Jo Scott-Coe

No one warns you about the data.

It actually begins in obvious things, unquestioned givens, like theorems in a geometry proof. Mandatory attendance. Roll call. Head counts. Of course, grades. Points possible. Units of instruction. Credits. Syllabi. Salary tables. No money in the budget.

You’d been the student years ago rushing forward in geometry class because you were good at seeing ahead, could visualize the steps toward a proof. It was fifth period, the class right after lunch, when everyone was either too loud or too quiet, the smell of corn nuts and sweat and antsy hunger weighing in the close air, the male teacher putting on his gameshow grin, Joker’s Wild, for the rough crowd. “I just don’t get it,” a classmate had said, again. She clawed at her bangs and stared down into numbers, diagrams, arrows, words—a textbook that was water warped, torn and technically outdated except, well, the Cartesian plane doesn’t change year to year. (Maybe that was the first clue, the clue disregarded.) Anyway, the girl sat behind you or beside you and so you turned to help, turned back a page in your own book, maybe edged your desk at an angle, so the sides of your faces, your shoulders, your open books and pages together made a kind of folded Rorschach imprint—What does this make you think of? And this? And this? You were proud to see how the ends of things got to be there. A line. A quadratic equation. A triangle. A tangent. You attributed this skill to some natural aptitude for Getting It.

This pride now vexes. How could you not see what was coming? Or did you see it after all, pretend it wasn’t really there? That it wasn’t your responsibility or your doing? Data crawled out of blackened AC vents and dropped ceiling panels, up from the tile floor, out of broken and unbroken desks and drawers, sharp screws or bent nails poking from where something used to be attached. Came from the fingertip smudges and scuff marks on both sides of doorways—entering, exiting: students and parents, other teachers. In the checkbook, too, your rent payments. The car loan. Miles per gallon. Caught up with you. You were actually begging. By the time you called data by name, it was everywhere. There was not enough.

You were its handmaiden.

Seventy years ago, tycoons built fortunes on polymers, home appliances, machine guns, TV and frozen corn, frozen meatloaf. The military industrial complex, economists said. Now you live inside a data-tainment-surveillance complex. It’s still industrial, still militaristic, but this can’t be said aloud. Don’t make this equation: data equals advertising, equals progress plus we-know-about-you-what-you-don’t. Don’t say data equals children. Equals learning. Say something gentler. Say No Child Left Behind.

There had been clues all along, besides that big Cartesian clue you missed. From your first day teaching English in your own classroom—Joker’s Wild—you inhabit a battle of sheer numbers. The battle between minutes in a day and people you are compelled to accept in your room. People compelled to be there. Body count average equals average daily attendance equals X dollars of school funds per day. The battle of papers, like a Marley’s chain binding you to students, sometimes the very reason they resent you. The reason you may love them. You lug that sad stewardess bag crammed with folders, lesson plans, loose papers, transparency film, grade book with tight metal loops. A laptop or random parts of computer, perhaps a flashlight, dead batteries, extra texts, and disks. A granola bar, smashed into a small pocket. Coins you will never count. The pen you keep losing. A Spanish teacher friend asks, “What the hell you got there?”

“Paper,” you say, “Heavier than you think.”

You heave its bulk from the car trunk, up the stairs, wrench shoulder and neck. (The handicap elevator? Off limits.) Tug your hernia lifting brown boxes of spiral notebooks. Journals! Students feel comfortable expressing themselves that way! Collecting seventy-five notebooks at once means a weekend. Means explaining to the in-laws, some half-baked excuse, as if you had a drinking problem. Who could feel like leisurely breakfast Saturday with all those journals waiting? Journals you don’t have time to read the way real journals should be read. Journals equal data. Equal evidence.

Better the relatives and neighbors don’t know. They think you have special skills, that the school system is lucky to have you: Wasn’t that a great movie, Dear—that Mr. Holland’s Opus?

