Under the Obama’s presidential photo, the president beaming with arms crossed, I slowly chewed my tootsie roll and hummed the tune to Simon & Garfunkle’s Punky’s Dilemma. The kids in my classroom adored our first Black president with the big ears and purple smoker’s lips. They mimicked his distinctive mannerisms and the cadence of his voice the way C-town kids of my parents’ generation might have mimicked their beloved JFK, I thought. I bit into another tootsie roll, working through the whole plastic baggie of tootsie rolls, slowly and one by one, methodically unpeeling each wrapper, mounting my silent protest—but, in the principal’s eyes, as it would turn out later, refusing to teach 45 minutes out of a 55-minute class. I hated the few days around Halloween when all the teachers gave out candy to the kids and kids returned the favor by tossing candies and candy wrappers everywhere. That morning, I’d parked in the staff parking lot by 6:30 a.m., which meant I’d left my house at 6—after putting in two, predawn hours meditating and writing in my journal to get my head on straight to be my best for the kids sitting in front of me.
All for the kids….
One of the first teachers to arrive to the building, I had started my school day already worried about the fights that I’d have to break up. Even though I was still technically a long-term building sub, I was expected to step in and deal with the discipline cases. Physically. I had already started thinking about the troublemakers that morning back home in my bathroom as I combed untamable black hair, white streaks peeking through at the temples and sideburns. As I rinsed off the Barbasol then caressed my newly shaven, forty-two-year-old face, I was already dreading the sound of the bell, that teen shuffle, and that awful cocktail of teen smells, eau de Axe body spray and bubble gum and sex-crazed hormones.
That morning at home in Medford, I had closed my eyes, playing out behind the lids how I wanted to show up this day. My coffee pot was one of those Mister Coffees that had a pot brewed automatically on a timer, which I took in two thermoses on my way out the door. Right after arriving at school, I had set up the overhead projector in Room 303 and meticulously written out the irregular form of the three most important Spanish verb tenses and then found a poem that contained the ones I wanted, highlighting how the tenses worked in each stanza. I’d written everything out in dry-erase marker on one of those thin plastic sheets that then went on the projector I’d borrowed from the AV Department.
The other Spanish teacher across the hall was content to simply follow the interactive curriculum the department chair had recommended to her, which tracked perfectly with the high school standards for the state. Not me… I was the long-term sub who happened to be married to a Spanish PhD. When I first started teaching at Charlestown, my Spanish scholar wife would enthusiastically help me to prep my week’s lessons. We traded short stories and poems and primary first-hand accounts so as to spark the imagination of the kids—her college students at Emerson College and my high school kids at Charlestown High. I would then spend countless additional hours retrofitting our original materials not only to the state curriculum, but to what I was learning to be effective pedagogy: backward design, authentic assessments and rubrics, universal design in learning.
Until it all got old….
By 7:10 that morning, just ten minutes shy of the bell, everything was cued up and I’d finished writing the content objective, language objective, and homework on the board as required by the school’s principal and vice principal since they had returned from that recent professional development course mandated by the state. It was just one more detail to remember. Another arbitrary requirement. For the higher-ups, it was all, Do this new thing the state is requiring. Keep your head down. And, above all, CYA-cover your ass. With two minutes to go that morning of the lesson on Spanish verb conjugations, the students came streaming in, glancing at the chart paper on its stand with the classroom rules hastily written in in green marker. At my desk, I sipped coffee from my thermos and toyed with the implements of my calling: student grade book, pencils, a clump of crumbling rubber bands, a worn black board eraser, and one of those ancient red Delaney books designed as seating charts to help me remember the names of the one-hundred some-odd students I would have to teach that day.
At 7:20, the bell rang for stand and deliver time, and, by 7:28 that morning, a few minutes into A-block and after taking attendance, I was tracking with the verbs projected onto the wall when Bruno started tossing the baggie with the tootsie rolls back and forth to Paulo. Instantly, the other kids in Room 303 were all getting into the act. Whey my students attacked, I saw them as a single entity, a beast with a single face with bared teeth and metallic eyes, a whirring wrecking ball headed straight for me. Sometimes when they attacked, I forgot they were individuals—instead they became this herd of little shits who counted their strength in numbers, not courage.
