Delores Robb has been an elementary school teacher for 21 years, 19 of them in the D.C. public schools. She calls herself a "dinosaur" -- a strict teacher with high standards.
"I am determined to make a sigificant impact on young minds -- particularly young black minds. Otherwise," Robb says wearily, "I would have bailed out of this mess a long, long time ago."
For the past four years, Robb has been a teacher at Syphax Elementary School in Southwest Washington. She is teaching sixth grade for the first time this term, previously having taught only third and fourth graders.
She estimates that of the approximately 260 pupils in grades K through 6 attending Syphax, Half and N streets SW, a majority are discipline problems. Poor discipline, she said, is at the top of the list of ills plaguing the system.
"I was saddened to hear of the young man's death at Spingarn last week, but truthfully, I wasn't shocked," Robb says. "The times and the children have changed so much that grankly, nothing a D.C. public school student did would come as a surprise to me."
Weapons are a fact of life in the schools, Robb said, even at the elementary level.
"When they come to grade school with knives -- and they do -- then it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that they've 'graduated' to guns by the time they get to high school -- assuming they make it that far."
She disagrees vehemently with D.C. School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed, who says the weapons problem in the schools is not one of great magnitude.
She believes tighter security would not only check the weapons problem but also cut down on the number of children who cut class --, or drop out altogether in the elementary years. She says there are many older students (10 to 13 years of age) at Syphax who "roam the halls at will when they bother to show up at all," and that even kindergarteners have been known to skip class.
Robb, who is in her 40s, has circles under her eyes, and her expression is grim even when she smiles. She believes she is not unlike many other dedicated teachers who find themselves "hopelessly depressed and frustrated" as the quality of public education declines.
"If you are a true teacher, some-one who loves children and recognizes the gigantic opportunity which exists to shape a young human mind, then you are going to be torn apart by a system like this one. If I were a Marine sargeant, I'd feel right at home. But I am a teacher, and teaching is the one thing they won't let, me do."
Robb said morale among teachers in the District's public schools is generally low, even though the school year is but a few weeks old. She says teachers have been given "pep talks" by their principals, who urge them to be grateful that they have jobs. She said not enough is said about what she believes the teacher's objective should -- be teaching the children as much as possible during the school year.
"The way the [the principals] keep reminding you to be glad you're here is almost like a threat . . . This is going on all over the city, and it hangs over many teachers' heads like a storm cloud waiting to break."
"I feel that the principals are the stage-setters, the directors, and we (the teachers) are the players. The children are the audience, and we must give them the best performance possible every day. But this is a concept which has fallen by the wayside in our schools. There is no leadership. People are placed in positions of responsibility because they have a friend somewhere who wanted to do them a favor, and the performance the children see every day is merely a comedy of errors.
"I can't say this enough: It has become impossible to do any real teaching in the District's public schools. You are constantly on some child's back to be quiet, sit still, go into the hall, come out of the hall, leave his neighbor alone -- you name it. There's a buzzer or an anououncement every five minutes, and 50 percent of them signal something which is absolutely worthless. Or there's a bell. Or someone screaming in the halls. Or people barging into your room, from the principal right on down to parents. And believe me, the parents who do bother to come to school are not the ones who are concerned with education. More often than not, they want to cuss you out because Johnny was sent to the principal's office or Susie has been told she isn't going to be promoted -- probably because she can't read or write."
Harassment of teachers is not uncommon within the system, she says. Teachers who are unpopular with their administrations often are paid surpise visits by supervisors, and unfavorable material may be inserted in their personnel files, Robb said. This climate of fear causes many teachers to stop short of demanding the respect they deserve, she added.
"The teachers' lounge is rife with legitimate complaints, but many of these people would not dream of saying anything to those who are in charge -- because they are afraid."
"When I come home at night, I know that I am in an absolutely foul frame of mind.I have spent they day trying to be kind to other people's children, and I cannot even deal with my own until I've collapsed on the couch for two or three hours. No job should take everything out of you like that. My child (Robb is divorced and lives with her 13-year-old daughter) is at an age where she really does need my full attention when she comes home at night. But she isn't getting it, and she isn't the only teacher's child who isn't getting what she deserves from a tired, frustrated parent."
In spite of all this, Robb says she has no intention of leaving the public schools. And she is not concerned about the possibility of reprisals for her venting her frustrations.
"Now that (a reprisal) would be really foolish, wouldn't it? I've been around too long, and there are too many who know me to be a fine teacher. As for leaving, well that is something I would never do. I believe there have to be one or two teachers left who will dig down deep to discover what a child is all about, help him define his strengths and weaknesses, an open new doors for him. This is important for all of our children, but for those who are black and poor, it is crucial. A lot of these kids may think I'm an old witch today, but I know they'll live to reconsider. I am about the business of teaching these children, and I am not about to give up now."