Fuzzy Slippers, Sharp Minds

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After a year in corporate America, teaching is a sleeper hit.

By Ariel Horn | Maria* shuffles down the school hall, her oversized Bugs Bunny slippers dragging on the linoleum floor. As she rounds the corner approaching my classroom, she dramatically throws her body through the door, her mouth agape in a combination of horror, shock, and annoyance. “Ariel, it’s mad cold in here! I’m gonna die!”

I shrug and put my arm around Maria’s shivering shoulders, saying as earnestly as I can to a 17-year-old wearing Miss Piggy pajamas, “And yet somehow, Maria, we will get through this. I think we’re gonna make it.”

Maria continues shivering as her friend Latishe walks in the door, looks at me, and rolls her eyes—an expression that after three months of teaching I’ve come to expect from almost all of my 11th-graders. “Yo, I am so not kidding. My brain is frozen! There’s no way I’m gonna learn anything today. Let’s go home now.” Latishe shivers and rubs her arms. “Stupid Pajama Day. School should be canceled. There’s no heat!”

My teeth chatter, too, though I have the benefit of wearing clothes rather than pajamas: in my early-morning new-teacher daze, I had forgotten it was Pajama Day in the first place.

Latishe sits down and promises no one in particular, “Oh, you haven’t seen the last of Latishe—’cause I’m going to Student Government about this! I have rights, you know!”

As the rest of my students file into my classroom just seconds before class starts, I surrender a pair of gloves to Kyra, who has “gone on strike like those labor-union people we learned about” against the school’s broken heating-system. “I refuse to learn until the heat goes on!” Kyra looks at the board. “We’re supposed to read about Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois today? Yeah right. I’m on strike!”

Kyra sits down to dissect and analyze Beyoncé with another girl at her table, and concludes, “Beyoncé is the best dancer, period. And I am not going to do any work today—it is way too cold in here!” I raise an eyebrow at Kyra, who knows by now that this is my way of saying, “You really can’t be serious.” But Kyra says she is putting her foot down on this issue. But putting your foot down while wearing fluffy powder-blue slippers rarely carries the political oomph you want it to.

“Nope, definitely not learning today. I’m takin’ the day off.”

“Can I get my jacket? I’m freezing!”

“If she gets her jacket, I want to get mine!”

“That’s not fair—you just want to leave class!”

“Don’t tell her that!”

“I think we should be paid to go to school. Or maybe just me—I should get paid. Teachers get paid.”

“Teachers work!”

“What do you mean? I work!”

“Can we not do anything today? It’s too cold!”

“Let’s not do anything tomorrow either.”

The chorus of “Let’s not do anything” gets louder, and some girls reluctantly settle into their seats, while the rest of them stare at me skeptically. I look back at the sea of pink, purple, yellow, and blue pajamas and smile as I panic. Dear God, I pray, please make them forget the cold and start working. If they start working, I swear I will never ask for anything again. I won’t ask for heat in the classroom, I will wear pajamas to school everyday, but Dear God, please let them forget the cold, forget the fact that they’re in pajamas on the only day all year the heat just happens to be broken in our school. Just as my anxiety switches to high gear, my students suddenly and miraculously transform from a mob in cartoon-covered pajamas into smart, curious individuals who suddenly, amazingly, and passionately remember why they’re here.

There is a God.

Breaking her strike, Kyra forcefully raises her hand and begins talking without waiting for me to call on her. “I think Booker T.’s ideas were terrible—I mean, we should prove that we can work and help the American white society economically before we get civil rights, which I think we’ve deserved in this country for years?!”

Latishe turns to Kyra, shaking her head. “Yeah, but that whole talented tenth thing with DuBois doesn’t make sense either—is he saying that like only 10 percent of the African American population has anything to offer society? That’s just crazy.”

As my students continue to debate whose ideas they agree with more, I allow myself a small, relieved smile while moderating their discussion. Somehow, they always do this: Just when I think that teaching my 11th-graders will somehow become an impossible task—tantamount to picking every piece of gum off the sidewalk in Manhattan—they astound me with their energy, their passion, their excitement.

Had someone asked me on my graduation day at Penn in 2002 where I thought I’d be two years later, my answer probably wouldn’t have been: “In an unheated New York, all-girls public high-school classroom, surrounded by 17-year-olds in multi-colored cat pajamas and fluffy pink and purple slippers in honor of the school’s first-ever Pajama Day.” 

Then again, that’s not what most people think when they envision their “professional” future.

I thought I had it all mapped out: I would get some interesting and impressive job in corporate America as so many Penn grads before me had done, live in New York, and be happy. In spite of my expectations, my senior-year job search proved particularly torturous: after repeated rejections from “successful” companies, I feverishly tried to secure any type of job for myself, which—in my most desperate hours—included attempts to become an earthworm breeder and a professional deodorant sniffer. In my darkest moment, I even auditioned for a nationwide contest to become the voice of a cartoon cat for Meow Mix (a job, I am both embarrassed and delighted to say, I won.).

So when, one week after graduation, I received that glorious phone call from an impressive advertising agency I had applied to three months earlier, I was elated: for both my sanity and the sanity of my mother. Finally, we had been delivered. Someone out there decided to hire me.

My delusions of corporate grandeur led me to envision a challenging and exciting push-and-shove world, where ideas were miraculously thought of over late-night cups of coffee in overcrowded conference rooms. In my warped predictions, the office would be a teeming microcosm of the best the universe itself had to offer.

Nowhere in my contract had it read, “Sit at computer checking e-mail all day, wondering whether my education had been worth anything more than hours spent wondering how long I could stare at my computer without blinking.”

It must have been in the fine print.

After one unhappy year that felt like 10 in corporate America, I picked up and left, much to the shock of Human Resources. “It’s a hard market out there,” I was told. “We have better benefits than anyone else.” “You’ll never find a job better than this one.”

Somehow, though, I did.

Admittedly, the transition into “non-corporate” America hasn’t been entirely smooth, largely because of the stigmas and social baggage attached to working in a public school in New York: “It must be so hard for you.” “Why would you do that?” “Isn’t it dangerous working in East Harlem?” (To which the respective responses have become, “It’s much more fun than I ever could’ve imagined.” “I do it because as hard as it is, I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile and important.” “The only danger is opinionated teenagers, and you’ll find those anywhere.”) 

Few people realize that while many New York City public schools are failing, some schools—like The Young Women’s Leadership School—are thriving, thanks in no small part to the smart, dedicated, and passionate teachers at the school who have become my most trusted mentors. I’ve learned more from them in the past several months of teaching than I learned in a year at my other job.

In the office, my worries were typically about whether I’d get my work done in time, what time I’d get to leave, and, well, what time I’d get to leave. On an average day at school, I find myself worrying less like a disgruntled employee and more like a concerned parent: Will Rosa’s family get evicted? Will Christina see that her boyfriend’s opinion of her isn’t as important as her own self-confidence? Is there any way I can help Sandra cope with her father’s death from drug abuse?

And while there are days I find myself making absurd mental negotiations with God, they are outnumbered by the days I find myself relieved, happy, and thankful to be in a place—with or without heat, Bugs Bunny slippers or not—where I don’t have to think twice about whether my education ever amounted to anything important.

*Students’ names were changed.

Ariel Horn C’02 has continued teaching in New York’s public schools, currently at Hunter College High School. Her first novel, Help Wanted, Desperately (Avon Books) is out in October (See “Putting the Lit in Chic Lit”).

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