3 Mar

The recent evaluations of New York City teachers is unfair, flawed, and do not address the core problem that permeates many of the city schools.  There is a system in place that teachers have to work within that doesn’t account for miscreant children or apathetic parents.  I have been in classes where there have been students that have decided that hardback textbooks make better projectile weapons than learning tools, that classrooms were Singles hook-up rooms, and that the teacher was a rude interruption in their conversations about the latest drama that happened in the lunchroom or the previous night’s reality show’s highlights.  There was an instance where I needed help from the NYPD security guards because tempers flared between two groups of students and chairs and hardback textbooks were being thrown across the room, and I went into the hallway and with appropriate urgency requested help.  The guard leaned forward in her chair, got up, and strolled towards my classroom.  She looked in and shrugged, and walked away.  By the time she got there, the drama was over.  She took me aside and told me that she had a problem with the way I “demanded their help.”  She didn’t like the tone of my voice and made it clear that I should never under any circumstances talk like that to her in front of the students ever again.  I told her that there were students in harm’s way and I needed assistance, and I didn’t feel I had time to say “please” or “thank you.”  She sauntered away and told me to “control my classroom,” which made me feel like I was in the wrong profession.

Once when I entered a classroom there was a very tall female student writing her name on the chalkboard in very big, flowing script.   I asked her to sit down, and she told me: “I don’t have to listen to you.  You’re just a sub.”  I was used to this by then, but it was still a very frustrating reminder.  I asked her, “Do you want to teach the class today?”  She agreed, truly excited at the prospect.  She opened her textbook and stood in front of the class.  “OK, class.  Open your books to page 241.”  She wasn’t bad, and she actually knew what page they were on.  Unfortunately, other than a cluster of friends who looked up curiously, then went back to their conversation, she was ignored.  “They’re not listening to me,” she said, a little frustrated and surprised.  “I know.”  I sighed.  She sat down with her friends as I passed out the handouts left for me by the real teacher.

There was another circumstance when that very same female student decided she would beat another female student with her book-bag.  A male teacher should never, under any circumstance put himself between two female students, for obvious reasons.  Again, the occasion called for request for help from security.  I respectfully and politely as possible under the circumstances called for assistance.  Two official NYPD security personnel arrived at my class room door, the same female guard whom I had offended earlier, and a male guard, the same round size, shape and weight as his partner.  They looked on as the mayhem continued, arguing over which one of them should go in and intervene.  I finally went in myself and grabbed the back pack in mid-swing, careful not to make physical contact with the female perp.  As I did so the female guard strolled in and did her part, which was to ask the aggressive child to return to her seat and calm down.  The female child who was being beaten got up from the floor and ran out of the classroom.  “Let her go,” the female guard told me.  I gave her a questioning look and she turned away and returned to her seat down the hall behind the desk in front of the main entrance.  Status quo leaves no real help for the victim, and not many realistic options for the teacher.

I have spent a lot of valuable time “controlling my classroom” when I could have been teaching students who wanted to learn; focusing my energy and attention on keeping the smaller kids out of harm’s way of the bullies and gang members instead of concentrating on my day’s lesson plans, because the detention room was full and the assistant principal’s office was already filled to the brim with young adults who are the furthest thing from the term “students” as you can get without being tried as a responsible adult.

There was a day when I was given detention duty during lunch.  There was a small kid in there that I recognized from one of the Honor’s class.  “What are you doing in here?” I asked him.  “I hit somebody.”  He told me.

“Why did you do that?  You shouldn’t hit anybody.”  I gave him the responsible adult talk about violence.

“I had to.  I got hit, and if I don’t hit back, then I’m a target for the rest of the year.  You can’t show that you’re weak.”  Ah, yes.  In the jungle, only the strong survive – basic evolution being learned under the arc of projectile textbooks.   At the end of the day you could measure my personal success rate as to how many children got to return home unhurt, and which ones learned how to avoid the fists and fury of other students who haven’t yet learned, by the age of adolescence, to be responsible for their own actions.

