Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Ax
I've been excessed from Shitty High School. I found out via a letter in my box a few weeks before the end of the year. About half the staff was cut along with me (based on seniority or lack thereof) to make way for expanding mini-schools, but it's still kind of a kick in the nuts.

Believe it or not I'd grown sort of attached to the place. Yeah, it was a disorganized, ineffectual, frustrating mess of idiocy, bureaucratic red-tape, and gang-flags. But it was my disorganized, ineffectual, frustrating mess. Its chaos afforded an anonymity and freedom I was only just beginning to learn to negotiate and exploit.

And, despite everything that's happened and anything I might have written here, I love the kids.

Fittingly, my last day at Shitty High was a rough one. The preceding weeks had been cake. Classes were done, and I was a lame-duck, so any pretext of giving a fuck whatsoever was tossed out the window as soon as I handed in my final grades. I would come in late, do a minimal amount of what can only loosely be described as work, and then cut out early. At the most I'd have to proctor Regent's exams for three or four hours (there was no way anybody was conning me into grading those things, though) usually I'd just come in and move some books from one classroom to another, drink some crappy coffee, shoot the shit for a while and then head across the street to the Dominican restaurant (or, alternatively, down the road to the Irish bar) to drink ice-cold beer and watch the World Cup. I did end up staying until seven one evening when one dedicated, desperate young thug refused to give up on his Global History Exam. I was supposed to cut him off at 6:30, but he'd been busting his ass for so long I didn't have the heart to not let him finish.

The last day was different. We had to be there at 7:45 to give out report cards form 8:00 to 9:15. The fact that actual students would be in attendance tugged on some vague vestige of a sense of duty deep within me, and meant that I felt I needed to show up as well, so I was up at 6:15 and out the door a few minutes later. That's early no matter what. When you've been up until 4:00 smoking 40s and drinking blunts it's absolute Hell.

I made it, though, swallowed a couple of gulps of coffee and, for the last time at Shitty, set up perch in my classroom doorway. The kids slowly began to straggle in, and by about 8:30 I had a dozen or so students in my room (maybe half of whom were supposed to be there) sitting around on the desks, joking and laughing and clowning each other over their report cards. I gave them the bad news that unless they got out of ESL they'd be stuck with Ms. Kuntstein next year, shook a lot of hands, accepted a few hugs, wished everyone good luck, and realized I would probably never see any of these young people again.

I will miss them.

The adults, not so much. As soon as the distribution period was over my hangover attacked me with a vengeance. I t wasn't so much the nausea or the splitting headache, as it was an inability to form a coherent thought other than "water..." and an undeniable physical revulsion to sitting around chit-chatting with any of the crazy-ass teachers prattling on about the summer or next year or whatever.

So I left. No good-byes, no last, long, lonely walk down the halls. Nothing. I didn't even stay to pick up my check.

I don't know what I'll do next year. I can always come back to Shitty and substitute, hoping to become ensconced a la Ms. Wayne as a permanent do-nothing, as opposed to being sent somewhere else of the Region's bidding. I've been looking closer to home, and I'm trying to weasel my way into some ore progressive and productive places, but those kind of schools reek of pressure and scrutiny and having to spend way too much time doing what someone else tells me. Part of me wants to find somewhere even worse off than Shitty where I can apply what I've learned and once again attempt to surf atop the tsunami of shit.

I hear there's a job opening at the academy on Rikers.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Still Got It
I wore a tie to work the other day, something I haven't done since my first day nearly three long years ago.

A green tie with blue stripes, I bought it for a wedding a while back. It's a nice tie.

I don't know why I did it. I hate dressing up, but that morning something compelled me to look sharp, sort of an anti-Casual Friday thing.

It was a hit. All my girls oohed and aahed and "iEpa! Meester, you look nice!"

With that I would nonchalantly brush of my shoulders and adjust the tie, and act as if I hadn't heard.

"Huh, what's that? Did you say something."

We all got a laugh out of that.

The other teachers were even more surprised. Ms. Kuntstein was especially impressed.

"Ohhh, Mistah Baahbylon, you look so handsome! I love a man in a tie."

She coyly crossed a swollen ankle over a vast expanse of vericosed thigh as she spoke, her off-white support 'hos straining with the friction.

"You know my fathah used to weah a tie everyday..."

Who knew? Ms. Kuntstein is a daddy's girl.


Friday, June 09, 2006

A First
Three years at shitty High School and I’ve never had a fight in my class. Never taught an illiterate kid to read either, but we’ll take our victories where we can. It’s not the kind of accomplishment I can put on my resume, but it’s something. It’s been close at times, but somehow I’ve always managed to shout or stare an aggressor down, to step in between potential combatants, or to slam the door in the face of interlopers on the prowl for a box. Three years.

I had a coverage the other day. No sweat. Once terrifying, coverages aren’t much problem for me these days. I’ve been around long enough that I usually know at least a couple of the kids in every class. Come in, pass out some busy work, catch up with an old student or two, and let the kids chat quietly until the bell rings. It’s an easy extra thirty bucks, and usually the worst thing that happens is a couple of would-be bad-asses try to leave the room without a pass.

This was a third period coverage, which is usually a good thing. It’s early enough in the morning that everybody’s tired and relatively calm and nobody’s too hungry and ornery. It was an English class, and a couple of the girls were actually current students of mine in an upper level ESL class. Business as usual.

Visitors from the Regional office were in the building that day, assessing Shitty’s status as an “Impact” school, the designation a scarlet letter indicating, among other things, that the place is dangerous enough to require the presence of extra armed police officers.

It’s always a ridiculous scene when these suits from on high visit, with all the school-aides scrambling to push all the clutter under rugs and pretty up long neglected bulletin boards and walls with lame inspirational posters of kittens and race-horses and sailboats or whatever, administrators hounding the teachers to sit the kids in groups so it at least looks like there’s some “cooperative learning” going on, and teachers looking over their shoulders in fear and whispering to each other, “Did you see them? Did they come by your room?”

The regular teacher of the English class I was covering had been aware of the visitors’ expected presence, and left instructions that the busy-work he had provided would be counted as a quiz, hopefully insuring a studious and wholesome scene were anyone to walk by and glance in the room.

And everything was fine. It was a big class, people were chatting quietly and not everyone was doing the work, but they knew it counted and they weren’t acting up, so I wasn’t worried about that. By thirty minutes into the period things were so calm that I’d grown bored, finished my own copy of the student questions about the Holocaust, and taken to wandering around the room reading the student work on the walls and talking to some weird boys in the back about the time I saw David Blaine walking down the street doing card tricks and stealing people’s watches.

If I’d had a crossword puzzle, I‘d have pulled it out and been halfway finished before the bell rang.

Then a little argument flared up. I missed the beginning, but heard clearly when, firmly but quite calmly, a serious looking young black man said, “Shut the fuck up, bitch.”

Before I had a moment to react or even figure out who he was talking to, a girl stood up, walked across the room, said, “Don’t ever fuckin’ call me that,” and calmly slapped the guy in the face.

Shit. I hesitated. I knew I had to do something about this situation, but wasn’t entirely sure what the appropriate course of action was. I didn't even know these kids' names. I knew I had to go get a Dean, but didn’t want to, because I knew the girl would get suspended and that’s always a pain to deal with. I was also worried that the guy would react, so I went over to him, and told him not to do or say anything.

He nodded, calmly, licked the tip of his pencil, put his head down and went back to his busy work.

Okay, this is under control, I thought. I checked that the girl was back in her seat and went over to the door to see if there was a Dean within shouting distance.

By the time I got to the door I turned to see that the guy and girl were back at it. Jawing again, this time both standing in the middle of the room.

“G’head, hit me again,” he said. She was not a small girl, her short dark arms thick and toned and adorned with a heart-shaped tattoo featuring the name “Derrick” in a flowing script.

She slapped him pretty good. His head snapped to the side. He was tall and slender, about 6’6” with big square diamond earrings and concentric stars shaved into the crown of his skull. I recognized him from the basketball team.

He wiped his lip, nodded slightly, reached back to the full extension of that 6’6” wingspan, and slugged her square in the mouth with every ounce of his strength.

She hit the floor. I screamed for help. By the time security got to the room she was back on her feet, blood painting her chin red and splattering all over everything as she thrashed about the room, knocking over tables and chairs and screaming death while two female security guards and a female school aide held onto her for dear life.

He stood in the same place his hands at his side. Calmly.

Normally when there’s a fight at Shitty the kids go wild, running towards the fray, crowding in and cheering for more. No-one said a word. No-one rushed forward. No-one crowded in. Everyone retreated to the walls of the room, their eyes wide and their jaws agape.

The girls I knew from my class stood behind me clutching each other's arms.

No-one finished the work that was supposed to count as a test. Shitty is still an Impact school. The girl went to the hospital for stitches where her teeth split her face. Derrick spent the night in jail. I finally had a fight in my class.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

I’m not a violent guy, really.

I used to be, though. I used to be.

I saw a Leovardo Tapia fight once where the guy was undersized, out-quicked, and generally overwhelmed. He was getting his ass beat all over the ring, but he wouldn’t go down. Finally after a vicious combo to the head his eyes were swollen half-shut and his nose was crushed. He dropped his guard. He stuck out his chin. Go ahead, hit me. He smiled, and that toothless bloody grin did more damage to his opponent than any punch ever could have.

Back when I was 15, I’d have worshipped the guy.

Adolescence was tough on young Babylon, and young Babylon was tough on adolescents. I was an angry kid and strong for my age. On the blacktop I’d block your shot and bounce up in your face screaming “get that weak shit out!” like I was somebody. Neighborhood football, I was looking to stick somebody, and lowering my shoulder and stepping in if you were coming at me. I got in fist-fights. I started more than a few, finished some too.

Some might have called me a bully, but I was egalitarian in my distribution of intimidation and smack-downs. You were bigger than me? All the better. I guess you could say I had something to prove.

I chilled out, though, sometime in between when I started getting buddha-blessed and when I finally figured out how to talk to girls.

So, the point is that when I played in the student-teacher flag football game the other day I was mostly trying to avoid injury, but I wasn’t mad at the kids for trying to get their licks in. I understood the visceral joy of the rage and slam and adrenal rush of knocking somebody ass over head and out of their shoes in that perfect bone-crunching hit.

Flag football is, in theory, a non-contact sport, but as executed on the softball field down the street from Shitty High can actually be kind of rough. Blind-siding, pancake blocks are relished, and while out-and-out tackling is technically illegal, if someone’s got the ball it seems to be general policy to knock them on their ass any way possible without actually wrapping-up (not that anyone would look twice if an old-fashioned textbook shoulder-lead, bear-hug takedown was delivered). It’s not Smear the Queer, but it’s close.

The student-team had plenty of advantages. They play every day in gym class, so they’ve got their timing and patterns down, and they actually run a pretty well-organized zone defense. Most importantly, they’re young and quick and spry and a little blood-thirsty. Plus their bench was stacked 25 deep.

The staff squad was over-the-hill and undermanned. Only nine brave souls stuck around after school to battle it out on the grid-iron, so we recruited a couple of students to join us old-timers and fill out the squad. Fatigue would be a factor. We would be rusty and slow, that we knew, but we also would be smarter, less selfish, more patient, and could rely on hidden wells of that mysterious power known as “old-man strength.” You might be able to bounce your pecs and have six-pack abs, young-blood, but these old arms will surprise you.

The game got rolling, and we were having fun. The kids were hitting pretty hard, but it was all good, clean football. Esteban, a muscular and rather testosterone-fueled young man who I have failed a couple of times in English class, bull-rushed straight through me a couple of times leaving me on my ass, and he seemed to enjoy that. Adalberto, the fat-bastard who single-handedly keeps the school supermarket in business, kept coming at me and I kept spinning around him into the clear. I enjoyed that.

We were too slow to do a whole lot on defense, but the kids were impatient and couldn’t make much work. On offense we would methodically march downfield with short to medium passes, the receiver swarmed and knocked to the ground immediately after the grab every time. The kids would screw up a couple of times in row then get the ball to some thoroughbred Jamaican dude in a head-band and a Strahan jersey with 4.5 speed, and he’d turn the corner and take it to the house, the Jamaican Jerry Rice.

The score was close at half-time, 3 scores to 2. I had a couple of receptions and one tackle and had a done a pretty good job of mostly not embarrassing myself.

First drive of the second half I started with a nice catch I had to lay out on my stomach to grab. Sweet. Then I had another catch, this one from my knees. I wasn’t blowing anybody away with bursts of athleticism or hard-fought yards after the catch, but I was finding some openings and holding onto the ball, the consummate possession receiver. Not bad considering I was still wearing my boots and belt and dress-slacks from the school day.

The end-zone was approaching. First down. I faked towards the left corner and crossed over the middle and DeRonn the security guard/QB tossed it, a little high and behind, but I got up off the ground, stretched out, and snagged it. This was my drive. I was hit pretty good in the legs and went down, right on the goal-line. Somebody else hit me as I hit the ground, but I didn’t mind. Touchdown Babylon!

I stood up and an argument broke out over whether I had crossed the goal-line or not. The cones weren’t quite even so it really could have gone either way.

“I broke the plane, forward progress,” I stood up and was pointing and talking out of my ass to no-one in particular, enjoying the banter, when, wham!, somebody cracked me from behind right in the small of the back. The ball went flying, and I hit the ground hard, face-first.

It was a dirty play, as late as a hit could possibly be. The ball was dead. Play was stopped. I was pissed. I forgot where I was for a second, and could think only about the cheapness of the hit, the breaking of the unwritten codes of a game of controlled violence, how I could have re-torn the ACL on my bum-knee. I was no longer a teacher, the kid was no longer a student. I was just a dude on a field and that punk was a cheap-shot artist. I jumped up and lunged towards the guy.

“Motherfucker!!!” I yelled in as deep and guttural and I’m-gonna-beat-your-fucking-ass a way as possible, and someone grabbed me from behind and wrapped me up to hold me back. It was the Jamaican Jerry kid. He wrestled me back and told me to relax, but it was unnecessary. I didn’t have it in me. As soon as I’d yelled I lost all my anger. I didn’t want to beat some 17 year old kid up any more than I wanted to get beat up by one.

Everyone, students and staff, started yelling at the kid that hit me, pointing him off the field, and he stalked off, trying to look hard, but clearly a little freaked out, probably scared he was going to get suspended.

He came up to me about 10 minutes later with a sheepish grin on his face and his hand extended in apology. I smiled back, shook my head tsk-tsk, and accepted. What was I going to do, hold a grudge?

The student team won the game 6 to 5. Jamaican Jerry came across the middle on a crossing pattern, turned upfield, and that was game.

There’s a rematch coming up. We’re working on a defense to neutralize their speed and stop them from turning the corner. There’s no way we lose again.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

She Looks Pretty Tall, But Her Heels Are High
It’s easy to call in sick to Shitty High School. You just leave a message the night before with your name, department, and shift. You don’t even have to talk to a person, and try to sound like you have a cold or something.

You’re supposed to leave “emergency plans” in a file folder for whoever covers your class. A lot of times even that doesn’t happen, but when it does these invariably consist of nothing more than Xeroxed worksheets from a set of 15 year old “Skill Builders” workbooks. I was running a set off the other day when a kid in the office saw me.

“Oh no, Mister, again? I done that page like 20 times!”

Oh well. The times I’ve known in advance I would be out and actually tried to leave work that was somehow relevant to what we’d been studying, it was ignored by the sub altogether (might have required some actual teaching,) and the kids never do any work for the substitutes anyway.

The problem is that Ms. Wayne is still around, still without a teaching position, and still hanging around the office crushing bay-leaves in her tea and complaining about the kids and the Union and the heat and the ventilation and anything else she can find to bitch about. Her non-working, always-complaining ass even has the nerve to put the student aides to work printing up the flyers for the vocal performances she puts on at her church.

She must have pushed one of those flyers on me half a dozen times now (in a half a dozen different colors and snappy lay-outs too). Yeah, sure, right. I’d love to come up to your kooky born again church and listen to your crazy ass caterwaul about the end times. Someone call Kirk Cameron, the Rapture is nigh.

Because Ms. Wayne gets paid to sit around the office doing nothing all day, she’s the one who is called first when a coverage needs to be done. So whenever I’m out, she covers my classes, and without fail, every single time, there’s some kind of incident.

I’ll get back to school and my mailbox will be filled with copies of referrals and letters home and phone-logs, and, whaddayknow, here comes Ms. Wayne to tell me how disrespectful this kid and that kid was, and how she had to take whatever disciplinary action she took, and blah blah blah, and I don’t even listen anymore. The Dean’s office doesn’t either; a referral comes in with Ms. Wayne’s name on it, and it goes straight in the garbage. My AP even tried to ban her from calling kids homes, she threatened to go to the Union, though, so the AP had to drop that.

It’s become a running joke between me and my kids. Okay guys, who got a referral yesterday? Some of my kids, my good kids even, just turn around and leave when they see Ms. Wayne in the room. They don’t want any trouble.

Don’t get me wrong, believe me I know these kids can be real assholes, but obviously her current tactic of constantly writing referrals and whatnot isn’t working. That, coupled with her complete inability to control a class at all or get along with any student ever seem to be a strong indication that this woman needs a new line of work. I once walked into a class she was covering and not only were the kids throwing dice in the back (“ashy to classy!”) but there was a fresh DDP tag on the chalkboard. In spray-paint.

Seriously. It was like a Meth and Red movie in there.

She covered my class last week, and as per usual, there was a stack of referrals in my box, which I ignored, and everything was running as smoothly as things at Shitty ever run, when right before my 7th period class Ms. Wayne popped in my room and pulled me aside for a little chat.

In between barking at every student that came up to me to say hello or ask a question (“two adults are speaking here, you need to give us our privacy!”) she informed me that Ramon, a tiny little hyperactive kid who looks like he’s 8 years old, had been repeatedly “breaking wind” in class the day before, that the students had left the room to get away from the odor, and that this, clearly was inappropriate behavior and I need to speak with his parents.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor at the ridiculousness of it all, I mumbled something non-committal about taking care of it and ushered her out of my room. A minute later, as my students were filing in, a young girl approached me.

“Mister, Ms. Wayne kept throwin’ farts yesterday, and she said it was Ramon!”

