Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Orange Explosion
Things in my end of the day double period are getting crazier and major. There are a few kids who cut class pretty much everyday during the first marking period who have started showing up. As an educator, I am supposed to be happy about this, but really they’re just a pain in my ass, and I wish they’d go away.

One of them is a kid named Michael, a seemingly intelligent young fellow who constantly talks in a Donald Duck voice, quacking out such comedic gems as, “Fuck you, bitch!” and “Suck my dick!” Say it in the voice. I’m not too proud to admit that it’s funny. It just pisses me off, though.

Another new attendee is the infamous Smokey, who I never saw again for quite some time after the “Pizza Chant” day the first week of school.

Smokey is by far the weirdest kid I’ve ever dealt with. Maybe he’s just really, really high all the time, but I think the kid has some other, deeper issues on top of that.

He didn’t come back to class all at once but via an elaborate and gradual process. He began by poking his head around corners as, per school regulations, I stood in the doorway before class ushering students in.

“Samuel!” I would holler a little half-heartedly. “Come to class.”

His head would quickly disappear.

Then he started strolling into class sometime halfway through the period.

“Samuel! What’s up man? Long time no see. Why doncha sit down and get to work, we’re on page 53.”

“Lemme get the pass to the bathroom. C’mon, Mista. Lemme go.”

Every time, I would, of course, decline this absurd request, and every time he would throw a little fit, call me a “racist nigga,” then pick up and leave. Good riddance.

I even pulled him aside for a man-to-man, told him he seemed like a smart kid, assured him he was on his way to failing 9th grade if he didn't start showing up and doing some work. He fidgeted and avoided eye-contact, grunted and pushed past me back in the room, soon to storm out again for greener pastures.

He finally stuck around for the whole class last Tuesday, to my chagrin. His erratic behavior and trouble-making began innocuously enough. I caught him eating an orange and tossing the peel all over the floor, and managed to snatch the offending fruit out of his unsuspecting hand. This was probably a bad move on my part, turning things into a challenge of quickness and secrecy, instead of just making the little punk throw his orange away.

As soon as I’d stashed the orange in my desk I turned around to see young Smokey with another one. Then another and another. He had at least a dozen stashed in the depths of his over-sized black coat. I confiscated five or six, he probably ate at least two others, and finally the orange supply was exhausted.

Smokey then asked to go the bathroom. This time, though, instead of storming out of the room when I refused him, he winked at me, told me I had “sexy eyes,” and started wandering around the room humping things and people. He then pulled out a wrinkled Newport which he kept going over to the window and pretending to light. This behavior caused quite a stir among his classmates, who had not, before, during the whole orange situation, been behaving exactly like angels.

I completely lost control of the class. At some point Smokey and Michael the foul-mouthed duck began to wrestle amongst the disheveled desks and scattered orange peels, grunting, grappling and contorting into all sorts of homo-erotic positions. This eventually lead to a series of body-slams and culminated in one of their flying bodies breaking the lock on another teacher’s filing cabinet in the back of the room.

Sometime during all this my AP and another teacher came by to borrow a table. Good times. No wonder they hide me in the basement most of the day.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Animal Boy
Wednesday was fun. Not that many kids showed up, and I didn’t even bother planning for my morning class. I gave them a little bit of work to begin with (“What are you thankful for? What are you NOT thankful for?”,) but once the second half of the double period rolled around I just sat down and started chatting with a couple of kids while I let everybody else do whatever. It was all very chill. No one was really abusing their freedom. In fact, it was quieter than most days when I’m actually trying to teach.

At some point I decided to stand up and facilitate a brief discussion of Thanksgiving, just to see if they knew what it was all about.

“Ok guys, what’s tomorrow?”

“No school!”


“Day turkey! Turkey day! You eat turkey, Meester?”

“Right, right. Thanksgiving. We eat turkey on Thanksgiving." I poked my spare tire out and rubbed my belly. "Pablo, what sound does a turkey make?”

Pablo Pernil is a funny kid. Skinny, scruffy, and snaggle-toothed, dude has an uncanny ability to imitate just about any sound you can imagine. He’s particularly enamored with bodily functions, but he’s got a real talent for animals as well.

