It began with Geban. Fatima Geban. Over the course of her two years at Patriot, Fatima has followed the predictable arc of most Bengali students. When she first arrived she was as nervous as a prisoner of war. And it wasn’t just the other kids she was scared of. When I first asked her name to determine how much English she spoke, she shot up from her desk and replied with a soldier’s bark, “Fatima Geban!” and then immediately sat back down. Dominican snickers ricocheted around the room because no one in my class, especially not I, was even remotely familiar with this level of discipline and respect.
Fatima has since told me that in Bangladesh if a student fails to complete their homework even once, they are beaten with a rod. I guess that explains the way the Bengalis behave when they first get here. Might have to rethink our corporal punishment laws. Someone get the President on the line.
“Fatima. That’s a nice name. How old are you, Fatima?”
Again, she jumped out of her chair and stood at attention. But this time she was silent. She bit her lips and her eyes flitted like little fish against aquarium glass.
“How. Old. Are. You?” I asked again, this time counting my fingers. Another Bengali boy said something to her from the other side of the room in Bengali that sounded like sticks falling on the floor. Fatima nodded to him and then cautiously muttered to me, “Fuv-eh-teen.”
Today, two years after that moment, Fatima’s English is outstanding. She still sits at the front of the class, still has a bristling desire to succeed, and she still wears her gilded hijab, and colorful, radiant robes to school. But replacing the tremble in her eyes when I address her, is a look of subversive playfulness, and replacing the bewilderment that initially beset her among her peers in the halls of Patriot, is a look of contempt.
“Mister, can I go to the bathroom?” Fatima asked me quietly today.
“No. It’s not a pass period.”
She made a strange expression.
“Is it an emergency?” I asked.
She stood up and walked toward the door.
“Don’t forget the pass,” I said.
As she turned back to get the pass, I could tell that something was wrong. But I wasn’t able to get out of my seat in time to catch her.
There’s something different and far scarier about a fall that results from the loss of consciousness compared to just a regular fall. It was like someone yanked out Fatima’s power cord, and every joint from her ankles to her neck detached simultaneously. As she went down, I kept my eye on her head, to note how hard it bounced off the floor.
Being a dean for three years has forced me to become a master of my emotional domain. Either that, or I’ve become a cold-hearted, pseudo-catatonic, basket-case. Either way, being an exceptionally sensitive person, it’s important that I don’t let things get to me. Getting upset doesn’t help anything, and it’ll burn you out in less than a week. So I kept my feelings in the off position as I walked right past Fatima’s crumpled body to the door to see if there was a Safety Agent in the hall. I would have used my radio, but most of them, including mine, haven’t been working for months. Batteries are shot. There weren’t any agents in sight, so I calmly walked back past the still figure to the class telephone. I called the main desk and told them to send the nurse.
When I turned back around, two Bengali boys were carrying Fatima, still unconscious, to her chair. When they stuffed her into the seat, and her face fell forward onto the desk with a bang. I felt like I should do something besides just pacing back and forth, so I smacked her cheek like they do in the movies to wake people up. It didn’t work. So I spoke to her. She didn’t answer. So I waited.
Two safety agents came by and we all looked at her some more. Then we waited some more for the nurse.
“Pick up, Main Desk. The nurse in route?” Radioed one of the agents impatiently.
“Be advised, the nurse is waiting for the elevator so she can bring a wheelchair…. ksschk”
I decided to take Fatima’s pulse and as I did so, she began to come to. She was pale. I asked her if she was okay. She barely moved her lips as she tried to talk, and no sound came out. Her eyes were closed and tears were leaking out of them. She grimaced in pain, clutched her stomach, and put her head back down on the desk.
One of the agents who was standing at the door looked down the hall at the approaching nurse. “Damn, I’m glad I’m not sick. Look how slow she movin’.”
I came to the door to see an old Jamaican lady waddling toward us. Still on Caribbean time, I guess. When she finally got there, she fanned Fatima’s head and proceeded to ask me a lot of questions that I figured she should know the answers to herself. As she fanned, Fatima’s pain and disorientation seemed to worsen. One of the agents finally prodded the nurse, “Do you want to call an ambulance?”
Just as the EMTs were wheeling Fatima out of the room the fourth period bell rang and the floodgates opened. I cleared a path in the hall for the wheel chair as best I could but it wasn’t working. When we finally got outside to the ambulance, I heard one of the EMTs mutter, “That ain’t nothin’ like the school I went to.”
“Ha. How is it different?” I asked out of curiosity.
