I had a job I was good at, once, spending the odd Saturday working in my art teacher's son-in-law's plant nursery. My qualifications were impeccable: I was young, able-bodied, and willing to work for a pittance. It was fantastic. I'd come out of the chill and drizzle to a bright, verdant paradise heavily perfumed by the microbes in the fresh loam.
I screwed up at first, adding fertilizer pellets that would have burned the plants' tender roots, but my boss noticed, I owned up to the mistake, and he patiently showed me what to do differently. From then on, the work was simple and pleasant, filling pots with soil, transplanting flowers, adding fertilizer, and hauling the pots across the greenhouse to hoist up and hang along the irrigation tubes. My boss praised me for doing my job efficiently, with no qualms about getting covered in dirt in the process and no proclivity toward getting sidetracked by conversation. I proved useful in other ways, as well, using my meager knowledge of Spanish to translate for my boss and the two men whose task it was to mix the soil, a job that required a worker with a strong back, but not necessarily a command of English.
So went my days, plodding cheerily on in my own little world, carrying out my small tasks and listening to Patsy Cline on the radio. At lunchtime, the boss's wife brought us hot dogs, and we rested, telling dumb jokes and washing our meals down with icy Cokes. When evening came, I'd survey the rows of petunias and impatiens before heading home, aching and filthy, eager to stumble into a hot shower.
It couldn't last, of course. I had ambitions and so headed off to university. When the summers came, I sought employment that would further those ambitions, and, with transcripts full of A's and letters from learned professors attesting that I was bright and diligent, I found plenty of labs willing to induct the newest bottle washer and button pusher into the profession. So my days played out under sterile hoods that reeked of ethanol and in basement laboratories lit only by the laser light and the dim glow of ancient computer monitors.
My tasks were less clear cut than in the greenhouse, and I struggled mightily at times. I found eighty-seven ways not to stain rat hippocampus for immunofluorescent microscopy and watched filters explode again and again. It took weeks and months to develop the techniques to get crotchety equipment to yield meaningful results. I wrote painfully dull grant proposals.
On the best of days, I sat for hours in the dark pushing buttons and adjusting settings while watching my proteins dance to the Brandenburg Concertos as a squiggly line produced by inscrutable software. When I managed to steal away for five minutes while waiting for heaters to come up to temperature, I generally devoured a granola bar and a stick of reduced fat string cheese in the windowless office adjoining the lab. At the end of a day, if I was very lucky, I'd have some grainy pictures of red and green blobs or a string of numbers that hours of analysis would turn into meaningful graphs, and I was eventually able to cobble together a poster and a thesis. I clung to the hope that my techniques might help the biology lab progress in their effort to help treat stroke victims or that my protein denaturation data might provide some clue to some latter-day Watson and Crick unraveling the mysteries of life.
As my undergraduate career drew to a close, I began seeking yet another job. After writing essays, getting still more letters of recommendation, and going through interviews, I somehow managed to dupe people into believing that I was not just a good student, I was a problem-solver, a striver, a potential leader in a grand movement. It was enough to get me a position teaching science in a room where the grey paint peels from the cabinets and the students litter the floor with wrappers from their forbidden sweets.
I fail daily here. Even when it works, it isn't enough, never really enough, for significant gains. I worry that I'm actually widening the achievement gap. The best sound I can hope for is a moment of silence, an instant where every student is on task instead of chattering or striving to invent new ways to annoy me or his neighbors. I rarely eat lunch, save perhaps a packet of the saltines some clever student keeps leaving on my desk, as I spend my time grading and planning. At the end of each day, I head home with a headache and another bag full of failing quizzes to grade. I pray that someday some student will be better off for my having been here, that something he learned from me about Newton's Laws, ionic bonds, pseudostratified epithelial tissues, or how to study and solve a problem will make a difference, and he'll end up with a career instead of a dead end job or with some new spark of curiosity about the world, or at least there will be one fewer poor black kid in prison or on welfare, but, honestly, I doubt it.