“Wha?” he looked up, startled, as if I’d caught him doing something he shouldn’t have.

“Turkey, Pablo. Pabo. Gobble gobble, let’s hear it.”

The powers of onomatopoeia are insufficient to recreate the brilliance of Pablo’s turkey impression. The ethereal sound – perfectly capturing the chaotic, confused and frightened feeling that is essential to the turkey’s signature utterance- came from somewhere deep within his throat, as if more than one tongue was at work. It was poetry.

The class was impressed as well. I decided to see what Pablo could do.

“Cat! Gato, cat, c’mon!”





The kid could not be stumped. His Elephant was especially impressive.

On a particularly difficult one, "whale" for instance, he would grow very still and look at me with great seriousness, eyes wide and slightly puzzled. He would look up, searching for inspiration in some mystical place where the gods of mimicry keep hidden their greatest treasures. He would then look back at me and nod slightly, his eyes even wider than before, now filled with the affirmation of a shared profound truth, and a series of supernatural sounding underwater whistles, beeps, and pings would emerge forth from his crooked-toothed maw.

Do they offer college scholarships for things like this? Are they making a "Police Academy" sequel anytime soon? Kid could really go places. I’m already looking into getting him on Amateur Night at the Apollo.

Monday, November 22, 2004

There are two big beautiful red-tailed hawks that haunt the skies above Shitty High School. I have seen them twice circling high above Shitty’s scaffolded façade, graceful as the glide arcs across the cold grey Bronx skies. Once I watched one, as the other hunted high above, perched nobly atop a spotlight on a corner of Shitty’s roof. The subway rattled by, a car alarm cycled through its obnoxious chirps, squawks and wails. Some female students walked by. “Chikky chikky boom boom!” one of them inexplicably screamed. “Yo nigga, that bitch bout to get fucked up.” The hawk remained motionless, chest out, head high, one hundred feet and a mere world away from the anarchy on the streets and in the hallways, classrooms and stairwells below. I stood on the corner watching him, looking up, at peace. I could have stood there forever, but the bird eventually took off dropping a few feet and flapping his great wings a couple of times before launching up into the sky and over a roof out of sight, and I walked on into school to teach my afternoon classes.

Friday, November 19, 2004

My teaching is at its laziest during my 6th period “Inclusion” class. Inclusion means half the kids are Special Ed, and that there’s a Special Ed. teacher in the room with me to “team teach.” I signed up for this team teaching gig because it sounded like it would be less work than solo teaching, which it is, I guess, but it’s still a pain the ass.

It’s not the kids. Most of the Special Ed. kids are pretty much indistinguishable from everybody else, stuck on the short bus because their handwriting’s a little messy. Some of them are kind of a pain in the ass because they’re smart enough to have learned that no-one expects much out of them, so they don’t see a problem with not even pretending to ever do any work. A few of the kids are genuinely weird, cross-eyed and clingy, and prone to emotional outbursts, but none of them would qualify for Tard Blog or anything. I imagine that if you just flipped everything and put all the Special Ed. kids in Regular classes and vice versa that you'd end up with about the same number of Special Ed kids who should be taking Regular classes and Regular kids who need to be in Special Ed.

My teaching partner is another story though. He’s an older guy from India, and nice enough, but his teaching technique is ridiculously ineffective. He comes in, writes ten or twenty questions on the board, and expects the kids to get to copying. After a few minutes he begins to tell the kids the answers. He never engages discussion. He never explains anything. Nothing. Often, if one of the Special Ed. kids is acting up, he’ll admonish them to shape up or else the “regular kids will think you are stupid.” I end up doing all the extra explaining, encouraging, and whatnot that you needs to be done with learning disabled kids.

Despite my teaching partner’s poor technique and cold-hearted insensitivity, I let him teach about teach about half the time, because that means I don’t have to. Even when I do teach in there we just stick to the book (the one with the “Pizza Chant,” natch) and it’s really boring and way too easy for most of the kids.

