A throng of angry teachers in royal blue shirts rallied outside the Public Education Department building. They held signs that said “Testing Turns Children Into Dollar $ign$,” and “S.ave O.ur S.chools,” and “Bureaucrats stay OUT of my classroom!” Most were frumpy and haggard. Young teachers, some younger than me, had a fit, hard look like they’d come home wiser from war.
Ethan Wright was wearing the same royal blue shirt as the rest, but he looked like a rock star—done-up instead of beat-down. Slick rather than hard. His eyes were hidden behind black wire-rimmed glasses. He had spiked-up boy-band hair. He was on me as soon as I whipped out my notebook and started asking questions.
This protest was to bleed into a public meeting once the department dared open the antiquated double doors to its small auditorium to let the angry teachers spill inside to fill seats. Cliff sent me there because Lighthouse PAC “is gonna be all over that Natalie Bissell. That fahking bitch is a real piece of shit,” he said. “I got the goods on her, let me tell you.”
Cliff tried to tell me about the lawyers Bissell was hiring at the PED, and how they took public, tax-funded jobs with the department while keeping some of the wealthier Santa Fe private schools as side clients. I understood the conflict of interest, but it took so long for him to explain that I tuned him out and internally vowed to focus on what I thought was important: Teachers were mad because Bissell’s rules made work days miserable.
My mother was a teacher.
The Matt White method of reporting a story involved showing up at an event, being overwhelmed by shyness, fighting back the desperate urge to flee, and pushing past sudden-onset self loathing by pulling out a notebook and immediately putting a question to someone who seemed smart. It always got easier once I started asking questions.
“-these tests add at least 10 hours to my work week,” a fourth-grade math teacher was telling me when Wright interrupted.
“Ethan Wright,” he said to me, smiling under those Hollywood shades in his hair. He put out his hand to shake but I could only give it a glance or I’d lose the words in my head. I kept writing her answer, catching up, as he dropped his hand and asked me “Who are you with?” I looked at Wright and didn’t want to answer. The question felt confrontational. Plus, I was working.
“The Lighthouse PAC,” I said. “Who are you with?” My focus was off the woman I was interviewing, and I knew I’d lose her. Wright was wearing the same shirt as all the other teachers, but he was obviously something else. He bore the aura of easily achieved success. His precisely discolored jeans looked like they cost hundreds.
“I’m with these brave teachers,” he said. I fought the urge to roll my eyes. My interview subject looked suddenly antsy, like she needed to go. I had my quote. I asked for her name—“Dorothy Trujillo”—and found myself forced to talk to Wright some more. I just needed to get a few quotes before the doors opened.
“The Lighthouse? That’s Cliff Dougherty’s outfit, right? Is he around?”
“He said he’d be here,” I said.
“When did they hire-?” He looked me up and down and pursed his pretty lips and I imagined running. There was a leather bag over his shoulder that looked more expensive than the glasses, jeans and haircut combined. “Oh, shit. You’re Matt, uh . . . “
“White,” I said. The crowd was herding its way toward the doors. They were gonna let us in soon, and who knew if they had enough seats in that sad old public space? Didn’t Wright have to also get inside?
“I read your letter,” he said. I waited for him to say something else, but we were just standing there, wasting each other’s time.
“How would you have read my letter?” I was annoyed, becoming anxious. The doors would open… “What are you?”
“Ethan Wright,” he said. “You know Stand Progressive? We’re a PAC too. Yeah, I read that letter. Kripke. That was funny.”
Wright reached into a front pocket of those ocean-blue jeans and produced a glistening little silver box, engraved with his initials. Its lid caught the sun as he opened it, and a reflected beam hit me flush in the pupil. He pulled out a card and handed it to me. A green splotch hogged the center of my vision. I took the card and put it in the pocket of my wrinkled, fraying cargo pants.
“Great,” I said. “Thanks.”
His gaze held me there, even though I wanted to walk away. He needed something. His eyes went to my notepad and he said “I’m here to help these teachers get their message across.”
No way was I interviewing this guy. Long steps took me away from him.
I caught another teacher with a light tap to the shoulder. “What brings you out today?” I asked him.
“I love teaching,” he said as I scribbled, “but I’m gonna quit if they go through with this. I can be a firefighter and make more money.” His name was Doug.
Natalie Bissell was a mannequin-esque blonde in her late 30’s. I’d Googled her before this meeting, and the first image the Internet offered was from when she was a track athlete in college. She’d been a pole vaulter. Now she was running New Mexico’s schools, appointed education secretary after a year as deputy secretary of education in Texas. According to old Teller articles, Texas had seen astonishing gains in literacy and math scores after overhauling its “evaluation model.” Tests were given for every grade across the state, from elementary through high school. Bissell was appointed by Maria Ruiz to bring the program to New Mexico. “We must assess where these students are, so we can better understand how to help them.” That was the quote I’d kept seeing as I read up on Bissell for two days before this meeting.
