Last week I was asked to start providing a dean presence in the cafeteria. I do not enjoy this. First of all, it’s boring. You have to stand there for 45 minutes without anyone to talk to or anything to do, except keep an eye on a simmering (not to be confused with shimmering) sea of teenagers and wait for the inevitable, spontaneous eruption of chaos, for which you will then be responsible for containing. Of course there are safety agents around to keep you company but the interactions are at best small talk, and usually no more than a dutiful, sleepy nod.
The second reason I dislike being in the “caf” is that it’s nerve-racking. As with most assignments, you are never told what exactly you are supposed to do.
When I got to the cafeteria the first day I saw another dean standing at the other end, where the kids were lined up to receive their rations. I wanted to communicate with him so I un-clipped the radio from my waistband.
“ksccchhhh… pick it up Dean Flint… ksschhh”
Flint picked up his radio and I heard a response crackle from mine, “kscchhh… Go fuh me… kscchhh”
“Everything okay down there? …kkschhh”
“kkschhh.. You supposed to be posted down heah? …ksschh”
“kshhh.. that’s a four …ksschhh”
“ksschh… well ya posted in the wrong area ..kshhh”
I walked over to where he was, relieved that there was someone else to share the burden.
“So, what are we supposed to do here?”
“Ya make shoah no one cuts in line!” His words boomed from a torso shaped like a stand-up bass, the services of which were once briefly sought by an NFL team in the 70’s. “And ya don’t let anyone through these doahs!” he said, pointing to his left. “And when they leave, they go through THESE DOAHS ONLY!” He said, pointing to his right.
With that he bid me adieu, and I was left to admire my new kingdom. The first thing I noticed about my subjects was that none of them seemed to be sitting down. Or eating. There were hundreds of them and they were doing whatever they pleased. Two boys had moved an industrial sized garbage can out into an open area and were playing a spirited game of one on one basketball with a piece of trash. I pretended not to see a game of cards in progress near the far wall. The other boys and girls were either sitting on the tables or roaming the vast room in bands, hatching plans, and flirting with strangers. Hats, which are not supposed to be visible at all inside the building, dotted the landscape like wildflowers.
With this idyllic landscape before me, I took a moment to organize my thoughts. I knew I should make them aware that I could see them and that I would respond to their misbehavior, yet at the same time I was well aware that this was a laughable impossibility. I fidgeted in the discomfort of this realization.
Stop fidgeting, I said to myself. You have to look calm, comfortable, and in control. But being the new guy, I was drawing a lot of stares. And this made me fidget more. I checked the time on my cellphone. I spun my radio in my hand a couple of times. I leaned against a wall. I looked too relaxed. I stood back up, shook out my legs and walked to an arbitrary spot on the floor. Why am I standing here? I walked back to the wall.
Almost as soon as Dean Flint left, people started cutting in line. Then someone ran in through the door that no one is supposed to come through and disappeared out of the other door no one is supposed to leave through. I yelled for him to come back under threat of suspension. He didn’t.
The next day in the cafeteria, Flint was there with me again, and he was ranting about the stuff teachers rant about.
“These other schools, they’re pressin’ tha teachas! You betta pass these kids or else, they’re sayin’! It hasn’t gotten that bad heah yet, but trust me, by the time you guys are at maximum salary you’ll be spittin’ wooden nickels and jumpin’ through hoops to get ya money! But I’ll be outta heah by then.”
Just then, two students pushed past him and ran out the prohibited exit. I recognized one of them. She had just finished a 9 month prison sentence.
He turned towards me and growled, “One of these days, I’m gonna retire. And before I retire, I’m gonna clock one of ’em right in the fuckin’ head!”
As if in response to his statement, a loud “Oooohhh!!! rang out.” I looked up to see a boy hurl one of those big metal trash cans at a girl, food scraps sailing gracefully overhead.
I took a quick step. “Don’t!” said Flint. “Don’t react too fast.” So we walked together, slowly.
After calmly investigating the incident right on the spot, I learned the following:
The boy called the girl a “nigger-bitch” after she asked him repeatedly not to. Upset, she threw water on him. That is what elicited the “oohhs” from the crowd. Then upset in his own right, the boy responded by throwing a trash can at her.