Thursday, September 29, 2005
Signs I am slowly getting better at this teaching thing.
1) During distribution periods I managed to keep thirty-odd kids I’d never met before seated and relatively quiet for the entire forty-five minutes. If that isn’t amazing enough, the teacher next door—a wonderful Puerto Rican woman with this highly effective, sweet-yet-firm, motherly teaching style that I’ll never even begin to approach—walked over and mouthed “what the fuck?” (she’s cool like that) and pointed to all her charges streaming out the doors and raging down the hall.
3) However, Ms. Swiss--who last year never spoke to me at all except to offer, in a tone meant to reflect her infinite patience with my incompetence, that perhaps I should try to prevent my students from destroying her property in the classroom, and that maybe, just maybe, there were some children in my classes who were a little, err, wild—actually approached me the other day and expressed admiration for my “technique.”
“You seem to have the whole class engaged and trying to answer questions.”
This “technique,” of standing in front of the class and talking and cracking stupid jokes and asking questions is, apparently, highly unusual.
*With how many planchas did Pancha plancha? Go ahead, aks me.
**Famous last words, right?
Thursday, September 22, 2005
I’ve never cried at work. I’ve never even cried about work.
I don’t know why, considering I’ve been known to get all misty reading the last chapter of Friday Night Lights or watching pretty much any movie about a boy and his dog, but that’s just not how I deal with my workday stresses and emotional gut-punches.
I’ve had pregnant girls, jail-bound boys, kids with severe learning disabilities who might never read. It’s terrible and sad, but it’s never brought on the water-works.
I know a lot of female teachers (and I’m sure some men too) who’ve been known to break down in tears just from sheer exhaustion or frustration at the kids not listening. Me, I usually just come home and kick the dog.
I imagine that if I taught younger kids and they all came up and hugged me and said they loved me at the end of the year that might be a little tough, but the way high-school is set up with Regents testing and all that, there’s really no big goodbye, things just sort of peter out.
I lost it the other day though.
I had to cover a class of beginning ESL students. They were all sweet and cute mostly, but then a few minutes after the bell this kid named Jorge Valdez walked in escorted by a Dean. Jorge is, along with the raging asshole who kicked my trashcan last year, pretty much the most notorious jerk at Shitty high. I’ve never had him in my class, but I’ve seen and heard him screaming and spitting and hurling obscenities left and right, sometimes even in my doorway, his eyes ablaze with blunts and rage.
It’s not just that he’s loud and obnoxious and rude, though, the kid just has a real nastiness about him. He actually set a fire in a locker in a classroom in the middle of his 2nd period class some time last fall.
I was not thrilled to see him in my coverage. He came in yelling in rapid-fire Spanish and immediately refused to sit down. When I gave him his worksheet (the “lesson plan” kindly provided by the class’ regular teacher) he sneered and let it float to the floor.
He eventually settled in and spent most of the period chatting with another young punk. I made a half-hearted attempt to get them to work, but mostly just let them be and helped out the kids that were working.
As required for coverages, I passed out an attendance sheet for the kids to sign and give back to me. When the sheet was returned Jorge had failed to provide his 9-digit ID number. I asked him to fill it in.
“I no got ID.”
“You don’t have an ID? Why not?” I didn’t believe him.
“No got it. Puntapinchemariconependejo, blah, blah, blah…”
We went back and forth like that for a minute before Jorge looked me in the eye.
“Gimme three dollar, I get the ID.”
I’m pretty sure Jorge lives in a shelter. I know that for awhile last year he had been sleeping in a stairwell until some man took him in under what I can only assume were not the most wholesome of conditions. This all came to light last year sometime after he set the fire, so, hopefully, somebody got him into a shelter after that. I really don’t know. He still smells terrible.
“It costs three dollars to get an ID?” I hadn’t known that. I left unspoken the second half of the question, “and you don’t have three dollars?”
He nodded, and went back to screwing around with his friend, and I went back to helping the other kids with their worksheet.
When class ended I called Jorge over and told him if he wanted an ID I would take him right then and get one for him. He followed me up the stairs and through the halls in silence.
