Chapter 1- Ears, Brains, and Other Assorted Body Parts

Stacey is pulling body parts out of a bag and setting them on the table at the front of the New Auditorium:  an ear, a brain, an eyeball, a bone, a stomach, a heart, a foot, a hand.

“Okay, I’m going to pass these out and then I’ll explain to you what we’ll do next!” she says cheerfully.  She is holding the microphone too close to her mouth, so we can all hear her breathing as she exerts herself to move around the table to set down the rubber body parts.

Stacey is one of the seven Vice Principals in our school (2012 median salary $126,730), but she seems to have a special “in” with the new Principal, Mr. Suspenders ($138,965).  Stacey and Mr. Suspenders are constantly hanging out in his office after hours, walking along the hallway with their heads together, making in-jokes at which only the two of them laugh, finishing their sentences for each other.  If their body language weren’t such “aren’t we great asexual chums,” people would definitely be talking about an affair.  As it is, people say things about the two of them like, “Mutt ‘n Jeff” or “Two Peas in a Pod,” or just, “They’re really tight.”   Today, Stacey-the-Pet is running the In-Service for Mr. Suspenders because Mr. Suspenders has been hospitalized at University of Penn for a “headache.”  It can’t help his headache that he drinks at least a gallon of black coffee a day, generally in a gigantic American Flag mug as big as his head.

It is 10:24 in the morning and we have been at In-Service for over two hours already.   Our nickname for In-Service is “Teacher Detention.”  The topic of today’s In-Service is “Our Vision.”

Our Vision of what?  Getting out of here?  Winning the lottery? Being allowed to actually collaborate or teach?  Nah.  Ever wondered what teachers do at their In-Services when you have to scramble to get childcare for your kids?  You’re sure it must be something educational for the teachers, right?  Making them into better teachers!  Yes, and all we have to do to make our teachers better is come up with more money (Democrats), or to be able to fire as necessary (Republicans), and to hold teachers “accountable” (both Dems and Republicans), and, well, just get rid of all the stupid ones, or the lazy ones, or the unionized ones, or the old ones, or the ‘burnt out’ ones, or the non-Superman ones, or … Those Ones.  Yes, one way or another, there is a big problem in our educational system, our schools are failing, we are not Competitive in our Global Community, we need Educational Reform — and this Crisis all boils down to the teachers. Who else could it be?   I used to believe this too.

Next to me Heather is working in a sort of furious briskness on grading essays, with an occasional tuck of reddish hair behind her ear, a flourish of her purple pen.  Many teachers get pissed off at In-Service, since it’s such a colossal waste of time.  Anyway, Heather is tenured, so if Stacey catches her grading essays, God forbid, nothing of consequence will happen to her.  Whereas I am practicing the trick all the non-tenured teachers use:  keeping my eyes focused on Stacey, while in my head I’m going over all the things I should be doing that I can’t:  lesson plans, grading, not to mention being with my own children.  My youngest, Joey, who is eight at this time, begged me to stay home with him this morning.  “Why do you have to go to work so much?”  he says.  “I liked it better when you stayed at home.’

So did I.  But I’m 45, newly divorced, and have five kids –  they are 19, 17, 15, 12 &  8– and I need this job.   “It’s just how it is,” I said as much to myself as to Joey as I made him breakfast that morning.

Stacey walks up and down the aisles of the New Auditorium and tosses out the body parts (literally: people have to catch them).  All the teachers react identically:  they slink down in their seats and hope they’re not noticed.  She gets Adam, right next to me.  Whew!  Close call!  There are over a hundred twenty teachers present, but we’re all spread out in the cavernous Auditorium, which seats 1000, sort of clumped together by Department.

Our school, High School West, or “West” for short, is a medium-sized suburban school, with about 1700 students and 100 teachers.  West’s District is fairly large:  12 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools (West and, you guessed it, East), and one additional school, Delinquent High, the last chance for those who get kicked out of regular high school, or, in edu-speak, for those who are better suited to an alternative learning style.   The district is very well regarded as a whole; based largely on its reputation, in fact, people are willing to shell out sky high property taxes even in this lousy economy (2012 average is $8919.40).  53% of the property taxes go to the schools, but the budget usually passes each year.

Here in the auditorium, each Department at West reveals its own character; the Music Department teachers, specifically the nationally recognized choir teachers – their male a cappella group has been best in the nation three years in a row, their lead teacher is featured on the cover of a national magazine – sits upright in the front row of the Auditorium, taking notes.  They are actually such outstanding educators that they will be massively punished in the rising war on excellence—within three years, both seasoned choir teachers will be driven out and replaced by two inexperienced non-tenured teachers in their twenties (one let go from two previous jobs, the other a former elementary schoolteacher). And snap! just like that, the nationally recognized choir program will be destroyed; enrollment will nosedive to a third of what it once was, and they will no longer win any of the state or national awards they used to shine in.  It will be the gossip of music and choir educators statewide.  But no administrator is ever assessed, punished or promoted based on the lack of excellence of its school’s choir, so never fear.  The new teachers will be much cheaper and much less powerful, the program will be so small they’ll be able to do with one teacher soon, and the choir program won’t distract from No Child Left Behind/Race To The Top testing.  Check, check, check.

