Tag Archives: Artists and Agitators

On New Year’s Day, Everyone’s On a Diet

When I met William three years ago, he reminded me of Francis Tarwater, the protagonist of the Flannery O’Connor novel The Violent Bear It Away, which I was reading that fall. Tarwater is raised in the woods by his great-uncle, a superstitious Christian who believes Tarwater will grow up to be a prophet. When the old man dies, Tarwater must re-enter society after being sequestered in the woods for most of his life, and he’s terrified. He trusts no one.

The first day William showed up to my class, he took a seat near the window and slouched down in his seat. From here, he could see the Brevoort Houses, where he lived. He had covered the front of his notebook with the word Brevoort and the name of a well-known Brevoort crime syndicate. His feline face was stony.  In crossing the street to come to school,  he’d entered enemy territory.

We soon learned that William was merry and affable, that when he trusted you, he loved you. We learned, too, that he used his friendliness as a cover for huge academic deficits. On his way into the classroom, he’d light his face up like a game show host and thrust his arm into the air to high-five the teacher, shake her hand, and give her a hug as he shouted her name. It was a performance: it delayed the moment when he’d have to sit down and be a student.

The last time he took my class, he failed it. By the end of the semester, after a long series of interventions and a signed contract, he couldn’t pay attention for 10 minutes without devolving. He seemed to need my personal, undivided attention every single second, but there were 25 other kids in the room. I rarely send students to the office, but I threw William out at least once a week in May and June that year.

William’s highs are high, and his lows are low. When he’s angry, he’s taken over by an alien spirit. Don’t fuckin’ touch me! he’ll scream at the teacher trying to help, his arms flailing, even if it’s someone he loves. When he’s in a rage, his face gives it away. It isn’t malice that drives his anger, it’s betrayal: I trusted you, and look what you did to me.

He isn’t a kid anymore; he’ll be 18 in the spring. He’s behind in his credits. He might not graduate on time. He might not graduate at all.

This year strolled into my class on  the first day saying, Claire! like an old friend.I couldn’t receive his warmth without thinking of its flipside, his pattern of evasion, then fighting, then giving up.

But he was holding it together. He moved to the front so he could see the notes on the board. He completed the assignment carefully, in his exacting handwriting, using complete sentences. He looked up at me.

You gonna help me this year, Claire?

Of course.  But I’m not going to drag you over the finish line myself.

You gonna meet me halfway?  You gotta meet me halfway, Claire.

I’ll meet you halfway.

I clap his shoulder.

I’m glad you’re here.

After class, I pull him aside.

You were great today. You were on the ball. Keep it up.

He nods, beaming.

Claire, you think people change?

I do.

History tells me this will be our high point. I hope I’m wrong.


Scene at a Museum

I never thought I’d be listening to Karen Finley talk about her lady parts in the context of a museum field trip with 14-year-olds.

In the “Looking at Music 3.0” exhibit at MoMA this afternoon, Corey, all jumpy, says, “Claire! You gotta come listen to something!”

The exhibit, which purports to explore “the influence of music on contemporary art practices, focusing on New York in the 1980s and 1990s,” has listening stations around a small room, and you can don giant pairs of headphones and hear music, some of it accompanied by music videos. A giant screen plays a loop of old music videos, including songs by A Tribe Called Quest and Grace Jones.

In other words, cool and interesting to me and my fellow-teachers, but largely bizarre to our students. We had a small, good-tempered group who approached the stations with a mix of caution and curiosity.

I follow Corey and another student, Tina, to a station where Karen Finely’s song “Tales of Taboo” is playing. Oh, boy.

“I saw her once, about 10 years ago,” I tell them. “She was, uh, well – she was naked and poured honey all over herself.”

Corey nods vigorously and instructs me to put the headphones on. I can hear Finley, in her nasal, over-enunciated voice, shouting, “You don’t own me, bastard! You fuckin’, asshole! You wanna suck my, pussy, well let me suck your dick!”

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular contribution to American culture, Finley goes on to angrily describe things like sticking Belgian waffles up her grandmother’s ass, closing with instructions to “suck me off.” She says, “Take that clit, put it on your face, bastard, put it on your mind.”

Corey and Tina stare at me, eyes wide. I remove my headphones.

“What do you guys think?”

