Sunday, November 27, 2005

They Just Don't Make Book Bags Like They Use To

I look at him now, November 2005, and remember when we first met in August 2003. He entered my rundown portable classroom scuffing his feet on what I suspected were asbestos tiles covering the rotted sub-floor.

"Pickup your feet bud," I quietly said, "Men don't scuff their feet when they walk." He said nothing, but picked up his feet. "Pull up a chair and join the party."

"Where's my desk?"

"The only desks in here are in those two cubicles," I jestured toward two cubicles, one at each end of the classroom. "Those are for students that decide they don't like anyone in here and want to be alone." He surveyed each one and chose one of the orange plastic chairs placed around one of my large, worn-out library tables.

His hair style was unusual to say the least. Trimmed short on the sides of his head, but grown long on top. So long in fact that his bangs, combed forward, easily touched his upper lip. This was his preference in styles. Combed forward to hide what he perceived as his many defects. Also, it helped him hide from the world.

Casey's world consists of, a mother that sometimes entertained employment for periods of up to two months, a father that no one seemed to remember, a string of single-wide-mobile-homes he called home, and the conscience ability to tear-down anything that may be going right in his life. Casey's conformity to his own sense of right conduct is admirable, but ultimately flawed by being one of the hordes of high school students that have raised themselves. He can't even be described as a "latch-key kid" because his trailer doesn't have a lock on it's only door.

Casey and his mother have been evicted from five rented mobile homes within the same rural trailer park over the last two years. Each trailer came with one of these additions; a) a new "family", b) another woman with one or two children, c) a boyfriend (with or without other children), d) other single mothers forever down on their luck. Whenever he comes to school with a new child that lives with him he always introduces them as his sister or brother. They're not, but it makes him feel like part of a family.

It took Casey most of three weeks to feel comfortable enough to initate a conversation with me or my aide. It was a much longer period of time for him not to expect the worse from us and cease attempting to place us in situations that proved he was right; we were there to get him into trouble, not to get him ready for "life" outside of high school. A life that could not slap him any harder then he had been slapped for the first seventeen years of his life.

I enjoy standing on the wooden deck of the portable classroom in the spring watching the classes change. Most of 2000 students herding themselves between the main school building and the equally sized annex building walk within six feet of me up and down the cement path. All teachers are expected to stand outside of their classes during the changes more as a deterent to "bad" behavior then to physically intervene if trouble breaks out. I just enjoy the spring sunshine on my face and bald head. Through the years many students have asked how I know when I stop washing my face and begin washing my head? Each time I react has if it is the first time I've heard the joke. I welcomed the spring of 2004 after a dreary, cold, winter in middle Tennessee.

"Hey dude, can you do me a favor," I heard Casey loudly ask as he came up to ramp to the deck?

"Depends on the favor Casey."

"I got to go to the prinicpal's office and he'll search me."

I cared less about the search then I did for the reason he had been summoned to the office. "Why do you have to go see the principal?"

"Man, Mr. Slagg jumped on my case. I wasn't doing anything, just talking to Angela. He told me to be quiet and to move to another desk."

"Did you?"


"Why not?"

"Didn't want to. I wasn't doing nothing."

"How many times did he ask you to move?"

"I don't know, one or two."

"Four or five?"


"Look at me when we're talking. Men respect each other while they're talking." He looked up from the deck and continued the story.

"I got mad. He don't like me."

"What did you do?" I suspected the answer before he told me. Casey's anger was always just beneath the surface.

"He told me to go to the office. He wrote a pink slip on me." A pink slip was a dreaded response to a behavior. Dreaded by teachers and principals. Ignored by most students. "I walked out before he finished."


"And what?"

I waited. There is always more to the story.

"I called him a bitch."

I successfully surpressed a smile. Gender definition is always a problem for some students. However, it was the best he could come up with at the time.

"So you took the problem to another level?" He looked at me trying to sort through the situation and his reaction.

"I was just talking to Angela."

I understood his need for female attention. Angela was three months pregnant and just showing. Casey was attracted to her. Partly because he sensed her need to be accepted as a pregnant freshman student and partly because he knew she had experienced sex. Something he had yet to encounter, except with himself. He remained attracted to her for nine months, before moving on to another crush.

"What's the favor," I asked?

