I walk into the classroom as the tardy bell rings, my eyes locked on the herd of students trying to find their desks after nearly six weeks into the school year.
“You need to be in your seats, folks. That was the bell.”
A couple of the students still standing take their seats, but the rest ignore me.
“Butts on blue, people,” I say, referring to the color of the desks, knowing that the teacher’s use of the word butts will draw their attention.
“Oh, you said butt,” someone says.
“Yeah,” adds the girl next to him. “Teachers shouldn’t cuss.”
“The word butt is not a curse word, China,” I say.
I’ve never taught a Denmark, Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, but this is my fifth China in 17 years. I then proceed to give China number five an academic list of the words considered profanity.
“But not butt. Butt is more of a casual slang word, not an overt expletive.”
By this point the class has fallen silent. The students still standing have eased into their desks; a few have frozen in mid-movement, mouths agape, as if they’ve just looked back at a burning city and been turned into pillars of salt. I know what they’re thinking. They’re thinking that I’ve finally lost it.
Finally, spotting her chance to gain the upper hand on an already frazzled teacher, a girl peering out from beneath the hood of her sweatshirt looks up. “Eeeewwww!” she chastises, drawing out the syllable to take full advantage of its disruptive effect. “I’m gonna tell my mama. You ain’t supposed to be cussing us out.”
“No,” I say in my calm, well-modeled teacher’s voice. “I am not cussing you, Shanty.” Yes, it’s pronounced the same way as the word meaning a dilapidated old building. “If you’ll come back to see me when you graduate or turn 18, whichever comes first, I’ll be glad to demonstrate the difference between cursing out someone and offering a litany of the examples of the vernacular not tolerated in this classroom.”
Shanty simply stares at me, for I lost her somewhere around demonstrate. “Whatever,” she mumbles before retreating back into the darkness of her hood. With only the tip of her nose protruding from the hood, she reminds me of a Sith Lord.
“Okay, class,” I begin. “Today we are going to continue our discussion of English language usage.” I look into their expressionless faces and realize that they could not care less about getting a firm academic grasp of our often slaughtered English language. “Can someone remind the class what usage is?”
No one speaks. A few students take out their textbooks and find yesterday’s section, but most are settling in for 90 minutes of letting their steak nuggets and French fries from lunch digest. I look from face to face with my indoctrinated teacher optimism, searching their eyes for a sparkle, a glimmer, a dot of recognition. Absolutely nothing.
“Come on. You studied this last night. We went over this stuff in class yesterday.” I can hear myself and I sound as though I’m begging.
Most of the students cut their eyes away from mine, thinking that if they don’t look at me, I won’t call on them. Two students have their heads on their desks, but instead of actually sleeping the way students did when I was coming along in the dark ages of the 1980s, these practitioners of stealth are sending text messages from the phones in their laps. They think that my age and lack of hair preclude me from being able to detect what they’re doing, and since they aren’t disrupting the class, I give in and move on. Ah, defeat so early in the morning.
I look over to China. She’s pulling on her long brown hair, stretching it out in front of her open mouth. She’s also chewing gum. Before I can say anything about her vacant expression, her lips close around the thick mass of hair. She opens her mouth and the clump of hair, a glistening wad of pink mashed around the end of it, falls back into place. I consider saying something, but then decide to let her wrestle with this fresh dilemma unencumbered by my observations. China wants to be a professional cheerleader.
While I wait, I sense that someone is staring at me. You know that feeling you get as if you’re being watched from behind, but when you turn around all eyes look away. I can’t see Shanty’s eyes, but her hood and nose are pointed in my direction. She’s probably still replaying our “cursing” encounter in her head and thinking about killing me.
“What about you, Dylan?” I ask. “Can you tell the class what usage is?”
Dylan just looks at me. There are about 25 Dylans at our school, and I envision their mothers to have been zealous devotees of that ’90s classic, Beverly Hills 90210. Why else would someone name a child Dylan? It certainly wasn’t for the poet Dylan Thomas. Marshal Dylan? Bob Dylan? Bob Marley? This particular Dylan, one of two in my class, drags himself into the room every day as if each step puts him that much closer to death. He is perpetually red-faced, and I often wonder if too much pressure may make him burst. To hear him describe his varied ailments brings to mind a troubling image of Dylan—one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel.
“Well?” I say, once again asserting my perceived teacher authority. Notice that I said perceived.
“I don’t know,” he responds, his voice much too high and whiny for a boy who’s at least 5'9" and has already exceeded 200 pounds. Dylan wants to be a professional flutist.
“I notice you don’t have your book again today, Dylan.”
“So.” Again, the ingratiatingly squeaky voice of an 8-year-old girl. It doesn’t work well on such an imposing figure.
“Dare I ask?”
“Let me guess,” I say, having far too much fun for someone whose job depends on how well these bundles of joy perform on the latest standardized test. “Your mother has it?”
“Well, she was helping me with my homework last night, and she didn’t put the book back in my backpack when she was done.”