“Um,” Tina begins, straining to sound respectful, “She’s weird? She’s, like, outspoken?”

“She’s crazy,” Corey interrupts.

“She…expresses her feelings, kind of, sort of…”

“Through sex.”

“And music,” Tina clarifies.

“She probably a nudist,” Corey says. “I’m just sayin’…I really think she’s a nudist.  ‘Cause the whole song is about sex, and how she gonna do the do, and, uh…” He devolves into a gutteral implication of what it means to “do the do.”

“So you didn’t like the song?” I ask.

“It was uncomfortable,” says Tina. “It’s not something I would listen to and buy at a store.”

“If kids hear that, like on the radio…then they gonna feel some type a way,” says Corey.  “She’s crazy. She’s retarded. I’mma be straight up: she’s just special ed.”

“Why do you think she made that song?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Corey says. “To express her feelings. Express like a…different side.”

“Do you wish she hadn’t made it?” I ask.

“I wish I hadn’t listened to it!” Tina says.

“If my mom heard that,” Corey says, shaking his head, “if I ever played that on my computer, she gonna break it, instant, she just gonna throw a pot, and bam! But some people…” Corey looks philosophical. “If you’re a nudist, you probably like it.”

The Girl With Five Names

The new girl approaches my classroom, skittish, walking sideways.

“Hey!” I bellow, grinning.  “Where were you?”  Her answer is inaudible.  I try again.

“You missed my class!  I didn’t see you yesterday!  Or the day before!”  Lucia shakes her head and explains that the principal kept changing her schedule.  I wave her in, feeling expansive.

After my brief instructions, the rest of the class pulls out the rough drafts of their essays and gets to work.  Lucia sits there, looking very much like she wants to disappear.  I wander to her desk, trying not to make a beeline. Continue reading

“It’s My Aura”

This kid Rudy was careening through the halls, avoiding his chorus class, which he loves.  The principal had elected me to police the halls that period because he was in a meeting.  The third time I saw him whip past, I was like, “Rudy.  You’re kidding me, right?”

“I can’t…” he starts up, grinning, laughing, pleading with his arms.  “It’s my aura.  It’s telling me where to go!”

His aura.

Later that afternoon, in another class, the same kid offers his thesis on the theme of “A Black Man Talks of Reaping,” a poem by Arna Bontemps.

“It’s about struggle,” he says, and I’m like, go on…

“The line where he says, ‘my children glean from fields,’ it’s, like…”

I can hear everyone’s eyes roll.  They all know the exact moment when Rudy shifts to bullshit mode.

“It’s, like…I picture a man in a field, and he’s workin’, and we’re lookin’ at him, and he’s workin’ hard…and he’s struggling.  Yeah,” he says, having hit upon the word “struggle” again. I scratch my chin thoughtfully and knit my eyebrows.

“I’m not convinced.  Tell me what about that line invokes struggle for you.”

“THANK YOU,” exhales DeMario.  “Nobody ever calls him on it and make him explain hisself.”

We’ll Walk

Our juniors got their PSAT scores last week.  They were atrocious – out of 800 on each section, our students had scores in the 300s.  Alvin, our college counselor, a 32-year veteran of the Board of Ed, broke the news to his fourth period class.  I lingered in the room we share, hand-drawing a gigantic display for a bulletin board.

At first, the task seemed to be communicating the gravity of the situation.  Clearly, they did not all understand what the numbers meant.  Ronald, a gregarious boy who covers for his insecurity with outrageous cockiness, raised his hand.

“So I got a, a 360 on the verbal, which is good, right?”  All smiles.

“That ain’t high,” snapped Naima. Continue reading


Naima came to school today.

She often doesn’t, and when she does, she kind of stalks the hallways with a don’t-start-with-me force field around herself, tall and stork-legged, pretty but unkempt, her hair stashed under a hood, a hat, a scarf. Continue reading

I Know Nothing

What would LeQwan eat for breakfast?  I was working on a scene in a story.  I have this problem all the time: what are the details, the minutiae of life outside this three-story public school?  For years, I’ve noticed that my students eat different food than I do, different food than I did when I was their age, but I don’t know why, I don’t know what.  The imagery of their lives when they leave the building eludes me.  How would I know those things if I don’t ask? Continue reading