Three Days At Risk
by Rebecca Johnson

 

These kids wear their anger like a red badge of courage. They trust no one. Not even those they let in. And they won't let you in. Not until you prove yourself worthy. They are easily distracted -- sometimes from hunger, sometimes from lack of sleep and sometimes from trouble with the law. A few of them live with parents or a sister or an aunt. Others stay with friends, try to keep off the streets. Many have no morals or self respect and the world they live in expects them to fail. They've been shuffled through the system for eight years, but the bus stops here, in ninth grade. No social promotions. It's a pass or fail situation.

This is what I know, what I was told during the brief interview last Wednesday, the Wednesday before the Thanksgiving holiday, when I met with the principal, the assistant principal, and the three other teachers on the At-Risk team at a ninth grade center in east Orlando. I was hopeful and they were realistic. We decided to give it a trial run. I agreed to substitute for one week to see how it would go. Not many, if any, experienced or newly certified English teachers were interested in this open spot. That, coupled with the teacher shortage, had forced many administrators around the county to recruit people, like me, from other careers to fill chronic vacancies in some of the tougher school districts.

I unlock the door to the portable classroom, turn on the light and step in. The mini-blinds covering the windows along the north and south sides are oddly crinkled as if someone stepped on them prior to hanging. There's no chalk in the tray beneath the blackboard and the overhead projector sits on the floor between the two oblong worktables at the front of the room. The teacher's desk in the back is bare, the drawers emptied. There are no lesson plans, no attendance sheets and inside the locked storage closet, boxes of new and unused literature books stashed against the wall remain unopened. Above, neatly stacked in piles atop the white wire shelving, lie dusty copies of Romeo and Juliet. On a lower shelf in the far right corner is a large plastic tub full of colored pencils. It is the Monday after Thanksgiving and Mr. Trainer, the English teacher who quit, didn't tell his students he was leaving until his last day, the day before the holiday.


Two white boys enter. Chris and Mike. They look boyishly nerdy and na´ve, not typical of the student I expect to encounter. Together we discover the overhead is broken. They offer to take the projector to the media center for repair and bring back another one.

Several kids open the door, take a look at me and leave. I introduce myself to anyone willing to come in and sit down before the bell.

"Where's Mr. Trainer?" almost everyone entering asks.

"Did he leave 'cause of us?" a tall, curly-haired blonde boy with a big grin on his face wants to know. He wears baggy jeans with a knee length, Tide-fresh tee-shirt.

"No, no, I don't think so." This is what I'm supposed to say.

"Yeah, yeah he did," says an overripe Hispanic girl looking up coyly from her compact.

"Nu-uh," a big black girl in a pink nylon parka challenges. This must be Shakeela. She struts up the aisle, her hips relocating the desks in her way.

"Shakeela? Will you . . ."

"How you know my name?"

"Mrs. Boyd told me you'd be helpful."

"Mrs. Boyd is cool."

Connie Boyd, an ex-army sergeant, is the math teacher on the Extreme Team. She's a white woman in her late 40's and frail looking with bushy, shoulder-length blonde hair, faded jeans and a raspy smoker's voice. Mrs. Boyd "don't take no shit from nobody." But, if you raise your hand and you have the right answer, she'll toss you a candy bar.

"Shakeela, will you please go to the office and pick up an attendance sheet for me?"

Shakeela's eyes widen. She giggles, closes in on a gush and then recomposes herself. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I could."

The bell rings. Tattooed stragglers with rainbow-colored hair saunter in and sit down. Three bad attitudes, vinyl versions of leather-clad street boys, lean hard and mean against the door. Their toughness is no act. They are the kind of kids that make you wish you had a cell phone handy and 911 in the speed dial.

"Everybody. Please take your seats."

"Are we gonna see a movie?" a bad attitude chewing the end of a striped plastic straw wants to know.

"No. No more movies."

"Mr. Trainer always lets us watch movies.

"I know," I say, taking a seat on the stool in the front of the class. I do know. All he did was show videotapes of movies. The insinuation: it was teacher error, like pilot error. The system and its strategies were not to blame. No one in the briefing I had last Wednesday talked about how much these kids need or how little they're getting including an inexperienced, non-teacher like me. No one mentioned the atmospheric conditions in the classroom, conditions as unpredictable as a fifteen-year-olds hormones.

Shakeela is back from the office and I ask her to take the attendance. She stands next to me, shouts, "Get in your seats. Now!" and rattles off names with authority. Oddly, everyone falls in at her command. When she's finished with roll call, she asks, "Want me to stay up here and help you?"

