I got arrested when I was 20 for a joint that I lied to a cop about having. Never made the honor roll and spent more hours in detention than I did the library. I’ve been called a charlatan by a stripper from New York. Of my 1,500 Facebook friends (which is too many friends really, I mean this isn’t Myspace, the number on the digital counter means nothing except that another set of foreign eyes can judge you on your weight gain or haircut.) 90% of them can tell you a story about me while I was under the influence of alcohol. I have an estranged girlfriend in Atlanta, a fiancé in the military, and I’m considering courting a mistress based solely on the fact that she has a premium cable package (I need to watch Game of Thrones). I’m a lecher and a fraud and I’m currently scamming the government for financial aid I do not qualify for. My friends are drug dealers, alcoholics and douche bags to varying degrees of tolerability.I am slightly xenophobic and said prejudice determines the amount of tip I leave at the table after being served by waiter and waitresses of certain ethnic backgrounds.
And now, against all reason and under the omnipresent gaze of God (or Buddha, Mother Earth, Sammy Davis Jr. etc.), I have been tasked with the education, safety and mental well-being of some 358 teenagers. Oh and did I mention I’m only fucking 23? There is no place more convoluted and unpredictable than the mind of a teenager. And while I know adolescence is rough all around the world, I can’t help but think that the lower parts of growing up are just a little lower when going through them in the west side of Chicago. I could tell you, with the sterility of a news anchor, about how the west side is an economically depressed area with more abandoned houses than inhabited ones and how the streets are shared by individuals whose minds and physical appearances have been severely ravished by drug use and unsupervised latch keys kids. However I’ll keep my description of the West Side limited by saying that it is an Ouroboros and a pretty tragic scene.
Every morning I wake up at 5:50 a.m, sometimes hungover, sometimes in a stranger’s bed, once in all of the previous night’s clothes, shoes included. I wake up as the sun is peaking up past the Chicago skyline and I jump in the shower. I put on clothes, and face the weather.Which is sometimes it’s a miserable blistering cold and more recently the weather has been so serene and ideal that it’s hard not to call in sick and grab a Bloody Mary at a restaurant with a patio to enjoy the breeze and the girls. In order to get to work I have to take a bus and two trains. There is something about riding public transportation before 7 am that makes you feel like an adult, but adulthood isn’t the finish line in a trepidatious race. Instead it’s a trip out to the gallows that should be avoided for as long as possible.
Under the guise of a pressed shirt, khaki pants and a non-printed, leather belt I become Mr. Lawson — not-so-mild-mannered English teacher, with a short temper and a proclivity for detention. Which is a huge difference from my normal lax disposition. In fact the first time I had a freak out in class, (which culminated with me throwing a waste basket and threatening to beat a student brother up.) I was so shocked that I was capable of such anger that I immediately remembered my father’s melodramatic freak outs of my youth. And as if the realization that my apple is not falling far enough from the family tree wasn’t frustrating enough, I told my dad about the incident. He proceeded to give me a fatalistic lecture about how I was entering ‘real life’ and throwing things around a classroom might be my destiny. My dad is a huge advocate that I further advance to a career as a teacher, he believes that I am the apex role model for teenagers and he scolds me whenever I seem to forego hope or mention other career fields, but with unwavering confidence I can say that if my father was in my position, within a few hours he would be hauled away in a police vehicle with the mother of a recently murdered student, face red as a tomato, tears billowing, snot blobbing, wailing and running behind the cop car screaming, in a cracking, tragic voice to, “Hang him! Hang the mother fucker for what he did to my child!!”
My mother told me that black people can be the most conservatively-minded people in that if YOU don’t do what THEY think that YOU should be doing, you’ll be ostracized and ridiculed. This has been true all of my years in academia, even to some degree at my art school college. And I am certainly not what they except a black person to be at the school where I teach. I listen, although, this one boy got picked up in a E class, with 23 inch rims and tinted windows (maybe it’s the inner rapper in me but the more ostentatious the car, the more I want to be in it. Solid gold windshield wipers, t-rex skin seats, I want it all. ) and I don’t even have a license (Not because I can’t drive or wouldn’t be able to afford a car, but because I know with a car I’d just end up driving drunk and would end up a charred corpse in a ditch). So gaining their trust and posturing for a leader position is tricky. But I’m young enough to get their slang and old enough to know when they need discipline.
