Thursday, October 21, 2004

My Kid Can Beat Up Your Honor Student
I attended my first Shitty High School sporting event yesterday. That’s terrible, right? Here I am complaining about this and that, and I don’t even bother to show up on Friday nights for the football games. Well, we don’t have a football team, so I’m off the hook there. We do have baseball and soccer and volleyball and basketball, though, and I think most of the teams are pretty decent. I’d imagine they get by more on talent than discipline and strategy, but that’s just a guess.

The thing is, I’d like to check out the games. I love sports, and as much as I bitch about all the little gangster bastards in my classes, I generally enjoy hanging out with and around the kids, especially when I’m not required to make them do things – such as read, or write, or not throw Jolly Ranchers at each other - that they’d rather not do.

Shitty doesn’t make it easy though. We have PA announcements every morning during 4th period. They are delivered by a comically peppy school aide and consist entirely of administrative banalities such as where to pick up Metrocards, or when to get your ID photo taken. This year there has been a huge push to “get those Lunch Applications in!” The Lunch Application is a form where the student’s parents write down how much or little money they make, and if it’s low enough their kid will qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Pretty much all of our kids qualify, but many don’t bother to return the form, because the school lunch (if they even have it scheduled, which, due to yet another scheduling boner, many don’t) sucks.

Shitty administration wants those forms returned though, because the more poor kids they can account for, the more money they get. This has led to what may be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.

“Get those Lunch Applications in! The deadline has been extended! And remember, all applications will be entered in a drawing where you could win great prizes like an autographed New York Jets football, a free picture phone, or… a trip for two to Hawaii!”

That’s right. The New York City School Board, which can’t manage to graduate even half of its students let alone teach them to read, is giving away an all-expense paid trip for two to Hawaii.

Naturally, all of my students have been instructed that if they win they are required to take one Mr. Babylon with them to Hawaii where they are to serve him Pina Colladas and fetch his towels while he lounges in a beach-side hammock. Their grade is dependent on it.

Anyway, the point is there’s never any mention of any of the sports teams on these announcements. Neither are there pep rallies, or posters, or signs, or a trophy case, or anything really to indicate to anyone that we even have such teams.

I decided to find out what the deal was and went looking for someone to ask. I started with Mr. Dinkins, who holds one of those ambiguous titles like Student Relations Advisor. This title entitles Mr. Dankins to his own office (windowless and a little dank, but an office just the same) and affords him the time to spend all day lounging around in there with a few seniors. He had no idea what was up with any of the teams.

My next stop was the PE department, which I managed to locate somewhere in the depths of the basement. Here I found a number of relaxed, rested, and amiable PE teachers spread out in a vast complex of offices and cubicles easily thirty times the size of that of the ESL/Foreign Language department. No-one knew much down there either. Soccer was in season, as was girl’s volleyball, but the coaches weren’t there right then, and they were the only ones that knew the schedules.

I found the soccer coach that afternoon, and though he wasn't overly enthusastic, he told me what I needed to know; there was a match after-school that very day.

The fields were not exactly World Cup quality. They were pock-marked and half-barren with large puddles in the corners and around both goals. The sidelines were visibly crooked. The day was cold and grey, and save for two squaking, squabbling sea-gulls and me, Shitty had no fans in attendance.

We were playing Bronx Science, and while not many, a few die-hard parents had made it out to cheer their little over-achievers on. This wasn’t Quiz Bowl, though, and it wasn’t meant to be.

Shitty is pretty good at soccer. The team is mostly made up of West African and black Honduran kids, including two of my former students, and they put a ball-control clinic on. Science got the ball over midfield maybe four times while I was there, and when they did it wasn’t for long. Shitty’s players, although they didn’t seem to be coached at all, were just too good. Every time Science got possession a Shitty defender or midfielder would take the ball away with a deft touch – often lobbing the ball softly over the opposing player’s head and then reaching it, making a move or two and just launching the ball into the Science goal box, where a Shitty striker would invariably get there first, do something fancy, and get off a shot on goal.

They couldn’t put one in the net, though, despite the domination.

