PASSING TIME, PART 8: Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

One of the best and worst things about being a public school teacher is that, under ideal circumstances (funny phrase, that, as we shall see), your classrooms are random assortments of the American public. At this moment in time, the mere evocation of that latter entity is enough to put a shiver up even an American’s spine. I, however, enjoy—and enjoy being part of—the American public; the tendency of technology to thrust our worst moments into our collective faces 24 hours a day can sometimes make us seem monstrous to ourselves, but a pernicious selectivity is at work there. I have always loved the challenge of teaching a cross-section of 25 to 30 students at a time. How do you teach Macbeth to a group of kids ranging from the scion of one of your city’s most powerful and educationally-enriched families to a young scuffler in his third foster home whose learning experiences has been so frequently disrupted that he can barely read and write, despite considerable intelligence? I have no desire to mountain-climb, but I’ve always been attracted to finding the answer to a question like that. Why? Because it makes me feel like a committed, involved citizen who believes in the ideal of equality. I crave that feeling, and I hate processes (like tracking and segregation—the latter is still with us) that separate us from each other when we take our seats in the Church of Reason. But, sweet Jesus is it difficult to stay happy and be successful while pursuing that feeling!

I am often asked, “What’s the hardest class you’ve ever had to teach?” I’ve had some boogers, like an experimental history-language arts block class that started with 53 students and ended with 23, and featured classroom dust-ups and firearms arrests—as well as a fantastic feast of Greek cuisine after we’d survived a unit on The Odyssey and antiquity—in between. Or a 10th grade class where tracking had resulted in a population of 50% hostile white rural kids and 50% hostile black urban kids, none of whom had had much success with English. In that class was a student who’d set his sister on fire and was so dosed with anti-psychotic meds that he was barely conscious, as well as a student who, one day while we were discussing our class novel Shane (that’s right—Shane), stood up, yelled “FUCK THIS BOOK!” and threw it in my face. In that class, too, was a student who, twenty years later, is in my mental Student Hall of Fame for being a great critical thinker, a speaker of fiery honesty, and a friend who taught me twice as much as I ever did him (though I did turn him on to Cypress Hill’s debut album!).

Class from Hell honors, however, go to a class I taught in the mid-‘Oughts that, on the day I walked in to meet them for the first time, seemed quite normal. Most teachers will tell you that even the most incorrigible collections of ne’er-do-wells will lie low for the first week or so—then spring, and you best be steeled. By the time I encountered what I have since always known as “Sixth Hour”—I have taught at 25 sixth-hour classes, so that gives you an idea of the impression this one made—I had twenty years of experience and a reputation for stellar classroom control sans Stalinist tactics. In fact, I’d reached the point where I’d quit even worrying about or planning for classroom management; I’d walk in every day and do what most non-teachers think we do every day: just teach. And that was my plan as I first engaged “Sixth Hour.”

Now, this wasn’t a huge class; in fact, the classes I’ve always had the most difficulty with have been small ones. They numbered about twenty, a little over, I think. It’s fun now—and only now—to recall what I didn’t know about the students among them on Day One. There was a taciturn, ‘6 “3 white supremacist daily wrapped in a black trench coat who’d been in two “boys’ facilities” already. There were a set of terrible twins, one extremely smart, loud, and ready, willing, and able to hate my guts—but an excellent student!—the other extremely smart, loud, and ready, willing, and able to hate my guts—and an awful student! Their relationship? Close—and subversive. Joining them was their childhood best friend, who, unlike the twins, had endured a difficult raising, sported what I can only call a very raw attitude and an imaginatively filthy mouth—and would become the best pure writer of the whole bunch. There was an equally raw young lady whose uncle had committed a most heinous triple-homicide that was fresh not only in the town’s memory, but the young lady’s as well. There was a young man who would set the record for the lowest academic percentage of any student I have ever taught (11%, if you’re curious), who would happily and matter-of-factly not “do” assignments or “miss” classes, who loved to chat and didn’t mind being reprimanded, at all—and who would end up being my next-door-neighbor and landscaper. There was a young man from one of the rural communities outlying Columbia who loved George Jones, Gary Stewart (look him up), Merle Haggard, whiskey, beer, a student in one of my other classes (whom he would marry) and trucks—but wasn’t too sure about black people, and found a seat right next to my desk after sizing me up as an ally. There was a hip, artistically talented, and funny gal who would really, really enjoy drugs that year—as well as happily and matter-of-factly not doing assignments. There was one academic leader, one young woman who would make an A from start to finish, who would contribute intelligently and civilly to discussions, who would smile—believe me, that was a rare physical feat in this class if you don’t count psychopathic grins—who would do her homework, who would play well with others—and who would get pregnant second semester and go on homebound right as the dog days hit. That’s 45% of the class right there, folks. The other 55%? I would classify them as “innocent bystanders.”

