Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Mo' Murder
Got back from a very welcome February Break to learn that another student had been killed. Valentin Hernandez was a senior with a baseball scholarship to college. 3:00am after a party he had the shit kicked out of him by a crowd of guys and then was stabbed to death as he lay unconscious on the street. The story is he was on the wrong block (read: not in the right gang,) but it sounds more and more like the beating stemmed from an altercation over a girl at the party.

There weren’t any riots this time. But the walls were covered with tribute posters, many from young ladies who seem to be under the impression that they were Valentin’s one and only. Go Valentin.

Friday after-school in the teacher’s cafeteria at a monthly student open-mic poetry thing - normally a mix of bad, clichéd, cloyingly positive poetry and bad, clichéd, comically violent rap - all the talk was of Valentin.

Lots of cheesy poems were read, a couple of girls glared holes in each others foreheads, and the vibe was pretty heavy. “Legacy,” a mildly talented rapper who takes himself way too seriously and is always at the Open Mic despite the fact that he graduated at least 3 years ago, was even more melodramatic than he usually is. Dude ends nearly every performance on his knees, veins popping on his neck, staring plaintively towards heaven and wiping a mock tear from his eye. It’s pretty silly, but when spitting about his dead friend, to a room full of his dead friend’s friends, it worked.

The real highlight of the Open Mic wasn’t an ode to the dead though, just a good old fashioned celebration of the eternal bump n’ grind. Last performance of the afternoon two guys walked up to the mic, cleared their throats, and unleashed a quiet storm upon the room, busting out an a capella version of Usher’s “Nice and Slow,” a song I’d never given a second thought to before.

From the opening line, “It’s 7 o’ clock/ on the dot/ I’m in my drop-top/ cruisin’ the streets,” it was hypnotic. The guys were smooth. The crowd started swaying, girls were singing along (“...ain’t gotta rush,” “I-I wanna do something freaky to you,”) and the teacher’s cafeteria, with it’s industrial green paint and trashcans full of discarded, half-eaten Salisbury steaks and tater-tots, was transformed into the syrupy center of a monumentally deep groove. When the song ended the sound guy announced he had the beat, and they did it all over again, this time just holding the mics out and letting the crowd carry the jam. It was the kind of genuine, spine-chilling, spontaneous, shared musical experience you never actually have, and a more fitting tribute to Valentin, our slain Cassanova, I can’t imagine.

A few hours before it had been announced that yet another student, Phillip Prince, had been murdered at the train-station 5:30pm the evening before, shot point-blank in the chest with a shotgun for unknown reasons. Peter was Special Ed, always high, and never said a word, that anyone (any adult at least) ever heard. Nobody at school seemed to give much of a shit about his passing, but someone has been canvasing the neighborhood with a can of Rusto silver writing "RIP Phillip" on every available surface.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Beard Report
Three separate students have informed me that my beard makes me look like Osama bin Laden. It’s working!

So far so good. The new semester is going so much smoother than the last one. I haven’t had more than a minute or two of dead time at the end of class (a major problem for me last semester), and no-one has cussed at me, thrown anything at me, or evenly openly defied me. My stress level is approaching zero. It’s like the fucking Twilight Zone.

Starting from day one has made a difference, as has not having more than 22 kids in any one class (as opposed to over 40 at this time last semester), not to mention my experience from last semester. I think I learned a lot, but it was already too late to get control of classes that I’d already lost, which was pretty much all of them. There also don’t seem to be as many little punk-ass fuckhead bastards on my rolls. That helps.

Better still, I’m like a celebrity in the halls. All my old students greet me enthusiastically with much exchanging of hand-slaps, snaps, and pounds. Even an old nemesis like Melva greeted me fondly.

“How are you? Como estas?” I asked her.

“I am missing you, Mr. Babylon," she replied with genuine affection. What a sweetheart.

We’ll see how long this honeymoon lasts.

I’ve grown a beard for the new semester. I think it makes me look more authoritative.

Heartbreak Hotel
Regents week just ended. It’s a week full of “high-stakes” standardized testing, and a monumental waste of time. No lesson planning though, which is nice. I had to be there at 8:00 am every morning. That meant leaving the house by 7:00, but it wasn’t so bad, since I was supposed to be getting out early.

