Bingo Was Her Name-O

James C. Clark

Pictures of naked girls do not make me drool. Not that I don't like girls. I like them a lot. But those airbrushed sculptures are as real as the Tooth Fairy and as likely to visit me. What gets me is photo galleries of white men in suits illustrating articles about executive compensation. Those make me salivate. That money is genuine. And it's not just salary that gives them all those commas. It's the perks, bonuses, stock options and those are accompanied by private planes, boxes at the stadium, and chauffeured limos. They keep telling us they need to offer these salaries to attract and keep the people who can perform.

Not to be outdone, the seemingly humble world of education also seeks to reward its finest teachers. America's schools reward their faithful servants and offer irresistible bait to encourage the biggest fish in the college pond to choose a career in education. Their perks include the oft-quoted summers off--provided they can afford it and don't need to take classes or seminars; free admission to athletic events; as long as they are high school games they are coaching or officiating; intensely gratifying work--assuming they keep their sanity; professional treatment by other degreed professionals; subsidized dining; and gratitude that continues for years--and sometimes approves bond issues that sometimes lead to raises. But wait!, in the words of late night infomercials, there is even more! A quite enticing, but under-advertised, lure is the opportunity to volunteer for unpaid duties that benefit the school, and thus, by extension (though sometimes that's a very tenuous cord) the teacher. Every day, every faculty, in every school, is encouraged to do more in the cause of "professionalism". Educators, having thoroughly demonstrated their gullibility by choosing an underpaid but over-stressed profession, are believed, by principals, board members and the community, to be willing to endure parent visits and phone calls, extra tutoring, committee haggling, improvement plans, athletic events, plays and concerts families can't be bothered with, chaperoning contests, field trips or dances, training "at minimal cost to the teacher", presentations, and discussions with juvenile officers, grandparents, social workers, and judges. All on the teacher's time. All because it's "for the kids." Even student teachers, paying rather than being paid, are expected to lend a hand. Only later do they learn the loan will never be returned.

At Mark Twain High School, where a tiny purse is zealously defended by a board as stingy as it is unrealistic, teachers call their extra activities "chores." The hierarchy of odiousness varies from teacher to teacher, but at the top of nearly every chore list is bingo. Several Thursdays a month, two teachers donate five hours to "The Inferno." Most would prefer to donate five pints of blood. The athletic department nets about $4000 annually while the bingo sponsors receive paperwork-free and reliable employees. On the surface, it appears to be a win-win situation.

The teachers I met on my first day of student teaching showed little interest in my expectations, my history, or my fears. As an untested apprentice, I anticipated assistance with planning, discipline, or office politics. Like junk-yard Dobermans, though, they had but one concern--how many turns at bingo was I willing to take? They were rhapsodic in their encouragement. But my hesitation made them equally rabid about intimidating me, snarling and snapping, daring me to attend. Mrs. Greer, an English teacher in the room next door, snagged me at 7:15. Elegantly dressed and bejeweled, she bit with a deceptive fury.

We were introduced. "Welcome." Arch smile. "Hope you enjoy your stay, though why you volunteered to come to a place such as this escapes me." Coy leer. "Everyone here is dying to get away. You're the first student teacher we've had since that fat blond who got caught in the elevator with the security guard. Didn't even fire him..." Roll of eyes. "Always something interesting going on here. Though you'll certainly find that out for yourself." She lifted her lip and leered. I was distinctly uncomfortable. "How long is your sentence?" I replied in as bland a voice as I could that I would be there for fourteen weeks. "Then you'll be able to take several turns. Has he hit you up for bingo yet?" Not knowing who "he" was or what bingo had to do with him, I shook my head and waited. I knew she wouldn't abandon me to ignorance. "Don't worry, he will. Help him forget about me, will you please? I don't know if I can last another year until retirement. The kids are bad enough...but bingo is the final straw. God, I despise everything about the evening. If I never go again, that will be too soon. It is a grotesque spectacle, like plunging into a Bosch." She displayed the smile perfected after years of withering the over-confident upstarts she faced. "That's a painting, not a spark plug." I wasn't sure if I should tell her I knew or just let her challenge go. I smiled wanly. "It uncovers a side of the human race you don't often see; one that is probably better left uncontemplated. And Collins is always jabbering about it. Every meeting, every memo, whenever he sees you in the hall...I'm amazed he hasn't snared you. Probably doesn't know you're here yet." A smile indicated how unimportant I was. "He won't quit--it's as if the continued operation of the school depended entirely upon us working bingo." She looked directly at my supervising teacher and whispered conspiratorially "You know, I heard Mrs. Downey tried to get a transfer and when he blocked her she just took an early out rather than face another year of his haranguing. That's tempting...go ahead, take as many turns as you want. No one will be angry."

