Monday, January 31, 2005

Down Here, Where We’re At
Shitty is a failing school. I don’t mean that in the “they schools ain’t teaching us what we need to know to survive” way. Nor do I mean that no matter what we do those darn test scores just won’t come up. That’s all true. Kids are disillusioned. Test scores are low. Graduation rates are worse, but to some degree that’s the case at all urban schools. That’s a bigger problem.

Shitty is failing in a much more tangible sense. The city wants to phase Shitty (and most other large high schools) out in favor of the romantic ideal (and Bill Gates billions) of mini-schools. In the mean time they keep sending all the kids none of these selective schools want our way while denying us the resources, space and support we need.

It’s a set-up. The sooner and more completely we fail, the easier it will be to kick us to the curb. What they think will happen to the thousands of kids currently attending, and the thousands more coming unwanted form the middle schools and over the counter from the DR, I don’t know. I’m not sure they do either.

That leaves me, struggling away in the classroom trying to tune out the chaos in the halls, trying to work without enough books (and no good ones,) having to let kids in my class (the tiny, fetid one in the basement) no matter how late and disruptive and stoned they are because security has bigger Gs to fry.

The Spring semester starts tomorrow, and I still don’t know what classes I’ll be teaching. Instead of preparing for the week or setting up a room (or helping out whatever overworked scheduling schlub can’t work a spreadsheet) I spent today doodling through a workshop about Accountable Talk, which is a useless euphemism for having decent, thought-provoking classroom discussions, something which I was already aware was a good thing.

On my way out of the building today there was a big, mangy New York City squirrel in the stairwell. It saw me and darted into the hall. I jumped, then followed excitedly with a big goofy grin on my face. A woman in an office squealed and I winked at her, then jumped again when the squirrel came out from behind a trash can. Another woman emerged from across the hall bug-eyed and arms akimbo.

The squirrel turned and ran back towards me, heading for the girls locker room. I stomped in his path sending him scrambling left, back into the stairwell and towards the nearest exit.

“What are ya doin’! Ya idiot!” screamed the bug-eyed woman in a nasty Bronx brogue. “You’re scarin’ him! Idiot!”

I politely explained that I was trying to help the little creature get back outside, told her to fuck off and kiss my fucking ass, and left on my merry way.

Anyway, all this is just to provide a little framework for my whiny rants about annoying kids. I’m not trying to complain all the time, just telling it like it is, and it hasn’t been good lately. Here’s hoping the Spring semester goes a little more smoothly.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen, Ricky Martin
I have a lot of students. I have a lot of students who get on my goddamn nerves. There is one kid, however, who somehow manages to rise above all others, to elevate the art of driving me crazy to heights heretofore unimaginable.

Jose Ramirez is one very peculiar guy, and I suppose that if he never opened his mouth I might find him somewhat amusing. He does, though, too often, and I do not.

Loyal readers may recognize Jose as the boy who shrieked like a woman from my last post, but that brief snippet revealed only one tiny facet of his infinitely infuriating being.

Jose is not like other children. He is 19 years old for one thing, by far the oldest kid in the class of mostly freshmen, although his mental age is closer to that of a 2 or 3 year old crack-smoking vervet.

He doesn’t dress like the other children either. No oversize red or pink t-shirts, no giant blue jeans adorned with patches, no big, black, Northface, no laser-stiched leather, no fitted cap, no Jordans, no Air Force 1s. Nope, Jose dresses like a Latin Pop star. He slicks his hair back, gooped in gel. He wears skin-tight black or green pants, covered in zippers and cut with a sort-of cup to accentuate the crotch. His shirts are skin-tight as well and always “distressed,” ripped, faded, or paint-splattered, in one way or another. He tops it all off with a big, ugly pair of bug-eyed Bono wrap-around shades.

His pop-star persona is completed by the fact that he fancies himself quite the singer. He’s always singing to himself, closing his eyes and emoting and really looking the part as the sound of cats being strangled pours from his throat. I had him last Spring, and he pestered me everyday for a month to let him sing in front of the class. When I finally acquiesced he stood up, cleared his throat, closed his eyes, snapped his fingers, and froze. He stood there in awkward silence for a good two minutes before leading the class in a tuneless yet riotous version of some Bachata classic.

Jose arrives three or four minutes late everyday.

“You’re late. Again. Every day, Jose. Why are you late everyday?” I glower at him when I open the door, blocking his way for a moment in a pathetic show of false power.

“I no late, Meester.” Jose invariably replies, in direct defiance of reality.

“You’re late. Why?”

“I go the gym, Meester.” While this is technically true, Jose does have gym before my class, and that is the reason why he’s late, it’s still not a valid excuse. The gym is not far away. Neither does the gym teacher keep students late. The problem apparently is that it takes Jose significantly more time than it ought to change clothes after gym. Perfecting the sleazy Latin pop star look is not a quick job.

Inevitably I let Jose in, and inevitably, as he stalks across the room to his desk, someone screams “Ricky Martin!” or “Aventura!,” and the class breaks out in hoots and catcalls. Sometimes if I am in a particularly good mood I will introduce Jose as such when I open the door for him.