But for now, the choir teachers are sadly under the delusion that excellence is what the principal wants, that this principal is just like former principals – human, perhaps fallible, but in essence an educator who wants what is best for his students – and they take notes.

My own English Department is in the middle, as is History; Math is, appropriately, off to the side, in the shadows.  I don’t know anyone in Math, as they teach in a completely separate part of the building.  The air conditioned part.  The Smart Board-in-every-room part.  There are a zillion grants available to math teachers.  Sigh.

And there is World Language, in the far back, exactly where the “bad students” sit during assemblies.  Like the bad students, they are sitting slumped down with their arms folded, and open, scornful, bored looks on their faces.  I love World Language.  Stacey tosses them a Bone (yes, really); I can see the white arc of it as it rises and falls to their feet.

“Okay!” Stacey says when she’s back at the front by the stage.  “What I want you to do is, when I call on you, I want you to tell me what you’ve learned today so far about our West Vision!  Use your body part to kinesthetically connect with what you’ve learned, jumpstart with it.  Okay?  I’ll go first!”  She holds up an eyeball.  “Okay, I’ve learned today that I can see ahead to our future.  My vision of the West graduate is High Standards and Clear Expectations and College!  Well prepared to meet the global challenges of today’s world!”  She then writes this down in swirly handwriting on a transparency that’s connected via computer to a very large screen on the stage.  She writes:  “SEE High Standards and Clear Expectations and College.”   She underlines “SEE”  three times.   Then she puts a #1 in front, and underneath, #2, ready to go.  I can’t wait.

“Okay, any questions?”  She pauses a millisecond.  “Okay, who’s next?  Who has the brain?”  A Gym teacher I know only in passing reluctantly raises her hand with a brain in it.  The irony of it.

“Okay, Marcia, please stand up and tell us what you’ve learned today!  What is our West Vision?”

Poor Marcia mumbles something.  Stacey says, “Marcia, please speak up!  We can’t hear you!”

Marcia shouts, “I learned that the West Graduate thinks!…”  She trails off and for a moment I’m worried for her; after all, gym teachers do not get much exposure to our West thinkers.  Then she finishes gamely:  “I think that the West Graduate has to learn with all his or her intelligence.

But Stacey stares back at her, her marker poised.   Clearly Marcia is not finished.  I’m guessing Marcia has recently done something to slightly piss off Stacey.

Marcia takes a breath, and then fires off a couple of additional random words, obviously hoping to hit a bullseye with one of them:  “Cognitive, intellect, highest academics, standards, ummm, intellect, cognitively aware!….”

“Good, good.” . Stacey nods thoughtfully.   Marcia sits down with relief.  She has passed the test.  Next to #2,  Stacey writes this down:  “Cognitively aware.  Think.”   She underlines ‘think’ twice.  Stacey is in her late thirties but dresses and looks like a woman in her late fifties, down to the stiff hair-sprayed frosty hair, the fifty extra pounds, and the endless navy blue pantsuits with gold buttons with anchors stamped on them.  She has three or four cats, whom we hear a lot about at Seminar Meetings.  In great detail.   Does she have a crush on married, father-of-four Mr. Suspenders?  Who knows.  Poor Stacey.  Well, not so poor.  Don’t feel sorry for her. “Okay! “ Stacey says breathily. Who has the Hand?”

Mike, a young science teacher and a rising assistant football coach.  Soon to be neither as he will be caught drinking at a nearby rock concert and kissing a student from our high school who was there too.  “She threw herself on me!” he will exclaim, drunkenly and stupidly.  Mike is about 23 and seems to still believe that the world is his own private fraternity.  He will soon learn the sad truth:  the world is your private fraternity only if you are the President, very rich, or a “celebrity.”  Or all three. The girl’s ex-boyfriend will catch them kissing and beat Mike up.  The next day, Mike will be escorted out of the building by Mr. Suspenders and three security guards, much as public hangings used to function, in order to maximize Mike’s humiliation and Mr. Suspenders’ authority and drive fear into the hearts of any other potential strayers.  But now Mike has a Hand.  And a Hand is easy.  “The West Vision is to take learning by the hand, and have a firm grip on knowledge and life experience,” Mike says smoothly.  Ah, if only Mike had taken these words to heart.

