The room is small and bleak. It reminds me of the examination rooms in Soviet clinics. I disrobe and immerse myself into a worn-out, blue gown that is too loose and reveals too much, even as I pull at the strings and tie three knots.
My lawyer is reading The New Yorker in the waiting room. We have only just met, our rendezvous arranged by the United Federation of Teachers. He is here to defend my right to continue teaching. The career, which has only just begun and is no doubt my calling, threatens to slip away. Now, I am at the mercy of this bearded New Yorker in khaki pants and black rimmed spectacles, who is in the business of saving teachers’ lives. But the principal tips the balance.
The doctor, a slim woman with braided hair and tired eyes, enters the room after a knock not meant to be answered. She was brisk when she had handed me the gown and told me she would return in a few minutes. She walks to her crowded desk without looking at me, picks up the chart, reads the first page, then the second, then reads them both again.
I don’t understand, she says, and looks up at me from the clipboard.
Neither do I, I say, and hope she will not see my response as impudence.
Have you ever had a tumor? she asks.
No, I say.
The letter says you told the principal that you had a brain tumor, which has now traveled down to your uterus.
I have never had a tumor in either organ, and although I am an English teacher, I am pretty certain that a tumor can’t travel that far, I say.
I don’t understand, she says again. Then, she puts the clipboard on her desk and asks me to stand on the scale.
She records my height and weight, my blood pressure and temperature. She examines my throat, my ears and eyes, asks me to lie down, and presses her fingers into my pelvis. She listens to my heart and breath, then says, you may get dressed, and pulls the curtain.
When I emerge at her desk from behind the curtain, she tells me that I seem healthy. I ask if there is a paper for me to take to the school, and she explains that her report will be sent to the Superintendent’s office with a copy to the principal.
As I turn the knob, she says, Ms. Dilakian, I would be careful, if I were you. I wait. He’s after you, and he managed to get the Superintendent to order a medical examination to assess your mental fitness to teach. The order is based on a letter that makes no sense. He must have a lot of clout.
I thank her for her report, assuming it will state that I am mentally fit to educate young people. The lawyer closes the magazine as I walk into the waiting room. He asks if I would like a cup of coffee, but I thank him and decline, explaining that I should take the train to the Bronx to teach at least a couple of classes. But you are excused for the day, he says, and I tell him that my students are working on a project that will not be completed properly, even if there is a substitute who can manage to rein them in.
Two weeks before, my students and I had organized the first school-wide community service project. We made flyers and posters urging all students, teachers and staff to join our effort.Today for me, tomorrow for you, a flyer says. Help your brothers and sisters. Give dem someting to say thank you on dis holiday, a poster says in bright red block letters over an empty platter where a turkey should be.
One morning, music plays in the classroom, while students are busy thinking of catchy slogans and pleas for help, writing in block and cursive letters, in English and in their many languages, debating most effective words, images and layouts for their flyers and posters. Every student in the room—even Sofia, who would rather look at herself in the mirror, and Juan, who comes to school to roam the hallways or sleep with his head on the desk—is engaged in some part of this volunteer recruitment effort. Students are laughing at each other’s quirky ideas and drawings of Thanksgiving turkeys.
Sam breaks into a moonwalk around the room and back to his desk, as Michael Jackson tells us we should start with the man in the mirror. Karen says,look, Ms! You like? I do it by myself. Dan asks, Ms, how you spell donation? D-i-c-t… He frowns as he writes the letters. Sally gently taps him on the head and says, yo, she be spellin’ dictionary!
Suddenly, the door swings open and the principal and one of his assistants walk in carrying clipboards. They do not acknowledge me in any way. The principal walks to the back of the room, and the assistant principal stands at the blackboard and begins to write frantically on the notepad clipped to the board. The principal is frowning, but his assistant is smiling and tapping her foot to MJ. The students do not notice the invaders, and continue with their work and chatter. As suddenly as they had walked in, they walk back to the door after a few minutes.
