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."