“Ladies and Gentlemen… Enrique Iglesias!”

Once Jose arrives the real fun starts. When Jose is working he begins by pestering me for a good ten minutes, “Meester, I no understand,” before he’s even read the assignment or directions.

“Okay, Jose, okay. Read me the question.”


“Read, Jose, read. Leer.”

When Jose reads aloud in English what comes out is only a vague approximation of the correct sounds.

“What was the weather like outside yesterday?” becomes “Wha wa de weed li ousy jestadie.”

It took me a long time to realize that this is not because Jose can’t read, not in the way you would think at least. He’s struggling a little with English, sure, but the problem is that Jose can’t talk. He’s got marbles in his mouth, in English or Spanish. It’s not just a speech impediment though, I’m pretty sure Jose hears things the same garbled way he says them.

“No not jestadie, yes-ter-day. Yes-ter-day. Say it with me, Jose, you can do it. Yes-ter day,” I will cajole, seeing as how the whole y’s-don’t-sound-like-j’s-in-English thing ought to be something he can learn. Especially living in New York and rooting for the New York Yankees.

“Jestadie.” He says it the first time. He says it the second time. He says it the hundredth time. At some point I begin to suspect that Jose is fucking with me, then I look at his writing. A garbled, hastily scrawled, mess of error-ridden and barely incomprehensible chicken scratch, it is a surprisingly accurate representation of his speech. It’s as if the marbles in his mouth – and there are apparently some big old cat’s eyes in there - also clog his ears and even form some sort of barrier between his brain and the outside world.

Jose does fuck with me though, all the time, so it’s hard to tell where his developmental problems stop and his behavioral ones start. On test days he walks in (late) and feigns shock that there is a test going on.

“We hay tesh? No Meester, you no say we hay tesh!”

This is absurd. Of course I told him and the rest of the class that there would be a test. We spent the past three days reviewing for it. No matter, though, Jose persists in his denial for at least 15 minutes, refusing to begin his test and distracting me and everyone else while he does so. Again, I begin to wonder if maybe Jose really was somehow unaware that there would be a test.

Jose is at his worst when he wants something that I am unable or unwilling to give, say for instance the bathroom pass. He asks for the pass everyday. If I’m in a good mood and he’s completed all his work I will let him go. More often than not though, especially with his chronic tardiness, I tell Jose no.

Jose is always persistent. Sometimes he is straight up insane.

“Meester. I nee pash. Ahvul. Ahvul. You know what’s da?”

“Sit down Jose. Do your work. You don’t even have your notebook out. Where’s your notebook?!”

“Ahvul, Meester. Ahvul.” Jose then pulls out a small zip-lock baggy containing a few Advils, and I understand, sort of. Unsure if perhaps Jose does actually need to take his pain-relievers, I allow him to go to the bathroom during the five minute break between the first and second half of the double period.

He returns to class, sits down, begins unintelligibly singing to himself, and soon turns to me.

“Meester, I nee pash now. I go.”

I’ve been handling things well up to this point, taking everything in stride, but this immediately sends me over the edge.

My face turns red. My eyes bug out. Veins on my neck swell and quiver. Now I know he’s fucking with me. I stalk over to Jose, pick up his back pack, take his notebook out and slam it onto his desk, thinking maybe if I choked him I could convince all the other kids to testify that he had it coming.

Jose persists in asking for the bathroom pass, blabbering about being sick, and saying I lied to him. I rudely shush him every time he opens his mouth, and other than that ignore him as I go about trying to get the kids to understand that Martin Luther King isn’t just “for the blacks.”

Jose keeps yammering on about needing his Advil and eventually stands up, crosses the room, kneels down by the trashcan and begins to retch violently. It is a highly realistic performance. His shoulders convulse. He gags. He gulps. He emits the guttural sound of digestive demons.

I’m not buying it though. I’ve had enough, so I let Jose be as he retches and groans on the floor. At some point he stops, still seething with resentment towards me, and returns to his seat.

He approaches me again a few minutes before the end of class.

“Meester, I sing, you hay me sing da class. Is good.”

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Last Party
The semester ends this week. It’s already over for all practical purposes, since I’ve already given my Finals, and the kids aren’t about to do jack-shit after that.

“Meester, no work today!”

“Meester, watch the movie! Why no, Meester?”

“Meester, the party! Please, Meester!”

“Yeah, c’mon mistah. Can we have da Cookie Party? C’mon! Idongivafuck, nigga.”

I tell them no every time. I would tell them no even if I was planning on giving them a party, but, unfortunately, there will no more parties in Mr. Babylon’s class this semester. Not if I can help it.

I did allow a party before Christmas. I wasn’t feeling particularly festive, or generous, because the kids had been really getting under my skin for the past couple of weeks. I’m not sure that they were acting any worse than usual (although I’m sure their behavior and work ethic certainly hadn’t improved any,) but I wasn’t handling it well. Call it stress, burn-out, bloodlust, whatever, but situations that I’d normally laugh off or ignore had me raging on a daily basis the last couple of weeks before the break, and I don’t make a good asshole.

