By Anna Brown
“Did you always want to be a teacher, Ms. Brown?” they ask me.
“Fuck no,” I tell them.
The truth is I’ve never wanted to be anything. Even from the time I was a little kid, when grown-ups would bother me with the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had to lie and make something up because when I thought about the future, I only saw blank space. I mean, who cares what you want? Even at age 8 I knew life doesn’t work like that.
Honestly, I became a teacher because I was 37 I didn’t know what else to do. If you want to live in the Bay Area, you need a job that makes more than 12.00 per hour. All my friends were scrambling to go to college, or become librarians or airplane mechanics. I had to figure something out.
Teaching is the first non-punk job I’ve ever had. And at first, I had the sickening feeling that I was working for The Clampdown. Administrators, school boards, evaluations, detentions, tardies, grades. School offends the anarchist in me on every level. I guess at my most earnest, I wanted to explore books with young people. Books were responsible for my whole young intellectual life and brought the world to me in my darkened bedroom where I sequestered myself, with the shades down. I love books. I have worked at bookstores, distros and publishing companies. It’s not so different, really; Turning people on to cool books at the comic shop, or turning teenagers on to cool books in a classroom, right?
So I enrolled in Ed School and hoped for the best.
Studying educational theory is very different from teaching. The joke is they teach you everything except how to teach. I taught at big public schools for a few years, the kids were mostly nice. Many were troubled—some in endearing ways, others in heartbreaking ones. Some kids threw things at me. There was definitely the feeling we were all just trying to survive.
When I started teaching honors level sophomores at a private school, I thought
How can I possibly relate to you precocious, virginal 15-year-olds, who pander for points, and hang your heads in shame when you get a B? You don’t even do the reading, you just glean barely enough to vaguely discuss the big ideas in class, and regurgitate some ideas? I have almost no memory of high school, of actually learning, of homework or exams. In 11th grade I dropped out and went to a hippy continuation school where you could smoke in the classroom.
High school was misery. All my memories from those years are of punk shows and backyard parties and dog-eared books and road trips, and getting wasted. The idea that I was now the mentor in the room was laughable, and terrifying.
And Jesus, the anxiety about the future these kids have is pathological. They hyperventilate when I hand back grades. They have chronic stomach pain. I used to think they were torturing themselves needlessly, little box checking, baton twirlers.
“Sorry,” I tell them, “if it were up to me we wouldn’t have grades at all. “
I have perfected my “And that’s why I gave you a ‘C’ speech,” and learned to resist parent bribes. (One parent told me repeatedly that she was a physician, in case I needed any medical attention.)
But as I figured out how to teach the private school honors track kids, I got to see things from their perspective. They are mostly Latino and Filipino kids from middle-class families. Many are first generation. They have conservative parents and are openly queer at school, but closeted at home. Their parents believe in the American Dream, that poverty is a reflection of one’s character. I realize my students are right to be anxious. They are growing up in a different world than I did; one where fucking up has consequences. There’s no soft place to land, anymore. They think they don’t have one second to waste, and that if they stop running they’ll fall hopelessly behind. I have gradually learned not to judge them, but instead to shut up and listen.
The kids pour their hearts out to me. Dmitri Torres, in particular, comes in my room after school to cry. Dmitri was a student in my 11th grade class, and is now enrolled in my class again, this time in a senior elective on the graphic novel. You have never seen a more beautiful kid. He’s into art and drama and stole the show as Banquo in the school production of Macbeth. For Christmas he presented me with a perfect portrait of Mark Mothersbaugh, rendered in watercolor, after we bonded over the joys of DEVO. Dmitri has a porcelain- like completion, long eyelashes, teeth that have no need for braces. His dark hair falls into his eyes and he brushes it away. He wears black. He is a solid B student, but sometime around March of last year he stopped turning in work, missed class frequently, and grew listless and despondent. I know this state well.
“Mr. Torres,” I ask him, “what’s going on? Are you depressed?”
“Ms. Brown I want to be an artist!” he weeps, “but I also want to have a family, and a house and stuff. I guess I should go to college and study business or something,” his perfect face wracked with fear and self- pity.
“Look, Dmitri,” I told him, “life is not a straight line where everything goes according to plan. Start by going for what you want! Move to New York, make friends, make art! Things will work out.” I tell him to “follow his dreams”, “don’t freak out” and “there’s plenty of time to find your way”, but I realize I’m full of shit.
When I was an 18-year-old high school dropout, living in a Berkeley punk house, Friends was the cultural touchstone of the under 30 demographic. (Not that I watched it then) The show was about five friends, marginally employed, who live in giant New York apartments and have fun and sleep with each other while they figure out, through trial and error, what they want to do with their lives. Joey, the aspiring actor, is even following his dream, to great comic effect. That wacky Joey! He’s the artist who goes to auditions and somehow supports himself without even a trust fund. And Phoebe, the flake, strums her guitar in the coffee shop for tips. And no one ever dies of sepsis because they don’t have health care, and can’t afford to visit the emergency room. And no one gets evicted so the landlord can raise the rent 200% above market. Friends wasn’t ever reality, but now they might as well re-run the whole series and call it Fantasy Island. It was once possible to take the Greyhound to Grand Central Station with 50.00 and start a new life. You could live in a ramshackle mansion in West Berkeley for 250.00 a month, if you had 7 roommates. If you had to work, there used to be jobs you could get at a car plant, for 75.00 an hour, or at the factory like Laverne and Shirley. When I was their age, I could be sporadically employed and still afford rent and drugs.