"No, thanks," I say and then explain to the class I'll be their substitute for the week. "The principal says if he likes me and I like you, I may stay on as your teacher."

"What if we don't like you?"

"We'll just have to see." I shrug and smile. "Why don't we talk a little bit about Mr. Trainer. What you liked about his teaching and what you want in a teacher."

"We want a teacher who lets us watch movies."

"Yeah."

"Come on now. I know you like Dr. Harris and you don't watch movies in his class. Tell me why you think he's a good teacher."

Don Harris grew up on the streets and he was a principal and an administrator before returning to the classroom as the science teacher on the Extreme Team. Like a parent, he gives these kids his cell phone number and stays on call 24/7. He feeds them breakfast each morning and shows up in court when they need him. A medium-size man in his early 50's with a ruddy complexion and graying reddish hair, Dr. Harris usually wears jeans and a bright-colored sports shirt. During lunch you can find him seated next to Corrine Boyd at the smoker's picnic table out back. He'll tell you no one in his class fails. He won't allow it. He'll tell you all these kids need is unconditional love and he practices what he teaches. I've seen him hug them, squeeze a shoulder and grab an upper arm -- this at a time when common sense and threat of lawsuits advise against any physical contact with students.

His methods both inspire and haunt me. My only reference for this kind of work is movies, most recently Michele Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. But Dr. Harris is hardly a flat celluloid character. My own compassion and altruism fade by comparison, a comparison that exacerbates his dedication. Is it sainthood or martyrdom? I'm not clear which.

This fog is as thick as a time warp and laced with apprehension. I have no training or teaching experience and though the physical aspects of this classroom haven't changed much since I sat in one in the 1960's -- blackboards, aisles of desks, TV on an audio-visual cart, teacher stool at the front and book-driven learning -- the outside world has. Why isn't this room equipped with multi-media, interactive computerized learning tools? The kind of tools we use to teach and entertain adults in business. The kind of tools that might actually help a teacher connect to these kids and connect these kids to a methodology for lifelong learning.

Mike returns with a nub of chalk. A lanky, brown-haired girl with a short jeans skirt and an oversized sweatshirt gets up and declares, "I'm outta here."

"Really? And where are you going?"

A long, bored, don't-mess-with-me-face glares back at me.

"Come sit up here," I point to a desk in front of me. Tell me what you like about Dr. Harris.

"I don't sit in the front of class." Any semblance of softness, of girlishness is gone and I watch her harden into an edge of urban rage.

"Then sit where you are." I fight to keep my voice calm. I don't want to get into it with her but the stage for her young life's drama has already been set and the class is calling: Lights. Camera. Action!

She walks purposely to the front, lets a large bag drop off her left shoulder, slides her right knee onto the seat, looks directly into my eyes and screams, "When I'm pissed off, Dr. Harris leaves me alone. He don't make me do anything. He knows my life sucks, why everything turns to shit and I . . ." Her tirade waxes and wanes through three, interminable minutes. Then she re-enters her body and sits down in her seat.

I'm outside my body anxiously watching myself continue the exercise as if nothing's happened. I list what they like about Mrs. Boyd and Ms. Ferrell on the board. Barb Ferrell, a special resource teacher, rounds out the foursome on the Extreme Team. She's in her late 30's, a white woman with short layered brown hair who wears large print rayon dresses. She's a big-boned woman, big enough to grab a kid by the scruff of his collar if he dares to disrespect her. "Don't get into it with any one student in front of the whole class," she warned. "They won't back down."

"Where do you want to be in ten years?" I ask the class. Let's say you graduate high school, you've made good grades, you can go to any college you want and be whatever it is you want. Where are you? What are you doing?"

The din diminishes, the anger remains, and I sense a shift in the collective mood. They take time out to think and some begin to answer seriously.

"A Pilot."

"What will that require? Discipline? Good vision?" I ask.

"A pediatrician," says a shy, pudgy, freckle-faced, creamy skin girl.

"What will that take?"

"Good grades. Good study habits." She looks pleased and I'm curious about the criteria that lands kids in this room, this group. It seems to be less about IQ and behavior and more about economics.

"Nuclear physicist." This from a seemingly intelligent, smart-alecky, articulate young black man who feigns facetiousness but I wonder. I want to believe it's not out of the realm of possibility and as I start to engage him an overfat white kid, a boy the size of a pro ball player without any of the muscle tone, feels the need for attention.

"A porn star. I wanna be a porn star."

"A bar owner. A nude bar."

"I'll be a dancer in your bar."

"All right," I say glancing at my watch. Barely twenty minutes have passed and I have over an hour to go.

