching for forty years and I wait for quiet moments. When it is quiet I say something, then I wait for the next." Quiet moments. I think I would know one if I saw one. I think she generates quiet moments. I, as yet, cannot.

That is what is so frustrating. There is no path between where she is and where I am. Not teacher training, not self-help books, not even a radioactive spider or magic. It is just some kind of accretion. The people who have "it" cannot wield it faultlessly (though their failures share many features of my successes) and they cannot fully explain it but the good ones can quell most classes with a look and set a spanking pace and sometime inspire.

I have always liked opera. Partly because it is an insane business of putting on full theater, often with extensive, complex sets and having people both sing and act out convoluted plots. It is asking for trouble and I have seen opera productions by skilled and experienced companies produce memorable and often hilarious gaffes.

You see where I am going with this.

Anyway. I am not yet dead, burned-out or fired. The head of the ruff-and-tuff VMBO section of school told me that if I could teach here I could teach anywhere. "If you can manage these classes, any other classes are cake." That is the scariest encouragement I have ever had. So I am going for bronze. Not gold, just survival and, if it can be managed, a little development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *