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Publisher Strategic Book Publishing
eBook Kindle Edition
The very first student on my very first day of teaching barreled into the middle school classroom, spinning, eyes darting.
“What’s up, fuckers?”
The boy, black-haired, with a wiry build, and short for his age, clearly enjoyed the shock value, but obviously had expected to unload his question into a roomful of students. Instead, he got only me. Without eye contact, but completely aware of my presence, he bolted out of the room before I could reprimand him, question him, even say a word, then quickly weaved his way through the packed hallway. His body ricocheted off lockers, walls, and students as if he were a rubber bumper car in an amusement park ride. I stood just outside my classroom door and watched as he spun and bounded back toward my end of the hall.
“Diego!” shouted one student and then another, and another, all clearly annoyed by his antics. Diego laughed, almost maniacally, and then grabbed a handful of the nearest girl’s backside.
“Di-e-go!” she said as she swung her arm, hoping to hit him.
Diego was too fast. He was already down the hall past a second row of lockers. He suddenly stopped and stood next to another student, staring at him. It was excruciating for Diego to be still; he quivered with energy.
“You’re gay, aren’t you?” Diego reveled in startling people.
“Get the hell out of here, you dickhead.” The student said this almost routinely, as if he’d heard it all before.
Diego was gone. Didn’t stay to hear the response. He knew what it would be. He dashed through the glass doors at the near end of the hall and was back outside. I could see him, standing on the sidewalk, his head snapping back and forth as he quickly surveyed what was in his sight, like a nervous bird. Then, he zigged and zagged his way out of view and vanished into the crowd of students.
“Diego obviously hasn’t had his meds,” said Mrs. Murray, the eighth grade’s lead teacher, matter-of-factly. She supervised the team of teachers in my wing of the school and had been around for years, maybe decades. She saw it all, heard it all, and knew Diego and the details of his distressed and dysfunctional life all too well.
“You got him first period, right?”
“Ah, yeah,” I said as I continued to process what I had witnessed. My eyes were still locked on the glass doors as I considered how in the hell I was going to deal with that kid.
“Make sure you talk to the nurse,” said Mrs. Murray. “She has to give him his pills. But his crazy family may not have done anything yet about getting the drugs to the school.” More students crammed into the halls. I took my eyes away from the door while Mrs. Murray filled in Diego’s story.
“Weird situation he’s in. Dad and Mom are divorced, but the dad still lives in the same house, with his girlfriend. Diego lives in the middle of it all. Everybody’s always fighting. They don’t have any money.”
“Wow,” I said, softly.
Welcome to day one at Cowherd Middle School.
Just a few months before this August morning, I was living in my pajamas. Good, comfortable, mixed-matched, makeshift sleepwear made of flannel and cotton. The pants oversized, faded gray plaid with a drawstring to hold them up, and the shirt was a simple black T-shirt from Target—one that had seen far too many wash cycles. It was the perfect daily wardrobe for an out-of-work journalist who, among other delights of aimlessness, had discovered TV’s The Price is Right could be a pretty solid companion. “Come on down!” became so familiar to me, I developed a new, although not very enviable, skill—shouting the show’s signature phrase at precisely the same time as the announcer. Got it right on the money every time. Bob Barker, MTV, VH-1, The Golf Channel, ESPN, and at least one daily soap opera, I can’t remember the name, became my best buddies. We’d meet over coffee, with sugar and light cream, and sometimes later in the afternoon, a little Jameson Irish whiskey in a clear juice glass. I never got drunk. Sometimes, though, I wish I had.
Diego wasn’t the only one making memorable first impressions. There was the girl with ten piercings in one ear, the thirteen-year-old boy who easily weighed close to three hundred pounds and towered over me in his giant frame, and the overwhelming sense of poverty. As a hedge against gang influences, gang colors, the students wore mandatory uniforms— white or blue T-shirt, and blue or white pants—but many of the white shirts were worn thin, grayed or yellowed, and permanently stained from years of wear. The blue in the blue jeans mixed with the brown and black of grease and dirt. But, despite the ragged clothing, there were smiles and laughter, and plenty of both in the hallways that morning. Many of the students had known each other since elementary school and lived in the same neighborhoods. Girls hugged each other hello, boys slapped one another on the back or playfully wrestled, roughhoused. They knew the teachers, too, greeting Mrs. Murray and the others as they walked by the classroom doors where each of us stood guard. For me, though, well, I felt a bit like the new neighbor invited to the annual block party, a bit of an outsider.
“You a teacher?” said a boy with a shaved head and an earring.
“Yep. Mr. Berner,” I said, sticking out my hand for a shake.
The student was obviously unaccustomed to such a gesture. He had no idea what to do with my hand. After a moment of confusion, he placed his palm meekly into mine, offered a fish- like handshake, and quickly pulled away.
“Arturo,” he said, looking left and right as if he had a secret he wanted to share with only me. “Hey, what kind of music you like? I can download anything for you. Burn it. Get you a CD. I won’t charge you much. Let me know.”
Arturo had a business going. He illegally downloaded songs from the Internet, put them on CDs, and sold them to students and others. On this morning he was trying to expand his client base. He didn’t see me as a teacher; he saw me as a customer. Arturo, like many others, came from a humble family, and that made me wonder about the computer and the gear he needed to do this little under-the-table job of his, especially in the days before iTunes and iPods. How was he doing it? I probably didn’t want to know.
My last real work was with an online golf publication, as a senior writer and reporter. It was a great gig, while it lasted. I wrote for the South African-based Internet company for about five months, making decent money, but the dicey business plan crumbled when the bottom fell out of the dot-com boom in the mid-1990s, and all the company’s funding disintegrated. After more than two months without a paycheck, I received the legal notice in the mail that the company was going bankrupt. Before the Internet job, it was years of covering the news as a broadcast reporter, mostly radio. It was work that had become sickeningly routine and increasingly influenced by corporate accountants who had taken over much of the broadcast industry. Writers were laid off, reporters were forced to become desk assistants and taken off their beats, the money we once had for advertising radio stations was yanked away, and when field sound recording equipment broke down, it was repaired, in patchwork fashion, over and over and over like a teenager’s junk car. As news gatherers, we were asked to produce more stories with less time for inquiry and fact-checking. It was sloppy and hurried reporting, and few managers seemed to care. These were battles I kept fighting, and it wore me out, dulled my senses. I learned to hate the job.
“Hey, mister,” another student called from across the hall as he shut his locker door. “Whatta you teach? And what’s with the tie?” I had thought wearing a tie might show some authority. In the early going, it wasn’t working. In time, the tie be- came part of my teaching persona.
His name was Sergio. A pimply-faced boy with what appeared to be a perpetual grin, a goofy smile born out of a mixture of devilment and immaturity. There was a shyness about him, even though he asked bold questions of a man he had never met before.
“This first period I’m teaching social studies, but mostly language arts. You in this class?” I said.
“I don’t know. Lost my schedule,” he said, still sporting that goofy smile.
“You going to the office?”
“I guess. What’s your name?”
“I stink at school.”
“I’ll bet you do okay.”
“No. I stink. My mother says I better pass.”
“We’ll give it a shot, Sergio. You better head for the office and get a copy of your schedule.”
He turned in the direction of friends who had called out his name, and left without saying anything else to me. I later discovered Sergio was reading at the second grade level, could barely write a simple sentence, and would constantly lose homework, notebooks, textbooks, and never, ever came to class with a pencil. But that grin was like a tattoo, permanent.
There were no bells that signaled the start of the school day at Cowherd. Instead, teachers would look at the industrial wall clocks and yell down the hallways, “Let’s go. Time for class. Break it up, guys. Let’s go.” We were sheepdogs herding students into the classrooms and to their desks. I watched the other teachers doing it, so I did it, too.
Just outside my door a crowd of five girls talked with great animation; facial expressions changed by the second, and arms and hands accented each vocal burst. They ignored the orders to get to class. Instead, they groomed. One combed another’s hair. Drugstore perfume overtook the oxygen.
“Okay, ladies. Let’s go.”
Two left, three kept talking.
“Ladies,” I said with a firmer tone.
One more left and two remained.
“Come on, girls,” I croaked one last time.
That’s when I got the Lucia stare.
Lucia liked to play the part of the tough girl. She walked with purpose in the hallways and sneered at other students, teachers, anyone. She enjoyed the role and certainly wasn’t going to change for some lame, new teacher. Lucia tried to stare me down, glared, and slowly turned. She refused to take her eyes away from mine. They were locked on me like those of a stalking animal claiming its territory, proving its dominance. Her friend Elena had already defiantly stamped her feet, rolled her eyes, sighed with disgust, and twisted around, leaving the two of us alone. Elena, I would later learn, absolutely hated any authority over her, but she dealt with it differently than her friend. Lucia confronted authority, showing open defiance and distrust. Elena, on the other hand, avoided confrontation but made sure you knew she wasn’t happy with having to listen to anyone telling her what to do.