Which leads me to the most disheartening part of the whole teaching/mentoring role that has manifested itself in front of me. I’m a black male in a predominately black school, the kids need a figure to look up to, to emulate, and in a culture where good parenting is rarer than Muslim swimsuit contestants the people these kids look up to are the hood rich drug dealers, corporation controlled rappers, and then there is me, the tie wearing new teacher who takes the bus to work and has ‘childish’ tattoos. (Although all the kids have tattoos of their own nick names on their wrist, so when they are 45 they can remember their Twitter name was ‘Tay-Tay’. Did I mention these kids are obsessed with Twitter? I think it criminal for anyone to be freely able to throw that many abysmal sentences out into the zeitgeist. Twitter is a pair of your underwear, and your tweets are skid marks). It’s hard to steal adoration when you’re going toe to toe with such stiff competition as men who can blow 5 figures in a night on strippers (an act that is garish and devoid of poise and taste and something I’d sell my Grandmother for the opportunity to do). I mean, I’m cool, but cool loses it cache when you have to remind people that you are. In my heart I know there is a way to reach all of them, I believe that, and maybe this is naive and idealistic, but I really do believe I can help all of them cultivate the skills it takes to have a life worth living. But it’s hard to tell a teenager anything, especially when teachers are viewed as the enemy, and the enemy is the last thing I am to these kids.
It’s hard work, and it’s even harder work for someone with even a remote sense of pride to have to stand under the shade of professionalism while your intelligence, hygiene, weight, family life and sexual orientation come under fire by an orc-ish looking teenager with a bleach stained shirt. I was once asked the tremendously ignorant question of was “I gay?” by a student after I put him out, to which I responded, “No, but your jail bird father gets raped in prison, so he’s probably gay.”
Alright I didn’t actually say that, but in my head I did and felt venerated and triumphant and unemployed and maybe killed. On my first day a boy in the back of the class called me over to his desk, with what I thought was a question about the material assigned (as if I should ever be that lucky). When I got back to him I saw the smile stretched across he and his boyish friends faces. He asked me, with a disconcerting level of sincerity, was I “Laron’s daddy?” And I look at Laron and he’s bashfully smiling all buck-toothed and dim-witted, charming in the way ugly dogs are charming. And I told them that I wasn’t Laron’s Dad, and while I’m sure (I hoped) Laron knew I wasn’t his father, he seemed a bit disappointed that I at least didn’t entertain the idea. He later went on to tell me that once he thought that Chris Brown was his dad.
It’s a rough school in a rougher neighborhood. I broke up a fight a few weeks ago in which a student smashed a laptop over another student’s head. Both young men got carted off in handcuffs and it took maintenance 15 minutes to clean up the blood and shrapnel. Flirting has changed now, long gone is the innocent hand holding and three page love letters of my youth. All that has been replaced with online proposition for oral sex on Twitter and extremely violent acts of physicality (yanking young girls, pretending to choke them, all types of despicable shit that would enrage me if I didn’t see these huge eerily content smiles on the girls’ faces). There seems to be no respect for girls anymore, side effect I suppose of hearing your 33 year old mother who listens to Chief Keef’s degrading, toxic music in a dismal attempt to hold on to the youth she missed while pregnant. I feel like Keanu Reeves in that movie where he played a baseball coach to a group of kids in the ghetto. Severally out of my element. (I usually feel like Keanu Reeves in ‘A Scanner Darkly’, then there was that summer I went took a bunch of LSD in Arkansas and felt like Keanu Reeves in ‘Bill and Ted.’ I guess I often feel like Keanu Reeves.)
But through all the bullshit I deal with, there are those moments of victory that work as coal to the haggard locomotion that is my psyche. The moments when a glare can calm a student, or the times I see raised hands for question on the text and not not just whether or not I’d fuck the spanish teacher. Or the moment when a student threw a muffin at me because hitting me with a muffin would gain him respect. I am a sought after target, like a 20 point buck, or a Zapdos. Or when I ask a kid how his day was going and he looked at me and I could feel the ice began to melt because he could tell by the look in my eyes that there was nothing else I’d rather do than talk to him. Another one of my students told me that his dream is to co-host the Kid’s Choice Awards with me. I got a little emotional because I remember being his age and wanting to do stuff like that. (I used to pretend I was in the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) I wanted to hug him but West Side kids don’t respond well to hugs. So I gave him an elaborate handshake.
It’s a risky business, and you have to be armor clad because teenagers breathe fire like dragons. It’s impossible not to swell with pride or combust with grief at every victory or loss. This job has renewed my faith in myself. Turns out I am one of the good guys, even though my head ain’t always on straight. But it also has me questioning myself and my place in the world. It’s got me questioning the future, and nature, and what love can really do (not that Boy loves Girl love, but the love someone gives you when they kiss you on the forehead every day before school). It’s got me shook up, and sad and energized and ready to disturb the universe. It’s also got me on a strict sleeping schedule, so instead of pontificating any longer, I’m going to go to bed, and get ready to save the city, one little asshole at a time.