I breathed in and tried to remind myself that they were individuals: little Bruno with the huge smile had arrived from Port-au-Prince at the end of September and still had not purchased a nap sack to bring his books home. Paulo, who’d lived at the Charlestown projects since his middle school years, was from São Paulo and was taller than Bruno, had the first hint of muscle on his biceps and back, and was a stand-out on the school’s soccer team. That one time Paulo and I had bonded over soccer, watching a YouTube video of Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho, who played for my wife’s beloved Barcelona, as he raced across the pitch. Together, we marveled at how Ronaldinho ran so fast that he seemed to vibrate and shimmer, as if electricity, instead of blood, ran through his veins. Paulo had the same cinnamon skin and incandescent smile and street-smart charm as the kids I’d met in Brazil with Mom and my stepdad and my sister while living one summer on the outskirts of São Paulo. That long-ago summer our mom’s new husband, Patrick, took us with him for his meeting with famed Brazilian educator Paolo Freire. It was a bit of a whim, really, but Freire was his intellectual idol and our new stepdad had been thrilled beyond words when the Brazilian’s U.S. publisher had hired him to design the book jacket for the American edition of Pedagía del oprimindo. Giddily, we’d traveled to Brazil that summer with Patrick to spend time with the man himself: my old dog-eared copy of my stepdad’s beautifully designed English edition of Freire’s book, translated Pedagogy of the Oppressed, became like my personal bible, the touchstone for the work I did as an educator.
It was my second year at Charlestown High and, during my short time there, I’d been sprouting more and more white hairs at my temples and sides and easily put on ten pounds. Rather than keeping me young, as some of my fellow teachers claimed it did for them, I felt like teaching high school kids was aging me in place. I’d first been hired in the system as a floating substitute teacher for a one year-contract, which became two, but this long-term assignment at the high school was my toughest by far, and the kids just seemed to take a little piece of your liver on the way out the door. Charlestown High had become the district’s choice for many of the city’s newly arrived Chinese from Guangzhou, Haitians from Port-au-Prince, and Brazilians from São Paulo and held the dubious distinction of being the first school in the state that made the kids go through metal detectors at the start of the school day. In the other schools I’d taught at, my students had loved studying the verb tenses embedded in stanzas of poetry—loved to learn them while they bounced around the rhythms and the sing-songy rhymes, along with the slanted ones.
It was the music of poetry that allowed the Spanish to slip into their young minds.
It had almost worked this day at C-town High, too. Almost…. Until Bruno tossed that baggie of tootsie rolls from the back row of class to Paulo in the front. My classroom was dimmed for the projector so I found it hard to see. As one of the tougher discipline issues, Paulo was purposely seated at a desk right next to mine, which meant I could hear the sound every time he caught the baggie—even when I hadn’t seen who threw it, I had a good idea from the start that it was Bruno. The first thing Mr. Healey did was to walk to the light switch, flick it on, and cock a hip like a traffic cop and stare at Paulo. Stare down Paulo. Then Bruno. That was my priority. Most days, I never sat down during class because high school students read that as weakness. He needs the desk as a barrier. He’s hiding behind the desk.
Stand up. Be a Man. Face the music.
But what about sitting at my desk, kicking my new New Balance sneaks up on the desk, and eating their goddamned tootsie rolls? Now that was a novelty, I suddenly thought, marching back over to my desk after grabbing the baggie of tootsie rolls off of Paulo’s desk, eyeing Bruno, his accomplice. Goddamned you, Paulo. Don’t you know I met Paulo Freire himself, you little twerp?
“Those are Bruno’s!” he whined.
And, whatever you do, don’t crack a smile before Christmas.
