I've been reading lb's zine Truckface since, I don't know, forever. Since we were both scruffy whippersnappers working in hippie grocery stores and getting into trouble all the rest of the time, at least. Over the years we've both grown up a lot and it's always a treat to watch, through their writing, someone else's life take shape the way yours is: unexpected, but all the way right. These days, lb is a full-time Chicago public school teacher, and Truckface is about the perils and joys and mighty battles of that profession: it's heartbreaking, gloriously funny, and a testament to the extraordinary dedication of both teachers and students in one of the most embattled school districts in the country. Truckface was recently anthologized in a new book from Mend My Dress Press, and lb was nice enough to take the time to answer a few questions.
Your evolution as a teacher over the course of the book is so awesome to watch as you go from being totally unsure of yourself to this amazing and forceful advocate for your students. What was that process like for you? In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?
When in teacher training, I was probably too judgmental while observing other teachers. There is so much shit going on in a classroom and there's never an easy day. I have just gotten better as time goes on because I know how to manage behavior in my classrooms, I set strict expectations for learning and have even become better at analyzing literature. It's well known that students perform better with a more experienced teacher. Thus, this whole Teach for America bullshit is helping to undermine the profession and does not always benefit the students. Every year I work to improve on my teaching, and I am also more confident as an educator. During those early years I don't think I knew how to be myself and a teacher at the same time. I tried to be very serious and professional since I was a few years younger. I wanted to act like a real person of authority and I forced it by yelling a lot instead of knowing that students give me authority through mutual respect. Now, the way I act at school is much different. I am totally goofy, honest and act like myself with my classes, though I still am a person of authority. They know me as someone who is heavily tattooed, ambiguously gendered, and totally fucking weird. I think it gives them the opportunity to be themselves too. So far this year, I have been teaching with a missing front tooth for 3 and a half months and not one of my students has made fun of me or called me a gap-toothed bitch. Now that is a sign of a distinguished teacher! Alert Common Core about this new standard!
Volume 2 ends on kind of a cliffhanger, right after the 2013 teachers' strike. Can you talk a little bit about what's going on in the school system now?
It was really disheartening to come back after the strike and feel as though everything got worse. We fought to stop the closure of 47 public schools in the city, but they still shut them down and thousands of teachers were displaced, not to mention the thousands of students who had to find a new school too. It has been even worse since the strike, and I feel like we are seeing the elimination of public schooling within most big cities as time goes on. After the strike, we had intense budget cuts at our school. About 30 teachers were let go. There's always some new acronym or system to learn and it adds to the already excessive levels of stress we are under as it is. The longer school year has been incredibly taxing with no days off to catch up on grading. I often take a sick day just to catch up on my grading since some of our past holidays or even teacher development days were eliminated. We now have to use both Common Core and College Readiness standards to inform our teaching and it's essentially a bureaucratic shitshow that someone is making a ton of money from. We give our students standardized tests about ten times a year. That's way too much fucking testing and makes a mockery of education. It's just too much. Also, though the mayor and other neo-liberals like to tout charter schools, there is still NO evidence that shows that charter schools perform better. This is all about money and never about the students in our city.
What are your favorite things about teaching? What are your least favorite?
I love when I get to laugh with my students. I love when students actually read and enjoy a book. I love when I listen in to their higher thinking discussions about literature and the world. I love the ability to be creative in the lessons that I design. They make all of this worth it, at least most of the time.
My least favorite parts about teaching are the adults. They are ruining education. I hate people who don't do what I do telling me how I should be doing my job. I hate the education reformers that are just trying to get us to quit our jobs or keep us so busy that we cannot unite and work together to fight. Also, gang grafitti or drawings of body parts on desks are also the worst. Hopefully, the adults are not the ones drawing the crudely drawn dongs on the walls of room 244.
I really loved your story of getting one of your most challenging student's drawings tattooed on your arms as a reminder of everything you learned from working with him. It seems like such a painful thing to often have no idea what happens to your students after they leave your classroom--how do you deal with that?
I have come to accept that I am just a fleeting part of their lives. As I have forgotten the names of many of my teachers, my students will also forget me. For the entire school year, we spend more time together than I do with my partner or family, and yet every year we know that we move onwards. Students who have dropped out have returned to say hi, but also their friends or neighbors who still go to school will keep me informed. I've been teaching for a long enough time now that I end up teaching entire families. Younger siblings come in and remind me of their brothers that I taught years ago. And since I teach freshmen and sophomores, I'll still see them in the building or in the clubs that I sponsor. Former students come to my desk and borrow books or music. They know that I'm always here for them even if we no longer see each other every day in class. Actually, this year a student who was in my reading class five years ago emailed me to ask me to help her write a resume. It was great to have her just check in. This doesn't happen very often, but it pretty much rules when students who have graduated from my school recognize me in the city, say hi and give me discounts at their jobs. But, there's also the horrible reality of some of my colleagues who only find out about about former students when they have been killed in our violent city. I think a lot about trying to find my junior year chemistry teacher, Ms. Hahn, and let her know how much she influenced me to become a teacher. She only taught for two years before leaving teaching. But, she informed so much of my teaching, and I have searched the internet to try to find her and thank her for all that she has done to influence me. I still cannot find her contact information, but I hope to someday actually let her know how big of an impact she made on me. She was seriously the goddamn best.
What keeps you going when shit gets rough?
This is a good question, and I wish there were a simple answer. I try to find things to laugh about. I cry a WHOLE LOT. I commiserate with my colleagues. I am lucky enough to have a great support system. And I try to look at the good things and appreciate the great students who are thoughtful and funny. Or at the end of the week I sit in for the student geek club and just feel great seeing the students having fun and being geeks. And I have to keep going because I know that others are depending on me, so I have to be the best for them and focus on what really matters in this game of public education. Fuck all the rest of it.
lb is a tenured Chicago public school teacher, proud union member, artist, drummer and zine writer since the age of 13. The last nine years of her long-running zine, Truckface, were recently anthologized into two volumes by Mend My Dress Press.