Every now and then I’ll get fed up with the book and throw something else in the mix, mostly for my own entertainment. That’s what happened the other day when I got sick of the book’s insipid blatherings about “miscommunication,” and decided to have the kids write poems about a miscommunication for homework.

True to form, most of the kids misunderstood the assignment and wrote poems about Love or the Yankees or something, none of which were particularly compelling. One poem did catch my eye though.

Raymond Arianno is a smart kid. He sits in class looking miserable, completes all his work with near 100% accuracy in about a third of the time it takes anyone else, and never says a word to anybody. He was in my Level 1 class last Spring, so someone was able to skip him to Level 3 this year, which is something, but he’s still a long ways from being pushed towards greatness. His poem was short and simple. It lacked rhyme, arty imagery, witty turns of phrase, and any discernable syllabic structure, but it made an impression none-the-less.

“I Like Food”

When I come home from school
and no food is there and no persons are home
I am very angry
I like food but I hate when I have hungry
Then I go to the store if I have some money

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this as I sat correcting papers at he Greek Diner down the street from Shitty. Was this kid starving? Should I call Social Services? Should I bring him what was left of my cheeseburger? Maybe his parents were just too busy to always buy groceries. I remember days like that. It didn’t seem likely though.

I didn’t know what to do, so I wrote this, “Wow. Great poem Raymond! Very powerful words. Maybe you should talk to someone about how you feel.”

There. If the kid wanted to tell me something he now had a (somewhat ambiguous) invitation, and otherwise I could just keep an eye on him to see if he started dropping weight, feinting in class, or staring at me as if I was a roasted chicken or something.

I returned the papers the next day, and Ray called me over to his desk a few minutes after I had done so.

“Meester,” he said softly. “I use imagination. It’s not true.”

He gave me a look that seemed to say, “What are you, stupid? You think if I was being neglected I’d tell you about it in a half-assed poem I wrote for my ESL class?”

I didn’t buy it.

“Yeah sure, imagination,” I stretched out the last word, mocking his accent as I did so, eee-mag-i-na-sheee-on. “Yeah, and my friend has this problem with erectile dysfunction. Uh huh. Right. So if I waved a Snickers bar in your face right now, you’re telling me you wouldn’t jump for it? Mentiroso.”

No, actually I believed the kid, I think. We’ll see.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Just Stop Doggin' Me Around
I don’t enjoy being observed while I teach. No one does really, even the veterans who’ve got things under control, but it’s worse for me I think, because I’m not just young and inexperienced, I’m a complete fraud.

I try, really I do, but no matter what there’s always some kid banging out a beat on his desk, or standing by the window tying the blinds cords into an elaborate knot, or throwing balled up paper at someone else, or drawing a penis on the chalkboard, or just generally not shutting up.

That stuff is a constant. The only variables are my behavior and how many and the degree to which the kids are wilding out. My reactions depend as much on my mood as what the kids are actually doing. On the rare occasions when I’m feeling mellow I let things slide and help out those students that are actually working. If I happen to be in a really good mood I’ve been known to do things entirely inappropriate for a teacher like throwing things (pencils, paper airplanes) back at the kids, or looking the other way while a spirited game of Yu-gi-oh gets going.

I’ve actually created quite a buzz among the student body by periodically busting out a poorly executed Michael Jackson spin-move. I wait until only a couple of kids are paying attention to me, then rock it by quickly swinging my right lower-leg back and forth in front of my left, placing the right toe as far behind my left foot as I can reach, spinning on it, then leaning forward, knees bent and pressed together, and letting out a little “hoo!” After a particularly well-executed spin it takes all the restraint and willpower I can muster not to grab my crotch.

It happens fast and only a couple of kids actually see the whole thing. A few others catch it out of the corner of their eye, and the buzz begins to rumble.

“Do it again! Do it again!” the girls squeal.

“Meester, you dancing?”

At this point I look around incredulously.

“Who? Me?” I feign confusion. “Dance? Huh? What?”

Because so few actually saw me, and the reports from those that did are by nature hyperbolic and vague, many of the students become convinced that while they weren’t looking I did something spectacular. I figure a few more strategically timed spins and my legend will spread throughout the Shitty campus.

