Teaching isn’t easy. Certainly not in Los Angeles. I might as well say it at the start: I hate it. It’s hard to be among the young.
The first day is nerve-racking. It’s not just the paperwork and the chaos: it’s the know-it-all office staff who hesitate to look up when they’re speaking and the school principal or department chair in his blue blazer. No; it’s the entire abomination. It’s a circus before the ungrateful. Surly children of the privileged, if not by birth, then by training. They want it all right now. Social class is irrelevant.
I stand there like an ass, trying to teach writing. Ha. Twelve stupid girls demanding As. They are ready to put out, up to a point. “Does it have to be 1,000 words? What about 950?” Blah, blah, blah. They are united in their contempt for me. They want the hunk teaching business administration in Room 113. He is known to do handstands in the corridor. I’d be lucky to stand on my head. At least they are fairly docile; there is no Chatty Cathy. I drone on. Blah, blah, blah. “Don’t forget to proofread.” So much for AP English.
Day three, end of the first week. We are in full sail. I’ve learned their names, as if it matters: Kaylee, Allison, Mackenzie, Skylar, Piper are among them, not that they’re especially memorable. Nor were Letisha, Keisha or Zeus. They more or less turn in the same papers. Where are the Vernas, the Sarahs, or Helens, I ask? Where do they study? These spend more money on their nails than on books. It isn’t that they lack intelligence. They lack innocence. They are already “married.” Like Alabama farm girls from before the war, they couple at the first sign of puberty. By 16, they are jaded. What could I teach them?
What is there to write about? Life isn’t a mystery to these youngsters. They’ve seen it all. What is the point? They have nothing to say. I’m all ears, but they’ve already said it. Education for them is a matter of going through the motions, like faking orgasms. “Yeah, right. Whatever.” The teacher stands in the way of people on their way. One girl said, “Oh yeah? That’s just your opinion. My mother says it deserves an A.”
I feel sick. Suddenly, there is a loud knock and the classroom door swings open. In blunders an enormous lad who commences to rearrange the desks which have been set in rows. He moves the back seats in his effort to find one he likes. He must weigh over 400 pounds. Eventually, he sits. I think to myself, why me? He is black.
I like him immediately, but as pleasant as he seems, I have never gotten used to having students like him who never read a thing, never carry a book, never enter a bookstore, and seem totally uninterested in the theatre or film. Not unlike most of my students in New Jersey, Darryl’s idea of a good film seems to be Jaws or Star Wars. He calls them classics. But he surprises me. I am pleased when he says he loves Blaxploitation films like Shaft. We even talk a little about that movie, one I had seen years earlier with Sharon Gold, a leading San Francisco activist who once ran the People’s Law School in Haight-Ashbury. I remember that she and her friends believed the revolution was just around the corner—back in the 70’s—and would be led by people like the “great” actor Richard Roundtree. I tell Darryl that I agree with him that Shaft was groundbreaking. He tells me Tarantino is fantastic, too. His favorite is Jackie Brown.
As much as I had liked Darryl at our first meeting, I like him a lot more a few days later when he hands in his first assignment. He followed my directions. His paper looks good. Who knew? I am very big on getting kids to deliver the goods. It is well-formatted and over 1,200 words. Its title is “Just Down the Block.” I make a record and pass it on to one of Darryl’s classmates, whose responsibility is to summarize the piece, check for spelling, and answer a few questions about the introduction and conclusion. When she has completed the task, she hands it back. I then take it home to read.
I read it that night and cry. It is about boys in Darryl’s neighborhood, a rough part of South Central, who pay $5 to line up at the door of an old toothless woman who provides drop-in sexual services. The boys are invited in one by one. When they get impatient or somebody tries to cut in line, she cries out, “Ya’ll stop that roughhousing, you hear? I won’t have it.” Each lad is in and out in less than fifteen minutes. The story is exquisitely crafted and very funny. I howl. The toothless granny is a hoot. The nervous kids make me laugh. He describes in hilarious detail the old lady’s bobbing head. “Down, down, down; up, up, up.” He even gives her a little pipe.
