Continuing Letters From the Inside: Brandi Martin
A good friend and young active passed along this letter from – believe it or not – 2011, from an art teacher not in Illinois but certainly facing the same pressures and insults many in public education have endured and continue to bear. Thanks, Kris, for the heads up.
A Letter From an Art Teacher You Won’t Forget
“I've taught art for seventeen years. I've complained about certain things at work, but I've never regretted my profession. We all knew what we were signing up for when we chose our jobs; I knew I wouldn't get rich, but I knew I'd have summers off, and a steady paycheck. So did you, actually. The summer thing is an antiquated agrarian anachronism, (read, not new), so please don't act outraged at this fresh new insult. If you became a banker or waitress or IT guy or whatever job you have that doesn't seem to mind your constant vigilance of pro union tweets, you knew it had two weeks vacation a year. You knew the salary, and the risks of advancement. When i started teaching in 1993 my contract said $20,000. I thought that sounded AMAZING. I thought a bulldozer with a haystack of twenty thousand dollar bills was going to pull up and dump them all over me. When i started getting paid I had to take a weekend job at Carmen's Pizza taking phone orders for delivery so I could pay my bills. But I had no complaint.
“To earn this $20k I taught art on a cart to 850 kids at 3 different schools every week. Almost every kid was on free lunch. My budget was $1.50 per child per year. This is *actually* possible. My classes applauded when I entered the room every single time! I took up Spanish lessons again at my own expense, so that I could say "Quieres papel amarillo, o azul? Doblalo, y desdoblalo. Ok, cortalo. Bueno!" So that the new kid off the boat (so to speak) wasn't terrified that they had to talk to the gringa teacher. We made puppets, paper mache, tissue snowflakes, and lots of chalk and tempera paintings. I loved going to work every day. I loved festooning each little school with the happy art. I enjoyed telling wide-eyed kids I actually lived in the dark, mouse-poopy art closet down the hall. I worked in the lowest paying district in a 300 mile radius, but I didn't care. I felt needed, and I knew I was making some little soul's morning, every time I went to work.
“I feel less and less that way when I read angry tweets and newspaper comments about my profession. Maybe I shouldn't read what angry tax paying trolls write and say on the internet, but I'm so appalled I keep checking to see if it's still there. I'm told I'm ungrateful. I read that I am greedy, or a tool of greedy union bosses. I am a selfish son of a bitch, one guy informed me, when I was trying to explain the details and the facts of current legislation. I read that everyone's life is going down the toilet, because I am breaking their backs. I have ruined everything. Everything is ruined.
“Please know it did not feel like ruining everything. It felt like sitting in a tiny plastic chair at a tiny table, cajoling an autistic preschooler into brushing watercolor across a white wax face i had pre drawn, then watching him laugh at the big reveal. It felt like receiving a drawing as a gift from a talented little boy who drew like an adult, but suffered crippling arthritis in his hands and for whom i had arranged free classes at SAIC. It felt like crossing a name off a roster because she and her grandmother had been raped and killed in their house near the school. It felt like a million little notes shoved into my hands and pockets from eager little people who only came up to my waist. It felt like tamales from mothers who could not speak much English, but beamed widely as they handed the foil package over.
“Now at the high school level it feels like alarmed inquiries following my every absence, it feels like a crowd around my desk, like emails during the evenings and weekends. It feels like a 6'2 kid standing up from his computer animation to announce loudly "I AM AN ARTIST". It feels like kids who come back during their lunches and study halls, spending half the day in my room, and sometimes come to school only for my class: this according to parents. It feels like emails and letters, even years later, saying I was the best teacher they ever had. It feels like all my letters of recommendation, begging for college admission or a scholarship for another fine young person. It feels like trust, or just relief that I listen.
“So guess what; I am rich, you miserable, bitter harpies. But you have it all wrong. Just because your job sucks and you can't wait to get out of there every day doesn't mean that's how I feel making my living. It's a shame, but it's a world of your own making. If you loved your job, I doubt you'd be investing this kind of time degrading mine. In contrast, I enjoy the luxurious power of changing kids' minds about school *every day*, even on eight year old computers that run on my sheer will alone.
“So do it. Reduce my pension. Make me poor, since I don't qualify for Social Security. Make my medicine unaffordable. Make my raise contingent upon proof that my art lessons somehow improved state math scores. Continue firing at my feet to see how long you can make me dance. It still won't change the fact that life did not work out as you planned and you're now a bitter little turd. AND I will STILL fucking love my job, because I am rocking this for all the right reasons. After you take every tool and incentive and support away from me, and millions like me, you won't suddenly have anything great that you don't already have. And then you will be terribly disappointed to find out that this isn't a scam after all. Whether decorated or destroyed, inside every school we run on something you can't legislate, isolate, measure or destroy. Much to your inarticulate all caps despair.
“It's love, dumbass. If you'd bother to volunteer at the little school down the street you could have a sample. I won't even tell the kids what you wrote about their teacher.”