Near the metal-detectors I found the desk where the ID photos are taken and as quietly as possible told the school-aides sitting there that Jorge needed an ID but didn’t have the money.
“Oh yeah, right!” one of the women snorted. “Please. He doesn’t have three dollars!? Hah! I know this kid, he and his friend were in the office the other day cursing at the secretary. He’s playing games. Playing games.”
“Wha? I no have ID, I need…” Jorge blurted.
“He lives in a shelter,” I stepped in front and quietly interjected. “He’s not playing games.”
“Oh, we know these kids, it’s all a game to them…”
I stuck my three dollars in the woman’s face. I couldn’t listen to her shit. I'm sure she deals with some real ingrates on a daily basis, but she couldn’t stop power-tripping for thirty seconds to help out a homeless teenager, because he lacked manners?
Finally, one of them grudgingly took the money, handed Jorge a printout, and told him to come back the next day for the ID. I said thanks, none too friendly mind you, then patted Jorge on the shoulder and walked away.
Poor kid. I’d be a real dick too if my whole miserable life nobody had ever bothered to give a shit about me.
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
No longer marooned all alone out there in TV-land when it comes to my LOST obsession, I'm about to be LOST blogging along with Chris Lemon-Red and Jon Caraminica over at Flight815. Seriously check it out. Those guys are the real deal, I'm just an extra.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
No fun. Today I got sent to the Principal’s office where I endured an interminable lecture, choked back many a smirk, and was even put on the spot about what I thought the punishment should be.
Just like old times. Seriously, I might as well have been 14 all over again and sitting in front of Disciplinary Committee for tagging homophobic epithets (I ain’t proud, just saying…) all over the car of some poor dude who pissed me off.
The day started off routine enough; My 8:30 class are all nice kids, especially when they’re still half asleep, which is always. In fact the only annoying kid on the whole roster is a Vietnamese super-student who’s constantly correcting my spelling and reminding to collect the homework. He’s not even the most outstanding student I the class either. This cool, quiet, little Armenian girl consistently turns vocabulary homework into Dave Eggers’ quality perfect sentences. I finally thought I caught a mistake the other day when she had a comma where a period would have been better.
“Very good. Very good. Wow. These are great… Oh!” Secretly delighting, I crossed out the comma. “That should be a period, because this is its own sentence.”
“No, Mister, no that’s not a comma,” she replied as gently patient as she could be. “That is a, how do you say, half comma?”
She pointed above the comma to a little dot.
“Yes, Mister, a semi-colon.”
A fucking semi-colon. What is this, Stanford? I’m pretty sure she used it perfectly too, although, I must admit, I really have no idea.
After my morning class I was unceremoniously given a coverage of a beginning level ESL class, which, while screwing up my schedule for the day, went just fine. There was one obnoxious jerk in there who just about broke my heart*, but all the other kids were shy little cuties, and I had fun pantomiming and drawing and talking real slow and doing all the beginners’ stuff I never have to do anymore now that I’m teaching intermediate and upper levels and can actually carry on a conversation with my students.
My giant class got even bigger (it’s up to 41 kids now,) and that went the way it always goes; I got nothing accomplished, but kept order, barely, which is an accomplishment in itself. Actually, I did teach two new vocabulary words the big group of chatter-boxes. Ask any of those 41 Level 3 ESL students what “closet” and “sauna” mean, and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
It was my upper, transitional, level class of juniors and seniors that did me in.
There are a couple of dudes in this class that have big old chips on their shoulders, right above the glittery snowmen. They stroll in late, sit in the back, and refuse to do any work. One kid, Felix, is all arms and legs and goofy smiles. He’s remarkably good-natured about never shutting up or doing a goddamn thing I ask.
Then there’s his buddy Johan. He’s a lot quieter than Felix, but his vibe is straight animosity. Every time I look at the guy, let alone ask him to take out his notebook or remove his hat, he’s staring at me with cockeyed with his lips all twisted up in the ultimate version of a screwface.
It’s so exaggerated and obvious that he’s putting on a front that it doesn’t freak me out the way Gerrardo’s intense stare did, but it’s still not cool.
