Fifth Slice: Guilt

Today’s prompt asked about the places we write.  I thought I would write about the dining room table at which I am writing right now.  At this table, my junior year of high school, I spent my spring break, clawing my way back to passing grades after a long illness.  At this table, I typed, on an IBM Selectric, my college applications.  At this table, at the end of my senior year, after I got sick again,  I met with homebound tutors and was thus able to graduate high school on time.

The table only recently came to me and my husband.  One of the leaves is badly sun-bleached, a leg is cracked, and there are many nicks and scratches that weren’t there when it left my childhood home.  The story of the table has some sad chapters, and I decided they are not mine to share.

Next, I thought I would write instead about how it has been to write regularly again.  I graduated from library school almost 12 years ago, and in those 12 years, before beginning Michelle’s  ( class in January, I had written only sporadically.  I thought I would give a brief overview on why I stopped and focus on how it feels to be back.

I found I had another story to tell.

My first five years out of grad school, I was a librarian at the elementary level.   The first year, I was usually at school from 7:25 to 5:00 or 5:30, and spent my free time lying on the sofa in the living room of the falling-down mill house where I lived with two grad students and a waitress.   About once a week, I’d bring home a pizza for my housemates and they’d let me off the hook for my share of the cleaning.   Work got easier, but I never really saw eye-to-eye with the principal, and once the assistant principal left, at the beginning of my fourth year, things took a nosedive.

For my fifth year, I moved to a city.  The school was what some people call underserved–underfunded, understaffed, and largely not equipped to respond to the physical and emotional needs of the students.  I was the library’s sole staff member, on the specials schedule for all grades, and had an afternoon duty–even though I was expected to welcome students to library any time before, during and after school.

The school  had a lot of new teachers.  Some of them were fresh out of college. Some, like me, had a few years experience and were new to the school.    On one of the first teacher workdays,  I went from classroom to classroom, handed each teacher a chocolate chip cookie, and asked if there were ways we could partner.

One teacher, probably in her third year, said, “I don’t care what you do; just don’t talk to me about it.”

Others politely agreed to think about it, and some were genuinely interested.  The fourth grade chair had a lot of ideas.  Along with other members of the technology committee, she and I applied for and were awarded a Best Buy Technology Grant.  We used it to buy cameras so her students could take pictures of geometry in nature.

Most weeks, since the teachers didn’t often plan together,  I did different lessons for the different classes in each grade level.  I might have one for teacher A who wanted the students to learn about resources that would help them with their research on rocks, and one for teacher B, whose students were getting started on a biography project, and another one for the classes taught by teachers C and D, who didn’t wish to share what was going on in their classrooms.

The state had an information skills curriculum but it was designed as overlay curriculum.  You can’t do 45 minutes on the parts of a book for example–there has to be some content or a task to connect it to.    If the teachers didn’t wish to share, I pulled themes from the pacing guides and hoped for the best. It took some time to write all those plans, but it was worth it because if I could connect what we were doing in the library to something they were doing in the classroom, the lesson was usually much more successful.  If I tried doing a lesson that I’d written for A or B with the students from classrooms C and D,  a lesson that was more challenging and for students to whom it was not at all relevant, generally all hell would break lose.   I tried to avoid that.

There was one teacher, a second grade teacher, Jenny H., who let me know what she was doing most of the time, and even when she didn’t, I found her classes a joy to teach.   I knew from my previous school, and found especially at this school, that second and third graders were the easiest to work with, but Jenny’s students were remarkable.   Not only did they participate and learn, they seemed happy. Jenny was calm and cheerful with her students; and even in faculty meetings she rarely seemed worn-out or stressed.   I never found out her secret.  I wondered if she had bewitched her students, or perhaps if she might be some sort of divine being, an angel sent to serve the students who needed her most.

Unfortunately, most of the students were not taught by angels.  They were taught by human beings who were struggling just like I was.  The assistant principal–a real dynamo–left in November. The fourth grade chair left around Christmas.   A fifth grade teacher fell apart one day, maybe in January, and never came back. Her position was vacant for the rest of the year.