The teacher across the hall, who had diligently ignored me on my previous partial day visits, nearly sprinted over. This was obviously a topic of some passion. "Please, save me from Dante too. I've been roasted as much as I can bear, and am ready for a promotion to Purgatory." He smiled self-assuredly. "You know, the movies always show the poor as struggling knights or helpless victims of oppression, prejudice, and circumstance. How many times have I seen someone portray a noble and valiant working class with good hearts needing just a little help to stand tall and proud. Bingo crushes all that foolishness. Nearly everyone there is horribly overweight. The clothes are shabby. It feels like a homeless shelter; all those quiet, miserable people staring down, afraid to meet your eyes. In our auditorium 300 kids generate a continuous roar. Not there. Everyone glares like a terrified rabbit, cringing and alone, hoping to stay invisible." Mrs. Greer nodded with the pitying look of an undertaker burying an indigent family. "They read tabloids, watch those little portable televisions, gorge on greasy sausages and slurp gargantuan drinks. And now! They've started with their cellular phones--keeping them on the table as if they're expecting a call from the President. What a joke--most of them don't even have jobs. Who do they think is going to call them? They probably call each other." They both chuckled sadly at the foolishness of human nature. "They look just like what they are: the lowest stratum of society, bleak and forlorn. Oh, you'll have a blast. And if you're hoping Collins will offer a job, you had better sound enthusiastic about bingo. He doesn't care if you can teach, he wants to know how many turns you're willing to pull."

Such a welcome. This was hazing as surely as if I were seeking to join a fraternity, though it was clear I would never receive full membership. The condescension was thick. My task was to alleviate their misery, then disappear. A churning wave passed through my intestines, caused not by the impending student teaching, but by bingo! Bingo? It appeared as if my life would be dominated by this, whether I was willing or not. I already had an abundance of things to fear. Calm...either I would go, and endure as I had endured many other unpleasantries, or I wouldn't. I didn't have to decide which was the best course today. But I did hope I wouldn't hear about it daily. They seemed to revel in the anguish while clearly longing for escape, and wanted me to share or to rescue.

Mrs. Greer spoke again, this time a gloomy resignation pervading her voice. "You will be encircled by blistering poverty fervently hoping for the big strike and cigarette smoke that would choke a fireman. It's probably not a good place for a student teacher. Any optimism you have will be sucked out and sent through the vents with the rest of the malodorous vapors in the room. And if that's not sufficiently discouraging, contemplate this. Everyone there is a product of the school system. Sometimes we even see our former students. That's the worst, because they love to get revenge and make us fetch daubers or snacks as if we're house slaves. Good luck."

Mr. Collins encouraged me to schedule a turn as soon as we met, but I managed to postpone him for several weeks, as I have a class on Thursday night. I decided to do it once, if only to experience firsthand. Last week, knowing there was no class tonight, I tracked Mr. Collins down and volunteered.

"I really appreciate what you're doing, and so does everybody else. We got a great bunch of kids here, and we love to see everyone on board and willing to help them. You know, a whole lot of our programs would come to an end without bingo; some of the teachers don't realize just how important this is to us. So, be there at 5:30 on Thursday night. It takes a little while to learn the ropes, but it's not as if you can't do it. I think it's kind of nice if you can wear your Twain sweatshirt. I like them to know we're returning to the community."

I responded accordingly, matching platitude with platitude, hoping to ingratiate myself, looking to help only me. If I had to purchase a sweatshirt from the booster club that was fine. I smiled and told him how I was eager to help, as I had heard so much about it and how everyone was enthusiastic for me to take a turn. He grinned.

"I'm really glad the staff is behind me on this. It is important. Glad we could accommodate you. I'll have to tell Miss Anello to take that night off."

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