Posted on May 21, 2024

Taught for America

Andrew X. Evans, Year Zero, May 21, 2023

The pseudonymous author of the following diary was by his own account a white male from a privileged background with a savior complex when he joined Teach for America out of college in 2008. {snip}

The author learned what everyone who has spent time in one of those schools knows: that “non-school factors,” as they are called, establish the horizon of possibility of what happens within them, and that the prospect thus created by those conditions as they manifest in the lives of students in places like Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis have generated a prospect bleaker than anyone who hasn’t lived in their midst can quite bring themselves to fathom, or that those who have witnessed them up close can quite bring themselves to say. For the tenderhearted motives that put them in a situation where they could witness this world in the first place make telling others what they have seen feel like another cruelty heaped atop all the rest.


I asked the pseudonymous author of this piece to say what he witnessed in the form of a sequence of uninflected anecdotes. He responded with the often gutting chronicle that follows. {snip}


What does true failure look like? There are so many anecdotes to choose from. But here is one:

It’s around one in the afternoon, and I am planted across my classroom doorway, feet wedged into the corners for leverage. It’s time for the daily math lesson. All twenty-nine of my fourth graders are behind me in the classroom, save for Deandra, who is in the hallway, screeching insults at me (“White motherfucker!”) and repeatedly trying to force her way back into class so that she can continue pummeling Justina.

Deandra takes three steps back until her back is against the opposite wall, and then launches herself into my torso. She does it again. She balls up her fists, screams, and runs at me again.

This was actually Deandra’s third fight of the day, each with a different student. It’s late January in my first year and fights are now so common in my classroom that the administration no longer sends help. This poses a unique problem where Deandra is concerned. For one, she can do real damage, so I have no choice but to physically stop the fight myself. A majority of my students are between 10 and 11 years old, but Deandra is 12 and well into puberty. She is a half-foot taller than most other students and weighs at least 120 pounds.

We’ve been told several times that it is against the law for teachers to physically break up fights without a specific certification. We’ve also been told that we are legally liable for injuries sustained in our classroom. I’m not sure if either is true. What I do know is that teachers and staff members at my school are constantly using their bodies to interdict violence. Not everyone agrees with this approach. I was in the process of breaking up a fight in the hallway the other day, when Mr. Greevis, a squat, balding classroom aide to the Emotionally Disturbed program, yanked me from the fray by the collar. “Let them fight,” he said. “Stupid asses.”

The other problem is that Deandra does not give up. Most students are ready to call it quits after a fight breaks up, at least for a while. If you can separate them and get them to different parts of the room, you’ve probably bought yourself an hour or two at least. The popular wisdom among the veteran staff is that this is particularly true of boys. Boys want you to break up the fight, they say, girls won’t stop until there’s blood. It’s always struck me as an exaggeration, but it is true of Deandra. She’ll wait until I’m back at the blackboard before attacking whomever she was just fighting again.

I glance back into the classroom. Its general chaos—students out of their seats, dancing, yell-talking over each other. Maybe three or four out of thirty-one are working on the multiplication tables I assigned. Some worksheets are on the floor. One boy stands on his. There will be no learning this afternoon. But, for the moment, there is also no violence.

Deandra’s shoulder thumps into my gut again, with less force than before. She is getting tired. There are dark sweat spots on her arm pits now. It seems to be registering that she cannot force her way through me. She tries to wiggle under my arm but I push her back. Tears start streaming down her face and she begins to scream even louder than before. Soon she’s sobbing, spit dribbling from her lips to the milk stains on her Hannah Montana t-shirt.

She’s a child. I’m a 24-year-old man. And this is a normal day.

There is a classic sort of inner-city teaching fable where some over-educated, downtrodden man or woman defies the odds and “breaks through” to their hapless charges. Everyone is better off, everyone’s humanity is redeemed.

There is a Teach For American version of this story in which the teacher is less spiritual leader, more technocrat par excellence, coaxing untapped human capital from its stores, closing disparities like a reverse Moses.

Neither of these templates apply to my story, which is one of unmitigated failure. My story might be told in one of two ways. The safer way to tell this story would make repeated reference to the matrix of oppression into which poor, disproportionately Black, children are born. This is a story of deprivation that centers on the culpability of all those who live outside the sacrifice zones into which these children are released and where they will remain entrapped for the rest of their lives under the watchful eye of agents of the carceral state. It is especially about history and the unbroken line that gets drawn from a failing city school to the racist crimes of the American past.

I happen to agree with this story. But this is not the story I want to tell. I lived a different story, whose terrifying immediacy held at bay the grand abstractions through which we are urged to interpret our lives. When a second-grader’s grandmother sent him to school with a loaded gun because he was being bullied, I didn’t see a vestige of white flight. I saw a second grader bringing a loaded gun to school at the direction of his primary caretaker. When Kenyon was transferred into my class mid-second year with an enormous file explaining how his gross-motor problems were in part the product of his mother holding a curling iron to his feet as a baby to stop him from crying, I did not experience that as a consequence of redlining, whiteness, or bourgeois complacency. And when I learned soon after that Kenyon could not read past kindergarten level, nor write his name properly, I did not process these things as the byproducts of America’s system of funding schools through property taxes. I processed these things as horrors.

