How many pencils does it take to function in a 22,000 square foot mega mansion? Zero, if you’re Betsy DeVos. If you somehow missed the tweet that one of her staffers posted after her first day of work at Secretary of Education, it was a joke that backfired tremendously. Politics aside, it proved something I’ve been saying tweeting for a long time. Write outside yourself.
As an unabashed critic of public education who has seemingly little qualifications, DeVos stepped into a role that will shepherd in this country’s future. In case you’d like me to buy you a vowel, I’m not being hyperbolic. Education is this country’s future. And make no mistake. There are many flaws in education–public, private, and every iteration in between.
But what DeVos and her staffers seemingly missed is the fact that this is not a role that people play 185 days a year. This is not an extension of a make believe childhood game. For most educators, this is our passion and our identity. And we buy our own damn pencils.
And paper and notebooks and markers and colored pencils and dry erase boards and books and stickers and stamps and snacks and the occasional winter coat for a kid whose family cannot afford one. Oh, and don’t forget the pencil sharpeners. Because the one mounted to the cinder block wall, the one that’s older than I am, yeah. It broke before this room became my classroom even though I teach in a fairly affluent suburb. And don’t you dare tell me that I get a $250 write-off every year. I’ll call your family and assign you a lunch detention if you do.
Does DeVos know this? On some level, she must. And if she didn’t before that tweet went up, she certainly does now. In addition to pouring our hearts and souls into our lessons, we also pour our paychecks. National averages report that teachers shell out about $500 a year. It may not seem like much, especially if I showed you what I just spent ordering more books from Scholastic last week. That’s another story for another day in the off chance that Mr. P stumbles onto this post before I break the news to him. $500 may or may not be a lot from your vantage point, but if you consider many teachers’ tenures span 30 years, that’s $15,000. Per teacher.
And let’s be very clear here. I’m not rooting against DeVos. Why in the world would I cheer for the failure of my livelihood, your children, and our future? What I am suggesting, though, is that it is easy for anyone who has found any measure of success in any aspect of their lives to slip into tone deafness. It’s not a requisite to success, but it certainly seems to be an unintended effect sometimes.
Personal finance gurus champion the notion that we are in control of our money. And that’s fine to say on a broad scale, but what happens when you start to consider people who are sick, unemployed, or systemically disadvantaged? Suddenly that excellent advice you’ve tweeted out isn’t universally helpful. It rings hollow and might even come across as a little insulting.
Fear not. I’ve stepped in it, too, and quite often. I find myself bemoaning the fact that I won’t be able to retire in my thirties because I never pursued a career path that would net six-figures anytime soon, if at all. I get so obstinate about our budget in the grocery store that Mr. P heaves the $4 jar of pickles into the cart with the assurance that we aren’t poor and likely never will be. I talk about my life in such a way that I need the constant reminder from my dad that we are, in fact, doing well enough.
Reconcile those outbursts, those blog posts, and those tweets with this fact: the median American household income in 2015 was approximately $55,000. Or the fact that I spend my days with kids who can’t afford supplies, lunch, or clothes that fit. I may not have ever been poor myself, but I know what it looks like. I know better. Yet, I say those things. Suddenly, I’ve gone tone deaf. Suddenly, I share an unfortunate commonality with the billionaire heiress whose home or office is so big that she can’t find her flipping pencils.
It turns out, we can all stand to write outside ourselves.
And don’t worry Betsy, I’ll pick up an extra pack this weekend when I run to the store for more boxes of Kleenex.
So Tell Me…Have you ever inadvertently crossed into tone-deaf territory?