Sneakteaching by Grant Pylkas - HTML preview
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Grant PylkasAll rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.
The characters in this fictional work are the product of my imagination and any likeness to any real individual is coincidence.Cover design and layout by Yvonne Vermillion, Magic Graphix. Editing in the preparation of this book by Chuck Vermillion, Help Publish.
This book is dedicated to Elizabeth Ostrowski, my niece, who at the age of sixteen ended her addiction to drugs and joined The Ancestors. It is in her memory that I wrote this book.This book is also dedicated to many young relatives who walked into a recovery center and started a new life.
I need to make mention of a young man who’s daily recovery is of special importance. Alex Hennessey was almost lost to all of us who understand this disease called addiction. We thought that he was about to join The Ancestors. He didn’t; he walked though those scary doors of recovery and is the promise of AA come true, alive, and recovering today.
This book is for all who take the scary walk though that door and into their first AA meeting. They all are the proof that the promises of AA come true, one day at a time.
I would like to thank Leila Whittinger of Education Minnesota for her help in reviewing the content of the book for errors and her insight into the workings of Union contracts.
I would also like to thank Dick Grossman for his input and encouragement.
Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9
Jeffery Canna ........................................ 1
One Mad “She Bear” .............................11
Pay Back ..............................................17
“Jeffery Canna Lives” ............................28
Dr. Fritz ................................................35
“The Old Hand Speaks” .........................40
“Real Teaching” .....................................52
Chapter 10 First Day ..............................................64
Chapter 11 A Tale of Two Students..........................70
Chapter 12 The Set Up ............................................80
Chapter 13 The Accusation .....................................85
Chapter 14 The Deal ...............................................90
Chapter 15 Big Guy ................................................95
Chapter 16 The Cave.............................................102
Chapter 17 The Sting ............................................108
Chapter 18 Hockey Hank ...................................... 114
Chapter 19 Impulse ..............................................120
Chapter 20 Reprisal ..............................................127
Chapter 21 Drugs Inc............................................133
Chapter 22 Pyrrhic Victory .................................... 138
Chapter 23 Who Let the Dogs Out? .......................143
Chapter 24 Gameboy ............................................149
Chapter 25 The Big Lie.......................................... 155
Chapter 26 Compromise, I Think? ......................... 166
Chapter 27 Game Plan .......................................... 171
Chapter 28 A Walk in the Parking Lot ...................183
Chapter 29 The Deed ............................................190
Chapter 30 Letting Go ...........................................197
Chapter 31 Resurrection ....................................... 200
Chapter 32 The Rose .............................................206
Chapter 33 Goal.................................................... 213
Chapter 34 Principal Canna, Roll Over .................. 223
I was a “Hood,” destined for jail and then Hell. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that Hell was waiting and that jail would be no better. Jail was just the jumping off place for Hell, and I was a sure bet for both. An aging, raging busybody took up that bet in the winter of 1960.
My name is “P” —— a nickname that the family gave me. It sticks to this day. I’m the guy that this fanatic was making predictions about and condemning to Hell. It is me, “P”.
In 1959, my family moved from the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, and into South St. Paul, a suburb where my father worked. I was transplanted from a small neighborhood school in St. Paul, to an over-crowded, suburban school with large classes and teachers that were in their fifties and sixties. Like many other babyboomers, I was born three years after World War II and just before the Korean War. I was nine year old and young for the fourth grade. I was so skinny that my ribs showed through my chest. I wasn’t tall, but I wasn’t short, either. My hair was in a very short, almost shaved cut called a “Heinie” in those days.
I was already behind in my studies when I moved to my new school, having been sick at home with swollen tonsils during most of the first half of the school year. Frankly, I did not want to leave my fourth-grade friends or my teacher at Como Elementary School. I was happy at that school. I had been the happiest I was to be for some time in the near future.
I also had to move into a smaller bedroom with my older, seventh-grade brother. The room was far too small for two boys of any age. We had shared a large attic bedroom in the old house, and we’d had lots of room. It didn’t matter that I liked my brother and had real respect for him. I just didn’t want to live in the same room with him. We fought a lot in the new place.
We moved, celebrated Christmas and the New Year holidays, and then off to school I went.
It was as cold as the Artic on the first day I went to South Saint Paul’s Lincoln Elementary School. It was a sunny and crisp twenty-seven degrees below zero on that morning, a temperature that can freeze human skin in about a minute. Fortunately, our car was parked in a garage attached to our new house, unlike the garage at our previous house on Grotto Street in St. Paul. Starting our car in our old place was always a gamble. Would it start, or would it be frozen? At that time, having a warm garage provided an elevated social status.
The day she delivered me to Lincoln School, Mom told me what was on her mind. She gave a little speech, “We have moved up. The family has experienced a social transformation from poor inner city kids to the next generation of professional adults. You will all become the adults I expect you to become. You are special, with talents that belong only to you. You will discover those talents and become someone that will make me and your dad proud.”
Mom believed that her children would make it. She believed that we, all five of us, would go to college and become doctors, lawyers, or teachers. She was not afraid to believe in each and every one of us.
So it was that she delivered me to Lincoln Grade School in South St. Paul on that cold, sunny day in 1960. She came with an optimistic attitude and an open willingness to do what had to be done to achieve the status that her children deserved. We walked up cement stairs onto an outdoor landing, and then through double wooden doors onto another landing at the bottom of more stairs. We climbed the creaky wooden stairs to the third floor, turned right, and then entered a door bearing gold letters, bordered in black that read, OFFICE. We stood before a counter where the secretary’s desk separated us from an inner office. Neatly painted block letters that read, JEFFERY CANNA, PRINCIPAL, were on the wooden door’s frosted window glass.
The secretary told Mom, “The principal wants to see you.” So we sat down and waited for about an hour for him to see us. The paperwork had been done earlier, but Mom didn’t say anything because she was raised to be nice.
The principal of Lincoln School was at least sixty years old, fat, and gray haired. The middle of his head was balding, he was shaped like a pear, and he was very set in his ways. Jeffery Canna had probably been educated in the early twenties. He told us that he had attended a private college and had earned a liberal arts degree. He had no idea what educational research was, or how any educational training worked, for that matter. He didn’t need to know how any such nonsense worked. He could care less anyway, since his staff was about the same age as he, and of the same educational era. “Drill, drill, drill, and more drill was the only thing you have to know to be in this teaching game,” said Principal Canna.
He had to be the personification of every schoolchild’s worst nightmare. He was scary to me. I can remember feeling all jittery while waiting to see him. Even though she should have been afraid of him, Mom wasn’t scared. Mom was an eternal optimist. Principal Canna was of the old school, believing that to “Spare the rod” was to “Spoil the child.” He was not afraid to tell us this. He cared little for complaining mothers, and even less for complaining mothers from foreign places. In fact, anyone who came from anywhere other than South St. Paul was foreign to him. We would soon find out how that attitude was to change our lives. He would act on his understandings of this lady and her kid.
The world for Jeffery Canna was Lincoln school, where he had been the principal for only a short time. Considering the shorter life expectancy at that time, he had become “The Boss” at an advanced age. It was about time, in his estimation, that he was chosen to be the principal. He had paid all the dues for the position, by teaching, serving as assistant principal, and now, at sixty, he was principal.
He was a condescending bully. He believed that students and children were to be controlled. I was yet to learn that lesson the hard way. The following course of events influenced nearly every decision I’ve made during my lifetime. I just hope that no child ever has to experience what I endured during that winter of 1960.
I was a newcomer to Jeffery Canna’s Lincoln School. It really was “Jeffrey Canna’s Lincoln School.” Canna was in possession of that school, as well as my “Ass.” He behaved towards me as if I were an unclean and unwashed street “Hood” needing to be taught discipline. He thought for sure I was preordained to work in some menial job in the lowest place in society. I was from St. Paul Public Schools where the students were socially promoted and traditional academic standards were, according to Canna, “Not strictly followed.”
The inner city schools were, in those days, some of the most progressive in the country, especially in St. Paul. The University Of Minnesota School Of Education was revered in the St. Paul school system, and its graduates were coveted in its classrooms. In those days, most of St. Paul’s schoolteachers were from the University of Minnesota. Canna’s staff came from private schools of high regard, in his estimation.
Canna’s opinion of us was also tainted because my dad worked for a “Communist organization,” the Farmers Union Central Exchange. It’s known today as Cennex Harvest States, a fortune 500 company. At this time, Senator Joe McCarthy was not yet history, nor were healed the wounds caused by the House UnAmerican Committee’s allegations. “Commies” were everywhere, including agricultural cooperatives that competed with “For profit” businesses.
The atmosphere in the early sixties, in Minnesota, was replete with fear and “Red baiting,” especially amongst the conservative right. This was also true of the meat packers of South St. Paul. While the meat packers union wasn’t a right wing conservative organization, it didn’t care for communists.
In this uneducated, blue-collar suburb, where unions were the saviors of the general population, the meat packing plants gave good jobs to Americans of Serbian, Croatian, Polish, and Italian heritage. The workers shared a culture of patriotism that was fostered by the union bosses. The communists had killed their sons in Korea, and anyone accused of being a “Commie” felt the sting of hatred and bias that was previously directed at people of other races. A lot of the union workers also hated blacks, homosexuals, Jews, and Asians. Some of them seemed to hate everyone, except for themselves of course. The reality was that they didn’t always get along real well with each other, either
My dad would say, “Thank God, I’m just ‘Pink’ because of my employment choice.” He worked for a farmer’s cooperative which concentrated the buying power of many farmers into a group that could buy large quantities of agricultural support products at attractive prices. Co-op was a dirty word in 1960, as a co-op was linked, by the uneducated, to the Russian collective farms that were part of a centralized economy of Communist Russia.
My dad would state with some disdain, “The reality is that the farmers union is not pink or red. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Yet, the general public of South Saint Paul saw the cooperative as a communist plot to subvert the “For profit” business community by cutting out part of the distribution system. Worse yet, the farm group cooperated on the sale and distribution of the field and dairy produce grown by the member farms. Dad would tell Mom, “The meatpackers think the Farmers Union Co-operative is just a step away from packing its own meat, and that would be a real threat to the union worker on the floor of the largest packing plants in the world, the home of Swift and Armors Meat Packing.”
Dad had the feeling that the gap of misunderstanding had more to do with the unions thinking they were better than everyone else than it had to do with any real threats that the co-op might pose. He once told me, “The Farmers Union members are crop farmers with no interest in being in the meat packing business. They are more interested in being in the oil business than competing with the well established, low profit meat businesses.” He would turn out to be right.
Ironically, in their own eyes, unions weren’t “Commie” organizations. Only cooperatives were “Commie” organizations. The close relationship between the unions and the Communist Party during the depression years was conveniently forgotten. A critical understanding of history, especially their own, was not important to the rank and file union workers. They maintained their high standard of living because they believed in “God and Country” and whatever the union bosses said. If the union bosses hated the Farmers Union Central Exchange and all it represented, then so did they.
The farmers for whom my father worked couldn’t have been further from being communists. They were independent “Sons of bitches” with nothing but a profit motive in mind. They gathered together to form a buying group for one reason: To increase their own profits. If this was communism, then General Electric must have been communist, also.
Well, ol’ Jeffery Canna picked up on the community theme of using the label of “Commies” for Farmers Union workers. Jeffery was also probably jealous of the fact that Farmers Union employed mostly white-collar workers in South St. Paul where the cooperative’s headquarters were. Canna was not well paid as a public servant, while Dad had been very well paid for an uneducated man. My dad spoke with reverence about the time he spent in Europe. He spoke about the time he spent in the army, and he stated many times, “I was given a unique set of skills. I obtained those skills, and an appreciation for leadership, in General Bradley’s World War II Headquarters in London.” Dad would go on to say, “I am able to move goods efficiently for large organizations, because I had done this for General Bradley’s Fifth Army in Europe. This is what I had done in ‘The War’ and am now doing for the Mid-west farmers.” The skill was in demand, and he was paid very well for what the U.S. Army had taught him.
I suspect that this “Paid very well” thing really angered Canna. Canna was college educated in an era when college graduates were rare and was earning very little for his efforts. Along comes this uneducated “Hick” and his brood of “Hoods” living and prospering in his hometown. Mom, however, had not yet figured this out on that cold morning in January as she waited to see Canna. We were to find out how deep that hatred ran, but it would take some time.
Yeah, that was us, the “Commie hoods” from St. Paul, come to put on “Airs” for all. Not only did Dad work for a communist co-op, he was married to an educated, elementary schoolteacher. She was an educated woman and a commie! I’m sure that my liberal mom, educated at the University of Minnesota, presented a threat to an over-the-hill, sixty-year-old principal who was seriously lacking in human relation skills. She was a threat, because Mom knew the education business and good educational practices.
Mom was a small, pretty lady, and well spoken, but on the other hand, she was a force not to be taken lightly. She was perfectly willing to stand up for what she believed was right. I’m sure that my scrappiness today comes from her. I had never seen her in action until that winter of 1960. I think that she had not had a reason to defend her values before this, but I was to find a person in Mom that I didn’t recognize. I’m sure glad I got to see that part of Mom. She taught me so much about life and passion during that cold winter.
I was placed in a class that was taught by a sixtysix-year-old German spinster, Miss Lanterland. Educated in 1920, she believed in the “Drill and kill” teaching technique. I didn’t get along with her. I didn’t like her, and she didn’t care. She never asked what I had done at the old school, never asked a personal question, and probably never even knew how old I was. She didn’t care; I didn’t care. I checked out; my body was there but my mind was elsewhere. I tested, teased, and talked when I wanted and never gave a rip as to what she wanted.
Miss Lanterland would say, “It’s one thing to have a child who is willful and dumb, but it’s quite a handful to have one that’s willful and smart.” I was smart, and because of her and Canna, I have been proving how smart I still am. I could always get the class to laugh at me. I could also entice others to misbehave, and I did.
Miss Lanterland would tell my mom, “He’s as mean as could be one minute, charming the next, and horrible after that. He doesn’t read worth a damn. He can’t spell, and he hates math.” I learned to hate that year; I mean, really hate, with all my heart. That was a lot for a nine year old to learn.
The poor behavior I exhibited didn’t last very long. No teacher, good or bad, will put up with that type of behavior. I was in the office more than in the classroom. It was nothing for me to be grabbed by the arm, dragged down the hall, and literally thrown into a chair in the principal’s office. I confirmed every label that ol’ Jeffery Canna applied to me. Canna told me, “You are a hood, destined for jail and then Hell.” I was also told in no uncertain terms, “Hell is waiting, and jail will be no better. Jail is just the jumping off place for Hell, and you are a sure bet for both.”
By the time I reached home on most days, I thought that jail and Hell were sounding pretty good. Of course, Dad didn’t believe a thing I said. Mom was more understanding but not very pleased. It took a lot to get Mom pissed off, but I was trying and it was working. I really thought she would send me back to that Como school in St. Paul where the teacher knew me, and, I was sure, loved me. If I could keep this up, we might even move back to our old house on Grotto Street. I believed this. I really did! I could fool myself, back then. Sometimes I wondered how different my life might have been if we had never moved. We did move, however, and that leads us to the rest of my story.
Mom graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1942 after finishing her training in elementary education. This was a real feat for a depression-era child of a postman. During the war, however, Mom worked at a bank where she could earn more money than as a teacher. She waited for Dad to come home so they could start a family and start living again.
