Does anyone remember Matt Groening's early books of comic strips Life is Hell, Love is Hell and Work is Hell? Well, he missed one: teaching. And trust me, it was.
I'm talking about almost every aspect of teaching: the pay, the administrators, the parents, the lunch. To work in a public school, a teacher must be "certified," which sounds like (and more truthfully should be defined as) "certifiable." Classes were sorted by "periods" as though segments of education were, in reality, a bloodless menarche signifying the end of all innocence. "Retention" signified a polluted pool of underachievers and "detention" was reminiscent of holding prisoners in custody.
In fact, if I had to personify the last 24 years of my teaching career, it would look just like that huge, screaming, monstrous baby in the animated film Spirited Away. Except for one thing: I've been away for a while, and in the first half of the 21st century, the kids seem to be turning out ... all right. At least at Lyman High School.
I was initially skeptical about the home of the Greyhounds, if for no other reason than it was named for a nearby dog track. Yet it did interest me that Seminole County parents from tony Sabal Point, Sweetwater and The Springs were beginning to (figuratively) take to the streets with torches at the very suggestion that their kids attend Lyman in the 2005-06 school year. Like many Southern counties, Seminole still operates under a 1970s desegregation order that is very effective in promoting parental involvement.
To be fair, there's really no comparison between parental concerns about neighborhood schools and property values, and the old-guard Confederate's concerns about state's rights and cotton plantations. Rezoning is more than just a 21st-century term for desegregation, which turns otherwise boring software salesmen and soccer moms into a bloodthirsty anthill of ticked-off taxpayers. And in Seminole County, rezoning also incorporates factors such as the new high school in Oviedo (named after an extremely dour former superintendent), and a Florida state constitutional amendment, passed by voters, setting limits for the maximum allowable number of students in a class by the start of the 2010-11 school year. After enacting Senate Bill 30A, the class-reduction amendment, Seminole County has no choice but to balance its enrollment.
Nevertheless, there are some public schools that anyone would absolutely balk at their child attending. Is Lyman one of them? Not according to the principal of Lyman High School, Sam Momary, who handles the touchy issue with wit, facts and social skills. Although Lyman is academically rated a "C" school, and offers free and reduced lunch to 37 percent of its 2,400 students (compared to percentages in the teens for the larger and nearby Lake Mary and Lake Brantley high schools), Momary says, "It's hard to say you're going to get an inferior education at Lyman when FCAT scores are above state averages, when the Advanced Placement program is rated in the top 3 percent in the nation, when the performing arts groups all receive recognition in competition and the athletic teams won state championship in four different sports."
In fact, Momary has done such a good job at Lyman that Seminole County Public Schools is entrusting him to open Hagerty High School in Oviedo, which is quite a big deal in education circles.
It is also true that the Florida Department of Education, when measuring Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) to meet the requirements of "No Child Left Behind" achievement grids for Lyman and Lake Mary high schools, show Lyman whipping "A" school Lake Mary's butt in improved reading percentages for black and Hispanic students during the 2002-03 school year. Lyman also showed a higher overall rate of improvement in graduating economically disadvantaged seniors. THE BELL RINGS
Such irony and potential class warfare sounded exciting, so I signed up to substitute-teach, which in Florida is not quite as simple as, say, comprehending the U.S. tax code. Although having an education is the least important aspect of this experience (and you only need a high school diploma to qualify), there is no end to the tests you must pass and the evidence you must provide.
There is a drug test and a fingerprint test; you must produce an actual social security card (not just the number), three letters of reference in unopened envelopes from previous employers, official educational transcripts (with the seal), any and all diplomas, a notarized loyalty oath and a completed application.
No teaching experience is required. I have plenty, but that was all the more reason to wonder why I would go back into the classroom. But I was sick and tired of columnists, psychologists and orthopedic surgeons telling me to slow down, to sniff the roses, to pet the dog. The way I look at it, I'll have plenty of time for that boring stuff when I'm old. Teaching school, in my experience, is a classic fight-or-flight situation. The very nature of constant exposure to adolescent angst spells drama, heightened adrenalin and acid reflux. So on April 7, when the phone rang at 5:45 a.m., I sprang into action by knocking a wineglass off the bedside table and butting heads with my husband. I grabbed the phone and said, "Ow," into the receiver. The voice on the other end was thick with sleep and didn't sound much better. "Elizabeth Randall?" "Yes," I said, already relieved that it wasn't a relative needing a blood transfusion, last rites or bail bond.
"This is (mumble) at Lyman High School. Can you substitute today?"
"What are the hours?"
"Seven o'clock until 1:30." It was a Wednesday. Students are released an hour early on Wednesday so teachers can attend workshops about gang graffiti. As a substitute, I would not have to go.
"I'll do it," I said.
When I got to the school, it was still dark outside. At the guidance desk, I interrupted a chubby girl filing, who directed me down a maze of halls to a tiny room to wait for the Business Department head.