Criminal Minds

22 Dec

Criminal Minds
There was a student who was named by his mother Xerox, and who re-named himself Z-rox. He was 14, and lived in a world of his own making. His word was the law, his presence was required for relevant drama, and his appearance was never to be equaled. He did not want to explore the world of knowledge, preferring instead the world of high excitement, drama and danger. The last (grade) school he attended expelled him because he was caught on security cameras trying to set a fire in the play ground, in hopes that the school would burn down. He appeared in my classroom randomly, whether he was supposed to be there or not. He preferred classes that had subs, because they were less likely to know if he belonged there or not, because that was information that was not made helpfully available to subs. Attendance lists were irrelevant if the same student yells “present’ three or four times for different names in different voices to cover for the cutters. That is why I figured out early on to learn the names of all the students. I used to stand there and say “excuse me” to the disruptive student, and they would ignore me like I was a piece of fruit on their lunch tray, until I said their name. Then they would turn to me in annoyance and say “What?” To me that means I won the battle.
Z-rox was into his third year of seventh grade. He pulled a knife on his girlfriend during lunch and threatened to slice her up. For that he was suspended for three days, most of which he spent roaming the halls of that middle school because his mother was never home during the day and he had nowhere else to go. So he became a normal presence in the hall – in and out of detention. Teachers are not allowed to touch students, or even verbally reprimand them. We cannot eject them from the classroom, because there is never enough staff to supervise them in detention. We were not encouraged to report them if we were not prepared to deal with them in the classroom. Once I called the cell phone number that was on record for his mother and he answered, telling me she was not home. He was a superstar among the other students because he spent 30 days “upstate” and survived to come back and tell about it. He was as smart as any student I had, but lacked any kind of social responsibility; as a result his skill and intelligence were tragically misdirected. As it was a result he was one of the reasons why the official NYPD security guards sitting at the front desk called this school “Riker’s Prep.”
This was a Blood’s school, meaning that the street gang called the Bloods had prevailed in the war of territory and power that rules the sub-levels of American cities. This means if you wanted to belong you came to school wearing the colors, knowing the hand signs, and being prepared to submit to the lawless rules of street and strife. Even the Honor’s Student who skirted the chaos, or, depending on how you look at it, respected the order of this situation, recognized and respected the colors. Once on a Thursday afternoon a member of the Crips got off a city bus in front of the school and walked around the whole block, then got back on the very next bus. That Friday as school was being dismissed there were five NYPD squad cars and one big NYPD bus parked around the entire parameter of the school, anticipating a gang riot because the Crips had tested the waters, and sent a hostile message. NYPD takes these things seriously. Even in middle school. Thankfully nothing came of the incident, at least not on school property.
There is a tension of danger in these city schools, which children have to deal with. They have to sort out what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s best for themselves and their siblings., An alliance to a gang does not mean an alliance to badness or evil, anymore than an alliance to a political party necessarily leads to a reduction of basic moral values.
There have been times for various reasons I have been confronted by boys larger, stronger, but thankfully not wiser than me. I have been challenged, “come on, you want to go?” Or forced to stand my ground as I have been confronted nose to nose, as a test to my resolve, for the purpose of these boys to show their ability to confront authority and display their bravado to their gang members, girlfriends or weaker boys they have been bullying. I never turned away, but never have I allowed them to turn it into a situation that was theirs to control. My response was always: “Meet me in front of this school when you turn 21. Then I’ll either kick your ass or buy you a beer.” Their reaction was either to shrug and turn away, or to just turn away. Children unadmittedly respect adults, up to and including emulating their flaws and failures.
Fights occur. Tensions demand drama which allows a distraction from the boring aspect of the learning process, and all enjoy the righteous victory over the unrighteous defeated because drama is the most potent force in these students’ lives, thanks to the electronic influences far beyond the reach of either parents or educators, who only house, feed, clothe, medicate and educate them. There must be a better way. Any suggestions?