Anyway, at the beginning of class today I was doing my thing, checking homework and goading the class along into doing their “Do Now” while Felix and Johan did their things in the back, when the door opened and my AP walked in. She actually didn’t make it all the way in because the chord of the big industrial fan I poached from a science lab the other day was blocking her way, causing quite a commotion as she almost tripped and half the class screamed out in warning.
She made it in unscathed, followed closely by Principal Popeil.
“Oohhhh fuuccck, look at this corny-ass nigga!” Pedro exclaimed, and steam immediately began screaming from Popeil’s ears.
He launched into a lecture about who were the adults and who were the children, and in between breaths began barking orders at me to give him the students’ Delaney cards.
As I stammered to explain the fact that I don’t, ahem, actually use the Delaney cards, Popeil was set off anew by the fact that Johan and a couple of other guys in the back around Pedro were cracking up over some, apparently hilarious, thing.
Popeil was livid. As he ranted on and on, Johan let go with low, guttural, and completely heartfelt, “ma me cueva”(sp?) which sent Popeil on yet another diatribe about proper behavior and respect and “vulgarities” before he finally took his leave, leaving orders that the offending youth, including the peanut gallery, to see him before the end of the day or else.
See, I’ve been trying to be real patient with Jorhan and Felix. I explain the way things should be, remind them whenever they deviate from the program, and sit back and let them fuck up as long as they’re not disturbing the rest of us. The theory being yelling or getting all hot and bothered is exactly what they want, and writing a referral (in addition to being completely ineffective) is just going to piss them off.
My theory didn’t take into account Popeil walking into the middle of class completely unannounced.
I yelled at everybody for a minute, unsuccessfully tried to revive the aborted lesson, and before I knew it the bell rang. When class was over I gathered my stuff, fought back the urge to put a dent in a locker with my fist, stuck my chin out and marched up to Popeil’s office to try to explain that, actually, my classroom management is one thing I’m feeling pretty good about this year. To my surprise, Felix and Johan and their cronies were in his office, sitting on a couch getting talked at.
I inquired if I might join and spent the better part of the next hour sitting silently while Popeil went on and on with his lecture, which from what I could tell, was the major component of the kids’ punishment. The worst part was he kept trying to drop the street lingo, but was way off base, and even if he had it right, was so condescending I wanted to throw up in my mouth.
“I speak one way when I’m hanging out with my buddies on the stoop… I mean, I don’t use vulgarities but… I speak differently in public. Right? What’s up with that, dude?”
I was sufficiently chastened. By the end I’d have punched myself in the face to get the guy to shut up.
“Was that fun guys? Did you enjoy that? Good times?” I enquired of my students after pulling them aside when we finally made our exit.
“Yeah, me neither.”
As calmly and in a fashion as far from lecture as I could muster, I attempted to explain to the guys that I was not their enemy, that all I wanted was to teach them a little something so they could graduate and hopefully make some money or something. That when they came into class combative from day one, I wasn’t going to fight back, that they could win every daily battle, but would fail my class and be right back where they started in the end.
I’m not sure if my words were persuasive or if it was just so completely obvious that I had been as miserable sitting in the Principal’s office as they had, but it seemed to work. We shook hands and agreed to start over. Johan, who had dropped his screw face around about the time discussion of not graduating came up, even looked up from his Jordans and looked me in the eye as he apologized for his behavior.
We’ll see. We’ll see.
*More on that later.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Unfortunately or not for everyone involved, many of my favorite students from years past are not in my classes this semester.
I still see Roulo in the halls, and we exchange pounds, but that’s it. Same for Christopher and Tony. Elvis too.
Colombia, last I heard, is in jail, as is Frankie. There’s been no sign of P-Yayo so far. Perhaps the City finally opened up a Dipset themed mini-school.
I do have the pleasure of teaching the one and only Animal Boy, Pablo Pernil, who is as charmingly scruffy and goofy as ever. Even better, I have tiny little Popsoul aka Soulrock in my class, although he seems to be regressing slightly, now channeling way more Young Buck than Hugh Masekela. He now desires to be called Soul-G, and refers to his native land of Guinea as “G-U-nie.” He’s also in my big class of 37 kids, and he’s way more advanced than any of them, so as much as it hurts, I’m probably going to recommend that he be moved to a higher level.
