Someone forwarded me this link the other day. It describes #outofmypocket — a movement to share how much teachers spend on classroom supplies out of their own pockets. While this didn’t take off in quite the same way as last year’s social media posts about teachers’ low paychecks and second jobs, I was taken aback by some of the stories. The site estimates that 94% of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies, and some posters spent thousands of dollars on markers, glue sticks, even on notebooks. And can you imagine a school district cruel enough that they make teachers buy their own tissues? It happens.
From what I understand, it’s pretty routine for elementary teachers to send out a list of supplies parents and children are expected to provide each year. Yet in many schools where the parents cannot afford these items, it’s none other than the teachers who end up eating the costs.
This is hard for me to picture. As a public school teacher, I have never spent money on school supplies for students. Then again, I am a high school teacher; I barely need any supplies. But the ones I do need, my school has always, unthinkingly supplied. I have never bought tissues.
That said, I could imagine doing it. I buy food for students, for celebrations. I remember a coworker, now deceased, whose homeroom students, after her death, were astounded when they calculated the sheer amount of money she spent bringing in croissants over the years. She cared. It showed. That was just one small way. She’d have considered any talk about money beside the point. She loved those kids. Just like lots of teachers do too — they care so much about kids that they’d rather go broke than let a kid go without. Say what you want about teachers, but they put their money where there mouth is.
But what if they didn’t?
Remember how that poor professor at Evergreen State in Washington, Bret Weinsten, got run out of town two years ago by the irate mob for objecting to that weird practice they were proposing? It was called “Day of Absence” and the original idea (not the wacky form Weinstein questioned) was actually quite powerful: all POC (which means “People of Color,” in case you’re not Woke [which means “Super Cool” in case you’re not “super cool”]) would spend the day “absent” from campus in order to show the impact of POC in the life of the community. Nice.
Well, here’s my modest proposal: Maybe next year teachers should have a Year of Absence for Our Wallets. Instead of buying supplies, take what the school budget gives you. No money for tissues? Let them use their sleeves. The kids want to color with actual markers? Tell them to use their imaginations.
I wonder what happens?
Actually, scratch that. It wouldn’t work. You know why? Because the things teachers give kids with money from their own wallet? You can’t measure those on what matters to the purse-holders: a standardized test! Crayons and markers? Learn your times tables, brats. Construction paper and glue sticks? We have a world economy to dominate. Picture books to learn to read? Everyone knows what happened to Mr. Bunny Rabbit already — he didn’t do his STEM homework, so he couldn’t compete in a global economy, and he was baked into a pie by his rivals, the Chinese. Quit blubbering.
That’s why teachers do it, I think. For the kids whose parents can’t provide this stuff, no one’s going to notice if they don’t have it . . . except their teachers.
God bless ’em.
(And raise their salaries.)
Speaking of schools, and wealth, this past week, as part of my Fancy Fellowship, I had the chance to visit perhaps the wealthiest school district in Vermont to deliver a life changing lecture . . . scratch that, I was sitting in a windowless conference room drawing on chart paper and trying not to drink too much coffee.
Anyway, for such a wealthy district, I was taken aback by what a cruddy facility they have. “They spend their money on staff, not on buildings” is what I heard. Makes sense, but still. This place was terrible: vintage 70s, open classrooms (why was this ever a good idea?), secretaries and guidance staff stuffed into closets, windowless rooms, a cafeteria that looks it’s at a motor inn that’s going out of business, bathrooms like Fenway Park and Mad River Glen’s. It was grim. And I have a high tolerance, folks.
Anyway, the most shocking thing to me, a jaded denizen of some glittering palace over in Montpelier, was the lack of a common space. When I walked into this high school, I was met, first, by a weird, impersonal buzzer that I could not figure out how to operate. (“Oh, well,” I thought, “maybe high school doesn’t want me. But you know who I bet does? My local alt-right hate group . . . “) After I finally made it inside, I was ceremoniously confronted by a small holding cell space. It wasn’t quite a brick wall, but it was close. Go right or go left, it seemed to say, but don’t linger here. Do you get what I’m saying? There was no common space. Where I work, visitors immediately enter a huge, soaring atrium — two stories tall, with skylights and plants and tables to sit at and plenty of open space. You’ll see kids sitting at tables together, teachers milling around talking to kids and to each other, sometimes you’ll see the principal chatting with everyone. Not only does it look a whole hell of a lot more inviting than a holding cell, but it functions to route everyone, at some point in their day, into the same common space. Everyone passes through the atrium; all the wings of the school flow through it.
I once read about some tech company — it’s so hard to remember the names of them, isn’t it? — I think it was called Moogle or Racebook or Crapple — that specifically designed their headquarters so that employees from different divisions would be bumping into each other and (the thinking went) hashing out innovative ideas (such as the ability to order a take out burrito while completely intoxicated — wouldn’t that be cool?) Well, the same things happen where I work. I’m always running into colleagues and students in the atrium. I’m always having inspiring discussions with them, saying incredible things to them, such as, “Why are you avoiding me?” or “Is it because you haven’t been to class in months?”
So as you can see, having common space isn’t just convenient, it’s community-building. Architecture is important. That’s why I think that schools that have no leisurely common gathering space, no places that belong to the public, outside of more utilitarian spaces like the cafeteria or library, is missing out. It’s like a having parks in your city, or an old-fashioned town square in your village.
It’s good for the community soul.
The last thing I want to mention about schools today also has to do with this glorious atrium of ours. But this one’s a little more dark. Bear with me.
Do you ever have a moment where you’ve been fighting for something, and you’re losing, and you’re sort of resigned to it, but then something so utterly ridiculous happens that you realize just how badly you have already lost, and you can only laugh at your abject stupidity for ever thinking you had a chance in the first place?
No? Well, I did.
Twice over the last few weeks, I have “caught” students playing first person shooter video games. I say “caught” because they were making no attempt to hide it. They were in the middle of a crowded atrium. On their school-issued computers. In a public high school.
I was sort of speechless. This would be like having the gall to read a Charles Murray book in the middle of the dining hall at Middlebury College. So I went up to the young man, who was actually sitting where middle schoolers normally sit, and I asked him if he had given a single thought to the symbolism of his actions.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m in high school.”
As if that was what I was worried about. Actually, it is — you are in a high school, my friend. That’s the problem!
Maybe we haven’t quite lost the fight, but we’re definitely on the floor and bleeding. Nothing more perfectly symbolizes what we’re up against with school violence. Nothing more perfectly shows that we need to address the root of the problem, not the surface of it. I am not saying that video games cause school shootings. Far from it. I am saying that violence so saturates our world that putting more guns in schools is so far beside the point, it’s insane.
That’s all I’ve got for this week.