Notes from the chalkboard

I wanted to teach AP English. I had plans involving brilliant Toni Morrison exegeses, candlelit slam poetry, and Princeton acceptance letters.

But I got regular English. At first I felt like Renessa, the trainer in Jackie Warner’s 1-on-1 Work Out video who has to do the modified version of every exercise (push-ups on her knees, etc.) even though she’s a beastlike physical specimen. Not fair! I wanted to see Renessa do all the military-style push-ups she was capable of. I wanted to slow down the DVD so I didn’t…miss…a second.

Anyway. I am surprised and thrilled by many of my students. I have scads of math-and-science types; visual artists; advanced dance kids and one role-playing aficionado (who ironically hates group work). I have half the football team, which is great in terms of classroom discipline: They can’t play ball if they act like dicks. Hence, there has been no dick-acting.

One student, Enrique, just turned 18 and lives alone because both his parents are in prison. Two nights ago, someone robbed his apartment. I found out when I asked the kids to draw a picture of their houses, and his drawing featured broken windows and punched-in drywall. No matter what happens this year, I will not become discouraged or dread my workday: Enrique is there. He gets up, goes to school, and works hard five days a week so he can maybe go to college as well as hold down a full-time job. I’d show up for him even if no one else came to class.

Also, I have six out LGB* kids! I asked to sponsor our Gay-Straight Allliance, so I am now Head Gay in Charge of Gays. My classroom will be a safe place, where everyone can be exactly who they are, and Justin R. can talk about elite gymnastics and Hugo Boss all he wants to, and no one can stop him!

The out kids are really out. “No one cares,” a bisexual named Rina told me cheerfully. For a second I felt like someone who’d lost a lung to bacterial pneumonia watching someone else flash her brand-new penicillin prescription.

I told Rina that back in my day, kids would have rather eaten a big plate of their own hair than admit to being a friend of Dorothy; a bird with lavender feathers; a Sister of the Inclination. “We didn’t have these Internets,” I said. “We had ‘Homosexuality’ in the library card catalog and some Bikini Kill mix tapes, and we were grateful to get them.” 

But she was already bored. She asked if I’d sponsor the rugby team, too.


* No T’s yet.

The Night Before The First Day of School

Teaching at my old high school, I run into ghosts of myself around every corner. The same copy of Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity sits on the library’s social-sciences shelf. My old locker is spiffy with new paint. The hallways smell the same — a custom blend of AquaNet, asbestos, and teen angst. There are no doors on the bathroom anymore, though, because my generation abused the privilege. Remember 80s bangs?

Do you know how some girls achieved that look? They’d put their foreheads on the linoleum wall, hold their bangs up vertically, then spray the hell out of them with one hand while lighting an unfiltered Camel with the other. It was really excellent to watch.

Another thing that’s different, besides the no-restroom-doors thing, is that I can be out — to students, parents, co-workers, and administration. My district is serious about no-discrimination/no hate speech. Too late for the kid I was then, who walked around afraid that someone would find out her secret — but right on time for the woman I am now.

Posting will be light this week as I do things like figure out my copy-machine code. I’ll leave you with one of the most notable items I ever picked up in the hallway. Here it is, verbatim:

List of Goals/Stuff I Want To See Happen

1. Attractive female president

2. Turbulence solved

3a. Man on Mars

3b. Life discovered

4. Honorary degrees

5. Be in a room with 3 modern-day geniuses

6. Meet/be a true polyglot (Top 6: German, Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Arabic)

7. Ask questions that are really good and keep up with the answers in succession for a lecture period

8. Bike transnational

9. Be in an orgy with twins

10. Be in an orgy that occurs spontaneously

11. Read the entire works of Shakespeare with the utmost diligence and dedication

12. Drive a super-fast car while singing

13. Live in an era where people live over 150+ years

(Icked out as I was by goals 9 and 10, I did appreciate that the kid knew an orgy with twins was NOT likely to occur spontaneously, and thus split his orgy goals into two separate, more realistic categories. He was in the gifted program).

Protect and Defend, Lite

Sometimes I wallow in bad memories in order to stoke the gratitudinal fires. Sadistic, but effective. When I feel anxious about teaching, I remember the worst job I ever had: Being a security guard in Toronto.

Toronto gets ugly fast. One minute you’re enjoying the downtown core’s hipster delights — Korean barbeque! hot yoga! sex in a Smart Car! — the next you’re stepping over a syringe in the hallway of a gang-infested high rise. The assorted criminal element created a bleak public housing zeitgeist that terrified new immigrants. They’d just left someplace warm; someplace relatively relaxed like Ghana or Mozambique, only to run headlong into an icy urban dystopia where everyone spoke with a repetitive verbal tic, eh?

Have you ever known a security guard? They’re generally young men who want to be police officers but never will because their personality disorders stand out in sharp relief on psychological tests. A preoccupation with power, say. Anger at minorities and women who “steal” spots on the force. Impulse control problems. Remember, this is the employment pool that brought us Andrew Uridales, who used his uniform to convince women to trust him.** He raped and murdered eight of them that we know of.  Felons can and do get security guard jobs, because companies don’t sweat background checks.

