I’m not a stranger to tending high schoolers, though it’s a largely thankless task and one that wore out its attraction long before the end of my single year teaching at a suburban public school. I quit when my contract was up. Still, I tell myself, I should be able to get up for a week or two of subbing and take care of a month’s rent. This will be my life, I think, driving in the early morning silence to a city school. Living from month to month, scaring up the dough one way or another, opening my hungry heart to the influences of destiny and expedience.
I may have a year of experience under my belt, but I am of no more use than a scarecrow when it comes to herding the student body of Nathan Hale High School into their classrooms in a building kept open by the school board despite a teachers’ strike.
“C’mon,” shouts Mr. Hicks, the dark featured, barrel-chested, leather-lunged administrative factotum who hires the subs, “get them into the classrooms!”
The bell rings, but nobody cares. The stairwell I’m minding keeps churning scores of unfamiliar young faces attached to lithe young bodies up to the second floor, where I’m assigned ‘hall duty’ between abbreviated classroom periods. The perceptive young soon discover they have no need to listen to anything we gang of make-believe teachers tell them to do because we don’t know anybody’s names. No consequences need be feared if nobody knows who you are. I stand in the middle of the hallway, disregarded by the river of faces, most of them brown, who flow past me on either side. I seek to make eye contact with anyone who will return my glance.
I’m a rock in a spring-melt stream, a snag in the current. This current too smart, too agile, to be slowed by the immobile snag.
On the second day conditions improve a little, as a small core of administrators and other die-hards commit to standing in the hallways all day and shouting at the kids they know by name. Some of the cowed adolescents who show up in my assigned room have names resembling those on my attendance sheet. They sit in familiar student desks, looking at me, enduring the tedium that is the price of their existence.
“What kind of class is this supposed to be anyway?” I ask. My approach to unfamiliar adolescents is radical Socratic candor. I know nothing.
“We’re ‘special,'” someone says.
“Special what? What does that mean?”
They can’t believe I don’t know. Their faces are shut-off, sad, a little stubborn. They have sacrificed the desire to learn for the security of mere passivity. No one will expect them to do anything, produce anything, say anything because they’ve been ruled incapable of learning. Some occasional busy work should suffice.
But I know this game. And even if they know it’s a game too, they expect me to play by the established rules. No expectations; no agitation; mere endurance for all. When I ask them to read something, anything they have brought to school with them, they tell me they can’t read.
“OK,” I say, “let’s teach each other.”
Consulting the wish-list attendance sheet, I write the names on the board, and a few voices, overcoming shyness, peer pressure, quotidian depression, and fear of my alien presence, a new factor in their tired little worlds, begin telling me which of these names will not be matched by a face today. I choose the least unwilling victim to read the other names aloud. Some of the room’s dozen or so bodies admit to them. Then I ask the others to read their own name first, then those of their classmates. Some try, with only minimal prodding. A few do fine at this task; they know these names, they have been thrown together for years. A few stare mutely at my request; I don’t prod them. We move on to short phrases, simple words. I rely on volunteers, try to keep the more able few from dominating completely. By the end of the day I ask those who wish to attempt the task to come to the board and read a complete sentence.
“The black and white cat walked to school.”
A few can do it, rather easily. What a surprise: not so special after all.
One thin, owl-eyed boy, who looks about twelve though he’s really fifteen, keeps urging himself — or telling us, or the universe — “I can read it! I can do it!”
He appears pleased, though rather frantic, by this discovery. He keeps raising his hand when I ask someone to go to the board and tackle a word, or phrase, so I learn his name, Kenny. Kenny Gomes.
When he works his way successfully through the sentence on the board, he’s at such a pitch of excitement that I swiftly add another sentence that continues a sort of story. “The cat was hungry.”
Kenny shakes, and stutters, and clenches himself together with a visible effort to decode the last of these words. He encourages himself, sotto voce, “Do it, Kenny. You can do it.”
Then sounds his way through the last word. “Huh—un… Hun-gree! See, I can read!”
The bells rings. The special class veterans begin drifting away. Kenny tells each one that he can read.
Nathan Hale High shortens its day to little more than half the usual time, still long enough to count as an official day. The school board’s strategy is to keep the school open to lure a few teachers back to their jobs, day by day, and convince the union leaders to strike a deal at the bargaining table. But the effort is wearing people out, especially the staffers who at least know some of the students by name and are therefore assigned to spend the whole day keeping order. Though the idea is to keep the kids in the same room with a few breaks, it’s still a battle to clear the corridors of freelancing groups who see no sanctions falling on them for cutting class. To break up the crap games blooming in the stairwells, the boom box parties at the other end of the hallway. Most of the subs like me, assigned to classrooms, have no lesson plans, no access to books. I urge the administrators to open the storeroom, break out the books. I tell the lesser experienced subs to read aloud to their classes from a favorite book, especially one with a kid at its center, such as Hal Borland’s “When the Legends Die” or Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land.” Some of them glance away uncomfortably–not English majors, I guess. Who in their world reads aloud?
I am assigned to more special classes. I pick up on names again to write on the board. The names of their pets. The names of their siblings. Or friends. Their parents: do they realize their parents have first names too? I amend parents to ‘adults’, no point making anybody feel bad.
We build off these, write simple sentences. The colors of the pets, their size, habits, conduct, personality. Each word, I reason, shows how a ‘word’ works. Each word illustrates something about how letters go together, how the written structure is connected to the word it represents.
But at the end of the fourth day, we are told that a meeting will be held in the cafeteria, and when the rumor passes that there’s a growing consensus to give up this enervating attempt to keep the school open, no one is surprised. When the bell rings, kids scatter, emptying the building at adolescent warp speed. Worn adults troop slowly into the room, shoulders slumped, faces drawn. Administrators, guidance counselors, aides, tutors, so-called permanent subs, all look exhausted. The few regular faculty who have defied the strike out of concern for their students miss their colleagues, their old routines.
