Essays | Lit

The Staples Letters: The Stories Teachers Tell

Lizzie Smith

Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the Staples Letters are a series of essays in the South Side Weekly written in the form of letters from a veteran teacher, Staples, giving advice to a young teacher, Ms. T. All events in the Staples Letters are drawn directly from real-life experiences in Chicago schools, and names and identifying details have been removed in the interest of privacy. Though fictional in form, the letters are used to address a variety of issues in education, from quotidian classroom considerations to national policy.

Ms. T—

Wow, that guy sounds terrible—I really hope he isn’t at your school much longer. The problem is, there always seem to be people like this around, and that is because there are always compelling stories that justify their bad behavior. I would stand up to these creeps wherever and whenever possible, but to really eradicate them, you need to attack the stories.

So take this dean at your school constantly screaming at and cussing out the kids. Obviously you’ve seen this person for who he is—one of these adults obsessed with “respect,” who treat every encounter as a referendum on their own manliness or sense of control. The type who love that “you’re going to do this NOW because I SAID SO” kind of routine. It’s clear: they act this way because they enjoy it. That’s the whole reason. But they couldn’t get away with that as their justification. So, they tell a story.

In this case, the story is that there are certain students who “need” this kind of treatment, who only “respond” to yelling, screaming, belittling intervention. And if it’s a little rough? So be it. It gets RESULTS. You want results, don’t you?

Total BS. The best case scenario here is occasionally coercing certain students to put their phone away or stop talking. If that’s your goal as an educator—a room full of angry, silent seventeen-year-olds—then congrats. The real joke is that even this dubious achievement only happens with the students who don’t “cause trouble” to begin with. The toughest students, the ones this approach allegedly works wonders with, often end up screaming back at the adult, leading to a suspension or worse.

The game is rigged. When they don’t “get results,” the adult just blames the kid, anyway. It’s like in the movie Best in Show, when the guy is explaining his job as the chief hostage negotiator charged with talking down people threatening to jump off tall buildings. “How many people have you successfully talked down?” they ask him. “Oh, they all jump,” he replies.

So that’s one story to be on the lookout for. Another related story goes back to what we were talking about before, how some people just act like suffering is a good thing for its own sake; that a kid will really benefit in some bizarre way from bad things happening to them, that it will really teach them some kind of sick lesson.

Lots of times you’ll hear these adults say the kids “better get used to it now.” I heard one of the security guards enacting that one the other day. A kid had forgotten their ID to swipe into our building and the guard was really letting him have it. “Just imagine if you were a doctor or something. Doctors have to swipe to get into work. What happens to them if they forget their ID?”

So, again, in this case, the adult is acting like they are doing some sort of favor for the kid. And, again, it is total BS. Let’s break it down. First, this is a teenager we are dealing with, not a fully grown adult with an advanced medical degree. So the expectations and consequences actually should not be the same. Also, adults forget their IDs all the time! I forget my ID to get into that very building with those very guards constantly! Do I get screamed at? Of course I don’t. And will screaming at a student make them remember their ID more often? Or will it just make them more likely to ditch altogether? It’s not about helping the student; it’s not about solving a problem; it’s about power. The adult can get away with screaming at the kid, so that’s who gets screamed at.

I think all of these stories serve to legitimize abuse, but the abuse doesn’t always take the form of anger or outright bullying. There’s another, subtler version, however, that can be even more insidious. This story centers around either “tough love” or GRIT. I really hope you don’t have an administrator obsessed with grit at your school. Grit is the idea that students in poor schools just lack the tenacity or perseverance to overcome obstacles. That they just give up too easily.

This one really makes my blood boil. Take this girl in my class. She’s eighteen, has a one-year-old daughter, and works full time. She leaves school at around four and works until midnight everyday. I asked her how she can possibly get enough sleep and she told me she smokes weed right when she gets home, which puts her right to sleep. So, full-time job, full-time school, and a kid. I asked about the father. She said he isn’t in the picture and has a new girlfriend. This is an extremely common thing at my school.

So, I was a high school success and she barely gets by because I had so much more grit? I possess so much more perseverance? That’s a sick joke, right? My life was a million times easier, and still is. But the proponents of this story would have you believe we each had the exact same odds, the same obstacles and advantages, and that any discrepancy in outcomes was a personal, somehow moral failing. It is literally sickening.

But lots of adults tell that story! Lots find it completely reasonable. They even make PowerPoints and give presentations on it: How To Teach Your Students To Blame Themselves For This Grossly Unequal Country We Call Home. No institution ever tries to alleviate these problems in any kind of material way; it’s one hundred percent on the teenager to just figure it out. All any adult has to offer them is a lecture. This one is just a convenient way for people to act like they’re doing something positive even as they uphold and defend the very system creating the need for grit in the first place!

Worst of all, some students do start to believe this themselves. I constantly hear them talk about “the choices” they’ve made, as in: “Well, around the time I was in junior high, I made some bad choices.” This sort of accountability would be refreshing coming from politicians and CEOs, but it utterly depresses me when it comes from the students. Call me a dreamer, but I don’t believe a person should be able to ruin their life with some “choices” at age eleven.

All these people want to teach students to fit into the world as it is. Instead, it should be your goal to inspire students to change the world to fit them. Delegitimize this rhetoric; attack the stories. Start telling your own story, or better yet, listening to the ones your students already know.

That’s a choice you get to make. To not be a horrible ghoul. Maybe print a sign up and hang it on your door: Room 1947—No Ghouls Allowed.

Your affectionate cousin,

Staples

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Support community journalism by donating to South Side Weekly

The Weekly is a volunteer-run nonprofit written for and about the South Side of Chicago. Our work is made possible through donations from our readers. If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a one-time or recurring donation. Donate today.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *