Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Forbidden Zone, Part II

"Thinking Like a Businessman."
"The Importance of Business. (Supply and Logistics.)"
"Who Do You Work For?
1.) Corporations.
2.) Government.
3.) Yourself. (Entrepreneur)."

These are some of the things I've written on the blackboard. The bell for First Block has rung but not one student is in the room. Or (as I gather from the mob of students outside) in any room. An array of them in the hall eyeball me. Sounds of destruction can be heard down the way, out of sight. I step back into the room. Eventually, as if on a hidden internal clock, a group of youths enter, loll about, a few taking seats. I close the door. Someone immediately begins kicking it from without, violently. I open it and more students strut inside, wearing masks without trace of emotion. The intermittent influx of students continues for ten minutes. Really, for the entire period, accompanied by never-ending shouting and banging rising up through the building, a raging cacaphony of sound as if this were an insane asylum. I assume my gift of gab will get me by. I begin to speak in an impressive voice. No one pays attention. At best I'm a distraction-- "who is this corny guy?"-- my different skin marking me as truly an alien from another planet.

My words on the blackboard and my well-thought-out presentation are for naught. I try to tell the pupils that life is serious business-- that in a couple months they'll be in the world for real and they'd better get ready, or they'll end up like me! No response.

The hallways are filled with fighting; in the classrooms also-- in mine-- along with bullying, extortion, and continuous verbal degradation of everybody. A student who appears to me to be Chinese is being choked by a larger kid. "Hey!" I yell. The threatening monster releases his prey with a pointing finger: "I want the money today!" and leaves. Taking roll is an impossibility. I give a speech about work, business, self-presentation, being on time-- "Half of any job is showing up." A few students listen, others snarl, I've quieted some of them at least. To my right, a shaking, sweating, twitching student is unable to remain in his seat. He asks me for a hall pass. I scribble one to lessen the chaos.

It occurs to me that throwing so many hyperactive young people together into closed rooms is a mistake. Stifling inhospitable crowded rooms in an old structure of broken windows and doors, few books, non-existent or inoperable equipment with which to teach-- it'd be superfluous anyway. I plow ahead with my words while backtalk insults side-show arguing pushing wrestling never ceases. Things in the hallway are worse. "Outside!" I tell two young men about to square off. Thinking: Get out of this room to where there's actual fighting. I close the door behind them, knowing again will come the inevitable loud hinge-shaking kicking.

As a teacher I'm not supposed to touch students, and have to watch what I say. (Or face suspension and lawsuits.) Students verbally assault the teacher with the most creative taunts and sing-song rhymes, hold their fists up to his face-- "You want some of this?"-- threats and mocking. The teacher remains oblivious. A wall quickly goes up to filter out the abusive noise. I move among the desks attempting order, breaking up fights, engaging in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations. "This is YOUR time," I tell them. "YOUR opportunity; your moment for preparation." They don't hear a thing. My name's on the board. They call me instead "Mr. Dude."

"What are you going to do when you get out of school in two months?" I ask one smart-aleck, pointing at him. He tells me he'll open a nightclub with topless dancers. I ask him questions about managing it. The smart-aleck says he'll hire people. "How will you keep them from ripping you off?" I ask. "How will you keep your bartenders from giving away all your stock, or shorting the cash?" I tell him tricks to watch for. The truth of what I relate leaves him silent. He sneers, then turns away.

With twenty-five minutes left in the ninety-minute period, realizing I'm unable to reach them, I hand out the emergency assignment left by the regular teacher. The students loudly complain they don't have enough time to complete it. "Do your best!" I say. Few try. I give away extra pencils I've brought with me. I see the pencils rolling across the floor uselessly, settling among gathering soda cans and candy wrappers which I'll have to pick up between periods.

