It’s a funny thing, but the onset of winter in a New York public school is mostly an experience of heat, the steam radiators clanking louder and louder as they are pushed up to twice full blast. Soon, every window on one side of the building is open, with convection currents visible as the Board of Ed’s capital budget vanishes into the chill December air. So much for efficiency.
Even with the windows open, it’s a dry, toasty, feeling in those classrooms in the winter, as you move about the room with your gradebook open, half the kids still in their parkas, complaining about the draft, and half lolling off their chairs in damp oversized t-shirts, funky with sweat. “Open up your homework open up your homework open up your homework,” you ratatatat repeat yourself, and walk by with a stamp or a checkmark and a swift (and possibly meaningless) mark in the gradebook, because who the hell can collect 200 homework assignments every day to grade: as the stacks and stacks of papers on your desk attest, “not you.”
For yourself, your continuous motion, unnecessary and pointless though it is, and ratatat speech- “I see Eric has his paper out and is copying the lesson ‘AIM,’ I see Vanessa already put her homework out on her desk,” keeps you flushed and parched, on both the good days and especially on the bad. After a hyperkinetic late November double period with class 7-211, in which Heriberto stepped up onto his chair and then jumped from one desk, to another to another, and then- shouting “Matrix!”- vaulted onto the front lab bench, in evident imitation of Keanu Reeves, knocking a large Erlenmeyer flask into the nonfunctional sink with a crash, you find yourself unable to hear out of one ear, and convince yourself that 7-211 has delivered to you an early life stroke, but it turns out just to be dehydration, nothing that half of a gallon jug of water from the bodega can’t cure.
This is how Jerry C. finds you, sprawled like a drunkard half out of your spinny chair, the gallon jug loosely dangling from one hand, when he appears, tiptoeing into the room grasping a bathroom pass from art class, and explains that you can’t keep sending Heriberto to the dean’s office when he does things like jumping onto tables, because while Heriberto is 16 in the seventh grade and Heriberto’s girlfriend is 20 and in college, she has promised to “divorce” him if he is still in seventh grade when she turns 21, which will happen if you keep sending him out of class. You restrain yourself from remarking on how Heriberto’s girlfriend, while no doubt a wise woman, might be better served by pushing the logic of this ultimatum just a bit further, and stop yourself from confiding in Jerry how Heriberto’s skills in romance evidently far outpace your own, your own nighttime activities presently consisting of staring balefully at the stack of 200 papers sitting on your desk at home and trying to dream up ways of keeping everyone from jumping on the desks. But such ressentiment of the powers of youth is but food to the green-eyed monster that mocks the meat it feeds upon, and you let Jerry know you will bear Heriberto’s marital obligations in mind and beseech Young Cupid to hie himself back to art class, faster than arrow from his own bow, and after the classroom door closes behind him you take another swig from the gallon jug and sigh.
But that was weeks ago, and now the winter holiday appears in all your minds, your and the kids’ both, like a psychedelic snowflake in an old TV Christmas special, spinning and entrancing you all with its limitless possibilities. It seems that while there were moments of excitement earlier in the year (the week of the Subway World Series comes to mind, when most of the 7th grade boys stumbled into homeroom each morning like exhausted gamblers after a long night at the tables) there were few moments of hope the way these weeks feel themselves to be, suffused with the promise of freedom from one another and a little peace and quiet, which, no doubt, they crave as much as you. At any rate, your pedagogy has made one small bit of progress; an incipient bronchitis means you can no longer yell, and so your constant refrain of “who has their books out? who is ready to get started?” comes in more of an affectionate croak than the bullying bellow that had been your habit earlier in the year. The students occasionally look up, an expression of pity on their faces (“dear lord, what have we done to this man?”) and get out their papers and copy whatever nonsense is on the board, out of compassion more than anything else.
The day before the break, they cannot stop smiling, and stride into each period to surround you, demanding whether there will be a Christmas party with soda and treats, the way their elementary teachers would do.
“Yeah, my man,” Heriberto reaches over the little kids surrounding you, to pat you on the shoulder, in an older-brotherly kind of way. “We can have a party, we can teach you to bachata and merengue, so you can have some fun. You need to lighten up, you know that?” And he goes and sits on top his desk, with his notebook open on his lap, ready to Do Some Work.
You don’t have soda or cake, but you printed up some of the stupid science vocabulary crossword puzzles they love to do as long as it doesn’t require any thinking, as long as they have all the words along the side and are just matching letters and boxes and don’t really have to figure out what any of the words mean, and while they eagerly work on this important task, you walk around the alternately hot and drafty room, and pass out to each of them individual sheets from a Far Side daily calendar that you had torn out and written on the back, “Dear Julio [or Delores, or Nayales or so on], I hope you have a wonderful holiday and a Happy New Year,” to each of them.
A gift, in its small and paltry way, and most of them recognize it as such, and take it with them rather than leaving it with the half-done crossword puzzles on their desks, when they leave for their two weeks of freedom, and you find left on your desk, next to the untouched and dusty stack of papers, more substantial gifts, most Christmas-related, ceramic Nativity scenes and a large electric clock with angels and baby Jesus, a matched shirt-and-tie set and a CD of mixed merengue and bachata songs.