Tonight, as part of the creative writing class, we have to participate in the “Open Mic” portion of the evening. It’s based on time, so I think I’ll have time to read two pieces since they are both fairly short. First, I think I’ll read “Closure”, the one about my brother’s tragic and senseless death. Here’s the second one. I’m titling it “Warning for Teachers”. It’s based on a true event, but has been fictionalized somewhat.
“The fuck you say my boy failing this goddamned, stupid class. No dumbass fuckin’ bitch gonna say that ‘bout my son!”
That was when I saw the flash of silver.
“Mr. Johnson, you need to calm down. . .” I stupidly began.
“Now you tellin’ me what to do!?” roared the glassy eyed, red faced man as he rose to his full height of 6’2”.
The silver was more than just a flash now. It was a bright, shining five inch blade gripped in a shaking meaty hand.
Sweat pooled beneath my breasts and my bladder suddenly filled. I bit my lips. How in the bloody hell do I handle this? I was taught how to instruct sweet little angels the intricacies of diagraming sentences and the magic of literature. I had gone through extensive training on how to identify ADD, ADHD, OCC, ODD, LD, BD, and a whole alphabet soup of other behavioral and learning disorders. I knew the laws governing education in the great states of Illinois and Missouri. Somewhere in my exemplary education and meager five years of experience, however, I had missed the part about disarming a large, out of control, stoned parent.
“Dad, chill the fuck out,” Jimmy said slowly.
The 15 year old 8th grader slowly stood as well. His body was tense and his normally slightly flushed face was now the color of stale bread. He had subtly maneuvered himself between his father and me.
My god! This child was trying to protect me! I couldn’t let that happen. It was my job to protect him! What was this kid’s daily life like? I knew from his file that he sometimes lived with his father and sometimes with an aunt. His teacher from last year had let me know that his mom had taken off several years before and that he was the one in charge of the cooking, cleaning, and caring for not only himself, but also his three younger brothers. Jimmy often came to school wearing dirty clothes. I used to hear his stomach growing loud enough to distract me from teaching. He wasn’t alone in this, so I get in the habit of stocking my classroom with granola bars and fruit. When winter came to St. Louis and Jimmy showed up for school without a jacket despite the sub freezing temperature, another teacher and I bought him a leather coat, gloves, scarf, and hat even though we were struggling to make ends meet ourselves. If he had to deal with all of that plus this level of violence, no wonder the kid was a year behind in school and was currently failing again.
“You defending this bitch? You picking her over your own blood?” Mr. Johnson seethed, raising his knife hand waist high. “You got the hots for her or something?”
“Mr. Johnson,” I interjected trying to use my most soothing voice. “I’m sorry for offending you. Obviously, we got off on the wrong foot, and I’m sure the fault is mine. I really don’t think Jimmy will fail. He just seems to be struggling with the material right now. I’d really appreciate it if you could help me find a way to help him.”
I smiled slightly and nodded. I remembered reading somewhere that if you not at a person they are likely to nod back and agree with you. I sat very still, my hands flat on my scarred wooden des. Smile and nod. Smile and nod. Eons passed. Jimmy’s eyes darted between his father and me. Finally, Mr. Johnson nodded back and his arm relaxed. He pressed the back of the blade against his denim covered thigh, folding it back into its case, slipping the weapon into his pocket, and easing himself down into the chair. I glanced up at Jimmy and jerked my head slightly to the right. He took the hint and left the room only to come back moments later with a very anxious looking principal preceding him.
I learned a lot that afternoon. I learned that no matter how good or thorough a formal education is, no matter how many degrees you hold, there wills till be gaps between theory and reality. I learned that no matter how well I think I know my students, I really have no idea what their daily lives are like. I learned there is no substitute for calm thinking and common sense. I learned that teaching children involves a hell of a lot more than preparing them to take a standardized test.
As for Mr. Johnson, the police were waiting for him outside of the school that afternoon. He was arrested for armed robbery, possession, and several other charges. Pulling a knife on me didn’t even rank in his list of crimes.
Jimmy’s aunt came to live with him and the three little ones for a while, but that didn’t last long. Jimmy ended up passing the 8th grade, but dropped out of school when he was 16 years old. After his aunt beat the living shit out of him, he moved in with a friend who helped him get a factory job. Less than a year later, she was coming home from work when she was raped, beaten so badly that she was unrecognizable, and left for dead. Jimmy found the guy who did it before the cops and blew his head off with a sawed off shotgun. Last I heard, he was still in prison.
No one warns you when you go into teaching that you are placing yourself in danger. Sometimes, the danger is losing your heart to a doomed teenager.