In Vain

Actually,  it DOES.  Guilty means precisely that.  Our ubiquitous friend Google provides these two definitions for the adjective guilty:

  • culpable of or responsible for a specified wrongdoing
  • justly chargeable with a particular fault or error

I think the message the De Los Santos Law Offices, LLC means to convey is that they can get you off.  I understand “guilty” and “convicted” carry entirely different semantic shades under the law.  But to me guilty means guilty as it relates to personal responsibility, right?   Google turned up a third definition:

  • conscious of or affected by a feeling of guilt

Too frequently, I see a distinct lack of being affected by a feeling of guilt, in point of fact. “I didn’t do it.”  “She made me do it.”  “Prisons are filled with innocent people.”  This, in a perfect nutshell of a mammoth commercial billboard, is why I am having a really hard time at work these days.  The defeatism and frustration I’m trudging through aren’t novel workplace emotions in my experience.  Various forms and degrees of professional-becoming-personal malaise have cycled through dark periods of weeks, months, years during my nearly three decades as a public educator.  Right now I just can’t handle the flippant meanness.  The lack of personal responsibility for one’s actions screams at me every day.  Literally screams.  At me.  At the other adults with whom I work.

I spotted this billboard on the ride to my office from my new school assignment last week.  It so happens that this billboard is visible from the windows and yard of the  Women’s Correctional Facility adjacent to the building on which it’s posted.  To drive past the corrections facility’s unassuming brick facade, you’d think it houses more a commercial bakery maybe, or a 70’s-era office building than a prison.  But it is a prison, and the law firm’s intent is clear in its placement.  They’re a business–I understand basic marketing tenets regarding its placement specifically there by the law firm–but its message is so counter to my personal system of beliefs, I just can’t abide it.

Teachers and other school staff member like myself spend our days teaching the exact opposite of this message to our <a href=”http://Enroll“>enrollees, and we spend our nights planning and preparing lessons and materials to teach that, to engage students meaningfully and productively.  This message–you can do wrong (you know–assault, robbery, murder, vandalism, grand theft auto, whatevs), but we’ll try to get you out of it because it’s not your fault–is the diametric opposite of what teachers want to see and have happen to students.

I shared a photo last week of the pellet holes in my classroom window, and despite what you may think bullet holes in windows means, I LIKE my school.  I like my students, I like the staff members I’ve met over the last couple weeks, and I like the building.  Ah, the building.  The school has to be one hundred and ten years old if it’s a day.  It is grand.  It was grander once, but now it’s tired.  Still gorgeous in its architecture though.  Wooden staircases and floors gleam.  The stair risers are rounded out from square after a century of  little feet climbing and descending the steps.  Detailed woodwork adorns door and window frames, built-in storage cabinets line the walls of coatrooms, and messages of peace and empowerment are stencilled in the hallways.  The building was constructed during a period where public education was viewed as a cornerstone of society; education, and the buildings where children were sent for their lessons, mattered.  Architectural details, like those I see here, were included in schools’ designs in the early twentieth century, and details like those in my school did not come cheaply, so the import of education was demonstrated in the way city fathers funded schools.

It’s hard to imagine a time where budget cuts were not the first and only thing that mattered when society discussed how it educated its children. Is it possible to wax nostalgic for a time I never personally experienced?

I’ve long said that we can’t improve schools (the almighty test scores) until we improve the conditions under which students live.  The critical importance of safe, stable housing underlies Matthew Desmond’s brilliant Evicted, Poverty and Profit in the American City.  His first-person research into housing in Milwaukee provided an uncomfortable read, and left this reader with the conclusion that slumlording is a profitable venture and that having a safe, regular place to lie your head at night yields better outcomes for people.

“it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

“Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

From, this discouraging statistic about kids who come from behind, and not in a romantic sports “comeback kid” kind of way: 

“At schools in which more than half of students lived in poverty, only 6 percent of students far behind in reading in 8th grade and 3 percent of those far behind in math and science were deemed ready for college and careers by the end of high school.”

80% of the students in my district are identified as economically disadvantaged.  But I digress.  I know blogs are supposed to be focused, but I’m not hyper-focused on muscular dystrophy this week.  It’s OK if you take a break from me and spend your valuable reading time elsewhere.  I sure wouldn’t blame you.  I’ve found that writing has been a balm to soothe this moody, savage beast (OK, and like the old adage, music too, obviously), and I need to find and reclaim my happy.  I’m driving my co-workers bonkers, and coming home crying isn’t helping my bad attitude.  So I write.  I can’t change the world, after twenty-seven years, I understand that’s a foolhardy expectation.  But I can change little things in my students’ lives, so I keep trying.  And I can change me.  Just not today quite yet.  I’m still snappy and ornery.

It’s so naive to say “be kind” and expect that people will be just ’cause; it’s so easy to say “take responsibility for your actions” and print it on a poster, but how does that message become part of one’s makeup? I can’t afford to take out my own billboard, but I’ve got to do something besides avoiding that corner during my travels.

4 thoughts on “In Vain

  1. Warning! Rant ahead!
    Matthew Desmond’s book is the most devastatingly sad and powerful book I’ve read in years. Those of us who are blessed with a consistent place to lay our heads at night don’t truly understand how the constant threat of being evicted, and/or the struggle of having to move several times each year contribute to much bigger problems. With laws in place that protect the interests of landlords over those of their tenants and the ridiculous cost of sub-standard housing, it’s understandable how the economically disadvantaged families in your district might feel like they bear none of the responsibility for their current situations. We know this isn’t true, but unfortunately there are people who are happy to perpetuate the myth that no one is actually at fault for their choices or actions.
    As an educator you are most definitely fighting an uphill battle as you beat the drum for personal responsibility. Totally plagiarizing here, but a friend once said… I can change little things in my students’ lives, so I keep trying. Billboards aside, no doubt you often feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. I’m certain that in your 27 years in the district you have provided a safe space and a strong example for your students; that you’ve positively influenced many lives. Unfortunately, in many cases, you may not see the fruits of your labor because children grow and families move on. By helping children to communicate better and excel academically you are part of the solution. I’m hopeful that you’ll soon be reminded that your efforts are not in vain. Here’s hoping that a new billboard is in place soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As an educator myself, this post really spoke to me. Low SES is definitely a factor in student achievement and it’s hard to see kids suffering. I’m sorry you’re feeling burned out–I hope the writing helps:-)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic post, Wendy — and don’t think for a moment that it’s “off brand.” The brand of Greater Than Gravity is you — your caring heart and advocacy of those disadvantaged by circumstance. This is perfectly in keeping with that.

    As your essay so wistfully illustrates, we used to be a society that took care of each other — that understood there was enough wealth to go around for all of us to at least be furnished with the basic human essentials of, say, shelter and education. We’re not that way anymore, though — and we ought to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves why that is.

    The present era is one of particularly malignant mean-spiritedness and greed. I’m always reminded, however, how easy it is to become cynical. The best antidote to the bullsh!t trickling down from the highest office in our land to all corners of this country is to be kind, and be caring, even when it doesn’t pay off or even seem to move the needle. Kindness takes courage. So does compassion. And we need a lot of courageous people right now. Don’t say “be kind” — a well-meaning message often expressed in vain — but rather just be kind, even and especially when it seems pointless, because that’s never in vain, even if it doesn’t always yield the results we’d hoped. Small, everyday acts of compassion are often the most effective ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Any response I’d formulate would pale in comparison to your thoughtful, pointed comment. “Malignant mean-spiritedness and greed” has never been a more obvious pattern in human behavior in my lifetime. Thank you for the reminder to be courageous when I feel more like sticking my head in the sand sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

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