What Teaching in St. Louis Means to Me

Personal Essays, Teaching Notes

This morning, as I grabbed a quick coffee before meeting the onslaught of student needs that seems to greet me as soon as I walk in the door, I experienced something that first cheered — and then disturbed me.

My school, a refurbished bank building from the 1930s, sits next to a paint store, a dollar store, and — perhaps incongruously — a St. Louis Bread Company.  If you’re not familiar with St. Louis Bread Co., it’s sometimes called Panera and it’s one of those high-dollar coffee shops that serves pastries and sandwiches, and is usually filled with businessmen and women or grad students on laptops.

I hadn’t had my dose of liquid energy that morning, so I walked in, in a rush, and ran into a group of students that were probably mine. Since it’s the first week of school, I’m still getting to know the young people I’ll be spending time with this year. But they knew me, and they smiled and waved as we passed one another.

I continued to watch them through the plate-glass window as they jostled one another and giggled — God, was I ever that awake at 7 am? — on their way to our building a few doors down.

I should probably mention now that I am white and nearing 40, and I teach mostly African-American teenagers in St. Louis.

As I stood in line with the businessmen and women to get my coffee and blueberry muffin, my kids out the window were clowning.  Two of the girls made those silly duck-lip kissy faces and held up peace signs (held sideways, of course) to take a selfie, as teenagers do.  I watched them hold their phones up to their faces as they walked, and I, predictably, felt very old.

I’m sure I made a face, a fond, “oh, those goofballs” sort of face, as I watched them.  I’m sure I smiled ruefully.  Having grown up in the late 20th century, I didn’t quite understand the millennial urge to document every little walk to school.  But then, I caught eyes with a woman in front of me.  Her expression wasn’t fond, it was hostile.  She met my eye as if to say, “can you believe these kids!?”  Her disgust was unmistakable.  So unnecessarily negative, in fact, that I took a step back.

Now, I’m no angel.  When I’m off work, as my boyfriend will attest, I sometimes do everything I can to avoid the irritating behavior of teenagers.  I’ve grumbled plenty about my students’ narcissism and lack of self-control.  But — that woman’s anger!

I’m sensitive to that kind of prejudice, I guess.

When I taught in Phoenix, I took my students — first and second-generation Mexican immigrants — to a theater performance in Scottsdale, Arizona.  We arrived early, smiling and shaking hands with the volunteers.  But, although the theater was empty, they led us up to the balcony and seated us there.  As I led my eighth graders to their seats and filed in behind them, I exchanged glances with my fellow teachers.  “Can you believe this?” we mouthed at each other, as we watched white children take the front-row seats below us.

How much of this is so ingrained as to be automatic, I wondered.  How is this still happening?

My first few years in St. Louis have been tough.  I fled the Phoenix housing market crash only to arrive in south-side St. Louis right before the summer of protests that followed the death of Michael Brown, a St. Louis teenager who had just graduated from high school.  I remembered supporting my Latino students as they marched against laws (since overturned) that they believed were unfair.  And here I was, a few years later, navigating a brand-new (or, maybe not so new) civil rights uprising — while trying my best to understand and empathize with my students of color who were caught up in the middle of it.

I have a lot to learn.  I’m white, and I grew up in white suburbs, going to mostly white schools.  I am conscious of my difference, of my privilege, of my ignorance.  But I’ve developed enough, over my years of teaching, to feel a righteous sense of anger when I see the kind of reaction I saw in that gentrified coffee shop.  I mulled over it the rest of that day, cheeks burning.

What I should have said was:

How dare you look at children that way?  Don’t — please don’t — don’t be that bigot who makes assumptions about the kids that I teach.

The Way I Feel about James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”

Personal Essays

How should you feel when you learn that someone you love has tried, deliberately, to die? Has nearly died. Has cut himself and taken bottles of pills and waited patiently and hoped he would die.

You can’t feel angry, quite. You can’t feel overly relieved, either, when he fails – and feels the failure as another failure. You can only feel deeply, deeply sad.

This song is wrapped up, for me, in the weather of those few days.

Just before Thanksgiving, the sky was a steel gray that lightened, in the morning, to an enamel white and muted to soggy black in the evening. The trees were bare and seemed to seep ice.

My mother, sister, and I listened to a song about a suicide, driving through ugly Kansas City on an ugly night thinking about a suicide. It’s hard for me to drive through Kansas City now, when it rains. It’s also hard for me to hear this song.

Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.”

After that night spent waiting at the hospital, we spent some time at home, and then (at night again) drove to visit him in the mental ward. He had jaundice and would barely look at us. Despite his intentions, his stubborn liver had saved him.