But this was the job I’d signed up for. This was, after all, Charlestown High, where teachers were expected to wage an all-out war against a whole litany of student sins, including fighting, pushing, foul language and whining, jumping on chairs and tables, petting, inappropriate internet usage, slam-dunking paper balls in waste receptacles, flashing cash, roughhousing, chewing gum, excessive bathroom visits, colognes and perfumes, and the list went on and on. Every day I collected the students’ cell phones in a cardboard box before class. I drew a line at cleavage and visible thong lines: a male schoolteacher is dead from the waist down, I reasoned, and so it was far safer for me to adopt a rigorous see-no-evil approach.
In professional development courses, we talked about high-minded things like multi-modal assessments and differentiated learning and scaffolding, but veteran teachers like my colleague Sweeney joked that our chosen profession had more to do with the skills set of a “circus animal trainer” than an educator. “You can’t make chicken salad from chicken shit,” Sweeney loved to say. I sometimes caught myself envying my wife: If I had just gone on to pursue my PhD I’d be teaching in college like my wife. Instead, I was a white, male public high school teacher of a certain stature—a solidly built six-footer—and we, above all, served as the stand-ins for the fathers many of these kids never had. We teachers were en parentis loci—parents in this place—and, in many cases, the only role models our young charges had. What that meant for teachers like myself was that the little shits never tired of testing our boundaries, and I, for one, felt overwhelmed by the discipline issues on my plate.
As I’d sweep up my classroom at the end of the day, I’d begin to feel deep, deep despair. Feel like I was the little Dutch boy plugging the surging dam with his finger. Feel like this achievement gap might yawn open and swallow me whole like some pilgrim inside a fable not of his own making. The more senior teachers I worked with had made their peace with the “respect” issue over the years. They were entrenched in the union and logging their years of service until retirement—had the golden handcuffs on so long that they forgot how to take them off.
“Why’s Mister got his eyes closed?” the one Vietnamese student in the class called out when she noticed, about three minutes into my stare-down, that I’d briefly covered my face with my hands, savoring the texture of the confiscated tootsie rolls on both sides of my mouth. All my kids watched, scrutinized, knew me to be, despite my tough exterior, a sensitive “literary” type who loved to get lost in the gauzy language of poetry. Especially the girls. Especially the Vietnamese girl. In class, I’d occasionally have these moments where I would close my eyes and, not even bothered to dream of being the rock star poet I’d once longed to be, I’d pretend I was doing anything else: working as a lawyer somewhere, or the journalist I’d once been, even a college counselor on a leafy campus somewhere. Anything but this. How was it that you could look down, blink, and suddenly you were forty, and—sure—in love with the kids on some abstract level, but simultaneously feeling like you’d missed your calling just like that?
No, I wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all these astute kids right in front of me.
Sometimes, when an especially dark mood struck, I would, in Yeats’ famous phrase, seize “the opposite mask,” and there I’d be vapidly fantasizing in front of thirty teenagers that I was not a humdrum teacher wearing khakis, hands marked up with dry erase marker and smelling of coffee, but one of the globe-trotting poets I would have them read in class: I was Octavio Paz or Heberto Padilla or Roberto Bolaño gallivanting across the globe, giving talks and tertulias, poetry readings and symposia. There I’d be sitting in front of my charges blowing literary bubbles in my own mind and bursting them.
Who was I kidding?
The kids at Charlestown High were expertly attuned to their teachers and would immediately cop to me when I would get that look of wandering aimlessly through what Henry James called “the house of fiction,” blowing literary bubbles and trying to find—among its “many rooms”—the one meant for me. Sometimes when I got that far-away look, Paulo would break my reverie, mocking me with the one Portuguese expression he knew I would get: quem não arrisca não petisca, which literally meant who doesn’t risk, doesn’t snack. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It didn’t matter though, and I was even more obsessed with the Latin American writers: shortly after returning home to the States from a three-year stint as an English teacher in Europe, my wife and I would move to Austin, Texas, where I did a Masters in the Department of Spanish and Latin American Literature, writing a thesis on the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, pretentiously titled in Spanish “Don José Ortega y Gasset y La Falta del Quijotismo en el Siglo XX”. My wife Soledad landed her first real teaching job at Austin as an instructor of Spanish, teaching undergraduates in the Spanish department while I pursued a useless degree.