“Well, I’m from Jamaica, and we had separate buildings out in a yard, so we didn’t have no halls like that. That could be dangerous. With all those people. If there’s a brawl.”
He looked at the kids hanging out on the front steps of the school and others walking right out of the front the gate. “Is it a half-day or something?”
“Nah,” I laughed. And with fatigue in my voice I told him, “It’s out of control, man…”
Just then, a safety agent who was with us bolted back toward the building, “There’s a 52!”
“Speak of the devil,” I said to the EMT with a smile. But it was my lunch, so I didn’t go to the fight. I went back to the office to eat my spaghetti. On one side sat three forlorn goons. On the other side (separated by a door) was a kid with a black and blue golf ball jammed under his eye. A few minutes later, police started strutting in, radios blaring.
“Who’d you piss off?” One of the cops joked to the kid with the puffed up shiner. “He can’t even look at me his eye’s so swollen,” the officer laughed.
We had the three goons on camera busting into the kid’s class, and we had the teacher as a witness to them kicking the shit out of him right there in the middle of 4th period English. And one of them was eighteen. Someone was going out in cuffs!
The eighteen year old’s mom arrived. She had a scar on the side of her face from her hairline to her chin. She started getting agitated and talking about “I know what it’s like to be the victim of a crime! My ex’s girl did this to my face! She was just stabbin’ me, and ain’t no one come to help! She just kep’ stabbin’. Fifty-two stitches!”
I’m not sure what that had to do with the fact that her son assaulted someone who was sitting at his desk in his own classroom, but she also went on to tell us that her son just came to our school from another school nearby, where he had just finished a year long suspension. I don’t know what it was for but that’s a long-ass suspension, considering we suspend kids 5 days for fighting, and the superintendent’s office only suspended Mahmoud 30 days for telling a dean he was going to get a gun and kill him. Whatever this kid did, it must have been really bad.
The boy’s stepfather – a menacing giant in a red baseball cap – was just arriving when the bell rang and I had to go into the halls to clear the first floor. Five minutes after classes start, we block off the middle of the first floor, which is like a lobby, where people like to congregate. This forces those who are still in the halls to take a detour and go up to the 2nd floor and back down to the 1st floor on the other side. I am not sure there is any real point to it except to inconvenience hall-walkers, but that’s good enough for me.
Most people just go up the steps as directed. I mean we’re not asking much. It’s not like we’re writing them up. But once in a while, someone tries to walk through us and makes a big show about it.
And sure enough, a few minutes into it, a short pugnacious girl with dreads who permanently looks like she is about to tear the next thing she touches to pieces with her bare hands tried to walk past me.
“You can’t go this way,” I said. “Up the stairs.”
“I’m goin’ right theah!!!!!” She yelled, making a face like I was forcing her to smell dog shit.
“Can’t go this way. You’re late,” I repeated, feeling nothing.
“How I’m late?” She yelled.
“How are you late?” I said with disdain.
“Yeah! Explain how I’m late when I just left where I was at!”
I get this kind of stupid shit constantly. Things like, “Mista, I’m not late. I’m goin’ ta class RIGHT NOW!”
“Okay, let’s see. Do you really want me to explain how you’re late?” I ask this to verify that they actually want to hear the answer and won’t just shout me down once I open my mouth.
“Yes! Explain how I’m late!”
“Okay. This is how you’re late.” I had an exhausted tone, knowing full well that I was about to waste a few of my precious remaining heart beats for nothing. “The late bell rang eight minutes ago. That means class started eight minutes ago. You’re still in the halls. You’re late. Do you understand that?”
“But I told you I just left where I WAS!”
You can’t argue with a crazy, so I tried to move on. “Well, even though you’re making complete sense, you still can’t go this way. We close this area five minutes after the period starts.”
“But I’m goin’ right heah!” She pointed over my shoulder as the dog shit started to smell even worse than before.
“Where?” I asked.
“To tha ooooowffice!!!” She started stomping her feet on the floor and looking around excitedly, as if to see if anyone else was witnessing the craziest, most infuriating thing that had ever happened to her.
“Which office are you going to?” I asked.
“Tha Awwwwfussssss! Goddamn! What wrong with this nigga!”
“Relax. I’m just asking you what office you’re going to. Why are you getting upset? Chill.” I thought maybe we could start fresh on a sane plane.
“Don’t tell me ta chill! I’m going to the office to see tha lady!”
I felt like a tiny caveman somewhere deep down in my psyche had just picked up a couple rocks and started banging them together, showering sparks of emotion over my long-dry emotional tender. I was getting angry.