I smile. That’s really all I can do, for if Dylan is indeed telling the truth (and I am inclined to believe him), his mother is singlehandedly destroying her son’s chance at a normal, fruitful life. High school graduation may already be a distant dream. You see, she is still in possession of his last three essays, his copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from the library, his workbook and most of his pens and pencils. In Dylan’s household, it’s not “The dog ate my homework”; it’s “My mamma has it.”
He smiles back at me. He knows what I’m thinking, perhaps even what I’m about to say. “I can’t help it,” he bleats, cutting his eyes from side to side to see if the other students are watching him. And they are. They’re always watching Dylan.
“I know,” I say. “I know.”
“Why do we got to know this stuff anyway?” asks Feather. Yes, her name is Feather. You know, the things that fly off birds when cars hit them. “We ain’t got no problems with how we talk. We talk good.” She sits up straight, for all eyes have now shifted now to her. “I seen on TV yesterday people talking, and they talk just like us. If people on TV shows talks like us, then we talking right.”
Thunderous applause erupts from Feather’s fans as a smile spreads across her face. She has succeeded in commandeering the class, and we’ve been here not even 10 minutes.
“Feather,” I say. “Can you tell me the name of this television show that has proven to be the touchstone of proper verbal communication to your humble household?”
Her smile fades to an expression of genuine befuddlement, for I lost her at touchstone. Then the lightbulb. “Oh, it was Jerry Springer.”
As the class sends up their collective approval for Mr. Springer and his efforts to further culture the republic, I pause and wonder if I can compete with the likes of mud-wrestling college students and the elusive paternal train wrecks that seem to dominate such shows.
“I have a question, Mr. Adams,” says a dark-haired boy to my right. “Why are teachers so nice to our parents when they come by to visit, but so mean to us?”
The members of the class launch into their enlivened united approval, for they now sense that my slow destruction, thus far coming only in sporadic waves, is imminent, and that this question may be the one that finally vaporizes me.
“Thank you for such a compelling question, Warren,” I say. Yes, his name is Warren. In a world of Justins, Tupacs, P-Diddys, Davids and Tigers, he got Warren.
“I mean, really, Mr. Adams. You guys are so mean in class, but when our parents show up, you’re really nice to them.” He grins as he peers over the top of his sagging eyeglasses. “Is it because you’re afraid of our parents?”
Before I let loose with a knee-jerk reaction, I think about his question. Maybe we are afraid of their parents. Some of these people can be pretty scary. Anybody can be a parent: drug dealers, motorcycle gang members, politicians. The qualifications are pretty basic. “No, it’s not that we’re afraid of your parents, Warren. We’re nicer to them because we don’t have to be concerned about whether or not they have their textbooks, if they’re talking in class or if they did their homework. Plus, we can talk to them like adults, because they are, well, adults. You’re not an adult.”
Warren thinks about it. “So, if I was an adult, you’d be nicer to me?”
Several students around the room agree with Warren’s sentiment.
“Warren, if you were an adult in this classroom, I would feel sorry for you. This is the ninth grade.”
“Mr. Adams,” interjects China. “I couldn’t find Saigon or Hanoi last night on this map you gave me.”
Once again the class erupts with their common complaints. China did not complete her mapping assignment yesterday during our visit to the school library, so she was tasked with finishing it last night for homework. We’re working our way through Walter Dean Myers’ Fallen Angels, and I thought the students would understand the setting better if we took a break to locate some of the key places on a map. There’s always time to learn a little geography.
“Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam, and Hanoi was the capital of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War,” Shanty says from beneath her hood.
For the first time that day, I find myself speechless. I finally muster a few pitiful words. “Thank you, Shanty. You’re exactly right. Nice work.” Perhaps she’s a Jedi and not a Sith Lord, after all.
Shanty smiles, or at least I think she’s smiling, from inside the hood.
“Well, I can’t find it,” China announces. “There ain’t no Saigon and there ain’t no Hanoi on my map.”
“Please take out your atlas,” I tell her.
China opens the big book on her desk. She turns right to the page, for her work is marking the place. “See,” she says. “Them places ain’t on this map of Vietnam, I don’t care what Shanty says.” She looks back at me. “And my mamma says that you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.”
Shanty growls from her hood.
“Let me help you,” I offer in my best supportive teacher voice.
I stand beside China’s desk and look at the map. There are lines of longitude and latitude, major highways, rivers, towns, cities—all the requisite components of a map. I recognize immediately, though, that she is correct: Something is wrong.
Before I can say anything, Feather, who has sidled up catlike, loses control. “That’s a map of Pennsylvania, China! No wonder you can’t find no Saigon and Hanoi. You looking in the United States for Vietnam!”
China looks from Feather to me and back to the map. “Oh,” she says with not so much as a grin. “My mama thought something was wrong with the map you gave me.”
“My mama says this ain’t a geography class and that you’re wasting our time making us look at maps,” Dylan announces with a smile.
“Your mama can’t even spell geography,” Shanty grunts.
“I bet Mr. Adams would be nicer to your mama than he is to us,” Warren interjects to no one in particular. “Teachers are always nicer to our parents.”
“Hey!” yells China. “Somebody put gum in my hair!”