To Beat Or Not To Beat

Hey you!

Yeah you!

You didn’t swipe ya card!

Don’t gimme dat B.S!

The old angry school aid in the cafeteria was doing her best to control the line.

To get to my post in the caf I had to walk the entire length of the it, and every student’s head turned as I passed by. The thugs whispered to each other and the hecklers released their ventriloquisms.

As soon as I reached the spot where I’m supposed to stand and keep a watch on the chaos, a zombie-eyed 18 year old walked right up to my face, and in slurred speech he said, “Yo, whachu doin’ down here?”

I had reported him to the special ed dean a few days before because he’s a menace, and ever since he’s been making it his life’s mission to intimidate me. One day after school he saw me at the neighborhood pizza place. He came up to me and stared for a while, trying to come up with the right words. He has the kind of learning challenges that aren’t hard to detect.

“You grimy,” He finally blurted out.

“Yeah? Why is that?” I asked.

“Cause you got me suspended. And you got my sister suspended.”

“No, you got you suspended. You think I like doing suspensions, man? That’s just more work for me. Trust me. You got yourself suspended. And you don’t even have a sister, dude.”

My slice was ready so I grabbed it.

“Take care, Derrick,” I said as I walked away leaving him standing there pondering his next line. I imagine he blurted it out at the closed door about 2 minutes later.

“Derrick! Show some respect!” Snapped a female safety agent, back in the cafeteria.

“I can’t axe him a question?”

“No!” she shouted. “Go sit down!”

He wheeled like a bull and flexed his arms at her.

“Take that mess outta here,” the agent said. “I call your fawtha and he’ll knock your head off!”

Derrick let out a gutteral groan, tracking me with half-shut eyes as he walked away. I focused on a spot on the far wall, doing my best to look cool and collected.

“He need his medication!” the safety agent said, shaking her head. “He need a major dose! They need to give us some needles, so when them special-ed kids start actin’ crazy, we can just stick ’em!”

I’m not really sure what I am supposed to do when I am posted in the lunch room, but one thing I remember being told by someone or another is that I shouldn’t let kids cut in line. But as soon as Derrick walked away, another special ed student pushed his way right into the middle of the line, as the kids he cut in front of pretended like they didn’t notice. They had probably learned their lesson a long time ago. The kid who cut in line looks like he suffered from severe fetal alcohol syndrom. His facial skin is stretched tight across his skull like plastic wrap, making his eyes and mouth appear as slits. And he has a lot of trouble forming intelligible words. Because of this, the safety agents call him “Mumbles” (safety agents can get away with things that school staff can’t).

I tried to make Mumbles to go to the back of the line, but it just wasn’t happening.

“Nah!” he yelled. “I wash in line befoh!” His mouth is very stiff so it always sounds like he’s speaking through a decrepit microphone while his eyes seem to be looking in multiple directions at once.

“Yeah, but you weren’t in this part of the line,” I said. “Go to the back.”

“Sho what!” He barked.

I made a stern face, lifted my radio, pretended to press the talk button and said, “Pick up Dean Fickles.” Dean Fickles is the special ed dean. I was hoping my bluff would be enough to scare him to the back.

“Go ahead! Call him!” Mumbles mumbled.

I pointed my radio at him, made a mental note to speak to Fickles later, and walked back to my spot against the wall.

“Fuck yeeuuu…” I heard Mumbles try to say as I walked away.

Back at the wall, with kids pelting each other with food and slap-boxing all around me, I just tried to look calm, intimidating and in control as I counted the minutes until the end of the period. In reality I wasn’t calm, intimidating, nor in control, but I do have a kind of permanent simmering anger these days, and that’s close enough.

There was a chair nearby, but the agents aren’t allowed to sit down while they work so I felt guilty sitting down myself, so I stayed standing. Then Amir, a custodian who immigrated from Yemen, walked over and plugged his phone into a wall socket next to me.

“Just giving it a little juice,” he said, smiling. “How you doin’?”

“I don’t know man,” I said. “This place…”

“Yeah, I’m seein’ that look in everyone’s eyes these days,” said Amir.



“It’s these kids, Amir.”

“They got no discipline, Pistol. Because they know the parents not gonna do nothin’ when you call them. And they don’t even know what they got here. I see them outside smokin’ cigarettes instead of goin’ to class. They don’t know what they got in this buildin’. They got heat. It’s clean. They got a nurse. Desks. Everything. There’s kids in India, and Latin America, they’re sitting on the dirt, and they’re still tryin’ to learn somethin’. That’s why these kids from other countries come here and succeed. Just like that!” And he snapped his fingers with a pop.

“When I was a kid in Yemen? Forget about it. We had one pencil. And we had to use it all the way to the eraser. If I lost that pencil, my mom would take this leaf, like a poison ivy type leaf, and she rub it all over my body. Man it burn like hell for three hours. But it worked. I never lost my pencil or my book bag or nothin’. Because I know what is gonna happen. She didn’t like to do it. I could see in her eyes she didn’t like it. But she only had to do it one time and we learned. I thought, ‘If I lose this, then that’s gonna happen to me.’ There has to be punishment, man. And cursing? Forget about it. My parents would probably throw me out of the house if I curse. But I was even more scared of the teacher than I was my mom. Because I know that if the teacher called home then it was finish. We like, worship him. You know? God was up here, then comes the teacher, and then my parents.”

“Sounds nice,” I said with a chuckle. “And the teachers could beat you too, right?”

“Oh yeah. They tie you to a chair, like this one right here. With your back on the seat, and your legs up here. Then they get two students to hold you. One holds your chest down and the other holds your legs. Then they take a stick, and just hit.”

“Where did they hit you?”

“On the bottom of your feet. But that’s not for missing a homework. That’s for something bad, like cursing. For missing a homework, they probably just hit you on the hands. Some people think that’s violence, but I don’t think so. For little kids, yeah, it probably is. But they don’t do it to them. And in college, you’re on your own. You’re like more of an adult. This is for high school kids. And it’s not like they beating you in the head with a baseball bat or nothing. I mean, look at this place. They got it all. Look at that kitchen. They cook for you?” Amir shook his head. “Kids in the Middle East, they never gonna believe it, man. Food? In the school? They never gonna believe you if you tell them. But these kids don’t know what they got. And they gonna have a hard time when it all comes down.”

I looked out at the swarm.

“Thanks for the perspective, Amir. I’m going upstairs. I gotta get out of here.”

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