“I am always saying "Glad to've met you" to somebody I'm not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.” -- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
When I became conscious again I had my hands around the woman’s neck. I was straddling her as she lied on the floor. I noted the fear in her face that seemed mixed with amazement and confusion. I slowly released my grip and rose. The woman half coughed and half gagged. I looked down at her with pity and disgust. Co-workers hustled me into another room.
I am an ESL teacher at a private language school in San Francisco. There I am well respected by my supervisors and fellow teachers and find popularity and appreciation among my students. I am known for my professionalism and reliability as well as for being courteous and charming.
The woman whose neck I had throttled was a representative of an accrediting agency which was making its quinquennial review of our school. A passing grade from this august body means the school remains in operation while a failing grade, well it’s best not to ponder such things.
In the weeks before the accreditors visited the entire staff of the school was working long days crossing t’s and dotting i’s making sure that the school would pass muster. Teachers bore less of a burden although we were prompted on what to say and what not to say if queried by the evaluators. We also had to provide intricate and detailed lesson plans for all of our classes for both of the days that evaluators would roam our halls. Indeed these lesson plans were supposed to cover each facet of our lesson, goals, purposes, length of time, connection to previous studies, methodologies, materials and procedure. It took us all several hours to get them just right. It was a bureaucratic mess for teachers of all stripes but particularly for one such as myself who sees teaching as an art form in which spontaneity plays an integral part. We were all dumbstruck to learn that, if asked, we were to claim that we prepared such meticulous plans for every lesson of every day. Madness. The lessons were given to the evaluators who, should they pop into our classroom, would expect to see exactly what was on the plan at precisely the prescribed time. Imagine teaching a class as if reading from a script, never deviating from a rigid formula and thus never accommodating a lesson to the needs of the class. A good class is not a straight path to be marched, but an exciting romp, with sudden twists and turns and stops and re-starts. But you’d actually have to teach to realize that.
We were also expected to have an “agenda” on our boards so that students could know exactly what to expect (as if telling them wouldn’t suffice). This is not unusual but it is silly. You may breeze through items #1 and #2 but spend a lot of time on #3 and have to drop #4. Agendas — or lesson plans — are made to be altered with specific points modified or dropped or added. Having an “agenda” listed can cause students to question why we didn’t do #3, will we ever get to 6 and what is this we're doing in lieu of #5? Still the agenda has been trendy in education for awhile so for the accreditors to assume one is not out of the ordinary. What is unusual in my experience (30 years) is to have said agenda items accompanied by “aims.” Logistically speaking, where’s the room? Now you’re taking up a lot of the white board which is space you’re likely to need when you are actually writing on it in furtherance of the lesson you’re teaching. You also like to have said board clear because it is where you project videos which are a staple of the ESL teaching experience. Now we are left with this question: why? What in god’s name would be the purpose of writing on the board the aim of a grammar exercise? Our students tend not to be low grade morons and understand that if we are doing a listening exercise it is so they can improve their listening skills. On the rare occasion when the purpose of a particular — let’s say, agenda item — is not intuitive, a competent teacher will explain the “aim.” Failing that, students will ask — as I encourage them to do — why the hell they are doing something. I, in turn, will answer. No mystery.
It was the second day of the accrediting agency’s visit. Tension had been high before their arrival and intensified while they scrutinized files, paperwork, meeting notes, budgets, calendar items and of course classroom activities. The younger teachers (that is to say everyone but me) were nervous. I was annoyed and disgusted. I don’t doubt the value of accreditors popping by, but the intensity and scrutiny of their visit was beyond the pale. The tension was palpable and it was noted by students.
On the second morning an evaluator came into my classroom. I have decades of experience with outsiders bearing clipboards in my classroom. I’ve learned not to alter what I am doing by one iota. Doing so is dishonest. If what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it is good enough for my students its too good for some pencil pusher.
This dowdy old broad with sagging wrinkles and glasses on chain sat in my room looking like a villain from a Dickens novel. Glumly she watched me, occasionally swerving her head to note the students. At the end of class she ponderously rose, straightened her ruffled dress and tried vainly to produce a smile. She looked right at me and said, “thank you,” as if I’d preformed some favor for her. I nodded and smiled.
Minutes later I left the room to enjoy my ten minute break. There she stood waiting for me. “I wonder if I might ask you a few questions?” she asked again failing to achieve the smile she so much wanted me to see. “Certainly,” I replied sounding far more amiable than I felt.
“I noticed that your activity there at the end was not in your lesson.”
Oh how I wanted to reply: "Yeah and what of it?" or "Nothing gets past you, does it, grandma?" or "That lesson plan was total bullshit, created to be an approximation of what I would be doing in class because we had to turn in something." But instead I answered, "today was one of those rare instances in which I finished everything on my agenda so I threw in something I hadn't had time for yesterday."
"I see. Did any part of your lesson relate to this week's unit in the text?"
"What the fuck unit in the text are we supposed to be on and why would I care?" I thought. But artfully lied, "oh yes, the vocabulary we did at the beginning and the grammar exercises too."
"One more thing. We're meeting with your staff after school to go over our observations and would very much like it if you, as one of the senior teachers, were there."
"Sorry but I left home at 6:45 this morning and if I leave immediately after my last class won't be home until 5:45. That's 11 hours and I'm loathe to lose anymore of my day."
"But it's really just an informal talk and there'll be treats and wine and you can share your thoughts."
"I'm an hourly employee, I put in a lot of extra and unpaid hours in preparation for your visit and feel that was enough of a sacrifice on my part."
Why didn't I lie, I thought? Say I had a funeral or wedding to go to or had to pick up little Viola from her dance class. No, stupid me had to go with the truth. What had I been thinking?
"Well this is rather disappointing. I should think you'd want to hear our feedback directly an offer your own thoughts."
"Well, certainly you can't be compelled to attend but..."
It was that "but" that did it. She wasn't through. The old biddy was going to continue trying to influence me to stay and there was no way in hell I was going to. Plus she was eating up more of my break time. I snapped. I remember that. The feeling that I couldn't take anymore. Not a bit of it. Thirty years of teaching sullied by 30 years of dealing with bureaucratic nonsense dished out by people who had never taught or hadn't in so long that they'd forgotten what it was like. Thirty years of playing by the rules and stupid rules at that. Thirty years of dealing with higher ups trying to squeeze every last bit of life out of me and make me into their own image: zombies with no humor, no spirit, no freedom of thought, no compassion. No. It was too much.
When I came to I smelled sulfur, cigar smoke and damp wood. I was shaking and weak and defeated. My hands, that just moments before had a strangle hold on some poor old woman, were trembling. I had been drained of all my anger and was left an empty vessel wanting only to sleep. I don't exactly remember what happened next. I know I was docile, quiet, head bowed, mind glazed over. My next awareness was here in a holding cell waiting for my family and my attorney. I suppose I'll be held for psychiatric evaluation. I may be put away for a time. Jail time seems unlikely. My future is murky but will likely not include teaching. Just as well, time for me to try my hand at something else. Hand at something else. How ironic considering what both my hands did to that poor old bag.
I feel bad for nearly choking that woman to death. It must have upset my coworkers. They'd believed in me, thought I was amazing. My students will miss me. They enjoyed me and my lessons so much, however unscripted. But now I'm just a bum. No better than a bum.
(In reality not only did I not strangle anyone, none of the evaluators said boo to me. The rest is as it happened.)