I fall asleep reading Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man" every night. Even at 1:30, it's hard to fall asleep after being wound up from law study. Reminds me of being a teacher myself, of course, although I never considered the possibility of being an author about teaching. I simply don't have the inspiration he has. Or perhaps the situation is so different. Sure NY is a tough place, but things have changed. I would be willing to bet he wasn't insulted and threatened the way I was, by kids, parents and teachers. I'd be willing to bet he wouldn't be a teacher had he been born later.
The school across the street gets out and my nerves get frayed. They don't just hang out. They SCREAM. Loudly. Regularly. There sense of what is right and wrong, of simple, basic manners, is gone. Totally gone. They are a generation at war with itself. Though most of those kids are normal and nice, there are enough of them who act so horribly, it scars one.
I remember a girl walking up to a classroom I was subbing for, swearing. I asked her to stop. She said "Don't tell me what to do." "You ain't nothin'" ...."I ain't nothin'?". She repeats herself and stalks away, defiant. Mistake on her part. I ask around and find a kid who doesn't like her. Divulges she plays volleyball. Go find a yearbook.. volleyball team photo...got her name.
Call the Mom. Like most parents, pissed of. "Sir, I am SO SORRY!!" The girl approaches me the next day "Mr. Francis, I'm sorry" I look at her coldly. She's a liar. She isn't sorry. She's sorry she got caught. I know what she is like now. She isn't a nice person. Or if she is, she's picked up some habits from the wrong crowd and isn't that the way it is? The kids feed off each other. Nice kids act in ways you cannot imagine. I look back at her "I'm somebody now, ain't I?"
A rare victory. Most of the parents can't command their kids. No fear. Some parents are awful. Usually white ones and black ones. Most are wonderful. They want something better for their kids. I pick up that phone and the kid begs me not to do that. He'll get hit with a frying pan. It sounds terrible but for some of these kids, I don't see an option. Most of them don't deserve that, but a good proportion need nothing but an ass kickin'. Take them down a notch.
I'm not Frank McCourt. I don't see the charm in them telling me "fuck you" to my face. I want to teach them a lesson. I trained for hours on the punching and kicking bags...the jiu-jitsu, the Karate. I could smash a stack of five boards with my hand and four with my shin. I loved grappling. I sat around watching the UFC and worshipping the Gracies. The students knew I was not an ordinary guy. Not afraid of them. At least most of them.
There were, of course, giant, hulking kids who could crush my with their pinky. Dominique must have been 350 pounds. He was rude, but not mean. I could control him. He didn't do anything that bad. I remember him saying "Mr. F, why don't you get in my face?" I said "because your big and scary". He had me cold. I was a bit of a bully at times, but I felt bad if I was and the kids knew it. I was quick with the apology and the witty line. I gave them a lot of leeway.
I wasn't strict. But I had my limits. They had their's. It worked, for the most part, except for the sociopaths. There were some kids who went to far. I would take them outside and berate them. Or just talk to them gently. If I got them alone they wouldn't be embarrassed. They would also not have to show off. If they wanted to kick my ass, there I was. But without an audience, they weren't embarrassed enough to attack me. People can take anything but public humiliation.
Most of the time I joked with them, and sometimes tried to teach history. There were brief moments where I held them in the palm of my hand. It was "preach on, brotha". Moments of brevity.
Say "Whassup Nigga", Mr. F. "NO, I'm not going to say that". Come on, say it. NO. I could be silly. Drive the bus wheel..stir the pot...pop my colla..."sig" on people. To the kid eating the junk food with the big belly. "Ever heard of the four food groups?" I was one of them, but up there.
Every now and then I exploded. Yelled. They loved that. It made them feel powerful. They would push and push, and push some more. I would get no support from the office or anyone, usually. Then, when they went to far, I would lose my cool. It was too much. I was an angry man every day. And I hated being angry.