Not to worry, though, I have a bunch of new candidates for most entertaining student status.
Another likable young fellow is Kevin Soto, a big, dark-skinned kid who’s very much a gangster. I had him in a class I took over halfway through the semester last spring and he showed up twice at the most, but he was always quiet and respectful, man enough not to have to prove anything in English class.
He seems to be trying to get it together this year, and has showed up every day and even did some homework. He’s all around a pleasure to have in class, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if one day he stood up, walked out of class, put on a pair of brass-knuckles, and donkey-punched somebody in the back of the head.
We were doing group-work today--reading, answering questions, then reporting on various Katrina survivor’s stories photo-copied form the pages of People magazine--and I spent the first part of class going over the jack-booted group-work procedures.
Everybody must participate and do their job. Listen to your classmates. Respect them and their ideas. Stay on task. No talk of girls. No talk of boys. No Yankees. No Daddy Yankee.
Things went just fine. Some of groups took a little longer than others answering the questions though, so I put off the presentations until tomorrow. Kevin’s group was finished and were chatting quietly in Spanish. Class was almost over and it was 9th period, time to go home, so I was letting it slide.
“Yo Mister, “Kevin called me over, a big grin on his face. “It’s happening, Mister. It’s happening.”
“Huh?” I was confused.
“It’s happening like you said, Mister. These girls talking about Daddy Yankee.”
Fernando Tejada is a stylish, cocky, kid. He’s not a jerk, he just has that swinging swagger and smirking confidence of any teenage boy who’s cooler and smarter than everyone else and knows it.
He was being a little difficult at first, clowning a little and showing off, but I figured out he was smart as soon as I looked at his program. I look at all the kids’ programs on the first day, ostensibly to make sure they’re in the right place, but really to kill a little time and figure out a little bit about what kind of student the kid is.
If he’s a junior and in Math 2 and Living Environment, he’s probably not the studious type. If she’s a native Spanish speaker and still in Spanish 1 or 2, she’s most likely illiterate.
Fernando is taking French, AP Physics, and AP Spanish.
“Hey Mister,” he asked me as class wound down this humid afternoon. “You like to teaching?”
Yeah, yeah I do. Most of the time.” I gave him the short, sunny, answer.
“But don’t you be mad when you talking and to talking and all the people they no listen?”
Uncanny. It’s like he’s inside my head.
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
After three mostly wasted days last week, the kids finally started showing up in significant numbers yesterday. Things are going just fine so far, considering, and there has been a notable lack of the usual first week gang violence. Maybe it’s the absence of new freshman this year, or maybe they’re just waiting until they’ve all turned in their all-important lunch-applications so they can get their Metrocards (which determine how much money Shitty gets per pupil and are now being used as blackmail.)
I spend my free-periods keeping up with grading (that won’t last) and un-stacking and unpacking boxes and boxes of books. My classes are pretty well behaved—a couple are great, like perfectly frightened little orphans—and we’ve been practicing our soul-killing procedures and having spirited, productive, discussions about Jabbor Gibson and Deamonte Love. Even my stifling hot, packed tighter than (and smelling like) a cross-town bus, class of 37 young learners is relatively calm, if chatty and understandably grumpy. We don’t get anything done, and it took me an entire period to get halfway around the room checking homework, but there has yet to be a riot.
In fact, if it weren’t for the physical conditions and a few notably difficult and disagreeable folks, my job would be dangerously close to tolerable.
There is the AP, of course, who, straight beastin’, has banned the infamous coffee-maker from our tiny new department digs. She doesn’t want her bosses coming by and seeing things in a clutter.
Principal Popeil is still around too, though we don’t see much of him down amongst the roaches in our out of the way little hole.
A more constant annoyance is Ms. Wayne. You remember Ms. Wayne? Ms. Wayne, who as a farewell gesture on the last day of school, in a moment so sublimely awkward it could have made David Brent blush, serenaded our entire department in an operatic style? She’s back.
