Here’s a tip: New York City will out you if you don’t out yourself first. As in, New York City will land on your fire escape like Peter Pan on a Tuesday, blow fairy dust through your air conditioning unit, and pin you to a plaid duvet as it asks for a first kiss. You won’t believe it. But here it is, and here you are, and you will think Ah, Oh, Right, Yes. This is why. This is why I came to New York.
September 2009 and I am on the toilet in Starbucks thinking of prepositions for a lesson on prepositions. I’ve joined Teach For America, the popular and controversial program that gives twenty-two-year-olds full-time jobs as public school teachers in poor — though they use longer, more oblique words, like underprivileged, under-resourced, or low-income — places. The idea is to put children who eat Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for breakfast in a room with children who majored in sociology at Georgetown. Let them disrupt one another. Let the cultural capital flow back and forth, but mostly forth, from Georgetown to the Flamin’ Hots.
Tomorrow is my first day. Seventh-grade English. There is mouse poop in my desk. A fluorescent light holds horsefly carcasses. The teacher’s bathroom does not lock. I shit in fear.
Two sections of 30 students each in a brick building between Prospect Avenue and Boston Road, in the Bronx. Ninety minutes per section. No curriculum. No lessons. I’m writing the lessons myself.
And I don’t know why. I mean, I do know that when I applied to Teach For America, I was scared. Of unemployment, of working in retail, of eating my mother’s overcooked hard-boiled eggs if I moved back home. Did I apply out of fear? Maybe I applied out of fear. But fear tucked behind tear-duct-triggering idealism — perfectly white-balanced photos of poor children holding diplomas under cherry blossom branches. The kind of idealism that makes you want to defeat the Joker yourself, with nothing but a B.A. and the words “one day” in your hands.
The days were eggbeaters. Up at five. Coffee at six. Typing lessons with a tie around my neck as the train rolled out of the Earth at Grand Concourse. Writing my name on the greenboard and wiping the chalk on my butt. Paying $16.49 at Staples for a pack of assorted neon paper because teachers pay for their own supplies.
The students called me “mister,” which is something I thought only happened in heartstringsy movies. The parents called me “son” or “sweetie” or “mami.” The kids could not read. Well, they could, but they did it like the words were spooked. One of them — he had just arrived in the Bronx from Guinea — said “FYOO-zee” for fuzzy, which I thought was funny until I realized it wasn’t.
I missed my first day of school in February. It was easy. Public school teachers are given 10 sick days per year, and taking one is as simple as raising your hand to use the bathroom. I did it again in March, and again on a Tuesday in April.
I stared at a smokestack. A steam pump near the East River. It was the only thing I could see from my apartment, a sixth-floor walk-up near York Avenue. I found a guy on Facebook. Someone I’d crushed on in college. What’s up? I’m bored. Hang out?
And then: A seventh-grade English teacher forgets his lesson on prepositions for four hours on a Wednesday morning as smoke rolls out of a steam pump on 75th Street. A seventh-grade English teacher kisses someone he never thought he’d kiss as a tiny corner of his brain repeats a Guinean tween’s incorrect pronunciation of the word “fuzzy” until it’s baby talk. No lessons. The absence of lessons. A time-space void in which lessons mean nothing, and lessons sprout wings and fly far, far away, over neon paper and greenboards and fingers covered in the fiery dust of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
I felt like I was 22. I was 22. One hour of sleep, and I’m explaining what prepositions are to a class of 13-year-olds as schools of glittering rainbow fish swim past schools of naked men in my head.
The lesson is bad. I keep falling asleep. Or, rather, the lesson-giving part of my brain keeps falling asleep. I take attendance. Help Kayla diagram a sentence about pigs. And what’s a preposition again? They tell you your relationship to something else, don’t they? They do, I think. Prepositions. I’m not sure anymore. I am confused, and tired, and where’s my coffee and I guess I’m also gay.
2:50 p.m. bell. I sit in a seventh-grader’s desk chair. It fits me so well. Head in my hands. Someone has drawn a penis on this desk. I look up. The desk ahead bears a penis as well. I fall asleep and dream about rubber erasers.
It was strange. Understandably, I guess. To fess up to my own self-denial when I’d been hired to represent an idea — call it goodness, or intelligence, or truth — to poor children who, as I’d been told, really needed me to do that for them. To take their hands and walk them down the Good Path, clad in my checked tie and pleated pants, one hand on the chalk and the other on my next rhetorical flourish. To tell them how hard I studied in college, and how hard they should study in seventh grade so they can do exactly what I did, because I am white and summa cum laude and America, and they are brown and Guinean and must really want to be as much of America as I am.
But that boy. He’d crawled under my covers to tell me one thing, and one thing only: You are a person! Not a walking lesson. Not a preposition wizard. Not a personification of the American middle class. You are young and hungry and tired and you make terrible, indulgent, orgasmic but ultimately important mistakes. You were a person long before your first lesson on diagramming sentences, and you will be a person long after your last!
Lesson: Maybe you should stay up until 4 a.m. having a one-night stand while you’re teaching seventh grade in America’s poorest congressional district. If the opportunity presents itself, I mean. You might learn something as you’re naked on your bed with one hand on a pile of lesson plans and the other on —
Yeah, maybe you should.