I believe the kid.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

There’s a supermarket tucked in an out of the way corner in the basement of Shitty High School. I’ve mentioned it before. My first year in the building I’d only heard rumors of its existence. I tried to find it once or twice, got lost, and ended up smoking cigarettes and listening to sports-talk radio with the custodial staff down in the boiler room.

Last year I had the fortune of teaching a couple of classes right across from the store, and finally got to check the place out. Officially, it’s some sort of business vocation class for the Special Ed. department. The kids learn how to take inventory and use a cash register and make atrociously spelled hand-lettered “maximum occupancy” and “employees must wash their hands” signs.

The place was filled with a half dozen Special Ed. kids laying about listening to Hot 97 or La Mega, and the shelves were lined with dusty, out-of-date, economy-size packs of diapers and tampons and tooth-paste and laundry detergent and cereals and other random crap that no-one would ever have need to buy in the basement of Shitty High. They made cookies, though, Otis Spunkmeyer, sweet and aromatic and gooey, just like at Subway, and those things sold (and continue to sell) faster than coco hielos at a baseball game

This year is different though. Some enterprising Special Ed. teacher looked at that decrepit old supermarket with its stock of useless crap gathering dust and saw dollar signs. The supermarket was reborn. They would have chips and sodas and candy bars, but that wasn’t all. They would have hot food too. Hot Pockets. Beef-patties. Cup o’ Soup. Chef Boyardee ravioli. Sausage biscuits. Frozen White Castle burgers. If you can microwave it, and it’s loaded with chemicals and generally terrible for you, they would have it.

I must admit I have succumbed to its hot, greasy temptations. I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m lazy. It’s right there. It’s quick. It’s cheap. It’s 750 calories. It’s a mozzarella and meatball Hot Pocket. It is better in theory than conception, but somehow I always go back for more.

I am not the only person at Shitty high who thinks this way. The revamped supermarket has been a rousing success. The supermarket is constantly a bustle. The staff of layabouts has multiplied. There are surly, sour-faced girls in pajama pants whose entire job it is to grudgingly pour hot water into your Ramen noodles. I love them.

The line to get in is five wide and extends down the hall past three or four class rooms. Towards the end it grows chaotic and sprawling as kids socialize and fight and try to get someone who actually has a hall-pass (ostensibly a requirement for supermarket entry) to buy them something or, if they’ve already bought them something, to give it up along with whatever change might be owed. I’ve heard rumors that the endeavor, despite its high traffic, is not a money-maker due to high rates of shoplifting, but profitable or not, it’s definitely a hit.

This goes on all day everyday in the hallway right outside of classrooms. I teach in those rooms in the afternoon, and my hungry, pain-in-the-ass, kids are constantly bugging me for a pass and/or sneaking food into my class. According to Dominican folklore I ought to have a golf-ball sized sty on my eye by now for all the pregnant girls whose hunger cravings I’ve denied.

At least they ask, though. God forbid I’d have to physically snatch food from the hands of a pregnant teenage girl. The boys however, especially the fat ones, are a different story. Know this; if you’re a guy and you’re tying to eat in class, Mr. Babylon will snatch your snacks.

Adalberto Caba is one of those kids that slips through the cracks. He is neither clever enough nor annoying enough to attract my attention. He sits in the back. He is quiet. He never does any work. Every now and then I make a perfunctory stab at motivating him, but mostly I just mark down his zeros and move along. He’s a pudgy guy of some girth, but he’s still a little dude. The other day, he waddles into class with a bag of cookies in his hand. I tell him he can’t do that. He ignores me. Sits down. Squeezes into the desk. Eats his cookies. Tosses the wrapper on the floor. Reaches in to his big black coat. Pulls out a can of Pringles. Eats that. Washes it down with a 20 ounce Hawaiian Punch. For dessert, pulls out a king size Snickers bar. Starts in on that.

Would it have been wrong had I became exasperated at the sheer slovenly enormity of his gluttonous sloth? Would it have been hypocritical if I had yelled, harshly, for Adalberto to take the candy bar out of his fat mouth and take out his notebook and do some work so that he might not fail and maybe would be able to afford more junk-food crap with which to stuff his fat mouth in the future?

Did I actually say all that? Buy me a Hot Pocket, maybe I’ll tell you.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Do Later
There’s one every semester, the kid that for some reason just rubs me the wrong way. He’s not necessarily the loudest kid, or the laziest, or even the most disrespectful, but there’s something about the guy that’s just completely and utterly unlikable.

This year it’s Ulises Guzman, a squinty-eyed portly little dickhead with a perpetual shit-eating grin plastered on his acne-spotted mug. Every day he walks into my class, screams “Hey! Babylon! No work today!” at the top of his lungs, walks over to the board and changes the words “Do Now” to “Do Later,” then sits down and proceeds to carry on a constant low-murmuring conversation, still smirking the whole time, with no-one in particular.

Every single day.

That “Do Later” joke was funny the first time I heard it in a Level 1 ESL class. Hell, I thought, at least they’re learning something. In an intermediate level class, for the one hundredth day in a row, not so much.

I won’t even go into the myriad disciplinary techniques I’ve tried with this kid, but suffice to say nothing makes a difference, so I’ve taken to simply drawing a deep breath, muttering “serenity now,” and calmly informing Ulises that I fail to see the humor in his repetitive, obnoxious, and disrespectful behavior.

He doesn’t get it.

So at some point in class I end up screaming at the kid to shut up, singling out his beady-eyed face despite the fact that there are plenty of other kids acting up. I feel a little bad about it, especially after he informed me that he’s diabetic.

He didn’t actually tell me he was diabetic, he wrote it in an in-class guided composition on the mid-term (tests being the only work he actually completes.) The kids were supposed to pick a theme that runs through a few of the stories we had read, and some of the options we had discussed (read: I had drilled into their thick skulls) were dishonesty, insanity, and death.

What can I say? I don’t write the stuff.

Anyway, Ulises chose the theme of “death” in his glorified fill-in-the-blank exercise masquerading as an essay, the conclusion of which asked the kids to connect the chosen theme to their own lives.

I have dealt with the theme of dead in my own life when the doctor tell to me I will cause my sugar.

So I feel bad about the way the kid gets under my skin (like a bamboo shoot under a fingernail,) but come on, really, I’m sure plenty of assholes get diseases too. Just because he’s got problems all of a sudden I’m supposed to like him?

The point, such as it is, being, as I’m sure you’ve guessed already, Ulises pissed me off the other day, and I crossed some kind of line.

He walked in and started in on his usual routine and, it being the end of the semester, I was in an unusually chipper mood.

“Ulises,” I sighed, shaking my head and smiling, a last futile attempt at the killing-‘em-with-kindness technique. “I’m gonna kill you… siddown!” So maybe kindness is a strong word, but I said everything good-naturedly and it was pretty obvious I didn’t mean it literally, just that he was, once again, getting on my last good nerve.

Ulises laughed, and continued to write on the board.

“You want I kill him, Mister?” asked Emilio, a hard-working but smart-assed little lambon.

“Please…” I implored exaggeratedly exasperated.

I turned around, went to my desk and began organizing my attendance and handouts and whatever else I had going on over there. I looked up half a minute later and Emilio, ever diligent, had Ulises up against the wall

I ran across the room and broke them up before any real harm had been done. I have to admit, though, for a split second there, I hesitated.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Movie Time
We recently finished reading “The Pearl” in my upper level “transitional” ESL class and I was at a loss as to what to do next. I liked “The Pearl” a lot, and it seemed pretty appropriate as far as vocabulary and themes and whatnot. I loved digging into all the socio-economic status and racial exploitation and pacification of the poor type issues, and was consistently impressed, once we’d talked about things for awhile, with my kids’ ability to wrap their heads around what I considered to be pretty eye-opening ideas.

In lieu of a test or essay, for the big “assessment” I had the kids adapt a scene from the book into play form and set it in modern times right here in the Boogie Down. All in all I considered the experience a moderate success.

The students? Not so much.

“Mista! ‘Da Pearl’ again? Pearl, pearl, pearl. All the day ‘The Pearl.’ I go the bed at night I see ‘Pearl.’ Morning again, ‘Pearl.’”

“Indira, I uhhh…” I tried to interject, but she was on a roll, and I…

“Mista. When your wife wanna go out… Dinner? Movie? Da Club? Naw… you say ‘Da Pearl?’”

Ouch. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, and though they managed to do it without humiliating me quite as thoroughly, pretty much all my other students said the same thing. “The Pearl” was boring.

We were supposed to read “Of Mice and Men” next, but I decided maybe that wasn’t the best idea, and I ought to find something that would pique the kids’ interest a little bit more. My options were severely limited, though, by the fact that we don’t exactly have stacks of wildly entertaining books lying around the Shitty basement.

Even the boring old books we do have are in short supply if they’re even accessible at all and not buried in a mildewed box in the back and bottom of an impenetrable stack of mildewed boxes in the converted bathroom that’s serving as a temporary book repository.

What then to do? The solution, of course, was obvious; I’d show the little ingrates a movie.

After an exhaustive perusal of my cinephile upstairs neighbor’s DVD collection I settled on “To Kill A Mockingbird” because it’s a classic I’d been wanting to watch again, and because it was the only movie the guy had that didn’t prominently feature French or Danish subtitles or exclusively star women with enormous breasts (Russ Meyer, holler!).

