Today’s Lesson

by Alex Freeman
Imagine.
You wake up.
Every.
Morning.
At 7:17.
7:17. Not a minute earlier. Then, the day would be one minute longer, and you just couldn’t handle that. Not a minute later; you would be late and never recover.

7:17. You open your eyes to your red-walled room, a red you thought would be warm and sexy, but really it just looks like blood, splattered, the remnants of a massacre. This is fitting, because your stomach feels as if it just witnessed a massacre– burning, acidic, angry.

You drag yourself to the bathroom, where your stomach exacts its revenge. The first vomit is mostly water and spit, followed by its more sinister, yellowed brother. You blame the sleeping pills, blue and round; you know they are no good, but you must have them each night to turn off the incessant doubt. You look at the vomit and you think, every morning, this has got to be a legitimate reason to crawl back into bed. But then you realize, this happened yesterday. But, you didn’t stay home yesterday and you won’t today. Instead, you turn on the shower and you crawl inside.

In the shower, you think about anything and everything but the day ahead: your toenails need to be clipped; it would take three coats of another color to rid the wall of the red; in three weeks it is your mother’s birthday. You pretend today isn’t happening, and for a second, it isn’t.

Too soon, you run out of things to think about and it is time. Time to exit. Time to wrap your grandfather’s hand-me-down towel around your waist and open the door. Red. Massacre red. Time to open the closet door and rapidly select today’s conservative male attire. Time to walk downstairs and grab the lunch you made last night. Time to open the front door, turn right, and walk fifteen steps to the car.

When the key fits in the ignition and when the turn of the ignition starts the engine you think, just once couldn’t this damn thing not work. Just once? This is the moment you realize, each morning, that you are not well. Just once would be amazing.

But just once never happens, and each day the car starts. You exit the parking lot and see your neighbors streaming out of their apartments, their faces etched with the lines of last night’s linens, their eyes still smoky with sleep. They are not going where you are going, and you hate them for this fact. You are jealous; they are not you.

The commute is three-parts: to-the-highway, on-the-highway, off-the-highway. To-the-highway is the best, because you are the furthest away. Things can still happen. On-the-highway is tolerable, especially the day the truck dumped the nails on the road, leaving in its wake cars stranded on the road’s shoulder. Me, me, me…please God, let me get a nail in my tire was your reaction that day.

There are no nails today, not that it matters, nails never get in your tires anyway. Traffic is light, so you breeze through the highway and as you exit, you indulge again. I could just run this light ever so innocently, crash into that bank over there. Everyone would feel sorry for me and I wouldn’t–

Have to do this.

You never run the light, never crash into the bank. Before you can fully remember the phone calls you meant to make, the copies that must be made, the numbers you needed to crunch, before you can remember these things, off-the-highway is over. You are parked. The key is out of the ignition. All lights are off. There are certain spots you favor; today you are in your third favorite spot. This is good.

I can do this, you think. I am in my third favorite spot. Today is going to be a good day. But you know, as you walk from your third favorite spot, the thirty-five steps to your classroom, it is not.

8:00. You have fifteen minutes before it all begins, so you do what you do best; you organize. There is something about organizing that calms you, the predictability of piles of paper, the way they stay where you put them, the way they never fight back.

You let yourself enjoy the light streaming through the large windows, the way the linoleum floor shines with promise. You find stray candy wrappers shoved into the corners of the room. You lift them with your bare fingers, gingerly moving them to the momentarily empty trash can.

This soothes you, how straight-forward this work is. You spot, you bend down, you pick up, you throw-away. You breathe deeply, inhaling the order you created and you cherish it, the ghost of the approaching day.

8:15. You walk to your door and look down the hall. Ms. Sanders is at her door and her face says it all: I don’t want to be here either. You don’t admit this. Instead, you make adult conversation.

Did you see Idol last night?
What are you doing this weekend?
Has your daughter finished her college applications?
Really–Cornell?

8:20. They start streaming in. Children. Your heart plunges when you see the first one burst through the doors. You feel guilty for this, the heart plunge, but it’s not something you can control like the piles of paper in the room. Beyond guilt, you feel ashamed. Really, you hate children now?

Yes.

The answer to that question is yes, and it has been yes for months. You are not yet at the point where you think this is acceptable, but you are at the point where you lack the energy to change this fact. You know hate is a strong word, and you don’t use it correctly, but it is the word that pops into your brain at these moments.

