Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I'm in a funk.

We're not talking about a mild case of the Mondays, but a full out thunderstorm of gloom pierced through by bolts of apathetic rage, draping the sunnier parts of my personality in a light coat of annoyed frustration. This funk is bulletproof, unreceptive to the simple charms of Glee, impervious to sharing a cold one with friends; I don't even feel like celebrating Halloween, and typically I find nothing more enjoyable than having any excuse to dress up like a pirate and terrorize the school.

But this year, I don't even hand out candy. The blues has been ringing in my ears for the better part of two weeks, and I'm starting to wish the band would just shut the hell up.

It's hard to pinpoint when exactly the funk started, professionally I'm kicking more ass then I ever have, when I stop lecturing more often then not the class lets out a giant "awwww." But for all my success, I find myself dissatisfied with both my performance and my impact as a teacher.

Seniors I have worked with for years, bright kids who should be applying to Cal States, won't fill out college applications or take their SAT's. Four years of coaxing them, teaching them, encouraging them to believe in themselves, and they won't take the final steps towards higher matriculation. If they don't get in their college applications by Thanksgiving, they've missed the deadline for next year.

If the entire goal of high school is to prepare students for college, but they won't even bother to apply, what is the point of this entire exercise? I tell them to stop by my room, that I'll help them with their applications and proofread their essays during my planning period or after school.

No one ever comes.

Then there are the troublesome students, the kids who are killing time until they turn 18. As a point of pride, I believe I should be able to manage any troublesome student, no matter how belligerent, obnoxious, or disruptive - I think I can handle it. Wrong, Leiken, wrong. Some things are out of your control. I push a student too hard, and I find myself almost getting hit.

Master teacher, indeed...

But hey, at least I'm not in jail. Unlike my friend Carlee who has been ordered to do eight months for her second DUI.

She’s in a funk as well, one caused by being locked in a small cell and being unable to see sunlight. She writes they only let the inmates outside once every two weeks to play basketball in a court covered by a thick wire mesh, intentionally designed to prevent the prisoners from fully enjoying the outdoors, to glimpse only slivers of blue sky between steel cords of cold metal.

Carlee’s been a friend for years, I know her through her ex-husband whom I met in the teachers intern program. Before her DUI, Carlee worked as a teacher on an Indian reservation, dedicating her life to trying to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate. A graduate from UCLA, Carlee has no criminal record and no history of violence, she would blend into any college campus.

But the moment that Carlee was declared a felon was the moment she ceased to be a person.

All societies require sacrifices - we may not plunge daggers into a victim’s chest cavity to pull out a beating heart, but declaring someone a felon destroys the individual all the same. Hester could move to a new town and remove her scarlet letter, but with computers Carlee’s brand will follow her no matter what she does or where she goes. Her freedom to travel, her ability to get a job, to vote, even to volunteer to work with children – gone.

My father explained that the more savage district attorney's are to drunk drivers, the more popular they become. When it comes to drunk driving, no amount of punishment is excessive, the more drunks DA's lock up, the better their chances of getting reelected. Drunk driving isn't just a crime, in the eyes of American society, it's a sin.

And like all sinners, Carlee can’t be redeemed without first being purged. The DA isn’t out for justice, the DA is out for Carlee’s blood - with a 96% conviction rate, Carlee’s fate is sealed.

For breaking her boyfriend’s arm in a car crash, Carlee is charged with a felony. The boyfriend doesn't want to press charges, but to the DA, that’s immaterial. He hands Carlee the standard eight months, but will let her out in four with good behavior. Carlee is charged for the cost of cleaning up the crash, her DUI classes, and is given three years probation which she has pay for her out of her own pocket in addition to thousands of dollars in fines.

The Indian reservation, with its strict child protection policies, fires her. She's a felon - she'll probably never teach again. How she’ll find work without a driver’s license or start a career with a felony on her record is not the state’s problem. As far as society is concerned, she screwed up, and now she has to pay for it – forever.

Two weeks ago I made the trip out to Riverside to visit Carlee in the county jail. Dressed in prison blues, Carlee’s hair is a tangled mess, skin ghoulish and pale, eyes bloodshot and riddled with pain. I pick up the black receiver and we talk. Separated by two inches of bulletproof glass, I press my hand up against the pane. Carlee counters by raising her hand up as well, and for a moment, there is no conversation; nothing is said, nothing is spoken, for there are no words in English or any other language that can fully express our mutual sorrow.

By the time I leave I’m angrier and more disappointed then ever before – disappointed at the system for locking up good people, disappointed for not being able to do more to help my friend, disappointed at feeling powerless to prevent injustice.

But mostly, I’m just disappointed in myself. I can’t save my students, I can’t save Carlee, I can't stop the war in Afghanistan - I can’t seem to do much of anything.

But the worst part is that after visiting Carlee, I can’t even indulge in one of my favorite pastimes.

I can’t even feel sorry for myself...

...I'm in a funk.

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