It took some wrangling to get the DVD player, but get it I did, and we were off. Slowly. Very, very slowly.

“To Kill a Mockingbird’s” opening title sequence may be famous, beautifully shot, and highly influential, but it’s not exactly action packed. I made them watch it anyway, thinking it’s got to be good for them, then wondering when did I become such an old codger, boring kids to tears by forcing them to watch black and white footage of a ball slowly rolling past a bunch of knick-knacks?

The chorus of complaints began right away. Black and white, rather than being a strike against the film, more than an obstacle for these young children of the information age to overcome, was a straight up deal-breaker.

No, my students are not really feeling film-noir. Chiarascura? Forget about it. I might as well have been showing a silent film about Norwegian existentialism.

We persevered through that, though, as we did over the “why she dress like that?” hump and the “they talk weird” setback, and day after day, forty minutes at a time, we watched the story unfold. The kids complained. A lot. And I thought the pacing might be just too damn slow for them. People slowly amble to and from cars (when’s the last time you saw that in a movie?). Scenes of complete silence, reaction shots, go on for minutes. Character traits are revealed through subtle facial expressions and things unsaid.


Right? Not exactly.

They didn’t get everything, of course, especially finer points of plot.

“Who that nigga?”

“That the girl’s dad. That nigga drunk.”

“No, not that nigga. The other nigga. The black nigga!”

But they got the gist. Maybe because my kids don’t speak English as a first language, so the slow pace was actually a benefit, maybe because the movie and the acting is just that good, but the kids really got it. They may not have enjoyed it (or at least to let on as much), but when asked to describe characters, the kids were nails.

Atticus wasn’t just a father but “a good father,” which might seem obvious, but under normal circumstances would have taken some seriously leading questions (and perhaps even some “coaching”) to elicit. So “Atticus good father, lawyer, miss he wife, brave man” isn’t quite, “He is a man of quiet dignity, possessed of subtle strength and deep moral convictions,” but it’s better than the nothing I so often get. Gregory Peck, apparently, is a much greater communicator than I.

So things were rolling along. It was taking a while to get through, though. With 45 minute class periods, and a 129 minute movie, we should have been through the thing in 3 days, but after getting the kids settled and the DVD set up, and with occasional pauses to make sure the kids were following, it took an entire week.

Pushing that giant, unwieldy television cart through the crowded hallways every morning I began to feel like a bit of a slacker.

“Showing a movie again, huh, Babylon?” teachers would ask as they pressed themselves flat against the elevator wall to make room for my giant portable entertainment system their derisive sneers touched with more than a hint of jealousy.

Things took even longer because of an unexpected delay. I decided to buck the system (and avoid the elevator) a little bit one day by leaving the DVD player/TV overnight in the room where I would need it in the morning. I also, in order to prevent myself form leaving the movie at home or something silly like that, decided to leave the DVD itself in the machine. Naturally, in the morning when I came in, it was gone. I scrambled around running up and down stairs and from class room to classroom until I finally found the machine, hustled it back down to my room in the basement, and then discovered that my movie was no longer in the machine.

Without the movie I had a classroom full of increasingly restless kids, a big-ass TV, and no lesson-plan. Ever resourceful, I didn’t panic, I just reached in my bag and grabbed the other DVD I had borrowed from my upstairs neighbor, this one for my own personal edification and enjoyment.

The “Cool Hand Luke” experiment was not completely unsuccessful. The carwash scene, as one might expect, went over huge.

“Damn, son, she know what she doin’?”

“Of course she know what she doin’ nigga! Tsk. Boys be so stupid…”

After that bout of suds-drenched, bazoomaba-filled, inappropriateness, I thought I was prepared for anything, but was caught off-guard again when one of Luke’s fellow prisoners was sent to the box. My Muslim girls all dutifully covered their eyes when I ordered the class to do so at the last minute before the relatively tame obverse male nudity, and disaster was averted.

I fast-forwarded through the part where Luke’s creepy mom sparks a doob while laid out in the back of a pick-up and picked up in time for the fight in which Luke keeps getting knocked down and getting back up. Luke’s gutsy, relentless performance in the ring was a hit, although the general consensus seemed to be that, “that nigga retarded.”

Plus I’ve got about a dozen guys who are convinced they can eat 50 eggs. I was all ready to stage a contest the day before vacation, but after considering the potential for massive- serial-vomiting thought better of it.

So, after that little detour we were back on track to finish up “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’ve mentioned before that I am not one to break down in tears at the workplace, or anywhere else for that matter. I have also mentioned that my one weakness in this department is books, and sporting events (especially if they trot out some badass old-timer for a rousing ovation,) and movies.

Well, it happened. I knew it was coming, the end of that damn trial scene, and I was holding it together pretty well. The verdict came down. The courtroom crowd gasped. The judge stormed out. Terrified, Tom Robinson, was led out the door. Everyone in the downstairs of the courtroom audience left. Slowly, oh so slowly, Atticus gathered up his things, said a word to the court reporter, and began to make his exit. Scout, Jem, Dill and all the black folks in the balcony were still there. They rose to their feet.

It started to get a little dusty down there in the basement of Shitty High, but still I was maintaining most of my composure.

The big one hit, “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise, your father’s passing.”

Boom. What a line. What a scene. I swallowed big, and my vision was getting pretty cloudy, but still I maintained.

Then out of nowhere came a second bomb. Somewhere behind me a perfect little female voice called out in a hushed tone, “they showin’ they respect, right, Mista?”

That did it.

Is this thing on?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sorry about the bitter and unnecessarily cryptic nature of that last post. Everything is fine, I had just had a bad day, that's all.

But, I’m gonna be closing up shop here for a little while. I’ve got too many other things I’m trying to work on, so unless somebody wants to pay me to blog, I’ve got to step away for a minute.

I’ll leave the site up, so feel free to browse the archives or argue with Pistol in the comments board, and do check back from time to time, you never know when something ridiculous will happen at Shitty and I’ll get a wild hair to write it down.

Also keep an eye out for exciting future Mr. Babylon projects including Mr. Babylon the book, Mr. Babylon the graphic novel, and most incredibly, Mr. Babylon the dancehall-crunk theme-song.

Thanks for reading and sharing, see you soon.

Monday, October 03, 2005

All that sunshine and flowers crap I was spewing the last few weeks, forget it. I suck. Shitty sucks. Kill me now, preferably by forcible drowning. Whiskey drowning. Cheer up? Fuck you.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Light
Signs I am slowly getting better at this teaching thing.

1) During distribution periods I managed to keep thirty-odd kids I’d never met before seated and relatively quiet for the entire forty-five minutes. If that isn’t amazing enough, the teacher next door—a wonderful Puerto Rican woman with this highly effective, sweet-yet-firm, motherly teaching style that I’ll never even begin to approach—walked over and mouthed “what the fuck?” (she’s cool like that) and pointed to all her charges streaming out the doors and raging down the hall.

2) A large percentage of the kids in the rigid Ms. Swiss’ class have circulated and signed a petition asking to be switched into my class. I suffer no illusions that this is not due in large part to me being a slack-ass pushover and never remembering to collect the homework or even if I assigned any homework or especially what number homework assignment we are on.

3) However, Ms. Swiss--who last year never spoke to me at all except to offer, in a tone meant to reflect her infinite patience with my incompetence, that perhaps I should try to prevent my students from destroying her property in the classroom, and that maybe, just maybe, there were some children in my classes who were a little, err, wild—actually approached me the other day and expressed admiration for my “technique.”

“You seem to have the whole class engaged and trying to answer questions.”

This “technique,” of standing in front of the class and talking and cracking stupid jokes and asking questions is, apparently, highly unusual.

4) And, a couple of students in my over-sized pain-in-the-ass Level 4 class where we never get anything done because I’m so busy trying to make everyone shut up and sit down have begun attending both that class and my afternoon 9th period class, where I let them hang out as long as they behave and do some work.

5) That 9th period class is a total blast. I’m always exhausted by then, so I tend to deviate from the lesson plan and do things like letting (and in fact encouraging) Pablo Pernil to beat-box or repeat everything I say in a Donald Duck voice, or letting Fernando Tejada teach me Spanish tongue-twisters* or pontificate on the origins and meaning of his rather horrible, self-inflicted Latin Kings tattoos. It’s all-good though, because as silly as these kids are, they’re always engaged. They know enough English to carry on a conversation with me, and, shocker, they’re actually interested in learning more, constantly asking me how to say this or pronounce that, and when we do get down to business, they work. Amazing.

6) Finally, the ultimate sign things are going better, good stories to tell on this here blog are becoming fewer and farther between.**

*With how many planchas did Pancha plancha? Go ahead, aks me.

**Famous last words, right?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The $3 ID
I’ve never cried at work. I’ve never even cried about work.

I don’t know why, considering I’ve been known to get all misty reading the last chapter of Friday Night Lights or watching pretty much any movie about a boy and his dog, but that’s just not how I deal with my workday stresses and emotional gut-punches.

I’ve had pregnant girls, jail-bound boys, kids with severe learning disabilities who might never read. It’s terrible and sad, but it’s never brought on the water-works.

I know a lot of female teachers (and I’m sure some men too) who’ve been known to break down in tears just from sheer exhaustion or frustration at the kids not listening. Me, I usually just come home and kick the dog.

