During my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years of teaching, I wrote a monthly column for the TFA two-step, which was the Houston regional newsletter. Here’s one from 1995 that was a bit different. Rather than a bunch of observations, this one took the form of a fictional diary based on one of those books written by a gang member. One thing about this column that I remember was that they first refused to run it since potential fundraisers might not get the satire. I had a big argument with the executive director at the time, which marked the first rift in my ongoing sometimes rocky relationship with TFA.
THE PLAGUE: An Insider’s story
‘Bubbles’ is not my real name. In the gang, we all have nicknames. There’s ‘Scan-Tron’ and ‘Four-One-One’ and, how could I forget?, ‘The Jammer’. Fake names allow us to shed some of the responsibility that might otherwise affect our ability to function in our usual manner. It’s been three years since my initiation, since I left behind my naive ideals for the truth. I’ve always known exactly when it happened, but I am just beginning to understand why it did and why it had to.
It was my first year and I needed guidance. Back then, there were no Teach For America learning teams, buddies, or support directors. The only assistance available was an encouraging answering machine message at the TFA office.
All I needed were thirty copies. Though I had been warned to avoid the lounge, where the copy machine resided, I had no choice. I carefully opened the door to the forbidden territory. There I first encountered ‘The Plague’, a group of veteran teachers who seemed to live in the lounge and feast on complaints. ‘Plague’ members were easy to identify. While every other teacher graded tests with red ink, ‘The Plague’ would use only blue ink. I tried to walk by inconspicuously.
“Need to make some copies?” ‘Scan-Tron’ approached me.
“No, just a class set of these behavior contracts.”
“Forget those. What you need are worksheets. Check this one out. One hundred multiplication problems. Take a look, man. You can’t get worksheets like this around here. This one’s imported from El Salvidor. It’s the real thing. You like?”
“No. Thank you.”
I approached the machine, which was dangerously quiet. I cringed when I noticed the flashing ‘Call For Service’ message.
“The machine has been broken since yesterday. Didn’t you know?” ‘The Jammer’ said with the slightest hint of a smile.
Class would begin in five minutes. I frantically sat down, and in a desperate effort began copying the contract by hand. Realizing this was impossible, I collapsed. Without the contracts, my fourth period class would devour me. I needed help. Sobbing, I looked up to the sympathetic face of ‘Scan-Tron’.
“Relax, man. Try these. They work like magic. We made them before the machine broke.”
I thanked him, grabbed the stack of worksheets and ran to my classroom. I failed to notice that the worksheets were still warm.
All but one kid, Rickey Thomas, worked quietly for the entire period. Later, I tried to reach his home from the lounge telephone: “The number you have reached is not in–”. I slammed down the receiver, defeated by a twelve year old trouble maker. Worksheets, apparently, were not enough. I needed something else. Something stronger.
“Are you trying to call Rickey’s house?” Four-One-One questioned, “That’s not his number. You want to talk to his father? What time is it, one o’clock? Try this one. He’s at work.”
From his pocket, he pulled the elusive number.
“Hello, is this Rickey’s father? I’m your son’s math teacher. We’ve been having a little trouble lately– ”
The next day Rickey was early for class. He worked for the entire period, and even volunteered to do a problem on the board.
‘The Plague’, I knew, was responsible for my newly found respect. I had to learn about the source of my strength. I barged into the copy room, and demanded to know the story of ‘The Plague’.
“Back when there were only carbon copies,” ‘Scan-Tron’ explained, “we were nothing, but we realized as mimeographs were coming out that teachers would grow dependent on copies. Not just teachers, but counselors, principals, and superintendents. We realized that he who controls the copy machine controls the school. So we learned, first, how to fix it, and then how to un-fix it. We called ourselves ‘The Plagiarizers’, and then later shortened it to ‘The Plague’.”
“And the numbers, what about the phone numbers?” I begged.
“You know how the nicest girls always date the ruffians of the school?” Four-One-One answered, “Haven’t you ever wondered why? They don’t like those guys. The girls are our spies. A hood suspects nothing when one of our girls asks for his home phone number. After she gets the information, she dumps the guy, and we have the number. The boys have no idea how we got it.” He then handed me my first blue grading pen.
Trusted with their story, I soon became one of the core members of ‘The Plague’. ‘The Jammer’ became my mentor. This guy was incredible. He was the first person to ever use the word ‘worksheet’ as a verb. I acquired my nickname, ‘Bubbles’, when I demonstrated a prodigious ability to bubble in a grade sheet in a few seconds. This feat elevated my position in the gang, and I was put in charge of un-fixing the copy machine. I was finally getting the respect I deserved from the faculty and administration.
All but one teacher learned to fear me. She was a stubborn TFA corps. I had to break her.
“Do you need some copies?” I asked.
“But class is starting in five minutes.”
“That’s O.K. I made my six copies two days ago. That’s all they need since they work in groups. They share.”
“But do they work quietly?”
“No. They’re trying to take advantage of me. But the joke’s on them because they’re learning, and that’s the whole point of us being here. That’s what it means to be a TFA Corps.”
“Don’t tell me what it means to be a TFA corps. I was a 1991 corps.”
“You were? What’s happened to you? Let me help you. Come to an all corps meeting.”
“Try to change me, will you? I won’t go to your meeting. I know why you’re doing this, so you can get copies. Everyone is after my copies.”
“That’s not true. I want you to be the teacher you wanted to become four years ago. Kids are quiet for worksheets, but you have to force them to experience good teaching. They’d learn so much more. They’re just not used to it. What do you say?”
“Leave this room immediately. You may not need me and my goods right now, but soon you will. And when you do, you know where to find me.”
It’s too late to go back. I remember how idealistic I used to be, and how good it felt to harbor such optimistic dreams. But a powerless teacher is a pathetic concept, and as long as I teach, I must have strength. What would happen if I abandoned my friends in ‘The Plague’? I would never get a copy or a phone number again, and would quickly perish. I wish it didn’t happen this way but it had to and it did, and as long as I am a teacher, I must remain loyal to the people who got me through my difficulties. To ‘The Plague’ I pledge my eternal dedication.