Parent Teacher Conference

10 Dec

Because I was filling in full-time for the whole third semester, I was given the option to be present at the parent-teacher’s conference, which occurred once every semester. I could have opted out, but I really wanted to meet some parents; not only those that were troublesome, but also the achievers and beyond. I wanted to know what made these kids tick. Unfortunately, only half my expectations were met. I got to meet most of the parents of the students who were sincere in their academic studies, and almost none of the parents whose kids needed them to care enough to show up.
The exception was the mother of Ryan. Ryan was one of the students in the third class. Every teacher had a hierarchy of classes: Honors, Regulars, and the fringe kids nobody understands because of either un-diagnosed learning disabilities, slightly lower IQ’s, or behavior issues that manifest way beyond the budget for regular counselors. In these classes were two types of students. The three I just described, which I feel are sub-categories of the same group, and belligerent members of some criminal street gang that were taller, meaner and older than the regular students, and only showed up in colors to validate their membership and to keep an eye on their girlfriends. These were the ones that were inclined to use hard-cover books as missile projectiles and weapons of mass interruptions. I tried to keep these two groups as separate as possible, to protect the misdemeanors from the felons.
Ryan was a great kid, as they all were, by themselves. But put them together you had a Three Stooges marathon with Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp and Curly Joe. They were the ones with the Swedish fish wrappers and pumpkin seed shells under their desks after they left. They usually showed up with Nintendo DS’s, and they always managed to lure me into a cat and mouse game of seeing if I could get close enough to snatch one out of their hands before they put it away in their pockets, where teachers were not allowed to search go. I had to be really sneaky. I had to pretend that I didn’t know that they were playing with it, but somehow have a legitimate excuse for walking over to their desk. I usually always lost, because I was just too eager to get my hands on one of them. That particular morning, however, I got lucky. I was answering a question about homework (an obvious ruse to distract me from some other wrongdoing going on somewhere in the room) when I spotted that familiar slouch they assume when they are playing a game and trying to hide it under the desk. I think he was really into the game, because he didn’t even look up until I was right on top of him. I went to reach for something on his desk and he actually got distracted, leaving the DS exposed and within reach. Snap!!! I got it. I actually said “Snap!” He tried to get it back, but he was too short and even though student/substitute teacher relationship was baseline adversarial, one should never touch the other. Gloating I held it up, and only then noticed it was pink. “Pink?” I rubbed it in. He sulked until the bell, and then asked for it back. “No way,” I said. “Get it back from Mr. Mallory.” Mr. Mallory was the AP (assistant principal) for that floor.
I proudly brought the device to Mr. Mallory’s office. I finally joined an exclusive club. “Congratulations, Mr. Vok,” he told me with a pat on the shoulder. “These are not easy to come by.” He put it in a locked drawer in his desk.
That night was very educational for me. Kids, fortunately, do not realize how very much alike they are to their parents. Most of my guesses of which kid matched which adult or pair of adults were dead on. The artsy little girl sure enough had the long-haired hippy parents. The smart, skinny African-American kid with plastic glasses matched up with the well-dressed, professional couple with a lot of questions. But again, the kids whose parents were most needed to talk to did not show up. Then there was Ryan’s mom.
I was eager to talk to one or both of Ryan’s parents, because I felt he had potential but he just wasn’t doing enough work, or even paying attention enough, to merit giving him a passing grade. His behavior was disruptive at best, and at worst disrespectful and at times violent. Once or twice I felt something whiz passed my head, and I knew he had thrown it because when I turned around he looked the most innocent. More than twice I had to break up a fight between him and a bigger kid that could easily have kicked his butt.
As the evening wore on I started to lose hope for a supervising adult or legal guardian to show up, but I was pleased to see Ryan down the hall in tow of a large woman, who was holding the hand of a little girl about seven, whom I assumed was his little sister. As I watched them make progress towards my room, I noticed that after each class he left, his eyes were becoming more red, and his face was frozen in pale fear. By the time he reached my classroom, the kid was a mess. His mother was getting more and more pissed off at him with every classroom, and his little sister had the smug satisfied look that all little siblings get when the negative attention is diverted away from them.
They entered my classroom, and she had him by the upper arm, pushing him not too gently into his desk. “Tell me something new.” She demanded sarcastically. I was ready with a full arsenal of legitimate complaints, but I felt like the kid was in front of a firing squad. So much for my misconception that the disruptive problem kids have parents that lack in heavy-handed discipline. I started out with the fact that I caught him playing a DS in class. Smack! Right across the ear. “I took away his DS two days ago!” She raised her hand again to strike another blow. He ducked. “Stop.” I said. “Where did you get another one?” She asked. He was silent. “It was pink.” I said. “Pink!” She turned to the little girl who was drawing on the blackboard. “Mammie. Did you give him your DS?” “He TOOK it!” She tattled dramatically. Smack! “Alright, hold it.” I interjected. I lost my heart for this one. “I have no complaints, really. Ryan, you just really have to pay attention. OK?” “Pay attention!” She repeated. Then she raised her arm again. He winced and ducked, but she changed her mind. “Go easy on him,” I told her. “We just have to get him to take things more seriously.” She stood over him with her arms folded, nodding. “You gonna pay attention?” “Yes.” “Okay, then. Anything else?” She asked me. “No. That’s about it. You can get her DS from Mr. Mallory before you leave.” “Thank you.” Then they left, and I took a long breath. I learned that night that things are not as stereotypically simple as anyone would like to believe.