Stacey nods.  ‘Good.  ‘Take by the hand,’” she repeats and writes in her swirly handwriting.   “Okay, who has the Ear?”

One by one Stacey calls the Body Parts.  The teachers say their words of insight, Stacey writes them down thoughtfully, while another Vice Principal, Dorothy, an African American woman of about 55, comes over and purposefully swoops up the Body Part and tosses it back in a big burlap bag (yes, really).

Our In-Services are run as though the Administrators are playing a game in which they are the teachers and we teachers are their students.  Only they can’t teach.   Oh, and P.S., we’re not their students.  Like two year olds playing “House,” our Administrators have no idea what it is the teachers really do (the old adage is increasingly true, and nearly all Administrators here are failed teachers, teachers with limited experience, or – increasingly commonly – were never teachers at all), so they copy random bits and pieces they have read or heard about, and their In-Services end up being hollow parodies of our lesson plans or unwitting satires.

The computer at our In Service suddenly stops working, the transparency goes blank – oh no!  our Visions disappear from before our eyes! –  and our overworked-patted-on-the-back-a lot-to-compensate-for-lousy-pay technician, Bob, leaps up from his front-row seat to busily fix it, while Stacey walks over to Dorothy and puts her arm on her back. They talk about something, their heads together, with serious, important, furrowed brows, compressed lips; then they throw back their heads and laugh loudly at some in-joke.

I’ve seen this movie before. Many times.  Again, like two year olds playing House.  Except two year olds are charming.  And two year olds don’t get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to babble or play make believe.  And no one cares when two year olds have temper tantrums.  And two year olds are supervised and held accountable by adults.  And two year olds can’t fire you or make policy decisions that impact literally millions of peoples’ lives.

Because I cannot do any actual work, I occupy myself by imagining Stacey writing out a ‘lesson plan’ for today’s In Service in that swirly girlish handwriting of hers, petting her plump purring cats, perhaps fantasizing about Mr. Suspenders, perhaps not.  Would Stacey be sipping tea?  Or tea-and-rum?  Or just plain rum?  Who knows.  Later on, maybe Stacey watches an hour or two of some reality TV show, like Jersey Shore, her fave at the time.  At our department meetings, Stacey has often urged us to be ‘cool’ with the students, and, as an example, has trotted out …herself.  According to Stacey, “the students really connect with how cool she is, especially when she talks about TV shows, Snooki, and pop music with them.”

Stacey herself, the three or four years she actually worked as a Cool Hip History Teacher, was also known as one of the most disorganized, permissive teachers in the building.  As one teacher put it, “Her kids were swinging from the ceiling and falling out into the hallway.  They never did anything.  She was the worst teacher I ever saw.”

Wait—but if she was such a bad teacher, how on earth did she get promoted to administrator in the same school?  DUH.   She was connected, OF COURSE.  In this case, friends – or “friends” – with Mr Suspenders.

Good thing someone with that degree of experience and good judgment gets to decide who teaches our students now—and in English and Math, two subjects she knows absolutely nothing about!   And I mean nothing—she wouldn’t know a metaphorical ass from a satirical elbow, and she certainly doesn’t know how to find a function button on a calculator.

But who cares?  Expertise in your subject area is obviously irrelevant, under the sound principle that if you are in charge and are incompetent in the field, obviously the field itself is irrelevant—I mean, you can’t be!

*          *          *

 After Bob-the-technician has finally fixed the computer – and Stacey literally and cluelessly pats him on the head –Adam is called and stands up; he has a Foot.  Easy one.  “The West graduate walks confidently into the future,” he says, and sits down.

Stacey says, “Fantastic, Adam!”

I like Adam – everyone does – but Stacey loves Adam because he is extremely mediocre—young, in his twenties, a C+ student in college, not too good at his job and not too bad, dresses well, always on time, no parent complaints, gives mostly A’s and B’s, never has an opinion about anything at any meeting, never expresses any emotion other than mild likeability, drinks a lot over the weekend and often comes in with a hangover but does his job.  This man clearly has absolutely no ambition to be an Administrator or to ever challenge an Administrator.  This man is going far.

Dorothy comes by and takes away the Foot.  I gaze into Dorothy’s eyes with what I hope looks like worship, while worrying about my children.  I hope they’re not fighting, that they’re eating, that they’re safe.

“Okay,” Stacey says. “The heart!”