Before school started for the year, I had talked to the principal about letting the students check out more books.  I showed her the research on how more liberalized school library circulation policies are highly correlated with better student achievement on state reading tests.    The kids were thrilled to get more books but I quickly found I couldn’t find the time to put all the books away.

At a training in late September, I spoke to someone in library services at school administration.

“I come in before 7:00,” I told her.  “I stay until the custodian kicks me out, and I still can’t get anywhere near all the books shelved.”

“Oh, that’s easy!” she said.  “You don’t let the kids choose from the shelves.  Have them choose from the books that have just been returned.”

I’m sure I responded with a noncommittal, “Oh,” but inside I was seething.

“I’m trying to teach these students to love reading” I thought.  “I’m trying to teach them how to use a library, and that their reading preferences and information needs matter!  How can I do that and say, ‘Oh, just go choose something  out of that pile?'”

I had one community volunteer who helped me, but almost every time she came in, the principal would pull her to work in a classroom.  She eventually stopped coming to the school.

Starting in November, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, I agreed to accept help from my parents.  Not school parents.  My own personal parents.  They lived four hours away.  Typically, one would come for a week, and help me get everything in order and all the books back on the shelves, and then I’d spend two weeks on my own, and then the other one would come for a week.  It was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me.  And, yes, sometimes, even with my parents’ help, I still told the students to get books from the return carts and not the shelves.

Once I went to a librarians’ meeting in a school on the wealthy side of town, and afterwards I sat in my car and cried.   I thought of Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.   I wanted to make things better for my students, but I didn’t know how.

I felt guilty when I started looking for another job, guilty when I did a phone interview in my car in the school parking lot in between the end of the school day and book fair night.   I felt guilty when I slipped outside the building to accept the offer on my cell phone.  I felt guilty when I was handed my contract for the next school year, and guilty when I went in early to tell the principal that I would not be signing it.

I’ve felt guilty about leaving those children for a long time. Maybe if there had been a library assistant for a few hours a week, maybe if I hadn’t been a special for all the grades, maybe, maybe, maybe.  I’ll never know.  I was always exhausted, and I didn’t ever feel like I was accomplishing much.

When I signed off on teachers’ library records at the end of the school year, I found out that many of them were leaving too.  Maybe I shouldn’t compare myself to Jenny H., the teacher who flourished at the challenging school.    Maybe I should accept that she had gifts I didn’t, and rather a different job.  Maybe I should consider that I wasn’t the only teacher who decided not to stay.

A few months later I was in a new place with a new  job.  I came home one night and found an envelope in mailbox from the old job.  Inside was a check and a score report.  The students had done better on their reading tests.  A lot better. All the teachers worked hard, and we all got the bonus, but I like to think the marked improvement maybe had something to do with the increased access to books.

When I got married in 2013, a friend wanted to make a charitable donation to celebrate.  I suggested the school where I had struggled.  I checked the web site to look for a name of someone she could contact.   The principal and almost all of the teachers were all unfamiliar.

Jenny H. was still there.

5 thoughts on “Fifth Slice: Guilt

  1. I could really connect with your story of the table. My sister has my grandma’s old drop leaf table. It’s the table where we make cookies and jello while having sleepovers at her house, it’s the table where I stood when she hemmed my flower girl dress, and it’s the table I fell off of while she was hemming my flower girl dress. So many memories attached to one regular old object!


  2. I am so happy that you are writing again. You bring your narrative full circle because just as you think about the impact your writing space has had on you, you remember Jenny H and the impact that she had on you. Thank you for sharing.


  3. Wow! There is so much in your post. Not having enough help. I can so relate to that. Being encouraged by Michelle. Amen to that. Having too many books to put away. Check that. Or too many students to test in my case. I am soooo glad that you have decided to join our writing community! I will be looking for your posts!


  4. Your story is one that a lot of teachers share. There are a lot of things we cannot control.sometimes we need to make tough choices to hold on to our sanity. I’m glad you did not compromise yor beliefs. You did make a difference.


  5. I believe the increased scores came from the increased opportunities with books and a librarian who was committed to putting books in the hands of students that matched their interests, not what made her life easier! Good for you!

    Liked by 1 person

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