Six months ago I saw Ryan in McDonald’s with a young girl who he introduced as his girlfriend. He was in a uniform because he had joined the ROTC once he got into high school. His plan when he graduates, he told me, is to sign up and do a tour in Iraq. Now, of course, it will probably be in Afghanistan. We smiled at each other and wished each other well. We shook hands as peers and went off to our own prospective paths.

sex and the middle school student

5 Dec

Sex and the Middle School Student
The good news: chances are your kids aren’t having sex. The not so good news is they are using sex like a roomful of monkeys with a typewriter. Pubescent girls are growing into their bodies unencumbered by the standards of the long ago past. Corrupted by fashion, encouraged by music and the media, and ignored by parents either ignorant or apathetic to the implications, little girls are being taught lessons on how to allow themselves to be exploited. They are reaping the immediate benefits of male attention, and are too young to think about the long term consequences on their adult psyche. And the males are having to do a lot less work than they did even one generation ago.
Make-up, jewelry, clothing, music videos, movies, internet; everyone is their own little superstar, and academics have taken sidebar status. When the second bell rings the clusters form and the females pull out their mirrors, try on each other’s jackets, compare shoes and admire each others’ lipstick or eyeliner. And the boys cluster off to play on their notepads or cell phones, spin basketballs and trade rhymes, all the while keeping both eyes on the clusters of girls.
At one point during an eighth grade literacy class that was supposed to be doing vocabulary sentences I was making my rounds to the back of the class where a female cluster was having a heated, but muted discussion. As I approached, one of the girls boldly asked me: “Right, Mr. Vok, you can get STD’s from a blow job?” I stopped for a second, appalled at first by the question, and then flattered that she thought I could be trusted with such a query. “That’s right,” I told her sternly, “so you should not be giving them.” She turned back to the group and said righteously’ “See, I told you!” I kept walking, not even wanting to get caught in the mine-field of that conversation. (I did report that one to a female colleague, who followed up with a conversation with the girl and her parent.)
There was another time near the end of the year that the classroom was practically empty; a hot June afternoon and the last period of the day. There, seated in the back of the room, with his chair leaning casually against the wall, was Eric. He was old for eighth grade, probably 15 or so and idly thumbing through one of the scholastic magazines he found on the table. He had been kept back from graduating into high school twice already, and would probably be sent through this time. There were only two or three days left of the year; all the work had been done, all the tests passed or failed, all the homework handed in or not. I knew by the rustle of early escapees out in the hall that the bell was about to ring. I motioned to him. “Eric,” I said. He got up and came towards me. “Eric, let me ask you something. The year is almost over. You haven’t done any work for me or anybody else all year, and it seems like you don’t care about it any way. Why are you still coming to classes?” He gave me a grin and a look I would be hard pressed to duplicate and said, “I come for the bitches.”
Then there was a dynamic little couple, Brenda and Charles. They sat next to each other at the front of the class and were totally devoted to one another. There were rumors that she had cheated on him once, but that was with another girl, so it didn’t count. I admired their loyalty to each other and, while they were not the best students I’ve ever had, they never gave me any problems and stayed away from most of the drama. There was even a time when they were having a fight and I gave him the best advice I could: “That’s your girl, man. You have to stick by her.” It looked like serious marriage plans after high school. They both managed to graduate eighth grade.
I ran into one of my ex-students recently in the parking lot of the neighborhood Starbucks. She gave me the dish on some people; who went to which high school, who had a job where, who was still dating who, etc… (Whenever I run into an ex-student I always like to ask what they are reading – usually it’s one of those Twilight books, but occasionally I get “Catcher in the Rye” or “Lord of the Flies”). She asked me if I remembered Brenda and Charles. I said of course. She told me that Charlie got Brenda pregnant in ninth grade and they got married. So much for high school. But God bless Charlie for sticking by his girl.
Like I said, there is a good chance your kids are not having sex, but that shiny pistol is in their hands; the safety is off and it is a loaded gun. And other than what they see in the movies, they have no idea how to use it and how much damage it can really cause.