The Science parents were pretty vocal, running up and down the sidelines following the play and yelling. “Come on Tommy! Control it!” “Alex get it out of there! Oh…” I found them pretty amusing and even wished Shitty had a little parental support, until they started getting bitchy.

“Come on! Ya kiddin’ me? He pushed off!” Blah Blah Blah. I was trying to ignore them when one of my former students, a very cool Honduran kid named Lambert, made a spectacular play. He saved a ball from going out of bounds by doing a full-on flip bicycle kick, got up, was passed the ball back, faked a dude out, and then banana’d the ball screaming down the sideline where it went a good twelve feet out of bounds before curving back in and dropping at the feet of a streaking Shitty striker.

“Oh! No Way! Dangerous play!” screamed a Science parent. “His foot was all the way up here!” he gestured to his chin.

“Yeah, his head was down here too.” I replied, gesturing at the ground. “Your boy got schooled. You’re just jealous.”

Dad kept his distance after that. I think he had assumed I was another Science fan, and didn’t know what to make of me.

When Shitty finally scored it was all I could do to keep from viciously heckling the Science players.

“NERD! NERD! NERD!” I wanted to scream. “Don’t you have some homework you should be doing? College applications to complete? NERD!”

I can’t wait for basketball season.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

A Love Poem
Teaching at Shitty is a frustrating endeavor. Dealing with an administration that views teachers as adversaries and is concerned only with numbers and saving their own asses is frustrating. Teaching classes where half the kids are bored to tears and the other half have no clue what’s going on no matter how many different ways you attempt to explain it to them is frustrating.

What’s really frustrating though, is getting punked by some 15 year old little aspiring gangster with a sculpted hairline wearing giant clown pants, a ridiculous pink t-shirt hanging down to his knees and matching pink Nikes on his strangely tiny little punk-ass feet. It happens all the time.

“Anthony, take your hat off, please.”

“Anthony. The hat.”

“Hey! Anthony! Take. The hat. Off.” This stern admonishment is accompanied by my bug-eyed and ultimately impotent “I’m gonna kick your fuckin’ ass” stare and a herky-jerk hand-gesture wherein, eyes still bugged, I point to my head and then down.

“Hat. Off.”

Anthony, of course, doesn’t want to take his fresh new fitted flat-brim off, and I can’t say that I blame him. The wearing of head-gear and ability to be educated don’t seem to be mutually exclusive. Perhaps, deep down, Anthony senses my ambivalence, and that is why he refuses to do as I ask. Perhaps he just enjoys pissing me off.

Once this power-struggle starts there’s no way it’s going to end well. I try to remain calm and mature, Anthony spouts whatever obnoxious, offensive, disrespectful, smack he can come up with (often en Espanol). If Anthony is an idiot and says something really weak – “Fuck you, Mr.” - for instance, I can come out looking okay.

“Huh? What’s that Anthony? I know you’re not talking to me?” Anthony, being unimaginative, fears he has crossed some sort of line and retreats.

“Nothing, Mr.”

"That’s what I thought,” I say, real tough-like. Often I’ll add on to this with some sort of condescending self-righteous bullshit, once I’m sure Anthony has been beat.

“That’s real smart, Anthony, cussing at me. You think I’m gonna help you out when you talk like that to me. You don’t wanna mess with me. Don’t play with me.”

Yeah boy! Unhhh!

Sometimes though, Anthony is not an idiot, and I get dragged into a little back and forth. This is where I come out looking bad. I can’t win. I’ve already lost the moment I start playing.

There’s a kid named Ignacio in my Level 3 class, the class where all the other kids are native New Yorkers, who speaks no English at all. He’s straight off the boat from the DR, and clearly in the wrong class. This scheduling problem should be resolved sometime around February, so for now I just have to deal with it.

Ignacio is a fucking nightmare. He never shuts up. He never sits down. He wanders around the room jabbering Spanish a mile a minute, smacking people in the head, throwing things across the room, slamming the window blinds, and smirking in my face as if he actually wants me to backhand him.

He was really getting to me on Friday, screwing with the blinds and flipping the lights off, then running away, screaming and giggling when I walked over to stop him. I tried the polite route. He didn’t understand. I tried Spanish.

