A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 21 2010

On Disasters

This time around, I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve talked endlessly about the physical learning environment (here and here).  I’ve talked about how I will endure anything that doesn’t affect my personal safety/health.  In fact, I’ve said that I feel safe at my school.  But never did I think that my physical safety/health would actually be at risk.

Let me explain.  It all starts with the exposed pipe in the ceiling.  Tuesday morning, I come in and discover that a quarter of the room has flooded (quite obviously, the pipe was the source).  Given that my tolerance for absurdities has risen tremendously, I tell myself that I will just spray some Lysol, open up the windows, prop open the door and let the room air out.  Bad call.

Wednesday, I walk into the classroom and immediately notice a family-of-rotting-rats stench.  I notify an AP in a jiffy and, again, given my charitable attitude towards craziness, proceed with my day.

Students roll in first period, ready to take their final exams.  About 20 minutes in, maintenance workers barge into my classroom and instruct me to vacate the space so that they can fix the burst pipe.  I frantically scramble to identify, mid-exam, a teacher whose room I can share (thankfully, a fellow CM offers my students her classroom).

Later in the period, I receive an informative text message from another AP: “Do not let any students back in your classrooms..remove all personal items yourselves..asbestos is being removed.”  I panic. I freak out.  Have I been breathing in asbestos all this time?  What does asbestos look like again? Isn’t it deadly?  $h!t!

At period’s end I have no classroom, so I scramble (again) to find a new teacher who has a planning period.  In passing, I reenter my classroom, pull out my swine flu mask (I had brought the mask in one day as a joke; oh the irony of actually needing it in my classroom!) and load all of my valuables into my green Giant shopping bags.  I PTFO.

Each period, I am a mess.  I try my best to administer my final exam.  Students come in and shout at me: “why you playing ‘hide and seek’ with us?”  (a student tore down the note on my door that indicated what rooms to go to).  I “invest” my students in the magnificent task of trying hard on the final.  No one seems to care; new environment means an opportunity to slack, right?  I try to manage all the make-up exams and late paperwork with my virtual desk (my Giant shopping bags).  Random hall-walkers barge in and out of my temporary classroom.

Fourth period, I supposedly have planning.  But I don’t have a classroom.  My room is a hazard.  Like a nomad, I wander in and out of teachers’ rooms, asking if I can stay awhile.  They offer their OMGs and motion for me to come in.

3:15 rolls around.  I am absolutely exhausted. I have been carrying around the entirety of my valuable teaching possessions (laptop; projector; exams, reading tests, papers to grade) the entire day (worse, I have kept my laptop bag around my shoulder the entire day because I am worried someone will steal it).  I don’t wait. I PTFO.  At some point before I leave, an AP tells me that “the asbestos will be abated.”  Like a sleepwalking zombie, I plod home.

4:05, I pass out on my bed.


Thursday morning, an AP tells me my room is safe.  I am extremely skeptical.  I slide my key into the door and turn the handle.  Same story—disaster:

I return to the AP and, this time, ask for written confirmation that my room is habitable.  He tells me, okay, I’ll work on it.  I begin a day that is almost an exact repeat of Wednesday (4+ classrooms).  At some point, I am told that, okay, your carpet is being removed and tiling is going in–everything will be cleaned.  I feel an inkling of hope. Then, hope shatters as I realize I am beginning to develop a hunchback from carrying my burden all day long.

The day ends.  I walk by my classroom and notice a commotion outside.  A half dozen custodians are excavating everything from my room.  It looks like this (custodians inside my room to the left):

I proceed to the robotics team room and help my students fix gearboxes and assemble our drivetrain.  I do this like a robot.  Every hour or so, I check in on the progress of the excavation.

6:30 pm. We link chains to sprockets and brainstorm ideas to suspend our robot using a pneumatic hook.  I walk by my gutted classroom again. My imagination reveals a pristine, spotless classroom (filled, too, with my students).  In reality, I am staring at a sea of grey.  My floor’s custodian informs me that the crew will be up all night laying down tiles.  I thank him, turn away, and roll my eyes.

Whoever is out there, please, please, please—may I have a safe, clean classroom tomorrow?  It’s the last day of the semester and I want to say goodbye to my students.


I realize I am surrounded by ironies in the physical learning environment.  I realize my students realize this too.  For example, while I am thankful that over 800 volunteers from local universities came to my school on MLK Day to repaint our hallways, I am frustrated that my students make comments like this one: “It’s Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and they be painting over his own quote.  That be messed up.”  To explain, volunteers painted over the many inspirational quotes that adorned our hallways (from Ella Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, etc.)—the “only thing that makes this school special.”  We now have white walls.  To make matters worse, they did a roughshod job: white paint drips streaked across the now two-toned lockers and the paint was not spread evenly.  Their intentions were good, but their execution was terrible.  800 bubbly GWU/Howard students got a little carried away.

The incidents in the past 48 hours help me see the bigger picture at our school.  In every classroom, I see decay.  Our school is literally crumbling.  Peeling windows, asbestos-covered rusty pipes—there’s very little in the physical environment that inspires pride.

I am angry that this has been allowed to happen.  I am dead serious.  No more facetiousness here.  An amazingly generous alumnus who mentors the robotics team drove me home tonight.  He explained that when he attended the school 40 years ago, it was fantastic.  Over time, politics, marginalization, gentrification, and urban decay pushed our school down.  We have been stomped on.  One student’s chalk scrawl across my exposed agenda board encapsulates the general attitude among students:

I have trouble seeing how my school is ever going to get out of its deep, dark hole of injustice.  It’s truly sad that I have thoughts like these, but this is what my eyes see, what my ears hear, what my nose smells, and what my heart points to.

profile counter

5 Responses

  1. Jane

    It is a crime that US students have such crumbling hovels for their learning environment. The President’s stimulus money has given some schools the capability to repair or build. No such luck for you, I’m thinking. As devastating as it is, try to remain calm. Your students will mimic your attitude. Hang in there and try to be safe!

  2. emy

    For the safety of all, you should request for a proper testing for ZERO asbestos before you start using the classroom! Why take the chance of being exposed and risk anyone’s health ? Request for the use of a different classroom until the testing is done and everything is all clear.
    Maybe the whole school should be tested for asbestos!!!

  3. MJL

    Non-TFA-kosher opinion ahead:
    Sometimes just being there for your kids (in the literal sense of the word “there”) is a victory. When things stabilize, you will have a chance to be the great teacher you can be. I have just shared your story with all my TFA friends at our Friday night drinking gathering, and we agree: your life is harder than ours.

  4. stephanie

    my upper-class public high school in MA had major asbestos problems too and we used to get days off all the time because the school was toxic. of course the difference was that it was a rich town, so parents threw a fit and the town took care of things within a year. it makes me furious that you/dcps don’t have the same kind of advocates.

    • Your point is so true. A big part of the problem is the lack of advocacy. Very few people fight to fix DCPS. The only time I have seen advocacy was during a couple IEP meetings, when a few parents were voicing their concerns that their children’s needs were not adequately being met.

Post a comment

About this Blog

Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

D.C. Region
High School

Subscribe to this blog (feed)