The next time I see Darryl, we have a long private talk, a real heart-to-heart. The head of the creative writing program, he explains, has placed him on administrative probation. He is soon to be kicked out because Dr. Cynthia Armstrong, the assistant principal, warned him about his choice of topics and told him that if he ever wrote about explicit sexual matters again, he’d be thrown out of Advanced Placement. His work, she said, was “inappropriate” for the school. The department would not allow the use of profanity in student writing. There were to be no more four-letter words in any assignments or else.
Darryl asks me for advice. I tell him how much I enjoyed his story and praise him. As a part-time teacher, I explain, I can do little for him. I will certainly not enforce any of those rules in my class. I think I say such matters should be left to the discretion of the teacher. I knew of no such rules in the school district proper. Perhaps I was wrong. I go on to suggest that he continue to write freely but consider submitting his work to commercial outlets. I tell him I assume there is a market for such skillful writing. We are together for about an hour. He strikes me as a serious young man with real talent. He speaks as he writes, in a distinctly urban voice which is colorful but rough. I tell him I will look forward to reading his next assignment. I give him an A.
The next time I see Darryl, he looks dreadful. As before, he enters late and makes a commotion in his effort to find a seat. And, again, he sits in the back all by himself. I try to engage him, but he is non-responsive. He does hand in his assignment though, and I am glad to get it. He turns in a rather long piece. Eight of the pages are typewritten and there are two more stapled to the back, both handwritten in pencil. He tells me later he finished the piece on the bus.
It’s about a policeman who demands sexual favors from female drivers in exchange for his promise to ignore their driving violations. He threatens them with reckless driving in addition to whatever else might pertain—speeding or running a red light—so that their tickets amount to close to $400 plus points. All this the cop promises to make disappear if the woman agrees to follow him back to an abandoned building off the avenue not too far from the shopping mall.
What is particularly striking about this piece is the absence of the sort of sex talk that often accompanies such practices. Darryl does have the cop speak throughout the exchange, but instead of talking filth, he has the cop talk about his childhood. He tells her all about his mother who often forgot to pick him up after school when he was a child, or about the time she turned out all the lights in the house while he was sitting alone in the bathtub. The policeman, the author points out, never raises his voice. He always speaks in a loud whisper. In the end, one of his victims tells her boyfriend and he takes her down to the police station. The cop is arrested and gets kicked off the force. The story ends with the ex-cop returning to his favorite parking lot near the old movie palace. He sits in his car masturbating, talking about a childhood outing to the local shopping mall. Something happened in the men’s room and as a result he can no longer bring himself to stand at a public urinal. This too is said in a whisper.
After the midterm, Darryl and I meet one last time. I never see Darryl after that. He just stops coming to class. I never find out what happened. We talk this time about his third assignment. I accept the piece, but I am curious as to why he has ignored my rather specific instructions. I am struck by the young man’s honesty. He has in fact not written the piece for me, he confesses. The play he turns in was in fact written for another class, but his teacher refused to grade the piece because of the appearance of the n-word in it. This word rendered the piece unacceptable according to the instructor, whose name Darryl prefers to keep to himself.
The play, although not as interesting as his other submissions, nonetheless catches my eye. In it, the main character, who is black, is asked by one of his teachers to accuse his white teacher of sexual molestation. (“Just tell Mrs. Jackson she always be at you.”) The boy refuses and his black teacher calls him “a lazy nigger.” (“You can’t do nothing right.”) The dialogue is a little stilted, but what stands out is the boy’s affection for his white teacher and his willingness to suffer humiliating insults from his math teacher rather than betray her. Her name is “Miss Portrayal” and she was the first teacher to ever show the boy kindness. In its own way, the piece packs a punch.
There were about a half-dozen old dames still on campus, survivors all of the good old days. A couple of Mrs. Wallace’s friends were in their seventies. Mrs. Patterson was about to retire after putting in 54 years. They all dressed up to come to school. They were southerners, first in their families to graduate college and proud of it. These women were once the queens of the schoolyard, but now administrators scorned them. Teachers know nothing and old teachers even less. A senior teacher with forty years of experience is laughed at. She is seen as an obstacle to reform. Young teachers received plum assignments, like AP English with 13 students and access to computers, while poor Mrs. Wallace was exiled to an annex at the end of the soccer field, cooped up with a noisy air conditioner and 37 Latin teens who hated her as much as learning English. But the black children still knew who was boss. I was once trying to get a bunch of kids to get off an outdoor stage set up for the school photographer. I had been shouting my head off when Mrs. Wallace happened by. She didn’t even look up, but clear as a bell the kids must have heard her. “You all come down from there, you hear?” They jumped down as if someone had yelled fire.