In 1946, Dad came home from World War II and went directly to work for the Farmers Union Central Exchange. Like a lot of other guys who made it home alive, Dad would say, “I’m one lucky son-of-a bitch.”
The U.S. Army taught him skills he could use in the peacetime, private sector which made up for his lack of a formal education.
Dad was legally blind if not wearing corrective lenses, making him unfit for combat, but he had still been capable of other safer duties. Better yet, he had made high scores on his army enlistment aptitude test. As a result, he spent his war years coordinating the shipment of war materials from the U.S. to the war zones. He was a Master Sergeant by the time he got out in 1946, and he used those skills again when he served in Korea in 1950. He loved the army, and the army loved him.
The Farmers Union loved him, as well. He had skills mostly possessed only by college graduates. They didn’t have to pay him as well as a college guy, therefore, they loved him.
Mom and Dad were married in 1946. My brother David was born in 1947, and I was born in 1949. Gail arrived in 1951, Diane in 1952, and Bruce came along in 1960, the same year we moved. The year I became the “Child from Hell.”
“What a mess,” my mother would say. “A new baby at home and a big baby in the fourth grade.” I didn’t help matters any for her. I wanted to go back to our house on Grotto Street, the old house. I devoted every effort, and every thought, to making life miserable at home as well as at school. As things became worse, the better the past looked to me.
This wasn’t done without my paying a price for it. Believe me! It came at great physical expense. I spent many hours doing hated chores at home, and I took my share of hits to the back of the head at school. At school, the worst of the physical violence was yet to come. It was Canna’s version of, “I’ll pick you up by the ear, drag you out of the room, grab an arm, and pick you up off the ground,” routine. These were the actual words he would use, and I remember them as both humiliating and painful. I was small enough so that almost anyone could grab my arm and pick me up off the floor. This seemed to be a favored discipline, since it left no marks but did separate the arm from its socket, and it also hurt like hell.
Even back then, when it was still legal to hit kids in school, the “Dr. Spock” child psychologist generation of parents and teachers believed that striking a child was not the correct thing to do. Canna must not have been reading the good Doctor Spock. The “No marks on the kid” thing worked well for him, since he could honestly inform my parents that he hadn’t hit me. This also made me look like a liar to my dad when I told him about the abuse I was receiving at school. Like a true con artist, Canna worked Mom and Dad by dividing them as effectively, and as often, as he could. It worked like a charm.
But the charm’s magic finally fizzled out, one day, as Canna dragged me down the hall with my feet barely touching the ground and repeating his litany of favorite phrases, such as, “I’ll pick you up by this ear and be careful not to tear it.” He would say this just loud enough for me to hear it. Then he would say, “Here comes the arm pull.” The final humiliation was the, “Get your ass in the office!”
This day, I’d had it. Before we got to the arm thing, I managed a well-placed kick to the old bastard’s balls. He caught all seventy pounds of my anger, causing him to lose his grip on me. He wrenched and doubled over, moaning, and I was sure I’d hurt him. I ran off like a shot, racing down the hall at full speed. I really thought that I could escape.
At nine years old, you just don’t get away. I had no more than escaped his reach when a passing teacher appeared out of nowhere and caught me. As she grabbed me, she struck me directly in my face with her open hand. It felt like I’d been hit in the face with a shovel. I was surprised, stunned, and plenty scared. She sure didn’t seem to care what happened to me when she delivered me back to Canna. “Here he is, sir,” was all she said.
Jeffery Canna was explosive in his anger. He punched me, shoved me, and finally, he lost all reason and became an enraged animal. When one of his assaults soundly connected, I was thrown to the floor. He drew back with his foot and kicked me in the side, as I was sprawled face down on the floor. I remember that I could smell the banana oil used to clean the wooden floors just seconds before I felt the kick. When his kick struck my body, he stopped. He knew the minute his shoe struck me that he had gone too far.
When he stopped, I saw real fear in the old man’s eyes for the first time. He might have believed that he had killed me, and I’m sure he could tell that he had severely injured me. I couldn’t feel anything, but I knew I was hurt, bad.
I know that I was suspended somewhere, because I didn’t know where I was, or worse yet, I didn’t know who I was. The violence and pain had created a kind of life force all its own, and within me, it had given birth to a powerful sense of impending doom. I didn’t understand it, since I had never experienced such violence. I remember the feeling because it was so vivid.
I felt an intense need to be vindicated, but it was the connection to other living things that felt strongest in me. I was suddenly aware of a connection to Mother Earth, to all living things, and a deep fear inside me. I cannot describe the kind of hatred that was capable of creating this kind of violence towards a helpless child, but I can still recall the chill of dread that I experienced that afternoon.
When Canna stopped his assault I somehow managed to get to my feet, and then I began to run. I must have gotten an adrenaline rush or something. Oddly enough, even as badly as I was hurt, I didn’t feel anything during the twenty or so feet I was able to cover before the world all went black.
I regained consciousness in Dr. Shannon’s office with Mom’s arms around me and with Dad standing behind her. In those days, patients would be first taken to a doctor’s office and then only to the hospital if necessary. When Canna realized that I wasn’t breathing, he called the police and they called Mom. She had the police take me to the doctor’s office. At the doctor’s office, she lifted me off the examination table and held my unconscious body in her arms. She really thought that I was dead.
Mom began barking orders at the police, “Get away from my son!”
The local cops, probably protecting Canna’s job, did anything that Mom asked. I doubt that they gave a damn what happened to a street kid from St. Paul, but they must have been protecting Canna at the same time. Things were different back then.
Dr. Shannon looked at Mom and said, “I found two broken ribs.” He also told her, “He’s badly bruised, and I don’t know if there are internal injuries.” Dr. Shannon was very worried and had no real way of knowing the extent of the beating. I wasn’t dead, but I was really beaten up. This was enough to ignite both Mom and Dad. I thought to myself, and then said, “Finally! We can go home to Grotto Street. I’m home free. I can go back to the teachers who liked me and back to my attic in the old house.”
I didn’t count on the level of anger about to visit me, however. Mom was mad as Hell, at me, at Canna, and at the world. She said, “Why did you disappoint me?” She also hit me with, “I knew you were unhappy, but I never expected you to be so disobedient.”
The loud discussions behind Mom and Dad’s bedroom door lasted for two days. They were both angry, but Mom was doing most of the yelling. I could hear Dad say, “I want to approach this mess with some degree of level-headedness.” But she said, “I want a conference! I want a confrontation!”
As always, Dad lost. He could win the money arguments, but Mom always won the kid arguments. I think this was probably why their marriage had worked so well for so many years. I’m sure she loved him, but she had a keen instinct about their individual strengths and how to use them. He loved her enough to know the limits of his control. He was also smart enough to know that his educated wife understood some things better than he did.
After I spent three great days at home with tomato soup, “I love Lucy” reruns, and lots of attention, it was time to get on with it. Mom made arrangements for me to return to school, and I had no choice. I finally understood that there was no going back to St. Paul and no returning to the world I loved, and that was that.
I knew she had a plan. She was still mad, and the people in her sights were about to find out just what this little lady with a mission could do. She was one mad she-bear with a wounded cub.
In today’s world, Canna would have been fired. Back in the 1960s, however, he was not only tolerated by the public, but often revered by many as being the strict disciplinarian that it was necessary to be to effectively educate kids. The fact that he had hit a child didn’t surprise anyone, nor was the injury life threatening. Therefore, it was an acceptable act. These things occasionally happened in the life of a school principal while doing his job, and back then it was okay, as long as it didn’t become a habit. The school board received a report and life moved on for Canna.
I was going to be failed in the fourth grade, Canna had decided, yet I was going to have to finish the year; I just didn’t know it yet. This was decided without my mom’s knowledge or consent. In fact, she wasn’t even informed of this or any other decisions that Canna or the school board had made. All this was done in secret; lots of things were kept secret in those days.
Mom, however, had known for a long time that Canna didn’t live in a vacuum. She knew that he would have to deal with his act of violence in some way.
Mom intuitively knew this sixty-year-old principal. She told Dad, “As long as it is just a matter of disagreement about child management style, I will work as best I can with Canna.” She was disciplined and careful up to this point. She said to Dad, “The problem now is that this Canna has hit my son, and God knows that’s unacceptable.”
She went on to say to Dad, “Canna has also been disingenuous with me, committing the sin of omission. He has not been forthcoming about the use of force to gain compliance. Obtaining the desired behavior was his only mission. My son’s education was secondary to him, and it didn’t even enter his mind. My son was a problem, but violence should not be the answer.” She told Dad it was time to act.
The best one of Mom’s skills was her ability to see into the future with remarkable accuracy. She was uncanny at predicting human behavior. What she couldn’t do was create the right moment to act on her predictions. She would have to wait for that. She had to wait patiently for the circumstance to present itself that would allow an unexpected strike at the enemy.
At this point, it was a fight. She never said it, but Canna was now the object of her thoughts and deeds. All she needed now was an opening or just the appearance of a mistake on the part of Canna. She was now consumed by her need to gain a position from which she could negotiate an outcome she desired.
Mom didn’t like doing these things, and Dad wasn’t enough of a street fighter to know how. It was left up to Mom to take on Canna. January went by and in February, along with Washington’s, Dad’s birthday was celebrated. I remember wondering, Why hasn’t she done anything yet? I knew she was still mad. My ribs were healed and Canna was still riding hard on the “Brood of hoods” from St. Paul. Had Mom lost her nerve? All I know was that I was feeling defeated.
I behaved as well as I could. Life was easy when you checked out. I didn’t care about anything. I did as I was told or did nothing at all, and it seemed everything was fine. I was now just dumb. I overheard one of the teachers who might get me the following year asking Lanterland about me. Her reply still stings to this day. She described me as “DDS” to this teacher.The teacher asked her what that meant.
Lanterland then describe me as, “Dumber than dog shit.”
I didn’t know the plan, or, for that matter, the details, but rest assured, Mom had a plan in place. I knew this, but time was running out. The school year was almost over. She was not getting the breaks she needed. Things just weren’t falling into place, and she was grasping at straws. Mom desperately needed Canna to make a mistake, even a small one.
I continued to do as little as I could, since I wasn’t going to do anything for those people that didn’t like me. I was checked out.
One day I came home with a test that had my regular ‘F’ on it. This test was what would have passed for a science test in those days. Isn’t it strange how when we set up a pattern, we then perform according to that pattern? The pattern is created by doing what is expected of us by our authority figures, according to the information we are receiving from them at the time. This was true in my school assignments because no one was looking at them, since they were always the same, a failure. Science was actually something I liked and was one of the few areas where I did well. This particular test was about biology. A classmate had brought her dog and a litter of pups to school. This was her contribution to our science lesson. The subject interested me, and I listened intently to the student who brought in the puppies. Puppies are a big deal in grade school. As Mom read the biology test, she got a bit irritated. I said, “Mom, I knew you would not like this test.” She asked, “Why not, son?”
I told her, “Because, I knew the answers.” “What do you mean?” she wondered.
“I could have done this one in my sleep, and do you know why, Mom?”
Mom looked at the red X marks written next to the line of numbers that symbolized the teacher’s careless dismissal of my efforts. She read the answers, then looked at me with surprise and said, “You did know the answers, didn’t you?”
“You betcha!” I answered.
God, was I proud! I had finally done something Mom approved of. My scribbled writing and unorganized answers were there but were unimportant to Miss Lanterland. Mom recognized that I had the right answers. I had not read the instructions, had not answered in the right spot on the page, and I had not followed the format that was expected.
“This test is an attempt at sex education?” Mom remarked with cold emotion. She was talking to herself.
“Mom, you taught all of us kids this stuff from the very first time I can to remember.”
“You betcha,” Mom stated, while mimicking me.
She read the questions very carefully. She looked at the multiple choices that were given. The true/false questions weren’t any better than the multiple choices. The final straw came with the matching. She looked very intently at the answers I had written in the open spaces, in the margins, on the sides, and along the bottom. The answers were not very legible, but they were there.
Had Miss Lanterland read the scribbling that I had written? The more Mom looked at the test, the bigger the smile on her face became. Part of her amusement was the joy she felt as a mother who realizes that her son was not as bad as she had let herself think, nor as bad as Miss Lanterland had said he was.
The more sinister part was the realization that she had the piece of the puzzle that would get her the upper hand in this game. If she just had enough time, she could get to the right people with the evidence.
If she could be cute, charming, and persuasive, and if her timing was perfect, she just might pull this off. I saw the hope in her desperate eyes. This was the chance that she just might get others to believe, legitimately, that her son was not lazy and dumb.
She saw the chance to prove this in a way that would not be confrontational, and might even be heard above the objections of a power-hungry, dictatorial principal. She hugged me, and with a confident wink that made me think that things might just get better, she said while nodding a yes, “We just might be all right.”
She knew intuitively that Lanterland, my teacher, was a ‘t’ crosser and an ‘i’ dotter. If Mom was right, my teacher’s compulsion to be right at all costs would be her downfall. She knew that she had to have irrefutable evidence that her kid was trying and succeeding. She knew that she could teach this child herself and extract revenge at the same time. For the first time in this chain of events, she realized that it didn’t require a fight, but that she could resolve the differences with a positive approach for a positive outcome. She had a vision, but could she sell it? For that, she needed more proof.
She had started the planning of this drama. She made a request. Mom asked for my assignments to be written out by Miss Lanterland and sent home. She then asked in writing for Miss Lanterland’s assistance in the reviewing and monitoring of all the assignments I had to do. She requested in her best handwriting and in the “King’s Own English” that each assignment be detailed in writing so she could follow along. The note was a masterful augment for Mom’s involvement in the education of her child. She then stopped writing and put the letter in her best envelope, being very careful to fold the note she had written exactly into thirds. On the envelope, she wrote in her best block printing:
As soon as this had been completed, she called Canna, knowing all along that he would not take her call. She left this message with his secretary, “Ask Mr. Canna to please talk with P’s teacher, and to ask her to pass along all P’s assignments, per my written request. Please, be detailed, as I sometimes get confused, and please, have her do this in writing.”
The next day, Canna leaned back in his oak chair and spoke to Miss Lanterland, “I thought I made it clear that every reasonable request was to be honored.” He was especially cooperative. “I thought that because I had hurt this boy, you understood that we best be helpful.”
He had to be helpful in case he was reported to the school board by Mom. He was sure this was going to happen. The ol’ boy, Canna, said, “Miss Lanterland, if I can head off some criticism by being helpful, it couldn’t hurt. I’ll let her have that concession, this time.”
Mom had found a wedge, a tool she could use. This was the first time that Canna had even listened to her request, much less granted the request. She thought that with this success she could move the balance of justice a little further in her son’s direction.
Mom prepared lengthy instructions each day, fabricated from the assignments of the day before. This went on for a month. Each letter asked for greater levels of detail, stopping just short of the ridiculous.
Mom was acting in my best interests in her letters to the teacher, yet each letter became more and more demanding. The things she asked for were justifiable, but costly in terms of Lanterland’s time and energy.
Miss Lanterland was doing everything she could to comply, until she got fed up and went nuts with frustration. She stormed in Canna’s office and yelled at him, “I am not going to be that woman’s nigger any longer!” The emotional outburst was classic ol’ spinster, schoolteacher meltdown. She yelled first, and then shook papers at him. She showed him the “F” I had received, never once stopping to show him the answers written in the margins, written upside down, or written on the back. She just shook the papers at him, until, finally, the weeping and crying started.
