Size Does Matter: Why I Dream About Joel Klein

by Eve Becker

(This article appeared in the May 13th, 2004 editions of the West Side Spirit and Our Town.)

Lately, my fantasies of other men are all about... Joel Klein. And if the nondescript suit, shiny pate and rimless, rectangular glasses don't seem the stuff of fantasies, know this: I've cross-dressed Joel--at least from the ankles down. Joel, in my fantasies, is walking in my shoes.

I like the image of Joel in a pair of Manolos--Sex and the City shoes for my own New York City fantasy. But sexy shoes just don't fit the bill for leaping overcrowded English classrooms in a single bound. Which Joel will need to do if he's to teach all my middle school students, to engage, to share his passion with the whole room, to pull together a class spilling over any reasonable size limits. So Joel will have to wear my Vibram-soled lace-ups. Besides, he can't do the Manolos on a teacher's salary.

But Joel looks good in my shoes, because he's flush with the challenge. Besides, who can work with middle school kids and not help laughing several times a day? So Joel's got this appealing glow...

Here's Joel, getting to know Kalila, beautiful, social, growing up like a weed without parental supervision; and Hunter, brilliant, edgy and impulsive; and Jeff, who regularly sleeps through the chaos of 34 middle school students shoehorned into my classroom. (That's one over the limit for middle schools set by the teachers' union contract, but number 34 has recently joined the class anyway--a new kid named Freddy, transferred in from a school where things didn't quite work out. In his hands is the do-rag I've asked him to remove. He works it with his fingers like a string of worry-beads.)

And meet my 140 other students, no less individuals than Kalila or Freddy, though I have little choice but to lump them together here--and all too often in the classroom.

Will Joel learn all their names, and at least a little something about each one of them? Will he pause, mid-sentence, to try to rouse Jeff, once, twice, three--never mind? Will he find a way to contain Hunter without putting out his fire? Will he call Kalila's home when her work doesn't come in, even though he knows he cares more than her father does?

Joel on a high, rising to the occasion. These kids will learn! To kick off the speechwriting workshop he's planned, he has crafted his own model speech. One about how to make our school system as great as our city. Joel sharing the electricity, stumping and emoting and persuading between the students' desks. Remember, Joel led the Department of Justice's antitrust challenge against Microsoft before this. He knows the power of a dramatic moment. He knows that the students, like jurors, are waiting for the sell. Oh, I love his gusto. And my students do, too.

Joel hitting the climax of his speech... and then--a nasal, raucous HONK! Heads turn to see Paco Thompson blowing his nose... and insisting on showing the mucous-soaked tissue to quiet, gentle Aisha Douglas. The class explodes. Exclamations, expletives, the squeal of chairs, open hands slamming the desks. The first paper snowball sails across the room. 34 kids are screaming. That's three football teams. A whole busload of out-of-control students. And Joel.

Joel finally restores order. But not without losing control of himself. As I fantasize, I don't put Joel through his paces, here. Too much agita, even in my mind only. This is, after all, my special daydream. So a few bars of Carmina Burana and some grainy film-noir images later, and Joel has the class quiet, again. But his momentum is lost. And he still has four more classes to teach today.

The next day, Joel's running the class like a military unit. It's not what he hoped to do--putting the kabosh on the merest crinkle of a page, or exchange of grins. Joel wants the students to have fun, to love his class. But with so many of them, one misstep quickly deteriorates into noisy chaos, and the period is gone. He learned that yesterday.

Still, Joel believes in what he's teaching, and his students know it. They all want to weigh in on yesterday's speech, and on what could make our school system great. (My students' names have been changed here, but these are real ideas from my very real students.)

"Well, you could start with enough books, chalkboards, and... chairs," says Reeve Chase, rocking back and forth in his, to demonstrate the dangerously wobbly legs.

"Um, don't spend more money for a war than for helping students learn?" Trina De Wit suggests.

"My cousin got beat up on the way to school, last week," Rafe Herrera says angrily. "Make it safe for us."

And my favorite. "You know that thing you said about breaking all those big schools into smaller ones?" begins Judith Kolyer. Small. What a smart word. Small. It certainly sounds like a solution. But careful, Joel. My students, crammed like penned chickens into my classroom, can nevertheless be brilliant. "Well, small schools doesn't mean smaller class size, does it?" Judith crosses her arms over her glittery T-shirt that proclaims her 'Drama Queen.'