I imagine that if I taught younger kids and they all came up and hugged me and said they loved me at the end of the year that might be a little tough, but the way high-school is set up with Regents testing and all that, there’s really no big goodbye, things just sort of peter out.

I lost it the other day though.

I had to cover a class of beginning ESL students. They were all sweet and cute mostly, but then a few minutes after the bell this kid named Jorge Valdez walked in escorted by a Dean. Jorge is, along with the raging asshole who kicked my trashcan last year, pretty much the most notorious jerk at Shitty high. I’ve never had him in my class, but I’ve seen and heard him screaming and spitting and hurling obscenities left and right, sometimes even in my doorway, his eyes ablaze with blunts and rage.

It’s not just that he’s loud and obnoxious and rude, though, the kid just has a real nastiness about him. He actually set a fire in a locker in a classroom in the middle of his 2nd period class some time last fall.

I was not thrilled to see him in my coverage. He came in yelling in rapid-fire Spanish and immediately refused to sit down. When I gave him his worksheet (the “lesson plan” kindly provided by the class’ regular teacher) he sneered and let it float to the floor.

He eventually settled in and spent most of the period chatting with another young punk. I made a half-hearted attempt to get them to work, but mostly just let them be and helped out the kids that were working.

As required for coverages, I passed out an attendance sheet for the kids to sign and give back to me. When the sheet was returned Jorge had failed to provide his 9-digit ID number. I asked him to fill it in.

“I no got ID.”

“You don’t have an ID? Why not?” I didn’t believe him.

“No got it. Puntapinchemariconependejo, blah, blah, blah…

We went back and forth like that for a minute before Jorge looked me in the eye.

“Gimme three dollar, I get the ID.”

I’m pretty sure Jorge lives in a shelter. I know that for awhile last year he had been sleeping in a stairwell until some man took him in under what I can only assume were not the most wholesome of conditions. This all came to light last year sometime after he set the fire, so, hopefully, somebody got him into a shelter after that. I really don’t know. He still smells terrible.

“It costs three dollars to get an ID?” I hadn’t known that. I left unspoken the second half of the question, “and you don’t have three dollars?”

He nodded, and went back to screwing around with his friend, and I went back to helping the other kids with their worksheet.

When class ended I called Jorge over and told him if he wanted an ID I would take him right then and get one for him. He followed me up the stairs and through the halls in silence.

Near the metal-detectors I found the desk where the ID photos are taken and as quietly as possible told the school-aides sitting there that Jorge needed an ID but didn’t have the money.

“Oh yeah, right!” one of the women snorted. “Please. He doesn’t have three dollars!? Hah! I know this kid, he and his friend were in the office the other day cursing at the secretary. He’s playing games. Playing games.”

“Wha? I no have ID, I need…” Jorge blurted.

“He lives in a shelter,” I stepped in front and quietly interjected. “He’s not playing games.”

“Oh, we know these kids, it’s all a game to them…”

I stuck my three dollars in the woman’s face. I couldn’t listen to her shit. I'm sure she deals with some real ingrates on a daily basis, but she couldn’t stop power-tripping for thirty seconds to help out a homeless teenager, because he lacked manners?

Finally, one of them grudgingly took the money, handed Jorge a printout, and told him to come back the next day for the ID. I said thanks, none too friendly mind you, then patted Jorge on the shoulder and walked away.

Poor kid. I’d be a real dick too if my whole miserable life nobody had ever bothered to give a shit about me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Others
No longer marooned all alone out there in TV-land when it comes to my LOST obsession, I'm about to be LOST blogging along with Chris Lemon-Red and Jon Caraminica over at Flight815. Seriously check it out. Those guys are the real deal, I'm just an extra.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fast Times
No fun. Today I got sent to the Principal’s office where I endured an interminable lecture, choked back many a smirk, and was even put on the spot about what I thought the punishment should be.

Just like old times. Seriously, I might as well have been 14 all over again and sitting in front of Disciplinary Committee for tagging homophobic epithets (I ain’t proud, just saying…) all over the car of some poor dude who pissed me off.

The day started off routine enough; My 8:30 class are all nice kids, especially when they’re still half asleep, which is always. In fact the only annoying kid on the whole roster is a Vietnamese super-student who’s constantly correcting my spelling and reminding to collect the homework. He’s not even the most outstanding student I the class either. This cool, quiet, little Armenian girl consistently turns vocabulary homework into Dave Eggers’ quality perfect sentences. I finally thought I caught a mistake the other day when she had a comma where a period would have been better.

“Very good. Very good. Wow. These are great… Oh!” Secretly delighting, I crossed out the comma. “That should be a period, because this is its own sentence.”

“No, Mister, no that’s not a comma,” she replied as gently patient as she could be. “That is a, how do you say, half comma?”

“Half comma?”

She pointed above the comma to a little dot.

“A semi-colon?”

“Yes, Mister, a semi-colon.”

A fucking semi-colon. What is this, Stanford? I’m pretty sure she used it perfectly too, although, I must admit, I really have no idea.

After my morning class I was unceremoniously given a coverage of a beginning level ESL class, which, while screwing up my schedule for the day, went just fine. There was one obnoxious jerk in there who just about broke my heart*, but all the other kids were shy little cuties, and I had fun pantomiming and drawing and talking real slow and doing all the beginners’ stuff I never have to do anymore now that I’m teaching intermediate and upper levels and can actually carry on a conversation with my students.

My giant class got even bigger (it’s up to 41 kids now,) and that went the way it always goes; I got nothing accomplished, but kept order, barely, which is an accomplishment in itself. Actually, I did teach two new vocabulary words the big group of chatter-boxes. Ask any of those 41 Level 3 ESL students what “closet” and “sauna” mean, and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

It was my upper, transitional, level class of juniors and seniors that did me in.

There are a couple of dudes in this class that have big old chips on their shoulders, right above the glittery snowmen. They stroll in late, sit in the back, and refuse to do any work. One kid, Felix, is all arms and legs and goofy smiles. He’s remarkably good-natured about never shutting up or doing a goddamn thing I ask.

Then there’s his buddy Johan. He’s a lot quieter than Felix, but his vibe is straight animosity. Every time I look at the guy, let alone ask him to take out his notebook or remove his hat, he’s staring at me with cockeyed with his lips all twisted up in the ultimate version of a screwface.

It’s so exaggerated and obvious that he’s putting on a front that it doesn’t freak me out the way Gerrardo’s intense stare did, but it’s still not cool.

Anyway, at the beginning of class today I was doing my thing, checking homework and goading the class along into doing their “Do Now” while Felix and Johan did their things in the back, when the door opened and my AP walked in. She actually didn’t make it all the way in because the chord of the big industrial fan I poached from a science lab the other day was blocking her way, causing quite a commotion as she almost tripped and half the class screamed out in warning.

She made it in unscathed, followed closely by Principal Popeil.


“Oohhhh fuuccck, look at this corny-ass nigga!” Pedro exclaimed, and steam immediately began screaming from Popeil’s ears.

He launched into a lecture about who were the adults and who were the children, and in between breaths began barking orders at me to give him the students’ Delaney cards.

As I stammered to explain the fact that I don’t, ahem, actually use the Delaney cards, Popeil was set off anew by the fact that Johan and a couple of other guys in the back around Pedro were cracking up over some, apparently hilarious, thing.

Popeil was livid. As he ranted on and on, Johan let go with low, guttural, and completely heartfelt, “ma me cueva”(sp?) which sent Popeil on yet another diatribe about proper behavior and respect and “vulgarities” before he finally took his leave, leaving orders that the offending youth, including the peanut gallery, to see him before the end of the day or else.

See, I’ve been trying to be real patient with Jorhan and Felix. I explain the way things should be, remind them whenever they deviate from the program, and sit back and let them fuck up as long as they’re not disturbing the rest of us. The theory being yelling or getting all hot and bothered is exactly what they want, and writing a referral (in addition to being completely ineffective) is just going to piss them off.

My theory didn’t take into account Popeil walking into the middle of class completely unannounced.

I yelled at everybody for a minute, unsuccessfully tried to revive the aborted lesson, and before I knew it the bell rang. When class was over I gathered my stuff, fought back the urge to put a dent in a locker with my fist, stuck my chin out and marched up to Popeil’s office to try to explain that, actually, my classroom management is one thing I’m feeling pretty good about this year. To my surprise, Felix and Johan and their cronies were in his office, sitting on a couch getting talked at.

I inquired if I might join and spent the better part of the next hour sitting silently while Popeil went on and on with his lecture, which from what I could tell, was the major component of the kids’ punishment. The worst part was he kept trying to drop the street lingo, but was way off base, and even if he had it right, was so condescending I wanted to throw up in my mouth.

“I speak one way when I’m hanging out with my buddies on the stoop… I mean, I don’t use vulgarities but… I speak differently in public. Right? What’s up with that, dude?”

Right, Spicoli.

I was sufficiently chastened. By the end I’d have punched myself in the face to get the guy to shut up.

“Was that fun guys? Did you enjoy that? Good times?” I enquired of my students after pulling them aside when we finally made our exit.

“Yeah, me neither.”

