The next Game was The Personal Interview, in which a single judge (mine a tired, pink woman in cloisonne bracelets with matching earrings and a crocheted vest) asked a single candidate telling questions, carefully documenting the answers. Highlights from mine:
Judge (eagerly) – “How do you feel about a class size of 27 or more?”
Me – “Even if the students’ first language weren’t Spanish, which it is, fifteen is tops for a writing class. Trying to teach English Comp to twenty-seven people whose only English has been learned from old Law and Order re-runs would be cruel and unusual. Like the death penalty.”
Judge scowls, writes.
Judge – “You know you are expected to be available to students by phone, eight hours a day, seven days a week.” She smiles proudly. “I like to be available by six a.m.!”
Me (joking) – “You’ve got to be kidding. Call me at six in the morning and I’ll have a contract out on you by noon.”
Judge’s smile is not amused as she writes. I’ve just committed suicide and feel expansive and righteous, wondering if this was the experience of all those biblical martyrs. But the judge isn’t Caligula, probably just a morning type who goes to bed at eight-thirty and will get up at five even if nobody ever calls to discuss citation formats. I’m dead meat, but we chat animatedly about the charm of small desert towns for a few more minutes until she can dismiss me in time to edge my interview form in black.
Back in home room (large corporate cafeteria) I grab a tuna sandwich and a Coke and join four total strangers at one of the round tables where the fifty people who are not off being individually interviewed are pretending to talk to each other. It’s already eight o’clock at night and many have driven hours in brutal traffic to get here, but all conversation is bright, intense and focused exclusively on education. We are communally deranged in our fascination with all things educational even though we have no idea what we’re talking about.
We are enthusiastic in our agreement that there’s confusing duplication in spreadsheet software applications, whatever they are, and all have passionate opinions about the role of autonomous learning in the digital classroom, whatever that is. I confabulate along with my strangers, but have no idea why we’re doing this until I notice that ten or twelve judges are moving languidly among the tables. One sits, smiles and listens for five minutes, then stands, smiles and vanishes. I watch as one after another listens to talk, then drifts to a long table at the back to makes notes. Aha. We aren’t merely casually waiting for the next game; this is the next game, and I wonder how many fatal wounds I incurred by speaking ill of programmed curricula.
The Stealth Conversation Game goes on for a half hour and suddenly it’s over. A yellowish electric charge surges through the room as the Head Judge, a businessy but seemingly intelligent woman whose scarf I envy, announces the Final Game. In groups of twelve we’re ushered to conference tables in more cold, neon rooms. We’re given a list of fifteen items – all aspects of “teaching” – that we must communally rank order. A quick perusal of the list reveals its nature, a split between systemic conformity and more gooily worded inclinations toward “helping” behavior. There are no items indicating that a fondness for the subject matter we’ve presumably spent years studying has any merit at all.
This Game has an unusual rule; anyone may veto any of the group’s decisions, item by item, throwing everyone back into chaos since a change in any rank-ordered item of necessity changes all of them. When I’m not teaching English I teach Social Psychology, so I’m vaguely aware that this is some terribly significant aspect of some highly predictive “group dynamic” test, although I can’t imagine what it predicts. “Vetoers are strong, independent thinkers destined for leadership,” or “Vetoers are troublemaking misfits who should be taken to the parking lot and shot.”
The Ranking Game drags on and on as I wait to see if anybody will veto anything. Nobody does. We are growing pale and dizzy with the effort to pretend interest in the equivalent of a bread label. “Rank the following in order of importance: wheat gluten, calcium sulfate, ascorbic acid, etc.” So as a lifesaving gesture I do it; I veto something. And the spell is broken.
The judges, three men and a woman this time, take palpable note. The other candidates are transparently torn between pitying censure, ambivalent envy and the desire to end this farce any way possible because it’s late and they still have a two-hour drive to get home. A man says of me, “She’s little but she’s tough,” announcing the group’s hope that I may have done whatever was necessary to get this over with. And apparently I did.
The judges beam. We stagger back to “home room” for a last speech in which we are told that there are many more of us than there are jobs, and that a failure to be selected does not mean we’re not great. It just means that we’re not “a good fit” with the corporation. A crescendo of cognitive dissonance swells through the crowd. Not one soul in that room wants to be “a good fit” with a corporation. But everyone in that room except me needs a job.
In the parking lot I fight the urge to curl up in the back seat and go to sleep. I am exhausted from acting for four solid hours, but also from the stress of being in that context, among those beleaguered people. They are all teachers, even the judges, and thus dear to me. And what has just been done to them isn’t okay. My mother was a teacher, her friends were all teachers. I grew up with teachers and became one, thus indefinitely extending my connection to teachers. I know and like the sorts of people who teach.
They are a ragtag bunch, not pretty unless you look past the taped glasses frames and chalk-stained sleeves, the ponderous jargon and propensity to hold forth on topics from a dissertation written before there were cell phones. They fume over trivia, drink too much at parties and understand the world with brilliance and eccentricity. They are the lodestone of every culture, the magnetic center of all constructed reality. They cannot be forced into corporate cubicles. It won’t work; it can’t be done.
I drive away from the place secure in that belief. Away from a place where there was no chalk, no teacher’s lounge, no coffee machine. No messy bulletin boards with flyers about a balalaika concert in protest against, or in solidarity with, anything. The place with no students. A place where there was not a single book.
But I know some of those sixty-five people will have faked their way through the Hunger Games and gotten jobs. They’ll wind up in classrooms far from corporate headquarters. And because they’re teachers, they’ll teach. Every word, every idea, every example and quotation they offer will erode the profit-based structure in which both teacher and taught are trapped. The Hunger Game cannot kill ideas; its system, rational and avaricious, is incompatible with ideas. In the end, those who distribute ideas like seeds flung from a basket, will win.