Clara is called and stands up.  She is a fabulous French teacher who has her PhD, teaches AP and Honors French, has raised three children, and volunteers as an EMT every night.  Every night! She sleeps in her living room recliner from 11 pm on in case she’s called; a few nights ago, she rescued a toddler who was choking and was up until 2 am, then back at school at 6:30 am.   She’s wonderful.   No way would Clara be hired today—a PhD??  InFrench?  Highly intelligent?  Quirky and strong willed?  Come on, our Brave New Reform Movement says.  Way too expensive, uncontrollable, and risky.  And who the heck cares about a PhD in French? There is a sea of desperate, young women and men out there.   We could get a frightened malleable predictable mediocre girl of 22 and pay her less than half of what we’re paying Clara! And we could fire her if she turned out to be too smart or too loud or too weird or incompetent or another administrator came in and wanted an overhaul to prove his power, or, most likely, she turned out to be unable to conform to the bureaucracy. And then we could just get yet another young malleable desperate girl or boy. And besides, why do we have French to begin with?   Who needs French to work in a low level ‘globally competitive’ Corporate Job, which is obviously the primary purpose of life?

Anyway, French, Shmench, it’s all moot because Clara will soon retire at the end of this year and will fume that Mr. Suspenders doesn’t even bother to congratulate her on her retirement even at the retirement dinner.   Being Clara, she complains about this to Mr. Suspenders’ face.  He says, “But I congratulated your husband.”  One of the endless indecipherable comments Mr. Suspenders is wont to make.   Clara will tell us this dryly in the Cool World Language Teachers Lounge, and then will raise one eyebrow.  “Boy am I glad I’m getting out of here, and not a moment too soon,” she will say.  Actually, many top teachers say this as they flee.  Each time, I will be jealous.

But right now she raises the heart – which looks like an actual heart – and says deadpan:

“I feel that this is a complete waste of my time.  We are failing our children.  Some of my students want to be car mechanics, or electricians, or hair stylists, or construction workers, or whatever, and what on earth is wrong with that?  Can we just say that?  What happened to car mechanics?  Why do they all suddenly have to have college prep work?  We’re not helping them at all.  The vision is unrealistic and so is the Board policy.  It’s all meaningless.  I feel.”   Then she sits down.

There is a quiet buzz, but very quiet; most teachers keep their poker faces.  Marvelous!  Clara can say this because she will retire soon.  But still marvelous.

Stacey doesn’t even blink.  A New Administrator can handle this one with ease.  All you do is you pretend to agree with what has just been said, only you either do nothing about it or you attack later on.  “Okay!” Stacey says agreeably, and writes down on the transparency:  “Feels is meaningless.”  She underlines “feels” once and nods to herself.   (She won’t attack.)

“The Bone!”  Stacey calls out next in an upbeat singsong, changing subjects quickly.  But no one stands up.  “The Bone!” Stacey calls after a pause.

I turn around to World Languages.  I remember they have it.  But still no one is standing up and laying claim to the bone; all the World Language teachers are sitting slumped with their bored, blank expressions.  “The Bone!” Stacey shouts into the microphone.  No one moves.

Stacey walks up the aisle toward them.  She is panting into her microphone. “Guys, I know I gave the Bone to you guys.  Who has it?”

Silence.  Blank looks.

It is at this point that it dawns on all of us that the teachers have hidden the Bone and aren’t going to play.  Wow!   Next to me Adam is about to crack up.   I can’t look at him.  Heather has stopped doing her grading and is gaping at the World Language people, absently tucking her reddish hair behind her ear.

Stacey stands in front of them. “Guys. Please.  The Bone.”  Begging!  She is reduced to begging!  She has no idea what to do!   Adam is shaking all over with laughter and has to cover his face with his hands.

Dorothy, who has been an Administrator ever since I can remember – five years probably; the Superintendent & other Supervisors eat through their West Administrators like candy in order to maintain control over them in case they turn out to be human and competent – swoops over to the bad World Language teachers and says sternly, glaring over her bifocals, “Ladies and gentlemen.  I KNOW you have the Bone.  Give Stacey the Bone.  She won’t be happy if she leaves today without the Bone.”

World Language all turn their faces and gaze up at Stacey with identical blank disinterested expressions.

Stacey hovers a minute more, says, “Guys!” a couple of times, and then walks back to the front.  Her lesson plan has been spoiled.   Oh dear.  Then she says, smiling – she has decided to treat this as a lighthearted joke – “Okay guys!  I can see we need an early  lunch break!  Let’s see…. Be back in your assigned groups in the library or the computer lab by 12:45 pm!”

Whoops!— Stacey has forgotten to assess what we learned today.  This is called “Closure” in edu-speak, and if she were actually teaching us, that would be a fail.  But no one is assessing her.

Dorothy tries one more time.  “I’m leaving this box of Body Parts here,” she says to the teachers, who are already getting their coats.  “I won’t ask questions.   Just put the Bone in the bag as you leave.  I won’t ask questions.” The teachers don’t bother to respond.

I find out later that the Bone is never returned.  I imagine it proudly displayed on a World Language teacher’s mantelpiece in their living room, like an Oscar.