With my second class I vary my strategy, handing out the assignment first. Maybe this will occupy them. Several students finish quickly, then begin goofing and laughing while I see, to my surprise, most got all the answers right. (But others in the room stare at the assignment as if it were a blank page.) I write an Extra Credit Assignment on the blackboard, erasing the crap I'd put up there. "Describe a Business You'd Like to Own," I write with the chalk.

"The business could be anything," I say as I hand out blank sheets of paper. I give a few examples. "Use your imagination."

The smart-aleck's imaginary nightclub had given me the inspiration. I'm curious to see what the students will write. Five of them discuss among themselves, then write intently. The rest of the class remains uninterested. Some turn their desks into a circle, shutting out the world. Others listen to music on headphones. Two girls dance together in back. One boy puts his head on his desk and sleeps. Another stares straight ahead. I ask if I can help him with the regular assignment, which rests before him without a mark on it. "This is stoo-pid," he says. A girl comes up to me, shows me a cheap watch she wears and asks me what time it is. Five minutes later she asks me again. For me, as much as for her, the time drags!

I collect the extra-credit essay assignment, done by two boys and three girls. The businesses described are a barber-shop, a clothing store, a sporting goods store, a hair salon, and a Christian magazine. The essays are surprisingly good. I try to compliment the five students. Their faces turn away from mine, rejecting any acknowledgement, as they join the parade of the rest of the class leaving the room, on their own schedule five minutes early.

I don't try to control the Third Block group, which appears most riotous of all. I've reached my exasperation level and don't want to "lose" it. In walk the worst collection of juvenile delinquents ever seen on one planet. They glare in a collective body at me as I sit atop the desk. I try not to glare back. "Sign the roll sheet," is my only request. Their assignment sits on the desk next to it. I attempt to hand it around. Few students accept it. In the back corner a card game begins.

In my head I assign the students names. "The Angry Man"-- an ugly sour-faced inferno of uncontrolled rage. "The Prima Donna"-- braids and beads, the prettiest girl in the room and knows it. "Mr. Shorts"-- a short guy with very baggy shorts, wearing a black cap with bill turned up. "Gigantic Thug #2" (#1 was in last period)-- sitting in the back row unleashing an unceasing torrent of ethnic abuse probably aimed at me. I'm in no mood to investigate. The other students keep a safe distance from him; a wise policy. The card game goes on heedless, run by a pint-sized hustler flashing a thick roll of bills. The Angry Man slams around desks and cusses out the others in the game, including Pint-Sized, but keeps turning over his money. All the while Gigantic Thug #2 is shouting continuously at nobody and at everybody. I can only observe, shake my head, and smile at the mad picture in front of me.

"Are things like this for the regular teacher?" I ask a girl in the front row. She shrugs apologetically and says yes.

The last class of the day in the room is one of 9th graders. They make the same noise, know the same vulgarities, take the same stances as the older students-- but the performance is unformed, as if they're still learning the roles. There's a tentativeness about their toughness; sometimes the masks drop. I wonder how much of the "ghetto" attitude is affectation. Are they trapped in their self-destructive poses? One of the girls tells me she strips at a club. "You're too young," I say. "I have fake ID," she brags. She's proud of herself-- trying to prove to me how depraved she is. Can one change these codes of behavior?

The boundaries of my role are clear to me. Forget the "curriculum" and teaching. That's impossible in this environment. I'm a glorified underpaid babysitter. If I can maintain a minimal semblance of order-- keep most of the students in the room; get a few to complete the assignment-- I'm ahead of the game. It's impossible to change a pattern set by sub after sub, teacher after teacher-- and by the neighborhood, which waits everpresent in all its shattered impoverished debris outside the grimy windows of the classroom.

Not once, more like 500 times, I tell myself I'm not paid enough for this shit ($40 a day), there's no way I'm coming back. I'm going to call the agency when I get home and tell them to forget it. But early the next morning without thinking I board the northbound train, get off at the unnamed stop which exists on no map-- in the middle of a wasteland-- and walk the mile through devastated Zytronian streets to the school for another day of psychological punishment.

(To be continued.)

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