Three old men were seated around a table apparently waiting for their teaching assignments. The clerk who'd led me to the room put a hand on my shoulder and said, "I feel guilty leaving you with these guys." I sat down at the table. The guy on my left said, "That's Phyllis' seat. You better get up." Twenty years ago I would have jumped to my feet. Instead I said, "What're your names?"
"These are the regular substitutes at Lyman High," the clerk said.
The guy on my left said, "And you really need to get up."
Fortunately for all of us, the department head showed up, stewarding me out of there and babbling about "alpha periods" and the number of another classroom I needed to sub for second period. I was still sleepy, but I didn't worry about my lack of comprehension. She was a teacher so I knew she'd repeat everything three or four times.
The business class I was "teaching" entailed web design and keyboarding skills. Class started at 7:14 a.m. and attendance was recorded on scan sheets. There was an electric pencil sharpener, white boards with dry-erase markers and a virtual flag displayed on a closed-circuit TV. The beginning of class was signaled by buzzers reminiscent of Pavlov and classical conditioning. The room itself had six long lab tables with approximately eight computers in each row. There were the usual posters from the teachers' store taped to concrete-block walls: Believe in Yourself and You Never Know What You Can Do Until You Try.
Students started filing in around 7:10 a.m. One kid saw me, made the power sign with his fist and said, "Yes." In the old days, I would assume this meant that he enjoyed torturing substitute teachers. When I was a kid, it was what I meant. But somehow his gesture lacked substance and there was no passion in his voice.
Here is what happened for the rest of the "alpha" period: Kids walked quietly into the classroom. They each got a textbook, Studio Max, from a bookshelf in the front of the room. Then they sat down in front of their computers and got to work designing their web pages. Anyone who doesn't think technology is a wonderful thing never taught a "mainstreamed" class (includes the kids on prescription drugs) in an "open pod" (a room without walls).
As a substitute, I was not fool enough to imagine that I had as much impact as a blinking neon sign, even one that advertises beer. Yet these sleep-deprived adolescents barely acknowledged my existence except for sliding a quick glance at me out of the corners of their eyes. "Hi," I said anyway. Most of them ignored me. I noticed the big-pants era for the boys was almost over. The last time I taught in a public classroom, I could tell you the brand name of underwear preferred by middle-school boys in America because the pants just got bigger and bigger and lower and lower until the kids were practically shuffling in with their waistbands around their knees.
There were, in fact, no hideously garbed rebels at Lyman High School. While there was one girl who clearly was obsessive-compulsive with the piercing needle, it looked as though the adolescent uniform was neat jeans or khakis, T-shirts and expensive athletic shoes, although one kid did wear an oversized set of Homer Simpson bedroom slippers. The jeans didn't look like any particular brand name, and they were boot-cut or narrowly flared bells. There were no elephant bells, embroidered jeans, or skin-tight, crotch-high, stone-washed, knee-ripped pants in sight. The T-shirts were not torn, frayed or tie-dyed, nor did they sport anything but the most benign of sentiments, such as: Good Morning Ã? Let the Stress Begin or Hug me or I'm Fine Thanks. How Are You?
One of the kids in class went to get copies of the Orlando Sentinel for "newspapers in education." The headline in the newspaper was "Iraqi Revolt Spreads." Lyman High School was the antithesis of Iraq. I remember taking roll in the old days as a substitute at Homestead High School: As I reeled off name after tongue-twisting name, students would offer helpful explanations about absences: "He's visiting his kid" or "She killed her brother." In the alpha class, three boys were named Jeffrey and two boys were named Christopher. Everyone was present except for one student named Precious, and at Lyman High that was definitely a girl. As it turned out, taking roll was the most exciting part of alpha period. The kids worked on their web pages, about which I knew nothing. They did not require any help, although I walked down the rows a few times and yawned at their computer screens.
Second period I had to find the government class I was to sub. The door was locked. I flagged down a few teachers who promised to call the office for a key. The kids lined up, without prompting, in the hall. "What do you do in Mr. B's class?" I asked.
"Mostly sleep," said one boy.
"Sleep a lot," said another boy. I remembered, almost wistfully, a faculty story about an inner-city class where the students threw the teacher's desk out of a second-floor window.
Ten uneventful minutes later Ã? no loud talking, no jostling, no sneaking off for a smoke or a toke Ã? some lower-level admin type showed up with a key. The kids, still slouched against the lockers, straightened up, walked quietly into the classroom and took their seats.
I gave the assignment and none of them needed any help. Like bank tellers, most of them got right to work. They had their pens and paper, and most of them had their books. Talking was minimal and easily curtailed. Unlike those Hollywood movies with Michelle Pfeiffer Ã? who I resemble if you look at me after six Jim Beams and squint real hard Ã? there were no heartwarming moments. In fact, there was no teaching beyond assigning and collecting work. There was no involvement except signing their passbooks so they could go to the bathroom or pick up their cap 'n' gown or whatever. Furthermore, they did those things and came back to class in a timely manner.
