Until I was 33 years old, I lived no farther from the Pacific ocean than about five miles. As a child, since bio-dad was a beach-loving athlete of a cop, I spent every other weekend at the beach, my skin the color of bronze and my hair streaked white from sun and salt. Sun, sand, the smell of saltwater, seaweed, and randomly applied Coppertone, were as familiar to me as the scent of my Auntie Helene’s night-blooming jasmine, which perfumed the air in front of our house.
When you’re a child or, at least my generation of beach children, one grew up with adults yelling, “Don’t go out too far,” when we headed into the water, reason being, what makes the surf so good on the Southern California coast is also what makes it dangerous: rip-tides, and more dangerously, the undercurrent. A few times a year it becomes dangerous enough that the beaches are closed, and only crazy surfers go out, because they live to surf and so they must.
But children get older, and parents worry a little less. Sometimes that parent drinks too many Coors or goes off to play handball with his mates, and takes his eyes off the nine- or ten-year old child who is by now a pretty good swimmer anyway. For me and my friends, it was almost a rite of passage that one day, you’re frolicking along in the water when suddenly, you look toward the coast and realize it is a long way off, much farther than you thought it was. Moreover, it is not the coast or lifeguard tower where you went in. You start to swim, but you don’t make a lot of progress. You suddenly realize the vastness of where you are and you are afraid of the water, for the first time in your life.
Now, one of three things will happen next: you swim swim swim and finally break free of the current and get back to shore, where you face a long walk back down the coast to your towel and friends; you swim swim swim and maybe holler at a surfer or a lifeguard comes and tows you back in; you swim swim swim, become exhausted and get pulled out to sea, where you die. I only ever had the first scenario happen to me and it happened only once because that’s all it took to learn respect of the ocean.
I work on a 5-A high school campus as a secretary, theoretically, supporting three Assistant, and one Associate, Principals. All discipline goes through my office. Our district was once noted for it’s excellence; it’s boundaries encircling the desirable neighborhoods. It’s why my husband and his late wife chose to live here, to ensure their children got the best education on offer. Perhaps, in some areas, this is still true, but it’s hard to see that from my desk.
My campus is diverse, with a high minority population, a lot of economically disadvantaged students, and an influx of displaced/transplanted persons in the form of relocated Hurricane Katrina victims. It is not at all unlike the campus I worked at before, and why I initially felt comfortable taking the job. I thought I could succeed here as I had there.
My measure of success is not complex and has nothing to do with money: I want to make a difference. Not lightning-bolt difference, but kind-word-at-the-right-time difference. Listening-ear difference. Make-things-better difference, even if that is a small difference. I’m foolish enough to believe that small differences, cumulatively, grow into big differences, even if I never see them.
I didn’t realize the deck was stacked against me, that the rip-tides of budget cuts, yes-men promoted beyond their levels of incompetence, and an atmosphere of denial beyond my wildest imaginings, would all create an undercurrent that is pulling me and worse, our students, out to sea.
It is not at all uncommon for students on our campus to tell their Teachers, “Fuck you!” and slam out of their classes, roaming the halls, dicing in the restrooms, and taking all four lunch periods. Fights are commonplace, especially among girls. Teachers thought the APs weren’t holding up their end of the disciplinary bargain, and began writing Dresscode referrals by the dozens, choking the already clogged disciplinary database. The APs run from fight to ARD to Parent Meeting to Principal Meeting to STAAR testing to fight while I radio them to remove disruptive students from classrooms, send them and our School Resource Officer scurrying to check out suspicious smells emanating from a restroom, break up another fight, clear the upstairs area of loud, truant students disrupting on-going classes. It is usual that we have 50+ disciplinary referrals in the database waiting to be worked every day, and even as they are worked, more pour in.
Because I worked most of my life not in Education, but in Corporate America, my skill level is greater than most of my peers; I’ve automated those processes I can but, every day I go home, feeling much like I did when I walked that two miles back to bio-dad and the towels, exhausted.
But it’s getting worse. One day, we had nine fights. In a single day. Nine fights. Involving students from the other High school in our district as well as students from other districts, who managed to get on to our campus without being detected. Some brought with them older siblings. Older, adult siblings. No one noticed until they became involved in altercations; they were too busy writing Dresscode referrals.
I expected, the day after the nine fights, there would be an emergency staff meeting where we would discuss what had happened and the plans to ensure those things did not happen again. In the Corporate world when a bid is lost there is a “postmortem” to discover where we went wrong and how to win the next one. But, despite two staff members sent to the hospital the day of the fights, there was silence. It’s weeks later, and the silence is deafening. It’s like the silence of diving underwater, feeling the water press against your ears, muffling all sound.
Every day, I send passes for the kids with referrals, input the data once they’ve seen the AP, send for their work if they’ve been assigned to In School Suspension even though I know only about 25% of them will show up there, and I feel myself drifting ever further out, losing sight of the shore, the endless paper of referrals washing over me like water when it finally claims the one foolish enough to swim too far out.
But I have a surfer ready to put me on his board and paddle us back to shore, in the form of a husband who says, “I worry about you every day there; it’s not a safe place.” For the students I see in my office, I have no such reassurance that they’ll be pulled from the undercurrent, that a District in denial of who and what we are will look out and see them drifting inexorably further away from the shore of Education, Impulse Control, Critical Thinking, and Tolerance. Their deaths will be of the spirit, of hope, of love. How many will end tripped up by the rip-tide of hard-core drug use? Of early pregnancy? Of prison? Of all the rip-tides in Life that trip one so the undercurrent can pull one out and finally, down?