Canna gave in and said, “I’ll call the bitch and tell her to lay off with the notes and requests.”
Mom was waiting for the call. It didn’t take as long to come as she thought it would. Canna said to her, “Well, you’ve had all the attention we can afford to give you and your boy. We are going to have to stop answering your letters. Miss Lanterland is doing all she can to help, and your son is failing anyway. She has other students in that room; your son isn’t the only child that needs help.”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” Mom was on her best behavior.
“What’s interesting about it?” Canna asked. “We have tried to help, but it doesn’t work.”
“I thought it was working wonders,” Mom said.
“Well, it’s not, and I have the papers and tests to prove it,” Canna fired his answer at her.
“I have the same tests that you have, since we copied them at my husband’s office on the new Xerox copier. They are complete with the answers written by my son. We have every test, every written worksheet, and everything that was requested, all written down and completed with Miss Lanterland’s written instructions. I have corrected them myself.”
Mom was on a roll, “I have come to a different conclusion. He is doing just fine. In fact, some of his answers are quite good. Haven’t you read the papers?” she queried.
“I’ll get back to you,” Canna said in an angry tone. Then, he hung up.
Mom smiled at me and said, “I think we are doing okay, so far.” She was pleased with herself. Just a few more assignments and she would have all the proof she needed, the proof that her son was completing the assignments and answering the questions correctly. They might not all be perfect answers, but there were enough correct answers to achieve a passing grade.
At this moment, I thought for the first time that things might be all right. I had given up thinking I would be able to go back to the old house on Grotto Street. I guess Mom had diverted my attention to the game of chess she was now playing and had sucked me in, as I was the center of attention. Hope was returning.
Mom had created a sneak learner. I still don’t know if the point was to get me involved in the learning process by making me an accomplice to the letters and the intrigue, or if she really wanted me to “Get it” educationally. You know what, it doesn’t matter. I learned a lot in those days when we were writing letters. If I could respond to my assignments in a way that was genuine, then Mom was pleased. Pleasing Mom was more important than pleasing those strangers who hated me.
The motivation didn’t matter anymore. I was all right. I was not just all right; I was great, as I watched my mother work hard to accomplish her goals. Add the hard work to the fascination of the game, for real stakes with real outcomes, and you had me interested. I watched Mom that winter and all the way into spring, working hard to create a learning machine (Me). This was her gift. She had created a son, and then she had given him a tool. The tool was not just self-respect, but also a way to organize the world on my own terms. More important was the idea that my way of organizing the world was mine, and there was nothing wrong with that.
I was to learn that life was not always what it seemed, and what seemed to be was often something else. We can do one thing and get results that were not expected, and that’s okay. We can take advantage of many things that happen in this world, if we are allowed to act according to our own thoughts. Man, was I having fun. Mom’s attention was focused, my attention was focused, and time flew by.
Mom told me after a long, unexpected telephone call form Canna that came shortly before summer vacation, “You flunked the fourth grade.” We did not see that one coming. She said, “It’s all right; it will all be okay. I will go with you on the last day of school when it will be official.”
I now believe that if we’d had a little more time she would have pulled off a small miracle. I believe this, as I know it to be true. This is forty years later, and the truth holds up over time. This was Mom’s way of teaching me what was important and what wasn’t. She taught, and I learned.
I walked out of Canna’s office by myself. I had lost my temper in Canna’s office and was told to leave by my mother. I had yelled at Canna, “You old bastard!” but before I could get any further, Mom sent me packing. I walked past the secretary’s desk and into the hallway in front of the Principal’s office, on that last day of school. I noticed the bird’s eye, maple floors. I remember the smell of the banana oil used to shine the floors. Every time I smell Banana oil, today, that day rushes into my memory with a shiver.
I walked down the creaking wooden stairs to the main floor. I walked through the big, wooden double doors that led to the outside doors and across the rubber mat between the inside and outside doors. I remember the smells, the weather, and the colors of that old school. I remember every detail of that day forty years ago. I moved my injured soul out onto the concrete stoop in the summer sun, and I stood there.
Mom was still inside fighting with Canna. I could hear her yelling, and I knew she was not going to win this one. Oh, God, did I know the outcome. No one cared that I had learned anything. No one cared that I had overcome a huge problem. Well, Mom did, but no one else cared, especially Canna who was going to get his way.
She had sent me out, because she had sensed my anger welling up. She had sent me outside where I wouldn’t do anything I would regret. I wished he would just break my ribs again, so I wouldn’t hurt so bad inside, in my head and my heart. I knew that Mom was fighting a losing battle, and so did she.
I wanted to really hurt that “Ol’ bastard” for hurting Mom. After all, it hurt Mom more than me. I loved Mom, and I just wanted to tell her. My wishes didn’t mean shit. I had caused all this pain for nothing; how worthless can one small boy be?
I stood in the summer sun for what seemed like forever. Mom finally came out, and she hugged me. She was crying, and I was crying. I went home with Mom that day. I knew nothing would ever be the same, and no one would ever know what I knew, nor would I ever let anyone know what I knew.
I was done crying. I swore that I would never let anyone know how bright I was, and yet, it would be the only thing that I would care about for the rest of my life. This was the day that a “Sneak learner” was born; a second birth had taken place. It came from my mother’s will and nurturing, and finally, from her pain.
In 1990, I had completed a career in the construction industry. I had done well by the standards of having been born on Grotto Street. I had owned and then sold a profitable construction company. Hence, I had spent the next year fishing, building projects around the house, and for a time, trying my hand as a day trader on the stock exchange.
I was rich at forty and knew that I was not going to risk my good fortune on building a new business. I had done that once, and I had won. That win, along with the help of a tornado taking a piece of property and leaving a big insurance settlement behind, was my ticket to really being rich. The insurance settlement had gone into the stock market, free of encumbrances, and all I had to do was allow it to grow without touching it.
Now, all I needed was a steady income with good health insurance. I needed something to do that wouldn’t risk the “Nest egg” I had built.
One day in 1990, I got a call from a friend, Bob, at St. Paul Technical College. Bob got me on the phone and asked, “Why haven’t you hired any graduates from my construction program for a while?”
I told Bob, “I’m not hiring anyone, because I have retired from the construction business.”
He said, “You’d better stop and see me at school.”
A few days later, I did, and he put me in front of his classroom of pipe fitters-to-be and said, “If you guys want to know how to get rich in the construction trades, then this is the guy to talk to.” As he left the room, he said to me, “You’ve got it, teach them something about the construction industry.” At the prompting of their questions, I gave them quite an earful, and they listened to me. I was hooked, and so began my teaching career.
I taught for two years at the Technical/Vocational School and was happy. I would never have left if I had not been approached by the University of Minnesota Technical Education Department. They wanted me to teach in the construction trades area.
I had received a Masters in Business Administration in night school. My need for expertise in computer technology had driven me back to school.
I had completed a B.A. in 1973, as a draft dodger during the Viet Nam years. I was able to get a ‘C’ average, and still work forty hours a week to stay alive. It sounds like a sneaky thing to do, but it was legal and it kept me out of the draft. Finally, in 1973, I drew a high enough draft number to escape the draft, but I had already graduated anyway.
The Masters Degree made me unique in the construction industry. It also made me attractive to the University of Minnesota as an instructor. I loved the University of Minnesota.
The state cut the funding for industrial education in 1995, and my job was history. I had, however, become licensed in High School Industrial Education, so I joined the staff at Northwest Schools.
A year later I was teaching at a middle school, making wooden ducks with sixth graders. What a ball. I was in love with every single one of those darling students, even the “Bad ones” were fun. I heard my name more times than I care to tell anyone. “Mr. P, what do I do next? Mr. P, how do I do this? Mr. P, help me.” On and on it went. I was a very happy camper.
As the year was drawing to a close, I was summoned to the principal’s office, and the ugly sound of change was present in that conversation, “You are going to school this summer to learn how to run a Synergistic Lab,” I heard this lovely woman who had been my principal say. I had taught at the U. of M. for two years where I was exposed to a Synergistic Lab, so I knew what it was.
I replied, “I’m not impressed. Teaching in a room with cubicles that look like early IBM decorating is not my way of hooking kids on the technical arts. Putting them in a cubical and showing them a video is not the way to hook kids on the idea that they could create objects with their will, hands, and most important of all, their hearts. I think this Synergistic Lab will be the death of young souls. It was devised by old men who wanted to organize children into wouldbe worker bees that would occupy cubicles for the rest of their lives. I’m an old ‘Hippie’ that believes every soul was placed on this earth to create something.” I continued to argue, “I’ll be disappointed, and I beg for part of the program to remain as it is.” So, I’d said my piece. I had alienated her with my outspokenness.
But, I wasn’t going to change anybody’s mind. The Synergistic Corporation already had the school board hot-wired. They had done their job well and I was too late in the game.
I wondered, What the Hell does a forty-five-yearold rich guy know about how real life works? I was not even consulted when the final decision was made. The die had been cast. With their rush to become the “Synergistic, Cubical School of the Future,” I found myself making inquires into a position at one of the district’s high schools. It seemed that the district had started to build a new high school. In this new high school was a plan for a high tech computer lab with the latest drafting software.
I thought that new, computer aided drafting software was right up my alley, so I bid on the job. I was a Teachers’ Union member with some seniority, although I had not been tenured in the district yet. I needed one more year of experience before I was tenured in this district. This meant that I should stay put for one more year and get my tenure.
I was not worried about the money, I was not worried about loosing my job, and, like the rest of my life, challenge and risk were comfortable on me. I went for the new position and got it. Later, I found out that no one else wanted the job since the learning curve on the software was steep. Also, I didn’t know what the other teachers in the district knew, and it was about the principal I was about to go to work for.
The school year ended, the summer came, and then it was soon behind me. We were looking August in the eye. It was time for me to get back to the business of teaching.
On a beautiful, Minnesota summer day, I got up and went to the bagel shop where I enjoyed coffee and a cinnamon raisin bagel. What a day, at seventy-five degrees, sunny, bright, warm, and full of promise. I drove to the old Northwest High School, since it was being used for the staging area for the administration until the new high school was finished.
I needed keys to the new lab because the new high school was near completion. I needed to get into the space and get set up. I wanted to get it all just right for the first day of school.
I parked in the lot of the old Northwest High School and walked up to the front of this school that had been built in the early 1900s. After walking up the concrete steps to an outside landing, I was standing in front of a pair of double wooden doors. I walked into the old Northwest High through the double doors, across the vestibule, through another set of wooden, double doors and up the wooden, creaking stairs to the top. I stopped for a second on the stairs with the most uncomfortable feeling. There was scent of banana oil in the air. The oil must have been used in the past on the old, wood floors. At the top of the stairs was a wooden door with the word ‘Principal’ in gold block letters with a black border. I opened the door to the office and there was a secretaries’ desk in front of a wooden office door with frosted glass. The glass had the name ‘Dr. Fritz, Principal’ painted in large, block letters.
I thought, Well, this is just some small anxiety. Get the keys and go to your new room.
Into the principal’s office I went, past the front counter that separated the office into two sections. I went to the secretaries’ desk in front of the office and next to the waiting area. The waiting area was lined with straight-backed, wooden chairs that had seated many wayward students while they waited for their turn to get their just deserts. These chairs had also known the worries of many parents that were summoned to the school. Here, in this office, I arrived at Judy’s desk, the principal’s secretary.
Judy was a good sixty-years-old, and she had been in this office for thirty years. She looked at me and asked, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m Mr. P, the new technology instructor; can I get a set of keys to my new room?”
Judy put down the folder she was filing and said, “I will tell Dr. Fritz that you’re here, and that you need to see him.”
“You don’t understand; I don’t need to see anyone,” I insisted. “I just need the keys.”
She replied with conviction, “You need to see Dr. Fritz, understand? Now take a seat and wait until I call you.” She went into Dr. Fritz’s office, came back, and didn’t say a word. She didn’t even look at me.
I did as I had been told. An hour later, I got up to leave without the keys and started for the door. Judy asked, “Where are you going?”
I told her, “I’m leaving.” Now I was mad. Judy looked at me and said, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll wait.”
I sat down, and a half-hour later the phone rang. Judy answered it and then said to me, “Dr. Fritz will see you now.”
This was my new boss. Who in God’s name in the education business would not let you have a set of keys, especially when you had been with the district prior to changing schools? This wasn’t a job interview; I already worked for the district. I walked into a formal room with a great, big, wooden desk. A man stood up from behind the desk and said, “What do you want? I’m busy building a new school.”
I responded with, “I need the keys to the computer lab. I’m Mr. P, the new instructor.”
“You will have to come back after you have made an appointment to get the keys. I’m busy building a new school.” He shoved his arm out, and, with a jerk, exposed a Rolex watch, looked at it, and said, “Get out of here, and make no mistake about how things are done at Northwest.”
I turned to walk out of the office, past the front counter without stopping to make an appointment with Judy, and out into the old Northwest High hallway. I looked at the wooden, birds-eye maple floors and smelled the banana oil. Then I walked down the creaking, wooden stairs, out the double doors, onto the concrete stoop, and into the summer sunshine.
As I stood there asking myself what had just happened, suddenly, it hit me —— “Jeffery Canna lives.”
It had been rumored in the school district that the last thing in this world Dr. Fritz wanted in his school was an almost fifty-something teacher working for him. His preference for teachers was in young, single, non-tenured females, and the more vulnerable they were, the better. He especially liked young, female teachers, who, for whatever reason, had been dismissed by other districts and were disparate for a job.
What he didn’t like were teachers who were well established in their area of expertise and backed by the teachers’ contract. Teachers who were independent minded and rich, he did not need. In fact, he hated the teachers union and their contract. He hated the rules, and he hated the fact that a contract limited his scope of influence.
“That’s a stinking teachers’ contract, with all its rules and due process for teachers. Worse yet, the contract favors tenured teachers,” I can remember him saying to me.
These teachers would establish their own selfesteem, independent of his approval or disapproval. The game was about control. Dr. Fritz wanted as much as he could get, and he didn’t care how he got it.
“This is my school; this is my time. I have earned the right,” according to him, “to run my school as I see fit, with whoever I choose to have teaching here.”
He had to put up with a small group of “Old hands” that he’d inherited when he had been appointed principal. However, they were dwindling in numbers. Time alone would heal that insult to him, as these “Old hands” would soon retire.
I had not discovered all this in the 1995-96 school year. I had been focused on the technology that I would be teaching. I was laser-focused on that new computer aided drafting lab. It never occurred to me that Dr. Fritz was any different than any other principal. Anyway, I was forty-six, established, and had been happily married to the same woman for twenty-plus years. I had the “Magic bullet” of teaching tenure at the end of the year. I felt I was protected, as the union had made me an officer of the union. Under federal law, no officer of a union could be fired when serving in a union position. A good friend at the middle school had seen to it that when I joined Dr. Fritz’s staff, I was made an officer of the union. I did not realize at the time why Dick, the Union President, had done this. I do now.
Dr. Fritz would have to catch me in a felony or find me in a compromised sex scandal to get me fired, and I knew it. I was established in the district with a good track record, so what could Fritz do? When I took the position, I was not concerned with his behavior because I was protected by the contract. Or, so I thought.
Shortly before the kids arrived at school that fall, Dr. Fritz summoned me to his office. I had received one of his infamous “C-Me” notes. The note would be placed in your mailbox and it would say in bold, black sharpie felt pen, “C-Me.” Sometimes it would be in red, but always signed in an unreadable scribble or scratch, with his name as bold as could be. The note, as I was to learn in just a few minutes, was a challenge.
