An Odyssey Into The Rubber Room
It’s official. I just drooled on myself while taking a nap in the Department of Education’s infamous “Rubber Room.” I was one of them now and there was no turning back. After countless hours of reading or staring out the window watching jets leave LaGuardia, the eyelids began to droop and there I was, wiping spittle from my chin before anyone noticed. But no one ever did, for inside these five rooms everyone was immersed in something else. You see, the first rule of the Rubber Room was that no one ever stopped talking about why they were sent to the Rubber Room. There was so much hurt, frustration, and downright paranoia inside this building, so many conspiracy theories bouncing off the walls, real and imagined, that the only way to get through another day was to let my head slip to my chest and dream about catching one of those jets to someplace else.
Even though the Department of Education and UFT recently agreed to end the practice of sending teachers to reassignment centers while awaiting disciplinary hearings, in late May it was my turn to take the walk of shame. I gingerly stepped behind a glass partition to be greeted by a chorus of jailhouse terms like, “Fresh fish!” and “New meat!”
Despite a ferocious desire to be left alone, the long termers insisted upon an informal orientation. I was given my assigned seat, then got to know the gang, whether I cared to or not. There were ramblers and talkers, as well as brooders and loners. I spotted two colleagues from my former building completing a combination of six years on this floor. They gazed back and smiled sadly like a pair of ghosts. Someone asked if I’d like to join their afternoon Scrabble tournament and it struck me for the first time that my individual story, like all others in this room, had been put on ice.
My cell phone rang and a tired voice identified itself as the chapter leader for the building.
“Do not speak to anyone about your case,” was his only advice. But because the DOE handled each case at such a glacial pace, telling one’s side of things became the major pastime. There were long winded speeches and frustrated “ monologues about justice, a backlog of stories aching to be freed, just one long moan of complaint.
When this fevered pitch would occur, it was just a matter of time before the first warning shot was fired. It was usually a battle over turf, a room, a chair, the placement of a desk. They threatened to tell security, to write each other up, to call the police over perceived threats. It was no one’s fault, really, for none of us should have ever met. No matter what the charge, guilty or innocent, we were simply being dehumanized. I tried to communicate this once to a pair of teachers pushing a desk into one another, but they just wouldn’t have it. The total annihilation of the other was the only thing that mattered.
Outside the window of the reassignment center that I now called home, another jet from LaGuardia shimmered in the sun. It gained momentum over Citi Field, then cruised by our window and out of sight. Whenever I slept inside the Rubber Room, in my dreams I was never a disgraced teacher. And I awoke with the knowledge that this particular story would not define me.
J. Bryan McGeever has taught Writing and Literature in New York City Public Schools for six years. His essays on NYC education recently appeared in Thomas Beller’s Lost and Found: Stories from New York.