People often remark how writing must be so “therapeutic” for me. Well, the unfortunate truth is that writing about my job is the opposite of therapeutic. It’s “hereapeutic”. That is, instead of transporting me over ‘there’, away from it all, it nails me to the floor, right ‘here’, in the shit. You see, in writing about the stresses of my day, I have to relive those stresses. It makes me empathize with all those grandpas who “never spoke much about the war”.
Last year I couldn’t write about it at all, but now the school is in better shape and being a dean is less traumatic. Back then I was plagued by headaches and if I even considered writing about work, a billion cells in the front part of my brain would immediately constrict, squirting out an inky toxin like an octopus, paralyzing all mental functions. My nervous system’s emergency brake.
And ladies and gentlemen, that feeling is back. In fact I’m typing through a cloud of ink right now. I can barely see the screen. I haven’t felt so disinclined to write about something since I started this project some 40 stories ago. But I’ve already hammered enough stones into the soil to mark the beginning of a road, and now it must be completed, even if a few forests get shredded in its path. So without further ado, I present to you:
Christmas vacation was starting in two hours and I was on lunch, but when a parent comes to see you, it doesn’t matter. You’re automatically “on.”
“Mistah Pistol, theah’s a pahrent heah tuh see you!”
There were three of them. A man, a woman, and a teenager. I ushered them into my my nook which only has two chairs. I took one and offered the other to the boy’s mother. Kareem and his “godfather” stood crammed up against a locker.
“So,” his mom exhaled, “what can we do for him?”
They were there for a post-suspension conference, which is just a routine a sit-down we like to have with a guardian to discuss behavior and academics after a suspension. Well, I don’t like to have them, but.. you know. Most parents don’t even come. They ignore our calls, letters and smoke signals, and curse us out over the phone for even suggesting that such a meeting might be helpful. So the fact that this kid’s mom showed up without any goading was pretty good, I guess.
Kareem had been suspended for constant hall-walking and cutting. And I mean constant. That’s something we didn’t used to really enforce, which is why the school was fucking apocalyptic last year. But Dave and I pushed this policy through from the bottom up in order to establish a semblance of order in the building, head off violence before it starts, and give us a tool to remove severely disruptive individuals from the building when necessary. And it’s made a big difference. Hall-walking suspensions (D19’s) are way up, but fights (D34’s) are way down. And when you pull your pen out in the halls now, they actually move, instead of just glaring at you like you’re a pile of dog shit.
I printed out Kareem’s attendance and immediately noticed that while he comes to school every day, he only attends 1 or 2 of his 9 classes. He doesn’t leave the building. He just hangs out in the stairs or something. Honestly, I don’t know where these kids go (or what they do) when they’re cutting. Some of them flaunt it out in the middle of the halls, but most seem to find some boarded-up wing of the building or magical wardrobe or something to while away the hours, and years.
Kareem’s mom was already releasing animosity from behind her ears like a pheromone and it was affecting my confidence. But since I was never actually trained to conduct parent conferences, I don’t have much to fall back on to keep me steady when things get tense. So I decided to just rattle off as many things as I could think of that might make me sound like I knew what I was talking about.
“Okay ma’am, your son was suspended for being in the halls on several occasions when he was supposed to be in class. We have a policy here, in order to try to clear the halls and get kids in their classes, that when someone gets written up four times for being in the halls late, it’s an automatic suspension. And as you can see, your son cuts more than four classes every day, so it was only a matter of time before it caught up to him. And we do this for a few reasons. One of course is to make sure kids are in class and doing what they need to do to graduate. Also, we do it to create some respect for rules and some order in the building. Because before, kids just felt like there would never be any consequences, you know? And we also do it to keep kids safe, because most of the fights and robberies and things that go on, happen during class among the kids who are congregating in the stairs or halls and places.” I took a deep breath, and then echoed her original question, “So.. what can we do?”
She seemed like a tough, concerned parent, but one who needed some help disciplining her son and getting him to straighten out. She told me that he had been doing this for years. All the way back to middle school, cutting and failing his classes. I used to come to these conferences filled with compassionate. I would look deep into their eyes, implore, flatter, empathize, sympathize, plead, preach, everything. But I got burned every single time. They never changed, no matter what they promised. And what did I expect anyway, that after 16 years of the same shit, one 15 minute pep talk was going to reverse a lifetime of acquired values, attitudes and habits? People don’t work that way. But there is one thing that can make an instant change, and if used wisely, can teach valuable lessons. Fear. Admit it, it’s shaped us all. So I took a stern tone and tried to send a message that his behavior would not be tolerated and that he needed to get his shit together.
