East Sacramento Preservation Pat Lynch Essay
I worked for a while in a place that was the most wretched of its kind in California. It was a failing high school that served, along with non-English speakers and poor kids, a thundering population of gang-bangers. It was the loudest place I’ve ever been, including the rock concerts of youth. Male students spat incessantly and horribly on the covered pavement walkways, the front entrance was peppered with bullet holes, the fire alarm was set off several times a month, and when gangstahs (not gangsters) stole wallets and cell phones they threw them on the roof to retrieve after the plump and fatigued security guy had given up the search. Fights broke out daily. Fighters bashed opponents’ heads with bike locks.
Our new principal did not address these matters. He orated frequently about professionalism and enjoined us to comport ourselves in a professional manner. We were to dress well. We were to be positive and polite, not critical and negative. We were all to conspire in the genteel presumption that everyone was doing his or her best. A cadre of about six teachers promptly formed around the principal and began dressing up in suits and carrying coordinated purses or briefcases. Charles Dickens himself could not have invented a more servile and unctuous bunch. They too began to discuss “professionalism.” It wouldn’t be “professional,” they told a team of worried teachers, to complain to the School District about school management. (This reminds me of criticisms leveled at neighborhood activists who oppose certain projects; the word, unprofessional, is sometimes hijacked and used against them. The subtext here is that a deferential, even sheepish approach to power is more effective. This of course plays perfectly into the hands of the powerful).
Back to school. Things got worse. We spent way too much time managing behavior problems. It took our attention from the majority of kids who needed us. I felt I was on a lifeboat with starving student passengers, meager amounts of water and food, and one gigantic sociopath delinquent I had constantly to battle lest he gobble the resources and capsize us. That was the labored metaphor with which I tried to identify the crisis. There wasn’t enough security. We were losing control. We weren’t police: we needed police. And we needed cameras in the classrooms. When a committee of alarmed teachers finally wrote a collective report about campus violence and attributed it specifically to administrative neglect, one of the principal’s covey was dispatched to meet with the team. The report was “unprofessional,” he said. “Casting blame” was “unprofessional.” Sharp, decisive language? Unprofessional. Then came a mass email from the principal himself. “We’re all professionals here,” he began grandly. “We need to act like it.”
Professionalism commonly means conforming to loosely accepted standards of dress and etiquette. People who talk a lot about being “professional” usually aren’t. And anxiety about being perceived as professional can make some employees so morally timid they become mute and paralyzed. But professionalism doesn’t mean not criticizing, not agitating for reform; nor does it mean substituting innocuous blandishments for clear, vivid language. Do you imagine decision-makers in the Supreme Court talk about being “professional?” Hardly. I suspect lower level bureaucrats are the people most concerned with these appearances.
Back again to the crisis. Since the administration would do nothing, somebody on that campus (not I) called the media. One ordinary morning during an ordinary semi-riot, TV trucks drove up and reporters and camera operators entered the mayhem. A reporter approached me. “This is crazy,” he said. “How did you let it get this bad?”
“We had to be professionals and not criticize our betters,” I said. He laughed and wrote it down but it didn’t show up in the paper. However film, pictures and stories about the campus did appear, and days later School District representatives strolled the grounds. More security guards were hired. The principal announced that he would retire. I saw him in the faculty lounge. “I hear you’re leaving,” I said with professional politeness.
He placed his hand on his chest, as if to indicate heart problems. “Health,” he said with a wan smile. I nodded as though I believed him. Because that’s what professionals are supposed to do.
The next fall we got a new principal. She was breezy and smart. She walked around without an entourage. She facilitated the speedy transfer of some of the most violent trouble-makers, reminding us the while that they were profoundly disadvantaged kids. She hired more security and aides. Our imperfect work world began to hum along. One kid, Bo, said he could now go to GLBT meeting without getting beat up. The principal said her office was open to drop-ins from faculty, staff and students, and she remained accessible to everybody. Memos and mass emails about professionalism stopped. Instead, we were invited to submit suggestions for improvement.
We would only have her for a year, and knew it, so we called it, “The Year of Not Living Dangerously.” In June we bade her a sad goodbye. We wondered who we’d get next fall. One of the old devotees of the former bad principal said, “I hope it’s somebody who’s a real professional,” and I can still hear the collective reaction—a huge groan followed by protracted bursts of laughter.