A Story from the Rubber Room
Review of George L. Colon,
Confessions of a Rogue Teacher (NY: iUNIVERSE, 2008)
Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo
Not long ago, a professor on whom a handful of students had ganged up, intent on running him out of his job, told me he was fascinated by the research on academic mobbing, but did not think it relevant to his situation. Most of his colleagues had stayed out of the fray. A few had gone to bat for him. The administrators handling the students' case against him did not show hostility toward him. They seemed to be focused on doing their jobs. If he had been in their shoes, he told me, he, too, would have felt obliged to take seriously the passionate testimony of so many accusers.
That professor should read George Colon's novel, a story told in the first person by a high school teacher subjected to collective aggression not by workmates (lateral or horizontal mobbing) nor by school managers (administrative or top-down mobbing) but by a handful of belligerent students (bottom-up mobbing, by surbordinates). "We gonna get you," says one. "You's in trouble, motherfucker," says the leader of the little mob.
Mobbing is what it is regardless of which category of co-workers it arises from, no matter whether it is lateral, top-down, or bottom-up. What defines mobbing is that some number of people you work with coalesce around a common objective to make your life a living hell, ruin your good name, humiliate you, and in the end, take away your job.
In most school systems these days, not least those in New York, where this novel is set, a teacher is at risk day in and day out of being accused by students of some kind of abuse: assault, sexual touching, racial discrimination, ridicule, threats, selling drugs, bribery, accepting bribes, or something similar. By the commonly established policies, any such accusation brought to an administrator automatically triggers complex bureaucratic procedures for finding out if the accusation is true, and if so, for deciding what to do with the guilty teacher. Lawyers, unions, and tribunals are involved. In New York, one of the relevant procedures is the "Rubber Room," a place where accused teachers are required to report every day for work, even if no work is actually assigned, until their cases are resolved. The length of stay in the Rubber Room can range from weeks to months.
These policies evolved gradually from the 1960s on, tipping the balance of power, rights, trust and respect away from teachers (who formerly had more discretion) toward students (whose complaints in the past were often ignored). The effect is to make teachers intensely vulnerable to being mobbed by those formally in their charge. With a few snaps of their fingers, members of an angry student clique can get a teacher sent to the Rubber Room — without the teacher even knowing what the charges are. The teacher may eventually be cleared, but by then the rumor mill will likely have done enduring damage to his or her reputation, and the teacher will have served time in a limbo of humiliation.
Some teachers, Colon informs us, call the Rubber Room R & R, "for rest and relaxation from the great school wars. But most who enter it lose hope. Few return to a classroom."
This novel is about what happens to Manuel Quesada, a veteran English teacher, during his stay in the Rubber Room. A word in the title sums it up: rogue, which the dictionary defines as "an unprincipled, deceitful, and unreliable person; a scoundrel or rascal." Quesada is clearly not a rogue at the start. On the contrary, he comes across as a dedicated, skilled, effective English teacher. He has not done anything seriously wrong. He is a mature, middle-aged man who cares about his daughter and his wife, watches his diet, and stays away from pot and booze. Being aware that schoolgirls are sometimes infatuated with their teachers, he has learned how to resist their flirtations gently, without hurting them — much like the quietly heroic teacher played by Richard Dreyfuss in the 1995 classic, Mr. Holland's Opus.
Being placed under indictment (which is what reassignment to the Rubber Room amounts to) has an effect on how Quesada thinks of himself. He is not weak. Nor is he unconvinced of his innocence. The simple fact is that institutional definitions of who a person is get inside that person's head. Quesada becomes more mindful of the failings in his past and less able to resist temptation to more failings in the here and now. From the point of view of research on mobbing, this is probably the novel's single main contribution: vivid depiction of the effects of stigmatization on the intellect and will of the person stigmatized. Quesada becomes a rogue. Career survival requires him to. Quesada's rogue identity lingers even after the redemptive ending of the book, since he entitles it Confessions. Fact is, his moral standards are high. He is less of a sinner than the school system has made him think he is.
The further relevance of this novel to the mobbing research is the empirical, factual detail it offers on everyday life in the Rubber Room. Colon introduces us to half a dozen teachers assigned there, thereby describing some of the varied accusations, whether true or false, that can land a teacher in this place of despair.
Like any good novel, of course, this one is only incidentally a lesson in social science. Colon's protagonist started out in university as a sociology major, but switched to English literature. "I fed on Shakespeare and consumed large portions of Poe, Irving, Cooper, Twain, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, who all offered, in fewer words, a lot more insight into humanity's plight. The social sciences used many words to say very little indeed. And a love of language imbued me with the desire to impart this knowledge to the children of the South Bronx. Teaching would be my life's work."
The plain fact is that in the geographic setting of this novel, during the second half of the twentieth century, civilization gradually gave way to savagery. Unemployment, drugs, vandalism, truancy, theft, muggings, murders, run-down tenements and family breakdown were all part of this process. What Colon has given us is the story of a teacher trying to swim against the decivilizing tide, to nourish in himself and to inculcate in youth the essential values of civilization, a teacher who is at the same time swept along into acting in ways he is ashamed of. The school system, which ought to be his ally and champion, becomes something he has to fight, and not altogether according to the rules.
Reading this novel, I found myself comparing it to Francine Prose's Blue Angel, since they have similar plots: a teacher or professor who is accused by students, and whom the academic system turns against. Prose's novel is simpler, funnier, more stylized and stereotypical. Her protagonist is less an educator than a careerist, and a worse sinner to boot, an unlovely man. The ending appeals to the despairing tenor of our time. Colon's novel has moments of humor, but it's a more serious piece of work. It is grittier. Its characters are more complex, and Colon is generous to them all. His South Bronx high school is closer to real life, less in an orbit of its own, than Prose's New England college is. His ending, moreover, gives hope. Imagine that in this postmodern time! I think well of Prose's novel, but better of Colon's.