This is a story about horrors. I wish it weren’t. {snip}


My memories of those two years are overwhelmingly negative. I can picture best the faces of my worst behaved and most academically challenged students. This is exactly the negativity bias whose problematic effects we were always being warned about. To be sure, my best remembered moments are likely more awful than the average moment in my classroom was. This is how memory works, of course. Memories with intense negative emotions attached to them lodge deeper and more securely in the brain. Still, I am not sure if the word “bias” really applies. If you snapped your femur on a heretofore pleasant hike, or if an otherwise ordinary work week was interrupted by an enemy airstrike, how much of a distortion is it really to focus on the broken bone or the bombing? Maybe they aren’t the whole story, but they compel attention for a reason.

Some of my strongest recollections from my time in the classroom are single images, what psychologists call flashbulb memories – the blips of recorded experience that pop into your mind when you think about, say, your daughter’s wedding or where you were on 9/11. A flashbulb memory from my second year, for instance, depicts how, on the way to pick up my students from lunch, I came across a large fifth grader named Dante holding a small third grader against the wall by his collar and bouncing the boy’s tiny head against the concrete with his fists.

An image that nearly always returns to me when I think about the early parts of my first year is Darian’s tear streamed, expressionless face. Despite being one of the smaller boys in class, Darian was the student I was most afraid would seriously injure a classmate. This wasn’t because he fought more; plenty of students engaged in violence more often. It was because when Darian got mad at another student two things would happen: tears would start pouring down his cheeks, and he would grab the nearest metal desk chair, raising it over his head.

He never actually hit anyone with the chair, maybe because he wasn’t strong enough to bring it forward or maybe simply because I always got it out of his hands first. I’d be helping a student in one corner of his room and another student would shout out. “Mr. Evans! Darian got his chair again.” Then, I’d sprint across the room and pry the metal bars from his slippery fingers.

Usually, there was a lot of talking before a fight. A lot of insults or threats to “knock your ass out” or “fuck you up.” But Darian never said a thing. He’d just stare blankly at whomever had offended him, his chin tucked in, with oddly linear streams of tears coursing down his cheeks. The advantage of his catatonia, as I eventually figured out, was that I could deal with these episodes without breaking the flow of a lesson. I’d just continue teaching as I walked over to wherever he was, which by design was usually right by the front of the room, take the chair out of his hands, wrap my arms tightly around his shoulders and walk him to the blackboard, where I’d hold him for the remainder of the lesson. He never resisted this.

Part way through the first semester, Darian’s mother began keeping him home from school several days a month whenever it seemed like he was in an especially bad mood. She’d come up to school to pick up his work for the day, still wearing her nurse’s scrubs. She was a conscientious and dedicated mother. She was also somewhat of an outlier in the sense that she took seriously the idea that her child was responsible for avoiding fights.

With other parents, you’d get maybe a one- or two-fight window where their child is clearly to blame. After that, they’d begin to suspect that you had lost control, that their child was at-risk, or that you were singling them out. Other parents took it on faith that their child had every reason to act as they did.

“I don’t let no one touch my child,” one mother told me.

“If someone hits you, you hit them back. Simple as that,” a father said.

“Someone puts their hands on my child, she’s gonna put her hands on them.”

“You can get killed around here if people think you’re a punk.”

There was clear rationality to this mantra. In the neighborhood around Richmond, a primary task of the ‘good’ parent was to prepare one’s child to avoid being killed. My students often discussed the shootings that occurred in the neighborhood and sometimes acted out what they had heard happened – or in some cases seen. Once, I saw two boys giggling and making finger guns at each other under their desks during a lesson. I shook my head at them and they picked their pencils back up. But as I walked past, I heard one boy whisper excitedly, “He got killed.”


Early in the fall of my first year, a rumor began getting around that TFA’s 2008 Baltimore class had broken records for the most people quitting in the first month. Whether that was true or not, a ton of people had quit. One was a friend of mine from training in Philly. He’d been assigned to teach English at a large high school on the West side. On his first day, he’d become so frustrated by his students’ disrespect that he felt himself fighting off tears mid-lesson. One of his students got up to leave five minutes before the bell. When he asked the student to return to his seat, the student had responded, “Go fuck yourself.” My friend had kicked a nearby desk chair at the student, which just missed him, clattering into the wall. Terrified of what he’d done, he quit that day.

I thought about quitting all the time. TFA’s main strategy to dissuade people from leaving the program was to stress the deep harm this would do to your students. The urgency underlying this messaging was justified. Most of my children were staring down a lifetime of functional illiteracy, poverty wages, and a likelihood of incarceration or early death, particularly the boys. But once I was in the classroom, from that first day in fact, the idea that my students were better off for my presence evaporated.


But even more than these horrors,  the realization that many, if not most, of my students were illiterate and would likely always remain so, underlined my sense of futility. The achievement gap is a relative measurement, pertaining to comparisons between groups. Illiteracy is absolute and personal. If you can’t read, what does it matter who can? If some new age of social utopia dawned tomorrow, you’d still be working at its gas station.

As children get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to develop reading skills and so with each year the urgency of imparting that crucial skill grows. If children are not reading at or near grade level by the fourth grade, it’s a genuine emergency, one that necessitates the highest level of instruction and the highest level of classroom management to make that instruction possible. And somehow what the system had to offer my children was a 24-year-old first year teacher, fresh out of college, who was hardly able to walk his class to the bathroom without violence breaking out, let alone provide conditions to allow for the mandatory forty-five minutes of daily quiet reading time. {snip}