Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"I Don't Want to Wake up in the Morning"

I loved the librarian in South Gate. She was not too old to play "Mommy" to a lost first-year teacher like me, but she was not so young that she was as clueless as I was.

An English teacher who had worked in Irvine, she hailed from Sherman Oaks, yet she was willing to drive down the five to work in South Gate.

She was not like most librarians, whom many characterize as stuffy, old, rude, ready to snap at you for talking in the library or to snipe at you for taking your time checking out materials. She was willing to work with what she had, staff and students.

Let me clarify -- I was a teacher at this school, yet even then librarians can have a real nasty streak if left unhinged.

Ms. W. was nothing like that. She cared about other people, and she cared enough to offer me some of her time.

But she was a tired woman, it seemed. On some days, she had a wizened face. She looked as pale as some of the pages in the new books in the new library with the new kids. Of course, the new school was run according to the same principles of top-down waste and fraud which dominate in public schools throughout LA Unified.

She helped me with my French class. She helped many students. She also yelled a lot, especially when students would play music on the library computers instead of working on their projects for class.

Don't get me wrong -- she was a great lady, one of the few staff members whom I trusted enough to share complaints about staff and administration.

Once, I was contending with the secretary who ran the textbook room, a clerk who was a real jerk. She was "the ice queen" to many teachers who got tired of her peevish, unpleasant attitude. The librarian told me to talk to one of the administrators, yet even I did not have the courage to tell a supervisor how much I detested the personnel working in the main office or in the storage rooms. Apparently, the librarian felt the same way. She warned me not to confront anyone in the administrative office, since all of them were new and easy to intimidate.

Still, she was the type who would throw pizza parties for the best students in the school. When only three students had done all their homework one week, I sent them to the library to complete an extra credit activity, which the librarian willingly supervised. She helped me out that day in an unprecedented way.

Toward the end of the year, events were not just winding down, the wind in the librarian's formerly buoyant sails had given out. While I was working hard typing up another lesson for the next, Ms. L. was toiling behind the counter of the library front desk. She looked exhausted. I asked what she was doing.

She surprised me by telling me that she was training her replacement. She was not getting let go, for at the time the school districts were still getting enough money to get by. She had had enough.

"This administration is so. . ." she could not think of the mot juste, perhaps too colorful and controversial for the high school crowd, but I understood exactly where she was coming from.

"I get no support here." I heard that. The administrators at that school were incompetent and ineffective, since most of them this was their first year serving as supervisors. It was quite a shock how ineffective an inexperienced administrator could be.

"I thought about moving here, but the commute is just too much, and I don't want to wake up in the morning. . ."

That phrase I had heard only intermittently on sitcoms and dramas on TV. Not wanting to wake up in the morning did not sound like a reality to me, though at the time I did not realize that I had been so used to a grey existence that I did not even notice how "unawake" I had become.

She was willing to share something very painful, very trying. She told me that she was taking advantage of this chance to leave, because as any teacher, as any certificated personnel in a public school will tell you, a professional can only get credit for so many years of service before they start losing pay for moving from one district to another. Ms W. was getting while the getting was good.

I wish that I had paid more attention to what she had to say that day. I was in the throes of the same public school woes -- no support, no headway, no way to get my head in the door expect to "think of a happy place" most of the day while going through the motions in the classroom.

"I don't want to wake up in the morning." Looking back on those days, that was exactly how I felt, but since full-time teaching was the first full-time job that I had ever had, I did not know anything beyond taking care of myself, paying the bills, getting through doing this thing called "living" -- except that I was not living.

The next week, following a heated and horrifying set of parent conferences, the principal screamed at me up and down about "a line of parents" at his door. He was in over his head, to say the least -- and a year later he would be convicted of failing to report lewd acts perpetrated by one of the teachers against a minor. He had it coming, no doubt, yet at the time, sitting in the assistant principal's office that May afternoon, the principal asked me:

"Do you like waking up in the morning?" He asked this with a sense of stern sarcasm, yet inadvertently, he had diagnosed the problem which had been plaguing me, a malaise without a name, the same nameless infamy which had been afflicting the librarian, who liked working with kids, just not working at that school.

In those days, though, I had no knowledge about working or not working as something that I wanted to do. In my mind, in those day, work was all about just doing something, just getting a job done so that you could live on your own. Except that living on my own, as I understood it, I was not really living.

And no, I did not look forward to waking up in the morning, either.

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