Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Love Me Tender
If I had to describe my number one strength as a teacher, I would say it’s my ability to get along with the kids. It might also be my number one weakness—I’m often way too lenient and inconsistent with discipline and the enforcement of rules—but so it goes. I like the kids, even the little bastards that piss me off everyday usually manage to crack me up too, and are often the first to give me some dap in the hallway or on the way to and from the train.

In my two years teaching at Shitty, out of at least 300 different students that I have taught, I can think of only a couple that I couldn’t find a way to get along with. I have one such student now.

Elvis Sosa is a good-looking kid, or the girls think so at least. He has a handsome chocolate face, and big almond eyes with long, feminine, eyelashes and little gangster lines shaved into the eyebrows. His braids are always tight, and he’s always immaculately pimped out in the latest color-coordinated street gear and kicks. He’s thin but lean; cut.

I think he’s kind of funny looking, though. He’s short, and his head is way too big for his body. He moves awkwardly, stiff, as if he’s always doing the robot. He’s got a silly little Prince-ified pencil moustache, and, like so many of the budding young thugs I deal with, his feet are strangely tiny.

He started off innocuously enough. After completing his first writing assignment of the year, he immediately began badgering me to read it.

“Yo, Babylon, you read my paragraph?”

“Not yet, Elvis, I’ll read it tonight. Promise.”

“Read it. You gotta read it, Babylon,” Elvis had a very strange look on his face as he told me this, a sort of bemused, evil smirk.

“It’s funny, huh, Elvis? Allright, I can’t wait.”

“Yeah, it’s funny, Babylon, you better read it.”

I took this as a good sign. The kid was excited about his writing. When I did get around to reading his paragraph I was a little confused. It was basically just a string of mean-spirited, but not particularly funny insults directed towards my favorite sports teams. Oh well, I thought, so the kid's no comedian, at least he’s writing.

It was like that for most of the year. Elvis was pretty quiet in class, but every now and then would turn in a piece of writing wherein he robbed my house or stole my wife out from under me or both. Lots of kids incorporate me into their stories, and lots of kids make fun of me, and there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy ribbing, but with Elvis there was always something a little more sinister there.

Most kids would write that they came to my house, broke in, realized it was me, and then we all laughed and ate some pizza or played basketball. With Elvis he knew it was me the whole time, and then he stabbed me in the gut.

I tried to get him to tone things down, told him I was glad he was using his imagination, but I didn’t think it was funny. I don’t think I really got through.

“Yeah, OK, Babylon, just give me my credit. Ya heard?” He’d insist as his big melon head rotated and lead his little body back to his seat in the back of the class.

Sometime maybe halfway through the year he started growing bolder with me.

“Yo, Babylon. I did my work. You better give me my credit. Don’t give me no zero.”

I’m accustomed to kids badgering me for credit and pleading not to get zeros for the day, and I dealt with Elvis the same way I dealt with everyone else.

“Sorry, Elvis. You got a zero today. It’s good that you did the work, but that’s only half of your job. You were talking the whole time, and you got up and walked around the room, and then you threatened to punch Tony and called him a pussy-ass nigga.”

Elvis’ tone was always a little different than the other kids. He never begged or pleaded. He never whined. He just demanded. Combined with the bug-eyed, unsmiling look in his eye, it was almost a threat.

His jabs at me became verbal and not just written. He cracked me up once by grabbing a finger full of my copious arm-hair and suggesting I get it braided. At least that was actually kind of funny I thought. But he wouldn’t let it go. He began to make the same crack every day, and once again, though it sounded like a friendly barb, his demeanor was much more threatening than comedic.

I chalked it up to his poor comic delivery, but I wasn’t so sure.

Then, a couple of months ago, the kid began to straight up threaten me.

“Yo, Babylon, don’t be ridin’ the train #8 home. I see you up there, it’s on.”

Once again I didn’t take the kid seriously at first, but he kept up with it.

Initially I just laughed him off.

“Yeah, okay, Elvis. I ride the train everyday. I’ll be there.”

That didn’t work. Neither did explaining the inappropriateness of his comment.

He grew even more brazen in his threats and taunts. He began to get under my skin. I began to try to be at the station at the same time as him just so he wouldn’t think I was running scared.

“Yo, Babylon, I didn’t see you on the train yesterday. You scared?”

“I told you I take the Z on Wednesdays, Elvis. I’ll be there today.”

"Yo, Mr. Babylon, you scared of Elvis, right? That why you don’t be takin’ the train when he do?” other kids began to ask me.

I was determined not to back down to this punk, which I was sure was all he wanted, but as he kept it up day after day I began to wonder. This kid is weird. What if he does try something?

I was pretty sure he was just bluffing. The couple of times I did run into him at he train station I said hello and gave him a pound then walked to the quiet end of the platform just like I would with anyone else. He reciprocated, and didn't say or do anything, but wouldn’t stop with those threatening bugged-eyes and raised, sculpted, eyebrows.

The next day would be more of the same. “Yo Babylon, why you went to the end of the train yesterday? You scared right?”

The kid was really starting to piss me off, but the last thing I wanted was an actual confrontation with this little shit-talking ghetto-Napoleon. The little punk might just be crazy enough to stab me or something.

Finally last week I ran into Elvis on the stairs on the way up to the station.

“Babylon. What’s good?”

“Just going home Elvis.”

“Yo, Babylon. You gonna pass me this marking period?”

“I don’t know Elvis. It depends on how you do on the Final.”

“But I do all your work...”

It’s true. The crazy punk doesn’t read or write very well, but has a pretty good record as far as completing his assignments.

“You have been working hard. I know that. But you have a lot of zeros. You can’t keep talking smack to me in class. And you still probably have to pass the Final.”

“Yeah, okay, Babylon. I’m gonna pass that Final. Ya heard?”

“I hope so, Elvis, I hope so.”

After that, the threats stopped. I have no idea what happened. The next day someone made a crack about me being scared, and Elvis corrected them.

“Nah, we cool, me and Babylon ain’t got beef no more.”

I wasn’t really aware of any beef in the first place, other than the fact that Elvis wouldn’t stop poppin’ off at the mouth to me, but I was glad to hear that it was squashed. What the Hell happened? Did I handle the situation properly? I have no idea. As Frizzle would say, there’s no manual for situations like these. But I didn’t back down and I didn’t get stabbed, so I guess we’ll call this one a success.

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