Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A few years in the life

I am haunted by Jamal.

Post-college, I worked as a substitute teacher for five years in several Los Angeles-area school districts, focusing primarily on middle and high school kids. I had graduated early, due less in part to overachiever motivation and more to a sloth-induced aversion to reapplying for my scholarship. Thus, I arrived in LA at barely 21, a wide-eyed innocent with limitless aspirations and “Take Advantage of Me” stamped firmly on my forehead. If you had looked up Small Town Girl in the dictionary, there would have been a picture of me, looking stupid and na├»ve and probably wearing something unflattering.

Upon arrival, I bumbled around for several months in a directionless blur, exploiting the generous hospitality of patient relatives and finally realizing something key: I had lofty dreams of stardom, but - short of one-billion-lattes-worth of coffee shop baristahood and endless hours of spandex-pants-schlepping at Macy’s - no job experience. Fortunately, in the midst of my shiftless haze I vaguely recalled a college acquaintance proclaiming that between college and law school she planned to substitute teach. Ding ding ding! Sounded fabulous to me. Working with kids all day couldn’t possibly be more miserable than the dire fate of, say, cocktailing at Hooters, could it?

I called my mother to inform her of my new plan. She immediately insisted that I was most certainly insane and would doubtlessly be killed instantly upon setting foot on a Los Angeles high school campus. I believe the conversation went something like this:

Her: "They eat little white girls like you for breakfast in those schools!"

Me: "But I must support my ART! It beats whoring about in hot pants, serving onion rings!"

Her: "Onion rings don’t carry knives."

Too stupid for fear, I ignored her, insisting that my plan was the one way that I could earn a living, pursue my craft, and maintain a semblance of self-respect. Next thing I knew, I had taken the requisite tests, applied to several districts and was suddenly a proud employee of our fine California educational system.

I met Jamal at Wilson Middle School, where I became a regular substitute for an 8th grade History class. I remember the first time I laid eyes on him – post-recess, the door to the classroom was thrown violently open, shattering my brief moment of solitude between passing periods. In waltzed the most massive child I had ever seen, twirling his empty backpack on a finger, munching Cheetos and staring me down through surly slits of eyes. He reeked of attitude. Sweet Jesus, I thought. Mom was right. This one has come to kill and eat me.

Fortunately, by the time Jamal entered my life, I had already been subbing for quite some time. When I was 21, I was pelted with such an onslaught of rubber bands that I ultimately retreated from the room in near hysterics. At 22, I stood helplessly in the band room, ducking occasionally while I watched the hellions that were my class engage in Chair War. On several occasions, I bodily blocked adolescents four times my size from grinding each other into bloody hormonal teenage pulp on my classroom floor. I gradually befriended every security guard in Pasadena Unified, and along the way, I learned.

Let me tell you this, my friends: there is nothing that will toughen you up like substitute teaching. I truly believe it is the boot camp of all professions. My guileless good nature was gradually ground into a fiery nub of sheer willpower, just daring a student to try to take advantage. I may have looked pleasant, but I was stone cold steel. Don’t mess with Miss T, kids.

Despite my rocky beginning, I grew into a popular substitute in the district – students liked me because I was young and attractive, just a few years older than they in many cases, a far cry from the craggy gray wenches that usually hobbled crankily into their classrooms (I even turned down several invitations to prom, thankyouverymuch). Teachers liked me because I worked my ass off – if there was an assignment, my students either did the work or were sent to detention. They needn’t be perfect, they just needed to try.

When Jamal strutted into my classroom that day, I knew I had a challenge on my hands. We circled each other like rabid wolverines.
Yes, my eyes said, you will read this chapter today and tell me how the Mayans grew corn.
Oh, hell no, Blondie, his said. Put that book in my hands and you might lose a finger.
Still, I believed I could get through. I could make contact.

This was a week-long assignment, and over the course of the next several days I used all my bag of tricks on Jamal. I disciplined, I lectured, I cajoled. I complimented and I encouraged. No dice. He remained stubbornly impenetrable. When he wasn’t disrupting class by spontaneous yelling or staring blankly out the window, he was tossing paper wads into the girls’ hair to watch them squeal. The few times he did attempt an assignment resulted in a few words scratched illegibly across a dirty paper – no name.
Despite my optimism, I left at the end of the week beaten down by this child.

On subsequent assignments, it was the same story – Jamal the Difficult, the Petulant, the Sullen. The boy didn’t seem to have any friends, trudging the halls alone and eating lunch by himself on a lone bench at the far end of the field.

One day, he fell asleep at his desk. I awoke him, and he managed to stay lucid for the remainder of the period. When the bell rang, he remained in his seat, making only feeble attempts to gather his belongings, rubbing his eyes and casting sidelong glances at me at the front of the room. Bingo.

"Jamal, what’s up with you today? Why so tired?"
He stared at his feet, the floor, the grubby eraser near the trash.
"Uhhhh…yeah, Miz T. Sorry ‘bout that. I didn’t get home last night 'til four."
"Four? Why so late?"
"My mom went to her boyfriend’s house and I was waitin’ on the couch for her to come down so we could go. Didn’t get home til four. My contacts is hurtin’ my eyes today."
"You must be sleepy. What about your dad? Couldn’t he have come get you?"
"Oh, he in jail, Miz T. ‘Nother year at least. I’ll see you later, Miz T. I gotta get some food."

He left the room.

Jamal left school several months thereafter. I don’t know where he went, but one day he was no longer on the roster – any roster. And I wondered, Did I fail him? Have we all failed this child?

He is 17 now.
I am haunted by Jamal.

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