Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cutting Ass

"I'm gonna cut yo ass."

No - they aren't talking about farting. And they aren't actually planning to use a knife to cut any part of you. 'Cutting ass' is the vernacular used to describe making fun on someone. In my high school it was called 'cutting up,' which seemed entirely logical at the time. Likewise, this phrase is seldom questioned among my students.

My students don't make fun of people without giving them fair warning. If they are going to make fun of you they give you a chance to repent.

"What did you just say? Yo - I'm gonna cut yo ass so hard I'm gonna make you cry." at this point the other student has the chance to apologize for whatever they've done wrong. Pride generally prehibits that from happening. Most of the time they say, "Go ahead," which puts the ass cutter in the tough position of saying something hysterical enough to get a good laugh out of the whole class.

There are some kids, of course, who can say anything and the class will explode with laughter.

"That's why your eyes are so far apart!" one girl says, and despite the seemingly innocuous nature of the comment, the class roars. Other times kids who are less cool with their peers will make legitimately funny comments and will be entirely overlooked.

There are some defaults that they all go to. If a kid is overweight, as many of them are, they call them a big fat f-ing cheeseburger. They look at their hands and say "Look at your fat fingers - they were just made for picking up cheeseburgers!"

Sometimes it's personal - bringing up embarrassing information or incidents from the past - times you got dumped or lost a fight. It's always a show, which is why they have to announce their intentions before they begin. They need to gather a crowd - and like magic everyone's ears do perk up at the words 'cut ass,' and they listen for a story to liven up their day. It happens every day, a hundred times a day, and rarely does it seem to have alastingimpact. It's just a part of their interactions - something that makes the class function and keeps things interesting. They put one another in their places and then go back to the business of their days as if nothing happened.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


When anyone is shocked or appalled by the way that the students in my school speak or act violently, threatening one another, or responding to ordinary things with extreme anger, I try to explain that it’s really the result of the community they come from. They are young and impressionable, and surrounded by more violence than many kids are exposed to even in the movies. We walk to school past a place named the ‘Hand Slaughter”, where people go to pick out the live animal they would like for dinner, and your chicken, goat, etc. is killed for you on the spot. We hold our breath against the putrid stench, and step over the stream of blood that flows onto the street as we head towards the school building.

I often try to put them in the shoes of the people we are studying. Recently I taught about the American Revolution and was trying to make them understand the Quartering Act. I kept saying ‘imagine that the government suddenly says that you have to let soldiers live in your house with you and your family, and eat your food. This is your nice home that you worked for and paid for and now soldiers are allowed to just come live there for free and mooch off of you!’ Then I try to think about what they are imagining, and t’s not the home that I pictured when I learned about the Quartering Act.

We talk about there being mice in the school and one kid says, ‘we see rats the size of cats in our apartments. Rats aren’t any big deal, we all see them every day.’ They are desensitized to a lot more than rodents.

Several weeks ago I was with another teacher getting coffee a block from school, and about 20 feet from us we hard a loud crack. We turned to see two men, whose argument over a parking spot had escalated to the point where one man had broken a 2x4 over the other man’s head. There was blood flowing freely from the wound and covering the ground at his feet. The man who had slammed him took off at a run, and after a dazed moment of hesitation, the bleeding man stumbled after him, weaving side to side and holding his head.

A the next week a male teacher, Mr. M took his class outside to spend a free period playing football in the yard. The courtyard is surrounded by apartment buildings, and from the roof of one of these buildings a man was watching the game. Julio, a tall 7th grader who could be easily mistaken for someone of high school age missed the ball, and from the roof a man’s voice shouted ‘nice one, butterfingers.’

“Yo, suck my dick,” Julio shouted, unable to resist responding.
“What’d you say? Hold on, I’ll be right down.” The angry man on the roof shouted to the courtyard, before disappearing to presumably descend to the couttyard. Mr. M looked around and realized that the doors to get back inside were locked, and the security guards were all inside the school. It was him and a class of 7th graders sequestered in the yard, with an irate man coming quickly towards them. The man was wearing a full tool belt, and he stormed into the yard, shouting and offering to unzip his pants for the smartass who had dared talk aback to him. As Mr. M held the man back, Julio continued to taunt the man, declining his offers to unzip his pants by politely saying, ‘naw, that’s gay,’
“He’s a 13 year old kid!” Mr M said repeatedly, trying to convince this man that he couldn’t attack Julio. “I can’t let you near them, they’re 7th graders. Eventually the man was convinced and retreated.

The next week a couple had a fight in a deli around the corner, which resulted in the entire block being roped off for several hours in the middle of the day, after one of them shot the other, which explained the firing sound I heard as I sat grading papers at my desk.

Last week there was an convict who escaped from a nearby prison, and he made himself at home with a machine gun on top of the building across from the school. The sky was filled with the hum of helicopters as they struggled to resolve the situation.

That same day a teacher in a nearby school (who used to be the dean at our school) threatened to take his school and class hostage, claiming that he had planted a bomb in the library. 1200 middle school students were evacuated.