As calmly and in a fashion as far from lecture as I could muster, I attempted to explain to the guys that I was not their enemy, that all I wanted was to teach them a little something so they could graduate and hopefully make some money or something. That when they came into class combative from day one, I wasn’t going to fight back, that they could win every daily battle, but would fail my class and be right back where they started in the end.

I’m not sure if my words were persuasive or if it was just so completely obvious that I had been as miserable sitting in the Principal’s office as they had, but it seemed to work. We shook hands and agreed to start over. Johan, who had dropped his screw face around about the time discussion of not graduating came up, even looked up from his Jordans and looked me in the eye as he apologized for his behavior.

We’ll see. We’ll see.

*More on that later.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Unfortunately or not for everyone involved, many of my favorite students from years past are not in my classes this semester.

I still see Roulo in the halls, and we exchange pounds, but that’s it. Same for Christopher and Tony. Elvis too.

Colombia, last I heard, is in jail, as is Frankie. There’s been no sign of P-Yayo so far. Perhaps the City finally opened up a Dipset themed mini-school.

I do have the pleasure of teaching the one and only Animal Boy, Pablo Pernil, who is as charmingly scruffy and goofy as ever. Even better, I have tiny little Popsoul aka Soulrock in my class, although he seems to be regressing slightly, now channeling way more Young Buck than Hugh Masekela. He now desires to be called Soul-G, and refers to his native land of Guinea as “G-U-nie.” He’s also in my big class of 37 kids, and he’s way more advanced than any of them, so as much as it hurts, I’m probably going to recommend that he be moved to a higher level.

Not to worry, though, I have a bunch of new candidates for most entertaining student status.

Another likable young fellow is Kevin Soto, a big, dark-skinned kid who’s very much a gangster. I had him in a class I took over halfway through the semester last spring and he showed up twice at the most, but he was always quiet and respectful, man enough not to have to prove anything in English class.

He seems to be trying to get it together this year, and has showed up every day and even did some homework. He’s all around a pleasure to have in class, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if one day he stood up, walked out of class, put on a pair of brass-knuckles, and donkey-punched somebody in the back of the head.

We were doing group-work today--reading, answering questions, then reporting on various Katrina survivor’s stories photo-copied form the pages of People magazine--and I spent the first part of class going over the jack-booted group-work procedures.

Everybody must participate and do their job. Listen to your classmates. Respect them and their ideas. Stay on task. No talk of girls. No talk of boys. No Yankees. No Daddy Yankee.

Things went just fine. Some of groups took a little longer than others answering the questions though, so I put off the presentations until tomorrow. Kevin’s group was finished and were chatting quietly in Spanish. Class was almost over and it was 9th period, time to go home, so I was letting it slide.

“Yo Mister, “Kevin called me over, a big grin on his face. “It’s happening, Mister. It’s happening.”

“Huh?” I was confused.

“It’s happening like you said, Mister. These girls talking about Daddy Yankee.”

Fernando Tejada is a stylish, cocky, kid. He’s not a jerk, he just has that swinging swagger and smirking confidence of any teenage boy who’s cooler and smarter than everyone else and knows it.

He was being a little difficult at first, clowning a little and showing off, but I figured out he was smart as soon as I looked at his program. I look at all the kids’ programs on the first day, ostensibly to make sure they’re in the right place, but really to kill a little time and figure out a little bit about what kind of student the kid is.

If he’s a junior and in Math 2 and Living Environment, he’s probably not the studious type. If she’s a native Spanish speaker and still in Spanish 1 or 2, she’s most likely illiterate.

Fernando is taking French, AP Physics, and AP Spanish.

“Hey Mister,” he asked me as class wound down this humid afternoon. “You like to teaching?”

Yeah, yeah I do. Most of the time.” I gave him the short, sunny, answer.

“But don’t you be mad when you talking and to talking and all the people they no listen?”

Uncanny. It’s like he’s inside my head.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Go Crazy
After three mostly wasted days last week, the kids finally started showing up in significant numbers yesterday. Things are going just fine so far, considering, and there has been a notable lack of the usual first week gang violence. Maybe it’s the absence of new freshman this year, or maybe they’re just waiting until they’ve all turned in their all-important lunch-applications so they can get their Metrocards (which determine how much money Shitty gets per pupil and are now being used as blackmail.)

I spend my free-periods keeping up with grading (that won’t last) and un-stacking and unpacking boxes and boxes of books. My classes are pretty well behaved—a couple are great, like perfectly frightened little orphans—and we’ve been practicing our soul-killing procedures and having spirited, productive, discussions about Jabbor Gibson and Deamonte Love. Even my stifling hot, packed tighter than (and smelling like) a cross-town bus, class of 37 young learners is relatively calm, if chatty and understandably grumpy. We don’t get anything done, and it took me an entire period to get halfway around the room checking homework, but there has yet to be a riot.

In fact, if it weren’t for the physical conditions and a few notably difficult and disagreeable folks, my job would be dangerously close to tolerable.

There is the AP, of course, who, straight beastin’, has banned the infamous coffee-maker from our tiny new department digs. She doesn’t want her bosses coming by and seeing things in a clutter.

Principal Popeil is still around too, though we don’t see much of him down amongst the roaches in our out of the way little hole.

A more constant annoyance is Ms. Wayne. You remember Ms. Wayne? Ms. Wayne, who as a farewell gesture on the last day of school, in a moment so sublimely awkward it could have made David Brent blush, serenaded our entire department in an operatic style? She’s back.

She told everyone she was leaving, volunteered to be “excessed,” and then showed back up at the beginning of this year as if nothing had happened. I suspect it is an elaborate ruse to work as little as possible, and it seems to be working. She has nothing to do, no classes to teach, only to sit all day everyday in the department office snacking on Kraft Singles and bitching and moaning and complaining about every little thing while around her everyone else busily goes about their day.

If anything could be more awkward than sitting through Ms. Wayne’s horrendous musical performance, it is sitting in the office as she blathers on and on and no-one so much as grunts in response.

In the classroom so far--and we are, admittedly, barely out the gates--my consternation is much less than last year. Take the example of one rather large young man who scared the living shit out of me yesterday as I scribbled vocabulary words on the board.

His jaw was set, quivering slightly with the force of the tension with which he held it. He stared at me, unblinking, his narrow black eyes boring into me with such intensity I thought he might rip the top off of his desk right there and begin to savagely beat me over the head with it.

I was terrified. I moved to the left a few feet and his eyes followed me without missing a beat.

“Is there a problem, Gerrardo? Are you ok?”

He nodded, barely, never deviating from his stare of death.

I had no idea what was going on. It was the first day, I couldn’t imagine what I had done to anger this kid so much that he was ready to murder me right there in front of God and the rest of his transitional ESL class. Had I unknowingly committed some sort of grievous cultural taboo? Was he that offended by being asked to raise his hand as opposed to calling out?

I continued to teach, moving around the room, my eyes every so often darting over towards Gerrardo and quickly looking away upon confirmation that he was still glaring at me like I’d just pissed on his mother while wiping my ass with a Dominican flag.

By the end of class I was ready to dive out the window to escape the violent beat-down I was sure to suffer at the hands of this hateful kid, but managed, after I wrote the homework assignment on the board, to sneak one last look his way.

He was staring with that same concentrated intensity, the entirety of his will focused, only this time his angry laser-vision was boring a hole into the chalk-board as he painstakingly copied the assignment.

Gerrardo wasn’t mad at me, just real serious about paying attention in class.

There is one kid who really is a problem though, a tiny little punk in a glittery snowman tee who never shuts up, never stops stepping to me and popping his collar.

I'm firm with the little dopeboy. I'm patient. I give him a look when he mouths off, a little hand-gesture to sit when he's out of his seat. I show him the zeros he earns at the end of every class. I even pulled him outside and calmly explained how things are gonna be. So far, nothing works.

I’m trying to remain tough yet cool-headed, but it's kinda hard to be a hard-ass, when that little shit won't stop being an ass.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Dust Clears
Morale is at an all-time low at Shitty High. Two more mini-schools have been moved in, forcing massive relocations of all Shitty departments and requiring extensive construction work over the summer, work that is, of course, not quite done yet. The scaffolding is down, though, and the building façade has a fresh coat of paint, as do many of the new classrooms, which look great.

Too bad we don’t get to use them. We’re down in the basement, right by the supermarket, and on the same hall where I saw my student brain somebody with a padlock. Home sweet home.

Down there, amongst the peeling, tagged-up paint of the tiny classrooms with eight-foot ceilings and exposed piping and ductwork, the true nature of Shitty’s renovations is revealed; lipstick on a dieing pig. The stench of the pig’s rotting corpse is palpable on the breezes that waft through this forgotten corner of the basement’s too-small windows. Wait, no, that’s just the dumpster, right there outside the classrooms, surrounded by piles of broken desks, blocking out the sunlight, and reeking of fish.

We finally got our schedules and room assignments sometime yesterday afternoon--less than 24 hours before the first kids were to arrive, and after an interminable and hoaky speech from Principal Popeil about his immigrant, illiterate coal-mining grand-parents and his heartfelt love of education (no-one clapped, not even a 'Nolia clap)--so yesterday was spent scavenging these parking lot refuse piles for salvageable tables and file-cabinets. I made some pretty choice furniture scores, and even found a stash of about thirty brand-new graphing calculators which should be making their way onto Ebay any day now.

