11 October 2015

The Middle School Math Teacher -- A Day in the Life

Ernest Birnbaum looked over the heads of his 8th grade math class to the very back of the room. There was a poster there that said: "If You Miss School You Miss Out." It featured happy, smiling, sparkling clean students. What a loud of crap, he thought. Nothing in particular was “crap” about the poster to Birnbaum, just the whole thing, the whole damn thing. He only had the poster up to fill space, it had been one of the posters the school made available to teachers just before Fall classes started back in August and he’d thought at the time: what the hell, I gotta put something back there. Most of the rest of the classroom walls were covered with Math related pictures or posters like the times tables and of course with student work. That killed him. The administration wanted student work on the walls. They wanted it changed every few weeks and they wanted work from a broad cross section of the students. It was supposed to help student self esteem to see their work on the wall. Hell, barely a handful of his students ever looked at the goddamned walls. Plus it was a helluva strain to find adequate enough work to put up from a lot of these losers. But you can’t fight city hall, Birnbaum thought, or school administrations. He knew they could make a teacher’s life hell if he didn’t play ball. Seen it happen too. Constant evaluations, bad letters in their personnel file, forced onto committees. It was better to go along with some of the silly shit they asked teachers to do. Like putting student work on walls.

Right now the students in his fourth period class were taking a test. A lot of pencils doing a lot of scratching but also a lot of students staring sadly at their papers with no clue what to do. It was October and so Birnbaum, like a lot of teachers, had already figured out who his A and F students were. The truth was that most of his students were in either extreme. Actually it only took a couple of weeks -- if that -- to know who would excel and would flounder. Birmbaum wondered what the point was of putting in all this effort when it was already written in stone which kids would be going on to college and successful careers and which were headed toward drugs, or prison or menial work or a violent death. How many students in this damn school were ever "saved" from an unhappy fate? Damn few.

Birmbaum stifled a yawn. Was there ever a point in my life when everything was perfect? It was a question that had been perplexing Birnbaum lately. He wasn’t as healthy as he was when he started teaching 21 years ago, not by a long shot. There was the the expanding belly for one thing. The doctor had been telling him to lose weight for years now but Birnbaum could never find the time or the motivation or the energy. Plus he was not about to give up his morning sweet or his post lunch  dessert. Plus it wasn't like Lena — that was his wife — was slim and trim anymore. They’d had their kids (two of them, Chuck and Diane, 20 and 18 respectively) and the days of regular sex were well in the past. Hell he and the wife were lucky to have a roll in the hay three or four times a year. So anyway Birnbaum knew he was no athlete anymore (two years of variety wrestling and a year of track in high school) but he was wiser. So there was that. Him and Lena were getting along just fine, the days of squabbles over money were long past and they’d settled into a comfortable routine. But now that home life was good and the finances were in order and the kids were in college, he was liking work less and less. Or put another way, disliking it more and more. Birnbaum literally shook his head at the thought that he had another three, maybe four, maybe even five years, before he could comfortably retire. It was at the point that he noted Shaneequah dozing at her desk. That would not do, not a bit.

Birnbaum first tried looming above her and clearing his throat. But she was out like a mackerel. Putting his hand on her shoulder and giving it a shake was out of the question. Not after the hassle Simpkins had gone through last year for touching a student in just such a manner. So Birnbaum addressed the girl: “Shaneequah, you will have to wake up,” he said firmly.” Where oh where did parents come up with these names? Birnbaum sometimes had trouble pronouncing them and spelling them could be an adventure too. Of course it was mostly African American students who were given the strange monikers. This was not something Birnbaum would openly discuss. He never spoke of racial issues — at all — and when they came up during staff meetings or teacher workshops he kept his trap shut. Birnbaum had his opinions about Black students and he kept them very tightly stored and sealed and locked and they were so inaccessible he barely knew them himself.

Eventally Shaneequah stirred and rubbed her eyes and held her pencil. But before returning to whatever she could do of her quiz she looked up at the still present Birnbaum and said “whatchyou want?” in a most unpleasant voice. Birnbaum knew to avoid a row with angry African American students whenever possible so he merely resumed his position at the front of the room.

The truth of the matter was that Birnbaum didn’t much care for about 90% of his students. Since his own kids had passed middle school age he’d become less tolerant of immature behavior which was pretty much all you ever got out of a middle schooler. Sure, some were wise beyond their years but most of those were in Advanced Algebra and that punk Blasingame was teaching that class. It chapped Birnbaum’s hide that they gave that plum assignment to some fresh faced kid just out of college — probably because he had an M.A. Birmbaum had asked to teach the advanced kids but he might as well have asked a super model on a date. The administration played favorites and Birmbaum was not a favorite.