Anyway. During a time of desperation — i.e., I couldn’t nanny for overprivileged children and their smug parents another minute –I applied at Sketchy Security and got a $10-an-hour* job on the spot. They sent me to Jane and Finch, epicenter of the worst public housing complexes in North Toronto. I worked the 6.a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, walking up and down reeking hallways and parking garage dungeons with nothing but a radio and a notepad on which I took copious notes in the company’s style of inappropriate quotation marks and weird third-person narrative: 0200 hours: This writer checked lobby of building lobby. All as expected, however, a “pop can” was wedged underneath the northwest-facing sliding door. This writer removed the “pop can.” Door closed properly.

I stepped onto a barrier-less rooftop roof one night and thought, I could just step right off the side. Ninety-five stories to the pavement. Toronto would just…absorb me.

I walked those halls again and again, trying to figure out how the hell my life had become an experiment in terror. I had wanted to prove I could be OK in Toronto — even dumped and broke — but I suspected that the light leaving from OK would not reach me for another several million years.

My one distraction: the odors. I could almost see cartoon stink lines wafting out underneath each door. Sometimes it was cooking; sometimes marijuana; occasionally perfume. But one night, there was a NEW smell. It was at once chemical and organic, and something in my primitive lizard brain told me to RUN AWAY.

“What is that smell?” I gasped to my partner as we put on our needleproof gloves.

“That,” he replied, “is ass and crack cocaine. These guys love to stay up all night, getting high and having buttsex.”

I thanked God that Lucy Maud Montgomery was dead and would never know about this.

I also spent a week at a fairly nice, predominantly gay building right at Church and Wellesley, asking gay partiers to turn the house music down. Women would ask me to stay and PARTY! but I’d hitch up my polyester pants, straighten my clip-on tie, and tell them that duty called. In midwinter, I watched over a picket line outside the old Dove factory by the lake. Dove had fired all the old employees — blue-collar guys who’d been there 25 or 30 years — and replaced them with new immigrants. The old guard kept a round-the-clock vigil outside the gates, and my job was to stay in the Sketchy Security car and make sure no one destroyed the property. I spent my time turning the heat on as I got cold and off as I got hot. I read radical feminist manifestos. I played club music, pretended I was on E, and used my flashlight as a crazyass strobe on the roof of the car. Then I just gave in and masturbated.

There must have been three feet of snow. The picketers fought the cold by making trash can fires — burning lots of toxic, brain-damaging painted wood in the process — and drinking as much alcohol as they could. To distract them from yelling racial slurs, I taught them old labor songs like “Bread and Roses”:

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!


Eventually, I’d get tired and call my friend Jay, Toronto’s leading pothead:

Me: “Dude, are you awake?”

Jay (cheerfully): “I’m always awake. ”

Me: “Are you high?”

Jay: (more cheerfully still) “I’m always high. I just went to the convenience store. I have this…amazing…bag of M&Ms.”

Me: “Dude, I’m so tired, and I’m not allowed to fall asleep. Here’s what I need. Listen. Are you listening?

Jay: “Worddd.”

Me: “OK! Good! I need you to come down here to the docks and keep me company. BRING THE M&Ms. OK? Are you coming?”

A half-hour later he’d show up and ask why I wasn’t wearing any pants.

“That is not important right now,” I’d say with affronted dignity. “Did you bring the peanut kind?”

As Jay loped off into the icy darkness, I got out of the car and waded through the snow to check the inside of the factory. It was vast and empty of sound except for the stomp of my heavy-booted ghost feet. Pallets of laundry detergent and soap arched hundreds of feet into the air like cleanliness made architecture; their forms a reminder of the churches I saw in Europe when my life was still going according to plan.

As the watery sun rose, I slogged my way to the streetcar to the subway to the bus, knowing there was no such thing as safe; not really. And I thought, Someday, all this will be a long time ago.


*Remember, this is Toronto, home of skyrocketing rents and irresistible artisanal melons.

**Security guard uniforms should NOT look so much like legitimate police uniforms. They should be hot pink instead.

Hail fellow, well met

School starts on the 15th, so it’s meeting season: Staff meetings; department meetings; curriculum meetings. I think we even had a meeting about meetings, but I stopped listening because my Intrinsically Morose Selective Attention Deficit Disorder (IMSADD) kicked in full force. I have eaten a lot of dry sandwiches, people. I have sent a lot of furtive text messages.

Today, some dudebro told me that “a lot of boys don’t respect female teachers.They come to me and say, ‘She doesn’t respect me!’ All they hear is another old lady yelling at them.”

He shrugged, like What can you do? That’s how boys are.

But then. He added: “It’s usually not a problem with stronger female teachers, though.”

That’s a full-service damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t menu, eh? There’s nothing women teachers can do about boys’ disrespect — it’s just nature! — and ALSO, if a female teacher isn’t respected, it’s her fault for not being “strong enough.”

My hackles were up at dudebro already for assigning Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” — the most morally bankrupt, narcissistic, badly written pieces of bilge ever penned by a 20th-century sociopath. I mean, even Mein Kampf had a funny line or two.