We don’t have a book room anymore, instead our books are packed up in cardboard boxes, forty pounds each, packed six deep and twelve high in a couple of out-of-the-way stairwells. I spent an hour or so yesterday grunting and sweating and tossing those boxes around, taking down one stack and re-stacking it somewhere else, ostensibly looking for the books I’ll be using, but really just getting out some frustration and making as much noise as possible, especially when Principal Popeil strolled by.

He didn’t look my way.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Mounting Up
Yesterday was our first day back. The kids come in on Thursday, although most of them won’t show up until Monday. Why bother with a short week? Especially when their schedules will all be wrong for the first few weeks anyway.

We spent the morning eating complimentary mini-muffins and listening--once some interminable PowerPoint technical difficulties were resolved, and after an overwhelmingly self-congratulatory home movie (dramatically scored by the stirring anthems of late-period U2) about a group of principals’ trip to a conference--to a motivational speaker who affectionately referred to us, his audience, as his “high school buddies.” A few too many goofy puns later, and before another moving PowerPoint presentation, this an ode to the “Noble Teacher” and soundtracked by Bette Midler’s maudlin classic “Wind Beneath My Wings”*, our motivational speaker’s point became clear…

Good teacher’s establish procedures and stick to them. Procedures. Routines. Order. Fascism. It works. I’ve seen it happen. Kids, especially the wild-ass kids at Shitty, respond real well to routine. It works, but it’s not me. Assigned seats. Procedures for turning in papers. Procedures for how to raise your hand. Procedures for how to ask for the bathroom pass. I hated all that shit when I was in school, and I hate it now.

I like freedom. Creativity. Poetry. Music. Birds. Nature. Puppies. All that hippie-dippie crap. “No hats in the classroom.” Man, I don’t care if you’re barefoot as long as you’re curious or something. It's not that I want to be the "cool teacher" or something, that's just pathetic, but I really am at my core a disorganized slacker type dude. Shit, I haven't brushed my hair in years, not even for my own wedding.

It hasn’t worked for me so far though, my lackadaisical style. Kids wile out, I tell them to quit. Kids go bananas, I tell them to quit. Kids do whatever the Hell they want, I start screaming and yelling like the scary dad from an after-school special.

*At this point does anyone out there not know that they are Bette’s hero?.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

What I Had For Dinner
Peep this article in today's New York Sun profiling yours truly and other NYC blogging teachers. You have to subscribe to read the whole thingThe author was kind enough to forward me a way around the subscription, but NYC folks can should pick up a copy for a quarter. Support! This rag is way better than the Daily News (I wouldn't even line a bird cage with the Post).

Is This Thing On?
Back. Like what? Cooked crack? Nah, more like Sparks, two cans for $6; I’m there, and I’ll do the job, but I ain’t what the fiends are after.

I try, don’t get me wrong, and that’s more than a lot of folks. And I manage to develop a pretty good rapport with my kids. We like each other, and they generally trust me, which is something. I can’t control the little bastards though, and more than that, I’ve yet to really stir up any love of knowledge, any real curiosity in anybody. More and more, I think that’s what it takes to be a truly great teacher, and it takes a truly great teacher to do that.

Either you got it or you don’t.

I don’t think it should be that way, and I don’t think it has to be. If we put enough of that war money and resources in the schools I think we could make them competent and exciting enough that a regular dude, with a little hard work and some training, could succeed just fine. Right now though, us regular teachers, try as we might, either end up quitting or miserable, and that’s a fact you can see in the empty seats where my young colleagues have all disappeared, and in the weary eyes of those older folks who are sticking around complaining about the boss and counting the days until retirement.

I’m sticking with it; I’m a stubborn kind, but this summer has been one of wondering if I really have what it takes. These aren’t the heated, emotional, feelings of wanting to quit after a terrible week or on a particularly dreary Monday, these are the sober (well, not exactly) musings of one whose spent the better part of two months sitting around in his underwear listening to southern black folks rap about selling cocaine and waiting for the new season of LOST to premier.

And that’s the thing, that’s how I know I don’t have the magic. I care deeply about my kids and the plight of our nation and its youth in general, but when I’m not at school the last thing on my mind is curriculums or lesson plans or teachable moments. I’m too busy obsessing about college football, rocking out to the Caps and Jones Lemon-Red mix, or lately, working myself into a desperate rage over this hurricane and Mike Brown and Barbara “Marie Antoinette” Bush and the subsequent politics of abandonment Katrina has exposed in the worst possible way.

I’m passionate about a lot of things, including my students. I’m just not sure I’m passionate about teaching, not in the way the great ones are at least.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Somebody Holla at P-Yayo
Diplomats week, all Dip-set, all the time over at AllHipHop.com. Dyiiip-Setttt!!!

Touch and Go
You’re not supposed to touch the kids. Everybody tells you this, over and over. It makes sense, I guess, what with our litigious society and the nature of the teacher/student relationship. Some crazy or vindictive kid is going to make something up sometime, eventually.

I'm not out there screaming for a return to corporal punishment, but I don’t worry about getting in trouble. I touch the kids all the time. You've got to. In some of the really tiny, crowded classrooms, you practically have to get freaky with someone just to walk down the rows, so it’s often unavoidable, besides it being an essential part of human communication, especially when there's a language barrier.

I try to make sure I’m never alone in a room with a kid, especially a young lady, but I touch the kids all the time. I place a hand on their shoulder as I lean over to check homework or answer a question. I shake hands, or, more often, participate in all kinds of no doubt gang-related hand-jive.

When the kids crowd me at my desk I’ll playfully shove them back. If somebody gets out of line I’ve been known to give a little smack to the back of the head. I’m often tempted to peg someone with a little chalk nub when they’re not paying attention, but usually refrain just because I’m trying to squelch the throwing meme altogether.

One move I haven’t used yet but look forward to trying is the “grab-the-brat-by-the-earlobe-and-pull-them-out-into-the-hall-for-a-lecture twist.” That shit is straight gangsta, but requires a real authoritarian air to pull off properly.

Maybe next year.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Why Are You Here?
Summertime and the living is slo-o-ow. That’s good for me, bad for the blog.

With no new stories to tell, I‘m gonna have to rely on the fickle powers of memory to keep things rolling. I’ve got a few stories in the pipeline, including maybe a “Day in the Life” series featuring the imagined (or not) doings of Pedro, Roulo, Popsoul, Christopher, Maria and the rest.

In the meantime I’ll hit you off with that amusing yet desperate ploy of many a burned out blogger; funny things people searched for that led to my site.

I get a ton of hits from aspiring little gangsters looking for “Crip” or “Latin King” beads. Interestingly the majority of these hits come from IP addresses in lily-white suburbs and even, gasp, Wall Street.

I can’t help you wankstas out with the beads, but maybe somebody here or here will be able to tell you something. Good luck!

Other up and coming gang-bangers are less interested in fashion than dance-floor smashing. For those of you looking for a “how to crip walk” tutorial, look no further.

Some folks who stumble my way are just plain confused.

As much as I’m sure he’d love to be included, Sasha Frere Jones is not “your nigga” and has never been a part of Dipset!

And I’m sorry to tell you, there’s nothing here for those interested in “sexual chewing gum.”

Finally, I had no idea when I wrote this, that I would be forever inundated with readers on the prowl for “young Russian guys in tight shirts.” Fuck out of here with that, this is a family site.

Friday, July 01, 2005

School's Out For Summer
The last few days of school are a big joke. The kids are gone. The tests are graded. The books returned. The bulletin boards down. All the crap boxed up. There is not shit to do. We’re supposed to put in six and a half hours—8 to 2:40—but even that is a struggle.

I straggle in late, praying the payroll-witch hasn’t pulled my time-card, sucking it up and marching in to get it when she has. I’ve done my best all year to butter her up, knowing situations such as this would arise, but even I can’t flirt with a middle-aged woman obese and bald with the temperament of a DMV worker. She’s like Patty and Selma crossed with Jabba the Hut.

I once tiptoed into the Payroll office to deal with some insurance paperwork I had filled out improperly (a cardinal sin,) to find the dragon breathing even more fire than usual, because her decrepit old PC was on the fritz. Seizing the opportunity to score some brownie-points, and utilizing my considerable technical savvy I identified the problem and promptly corrected it. (The machine had been unplugged, I plugged it back in).

Since then, I’ve been in her good-graces, such as they are. I still get yelled at, but she doesn’t actively try to prevent me from getting paid or getting the proper things filed or whatever. So this past week I straggled in late those last few days, stood there and took it while she lectured that “teacher-time is eight o’clock,” and then found some way to amuse myself until I deemed it safe to break out for home.

One day I came in over an hour late, turned around and went to the diner for pancakes and bacon, came back and did a crossword puzzle, then crept out two hours early.

The last day I came in around 9:00 and went down to the library (it’s been down-sized and relocated to the basement to make room for more attractively named mini-schools) to chill in the AC and read some Newsweek back-issues or something. Some teachers from the English department were down there playing Scrabble and arguing something fierce, and one guy had the TV out and was watching the “Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season 1” DVD. I joined him, and was so caught up in the Bob Odenkirk as ex-porn-star episode (“My life likes to say, ‘it’s the house that cum built’.”) that I was 20 minutes late to our 10:30 department meeting.