Walking to the car this past Thursday, I was with Mr. M, and a man with a long umbrella lunged at us angrily.
“I should hit you in the head with this fucking umbrella right now,” he shouted, obviously aggravated. He turned to stare wildly at us, and gestured to his umbrella. We continued to walk, and then looked at one another, confused.
“Did you know him?” we asked each another. No. Neither of us had seen him before. As we got into the car, we talked about how at this point that didn’t even seem all that strange – for a stranger to come at us in a fit of rage, threatening us. Perhaps he mistook one of us for someone else. In my mind I went through the students I had failed, the ones I had yelled at, the ones who didn’t like me – wondering if perhaps it was a parent or uncle of one of them. I’ll probably never know. It was a senseless encounter, as all violence ends up being when you pass it without knowing why it happens. You being to forget that there should be a reason, a motive, for it. If this was just the last 6 weeks, imagine a lifetime of it. Eventually it would seem that violence wasn’t a last resort – it wasn’t something that mattered or that needed a big reason. It is just a part of the day. And so they bring it to school.

Monday, May 4, 2009


For Social Studies there are no textbooks. For the first several months of school I didn’t have a map in my room. It’s difficult to make history engaging – especially 7th grade American History which, for my students, isn’t actually their history. Why does this matter? This isn’t their ancestors. Even slavery is fairly irrelevant to them. There were no Hispanic people at the Constitutional Convention or the Continental Congress. No Hispanic people signed the Declaration of Independence or fought in the Revolutionary war. They weren’t even really discriminated against, as their presence in this country is relatively new.

With ancient Greece and Rome it’s equally difficult, though the ancient civilizations are exotic enough to be enticing to the 6th graders – and their attention span in general surpasses that of the 7th graders. The only maps I do have are of the United States, and the location of these ancient civilizations is mysterious to the students. How do you ‘make history come alive’ if you have nothing to show the kids? It’s been a challenge which I’ve basically only attempted to conquer through the pathetic use of my overhead projector. But sadly, there’s only so much excitement that can be conveyed through the use of a green overhead marker.

For months I have been thinking of ways to get a computer projector, which would allow me to use PowerPoint, and maybe one day even project relevant movies and tv clips. I had all but given up hope when today my principal stopped me as I entered school to tell me that he had gotten me one.

I set it up – a task which the students were all too eager to help me with, always ready to show off their electronics expertise. As soon as the requests to go on MySpace and YouTube died down and they were able to concentrate on the images projected from my jazzy PowerPoint presentations onto the screen, it was amazing what a difference it made. Maybe it was just the presence of something new, or my threats to call home if they touched the equipment, but the class seemed to settle into the type of lull that one associates with hours spent in front of a television or playstation.

In a time when kids, even those like my students who tend to live at or below the poverty line, are inundated with technology, it’s hard to believe that teaching without technology is even considered to be an option. Teachers are surprised that the kids don’t sit in silence and complete their work and aren’t filled to the brim with intrinsic motivation. But seeing them relax into the familiarity of a glowing computer screen, it all made sense. School is always expecting students to conform to its expectations, without taking them time to bend to the students. Perhaps it is the result of having so many senior, tenure teachers who are set in their ways without any real motivation to change. Obviously there are budgetary restraints as well. But it’s a change worth investing in if you are really talking about investing in kids’ futures.

Safety? Without Suspensions

Teaching a third period class I tried to take away Alea's tech deck - a mini skateboard that the kids are obsessed with which are ultra-annoying because they click on the desks while you are trying to talk/walk/think/breathe and they get to drive you nuts. So I went to take it from this girl who has never done an ounce of work and generally devotes a good portion of every day to annoying me and disrupting class. She refused (obviously, why would she just listen to me? just because I am their teacher? an authority figure? never!), and i pulled her desk away from her in the hopes of it falling to the floor where I could grab it. She was fast and grabbed it, not letting it fall to the floor, and she then treated me to a barrage of lovely comments from the girl. "I'll fucking deck you. I'll stab you, lady" and I, of course, ever the polite one, asked gently for her to repeat herself. "I'm sorry, what did you just say?" "Did I stutter? I said I'll fucking kill you - don't touch my fucking table." "Oh, that's what I thought you said..." and I marched off to the phone to call the Dean, who miraculously arrived within minutes and took her out. I wrote down what she had said and handed it to him, and he left and called her mother.

When he returned he said that her mother was coming to school, and I was glad to hear it, thinking I would be able to get Alea in further trouble (obviously at this point in the year I am far beyond expecting there to be actual, concrete repercussions mandated by the school for threatening a teacher). So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that rather than me getting her in trouble, Alea was claiming that I had hit her! Any allegation such as this must be investigated, so despite the absurdity of the claim, statements had to be taken from other students in the class (all of whom readily wrote that no such incident had occurred).The dean and assistant principal were surprisingly supportive, and by the end of the day the whole incident was put to rest and even her mother had realized the falseness of the story.

However, she is really the winner here, because she threatened a teacher in front of a class and then, rather than be punished, she distracted from that issue by accusing that teacher of hitting her. In doing so, she was able to temporarily put my job into question and also to avoid any concrete punishment for what she did. I’ll see her in class on Monday, and life will go on as it was before, only she will have a bit more of a sense of empowerment, and the other kids will look around and learn from what she did.