Time passes in pages: mangled, hand-crabbed, whited-out, stapled, penned and penciled, typed and retyped, lined and astro-brite white. Yet you volunteered—didn’t you?—for this distinction. Status grows inside the ritual complaints and suppressions, the so-so-smallness of voices against each other in the lounge, in meetings: I have five hundred pages to grade this weekend. I’m teaching an extra class period. I have two hundred students every day. It’s really fine. I can handle everything. The battle of chosen overtime—unpaid—and canceled dinner plans. Your own children left with relatives, eating take-out fried chicken again. Family members looking sideways at you. Your sister saying, Yeah, I figure that teaching must be a lot like being a student. There’s always something to do. She’s pregnant, so you don’t want to tell her how children, even when they aren’t biologically yours, have a way of keeping you from sleeping. (That would just be the data talking, a negative value hiding in plain sight.) Another voice intrudes, a screenwriter you’ve met: Are there moments when you just get too close? Too close to the work? To the kids? Hours numbed in front of TV. Anything but answering the phone. Anything but tallying scores, marking for notice, scratching comments on sticky pads. And still, reminders multiply so much they only remind that you should be reminded: to practice a formal lecture, prepare for the “teaching moment,” click-program the computer presentation, smudge notes for the overhead.

If only school could be a kind of video game. Somewhere voices were praying those words, somewhere a god listening. If only school could be a kind of video game. And then it was.

Start the clock. Put down your pencils. The principal one year saying, hands folded behind his back, as if he were proud of this, as if he’d worked a long time preparing the line: We know teachers prefer reduced class sizes, but if test scores don’t improve, I can’t see keeping it a priority. As if twenty students per class was some get-out-of-working scheme—as if the students loved being smashed together elbow to forearm. (What does this make you think of? And this? And this?) Screw it, you thought without whimpering, here is how the world ends. You started morphing strings of numbers in your head. Lay awake picturing and re-picturing them. Four out of ten, seven out of ten, eighty-three point seven percent average. Pounds weighed. Sizes worn. Calories eaten. Tables published in the newspapers—by test companies bought years ago by info-data-financial-surveillance corporations. Each school a number in relation to another school with its number. Each district a number in relation to another district with its number, and the state and country with their numbers. No wonder “school” really means stock market, means real estate. Of course the students learn quickly, whether they pass or fail: What’s my grade now? Now? Now? Now?

Produce the right scores or don’t. Follow directions or don’t. Let the data rock you like a sonic boom. Take envelopes and catalogs from your mailbox in the office where there are a hundred mailboxes filled with envelopes and catalogs. Browse, clip coupons for supplies. Order apple-shaped erasers for the classroom. Smile. Keep receipts for money you’ve spent on the children, who are really someone else’s children, so you can deduct some fraction of those expenses. Be thankful, grateful the hallways are not lined with men in gas masks and camouflage uniforms, poising machine guns. Be grateful your fellow teachers don’t walk the hallways with bruised and battered ankles. Holy, this privilege of scrutiny without violence. Let automation into your heart.

When, holding open a folder, a man or woman in a rayon suit comes to the door demanding pages where students have scratched their names, sentences, paragraphs—when this man or woman offers to score those pages automatically, overnight them to India for cheap transcription by men and women whose chapped brown hands remain untouchable according to religion and law, whose cheap transcriptions will be given numbers by machines and returned to you page by page in a padded yellow envelope the very next day—at this moment, there will be nothing left to protest. You won’t think to mention that the case load of human beings itself has been the problem. That numbers have become too sacred. No one will ask. Someone may place a hand on your shoulder, as if making a blessing. Someone may say, Work smarter not harder. Don’t take this so seriously. How could anyone stop this undertow? You never technically agreed, never actually said, I see how data will save us. But you see now how data will save us.


Jo Scott-Coe taught English at her former high school for eleven years. Her prose has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, So to Speak, Spirituality & Health, The Los Angeles Times, and the essay collection (Re)Interpretations: The Shapes of Justice in Women's Experience (Cambridge Scholars Press).


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