After a quietly tense first three days, the twins launched their opening assault. I had put a group activity in motion, and was circulating to check their progress and, covertly, sharpen up on kids’ names. I paused to look at the “good” twin’s notes, and she jerked her head at me and snarled, “What do you want?” I remember laughing quietly and saying, in good humor, “Not much at this point.” From across the room, the bad twin hollered, “You don’t have to get smart-ass with my sister!” Her street-hewn pal, sitting next to her, stood up and added, “I don’t like you. I am going to my counselor.” A tension swept across the room, then a silence covered us liked a steamed towel, then I scanned the room and bawled, “What are you lookin’ at?” Not really (I wish!). Instead, I sternly counseled everyone to get to work, called guidance to be on the lookout for my escapee, and affected a dark grimace that, for the time being, kept most the class on task for the rest of the hour. In the back corner of the room, the white supremacist glowered.

A few weeks later, we were in the midst of a study of one of my favorite books (it’s been mentioned a few times already), Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. A moving examination of the Jim Crow South, personal responsibility, and the death penalty (it’s actually a little bit existentialist, too), I had purposely chosen to introduce it early in the year, as I had by then discerned that many in the class had what I call “melanin content issues.” Little did I know that this innocent masterpiece would contribute to three of the most disturbing incidents I have ever witnessed in public education, though with strain you might call them teachable moments. You be the judge.

 

Moment 1. On-line education had just begun to take hold at our school, and, after training the kids to use our Internet discussion platform, I set up a forum for them practice in. Students had already encountered aspects of Jim Crow in the novel, and I’d shared with them an article that listed and described the “devices” used to maintain separate inequality, linking it, too, on the forum. Not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, I asked them to isolate the techniques that they found most despicable. That’s a horrible prompt; I had called for little critical thinking, and (disorienting as this may sound) the request gave them no choice in how to think about Jim Crow taken whole. I know you know what I was thinking: Who’d actually write, “Well, I kind of like that separate swimming pools idea”? The hulking white supremacist, that’s who! In response to the prompt, he had actually written, “I think these laws are all pretty appropriate, except the ones that discriminate against the blind.” (Yes—Jim Crow had “solutions” for the sightless, too.) He didn’t give a damn about my prompt; he said it like it was. The big problem was, I didn’t get a chance to look at student posts until the next afternoon, 15 minutes before their class was to begin, after which time several students had already gotten a load of what the kid had written, and responded—including the girl with the murderous relative whose nerves and heart were still afflicted, who was needless to say, black. And she had unloaded on the guy.

Obviously, I couldn’t blame her at all—had I gotten on the forum quickly enough, I’d have deleted it, then set up a conference with the guy—but it had been rendered in all caps, written with such fury as to be nearly unintelligible, featured glorious obscenities, and closed with the information that she was going to kick the guy’s ass in front of class the next day. Nice! On one level, I was thinking, “Fuck yeah. It’s on! I think she can take him.” On the level of sanity, I was thinking, “I have to nip this in the bud, post-haste, and I have, oh, ten minutes to get to the classroom before they do!”