In my high school days, we never did what we were signed out to do. A pass to the bathroom meant we were going to sit on the sinks and smoke cigarettes. A pass to the library meant we were going to meet our boyfriends under the flagpole and make out. Lunch was an excuse to go off campus and smoke pot.
I looked up and saw a bunch of kids congregating near the door. Aha! Drugs, I reckoned. But I was wrong. The ROTC was selling homemade chocolate chip cookies. I bought some.
At the end of the government class, once their assignments were turned in, Brittney and Max congregated at my desk. I asked them what they planned to do when they graduated.
Brittney said, "I was going to SCC, but my mom wants me to go to this photography class in Daytona."
"I have a darkroom," Max said hopefully.
"My boyfriend is going to be a lawyer," Brittney said. "He's already had two years."
Carlos wanted to take a class to be a race-car driver. No one seemed interested in a college education except Tracy, who was going back to Venezuela to get it. "That's neat," I said. I said "neat" a lot.
By fourth period, the kids woke up. They all said "hi" back to me. Adam, a blond boy in a Gant-type shirt, said, "I'm so happy you're here. This is like a holiday. You've made my day." Ordinarily, I would assume that he was trouble, but these kids made me want to check under their desks for pods like the ones in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Almost every class at Lyman, including shop, started with 20 minutes of reading; hence the newspapers if they hadn't brought anything else. One kid fell asleep over Clan of the Cave Bear. Another kid was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
"That's a great book," I said, although, as I recalled, I never finished it.
"Yeah," he said. "My Dad gave it to me. He said he read it at my age."
"The author committed suicide, you know," I said. It was the only real information I'd conveyed all day. And it turned out to be wrong; Robert Pirsig is alive and well.
Adam asked me to put on some music. "No," I said, fearing lewd rapper-style lyrics in spite of all evidence to the contrary. My fears were groundless. The kids pulled out the CD binder stuffed with Disney Muzak, Vivaldi and elevator tunes. "I love Johnny Cash," Adam said with a straight face.
The seniors claimed they could leave early. I put in a call to the office and of course it was perfectly legitimate. They politely showed me their student ID cards and departed. Ten minutes later, I started off towards the lunchroom realizing I could find it without asking directions. I've spent my whole life going to school and teaching school, and the cafeteria is always located in the back of the school, where lunches are apparently recycled year after year, from the looks of them.
The halls of Lyman were lined with flags from foreign countries. Momary can rattle off the Lyman demographics at the drop of a hat: 12 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic, 1 percent "other." Yet the students walking by all seemed to look the same. In the lunchroom a clot of boys with high foreheads and Bernie Ebbers crewcuts ate their lunch together. Two pretty girls who weren't going to age well nibbled on pizza.
Fifth period, a senior named Josh taught class. As he took roll, a kid with a beard said, "It's Wacky Wednesday, man."
Josh replied coolly, "That's not what Ms. (Mumble) told me."
He wasn't kidding. The teacher from next door came over. "Class, you need to open up your mod books because we're going to skip reading today. It's a short day and Josh wants to go over some stuff for the tech-prep test."
There were no sardonic asides from the students. They sat there placidly as Josh put a transparency on the overhead projector. His lesson was about proofreading. The teacher kept butting in, which always happens when you have more than one teacher in the room. Everyone else was silent. My own recollection of student-teaching experiences were of unrestrained trauma, yet they were also chaotic.
The kids started typing and I walked around looking at their screens. So did Josh. Finally the buzzer signaled the end of the day. "Good job," I told Josh, salivating.
I ended the day, secure in the knowledge that substitute teaching is perhaps as exciting as watching my cat lick himself all day. HOMEWORK HAMSTERS
I have heard that each generation has its own set of characteristics. My own parents were patriotic, traditional and, according to my sights at the time, stuffed museum relics. My generation strummed dirty guitars, grew hair as though it were a viable profession and offered each other flowers with names like sinsemilla. Our kids, the X'ers, were like flappers, only we called them slackers. Then the wheel turned full circle, producing a generation of kids who are likable, conservative homework hamsters. Times change. This month the Seminole County rezoning plan gets fired up with input from parents, principals and district officials. When Momary transfers to Oviedo to open the new high school there next year, Frank Casillo, the assistant principal from Lake Mary High, will take over at Lyman.
If parents continue to resist moving their kids to the home of the Greyhounds, Lyman runs the risk of becoming an underenrolled, thus underfunded, school. That would be a shame, considering the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, together with Progress Energy, the Florida Solar Energy Center and Seminole County Schools, just installed a solar electric system at Lyman as part of a pre-engineering curriculum. The program is part of Florida's SunSmart Schools, which employs state funding and private partnerships for science education.
To be honest, I have some concerns about Lyman too, but they're more esoteric. It's unusual for young people to weather the tsunami of testosterone by studying hard, learning to protect the environment and being polite to their elders; perhaps a sign of the nicest, but nowhere near the tumultuous genius of a greatest generation. Like mine, for example.
On the other hand, I would feel fine about sending my own child to school there. The kids at Lyman are really all right. [email protected]