I knocked on his door and asked, “Can I please come into your office?” I had very consciously said, “Please.” I was aware that our first meeting had not gone well.
My request was met with a stare, a disarming smile, and then an invitation to sit down in the chair which was set at a 45-degree angle to his desk, a great big oak desk.
The only conversation we’d had was in his old office, and, up to this point, conversation had been terse at best. The first meeting had been a disaster. Why, now, would he be warm, friendly, and inviting? All I could figure was he wanted something.
He started with small talk, “Tell me about your family?” After I told him a few personal details, he asked me to explain my background. I did, and then he asked, “Why are you teaching?” I explained why I was teaching. All this could have been sincere, but I was not comfortable and he knew it. This seemed to please him.
Then from nowhere came a question that blindsided me, “Do you understand what insubordination is?” I don’t even remember how he got to this question, but all of a sudden, I was defending myself. He had a point in mind here, and I was really wishing he would make it and let me go since I was becoming angry. Finally he got to what he was after, “You must understand that insubordination is an offense you can be fired for,” Fritz stated this as casually as if he were discussing the weather.
I wondered, How did we get here? It wasn’t even the first day of school yet, and I haven’t refused anything he wants.
“I will document every act of insubordination you commit,” again, with the flat tone and the casual attitude. What does Fritz want?“What insubordination?” I asked.
“If I get eight to ten incidents of insubordination, I will fire you,” Fritz was goading me.
How did we get from speaking of family and friends to him firing me? I was mad now, hopping mad; I was damned mad. Just as I was about to explode in a burst of anger, I stopped myself and remembered that I had a right to union representation in any situation that a reprimand was involved.
I looked Dr. Fritz in the eye. I calmed myself, took a deep breath, and said, as I would many times in the future, “Dr. Fritz, this conversation is no longer constructive.”
I paused again, breathing even more deeply. I took deep, deep breaths while exhaling slowly and counting the seconds that it took to exhale. I had not let him know anything about who I really was or what I really thought. I was being true to my convictions. As I started to get up, he said, in a loud screaming voice, “Sit down! This conversation is over when I say it is, and not one minute sooner! If you don’t sit down and shut up, I will write you up for insubordination, right now!”
I wasn’t ten years old anymore, and I certainly knew what I could do and what he could do, and this wasn’t it. I had worked for some real “Assholes” in my life, but he was the worst I had ever encountered.
I stood up and said in as calm a voice as possible, “I wish union representation.”
He yelled at me as loudly as he could, “You’ll leave when I tell you!”
I stood up, turned, and walked out. I don’t remember what it was he was yelling and screaming at me as I left. I just remember him yelling and screaming.
I walked directly to the union rep’s room. Denny, an “Old hand,” looked at me, as I was beet red, and said, “You just left Dr. Fritz’s office, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did.”
“I could tell where you have been by the look on your face. I can also tell you he wants someone gone. I just didn’t think it would be you. He likes to get you mad so you say things you will regret, and if he gets lucky, you will say something stupid that he can use against you in the future. From now on, you don’t go into that office without me or the other union rep. Got it?”
“Yes, I got it.”
I left the room and walked into the brand new, terrazzo-floored hall of the new Northwest High. I pushed open the fire doors that separate the halls for fire protection. I smelled the new paint and I began to shake. My hands were also shaking and I was mad, frustrated, and ten years old again, with a failing sense of self-esteem and a childhood anger that I thought had been beaten into submission. But there it was; the boy who had failed the fourth grade was right here in this almost fifty-year-old body.
The outcome of my visit to the office was predictable, Denny and Sue, the union reps, visited Dr. Fritz and asked for a reprimand in writing. They wanted Dr. Fritz to level a charge in writing, and they knew he wouldn’t provide them with any written documentation that might be used to embarrass him. Of course, Dr. Fritz refused. He knew the incident would go nowhere, and anyway, he wanted nothing in writing that might be used against him in court or in front of the school board.
Denny got back to me the following day. He came to my room, sat down alongside my desk, and told me, “Never go into that office again without union representation.”
I objected by stating what he already knew. If I had to work in a high school, even a big one, it demanded a certain amount of interaction with the principal that can’t be avoided. I told him, “I can’t stay below the radar forever.”
I tried to think of the situations that I had to interact with the principal, “If a student is a problem beyond the disciplinary reach of the teacher, to mitigate behavior, a meeting with the principal is necessary.” This was one example that I used.
A teachers’ annual goals meeting is mandated by the union contract. This is the meeting where the teacher shares with the building principal the objectives to be achieved for the year. This is a holdover from the management-by-objectives fad that took over the business climate twenty years ago. This, like all the fads that have come and gone, leaves a mark on the school system. We get these management procedures in place, and then the system has no way of removing them from the union contract. It was one more example that I mentioned to Denny of mandatory principal/teacher contact.
Denny said, “Don’t use the office for anything. If I have a student with a behavior problem, I handle it myself, since we have no support in the principal’s office anyway. I have seen Dr. Fritz use students to implicate a teacher in scandals before.”
“The need to work with a principal demands some contact,” I argued. I admit that I thought I could keep a real low profile and avoid Dr. Fritz as much as possible, yet I knew that there would be a certain amount of interaction that I could not avoid. Goals meetings were an example that I gave Denny. “Get a union rep to go with you,” was his solution. “Never be alone with him,” was his advice. “Make sure that whoever is with you is on your side,” he admonished.
“But we’re choosing sides. What’s next, bodyguards to accompany me to class?” I wanted to say more, but I didn’t say a word. I was making a disaster of the situation, all of which I dismissed as a product of my overactive imagination.
Denny looked at me... a long time silent, “You aren’t the first to have trouble with this guy, Fritz. We, the union, have a long history with him. He has an “A” team, and then there are the rest of you. You will learn that if you aren’t picked and screened by him, he doesn’t want you to work here. In fact, he will work like hell to get rid of you, anyway he can.”
Denny went on to tell me, “Dr. Fritz was molded by an administration above him that wanted to hear nothing, see nothing, and mostly, know nothing. They wanted teacher compliance, as this helped to divide staff, pitting each teacher against the other. This teacher unrest was vital to keeping contract wage settlements at a minimum.”
“Worse yet,” Denny went on, “Dr. Fritz agreed with this strategy and was promoted up on the ‘Hill’ (The District Center) for his wily ability to carry out the process. He is the poster boy for teacher compliance.
As long as he didn’t share his methods with those who could testify in a court, and as long as he gave them, the superintendent and upper management, plausible deniability, then he was a hero. In turn, the administration sold him to the community as the man who makes the busses run on time. Busy people, trained by a mass media and being products, themselves, of a school system that worked the same way for them, are easy to convince that a strict disciplinarian and control freak is the answer to an orderly school.”
Denny was allowing his own frustration to bubble to the surface. He stopped himself, regretful of the length his disclosure had gone. He wondered out loud, “I’d better stop before you go to Fritz and share my contempt for him.” He was winking at me with that, to determine if I was a loyal union guy he could share secrets with, or someone who would sell him down the river.
I told Denny, “I will come get you or Sue if I get called into the office.” He must have decided to trust me; he then told me something I will never forget, “If you are called in to Dr Fritz’s office, never be alone. If he calls you out of your room, never be alone with him.” Denny’s advice was hard to listen to.I asked, “Why?”
Denny explained, “Dr. Fritz likes to ambush teachers like you.”
Now I got scared, “What the hell are you talking about; I’m protected by a teachers’ contract, and I’m an officer of the union.”
Denny looked at me and warned, “Dr. Fritz will stalk you in the halls, and he will attack the minute you are alone.”
“What in the devil are you talking about?” I was certain that I had been imprisoned.
“Well, he likes to catch you off-guard and will try to get you to say things in anger. He will use nonverbal gestures and his body posture to violate your personal space. He will yell and scream at you. He will do anything to get you to loose it. Don’t do that; please, don’t loose it. Just walk away; please, just walk away.” Denny seemed to have been there before.
He went on to explain that if I could just keep my mouth shut around Dr. Fritz, he and the State Union guys could save my job. In his explanation, he went on to say, “You are in for one hell of a battle for the rest of the years you stay at Northwest. Fritz will never give up, and even if you do nothing wrong, he will still try to get you to blow up.
Fritz enjoys his emotional release without the other persons being able to fight back. He loves taunting you, goading you, and getting you to say something he could take out of context and use against you.”
Then Denny told me, “If he can’t get you to quit, he will eventually make your job so impossible that you will physically get sick. Getting you sick gets rid of you.”
“Denny,” I asked, “what do you recommend I do? How do I fix this?” I was sincere in my wish for a solution.
“You can leave. You can go back to a middle school or to our sister high school, and you will have given him what he wants. He will not quit until you are dead, or until you leave,” this was not the answer I wanted to hear from Denny.
“Why don’t we call for a vote of no confidence?” I suggested. A vote of no confidence is a way for a teaching staff to get rid of a principal they don’t like.
“We can’t,” Denny said. “He has a staff of fifty percent non-tenured teachers, and he will keep it that way. Non-tenured teachers don’t vote for no confidence, because if they lose the vote, they all get fired. Remember, non-tenured teachers can be fired without cause or any due process. They are employees ‘At will’.”
“You mean that we have a staff of young teachers in their third year or less.” I tried to get this point clear, “Teachers with no rights, or, ‘At will employees’ that can be fired for any reason without union protection or union rights. They are employed at the pleasure of the school district and serve at the will of the principal. If he decides they are not good teachers, or he just plain doesn’t like them, they are released.”
“You’ve got it.” Denny went on, “These teachers are so happy to be working that they do what they are told. Then, just as they are about to get tenure, he fires them.”
“He can do this?” True shock had taken over.
“Yes, he can,” Denny’s answer was prophetic.
“Why doesn’t the union step in, on the grounds of fairness?” I was serious.
“We can’t get a vote at the top of our union to confront this problem. We are a divided staff, and the teachers without tenure have been pitted against those of us who do have tenure. When the few that make it through the tenure window get rights, they are only there because of Dr. Fritz. They are the most loyal to him and become his eyes and ears, telling on other teachers and acting in Fritz’s best interest, if they know what’s good for them. This divides us even more.” Denny had thought about this before.
“Why does this happen; why do we let this happen?” I was really mad.
“It’s a matter of economics,” he said. “We have so many teachers in this country that the supply is unending. But administrators sell the concept to the public that there is a shortage of teachers. The colleges then lower their entrance requirements, gear up by opening new classes, and bingo, we have more and more teachers.”
This was Denny’s take on the situation, “With a never-ending supply of teachers, willing to work for almost nothing, being supplied by the diploma mills, we keep the system working in favor of the administrators. The system needs to get rid of older, tenured teachers. This keeps the cost of education down and keeps the meat grinder supplied with new, lower paid teachers.”
Denny was on a roll. The soapbox was under his feet.
“The next step in their plan will be to bring in adjunct faculty, or part time teachers, as have the State and Jr. College systems. Then, just like in the colleges, they can get rid of benefits, as well. This was done at the college level because there was a shortage of college staff, so part time, unqualified staff was needed to fill the shortage, according to the colleges and universities. I expect to see the same pattern in the high school system as soon as administrators figure out how to do it.”
I left a classroom that had been Denny’s workplace for twenty years. In the hall, I turned, looked back, and asked myself, Why am I teaching? What the hell do I need this for? Then, I remembered the failed child that lives inside my person. That child is with me everyday, an ever-present reminder that I have an obligation to try and help those who might also end up as failed children.
I thanked Denny for his help and left for my room. As I walked back to my classroom, it struck me that the tools I had at my disposal to deal with this “Creep” were tools that didn’t even register on Dr. Fritz’s radar. He would be looking for an emotional flash point; I could use that fact. He didn’t have the ability to think outside the walls of his own insecurities. I was experienced well beyond the limitations of this highly educated, conservative, and Machiavellian administrator. This Fritz seemed to be some kind of throwback to a time and place I didn’t recognize.
I, on the other hand, remembered the street fights that I had experienced as a young man while growing up in the construction industry. I knew how to use tools that fell outside the accepted methods of union redress.
As I walked the terrazzo floors of this brand new school, the sterility of the place struck me. I remembered that we had been given instructions to keep the halls free of student work. We were not to hang, tape, staple, or display any student work without Dr. Fritz’s permission. If we were given permission, then we were to get a memo on how student work was to be displayed. The location would have to be okayed by the king himself, Dr. Fritz.
The walls were a metaphor for the school’s culture. I was still stinging from the incident in his office, so the blank walls exemplified the lack of freedom I was feeling. They represented his lack of trust in the staff who were ultimately responsible for the welfare and education of the children.
I think that this was my moment of epiphany. I think that this was the moment of truth for me. I heard an inner voice; it was as if my mother was talking to me. She had been inspired by harsh events to teach her son how to use a negative incident as a catalyst. Whatever it was she set out to do, it wasn’t the outcome she expected. She had taught me to use anger and frustration to motivate me to a constructive end. The lesson also taught me to keep that process to myself. If no one knew what it was that I was doing, they couldn’t be critical, and they couldn’t hurt me.
I was sure that I was being inspired from someplace deep inside myself. I would like to believe that a higher level of caring could be achieved. What a lesson Mom had taught. She went to her grave believing that she had somehow failed in that horrible year that I flunked the forth grade. Had she lived longer, she might have been counsel to me in this moment of truth. When you think about it, maybe she was? Maybe that inner voice was hers. How else was I going to survive this impossible situation? I was on my own, and for the first time, I knew the solution would have to come from within. How to avoid the inevitable, final solution that Dr. Fritz had in mind was an enigma.
I knew that Dr. Fritz would never be watching for a teacher who was operating at a higher level than he had become accustomed to. In his haste to control, he wasn’t hiring teachers of integrity. It could be that a professional level of teaching could be injected into this situation.
Maybe Parker Palmer, the teacher’s “Guru” and author of “The Courage to Teach” was right, that real teachers have the courage to teach from the heart. This means that as an educator, the student’s needs, and the emotions that drive true learning, come first.
This is not rocket science; it is common sense. If you are to teach, then the learner has to feel part of the process. This must be genuine.
It was in this moment that I perceived that it was teaching from my heart that would win the admiration of those I reported to and cared about. I’ll tell you who my boss is; it is “The Children,” collectively. Yes, it seems goofy, but it’s true that after all is said and done, it is the children that I work for. This is the higher calling; this is why I get up in the morning, to answer to my heart.
The symbiotic relationship had been forged by hardship, but there it was. If I taught from the emotional expression of a humanist, then the reaction would be, more often than not, the reciprocal of that equation. Fritz was just an obstacle to get around. If I was real to children, then I neutralized Fritz and was true to my convictions. This worked for me.
As I walked into the classroom, I asked myself what it was that kids needed for them to become adults that were complete and would contribute to our society. Notice that I didn’t say, “What the kids wanted.” I have given them what they had wanted before, but it didn’t work.
Up to now, I had been teaching from a position of “Monkey see, monkey do.” I had found teachers who had managed to stay in the classroom for years, and I copied them. This was successful, and I had borrowed many a technique that worked from experienced teachers, but never had I mustered the courage to teach from the part of me that was capable of laughing and crying.
Why then, must I be in a crisis to reach for this tool? I know I will never get an answer to that question. All I know is, I did, and I believe that this was the moment that a “Sneak Teacher” was born.