I proctored two tests, both for Special Ed kids. Monday was a Math RCT, a test apparently reserved for Special Ed seniors so I had a room full of 19 and 20 year olds, an envelope of test booklets, and a couple of boxes of calculators.

I was given absolutely zero instructions on how to administer this exam. When to start, what to say, what questions to answer, whether to let anyone go the bathroom. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone else though, so I didn’t let it bother me. I guess no-one in administration is too concerned with how these 7th year seniors do on their 2nd tier math exam. Their must not be any money tied up in it.

They were generally a sweet, quiet group of kids. I think the test totally freaked them out. Most of them seemed like your average ******* student, just unfortunately stuck in the dead-end of the sped track. A few were genuinely slow though. One kid kept asking me to read the word problems to him. I obliged him, though I was sure I was violating some kind of testing protocol.

Tuesday I was assigned to administer Day 2 of English Regents. This was apparently a much bigger deal, with all kinds of testing ID numbers, assigned seating, 3 forms of attendance etc… The funny thing was these kids seemed a lot less concerned with the test. Four or five straggled in well after the test had begun, and therefore missed my impassioned and precisely articulated reading of the directions. One kid, Elvis, came in late, went to sleep for an hour, the got up and left.

Hail to the King.

Saw an article in the “Blotter” section of the Post today. 6 kids were arrested for a racially motivated assault against a white girl at ******* High School last month. That’s the first I’d heard about that. (not to mention, I don't think I've ever seen a white girl around.) They don’t tell us shit around here.

Fire and amongst the Flames, Freaks
Finals were given (by requirement) last Thursday and Friday, and Regions testing is next week, leaving this week with nothing to for us to do and no motivation for the kids to do it. I signed up for the VCR on Thursday, but neglected to plan on what movie we would actually watch. Last minute, I borrowed a copy of “Amelie” from another teacher, and popped it in for the kids. The fact that this movie is in French and way too subtle and sophisticated for my class full of Spanish-speaking 15 year olds was not to deter me from not teaching jack-shit this week.

The kids didn’t seem to have any idea what was going on in the movie, but neither did they seem to mind much. Some slept, some talked amongst themselves, and some even laughed at bits of Jeunet’s wacky visual humor, this despite the fact that the fire alarm was (as it is want to do) screaming incessantly from the hall.

The alarm went on for a minute or two, and we all ignored it as usual, until AP Motto’s voice crackled over the intercom, instructing us to evacuate the building immediately.

“Let’s go, now. Vamanos, ajora.” I was calm but deadly serious. I don’t know where this voice of authority and steely resolve came from but it worked. The kids were up and heading for the door immediately. I don’t think they’ve ever responded to me with such obedience.

I shut the VCR off, thinking this was probably the last time I would see the thing, seeing as how the classroom door doesn’t lock.

We shuffled into the madding crowds and downstairs and outside into the 20 degree air where I suddenly remembered I had no jacket. There were no signs of fire, but fire engines began rolling up almost immediately as thousands of kids milled about on both sides of the street and frantic deans directed traffic around the crowds.

I stood across the street, a little away from the crowds and watched my kids interact sans supervision. It wasn’t much different than usual. I saw fellow teacher Sexual Yeti walking away towards a parking lot down the street, and wondered if maybe the old codger had finally had enough and was burning off for good. He sidled up to me a few minutes later, now clad in a purple fleece and a downright fruity purple and pink knit cap.

“This is a real wake-up call,” he informed, managing to be loud and overbearing even as he talked under his breath.

“Yeah, sure is… uhh, how’s that?” I asked, thinking he was talking about the danger of all the false fire alarms or something.

“Well, in this time – post 9-11 – of international or domestic terrorism or what have you, you can never be too prepared,” he replied, and I was immediately sorry I had asked.

Apparently he had grabbed the jacket and hat out of his van. He just happened to have them because he’s an avid skier and hiker. This was some sort of providence, and he was now convinced he needed to fill his car with canned food and kerosene (with which, by the way, one can heat a cabin for five years on a couple hundred dollars), for when the shit, inevitably, goes down.