But what are these kids gonna do now? They have to have their shit together and keep it together. They are not rich kids with internships and ski weeks. I mocked them, before. “They think if they don’t get into Stanford they think they’ll never amount to anything.” But now I don’t think they’re crazy. They are growing up in a looming class war, and they are smart to be anxious. As the middle class disappears, they are trying to leap over the widening gap. They only see one path to success: They want money.
I want the world to not just be about money. But tell that to these kids. They’re not fools. That’s where the question, “Did you always want to be a teacher, Ms. Brown?”, comes in. If I say yes I’m a martyr, if I say no I’m a failure. I seem smart, they figure, so where did I go wrong?
Luckily for me, English class is not subject to the same pressure as the other academic subjects, anymore. School districts now treat humanities like quaint pass times, nostalgia, on its way out, “cultural literacy” incubators. Now there must be STEM: Science technology, engineering and math. No one majors in English anymore. So, yeah, I teach them to command language, form arguments, debate, and think about Emily Dickinson, but “so what?” the parents think. “So what?” the principal thinks. And since no one is looking, I have begun to steer the class into unknown places. I am quietly radicalizing the youth.
When I first started working at this Parochial school, I was afraid I would immediately betray myself as a godless communist freak, that a kid would report me for an offhand comment, or the administration would sniff me out as a nonbeliever. And because I was compelled to test this theory, I started introducing more and more unconventional ideas to the class. We began reading the Western canon through a queer lens. We studied the Communist Manifesto, The Handmaid’s tale. The kids were turning in papers with titles like, Nick Caraway and the decade of Loneliness: A Queer read on Gatsby, The Oppressed Masses and The Systematic Oppression of Women in Dystopian Literature. We read Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Jamaica Kincaid and James Baldwin. We watch Grizzly Man and The Stonewall Uprising, and The Minority Report. Teenagers are fun and curious, and also troubled and sad.
In my graphic novel class we read Fun Home, a queer coming of age memoir, and Barefoot Gen a classic manga comic about Hiroshima, written by Keiji Nakazawa, a survivor of the bomb that killed his family. Kids ask me, “was it really necessary to incinerate two entire towns full of civilians in order to end the war? Did we really ultimately save lives?”
“Fuck no,” I tell them. But that’s what they are taught in history class. (Pro tip: Cartoons are a teacher’s ultimate stealth weapon. They look harmless, but are in fact often effective brainwashing tools).
On Friday, For their Create a Utopian Society project, before we start reading Parable of the Sower, kids were asked to cooperatively plan the perfect society, considering multiple factors like the penal system, education, equality, the economy, and the environment, and then make a poster showing their society and its slogan. Kids designed humane prisons, sustainable agriculture, and planets exclusively designed for luxury shopping. But the best one is also the most simple. Conceived by a group of four fifteen- year old girls, it has a serene green planet painted over a black background. It says:
Come to Zoltor
Where Life is Fair
Don’t think teaching doesn’t have its rewards. At graduation last year I met a Dad who scowled at me. “Oh, you’re Ms. Brown,” he said. “You’re the one who put all those ideas in my kid’s head.” I smiled my most secular smile, and thought to myself, “that’s my job, fuckface.”
What kind of country are we living in, where college costs $80,000 and if you don’t go you’re effectively shut out of the economy? Yeah, yeah, Bill Gates dropped out.
But everyone else is carrying those loans till death. They are under constant pressure to become, in Charles Bukowski’s words, “A big-ass winner.” My job is to help them get through high school and render them “college ready”. I don’t encourage them to drop out and out and make art and start bands and use drugs for the rest of their young lives, but maybe I should. They might be happier.
As these kids begin to realize the deck is stacked against them, I predict trouble. Maybe the government has gotten savvier about fucking people over, but the kids have gotten smarter, too. These 15- year- olds are tired of trying to compete in an unfair system. If there’s one thing I hope they’ve learned from my class, it is you don’t have to fuck people over to survive. Or yourself.
I am astonished to report that teaching the grade grubbers has become a joy. These kids surprise me every day. Their whole generation is often depicted as simultaneously useless and entitled, but I’m betting on these kids. In the past two weeks they have held large-scale walkouts and demonstrations, mobilized around gun reform, and been a part of the largest feminist mobilization in decades with the galvanizing force of Me Too. What purpose does the narrative—that these kids are narcissistic, ADHD, and hopelessly out of touch with reality—serve? If I read another op-ed about what these kids don’t know about the “real world” I’ll gag. I think their view of the future is crystal clear.
But teaching also has its share of heartbreaks. On Friday, Dmitri stopped by my room to show me the bracelet around his wrist—one of those rubber “Live Strong” Lance Armstrong things that got so popular. Only this one said, “Army Strong”
“I stopped by the recruiter!” he told me, giving me a look that read like mild mania, “I joined the Army, Ms. Brown!”
When he left I sat alone in my room and cried for a minute.
These kids will vote in the 2020 elections. They’re angry, and they’re desperate, and they’re beginning to realize the deck is stacked against them. Let’s see how long they’ll stand for it.