It Happened to Me: I Was In The "Rubber Room"

What happens to "bad teachers?" After the New York Post made my sex work past front-page news, I spent 30 weeks finding out.

Sep 8, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

The evening of September 26, 2010 I received a phone call at home from a woman identifying herself as the superintendent of schools in my district. I had been reassigned.

Instead of going to the classroom where I had taught art to elementary school students for the past three years, I was to report to the administrative offices at 65 Court Street. There I was called into an office where I sat down with a faceless administrator and was made to sign a paper acknowledging that I would report to room 801 every morning where I would sit at an assigned desk for the length of a school day.

As I was leaving, I leaned over and whispered: "Do you know why I'm here?"

"Do you?" He asked.

I did. As did the whole city of New York except, apparently, Mr.whatever-his-name-was, who had missed that morning’s headline. That morning’s cover of the NY Post had read “Bronx Teacher Admits: I’m an ex-hooker.”

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The headline was in reference to an article I’d published three weeks earlier on the Huffington Post. That article, “Thoughts from a Former Craigslist Call Girl,” was in criticism of the censoring of the “Adults Services” section of Craigslist and in defense of the rights and dignity of sex workers. In this article, I spoke openly of my past as a stripper and a callgirl on Craigslist. Like everything I’d written before, I used my real name.

Apparently, The NY Post had put two and two together, sending a male reporter and a cameraman to ambush me outside my school building. The timing of the NY Post’s exclusive couldn't have been more perfect -- perfect, that is, if you love bad press for New York City’s Department of Education.

Earlier that week, "Waiting for Superman," a documentary analyzing the failures of American public education, had just premiered. In the days and weeks that followed, I would be painted as a poster child for bad teachers, a reason to end tenure.

Formerly known as the "rubber rooms," the reassignment system is the city of New York's solution to the problem of teachers unions, and tenure, which is rewarded to qualifying teachers after three years. Because a tenured teacher can't be outright fired, teachers suspected of misconduct are "reassigned" pending further investigation and a formal hearing with an arbitrator. In reassignment, teachers continue to collect their full salary and all other benefits.

Publicly, the Department of Education claims that teachers who've been reassigned are doing administrative duties. Privately, it’s been well documented that there is no such work. Teachers collect their full salary to sit in what amounts to detention.

In graduate school, rumors of the rubber room -- and just went on there -- were rampant. Besides being a way to remove potentially dangerous teachers from the classroom -- think teachers who’ve hit students or child molesters -- reassignment was the city's only way of weeding out delinquent educators -- “bad apples,” if you will. For new teachers, rubber room rumors served as a warning. With a past as checkered as mine, I had always known there was a risk.

I became a teacher through the NYC Teaching Fellows, a program that trains professionals from diverse careers to become teachers in New York City’s most struggling schools. At the time I applied to the Fellows program, I was earning a degree in Creative Nonfiction from the New School and working on a book, a memoir in part about my experiences as a former sex worker. My sex work past was no secret. I had been publishing about my experiences in print and online since 2005.

When I interviewed to become a teacher in 2007, I introduced myself as a writer. Any coworker who Googled me -- a surprising number, it turned out, starting predictably with the male teachers -- knew what I wrote about. It was never the controversy it threatened to become, I always figured, because I was well-appreciated and good at my job.

Even so, I knew there was the potential for controversy that might one day threaten my career. Three years later, it seemed the day had finally come.

***

Following the NY Post’s exclusive, my story would appear in the Daily News, The New York Times and The Washington Post. A story ran in the Guardian in the UK, in Brazil, in the India Times. A video of me at a reading played on CNN and on the local news. As the media storm raged on, I sat in purgatory -- I mean, reassignment.

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Reassigned teachers were scattered inconspicuously around the building, indistinguishable from actual administrative employees, except that the ‘real’ employees were hard at work whereas, the rumors were true: we were to sit there doing nothing. That morning, on the way from one waiting room to the next, I made my first contact with fellow rubber roomers. A woman approached me, the NY Post tucked under her arm and introduced herself as Chrissy.

"Did you tell them anything? Don't tell them anything!” was the first thing she said.

A blond woman with Chrissy nodded.

“She knows exactly what you’re going through,” Chrissy said. “She’s one half of the lesbian teachers.”

“Total bullshit,” the blond woman said. She pointed to the NY Post. “It’s all their fault I'm here.”

In the past few years, there’d been plenty of stories of teachers who’d gotten in trouble. There’d been the teacher who was fired for a picture on Facebook of her at an October Fest, drinking a beer. Another teacher was fired for a Facebook picture, drinking a beer whilst wearing a pirate hat. The lesbian teachers had been one of the latest and more local stories.

According to the NY Post, two high school teachers were caught by a janitor engaging in a lesbionic tryst in a classroom after school hours. Tossed into the rubber room, both women denied the janitor’s claim. Here I was, I remember thinking, in the infamous teacher's very presence! She wrote her lawyer’s number down on the corner of the cover of the newspaper.

"Don't say anything to anyone until you've talked to a lawyer!" Chrissy said.

Sharon – a fellow roomer who had been there for over a year, would become my daily source for information. That morning, she showed me where and how to punch in. She showed me where the bathroom was and suggested local places to get lunch. According to Sharon, Sharon had been removed from the classroom for dismissing her class three minutes early -- in other words, her principal hadn't liked her and wanted her out.