He then told me of finding a hat in the school library. It had been there for a few days, he said, left by a student no doubt, so he grabbed it and wore it home. Then his head started to itch, despite the fact that he had inspected it for lice! The freak then generously offered to get me a hat and jacket out of his van/survivalist machine. I politely declined.

Anyway, after about 45 minutes we were allowed back in the building where my class and I sloppily reconvened to watch some more “Amelie” (the vcr, miraculously, was still there.) The fire alarm immediately began going off again, and, a little nervously, again we ignored it.

Motto kept coming over the intercom every 30 seconds or so pleading, desperation palpable in his voice, for all students to return to their classes, and for all teachers who were available to help herd the kids out of the halls. It soon became apparent why.

A low rumble from down the hall grew louder and louder, until it was a roaring tornado right outside the room. Dozens (hundreds?) of kids then appeared, running, screaming, fighting, and banging on everything in sight, including my classroom door, which, you remember, doesn’t lock. The riotous crowd would move off, down the hall or into the stairwell, and then it would roar back towards us. My kids were pressed up against the windows, watching, but even the crazy ones were too scared to actually open the doors.

Nothing happened, to us anyway. The rioting stopped, and the period eventually ended. It turns out that when everyone re-entered the building some students took advantage of not having to pass through the metal detectors and snuck in knives. Somehow, no-one was stabbed. The fire, by the way, was relatively small. Someone had set a bulletin board on fire. The plastics had made a lot of smoke. They arrested two kids for arson the next day. They were bragging about their mischeivous deed.


Return of the Phantom Pisser
During a particularly unruly 9th period the vague odor of urine began to creep into my classroom.

“Mister, Mister, pee-pee!” (This seems to be becoming a refrain) Melva screamed running towards the windows and clearly delighted with the chaos and genuine excuse to scream scatalogical vulgarities (not that she needs any such excuse.)

“Mister, they pee on the heater!” Robinson stood up and informed me, holding his hand at his crotch, swiveling his hips and pantomiming a peeing motion for clarification. I wasn't sure if he was referring to someone in partucular or a general miscreant behavior with which I should have been familiar.

Luis and Jose had their heads out the windows and were laughing maniacally. Scrunching up my nose and looking at these out-of-control students cock-eyed, I yelled and gestured for them all to sit down, as I made my way to the door to investigate. I opened the door and was blown back by what seemed to be a solid wall of hot, putrid, stench. I closed the door and jumped back, my reaction raising the kids chaos level another notch or two. I walked over by the windows and continued trying to teach as the room slowly filled with the thick nauseous gas of steamed urine.

Animals. They're fucking animals.

Talent Show
The Talent Show was postponed until after Christmas due, I think, to some sort of security concern. No-one tells me these sorts of things. So I sacrificed a Thursday evening and stuck around to see what Shitty had to offer in terms of song and dance. I paid my five bucks (ridiculously apportioned to serve under-funded schools in Honduras or someplace, this despite the fact that Shitty doesn’t have a single computer dedicated to student use…) and was escorted by an overly serious student to my seat, which happened to be partially broken and hanging at a crooked angle.

The show was slow to get started, but got off bangin’ with Shitty’s award winning cheerleaders, coached by the terrifying Ms. Jackson, AP of English. These ladies impressed, disciplined, funky and well-choreographed, rocking a nice-balance of traditional pyramids and tosses with “Set it Off” type dance moves. Then shit got crazy.

The next act began with the salsafied bump of a reggaeton beat and four girls sashaying out on stage wrapped in towels tied above their breasts and hanging only theoretically below their jiggling butts. The bass then dropped on the beat and the girls dropped their towels to reveal lacey, white, tube-tops and little red short-short-shorts (they were really short) with Dominican flags sown on the ample ass. The girls only had two moves – the rapid-fire bent-over booty-shake and the slow-mo booty isolation rotation – both of which were perfected to such degrees that the asses seemed to move independent of the rest of their bodies, which remained largely motionless.

The crowd went absolutely apeshit, screaming, climbing over their chairs, and pouring into the aisles in spontaneous dances of their own. The rest of the evening proceeded accordingly. Between numerous interminable delays and terrible rappers who flubbed their lines, every other act featured copious booty shaking and indiscriminate waving of Dominican flags. These displays of Dominican Pride were greeted, one and all, with straight up pandemonium.