“No espaneesh, no espaneesh!” he replied with palms up and an exaggerated shrug. The rest of the class thought that was really funny. So he’d pissed me off, and I responded by insulting him in English, sneering, speaking quickly and using big words, a tactic that allowed me to say whatever I wanted, and convey a feeling, if not a meaning.

“I feel sorry for you, really. I pity you. What’s it like to be a smarmy little punk kid who’s too immature and hyper to sit down for five minutes. It’s pathetic. I feel sorry for your mother. You’re not funny. You’re acting like an imbecile, you childish punk brat.”

It wasn’t my finest moment. It didn’t work either, so a few minutes later when Ignacio, who was now sitting in the back of the room singing dirty songs in an exaggerated falsetto, caught my attention again I decided to try a more subtle tactic.

I walked over and sat right next to him, but didn’t say a word. This seemed to freak Ignacio out and shut him up… for about 30 seconds. He then decided it would be a good idea to try out his extremely limited English on me. This is when I realized that Ignacio was not just a pain in the ass little punk kid, but a certifiable fucking genius.

“I love you, baby,” he said to me pleadingly. “I’m sorry, baby.”

As pissed off as I was, that was funny. The class went into hysterics.

“Oh shit! Maricon! Yo, nigga say he love Mr. Babylon!”

Recovering from my own fit of laughter, I kept trying to get Ignaicio - who, flush with success, continued to repeat his two golden phrases of English, "I love you, baby, I'm sorry, baby!" - to shut up.

“That’s good! That’s good!” I told him. “Write it down. Escríbame un poema del amor!”

Ignacio, he’s a genius remember, had a better idea. He began, spontaneously and dramatically, to recite aloud his love poetry to me.

My Spanish wasn’t good enough to know exactly what he was saying. I caught a little. “La luna, mi Corazon, Palpito para usted con el deseo de un llantén que se bombea.” Even without the other students rolling on the floor and howling with laughter, I knew I’d been played.

How do you respond to that? I did my best. I swooned. I recited a few couplets of poetry of my own. Ignacio was not to be derailed though. Dude was inspired, and my consternation was his muse.

I slinked away defeated to the shelter of offering my individual help to a quiet, illiterate girl in the front row.

“No, not when, went. W – E, no E… E, that’s I, good, W – E – N – T.”

Sunday, October 10, 2004

I wasn’t really scared when I saw Steven brain the kid in the hall. It was like being in a car-wreck, it happened so fast. As soon as I reacted, it was over. I wasn’t even scared when I saw the blood splattered on the floor, still in shock I guess, and I never saw the victim, so I didn’t really know the extent of the damage.

I might not even have reported what I saw, had there not been another fight in the hallway during my next class. Sticking my head out the door, to see what was up. I t wasn’t a big deal, and the school safety officers seemed to have it under control, so I flagged one down.

“Hey, uh, you know that fight that happened right here earlier this morning, before third period?

“Uh, yeah, uh, no… uh, what fight?”

“There was a fight here earlier, someone got jumped, there was blood everywhere… whatever. I saw it. I know the kid who did it. Didja catch anybody?”

“Uh, yeah, uh, no… uh, why don’tcha go upstairs to the security office and tell someone what you seen.”

So I did. I went up there after 5th period and found a cop. He was intrigued by my story, but didn’t know hat to do about it. He wrote down my and Steven’s names, and sent me on my way.

I had pretty much forgotten about all this when my next class was interrupted by a dumpy, balding-yet-mulleted, dean. (All older male teachers are dumpy and balding, this is not an encouraging sign.)

“Bob Babylon? Is Bob Babylon here?”

That’s me, of course. Problem was, my kids have been bugging me for a couple of weeks now trying to figure out my first name.

“Mister,” I would tell them. “First name Mister, last name Babylon.”

This mullet-head jackass just totally blew up my spot. It was rough. You’ve never been so embarrassed as an adult as when you have had thirty 16 year olds clowning on you all at once.

“Bob! Bo-o-o-o-o-ob! Mr. Bob! Bob Babylon! Ha hah ha ha ha hah!”

So I went upstairs again, and stepped into a war-room. The aftermaths of at least half-a-dozen violent incidents had coalesced at once, and the security office was in crisis mode. I was starting to get a little freaked out.

