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.