Every other school day, I'll have this schedule. Two ninety-minute classes with a 90-minute planning break and a half-hour lunch in between. Tomorrow, I'll have three 90-minute classes with only a lunch break. I realize I'm in desperate need of lesson plans. The principal, who has stopped by to check on me during my break, suggests I sit in on some of the other Language Arts classes and visit with the English department chair Cheryl Morrison, whom I haven't yet had a chance to meet. Mrs. Morrison teaches the accelerated and the gifted. I feel like I have to step up through several layers of clouds to enter the bright blue sky of her room. She sits in the back at her desk writing while her students read quietly. They are predominately white, well-dressed and manicured. Completely unencumbered by the untouchables of ninth grade society.

"You have to establish control right away," she speaks with authority, a veteran from the front lines of middle school wars. Then she gives me a brand new box of white chalk and a ream of notebook paper. They (my students) aren't expected to bring any to class.

We talk about the importance of expectations and the lack thereof and I wonder how these at risk kids will learn without them and without better students to model. I inherently disagree with the class structure but I am new to this, so I keep my thoughts to myself. Supposedly, the segregation by learning levels and behavior keeps the violence and destruction down, the learning on an upward curve -- whatever's best for state-wide testing and SAT scores.

Mrs. Morrison gives me lesson plans for the week. The plans correspond with the reading of Jack London's Call of the Wild. "I'll have two of my students carry the books to your portable," she says. "Why don't you sit in on Mrs. Clayborn's class, across the hall."

Mrs. Clayborn teaches the regular students. B-average, I would guess. Nin Dial, the teacher in the cubicle catty-corner to me has the C and D students. "The lower learners with behavior problems," she'll tell me at lunch a little later. "But nothing like yours."

Mrs. Clayborn is standing at the front of her class using an overhead projector. Her blackboard looks as if it's just been washed and the erasers are lined up neatly in the tray next to a few barely used pieces of chalk. There are six or seven computers on the oblong worktables for student use and the mini-blinds are slightly open, refracting the morning sun. The room is organized and instructive. There are two wire workbaskets by the door. An in box for completed work and a pick up box for the work she's graded and returning. Most of the students participate and take turns by raising their hands. I decide not to stay. This class is to mine what Leave it to Beaver was to The Twilight Zone.

After lunch, some low-lying thunderclouds roil in and take the outside rows, sliding the backs of their desks up against the windows. They sit with their heads down and hold the copies of Call of the Wild like shields in front of their faces.

"We don't do book work," a tall, model-thin black girl shouts.

"We don't write anything, ever!" her sidekick concurs. They both chew gum to a rap-like rhythm, like a new millennium update of the Doublemint twins.

Several other students issue their protests in Spanish. One of the protesting chicas hushes them, then raises her hand politely to ask a question. She looks directly at me, speaks deliberately in English and I try to listen, try to look only into her eyes while her boyfriend, sitting in the desk behind her, fondles her large breasts.

The girlfriend continues talking as if the incident is not taking place. Believe me, I've seen guys groping girls before but this isn't like that. This young woman is eerily disassociated from her body, behavior typical of girls who are sexually molested from a young age. The situation makes me uneasy, more uneasy than any situation I've ever been in my short stint as a substitute teacher. I inhale slowly to the beat of the red second hand on the big-faced, black and white clock, take my fear in hand and walk slowly and deliberately down the aisle towards the couple. I point to the boyfriend and say, "Stop."

"No hablo Ingles."

"Stop. Now."

The electricity in the air intensifies, the peanut gallery hoots and howls, and the girlfriend continues to stare me down as the assistant principal enters the room.

Silence.

I step in the closet to retrieve some supplies and hand the girlfriend a stack of notebook paper to give out. The boyfriend grabs the plastic tub filled with colored pencils from my other hand, takes a handful for himself, and then passes it on. The tub is empty when it is returned to the broken table up front.

We read a few pages from Call of the Wild out loud. Then, as suggested by Mrs. Morrison, the English department head, I ask them to write a paragraph or two about a dog -- their dog, a neighbor's dog, a movie or TV dog. The grumbling is low, the comments barely audible, and the assistant principal puts a lid on it right away.

I'm impressed by some of the writing and the readings -- how articulate and creative these kids are. A few students ask me to read theirs aloud for them and I'm unaware the assistant principal has left the room. In the middle of a paragraph I stop reading and look at the author, a young white man with greasy brown hair and acne, and I hope that what he's described is not something he's experienced first hand. I hope it's from a sick site on the web or a porno movie and not his story -- what a young boy and girl are doing with and to a dog. Sometimes in Florida it's sunny on one side of the street and raining on the other. The kids bask in laughter while I stand at the front of the room soaked in morbid sadness and moral confusion.