The N Word

6 Nov

I had been working at a middle school that shall remain nameless, to protect us all, since October. I was ready, willing and able to step into any circumstance, and this made me an invaluable commodity among the lesser gods and goddesses of education, the soldiers of psychological and physical warfare that were enacted daily on the battlegrounds of each classroom. Ready to take the slings and arrows, spitballs and well-aimed arcs of hard-cover books in order to further the education of those whose projectiles meant to do me bodily harm. I had just finished a day filling in for a literacy teacher whom I learned was just about to take a maternity leave. I requested, and was accepted, to take over the class for the entire semester– thereby becoming a permanent sub.
The first battle I was facing became one that took up a lot of time and energy – convincing the kids who knew me as a lowly sub that I was now their official, grade-giving, parent-contacting head of the class teacher, so you can’t ignore me anymore, and you have to take my lesson plan seriously. The first thing I did was rearrange the room. The desks were in clusters of 4 or 5. I set them up in rows, facing my desk, for a more traditional setting. I also hung up pictures and quotes of contemporary hip-hop and rock stars, along with images of Poe and Shakespeare, and called it the poet’s wall. I encouraged contributions. Of course to a lot of these kids none of it mattered. To them I was the sub, and they were going to bide their time until the regular teacher returned. On the other hand one kid was so outraged he single-handedly tried to move the desks back to their original places. More on this guy later.
Before each class starts, 3 bells (more like buzzers) ring. One to end a class, one that served as a 5 minute warning, and one to begin the new class. Right after lunch, between the last two bells, a heated discussion was evolving in the back of the room. The day before, radio personality Don Imus made his racist comment about “nappy headed ho’s.” The discussion boiled down to what’s funny, and in what context racial comments can be made. I had to be careful, being a teacher. Kids can say anything, but teachers, if they are smart (and you’d be surprised how many aren’t) really must pick and choose their words very wisely, if only to set a good example.
So it came down to Chris Rock and his routine; it’s OK to be racist if it’s presented in a funny way. So Chris Rock, we all agreed, gets a pass because he’s funny. “What about Michael Richards?” I asked. “Who?” They answered. “The guy from Seinfeld. Kramer?” “Oh, him. He wasn’t funny. He was funny on the show, but not when he was doing that ‘nigger’ thing.” So, then what about Don Imus? Again, not funny. Ah. So if a white guy is funny about it, he can say it. “Yes,” they agreed. Hmm.
Out of nowhere Ed, a student of color, shouted out “You can say it Mr. Vok.” “Thank you. That’s a relief. But I never will.” “it’s okay, “ he insisted, “I give you permission.” “Put it in writing,” I told him.
I started the class officially. We were reading “Out of the Dust” in conjunction with the social studies class. This book is one of most depressing books you can force a kid to read. It portrays the tragic part of American history; life in the dust bowl during the Great Depression. On the cover was an impoverished little white girl wearing a dress made out of a horse blanket. I wanted them to study the cover, and imagine themselves in her position, and also put her into their lifestyle. “If she were here today, what would you do, what would you say to her?” “I’d give her a make-over,” offered one of the heavily made-up and well-dressed girls.
For the rest of the period we discussed being in a position where you would have to sacrifice things in your life that we all take for granted. Cell phones. I-pods. Video games. “What about food?” I asked. “Mr. Vok, this is getting depressing.” “That’s why they called it the Great Depression.” This came from Eddie. I shook my head and the rest of the class laughed. A joke isn’t old if you never heard it before.
Three minutes before the bell rings, the students have an uncanny sense of migratory instincts. Coats are gathered, books packed away, they start inching towards the door. When the bell finally rings it only takes 3 seconds for the room to become empty. I learned not to fight against that tide, and let them settle into the routine of their exodus.
I turned away and sat down at my desk just as the bell rang. As they were squeezing passed each other in the doorway I look up to see Eddie approaching me. “Here you go, Mr. Vok.” And he hands me a piece of loose leaf, carefully folded. “Thanks.” I said, puzzled. The room was empty and I unfolded the paper. This is what it said:
“Dear Mr.Vok. You can say it. Signed Eddie G- and Tahisha D.” It even had the date on it. I have it stored away in a very safe place. It is one of my most treasured documents.

