Monthly Archives: May 2006

The Gay Club

TJ is special to me. Other teachers are horrified by his flaming, light-up-belt-sporting, jheri-curl-rocking, unabashed queerness, his faggy, inquisitive gaze, his refusal to believe civilian or mortal rules apply to him. But I secretly cherish his entitlement, the way he owns the hall when he sashays through it.

Mr. N couldn’t get through to him yesterday, and I happened to be in the room with him.  The class was in chaos, but Mr. N was preoccupied with getting TJ to return to his seat.  I marched up to TJ and stared him down.

“TJ,” I said with low, ominous gravity.

“Hi, Ms. Magnolia,” he sing-songed.

“TJ,” I repeated quietly.  Pause.

“But I don’t want to sit down!” he whined. I gave him a Teacher Look that was more withering than usual because it was the I Understand and Identify With You, But I Am Still Your Teacher, So Sit Your Ass Down Look. TJ returned to his seat. I’m like his gay para.

Once, he was lounging on top of the air conditioner by the window as Mr. N tried in vain to organize a tangle of A/V equipment, the class reaching the pitch of Madison Square Garden during a hockey game. I made a beeline for TJ, appalled at his lack of respect for the function of furniture.

“TJ,” I said like I was sizing up his evening gown, “this is not a GRECIAN BATH. You can’t DRAPE YOURSELF on the AIR CONDITIONER like it’s a CHAISE LONGUE. Get UP. Sit down in a CHAIR. Jesus.” I presumed he had no idea what a Grecian bath or a chaise longue was, but he went wordlessly to his seat.

Last night, TJ helped me sell tickets at the door of the spring concert. During a lull, we stood chatting with D, a basketball player girl who came out in the eighth grade. I had a query: “So I was walking down Christopher Street yesterday,” I said, “and I’d never seen so many queer black teenagers in my life. I was like, is there a conference or something? Is that where Harvey Milk High School is?” Naturally, they enlightened me.

“Oh, that’s just where we hang out,” explained TJ. “We go the pier.”

I marveled that there was a gay main drag for the queer youth of New York City, just like there was in San Diego. But these kids can hop on a subway and be there in under an hour for two bucks; I had to scam rides or wait for hours at windy bus stops to get to mine. Cheers. NYC wins again.

She’s Got X-Ray Vision, Man

I was at a youth media workshop on Saturday at a gallery/workspace in Chelsea with a dozen of my best freshman writers. Ebullient, contrary L was multitasking as usual, talking a mile a minute as she wielded a sharp pair of scissors and cut sheets of stickers.

“Ms. M knows I’m chewing gum or talking when she’s not even looking,” she said. My ears perked up. “She’ll be, like, at the board, and without turning around, she’ll be all, ‘L, stop talking.'”

“I know,” agreed D. “You go to the bathroom and she didn’t even see you put your gum in, and you come back, and she’s all, ‘D, spit it out.'”

“She’s got x-ray vision, man!” squealed E, who writes a blog about his kitchen.

And I was sort of mortified – wait, who am I kidding?  It was one of the most satisfying affirmations I have ever received. To think I acquired a some kind of mother’s hyper-sensitivity to the Unlawful Activities of a Child; it’s like waking up with a superhero ability. I can spot gum-chewing from several yards away in my peripheral vision merely by reading the subtle movement of a teenage jaw!

Sometimes I see people on the street or in the subway chewing gum and I have to stop myself. “Cool it,” I say to myself. “This is real life, where chewing gum is actually not a crime.”

I Hate Technology in the Classroom, or, How My Latest Unit Totally Tanked

“See, THIS is why I hate technology in the classroom,” I muttered, furious as usual.

Lately I’m furious, especially in my second period class: poor freshmen! With fresh sticks of gum in their mouths, bleary and crusty-eyed from late-night Sconex sessions. “Good morning, you’re late,” I chant. “All right, folks! Mouths closed, pens down, eyes up here–K, spit OUT your gum, it is MAY for crying out loud, hello?–As I was saying…” All in one breath.

So there are two carts of laptops, supposedly Internet-ready, plugged in and ready to go. They take up 30% of available classroom space, which is dwindling in the crowded room. I TESTED them, even. These puppies are CHARGED. They are ready to facilitate my brilliant students’ nascent zines, in this “guerilla media” unit, wherein they report on the real Bed Stuy, not the “Do or Die” of urban myth, but the actual stories of the people who live here.

