Thursday, April 17, 2008

The year in pieces

I remarked to an almost empty classroom at the end of ninth period “My class is too chaotic. It’s all just chaos.” The evidences of my statement are the balled up papers that lie among the unarranged legs of the desks. Donald, a thick good willed kid who walks with a bubble butted limp, said, “You might as well just quit, Trott.”

I repeated it back to him. “I might as well just quit, Donald?”

“That’s what I’m saying,” he said, shouldering a heavy book bag and making for the door. It hurt because I hadn’t been impressed with my last two periods with the class, when we had tried a couple improvisational acting exercises. The exercises in themselves, "Instant Monologues," and “Neutral on a Bench” could have been fun, but I’d failed in the usual ways. The kids were out of control. Rahad drew a stick figure, and used saliva to glue the rudimentary drawing to the screen of the television in our class. He said, “That’s what they be watching at John's house.”

I once remarked that there wasn't a working phone for Johnhouse, because Rahad had asked why I didn't call home in response to his bad behavior. This remark was enjoyed by the class, and Rahad in particular. John smiled good naturedly until such time as he had a rebuttal equal to the force of Rahad's little demonstration. I have been in John's house and know that it is cleaner than my bedroom, but much more sparsely furnished, and I also know his family is struggling. The visual image of the static cartoon is a little too much, and I turned to the board to recover my serious face. I turn when I have it ready to show that I didn’t approve of this disruptive behavior, John would say, “Oh, that’s Trott’s serious face. He’s really serious now.” And eventually I will laugh because John and Rahad are funny, and I’ve used up too much will power getting to ninth period and don’t have much left.

Then Kaleel began a mini basketball competition, the objective of which is throw balled up paper into the wastebasket from great distances. This game is particularly unfriendly to the environment since every ‘ball’ that falls in the wastebasket is gone, and a new ball must be manufactured.

Now I know it was my job to stop this behavior. I could be pissed at myself, and feel guilty and it may be possible that if I tried a lot harder, if I could find in myself to try a lot harder, this would all end. It used to keep me up nights. Not anymore though. Three or four beers, some television, and a chapter or two of a novel and I go right to sleep. Before I sleep I think about girls, not kids throwing paper balls.

Once, the day before Spring vacation, I completely broke down all the walls between us, the students and me, and it was lots of fun. Only four people came to class and I put on a movie. One of them was Donald. Donald did what he does when I put in a movie, which is shroud himself in a jacket, use his bookbag for a pillow and go to sleep. This usually annoys me, but that day it was all good because the movie was “Gridiron Gang” and I didn’t think it had any educational value anyway.

Millman started up the wastebasketball game, and I told him to stop, and he didn’t, so I began to make fun of his jumpshot. I figured I would make it more and more painful for him, and eventually he would stop. This doesn’t work with Millman, or any of my kids, because a) I’m not mean enough and b) in their world, if you are being made fun of, you prove that it’s wrong and c) its going to take Millman a lot of shots to prove that he can make it, since he almost always misses. I remonstrate on this tertiary point to Millman, and he keeps shooting. When he makes a shot, I can easily point out that a zero percent field goal average, and a ten percent field goal average are not significantly different, and he shouldn’t get too excited about it.

It was then that I jumped over the walls between teacher and student. I decided to play, putting Millman on my side. I know that I am good enough to help Millman, who is usually playing at tough while simultaneously be picked on, win something. We are playing against a very strong student and a goofily charismatic one, and we enjoy trouncing them thoroughly, my behind the back pass, and give and go skills prove devastating to the opposition. It was fun, I broke a small sweat, but also worried at the end that this was a complete break down of the walls, and my adult persona. I’m not really that old and they know that, but that I'm young enough to enjoy a made up game of dribble less paper ball waste basket ball, they didn't know that.

