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.