He was my little brother. We always were–and still are, I think–very alike. Both intelligent, imaginative, and rather hard-headed.

He’d gone through several phases over the years. A cowboy phase, a criminal phase. He’d lost a fiancée and isolated himself. But he’d call me sometimes, late at night, and we’d talk about our troubled Midwestern family and other, loftier things. He’d tell me he’d been listening to a lot of ‘70s folk music.

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

I almost want to thank him now. And, by thank him, I mean fall on my knees and kiss his feet. Because he didn’t die.

He has a month-old son now and a wonderful wife. I get to see the sharp jut of his jaw and hear his wry jokes and know that he’s still with us. Just like on that night, with that sweet lovely song on the radio, we clung to that phrase–he’s still with us–and waited, listening to soft guitar.

Note: working draft from a longer work about music, men, and memory.

They Call it Strategic Default

Personal Essays

I need to find a way to be less emotional about money.

It’s payday, and I feel furious again—and ashamed—and furious that I feel ashamed.

I’m dutifully paying my gas, electric, and rent, and I’m budgeting for a trip I’ll take next month to meet my newborn nephew. Once again, I am weighing my ability to pay my student loan bill with another expense: this time, it’s the money I owe my allergist. Online, there’s a newly fueled debate about student loans. It knocks at the edge of my consciousness and injects a little more anxiety into my monthly financial justifications.

I have a master’s degree—so, why do I feel so dumb? I feel like a financial ping-pong. I feel like the joke’s on me.

For the record, here are the financial mistakes I’ve made:

  • I got a master’s degree.
  • I bought a house.
  • I got married, and then divorced.
  • I struggled with depression.
  • I chose a career that meant I would help others, but also meant that I would remain poor.
  • I neglected to pay Homeowner Association fees when my house was so far underwater that I was in despair.
  • I stopped going to the doctor and dentist when having health insurance was more costly than skipping it. Again: despair.
  • I went out to eat too much, I often bought bottles of wine, and I put gifts for and fellowship with friends and family ahead of long-term financial health. Gradually, I embraced irresponsibility because the responsibility route just wasn’t working out for me.

I understand Lee Siegel’s New York Times piece [need citation]. It fills me with resentment and anxiety, but I understand it. It hits awfully close to home.

There have been some happy days: the day I paid off my undergraduate loans. The day I paid off credit card debt. Those were the days I believed in our financial system and felt proud to be doing my part. I was financially responsible! Morally right! I belonged.

It felt good to realize that my worst day in an inner-city classroom was better than my best day in a soulless cubicle. It felt good when I began teaching at a university–one of my lifelong dreams!

Then there were these days: The day I learned, from a friend, that the real reason a fiancee left without a word was my debt. Or maybe my underwater house. What did it matter.

The day after I paid off my undergraduate loans, when I realized I hadn’t even started paying for the master’s degree. This may or may not have been the same day I learned, from my employer, that because my master’s degree wasn’t in exactly the same subject I was teaching, I wasn’t eligible for the next level in pay scale.

The day I realized that if I wanted job security, I’d better stop being a university professor and go back to teaching high school. And then began laughing hysterically because, really, the absurdity!

The day I looked up at my therapist (the one my father paid for, when I was at my lowest) and said tearfully, “but I did everything I was supposed to do!”

These days, when I think about money, I veer between nihilism and shame. Like most Americans, I make choices: I don’t order cable television because I’d rather eat out. I will pay for my asthma medication but I won’t get my eyes checked. If my loving, generous boyfriend buys me a gift or takes me out to dinner, I calculate how I can treat him next time and also pay for new brake lights. I do not expect to ever be able to afford children of my own, but I will splurge on gifts for my niece and nephew. After experiencing first-hand the Phoenix housing market crash, I have neither the credit nor the emotional stamina to be a homeowner.

I sometimes don’t pay my student loan bill. I mean, it will always be with me, right? It’s insurmountable. What’s more interest? Another cup of water in the ocean.

And I am one of the lucky ones!

You see, I haven’t faced catastrophic medical problems. I am not, like my sister, a single mother. I have not succumbed to alcoholism or worsening depression, like some dear friends. And I voluntarily jumped off what I fondly refer to as the adjunct poverty train. Although I sometimes feel envious of my younger coworkers who dodged the Great Recession, I do the best I can to keep a healthy perspective—and to keep my head above water.

They call it strategic default—a term I learned in 2009. It’s when walking away is a better option than drowning. And if a mostly responsible, mostly hard-working woman like me considers it, our country’s financial powers-that-be really ought to start worrying.