“Ms. M, mine don’t work,” someone pipes up. “Ms. M, mine just turned off by itself.” “Ms. M,” says S, waving her arms wildly, “this one doesn’t connect to the Internet!!” “Hold on,” I say loudly, the voice of reason (stay calm!). “Do any of these connect to the Internet?” “No,” they chorus. “Mine just turned off, too!” someone else says. “It said ‘low battery!'” she cries. Charged, my ass.

And that was how I was reduced to a crumpled pile of Ms. M today, four periods in a row (I kept thinking I’d solve the problem by the next class, but no, sad clown, that is not what befalls you as you try and try to teach with technology–NEW PROBLEMS keep sprouting like fungi, but faster). I raised my hands to the heavens, crossed my eyes, cursed whoever thought it was such a great bloody idea to put computers in classrooms, and lowered myself to the floor in front of the whiteboard.

By 3:00, I was an embarrassment. “I mean, why do this project at all?” I heard myself ask. “Yeah!” agreed my students with enthusiasm.

One could write many paragraphs discussing exactly HOW to use technology in the classroom, about how NECESSARY it is in this changing world, how critical it is to literacy, to reasoning, to research, to finding a job or a college. How important it is for teachers to feel empowered and competent with such technology, to be able to troubleshoot and solve problems with ethernet cards or firewall whatevers. How we need to have a culture of accountability and mutual respect in the room so students can work independently.

But my students never took typing. Keyboarding is arduous and time-consuming; thirty minutes leaves barely enough time to open a document. None of the laptops accepts CDs for saving work (newsflash), nor do any of them print, so I had to run around the room with a single USB drive, opening and saving every kid’s piece. (Surely there is a printer attached to the cart, you say. Yes! There is! But it doesn’t COMMUNICATE with the machines, despite the thicket of cords running from it to the laptops and back again.) My students also might be able to wield Treos and Sidekicks with considerable swagger, but “saving as” or “undoing” or formatting or using shortcuts or even trying to muddle through it when you’re not sure, on a real computer, is daunting or impossible.

Try managing that train wreck while simultaneously managing the day-to-day order of your students, who by this late date, are furious they have to be in school at all. And frankly so am I. Did you feel the air outside today? Jesus.

The Late Late Show

I’m one of a cluster of first-year teachers at my school who can be found late at night peering out from behind our desks, shouting into the hallway, “You’re still HERE?” So it was tonight, though we have the succor of later and later sunsets, the alpenglow from the sides of old brownstones…no nagging fear of the long walk to the A train in the dark, as in December and February. One of my students, a plucky, quiet freshman with kind eyes, was jumped last week, and bears a long scar across his forehead, pink against his ruddy brown.

The new unit I’m teaching, the last one of the semester (17 instructional days and counting), urges students to become the media, to report on their hood from the inside. Today they shared the slogans they came up with as a refutation to the neighborhood’s most enduring slogan, “Bed Stuy, Do or Die.” L and S, two mouthy, self-possessed freshman girls, were excited about a t-shirt concept they came up with: on the front, it reads, “Bed Stuy Do or Die,” in a red circle with a diagonal line through it; on the back, it says, “Bump What You Heard, in Bed Stuy We Stay Alive.”

Sweet, nerdy G, who beelines to class head first before the bell rings and has a mild speech impediment, came up with, “Bedford Stuyvesant, a clean, nonviolent place to live.” Not so much a slogan as a plea for understanding. G is more terse than nuanced, literal than ironic. He’s like a drill bit: he bores through subtlety and goes straight to the point, dispensing utterly with pretense. I wonder if he has Asperger’s.

I am planning this unit completely on the fly. I’ve been day to to day for weeks now, but not with anything this ambitious. The goal is ethnography, guerilla media, concrete artifacts with which to infiltrate the streets. The only thing keeping this from being completely beyond my reach is the insight and inspiration from this brilliant pair of women who are starting a youth media internship program with our school. They’re the first people I’ve had conversations with in the building with any interest in progressive pedagogies or interrogating traditional power structures. It figures that they don’t actually work there. “You could talk about whether graffiti is dirty or if it’s art,” said A yesterday as we scrawled eagerly across our notepads.

Then, a cold shower of sorts: the next day, I found myself in an empty classroom, planning lessons on my laptop. A half-dozen other teachers drifted in to eat Chinese food and gossip (None of us has our own room; there are twice as many teachers as classrooms).

“I was too drunk this morning to make lunch,” Ms. C said as she begged some General Tso’s chicken off the music teacher.

“You went out last night and didn’t tell me?” accused N, a staff member who stays at school late every night, busy with things like watching Cypress Hill videos on the A/V equipment.

“You’re assuming she needs to go out to get that drunk,” countered another.