The Teller’s online archives would always be open to me, so long as they didn’t change the password.
There was a single long desk on the stage at the front of the auditorium. Seven seats, each with a microphone. Bissell was in the center, flanked on one side by a round man with a purple tie, shining bald head and thin mustache, and on the other side by a woman, Leah Harris, who I read that morning was the undersecretary of education in New Mexico. She, too, was in her 30s. Rail-thin, with short brown hair that hung in a sad perm above sunken eyes.
Sunken eyes that burned right through me like Lucifer’s spotlight.
I had covered education often as a reporter, but never at the state level. My beat had been the Santa Fe school board. Never once had I seen Bissell in person. Writing about her was the job of a beautiful and cruel reporter named Alana Price out of the big Teller office in Albuquerque. I did not see Alana among the crowd. (If I had, I might have thrown up.)
Every seat was taken and standing bodies lined both sides of the huge hall, me among them. I looked around at the teachers. The young ones had rage in their eyes, the older ones looked like used furniture.
Bissell’s friendly voice boomed off the speakers. She thanked everyone for attending. “You are heroes,” she told them. “You’re the front lines in a fight we have to win, and I hope we can take this opportunity to engage each other and discuss what you need to make your jobs better, because the future is in your brave hands.”
“Brave hands,” I was writing in my notebook (to warm up, not because I intended to use that quote) when someone yelled “Then why do you handcuff us!” All eyes shot in the direction of the voice’s origin, but there was no telling who it was, because everyone looked on the verge of yelling. There was much nodding, and some claps.
Leah Harris may have been the only person who didn’t try to see who’d shouted. She kept her eyes locked right on me. I matched them, felt my heart fire a few double-time beats, and looked down to my notebook. When I looked back up she was walking from the front desk, down into the crowd. She knelt over a man with a stark part in his hair. I shook my head and turned to the podium, where the public comment had begun.
“My name’s Joe Carr and I teach eighth-grade English at De Vargas here in Santa Fe.” The teacher’s large glasses had an overt line running through the bifocal lenses. “Last week a student showed up drunk to my class and I had to kick him out. Later that day I called the kid’s dad. He laughed when I told him what happened and hung up on me. I trained specifically to help troubled kids like this, and it comes through engaging them as people, emphasizing things like self-esteem more than memorization. All this testing hurts us by forcing me to abandon what works, and by making a test my priority. It isn’t about memorizing for a test, it’s about learning how to think. You have put us on exactly the wrong path.”
There was applause, with hoots and whistles.
“Of course, issue of poverty,” Bissell said. I confusedly wrote her words down exactly as she said them. “But when we get a full, clear picture, we can address what is holding students back.”
“Full, clear picture,” I wrote. I ticked a slew of quotation marks beside the words, expecting they’d be repeated again and again at this meeting.
I never threw away any reporter’s notebooks I used. I’d only filled one side of the pages. Ethan Wright was recording the proceedings on an HD video camera; I was writing quotes down in my notebooks. I’d honed this as an art over years. I could write fast without looking at the page. I could hold on to the words I was hearing long enough in my short-term memory to write them all down. My mind was also continually live editing, so that I didn’t write down “like” or “um,” nor quotes that had no hope of making my article. For that eighth-grade teacher, for instance, I easily scribbled the particulars of what he was saying, that he had a drunk student, the parent laughed, and that his training said it was important to build students up as people. “Self esteem.” I’d remember later exactly what that meant. But then at the end he said “This testing hurts us by forcing me to abandon what works, and by making the test the priority. It isn’t about memorizing for a test, it’s about learning how to think. You have put us on exactly the wrong path.” A quote. I’d written it down word-for-word.
An old man with buzzed silver hair and a cartoon hero’s chin stepped to the podium next. He was wearing a green polo shirt, not the royal blue of almost everyone else there. It didn’t take long to know why.
“I’m not in the union,” he said. He put a hand on either side of the podium and spread his shoulder, turning around to address the audience. “I quit over my frustration with its complacency, and its willingness to sell out, and it’s refusal to push back against politicians like-“ he turned and put a hand up at Bissell “yourself.”
Someone in the audience hissed.
In the front row of seats, I saw Barry Larson stand and start walking toward the wall on my side of the room.
“They’re going to the gangs,” the teacher said. His deep voice was raspy with exhaustion. “You don’t know what education is. What being a teacher is. I can help them. I got into this business to help them. But when you force us to administer these long, terrible tests you are forcing me to piss them off, not help them.”
A murmur rose from the throng behind him. Everyone was agreeing.
“Please,” he continued, “please let me just work on getting through to them. I can’t be giving angry kids nonstop lessons in test taking. We’ve spent hours on how to ‘concluuuude’-“—air quotes, and he looked all around the room as the dragged out the “u” sound—“an essay with the correct phrase.”
