2004-04-16 / Community

Life In The Rubber Room by anonymous

This article, special to The Wave, was written by a DOE employee who has been sitting, fully paid, in the ROC for nearly two years. This story is typical of those who are charged, many unfairly, with infractions and receive a resolution only when they retire or when they voluntarily leave the system. We are allowing it to remain anonymous because of the high possibility of DOE retribution against this employee for the article.

It’s early morning in Long Island City on my way to another day with the Department of Education center known as the ROC. I pass by the heavy traffic going to and from the Queensborough Bridge and the overhead sounds of the trains going in and out of Manhattan. I am not feeling groovy as I pass the 59th Street Bridge.

I pass through one of two security checks on my way to the sign-in sheet for the start of my day. I rush and wonder what I am rushing to as my day is filled with no assignment and no role to play, even though the department is paying me.

I am one of hundreds of department of education personnel ranging from principals to paraprofessionals who have been reassigned to different locations as we await the resolution of a wide range of charges against us.

We have all been charged with some alleged offense: corporal punishment, insubordination, problems with IEP processing, problems with other staff members, one person for creating a hostile work environment due to the telling of inappropriate jokes. Some people sitting are there due to legal issues outside of the school setting that requires their removal from their schools. We range in experience from the new teacher of a few months standing to those of us who are veterans of 20 years or more Some people have changed careers to become teachers and find themselves just after a few months dealing with accusations about their professionalism. The non-tenured teacher will not be sitting long. The non-tenured have few if any legal rights. There are people who have been cleared of all charges yet who still sit with no idea if they will ever be returned to their jobs in their school.

In the department of education people are guilty until proven innocent, yet the people in the rubber rooms are not criminals. Good people can make mistakes. They are parents, husbands, wives, members of their communities who have been shamed by stories and pictures in the newspapers based on charges still pending and yet unproven. It is a difficult experience that can take its toll on your sense of self. In spite of this I am not naïve. Good people can make mistakes. Good people can get caught up in circumstances. That doesn’t make them criminals.

The day starts slowly as people trickle in. A kind of routine sets in after awhile. The early ones have found parking spaces and take their place at their desk. Coffee, breakfast, newspapers, setting up of laptops, the morning scrabble games, the New York Times crossword puzzle and preparing to plug the meters are the rituals of the early morning. Some people meditate. Others pray and read bibles and prayer books. Others read. Some put on headphones. Some try to sleep the time and tension away. Others read and some do paperwork relating to their cases. The sounds of cell phones ringing melodically permeate the room. The conversations are loud at times reflecting the anger and frustration of answers not forthcoming. We sit at our desks. Some of us are isolated. Some find their niches with new friends and like any situation where people are crowded together with no task or roles to play out conflicts emerge-some nearing the physical.

Problems with the "inmates" are handled in typical Department of Education fashion. People who work with children are treated and spoken to like children. Thus everyone is punished for the behavior of the few. Blame and shame-just as many adults do with children versus trying to solve a problem is how things are done. All or nothing is the way things are handled-again in the same typical DOE manner. People with families especially feel a heightened sense of anger and fear over the potential loss of jobs and income. This fear is something we all feel. Some handle the fear better than others. There are a few we worry about, whether or not they will make it and if they are handling the stress.

The sense of helplessness is also pervasive as we realize that UFT officials are not lawyers, and can only do so much, if anything, to help. We are basically isolated from the union and from our schools.

"Be glad you are still getting paid" is the response each of us gets. Those of us who have been sitting longer feel the pain and complaints of our colleagues-the sense of injustice, the personality conflicts with principals, the problems with the system, the lying by children to get rid of a teacher-the politics of a system gone awry by a mayor and chancellor trying to make changes. Centralizing a larger bureaucracy means that the means to problem solve are far from the place that the problem occurred. Lawyers are only assigned to personnel when 3020A proceedings have started. (This is where the possible termination of a tenured employee might occur) Gallows laughter often tinges the conversation as we sometime compare ourselves to the Shawshank Redemption where everyone is innocent and that we are working on a plan of escape.

Passing the time is the hard part. Trying to maintain a sense of self and purpose is hard under such circumstances. How much reading and writing can you do? If the goal of such a system and process is to punish, then the DOE is very successful in that regard. We try to have a sense of normalcy with the celebration of events, holidays, birthdays, departures and the special talents of our group. Singers and musicians and writers are among the many gifts of the people sharing the rubber room. Some of the kindest and special people I have met in my twenty years with the DOE have been those I have met sharing the Rubber Room.

I find myself aware of who isn’t there each day-who is ill, who is going through a hearing and which people have been fired. I feel grateful for the daily acts of kindness and support shown me by the other inmates. I know who these people are. I like to think I know who I am.. The incongruity of all of this with where we find ourselves just doesn’t fit. None of this makes any sense. There must be a better way of dealing with conflicts and disagreements than the warehousing of people. Cost-benefit wise, this process makes no sense as well.

I worry about my own sense of self and how much longer I can deal with the rerun quality of each day. You try to make the best of it as you would if you were in a bad school. I remind myself that I am more than my professional role and how important it is to remind myself as well that I can’t let myself be defined by other people. You wonder what you did to deserve what you are going through. You wonder about your decision to go into education. You wonder when all the sitting will be over.

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