Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Forbidden Zone: Conclusion

(Sub Report, April --, 2005.
1st Block: I tried to teach the students something about business, what they'll face in the job world. Did not make a lot of headway. Gave them emergency lesson assignment with 25 minutes left in period. Shadae, Unique, Kelli, and Latoya completed it-- no one else.
2nd Block: I kept some of the class busy with emergency assignment ("Buying a Car") plus one of my own. Overall the students were okay.
3rd Block: The class was uninterested, with a few exceptions.
10th Module: Nothing to report.)

After a day of trying to impose my will upon the students, and failing, a tentative truce has been reached. The students minimally cooperate as long as I don't try to change the set way of doing things in the classroom. The dirty little secret of urban schools is that they're run by the students, who allow a facade of control over themselves, so they can get their diplomas (so some of them can anyway-- those who don't drop out) and the teachers and administrators can keep their jobs. The unspoken agreement: We'll pretend to learn and you'll pretend to teach us. (Not that no students learn-- many do, but their learning is something they do on their own, only casually related to the expense of buildings, staff, curriculums, and so on. I can't say I learned a tremendous amount myself in school. My mother taught me to read, as she taught my old man after she married him. My real education came from my jobs and my reading. High school was something I slept through.)

In the office on the second floor, the Principal, his assistant, and the clerks scrupulously construct a bureaucratic masterpiece of a fantasy that all is well. This is shown by the p.a. announcements the Principal regularly makes-- about attendance and academic progress-- to which no one-- not teachers or students-- pays attention. (It takes a day for me to filter out his words from the rest of the noise.) In his office within the office, safely burrowed deep, the Principal exults in his land of make-believe. "Good afternoon. Remember that students must at all times be in proper school uniform. Thank you for your cooperation."

Uniforms! I had no idea the students in this school were supposed to wear uniforms! As I look at the sulky students before me, I in fact now see shards of what may have once been parts of uniforms-- a white blouse here, with sleeves cut off, otherwise covered with assorted paraphernalia. There, what might be black uniform shoes, and navy-blue uniform socks.

My teaching consists of handing out the daily assignment, answering a very occasional question about it. (When I ask students if I can help, I encounter moody silence.) As a learning tool the assignment is useless. To a portion of the students it's ridiculously easy-- grade school stuff not fit for a high school. Another portion has no interest whatsoever in it-- they're occupied gambling, or in planning after school scams. A third portion, tuned out of education from Day One, isn't to the level of even attempting the assignment. For them, twelve years of school has resulted in: nothing. Warehousing.

The parameters of my role are set. The arguments of the first day between myself and the classes have dwindled to mutual silence. I don't completely give up. On Wednesday I leave messages on the blackboard for students to read or not read when they come in-- education by osmosis. Such as: "The Business Spirit: Guy in middle of avenue selling newspapers." The kind of no-pay job which earns the students' contempt, though most of them will end up in exactly such positions or worse. I pick out those who'll be in the slammer within six months of graduating. Many know prison is their fate-- and welcome it. In the rule throughout the school of Strong over Weak, the endless games of Predator and Prey, this institution is preparation for the survival test of incarceration. Fortunate are those who'll stay out of the dungeons. For the salvageable students, a school day is something to endure, little more.

I learn from observation. I sit atop my desk impassively, on guard to break up fights while thoughts run through my mind. Some students are worth appreciating-- even in the toughest class.

The Prima Donna wants to complete the assignment the fastest. Once handed it, she's on a speed clock. Problems with numbers are a breeze for her. Vocabulary questions give her trouble.

"What's this word, 'impudent,'" she asks. "What that mean?"

"Arrogant," I tell her. "You know, like Donald Trump."

"Who he?"

I remind myself they don't watch that TV show on this planet! I compliment her on her work anyway-- she's defined by her pride, evident by her dress and her bearing. By her arrogance! "You so fly," she tells me.

I appreciate Mr. Shorts for attempting the assignments, though he struggles over them mightily. Each day he slides his desk toward a particular girl to ask questions. The girl ends up helping him. On occasions when they think I'm not watching (though I always AM watching) she completes the assignment for him.

On Wednesday I'm able to coax a key to the classroom out of the office. During lunch period I'm able to leave my jailroom. The orange-vested hall monitors and blue-shirted security guards stand at the edges of the vacated hallways. They look bedraggled; overwhelmed.

I have one of them unlock the staff men's room on the floor for me (I still have no key for that). At a small, ancient wooden table inside sits a rumple-haired teacher with his head in his hands. He sighs. "How long you been doing this job?" I ask him. "Fifteen years," he tells me. "Is it always bad?" I ask. He shrugs. "Some days are worse than others!"

Thursday morning I realize the First Block class has become divided. The back two-thirds of the room belongs to the delinquents and their sympathizers. Those who want no part of them, including scattered bullying victims, have pushed their desks close to the front toward my desk for protection. My week's efforts have carved out a safe zone. At least that's something. Should I settle for that? No! My task now is to expand my territory. It's time to attempt an Extra Credit assignment.

"Extra Credit: List five or more business brand names," I write on the board, then hand out sheets of paper to those who'll accept them. The students at the front do so. The assignment is ridiculously simple. Yes, it doesn't "teach" anything. I want the students to at least think about the nature of the world around them; the prevalence of brands, business, corporations. (Even the well-schooled seldom acknowledge the structure of the society in which we live.)