8:25. The answer is especially “yes” now. They are almost all here in the hallway by this time, opening lockers, shutting lockers, hitting faces, screaming obscenities. Today is just yesterday, but again. Your ears hurt with the sharp cut of curse words from eleven-year-old lips.

8:30. The bell rings. Some enter your room, others head straight to the bathroom, tragically located nearest to your classroom. No, not your classroom. That would imply learning, instruction, raised-hands, completed homework, these things. Instead, the room-you-manage.

You’re already tired, but you can’t forfeit the day without a fight.

You leave your door, knowing you are leaving the room-you-manage and everything inside it to the masses. You head to the boys’ bathroom. You follow them as they stream inside, the stench of urine seeping into your eyes, your pores, your ear canal. It is everywhere. You scream at them, “Get to class,” with your best big-man-voice (which you all know is unconvincing as your voice is actually slightly high, but no other voice makes sense). One or two will humor you, one or two will curse at you under their breath. Most will ignore you.

After some screaming you must do exactly as you have told the children: get to class. You leave the rotten boys in the bathroom. Hell, they can bathe in the urine cake smell for all you care. You’ve done your job; you must get back to the room-you-manage.

Here, in that room, the children are wreaking chaos on your piles, flinging papers to the floor. Pencils are flying. Several fights are brewing, percolating like the morning coffee you suddenly so desperately crave. Coffee—that would make this better. Or a cigarette. Heroin? You haven’t tried it, but you entertain the possibility in this moment. There are no narcotics in the room-you-manage, aside from the narcotics in your students’ backpacks, and it is inappropriate to ask your seventh-grade students’ for drugs. There are some permanent markers, and you are suddenly blinded by the vision of you sniffing their intoxicating fumes.

Deeply inhaling, closing your eyes, smiling.

Instead, you stand at the front of the classroom. You stand straight and tall like all the teachers who came before you and all the teachers who will come after you. You make your face say I’m important and you wait a minute.

You.
Are not.
Important.

You realize, as you realize every morning, that your face and words mean nothing. These are not really tools that you will use today, because you were stripped of them long ago. So, you make a loud noise–a banging of a book, a whooping guttural sound that reminds you of apes, a clang of a desk lifted and then slammed down. Yes, these are your instruments, and you hate this, but you remember you also hate children, so you forgive yourself. This is not the person you wanted to be—this is the person you are.

Loud sounds freeze them for a moment, and you capitalize: “Sit down. Now!” The door to the classroom is open; you do this so others–principals, other teachers, Jesus–can hear you, save you.

They sit and for a few minutes, usually two, if you looked at the room-you-manage from far, far away with glasses covered in Vaseline, the room-you-manage would look like a legitimate classroom. You take these two minutes to discuss what everyone will be learning for the day, instructing the students to take out the necessary materials. You smile. This is me, you think as you flash this smile, the happy teacher, the same teacher we all met at the beginning of the year, the industrious recent college graduate who came here to…

A slap in the face. Not to you this morning, though that is always a possibility, but instead a slap in the face from your least favorite student to your second least favorite student. There are two thoughts in this moment:

1. You miss the happy teacher, the two minutes of fake class.
2. You are elated; a fight will surely result in a suspension, which means both of these students will not be back tomorrow, or the next day and possibly the day after that.

So, you wait. You wait for the slapped student to slap back. Why break things up before they can escalate to the point where consequences are inevitable? That would be a missed opportunity and you have learned that opportunities are not to be missed. I could be in bed, or I could be my neighbor, going to another job. I could still be in my car, nail in the front left wheel, stranded on the side of the road. You could be any of those things, but you are not. You are here and you are going to make the best of it, for tomorrow’s sake, because you will be in the exact same spot come tomorrow. But–if you play your cards right–a tomorrow with two less children in front of you.

You wait, and the fight happens. You do hate children, but not so much that you actually want them to get physically hurt, so you break it up eventually, and you must admit, it’s actually kind of thrilling to do so. Look at me, I’m a big-fight-breaking-up man, you think to yourself, because it is true.

Security comes and you act appropriately aggravated and flustered. You are sure to recount each detail of the story, suggesting the fighters be sent to Alcatraz, or if Alcatraz is full, at least somewhere else for the rest of the day.