But Donald said that I might as well quit. He’s right. I suck. I’ve given up on making things any better, just riding out what I got to the end of the year. I make calls to parents rarely. I feel bad for students of good character like Donald who watch the elaborate dance of a period, conducted to the endless tune of my whining about behavior, “Sit down, sit down, be quiet,”. Donald wants to learn. I just can’t get the class there. Of course Donald told me to quit. But would a long term substitute actually be better? That’s the devastating part. Teachers have quit this year, four of them.

Subs just let the kids jump around the room. I know my room is bad, but is there any class that is worse than a sub's room, in which children toss eggs at turned backs, conduct 92% full force fights, and gamble at pitty pat? If my room feels worse than that to Donald, I should probably kill myself. This would be like quitting, but more drastic. So the next day it was the end of ninth period, and I went with the homemade worksheet, I find a student essay on Othello, a play we have spent some time on, and have them read and ‘analyze’ it. Donald does nothing.

I reiterate to him at the end of the period, after his more fleet footed classmates have gone, “So I should quit?”

He says, “Yeah, every year there are teachers that come to this school and I can tell they could get a job at a way better place than this. The second I saw you last year when you taught that lesson in Mr. Rosenbaum’s room I knew you were one of those. You were wearing a business suit and everything. I was like, no way he belongs here.”

Ronald may have meant the criticism the first time, but upon my recitation, realized its effect, and being a sensitive and well meaning kid, found a semantic revision more palatable to his incompetent teacher. It did the trick though. I feel better, remembering the time he is talking about.

He is referring to the time that I interviewed to work at this school, almost a year ago. I did indeed arrive in my only suit, a navy blue which I had bought a month before specifically for the purpose of job interviews. The sample lesson had been fine, I had taught on “Romeo and Juliet”, to a group of five eager learners. Their general willingness to try, and their apparent enthusiasm in the book really excited me. What I should have paid more attention to was the fact that the principal fell asleep during my lesson, which may not have been the atomic bomb of all lessons, but it was popping, yo. I wouldn't have fallen asleep for that lesson. There had been some cacophony in the hall outside, but it was only later, after I settled into the job, that I realized that this was created by the rest of the kids who belonged in the classroom that I was teaching. They had seen a substitute in the room, and had gone the other way with out a second thought, but with plenty of noise. The five who remained were the well-behaved students, those whose social consciences told them to welcome the stranger in their midst. This is, life has taught me, a level of development rare among teenagers.

The type that Ronald has so generously classified me as could be termed the believer. We come, young, super-skilled, and mostly white, with visions of revolutions both intellectual and social springing from our chalk. The complexity of our educational theory integrates the Paulo Freire and cooperative learning into a shining ideological machine.

However, when we arrive in this school we find we are but shadow people, that requests and orders from us are but heard dimly, like whispers. People who have been here a while say things to us that seem patronizing, an NTA, the day before school starts asks me if I am ready for North Philly. I tell him I am, and that in fact the question should be reversed. It is a noble courage, but a benighted one.

But why are we incorporeal, mist people? Our students, the wild lot of them have seen us before, white, educated, and hopeful, after a few months of chaos, threats to our physical health, and a general feeling of failure, evaporate, blow away and never never come back. I wonder at that this year, how I never see visiting old teachers and I remember that I have left places like this before, places for difficult children, and all goodwill drains away, as the freedom from them takes effect.

It is so hard to return to the dudgeons in which you were keeper- when you leave you cannot process very well. You do not want to make the racist conclusion- “these people . . .” Instead you decide the society completely screws people, and you tried to help but you couldn’t. Being here in this mess only reminds you of it, and this makes you guilty for not suffering from living in a neighborhood where many houses are shells full of trash, and crack heads omnipresent, remind one of failure. Escape is easy, just don’t come to these places. Having spent time here just makes it worse because it only takes a little to remind you of everything you know.

