After my extremely challenging first year and very good second year of teaching, I decided to stay for a third year of teaching. Back then, I didn’t even know if that was ‘allowed’ but I wanted to. Just as it is today, this decision wasn’t received with any fanfare from TFA. I wrote the following essay which was printed in the TFA Two-Step, probably in May of 1993. There’s a reference to the fact that my first year students were born around 1980, which means that those ‘kids’ are 30 now, which means I’m probably too old to be writing a TFA blog. Here’s the essay …
If my first year of teaching were a boxing match, the ref would have stopped it. If it were a horse, they would have shot it. If it were an automobile, some used car dealership would have sold it to a naive young teacher.
Two years ago, the 1991 corps pioneered the Teach For America invasion of Houston Independent School District. TFA has grown tremendously since that initial year. They didn’t even have an office when we first arrived– only an answering machine with an encouraging message. “Thank you for calling TFA. Sorry we can’t take your call right now. If you are having trouble in the classroom, hang in there. You can do it”. In addition, there were several support directors. These dedicated individual’s jobs had life spans which ranged somewhere between that of the fruit fly and the length of my relationships. Today, Teach for America has a solid team of regional directors and support directors, along with an elaborate system of learning teams and corps buddies.
In 1991, I was having trouble with my sixth grade middle schoolers. By November, I had invented a coping strategy. To get through each week, I would constantly tell myself, “You’re quitting on Friday. This is your last week. You can make it through this last week”. Placed in my school was another TFA corps named Jon Fish. We became friends, and pushed each other through the weeks of the school year. When I’d begin to take my quitting self-deceptions seriously, I’d confer with him.
“I can’t take it any more, Jon. I’m leaving after this week.”
“If you quit now, do you know what you’ll be teaching your students?”
“I’ll be teaching them that if they get a good education, like I did, they won’t be forced to work a low paying job that makes them miserable. They can quit and get a better one.”
“No, you’ll be teaching them that when things get difficult, there is an easy way out. That quitting is a solution to a legitimate problem. You’ll be teaching them that they are worthless in your eyes. That they do not deserve your effort and your time. And besides, if you quit, you’ll leave me in this place alone. If not to your kids, you owe it to me.”
“O.K. I’ll stay until the end of the month.”
And through those daily pep talks, we made it through the first year. The next year, I was ‘excessed’ to a high school, where my second year was comparatively enjoyable. After much thought, I decided to return for a third year.
If, two years ago, I had known I’d continue after my commitment to TFA was completed, assuming I didn’t immediately attempt suicide by swallowing a bottle of manipulatives, I would have tried to evaluate my future self. “What a martyr,” I might have thought, “willing to endure a third year of torture so he can help more kids.” Or, more likely, “What a loser.”
My first hypothesis would be wrong. I am not a martyr because, for me, teaching is not torture. I like it. As for my second indictment, I’d be right. I probably am a loser, but that has nothing to do with my decision to remain a teacher. There is a better reason why I elected to extend my contract with HISD. My reason is both powerful and personal.
The reason I have returned is, in a word, ‘revenge’. As much as I try, I can’t forget my traumatic first year experience. At that middle school, I lost my pride and my confidence. Most significantly, those twelve year olds tarnished the honor of the Rubinstein family name. I left that school in shame, and unless I do something to earn back the prestige of my ancestors, the name ‘Rubinstein’ will always be associated with weakness and ridicule to that group of one hundred fifty kids. I know that I was ‘excessed’, but those kids think they ran me off. Rubinsteins are a proud group of people. A Rubinstein never retreats. I shall never be content as long as my family honor can be the punch line to some adolescent joke.
After completing my more successful second year, I realized something: The sixth graders that I taught the year before were becoming eighth graders, and in another year, they would be in the ninth grade. Without a third year, I could not have a fourth year, and without a fourth year, I could never get even with those sixth graders. Another battle– face to face with a stronger, more competent, Mr. Rubinstein. My third year is merely training for this upcoming rematch. Wait until I have them again. I will torture them with teaching. They will be forced to learn constantly. My lessons will be interesting and relevant. Their work will be graded consistently and thoroughly. The material will be presented relentlessly, yet clearly so they can not escape with the excuse that they don’t understand. I will abstain from sleeping nights and going out on weekends if that time can be used more suitably in planning more effective lessons. And if they refuse, I will make them work with my secret weapons, two years in the making. I’ll use ‘the look’ or I’ll pretend I’m writing things about them on my clipboard. In short, I’ll show no mercy.
But can I be sure that I’ll have those same kids? It doesn’t matter if they’re not the same, because mine is not the only name I am avenging. Even if it wasn’t me they tortured when they were in sixth grade, it was probably some other TFA 1991 corps member. And finally, pay back time is arriving. But what about the kids that didn’t have a 1991 corps member when they were in sixth grade? I don’t care. They surely tortured someone. So here’s to you, you unnamed teacher. My next year is dedicated to your honor as well. This vendetta is targeted at every human being born between the years of 1978 and 1980. Next year you will be mine, and finally I can restore to the Rubinstein family name the pride it deserves, and to shed the shame which I once inflicted upon it by my lack of competence. Come on. Try and get me. Ding Ding.