I had two worst days teaching in the Bronx. The second, I’ll get to some other time. The first was a Friday before a long weekend in February, my first year, and I had just about gotten through 8th period with my insane homeroom class, 7-221.
You called the groups of kids by their grade and their homeroom number, even though they moved around the building from class to class all day: 6-229 and 6-231, 8-215 and 8-217, 7-211 and 7-221 were my six classes. My homeroom was insane because they were my homeroom, and the homeroom teacher had chief responsibility for disciplining their class, even if (as in my class) they saw me mostly for a few minutes in the beginning and end of the day, along with a random splatter of science in the weekly schedule, and spent most of the day in math and reading. It was still your responsibility as homeroom teacher to keep them in line.
The school’s main discipline system was the Section Sheet. Every day, a kid was picked to carry around a photocopied worksheet from class to class, and at the end of the period the teacher would give the class a grade from 1 to 5 and write some kind of comment in the box, like “2: Joey and Jose throwing paper balls,” or “4: Talkative but good work!” and so forth. Then it would be the responsibility for the homeroom teacher to grill Joey and Jose, or call their parents, or get the floor dean Mr. Melman involved who would bring them into his office to grill them or call their parents.
It was all shadowboxing, of course, getting their parents mad enough for the kids to be a little scared but not so mad that they hit the kid or punished them badly enough that they came in sullen and angry for the rest of week or month or year. Calling a kid’s house for misbehavior worked the first time, mostly, a little, and stopped working soon thereafter. Calling a kid’s house for improvement instead of misbehavior worked beautifully on most kids but was dangerous– if you made a “good call” and then the kid didn’t get a good grade at the end of the quarter, the parent would, reasonably enough, be pissed.
In any case, you were supposed to go through a bunch of rigamarole with your homeroom and the Section Sheet at the end of the day. “Shantae: not participating in gym class! I’m disappointed. Franklin: hitting in the line at the end of reading? I think I’m going to have to call home, what do you think?” If the homeroom teacher was sufficiently fearsome or morally authoritative, the threat of merely writing the name down on the section sheet in another class would inspire terror; for several years I kept an audio tape of my class I made one day, where for a few minutes all you hear is inaudible background chatter and a piercing voice repeatedly screaming, “DON’T WRITE DOWN MY NAME!”
I, of course, didn’t have that kind of fearsomeness or moral authority. I had lost a good deal of credibility from the very first day, when seventh grade was called down to the auditorium and the names of kids by homeroom teacher were called. Everyone wanted Mr. Finer, a fat, funny, foul-mouthed English teacher who looked like a 6’3″ version of The Penguin. I had grown a beard that summer and wore a tweed jacket in a misplaced desire not to look 21 (Youth, wasted on the idiotic young, I tell you), and Shanequa took one look at me standing along the wall of the auditorium and said what everyone was thinking: “Cornball.” When thirty-one names were called for my class instead of Mr. Finer’s, there was a long and audible groan that spread across the rows of seventh graders before they got up and lined up behind me.
I brought my class back to room 221, the cavernous but dysfunctional science lab I had been assigned; I assigned them seats by passing out index cards with seat numbers on them and called the roll. The class was cheering up after the disappointment of not being in Mr. Finer’s class, snickering when Kwame told me I should call him Kwe or Danny told me I should call him DJ, and filling out the emergency contact cards I had left on each sheet. This was school– boring and pointless enough, but after a whole summer of not seeing each other, it was a bit of fun just to be back and see what happened next.
What happened next was Floyd DaCosta. I had been warned about Floyd– Mrs. Moskowitz, the gnomish 6th grade math teacher next door, had scanned her wizened finger down my homeroom list: “loud, loud, sweet, smart, loud, oh you’ve got Floyd.” But when I called roll he wasn’t there, though his birthday was, a good seventeen years and change before the date he was supposed to show up in seventh grade and learn to care about solving proportion problems and reading Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. I marked the bubble next to his name in the ATS scantron attendance sheet: absent. Right afterwards, he came in through the classroom door, taller than me (or Mr. Finer), long braids and do-rag, no bookbag but a mechanical pencil behind his ear. All the kids– most of them twelve, with a few thirteen year olds, two fourteen year olds, and one sixteen-year old in there– looked up from filling out the emergency cards as he strolled into the room, ignoring my proffered index card with his assigned seat, and sat down in an unoccupied seat in the back. Everyone watched Floyd to see what would happen next.
“What, all eyes on me?” he said, in a deep bass-baritone. Everyone pretended to look at their emergency cards again.
“‘sup, Floyd,” said Precious, the sixteen-year-old.
“School,” he said in disgust, and closed his eyes as if to close out the indignity of being in this little-kid class, and kept them closed until the bell rang for everyone to get up and go to their next period. Then the PA turned on– “will all teachers please hold their homeroom class for an additional period until the student schedules are ready.” We all sat down, and I passed out the work I had been planning for the first science period. Then, the PA came on and told us to keep our class for another period, and I tried to teach the lesson about the scientific method I had vaguely planned for the next day. “Problem, Hypothesis, Experiment, Results, Conclusion,” I said. Floyd got up and walked out.
Franklin- a fine-featured Dominican kid with a timid voice- raised his hand. “Can I carry the Section Sheet?” Someone had explained the section sheet to me, but I didn’t really get the importance kids placed on it. “Sure,” I said, and went to hand it to him. “You should get a folder for it, so it doesn’t get ripped,” some kids yelled. “Don’t give it to Franklin! He’s bad.” “You should write down that Floyd walked out of the class.” I gave Franklin the sheet, which he placed ceremonially into an empty folder and held like a sacred chalice in front of him while he got in line to go to the next class.
