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February 2019

When People Fake Their Credentials to Teach English, Life Gets Messy


            I still can’t figure out what the novel has done to deserve banishment from my school district. Maybe it overburdened the other English teachers with its depth and complexity, its characterizations and shifting perspectives. The flashbacks and foreshadows, the genres and vocabulary, the sometimes inverted syntax and literary expressions, certainly the bizarre themes, confusing allusions to other novels and essays, poems and events, the profundity of streams of consciousness, all of these excursions into intellectualism and philosophy tangle into a cavalcade of high expectations, and no one wants high expectations because that means you have to work extremely hard and maybe make a couple of mistakes.

            This isn’t to say that someone that studies psychology or sociology can’t teach English, but it certainly helps if you have a degree in the subject; and if you don’t, then you should be willing to spend the time in a program that can help you fill in the knowledge gaps. Just because you can speak English doesn’t mean you know the subject. While the name English suggests just teaching the language, nothing more could be further from the truth. In fact, English is not about simply teaching the language at all. It is, in fact, an entire subject in its own right. Students that college major in the field of English have a wide range of opportunities: law enforcement, analysts, attorneys, teachers, copy-editors, publishers, writers, and politics. Sadly, the teaching of English has taken a real hit in some states as alternative certification programs allow people with little or no subject area knowledge go ahead and take the super-easy, low-level, examination. This means that English departments can be filled with people who carry no real knowledge of the subject and zero understanding of why certain concepts must be taught in the classroom.

            But even worse, what if someone that has read the novels and experienced the joy of analytical writing and thinking is willing to deny this to students for years on end in order to sanctify some kind of hatred for the subject and the people that teach it? That person, no matter how pretty and articulate, accomplished and convincing, is a quack and should instantly be shown the door. Quackery, in the world of high-stakes standardized testing and accountability, is not something we can tolerate. Quackery in the age of disinformation, the age of  hate in collusion with tyranny, denies our students the weaponry needed for self-protection against racism, sexism, and gender bias. Standing at a podium reading from an African American text is nothing but tokenism, especially if you deny your students an opportunity to communally read and analyze the texts of our best: Maya Angelou, Nella Larson, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison, to name only a few. The refusal to bend and learn, the forays into low rigor little exercises with no meaning or illumination has resulted in students who, by the tenth-grade, have never read a novel from cover to cover. These students cannot cite from anything profound, unless it’s something they pulled from the middle of a text, or “God forbid” from some “out of context” excerpt. They are not "well-read," and they are not readers.

    So what now? We have a school system filled with students that have no one to show them the point of true literacy, but we keep teaching to the test. When we go to our meetings, we only look at test prep, even if looking at test prep at that time is a gross waste of time. We keep ordering independent reading books and giving them away to students that pull little quotes from them and write in little reading logs, but we can't be critics or experts on five-thousand different versions of the teenage vampire story, or five-thousand different versions of the teen romance. Meanwhile, we overlook the literature that does fit into the classroom, the literature that students must read and should remember and discuss when they go to college. Literature (not necessarily even canonized) provides background knowledge and a window into history and the human condition. The classroom novel is a rite of passage, a way to build a classroom community of writers and thinkers. We are denying this to our students because we have no one at the top to lead us into something better. We have someone at the top that thinks the word "novel" must be printed directly into the curriculum when there is nothing in the standards that can't be taught with a novel. The idea that I need to write this, that I need to fight this fight for my students is ridiculous and absurd. 





Narratives of Negativity: When they obscure the positive

It was the new millennium and my mother's fight with cancer channeled itself to its predictable, unfortunate ending. My child was not yet walking, but he sometimes pulled himself up on a plastic storage tub, yelling and screaming, beating his little fists on the lid for attention while I walked my mother back to the bathroom and then returned her to her comfortable place on the battered, sunroom couch. The routines of care-taking became meaningful, transcendental and comfortable. I had begun to imagine something spiritual beyond those precious days as they counted down to a death that would end a chapter in my hectic and frightening life. I sat in the entry hall in one of the cat-clawed wicker chairs and stared ahead thinking apprehensively about what would happen once my role as caretaker closed and the heavy front door opened into a new life without my mother.

My sister had cleaned out the safety deposit box, hoarding Mother's jewelry, and then hocking it off to some hick town jeweler so that she could pay my nephew's law school bills. Meanwhile, I was busy in my short jaunts away from the house visiting resale shops so I could buy back the family heirlooms that my drug-addicted brother had sold off to make his own ends meet. The "things" of my family's shared life meant much less than the stories that bound us together, the intriguing family legends about half-brothers in foreign countries and Dad's mysterious volunteer work with a bulldozer in some Amazonian rain forest. But some of our family stories were paired with painful realities and outrageous falsehoods, the narratives of selfishness and jealousy. 

One of the most damaging falsehoods concerned my brother, a man that returned from Vietnam with classic symptoms of PTSD. Post traumatic stress syndrome passes easily from one person to the next, and I, as a preteen, found an escape from my brother's rages and paranoia by walking to the library and spending the day under its modern air conditioning and quietly structured rows of books and magazines. The busy librarians ignored me, and I had the run of the place every summer day, poking in shelves, checking out books, thumbing through difficult academic journals, and listening to audiotapes. I was a late comer to the love of reading because I had been placed in the Follow-Through Program, a federal experiment on children from poverty. Once my mother realized I wasn't in a "regular" first grade class, she had me pulled from Follow-Through, and I was an entire semester behind my classmates.

My fascination with learning screeched to a stop when it came to math, but I struggled on with reading, even getting a black eye when my mother, overwhelmed from long hours at work and mental frustration, hit me in the face with a book. That night she came home with a wind up toy, a small furry dog that chased a ball on a string, around and around. Not long after, she came home with a real dog stuffed in the cavern of her huge purse, and I was besotted with love. Several years later, a speeding car struck my little dog because it had squeezed out under the fence to join me with my friends across the street. It died on the curb, and my mother held me as I sobbed.

Much has been said about my mother, and some of it is not that positive. But the narratives of negativity have no real basis in fact, and they are constructed from malice and a desire to control the family narrative. Without my mother's multiplication tables game, I would never have passed fourth grade math. Had she not taken down all of my childish wall hangings and put metal bookshelves in my room, if she hadn't signed me up for the book club, had she not filled those spaces with books and MAD magazines, word search puzzles, and Highlight Magazine, I wouldn't have a college degree of any kind. I remember complaining to my brother about one of my teachers, and his response was not what I expected. He typically took my side on things, and he tended to love me through his haze of anger and addiction. When he told me that my problem with my teacher was a problem with myself, I was shocked. He was right. It didn't really matter whether I "liked" my teacher or not--it only mattered that I learn everything I could from my teacher. His tough stance with me enabled me to open my mind to the ideas of other people. 

They both passed away within months of each other, but they left me with enough wisdom to move on and live a fascinating and fun-filled life. I feel sorry for the people that avoided my mother and my brother because of the negative narratives they had been subjected to. I also pity the source of these narratives because they are an example of how hate and narrow-mindedness constructs an alternate reality that is untrue and negative.