Lucia’s silence was palpable. Her eyes bored into mine as she inched backward toward the far lockers. I stayed with her, my eyes glued to hers. I knew if I backed down it would signal a victory for her, and I couldn’t let that happen. She disappeared into the classroom two doors down. At that moment, if you would have told me Lucia and I would someday reach an understanding, a common respect, I never would have believed it.
A few other students were still in the hallway, scurrying to get to class before teachers shut the doors. One student snuck in under my arm as I pulled my classroom door closed, and then in rushed Diego.
“Hey!” he blurted as he squeezed through the now narrow opening. He spun, stood momentarily still, and glared directly at me.
“You smoke weed?”
I paused for what seemed like an eternal moment. It was one of the many random, seemingly disconnected questions Diego would lay on me over the school year.
“Come on, let’s go, have a seat,” I said as I ushered him in.
“You always been bald?”
“Hey, Diego.” Mr. Cruz, the instructor who was assigned to team-teach the first period social studies class with me, had had enough. “Cut it out. Have a seat. Come here.” Mr. Cruz knew Diego enough to direct him calmly, without emotion.
“Just asking a question,” Diego said, as if someone were violating First Amendment rights. He plopped himself in the nearest seat and began nervously drumming the desk with his knuckles. Without missing a beat, out came another question.
“You like porn?”
I made a note to talk to the nurse.
There was no doubt about it. I was now planted inside what was reported to be one of the Chicago area’s most troubled school districts—East Aurora, District 131—with difficult, sometimes unruly students; poor students from broken, dysfunctional families, some with histories of violence, crime, and neglect. I knew, rather vaguely, what I was getting into when I agreed to take the job, but on this first day it was quite apparent I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Still, through it all, I maintained a sliver of self-belief that I could do something good here. It was unnerving, even scary, but at the same time invigorating, and the only way to find my place in this new world was to plow my way through the work. At least that’s what I kept telling myself.
At the end of the first day, I sat at my classroom’s metal desk, alone, inspecting my class lists and trying to match the faces I had seen with the names. Rookies don’t learn names in one day, do they? I considered where my problems might surface over the weeks ahead, and thought about the myriad questions I had been asked today about my now loosened tie. More than anything else, though, I was spent, drained, wiped out. Any adrenaline rush that fueled me through the first hours of the day had been sucked out of me. Sweat dampened my forehead, my eyes lay deep in their sockets, my legs ached, and my feet were cemented into my shoes. The day allowed no rest, no breaks, and no chance to even step outdoors for air, for a stretch, a smoke. My reporter life had allowed me to make my own time. I was always out of the office, could pull over for a cup of coffee when I wanted to, even run an occasional errand—grab dry cleaning, pick up groceries, browse a bookstore. Forget all that when you’re a teacher in the public school system. You’re imprisoned.
The classroom door was closed; I allowed space for the welcome silence. It hadn’t been this quiet for six hours. The student desks no longer sat in neat rows but now had been abandoned in a haphazard, scattered fashion. Pieces of paper and a few pencils, leftovers from the day, littered the scuffed, grimy floor. I should have been preparing for the next day’s lessons, but instead I sat heavy in my chair in the empty room, alternating between stares out the windows, at the walls, or mindlessly into space. And I thought about my mother. Years ago, in my high school and col- lege days, she told me more than once how she believed I could make a good teacher. I don’t know how she came to that conclusion, but she would say it often during conversations about work and career. I accepted the praise, of course—it was my mother speaking—but I never took it seriously.
Now, whether I wanted to or not, I was going to find out if she was right.
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David W. Berner is an award-winning journalist, writer, documentarian, and teacher. His most recent book, Accidental Lessons—A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed, was published by Strategic Book Publishing in February, 2009, and released in a second printing as a hardcover in 2010. His essays and reporting have been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, and his broadcast work has been aired on National Public Radio, the CBS Radio Network – including WBBM Radio in Chicago - and public radio stations across the United States. David is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, teaching writing, audio documentary, and radio narrative.