“Which office? The guidance office? The principal’s office?”
“I don’t knooooow!”
“Okay then. What LADY are you going to see?”
“I don’t know! Damn!”
“You don’t know what office you’re going to or who you’re going to see? Who called for you?”
This was asking too much so she steadied her gaze and just barreled through our little blockade. I moved towards her to stop her and she screamed, “DON’T TOUCH ME!”
The “Don’t touch me” line always sets me off. Before that, I’m patient, if a bit exasperated. But once they yell that, it’s on.
I wanted to say, “Don’t touch you how? You mean.. like this?” and start incessantly tapping her on the shoulder like an annoying little brother, but she was walking too fast. She was off to the races. A safety agent, who, along with a line of parents waiting to sign in at the main desk, had been watching the whole thing, called out to me in an attempt to coax me away from the girl, but I was too pissed. I followed close on her heels in blind fury.
“What’s tha matta?” Yelled someone else to the girl.
She whirled around and yelled back, “I’m tryn’ ta go to tha awfuss and this nigga tellin’ me I’m late!”
I turned to see who she was talking to. Standing right there, just hanging out in the halls like it was a street corner, was her fucking sister – just as nuts but in a more masculine way. She looked and acted like a boy, right down to the sexual harrassment complaints we’ve been fielding from any girl that comes near her.
“Fuck that nigga!” She yelled out in support.
I turned toward her and bellowed in rage, “BE QUIET!”
Every living thing in the building seemed to stop what they were doing to turn toward us.
“You be quiet!” She shot back. “I’m tawkin’ ta my sistah! Ain’t got nothin’ ta do with you! YOU BE QUIET!”
Unfortunately, I am limited by standards of professional decency and maturity as to what I can say to students in situations like this and it puts me at a severe disadvantage. But it’s probably for the best.
“BE QUIET!” I screamed again as I approached her. I was right in her face now and continued yelling, “Move! Get out of here! Move!”
“What?!” She yelled back, as if she were the one who was six foot four and two hundred pounds, and I was the one who was built like an eleven year old boy. “YOU MUST NOT KNOW!” She cocked her head to the side a little and bit her bottom lip. “YOU MUST NOT KNOW!”
“Oh yeah? I must not.” I moved in closer.
I’m not sure how I extricated myself from this, but one of us must have eventually turned around and walked away. Then the same safety agent who tried to peel me away before walked up to me and whispered, “Yo, Pistol, just write them down for insubordination and suspend ’em again. You don’t have to deal with that mess. Just suspend their asses.”
The caveman in my psyche was jumping up and down now, screeching, and throwing boulders all over the place. “Fuck them,” I muttered.
I got a call on the radio. It was my boss. “Do me a favah, Pistol: First floor. Elevators.”
The Crips had been acting like they were up to something all day. Our manpower was compromised by the brawl and the arrest and they were taking advantage of it. So I took a deep breath and moved on to my next adventure. When I got to the elevators I saw the usual suspects gathered together, discussing something emphatically. This is still in the middle of classes mind you. Alton Thompson is the head Crip in the building and he was the glue of the gathering. I cleared them out from in front of the elevators but they just slid up the stairs to the second floor like a blob. I continued making the rounds, keeping an eye out for them and trying to head off any further violence for the day when a gigantic man in a red hat stormed past me and out through the main entrance.
“Who’s that?” I asked an agent as I followed him outside.
“That’s the parent of Leroy, the kid who they just arrested.”
Oh yeah, the giant menacing step dad.
“He looks pissed,” I said.
“Yeah he does!”
Red hat was now pacing back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the building like a wild tiger in a cage. He was using his phone and looking around agitatedly.
“Uh-oh,” said the agent. “That’s the victim‘s father right over there.”
Leroy had claimed that he was just taking revenge for getting jumped by the other kid on the street earlier that week, so his family didn’t think it was fair that he was getting arrested for assault. I was worried that I might be about to see something very brutal go down now between the two fathers.
I saw the head Safety officer standing on the street near a squad car so I called her on the radio and drew her attention to the “man in the red hat” and told her to keep an eye on him. Then I went to the office to call the mother of the crazy sisters, who had a different last name from them, each of whom had different last names from each other, which is the standard family dynamic for our kids. The previous notation on the first sister’s file was, “Mom wants her to move in with her father in June and will kick her out if she does not.”
Before I could make the call, the head safety officer walked into the office. She is a bizarre lady (surprise) with harsh, painted-on eyebrows, an artificially pale, mask-like face, a garishly colored hair-weave and a disconcertingly loud voice. “Hey thanks for giving me a heads up about the fatha out there. That was sweet of you.”