You resume class. The remaining non-fighting-students, however, do not resume with you. Instead, they recount each minutiae of the fight to each other, the tale getting more and more exaggerated with each telling, until the story of the fight begins to resemble The Battle of Iwo Jima. Guns were fired, knives were drawn, countries were pillaged. You wait for the part when you saved the world via nuclear bomb slash bad-ass-fight-breaking-up-tactics, but for some reason, they omit this detail. If you were teaching exaggeration today, you would be able to use this as a wonderful teaching moment, but you are not.

You never are, are you?

Today, in this period at least, you are teaching the sounds of common suffixes to seventh graders. Syllables like:

—ing
—er
—ed
—ment
—full

You are required to teach these using overheads and chants, and you hate doing so and the children you are teaching hate doing so even more.

The four students you have placed in the front because they humor you during these horrendous lessons pay attention. A few of the in-the-front actually learn the prefixes and for this, you are so grateful you could weep. You cling to this accomplishment as a mountain climber clings to the edge of a precipice. Except, this analogy isn’t quite right, you realize. The mountain climber is moving upward, has almost reached the ultimate goal: the summit. You? You are most certainly not moving forward. You’re grasping for dear life, sliding backwards, your fingers digging into the rock face, trying to slow the inevitable, the long perilous fall laid out below you.

The other twenty-five students whom you have placed not-in-the-front essentially ignore you. Some sleep. Others stare into the distance. Some draw. Most talk and attempt to hit each other while you are not watching.

You spend your time snapping at them, the do-cause-trouble twenty-five, calling their names, asking them to move seats, warning them that you will call home (as if that mattered) or sending (an –ing word, you note) them to another room. You can barely say “—ing” without too much going on and you feel like you are going crazy.

It is 9:15.

The bell rings. The students rush out frantically. Is there a suicide bomber in this classroom? Is Lil Kim giving free head in the hallway? What is the rush? They leave candy and papers and hair brushes and clipped nails in their seats, on the floor, on the wall. You consider walking out, just making a beeline for your car and never looking back, but before you can do so, the sounds of a fight—a good one—erupts from the hallway.

It is your duty to do something about this.

You wait a minute, because unlike the fight in your classroom, there are other adults who can handle this fight, the hallway being a neutral territory, and because you weren’t the first to actually see it happen, you are not, ultimately, as obligated to handle it. There is a grace period here. You plan to maximize it.

As you enter the hallway, you notice that faces turn to you, children to your left and right are wondering what you are going to do, just how you are going to handle this. So, you grab one of the fighters by his shoulders and with all your might, you push him into the room-you-manage.

He yells obscenities at you, racial slurs, but incorrect racial slurs—slurs against his own race—which is not yours. You are confused by this, as you have been confused by this before. Your confusion morphs to amusement, which, in turn, helps keep you calm amidst his rage.

Fortunately, good fights like this bring adults to the situation quickly; within moments security has swooped in and all the offending parties are ushered outside. This is particularly fortuitous because the bell rings again. Another “class” begins.

This class, though a slightly different subject, goes eerily like the one before. The true lesson: E ach class, like each day, is different and the same.

This, despite the fact that you are:

1. Truly giving your best.
2. Somewhat bright, as proved by standardized tests and GPA.

At lunch, you remind yourself to feel fortunate. As you eat in the silence of your room (the door shut, the lights off, the blinds drawn), you think of the other teachers who must accompany their students to the lunchroom. You have heard of this place where food flies freely and mass revolt looms. You have thus avoided this lunchroom, literally never stepped foot in it. This is a fact you take pride in. You savor when other teachers mention the terrible cafeteria food, the stench of government cheese.

“Oh, I wouldn’t know—never been in the place,” you slip in to the conversation, knowing you sound like a jackass. You can’t help it. There are certain things you must celebrate, at the risk of being rude. At the certainty of being rude.

Your lunch is leftovers, last night’s stir-fry. Somehow, what was zesty and filling the night before is suddenly dull and empty.

Lunch goes by so quickly the headache you suddenly realized you had has just-slightly subsided when they begin running, screaming, pushing back into the hallway. They are giddy off lunch, ready to revolt. You stand at your door, watching, removing yourself this time, pretending you are an anthropologist, studying them: the herds of girls desperately gathering for attention, the boys rough-housing, the few “nerds” hidden in corners and crevices, waiting (like you), for the day to finally be over.

The bell rings, and they slowly stream in. Those who aren’t going to class simply leave the building, off for another adventure somewhere else. Leave, yes, please leave you think as they stroll out. You love them for this decision. Now you are someone else’s problem. Children and your sanity are inversely proportional: less children=more sanity; more children=less sanity. Simple math.