Don’t get me wrong, I can be mean, exceedingly so, but I can’t do it consistently, and it’s not effective at all with any but the most spineless of students. It makes things worse, I’m sure. They feed off my stress and enjoy getting a rise out of me, basking in the animal fever of their nascent power. Once I get pissed and the troublemakers start really fucking with me a mob mentality takes over, and everyone gets in on it. The regular kids turn into screaming, shrieking, jerks, and the good kids start chatting or sleeping or doing their math homework or something.

That was happening, in one form or another, pretty much everyday, but I let the kids have a party anyway, mostly because I didn’t have the energy to try to make them do something educational, and didn't feel like lesson-planning. I didn’t buy them any cookies, or candy, or bring in games or music or anything. I just gave them free-time, and they didn’t seem to mind.

Things started off just fine. Roulo and Colombia and Frankie weren’t there, and I naively assumed that they were cutting, it being the last day and all. Without those three, everything was nice and calm. All the girls were sitting in a circle in the back eating cookies and candy and chatting amiably about novellas and novios and whatnot.

I gladly took a cookie and sat down with Animal Boy and a few other guys who attempted to show me how to play with Yu-gi-oh cards. All was well. Everyone was pleasant and quiet and having quite a nice time, until about five minutes into the second half of the double period when the gangstas strolled in.

Roulo, Colombia, and Frankie did not, as one might expect of a tardy student, quietly sneak into the back hoping to escape the teacher’s notice. No, these three stroll up, kick the door – hard – and make a goddamn entrance.

Their smoked-out eyes lit up like kids at Christmas when they saw that everyone was just chilling.

“Oh shit, nigga! We have party today? Idongiveafuck!”

They danced across the room, clapping and shouting, and giving dap to all the other students who stared wide-eyed at their brazen antics. Roulo and Colombia sat down on top of a couple of desks and began to bang out a rather hot reggaeton beat along with which they began a well-received call-and-response chant.

Condon. Condon. Condon, condon, condon.

This was disconcerting not only because it was loud, but because I had no idea what was being chanted, and could only assume it was offensive.

As the rest of the class got more into it Roulo dropped the bass on the beat by kicking the side of my desk cum 808, which made quite a racket. The class went nuts. One boy began to shriek at the top of his lungs like a frightened woman. Everyone was hollering and banging and chanting along, and it actually sounded alright. Loud, but alright.

The teacher next door, unfortunately, did not agree. I was told to, “Stop the banging,“ and I suddenly realized that perhaps this little mini-riot I had going on in my classroom was not entirely appropriate, even if it was the last day before vacation, and homegirl might ought to relax a little bit.

I had no idea, but things were about to get much, much worse.

I yelled and waved my arms and clapped my hands and flipped the lights, vainly trying to get the kids’ attention and calm them down.

“Just please stop the banging,” I implored. Do whatever the Hell you want, just don’t get me in trouble. Aight, kid?

The banging died down briefly but was quickly resurrected, this time with a new, much more disturbing, twist.

Roulo and Colombia got the beat, an impressive hands-and-feet “Gasolina” interpolation, going again, then let the rest of the class hold it down while they stood up, and began to dance more than a little suggestively. They then began to play “paper, scissors, rock” with each other, only in thier twisted version, whenever someone lost, they would remove an item of clothing. That's right, “Strip Paper, Scissors, Rock.”

First they stripped the laser-stitched leather jackets, then the oversize t-shirts, and finally the last layer of decency, the wife-beaters, which were halfway off by the time I realized what was going on and got up and across the room and in their faces.

Nose to nose with Roulo, who had a crazed, ecstatic and very far-off look in his eyes, I poked my finger in his face and told him, “Put. The Shirt. On. Now!”

He pulled the wife beater back down, and I turned around to deal with the shrieking boy, who was at it again, this time even louder and higher-pitched than before. I lost it a little bit on shrieking boy. He doesn’t understand English, so I let fly with a little blue language right in his ear.

“Jose! What the fuck is your problem?! Shut the fuck up already. At least the other kids are making music. You’re just squealing like a stuck fucking pig.”

Shrieking Jose, wasn’t sure what I had said, but my intentions were clear, and he clammed up fast. My problems were just beginning though. While I had been hissing wildly un-teacherly things to Jose, Roulo and Colombia had again removed their shirts, climbed up on their desks and were now stoking the frenzied crowd by slowly removing their belts and letting their giant clown jeans fall to their knees in an elaborate strip-tease.

I was fucked. Livid, then panicked, and ultimately completely helpless. Beaten. In my first moment of rage I considered kicking the desks out from under my little gangsta Chippendales, but somewhere deep inside a voice of reason told me that would end with me in a courtroom. I went to pull one of them down, but didn’t want to grab either of these gyrating 16 year old kids by their boxer-shorts, and abandoned that plan as well.

I screamed. I yelled. I gesticulated wildly, to no avail. At some point during all this the next-door teacher came by again, looked around, looked at me like I was a steaming pile of shit, told me to shut my kids up, and walked away.

I have never been more relieved when a bell rang, or when a party ended, in my life.

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