“No problem,” I said, a bit confused. She doesn’t like deans and is usually busy stabbing us in the back.
“Yeah because he almost got arrested up here,” she went on.
“Yeah, the fatha. The cops started to cuff his son and he said, ‘My son’s not goin’ anywhere’ and they said, ‘Oh yes he is.’ And he said, ‘No, he’s not goin’ anywhere,’ and they said ‘Then we can take you both’, and they were about to take him down. I had to back up and I brought everyone ovah to this side because it was about to go down. His girlfriend, or whatever she was, had to talk him down, and we snuck the kid out through the other door. And then when I saw him outside it had me thinking, I wish I had worn my vest today. Police vest. The real thing. With the body plate and everything. I have one.”
“Yeah. When I buy a shirt, I wear the vest and make sure the shirt fits ovah the vest. I need to staht wearin’ it. Because we don’t know him, his rap sheet, what’s goin’ through his head. You neva know, and you don’t want that one time to be the time you say ‘I wish I wore my vest today.'”
She went on a while longer, freaking me out about needing a bullet proof vest at my job, until the bell rang and I decided to get out of the building for my free period. I went to the athletic fields and played soccer with an ESL gym class in the sun. Glorious. But fleeting.
When I came back to the office, a bunch of deans were huddled around the computer looking at security camera footage. A scowling member of the Bloods sat nearby. I did a 180 and went to the bathroom to take a piss.
“What’s going on in there? Are the cops here?” A passing agent asked.
“I don’t know. Why? Something happen?”
“There was another fight. They knocked that boy’s tooth out. And mean OUT.”
Sometimes it’s a challenge not to take a tiny bit of pleasure from the knowledge that a kid got what was coming to him. That’s especially true when you have reached out to him and his parents repeatedly and tried to encourage him to go to class and stay out of trouble, taking abuse from him and his parents all the while. The Blood sitting in the office was just such a kid. He got what was coming to him. Hopefully, he can change before he gets what’s coming to him in the future.
Apparently he got beat down by a group. We knew who it probably was, but he refused to identify his attackers, and they did it in an area where the cameras can’t see. Gang members always do that. They’re professionals. But we can’t suspend anybody without a witness or camera footage as proof. But guess who was found walking the halls with a bloody gash on his right fist? The kind of cut that a tooth would make if you hammered your knuckle into it? That’s right. Alton Thompson.
“I closed a door on it,” he said.
“Well ya betta get a tetinis shot! ” Boomed Dean Flint. “And ya betta get yaself an AIDS test too! Just in case that doah has H.I.V!”
The victim’s mom showed up. My boss spoke to her, “Ma’am, your son denies it, but last year, I don’t know if you remember, there was a fight involving your son that centered around him saying he was a Blood. Now this is pretty much a Crip school, so if you say something like that or if you even mention that word, you know…”
“So what happen now?” His mom said in a thick Caribbean accent.
“Well, there’s really not much more we can do. Your son doesn’t want to cooperate, so, with no name there’s really not much more we can do. And by the way,” he said, turning to the boy, “the kid you said is your buddy – your best buddy – we see him on the camera with the guys that did this right before it happened. He’s NOT yoah boy!”
“You’re not allowed to see the video, but trust me. He’s not yoah boy. He sold you out.” Turning back to his mother, “But ma’am, of course we would rather handle it ourselves than have your son trying to do anything himself -”
The boy erupted from his seat, “I’m not lettin’ it ride! I’m not LETTIN‘ it ride!”
My boss and the mother just looked at him silently.
My boss spoke up again, “Uhhh, and we have part of his tooth here. Sooo, I don’t know if you want to keep it. They say if you put it in milk, it kind of protects it.”
When they finally left, an agent turned to us and said ominously, “This ain’t ovah.”
“I want every dean’s classes covered tomorrow,” blurted my boss. “We run this school! NOT THEM!”
If only he meant it…
Oh yeah, and remember Fatima from 3rd period? Apparently, her father refused medical attention on her behalf, took her out of the ambulance, and brought her home with him. Word on the street is that she was suffering from severe menstrual cramping. I remember that she had kept begging me in a weak voice to make the EMTs let her go home. I guess she was embarrassed. Those are some serious menstrual cramps! I hope she’s okay.
I also hope “Wildin'” Wednesday, as I’ve dubbed today — borrowing a term used awkwardly by New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg recently — doesn’t become a tradition at Patriot High like it has on Easter Sundays in Times Square.