Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Old Man Rivers

“But you didn't prove that vanilla was the best.”

“I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong I'm right.”

“But you still didn't convince me”

“It’s that I'm not after you. I'm after them.”

- Thank You For Smoking

The Philippines, dusk. Sitting at the hotel bar with my father, enjoying a San Miguel Light, the official (and only) light beer of the Philippines. We’re discussing immigration, and both being of the liberal persuasion are expressing a point of view Democrats would readily agree with. It’s a lazy conversation, the kind people have when they aren’t really debating but more interested in agreeing with one another; many men use sports to bond with their father, but I use politics.

Drinking alone at a nearby table, an older man drinks by himself. The weather is humid and sticky, almost unlivable to anyone familiar with the comforts of air conditioning but like a stoic hero, he sweats in silence. Grizzled and weathered, the man wears a dark T-shirt and black jeans.

Face darkening, he rises from his table. “I once hired a crew to fix the roof of my house,” he barks, interrupting our conversation. “Other than the foreman, not one of them was white, all of them were Mexican.”

“How much money did that save you?” I crack.

“Probably a lot, but you interrupted me!”

I blink. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it, continue.”

“I was making a point! He should have hired Americans to do it!”

My father decides to leap in. “Hey, take it easy. There’s no need to be rude.”

But Old Man Rivers is already walking away, irritated. “You expats are all the same, you all think you know it all! Can’t talk to you people about anything!”

I’m surprised, but decide Old Man Rivers is just a crotchety real life version of a cartoon villain from a Scooby Doo cartoon. I let it go, but the next day I see him, and the day after that I see him again. Old Man Rivers scowls in my general direction, but I ignore him, which considering the small size of the hotel is not so easy to do.

Every day, Old Man Rivers comes to the bar to flirt with the serving girls, expounding about his life to anyone who will listen. A loner, he’s been retired for the past 13 years, hasn’t been married in thirty, and has no children, a man fond of bitterly focusing on his failures. When not reflecting on his life, Old Man Rivers spends the rest of his time complaining angrily about the decline of America, which is falling apart for any number of reasons, namely:

1. The federal government

2. Obama

3. Minorities

4. Immigrants

5. Bankers

6. The Chinese

7. Liberals

I like to think I'm a patient, kind person - that there is little, if anything, that gets under my skin. I listen with half an ear, trying to ignore the words that pour from his mouth, opinions based not on fact but Fox News. But hey, he’s entitled to his opinion – it’s not my place to judge.

But there are times some people take it a step too far.

A few days later Old Man Rivers is talking with a retired firefighter named Bob, as good natured and cheerful as anyone you'll ever meet. I walk out to the bar to get reception on my computer when Bob tells me that he heard on CNN that all teachers are losing their summer vacation. I politely laugh.

“He’s a teacher,” Bob explains, looking over to Old Man Rivers. “So is my daughter.”

"Well," Old Man Rivers begins, "I'll tell you one thing, I hate those teachers unions."

I close my eyes. Do I let this go? Old Man Rivers is just a crotchety old codger who speaks piss and vinegar, spouting words so sour lemons seem sweet in comparison. I should let it go, who cares what he thinks? But not this time. He might have been attacking “teacher’s unions”, but I can read the subtext.

He’s attacking me.

"Are you trying to start a fight?" I call out.

"What, I don't know what your talking about!"

"Are you trying to start a fight?” I say again, repeating myself. “When you make a statement about teachers unions after hearing I'm a teacher, I'm assuming you want to start an argument."

"You think you know me, eh?" Old Man Rivers snarls. "You deduced that I don't like you from one statement. You are so smart, I didn't know you were such a genius."

"No, I deduced it from your earlier behavior. You snapped at me, I apologized, and then you stormed off. Now I'm assuming you want to pick up where you left off."

"I don't remember any of that."

"Well I do," I continue. "And yes, you are looking to start something. Because you could have said anything, you could have said: "You know, you teachers do hard work," or "I don't know why anyone would want to be a teacher," or "I know there are some good teachers, but I don't like the teacher's unions," or you could have commented about the weather or said nothing at all. But you deliberately made a provocative statement."

"You don't know what you’re talking about," Old Man Rivers snaps. "You don't know the first thing about me."

"You're right! Have you worked in an inner school district, or as an administrator, or had a kid threaten to shoot you in the head, or threaten to rip out your teeth? Ever had a kid dribble spit all over your desk?” I snap back. “I have! If you haven’t taught, I don't think you have the right to be so critical."

"All you teachers are the same." Old Man Rivers responds. "That's what you all say, you think you are so much better than the rest of us, but your not. I guess then you don't have the right to criticize Viet Nam because you weren't there."

Viet Nam? Where the hell did that come from? "No, I don't have the right to be critical of the soldiers because I wasn't there - unlike how you are criticizing my profession."

Bob interjects, looking embarrassed. "I'm sorry I started something, I didn't know this was..."

"Don't apologize," Old Man Rivers interrupts, jerking a thumb at me. "This guy doesn't have good manners."

I rise from my seat and move over to Old Man River's table, sitting across from him. "I want to hear your opinion, but in return you have to listen to mine. But unless you've really experienced what is like to be a teacher, you can't understand the importance of the union and how it protects my wages and my benefits."

"So now we know the price of your soul." Old Man River's huffs. "A few benefits and wages."

The bar has grown quiet, both Filipino's and expats watching with wide eyes amazement. Evidently I'm not just a teacher, according to Old Man River's, I'm some sort of priest that's supposed to sacrifice everything for my students. From this point on the conversation revolves around refuting his half-baked facts while he counters with anecdotal evidence (probably from Fox news) about how teachers unions protect bad teachers. I tell him that a few bad teachers aren't the reason why kids fail, kids fail because of indifferent parents and byzantine regulations that make it impossible to enforce consequences.

Old Man Rivers changes topic to how the federal government has taken control of local schools, I inform that the majority of school funds come locally from the State, and that other than Title One and other limited programs, the Federal government has little influence how states run their schools. Old Man Rivers expounds that teacher's unions make it impossible to fire teachers, I tell him that we just lost 25% of our staff at my school, and that three other schools fired 50% of their teachers in my district.

"Well I don't know the case of your school, but I don't know why you are wasting your time talking to me, because I'm not going to change your mind and you aren't going to change mine." I spare a glance over to Bob and the Filipino's behind the counter. He's right, I'm not going to change his mind, but I have an audience, and he's played his part of the old fool to the hilt. Bob pays his bill, but approaches me, muttering. "You are a lot more patient than I am, after he cut me off I was ready to hit him."

It's rare to meet someone who really dislikes teachers and thinks we're spoiled, overpaid, crybabies, but it's clear to me that Old Man Rivers really hates my profession. Of course, I think he hates most people.

Why is it that if soldiers lose a war, no one calls them lazy or cowards? Why is it when crime rises in a city or district, hardly anyone says it’s because the police were eating too many doughnuts? But teachers are different. We’re supposed to give everything – even our own wages and benefits for the public good, and when we don’t we’re often labeled as greedy and selfish.

Maybe it’s not because people hate teachers, but it’s because when you badmouth a teacher, they don’t have any real power to hurt you. Badmouth a cop or a soldier, and you might get punched in the face.

I think as a profession we should start carrying nightsticks.