The place teemed with cops and kids. Radios crackled incessantly. Cops interrogated corn-rowed kids in every cubicle corner. Some one had been stabbed in the face, I overheard and then remembered seeing an ambulance out front that morning when I arrived. IA teacher had been assaulted, but she was okay. Two black kids who were either victims of some sort of violence or in some lesser trouble themselves, I couldn’t tell which, sat complaining to a Dean.

“This the worst school in New York. This like Rikers. You need get the Turtles up in here, they be having shit locked down.”

The Turtles, I assume are some kind of hardcore prison guards from Rikers.

“I think they’re busy guys, sorry,” the Dean replied with a sigh.

I was ushered back and forth between cops and Deans and school security, telling my story again and again.

I was shown and asked to identify a weapon, a yellow bandanna with a padlock tied to the end of it. I was asked if I would be willing to testify in court to what I saw.

“Uh, I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I know the kid, he’s always been very respectful with me…”

“He’s 17 and a half with zero credits. This is his fourth fight so far this year. He put the kid in the hospital.”

I agreed to do it if necessary, and I wrote up a written statement.

I saw Steven the next morning as I arrived for school. He was waiting in line for scanning looking quite dapper in a baby blue Jordan UNC throwback with matching hat and shoes.

I didn’t look up as I walked by. I don’t think he saw me. I caught sight of him again down in the basement later that day, lounging in a counselor’s office. He poked his head in my classroom a few minutes later, looked at me sideways, and left.

Now I’m scared.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Blood on the Floor
I’ve seen a few fights in my time at Shitty, but nothing that left anyone more seriously injured than a black eye or some bruised ribs. I’ve heard rumor of some pretty ill behavior, broken bottle stabbings, dudes getting jumped six-on-one, and then there was last year’s infamous hallway gang-rape (or gangbang/initiation, to be more accurate, since according to reports the female student involved was a willing participant.) Somehow, though, I’ve managed to avoid witnessing any of the real violence that certainly does occur in the halls and stairwells while I’m busy collecting worksheets and telling kids to take their hats off. Until last Friday.

Friday morning before my first class I was standing in the hallway outside my basement classroom waiting for the bell to the ring. I had gotten there early, as I try to do every day, in order to avoid the crush of students who come down through this particular hallway every morning before third period when they are let out the back of the auditorium.

Why are they in the auditorium, you ask. Perhaps these students are all members of a Shitty theater or chorus club? No, they’re just the 300-odd students who didn’t get through scanning on time for second period. They are told to arrive for school an hour early in order to go through the metal detectors, it’s worse than the airport. For some senseless reason all off these kids are sent down through the basement, through a narrow hallway and an even narrower door, and off to their various classes. This is bad enough but is made worse by the fact that there are classes in this hallway and students and teachers trying to come the other way through the door, causing a massive bottleneck where everyone is screaming and hollering and pushing and shuffling their feet forward inches at a time.

God forbid someone were to step on someone’s Jordans. It’s a fight waiting to happen, and one did. It wasn’t like that, though, spontaneous and heated. This was cold-blooded.

I heard it before I saw it, about 10 feet down the hall as the crowd of kids was filing by, a general commotion and a collective inhale of excitement. I craned my neck over the crowd, a good thirty-something kids packed in the close space between me and the fight, and I saw a former student of mine right there in the fray, leading the pack.

Steven is a tall, skinny, Dominican kid, he’s over 17 and speaks English pretty well, but I had him in a freshman Level 1 class because he’s never to come to class enough to pass. He’s quiet and respectful, and even kind of cute when he bothers to do some work. He’s half-blind but way too cool to wear glasses, so he pulls his desk up right in front of the board and leans forward, squinting hard, then licking his pencil tip and painstakingly copying down the Aim and the Do Now.

I could see Steven, head and shoulders above the crowd. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. In rapid-fire, highly professional, precision he swung something yellow at someone’s head, connecting every time.

I had just enough time to yell into a classroom for another teacher to call security before it was over. Steven and his boys scattered and the victim did too, I guess. I never saw him. I checked out the blood splattered on the hallway floor and then went ahead and taught my morning classes.

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