Not that I missed anything. We didn’t get our schedules for next year. No room assignments. We don’t even know what classes we’ll be teaching. This end-of-year meeting consisted entirely of our doddering old AP complaining about our office being moved to the basement (this does suck) and then blathering on a tangent about her phobia of mice, roaches, and, inexplicably, frogs. It’s as if she has no plan as to what she’s going to say in these meetings, but just gets up there and rambles, playing up this sweet, old abuela thing and bullshitting until she feels like she’s used up enough time for it to actually qualify as a meeting.

She actually had to be reminded to say anything about all the people that were leaving, including a couple of teachers who have taught at Shitty for over ten years, and two people that were retiring after over three decades on the job. When she did acknowledge their departures it was purely perfunctory. People were visibly hurt by the lack of recognition.

Then the meeting took a turn from the useless and disrespectful into the realm of the truly bizarre. Ms. Wayne, the uptight, overly proper disciplinarian who can’t seem to stop the kids from throwing spit-balls at her, and even had the nerve to complain about my angel-class after it was given to her, wanted to say something. She has volunteered to be excessed and will not be at Shitty again next year.

She said how much she enjoyed getting to know everyone, and how much she would miss us all. I guess sitting in the office filling out referral after referral and bitching about the children being animals (“This will not be tolerated!”) and how the school ought to be shut down was her way of cozying up and making friends. Who knew?

Her little speech was strange enough, but she then proceeded to serenade us with a goodbye song. With many flourishes of the hands, and in an operatic style and a key so high many of the notes were barely audible, she forced out a very long, very repetitive song, somewhere between an aria and a sea-shanty, about God blessing us in our futures and our roads being bright ahead.

It was perhaps the most awkward six minutes of my life. Everyone just sat there, crammed into the little student-desks in the bare-walled, stifling hot classroom, staring at the floor. Despite my embarrassment, I made the difficult decision to look up and watch Ms. Wayne, just because I thought this was not the kind of thing one experiences more than once in a lifetime.

I was wrong. As Ms. Wayne finished and nodded and grinned at our awkward applause Ms. Kuntstein stood up, motioned for silence, and clasped her hands in front of her disturbingly low-cut blouse.

“It’s been quite a while, but okay, okay, I’ll sing one too,” her nasally Bronx brogue was joyous and confident.

“This is a favorite tune of mine from the musical ‘Oliver’.”

What the fuck?

She did it up, Broadway-style, and it wasn’t half bad. Left-field as all Hell and still awkward, but decent.

These people are lunatics.

Summer vacation. So necessary.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

One Day You're Here...
I had a job interview last Thursday. It’s for a teaching gig at one of these mini-schools, an international high school with less than 200 kids and maybe a dozen teachers. Every one I met seemed really cool and enthusiastic and like the kind of people I could actually get a beer with and maybe even to whom I could confess my love for Lil Weavah (shawty).

It’s all super progressive and interesting; English is taught through the different subjects, and the kids are from all over Latin America, Asia, and Africa. To qualify the kids just have to test at a beginning level of English and have been in the country less than four years, but obviously only kids with motivated, involved parents bother to try.

Discipline is not a problem. Resources, while not on a Prep school bounteous abundance level, are not scarce. They have computers, big classrooms, and tons of books. There are no overseers form the Region trying set anybody up to fall. Inter-departmental backstabbing is non-existent. Morale is high. This place is thriving, not dieing.

It’s pretty much the exact opposite of Shitty High, so why am I so conflicted about whether or not I want the job?

I promised my kids I’d be back. I couldn’t help it. It breaks my heart how every decent teacher these kids ever have breaks the fuck out as soon as the getting is good. And you’re crazy if you think the kids aren’t fully aware of that trend. I’d love to see (and help) some of these little bastards grow the fuck up and actually manage to graduate. There’s always more kids, I know, but I’d definitely miss my people.

Moreover, I’m getting more and more comfortable with Shitty. I know most of the kids, and even if I don’t exactly command their utmost respect, the vast majority like me and treat me a whole lot better than they do some other teachers. Now that I’m (sort of) done with grad.school I’ll have time in the afternoons to start that chess team, get in on some flag football action, maybe even get together a street-art club.

Plus I can get away with murder. Shitty is so big and disorganized and inefficient that as long a student doesn’t leave my room bleeding, no one’s really going to hold me accountable for anything. I may not officially be supposed to, but nobody bothers to notice if I teach lessons that have nothing to do with the curriculum. Hell, as long as I keep things relatively quiet, no one really cares if I teach anything at all.

Finally, there’s a part of me that feels like the kids at the “good school” have already made it. They’ve got parents who give a shit. If I don’t work there somebody just as (probably more) qualified and dedicated than I will. They’re going to learn no matter what. They’re fine. Not that I’m single-handedly turning things around up at Shitty, but with a lot of my kids, if I don’t teach them something, nobody else will either.

What to do?

I haven’t even been offered the job yet, and if I am there’s a strong possibility Shitty’s principal won’t release me (despite the fact that Shitty is “phasing out” and we’ll all have to go somewhere soon,) so this could all be irrelevant anyway.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Your Tax Dollars At Work
I proctored a Living Environment Regents exam today.

The students were all Special Ed.

Six of the twenty kids scheduled to take the test showed up.

Of those one girl was an hour late and then left after twenty minutes to “go to her counselor,” because she didn’t feel good. She left her test on her desk and assured me she was coming back, but did not.

It was blazing hot in our dingy little room. We had a fan but I turned it off because it was so loud I could not be heard.

Heard, you ask?

These kids, though normal in appearance and speech, couldn’t read. At all. So I was instructed, curtly I might add, to read the entire test to them, all 75 questions. I did so. It took me well over two hours.

The kids were to sign their names in at least three different places and were supposed to write the answers to questions 1-38 (Parts A and B-1) on an answer sheet, then copy them over to a Scantron. In Pencil. The rest of the questions (Parts C and D) were to be done in pen. In the test booklet. This was extremely important.

It took at least twenty minutes to get everyone situated with a pen and pencil and all the testing materials.

It was all very confusing.

“Yo, Mista, why I gotta do it twice? Which part I use the pen? I already signed. I gotta sign again?”

Of the 75 questions I’d say I knew to answers to approximately a dozen. Maybe not the MCAT, but this shit was hard. The most confusing part was how it just jumped from subject to subject with no context for anything.

It also didn’t seem to have a lot to do with knowledge of the environment, or science at all, but simply tested whether or not you understood all the big biology words it threw at you.

When all the kids were done and the missing girl didn’t show up I returned the tests and the answer sheets, snuck out a side door of the basement, and came home.

Friday, June 17, 2005

For Ever Dog
I've still got a few more weeks to grind out until Summer vacation, but yesterday was the last day of school for my students. Many still have to come in and take Regents tests (don't worry, I gave them a crash course in all things smoked brisket,) and many will have to attend summer school, but for the most part we're done.

The last few days after Finals are Hell. It's hot, and the kids pretty much refuse to work once they've handed in those last tests. I worked up some Michael Jackson-based vocabulary lessons (germphobic, pedophile, surgically-altered freak, Quincy Jones, disco-classic, crotch, etc...) but mostly was just baby-sitting and trying to keep things relaxed in order to prevent any heat-induced riots.

The last day was cool, though. Not that many kids showed up, and everyone who did was in a great mood, including me. We just sat around and shot the shit, talked about our summer plans, and said our goodbyes. Lots of kids said wonderful things to me that made me feel all warm and fuzzy, even if they were just kissing ass.

Pedro from Harlem showed up for a minute but took off early, forgetting his pencil. I kept it as a souvenir.

Halla[sic] black to my nigga Cam'ron

To my nigga Juelz and Jim Jones

Dipset "Bitch" for ever dog

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Nerd Rap
Shitty HS sports squads have been ripping it up of late. I'd love to go into greater detail about this, but the details are so phenomenal that it would immediately send up red-flags all over the interinternet and set off a chain-reaction that would quickly expose my hidden secret-identity.

I went to a lot of the games, but when the girls recently had a big one down in Shaolin I couldn't go.

Mercedes, a student in my extra-class (the one where we studied the Common Sense tune, "I Used to Love H.E.R.") and a star-athlete, was giving me a hard time about not coming to her game.

"C'mon, Mista, you went to the boys' game. "

"I can't, Mercedes, I'm sorry. It's too far. Don't you have to take a boat to get there or something?"

"Damn, Mista, you grimey. They's a bunch of people goin'. We takin' a bus."

"I know, Mercedes, I know. No really, I've got something to do on Saturday. I'm busy. Believe me I'd like to go."

"You busy? Whatchu gotta do?"

It was at this point that I informed the class that wifey and I were throwing a little dinner party on Saturday night, and I'd need most of the day to prepare.

The kids had fun with this.

"A party? You throwin' a party?" They chuckled for a minute at the thought of me partying, and then a kid named Kelvin delivered this zinger, which set the whole class rolling in uncontrollable fits of gut-busting laughter...

"Yo, at Mr. Babylon's party they gonna be listening to... Common Sense!"

The thought of a bunch of twenty-something white-folks sitting around drinking and listening to Resurrection was apparently the funniest thing these kids had ever heard. I assume they imagined us all high-fiving and head-banging every time someone identified a literary element.

Poor Lonnie Rashied, if he only knew.

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