When school lets out, Barb Ferrell comes to the room and finds me on my hands and knees picking up the empty box and all the pieces of chalk and colored pencils splintered around the room. I'm shaking but not visibly. "They didn't much care for Call of the Wild," I say.

"I'm glad you're laughing about it," she says.

"What else is there to do?"

Barb thinks Call of the Wild is a bad idea and says so. "Let me give you copies of Scholastic News for the next two days. The kids like it and there's a group play you can do. I think it's Charlie's Angels from the new movie. Now, tell me what happened in here."

"I don't know how some of these kids will ever be able to hold a job. Not even McDonald's or Burger King would put up with it. They just can't seem to contain themselves or their anger for more than fifteen minutes. And, I, uh, really think you need a bilingual teacher on your team. I mean, I took three years of Spanish in high school but unless you know the other half of the conversation from the dialogue books, I can't communicate with you."

"Tell me, what happened?"

In the last hour of the class the game of control hit full tilt. It started with a single shot. A pencil hurled across the room. Then someone jumped up, crunched a fistful of mini-blind and sat down. Something hit the blind and the sound diverts my attention while someone else fires. I know I was screaming at them when the dean of boys burst in.

"Do you want me to take anybody with me back to the office?" he asks.

I didn't know who to send.

"Send the next one who throws something to me. Automatic suspension."

I nod.

A hand shoots up as the dean leaves. "How long?"

"How long what?"

"How long will we be suspended for?"

Missiles fire.

I shout.

Thunder booms. Risk reigns. I'm hit in the crossfire in the head, in the back. I punch the intercom and this time it's the assistant principal but by the time she gets here, they have acquiesced and we are back to reading Call of the Wild aloud to each other. After the bell, she and I discuss setting up the class -- assigned seats and name tags on the desks. She suggests I read First Days of School by Harry Wong and warns me never, ever to turn my back on them, not even to walk back and forth in the room.

At home that evening, I call my older sister. She's been teaching twenty-one years in Pinellas County. "They knew how bad it was going to be," she says. "That's why all the administrators were coming in and out of your room. Now, I talked to Annie Godbee about this and neither of us thinks it's a good idea to be substituting there much less considering a job full time." My sister always uses Annie, her friend and teaching mentor, for emphasis as if her advice isn't enough.

"I'm not," I say but a part of me wishes I could; wants to believe I could help these kids if I could just stick with it. "I only know two people in the family who would work for so little money under such bad conditions. Must be a calling."

"That's one call even I wouldn't answer."

We hang up and my oldest sister calls. "Welcome to my world," she says after I describe my day. My oldest sister taught Exceptional Ed for several years and she says she can still smell the stale odor that hits you as you walk into a portable first thing in the morning. Only now am I able to understand the depression she felt every day as she stuck her key into that lock to face another round of overwhelming challenges.

"Oh my God, I am so thankful I don't have to do that anymore," she says, reminding me she has a teaching degree and close to thirty years experience. "I don't know if I could have handled those kids any better than you and I'm not sure people outside the system can understand the desolation and fear a teacher faces teaching in a portable."

I know I don't. I know I don't want to talk about it anymore because I'm going to stay the week. That's what I've committed to and besides, I'm feeling guilty. Selfish and guilty for my white-bread, privileged life and my ineptness, my inability to communicate with these kids. Imagine, fifteen years as a marketing communications professional in business and I can't talk to these kids. All I can do is create spin and move products out the door. And I'm tired too, too tired to read. I decide to get in bed and watch a little TV. Boston Public, a new drama about high school is on. In tonight's episode, one of the teachers catches two student body presidential candidates in a sex act. More specifically, the girl was giving the boy a blow job in exchange for dropping out of the election. Elsewhere, a top student, a soccer player, is up for a prestigious academic award, one that will most likely assure him a seat at Harvard, but the principal refuses to sign the certificate because the entire soccer team has been suspended for harassing a weaker student and cheating on a test. The kid up for the award wasn't involved in either of the infractions but he didn't report them either. At home, he is under heavy pressure from his father and in the next scene he explodes in class when another boy hits him with a snide remark. He jumps up, bites the boy's earlobe off and spits it out. The show ends with the top student in the emergency room overdosed on pills. It doesn't look like he'll make it.

So much for a good nights sleep.

The next morning, the janitor is already in my room checking on the air conditioning when I arrive.