It seems all the kids have something to say. It's one of the joys of the job. But how can Joel listen to all of these students? The period is 45 minutes. There are 34 students. It's an English class, but we can still do the math.

"Put it down on paper," Joel tells my kids. "Everything you want to say--put it in a persuasive speech."

"How long?"

"Does it have to be typed?"

"More than one paragraph?"

"Two to three? You mean pages?!" Aw, man..."

"Does spelling count?"

Students are packing up, slamming binders, zipping backpacks, pushing out chairs. Joel's voice rises. "Good class, guys," he says. But they're already out of there. 34 of them, squeezing through the door and bursting out into the hall. He only hopes they'll remember some of their enthusiasm when they sit down to write.

Here's Joel at the end of the week, taking home the speeches my students have written. And here's Allen Barr, eagerly grabbing Joel on his way out the door. "Mr. Klein, did you read mine?"

"Well, no, Allen. You just gave it to me this morning."

"Oh, well, um..." Allen is breathless. Allen has worked his butt off on his speech. Allen is proud. And Joel is proud that Allen is proud. Even though Joel will go home and find that Allen has reached eighth grade without ever starting a new paragraph or learning to use commas.

Joel working late into the night on my students' speeches. Joel working through the weekend. Remember, Joel has a hundred forty-four students in all. Times two or three pages per speech. A few of the most enthusiastic kids wrote more. Lizelle Magdadarao wrote twelve pages. But think of it this way, Joel. This work load is because you've been successful. This is because you've inspired the kids to want to write.

Joel settles in for the duration, reading 400 pages of speeches and writing comments, so the students can revise. Or Allen will never learn to make paragraphs. And Hunter will continue to write brilliant, persuasive arguments with no definitive end. And Dora Edelson will excel, as always, but no one will help move her to an even higher level.

So you see, Joel, teaching happens in the classroom--if you can reach all those kids at once--but class size isn't just about the school day. It's about what you take home at night, also. It's about how much you can give to each student's written work. Next time you might not have the hours in the day to offer feedback on all those speeches. Next time you might even go straight to the part of your lesson where the students read their speeches out loud. With 34 students, even limiting comments from classmates after each speech to a skeletal two or three, that should take, oh... a week-and-a half. No matter how dynamic a few of those speeches are, the sheer numbers add up to monotony for all.

So you'll have to come up with a contingency plan. Perhaps only the best and brightest will get to make their speeches to the class. No... that doesn't sound right, does it? Maybe the students can make their speeches to each other in small groups... and you'll cross your fingers that they can manage some analysis on their own, mixed in with the socializing, while you're busy with another group.

Sigh. A speechwriting workshop without making speeches to the class... If only there weren't so many...

Poor Joel. Let me massage those tense, tired shoulders. Let me smooth your brow. There is a solution. You've said it yourself. Class size can be reduced. If only those lazy teachers would give up a prep period or two. There's even an acronym for this problem: ATTO, or All That Time Off.* Those languid vacations, planning curriculum and lessons, those leisurely nights, grading papers, those daily preps...

You can give up a few of those preps, can't you? Oh, but you need to call Jake Zweig's mother; and there's the bulletin board you're required to make; and you need to organize your classroom and photocopy the handouts you made the night before.

Lunchtime? You're meeting with Gideon Jones, who came to you in tears because he didn't understand the assignment, and two students are taking a make-up test. And you want to work with the Social Studies teacher on an interdisciplinary connection with your speechwriting workshop.

ATTO boy, Joel.

But don't despair, my fantasy date. You were good. I knew you would be. And isn't that what a new date wants to hear? I think your reached my students, Joel. Well, a few of them, anyway. And that has to be enough. When there are a hundred forty of them or more, and only one of you, you can't net all of them.

What? You say class size has to be top priority? Ah, isn't a fantasy fantastic? Joel gaining enlightenment. My Joel. Who rides in on a white horse and fixes everything. Because that's what the man in your fantasies does.

*Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former English teacher Frank McCourt, in a letter to the editor, in the December 17, 2003 issue of New York Teach
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