We new teachers are people of mist because as lightly as we blew in, we may blow away. The admin treats us the same way, our pink slips do not have substance, though we write lengthy invectives against the defiance of our students, “I told him I was going to write a pink slip. He said, ‘Fuck you, I’ll shoot you with an AK47.’ I told him that was inappropriate language. He threw his bookbag across the room. He said ‘Fuck’ forty times, erased my blackboard and wrote, ‘Fuck’ forty times.’” We hand this in, thinking that the length of our description will give it weight. Days later we curse loudly in the faculty room when we pull out the carbon copy and see that no action has been taken after Johnny called us a bitch slut whore, and verbally offered to make proof of his definition with his own sexual organ. But it is a test of our corporality. Will this be the final breath of breeze that blows out of this place where entropy is as stable as stone?

The admin doesn’t believe we can last either, us new teachers. Why bother with our pink slips?
The second year teachers tell us, their voices resounding like orators, full waves that catch and ruffle through our misty ears, that next year will be better. “You will be here then. You are not here now.” We wonder where the fuck we are then, because we feel here the same way Christ must have felt that he was on the cross.
Only ten out of thirty teachers at the beginning of the year are returning from last year. Of that ten, only five will return next year.

So any new teacher here is just a chance, like a cloud may bring rain. Sometimes we solidify. I am a shade more solid in March than I was in September, my words carry more weight, although I am still incorporeal- at about half weight. I am seen and spoken too, as one speaks to a ghost that has made a habit of haunting your space. I can add substance by sending out pieces of myself into their world, by calling their mothers and fathers and speaking against them, by catching the bus on 26th and Lehigh, and sending home reports in which their daily attendance and grades are listed. At the end of the day, I just want to go home and drink.
I look forward to next year, when I shall be almost solid. Then my pink slips will clunk down into mail boxes like steel handcuffs, my voice will cause echoes in the hallways.

There are a few teachers in this building who have been here longer than two years. They have a solidity that is too great for reality, like small suns, each carries a solar system with them, students that have swung in like asteroids, and begun an orbit around a gravitational force, and even us other teachers, like lumpy small moons, follow them around and listen to their hard won sagacity. These few solar systems are the only bastion against the evil entropy that runs the halls of our building, that breeds corruption in the lunch room staff, and laziness in teacher bones.

One can only imagine the force that a person could exert after ten years. That person would be like a galaxy’s gravity, giving order to suns, and then to planets, ordering out of the dust of the cosmos a promenade- an educational wonder, organization, quiet order, and respectful students.

There are a few moments that I remember- Johnny Walker is about six three, and weighs over two hundred pounds, has light skin and pig eyes, but he’d be good looking, if he wasn’t insistently a jerk. He gets out of his seat, raising his voice, “Why’s IT INAPPROPRIATE? I CAN SAY WHAT I WANT!” I think my year got a lot easier in the following moment, when I took two steps toward him and told him to return to his seat.


It was a good question. I couldn’t very well say the true answer, which was that my instincts told me he was trying to intimidate my white ass by yelling and moving to the front of the class, and I stepped toward him to show him that it didn’t work, that I might have had some tremor somewhere down in my white boy soul, but he would not see it-

I said, “I’m not stepping to you. You are the one out of your seat.”

Johnny Walker returned to his seat. He used to be in my ninth period class, but then we lost him. He went to discipline school. He came back later, they put him in my seventh period class, and one time we spent a whole period arguing, he getting louder and louder until he had no extra levels of volume to use, my critique of his bullying character pissed him off, and yet I could not stop. His classmates looked on, he moved to the back of the class, to create distance and then we would turn to some topic other than his getting off on abusing people smaller than him, and I would find that nothing was so important as critiquing him. He insisted that he wasn’t a bully, which was good. At least he thought it was bad.

Another example of my lack of substance was the way they shifted my around. After my interview, and their agreement to hire me, admin was very slow to actually hire me. I waited, until late July, when no-one had called me. I got on the horn, and finally got hired, they gave me a few classes, and I prepared a little for those.