Usually, though, I’m in no mood for dancing. Usually I’m agitated, sometimes mildly, sometimes to the brink of violence. Alternately, you may find me screaming, tapping my foot impatiently, sighing heavily, slamming a book on my desk for dramatic effect, and, at my worst, kicking a desk or a locker when all I can see is red and I’m overwhelmed by the desire to choke the life out of some insolent little punk kid.

At some point, at least a couple of times a week, usually once or more a day, my agitation and frustration reach a point where I look around the room, realize that for the past ten minutes I have been screaming and clapping my hands and whistling and flipping the lights on and off and whatever else I’ve tried in order to get the kids attention, and it hasn’t worked at all. At these moments I come to, awakened from a teacherly/disciplinarian daze, and realize that I’m yelling at 30 people and perhaps two of them are even bothering to look at me sideways.

When this happens I stop talking (or yelling or clapping or whatever) and go sit down. Sometimes I stare with great malice at a particular student who happens to be getting on my nerves the most. Sometimes I just rub my eyes and feel very old and impotent. On a “good” day, a few students will notice that I have given up on jabbering questions or instructions at them and will begin to repeatedly yell very loudly for everyone else to shut up.

I appreciate their concern, but it doesn’t help. It only increases the overall volume of the room, because now everyone else has to yell even louder to be heard over the yells of, “Cono! Caia se boca!” Typically an argument breaks out between the students yelling shut up and those who refuse to do so. Often a bold young man or woman will stand up and approach the front of the room to imitate me.

“Si’down. I say be quiet. Take out you no’book. You want referral?”

This goes over big with the class, and even I’ve been known to thaw a little and chuckle at my own expense. It, or any of the other things that typically go on, does not go over as big with administrators or other teachers, who always seem to be shuffling into my room to put something in a file-cabinet or retrieve a stack of papers.

It’s pretty easy to lose track of reality while locked in a room with 30 wild-ass teenagers. Having another adult walk in the room to witness the various strategies I employ to handle things, and their varying degrees of failure, allows one to look at things through someone else’s eyes, and to realize just how ridiculous I must look.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Cookie Party
My morning double period Level 2 class is my best of the day. They talk, they sing, they eat candy and chew gum, there was once something very close to a sexual act in the front row, but by and large we get something done everyday, and things never descend into total chaos. I judge this as significant progress for me, because there are a few pretty crazy kids in there, and I think that last year they would have run all over me the way my afternoon class does now.

There are a good half dozen kids in there that are real trouble. Maria Maldonado is 18, she’s drop-dead gorgeous, and she behaves like an absolute idiot. She shows up 20 minutes late every day. When she arrives there is usually a smattering of applause and a few spontaneous rhythms beaten out on desks. “Boriqua, Morena, Dominicana…” She sashays over to my desk and sits down right next to it, where I have placed her so she’ll chill out and act right. It works a little. Still, she talks constantly. At least once a day she stands up, leans over, puts her hands together on her desk and gyrates her big round ass like she’s at Magic City and not in the basement of Shitty High School. It is somewhat difficult to maintain the flow of my lesson while this is going on, but it is an improvement over her behavior last year.

Another girl in this class is by far the single most obnoxious person I’ve ever come across. Frankie is loud, shrill, mean-spirited, and absolutely shameless. When she’s not screaming, sneering and cussing in class she can often be found on the corner by the train station – screaming, sneering, cussing and fighting with any girl unlucky enough to cross her path. Frustratingly for me, her English teacher, Frankie Garcia refuses to ever speak English, preferring to jabber Spanish at a ridiculously fast pace and then look astounded when I don’t understand. Apparently she thinks that since I have learned to say “sit down,” “shut up,” and “listen to me now,” I am somehow fluent. She is wrong.

Frankie has developed some sort of rash on her nascent little round beer belly. She may have tried to tell me this, I wouldn’t know, but I couldn’t help but notice when she walked to the front of the room, unbuttoned her jeans, lifted her shirt and exposed an oozing map of Hawaii sprayed across her spare tire. I promptly wrote her a pass to the nurse’s office.