She told everyone she was leaving, volunteered to be “excessed,” and then showed back up at the beginning of this year as if nothing had happened. I suspect it is an elaborate ruse to work as little as possible, and it seems to be working. She has nothing to do, no classes to teach, only to sit all day everyday in the department office snacking on Kraft Singles and bitching and moaning and complaining about every little thing while around her everyone else busily goes about their day.
If anything could be more awkward than sitting through Ms. Wayne’s horrendous musical performance, it is sitting in the office as she blathers on and on and no-one so much as grunts in response.
In the classroom so far--and we are, admittedly, barely out the gates--my consternation is much less than last year. Take the example of one rather large young man who scared the living shit out of me yesterday as I scribbled vocabulary words on the board.
His jaw was set, quivering slightly with the force of the tension with which he held it. He stared at me, unblinking, his narrow black eyes boring into me with such intensity I thought he might rip the top off of his desk right there and begin to savagely beat me over the head with it.
I was terrified. I moved to the left a few feet and his eyes followed me without missing a beat.
“Is there a problem, Gerrardo? Are you ok?”
He nodded, barely, never deviating from his stare of death.
I had no idea what was going on. It was the first day, I couldn’t imagine what I had done to anger this kid so much that he was ready to murder me right there in front of God and the rest of his transitional ESL class. Had I unknowingly committed some sort of grievous cultural taboo? Was he that offended by being asked to raise his hand as opposed to calling out?
I continued to teach, moving around the room, my eyes every so often darting over towards Gerrardo and quickly looking away upon confirmation that he was still glaring at me like I’d just pissed on his mother while wiping my ass with a Dominican flag.
By the end of class I was ready to dive out the window to escape the violent beat-down I was sure to suffer at the hands of this hateful kid, but managed, after I wrote the homework assignment on the board, to sneak one last look his way.
He was staring with that same concentrated intensity, the entirety of his will focused, only this time his angry laser-vision was boring a hole into the chalk-board as he painstakingly copied the assignment.
Gerrardo wasn’t mad at me, just real serious about paying attention in class.
There is one kid who really is a problem though, a tiny little punk in a glittery snowman tee who never shuts up, never stops stepping to me and popping his collar.
I'm firm with the little dopeboy. I'm patient. I give him a look when he mouths off, a little hand-gesture to sit when he's out of his seat. I show him the zeros he earns at the end of every class. I even pulled him outside and calmly explained how things are gonna be. So far, nothing works.
I’m trying to remain tough yet cool-headed, but it's kinda hard to be a hard-ass, when that little shit won't stop being an ass.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
Morale is at an all-time low at Shitty High. Two more mini-schools have been moved in, forcing massive relocations of all Shitty departments and requiring extensive construction work over the summer, work that is, of course, not quite done yet. The scaffolding is down, though, and the building façade has a fresh coat of paint, as do many of the new classrooms, which look great.
Too bad we don’t get to use them. We’re down in the basement, right by the supermarket, and on the same hall where I saw my student brain somebody with a padlock. Home sweet home.
Down there, amongst the peeling, tagged-up paint of the tiny classrooms with eight-foot ceilings and exposed piping and ductwork, the true nature of Shitty’s renovations is revealed; lipstick on a dieing pig. The stench of the pig’s rotting corpse is palpable on the breezes that waft through this forgotten corner of the basement’s too-small windows. Wait, no, that’s just the dumpster, right there outside the classrooms, surrounded by piles of broken desks, blocking out the sunlight, and reeking of fish.
We finally got our schedules and room assignments sometime yesterday afternoon--less than 24 hours before the first kids were to arrive, and after an interminable and hoaky speech from Principal Popeil about his immigrant, illiterate coal-mining grand-parents and his heartfelt love of education (no-one clapped, not even a 'Nolia clap)--so yesterday was spent scavenging these parking lot refuse piles for salvageable tables and file-cabinets. I made some pretty choice furniture scores, and even found a stash of about thirty brand-new graphing calculators which should be making their way onto Ebay any day now.