I knew that it was in winning the respect of students who had never met a teacher willing to genuinely care that I would be able to avoid the treachery of a Dr. Fritz. Dr. Fritz had gotten me by default. I had not been screened by him, and I was not on his “A team,” but I could be on the kids’ “A team” if I could find a way to teach without getting caught.
Think about this for a second. Why would any parent put his son or daughter in the hands of strangers if it were not for the betterment of the child’s welfare? So, it was time that parents got what they paid for and children got what they needed, an education. This was opposed to the babysitting techniques that I had learned from the other teachers.
No more worksheets aimed at keeping large numbers of children busy. No more commercial films intended to entertain them for the ninety minutes that they were with me. No more lectures intended to numb them into semi-sleep, or better yet, sleep. No more military barking at them. I was going to open my mind to customize the learning to each child according to his or her level of knowledge. I was on a roll. I was feeling good about teaching again. I had to remind myself what it was I had come to this teaching profession to do. It was to teach, not baby-sit.
I moved into the classroom, and the first thing I decided was that we were going to hang the student’s work up. We were going to celebrate the achievements of children. We were going to celebrate good works, and we were all going to participate in the process of learning. Everyone’s work would get hung up.
I also decided that I didn’t care where that learning came from. It could come from the students or from me. It didn’t matter anymore who the teacher was. All that mattered was that learning was taking place. I walked to the video case where I keep the VHS tapes and took out a copy of Mr. Rogers that I had been using as a source for video clips. I could insert these clips into classroom materials. I had made these videos for the classroom with Mr. Rogers inserted in places that made them quite funny. I put the last one I had made in the machine, and then I took it out and went back to the shelf and got the original Mr. Rogers video that I had taken the clips from. I then turned the lights off and said, “Kids, tell me what this guy does to reach children.”
Remember, I’m a drafting teacher. I’m sure that the kids thought that I had lost my marbles. The kids thought I was nuts, because I was out of character for an industrial arts teacher. I didn’t care. I just went forward with the questions. Right on through the laughter and the wails of fake pain, I went forward with the discussion. Some of the kids went to sleep, some worked on their computers. But some listened, and some began to ask questions. It was a real dialogue about teaching and learning, and I was learning. It felt good. It was tough, but once again, the threat from a schoolman had brought out the best in me. Adversity was bringing change. I know it was a moment of truth that Dr. Fritz, or anyone for that matter, could not take away from me; it belonged to me.
I had decided that I was a “Real teacher.” I had also decided that a “Real teacher” was different from other teachers, not because he or she cared about students, but because the caring part would dominate. This again sounds as if it were common sense, but it is just not practiced that way in large classroom settings. It can’t be practiced that way by most teachers, because it demands a tolerance for chaos. The noise level can become very abrasive to most teachers.
The need for natural groups to form is mandatory for children of a high school level. These student gatherings, with all the group dynamics that make up a social group, are difficult to allow to emerge. The same problem exists in allowing adult groups to emerge; it’s noisy and chaotic.
These are all things that drive teachers nuts, because they are judged on how well disciplined the classroom is. It will appear to an outsider as if the teacher has no control, but it is exactly the opposite; the teacher has more control that any administrator could imagine. This control is based on respect, and it isn’t perfect, but then, neither is the military approach.
Even in classes of thirty-two and thirty-four students, where you are asked to baby-sit more than teach, you can find a way to make a difference for as many students as possible. This self-imposed challenge was there to be used as a tool. You might not get to all those who passed through your room, but you could help those who would be helped.
You could allow the students the chance to be working in groups of their choosing, with the operative word being “Working.” The group could be trusted to find its own direction, if the basic concept of the classroom was, “Don’t be here if you’re not going to accomplish some form of learning. I’m here to act as a coach, guide, and resource, but you must put forth the effort.” It’s not perfect, and it’s hard to measure, but it reflects the needs and interests of the students, and not the needs and interests of the teachers, administrators, or any others in the process.
The students who ask questions will get a teacher who pulls a chair up next to them and gives them personalized instruction. The instruction may only be for a moment, but it’s delivered with all prejudice put aside.
I listened intently as opposed to talking. I waited for the teachable moment, and then I struck with the answer that captured the imagination. Tests were eliminated, and evaluation was centered on project outcomes and final product quality.
Smiling is a big tool. Calling students by their first names, or, better yet, finding “Pet” names that are humorous to both the student and the teacher really works. Working hard to know the students names is really difficult, since I was seeing ninety to one hundred students every day.
I worked hard at this. Pet names are a way to cement an image and a student to an identity that helped students to be recognized. Continually misprinting words and allowing students to be the teacher and correct me worked wonders to humanize me. Being self-denigrating, and not being afraid to tell a joke at your own expense is a great way to be human. Anything that conveys caring, genuine caring, will aid the process.
Teaching outside your area helps, as well. If students know they can ask any question about anything, then you’re the teacher that becomes the resource, the guide. I taught about Judge Roy Bean, a Wild West judge that was uneducated and arbitrary, or I taught them about “Noodling,” a way of fishing for catfish with you hands; it didn’t matter. Whatever it was that they want to learn in my computer aided, drafting class, it would be taught. We were free to discuss anything. I also made it safe to discuss anything.
I even closed class down for a day to discuss a racial incident. I told the class, “It doesn’t matter what subject we need to cover when a black kid is under attack. We need to deal with the immaturity of the students that caused the racial problem. We needed to allow the emotional outflow to pass. We teachers need to lead that discussion to a place were the understanding of the other guy takes place.” It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t pretty, but it worked. We did that in my classroom, and I’m damned proud of it.
Most teachers at Northwest couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take the time to deal with this form of teaching. The difficulty was that “This is not my job” was a common statement among teachers. “I teach English,” or “I teach biology, and it’s not my job. I don’t have to deal with problems that are difficult.”
In fact, in our school, if Dr. Fritz had caught me talking about racial problems, he would have written me up and reprimanded me for interference with the counselor’s responsibilities. Well, I made it my responsibility, and honest discussions were held in my room. I was a “Sneak Teacher” and damned proud of that, too.
There’s no question about it; if I had gotten caught, I would have at least been reprimanded, or at the worst, fired. I always said to my class, “You didn’t hear this from me.” I went where students needed to be in the lessons, not where the teacher needed to be. I got really good at avoiding the reprimand. I was able to teach what needed teaching, and guess what? The level of sophistication in the drawings of the students, the subject I was responsible for, went right through the ceiling. We were cooking, we were working harder than I had ever seen students work, yet the students would say to each other, “Take P’s class; he’s easy.”
Learning is not hard; teaching is hard. Learning is fun and it doesn’t hurt. Teaching hurts, but not because it demands long hours and deep research, but because it demands that the teacher grows and learns along with the students, and it demands that the teacher digs deep into the emotional abyss and finds the courage to teach from the heart and then the head. It demands that you face your own demons and learn to conquer them. It’s not easy to keep growing at fifty, but it can be done.
A routine of learning will emerge, and the kids will seek the consistency that this routine brings, but it changes each quarter with each new group of kids. What worked with one group might not work with another. This style of teaching demands that you be willing to change, and that you make change a constant in the tool chest that you’ve developed.
I was absolutely amazed at what the students would do for me. The drawings and knowledge of mechanical and architectural engineering and the computer program were on the level I had only seen in industry.
In the six years that I taught from the heart, I had the privilege of seeing one student go to work in an electrical contracting house as a draftsman, right out of the high school classroom. I also had a young man go to work for a fire safety design group. This student was so good at computer-aided drafting that they took him under their wing and educated him as an engineer at the University of Minnesota, free of charge to the student.
I was cooking. The summers flew by and the falls were great. It gave me the chance to meet new talent. To me, these weren’t just kids anymore, and they weren’t just my charges anymore; they were talent waiting to be discovered.
To encourage students, all you had to do was listen to them. They would tell you what it was they were good at. I talked less and less in class and listened more and more. If I caught a student displaying a talent, any talent, I was on to you, and you didn’t stand a chance. You were hounded and encouraged until you developed that talent. I didn’t care what talent it was, either. It could be anything you wanted, like a skill you wanted to improve or something you wanted to learn. Worse yet, your classmates would join in and the group would not allow you to sabotage yourself. Group sanity demands the best you have to give.
The kids were the ones who understood, intuitively, that they had a good thing going. They would say to their friends and to their younger brothers and sisters, “Take P’s class; it doesn’t matter if you like drawing or not. He’s great; it’s my favorite class.”
Students talked among themselves, and what they said to each other was this, “Don’t ever talk to administrators about what happens in P’s class. All you have to say when administrators ask is that P’s your favorite teacher and he’s great, and then, just shut up. If they ask why, just say you don’t know.”
Students had figured out that it was not in their best interest to share with administrators the dayto-day workings of the class. I didn’t teach this; I didn’t encourage this; I didn’t even discourage this. I was always benign, at best, when this was the subject of discussion.
Kids are not blind or stupid. They figured it out, and the smart ones made up the strategy that would protect their interests. It also became the norm after a while. I don’t mean to tell you that everything was perfect, because it wasn’t, but it was good.
It was easy to give good marks, as I was customizing the curriculum for students according to their talents. This was a lot of work for me, and it was work I couldn’t get caught at.
Let me tell you, though, when a parent gets a teacher that their kid talks about, it is unusual. When their kid also gets a good grade on top of all that, it gives a sense of pride and of forward progress that nothing else in the world can compare to. To have kids liking school is not that unusual, but to have kids raving about a class gives the teacher leverage.
I knew it couldn’t last, not with Dr. Fritz at the helm, but I was determined to go as far as I could, and for as long as I could. I knew that I would be failed just like that kid who stood on the steps of Lincoln Elementary School so many years ago. Those who stood to gain the most from what I was doing wouldn’t even take the time to hear me out. Dr. Fritz and his coconspirators would simply fire me. For that matter, they wouldn’t even try to understand what it was that I was doing. The things that I did in the classroom were outside their level of understanding. It still is to this day. Well, all of this was all right. I would, however, have to remind myself that at the very least, I’d had my moment in the sun. The worst part of teaching this way and the best part of teaching this way is that it is not widely known to the general public that this level of accomplishment is possible. It is hidden from the spotlight, but, so what?
ZJ came to us from our sister school. ZJ had gained a reputation for “Rippin’ off” other drug users and had burned a lot of bridges at the other school.He was a user himself, but his parents didn’t, or wouldn’t, believe in his addiction.
His favorite trick was to set up a drug deal in school and collect in advance for the drugs. You can guess the rest; he never shows up to deliver the drugs.
That is how he got his handle, ZJ, short for “Zero Junk.” He had not resisted when the name was given to him by his fellow junkies in school. Like any label that was associated with drugs, he wore it like a brand name on a soup can. The plan was to use every marketing technique his pusher and handler had developed through years of experience with high school junkies to keep ZJ hooked and productive as a drug “Rep.” At the age of fifteen, selling drugs was his profession.
Just like any large pharmaceutical enterprise, the management was very active in keeping the drug reps productive. The difference was that in this game, the reps were young junkies hooked on the products they were selling. This made both the supplier and the salesman far more demanding of each other. The handlers had the upper hand and they knew it, since they had the medicine that the junkie needed to stay well. This is how it was with ZJ when he arrived from our sister school.
ZJ’s mom was in total denial of the fact that her son was immersed in the drug trade. She was sure that whatever her son was into, it was just a youthful indiscretion. She loved the boy, maybe a bit too much.
Her older son had been the same way, and outside of a few small problems with the law, she rationalized that ZJ was fine, just as his older brother had been.
According to ZJ’s mom, the school had labeled ZJ as “Learning Disabled” and this had led to all his problems. She blamed the fights and acting out in class on the labeling that went along with a special education designation. She would also argue that bullying must have been taking place. Because of these and other reasons, ZJ’s mom had requested a transfer to Northwest. ZJ was all for this as he had exhausted the market at the other school and needed new “Suckers” to run his scam.
The other school had become a dangerous place for ZJ and his sidekick, Low Down. The kids all knew his game, and several older users had threatened his life. This was no small threat to ZJ. He knew that there were users that would really hurt him if they got the opportunity. He had ripped off as many users as he could without getting killed. He knew that he would have to get Low Down to go with him to Northwest, because LD, as he was known, would watch his back. LD was the half of the team with the brains, and ZJ knew it. The administration at our sister school went along with both transfers, since it solved two of their biggest problems. Now, they didn’t have to worry about these two getting killed on campus. This had been a real threat to the administration, and they’d treated it as a real possibility.
ZJ was a drug user, and he was pushing dope to feed his habit. It was a fact that we, as teachers, all knew he was a pusher; the staff lunch hour was often a speculation session as to his use and selling methods. We were sure as to ZJ’s mission and methods, yet ZJ’s Mom was so conned by ZJ that she had pushed and advocated ZJ’s agenda to be moved to Northwest High.
By the time ZJ first appeared in my classroom, I had already acted on my epiphany. I had all but thrown the established drafting lesson plans out the window, and we had started talking about design and the relationship of design to social needs.
I was also listening closely to how high school students related to each other. I was gaining a reputation for being a teacher who, regardless of your interests, was someone who’s class you would want to take because it was fun and interesting.
Well, I also attracted the losers, and I didn’t discourage them from coming to my class because I believed that I could help all of them. ZJ and his buddy, Low Down, known as LD, showed up for my class just as fall turned into winter.
ZJ and LD’s reputations arrived in my room long before they did. The good kids with a real desire to be part of whatever it was that took place in my room had warned me about those two. But I had no idea of the trouble they would bring to my life. Isn’t it strange that the kids have a better understanding of the facts in a school than the adults who are charged with their well-being?
From a students’ point of view, the story went like this; ZJ would make a drug deal in school and then set up an off-campus delivery spot. ZJ would never “Carry” on campus, because the drug dogs that visited unannounced would someday reveal the drugs. He was also aware that possession of drugs in school would get him expelled. This was a fate worse than death since school was the market place for his trade. If you were stupid enough to pay him in school, you would get a bogus pickup point and he would keep your money. It didn’t take long for the word to spread throughout the student population that this was the way things would be.
ZJ, himself, had taken pride in the name that had been given to him. He was proud of his ability to con and to charm. The name was a symbol of his status in the drug community.
His partner, LD, had imitated ZJ in every way and worshiped him as he had all his life, what little life he’d experienced by age fifteen. He would do whatever ZJ asked, because they were tight. LD imitated him in every way, in his dress, music, speech, gestures, and even the gait that ZJ walked was copied by LD. Even his name, Low Down, came from ZJ. ZJ had given it to him back in middle school, when LD would use his powers of persuasion to get the low-down, slang for information.
It would only be fair to tell you that neither one of these two came from the ghetto. Quite the contrary, they both came from wanna-be “Yuppie” families that drove SUVs and lived in big houses. This wasn’t about uncaring parents or a lack of social status.
It wasn’t about children with weight problems or physical features that didn’t measure up. It was about having fun. Both boys were very attractive physically, well-fed, and came from stable, middle-class homes. There were certainly times when their families had struggled, but for the most part, these were solidly middle-class kids. Don’t kid yourself; they didn’t deal because they needed the money. Instead, both these boys loved the drugs, the status, the fun, and especially the Sex.
The parties were legendary at our sister school. Every time I had heard about such parties, I thought they had been exaggerated to enhance the dramatic effect. The stories were part of the sell that ZJ and LD had spread to market drugs. In fact, the boys’ handlers scripted the stories for them. They we quite effective at creating gossip. It was the best “Come On” that the dealers had, especially the sex tales; they were always a big hit with the other boys. High school age boys love to hear girls-gone-wild stories, even if they aren’t true.