You are relieved as the next class, small in size, saunters in. They seem to be happy. Is this going to be a good day? As the bell rings, you close the door instantaneously. Is it true? Is it really happening? Did God really, honestly, truly, actually hear my prayers? You know you asked for a nail in your tire, but this really is the next best thing.

He.
Is not.
Here.

“He” being the student whom you cannot stand more than anyone. He having the distinction of being the first child you grew to genuinely “hate.” The fourteen-year-old eighth grader who, in the course of three months, has called you every profanity, threatened you and been strangled by another teacher. There were bruises to prove it.

He being the student who told you to suck his dick, but in Snoop Dogg–izzle language (which you understood every word of, because you are twenty-three, not fifty-five).

He being the student whom your Assistant Principal told you would be a “victory to just…contain for the time you have him.” He actually said this, followed by: “I mean, really, if he just comes in and listens to his music and doesn’t hurt anybody, that’s a good thing.” He actually said this, and had the nerve to finish the whole conversation with: “I wouldn’t worry too much about lessons and stuff with him.”

The teacher down the hall suggested that you build him, the student in question, a room within the room-you-manage by configuring your file cabinets just so that they create three walls and a small opening, in which he can enter and sit in solace.

He being the student who made you think of that first classic season-ending episode of Survivor, where the tough older woman backstabs her friend and tells her that she wouldn’t give her a glass of water if she found her stranding, dying of dehydration on the side of the road in the desert. You loved this episode.

You actually asked yourself one day: Would I give him water if he was dying in the desert and I knew no one would know? You asked yourself that and you couldn’t honestly answer; it could go either way.

Glory!
He.
Is not.
Here.

You feel like eating cupcakes and calling your grandmother just to tell her the good news, all the while dancing to Ace of Base, but you do not, because you are professional and for today, this period, you have a chance to teach rather than manage.

You begin quickly, you can hardly contain yourself; you are so terribly excited. You introduce the lesson—it’s about mnemonics, as this is a Study Skills class—and everything is going perfectly. You are that teacher again. And they—the students—they are actually students for a moment. You forgive them. You forgive yourself. You forgive that man who ran over your dog in eighth grade. You are forgiving and teaching and loving it for:

One.
Two.
Three.
Four.
Five minutes.

The students are working. You begin to think, for a moment, that you are a teacher with a capital “T”, you are elated, you are—

A knock. A loud knock. The kind of knock narcs use when they are raiding homes. A knock that rattles the metal of the desk chairs. A knock that can only mean one thing.

He is here.

You walk to the locked door, knowing each and every student is watching you. They are suddenly hoping that he can come in, because the fireworks sure to ensue would be dramatically more exciting than mnemonics. They need their afternoon soap opera, their Jerry Springer chaser to follow lunch’s government cheese. Who are you to let them down? You are required to let him in. You hate this.

So, you walk to the door, like you have done many times before, preparing yourself for him: the angry eyes, the curse words, the possibility of him saying terrible things about your mother that you wouldn’t even repeat to your best friends.

But today is different. You peek through the small window pane and you greet his eyes with your own. They are frightening, truly. This is ridiculous, you think. Am I really going to do this? You wave a pleasant wave and you give the largest fake smile. Then, you walk away. It’s short and sweet and you catch his face looking shocked, resigned, and then angry. Yes. Yes. Yes. You cherish that look. You simultaneously make sure your face looks resolute and wooden. This masks the joy you feel inside, a joy you haven’t felt in months.

He is not coming in today.

You could be anywhere, you remember: on the side of the road with a nail in your tire, your neighbor, in bed; and, fuck it, he could be anywhere too. But he’s not going to be here today and you are so one hundred percent grounded in this decision that you let a smile slip. A brief smile, but a smile nonetheless.

You walk back to the front of the classroom.

“Where were we? Oh, yes…mnemonics.”

 


LifeinPeace_Freeman_photo_lg-300x300Alex Freeman lives in Boston, Massachusetts. When not busy roaming the city in vain in search of fellow Bostonian Michelle Kwan, Alex can be found working at an eldercare non-profit, dancing alone in his studio apartment to Britney Spears, or battling the rats-with-furry-tails others call “squirrels.” Though these activities consume most of his time, Alex is also working on Schooled, his debut novel chronicling his disastrous two-year teaching stint.

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