Lessons of a NY City Substitute Teacher

29 Oct

I’ve been around and have done a lot of things; nothing illegal, per se, just off the radar. Fry cook, bouncer, construction worker, writer, actor, adjunct professor of English. It’s not a big leap from the stage to the front of a classroom. You have to learn how to work the crowd. I went through the proper procedures, and eventually I found myself as a substitute teacher in a New York City middle school on Staten Island.
I did everything wrong on my first day. I showed up in a white shirt and tie, clean-shaven and idealistic, ready to teach whatever subject I was assigned; ready to make a difference. Middle school- 6th, 7th, and 8th grade! Young minds ready to be molded and infused with knowledge and wisdom. My first assignment was an 8th grade math class. I was given homework handouts, and the day’s schoolwork for each class.
When the first period bell rang, I stood at the doorway, waiting for the bright, eager students to file into the classroom, take their assigned seats, and await further orders. The first to arrive were three young boys, vaguely African American, serious and quiet. They looked up at me and one asked, “You a sub?”
I nodded and moved out of the way so they could enter the class, but they looked at each other, high-fived, and enthusiastically yelled, “YESSSS!” and turned around and took off in the other direction. By then more students had arrived and pushed past me to get into the classroom. I noticed that they started clustering, in 3’s and 4’s, moving desks together and around. Soon I had a room full of kids that had segregated into six distinct groups; mini societies defined by friendships, interests and ethnicity.
I had written the day’s “Do Now” on the chalk board, along with the day’s date and my name, and I went around to each student handing them the handouts, which they treated as an intrusion. I started addressing the class, introducing myself, and asking them to open up their books to the appropriate page. One or two looked up in curious amusement before going back to their conspiracies. I raised my voice. They raised their voices. Three got up and left. Two girls came in, looked at me, turned around and left so fast the handouts blew off the desk.
It was October, and hot. The morning sun was already burning through the windows, and the window blinds that weren’t hanging crooked with age across the frames were stuck in the up position because the strings were frayed and tangled and hanging uselessly up out of reach. So it started to get really hot, noisy and aggravating. I opened a window, which only opened six inches, I guess so nobody can jump out, or more probably be pushed out. And a nice breeze came in, and blew the door shut with a loud bang. The noise brought about a brief moment of silence, but then their voices started up again louder than ever. When the bell rang it was almost magical how quickly they disappeared, leaving the room littered with handouts.
As time went on we all got used to each other, and I stopped fighting the chaotic tide of indifference. It didn’t take long to realize that I should lose the tie and white shirt, expectations of controlling the classroom, and any help from the outside world. Subs were a lower class of being, sub-human as it were. We were made to be ignored, ridiculed, ignored, and blamed for any injuries resulting in the friendly fire of over-enthusiastic dancing or random running, playful pranks or overt, vengeful violence. “I don’t have to listen to you, you’re a sub. You can’t touch me.” Some of the larger boys actually wanted to “go at it” with me. I learned quickly not to take it personal. I did have my tattoos in my favor, and a tired, grizzled look that gave