The week before school starts I realize there has been a mess up, and that I am going to be the victim. There is a teacher who insists that she is going to be an English teacher at our school this year. Her nasally invective creeps up my spine like an alien parasite and I understand too well the students who complain about her later in the year. Very soon I am informed by the principal that they are overstocked on English teachers, and that I, as the most recently signed teacher, am in the wind, I may be moved to another school.

Looking back, I should then have looked him in the eye and said, “Dear sir, note the disorganization of this institution, with which I was offered a position in May! And then, benighted more than a blindfolded fool, I I indicated my willingness to work for you, and then you didn’t hire me until the last day of August! And now I may be moved. How fortuitous. It is not possible that any institution could be as bad as this one!” But I was quiet and very chill because everything was new and bright and was solid and I was a ghost floating through it all. Where I would settle was an object of some concern, but it was not clear how I might make things happen.

He wanted to keep me on, and have me teach Drama. I agreed. This was a mistake. I am not a very animated person. You are supposed to teach acting in Drama. What do I know about that? For a week I had a section of drama, and three half sections of seventh grade reading, until they changed my roster again, and moved me downstairs.

Downstairs. The basement. So they couldn’t jump. No, so that I couldn’t jump. Referred to as “The Program” this was a special part of the school aimed at giving older kids who were behind in the credit race a second chance. It sounded pretty cool to me, and the seventh graders had started to bounce off the walls, so I figured anything was better than that. I did okay for a while as a teacher down there, where my composure was legendary.

I used to work in a res fac, and people generally believe that I am a relaxed person. In the res fac we were over stocked with oppositional defiant kids, who always had three notches above you. They could curse like no tomorrow, bite themselves and the chairs, swing on people three times their size, and hulk out. They trained us in the old soft answer turns away wrath, and it was pretty effective. Being calm, providing perspective, all that worked.

Unfortunately, my downstairs kids were the same population, or close enough that I instinctively dealt with them that way. They would curse at me, or jump up and down, and I would close the space between us and say something like that is inappropriate, or calm down. Ant commented that “Trott says good morning, and stop that in the same tone. You can’t tell when he’s angry.” This worked for a while, because there was a question what my bite might be. I could be a killer, perhaps.

This legend is no longer in effect. Now I’m known for, drawing, or as it is currently called, "dick eating." While you in your semantic experience no doubt think this refers to orally pleasuring a man, in this context it simply means being annoying. It is a powerful bit of language that irks me to no end. “Yo, Trott, why you dick eating.” This in response to, "Mike, it's time to do your work."


Matt Allison said...

Yo Josh,

I was wondering how you were doing. Now I know. Thanks dude.


Susannah said...

I love the images of mist people and solidness. Though it somehow made me think of Niska telling Mal on Firefly about his reputation being no longer gossip but solid.

Kathryn said...

All I have to say is, WOW! You can write. I was sitting here completely entranced by your writing. You captured our school perfectly. That is exactly what it is like to work there. How you feel now, is very very similiar to what I felt last year, and this year. You should write a novel about your time at our school, I would DEFINTELY read it! See you tomorrow!

Jed said...

To stay and in staying die a new death every year or to leave and in leaving lose? But I don't think it is as stark as all that. Maybe more can be done from outside the failed school than inside.

Miss Meredith said...

You are a phenomenal writer...I totally got the images of being something in orbit with little moons surrounding you. i have 4 kids who sneak up to my room every day during lunch to hang out with each other, me. i had to get out of philly public myself. i was hired in mid-october and placed in a split class with other teachers' discards...the principal told me upon arrival "the less i hear from my teachers, the happier i am."

there are other options out there...if you ever want a connection for my system, just email me. i know you're generally opposed to charters, but my school is actually a neighborhood middle - we HAVE to take kids from Kelly and Wister first (and we're made up almost exclusively of kids from those schools).

i drank so much red wine and hot toddies after school my first year of teaching...