Friday, June 09, 2006

A First
Three years at shitty High School and I’ve never had a fight in my class. Never taught an illiterate kid to read either, but we’ll take our victories where we can. It’s not the kind of accomplishment I can put on my resume, but it’s something. It’s been close at times, but somehow I’ve always managed to shout or stare an aggressor down, to step in between potential combatants, or to slam the door in the face of interlopers on the prowl for a box. Three years.

I had a coverage the other day. No sweat. Once terrifying, coverages aren’t much problem for me these days. I’ve been around long enough that I usually know at least a couple of the kids in every class. Come in, pass out some busy work, catch up with an old student or two, and let the kids chat quietly until the bell rings. It’s an easy extra thirty bucks, and usually the worst thing that happens is a couple of would-be bad-asses try to leave the room without a pass.

This was a third period coverage, which is usually a good thing. It’s early enough in the morning that everybody’s tired and relatively calm and nobody’s too hungry and ornery. It was an English class, and a couple of the girls were actually current students of mine in an upper level ESL class. Business as usual.

Visitors from the Regional office were in the building that day, assessing Shitty’s status as an “Impact” school, the designation a scarlet letter indicating, among other things, that the place is dangerous enough to require the presence of extra armed police officers.

It’s always a ridiculous scene when these suits from on high visit, with all the school-aides scrambling to push all the clutter under rugs and pretty up long neglected bulletin boards and walls with lame inspirational posters of kittens and race-horses and sailboats or whatever, administrators hounding the teachers to sit the kids in groups so it at least looks like there’s some “cooperative learning” going on, and teachers looking over their shoulders in fear and whispering to each other, “Did you see them? Did they come by your room?”

The regular teacher of the English class I was covering had been aware of the visitors’ expected presence, and left instructions that the busy-work he had provided would be counted as a quiz, hopefully insuring a studious and wholesome scene were anyone to walk by and glance in the room.

And everything was fine. It was a big class, people were chatting quietly and not everyone was doing the work, but they knew it counted and they weren’t acting up, so I wasn’t worried about that. By thirty minutes into the period things were so calm that I’d grown bored, finished my own copy of the student questions about the Holocaust, and taken to wandering around the room reading the student work on the walls and talking to some weird boys in the back about the time I saw David Blaine walking down the street doing card tricks and stealing people’s watches.

If I’d had a crossword puzzle, I‘d have pulled it out and been halfway finished before the bell rang.

Then a little argument flared up. I missed the beginning, but heard clearly when, firmly but quite calmly, a serious looking young black man said, “Shut the fuck up, bitch.”

Before I had a moment to react or even figure out who he was talking to, a girl stood up, walked across the room, said, “Don’t ever fuckin’ call me that,” and calmly slapped the guy in the face.

Shit. I hesitated. I knew I had to do something about this situation, but wasn’t entirely sure what the appropriate course of action was. I didn't even know these kids' names. I knew I had to go get a Dean, but didn’t want to, because I knew the girl would get suspended and that’s always a pain to deal with. I was also worried that the guy would react, so I went over to him, and told him not to do or say anything.

He nodded, calmly, licked the tip of his pencil, put his head down and went back to his busy work.

Okay, this is under control, I thought. I checked that the girl was back in her seat and went over to the door to see if there was a Dean within shouting distance.

By the time I got to the door I turned to see that the guy and girl were back at it. Jawing again, this time both standing in the middle of the room.

“G’head, hit me again,” he said. She was not a small girl, her short dark arms thick and toned and adorned with a heart-shaped tattoo featuring the name “Derrick” in a flowing script.

She slapped him pretty good. His head snapped to the side. He was tall and slender, about 6’6” with big square diamond earrings and concentric stars shaved into the crown of his skull. I recognized him from the basketball team.

He wiped his lip, nodded slightly, reached back to the full extension of that 6’6” wingspan, and slugged her square in the mouth with every ounce of his strength.

She hit the floor. I screamed for help. By the time security got to the room she was back on her feet, blood painting her chin red and splattering all over everything as she thrashed about the room, knocking over tables and chairs and screaming death while two female security guards and a female school aide held onto her for dear life.

He stood in the same place his hands at his side. Calmly.

Normally when there’s a fight at Shitty the kids go wild, running towards the fray, crowding in and cheering for more. No-one said a word. No-one rushed forward. No-one crowded in. Everyone retreated to the walls of the room, their eyes wide and their jaws agape.

The girls I knew from my class stood behind me clutching each other's arms.

No-one finished the work that was supposed to count as a test. Shitty is still an Impact school. The girl went to the hospital for stitches where her teeth split her face. Derrick spent the night in jail. I finally had a fight in my class.

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