I managed to beat most of the kids to the room, and when our potential ass-kicker came in, she made a bee-line for my desk and told it to me straight: “I will kill him if he comes in here.” She was angry and crying, and somehow I was able to walk her outside and convince her to report the incident to her principal, and I’d back her up—though I quickly realized that, in my panic, lest more students see the dude’s post, I’d deleted it. There went the evidence—and I guess his right to free speech, though I am not sure even now how I would handled it had I left the post up and addressed it. I hustled back to the room, entering just as the potential ass-kickee was entering. I stopped him—not the easiest thing to do, as he had four inches and about forty solid pounds on me—and asked him why he’d chosen to post what he did.

“It’s what I think, man. I don’t like those people, honestly, and I don’t care whether they know it.”

Well, OK then. I kept level. “Uh, the problem is, this room’s and that Internet forum’s a place where learning can only happen when we address each other civilly, with some historical awareness of what certain groups have been through, and, honestly, it’d be easy for someone to call what you posted a threat against other kids in here. And that trumps free speech. You’re gonna get called to the office, so I’d get my ducks in a row.” I stopped and thought. “You know, I completely disagree with what you posted and I’m disappointed in you, but I think you’re smart enough to learn from this, and I still want to be your teacher.” He looked at me, slightly confused, nodded, and took his seat in the back of the classroom, awaiting the office pass. This was just September.

 

Moment 2, anyone? As I’ve mentioned, A Lesson before Dying deals with the death penalty. A young black man, falsely convicted of the murder of a white shopkeeper, is sentenced to death. The year is 1948. There will be no cavalry coming to save him. In order to engage the class’ minds more completely, I scheduled two guest speakers, one a vociferous and indefatigable death penalty opponent, the other a local prosecutor who had asked for death penalty sentences on numerous occasions. The activist gave an impassioned presentation, but did not employ much rhetoric—I think, from his point of view, he saw it as a trick—and was (this only makes sense as a weakness with this particular class) nice. The last kid out of the class muttered the verdict: “That guy was a damn hippie. He was kinda lame.” The prosecutor whipped out every rhetorical weapon snapped into his attaché case, made edgy jokes, made Eastwood eyes, and applied a dollop of meanness—all of which this class loved, even though his case for the death penalty was pretty weak. He was winning the class over to the necessity of the death penalty—until he revealed that he’d been the prosecutor who’d secured the death penalty for…the triple-murderer who was also Miss Ass-Kicker’s uncle! Who tended to be absent every other day but was very present on this one! And who launched a verbal assault on the area’s most well-known prosecuting attorney (and soon-to-be-judge) the likes of which he might not have had to weather before! Could I have known at that time that her uncle might have come up in conversation? Honestly, no—their shared last name was quite common, and I’d heard nothing about it from guidance counselors or juvenile officers or anyone at that point.

She soon exploded into an even more volatile level of turbo-rant, one of intermittent coherence that didn’t really challenge the idea of the death penalty but very effectively communicated that she was upset that the attorney had had anything to do with a trial in which a relative of hers was found guilty. The class was stunned, then, as was their wont, they began to turn—on him, rather than me (for a change).

The attorney tried to sneak me a “How many more minutes before class is over?” look, but the class knew that one all too well, and turned up the steam—not so much because they disagreed with his perspective, but because they could plainly see that he was a little shaken. “Bloody meat in shark-infested waters” is a metaphor that’s easy to apply in this biz, and just enough time remained in class (about five minutes) for the attorney to feel why.

 

Moment 3—and please remember: this is the same got-dang unit. First quarter was not even over yet! One of the assessments I’d devised for the Lesson Before Dying study was an essay in which students defined their idea of heroism by writing about a historical hero who represented it. As I have done often through force of habit and love for writing, I wrote a model paper for them (which I still have) about D. Boon, the ill-fated guitarist and singer of San Pedro’s ground-breaking punk band, The Minutemen. Also, as usual, I had an ulterior motive: to trick some of them into listening to The Minutemen! After I explained the assignment, everyone seemed clear on the expectations—even mildly enthused about doing the writing. By the next class period, they needed to have three “heroic” choices subject to my approval, and a little prewriting completed. Not an hour-and-half later, I was mysteriously summoned to one of the principals’ offices.

