It was

  It was like a building that held The Blues, the synchronized groaning of agonized souls, set to a cadence beat out on the hollow desk-tops of inner-city schools across the country: Palm-palm-pencil! Palm-palm-pencil! “Boom-boom-clack! Boom-boom-clack!”

From the mouths of every student, stories of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties and uncles murdered, dead or in prison. The stories varied, getting better, more spectacular, as they encouraged each other along in their telling, acting out, writing, rewriting, and rewriting, animating, adding detail, retelling, re-acting out, etc… I wish I could print those stories exactly how the students wrote them, themselves. But they were tossed in the trash, with everything else in my classroom, upon order of the school principal. I still have the memories though. Here are a few stories:

Zade was a young beauty, with skin of deep dark chocolate, the soulful eyes of a cow, (as they say of such eyes in India), big and round and lashed. She was brilliant: socially, emotionally, and academically. She had character and courage, dignity and grace. She wrote that she’d found her auntie dead from gun shots, after coming out of a closet that she’d hidden in for god knows how many days. Although I don’t believe it myself, Zade was convinced that her auntie had taken the bullets in her stead. The gunman, Zade said, did not want to kill her auntie but wanted to kill Zade, for revenge against something concerning her mother.

There was Skittles, so called because of his “Skittles Dance,” where he’d raise his hands above his head as if it were raining, and spin around, “It’s raining Skittles!” Years later I found out from other students that the word skittles is a reference to pharmaceuticals.

Skittles had watched his dad get gunned down less than a foot away. The shooter had driven right up behind him, point blank, back of the head, as he was fixing a tire, as Skittles stood with tire in hand. And now Skittles was losing an eye, to a retinal scratch that his mother had neglected to care for. The infection in his eye caused a rheumatic swelling in his body, so that sometimes he’d massage his hands and elbows, or hold his head in his hands and moan and moan, talking to himself about his life, asking God why life was so hard.

It took me months to find a line to social services that worked. Once I did actually contact them, they did as best they could, which was not a whole lot, no fault of their own, or anyone else, except the generations of junkies having children, generations of abused becoming abusers. Since leaving Detroit, I’ve talked to a married coworker that was fucking Skittle’s mom. When I asked about Skittles, he said Skittles has one glass eye now.

Genius was one of my favorites. He was a clever little kid that somehow managed to never get in any trouble. He was nerdy, with thick glasses, a huge beaming smile and dimpled chipmunk cheeks. He wrote a story about setting his mom’s house on fire with her crack torch when he was four. He said that the firemen had sent in a big dog to save him, but he was scared of the dog. As he’d tell the story, grinning, getting into the narration, he’d run around his desk, pretending it was the fire, and he was trying to escape from the jaws of a German Shepherd. The students loved this story, as they loved every story from their peers. It seemed like personal story-telling was one of the few activities that brought the kids together.

The neglect that these kids suffered, created inside their hearts an insatiable thirst for immediate recognition; a thirst that I believe no amount of recognition will ever quench. Kids that damaged by 3rd grade are damaged for life, what is left of it, before they end up dead themselves. If they survive, chances are that they won’t ever come to achieve any real sense of inner-satisfaction in life. Because trust, like other types of learning, I think has a window. It’s an early window. It starts in the womb, and lasts until about two. If a kid isn’t saved from the wreck before two, forget about it he’s done.

The kids acted how they knew how to act. They knew that sometimes when they were bad, they received encouragement, because their parents clapped and laughed, and affectionately labeled them bad. They also knew that at other times, when they were bad, they were called all kinds of loathsome names, threatened and dealt with through physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain. But, whichever way they looked at it, they knew that acting bad got them attention, usually from an adult, usually from a teacher. Teacher’s can’t use pain on their students, especially this teacher. The idea of cruelty towards a student, what kind of idea is that? I was usually too busy crying, pleading for them to demonstrate some recognition of kindness, to think of how to be cruel to them. But niceness was something they dared not trust. It would’ve been dangerous, stupid, for them to let their guards down.

So, for the most part they were all bad, all the time, reveling in it, spinning around the classroom, like it was a mosh pit, mashing to the cadence of “boom-boom-clack,” pounded out on the desks. I’d come into the class during lunch, and my students would be dirty-dancing, necking and fondling each other on top of the desks, shooting craps in the corner, buying and selling candy – Skittles, and Extra-Spicy Cheetos, while their free lunch PB and J’s were smeared across the walls like shit.