“All right,” Hicks announces, coach-style, when the room is filled, “I want to hear how people are doing. Can we keep this going? Or not?”
He calls on familiar faces. They say mostly discouraging things.
“I don’t know if we’re accomplishing anything here,” says a tall man with thinning hair and a paunch.
“I have to agree with what most of you are saying,” Hicks responds. He sounds ready to quit. “Does anyone else want to say anything?”
I walk up beside him and say I want to tell a story about a boy who’s taught me something here.
“I’ve seen some of you say ‘hi’ to him or ask how he’s doing during the day,” I announce, not waiting for a go-ahead. “People know him. His name is Kenny Gomes.”
A mutter of exhalation, halfway to a groan, passes through the caf, where some are sitting at tables and some standing between them, as if halfway out the door. It’s as if the name hits a tender spot in the school staff’s collective body.
“Kenny Gomes told me something today. He said he’s worried about his Mom. He says she’s sick. He doesn’t know what the matter is, she’s just not feeling good. But when he tries to stay home to look after her, his mother tells him, ‘You go to school now, Kenny, and leave your mother be. I don’t want you missing your education. If you’re missing your education, that’s gonna hurt me a whole lot more than being sick.'”
I pause, letting the room’s discomfort grow.
“If we close the school, where will Kenny Gomes go for his education? What will he do all day? Or any of the other kids? Do we want Kenny to tell his mother, ‘Mom, there’s no school for me to go to.’ What will Kenny’s mother think if he comes home and tells her school is closed?”
A low, collective groan of pain follows the words of this appeal. An acknowledgment of naked human sorrow, more for what others know about Kenny, and the Gomes family, and Kenny’s mother’s condition (of which I know almost nothing), than for anything I have said. Some larger force leads this arrow to its target. A murmur of conversation, of disclaimer and suppressed protest, dies away.
I’m about to open my mouth again when beefy, hard-eyed Alan Hicks steps in front of me, reclaiming his authority.
“OK, OK,” he says, giving me a sideward-glance that says, ‘Back off kid. My school, my meeting.’
“Listen, people, so here’s what we do.” His broad back obscures me, cuts me out of the dialogue. “Tomorrow we shut down the third floor. We’ll gate it. We keep everybody in the first and second floors, double up the classes where we have to. I’ll put two people in every room, every classroom I can. OK? Everybody got it? Everybody go home now and get some rest.”
Hicks steps away from my side, without a glance and buttonholes the nearest staffer for a check-in, ‘how-ya-holdin’-up?’ pep talk. My existence has been expunged from the record. As the assembly melts into little groups, people talking to their friends, I walk through them, seeking a familiar face. But no one meets my eye. I drift through the cafeteria toward the exit, a pathway clears by tacit consensus before me. When I look for faces, I see only backs. This must be what exile is like. No one wants anything to do with me.
The strike ends that night. When the union leaders hear that the skeleton staff at Nathaniel Hale has voted to keep the school open, they decide to compromise with the school board on their demands and go back to work. The school board announces that the school will close until Monday to allow the regular teachers to prepare for the start of a new school year.
I return to Nathan Hale Monday morning, parking on the street because the lot is full, about twenty minutes into homeroom to see if any substitutes are needed.
“Oh, no,” the main office secretary, a middle-aged woman wearing a lightweight dress whom I have not seen before, informs me with a poorly concealed smirk. “The teachers are all back today.”
Seated at her typewriter, she keeps her eyes on her work, avoids looking me in the face.
“I’d like to see Mr. Hicks.”
“Mr. Hicks is very busy. He’s the acting principal.”
What happened to the previous actor, I wonder. Forget his lines?
“I’d still like to see him.”
When she returns from a consultation behind a closed door to tell me that Mr. Hicks is busy, I reply that I’ll wait. I find a seat in the corner of the office and wait two hours. When I ask again, I’m told once more that Hicks is busy, I walk slowly down the corridor and out to the parking lot, knowing I will never work at Nathan Hale High School again.
So that’s how it will go, I tell myself. Chance and opportunity. Happenstance and expedience. Maybe Kenny Gomes, and his mother, will be better off without me, back in the care of the familiar faces who looked after the boy’s education and welfare before I showed up. Though it does not appear that he learned very much.
As for me, I will find something somewhere else, in school or out. I am employable; I have a college degree. And I have something else, something that does not always endear me to the rest of the world. A mind of my own.
Robert Knox is a Boston Globe correspondent, a poet and fiction writer, and the author of a recently published novel based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, “Suosso’s Lane.” The first full novel written about the famous case since Sinclair Lewis’s “Boston” (published in 1930), “Suosso’s Lane” centers on the life of anarchist and Italian immigrant Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Plymouth, Massachusetts, before his 1920 arrest. Published by Web-e-Books, the book has received good reviews and been praised by readers. It’s available at: www.web-e-books.com/index.php#load?type=book&product=suosso
His short stories have been published in periodicals. “Lost” was excerpted on the Massachusetts Cultural Council website after he was named a finalist for a fiction fellowship and published in The Rambler.
His story “Marriage” placed in a Words With Jam competition, published in the anthology “An Earthless Melting Pot.” His stories have appeared in The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, and 3288 Review, among others.
As a contributing editor for the online journal, Verse-Virtual.com, his work appears regularly on that site. And his chapbook “Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty” was published in May of this year. The poems in “Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty” discover a universe in a perennial flower garden. A reporter and a novelist, Robert Knox’s poems are as immediate as today and as universal as the weather.