Birnbaum thought about moving up to the high school but he knew teaching math there was far more demanding and he didn’t know the territory like he did here at Nellie Bly Middle. For all its faults — and there were many — Bly had been his professional home for over two decades. He’d been through four principals and seven vice principals and seen dozens of teachers come and go. All the while Birnbaum had been showing up rain or shine almost never taking a sick day. He always eked by on his bi-yearly evaluations. Forever satisfactory always improvements suggested. Birnbaum knew better than anyone that he was the least spectacular and dullest teacher in the school but he’d avoided any disciplinary actions, stayed out of union squabbles and had never been subject to any serious charges. Keeping a low profile was the ticket to survival, he always said.

Ten minutes left. Thank god this test was going to chew up all the class time. Birmbaum had planned an activity for after the test but clearly not enough students would be finished so he could use that activity tomorrow and that meant he had less planning to do during his prep period. He'd be able to get half his grading done before the end of the school day and by sticking around an hour or so would be completely finished before heading home. A blessed night without a second of work to do. Birmbaum smiled at the thought. Then: "Ewww, Mr. Birmbaum, Lester farted!" exclaimed Tyrone Davis." That's all it took for all hell to break loose. Lester shouted his innocence while other students laughed or expressed their disgust and a few others shouted for quiet.

Just what I didn't need, Birmbaum thought. Can an entire class period never go smoothly? He ordered silence using his deep, loud authority voice. There were scatted giggles and mutterings but the cacophony died down and students were back to work. By rights Birmbaum should issue Tyrone a detention but under the new administration teachers had to hold their own detentions and make parent contact. Tyrone's outburst simply wasn't worth the trouble. Besides, he'd called Tyrone's parents once before and all his mother did was curse and say she'd "whoop his ass."

Two minutes before the bell, Birmbaum gave final instructions about putting the test in the period four basket and checking the homework on the board and straightening desks and policing their area. It was pretty much the same thing he said at the end of every class, every day of every school year. He knew it by heart and bellowed it automatically. Still many students failed to turn their work in or put it in the wrong place and many "forgot" to write down the homework and desks were left askew with litter all over the floor. It was all very frustrating, so Birmbaum tried not to think about it. There was a lot that Birmbaum tried very hard not to think about. Mostly he was successful. Contentment was all Birmbaum wanted out of life and avoiding thinking about certain things was -- to his way of thinking -- a sure path to contentment.

At lunch time Birmbaum sat alone at his desk. Other teachers congregated in the teacher's lounge or left their door open and allowed students to "hang out" together in their rooms. No way did Birmbaum want to chat with other teachers. It was usually people either exchanging trivialities about their lives or bitching about students. Birmbaum tried his hardest not to think about errant students during his lunch break so listening to others complain was out. As for letting students in his room well he saw enough of them during class time and couldn't imagine spending a second more than he was required to in the presence of the little bastards.

Today it was a baloney sandwich, carrots, chips, some leftover chicken and an apple. All followed by a hostess ding dong. Birmbaum scanned the newspaper while he ate and when he finished the last crumb of the ding dong, he took on the jumble and the sudoku.

The rest of Birnbaum's day pretty much went to form. No major incidents. No administrators busting his chops. No phone messages from parents. He wrapped up the work day perfunctorily grading all the tests he'd assigned that day. All these years as a teacher had made him a master at quickly and efficiently grading a stack of papers. Nothing to it. An hour and a half after the last student left, his workday was done and he could squeeze into his Toyota Camry and head home. Some days, like this one, the job seemed easy peasy. The math teacher would drive the 30 minutes to his house, greet his wife, chat for a few minutes, then turn on the TV and relax with a beer. Not bad.

Birmbaum dozed off in front of Judge Judy, a show he both hated and watched compulsively. Lena was making a casserole. Their dog Max was scratching at the kitchen door. The phone was ringing. The UPS man was at the door. It started to rain. Birmbaum woke up with a start confused about what time it was, what day it was, where he was. Lena asked him to get the door. On the way he grabbed Max who had started barking. The UPS man needed a signature. The rain was starting to get heavy. Lena dropped a pan and cursed. Birmbaum switched the TV to the news. He reached for his beer can but knocked it over spilling beer on the carpet. Now he cursed. It was 6:47 PM and Bimbaum was feeling stressed. He wished he were teaching.

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