“First of all, let me be clear. I’m the discipline guy, okay? I’m gonna send you over to the guidance counselor in a second. She’s the one who you can talk to about academics and… you know… guidance stuff. I’m here to enforce the rules. So, very simply, from my perspective, you need to be in class. If you keep cutting like this, you’ll keep getting suspended. Okay? I’ve gotta look after you but I’ve also gotta look after the other kids here and the school as a whole. And we can’t have kids running all around the building all day.”
“Do you hear what the man is saying?” Kareem’s mom leaned over towards him. “Do you?? He’s looking out for the school! Do you understand what that means? He’s gonna keep on suspending you! Do you understand?”
Her tone gave me a some pause. I was glad that she was trying to make him understand that he had to go to class, but it sounded a bit like she felt the only reason he should go to class was to keep me off his back, almost as if it were them against me. But I gave her the benefit of the doubt and continued. I took a slightly different tack this time though and tried to appeal to his own self interest.
“Look at this,” I said, pointing at his attendance. “You’re wasting your whole day. You’re coming to school, staying here all day, but not going to any classes? What’s the point of that? You might as well not even be in school if you’re gonna do this. At least then you could be doing something productive, like working and getting paid. You-”
Then the anvil dropped. Out of nowhere, Kareem’s mom shouted, “You see?! He doesn’t care about you!” And grabbing his arm, “Let’s go!”
It was like a car wreck at night. I was blindsided.
“Whoa!” I blurted out, wincing in pain and clutching my ribs. I wheezed, “I’m not finished.”
She released Kareem’s arm. “I’m not tryin’ to be mean,” she lied, “but he needs to be stayin’ in school!” She folded her arms and slowly sat back down, but she was gone.
I tried to explain to her that my point was not to convince her son to drop out of school. My point was to make him realize how poorly he was spending his time. I didn’t want him to quit. I wanted him to redouble his efforts, come to school, go to class and graduate. But I had been knocked out of my orbit. I was flailing.
By then, Susan, the guidance counselor had shown up. She saw me rattling along trying to hold my tires on, and she stepped in deftly with some soothing words about how would Kareem like to go to an alternative smaller learning environment with more services to meet his needs? It all sounded so nice and it was exactly what mom wanted to hear.
Despite my best intentions, the parent conference ended up a lot like the meeting of two dogs on the street. Everything goes great at first as they politely sniff each others’ butts. And then out of nowhere one of them lets out a roar and tears the other one’s ear off. Luckily for me Susan managed to coax the others out of my cage and led them away to her office to discuss that mythical “alternative learning environment.”
Alone, I wiped the crusted blood from my eyes, only to see a giant anvil embedded at a gruesome angle in my very being. I mean, I’ve been vilified in this place for some crazy-ass reasons, let me tell you, but this one is up there. What the hell did this lady want from me? I’m trying to get her son to go to class because she can’t do her own job as a mom. I’m trying to open his eyes to the fact that he’s wasting his life. I make a truthful statement about how the worst thing he could do with his time is to do nothing all day, and for that I’m angrily and maliciously accused of not caring about the kids I kill myself for every day and am threatened with the termination of the very meeting I’m trying to use to turn her son around.
Stunned, I stumbled over to Dave’s cage.
He pointed to my chest. “What’s up with the anvil?”
I explained what happened. When I was done, I sighed. “I’m really demoralized, man. I’m just.. I don’t know, man..” I hung my head. I was at a loss.
“Come on. It was an ignorant comment.”
“But how can I prevent this from cementing my resentment of these parents? Every parent that walks in here now, I’m going to hate them. Fuck you. Get out of my office. There’s nothing I can do for you.”
“Ehh… Why dwell on the relevant?” sliced Dave. “Why dwell on that, when you can dwell on… ummm, I mean look, we know it’s all about escape here. The wheel never turns. It’s- it’s a square wheel. I mean, can you even think of a single kid that’s ever actually gotten better?”
“Yeah, a couple. Or one.”
“I knew you were gonna say Darius Smith. You always say him.”
“That’s cuz he’s the only one. Otherwise they just grow out of it eventually.”
“Exactly, they grow up when they’re 21 and we sit here and put up with them until they do.”
“Or, if they come from good families and are only pretending to be bad, and their parents kick their ass and they turn it around – if they’re lucky. That’s what happened with Darius. His dad’s an engineer and a weightlifter. That was a good combination. Seriously, you ever see his dad?”
“Yeah. He’s a large man.”
Just then Susan the guidance counselor appeared at the door. She addressed me in a grave tone, “I just wanted to tell you that the parent went to the principal’s office.”
“About me?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
“Yes. She thought it was inappropriate.”
Dave let out a guffaw.
Susan shot him a withering glance. Then she leaned over and with both hands grabbed the wet anvil that was protruding from my chest and gave it a twist. Then she wiped her hands on my shirt, stood up, spun on her heels, and left.