As they are leaving, the principal says, Ms. Dilakian, we need to speak with you during your prep. I tell him my prep was in the morning. He says, then lunch, in my office, and walks out. The door slams shut behind him. I wonder what it could all be about, but have no time to muse about the looming meeting with this and that student holding up a flyer, asking for more glue, and telling me their mother will send in all the clothes the baby has grown out of.
During lunch, I head upstairs to the principal’s office. He is waiting for me, and as soon as I enter the room, he motions to the seat across from him, picks up the phone, and tells his assistant that we are ready for the meeting. He is smirking, as always, as though he has caught me red-handed, as he had suspected he would, and is now eager to put me on trial.
The assistant principal, Ms. Taylor, walks in carrying the clipboard and two heavy books. She smiles and says, hi Ms. Dilakian, I like your sweater. I thank her, return her smile, and brace myself for what is coming, although I have not the slightest idea what I might have done.
The principal says, Ms. Dilakian, we are concerned about what is happening in your classroom.I say nothing, but I must have a grimace on my face because Ms. Taylor leans over, puts her hand on my arm and says, don’t worry, Ms. Dilakian, it’s not a big deal. The principal doesn’t seem to agree.
You are not teaching the curriculum, he says.
But there is no curriculum! I protest. When I was hired, I asked what I should teach, or if there was a curriculum map to follow. I was told I was free to create my own curriculum.
Okay, but your job is to teach English. What was happening in you room today had nothing to do with English.
I look at Ms. Taylor, hoping she will help me explain to this man who has never taught a day in his life that my lesson was creative and engaging, and that of course, it was teaching the students English, among various other skills. But she says nothing, and looks down at the clipboard atop the two thick books.
Dr. Morel, I say, indignant despite my best efforts, let me explain what you saw today.
I know what I saw. You don’t need to explain, he says, and leans back so the buttons on his salmon shirt are about to come undone.
No, I do. My students read…
They’re not your students, Ms. Dilakian. They are our students.
Our students read several articles about hunger and poverty, particularly in the South Bronx. They learned to read for information, make inferences, draw conclusions, and read graphs and charts. They learned to question, analyze, and critique. We listened to Michael Jackson and they took notes. Then we studied the lyrics as poetry. This helped them practice listening and note-taking skills, and inspired them to write their best essays yet. They made recommendations for how poverty can be addressed, both by government agencies and by individuals. Then, we learned about civic advocacy and effective campaign strategies. Students made connections between English and Social Studies, synthesizing what they are learning in both classes. What you saw this morning was the culminations of this small unit, in which students are creating their own campaign to do their share of addressing poverty in their community. Dr. Morel, our studentsare learning English, and they are learning citizenship. And when you came into my classroom today, every child was actively engaged.
Are you finished now? he asked, still smirking.Your job is to prepare these students for the Regents exams, and for college, he says, hands in pockets, chair tilted back. Ms. Taylor has been taking notes since we began speaking.
Dr. Morel! That is exactly what I am doing! I hear myself shouting now, and my body is as loud as my voice. I yell out each word, puncturing the air with my finger. Interpreting charts and graphs! Figurative language! Note-taking! Reading and listening for information! Analyzing author’s purpose! Writing in response to reading!
Ms. Dilakian, you could lose your job for speaking to me like this, he says. You are a first-year teacher with no tenure.
Ms. Taylor puts down her pen and says, Ms. Dilakian, there is no need to get so upset. You are a new teacher and we are trying to guide you. Here are two textbooks we would like you to use from now on.
She gently pushes the books toward me. I open one and flip through the pages. It is filled with short passages and multiple-choice questions, graphs and fill-in-the-blanks sentences. The second book disappoints me just as deeply.
This is what you want me to teach? Instead of what I am doing now? Really? I say, not hiding the mockery.
Do you have a problem, Ms. Dilakian? The principal asks, because if you do, we could put a letter about insubordination in your file.
Go ahead, I say, write a letter. I will file a grievance and prove that I was serving my students’ needs.