And there were turds smeared across the walls. The boys restroom had neither working urinal nor toilet, because both had been ripped out of the plaster walls. But they were still used, the toilet covered in dried turds and the urinal brimming with old piss. Over time, the floors began to look like a Chinese toilet. Students would enter the restroom and find a place to squat. How they wiped I will never know, because there was never any toilet paper.

I never learned to shoot craps, but I saw a lot of it while I was in Detroit. For instance there was a guy on the school board, a guy with Gucci sun-glasses, an ivory chain, snake-skin boots and a mauve silk ensemble that he liked to wear with several gold crosses and a fist full of rings. He shot craps in C’s office whenever he came for school board meetings.

C ran a craps table out of his mom’s basement, and I went to it one night with Mr. Right. It was the mosh-pit again, a bunch of mean looking men, old gang members, knocking each other around and snatching money off a piece of cardboard, in a muddy yard full of rusted-out Chrysler carcasses. Mr. Right, being mathematically inclined, took these stupid old men’s money, about 800 bucks. Then we went and spent it all at a strip-club on Eight-Mile.

 I knew these guys were all gang members because they told me so. C told me he was Nation of Islam, said he was Fruit of Islam, a two-percenter. He asked me what my heritage was, and I gave him the wrong answer. I said my grandmother was Jewish, but also that I knew nothing about Judaism. This didn’t sit well with C. He looked at me like I was growing fish scales for skin. He told me that the Jews speak in secret tongues, and talk to demons. After that I stopped mentioning my Jewish heritage, but from then on he liked to refer to me as, “The Jew,” and tell me stories about greedy kikes, hiding money, like Leprechauns. I told him I wished I knew where that leprechaun was. He said I was right in front of him.

There were a lot of Nation of Islam parents at this school. And board members, and other workers were also Nation of Islam. There was a martial arts teacher known as Brother Ali. He wore a black and red, silk martial arts outfit. He taught kids how to tear out eyeballs, and other balls. He had two kids from my class, in his martial arts class. One was a girl I’ll call Envy, because she was probably the most insecure and jealous person in my class, which is saying a lot because jealousy over attention was a huge issue for most of the kids. She would come to class and brag to me how Brother Ali had taught her to kill anyone, of any size, and especially white people. I didn’t respond to this, but mentioned it to some other white teachers, who told me Ali was a creep and forget about it, which I did. 

But then, Envy did not not forget. She did not like the boy who was in her martial arts class, Genius. Envy hated Genius for what he was, incredibly smart, (as was she). But he had thick glasses, so she called him an ugly nerd, an Erkel, and an Oreo.

Here’s where I did something that no male teacher in the United States should ever do – I told Envy that Genius a “cutie-pie.”

Envy told Ali what I’d called Genius. Ali came to me and accused me of being a pedophile. It was difficult for me not to stomp him right then and there, and I wondered if I could nail him in a knee cap before he could nail me in mine. But, I told him we should talk together with the principle, and Genius’s grandparents.

After school, Ali came to my class and told me to come to the principle’s office, which I did. In her office, with the door closed, I met Ali, the principle, and an old man claiming to be Genius’s grandfather. I talked to the, “grandfather,” telling him how smart his grandson was, and that I didn’t mean any harm calling him cute. But Ali would not have it. He continued calling me a pedophile, until I finally asked him to come outside to settle it. Then, the principle told us both to calm down, and gave me permission to leave.

 A few weeks later, I met Genius’s grandma and asked her how her husband was, Genius’s grandfather. She told me Genius’s grandfather was dead, and had been for five years. I told her I’d met one of Genius’s grandfathers, and she said they were both dead. This is when I should have realized how powerless I was at this school, how the slightest accusation could bring about the death of my reputation, leave me with limited means of gainful employment in academia.

But I’m stupid, in all the wrong ways. My vanity, my stupid, stubborn desire to achieve something in this classroom full of angry kids, would not allow me to resign. I remained another few months after this situation, and in the end Brother Ali and Genius had nothing at all to do with my resignation.

Filed under: American Economy, Asia America, detroit, gonzo journalism, kwame kilpatrick, teaching in america, Travel Vignettes and Advice, travel writing, walt kowalski

scott morley