We don’t have a book room anymore, instead our books are packed up in cardboard boxes, forty pounds each, packed six deep and twelve high in a couple of out-of-the-way stairwells. I spent an hour or so yesterday grunting and sweating and tossing those boxes around, taking down one stack and re-stacking it somewhere else, ostensibly looking for the books I’ll be using, but really just getting out some frustration and making as much noise as possible, especially when Principal Popeil strolled by.
He didn’t look my way.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Yesterday was our first day back. The kids come in on Thursday, although most of them won’t show up until Monday. Why bother with a short week? Especially when their schedules will all be wrong for the first few weeks anyway.
We spent the morning eating complimentary mini-muffins and listening--once some interminable PowerPoint technical difficulties were resolved, and after an overwhelmingly self-congratulatory home movie (dramatically scored by the stirring anthems of late-period U2) about a group of principals’ trip to a conference--to a motivational speaker who affectionately referred to us, his audience, as his “high school buddies.” A few too many goofy puns later, and before another moving PowerPoint presentation, this an ode to the “Noble Teacher” and soundtracked by Bette Midler’s maudlin classic “Wind Beneath My Wings”*, our motivational speaker’s point became clear…
Good teacher’s establish procedures and stick to them. Procedures. Routines. Order. Fascism. It works. I’ve seen it happen. Kids, especially the wild-ass kids at Shitty, respond real well to routine. It works, but it’s not me. Assigned seats. Procedures for turning in papers. Procedures for how to raise your hand. Procedures for how to ask for the bathroom pass. I hated all that shit when I was in school, and I hate it now.
I like freedom. Creativity. Poetry. Music. Birds. Nature. Puppies. All that hippie-dippie crap. “No hats in the classroom.” Man, I don’t care if you’re barefoot as long as you’re curious or something. It's not that I want to be the "cool teacher" or something, that's just pathetic, but I really am at my core a disorganized slacker type dude. Shit, I haven't brushed my hair in years, not even for my own wedding.
It hasn’t worked for me so far though, my lackadaisical style. Kids wile out, I tell them to quit. Kids go bananas, I tell them to quit. Kids do whatever the Hell they want, I start screaming and yelling like the scary dad from an after-school special.
*At this point does anyone out there not know that they are Bette’s hero?.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Peep this article in today's New York Sun profiling yours truly and other NYC blogging teachers.
Back. Like what? Cooked crack? Nah, more like Sparks, two cans for $6; I’m there, and I’ll do the job, but I ain’t what the fiends are after.
I try, don’t get me wrong, and that’s more than a lot of folks. And I manage to develop a pretty good rapport with my kids. We like each other, and they generally trust me, which is something. I can’t control the little bastards though, and more than that, I’ve yet to really stir up any love of knowledge, any real curiosity in anybody. More and more, I think that’s what it takes to be a truly great teacher, and it takes a truly great teacher to do that.
Either you got it or you don’t.
I don’t think it should be that way, and I don’t think it has to be. If we put enough of that war money and resources in the schools I think we could make them competent and exciting enough that a regular dude, with a little hard work and some training, could succeed just fine. Right now though, us regular teachers, try as we might, either end up quitting or miserable, and that’s a fact you can see in the empty seats where my young colleagues have all disappeared, and in the weary eyes of those older folks who are sticking around complaining about the boss and counting the days until retirement.
I’m sticking with it; I’m a stubborn kind, but this summer has been one of wondering if I really have what it takes. These aren’t the heated, emotional, feelings of wanting to quit after a terrible week or on a particularly dreary Monday, these are the sober (well, not exactly) musings of one whose spent the better part of two months sitting around in his underwear listening to southern black folks rap about selling cocaine and waiting for the new season of LOST to premier.
And that’s the thing, that’s how I know I don’t have the magic. I care deeply about my kids and the plight of our nation and its youth in general, but when I’m not at school the last thing on my mind is curriculums or lesson plans or teachable moments. I’m too busy obsessing about college football, rocking out to the Caps and Jones Lemon-Red mix, or lately, working myself into a desperate rage over this hurricane and Mike Brown and Barbara “Marie Antoinette” Bush and the subsequent politics of abandonment Katrina has exposed in the worst possible way.
I’m passionate about a lot of things, including my students. I’m just not sure I’m passionate about teaching, not in the way the great ones are at least.