“Don’t Give Up the Ship”

I am a second-year high school teacher who is proud to serve the students of the School District of Philadelphia. I am also among the many members of our community whose school will be closed. I know that my colleagues, my students, and their parents share my sense of dismay and betrayal over the final decision by the School Reform Commission — and by extension their appointers, Mayor Nutter and Gov. Corbett — to ignore our pleas.

I feel let down. Despite the tearful testimony of our students and the desperate appeals from our school’s parents, we still find ourselves left holding an empty bag. For a process that was supposed to be transparent, we didn’t find concrete answers. For a process that was supposed to be inclusive, we didn’t find sincere and willing listeners. For a process that was supposed to be democratic, we didn’t have much of a choice.

As a teacher, I cannot ignore that this is a teachable moment, perhaps because I teach history. As I witnessed the school-closings process and the final SRC vote, I was reminded of the War of 1812, the short and arguably obscure war between America and Britain, where the conflict was predominantly about issues of sea trade. On June 1, 1813, a battle took place between the H.M.S Shannon (Team Britain) and the U.S. Frigate Chesapeake a few miles offshore from Boston harbor. We were outmatched by a crew far better trained in naval battle, despite our larger numbers.

The ships met each other in open waters, exchanging smoky bursts of cannon fire. The Chesapeake took on extensive damage and suffered heavy casualties. Her captain, James Lawrence, took a mortal gunshot wound during the fight. As he was taken below deck, the 31-year-old Lawrence barked out his final order. “Don’t give up the ship!” was his last command. Less than 20 minutes after the battle started, almost 100 people lay dead or dying, and the Chesapeake was in enemy hands. Capt. Lawrence would breathe his last breath three short days later.

Like the Americans captured in the War of 1812, our District has been captured and our schools taken from us. Many of us feel completely defeated. Because of the District’s policies regarding resource allocation and budget cuts, I have been placed at five different schools over the last two years. My first school was closed last year. My current school will be closed at the end of this school year. For someone who finally had the opportunity to teach at a single school for a period longer than four months, this loss of my community and relationship with my school feels like I just had the wind knocked out of me.

Still, we must not abandon our resolve to provide our students the best education we can give them. Teachers must continue to innovate in the classroom, stretching and adapting resources. Parents must continue to be involved. Students must continue to be dedicated to working hard and staying out of trouble. Despite the outcome of this process, we still have the commitment we have made to each other over these last months. We still have some fight left in us. For the sake of our students and their future, we cannot, we must not, and we will not give up the ship.

Zachary Lax is a social studies teacher at Lamberton High School.