From the Far Margins 


In one-room school houses and giant high schools, in college classrooms and university labs, the people who teach America's next generation have begun the school year and are into their second week of imparting wisdom to those who may inherit the earth.

Teachers—the people deciding whether to pass around a Maya Angelou poem or pull out a worksheet on adjectives—are going to work this week after long summers of second and third jobs that help their own families afford college or make the mortgage payments, not to mention those essential yet futile minimum payments on the student loans they took out decades ago.

Today, 12-year-old Sierra is showing up at school after sleeping in a van by the park, watching her dad shoot heroin while her mom is on the corner with a cardboard sign asking for money. Today, 6-year old Rosia will be called an alien by her classmates and a boy will tell her the new president will take her parents away. Today, 9-year-old Christopher will be beaten behind the temporary classrooms at the edge of the playground for wearing a pink bracelet he found on his way to school. He will tell no one, fearing his dad will use "the belt" on him if he finds out. At recess, 17-year-old Neema will carefully arrange to sit in her art classroom at lunch so the group of girls in first period who stared at her in her Hijab and whispered about her being a terrorist won't find her. She'll remember that it began that way in her country before the war, with people calling each other evil until the killing began. She doesn't sleep most nights. She will miss first period tomorrow to avoid the girls and sit in the back of all her classes so no one can look at her.

In spare numbers among these children are teachers—humans whose classrooms see more than 160 students in a day. It is not a guarantee that they or anyone will notice. Lunch times and the hours after school are taken up with correcting and grading the collective academic work of 160 students, filling in for the support staff lost in the budget crisis; managing computer interfaces; learning software; reporting test scores and attendance; and even monitoring online classes.

Maybe you've never sat in the velvet and marble room where the state budget is voted on; where competing motions are voted up or down and millions of dollars materialize and vanish depending on which faction of which political party presents them. I have. I've made motions and sat there through the inevitable 4-16 vote that turned them and the teachers, counselors and reading programs they represent into dust.

For the four years I served on the Senate Education Committee I watched lobbyists for the education technology industry slowly siphon 10s of millions of dollars from our budgets. Free public education is justly the most major public service the state provides its citizens. As such, it's long made up half the state's annual budget. That much money draws industries with an eye for public dollars they can turn into profits.

For-profit education technology companies have proliferated. They pay skilled lobbyists in podunk statehouses to sell lawmakers the latest and greatest in math instruction, course content, simulated labs; student and parent online interfaces; grade, attendance and test score tracking; teacher performance monitoring; and more. All the school has given up are a few aides, their counselors, nurses, social workers, maybe a reading specialist and a teacher or two.

We struggle not to be a nation that produces so many mass murderers and homeless youth so full of pain, loneliness or self loathing that they become addicts or statistics in our unconscionably high incarceration rate. And, yes, perhaps parents are struggling with parenting. Perhaps the problem is compounded by our nation's practice of paying working adults an hourly wage that equates to the price of a sandwich.

Parents aren't home because they work multiple jobs just to earn a fraction of what their own parents earned in the day when companies were local and felt responsible for the well-being of the families they employed. We forget that, once, unions bargained for wages, salaries, pensions, health plans and working conditions—in all kinds of industries, including education, where they had more leverage to help teachers.

Today across Idaho, more than 30 teenagers at a time show up in rooms with a single adult at the helm. One person to manage 30 sets of traumas and tragedies—one person to sympathize and remind a child they were not the culminating factor during the divorce. One human to know which of the 30 have been cutting themselves, drinking, sending naked texts, getting pregnant, being molested by their stepfathers or selling pot.

One person is there for those hours every day to make sure no one dies or that one child's crisis does not become a universal tragedy when a gun or a knife or explosive or poison is brought to class. One person stands at the front of the classroom, helps kids bond, nurtures their self esteem and their humanity so that they cry with each other and do not utterly despair while the world around them empties and burns.

Nicole LeFavour is a longtime educator and activist, and served in both the Idaho House of Representatives and Idaho State Senate.

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