Darkness at Noon in Santa Monica

I’m sitting here in the dark at my desk at Santa Monica High School. To turn the lights on, I have to get up, take three mother-may-I steps away from my desk and flail my arms about. Since it takes me about 15 minutes to grade an essay, and I have to get up, on average, three times per paper, I figure the motion sensors are set to turn off the lights about every five minutes. It’s some architect’s or engineer’s idea of how to make energy use more efficient in classrooms. The assumption, apparently, is that when the children leave, when the motion stops, so does the life of the classroom.

Sometimes, when I’m having a parent conference after school, the lights go off. My guests automatically think it’s a power failure. Some of my regular visitors know better: They start flailing their arms about. I know one teacher who wads up papers and throws them at the lights. (I’m thinking scratch paper, not her students’ work, though who knows what madness the lights inspire.)

Sacramento wants to hold teachers and schools accountable for low-achieving students. Yes, we all need to be held accountable. But the politicians and the education bureaucrats are making it impossible for a good-hearted smart person to do her job well.

There’s no hot water in our school’s bathrooms, which is a problem when children sneeze into their hands while asking to borrow your pen. And the toilet paper--my experiences with toilet paper could be a metaphor for public education.


With the first round of construction at Santa Monica High came new toilet-paper-roll holders rigged to dispense one square sheet at a time--for teachers who do not have time to get to the bathroom before the next bell rings. So I filled out a work order. The replacement dispenser was rigged to prevent paper waste. But what did it do? The toilet paper wouldn’t stop flowing. It rolled to the floor and puddled. Waste galore. I wish I could stop there. But there remains the installation of the hand dryers. You know, the ones to prevent all that paper waste. But the bell she is a’ ringin’, so we teachers all run around wiping our cold, wet hands on our skirts and pants as we head back to class. Where’s the dignity? I secretly suspect that teachers, when their colleagues aren’t around, don’t wash their hands after visiting the restroom.

I ask you: You want literacy? Did you know that of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, California ranks 50th in class size? An English teacher who teaches five periods a day finds herself accountable for upward of 140 students. At 15 minutes per essay, that’s a lot of jumping up and down to keep the lights on. The options are downright dismal: streamline and conserve your energy, partitioning out your desperately needed comments one little square at a time, or roll and roll until you’re all out of steam, of innovation, of charm.

No one likes to know you could do a job well if only they’d let you, and when given impossible circumstances, high-quality teachers look for ways out. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 33% to 50% of new teachers leave education after five years. In our department, we have two teachers who can afford to teach part-time but they still feel they are carrying a full load. Last year, we lost two of our best fourth- and fifth-year teachers to other professions. Many of the young women we hire have babies--fair enough--but without any sort of day-care program available to teachers (mind you, we have an excellent day-care program on campus for students with babies), we’re sure to lose some of them as well.

Did you know that the only way for women teachers to qualify for disability insurance during maternity leave is to use up all their accumulated sick days first? What if they or their children get sick? Furthermore, upon retirement, those sick days add monetary value to retirement packages, making maternity leave a definite disadvantage to women. Other than the promise that they will have a job to return to after six weeks and that they can collect the difference in pay between their salary and that of the substitute teacher (that is, it behooves women teachers to hope and pray for the least-experienced low-end salary person to take over the classes they feel so sad about abandoning), our district offers women who have children absolutely nothing. Nothing.

My pregnant colleague who didn’t realize that being pregnant would be considered a “pre-existing condition” and “disability” is out of luck. Her husband works for a computer company. He gets one month paid paternity time. Another colleague of mine who had a baby last summer tells me she has to pump her milk in our faculty restrooms. She’s probably thankful when the lights go out.

The rest of the time, we struggle to find enough books to teach. We spend our lunchtimes making charts to determine who gets what, when. Sacramento frets about the number of non-credentialed teachers in California’s classrooms. But shouldn’t someone start to wonder more publicly, more statistically, why college graduates will not pursue graduate programs in education? Why so many will not enter the profession?

According to a report by EdSource, a nonprofit source of data on state education, California last year ranked 38th in the nation in per-pupil spending. The difference from the national average was $914. New York spent almost twice as much per student as California. Our state has decided to pay high-achieving students cash for scoring in the 90th percentile on the Stanford 9 test, while socioeconomically disadvantaged students and the teachers who strive to get a book into their hands go begging. And I’m working in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, one of the most parent- and city-supported districts that I know. But it’s not enough.

Conservation? Efficiency? Energy? I love teaching, but I’m sitting here at my desk in the dark. Someone else better start jumping up and down.


Lorrie Horn is the chair of the Santa Monica High School English Department.