Ms. Taylor tries to rescue me again, and says,Ms. Dilakian, Jorge already delivered the books to your classroom. You will begin teaching this curriculum tomorrow.
But this is not a curriculum! I shout, then plead, come on, Ms. Taylor! Help me explain this to him. You love my classroom. Just the other day you said you always enjoyed being in my room, and that you loved how engaged the students were.
Calm down, Ms. Dilakian, she shouts at me. You are not acting properly.
I pick up the books, push the chair in so it bangs against the table, walk to the door, then turn and tell them, I can’t believe you are doing this to the kids. Then, I slam the door and walk back down the stairs to my classroom, where two carts stacked with blue textbooks filled with nothing to learn indeed await me.
The next day, I continue with my project. When the posters are ready and plastered along the hallway walls, the principal calls me into his office to warn me that there is a potential security threat in this project. I frown and say that I am confused about how a clothing and food drive for the needy might pose a threat to our students. The principal smirks, as if to say I don’t know a thing about teaching, and reminds me that I am asking students to bring in canned foods. I frown again, then shrug my shoulders, and say, yes, but how is this a threat?
Ms. Dilakian, do you know how dangerous it would be if a student threw a can at another student? A can is a weapon. It can hurt someone as much as a knife.
By the end of this conversation, which is far longer than it deserves to be, I have explained that students who choose to participate will be doing so with the noblest and kindest intentions, and promise that there will be no can violence. He shakes his head, smiles, and says, go ahead. But if anyone gets hurt, I will consider it your responsibility. I agree to the potential verdict, seeing no way to convince him that his concern is futile.
Before I leave, he says, I am putting a letter in your file because you did not follow our request to begin teaching from the books.
That’s fine. I will attach a letter to your letter, saying that the administration never gave me a curriculum map, a sample lesson, or even a week to create lesson plans from required textbooks. I smile and leave his office. On the way back to my classroom, I realize that I am shaking.
The next day, I arrive to find that all posters and flyers have been removed from hallway and classroom walls. When I enter my own classroom, I find the paper recycling bin filled to the rim with my students’ work. I take out each poster and flyer, and uncrumple each salvageable one.
When students begin to file in, almost every one carries in a bag filled with food and clothes. Since we can no longer use our class time for this campaign, students come into my classroom in throngs during lunchtime and after school to sort and pack the clothes, boxes, and cans, none of which have been used as weapons. We have eighteen boxes of donations by the end of the week.
Even though he had approved my request for a field trip to a neighborhood church, the principal now tells me I do not have his permission to take the students out of the school for a day of community service because this has nothing to do with the curriculum and teaching them English. I beg Ms. Taylor to help me change his mind. She says it’s too bad, but she can’t do anything about it. Morel smirks when he overhears our conversation.
I tell my students about the principal’s decision. Entirely unprompted, they come to school the next day with dozens of letters addressed to the principal. What is wrong with you? one asks. I no understand why you no let us do this, another writes. We are trying to do something good and you stopping us that don’t make no sense. Dr. Morel, please let us help the poor. They choose a student to deliver the letters to the principal. She returns with a smile on her face.
We take a field trip to a local church and spend the day working in the food pantry, the garden, and the after-school classrooms and library. Over the weekend, my students write reflections about the community service experience. This was the best day I never had! I don’t know you can have so good time helping other people. I am going to help poor people in my country. Ms. Dilakian, can we do this again?
The following week, I take off the morning to travel down to north Brooklyn. I am at 65 Court Street, a tall building that houses the bureaucratic headquarters of the Department of Education. Among them is the Medical Examiner’s Office, which I had not known existed until the payroll secretary had called me into an empty classroom a few days before, and asked me to sign a copy of the Superintendent’s order for an examination of my mental fitness to teach.
On the way out of the building, the UFT lawyer tells me not to worry about this case, but as we are about to part, he says, be very careful with this man. He can end your career with a snap of his fingers. He almost just did. It didn’t work this time, but it might the second or third time he tries. Just be careful.