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Teacher as Sisyphus: On the Occasion of my Retirement

On the Occasion of My Retirement of the School District of Philadelphia – June 2008

Buried beneath the test scores, the rosters, the class lists, the attendance statistics, the roll sheets, the interim reports, the report cards, the serious incident testimonies, the counseling referrals, the truant officer’s legal briefs, the probation officer’s assessments, the lesson plans, the behavioral objectives and the specific learning outcomes, Bloom’s taxonomy of critical thinking skills, Directed Reading Activity and the 5-step writing process, the think-pair share technique, the split page note-taking method, the PSSAs, the PSATs, the SAT-9’s the APs and AYP, real people are gasping for breath. Often it feels as if we are living in a place that the rest of the world has forgotten. Except of course, when the bureaucrats, careerists, reporters and statisticians descend upon us like a post mortem team, to dissect the numerical indicators of our adequate yearly progress or to count up the number of school children who have lost their lives to the violence that makes parts of Philadelphia more dangerous than parts of Iraq.

I have been a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for over thirty years. I have stood in front of almost 5,000 different teenagers, in fifteen different classrooms in five different schools in 8 different grades. I have been known as Miss Rose, Miss

Frozenfrogs, Miss Rose Twig, Mrs. Pincus, Pink-Ass, Yo, Marsh! Marsha Marsha Marsha, Hey teach, Pinky-poo and Teacher of the Year ( twice in 1988 and 2005).

I have been called a racist bitch, a moron, a loser, a pussy. I have been punched, pushed, screamed at and stolen from. My car has been broken into three times. Three different cars in three separate school parking lots. Curse words and threats have been scrawled on my classroom walls, doors and blackboards. I have been locked inside a classroom with 30 14 years olds from 9:30 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon, while crime scene investigators from the Philadelphia Police Department marked every drop of blood that had fallen on the floors of the corridors and stairwells, following the trail left by a panicked dying boy with a kitchen knife dangling from his neck placed there by another frightened boy whom he had bullied and shaken down for money one time too many. He died in the nurse’s office.

I have sat in a darkened classroom room with a teen-age girl as she showed me pictures of her still born daughter whom she named Angel. I have hugged another teen-aged girl, comforting her after the death of her grandmother then one month later, listened as she told me of her dream where her grandmother welcomed the child she had aborted into her arms in heaven. I once helped a teen-aged boy select a name for his yet to be born daughter from a book of baby names, a girl, it turns out wasn’t even his.

I have heard the pop pop pop of gunshots outside my classroom window. I have heard the urgent blare of a frantic fire alarm and the words, “This is not a drill. I repeat this is not a drill!” as the halls outside my classroom turned white with smoke. I have huddled with a dozen teen-agers under one umbrella in the pouring rain as the Philadelphia Fire Department extinguished a trash can fire whose flames had jumped the can and engulfed the wooden floor beneath it. I have heard a principal lose her mind over the PA system after that very same system had been hijacked by a student who dismissed school and sent everybody home in the middle of the day.

I have read their stories of abuse, rape, incest and murder. I have seen the marks on their bodies from childhood diseases, acne, bullets, knives, razor blades and scalding water and I have seen the other scars which are much more difficult to discern. I have taught the daughters of policemen and sons of cop-killers. In the same class. I have taught children whose only contact with their fathers has been through the armored glass in a prison visiting room. I have listened to the stories of girls who have sold their young bodies in exchange for a place to live after their crack addled mothers threw them out of the house in a jealous rage and boys who were abused and trying desperately not to give in to the violent urges bubbling up under their skin.

I have been laid off, transferred, written up, reprimanded and left to fend for myself. I have been praised, awarded, documented, televised, and even published. But mostly, I have been ignored by a public that disdains public education.

Through it all, for the past thirty four years, I have been more learner than teacher in my many classrooms – filled with the children that many people outside of their communities have already written off. And like an aging Sisyphus, I continued to find meaning and purpose through surrendering myself daily to the struggle.

Marsha Pincus is a post-mid life woman, riding the Age Wave and writing for her life.

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  1. The experiences you went through were traumatic ones, and the summaries of them open my eyes. As you say in a later post, we are protected (if that’s a word that can be used) from the ‘real’ world at Masterman. In our school, students walk through the metal detector, beep, and continue walking without being wanded. However, when I traveled to schools such as Gratz and Strawberry Mansion they had a lot more officers guarding the front door and if you beeped you’d be frisked and wanded. It’s a different world in Masterman because it was made such a big deal when a student got a blackeye down the street from the school. People are dying all around the city in other schools, but it’s a huge deal at Masterman when somebody gets a scratch on them.

    On a less serious note I found the nicknames to be amusing and would like to know how those were even conceived. Overall, this post is real life. It’s what Philadelphia is all about. People outside of Masterman always say they’d like to get out of Philadelphia while most of our students choose to stay in Philadelphia for college. It’s a dangerous place, and I’ve come to realize that even though I’m fortunate enough not to have to experience it.

    I’d really like to commend you on sticking with teaching even after your initial experiences proved to be difficult. You stood up for what you believed in – no matter the criticism. I think everybody living in Philadelphia (and even further) should read this to get a sense of what life is like these days because I know Masterman isn’t the only place that is ignorant to what goes on outside of our walls…

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