After publicly thrashing the “Preventing Life Skills Deficits Training and Omelet Bar” that was so generously provided to us by Blackwater Services (or “B.S.” as the kids are calling it these days), what do I do next but sheepishly thumb through their handbook, The Well-Managed Classroom, desperately searching for advice on how to get my class of 30 machine-gun-mouthed Dominicans and 5 sadly-westernized Bengalis to stop yelling at each other while I’m trying to teach.
“There’s gotta be a Life-Skill in here somewhere for ‘How to Sit Down and Shut the Fuck Up During An Announcement’,” I said to myself, as I skimmed over incomprehensible diagrams with names like “Conflict Cycle Circles.”
But the closest thing I found to what I was looking for was a skill called “M.Y.O.B.” or “Mind Your Own Business” (seriously), which explains how not to bother the teacher when the teacher needs to be not bothered. Perfect. Hell, mastering how to do nothing might even act as a confidence springboard for these kids. Today: Nothing. Tomorrow: Something. Wednesday: The World.
So the next day, I proceeded to explain the skill to the class, give a reason, provide a prompt, and then start in on practice.
“Announcement!” I shouted, and we competed over who could be the quietest.
“Hmmmm… I think Jonathan Lopez was the quietest that time.”
“But Mister! Nobody said nothing!”
“Well, yeah. True. But Diego makes kind of a weird sound when he breaths, so he loses. And the rest of you, you were thinking a lot and that kind of makes vibrations through the air, and I can feel those, but Jonathan’s head was completely empty, so he wins.”
“Yo, that mad racist son!” Exclaimed Jonathan in mock outrage.
“I’m just kidding. You all did great. Next time though, try not to think so much. Empty your brains. It’s healthy. It’s called meditating. Baljinder knows what I’m talking about.” At the mention of his name (probably the only word he understood in my class all day), Baljinder slowly peeled his head off his desk, leaving a smear of saliva where his face used to be. After five seconds of rubbing his eyes, he started to realize that he was not in India. His disappointment was palpable.
“Mistah!” Someone shouted from the back. “Can we empty our brains of all this boring shit you teachin’ us?”
“Absolutely,” I said without missing a beat.
“Yo this nigga crazy!”
Then I started springing the “announcement” prompt by surprise, just like real announcements.
“Everyone put the back of your hand on your forehead,” I said during a lecture about ecosystems. “Feel that heat? That’s energy. Originally, it came from the sun. All of our energy does. We’re like robots that are plugged into the – Announcement!!!”
The murmuring and whispering continued.
“Hellooooo? Annooooouncement! David. Rafiq. Ashley. Manuel. Anouncement?
Pick your head up.
Now, did you guys know that noise can be pollution too? That’s right. Anything that, when added to an environment, harms the things that live there, is -”
“Kssschhh… Please pahdon tha intuh-ruption..”
“ANNOUNCEMENT! ANNOUNCEMENT! ANNOOOOOUNCEMENT!!!!!!”
“This is tha principal speaking. First of awll, Happy Monday to awll of yous here at Patriot High Schoowall. I just wantet to say a couple uh things about how weah doing this yeeah. The grades for the city high schools ahh in and we got a C. Last yeeah we got a D. So I just wantet to congratulate awll of you – students and teachas – fuh workin so hawad to improve our scowah becuz we couldn’t uh done it without you. And I know that if we awll work togetha, I know that we can get an A next yeah. So let’s have a wondahful rest of tha yeah and good luck on awll of yoah mid-tums. Umm.. Thank you, and have – uh – uh good day.”
Now I know it sets a bad example not to show the principal respect in front of the students, especially after I just drilled them into little announcement-listening marines, but listening to that felt like walking bare-foot on broken glass, and I simply couldn’t mask the pain. An ‘A’ next year? It’s laughable. Look, just like I tell the hoodlums, “If you always do what you always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
But I guess the administration doesn’t mind being the overseers of a freakin’ Bolivian prison. That is, until they were at risk of losing their jobs. That lit a little fire under their ass. But even then it was only enough for them to make cosmetic changes, literally. Under pressure to make serious improvements, they implemented a restructuring that created “villages” within the school that are supposed to provide more intimate relationships between teachers and students. But besides forcing the entire school to change offices and phone numbers, and attend ever more tedious and useless meetings, the only obvious changes I have noticed are these giant 60 foot, colored placards hanging on the front of the building. One for each “village”. The irony of assigning each village its own color in a school plagued by gangs was not lost on the staff, by the way.
The villages have names like “Sports and Media” and “Justice and Law”. The kids don’t know what they are supposed to mean, and neither do I, but one thing I do understand, is that a fortune was spent on the project. This while the school lost one of its best deans to a better paying position in a another county and we were told that there wasn’t enough money to hire a replacement.
But despite all this, the school actually IS better this year. The grade improvement really does reflect reality. Crimes and violence started to drop in the middle of last year and they have continued to do so through the first half of this one. Last year, things were so bad that the entire deans office was considering resigning en masse. Our jobs were hellish and blood-spattered. Every day ended with a pile of cases you didn’t have time to get to and every day began with a new pile of cases requiring your urgent attention.