Call me critical. Call me sensitive and fussy. Call me MORAL. Call me what you will, but–


Is it too much to ask to want colleagues who don’t think that’s funny? MAYBE IN THIS LINE OF WORK, DON’T GET SHIT-FACED ON A SCHOOL NIGHT. Hello? Do we not teach children?

Another cold shower: my principal pulled me aside in the main office the other day (his impromptu conferences always seem whispered and conspiratorial).

“What are you teaching now?” he asked. If our department had a curriculum map, or any kind of consensus on what to teach, he might not have to ask that question. But we don’t, so I make it up as I go along, much to my chagrin.

“Reporting on the neighborhood, youth media, that kind of thing,” I said. I may as well have described it in Pig Latin. Not that he was listening.

“From here on out, cover any aspect of the U.S. History or Living Environment Regents that requires ELA skills. DBQ’s, long passages, graph reading. You got me?”

“Sure,” I said. You got it, I thought with disappointment, wish I’d known that before throwing myself into this other thing.

It’s not that I’m so against helping them with the Regents. It’s that the principal, once again, is trying to put sprinkles on the frosting without baking the cake in the first place. It’s that the English curriculum is so nebulous that it’s perfectly reasonable to highjack it and harness the time for standardized test prep. Of course, the Regents require literacy skills. I will make that abundantly clear in the next two weeks. But HE ASSUMED THERE WAS NOTHING TOO IMPORTANT GOING ON IN MY ROOM TO DISPLACE. And he’s sort of right.

Literacy at my school is not treated as the bedrock of a child’s education. Which, call me biased, I think it is. And it can share that place with quantitative reasoning or whatever, but any way you slice it, reading and writing are Really Bloody Important. So important the DOE gives children two periods of it in middle school and ninth grade; some schools keep that arrangement until they graduate.

How many times has our entire department met to discuss curriculum? I can count them on one hand. How many literacy coaches do we have? Zero. How many administrators do we have with an ELA background? One, and she is in the building until eight o’clock most nights dealing with the parents of suspended students because she is a dean of discipline and behavior. My AP said he’d arrange for me to meet with someone from the region to help with planning–a freelance literacy coach, sort of. But…why do I have to leave the school to find someone to talk about literacy?

And that, friends, is why I’m going to transfer.

No, It’s Just PMS

After a Herculean suppression of mortified giggling and a debate over how to spell it, two of my students today finally scribbled the question they wanted to ask me on a piece of paper and bolted from the room. I opened up the folded wad on my desk and read it:

“Are you pregnant?”

At least they knew how to spell it.

“I won’t be mad,” I said to C, who was cowering in the office. “Just tell me why you asked. Is it something other students are talking about?” She nodded. We walked into the hallway.

“Is it because I have to use the bathroom all the time?” I wondered.

“It’s that,” she and her accomplice admitted, but, apparently, “lately you’ve been wearing loose-fitting clothes,” they observed. I haven’t bought new clothes since October; I wear the same three pairs of slacks and four Oxford shirts every week without variation.

“And you’re real moody lately.”

I explained that I have to pee all the time because I drink, like, 27 gallons of water a day. I pulled my shirt taut around my waist and demonstrated the utter lack of a prenatal bulge.

“And the reason I’m pissy isn’t because I’m PREGNANT, it’s because so many of my students think they don’t have to turn in HOMEWORK anymore!” I cried. “You would be moody, too!”

Can’t a lady lose her patience with her errant students every once in a spring? I yell at them a few times, and suddenly I’m pregnant. I am trying not to be appalled.

When I was in high school, I “observed” my teachers in the same way: that is, with the highly subjective, solipsistic, skewering scrutiny the teenage mind is famous for. My teachers were not human, certainly not when I was a freshman; they were cartoonish, hideous, an affront to my taste, looming and alien. They smelled funny, they had terrible hair, and they couldn’t dress to save their lives.

We smelled like fruity body spray, cigarettes, junk food, chlorine, dirty-room-stink, drug store perfume, and pot smoke. We dyed our hair unnatural colors, left the stains on our foreheads, and let the roots grow for months. We bought our clothes in thrift stores, in silly boutiques at the mall, and they fit terribly. Our BODIES fit terribly.

We took our spectacular self-consciousness and painted it all over the adults who made careers out of spending more time with us than our parents. We sprayed the place.

I taught my last class of the day at 2:30. This was before the pregnancy question. The girls were all at an assembly, so I had a class of eleven boys. I spent a significant portion of the period waiting for them to suppress their laughter; they held their faces, changed seats, stood outside; nothing worked.

“I’ve got all day, guys,” I said solemnly.