me some street cred. Also, I knew I was smarter, so I resorted to playing a lot of head games, which enhanced my reputation. Sometimes I just plain out refused to rat out the minor infractions, which also put me in a good light. They would ask what the tattoo on my hand meant, and I would say “I’m paid to kill, and you can’t afford me.” They would ask “Did you ever kill anyone?” And I would answer, “I don’t know, they were still breathing when the ambulance came.” Because of my bald white head which thanks to today’s movies and television shows denotes some vague Eastern Bloc bad-guy, I was asked several times if I was in the Russian Mafia. “W hat would I be doing here if I was in the Russian Mafia?” I would ask. “Witness Protection,” one of the more clever kids would answer. From then on I would just respond with, “I can’t say.”
I taught paper-airplane making in Science class. In health class, I told them, “Don’t smoke. That’s your lesson. Now sit down and shut up. If you’re not going to do work, at least give me the respect to pretend you’re working, in case some one looks through the window.” They dug that, and propped their books open on their desks as they played with their Pokemon cards of watched videos on expensive phones I sure as hell couldn’t afford.
I learned some card tricks, and showed some that I knew. I asked and was patiently instructed by a group of heavily made-up 12 year-old girls how to program my I-pod. The pay was good, and I got to end my day at three o’clock. Many times I tried to subvert their subconscious into accepting knowledge: get into their heads, so to speak. There was one poor kid named Charlie exiled to a special-ed behavior class because he just couldn’t “get” anything. His mind would shut down, and he would get distracted. He acted out, sometimes in violent ways, sometimes in silly ways. To a stressed-out teacher at the end of the day, sometimes there is no perceivable difference. I even asked him why he kept getting into trouble. “I don’t know, “ Was all he could answer. I could see intelligence here; a thought process. “Alright, I said. Here’s what I want you to say the next time someone asks you that question. It’ll shut them up for a minute, and let them know you’re deeper than they think you are. Especially your English teacher. Here’s what I want you to say. Ready? “Life is but a walking shadow.’ Got it? When they ask you why you do what you do, tell them “Life is but a walking shadow.” He repeated it. And then thought about the words. I told him it was Shakespeare. He tilted his head, and then said it in a mock, English accent-affect: “Life… is just a walking shadowww!”
Nice, I told him. Remember that. There was another kid that I walked up to and asked: “Louis. If you close your eyes is the world still there? He stopped and thought about it. Then he closed his eyes for about 10 seconds and opened them. “Yes.” He answered with certainty. “How can you be sure? “ I pressed the issue. “Because I could still hear noises.” “But you can’t see what’s making them.” “So?” “Just asking,” I replied, and moved on, leaving him to his own electronic devices.
My favorite instance was a group of ESL Mexican kids who did extra credit homework at the end of the day. “Listen,” I said. “When you guys grow up and become scientists, maybe you could invent a time machine. If you do, come back and let me know. You’ll be much older, so I won’t recognize you, so here’s the secret phrase you have to say to me so I know it’s you: ‘Old Navy.’ Got it?” The largest one, Jesus, was wearing a blue Old Navy hoody. He looked down at his chest and looked back at me. “Old Navy,” he repeated, saying it as if he was rehearsing a future encounter. “So if an old Mexican guy comes up to me and says ‘Old Navy’ to me, I’ll know it’s you. Jesus nodded and smiled, loving the thought of it. “Old Navy,” he said, hopefully. The rest of the year whenever I passed him in the hall he would greet me with “Old Navy.”