I was no writer.
Beyond publishing my Masters thesis in an obscure Spanish academic journal and one lousy article in The Prague Post the year I worked in that nation’s capital as an English teacher, I hadn’t published a thing. Instead, I was the worst kind of dilettante, the kind who craved being famous for poems he was too afraid to compose, works of memory he was too afraid to remember, works of imagination he was too afraid to imagine. And what about the work made me so afraid?
This Vietnamese girl from Spanish class, was a newcomer who started out the year nice, but had become meaner through association with her tougher American peers. “Look at Mister with his eyes closed,” she mocked me openly, covering the spurts of laughter coming from her mouth. I’d watched this girl grow from sweet to mocking to downright cruel. She had to in order to survive. So, she always just had my number when I got that far-away look. There goes Mr. Healey again, dreaming of escaping his schoolteacher life—dreaming of writing that bestseller that would solve his financial problems.
All the kids in my classroom had amazing stories of survival, but then these same kids, who could wear you down to a nub, could have you in stitches the next moment. I had some incorrigible Julio-down-by-the-school-yard types and a King and a Queen, but I also had a class clown – in my case another Haitian boy also from Port-au-Prince – whose antics would keep my wife awake at night as I laughed out loud under the covers replaying them in my mind. He and the others in Room 303 were vintage issue: funny, street-smart, and hip to any nuance change in their teacher’s mood. But, by the end of the day, I reminded myself of that character from Saturday Night Live, MacGruber, who was this goofy action hero character, played by Dana Carver, who was always being thrust into impossible situations with nothing more than a shoelace, or paper clip, or button to aid him. “MacGruber, we only have fifteen seconds before the whole building blows and all we have is this paperclip!” Kaboom! MacGruber!!!
Since around the time Bruno arrived from Port-au-Prince, at the end of September, my students were turning me into something I had fought becoming with every fiber of my being: a yeller. A middle-aged white teacher, adrenals shot, pride—let’s face it—just about in the gutter. I blame only myself for becoming a yeller, of course. I had succumbed to compassion fatigue and become something I detested when I was a student: an old-fashioned disciplinarian…someone making their living going toe to toe with students and dishing out the bitterest of tongue-lashings. It stung worse to me because I fancied myself an intellectual—yet what intellectual spent his day yelling so much he grew hoarse by the end of the day? I kept telling myself that it would get better once I got the classroom management piece down, but that’s what kept eluding me. I kept thinking Tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow this will click. Tomorrow the kids will want to read Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and watch the movies of Buñuel and recite the poems of my beloved Neruda.
There were days when I would go home completely hoarse from yelling at kids to “Siddown!” and “Zippit!” and “Knock it off!” – my scatchy bellowing voice became a kind of trademark. Some of my fellow teachers would complain about my schtick, but none offered to take any of the worst offenders off my hands. I realized early into my public school teaching career that the only winning formula for a male teacher of a certain size and stature—the key to survival—was to take all comers. The school’s administrators said you had to get the stare down and that would suffice. I never got the stare down as much as I tried. I tried that day with Bruno. But it didn’t work. So, I stood tall…and I yelled. Loudly. Or, on rarer occasions, sat, bunkered behind my desk with my face buried in my hands.
Somewhere along the way, I started practicing tai chi with the help of a popular DVD, and I became reasonably good at it. The DVD tai chi master talked about moving “a thousand pounds with four ounces.” I didn’t realize then that tai chi is actually all about loosening, rising and sinking, absorbing, merging, and following. In my crude understanding of tai chi, I thought I’d found the solution to all my discipline problems, and, sometimes in the hallways at C-town, I’d pretend I was manipulating the students’ chi as a kind of ninja high school disciplinarian. At the end of that long first Tuesday back at school the week after Halloween, I was sweeping the floor of my classroom when Mr. Sweeney from next door popped his head in my room. Sweeney was a school system lifer, a grizzled veteran with the washed-out gray hair and high blood pressure to prove it.
