ENERGY LEAPS from Eugene Wright Jr., seemingly generating the quickened strides of the dozen young men in myriad-colored tops he's volunteered to help coach. The thud of crashing football helmets and pads echoes under the hazy sky. Behind them, Coolidge High School, from which Wright has been bumped as a mathematics teacher, sits like a brick fortress.As a young teacher without seniority, Wright, 25, is little more than a leaf in the whirlwind that now engulfs what once was a vaunted profession.
I went up to Fifth and Rittenhouse NW to talk to Wright, one of 600 mostly young Washington teachers, whose layoffs constitute the system's largest personnel cutback in history, because I believe the teaching profession is at a dangerous crossroads. The drastic Reductions in Force, with the prospect of further layoffs, clearly illustrates how big the problem is for teachers, the community, students and the system. It also calls for a drastic change in the way we think and act.
Public education faces some difficult days ahead, and this is troubling because it's been the primary route backs and other ethnic groups have taken to get into the mainstream and it has occupied a pinnacle position in black history and culture. Most of the substantial citizens I know today were educated in such schools. Yet administrators will now have to face up to the reality of shrinking enrollments, declining revenues, a mean mood in the country and the diminishing prestige of both public education and the teaching profession.
"If someone had not taken an interest in me," says Wright, who also graduated from Coolidge, "I might be out on the street like a lot of the people I know."
But when Wright educated himself well with a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Southern University, anxiety and insecurity about his job were emotions he never expected to experience.
The new insecurity of the teaching profession breeds anxiety that is particularly alarming to blacks. Education and teaching have been the escape hatch from dead-end, low-paying work. Educators were extremely prestigious during days of rigid segregation because blacks were blocked out of all but the lowest government jobs. Even with desegregation, teaching was considered a stable profession, even as it tumbled in respect and esteem over time as blacks were able to command jobs with higher salaries in government and industry.
"I chose math because math teachers are hard to come by," said Wright. "The position I took at Coolidge had been open for two years." But even that extra protective step failed to protect him and that has made him bitter.
The new instability of the profession comes at a time, too, that is most vulnerable for the students. The drastic cuts not only threaten the recent tenuous gains in test scores, but getting a diploma is tougher these days. The exams increasingly required for graduation will be a hurdle for many blacks.
The fact of the matter is there is less interest in maintaining the public schools these days. New York Magazine, writing of New York's "retreat from reform," bluntly blamed this on the fact that the school population is now nearly 75 percent black and Hispanic. And Howard University's Dr. Faustine Jones, author and education professor, says: "Conservatives are much more interested in putting their kids in private and parochial schools because they can't rid themselves of the facist notion that nonwhites are somehow mentally inferior. They will undercut the public schools by any means necessary."
Wright and I pondered all this on a recent morning as we sat on Coolidge's lower field, but his mind was not far from his own situation.
"The [Washington Teachers] Union said last year that math teachers were not to be let go, period. Math and sciences were two areas they were going to keep . . ."
So if even the "secure" teaching positions aren't secure, what appeal can a future teaching career have for young people? Wright was partly influenced by the example of his father, a former athlete and now a physical education teacher at Rabaut Junior High School. But would a parent today encourage a child to prepare for a teaching job when instability and insecurity might mar their future?
Black youngsters will have to be encouraged to get into other jobs as well, to compete in a market that will place increasing emphasis on technical and scientific occupations. But here's the catch: Public education will be the key to such success.
All this argues for recognition that there will be barriers for blacks and the poor to surmount as public education faces its tough future. It's going to call for a number of strategies. For example, while some groups sue to block the use of examinations as a graduating requirement, others will have to teach the children how to pass them in the meantime.
But future strategy won't help the very present "depression" Eugene Wright feels. He loves teaching but sees the handwriting on the wall. He's considering reeducation -- preparing for a career in sports medicine.
But his voice is a litany of regret as he considers the sad near-future. "I can relate to the students because I'm younger. Since I came through the system here I thought maybe they would do something about keeping people like me in the system." But like the leaf in a whirlwind, his words have gone unheard and unnoticed.