In what other field is one considered finished at sixty, written off as a washed-up battle axe? Not by the students, but by one’s colleagues, by the principals and the administrators who figured that if they’d had any brains, they would have gotten out of the classroom. They’re standing in the way of the newest breakthroughs touted by the superintendent: you know, No Child’s Behind, Race to the Moon, Get Up and Go, Romper Room Forever. Instead, they aspired to record-setting careers. Thirty, forty, fifty years without a day’s absence, but they paid the price: cramped classrooms, leftover materials, crappy schedules. The district wanted them out. Progress demanded new blood and lower salaries.
One example that comes to mind is the new reading program the principal asked me to run. It was a project designed to encourage free reading. Even the secretaries would be asked to bring a book. The Principal was forced to join a district-wide initiative. I had to pitch the thing before the assembled faculty; not an easy prospect. Many were interested, a few even offered assistance, but several of the old-timers were openly hostile. They outlined their objections with vitriol and scorn. They said it wouldn’t work, beginning with their unwillingness to believe that the Principal would be able to deliver on his promises.
“So what happens when there are no materials, no books, no magazines, nothing for these kids to read?” Mrs. Wallace was skeptical. “Isn’t this the same as ‘Readathon Baby,’ that program Dr. Whatshisname tried to get going? When was that?”
“You right, honey! ‘Readathon Baby.’ Yes, I remember that.” Mrs. Staunton was on her feet. Her body rocked as she spoke. She loved combat. “Mr. Lohrey, you gonna revive ‘Readathon Baby? Baby, you just go right ahead and do that.”
The place broke up. They were having a ball. I was a nervous wreck. The kids were nothing next to my colleagues.
“You go, girl,” someone shouted.
They were going. They were merciless.
Miss Jones suddenly remembered: “Dr. Rubens.”
“Reuben,” Cissy Patterson cut in. “Samuel Reuben.”
“Like the sandwich,” Cissy went on.
“He invented ‘Readathon Baby?’”
“No, Miss Jones. No, honey. He done bought it. Remember? It turned out he was taking a cut. A kick-back.”
“He was a Jew,” Mrs. Staunton let fly.
“Uh-huhn,” someone emitted.
“You gonna call it a Ruben sandwich, Mr. Lohrey?” Mrs. Staunton was getting feisty. “It’s your baby.”
“Whose?” Mrs. Wallace seemed a little lost.
“I wanna say Lowree or is it Mr. Lowray?” Now it was Raymond Minnay’s turn. Rawls may have been principal, but Minnay was King. We all called him Mr. Ray, except Mrs. Jackson, who called him Albertine. Nobody knew why.
“Please call me David,” I offered. We’d been through this before.
“You better not be calling me Pricilla,” Ms. Cox declared.
“You been calling me every night this week,” Mr. Ray teased.
“I’m not playing,” Cox said in an unnecessarily sour voice.
“But I always be out.”
“You better be out,” Pricilla glowered. The whole place erupted.
I tried to explain how it was meant to work.
“Say what?” Staunton cut me off. “How in the world are we going to keep order? This is to be an added homeroom? That’s twenty minutes and they’re not allowed to do homework?”
They were sarcastic and belligerent. Then someone in the back got to the real point: “This a paid coordinatorship? Where Dr. Princess at?”
For all installments of “In the Shadow of Watts Towers,” click here.
David Lohrey is from Memphis. His plays have been produced in Switzerland, Croatia, and Lithuania. His poetry can be found in Otoliths (AUS), Tuck Magazine (UK), Terror House Magazine (Hungary), and The Cardiff Review (Wales). David’s fiction can be read online at Dodging the Rain, Storgy Magazine, and Literally Stories. His newest collection of poetry, Machiavelli’s Backyard, was published by Sudden Denouement Publishers (Houston, 2017). He lives in Tokyo.