I’m not sure what the nurse did for Frankie and her rash, but ever since then she has brought with her to class a bar of Secret brand antiperspirant (“strong enough for a man…”) with which, at some point during class she will stand up, let loose her stomach, and rub the rash, all the while cackling, brandishing the deodorant over her head and screaming, “Victoria Secret! Victoria Secret!” There is no rational explanation for this.

Maria and Frankie fraternize, through gyrations, gropings, and general flirtation with a couple of gangsterish boys. Baby-faced and light-skinned with a long black pony-tail and dark mischievous eyes, Carlos reminds me a little bit of Bugs Bunny. He’s a sharp kid. He’s Colombian (hence his nickname “Colo” which one can find scrawled all over Shitty’s walls and desks and stairwells – dude gets up) but was born here and speakie de English just fine. He reads ok as well, but the poor kid can’t spell a damn thing. This is his second semester in my Level 2 class, and I am in the process of convincing him to show up to class (and stay awake) often enough to pass. So far so good, mostly. Colo seems to be smitten with Maria (who, thankfully, doesn’t show up that often) and went out of his way the other day to inform me, “Mista, hey Teacha, Maria nipples is hard! Look! Look!”

Colo’s buddy Roulo isn’t quite as handsome (he once spent an entire period with his head buried in his arms hiding a massive zit on his nose) but he’s pretty damn funny. He’s been in New York a year or two and his English isn’t very good, but what he lacks in finish he more than makes up for with enthusiasm, creativity and the hottest street slang. He usually manages to get his ideas across.

“Yo nigga. Whaspoppin'?”

“Are you talking to me Roulo? I’m really not comfortable with that word, especially not when in reference to me.”

“Wha'appen, nigga?”

“Roulo. Don’t call me that.”

“Oh, I sorry, Meester.”

This foursome, Maria, Franki, Carlos, and Roulo, tend to dominate class, but there are a bunch of other talkative little punks and punkettes in there, and all of them are constantly asking me for a bathroom pass, so they can go down the hall and buy some cookies.

Shitty has a “supermarket” in the basement, you see, right by my class room. Here students can purchase such necessities as Tupperware, tampons, bleach, ramen noodles, and the only item they seem to really move; fresh, hot, Otis Spunkmeyer cookies.

The intoxicating aroma of these buttery oven-baked goodies permeates the basement throughout the morning, and the kids (many of whom don’t even have lunch on their schedule) are understandably distracted. I looked the other way at first when they would eat them in class, but the cookies got really out of hand. Money and chocolate chips would fly back and forth across the room, and much more attention was being paid to who was or wasn’t giving who a macadamia nut than whatever it was I was trying to teach. The class would end, and the students would scatter, leaving the room strewn with wax paper wrappers and half-eaten, stomped-upon cookies, so I put the kibosh down and banned cookies.

This has mostly worked, but hasn’t stopped the kids obsession, and they have a new mantra led by the lead little gangster Carlos.

“C’mon Mista, when we gonna have cookie party?”

“Yeah, nigga, cookieparty! Cookieparty today!”

I fended them off for a few weeks and finally acquiesced last Friday, as it was Halloween, and only a half-day anyway.

I bribed them into doing some work, “no Do Now, no cookie party,” and then peeled off a stack of ones and sent a trustworthy little Mexican girl down the hall to buy the cookies.

Everyone had a grand old time. Maria did a pole dance against the radiator. Frankie screamed and stomped and rubbed deodorant on her belly. Carlos and Roulo taught me some gang signs, showed me how to differentiate Latin King beads from Crip beads, and led a spirited Crip-walk dance across the front of the room as Carlos rapped the words to Snoop’s latest, “I keep a blue flag hanging out my backside/ but only on the left side, yeah that's the Crip side.”

On the way out Carlos came up to me and said with great earnest, “Hey Mista, you know wha' we needs, what really set dis cookie party off?”

“What’s that man?” I was almost afraid to ask.

“Some milk, yo. I be like dippin’ 'em in there. Some milk for da cookies.”

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