Wednesday, May 13, 2009

RIF v. riff

riff (rĭf)
Music A short rhythmic phrase, especially one that is repeated in improvisation.

riffed, riff·ing, riffs
To play or make riffs.

RIF  [rif]
A reduction in the number of persons employed by a business, government department, etc., esp. for budgetary reasons.

R(eduction) I(n) F(orce)

riff (n.)

The lions are dancing down the aisle. One is silver, the other gold, and they twist and furl themselves from the doors at the top of the auditorium, past a thousand frozen faces as a boy onstage beats a frantic rhythm and another—the lion tamer—follows with a mask and a fan. When the golden lion is even with my seat on the aisle, the head bobs up and I see the puppeteer brothers underneath.

Perfect. I’ve been asking to see this dance—which they always described energetic but abstract terms—for almost four years now. Always we get to May and I ask the older of the brothers why they don’t do it for our school’s Multicultural Assembly, and for three years he protested was too busy. Now he’s busier than ever, but time is running out: the head of the golden lion, all of the silver one and their masked tamer are graduating seniors. They’ll be gone in a month, leaving only the memory of the lions behind.

The Multicultural Assembly, always a high point of the spring, came too quickly this year. It crept up among the chaotic responsibilities of planning the senior prom, getting the newspaper out on time, meeting with parents teachers principals committees, researching journalism camp and resuming some of my responsibilities as a classroom teacher after several months of serving primarily as a consultant to a teaching intern. I came to school on Tuesday and realized that the assembly was Wednesday. I started to look forward to it.

Then, a few hours later, several of my colleagues and I lost our jobs. And I forgot about the assembly again.

RIF (n.)

The details of a RIF—or Reduction in Force—are not clear to me. Yesterday I did enough research to learn that I was not being terminated for any reason other than a lack of seniority in the district. The hope is that jettisoning dozens of young teachers may lighten the load enough save the leaking ship of a district from sinking under this year’s stormy, debt-ridden economy.

I’ve spent the morning listening to stories, some nearly legendary in their bizarreness, about what’s happened to me. A veteran history teacher recalls the media frenzy of a massive RIF that took place one year after I was born. An administrator tells me she was laid off and then hired back to her school three times in her first three years of teaching. Another staff member remembers being riffed and then getting a job at another district, even though she thought she might have been able to return if she’d wanted to.

“I moved on,” she said and paused, perhaps lingering on the abandoned path for a moment before she remembered me. “But we don’t want you to do that. We want to you stay.”

I’ve been wandering around the school all morning, running errands as I mechanically return to the duties of teacher, advisor and editor that haven’t gone away or become any less pressing as I try to regain my balance in light of this news. And everywhere I go the command has been the same: Don’t give up. We want you here. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

riff (n.)

The lions frolic onstage until they are replaced by an upright piano and a Rachmaninoff concerto. We hear “My Girl” sung by a barbershop quintet from the Special Education department, then a former student sings “My Heart Will Go On” with earnestness only available to someone who was an infant in Africa while I was in middle school and glued to the radio. Ethiopia and Eritrea have two separate songs, but the dancers are the same students wearing different dresses, a mixed group united to share both cultures with their school.

This is who we are, this Multicultural Assembly, an experiential collage, full of people eager to tell their stories. A few weeks ago, the journalists were considering the ways in which our school, never an athletic standout but with nationally ranked chess and rocket teams, was different from more “typical” high schools.

“You know, we don’t have one of those… you know, hierarchies here. The cheerleaders and the sports people, they’re not the most popular,” someone remarked.

And I love this about my school. The class presidents are in the school plays and the captain of the wrestling team is singing a Vietnamese pop duet on stage at the multicultural assembly. We cheer loudest for the Special Olympics basketball team and listen to podcasts of our Rocketeers on an alternative talk radio show. Wherever I look, students honor the gifts they see in each other, celebrating successes and uniting in the face of loss.

The final number of the show, called only “Hip-Hop Dance” features many of the same dancers from the opening lion dance. This is where they are in their element, in the whirling and falling and shaking of break-dancing. These are boys that I taught their freshman year, when I was a student teacher and they were fourteen-year-olds excited about the Seahawks in the Superbowl and the way their Mariner hats matched their shoelaces. In a month I’ll read their names aloud at graduation, shake their hands when they walk across the stage, and say goodbye as we part ways. They to colleges across the country, me to somewhere, to interviews or traveling or, as my colleagues ask, waiting here.

It’s the lion who really closes the day. Most of the way through “Hip-Hop Dance,” after the break-dancing bully has break-dance beaten down a dozen of his friends, the golden lion romps back on stage. It’s the past and the present, their heritage and their passions, colliding in a ridiculous battle at the end of my favorite Multicultural Assembly. The lion conquers the bully, writhes for a mighty moment, and pulls a vanquished enemy offstage by his foot, the true victor of the hour.

And I am grateful, not eager for it to end.

1 comment:

theothermistered said...

There is something drastically wrong with a system that sacrifices our brightest and best because burnt out hacks who have given up and should have been cast aside years ago are "safe." The system needs to change so that merit, involvement and accomplishment has at least as much importance as longevity, if not more. Is there really any question why 50% of our students drop out before graduating from high school? Kristi, you are precisely the kind of teacher our educational system desperately needs today. I watch our schools here in California doing the exact same thing, and I fear for the future of our young people and of our nation. I am truly sickened by what is happening to you. We're all out here rooting for you!