Last week a young man strode into my classroom sagging his pants, flexing a chest tattoo beneath an undershirt and tilting a red cap across his scowling face.
Not like I've never seen that before -- but this was a guy I've coached for four years, a young man whose maturity and self-respect I've come to take for granted. I didn't think I'd be having to get in his face two months before graduation.
But that's how it is some times. And it shouldn't have surprised or disappointed me -- not any more than it surprises and disappoints me still when I read what politicians are saying about teachers and about our students.
Teaching -- especially in the inner-city -- is work that both consumes and isolates, and that can make it easy to forget, for a moment, what is going on beyond the walls of the classroom. Especially when the work of teaching gets a little easier, which sometimes happens with experience and enough success and longevity at a school to earn a positive reputation among the students -- and so it is sometimes jarring to suddenly have to prove ourselves all over again to someone who just isn't buying the rep or doesn't care.
Maybe teachers shouldn't have to prove anything to be respected in the first place but that's how it is, at least in this country where some public officials and others have taken it upon themselves to marginalize our positive impact and lay the inadequacies of our contemporary culture and economy at our feet.
These insults are what a thick skin is made for.
If sports fans think that buying a ticket or watching a game on TV entitles them to insult the players who've mastered the game, so then goes the logic of those tax payers and tax-spenders who've entitled themselves to pick on us. And though we might not -- like pro athletes -- get paid the kind of wages that would make the abuse seem worth it, there it is anyway and there might not be anything much we can do about it, except keep doing our jobs whether or not anyone recognizes us.
Educate this generation of children because democracy and freedom are not entitlements. Every generation must learn them and then earn them or we may ultimately lose them. And sometimes it seems we're on the verge of just that -- or maybe beyond the verge -- and that is why we should be screaming about the travesty of education dollars wasted outside of classrooms while the teacher lay-off notices pile up. Not because of the insult but because of the damage.
And as always we've got to find it in ourselves to minimize that damage -- visited upon us and our students by the economic cycle, government mismanagement, and Wall Street greed -- step up to the challenges of larger classes and fewer resources because students cannot wait for us all to sort out the politics and economics and ideology.
Just yesterday, that same young man I had to call out a few weeks ago with the sagging pants and the bad attitude handed me an acceptance letter from the state university and then put his arms around me and in his embrace was a thank you and a plea to keep helping him get ready to live up to the promise of that letter.
Our work is not done.
It never is.