“Hey, man, helluva day, huh?” Sweeney said to me at the end of the day of my run-in with Bruno, sniffing his own shirt sleeve. In H-block, a kid set off a stink bomb on our unit and everything smelled of sulpherous burnt eggs—my clothes, my backpack, my hair and my skin all smelled of it.
“You ever get that poem read on the overhead?”
“Not really,” I said, looking up from my sweeping, but not before noticing my shoes. When had I let my shoes get so old and scuffed and beat up? When had I stopped caring about attracting mud?
“Mr. Healey, please report to the main office,” the secretary’s voice came screeching over the PA system in my classroom. “Mr. Healey, please report to the main office at your earliest convenience,” she repeated.
“Uh-oh, Matty. You’re in for it now. I can almost hear him now, ‘Mr. Healey did you eat Bruno’s tootsie roll?’” Sweeney said, doing his best Dr. Volpe imitation from the doorway. “Just remember what I told you. Just tell that bastard that you can’t make chicken salad from chicken shit,” Sweeney added, winking. “And if this shit gets serious, I’m union brass, man, and I got your back.”
The principal, Dr. Volpe, was a former veteran elementary schoolteacher from some upscale suburb and was competent with budgets and administration. He had no problem picking up the phone on his desk to interrupt harried classroom teachers at any point during the day with a whispered word over the phone. But he was a fish out of water in the urban environment of “C-Town.” I wasn’t alone among the male teachers, already outnumbered, who instantly resented his comment on his first day as principal when he told a group of newcomer teachers, “It’s a great career for those of you who are mommies.” Fuck you, I immediately thought. Balding and portly like an old-world town butcher, the principal could not have been more out of step with the kids in his school building. Not once did I see him have a spontaneous conversation with one of the kids. He confessed he could not handle the “hormones, moods, and attitude” of the students in the building. He had taken the Charlestown job because he wanted a “real-world” experience, but the true demands of the “diversity” of the student body seemed more than he could handle. If the principal saw a fight in the hallway at C-town, he’d walk right on by. If I saw a fight, I felt it was my duty to walk right up and stand between the boys.
“Mr. Healey,” he whispered me into his office with a sweep of his hand when I appeared at this door. He’d just hung up the phone and was resting a hand on the cradle as if poised to pick it up again. He motioned for me to sit down in front of him. His office was constantly pungent from the gas he passed holed up in there working on budgets and paperwork all afternoon after taking his lunch in the first lunch period. “That was Bruno’s mother whom I called on damage control for you.”
“Do you even know what happened?” I sputtered at him.
“Mr. Healey, er, Matt, listen, I like you but you are here to perform a job. A big part of that job is classroom management. If that big part of your job is beyond your capabilities, then maybe you should look for a job in a less demanding profession. For now, you are on a sort of probation going forward and I want you tell those kids from A-block that you will make up those forty-five minutes,” he said to me, eyes bearing down on me over his bifocals. He let the threat sink into the fetid air in his office. His hand was still on the red office phone.
It was dark when I got to my car in the school parking lot, still rattled from the principal’s whispered threat that Tuesday that I should consider myself on a “kind of probation.” As I drove home, I began to think on the letter my wife Soledad had left me on the kitchen table that morning, complaining about how we never had any money, complaining that she thought I should get a “real job.” With our son now in the picture, she said that she didn’t feel the money was enough. She took her digs at me in the note, calling me Mr. Social Justice on the frontlines of public education. Patrick’s son. Mr. Give me the teacher’s wages. Sign me up, I’ll take the vow of poverty. Did it matter to Soledad that I was as committed to this work—the work of narrowing the achievement gap—as she was to teaching Spanish and Latin American literature to her college students downtown? That my work was supposed to be hard or else it wouldn’t be this work?
“Why are you doing this work?” she asked me that night at supper. My wife was visibly exhausted, sighing deeply as she bit into a plate of spaghetti. “Why teach? “What do you really want to do?”
“Write,” I said.
“Write what?” Soledad asked.
“A story about the kids at Charlestown High,” I said, imagining the writerly equivalent of Ronaldinho streaking across the pitch, body shimmering and alive. “A story about today.”