School is a terrible place to have to spend your days. As any disgruntled student can tell you, the walls are sterile, the teachers suspicious, the curriculum irrelevant, the freedoms nonexistent.
And, out of all the places
on earth I could be, I have chosen to spend my workdays here. I
made this decision, perhaps naively, thinking I could be one of the
people (in education there are more than a few) seeking to make the
classroom a less terrible place to be.
thought, don't have to be sterile; color is cheap and imagination
is free. Teachers, I thought, don't have to be suspicious; if
students are trusted, they will be trustworthy, and if they are
respected, they will be respectful. Curriculum doesn't have to be
irrelevant; there's a whole world to learn from. As for freedom, I
thought, that's just a state of mind.
almost 10 years now, and today I am looking at a bullet hole in the
forehead. Having this afternoon seen one of our students packed
into a police car in handcuffs; having watched a student bleeding
from multiple stab wounds in the hallway of a different school; and
having been assaulted once myself, I am grateful that this wound is
only drawn in ink, and I am grateful that it is only on a poster.
Somehow, it injures nonetheless.
defaced today is one of dozens that hang in my room, spots of color
I have brought, borrowed and cadged in my ongoing campaign to
desterilize the walls. Many are images of wolves, all gifts from
friends and colleagues who know of the years I spent researching
and writing a book about a local wolf pack. This particular poster
is a favorite, not only for its subject - a huge, black-framed
image of a gray wolf's piercing gaze - but for its source: a quiet
student who traveled to an agriculture convention in Kansas City,
and brought the poster all the way back on the bus; it arrived in
perfect condition, a fact I remember as clearly as I remember the
pride and satisfaction on the young woman's face when she presented
it to me.
This is not the first time someone has
put an inky "bullet" into that wolf's forehead. Last time it was
before summer vacation instead of Christmas break; last time I was
able to erase the ink, though not the pen's impression. Each time,
I felt the same pang in my chest.
Each time the
lesson is the same: that cute Koosh toy won't cheer many kids
before it's stolen. The bird feeder you put out will attract no
finches with a glob of pre-chewed candy. It's fine to park your car
in the staff lot, if you don't mind cleaning off spit, smashed
banana, or a broken egg at the end of a day. Go ahead and bring
your whole heart to the classroom, but be prepared for smirks and
Each time I think, "Asta, get over it:
this is trivial. This is nothing compared to the student who,
blessedly, has returned whole and well from a suicide attempt. This
is nothing compared to the student who, tragically, has not yet
returned from a death in the family. This is nothing compared to
the artful poem just turned in by a talented senior, the startling
analysis done by an underachieving sophomore, or the research
talent now emerging in an unsuspecting junior.
This is nothing. Just a poster on the wall. The kid with the pen
must have been desperate for attention, desperate for a laugh,
desperate to prove himself. Think of the inky bullet hole, "Asta,
as just another spot of color, a creative addition to the
photograph: a different kind of gift from a different kind of
You have to toughen up, kid. Much ado
over a little vandalism? It's not like there's blood on the floor
or an ambulance on the way. It's not like the kid meant to hurt
anybody. It's just that school never was the place for trust, for
freedom, for color on the walls: it's the place for textbooks,
grades, and getting by the best you can. And thanks to a handful of
students - a few desperate, wounded creatures - I now know exactly
how to keep it that way.
The hole in the poster
may be superficial, but the hole in my heart is real. Neither, I'm
afraid, can be fixed.
'Asta Bowen lives in rural Montana. She is also
a contributor to Writers on the Range, the syndication service of
High Country News.