“Cards were big,” says Kelly. “Sewing and macrame were big … We exercised. We read.”
A guy in the room was a big Tom Clancy fan. He used his term in limbo as an opportunity to write out webs of character lists and fan theories. He’d always wanted the time to do this, says Kelly, and now time was all he had. Another teacher was really into Lost. “She would print out character photos the night before and make double-stick tape trading cards out of index cards. She said she had the time of her life.”
Other teachers got smart and used the time to train for a new career, hopefully one that wouldn’t slowly drive them to madness in a boredom dungeon. They took classes, either at night or online, and while they were in the rubber room, they’d do their homework. “It was like going to school on scholarship.” One teacher Kelly knew got most of the way toward her master’s while still in the room.
Yeah, some teachers spent a long time in the reassignment room. Years went by as they waited for the DOE’s handful of arbitrators to get through their massive backlogs. The average stint in the rooms was three years. Some teachers did as many as 12.
There Are Old-Timers To Show You The Ropes, Kind Of Like In Prison Movies
“What are you in for?” one teacher might say to another. Kelly says she’d been falsely accused of helping kids cheat. Other teachers are sent away for really serious stuff, like hitting kids and sexual misconduct. And yet it seemed like every single inmate could explain away their accusation as some crazy misunderstanding, from the teacher sanctioned for teaching in an “unorthodox way” (no elaboration provided) to the guy who swore he’d been in the girls’ bathroom only because it was so much cleaner and quieter than the staff one.
But if movies have taught us anything about prison, it’s that every jail sentence comes with a grizzled but kindly mentor who will teach you what’s what. Kelly called these people “the old guard.” When she first showed up, she didn’t even know how she’d manage to pull off that most basic of rubber room activities — sleeping — because the room banned pillows (along with mattresses and beach chairs). But then a long-timer said, “There’s no rule against bringing sweatshirts from home inside your purse for a makeshift pillow.” Armed with this advice, Kelly spent many a peaceful hour asleep, her sweater stuffed under her head and her jacket draped over her.
This member of the old guard had been there five years. She knew which guards (sorry, we mean “building employees”) would let you leave the room to make an emergency phone call, which ones would never let you out period, and which would probably briefly let you out just whenever. She had the supervisors’ annual schedules memorized. Other old-timers were so in tune with the day’s routine that it was fascinating to watch them. One crafted an elaborate fitness regimen that lasted for hours, with a built-in break for when lunch began and a wrap-up exactly 15 minutes before the school day ended.
Kelly was released from the rubber room after one year and two weeks, so she never joined the old guard herself. And then the old-timers were all released as well, because in 2010, news of the rubber rooms finally came to light thanks to a documentary and several news stories. The public was outraged over the $65 million that went annually to these teachers who didn’t teach, and the backlash led New York to announce they were closing all the rooms.
Though the rooms returned years later in some form, New York mostly moved to making these teachers do administrative jobs rather than sticking them in detention. Reading and sleeping, of course, had been a lot less work than filing papers in some broom closet. But that’s exactly what makes rubber rooms so awful to be in, says Kelly. “It may sound great, but don’t be fooled,” she says. “It’s kind of fun for the first week or two, because you can get organized, look up everything on the web, play games. But that soon becomes nothing. You want a job. You want to do something meaningful.” Because while there are plenty of people out there happy to do nothing so long as they have money, very few of them choose to become teachers.
Evan V. Symon is a journalist and interview finder guy for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. Have an awesome job or experience you’d like to see in an article? Then post us up here or here!
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