"I heard about what happened in here yesterday afternoon," he says.

"Yeah? What'd you hear."

"You know, sometimes I'd come in and Mr. Trainer would be standing up here at the front of the room with a book over his face and the kids would be bombarding him with pencils and chalk and spitballs -- anything."

"What did he do?"

"Sometimes he'd slam the book down real hard."

"No wonder he showed videotapes of movies."

The rest of the day is scattered with clouds. One of the boys, a popular one I suspect, volunteers to read the part played by Drew Barrymore in the movie Charlie's Angels. The rest of the kids enlist for parts and they laugh and they perform.

The next class refuses to do the play. No one volunteers for a part. Nobody wants to do nothin or read nothin from Scholastic News. I try talking about attitudes, how we can change them and our physiology with music.

"Can I play a CD? I got one in my locker."

"No man, I don't want to hear that crap."

"Okay, let's talk about the different kinds of music and why you like it." I write respect on the board. "Let's not judge what anybody else likes or doesn't like. Just tell me what you listen to and how it makes you feel." Then I hand them a carrot. I've checked out a boom box from the library and I agree to let the first six students who raise their hands and participate pick a radio station. Their selections will play in fifteen-minute intervals until class is over.

A young, skinny, white musician-in-the-making with stringy shoulder-length hair and face piercings responds first. He has to put the CD player on the floor to reach an electric outlet that works and he has trouble tuning in the radio station he wants. Can't seem to find Marilyn Manson playing anywhere. Another kid, trying to help, stops on a rap song. The musician stands up, kicks the CD player across the room and in that moment I see his whole life flash before me. See him as a toddler on the floor who's spilled milk. See someone kick him across the room for spilling it. The body language of abuse is chilling.

After school, Shakeela and the Doublemint twins stop by. Hey Miss J. We gotta song for you, and they sing me a tune that's part rap, part pop ditty and they substitute my last name for Mrs. Jackson.

"C-mon, give it up for us Miss J. Give up some luh-ove for us, Miss. J," and I applaud and they sing it again, and again. They are just girls, teenage girls and I know they sing it in part to make fun of me and in part because they don't think I'm all that bad. I want to cry because I'm a girl, too, and I'm happy they like me and sad because I know they shouldn't let me in. I am not worthy. I'm going to leave them, too, like so many others before me. They keep singing and I keep thinking maybe I can sub for them until another full-time teacher is assigned. Maybe.

It's Wednesday and today is a repeat of the classes I had Monday. The first class warns me that the last class, the one I had the most trouble with, is out to get me. I ask them what I should do.

"There ain't nothing you can do," says Shakeela.

"Yeah. Usually substitutes only last one day."

"Yeah. Remember the one we sent home crying?"

"Yeah."

"That was cool."

"You made someone cry?" I ask. "Really? You feel good about that?"

No answers. More stifled laughter.

After lunch, the class that's out to get me roils in again. I hit the issue head-on as suggested by the other teachers on the Extreme Team and ask them why it didn't work with Mr. Trainer, why it works with Dr. Harris, Mrs. Eskin and Mrs. Boyd . We cruise along for a while until one kid yells, "Mrs. Boyd's a bitch."

As if on cue, the entire class chants in unison to the beat of their fists pounding desks, "Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch."

I grab a dictionary and slam it as hard as I can down on the desk.

"All right, you have a right to your opinion but let's try and stay constructive. Saying a teacher is cool or a bitch doesn't tell me anything. You have to be more specific. I'm trying to learn something here."

"She's a bitch because she makes us do work."

"Yeah."

"And she's got saggy tits."

"Saggy tits. Saggy tits. Saggy tits." The chant is loud, the mob mentality is growing. A teacher from across the hall bursts in, looks at me and asks, "Are you okay?"

"No," I realize as I answer the question trying to remain composed, trying not to cry.

He pulls out a walkie-talkie and calls the office while I move prudently to the back of the room where I gather up my things, grab my purse from the locked closet and make my escape as soon as the dean of boys enters. The world seems to have stopped turning on its axis as I free-fall through the heavy layer of clouds into the stark whiteness of the ladies room. I don't panic until I can't locate my car keys. What if those kids know which car in the parking lot is mine? Frantically, I dump the contents of my purse onto the floor and rummage through it until I find them. Then I start to cry. The guidance counselor enters, looks down at me and says into her walkie-talkie, "I've found her."

"I just want to go home," I say, escaping into the yellow haze and welcome heat of the searing Florida sun. Like a soldier gone AWOL, I am sickened by this war and confused about the heroes who stay.

 

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