Thursday, May 29, 2008


I think I must have a freak magnet stapled to my forehead.

So not too long ago, I'm at the bar with the teachers. We'd been out a while, having a good time. Two of us had already gone home, and we had two empty seats. Two empty seats at a table full of women at a bar populated with about a billion men? They didn't stay empty long. Some guy sat down next to me and started talking.

He and his friend ordered beer and wings almost immediately. Clearly, they meant to stay awhile.

So okay. A man sits down next to me, and I'm going to talk to him, especially if I've had a beer or three. This is what I do. I talk to men. Most of them I hate after about five minutes, but still. You've got to try them on a while before you decide. I can't hate everybody, can I? Well, yes.

So this one worked for AT&T and he wanted to see my phone. Then he wanted to know what I do. He has one of the typical reactions to my job ("Oh, what do you do with all those bad kids? Punish them?"), and I'm bored already. But he'd ordered wings, and I was stuck. So I answered his questions. This happens to me a lot. I get cornered by somebody and I get stuck answering questions.

My friends in Brooklyn had a theory about this. "It's because you're from the midwest," they'd say. "A real New Yorker would have told that guy to fuck himself long ago." It's funny -- anything a New Yorker doesn't understand about the conservativism of rest of the country they blame on the midwest. Susan used to tell me that my real problem is I let people make eye contact. Once they make eye contact, they've got an in.

She's probably right.

Ivonne leans over and says she can get rid of these guys for me if I want. But it won't be pleasant. I sort of cringed. One must always be polite, mustn't one? I said I'd deal with it.

Telephone guy tapped me on the elbow. "I've got something to show you," he said. Then he flipped open his cell phone and told me to look at the picture. The picture? A penis. Erect.

Yeah. That was my reaction, too. I mean, what did the guy expect? That I would see the penis picture and say "take me, I'm yours"? I mean, seriously.

I wondered if he ran around showing off his dick to unsuspecting women all the time. We were in the middle of a bar, so of course he couldn't drop his pants. I suppose he chose the next best thing.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened to me.

Once I was walking down the street on my way to the train. This was a few years ago -- I was still living in Brooklyn. So I'm walking in my morning cloud (I'm impossible before nine o'clock in the morning. It's a wonder I can even function) and a man steps out from between two cars and shakes his dick at me.

At first, I didn't even notice. That's how much of a morning person I am not. And to be honest, there wasn't much to notice. When I did see what he was waving at me, I said, "Oh, for chrissakes," and kept walking. When I got to school that day, I told the story. Everyone said they'd have handled it differently. I should have pointed and laughed. I should have taken out my cell phone and called the cops. I should have, I should have, I should have...

It's because I was from the midwest, they said. They really couldn't blame me all that much. He probably sensed I was from the midwest and that's why he waved his dick at me.

But really: does anybody know what to do when that happens? I'm just so bemused by the unreality of the thing that reason escapes me.

Another incident: I was in Paris and I was on a rush hour train with my friend Kari. It was packed, and so when I felt a certain body part rubbing against my rear, I just shifted away. Then it happened again. The train car was packed. Whoever it was, wasn't going to move away without help. I stuck a sharp elbow in him.

We were on our way to the airport, and I had a heavy suitcase with me. The car began to empty out. We were one stop away from Charles de Gaulle when the lone remaining man in the car reached into his pants and pulled out his penis.

Kari and I looked at each other. "Put that away!" we said. In English. He was French. We tried to get out of the car, but when the train is in motion the doors don't open. We were stuck with penis guy. He started rubbing himself.

A minute or two later, the train pulled to a stop: Charles de Gaulle. Kari and I scrambled out and sped up the platform. He'd followed, and was standing there, staring. A few feet up, there was a gendarme. I hurried towards him, then stopped because I realized that I didn't know the French word for penis. Knowing me, I would have said something so convoluted that he'd have arrested me minutes before I was supposed to leave the country.

So I did the only thing I could do. I nodded to him. "Bonjour," I said, as if that was what I'd meant to do all along. And then I left the country.

