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My Bad Job: America Reads Tutor
An Awful Job or an Awful World?
By Fay Funk
I consider myself very lucky to have never had a truly shitty job. Many of my friends have horror stories from the trenches of customer service and the restaurant industry, of being screamed at and groped by asshole customers, and then not even getting tipped. I am relieved to say my employment history is much more boring than any of that.
But I did have a job that showed me how shitty the world can be. My own privilege was placed squarely in front of me, and I confirmed that privilege when I left. My job wasn’t so bad, but the systems around it were, and they were systems I willingly took part in. Systems I still participate in today.
My freshman year of college I was struggling to find a work-study job, so I applied to the America Reads and Counts program at NYU. This program places college students in public schools around the city to tutor kids in reading and math. I was placed in a K-12 school not far from where I lived in Manhattan.
The school assigned me to a kindergarten class, and I was not happy when I learned about it. I am not great with very young children. I relate better to teenagers, whose lower energy levels and longer attention span I very much appreciate. So I walked into the kindergarten classroom on the first day with every muscle clenched, bracing myself for a wave of anxiety.
The kids were adorable. I’ve never been so surprised at a thought popping into my head. They were bright and funny too, as I learned over time, devouring every new piece of information they came across. My favorite student was an earnest little boy with a faux hawk who memorized every book he read and asked for definitions of each new word he encountered. Most of my students were Puerto Rican or Dominican, and could read not only in English, but in Spanish as well.
The shitty part about working with kids? I was in a daze the whole time I was employed. Their classroom was a biohazard. On one of my first days I helped a little girl zip up her coat. She sneezed on my face. I was so disgusted I was rendered speechless. I was sick for two months after that, possibly with mono, though the doctor I went to said it was just a cold. I didn’t get better until I went home for spring break and escaped the classroom for ten days.
But that’s just part of working with kids. They are germy. Most teachers develop immune systems of steel after a few years of teaching. The really shitty part of my job was the slow realization that no one in the school expected these kids to amount to anything. And they didn’t do much to hide that belief.
One day I was on the playground with the teacher for my class and a teacher from another class. One girl’s mom stopped by to say hello. They had a brief, pleasant visit, and the mom went on her way. After she left the teacher from my classroom turned to the other and said, “Do you know how old that mother is? Nineteen. Never seen the dad. Good luck getting her kid ahead, huh?” This monologue continued, casually, for several minutes. It was not whispered, and was held on a tiny playground within earshot of any child who wandered by. I wish I had said something.
That teacher’s opinion seemed to be a widespread belief within the school. These kids would not amount to anything. Every word from an authority figure was yelled, whether it was a punishment or a math lesson. There was a sense that there was no need to make the classroom fun, since these kids weren’t going to stay in school all that long anyway.
That’s not how I remember my school experience. There were always high expectations, even when I didn’t do well. I was a lackluster student until high school, definitely not reading bilingual picture books in kindergarten. But my parents, teachers, and everyone around me pushed me to succeed. And eventually I did succeed. I started doing really well in school. I got into a good college. I achieved everything I was pushed to do.
What made me different? What made investing time and energy into me worthwhile but a waste of resources for my students? The answer was painfully obvious. I was rich and white. They were poor and Hispanic. Anything is possible for rich white people; our society has set things up nicely for us. Poor people of color are expected to be grateful for what they can get.
My students will have a much harder time in this world than me. I knew that before I ever met them, but I knew it in a very abstract sense, having never really encountered a lack of privilege up close before. Any one of them could achieve as much or more than me in school, but the road will be a lot rougher. I worry for the ones who are like I was at that age, needing a lot of support and encouragement to excel. From what I saw they will not get that. And people like me are a lot more common than people with a powerful inner drive motivating them to perform.
My job at the kindergarten ended when summer break started. I chose not to return. As much as I liked the kids I worked with I didn’t like everything else going on with the school. I decided to find something different. Anything is possible for me, after all. My kids couldn’t leave though. They might move to a different classroom with a different teacher, but it would all be the same shit for them. When I said goodbye to my favorite student his eyes were filled with a hurt acceptance. He knew I wouldn’t be back. Not if I didn’t have to be.
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6/27/2014 06:23:26 am
I thought that I was the only one who noticed things like these in the NY public school system. I was born and raised in NY and am hispanic descent I don't remember being so negatively criticized and discouraging by my ps teachers. My son was treated exactly as you described and since I have a brain and also went to college like my son's teachers and principal I advocated for my son. They tried to make him feel that being hispanic is a disadvantage, they tried to make him feel he wasn't as good, they tried to make him feel like shit in 1st grade. But when they tried to hold him back to get extra funds for the "hispanic and disadvantage" I used their own system to fight back and they couldn't prove he was a kid any different than another white one with 7yo. I decided to change him to private school, at least there they teach morals and love for themselves and one another. I wish we could all get together and fight for our kids! I'm up for that!
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