"Look man, my mother's boyfriend loaned me his cigarette case. I' m going to be searched and it will get takened. Can you hold it for me?"

I watched him fiddle with something in his worn jeans pocket. Most students believe that all teachers just "fell off a turnip truck". We're all gullible and open to any scam. This was no exception.

"Sure, I'll hold it for awhile."

He handed me the fake silver case. He turned and headed down the ramp, mumbling something about that damn teacher, and made his way to the office. I looked inside the case and saw three flattened Basic brand cigarettes. Cheap, but affordable. Casey's mother bought him cigarettes once or twice a week. It kept him busy while she entertained in the mobile home. I left the deck and headed toward the courtyard between the main building and gym.

I walked up to the principal. He generally stood here during lunch periods, more to greet football players then to be a discipline presence. A few seconds later Casey approached. I beat him there because I didn't have to stop and tell other guys the story of being tossed out of class. Casey came to my side, somewhat surprised I was there. Standing there I put my arm around him and his unused bookbag. Unused for books, but well used to hide various contraband.

"What are you doing here Casey," the principal asked?

"Mr. Slagg threw me out for talking to Angela." The principal had no idea whom Angela was and cared less.

"You got anything on you?"

I watched the loose gears turn in Casey's brain. He had just formulated a plan to divert trouble from himself to me. "I had some cigarettes, but he told me he would hold them for me so I wouldn't get in anymore trouble then I was," Casey said, nodding his head in my direction.

"What's he talking about," the principal asked me?

"I have no idea," removing my arm from Casey and his book bag and stepping back.

"Empty your pockets Casey." He did what the principal told him. There was nothing incriminating in them. "Let me have the book bag."

Casey took the bag off of his shoulder, handing it to the principal. He tossed a quick smile in my direction. The principal opened the small pocket on the top of the bag and brought out the fake silver cigarette case. Casey's smurk quickly changed to shock. The cigarettes and case succeeded in securing three days out-of-school-suspension for Casey.

On the fourth day Casey made his way to my portable for lunch. Entering, he sat at the second used library table, away from me, but not to far away.

"How was your three day vacation," I asked, not looking in his direction.

"We missed you," my aide said.

"Yeah, it was okay, I slept in everyday," Casey replied.

"Where's your book bag?"

"I'm not carrying it anymore. The flap on the pocket opens to easily, stuff keeps falling out."

I smiled at him, "It's hard to find a good book bag that you can trust. A teacher you can trust lasts longer."

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Aroma of Success, (or could that be Ramen Noodles)?

"Where you been man," the wanna be gangsta student asked?

"My family had some health problems."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. My old man shot my moms."

It struck me hard how easily this student accepted the act of violence in his family. Of course, his family was his mother, his two sisters, himself, a half brother almost his age, and a five-month- old half sister. I remember, several months ago, asking him where his father was and being told he was in lockup for "dealin".

"Yeah, my old man got out in October, found out my moms was going out with her probation officer."

All I could do was lean back in my chair listening to the tale unfold from the mouth of this 17-year-old child. Seventeen going on forty in street years. The magnatron tube in the microwave sounded like it was whirling, cooking the "wanna be gangsta's" Ramen Noodle breakfast.

"My pop found her down in the Meadows sitting in her boyfriend's car drinking some 45's. Her boyfriend must of seen my old man coming and got away. Pop shot moms in her shoulder."

The Meadows, a bastion of social reform, is well known around town as a breeding ground for crime. "She okay." I asked?

"Yeah, she's straight. Got out of the hospital last week."

"What about your father?"

"He's in lockup for attempted murder. He didn't mean to murder her just scare her. My old man is straight, if he wanted to kill her she'd be history."

How easily he continued to defend the man amazed me. This man could not be described as a father in the traditional sense. They had never lived as a family. I knew from the boy that his "pop" had mostly been in lockup during the student's seventeen years of life. The bell on the microwave announced the Ramen Noodle breakfast was ready. I watched this child take the hot plastic bowl out of the oven. He carefully balanced the hot bowl in his hands, opening the only door in the portable classroom with his foot, and draining the excess water out of the bowl over the railing of the wooden deck. The liquid starch from countless bowls of noodles stained the ground yellow below the deck attached to the portable.

