Tricks Are For Kids is a series based on the ramblings of an LAUSD substitute teacher. A former “regular” teacher in East L.A., CT opted for the mercenary-for-hire approach, after realizing Saturdays and Sundays also did not belong to him. Less cash money but more time to waste, he means, for himself. Tell him the options, again? He made his choice and there is no going back. “I’m going in!!” Now, live and uncut, so far, a drop-out teacher drops dime on the nonsense.
Dumb Interviewer: You’ve been in show business for awhile, so how old are you?
Dana Carvey: I’m 33 but I read at a 35 year old level.
So, the Miss had to leave prematurely due to a health situation. Old-school vet of some thirty years, most of ’em at Rooselvelt.
Could be seen as stoic and in fact some students, mainly girls, described her as this curmudgeon. Most boys got along fine with her. Her stoicism, when broken with a gigantic smile, was funny. I never really got a grip on her background but believe she had some Eastern European blood (thinking Serbian), and her manner sometimes reminded me of Eastern European Olympic athletes.
Jim McKay would understand.
During our conversations, she had many great stories and when I made her laugh with a recent classroom incident, her guffaws were part shock part jubilation. She once told me she taught in Cleveland way back in the day and one of the young teachers was raped in a classroom. Or how she promised a tearful mother that her son would not fail her class. Stuff like that, but it wasn’t always morbid, not at all. I almost looked forward to our nutrition break exchanges. How as a teen she was all hotsy totsy over Brando or Dean or Quinn, man that shit was funny. I’d throw out the screen queens of my youth: Bernadette Peters or Tura Satana and Jayne Kennedy, she’d know ’em all.
I found these playful tits for tat (no pun intended) very sincere in such a hopelessly caustic environment, like high school. The Miss was cut from the old cloth, but she is a good woman, who just seemed tired of all the bullshit. Plus she had a very serious condition. Shit, she did three decades, I didn’t even do one-sixth of that. So I subbed for her and here is a slice of my month-long stay in her stead. Well, here are two incidents that come to mind.
I am never late to class, always place my energy in the room first. Showing up late with a line of teens waiting for you as the bell rings is just stupid. You have to show them you at least give enough of a shit to be there on time. Plus, when you are early, you get to greet them one at a time, and the students vibe off your calm demeanor. “Good morning, Mister” is music to my ears. Anyways, I had the Miss’s plans and they were very simple. Finish To Kill a Mockingbird with her 10th grade class and A Raisin in the Sun with her four 11th grade classes. Sounds good.
So on day one, I introd myself all day, laid down the rules (there really aren’t very many) and said I was fair but don’t take no crap. Said, if you had drama with the Miss, she ain’t here, if you did well, keep it up, if you need extra help, hit me up, if you can’t shut up, don’t show up, if you care about your grades, ante up (some giggled), etc. I had just finished a long-term subbing assignment at a charter school where the classes were 100 minutes long so returning to Roosevelt’s hour sessions was a relief. Told the sophomores there was no way we were going to finish TKAM before the end but we’d get to the famous trial scene and then we’d watch the classic movie. Enrique raised his hand, “Hey Mister, the Miss liked those old movies, is this one in color?”
“Yes, it’s in color, two of ’em, black and white.”
Daniel says, “The Miss said we were gonna watch ‘The Outsiders.'”
“Well, she ain’t here. Anyway, just look around the room. We are the outsiders.” Silence. Off to a grand start.
So on Wednesday in one of the junior classes, this kid walks in late, sees me and mumbles, “What the?” when everyone is in pleasant silent reading mode. On Monday and Tuesday, I had noticed that Manuel and Enrique were on the rowdy side. I talked to them one on one and promised them that their grades could still be salvaged. I stare at this new kid and he sits down. No backpack, no book, nothing. He sits and takes a look around, everyone quietly reading. As expected, he slaps his friend’s arm and whispers, “What the fuck?” and motions at the others. His buddy motions to me, quickly finishes his description and returns to his book, Wallbangin’. The new kid’s eyes are intense and plotting. They say, “duh, we have a sub but everyone is quiet. What the fuck? This shit don’t make sense. Shit!” Before his head explodes, I quietly go up to him and relieve him of further agony.
I lean in close and whisper to him, “Can you read?”
He dirty loooks me and mutters, “Yeah.”
“Then read the board…”
The agenda read: 1. Silent Reading 2. Read Act II of A Raisin In The Sun as a group 3. Discussion/Questions
I continue, “…Right now, we’re doing the first one. You see it? It says si-lent read-ing (I spoke slow-ly, one ass-hole to a-nother). If you can’t do the reading part, do the silent part.”
