THE LONG, BARE HALLWAYS looked like a prison. The place smelled of institutional food, institutional cleaner, institutional rot. Past the metal detectors, the applicants -- people who actually want to teach in the D.C. public schools -- were herded into lines, handed stacks of forms to fill out, interviewed about test scores.

Over the summer, the District was desperate for teachers, 1,000 of them for this year. Every school district is hungry for teachers these days. They offer signing bonuses and special deals on housing. Teachers willing to go to the roughest neighborhoods can even get some of their college loans forgiven.

And yet the District's teacher recruitment fair put me in a funk. Everywhere I turned at Eastern High School on a sun-splashed summer day, I saw dour-faced administrators, trite slogans and, most depressing, people who wanted to teach but could not name a teacher who inspired them, could not point to a classroom moment that shaped them.

Why are so many schools so awful? The education establishment spends untold millions studying the question, periodically pronouncing one or another root cause and solutions that are usually just faddish tricks and useless bromides. What happened over the past 30 years? A bunch of things: Women and minorities gained access to the rest of the economy, depriving schools of their monopoly on some of the nation's best minds. Schools were asked to take on all manner of nonacademic functions, including social work and drug and sex education. And the twin terrors of dumbing down and private-sector-style accountability struck: In a nation with ever less respect for the life of the mind, administrators were ordered to produce higher test scores -- or else. Is it any wonder that most schools are spiritual dead zones?

Great schools are cults. They are often led by charismatic zealots who have an almost mystical knack for getting teachers and students alike to feel they are part of something both important and misunderstood. A great leader understands that success requires precisely what the bulk of the culture makes fun of -- teachers with childlike passion, teachers who sometimes go overboard, teachers whom students will see as a species wholly apart from boring parents.

And here's the truly tough part: In a great school, students and teachers alike believe they are part of a renegade institution and -- simultaneously -- the uncontrollable challenge to that institution. Pull that off, and you're most of the way home.

What does any of this have to do with math and reading scores? Everything. Learning is about spurning distractions and finding the confidence to work hard and stretch the brain. It's a mind game, not a factory routine.

That's why the recruitment fair was so depressing -- everything from the physical setting to the interview questions spoke of conformity, routine, paralysis. To be fair, it's easier to position your school as a cloistered rebel if it's private -- a place that can harbor obsessive nuns, or concentrate with cultic intensity on science or poetry, or lock out an entire gender and channel adolescent energies into academics. But there are great public schools as well, and they are often led by maniacs. It's no accident that books and movies that celebrate inspiring teachers often feature characters who cannot function in other settings. Youth is a struggle over conformity and identity, so it's logical that successful schools permit children their fantasies and experiments about rebelling, belonging and going their own ways.

And then there are the D.C. schools, which distributed to each applicant a sheet titled "Profile of a Good Teacher." What followed were four paragraphs of ungrammatical gobbledygook. The paper prattled on about "a positive learning environment" and "using acceptable social skills" before concluding that "the `Good' teacher shows respect for student uniqueness and demonstrates that all children can learn."

Katrina Reed, the District's associate superintendent for personnel, remembers teaching elementary school as her best years, and she thinks she can find people like the teacher she was -- raring to go, obsessed with kids. Maybe she can. My own search failed. I met an eager D.C. schools graduate who couldn't recall one inspiring moment from her own education. Why teach, I asked, and she said, "I don't know, I just like being with kids."

A New York City police officer who was applying to the school system because "it's just something I've always wanted to do" added that "maybe I could write a TV pilot from my experience in the classroom."

I asked applicants why they were looking in the District. Some cited the challenge of urban schools. But too many said "there's good public transportation," or "good benefits," or "it's easier to get a job."

In Eastern High's drab hallways, at a fair as uninspiring as the most stultifying classroom, who could blame them? You'd have to be a little crazy to want this work. Actually, a little crazy would be a hell of an improvement.

Marc Fisher's e-mail address is fisherm@washpost.com.