Elevate Difference

Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School

When Jo Scott-Coe began teaching in the same suburban California high school she’d graduated from four years earlier, she had to overcome her reluctance to call former teachers by their first names. Once that was accomplished, she set out to bring new life to the literature and writing classes she was assigned.

In seventeen essays Scott-Coe lays bare the disappointments and frustrations that marred her eleven years in the classroom. While the book is highly anecdotal—and cannot be read as a general indictment of the educational system--she does hit several general themes, including the way educators—eighty percent of them female—are mistreated by Boards of Education, parents, and students.

To begin, Scott-Coe notes society’s “schizophrenia of reverence and contempt” for teachers. On one hand, she explains, teachers are presumed to be “angels,” long-suffering nurturers and enablers of youth. On the other, they’re treated with contempt, disparaged as overpaid civil servants or lazy paper pushers. The real issues they face—in terms of educational policy, pedagogical proficiency, and their own personal and professional development—never see the light of day in these discussions.

Nowhere is this clearer than in an essay called "Recovering Teacher." In it, Scott-Coe painstakingly chronicles the decline, and then death, of her colleague Neil Webb. A scholar who began his career as a Latin and German instructor, Webb was arbitrarily reassigned to another discipline once the district gutted language programs in the late 1980s. Scott-Coe posits the shift as the administration’s way of emphasizing “the interchangeable nature of subject matter while also disrespecting his primary expertise.” Whatever the bureaucracy’s motivation, the end result was the same: Webb had no choice but to accept the transfer if he wanted to retain his job.

Still, after the shift ,Webb’s peers and students noticed his discernible decline: He lost weight and, always a heavy drinker, began coming to school drunk. When his driver’s license was suspended, they snickered, sidestepping conversations that might have addressed his out-of-control behavior. When he was finally terminated, people breathed a sign of relief, as if his firing was inevitable.

Somewhat later, his home burned down; not long afterwards he was found dead, alone in a seedy motel room. “I still wonder what might have happened if the school staff, as a community, had confronted Webb,” Scott-Coe writes. “We might have seen him as a struggling human being instead of scapegoating him as the problem employee, the exotic and tortured genius who would never fit in, or the pathetic colleague who made us feel less bad about our own problems.“

It’s a painful, if moving account.

Scott-Coe also writes of sexual tension in the classroom, and of the violent undercurrent noted by most of the teachers she worked with. That she and her colleagues had no forum to discuss these issues is absurd. Even more ridiculous, when legitimate questions were aired, administrators served up meaningless platitudes in lieu of practical advice. On top of this, Scott-Coe had to contend with preparing her students for a multitude of constantly-changing standardized tests and had to counsel them—with little-to-no prior training—for personal problems, from eating disorders, to cutting, to domestic abuse.

Small wonder that Teacher at Point Blank is angst-filled. A deeply personal and sad narrative, Scott-Coe lambastes the enormous commitment that is expected of teachers. It then begs the question: How can their stature be elevated while preparing them to cope more effectively with complex classroom and bureaucratic issues?

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, February 17th 2011