The last act was an actual live Bachata band, which I actually wanted to see. But when the singer took the stage and shouted “Yo soy Domincano!” I thought a genuine riot was going to break out and slipped out the back before I could hear their music or get my head torn off.

Union News, Cont.
Maybe I'm just a pampered, naive, jackass, and will soon become numb to things like the murder of yet another 18 year old drug dealer. At that point I may sneer knowingly with great disdain at the sniveling liberals with their bleeding hearts and tie-dyed wool over their eyes. Until then this shit freaks me out and pisses me off.

Union News
Phatman, our cynically jovial, fat, shine-headed Union Rep. – he looks like a caricature of a hedonistic, inbred, Roman Emperor/Toxic avenger extra - released the latest installment of the “Shitty Advocate.” Pretty dry stuff as usual, aside from a bad pun about “penal dysfunction.”

This issue was all about school safety or the lack thereof, with the general focus being on a lack of meaningful negative consequences for misbehavior, which is valid I guess. Seems like the root of the problem might be a lack of positive consequences for positive behavior, though. One thing that rubbed me the wrong way was Phatman’s rather crass chastisement of the school or administration (not sure which) for “memorializing a dead drug dealer,” as if the fact that Lopez (Boquita) was a criminal somehow negates his humanity, or makes his death any less tragic. I guess Fatman’s point is that “celebrating” this outlaw life and death only legitimizes and romanticizes it, but again, symptom not problem.

The first snow of the year was a couple of weeks ago. It was a big one. Big floppy flakes upon big floppy flakes, piling up quickly and briefly transforming the Bronx into a winter wonderland. Many of my Level 1 kids had never seen snow before. They ran to the window and watched excitedly as I tried to teach, then nailed me with snowballs on my way to the train after school.

Somebody Got Murdered
A former Shitty Bronx High School student was shot and killed last week. 18 year old Jose Lopez aka Yo-Yay aka Boquita was shot 9 times at point blank range in the lobby of his building. It seems to be pretty widely accepted that Boquita was a drug dealer of at least some importance. Looks like he stepped on some toes. Who'd of thunk it?

Strangely, Mr. Dunn and I had recently taken note of the proliferation of “Yo Yay” tags around the halls. I’d even taken to jokingly accusing Lynn of being “Yo Yay.” As in, "Hey, Yo Yay, why don't you quit tagging up my classroom door with your wack-ass letter styles? You didn't even spell 'Domincano' right."

The kids pretty much lost it, running around crying, tagging everything with “RIP Boquita,” and hanging up posters all over the hall with sentiments like “Let’s get drunk” and “Smoke some weed, B.” Lopez’ brother is a D1 baller at a top 25 school. With “RIP Jose" scrawled on his shoes he hit 23 this weekend as school knocked off the #1 team in the nation. He ended the game with his hands on his knees sobbing.

Hot Streak
After a decent class 10th period, everyone working diligently, Angel being somewhat quiet, Lissette not whining too much, I looked the other way as Edgar and Angel began playing trashcan basketball the last 5 minutes of class. I even started tossing a few myself from my comfortable perch in my big wooden chair.

I noticed the guys had money down and went over to their side of the room. I missed a couple wide right, then had one literally go in and out. Lissette squealed with delight at my near miss.

I can do this, I thought, and anted up (it was only a dollar). I nailed my next 3 shots. Edgar and Angel both missed. I grabbed the pile of ones and strutted across the room to erase the board, dreaming of the Dollar Menu goodies my riches might obtain.

The fire of my prideful joy was quickly diminished when everyone I told of my victory reacted with horror.

"That's awful."

"That's unethical."

"That's illegal."

"You could be fired."

I tried to explain that I had money down as well as the kids, that it was a fair and just contest, and that, besides, it was only $1 each. To no avail.

I gave them their money back the next day. Edgar tried to refuse.

"Nah Mister, you won."

Edgar's allright. I made him take the dollar.

American Way
Had my Level 3s write paragraphs about where they will be in 10 years (use of the future tense). Edgar Garcia spent 10 or 15 minutes clowning around, coloring a necklace with a blue marker, before he got down to writing.