And despite our greatest efforts, things seemed to always get worse. Not only did we receive no recognition for our pains as deans, but people actually blamed us for the building’s problems. If you were seen so much as taking a sip of coffee during your day, rumors were spread that you were derelict, never mind that you were buried in an avalanche while armed only with a thimble all day, and that the period you were drinking coffee was your lunch period.
The pressure was so great that I started getting chronic head aches. My eyeballs felt like they were being squeezed by little eyeball vices. My eye sockets darkened. My facial hair lengthened unchecked. My doctor contemplated sending me to a psychologist but told me I should just “change jobs” instead. When I would get home from work, I had to ask my girlfriend to wait at least and hour before speaking to me. I needed recovery time. And I wasn’t the only one. Dave told me that he had told his wife not to bring up his job at all. Ever. That approach seems to be the general consensus among my colleagues. “When I get home, none of this exists,” my boss once told me. “I don’t think about it and I don’t talk about it. But I’m lucky. I have this to go home to,” as he pointed to a photo of his smiling children. “Some of these kids don’t have people who care about them. And we have to remember that. When we see these kids, we don’t know what they ate for dinner, or where they slept last night. We don’t know what they’re going through in their life. Some of these kids have horrendous situations that we can’t even imagine.”
Just then, a safety agent walked in. “Mr. Greene, you gotta do somethin with Quervo Santana.”
“I hate that fuckin’ kid!” My boss barked as he waved the agent away with his hand.
When things got really bad last year, I complained to Dave, “This place is crumbling and no one is offering a single idea to make it better!”
“You gotta look after yourself, Pistol,” Dave said. “Just worry about getting home every day in one piece. Fuck them. Do what you need to do to survive this. That’s all you can do. Trust me. Nothing will ever change anyway.”
Then, one day while looking through the city’s disciplinary book, I noticed something. A lot of the small infractions that drove us crazy but that weren’t serious enough for significant consequences, could actually be bundled together into a higher level infraction and result in a suspension. Hall-walking, for example — the bane of our existence. It’s the root of all our disciplinary problems but we were taking no action to thwart it. At that point our hall-walking policy wasn’t much more than pissing into the wind and getting wet. But if you read the discipline code carefully, it was apparent that we had the power to do more.
Even though Dave was convinced that nothing ever changes in this system, he liked what I had found and he helped me design and draft a new hall-walking policy proposal to present to the administration. We worked during our off time all week, drawing up an opening statement, step-by-step instructions, arrows, boxes, everything. Together, we addressed the powers that be and their reaction was very surprising.
They told us no.
Our policy would result in too many suspensions and we just didn’t have the resources to enforce it. We demanded an alternative proposal and we stood our ground.
“Fine. Do whatever you want,” our boss told us and he walked out of the room.
Of course that meant there would be no official support for the system so it would essentially be adopted on a voluntary basis by those deans that believed in it. Not exactly the most effective way to implement a policy. But we rallied the forces, strapped on our windbreakers, and leaned into the hurricane.
With hall-walking resulting in actual consequences, the kids started to actually respond to us when we told them to go to class instead of looking at us like we had just killed their grandmother and then not moving, like they used to. With fewer kids cutting, there were less fights in the halls. And with more suspensions on record for our most violent kids, we were able to request longer suspensions from the city when they did something really terrible. The building became more manageable, and our jobs became less stressful.
I was never acknowledged in any way for the policy. Naturally, everyone attributed the drop in school violence to what they did. The principal, for example, is convinced the new “village” structuring has made all the difference. But hey, if I wanted merit-based compensation I shouldn’t have gone into education.
But believe it or not, it’s not the lack of acknowledgement that bothers me. I know that would only amount to a pat on the back anyway. What’s really troubling is that when improvements are the attributed to the wrong cause, it makes us less able to effectively address future problems. And we still have a ton of problems. But the administration, and their political bosses, continue to chooses colorful banners on the building’s facade over thoughtful, clear, focused policies.
Sometimes I even miss the bad old days. For one, when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, I never had time to contemplate how crappy my job was. But mostly I just miss the insane stories. I used to hit the mother load every day. The crude flowed forth in great globs, and with a bit of refinement I was left with a fuel that could illuminate any shadow with only a moment’s repose and a spark.
Unfortunately, sparks and moments of repose were in short supply back then. The last thing I wanted to do when I got home from the battlefield was to relive my day by writing about it. I was like that granddad who “never talked about the war”. Just jotting down notes about my day was enough to turn on the eye-ball vice.
But it’s all worked out in a way, because while the era of easy fuel discoveries is past, the tools of extraction are finally available to me.
And there’s still a lot more story to mine. It ain’t pretty, and it’s often infuriating, but I finally have the time and energy to share the wealth. And that’s good, because when a 250 pound kid is felled in the halls by a head-butt and there’s no one around to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound.