The Education of Ms. Barsallo

For her first job out of college, Millie Barsallo became a teacher in one of Denver’s most challenging public schools. She wound up facing two of the most profound questions of her young existence: Could she change the lives of 40 boys and girls? Or would the school change her?

September 2010

By the spring, uneasiness was building at Cole. At an earlier faculty meeting, Murgel announced that the assistant principal would not return in the fall. There were rumors among staff that the assistant principal was not the only one who would be going: The librarian and up to 11 teachers could lose their jobs. By early May, a few had received their notices.

The uncertainty hadn’t deterred some teachers from wondering whether they’d be receiving their end-of-year bonus. To prepare, they lowered their student-growth objectives they’d set nine months earlier to more closely match the smaller gains that their classes actually made during the year. They were cooking their academic books, essentially, but no one seemed to care; it was accepted practice around Cole, one that could mean an extra thousand dollars in teachers’ pockets come year-end. Barsallo refused to play along.

With less than a month left in the school year, demands continued to grow: There were summer reading lists to prepare, tests to administer, and rooms to clean. Despite the challenges she’d encountered, Barsallo was determined to return to Cole the following August—better informed and better prepared to handle the burdens that undoubtedly would face her in her second year. If anything, she felt more confident to perform the job she’d signed up for. And more than ever, she was confident her students had something to offer—their DRA scores showed continued, across-the-board increases—and that each was better for their experiences at the school. “They know they can succeed if they put their minds to it,” she says. “They’re all geniuses to me.”

From Barsallo’s mouth, the words are not empty. As part of her end-of-year work, she’d spent time talking to Cole’s gifted-and-talented program coordinator about whether some of Barsallo’s students—like the gifted Ana—would qualify. Without Barsallo as an advocate, her high-achieving fourth-graders would have little chance of finding additional opportunities around Cole.

And yet, two weeks before the school year is to end, students are rolling on the floor, hanging from the door, and wandering the hallway. Barsallo approaches a table. The boy is supposed to be writing a topic sentence, but so far all he’s written is: “The cobra.”

“That’s not a topic sentence, dude,” Barsallo says, pointing her index finger at the words. She realizes quickly that this isn’t the most incomplete work at the table. She looks at another boy’s blank paper. “I see you’ve written so much,” she says sarcastically. “You need to slow down because you’re on fire.”

Barsallo returns to her desk, calls a boy over, and asks him to read a book.

Another student begins to pull books out of the library. “I told you not to go in there,” Barsallo says. “Sit down, now!”

A few minutes later: “No, you can’t go to the bathroom.”

Then: “Miss, can I have $10?”

The boy at Barsallo’s desk is clearly frustrated. He starts to close the book. Barsallo wraps her arm around his shoulder. “Miss,” the boy says, setting the book aside, “I’m dumb. I can’t do this.”

“No one thinks you’re dumb,” Barsallo says.

“I do.”

The class battles swirl around them. Barsallo sees each one as if they’re happening in slow motion.

“Stop fighting over a pencil. It’s ridiculous.”

“Sit in a chair and read a book.”

Someone vomits in a trash can in Lopez-Crespin’s room, and the news makes its way across the hall. Barsallo’s students race out of her room. The school bell rings.

Later, Ana pulls Barsallo aside.

“Miss,” she says, “there’s something I need to tell you.”

Her grandmother’s boyfriend, the man she calls her father, had been arrested a few blocks from Cole—there was an issue with his license plates, and he didn’t have identification. Now he’s locked up, awaiting deportation.

Barsallo hugs the girl.

“Miss, I might have to move to Mexico.”

Barsallo tightens her arms around the girl. Thoughts race through her mind. Ana was born here; she needs to complete her education in the United States. She can do great things. There’s no way Ana can leave. She won’t learn. She won’t be challenged. Barsallo won’t let it happen.

Then, just as quickly, she lets go. Barsallo knows she can’t fix the situation, that she can’t change the series of events that are already in motion.

“I’ll see you later, OK?” Barsallo says quietly, and then Ana disappears out the door.