“What do you call the school after high school?” he asked. I waited for him to answer his own question, as he is wont to do.

“College, right?”

I nodded.

“You went to college?” he asked me.

I told him I had, and that I was, in fact, still taking classes.

“So how much do you make an hour if you go to college?”

“Well, it depends…” I start to explain, but Edgar cuts right to the point.

“How much do you make an hour?

I tell him I’m not sure, but would be glad to calculate for him. My $1060 every 2 weeks comes out to about $13/hr, of which I bashfully inform Edgar.

Twenty minutes late he turns in his paragraph:

“In ten years I will be a drug diler. I will sell the drugs more cheaper than everyone else so everyone will by from me.”

Smart kid. He's got this America shit pretty well figured.

The Mystery of the Phantom Pisser
Mrs. Robinns, school aide and office assistant extraordinaire, has been assigned to help me out in the second half of my 4th and 5th period double block. I guess things are somewhat calmer with her around, although she certainly doesn’t do any disciplining. She at least allows me to run around somewhat less like a headless chicken as she helps out her favorite girls and I can get to others.

This day was a day like many others, chaos bubbling up towards riot while every single girl in class asked to go the bathroom at least once. I was flustered and sick of it and began telling them all no. It was so chaotic in there (another failed attempt at groupwork) that I don’t even remember who asked to go to the bathroom when. I was spinning like a figure skater in there deflecting girls left and right with large sweeps of my arms and loud burst of “Sit down, no!”

The bell finally rang and the kids quickly pushed their disorderly way out, all save a small group of girls huddled up at the front of the room.

“Okay guys, lets go, hasta manana,” I urged eager to get out of there and to my lunch. They didn’t budge, though they did giggle awkwardly.

“Mister, Mister, Pee Pee!” Dainy finally managed to tell me, pointing and covering her face in embarrassment. She was pointing to a puddle on the floor.

I looked around. Mrs. Robinns was gone. There was a puddle of piss on the floor. I had no idea what to do. Only one thing was certain; one of my students was a goddamn James Bond caliber genius for managing to piss in the middle of class without either me or Mrs. Robinns noticing.

“Vamanos, vamanos,” I urged the group of girls as I simultaneously panicked and eyed them all suspiciously, looking for some tell-tale stain or guilty gleam to help me identify the pisser.

I closed the door behind me, found a janitor, told him, ahem, “Something was spilled in room #360.” And walked away without looking back.

Still in Excess
Seeing as how I’d been recruited (and spent all summer training) to teach in NYC, and all the papers were talking about school over-crowding, it seemed pretty fucking ridiculous that there were a bunch of teachers (enthusiastic or not) sitting around getting paid not to teach.

It was an inauspicious start.

Spent the first week and a half of the school-year as an “un-placed” Fellow, forced, along with about a dozen “excessed” (isn’t that what you do to a boil?) teachers, to report to a middle school in the Bronx where we were stuck in a library most of the day organizing boxes and boxes of books (part of Chancellor Klein’s literacy push), and receiving full-salary and benefits all the while.

My only other duty required me to stand in the sweltering student cafeteria as a sort of lunch sergeant, positioned in a sentry-like position. I was to make sure the kids sat at their assigned tables (separated by grade and gender) and keep them sitting there until their particular table was given clearance to dump their trays and head to the playground. This is a nearly impossible task. I tried to use this time to develop some sort of teacher-style “evil-eye” look – lips pursed, eyes bugged, one eyebrow raised menacingly - but it remained wholly ineffective, even when I could pull it off without giggling.

My filing colleagues, a motley group of under-qualified and/or disagreeable teachers whose Union cards made them nearly impossible to fire, were a disheartening mix of bitter and apathetic, pissed that they were having to scramble for new jobs, but not exactly chomping at the bit to start serving the youth. The most entertaining of the bunch, a big, gay, Hispanic art-teacher who spent the entire time meticulously cutting out bubble letters for various bulletin boards, was also the most literate.

"Oh God, The Catcher of the Rye,” he moaned, lisping and rolling his eyes and his Rs while misreading the title of the classic he had plucked from atop one of the many teetering piles of books cluttering up the table in front of him. “They made us read this at college. This book is boring…”

No-one else had ever heard of it.

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