"Brand names are everywhere," I tell them. "Fast food franchises carry a brand name, as do the tires on a car, the labels on the clothes you wear, or the recordings you listen to on your headphones."

The students stare at me for a full minute, then begin scribbling furiously. They bat names back and forth among themselves. Several students in the back part of the room pick up their heads to watch. In what remains of the period, a girl has listed 59 brand names, most of them for women's clothing or accessory articles. She hands in the paper with an impudent smirk. A friend of hers keeps writing right to the bell. "85," she says quietly when finished.

"Hey man, what's the record?" one of the back-of-the-room observers asks me. "85 pretty good." "I don't know," I say. "Must be around 100." He strokes his chin and nods his head before walking out.

I hadn't figured on the competitive aspect of the assignment, but can use it. "A girl in the last period listed 85 brand names," I tell the Second Block students when I mention the assignment. "I think the record's a hundred."

The five brightest students in this my brightest class perfunctorily dig in to the project, after completing the regular assignment. Gigantic Thug #1, surrounded by a circle of desks of his friends, watches the five for ten minutes. "Let me show them how it's done," he at last says out loud, standing up and striding forward. "Mr. Dude, let me borrow one of those paper sheets." I hand him a pen as well.

The best of the best five students approach 80. The giant leaves them in the dust, raising his arms in celebration when passing 85, then the long-held (one hour?) century mark. "Now we set a record no one gonna break!" he announces to his friends and to myself.

At 120 he stalls. His posse of friends begins helping him, offering suggestions, quietly shuffling forward brands. "There!" the giant says when he hands me the paper. "200. No one gonna top that, not in the whole school system." He pauses before easing his enormous bulk out the door. "If I had more time I would've done more."

"200," I tell the Third Block group of prima donnas, card sharps, and future convicts when I mention the Extra-Credit assignment and point to the board. "That's the All-Time World Record, set during the previous period."

"Man. . . .," mutter several of the students at this news. No way can this fact be allowed! This group is the toughest, shrewdest, quickest, canniest of all, and they know it. They look at themselves as if to say, "Which one of us is going to take down that fool record?"

The Prima Donna halts at 50. Many others realize the task is too great and give up. A couple students, though, struggle on. Eventually all hope settles on a young man named Leonard, a card game regular noteworthy for his silence. Students stand over him as he racks up the brand names, one after another. "Clothes," the Prima Donna says. "Cars," says the pint-sized card sharp. "Restaurants," "Sports teams," "Newspapers," say others.

Leonard slows down at the 180 mark. The class becomes lost in thought. Even Gigantic Thug #2 has stopped his stream of cussing and sits pondering. More recording labels. Someone thinks to look at the side of a textbook (the only one in the room) on my desk, and mentions the name of the company. "Does that count?" the student asks. I nod yes.

Interest now focuses on the clock. Is enough time left? The minutes click down. Students peruse their clothes, purses, shoes, radios, watches. The 200 mark is shattered as more industries are thought about, to pour additional dozens of brands into the mix. Gigantic Thug #2 slams his hand on his desk and grins from his madness. At the side of the room the Angry Man, continuing the card game with three others, scowls. "Airlines!" the crazy giant exclaims in response, and several more names go onto Leonard's list.

The bell ends the pursuit of names at 277. The triumph of the record mark is only marginally mitigated for me when the last class, of 9th graders, shows entirely no interest in the project.

Friday, being Friday, is chaos. Many students are absent; many more fill the halls. The students in my classes and I wait for the time to pass; for the cherished weekend. Gigantic Thug #1 in 2nd Block asks my opinion of the basketball season. In 3rd Block the card game goes on as normal. Leonard, though, hangs with a few others around my desk as we discuss movies. Students surreptitiously look at me. Curiosity? Who is this white guy? One offers me a donut, for which I'm grateful.

A loud kicking at the door. A student opens it. Gigantic Thug #2 in the hallway beckons for me. He holds an official-looking slip of paper in his huge hand. "I need this signed," he tells me. It's some kind of cut slip or absence request. I scowl as I look at it. "I don't understand any of this paperwork," I admit as I scribble something on the slip. He grins. "Neither do I!"

"Hey!" I say to the pint-sized hustler pocketing his cash when students are filing out of the room. "Doesn't the house get a cut?" He looks at me for a minute, wondering if I'm serious. "Naaww," he says.

The 9th graders continue their playground behavior, then they're gone and I'm free to escape. In the stairwell as I make my way downstairs stand Mr. Shorts and his gal pal from 3rd period. An invisible bond of affection is evident between them. Despite the obstacles they face, here are two individuals I think will make it.

Substitute teachers are proferred targets for the students-- excuses (if they needed any) to run wild. I'm still new at the game. Will I be able to acclimate myself to these assignments? Will I find ways to reach these young people?

I drop off the classroom key at the second floor office. The bulldog assistant principal, unseen all week, is suddenly alongside me. "Thanks for helping out," he tells me pointedly. Then he's turned, in his bulldog way; is behind the counter sniffing paperwork at the clerks' desks, pondering already what will be required to keep this outpost of education operating next week.

3 comments:

King said...

It looks as if New Orleans zinesters took a bad hit-- projects, distros, zine collections-- apparently wiped out.
An ex-ULAer lives nearby New Orleans. No word on how he's fared.

King said...

Those writers who've refused to acknowledge the existence of social and economic classes in this society are seeing this week that they do exist.

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