A few weeks ago I was sitting at my computer, doing what I do best — clicking the “Get Mail” button every 20 seconds with a totally ignored course packet on my lap — when something unusual happened: I got an e-mail.
I say this was unusual not because I rarely get e-mails, but because I rarely get any while I’m clicking the button every 20 seconds. The chances of that happening are pretty slim even in an e-mail-obsessed culture like that of an overly type-A college campus, yet somehow I cling to the notion, often for hours at a time, that fate will beckon from somewhere in Emailland and that I’d better not fail to heed its call for more than 19 seconds. In any case, there I was, click, click, clicking away, watching the little pinwheel on my computer spin fruitlessly at me, when suddenly:
Bing! I had an e-mail. I had an e-mail!
“Yeah!” I shouted with glee. “An e-mail!”
After a quick look around to make sure no one had heard me (save the housemate next door, who’s privy to far too many of my neuroses anyway, thanks to a paper-thin wall), I examined the little guy more closely. It was from someone I didn’t know, but it had a subject line that referenced the Exit Players, my improv comedy group. This was no Cialis-peddling cybermerchant or strangely-named pseudoperson telling me the message was “URGENT” and that I “must read NOW”: this was someone who knew me, someone trying to reach me, someone who knew I was waiting with bated breath for opportunity to come knocking. In a flash, I had the message open; my computer is an impressive machine.
The e-mail informed me that because I was the director of an improv group, I was one of a select few seniors who were being looked at by a prestigious organization that promised to pave my way to unbridled professional success: Teach For America. Okay, I may be paraphrasing the e-mail slightly — it wasn’t quite so self-congratulatory — but it was every bit as transparently flattering … and the connection between my extracurricular interests and the programs being offered was just as tenuous.
I would have been intrigued by the e-mail’s enthusiastic disinterest in making any sense had I not already encountered a bit of the Teach For America recruiting rhetoric in the past. Even as a junior I’d been contacted by Teach For America’s headhunting staff, a team of ruthless go-getters whose communiqués have always struck me as being cheerful in the suspiciously-smiley way that only cult members can be cheerful. “It’s the most delicious Kool-Aid in the whole wide world! You gotta try it! Take a sip! Just take a little fucking sip, okay?!”
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying teaching public school right out of college is necessarily a bad thing. I think trying to get really capable people interested in teaching public school is a great idea. The public education system in our country has been rotting from the inside out for decades, and one of the results is that many of the best teachers in public schools get so fed up with poor wages, poor conditions and poor support that they wind up leaving for greener pastures: either private schools or new professions. Meanwhile, the ones who do manage to stick around are only able to do so out of a that kind of self-preservational apathy that is often confused for “patience.” My teachers back at Berkeley High School were either talented, dedicated nervous wrecks (“I get back home at 7 p.m. with papers to grade and still can’t pay my rent!”), amateur projectionists (“Today we’re going to finish watching that History Channel thing”), high all the time or some combination of the three. A few more young, motivated, talented teachers never hurts.
But I’m not saying teaching public school right out of college is necessarily a good thing, either. If you get a couple hundred young, motivated, talented teachers and immediately put them on the most difficult assignments in the country: a) they might not do that well, since those assignments call for the most experienced teachers out there, not the greenest; b) they might wind up burned out and hate the idea of going back into teaching ever again; and c) even if they do wind up in it for the long haul, chances are they wind up becoming talented, nervous wrecks or apathetic projectionists, since nothing’s really changed about the way public education is run (or, perhaps more significantly, funded).
That doesn’t matter to TFA, of course: they’ve got a mission statement, and they’re out for new blood. And since things like experience and initial interest on the part of the candidate don’t really matter to them anyway, they’re out for lots of fresh blood … pretty much anyone with an Ivy League degree seems to suit them just fine. (Never mind that such indiscriminate recruiting tactics imply that anyone who’s smart can teach well …) Hence, “You do improv — you should teach algebra in the South Bronx! You gotta try it! Do it for two years! Just two little fucking years, okay?!”
As a result of its obsessive and, to me, misguided outreach tactics, I have come — despite both the many good people I know who have done (or will do) TFA and the obvious good intentions behind trying to muster forces together to fix public education — to distrust TFA the same way I distrust a salesman: I may like what he’s selling, and he may seem to like me, but he’s also got a quota to fill.
Still, the pitch works. In just a few years, TFA has established itself as one of the smart-people-who-just-graduated-with-liberal-arts-degrees-and-now-have-no-idea-what-they-want-to-do-with-their-lives-but-are-pretty-sure-it-isn’t-remain-in-the-spin-cycle-of-academia-or-move-on-to-the-next-preset-hierarchy-in-the-finance-world demographic. Used to be those poor souls could only go to law school or move to New York and “go into, like, publishing or something.” But TFA positioned itself in such a way that it gets the lost souls who have an impulse to do something to help the world immediately upon graduating.
It’s like the Peace Corps. But, you know, creepier.
Anyway, I wrote back to the e-mail — couldn’t help myself — telling them I wasn’t interested. I got an immediate response refusing to take “No” for an answer. After a couple of messages back and forth, I let the guy cajole me into a fifteen-minute meeting on the caveat that the person I was to meet with be informed in advance I wasn’t doing the program.
Then I forgot to go. Oops. Hey, I was busy then … checking my e-mail.
David Chernicoff is a prime candidate for the next inner-city algebra teacher. Send him an e-mail him sometime; he’ll get back to you really, really fast.