Applause. The silver buzz wasn’t stopping to bask, though, he was stopping to straighten his body and lock fingers around the back of his neck. He looked in pain. He jutted that strong jaw and a single tear cascaded off his eye.
“I lost Kevin to the gang. He’s gone, and I could have helped him, except I was busy with all your bullshit.” Murmurs from the throng. “I’m not going to blame myself for his death.” He was trembling. He hunched and pointed and appeared to age 20 years in an instant. His finger was aimed at Bissell and he said “But I’m going to blame someone.”
Natalie stared down at him. She had the faintest hint of a smile in one corner of her thin pink lips. Here eyes sparkled gray and her short blond hair was a glistening gold curtain that didn’t move.
She never broke eye contact with the man as she replied, sweetly and sternly, “Obviously. . . .” Beat. “Poverty is a concern. But when we can get a clean, clear picture.”
That was not a full sentence, but she stopped speaking. Waiting was useless. Her eyes looked pleased. She was happy to be doing this.
The silver fox shuffled away. Bissell smiled at the next teacher.
“I want to know,” the sturdy little woman said into the microphone, “what peer-reviewed studies or what data you can cite that says your ideas are good for these kids. Everything I have seen during extensive research, on my own time, says this-.”
“KEVIN” was at the top of the page I was writing on, circled. Now I was scribbling every word from this woman onto my sweaty little pad when my concentration was broken by a voice: “Hey man.”
I startled and stopped writing and lost the woman’s words from my mind.
Barry. I knew Barry. He was a reporter for Channel 4 for my first year at the Teller. Channel 4 was the paper’s “sister,” and his office was a tiny TV studio above our newsroom. He’d once needed some B-roll stock footage of someone smoking to go with a piece on sin tax, and I’d let him shoot close-ups of my mouth while I took drags on a Marlboro Light from a pack he bought. We used to talk football sometimes. Barry was, like most New Mexicans, a Denver Broncos fan.
I hadn’t thought about him for a long time. He was the education department’s spokesman now, almost certainly making more than twice as much money than he earned from the TV station.
“Can I-?” he touched my arm and started pointing me toward the exit at the back of the auditorium. I jerked away half-involuntarily. Go away, I thought. I’m sure I shot a dirty look. I wanted to hear this. Natalie Bissell was a robot programmed to not answer questions. Her CPU somehow allowed for sadism, but not empathy. She was horrifying and marvelous.
“Could you just?” Barry said. I wondered what he’d do if I refused, but I went. My heart was thumping in my throat, for no reason except his unimpressive presence, and the feeling made me anxious. We went into the hall.
There was nothing on the hallway walls but mold-colored paint.
“Who’re you with?” Barry said. It was less annoying when he asked me this than when Ethan had, but it was still annoying.
I looked at him. He was the same as I remembered except for his shiny ironed shirt and one other thing: When he’d been on TV he did not have that neck waddle under his chin. The waddle was pink and pinched by the shiny shirt’s top button, folding a cracked little crease down the soft flesh’s center.
“You can’t be here, man,” he said before I answered. His voice sounded higher than it used to. The neck waddle moved when he talked; it seemed to be expressing the personality missing from his face. It seemed angry.
“Wait,” I said to the waddle. Then I looked up at his eyes. “I’m covering the meeting.”
He wasn’t looking in my eyes at all.
“This meeting is being covered by credentialed journalists.” He said it like he was explaining something to an old man with Alzheimer’s, pausing between each word. The pauses got longer when he continued: “You.” “Are.” “Not.” “Allowed.” “To be.” “Here.”
It had to be a bluff. This was an open meeting in a public building. Couldn’t anyone be here?
“Credentialed journalists are covering this meeting,” he said.
“You just told me that. Barry-“
I stopped. He was bending over slightly at the waist and eyeing my notebook. He shocked me, to the point where my heart rate spiked again, by actually putting out a hand to take it. I pulled it back and he took a step closer. We were face-to-face, barely a gap between our noses. He held there.
Then he took a step back and smiled. He still looked everywhere but my eyes. It was a forced smile, not felt in any way. The waddle emitted an faint pulsing light from within its crease. “I have to get back in there,” he said. “But thank you for your understanding.”
I watched him cross through the doorway and vanish. What if I just walked back in? Would he call security?
Instead, I left.
The article in the Teller was very brief, headlined “Teachers Air Complaints on Testing.” Complaints. It quoted no teachers. Ethan Wright was in there, identified as “Ethan Wright, who runs the left-leaning Stand Progressive PAC.” His quote was “The time is now for these Republican officials to acknowledge their methods are failing our children.”
Barry was in there, too. His quote was “To help these students we need to get a full, clear picture of how they’re progressing. What’s remarkable is that they aren’t talking about the most important issue in education: The children. It’s too bad our students don’t have the luxury of a union. All they have, it seems, is us. We won’t stop fighting.”