While reading Ilana Garon’s Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens? Teaching Lessons from the Bronx, I realized this—
“Damn you Hilary Swank!”
Of course I’m referring to her inspiring character in Freedom Writers, not the memorable The Office episode when the office spends a WHOLE workday answering the question: Is Hilary Swank hot or not?
But seriously. Inspiring educational movies annoy the crap out of me (and dear lord don’t get me started on Won’t Back Down).
Hilary Swank literally loses her boyfriend over her job (and maybe Patrick Dempsey was actually a jerk and she should have dumped him a long time ago,) but that is not a way to show how ‘loyal’ she is to her students. She doesn’t sleep. Doesn’t eat. All for the glory of education. And this is the popular opinion and portrait drawn by media today—rampant with TFA propaganda, movies, miracle schools, etc.
And then I read Garon’s book, and I thought, “this is what needs to be out there.”
She literally makes you want to scream “woman, what are you doing? OF COURSE you should not allow students to retrieve you pizza during a fire/bomb drill.” And then she has you laughing because your students like to stuff pencils and crap in the air return too because it delights the hell out of them.
Basically, she’s real. She’s now a teacher into her 10th year at an inner city school in the Bronx, but she didn’t survive because she worked real hard for a couple years and then it all got rosy. In her words, “My first two years were kind of a blur–I just was constantly putting out small fires, many of which I had inadvertently started through my own inexperience and lack of knowledge.”
It’s easy to think you’re the best teacher ever because some of your kids know some stuff because of you, and then the next day feel terrible because they forgot it all. Reading Garon’s book humbled me. Yes, I could be teaching in my hometown where things would be considerably easier for me, but my job is not as difficult as someone like Garon’s where she had little support in her classroom. I have a ton of support. I’m lucky. And knowing that helps me keep it all in perspective (especially today when I had two students refuse to do work and talk about smoking weed and shooting people in the head with BB guns…)
Swank’s portrayal of the inner city teacher is very centered around empowering her students through literature. That is freaking hard. I got mine to write Declarations of Independence from something in their lives. They wrote amazing things. I almost wanted to cry, they were so touching. (I might put a few on here, approval pending). But then they return to their environments during the holiday, things transpire, and they want nothing to do with that assignment the next week. “Look, you were being so academic and letting writing CHANGE YOUR LIFE!!,” I say. Yeah right. I would love to believe that is how it works. It is a slow and laborious process, needing consistent prompting, praising, critique, positive feedback, and a little bit of pleading. They are so beaten down as students and writers. They need so much positive reinforcement. That transformation and empowerment takes years, not days.
I have a student create a fantastic documentary about bullying in our school last year. It’s poignant and artistic, but of course had places in it where you could tell she was struggling with what she really wanted to say due to her maturity in writing and in general. She is by far my most apt student to take a pencil and paper and just write forever. And I still have issues getting her to focus, turn away from self-doubt, and improve her writing. I have seen amazing gains in her behavior. She used to hate me, refusing to do anything. The fact that she is where she is now is incredible, but that took almost a year and a half. Most teachers rarely get an entire year with a student (I get the same students every year if they stay at our school).
Like Garon’s career, I think most of us in the inner city jobs can agree—you’re not Hilary Swank, but you know you’re wading through a complicated world of political and social crap, surviving in the trenches and hopefully changing something in a kid’s life.