The only rule, Sharon repeated, was that we were simply to report. The hours were the same as whatever your school’s hours were, which were different depending on the school you worked, though always equaled out to 6 hours and fifty minutes a day. Other than our 50-minute lunch break, we were expected to sit where we were assigned.

What do you do all day? I asked Sharon. She showed me. Petville, an application on Facebook similar to the more popular Farmville, was a virtual world that prior to the rubber room, I had not the privilege of knowing.

We sat down at Sharon’s computer where she introduced me to her pets, a girl pet and a boy pet. She dressed them up for holidays. Occasionally, Sharon told me, she made them have sex. I looked away from the screen and around at my new surrounding of stark gray plastic and generic modular office furniture. Locked in the confines of reassignment, Petville made sense.

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Like so many other rubber roomers I met, Sharon was fighting for her job. We were free to quit at any moment but, in doing so, we would forfeit our right to a trial and subsequently lose our career. Sharon, like the hundreds of other reassigned teachers, had no recourse but to sit and fight it out. Day upon day in the rubber room, they seemed to be losing the battle.

Even though it wasn’t the explicit intention of reassignment, implicit to us being there was the fact that we were being punished. Like prisoners at Guantanamo, we were being held captive without even having been convicted -- or in my case, without even having been charged -- with a crime.

Being something of a minor celebrity, fellow rubber roomers sought me out, wanting to commiserate. Whether these people were strange to begin with, or whether they had been rendered strange by their circumstances, I could not tell.

Even Sharon, for whom I felt fondness and sympathy, revealed defects of character strange and unsettling. Everything she did, she seemed to do compulsively. She was constantly talking to people around her who were trying to work … and there was her habit of drinking at lunch. Then there were the texts in the evening, after work, desperate confessions of her dreading having to go in.

Whereas some spirits were broken, other people came across as just plain insane. It made sense: hours of sitting alone with nothing to do and no one to talk to amounted to solitary confinement -- what they call in prison "the hole."

What I knew for sure: I did not want to be associated as one of these people. Even today, when I meet people who tell me they've been in the rubber room, I take a literal step back.

***

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A month into my captivity, I had my first meeting with the Office of Special Investigators, or OSI for short. Together, the investigator and I cataloged every article I had ever written. I freely disclosed the dates and approximate times of their publication. I testified as to being the author. One sticking point seemed to be whether I had written anything on company property during company time. No, I answered again and again. I hadn’t.

My colleague at the school where I’d worked had already let me know they’d searched my things at the school, confiscating the art room’s computer hard drives. Confiscate away! I thought. I had nothing to hide.

At one point I couldn’t help asking my investigator “Why am I here? I mean, I published an op-ed. Isn’t that the reason for constitutional free speech? You can’t lose your job for being a writer!”

Apparently, I had yet to learn, you can.

Within days, the DOE announced the investigation was over and they were pursuing my termination. The charges the DOE filed against me, which were not released, were based solely on my writing. The specifications cited political opinions with which they disagreed. If only my opinions had been different, it insinuated, I would not have been a problem. I was outraged and honestly confused.

The experience of being investigated began taking its toll. One day and one day only, I attempted to make a series of personal phone calls from my desk. During a call with Tmobile regarding my phone bill, the phone at my desk was mysteriously disconnected. I asked a nearby colleague to confirm that I wasn't going crazy. It was true -- every time I picked up the phone and dialed, it was promptly disconnected. It didn't happen to this colleague or anyone else who tried to dial out from the same line. It was only me. Was I being watched? Was I being watched constantly? Had someone been spying on me this whole time?

***

I was not sorry for what I did. While it was never my intention to make this political point, the point had been made: a former prostitute had been an elementary school teacher, and a good one. It was no big deal -- until it was.

“People have sex for many reasons,” I had written on the Huffington Post. “Sometimes, for some of us, one reason is money.” Having had sex for money, I was not a bad person. I wanted people to know that people like me existed. Otherwise “normal” people -- people in your neighborhood, people who work in your office, people who teach your kids -- just may have a history like mine.

As fall turned to winter, I began to wonder what good it did, if any. At times last year, having gotten myself into hot water hardly seemed worth it. Being investigated by my employer and scrutinized by the press, I felt on display, terminally unique. At the same time, I felt invisible.

Sitting there day after day, listening to my supervisor make and take personal calls, all I had to do was show up. That was asking too much. I came in later and later. I left in the middle of the day.

In the end, I did not fight for my job. My first day of the hearing, I agreed to resign. It’s not that I hadn't loved my job. It’s just that, months of sitting in time-out, I had begun to see their point. Whether it was my fault, or the fault of the NY Post, I could no longer publish without it creating a distraction in my school community.

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My last official day of work was April 29th, 2011. After 30 weeks in the rubber room -- that's 129,000 minutes -- I punched out for good and not a minute too soon. That day, I ran in to a coworker in the bathroom.

“Everyone’s got a past,” she said. “I don't judge.”

It had been a tough day and so the random act of kindness meant a lot. I gave her a hug. As I let go, she told me to take care. Right before she walked out, she turned back around.

“Make sure your certification stays valid," she said. Just because I had resigned with the DOE, so long as I kept my certification valid I could still work as a teacher -- just not for the city of New York.

"You're young now -- I know you want to be a writer. You should do that,” she said. “But you may someday wish to return to teaching.” She shrugged. “You never know."

You never know, indeed.