Ms. St. Cyr’s sitting at her desk – hands clasped, eyes closed as if in prayer. Near the door one boy is trying to ride another. In the back corner a fat kid has a skinny girl in heels cornered, yelling things at her that Ms. St. Cyr would rather pretend she doesn’t understand.
The only person who sees this moment of quiet desperation isn’t even in the room. He’s a much younger teacher, born in Canada and now passing by in the hall, who only hopes if she snaps she takes some of his problem students out, too.
It’s the end of the year, the last of her career. She’s never felt so old. Physically, she might be in the best shape she’s been in since her husband died seven years ago. But mentally? She feels she’s been trying to climb a mountain of sand all year and when she pauses to look around she finds she’s still near the base and sliding downward.
She remembers being the age of that Canadian gentleman in the science department. She remembers working in advanced placement programs and she remembers the five years she spent in the suburbs. Mostly, she remembers the faces of the thousands of kids who look so much like her own and how their love of learning has dwindled. How they’ve shifted from wanting to prove they’re better to as good to not giving a hoot as long as they can eek out a D by bending the whole system to their will.
She remembers bright young faces eager and ready. She remembers hungry faces whose parents were too proud to sign up for free breakfasts. She remembers dirty faces of kids whose parents living in shelters and parks. She remembers angry faces with parents behind bars. She remembers tears when classmates or siblings died. She remembers joy and fear when students discovered they were pregnant.
She also remembers the teacher down the hall, fired after accusations of touching even though they turned out to be unfounded. She remembers the librarian who retired only to die of cancer three months later. She remembers the former principal who discovered retirement was a sure path to the grave and came back to substitute only to be pushed back out by politics.
She remembers when she started out, that the mantra was still that the black kids, the immigrant kids, her kids weren’t as smart. Then, they were and all they needed was to be lifted up and challenged. Now, she has a woman who tells her twenty times a month that those kids are bored and poor and don’t see the point and she needs to make it easier so they can at least have a diploma. She marvels that everyone else has been sliding back down the hill with her, but some haven’t noticed yet.
She realizes she’s a relic. She’s being put out to pasture or sent to the glue factory and she can’t figure out which. She’s not sure it matters. She’s pretty sure the principal already has a fresh young face, like the Canadian, picked out to take her place. And the kids, who’ve become like goldfish in a bowl, won’t even remember she used to teach there.
This is her last year. Not just because she finally got old enough to take out her pension. Not just because she finally put in enough years. No, she feels the wolves at the door. Her test scores are going to be abysmal and that’s all anyone looks at anymore. It’s not from lack of trying. She’s tried. Oh, how she’s tried. Every tactic and strategy and game and project and video and activity she’s learned in thirty-odd years of teaching and workshops and conferences and planning meetings and development classes. But she can’t compete with Facebook. She can’t compete with girl fights on YouTube or sex photos on Instagram. She can’t compete with Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy and Rick Ross and Niki Minaj. She still confiscates drugs, but now they’re mostly electronic, and she notes parents are much more upset when she takes away a phone instead of an ounce of grayish rocks.
A girl breaks through her reverie. “Miss! Miss! How do you do number four?”
She looks at the girl. Looks at the paper. Looks at the board where a nearly-identical problem was solved just twenty minutes before. “How do you find the area of a rectangle?” Still the hint of French invades her tongue even if her grammar has become fully American.
The girl looks blank.
Ms. St. Cyr points out that the problem has a diagram, has a formula built into it, asks for the area of the base of the figure. “This piece. How do you find the area of this?”
She gets no response. The girl continues to look blank, white ear buds still stuck in both ears. A plastic three-dimensional manipulative still sitting on the desk she was seated at.
“This.” She waits for the girl to drift out of her own head, to finish the text or IM she suddenly had to send. “What is this?”
“I don’t know. You’re supposed to tell me.”
Ms. St. Cyr picks up her pencil, traces the outline of the base, redraws it next to the figure. “What is this shape?”
“IDK, miss. Shit. I ain’t no genius. Just tell me.” The girl goes back to typing things on her tiny screen that are apparently more important than surface area.
Ms. St. Cyr looks out at the sea of faces staring at little screens, glances at the one humping a chair, swivels her head to the one trying to grope a girl and notices the one behind rolling his worksheet into a make-shift joint. The last two she’ll have to write up. She’ll get another lecture about how she doesn’t understand her students anymore, about how out of touch she is, and about how her subject is a dying art and the kids just need to pass already.
Once upon a time, she was well-respected. Her students did well and many went on to be successful in professions that required the skills she taught. Some sent her graduation photos and baby photos, letters of thanks. She hasn’t heard from a former student in three years, except for the one on trial for murder who wants her to tell the judge he’s really a good guy who did his homework.
An email comes through, reminding all teachers that end-of-year grades are due the end of the week that they should relax requirements now that the state tests are over so everyone can earn credit.
She thinks briefly of next year and remembers she won’t be there. Then she opens the credit-granting software and makes every column a B.