The dealers had created a myth which put drugs and drug users into the cool group. You were really cool if you used drugs and lived the life of a pusher.
I had no way of proving it, but I’m sure that there were gang influences in the mix, with ZJ and LD being the street salesmen for some really bad characters. It seemed to me that their dealing methods were much too sophisticated to have been conceived of by two junkies looking for a good time. The two were a real hit sensation in the halls of Northwest High.
My first few days in class with ZJ and LD were uneventful, since they both slept in class. On most days, they were both high from the night before. This is not uncommon behavior for high school junkies. I had seen it many times before. In fact, it is very easy to ignore these guys, because as a teacher with thirtytwo kids in the room, you’re so happy that these guys aren’t raising hell that you just let them go ahead and sleep. When they are not hung over, most high school junkies are a handful. When they are sober, most high school junkies are so hyperactive that they can’t sit still. To get them to concentrate for more than ten seconds is a real feat.
One day during the second week of class, as LD and ZJ became conscious, they didn’t quite know how to take me. As all high school ninth graders would think, the easy way to find out what a teacher will do is to test the teacher’s emotional limits.
The first test that these two came up with was to see how far they could go before they became a problem? At first, they just talked in class. I really didn’t care, since I had already gone through the tough, first week of instruction where I taught the basic moves of the software program.
The basics were well under way, and I was only instructing for about ten minutes a day, now. Just one new skill a day, just enough to build an inventory of skills in the computer program, one move at a time. One drawing concept married to a computer move. The drawing concept was hidden under the computer move so that learning seemed easy to students.
If I taught how to modify a line, then line weight was a given as the drawing concept. The two could not be separated from each other as I taught the line modification. This teaching method is one way that a teacher who has thought through the process of learning can use guile to get kids to learn difficult concepts and processes. The students, without really thinking that they were taught anything, have learned a simple computer move and an intellectual concept. The two ideas are married to each other in such away that they are invisible to the student.
The unintended consequence of this way of teaching is that students will tell other kids about the class being so easy, and that anyone could do it.
What they don’t understand is that it didn’t happen by accident. The process was well thought through and delivered in a way that appealed to all learning styles. In addition, it was active, hands-on learning, where the head and the hands were engaged in such away as to access more than one area of the brain. Let me point out a slogan from the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, “Hands on, Hearts on, Heads on.”
It is a way of learning that takes the teacher out of the equation, once the concept is taught, and allows the student to seamlessly gain confidence and knowledge at the same time. It is a lot of work, but if it is done properly, the payoff is exceptional.
To ZJ and LD, the set-up to this learning style had been lost in a drug-induced sleep during their first week of school. Of course, they were behind even before we got started.
This is so typical of students that are driven by their addictive diseases. They end up missing the instructions that are the pivotal points of the rest of the learning. They miss all that is taking place around them. They are lost in a sequence of events that they couldn’t understand if they tried, since they have missed the basics that are necessary to building skills. The pattern keeps repeating itself, until they are so far behind their peers that they give up and act out their frustrations in the classroom.
ZJ and LD hadn’t even been there for the, “How to start the drawing” lesson, so the two were totally lost, and frankly, they didn’t seem to care. Their agenda was clear to them. It had nothing to do with learning or how to draw. It was, however, going to be an education for me.
They learned that their talking didn’t bother me, especially if they keep it to themselves. They started asking each other how to escalate the testing. What was next?
It didn’t take long. The next test was subtle and took a couple of days to set up. They were experts at it. Each of them knew the other’s moves before he made them. It was a scripted dialogue with ZJ in control at all times.
Every chance they got, they would kid around about “420.” If I were within earshot or directly involved in the conversation, they would make a reference to 420. The conversation was aimed at getting some kind of response from me.
Hitler’s birthday was on April 20, or, 4/20. This had meaning to a specific group, the Goths in our school, who were known for their marijuana use.
The Goths were kids that used black finger nail polish and liked to wear dark clothing. These kid’s values were on display as they wore their rebellion on their backs. ZJ wanted to know these people for obvious reasons; they were potential customers.
The other group that would respond to the 4/20 jokes were the junkies and casual drug users, since the time, 4:20 P.M., was when the kids were home alone, waiting for parents to return from work. It was party time.
4/20 was also the day that Columbine High School met with tragedy in what ZJ and LD described as the coolest act of rebellion known to man and history.
What was also being tested was my reaction to the joking. If I ignored it, as I did, then I could be a drug user or sympathetic to the user. I was neither, but the possibility existed, according to ZJ’s handlers. It might be that I just didn’t care, just like a lot of teachers who have learned to pick their battles. I had learned to pick my battles, and this was one I couldn’t get support for in the front office. What the two boys didn’t know yet, but would find out, was that there was no support for me in the front office, at all.
As their plot became clear, I made a statement to the class that I was a “Tea Totaler” and hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol in twenty-eight years.
ZJ immediately chimed in, “Yeah, dude, but you get real mellow on ‘The Weed’.”
I replied that I didn’t use any drugs.
The retort was instantaneous from ZJ, “Right, you were a Hippy, right? You’re old enough to be a Hippy. My dad was a Hippy and he smoked every day. You must have been a Hippy or you were in ‘Nam. Either way, you smoked; all you guys did back in those days, and most of you still do.”
Dead silence filled the room, as all attention was now focused on my response. I remember thinking, How do I establish creditability now? I had tried “The Weed” once. I had hated it and had never tried it again. If I was to be honest with them it might be viewed as a line of crap made up by me to please the administration, or it might just be viewed as disingenuous.
Finally, I got my bearings and I decided to just tell the truth. It’s funny, but with kids, the truth always works. It is recognized as the truth by kids, and you become a trusted leader when you speak honestly about life’s experiences.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I said, “Ya know, I did try grass once. I didn’t like what it did to me; it made me sleepy and disoriented. I hated the feeling of disorientation, so I’ve never tried it again.” I was baring my soul, hoping that it would not encouraged anyone to experiment.
There it was, out on the table, just exactly as it had happened. What now?
LD came back with, “Right, and next you will be telling us you didn’t inhale, and that you didn’t have sex with that woman.”
Once again, ZJ had control of the audience, and he and LD knew it. They were both convinced that I was an old Hippy with a lifetime “Weed” habit. They were convinced that I had just been playing the schoolteacher part. They thrived on hypocrisy. If they could brand me as a Hippy, then they had accomplished a good day’s work. They knew that I was popular with the same students that they considered their clients, and they were well on their way to being able to take what was said in the classroom out of context. The ability to paint me as a user was important, and they had a good start. According to the ZJ and LD marketing plan, all “Cool teachers” were drug users.
Once again, the rules of manipulation were working against my goals. I felt the same hopeless feeling that had haunted me throughout the opening round with the two young junkies. Please believe me, I still thought that I could win them over and improve their lives, even if just a little. My grandest hope was that they would turn to me for help if they hit bottom.
A Tale of Two Students
The next step for ZJ and LD was to try and establish leadership of the classroom. The best way to accomplish that was to disrupt the flow of work in such a way as to not get thrown out of class, yet still disrupt it enough to take over. This was a strategy that had been discussed and scripted by “Big Guy,” ZJ and LD’s handler. After the two of them had reported back on all their classes, a plan was laid out for every class with the objective of maximizing drug sales. My class got a special look because I had attracted an audience of kids that fit the “User” profile.
My room was full of potential users. This class was loaded with mainstreamed, Special Ed. kids. I was going to get extra attention from the dealers, as my classroom was a great niche market within the larger marketplace.
Special Ed. children are high-risk candidates for drug use. The more frustrated that they become with a system not designed for their learning styles, the more they begin to believe they are second-class citizens.
Just think about it for a second, we label them as Learning Disabled (LD), Emotionally Behaviorally Disturbed (EBD), and Title One Reading Deficient. We talk about them behind closed doors, seal their school records, and have special conferences with their parents.
What more could we do to isolate this population and label them. Guess what they turn to? Drugs and alcohol are a way of escaping the pain and disgrace of being different. Special Ed. kids are statistically overrepresented in the larger category of the addicted.
Big Guy knew this; Drugs Inc. knew it, too. LD and ZJ were taught this by Big Guy who knew it from his training as a drug counselor.
ZJ and LD’s objective was to marginalize my position as leader, or if I would allow it, to simply take over.
Sometimes, older teachers who are waiting for their retirement day to come will simply stand back and allow the students to run the class. As long as it doesn’t go to the front office, this was the easy way out. I was an older teacher, so this angle had to be tested.
The two boys came into the room wide-awake and ready for business. This should have been a clue; they were not high today as they had been every day up to that point. In hindsight, it was just that I didn’t get it. I was thinking like a teacher at this point. I was thinking that this was just what two ninth graders do when they are doing what ninth graders do. I thought they tested the teachers for a weakness and then exploited it for their own purposes. What I didn’t understand was that I was up against an effort organized by adults that had been honed by trial and error many times before. Who said Darwin was dead?
The attack began as soon as I tried to take attendance. The names of students were mimicked, then ZJ and LD were saying “Here” right at the moment when the students would respond to their names. They echoed students that called out “Here” by saying “Here” at the same time as the student did, making it impossible for me to hear or take attendance.
This was most disheartening, yet not enough for me to send them out of the room. The two were very careful to avoid being caught, by accusing other students and then laughing when I was wrong.
I called for quiet in the room but it didn’t work. The two continued to bully me into allowing them to do what they wanted. They thought that I would just give up and allow them the leadership position. Well, I didn’t. I went over, stood next to them, and asked them to leave the room.
“Just stand in the hall until I tell you otherwise,” I said, as I directed them to the hall.
It took a repeated effort, but as they sensed that I was about to call the office for help, they finally condescended to my request and retreated to the hallway.
After a while, I finally let them back into the class, but I knew from that point on I was in for a rough time with these two. If I had only known how rough, I would have been even more assertive.
The next day the same thing happened at role call, yet there was something different. The two stopped short of getting invited to the hall. I sensed a new resolve in these two. The other thing that I had not counted on was the teamwork and the sophistication of the two. Their timing had become improved, and I was certain that they had been practicing the routine.
I remember thinking to myself, What the hell is going on here?
Understand, also, that I knew I was not going to get a lot of help from the office. So I developed a discipline philosophy that was mine, and not dependent on the office. The office was only a last resort, not a part of my day-to-day working routine. I also knew that Dr. Fritz would use any effort at discipline that involved the administration as a weapon. He would turn the situation around and twist it to make my life miserable.
As a teacher in this school system, I knew that the office was not a place to look for help or support. Any trip to the office by a student was an opportunity for the administration to grill the students on what I had done wrong in the situation. It gave the administration ammunition with which to degrade me. All the teachers in this school district have learned that if you are an older teacher, you will be open to attack by the administration if you send a student to the office. The object here is to make your life so miserable that you never send anyone to the office, unless it’s a life or death situation.
I was already in trouble with the administration, so I was bound and determined to keep this problem in my classroom.
The office didn’t care about “Drugies” in the classroom anyway, as long as they didn’t have to deal with them. Some of them were even of some value to the administration as snitches and spies. Using children as a management tool is a perfectly acceptable way to achieve teacher compliance. It doesn’t matter that it is unethical or immoral. It works, and that’s all that matters.
ZJ and LD used this tactic for several days with the outcome not changing a bit. The mimicking would start, and I would send them to the hall. As insane as this might seem, the limits were tested every day in the same way. The same behavior, day after day, and each time the two of them were expecting a different outcome, yet were getting no change.
I was damned consistent in my behavior modification attempts. I wanted a change in behavior, so the same thing happened every day, without fail. Maybe we were all expecting a change. I don’t know why I would expect things to change. I was doing things, without alteration, that had worked in other situations.
I was not adapting to the new tactics the two were using. It finally occurred to me that I was going to have to come at this thing from another angle. Besides, the rest of the hour had started to become a test of wills with these two. They were expanding their efforts to test me for the whole hour. Their behavior became nagging and not particularly inventive.
Finally, they started to escalate their disruptive behavior, almost as if it had become personal for them. They were developing a real hatred for me, and I did nothing to conceal my dislike for their behavior. I had not personalized it yet, and I swore to myself that I would not let it come to that.
What made this worse was the fact that this class wasn’t the best class I’d ever had. It was loaded with Special Ed. students that had been mainstreamed. I had made my room a welcoming place for Special Ed. students, which meant that I was willing to put up with a lot of acting out and disruptive behavior. This was different. The Special Ed. kids had a pair of peer leaders, LD and ZJ, who were working hard for their hearts and minds. I was still a teacher with all the baggage that goes along with being a teacher. I wasn’t a peer, as LD and ZJ were. I was losing the battle.
Their disruption made it hard on the Special Ed. kids, because I had to be very structured in the room to deal with ZJ and LD. Structure was something that made Special Ed. kids go nuts. What made it harder yet was that Special Ed. kids are the first to get on board with a disruptive student, since they are very needy and impulsive to begin with.
Special Ed. students have been tortured by endless hours of seat time by the time they reach high school. Death by lecture is how they describe it. These students tend to be hands-on learners without a lick of patience for an academic lecture. They want to be on their feet; they want to be doing, not sitting. This is gender neutral, because both girls and boys in this learning style are active, hands-on learners.
By this time in high school, they have also begun to develop compensating skills to cope with the sit and learn style that most of them have been subjected to for all the years they have been going to school. The compensating skills have little to do with the written word or the lecture format of learning. They have found other ways of learning that teachers don’t recognize as legitimate.
What made these Special Ed. children even more interesting to ZJ and LD, was the fact that no matter how well I had designed my course to meet their needs, by this stage in their school careers, these Special Ed. children had been so damaged by misunderstanding and a factory-school model, that their instinct, anger, and impulsive behavior would come to the surface under pressure, every time.
They were easy prey for ZJ and LD. They were also “Crowd” building blocks for attaining critical mass in a classroom to achieve their ends. Once LD and ZJ could show the rest of the students that they had a following, they could use group psychology to get the class to see things their way.
As the intensity in my room built and the disruptive behavior grew, I could feel the leadership of the classroom passing to a sixteen-year-old junkie and his lieutenant. I was now beginning to panic, and I’m sure this is exactly what ZJ wanted.
I could not give into it or my days as a teacher were numbered. I may be in a classroom but little, if any, teaching would take place. I didn’t come this far to be outdone by a kid, or what I thought was a kid. ZJ and LD were gaining control and I was frightened.
I needed ZJ to make a mistake of some kind. I needed to end the power contest long enough to reestablish the control of the classroom and reshuffle the order of authority. If I could get ZJ to screw-up enough to get him kicked out for a couple of days, I had a chance to win the hearts of this group of kids back. I had to reestablish myself as the role model.
In an intuitive moment, it came to me. A conversation that one of the kids had with me a day or two before had revealed the fact that ZJ’s older brother had been charged in a drug deal gone bad. It was just a snippet of information, but I hoped it would be enough to get him to overreact. I needed an outburst that would send him away for a day or two.
The information that I had received was not complete, or for that matter, it may not even have been truthful, but still, there was a chance I could use it.
In a flash, I made eye contact with ZJ. It was the first time on that day I had looked into his eyes. He was higher than a kite. Oh, my God, I thought, his pupils are as big as saucepans, and his hands are shaking. There was no question about it; he was high.