As I entered, I saw our young white supremacist slouching in one of the chairs, and the principal asked me to have a seat.

“This young man has me to understand you have assigned a paper on heroes in your English class.”

“Yup. Pretty standard, I think.”

“Mr. Overeem, he also has me to understand that you have approved his choice of subject matter, which is Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. I take it you know who they are?”

“Say WHAT??? No, I just made the assignment today! I’m supposed to approve choices tomorrow.”

“Well, our young man was caught looking at black market gun sites as well as images from the Columbine massacre, and he told his teacher you said he would have to do that for research purposes. Is that true?”

“You have got to be kidding me. Man, you know me. Why would I have said that?”

“Well, you do operate outside the box frequently, and our policy isn’t that the student is always wrong.”

I turned to White Supremacist Man-Child. “Dude, first, tell him the truth!”

He stared flatly into the principal’s eyes and said, “Naw, he didn’t approve it, but I knew he would because he treats me fair.”

Oh, thanks! “Man, why, oh WHY do you think I would have approved Harris and Klebold? How are they heroic? Seriously?”

“That’s easy. They quit putting up with being bullied and they made the bullies pay. To me, from what I’ve seen in school, that’s something I can look up to.”

I looked at my feet. I looked at the principal. I looked at White Supremacist Man-Child. “Um, that’s a very, very simplistic account of what happened. OK, I can understand your thinking, but I wouldn’t have approved it for several reasons. One is that material is too volatile right now—even though there are a lot of ways to think about it. Another is—well, if they were the only choice available, maybe. But can’t you think of someone else where there’s more historical perspective?”

“Charles Manson?”

I rolled my eyes, ignored him, and continued. “Also, as a result of the Columbine event, any student that accesses the kind of material you accessed today is gonna land in an office. So I guess it’s your heroes’ fault we’re sitting here, and that’s another reason I wouldn’t approve it. I am all for you choosing an unorthodox or rebellious figure to write about—I guess I question your sincerity in choosing these guys. I’m starting to think you’re digging the kind of attention you’re getting.”

“You may be right,” he answered, looking straight at me.

“How do you want me to handle this,” the principal asked.

“Well, he’s gotta pick a different hero—or, better yet, since he didn’t tell the truth about my involvement, I’ll pick his hero, and as long as he completes the paper and steers clear of questionable Internet research, we’re even.”

“No referral,” the kid asked, surprised.

“No,” I said, the principal nodding as I answered. Privately, I was starting to wonder if being reasonable and understanding might end up leading to something far worse. Still, I felt I’d handled it fairly.

I assigned him an essay justifying Malcolm X as a heroic character. I couldn’t resist. Sucker made a B, too, though I can’t quite confirm that he “learned something.” I’d also like to be able to say that was the beginning of my success with him, but he was expelled shortly after turning in the paper for being found with a machete in his gym bag during a pot bust across from school. He later got his GED, had success on the college level in psych classes, and ended up a marksman in the U. S. military. Comforting, eh? I really should print out these pages and send them to Mr. Gaines, for his amusement and, perhaps, edification.

 

You’d be excused for wondering how I survived the class after such a start, and I did leave many days feeling a complete failure—something I frankly was not used to. As nuts as the beginning was, I think you can see that I did my level best to engage them, force them to think, and refuse to run away screaming. I tried everything, from seating charts to redesigning the classroom to calling parents to differentiating instruction and materials to getting tough and mean to playing soft and gentle—I tried so much that didn’t work that, before I knew it, the year was over. Even on homebound and pregnant, my lone academic leader did incredible work. Even despising me for no reason—and she did warm up to me, almost against her will—the “good” twin ended up with an A- second semester, while the “bad” twin passed the class with a C and their good buddy began to take her writing (though nothing else) seriously. I didn’t work any magic, but I did not give up on them, and I refused to pull the “counselor card” and try to get one or more of them shifted into someone else’s deck. I admit: I did leave a note on the desk of the head of guidance that read, “These three girls should never be scheduled into the same class.”

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