In the movie “Heartbreak Ridge,” Clint Eastwood’s character Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway urged his Marines to adapt, improvise, and overcome. That’s been my mantra since the beginning of the school year.
In our inner-city school, things are not so bad as they are in many places, but it still takes forever to negotiate the hurdles to getting the simplest things done. I’m old enough to remember the days of the Cold War, back when Soviets lined up for hours to get bread and other necessities. The Bolsheviks’ bureaucracy tied up every process with layers of paperwork and administrative stalling to the point that people resorted to near-criminality just to work around an unworkable system.
Now, don’t imagine that my colleagues and I resort to illegality to get the job done. However, it does take a surprising amount of ingenuity to keep thing rolling along. Before the achievement gap can be engaged, we have to arm ourselves with photocopies, scrounge for paper, wait weeks for copier toner, not to mention having intermittent electricity, air conditioning, or lacking things like bells that actually ring to signal the end of class.
I was issued a nice, brand-new Dell laptop by the school district at orientation. I’m grateful for it–but I’m not typing this on it. You see, it doesn’t have any software. It just has an operating system. Since I first received it in July, I’ve been trying to contact the Help Desk to get them to install it. They don’t answer the phone–ever. I did get another IT person from another department to put in a work request ticket for me, but that was three weeks ago and they still haven’t called. It hasn’t been critical because, until last week, there was no Internet service in my classroom. Then, when the wireless came to life one day, it only showed two “bars” worth of reception. About ten days later, one of the network guys popped in to do something else and I asked him about it. He discovered that they connected the antenna to the wrong port on the wireless access point. He fixed mine, which was great–I really appreciate that–but he didn’t do anything for the other teachers in our row of portables that have the same issue. Lord only knows when he’ll be back to take care of it. Before joining Teach For America, I worked for 15 years in the IT business. I find this lack of support really frustrating. None of the companies I ever worked for would tolerate such a lack of support.
I had my first evaluation by the administration last week. Everything went OK, but that was no thanks to the copiers. None of the copiers in the school were working that day. One had no toner–it had been out for weeks. Another wouldn’t let anyone log into it. Another one was in a locked room inside the library and nobody had a key to the room.
During the first part of the year, it wasn’t until the day school started that we were able to locate the textbooks for my class. A few days later, I discovered that the textbooks weren’t the right ones. There were supposed to be three different levels of books, but we only have one. It really doesn’t matter, because most of my students are three to four years behind in reading level. The sixth-grade book will still seem advanced for the 8th graders.
The school is a construction site. The whole first floor has been gutted except for the office area. Today one of the contractors cut the main power line to the building. Fortunately, it’s not over 100 degrees like it was at the start of the school year! The lack of power did disable the bell system, so we had to watch the clock carefully for the change of classes.
Ninety-eight percent of my students are Hispanic. I can’t help but think that, if this was a school in a predominantly white neighborhood, the parents would be ready to burn effigies on the front steps. Nevertheless, the students, the faculty, and the administration keep plugging on. They’re real troopers. They do Gunny Highway proud, improvising, adapting, and overcoming every single day.
In the end, I realize this is what I signed on for. The achievement gap doesn’t come with glistening, polished hallways, freshly painted walls and lockers, smart boards in every classroom, and on-demand Internet access. The achievement gap happens in part because wealth is inequitably distributed in this country and the people who hold the reins of power are loath to release their grip on their little fiefdoms.
Every day, I say a prayer for my kids and my colleagues. A Master Creator is a Master Improviser as well. May this Higher Power inspire us with the genius and creativity we need to keep moving forward.