They would come in late. Talk back. Not do their homework. Interrupt. Ask for makeup work they wouldn't do. Can I go to the bathroom? Disappear for half an hour. Steal the x-box or dvd player I brought so they could be entertained. It was my fault for leaving stuff in the class when a sub was here. Their sense of right and wrong was warped.
The admin would show up like royalty. It's all about the tests. High scores, good. Low scores, bad. They didn't have a clue about how the tests are a function of socio-economic status and home life. The kid has been someone's kid for seventeen years and I'm supposed to change the fact that he can't and won't read in one hour? Fuck you. Those who can't do teach. Those who can't teach become Principals.
They undermined me. Didn't support me. Downright tried to destroy me because of how obvious it was that they disgusted me. Some of them were ok. Most were simply fools. Dangerous, useless fools. There was always a split in the faculty. Those who touted the part line and those who did not. The company people and the real teachers. Most schools are run by petty Stalinists, who set up Iranian rubber-stamp parliaments and such to support their decisions. Don't do what they want, you get a bad room, and bad assignments. We'll transfer shitheads into his class, but won't transfer any shitheads out.
I had a girl who set someone's hair on fire transferred in from another school. Nobody told me what she did. A lot of the kids were on probation for various crimes. One girl was on her third kid. There was a child care center across the hall. A stupid idea, I thought. Making it socially acceptable to be a welfare mom at seventeen. A stupid idea.
I left the career behind. There was no spirit in me anymore. I went through the motions, occasionally stood up for ten minutes. They couldn't handle any more than that before they started to act out. Don't try to teach too much. Give an assignment. Let them work on it our not. Busywork.
I liked teaching Francis, as my mentor said once. You don't teach history. You teach Francis. That's the way you end up. Not the topic sentence. Not the Wilmot Proviso. You teach them the story. People caught in the crush of events. People living, loving, dying, praying. Real stories. Where are we now and why are we here?
I taped Bin Laden back in 1999 and played it to the kids. This man will have an impact on your lives. Take off your shoe. Where did that shoe come from? China? Taiwan? El Salvador? You think the world is all about America but in this room we are hooked into the world. Nothing is an island unto itself anymore. Your car is made of mostly foreign parts. If you think the world doesn't matter, then you are wrong. You may not care about the world, but the world cares about you. And it will come home to you. I wonder how many people in the WTC heard that. Stand up and take notice of what is happening. You may not like history, but don't let history happen to you without understanding it, because it's sad to watch people caught up in all that. There you are, in the desert, with a gun. You can barely read. You don't know why you are here, dying, killing, in this strange land.
And then they go home to their mostly bleak lives and a home without books and just one parent. Their worries are the gang down the street. Does that girl love me? Mom has heart disease. My grandmother died.
The kid sits there in a desk, silent. Stewart says something to him. Stewart is a skinny, incredibly strong, funny kid. AN expert in the martial arts. I liked Stewart. He made a comment to the kid. "Leave me the fuck alone". I told him he had to go. He left and I never saw him again. I could see his muscles tensing up. It would have been a bad fight. He was a larger, stronger kid. Stewart a trained fighter.
I never saw that kid again. His grandmother had died. His only person. All he had. In retrospect, I wished I had been more slow to react. Less afraid of the violence. More aware of what was happening. They get lost so quickly. Like the kid in SF on Union Square. Homeless. Chad Reiswig. Homeless and addicted to drugs. His crazy dad, and I mean crazy (he heard voices)drove him away. I asked him how he was doing. He was going to get a job at the baseball stadium. I left him quickly, fearful and hurtful. He was a lost cause. Do you know how hard it is to give up on a kid? Triage...triage...save the wounded. Forget the dying.
I played the news channel all day on 911, in a sort of shocked glee. It was like a terrible earthquake for a geologist. So horrible, so much to learn. But what affects their lives, here and now, is so much closer to home. It's so hard to get people to understand how big the world is when it is already too complicated for them...