He returned to one of the two old white library tables I used in the classroom. My belief is that if these students share a table with 5-or-6 other students then negative behaviors could be decreased. Perhaps, it's hard to fight with someone you break bread with five days per week? So far there have been no physical battles just verbal jousting incidents. He tore open the small foil package containing the salty chicken flavored powder and sprinkled it on his hot noodles.

"You going to be here the rest of the year," he ask while stirring the noodles.

"Far as I know." I watched him take the first bite of the noodles, burning his tongue and acting like he hadn't.

"Well, this is the third six weeks and you had some crazy subs taking your place. The principals were in here more then their offices."

"I'm back for good."

"I've only been back from alternative school for two weeks."

"Why did you go there?"

"Damn English teacher said something about my pop. No mother f*!@#r talks about my pop."

"What did you do?"

"Called him a mother f*!@#r and left the class."

The ease that he told me the story left no doubt that he had restrained himself. He could just as easily attacked the teacher with fists, or worse. Most of his noodles were gone and the ringing of first bell announced six minutes before final bell for first period. He looked up at one of three clocks placed around the room and tossed the empty bowl in the trash can. The metal door swung open and I saw his half brother enter the portable.

"Hey man, got any noodles?"

I quickly looked at a clock and told him to help himself. I understood I'd be writing a note to their first period teachers explaining they had been with me doing some "work." Not one of the other teachers would question the notes or explanations for their tardiness. They would silently be thankful for any reprieve, ever how brief, from these and other students.

After a repeat of the noodle cooking ritual from fifteen minutes earlier, some small talk about me being back and no mention of the shooting, the two of them were off to class, notes in hand. There had been no talk of the shooting because the two shared one mother and different fathers. Different, but identical.

The stack of papers on my desk needed to be sorted and meetings scheduled. Meetings with parents that sometimes even showed for the meetings. More often meetings without parents. Just the student and representatives from the school; regular education teachers, special education teachers, assistant principals, and a student with little understanding or caring for the meeting. Now these plans had to be written with the idea that all students will continue on to college after high school.

No Child Left Behind and Lottery Scholarship Money!

How can education fail?

Perhaps, No Child Left Behind, Lottery Scholarship Money, and Ramen Noodles?

"Man, he threw me out of class and told me to go to the principal's office or somewhere. I ain't going to no principal's office. F!@k him, man!"

I heard him before I saw the door fling open and my gangsta stomp into the portable.

"Calm down."

"Yeah, I will. That mother f!@#*r," he loudly said, displaying considerable male posturing. "Can I have another bowl of noodles, man?"

Thursday, November 24, 2005

How To Steal A Car and Get Caught!

The Master Plan

I listened as the disheveled high school boy related how he was going to sue the high school. My feet shuffled under my desk in uncomfortable anticipation of leaving in the mid-afternoon. "I fell up the steps," Conner said.

Eased back to the conversation I looked at him as if I knew what he was talking about. "Why do you need to sue, little fellow?"

"I fell up the steps," he restated.

Thinking about what steps he could have fallen up or down on the leveled land, one-story building, inner city high school, I watched him bend forward and fold his left ear over. This to demonstrate the extent of his injury. I half looked at an injury I could not see and at the same time presenting a look on my face of sincere interest.

"Over next to the science lecture hall."


"Right over there," Conner pointed to the wall of my portable building. Somehow, this high school student, the pride of his family, had found the only place on campus that could be called steps (two) to fall up.

"Did it embarrass you?"

"No, not really. It was during lunch."

The thought passed through my mind how falling in front of many students was less embarrassing then falling up two steps when you're alone? It was quickly replaced by his voice continuing on with the story. "It hurt me right behind my ear. It hurt all night."

"Concrete and human heads are generally an unfair match." I said.

"Wow, you can say that again, but don't. It still hurts," he said, while rubbing behind the opposite ear. I watched him rub the wrong ear and wondered what the real story was?

I would not begin to know the complete story until the School-Resource-Officer approached me. He is a somewhat effective young policeman in a public school setting. "Did Ashton attend all of his classes yesterday," he asked?

"To the best of my knowledge," I half-heartedly assured him, "However, if you need some information about what's going on around here I'd pull him in for a talk."

