By Amy Lane
The 1990’s were not a great time for teachers.
I remember a seasoned veteran in 1991 telling me she’d seen more changes in the previous two years than she’d seen in the twenty years before.
Crack had hit the streets by then, HIV was a horror story, and a generation of kids who had been raised by television were suddenly incomprehensible to adults who had been taught to type on electric typewriters. The Norteno/Sorreno gang conflicts had grown and the Crips had risen, and the warfare galvanized the young people in the area and polarized them too—teachers started wearing a lot of beige, because God forbid our favorite pair of shoes or jacket get us shot.
Walking into a school in Del Paso Heights was an education for a girl raised in the hills of Northern California.
But I did it.
I was an unlikely candidate to teach in a highly diverse, low-socio-economic environment—a pale, freckled girl who walked into a classroom at the age of twenty-three, barely four years older than her students. I was shy unless I was on stage, had a sweet smile, a Minnie Mouse voice, and ADHD.
It’s safe to say I got effectively slaughtered during my first passes.
I have no inherent authority. Anything I have now I earned by sheer tenacity, but damn—there were times when I almost gave up. I didn’t—I got my credential (in California it’s the equivalent of a Master’s) and my first job was to substitute teach. Every walk inside a classroom was an education in itself and it took a while to put together that combination of armor and faith that worked for me during most of my career. I didn’t have any of that together when I subbed in the Grant district.
Mate dropped me off sometimes, because we only had one car, and I’ll never forget when he dropped me off on Monday during the last week I subbed at the junior highs. We saw drug deals. We saw prostitution. And I saw three fights. Mate honestly asked if I wanted to get back in the car.
But we needed the money. I had not paid my way through six and a half years of schooling to not use my degree. And I was so damned done with restaurant work. No going back.
The teacher I was subbing for this day acted as vice principal two days a week and as a science teacher the other three days. Any seasoned veteran will tell you that the more time the regular teacher is out, the worse a class is. The kids recognize instability—and they will lash out and capitalize and attempt to fill the power vacuum.
These kids had seen no authority in their classroom all year. They needed a big, broad man with a loud voice to get their attention.
I was not that guy.
Now see, if this was a movie, I would have just kept trying with this class—you guys have seen that movie, right? The fifteen or sixteen kids who finally yield to the teacher’s wide-eyed, good faith efforts?
But this wasn’t a movie, I was here for one day, and this teacher had a full schedule of five classes with a minimum of forty-five kids per class.
You read that right. Two-hundred and twenty-five student contacts per day.
The classroom was supposed to be a science classroom—the long tables with the acid proof tops? Most of them had divots and torn metal—I scraped my arm or my knee a couple of times that day. There was nothing on the walls, no scientific tables, no rules, no posters. The teacher walked me to the classroom and handed me a vis-à-vis marker. Told me not to lose it—they didn’t have any more.
The assignment was to put an overhead up and have the kids copy down the notes. They should do that for forty-five minutes. The overhead projector was… gah. It was so old that even back then it was old. It had this sort of fish-eye lens, and I couldn’t read it from the back of the room. The notes apparently had no context—they weren’t studying for anything, there was no unit test, this was just something they had to do.
I was not to give them any paper. At all. If they didn’t bring any paper they wouldn’t use it for the right reasons. At the time, I didn’t understand what that meant. I gave some kids in the first class some paper, and realized what gang graffiti was and that I’d just completely validated every gang affiliation this group of forty-five people had. I would feel much guiltier about that if I hadn’t seen the colors flying and the fights as I walked up. It’s funny how you spend your entire student teaching career being taught that you had to be on and perfect all the time, every day, in case you miss that one opportunity to make a difference. Because nobody ever sits down and tells you honestly, “And hey—if you can’t make a difference, remember, you see kids less than five hours a week, in company, and odds are great a vast number of highly incompetent people have already let them down. One bad teacher does not a drug abusing psychopath make. One bad moment doesn’t even come close.”
If I hadn’t figured it out before I walked into this school on this day, then this was a lesson I needed to learn.
The kids shouted—they had to. It was a small room and there were too many of us in there. Nobody gave a shit about yet another student teacher asking them to do a bullshit assignment. Any threat to send them to the office was met with raucous laughter. I called the “vice principal/teacher” down for second period, thinking, “Oh, hey. She’s their teacher. Their authority figure. She’ll calm them down and I’ll learn from her.”
She shrieked at them until her voice broke. You know? When your vocal cords just give out and only dogs can hear you?
I stared at her in that moment, recognizing, on so many levels, how very, very bad this situation was.
I got called to two other junior highs that week, each one more terrifying than the last. I saw a student teacher I had gone to school with shriek at a class the same way. I saw pregnant kids make deals to go behind the bleachers after lunch. I saw more drug deals in three days than I thought were made in Sacramento in a year.
At the end of that week, I found out I was pregnant and Mate and I made a decision.
This was no place for a pregnant woman. I would sub at only the high schools after that. I broke that resolution once before I got a permanent job elsewhere, and that was the day I had to make my seven-month-pregnant body duck a chair. The kid who threw that chair was walked back into my room by the hand, and I was told he wouldn’t do it again.
He would have beat me with that chair if he’d had a chance. By then, I recognized that nothing in that classroom when I walked in cold had a thing to do with me.
But three years later, when I went back to the area and was given my own classroom and my own group of kids to work with from the very beginning?
I had some of those lessons tucked under my belt, some of that armor I needed so much. I knew how to recognize a gang member, and how to stop a kid from melting down. I knew not to let myself get talked out of my classroom for meetings or to help in a pinch, because it was bad for the kids. I knew to stomp my foot and draw the line and never let my roster get above thirty-five. I knew to walk the campus when the kids were gathering, because the worst shit didn’t happen when teachers were watching on.
I learned that movies were for schmucks and teaching wasn’t easy, and never, ever, scream at your kids until your voice breaks because that means they’ve won.
But I didn’t know that when I first walked in.
And now—twenty-five years later—I’m wondering about those kids shoved into that room. Not all of them were bad. Not all of them died of drug overdoses or violence. Some of them survived. Some of them went on to be productive adults. Some of them, maybe, learned some lessons from that terrifying situation, just like I did.
Where are they now?
When I wrote Fish Out of Water, I wanted to answer that question. I wanted to wish a better day for those kids in that room who just wanted to keep their heads down and get out of school alive. I was not in a position to do more than keep them from hurting each other. I had to hope that, at least for some of them, there was someone better in their lives.
So at its heart this is where Fish came from. Ellery at first will seem to be the fish—Jackson and his friends grew up where I was teaching that year, and they have a history and an understanding that Ellery does not. But Ellery wants a relationship with Jackson—and nothing in Jackson’s life has prepared him for that, so Ellery is a completely different pond.
I wish such a pond for all the kids who made it through, all the kids who made it out. It’s why I went back to teach when I knew what I was doing. It’s why a part of my heart still lives there now.