‘It’ was inappropriate. What the fuck is ‘it’? Is ‘it’ that I wanted her son to stop skipping classes? Is ‘it’ that I was honest with him that what he was doing was worse than being a dropout? Or is ‘it’ that this delusional woman was just desperate to blame her own failings on someone else, and I was the perfect mark? Principle’s office. Inappropriate. Whatever.
Dave broke the silence. “Man, it would be great if you got sent to the Rubber Room for this, huh?” It was a common topic of discussion between us: how to get sent to the city’s holding pen for teachers who have been accused of some misdeed. You get full salary, benefits and vacation, and your case can take months, or even years to resolve. And they almost always result in a reinstatement. You don’t have to do any work. You just sit there, read the paper, pay your bills, catch up on the classics, work on your resume, do push-ups, do some sketches, and write that memoir. Compared to the shit that we go through every day, it sounded like heaven.
“Yeah, that could work,” I said.
“I’ve been thinking about ways to get sent there. Like finding the most salacious book in the school library and using it in class. Or a movie. There’s got to be one in the library with nudity, you know? And then have a worksheet that only asks about that one scene. (Imitating an irate parent’s voice) ‘How can you have a question on a test whose answer is, ‘You’re a fucking asshole!’?’ (Resuming his own voice) But Mr. Principle, the movie was from our own library. But you know what? I’m sorry.” Dave grinned with satisfaction at his plan.
“Yeah, but the trick is getting sent there and not losing your job.”
“But how nice would that be?”
“Yeah, I don’t know, man. I heard it’s kind of like prison. Like people intimidate you out of your seat and there’s fist-fights and stuff. I think Mr. Ali from the science department is still in there, isn’t he? What did he do, date a student?”
“He went to the prom with a student, as her date.”
“Wow. That’s dumb.”
“And what about that gym teacher that chased a student around the pool with a gun?”
“I think that happened. Hey Flint, didn’t that gym teacher get sent to the Rubber Room for chasing a student with a gun?”
Without hesitation Dean Flint boomed back from the other room, “It was a starter pistol! And he bought it with his teacha’s choice money!”
(Teacher’s Choice is a $200 check all teachers receive from the federal government to help cover out of pocket expenses for classroom supplies.)
I spent the rest of the day muttering to myself and quietly determining never to extend myself at this job ever again. The wisdom and experience I have gained as an Ivy League graduate, college athlete, and graduate degree holder, I’ll keep it all to myself from now on. I’m not going to go to war with them, because unless I’m willing to pull out a knife and go to jail, I’ll lose the battle. No, I’m just going to take it easy, even when I shouldn’t. Not to spite anyone, just to save myself. The older deans had warned me about that several times already, whenever the pressure got so bad that my head exploded and wet brains stuck to all the walls and hissing radiators.
There was one day in particular when a kid was eating food in my office and threw the garbage on my floor and refused to pick it up. We got into a screaming match which ended with me shouting “Oh you’re tough now?! Now you’re tough?!” Then we locked into a stare down. An older dean stepped in and dragged me away and sat me down. “First of all, Pistol, that guy is deep into a gang. I saw the look in his eyes, and that was not good. You don’t know what he’s capable of, okay? You don’t want to be walking to your car and have to look over your shoulder. Trust me.”
“Now look, this job can turn you into a bitter and angry person if you’re not careful. And I don’t want to see that happen to you, Pistol. It’s a very tough and thankless job. You have to understand that we just don’t have the resources we need and you can’t do it all by yourself. You’ve gotta take care of you.”
Well, now I’m the older dean. And I’m taking care of me from now on. They’re not gonna take me down with them. Nothing’s gonna upset me. I’m Dean Buddha from now on.
The final bell finally came and on my way out of the building, and into the holiday vacation, I saw a teacher who owes me three hundred bucks.
“Happy Holidays. When am I getting my money?”
“As soon as they pay me.”
He held his hand out. It was covered in splotchy inky-red stains. I shook it.
“What’s that, blood?” I joked. “You get some marker on your-”
“No, it is blood.”
“Yeah, sorry. I forgot. It’s too dry in here. My nose was bleeding. Don’t worry, I don’t have any diseases.”
By the time I got out of the subway near my place, it was dark and rainy. I stepped into the street to cross, and BAM!! I hit the trunk of a big Lincoln and slid off like Wile E. Coyote. A livery cab had been driving in reverse for some reason so I hadn’t seen it coming. It got me below the knees so I flipped up relatively harmlessly and slid off the trunk and back onto my feet uninjured. As soon as my shoes met the pavement, I just kept on walking, unfazed.
“You okay?!” Shouted a passenger who was getting out of the cab.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”