"Probably a good idea." I watched Officer Hagan walk down the wooden ramp leaving my aged portable classroom. He is generally a man of few words and I suspected few original thoughts. Always on his desk were the school and sheriff's department book of rules and polices, along with a Nintendo game controller. I wondered if he was ever a street cop. I'd heard rumors that he was very good at playing Grand Theft Auto on his game console.

Less than fifteen minutes later I watched the policeman escort Ashton into his office. I was sure he could extract any information he needed and probably some he didn't. Still I had not connected the sore ear, falling up stairs, and the current incident being investigated. Enlightenment would be forth coming within the next thirty minutes.

Almost to the minute Officer Hagan opened my classroom door and allowed Ashton to enter. The SRO leaned into the opening and ask to speak with me.

"What can I help you with, sir." I said, exiting my portable.

"Do you know these five kids?"

I looked at the paper note he cupped in his left hand. I also noticed his right hand resting on a 9mm pistol on his belt. My sense was that he felt safer in that position while on school grounds.

"Sure, I know all their names and at least two of them have spent considerable time in my behavior class."

After I gave him their last names he told me what had occurred, thanked me and again walked down the ramp from my portable. Now the story was getting interesting as I began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It went something like this.........

During first period two days earlier, Conner, Angelina, Kasey, and two other non-descript players had decided that a joy ride, in a stolen car, was what they needed to break the boredom of a grilling high school schedule. So, being inventive young souls, they found a rundown Mazda to fulfill their desires. The Mazda belong to a friend of Angelina, Cybil.

Cybil would never be mistaken for the sharpest tool in the high school shed. She drove much to fast onto the student parking lot daily, because she could not decrypt the instructions on her alarm clock. Bounding from the tiny four door import she always tossed the car keys on the dash in front of the steering wheel. On the dash in plain sight of one-thousand-and-ninety-five other students, most itching to leave campus during the day. Sometimes, Cybil would comment how good the gas mileage was for her misfiring little Mazda. If she knew the truth, several students borrowed the car daily and some of them even replaced the gas they used.

Angelina, was the leader of the Grand Theft Auto gang. She wanted to smoke a cigarette, pickup a soda, and just ride around. Conner, was not interested in stealing a car. He was interested in Angelina. Going with her meant there was a slim chance he could get closer to her. Especially in a small, four-door Japanese car. He never gave the three other students a second thought about being in the car.

If you're out having fun during second period of a mundane school day, why not speed? Why not speed on a wet two lane country road? Why not speed on a wet two lane country road and pass a cigarette around to five people? When the cigarette takes a tumble from the waiting fingers of the driver, and Conner attempts to rescue Angelina from imminent harm, Kasey reaches from the rear seat to grab the steering wheel. Of course, the automobile was not out of
control until Kasey jerked the steering wheel into a hard right turn. This solved the problem of the hot cigarette in Angelina's lap. It dropped from the seat to the roof as the car tumbled over.

"I hit my head on the roof. Dude, it still hurts," Conner said.

Mustering my concern I ask, "Are you all right?"

"I guess so."

"Which hurt more, the car wreck or falling up the steps?"

Conner, looked at me and you could almost hear the gears turning in his brain. A quick glaze crossed over his teenage face and he said, "You figured it out, man!"

I didn't belay the point, because now Conner understood his story of falling up the steps to cover what really injured his head wouldn't float. He had dedicated most of the night before creating and fine tuning a story to account for his injury. Again, the point had been driven home to him that it is always easier to tell the truth. You don't have to remember as much.

The ending to the great Grand Theft Auto caper was not written for another three days. All of the participates, except Angelina, received three days suspension out of school and the possibility all would be charged by the local authorities. Angelina, was transferred to the area alternative school. Mostly due to her long record of infractions. Conner, took his three days out of school in stride, sleeping late each day, playing Grand Theft Auto on his Playstation, and generally going and coming as he pleased. All believed they were looked upon by their peers as "kool" anti-heros.

Conner, returned on day four with the warning that one more infraction of the rules would result in his immediate transfer to the alternative school where Angelina now pursued her education. He lasted ten minutes into the beginning of the school day. He managed to become angry, the reason still remains unclear, and stormed out of his first period class. He now gets to pursue the "love of his life" at the alternative school. I hope Angelina's very large boyfriend, that attends the same alternative school, understands.