“I’m good, Ms. M, I got it, I can listen now,” one would say, and the boy across from him would erupt. What were they laughing at, you ask?

Someone farted.

Sinus Marner

My by-product is small mountains of used Kleenex. I took a test in an allergist’s office in which he injected my left arm with serums (sera?) containing, respectively, tree pollen, dust mites, grass, dog, and cockroach. Little mounds of red at regular intervals under my skin. I waited for ten minutes to see which would itch; those were what I was allergic to. Where do you get essence of dog? Is that in a medical catalogue?

Ten minutes later: positive for all allergens except dog.

I am most allergic to spring. The world thaws and blooms, and my sinuses swell and tickle and spout fountains.

“Can you, um, do your best to throw these away?” C says politely, walking to the trash can with a wadded-up tissue he found between the couch cushions. When I blow my nose, it sounds like a poorly-tuned horn in a bass/tenor pitch. Mornings, sardined on the A train between silent commuters, my giant, distended teacher’s bag on my lap, folded magazine poised in front of my face, I pray I’ll make it to Nostrand without having to blow my nose. It grosses people out. They don’t say anything, but I can tell. The way I sound, it’s like I’m doing it on purpose. Like when a big frat guy burps loudly.

“I look like death,” I complain in the morning, examining my red-rimmed eyes in the mirror. I have the palest complexion at my 99% Black school already, and now I’m red-eyed with dark blue circles underneath, a symptom of congestion; I’m an an Irish fucking corpse.

“Maybe if you got rid of the sickle,” C says helpfully as I leave the apartment.

Student of the Week

“You sound like my mom,” K says disgustedly, “Always sayin’ my name, K, K, stop doin’ this, stop doin’ that.”

“K,” I say calmly, again, “return to your seat.” He sucks his teeth like a champion and slams his fist on the table, emphatically protesting my draconian regime of seat-sitting and keeping hands to oneself.

“Ms. M,” say three girls at triangular ends of the room, “Ms. M, I need–can I go to the–can you–but I–read this–” All three at once.

“K,” I bellow, “spit out whatever is in your mouth and sit your butt in that seat!!”

“Ms. M,” the girls start again, C always urgently, plaintively whispering, J declaiming in her trademark staccato, like a bee-bee gun.

“K, you have two choices,” I growl. “Return to your seat or stand outside with Mr. H,” the apoplectic gym teacher who does hall duty this period.

“Ms. M,” the girls continue, joined this time by a male voice: D, seven feet tall, all limbs, leaning back in his chair, defiantly chewing.

“What’re we ‘posed to be doin’?” he asks.

There are directions on the board. I have repeated them twice. I asked two students to say them back to me. I asked the class, “Yeah?” and received several tired nods. Each student has a worksheet I designed–with careful attention to font size and clarity of phrasing–in front of them with the directions in plain sight.

“Yeah, what are we supposed to be doing?” two more echo.

K has returned to the vicinity of his seat by this time, but he isn’t sitting. He is dancing and contorting his face for the rest of the class.

K has a score of about 30 in my class, 55 being failure (an F), 100 being total success (an A). Every marking period, his parents and I have a ritual: after several installments of “K needs to do his homework if he wants to pass this class,” and “K needs to control his outbursts,” I call to say, “K is failing this marking period.”

His father screams, “K!!” I pull the phone away from my ear.

“K! Get over here now! Why is Ms. M calling me to say you’re failing her class??” I can hear K in the background, whining ineffectually. His father yells a lecture at him for five or ten straight minutes. He keeps me on the phone the entire time.

Later, in the principal’s office, Mr. S, a deep-voiced grizzly bear of a man in suspenders and a tie, listens as I mention K’s latest show.

“And you know who else is in that class?” I say. “KC and A.” His jaw drops, and he guffaws. “It’s like the nightmare trifecta. I spend the whole time putting out the fires they set, I can’t teach anything.”

“They’re insane, Ms. M,” he confirms. Inside, I’m like, Huh? YOU THINK THEY’RE INSANE, TOO?

“Nuts,” I agree, because it’s usually in my best interest to agree, but I hear us going down a slippery slope.

“K is like…he’s like the Three Faces of Eve. The Three Faces of K. But it’s more than three. He’s Olivia DeHaviland!” he cries.

He hunkers down. “They won’t be in your class anymore,” he says.


“We’ll take them out. Give them a lesson to do with a supervisor, and leave it in Mr. A’s mailbox. You won’t be seeing them again.”

It’s like the principal’s mafia. “We’ll take care of him,” I picture someone in a fedora saying under a pool of street light on a desolate highway in East New York.