Welfare to work or what?
I had been on the job barely three months when my boss – the nephew of some Republican senator – told me what a rotten job I was doing getting people ready to get off welfare.
Although I had taught students in regular schools, no job was so difficult as this one.
I couldn’t seem to make the clients understand the need for them to learn the job skills I was providing, how the government had put a time limit on their benefits after which they would have to work or …
Even I didn’t know what they would do if they couldn’t.
How could things get much worse than they already were, I wondered? The neighborhood scared me more than my first period, full of hidden and not so hidden dangers that made me check my car door locks twice before I got into the city, and made me drive too fast when I drove back out after classes.
In college, I always touted liberal beliefs, and I thought I still believed in helping the poor. This is why I couldn’t justify the relief I felt when I finally pulled up to my suburban home where I didn’t have to look around before I got out of the car.
My husband – also very liberal – blamed my boss for pushing new federal quotas that didn’t make any sense.
I disagreed saying my boss was doing these people service by forcing them off welfare, and that I was doing my part with him to make life better for the people who were addicted to hand outs.
After all I said, the ghettos are getting smaller and the crime rate is down.
That’s because there are more people in jail than ever before in history, my husband argued, and violence is down in middle class neighborhoods where taxes can pay for a lot of cops.
Violence is just as rampant in places such as where I work.
I argued that it only seemed that way because of the confined space.
All of this ran through my head when I drove to work the next day. But I steeled myself with the conviction that someday the place where I worked will be a nice as the place where I lived and we might all live up to those liberal dreams I had when I was in college.
But as I drove though the city, I noticed that the ghetto wasn’t improving so much as being transformed, people being driven out to make way for new condo developments and so that people like me from the suburbs can have a safe place to live. Many of the new developments actually had gates and guards.
This force many of the poorer people into the smaller space left that they could afford. Then I remembered the experiments with rats from my college psychology classes which showed how much more rats fought when confined to smaller and smaller spaces.
Then my boss confronted me with a new federal mandate that said she had to cut off the dead wood and get rid of those people in the program who are clearly not taking the instruction seriously enough.
“After all the taxpayers are footing the bill for this opportunity and if people don’t take is seriously, they shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“But where do they go if we don’t take care of them?” I asked.
“That’s their problem not ours,” my boss said.
In class, I pleaded with my people to follow the rules. Some of them nod. Most laugh, saying Lincoln freed the slaves and they weren’t going to give no boss the opportunity to start up slavery with them.
“But you’ll starve in you don’t work,” I said.
“We won’t starve,” several of them said and gave me a kind of wink that had me imagining them being shot in a holdup or a drug deal gone wrong
When I came home crying my husband criticized my students has ungrateful people.
“After all, you’re trying to help them,” he said.
Rage roared though me and I swear at that moment I hated him – not so much for being cruel, but rather for saying what I was thinking myself.
After an agonizing night, I went to school the next day and did what my boss told me to do, telling all those who I felt weren’t going to make it to leave.
I figured the reduced class size would allow me to focus more on those who still stood a chance. If I could save some people, I will have done my job.
Despite my misgivings the night before and my husband’s harsh words, I truly believed we were all the same deep down, all people who wanted the same basic things.
And if I did my job well enough, I could give them all they needed to keep their place in the changing city and not be driven into some unknown limbo the way many would be when the city finished changing.
I was still glowing with renewed hope when my boss approached me the following Monday and said the cuts weren’t good enough to meet the new federal standards just released and that I would have to let more people go.
In the class room and executioner might have been greeted better as I told the next layer of borderline people that the school could not keep them on.
Each one of these people looked at me as if I had betrayed them, a deep anger smoldering in their eyes for me having led them on, me making them believe that they could have it as well off as I had it, when in truth, they could not.
Then, I got out to my car and found the windows broken and the tires slashed.
A group of young street hoodlums hooted at me and asked me to come up into one of the buildings with them where they could make “a real woman out of me.”
I confess. I ran. I hated them. I was scared of them, and I was ashamed to admit that I wanted them all dead.
By the time I got the car towed home, I had come to the conclusion that I didn’t belong in the ghetto.
My husband called it a cultural divide that I could not bridge for all my good intentions.
“Those people don’t see a difference between you and your boss,” he said.
At that point, I agreed with him – as ashamed as I am to admit it – and vowed to find a job in a nice, safe middle class neighborhood, or perhaps in one of the schools servicing the new neighborhoods elsewhere in the city.
I vowed to quit first thing when I got to work the next morning.
My boss greeted me with the news that the program had been shut down because we had dropped below the number of students necessary to meet the federal grants.
“You bastard!” I yelled. “You deliberately did this, trimming off students until you could justify doing away with the program.
“They won’t miss it,” he said, then told me to get my things and leave.
As if to prove him right, my former students simply shrugged when they saw me on the street, as if this was just one more hard knock they had received in their lives, the rage at my earlier betrayal lost in the haze that allowed them to keep on living, even when they seemed to have nothing left to live for.
As I drove out in my rented car, I noticed another block being leveled to make way for another new condo development – and realized that the ghetto was vanishing faster than the Amazon rain forests and that within a year I would have lost my job anyway.
A few months later, I started by new job in a mostly white middle class middle school where my biggest concern was finding a place to park every morning and fighting off the parents who wanted me to give their children grades they didn’t deserve.