Tag Archives: To Sir With Love

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.”


Update: The Girl With Five Names

No sign of Lucia.  Sigh.

Oh Dee Bees

Stupidly, I decided to dash back down the block and into the school building to retrieve the Builder’s Bar I’d left in the staff refrigerator, leaving 10 of my ninth and tenth graders at the corner store to wait for me.  We were on our way to Battery Park for our weekly field trip, and the ritual is to stop at the store on the way to grab some food for the journey – apparently, the cafeteria food is inedible.  It is probably illegal to leave your students on the street corner while you retrieve your snacks upstairs, but I did it anyway, sternly eyeing two of my wiliest students: “I.  Will be right.  Back.” Continue reading

Holler at My Teachers

I keep Googling them, and nothing comes up.

Hear this: All Ye Amazing Teachers I Had the Luck to Encounter as a Youngster:

You know who you are. Your names are below. If you exist, I have this to say: THANK YOU for being a brilliant teacher. For taking this job seriously. For being a comfort and inspiration when I stare at a sea of blank 14-year-old faces, wondering what the hell I’m going to say next, wondering who I think I am trying to teach somebody something. Thank you for your honesty and flair, your humor and patience, your idiosyncrasies. For telling it like it is, for treating me like an adult, for teaching me that to let someone know you’re listening you have to look at their eyes, that to curse was unimaginative, that you have to project all the way to the back of the auditorium when you sing. You are stuck in my mind, my craw, my heart; unforgettable, true.

Mr. Martin (4th Grade: Alvin Dunn Elementary)
Bruce Altschuler (6th Grade: Alvin Dunn Elementary)
Mr. Rogers & Ms. Orahzda (Directors of the Alvin Dunn Elementary Chorus)
Nancy Cunningham (a.k.a. Elizabeth Ashworth?) (7th Grade Humanities: San Marcos Junior High School)
Mr. Smith (8th Grade American History: San Marcos Junior High School)
Mary Jane Vierra (8th Grade Communication Arts: San Marcos Junior High School)
Heidi Schipp (English: San Marcos High School)
Vicki Behrends (Drama: San Marcos High School)
Jerry Franklin (Western Civ: San Marcos High School)
Madame Heyman-Hogue (French: La Costa Canyon High School)
Ms. Afzali (P.E.: La Costa Canyon High School)

I would add Barbara Dagman (AP English Literature: La Costa Canyon High School), but she already knows it; we’re friends and colleagues now, can you imagine?

And P.S., Denise Lehr (AP English Language: La Costa Canyon High School)? If you’re listening, I’m sorry I was such a pain in the pretentious ass. I think you had us your first or second year, and we were so snotty. YOU TAUGHT ME HOW TO LOOK AT AN AUTHOR’S CRAFT. You taught me close reading with that excerpt from The Scarlet Letter, and I never looked at literature the same again. Also, you were so organized, and you did it by hand! And I loved that you had us journaling in the mornings. Your class was one of my favorites, and I was too self-obsessed to let on. Forgive me.

Girl Fight

There had only been one fight at my school this year. We may be a public school in the hood made famous by Spike Lee and Chris Rock, but Striver High (to start using euphemisms) is so strict it’s parochial: students are suspended if they curse, and everyone is afraid of Mr. Tigerton (the principal), a force of nature in suspenders and a tie.

So color me shocked when, from across the room, I hear Monica and Yvonne hissing at each other like angry cats. They’ve sat peacefully at different tables since my class began in January; Monica, for one, usually doesn’t speak above a whisper. Yvonne has actually stopped me on the street to ask me about homework she’s missing. But they were so angry I couldn’t understand what they were saying: fountains of hate showering sparks over the classroom.

Appalled, I ran between them (they were still in their seats). “THERE. IS. NO. FIGHTING. IN. MY. CLASSROOM!!” I bellowed, crouching, my face red, like a crazy person. I figured if I could become enough of a distraction, I might diffuse the drama. “OUT. Get out. Go to the office,” I snarled to both of them.

Duh: Rule Number One of sending warring students to the office: Don’t send them AT THE SAME TIME. They will only resume their spat outside in the hallway. Which Monica and Yvonne did immediately.

But there really isn’t a lot of fighting at my school. And I adore these girls. I couldn’t take the possibility of them physically harming each other, so, against the advice of my union (and common sense), I stood between them, repeating my command to go to the office. I may as well have been a sheet of tissue paper.

Luckily, when Monica tried to punch Yvonne, she only grazed my chin, and Yvonne’s friends restrained her, so no one was hurt. I barely felt it. I continued my rant until both girls were in the office.

Girls are magnificent when they’re angry: all hand gestures and rotating necks and tonal fluctuation, like birds in a war dance. In the office, with Mr. T, they quickly devolved into burbling, crying messes. Puffy-eyed and shaky, Monica tried explaining her side, but escalated into a tirade: “You are NASTY, Yvonne, you are a NASTY, MEAN GIRL,” she said, with palpable hurt in her voice. Something about the culture of the school allowed them to let down their guard in that office: they were both so WOUNDED. Their pride puddled on the floor; their tears and honesty ran the show.

Later, I hugged them separately, saying, “I love each of you unconditionally.” I gave them the lecture about turning the other cheek: “There will always, always be people who don’t understand you. Do not engage them, because they aren’t rational. You won’t win. Don’t even go there. This is not your best self; this is the worst part of you. Show the world the you we know and love. You are brilliant and kind: own it.”

As a teacher, I say this kind of thing all the time. I stop kids I’m worried about in the hallway, or bend the ears of loiterers after school, giving impromptu lectures about honesty, kindness, responsibility, ambition, tolerance, all the stuff you imagine teachers breathe in and out instead of oxygen. I have no idea if it ever permeates the messy membrane between kids and adults; their identities, their moral compasses, are notoriously unstable. Sometimes they argue, but it is usually half-hearted and sloppy: “What if I don’t think it’s wrong to cheat, Ms. M?” “But I don’t care about getting a 100.” “When I say somehting’s gay, I just mean it’s stupid, I’m not saying anything about gay people.” I say it and say it, like an insistent, broken record.

For some reason, Monica and Yvonne seemed to take it in, nodding sincerely, looking me in the eye. Maybe they were just worn out. Maybe they were listening. I hope I was reminding them about something they already knew.

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.”