I thought that maybe I could turn him over to the office for being high; my mind was going a million miles an hour, now. No, no, that one won’t work; the office doesn’t give a damn if he’s high. I had not seen him take drugs, and I was sure he was not packing drugs on him. Those were the only two conditions that would get him into trouble. I didn’t have the evidence, but... could I lie? I didn’t want to use the information I had been given earlier in the day, but it was starting to look like the only tool in the box, even though it meant confrontation. Seconds passed, and my mind was made up.
In the second that it took to make eye contact, a PhD’s worth of mental activity had taken place. It’s amazing how you have to make split-second decisions in the classroom and then live with the consequences. Now I was going to have to operate on my wits. In a few seconds, I would not be able to take it back. If I act, then I must be willing to live with the consequences. In a nanosecond, I weighed the benefits without much thought for the consequences, and then I decided.
I said it right into ZJ’s face, “How’s Zeke?”
ZJ now narrowed his eyes and his face went tight. I had him. His body gave him away, and the gamble had worked. Now, all I had to do was work it. As cool a character as ZJ thought he was, he was still a kid, and worse yet, he was high and not in total control of his emotions or thoughts.
“What the hell do you know about Zeke?” ZJ’s question was telling.
“I know the police are looking for him,” this was a gamble on my part; I really didn’t know if the police were looking for him.
“Fuck You!” ZJ flipped me the bird as he said it.
I had him, swearing in class got you a day of suspension. In fact, in front of thirty-two students, it wouldn’t be tolerated by the administration. They had no choice but to act. Ironic, isn’t it, that being high in class is okay, but just say, “Fuck,” and out you go.
Later, I learned that the drug deal his brother had been involved in was a drug deal gone bad. His brother, having delivered the drugs, had not been paid so he ran over the buyer. Nice role model for his younger brother, eh.
I walked to the phone, called for a hall monitor, and asked for assistance getting ZJ to the office.
ZJ was no longer at his seat; he was walking toward me in a very deliberate manner. What the hell is this? I wondered, Is he going to hit me? His fists were clenched in anger. He looked into my eyes and I could see the anger, years and years of anger all gathered into a fifteen year old package. How do we produce a kid this angry in just fifteen years?
LD was now on his feet and racing towards ZJ. Just as ZJ came at me and was winding up, LD grabbed his arm at the apogee of his swing and pulled ZJ off balance. The two stumbled backwards and the blow was never forwarded.
“Think, ZJ; if you hit a teacher you’re going down for the count!” LD was shouting.
The two swung around to face each other. “I don’t give a fuck!” ZJ stated with total abandon.
“Come on, ZJ, think,” LD was ordering him now.
Those thirty seconds seemed like an eternity, and it seemed like it took forever to get ZJ under control, but LD did a good job. It was obvious that it wasn’t the first time he had done it. Under other circumstances, it would have been a heroic deed, but given what had just happened, I doubted I would be thanking him.
The room was a mess. Desks had been scattered everywhere, since ZJ had put on a pretty good show by throwing desks every which way when he had approached me. The kids were scared, I was not happy, and I was a bit afraid that the office would turn this one around and used it against me.
In walked our hall monitor, a small woman of sixty with thinning blonde hair and a slight frame, and she was not about to be trifled with. Grace asked me, “What do you want me to do?”
“Just take ZJ down to the office,” I was demanding at this point.
“What happened here?” Grace was looking around the disheveled room.
“Grace, just take him out of here, but be careful because he’s high,” I was warning her.
“He tried to hit you?” Grace inquired?
“Ask the class; they saw it better than I did?” I looked for some support in the room.
“What happened here?” Grace asked, as she looked to the class.
I gave them a reassuring look and said, “Go ahead and tell her.”
One of my more loyal students, a young hockey player named Hank, said, “He tried to hit the teacher.”
I couldn’t have asked for a better response if I had planned it. ZJ, needing to keep his reputation intact, looked Hank in the eye and yelled, “Fuck you!” The tone was threatening. It was intended to keep a fellow student intimidated. Hank wasn’t buying the threat and ZJ knew it. I thought I saw a flash of surprise on ZJ’s face.
Grace had been present for the second “Fuck you!” I was off the hook, as she wouldn’t tolerate the swearing. She had support in the office as the hall monitor. Administration had no choice. With Grace, they had to support her efforts or lose control. I really hoped that I had effectively transferred the disciplinary function to her and off my back.
Off went ZJ and LD to the office, but on her way out of the door, Grace looked at me with a weird look and left with both of them.
I was hoping that LD would get painted with the same brush as ZJ. Even if I hadn’t gotten rid of them both, I had gotten rid of ZJ for a couple of days. This would help.
The Set Up
ZJ and LD ended up at the office of Nancy, our Vice Principal, after being escorted out of my room by Grace, the hall monitor. The number of times these two boys had made this walk to the office is uncountable. It always occurs to me that the techniques we use to discipline young junkies are always the same and always ineffective. We do, however, perpetuate this dog and pony show.
Nancy was an ambitious Vice-Principal. She had been in Dr. Fritz’s dominion for about six years now. She would do exactly what Dr. Fritz told her to do, always. The slender, dark-haired athletic woman had graduated from this very same high school. Impeccably dressed in the suit of a businesswoman, this woman was all business. She knew that the shortest distance between her job and a principal’s title was through Dr. Fritz’s influence. No question about it, she was ambitious, and had a clear vision as to how she was going to get what she wanted.
ZJ and LD were told to take a seat in Nancy’s office, but not before she had talked to Grace. She got the gist of what had happened but still needed details. She leaned back in her chair, took a deep breath, and stared at ZJ. She didn’t say a word, just stared. ZJ was higher than a kite. Could she sense this?
Finally, she asked, “Well, what happened ZJ?” Nancy was almost pleading and playful at the same time. She was good at this.
ZJ was high, and he knew that he would be in trouble with Big Guy if he blew it in Nancy’s office. LD was there to help him out as he had helped in the classroom, but he’d better block out the zoo going on in his head. The drugs were really kicking in. The drugs were taking him places that had nothing to do with the business at hand. LD was thinking this was routine, so the drug high was a nice distraction.
Nancy was looking for something besides the truth to come out of this conversation. ZJ didn’t know that yet. Nancy was worried that as high as he was, he might not understand what she was about to tell him, that she needed his cooperation. She knew it was a great opportunity to please Fritz. All situations were an opportunity to please the boss, but this was especially sweet, as it was Fritz’s wish to target ‘P’ for dismissal. He had made that perfectly clear to Nancy and his other cohorts. If you wanted to advance here, or anywhere else in the district, you helped Dr. Fritz get what he wanted.
Nancy knew very well that she could send ZJ back to their sister school where it was reported his life may be in jeopardy. She held a lot of power over ZJ’s destiny. Now, high as he was, she was going to make a deal with him. She just knew she could get what she wanted.“Shut the door, LD,” Nancy commanded.
LD, not in quite as much trouble as ZJ, smirked and said, “Shut it yourself.” LD was testing how much would she take and how much trouble they were in.
Testing her was not the right thing to do at the moment. Nancy wasn’t about to take any lip at this point. She stood up from her desk, looked LD right in the eye, and snarled, “Look, you little junkie, I can have a piss test done in seconds if you sass me again, and that will get you suspended.”
This was something that Big Guy wasn’t going to like, and that meant the end of cheap drugs and cheaper sex for LD. What Nancy didn’t know was, it really didn’t matter what she said or did. Big Guy was the boss and all that was happening here was compliance. LD knew he had to go along and get along with her to avoid trouble with Big Guy. Nancy didn’t care why she was getting compliance; she was getting it, and that was all that mattered.
Nancy sat down as soon as LD closed the door, and the bargaining began.
“You guys want to tell me what happened up in P’s room?”
ZJ then recounted the tale, but he failed to mention the part about making threats to the teacher’s person. He wanted her to believe that I was at fault, and that any rational human being would have reacted in the same way. Nancy knew these two from other, past encounters. She knew that they were leaving important details out, and normally, she might even have pushed them on it, but not this time.
The two were as high as they could be, yet they seemed to sense a change in the air. Both of these boys were old hands at this office routine, and something was different this time.
Nancy looked at them and instructed them to go wait in the hall; she’d call them back in a few minutes. The two of them walked out of the office and took chairs along the wall where the bad children usually sat while the Vice-Principal called their homes. They looked at each other, and LD said, “I think she’s calling home?” How wrong he was.
ZJ looked at him with an expression of questioning on his face, shrugged his shoulders, and then replied, “Who cares?”
A few minutes passed, then LD looked at ZJ and gave him a shove on the arm, “Hey, look man, this could be alright. We get detention; we score some sales; Big Guy is happy, and we get laid for free, right?”
ZJ was not really listening, and he replied, “Yeah, you could be right.”
Nancy came over to the two, looked at her office door, and tilted her head in a ‘Get in there’ gesture. The two boys got up and trudged into Nancy’s office only to be met by Dr. Fritz. ZJ looked at Fritz without respect for him or for the position he held and blurted out, “What?”
Fritz was not amused, nor was he in the mood to play word games, so this was going to be a bit tricky. He needed the two boys to do some serious lying for him.
He looked at LD and informed him, “You’re going to Saturday School. Now get out of here.”
The two boys both stood up, but Fritz looked ZJ right in the eye and clarified, “Not you; you stay, and LD, you can close the door on your way out. Nancy, write up the Saturday detention for LD and get him back to class.”
Once LD was gone, Fritz started in on ZJ, “I know it’s not your real name, but for right now, I’ll call you ZJ. Are you high right now, ZJ?” Fritz demanded. Without waiting for an answer, he started in again, “If you don’t tell me the truth, I will have an officer take you to the hospital and have a blood test done. Now, are you high?”
“What happens if I am?” ZJ offered.
“Well, now we’re getting to a point of agreement, aren’t we?” Fritz thought that he was pretty smart. “Yeah, well, I guess. What do you want?” ZJ was guessing that something was up.
“I want you to come back to school sober, and when you get here, I want you in my office —— straight. Got It?” Fritz was all but yelling.
Socrates, the philosopher, was known to have said, “Justice was reward to your friends and the delivery of war upon your enemies.” ZJ had just become a pawn in an ancient game where justice was going to fit his circumstances. He just didn’t know how poetic justice worked yet, or any kind of justice for that matter.
The day ZJ and LD were sent to the office, I was also called down to the office. I wasn’t positive that it had to do with the morning confrontation with ZJ and LD, but I knew it was highly likely. I couldn’t ignore the summons, as that would have been insubordination. Insubordinate, I’m not.
I knew I should get union representation, but I was still naïve enough to believe that I could handle my own affairs. I really didn’t believe that such highly educated people could be as ruthless as this crew was. How do you get a degree at the PhD level and still be dishonest. This was a school and this was education, not commerce or industry. This place was not west of the Pecos River, and this could not be Judge Roy Bean style justice. Well, I was wrong, and it would be.
As I approached Dr. Fritz’s office, the silence in his office could be heard a mile away. It was spooky. I knocked on the open door.“Take a seat,” Fritz was real businesslike today.
I knew something was up, since most the times I had been ordered to come in there, there had been no invitation to be seated.
The next sentence should have never been uttered by any schoolman, anywhere in the world, at any time throughout history, but, by God Almighty, there it was.
I had been chosen by the life force to deal with it. “What a crappy teacher you are,” was delivered
matter-of-factly by Dr. Fritz.
This was a declaration of war, and Fritz knew it.
He waited for a reaction.
When after a few seconds he got no reaction, he
went on, “You think you’re so glib and witty, and then
you go and pull a boner like this.” I kept my silence.
My poker face was in place, and I didn’t move a muscle.
Feeling that he had the upper hand, “You jerk!” came
out of his mouth with bluster and bravado. He was
being as cavalier as he could be.
My brilliant reaction was, “What did you say?” “You heard me, you jerk! I never wanted you in
my school, and you can believe me that I have a file on
you a mile thick, but with this one, I should be able to
get you fired, you jerk!” He really liked calling me a
jerk, as if it was a bullet that he kept firing at me from
He kept waiting for the emotional blow-up that he
needed to get me to say things he could use against
me. Instead, I stood up and said, “This stops right here.
Call me back when the union rep is here.”
“You would run, you lousy asshole. Hiding behind
your Mama’s big, union skirt,” he was enjoying himself
now. He thought he had me. This was the moment he
loved, the moment when his vulgarity was hidden from
public view. He could usually get the other person to
sink to his level. This was the moment of truth for
him, and he was getting excited, really excited. “Sit down, you asshole!” he yelled as loudly as he
could, and with no consideration or restraint. The door
was open and the staff in the office was tuned in. This
must have been like tuning in to the afternoon soap
opera for them.
I knew he couldn’t keep me here once I asked for a union rep, but he sensed my rage and was going for broke.
“Look, jerk!” he yelled again so loudly that I think I actually heard one of the office staff chuckle. At least I was back to jerk, down on the scale from asshole. I couldn’t restrain myself, and I actually started to laugh. This was like a scene from out of an old episode of MASH. He was looking really foolish, and I wasn’t biting at the bait.
I said, “It looks like I have been demoted.” He didn’t get it. No, I really mean it; he just didn’t get it. It flashed through my head that I was Hawkeye, and he was
Frank Burns playing the general.
“You aren’t leaving here until I say you can,” he
yelled, not knowing what to do with the jab. I just started to walk out.
“You provoked a student into doing things he
shouldn’t have done, so go and get your union rep
and then come back. I own you, asshole!”
“Oh well, we’re back to asshole.” I wasn’t getting
very far. I looked at him, and with a grin on my face, I
asked, “Promoted, huh?” He didn’t get it; really, he
didn’t. I couldn’t believe that he didn’t get it. I’m still
amazed, to this day, that he wasn’t tuned in enough,
or bright enough, to get it. I walked out, really amused
at the ridiculous exchange that had just taken place.
The humor was one-sided, I assure you.
I walked into Denny’s classroom. He was the
teachers’ union rep.
“Denny, I need you to go to the office with me,
right now.” I was still amused, but trying not to show it. Denny was in the middle of a class, but he could
tell that he was needed. This wasn’t the first time that
this had happened.
We stepped outside the classroom and he asked, “What happened now?” So I recounted the tale. Denny looked at me and asked, “How was it that you didn’t loose it in there, and what the hell were you doing in there alone in the first place?” I just looked at him and said, “I don’t know, but
I’ve got a problem now.”
“Not as big a problem as you would have if you
had said something that would fry you,” Denny
explained. Again, he looked me straight in the eyes
and said, “You ain’t bullshitting me, are you? Because
if we get in there and it isn’t exactly as you have said,
we’re in for trouble.”
Denny got on the phone and made some
arraignments with a hall monitor to watch his class,
and off to the office we went. As he talked to himself in
some preparatory, under-the-breath whisper, I could
hear Denny saying, “He’s up to his old tricks.” We arrived at the office and walked in.
“Denny, it’s so good to see you,” the phony son-ofa bitch said.
Fritz was now a totally different person than he
was a moment ago.
“We’re here to see you about a meeting you just
had with P,” Denny was being dead serious. “Oh, and what’s the problem?” Fritz’s innocent
act was making me sick.
“P seems to think that calling him an asshole isn’t
very professional,” Denny wasn’t joking when he said it. “Well, as you know, Dennis, I have no idea what
you’re talking about, and neither does anyone else,”
again, Fritz displayed his cavalier attitude.
