What I Learned in School Today (A Short Story)

Written By: carolmoye - Sep• 23•13

What I Learned in School Today:

My name is Graham. I am a forty year old military veteran and former accountant. I am trying, once more, to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I didn’t like the military much. Being an accountant paid well enough, but was boring. I need to feel like I am in some way making a valuable contribution to society. I have grown weary of news stories about young black males being killed,  I am eager to help find a way to help stop the madness. Today, I begin considering life as an educator. My first “gig” is with the neediest students in the worst performing school in the city, H.J. Heinz Academy. As you might imagine, this school does not fit the tradition image of an academy. You might also correctly guess that it is located in a low-income neighborhood. This is the population I really see myself working with. I am hoping to be able to make a real difference in someone’s life, starting today.

I entered the third floor classroom of Mrs. Joyce just in the nick of time. All I knew at the start of the day was that she teaches English 10, English 11, English 12, US History and World Cultures. That sure seemed like a lot, but it’s high school. How hard could it be? I walked in about two minutes before class started, a bit tense because I had cut it so close. Traffic this morning was horrible.

The first class wasn’t on the schedule. The kids told me it was called “Intervention”. I had no idea what that could be, nor what I was expected to do. As I looked around, I was relieved to find a folder labeled, “Intervention”. Inside I found SAT prep materials. Funny, these kids don’t seem like the kinds of kids who are ready to prep for the SAT, I thought, but what do I know? Kids came and went every two minutes. I had no idea who really belonged. There were twenty seven names on the roll sheet, but getting kids to be honest about who they were was quite a challenge. It was a short period (only thirty minutes) I figured my best move was to stand at the door, hand out papers and try to limit the movement as much as possible.

Periods two and three were non-teaching periods, so I had time to read through the lesson plans and to tryout the activities before the real work began. I was feeling confident and ready for whatever came next, or so I thought. Really, I had no idea just how crazy this day would get.

Period four was English 12. There were only six students on the roster: Peter didn’t show up. X’Lence immediately put her head down and went to sleep. Kirk chased Jas’Lyn around the room for ten minutes, then walked out. Qathira brought in a bagel and a big bag of chips which she refused to put away. She screamed loudly every time I asked, so eventually I gave up. Hers was the only completed assignment, grease stains and all.  Cherise worked for about ten minutes, then gave up. She and Jas’Lyn talked until the bell rang. Not much accomplished, but not so difficult.

Period five is when things got really interesting. It was an 11th grade US History class. I put my phone on the desk while I looked for the roll sheet. It was larger than the previous class, with fifteen students on the roster. When I heard some ruckus in the hallway, I peeked out to see what was going on. In the twenty seconds or so I was gone, my phone was stolen.

“All right. Which one of you took my phone?” I asked.

“Just because we’re niggas don’t mean we steal stuff, said a kid who said his name was Walter, but the kids called Mack. Nobody wants your old phone. My phone is better than yours anyway.  He then pulled out the latest iPhone to prove his point.

Mack proved to be my greatest challenge of the day, if not in life. The kids referred to him as “Mack Nasty”, and I soon understood why. It began with lewd behavior, rubbing, lots of talk about sex, and lots of inappropriate touching, but I was totally in shock when I saw Mack go over to the teacher’s desk, unzip his fly and order Lo’Keesha to perform oral sex. She happily complied. Right there, in class, with other students and a teacher present. Groans of pleasure from Mack filled the room, making anything close to education impossible. I used the teacher phone to call for security, but all I got was a busy signal. How on earth was I supposed to handle this? I looked for another teacher nearby, but found no one.

“Mack, get off the desk and return to your seat,” I yelled.

“Shut the f— up!” yelled Mack as he returned to his lewd behavior.

“Lo’Keesha, you are so nasty! I can’t believe you’d do that in class. You ain’t nothing but a low down scanky ho.” said a young lady named Dijon with an obvious look of disgust on her face.

Eventually, we were all spared by the bell, and they left, leaving behind the vestiges of this encounter of Mrs. Joyce’s desk.  I spent the first part of lunchtime looking for my phone without success. The last ten minutes I spent in prayer and meditation. “Dear Lord, please bring some tranquility to the afternoon. The same class is due back after lunch, please do not allow a repeat of what just transpired. Show me what you need me to do.”

As I finished my prayer, the bell rang. It was time for English with the same group. Instead of attempting the lesson that was left, I decided instead to have a conversation about sexuality, dating and male vs. female roles in a relationship. God heard my prayers. Mack and Lo’Keesha skipped class, and the others were very open with me. We had a great conversation. It turns out that most of them were as disturbed by what they witnessed last period as I was. We were able to talk about sexually transmitted diseases, self-esteem and the other possible effects of LoKeesha’s behavior. On the way out the door, Alex stopped to thank me. Apparently she had been hurt in a relationship and it really helped her to talk about it.

The rest of the day, while by no means brought exemplary behavior, at least no crimes were committed, and nothing sexual occurred.. The worst behavior was the two boys who insisted on rapping (with explicit language of course) and making YouTube videos of their horrible freestyle competition. They refused to put the phones away when requested, but after fifth period, it seemed so benign I just let it go.

This day was supposed to let me know whether this was the career for me or not. I left it as unsure as when I began. I was told later that Mrs. Joyce’s classes were about as bad as it gets in this town. Well, if I survived that, maybe, just maybe I can do this. I decided I would return tomorrow, and ended my day drafting this email to Mrs. Joyce.

“I subbed in your class today and will tomorrow also. I’m hoping you happen to check your email this evening as I’d like some tips. Today was a little tough. The kids were more than happy to press the boundaries, which isn’t so bad, except that some of their behavior was over the line. I didn’t realize until later in the day that I was being fed the wrong names by a few kids when I took roll. Again, I can deal with this, but one kid in particular was off the chart. He said his name was Walter, but then I heard that Walter was not at school today. My phone was stolen, left unguarded on your desk for, literally about 20 seconds. There was a lot of lewd behavior, rubbing, lots of talk about sex, lots of inappropriate touching. The lesson plans were welcomed by about 20% of the students. The rest were mostly congenial, but would have nothing to do with school work.”

I left my phone number in the email. Mrs. Joyce did in fact call me, feeding me lots of good information and encouragement. I think I’m ready to try again. One thing I learned for sure, substitute teaching is not for sissies.





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