He mutters something and I let it go, but he immediately interrupts his friend again and some look at me. I again slowly walk back over to him. He sighs loudly. I sigh loudly. I whisper.
“Listen, why don’t you go somewhere else since you aren’t going to be helpful.”
“I ain’t going nowhere,” he says looking at the floor.
I walk to the front of the class, lean against the front desk and interrupt those who are reading quietly. There are 41 eyes looking at me (one kid had a patch).
“We have a situation here. Mr. Luis, I guess is his name… I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me, but you know me and I like this class and I am gonna make sure everyone has a chance of passing this class and no one is going to get in your way… now if he doesn’t leave this room… well, I am not going to waste my time writing him a note because I dont give a shit where he goes, but if I pick up that phone and Randall or Russell (security), both I know very well, if they come and pick you up off that chair… I promise you, we will all laugh our asses off. It’s your call.”
The kid gets up and leaves. Everyday I throw him out before the bell even rings because of his profanity.
Some girls in the front add, “Mister, the Miss hated him. She always threw him out. He bugs.”
On the last day he showed up, I get him at the door.
“I heard the Miss always threw you out and had you sit outside…”
“But she’s not here,” he smirks.
“But I am. So respect the class and take a seat or hit the road.”
“You’re a motherfuckin’ asshole,” he said as he walked away from the classroom. “I didn’t even do nothing,” he confided to the floor.
I walked to the front of the class, took a swig of my carrot juice and wrote the agenda on the board. I never saw him again.
On Thursday, I’m telling a junior class, “I looked over your grades. And surprise surprise, 10 D’s? What the hell!? No wonder this school sucks. That’s embarrassing. Proud Latino/as, or whatever you’re calling yourselves this week, my ass.”
I tell ’em I used to be a terrible student, I lie to ’em, like a good teacher would. I insult them a little more.
“If you really cared about your parents, you’d show some self-respect.”
The bell rings. As everyone is leaving Laura steps to me.
“I respect what you were saying. I think it’s true, all our parents want is for us to do well in school. Some of us are just lazy. But saying this school sucks, that wasn’t nice. Still, I wish we had you for a longer time.”
Her friend Monica jumps in, “Yeah Mister, you’re cool. Well, you care, you know. It’s cool to have you here. At least we’ll see you around next year too, right?”
At RHS, it’s ok to be a little rough on ’em. How’s that any different than from what they’re used to? They both shake my hand before they leave. Monica turns before she exits, “I want to be Beneatha tomorrow, ok?” Thanking me and showing interest in the play we are reading, come on. (Beneatha is the daughter in a family struggling in a Southside Chicago ghetto in the classroom text, Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun) Two of the nicest kids I have ever met.
The next day, during my conference period, I bump into Monica at the counseling office and she’s crying.
“Monica, what’s the deal?”
“Ah, it’s nothing Mister, just my mom wants me to drop out, y’know, like I don’t have a future.”
“Why does she want that? How old are you?”
“17. But she wants me to drop out and get a stupid job so I can be useless like her. Just cause my dad is an alcoholic, why do I have to leave? Man, Mister, you don’t even know all the stuff I have to take, just to get this far.”
Through tears and sighs, Monica describes all the drama about abuse and alcohol and social workers.
“I don’t even have papers.”
“Listen, can you keep her off of you for one more year? Then as an adult, you can bail and do whatever you like.”
“I don’t know Mister. Remember when you said that you didn’t go to college for the degree but just to get away, that’s what I want. I just want to get away from my family.”
“Yeah, I know. Well, I’ll be your teacher for a month so we can talk more later. Now, what are you doing here?”
“Well, after what you said about the grades and all, I just wanted to check how far behind I am, but my counselor, I don’t know, he doesn’t listen to me.”
I tell her to wipe her face and give me a second. I go in and talk to one of my counselor friends and ask her to help one of my students.
Ms. Diaz says, “Tell her to come early tomorrow morning and I’ll go over her credits – what she’s missing, what she needs. Ok?”
I return to the seating area. Monica looks up. I take her outside.
“What time do you get here in the morning?”
“Like 7:15. Why?”
“Get here tomorrow at 6:45 and ask for Ms. Diaz, all right? She’s going to help you, ok?
“Thanks Mister. I really appreciate it.”
“I know you do. See you tomorrow Beneatha.”
Like nearly every man, woman and child in the barrio, Monica laughs through her tears.