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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 9.2 (2007) 129-146

Teaching at Point Blank
Jo Scott-Coe

Their youth is touching, but I know I can't be deceived by it. The young ones are often the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns. . . .You have to go slowly with them.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

The campus buildings could be cell blocks dried out in the valley heat. Chain-link fencing, cement and brick configurations, piles of construction debris, metal frames, fiberglass and drywall, awnings, unpaved paths, and rows of trailer rooms assemble an empty ghetto. A dead city. Colors collude in a demoralized palette: cadaver gray, cinder orange, fecal brown, army green, madhouse white. It is difficult to break anything here, more difficult to fix what is broken. There are few windows, no delicate flourishes of style. Nothing says, "Be careful," or "This is important." What distantly resembles art is merely cartoonish: across the side wall of an administration building, the picture of a bear sprawls under the school name, all on orange background.

Plastic signs are screwed into structures across the site: Needles, pill bottles, guns, and grenades are sketched into circles with lines drawn through them. Above it all, the mantra of zero tolerance: "This is a drug- and weapon-free campus."

* * *

So I taught English for 11 years at my former high school and then pulled myself out, severed a career in half to accept a modest writing fellowship at a local university. The choice cost me in tangible ways: I abandoned the security of tenure, a stable salary with paid medical benefits, and a pension plan. I let go of my well-earned reputation as a highly regarded instructor in one of the community's best schools, one with a proud tradition of alumni teachers. [End Page 129]

Not long after my exit, I ran into a former administrator near the university library. He left the same year I did, moving up the ranks to become principal at his own school. "You always really cared about The Kids," he said, implying the capital letters. He looked past me at cars entering the parking lot. "I suppose this is just . . . better for you now."

I might as well have left a child in a basket on some random doorstep. I might as well have walked out on my husband or disowned my mother.

After I left, the administration put out a staff survey: How would you describe the feeling you get as a member of our staff? Do you feel that we as a staff share a feeling of family? What obstacles do you feel exist that prevent us from bonding more closely as a faculty?

I thought about how the demands of teaching had made me feel too burdened and isolated to have children of my own. How, just recently married and approaching my mid-30s, I had already donated my most fertile and energetic years to The Kids.

"So . . . what are you doing?" a former teacher-colleague asked. I guessed I had lost my place at the center of gravity and turned into a figment, some kind of shadow. She pressed again, though I had told her about my research several times before: "Hm? What are you doing now?"

I've forgotten now whatever answer I attempted. Amnesia was everywhere. I wanted to reject it, to remember and relearn.

* * *

In Neil Duncan's study of sexual bullying at schools in England, interviews with male and female students reveal consequences for girls who say "no" to boys demanding a ruler, a piece of paper, last night's homework, a pen. Special names proclaim their reluctance to serve: Bitch, Cow, Slag, Dog.

Some girls keep boys in check with sexual insults: Perv, Fag, Poof.

Males target other males who don't fit the "boy-code" with similar words. They assault peers who seem too gentle, who get along too well with girls.

Duncan reports that male physical attacks on females are rare, but he also cites a...


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pp. 129-146
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