“Then what was your meeting about?” Denny was
“We have a student who claims that Mr. P provoked
him into an act of anger.” Fritz was setting me up. “Did the student threaten Mr. P, Dr. Fritz?” The
inquiry was a legitimate question.
“He may have.” Fritz started to hedge his bet, since
he didn’t know what the students would say. “When will we know?” Denny was trying to nail
“We will know as soon as we get the students’
statements,” again, hedging the bet.
“We want to have a union rep present when you
talk to the students.” Denny wanted to prevent a
fabrication of the story.
“We’ll see,” Dr. Fritz was noncommittal. “Are you issuing a formal reprimand; are you
leveling a charge at P?” Denny was trying to get this
incident watered down to something he could counter. “That remains to be seen,” Fritz was now becoming
Denny looked at me and said, “You are not to go
near Dr. Fritz or his office without me or the other
union rep, Sue. Got it?”
We left the office and Denny went down the hall
to his room, while I went down a separate hall. As I
walked down those terrazzo surfaced halls, through
the fire doors, and into my classroom, I was
transcendent of time. I felt like that little kid
struggling against the teachers, administrators, and
the prejudices of another era. It was like 1960 all
ZJ was in Dr. Fritz’s office first thing the next morning. He was hung-over from a lack of sleep, not to mention the drugs that were well on their way to wearing off. He was emotionally shot, irritable, and pissed that today he had to be as close to sober as he had been in the last two years. Fifteen-years-old and he was hooked on cocaine, crack, and sometimes he used methamphetamines to get him through the days when he couldn’t get his drug of choice. ZJ was smart, hooked, and had a mom that was in total denial. ZJ knew she wanted to remain that way. What was Fritz going to do to him? He really didn’t care.
Fritz was, himself, hung-over from the beer and Canadian Club whiskey that he had submerged his conscience in. Liquor was his god. It gave him the courage to face the next day. In fact, it had given him the sleep that he needed to live. Fritz was a smart drunk, never driving or being in public while intoxicated. He knew it was under control. He was no drunk. He could quit anytime he wanted.
“ZJ, I need your attention,” Fritz demanded. “What?” the defiant ZJ retorted.
“ZJ, you’re at Northwest High because I allow you
“I want to call your mom in for a sit down,” another threat. Fritz was testing for a reaction. After twentyfive years of being around kids, he knew he could find the reaction he was looking for if he tested the emotional landscape long enough. He was dealing with a young, hung-over junkie. He also knew that ZJ had a lot to hide and a lot to be ashamed of. But most important of all, a lot of guilt to carry.
ZJ knew he was one of the best con artists that had ever been born. He had his mom deceived, so why not play this jerk, too. It seemed that the only person that he couldn’t deceive was the Big Guy, his pusher, and the owner of his soul.
“Yeah, go ahead and call Mom, get her down here and you will meet Mom and Steve,” he was issuing a threat. This was looking like two dogs growling at each other.
“Who’s Steve?” asked Fritz, impressed by the brass balls on this kid.
“Steve, the mouthpiece, the delivery man of noise, of pressure, and fear, the lawyer,” ZJ was defiant and rebellious.
“I don’t get it. Are you making a threat?”
“I’m makin’ a promise.”
Fritz now looked a bit surprised at the quickness of the answer, and ZJ looked a little bit irritated that he hadn’t evoked a more emotional response. If he can get Fritz to blow up, he wins. ZJ knew how to get to you and render you neutral. He was well schooled in these street tactics because he had run with junkies and addicts that would steal the shirt off your back if it meant more drugs. He was one of the best at getting you mad and creating the diversion that was necessary to draw your attention away from your goal. He would keep at it long enough to confuse you, thus allowing a person to survive in the street jungle.
The world that a junkie lives in is one that is full of tactics that are not governed by civil law. The drug trade is, after all, the most free of free markets, with no laws or courts, and where “Survival of the fittest” and “Might makes right” are the only laws. The rules are simple; those who adapt will live, and those who fail to adapt will die.
Fritz wasn’t going anyplace but where he wanted, so he stood up from behind the big, oak desk and pulled a chair up close and personal, eyeball to eyeball with ZJ. Dressed in his three-piece-suit, and with impeccable hygiene, Fritz was an impressive force. That was, until ZJ caught that, ever so subtle, odor of alcohol on Fritz’s breathe. ZJ knew, from that moment on, whom Fritz worshiped; John Barleycorn was Fritz’s god. Fritz was self-medicating, as they would say in clinical circles. To ZJ, it was an avenue to control, and he couldn’t wait to tell Big Guy.
“Look, you punk, we’re going to come to an understanding. I know what you do and who you work for. I know a lot more than you think I know, punk. You’re going to work for me and for Big Guy. Yeah, that’s right, you punk. I know what you do and who you work for; do I need to repeat it again?
“You are going to do just as I tell you. You will be allowed to remain at this school with all that it may mean to you and to Big Guy. Do you think I don’t know who sells and who uses? Do you think I don’t read the police reports?” Fritz was laying it out for ZJ. ZJ was taken aback by the speech, but it still hadn’t sunk in yet. He was surprised to find out that Fritz knew more than he’d thought.
“You little punk, I own you just like Big Guy does, and you don’t even know it. You punk, you just don’t get it, I own you, now repeat after me, ‘Yes, sir, Dr. Fritz.’ Say it, you punk, ‘Yes, sir, Dr. Fritz.’ Say It.” Fritz was now yelling. He was cold, ruthless, and totally without compassion for anyone or anything, and he was especially without any caring for this young junkie.
“Yes, sir, Dr. Fritz,” ZJ said with no conviction, in a low tone, testing Fritz’s resolve.
“Again, you asshole,” Fritz whispered in his ear.
“Yes, sir, Dr. Fritz,” ZJ repeated with a low volume.
“Again!” Fritz demanded, louder.
“Yes, sir, Dr. Fritz!” this time said with a military snap and cadence to it.
“You are going to do exactly what I say, or you are going to wish you had never met me. I own you, punk. I will be respected by you, now and forever. You think I’m kidding? Well, you won’t after tonight, because you’re going to get a beating, not one that will kill you, but one you will not soon forget. I know you don’t believe me, yet, but you will —— I promise you.” Of course, Fritz was bluffing, and ZJ didn’t know it yet, but Fritz was closer to the truth then he realized.
Now ZJ was mad. He was also a kid. His emotions were right near the surface. It was easy for him to be led into an emotional rage, since he didn’t have the years of annealing that it takes to get to Fritz’s level of disrespect for his fellow human beings.
“You jerk!” ZJ countered. “How do you know that I’m not packin’ after I leave here? How do you know someone ain’t got my back? Try it, jerk, and your guy might end up dead!” ZJ was firing back with the flash and the posturing of false bravery.
Big words for a junkie, a small-time junkie trying to be tough, but ZJ knew Big Guy would keep his star player on the field as long as he was producing the green. He had been threatened before, and by those tougher than this drunk playing high school god and principal. Humoring this jerk was about to end, because ZJ realized that he just needed to get to Big Guy and find out what to do.
ZJ stood up and flicked Dr. Fritz “The Bird” as he walked out.
After Fritz could no longer see ZJ, he took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and said under his breath, “Got you, punk.”
Dr. Fritz went home that evening, put three ice cubes in a lowball glass, and poured out the amber colored liquid that he worshiped. He knew the problems of the day would melt with the ice as the whiskey took effect.
Just like every evening, ZJ and LD put aside the events of the day and were all business. It was time for the evening deliveries. The deals in school had been made, and the marketplace had once again been fruitful. Everything Big Guy had taught them about the teenage drug trade had paid off. Now it was time to collect. It was time to go to work.
First, they would go to Big Guy’s apartment for a line or two to make the shakes go away; it also helped in the courage department. Then, they would need a little extra dope to help get laid after the deliveries have been made. Now, down to the business at hand, dope deliveries.
Big Guy, like LD and ZJ, was also a middleman in the chain of distribution; he was hoping to move up soon, as he was aware that the level he was at was a high-risk endeavor. The biggest risk is in dealing dope to teenagers. Unlike adult users, their hardened counterparts, teenage junkies tattle the minute that they get caught. Unlike ZJ and LD, Big Guy was not a junkie. He had “Kicked” a long time ago. This was unusual in the dope business, but Big Guy was in it for the money. He had plans for moving up in this organization to which he was loyal. He was also an anomaly in the business, in as much as he was a fifteen-year veteran of narcotics anonymous and was a trained drug counselor. These were nice credentials for a drug outlaw. He clearly understood the drug user, and he clearly understood the disease of addiction and its pathology.
He lived in a middle-class apartment on the east side of St. Paul in an area of urban decline. An exiting white population had hit this area of St. Paul hard. The east side of St. Paul was being replaced by a middle-class group of diverse, ethnic populations.
The area was not covered by graffiti yet, but the strip malls were being closed, and the check-cashing stores were everywhere. Pawnshops were fast replacing the hardware stores and the other storefront businesses that had been all up and down White Bear Ave. in the sixties and seventies. The remnants of the blue-collar class housing that had dominated this residential area in the ‘50s was still the prevalent real estate. What dominated the neighborhood was the housing industry’s eight hundred square foot, rambler home with a detached garage and an alley out back.
The tree-covered streets were still there. The retired, blue-collar workers who had not left their paidoff homes had stayed, but only out of necessity. The elements of a well cared for neighborhood were still there. The lawns were cut; the sidewalks were edged, and the hedges were neatly clipped.
Even the newcomers were trying to maintain the value in their real estate. Everyone tried hard to keep up with the old traditions of a middleclass home, yet the tensions between races were there. The newcomers brought with them the tools of upward mobility, ghetto style, just hidden a little bit better in their new neighborhood.
Big Guy’s apartment, at one time, had been a top of the line apartment. When it was built back in the sixties, it had been built to withstand the years, and it was still nice forty years later. The walls were plaster and the trim was oak; The halls had been laid with new carpet sometime in the ‘70s; The windows were old but nice; The place was still well taken care of, just older. Big Guy felt comfortable in the neighborhood, yet he didn’t stand out.
It was just what he wanted, to run his drug franchise out of his home and be as inconspicuous as possible. The carpet was laid over oak floors, and the ranch oak trim had not been painted in apartment number eight, on the second floor, Big Guy’s home and place of business.
Big Guy went to the door when the two young junkies showed up. He knew who was there but still looked through the peephole.
“Fuckin’ A, man,” ZJ said as they walked into the apartment’s living room. There was a nice couch, a love seat which was set at an angle, a single chair, and a large, glass coffee table in front of the couch. The stereo system was playing some music which was strange to the boys’ ears. The classical music made it seem like a grandma’s home, and not the choice of music for a dealer, especially one as successful as Big Guy.
“Fucking A, what’s happenin’, dawgs?” Big Guy fired back at ZJ.
“We had a weird day, Big Guy,” ZJ chimed in.
“I heard.” Big Guy knew everything that happened at Northwest High and other schools that were in his territory.
“How did you know?” ZJ really was curious.
“I know everything that happens at that school,” Big Guys tone was almost scolding.
“We had a fucking, weird, office visit, Big Guy,” LD added, “or, I should say, ZJ had a weird office visit.”
“Tell me in your own words what happened, and don’t leave anything out,” Big Guy still sounded irritated. He had taught these boys to only disrupt enough to get themselves included in the bad boys group, but not enough to get real attention. These two had crossed the line. They needed to reform. They had gotten themselves thrown out of the drug buying groups at their old school. He’d had to start them all over at this new school, and they weren’t doing so well at Northwest, either.
ZJ told the story and about the deal that Fritz had mentioned in his office, “He really wants us to get P,” ZJ related to him. This really worried Big Guy, but he decided to drop the irritated attitude because he was now thinking about something else. What he was thinking about would have to be covered at another level above him. He didn’t want to alarm these two boys. Anyway, they had a big night ahead of them.
“You two are not only going to deliver your day’s sales, but I have arranged for you to deliver another junkie’s sales for today.”
This was dangerous, both for the drug representatives, who in this case were ZJ and LD, and for the customers. There were unknowns for the drug users, and these were untested waters with risk for both. No one knew what would happen when people that ZJ and LD didn’t know started collecting money and delivering expensive inventory. The customers were, after all, people addicted to drugs with no goals in their lives other than to obtain drugs. Big Guy said it was necessary, so the two would have to do what they were told; anyway, Big Guy owned these two, so they would do whatever they were told, regardless of the risk.
Big Guy went over to his computer, and at his urging, an expensive laser printer started printing labels with the weight in grams and a coded substance identified on the label as powdered milk, baby powder, vitamin tablets, etc. These substances were really crack, heroin, cocaine, or whatever the customer had ordered. The names on the labels, however, were of everyday, common substances. The records were carefully kept, as Big Guy was very sophisticated and knew that if he got caught, the records might be a valuable chip in a plea bargain. If he could avoid getting caught, he had very good records of collections and marketing lists that formed a database for marketing campaigns. On many occasions, he had sent a new salesman to an old customer who had been ripped off by one of his other salesmen. He had the locations of the sales. He had the real names of his customers. He had the advantage in the fact that his customers didn’t even know he existed. He was an abstract concept to most users. He could just send a new salesman to an old customer after a junkie got pissed at his regular pusher. Big Guy was good at what he did and was expanding his sales base with the efficiency that only an automated computer system could give him. He knew who used what and how often they needed it. He even knew the important, well-connected people who used drugs and what kind of pusher could approach them. He was good at what he did.
Hell, he had even thought about running a sale to increase volume, but he usually ended up laughing at himself when he got the idea that he was running a legitimate business. He was a realist to a fault, taking no risks without checking with his supervisor before he acted. It had worked for years, and he was handling the biggest territory in the northern suburbs. He would tell himself, Just a few more years, and I’ll be out anyway. I’m real close to retirement, and then, on to St. Croix in the Caribbean and a life of ease. Big Guy counted out the bags, and then put a printed, pressure sensitive label on each bag. The computer started printing a re-order list for his “Just in time” inventory system. He was keeping a minimum of drugs in his apartment at all times. He prided himself on being as good at the drug retail business as WalMart was at selling consumer goods. This was a welleducated, well-read executive. ZJ and LD didn’t have any idea how dedicated he was.
Big Guy looked at ZJ and LD, smiled, laughed, and then said, “It’s party time. You two are going to be rich after tonight. Your commission will be close to $2,300. That means you will have to get back to me with twenty three thousand bucks before you call it an evening. Hey, why don’t you two pay me now, and then you can charge anything you want and use what’s leftover on chicks.” Big Guy knew darn well that these two had spent every penny they’d ever had. He was just making fun of them. He really enjoyed this part of his job.
“Hey, ZJ, your last stop of the day is a new drop at the hockey arena where you will find a hockey player who needs help. He needs the green label pills, a new item which might turn out to be a big seller.” Steroids were new to Big Guy, but they were selling well to a new market, athletes.
Big Guy told ZJ and LD, “This is a new drug that will make you big and strong. This could be a mega market for you two, if you could just get to know the jocks.” If ZJ had only known what was really going on and what had been planed for him that evening, the Fates may have been cheated by his reaction. Big Guy laid out a small amount of white powder on the glass-topped coffee table. He handed both the young junkies razorblades and looked at both of them, laughing, “Fight for your supper, you two dawgs.” LD let ZJ take the first line that he cut from the pile. LD always knew that ZJ would split the dope fairly between the two of them. LD knew that his friend and classmate since kindergarten would do what was right.