Floyd turned out to be the least of my problems. He barely showed up after the first day, and when he came he was quiet. He’d sit down, pretend to do a few questions on whatever worksheet or whatever we were doing, then walk out a few minutes before the end of the period, so he wouldn’t have to line up with the little kids. It was insane that he was there, just like it was insane that Precious and Heriberto (the other 16-year-old seventh grader, in the other homeroom) were there, not-learning the same three paragraph essay formats and American History dates they hadn’t learned three or four times before. But we wrote down grades for him, until one day he disappeared from the ATS attendance sheet– locked up or transferred to a special school, there were different stories– and he was someone else’s problem.
In any case, I had two hundred other problems– six science classes, with the two sixth grade classes so big (40 and 42 respectively) that several kids carried their desks with them from class to class. It wasn’t just my cornballishness that stopped me from keeping my homeroom in line: it was my science class. The section sheet system worked fine if every class had a roughly equal incidence of misbehavior, so that the burden was balanced across homerooms. But my science class, especially in the two 7th grade Physical Science sections, was an explosion of adolescent energy and lab station matter from day one. The electrolysis of water experiment led to washing soda on the ceiling and old vinegar coursing across the floor. Meanwhile, my experiences working in schools in Philadelphia two years before were of little avail to me, since I was totally unprepared for organizing three different subjects for two hundred kids. I couldn’t even handle the section sheet- I’d be writing on one of the flip-chart pads I hung around the room with a Magic Marker (my chalkboard handwriting proved too illegible for anything but emergencies) when a paper ball, then another, then another would pass across the room, as an impromptu demonstration of kinematics. I’d cast around for the section sheet-where was it where was it- and when I finally found it, scribble down the names of the probably offenders in Magic Marker, which just added to the general note of ridiculousness of my class when it came time for Moskowitz or Finer or Flucus or any of the other teachers with a clue what they were doing to review the sheet at the end of the day.
But back to 8th period that Friday in February, lo these many years ago. Everyone knows the week, and the school day, have their own rise and fall dynamic, like a Mahler symphony or a Led Zeppelin show. Monday’s child was sour of face, mad to be back in school; Tuesday through Thursday you could get some work done; Friday’s child was in a frenzy at the prospect of getting out of there. Same with 8th period. 7-221 would tear in from 7th period gym, straggling up the stairs, all red in the face from dodgeball or steal the bacon, first Jeffrey, then DJ, then Janeris, rushing in and sprawling on the nearest seat at hand, huffing and puffing, then demanding to go get some water from the hall. At first I tried to reel it in, one kid then the next, each with a semi-official hall pass going down to the water fountain, leering at Senor Hernandez’s bilingual class next door, then slowly sauntering back. But the kids would all claim to have asthma (this was the South Bronx, so it wasn’t that implausible) and that they were going to have an attack if they didn’t get some water right away. Then, I gave up and lined everyone up to take them to the water fountain, where everyone acted like Chevy Chase in the Three Amigos, and by the time we got back the class was halfway over, at which time Arthur would finally show up from gym, bouncing his basketball once, twice between his legs and shoots off the the wall over the blackboard. Around December, I gave up teaching any kind of real lesson Fridays 8th period (forgive me, Teach for America, for I have sinned) and would pass out some science vocabulary crossword puzzles or other busywork and walk around joking and glowering at them if they threatened not to write down that _ _ _ _ _ _ _ : Mass/Volume wasn’t density, or whatever.
It was still touch and go, but that Friday I was sure I was in the clear. The bell was soon to ring, the three-day weekend was so close I could taste it, and I told everyone to line up.
Franklin had, in fact, turned out to be a terrible Carrier of the Section Sheet. Despite his angelic demeanor that first day, he was constantly and near-silently telling other kids the precise words that would drive them absolutely bonkers. Johnson, the inclusion kid with a zeroth-grade reading level, was his most frequent target, but everyone would come in for it sooner or later, and howl with rage before striding over to him to wrest the section sheet from his hands in hope of scribbling down his name (“since you don’t do nothin anyway!” with an accusatory finger at me) on the sheet.
On the day in February, Danny D. (not DJ, Danny J.) and he had lined up with the rest of the kids tapping their feet in anticipation of the three day weekend just like me, when boom! Franklin had whispered something unforgivable to Danny and Danny was on top of him on the floor, arms flying.
Let’s pause the tape right there, as I was hauling Danny off of Franklin, and observe that for all the craziness in that school (the school was threatened with State Takeover that year and was put under State Supervision the following year) roughly none of the boys had expressed any interest in hurting each other up to that point. Some chest bumping, some growling, some yells of “Hold me back! Hold me back!” and then they were only too happy for you to hold them back. The girls were a different story, as one wild hair-pulling incident between Irina and Sanjida had revealed, but the boys only wanted to be seen to be eager to fight, not to do it. (I’ve observed one exception to this pattern- in India, I took a hike through the woods near the Sarahan temple they based Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on, and I saw two boys, one big and nattily dressed, the other tiny in a stained shirt, wailing on each other with fist-flying abandon. They stopped as I approached, I offered them my water – the big kid refused and the tiny kid accepted- and then got back to punching each other.)
But let’s unpause the videotape. I pull Danny off of Franklin, hold him back underneath his arms, while Franklin stood up and with a look of cold determination, gave Danny a right cross (THUNK!) to his face while I held him back. I gaped, and let go of Danny, who coughed in shock and pain – it was an act of such (literal) underhandedness I was speechless.
The bell rang, and Franklin dashed out, followed by 7-221, abuzz with what just happened, followed by Danny, fat-lipped and eager for revenge. Mr. Melman, the dean, caught him at the door.
“Did you put what happened on the Section Sheet?” he said to me.