Black/white racism seemed non-existent, because by now, if no one has noticed, the cultural lines have blurred to a kind of chaotic equality. However, I noticed the Mexicans were having a hard time of it. Once, it got very ugly. Someone came in, pissed off. A big white kid came in and pushed a desk out of his way a little too dramatically and sat down by the windows. Kids started coming in. It was right after lunch, usually the period when the most trouble occurs, because lunchtime is when everybody is in a large room all together at the same time. Food gets thrown, or insults are hurled. Someone gets bumped or slapped. The trickle of kids divided the room in half, until there were 8 Mexicans on one side, and twenty of every other kind of kid on the other. One of the larger Mexican boys had a red face and was close to tears. The others were huddled around him. I couldn’t understand a lot of what they were saying, but I understood the language of anger. The big white kid sat with his arms folded defiantly. “What are you looking at, Mexicano?” “Shut the fuck up you fat asshole and stop talking to me.” At that point the whole room stood up, and there was electric tension in a real life and death way swirling in the room. Eight Mexican kids stood with their backs to the blackboard, with nowhere else to be, nowhere else to go, hardback textbooks in their hands ready to throw. Two of the boys both with one hand in their back pockets. On the other side, in front of the windows, backlit by a watching sun, a pack of twenty, a tribe, unwilling to share their territory; exhibiting dominance. The room was divided and silent, an infinite gap of potential violence running down the center. I had to do something. I refused to let this happen in my classroom. I stepped into the center with my arms stretched out to either side: “I DO NOT LIKE WHAT I AM SEEING HERE. What the Hell is going on? Look at you. This is NOT going to happen. Is this really how you want it to be? What the FUCK?” The tension eased and they looked at me. A teacher said the f-word. “I want to think we are better than this. Sit down and leave each other alone. It’s too nice outside for this.” I stood with my arms still outstretched, and looked at each one of them. They shook their heads, a few scraped their desks together loudly and sat down, and little by little things eased back to whatever chaos counts as normal these days in a New York City classroom. I stood with my arms folded, not even close to feeling at ease. The bell rang, and the room emptied out, abruptly but with no other incident. I stood there in the empty room that was still full of tension hoping everyone would make it home in one piece.
It was a warm day in late April. April 23rd; Shakespeare’s birthday. Collages, hand-drawn portraits, and A+ essays about the Bard hung on the bulletin boards outside the Literacy classrooms. It was late afternoon, and the hallway was peacefully dark and uncharacteristically quiet; still fifteen minutes until the final bell was to ring . A calm before the storm. I noticed a small figure walking towards me, a kid with a bathroom pass in his hand. It was Charlie. We nodded to each other in greeting, neither one of us wanted to break the calm silence. But as he made his way down the hall, he couldn’t resist: “Life is but a walking shadow.” He proclaimed, breaking the silence. “That’s right,” I told him.

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29 Oct

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