By the way, the French word for penis? It's pénis. For your future reference.

Anyway, back to the bar. Deus ex machina. My cell phone lit up at that moment with a text from Matt. I grinned when I read it. I had no idea what it meant, but that didn't matter. He'd just given me an out.

"Who's that from?" telephone guy said. "Your boyfriend?"

Yes, I said, feeling absolutely zero guilt about my baldfaced lie. I then turned my back to him and started talking to the girls.

He tried to talk to me again. "Your boyfriend's a lucky man," he said.

But no. I was done being nice. "Listen," I finally said. "You just showed me a picture of your penis. That's just fucking weird."

I turned my back again and eventually he disappeared. I had no idea where he went, and I didn't care.

I don't know why these things happen to me. I really don't.

Somebody's gotta do it

"Yo, Miss Baader, can you give me a job?" This from Marlon, not little Marlon but the other one, the one I worry about because he's the king of bad decisions. I'd taken them outside during homeroom because it was such a nice day. Marlon decided not to play football because some freshmen girls joined us and he's all about the girls.

Right, I said. You can work for the company I don't have.

"It don't matter," he said, putting his arm around Crystal. "I can do anything. Mow your lawn ..."

I don't have a lawn. I live in an apartment building.

"Then I can come over and clean your house. Or maybe build something. You wouldn't have to pay me much. Sixty dollars a day."

I snorted. I don't have sixty dollars a day to give you. I'm a teacher, remember?

"See?" said Dante. Dante wasn't playing with the rest of the boys either, not because he didn't like football but because his mother died last week and right now he's not participating in anything. "This is why young men turn to crime. Nobody will hire us." It's true, too. All spring, I'd been working with them on finding part-time jobs. They applied and applied and nobody called them back.

"Yeah," said Marlon. "It wouldn't take much for me to make sixty dollars on the streets. Drug dealing pays. You want me to become a drug dealer?"

Of course not, I said. But decisions like that are the reason why young african-american boys from the city have a better statistical chance of going to jail than to college. Listen, tomorrow we'll work on your resumes and I'll ask around about jobs.

He pulled Crystal closer. She giggled. "You gonna get me a job by this weekend? Because I need sixty dollars by Saturday."

I just looked at him. I didn't ask why: I didn't want to know. Not too long ago, Marlon went through a bad phase where he quit the basketball team and quit coming to school for a little while. When he managed to show up one day and I asked him where he'd been, he said he'd been smoking with his cousin. Why? He didn't want to leave his house -- he'd been at basketball practice when his house got robbed -- and he didn't have anything better to do.

It took us a little while to work through that one, and he's throwing a new one at me today. I looked over at Dante. He was nodding. He's the other one I'm really worried about. No mother. Shit.

Don't you know there's only a fifty-one percent chance you'll graduate from high school?

"Then get me a job and I won't have to deal drugs," said Dante. He looked at me with the kind of dead eyes I'd hoped never to see on him.

I'll help you get you a job, I said. I promise.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Iron Men

"If they really did have guns like that, there would me no more wars," said Dekores. He'd brought in a bootleg copy of "Iron Man" and I let them watch it during lunchtime. He said his cousin sold bootlegs, and they weren't bad bootlegs, either. You couldn't see the audience at all. He could get any movie I wanted.

They have guns like that and there's still wars, I commented from my desk. People will always kill people. Didn't you learn anything from our Holocaust unit?

"I didn't read that book," said Dekores. "English is boring." Dekores has the other English teacher, but we're all reading the same book, Night.  He likes to brag about how he doesn't do any of her work while I try to convince him that's not the best route to his future.   Right now, we're at an impasse.

"I did," said Lester. He probably didn't, but Lester's in my class and knows better than to admit any wrongdoing in front of me. His mother and I have an understanding. They stood around the tv watching the movie almost solemnly.

Byron shook his head. "You think they really have weapons like that?" 

"They've got everything," said Lester. "They could kill everybody if they wanted, but they don't."

"I don't know why they don't just kill all those people over in Iraq," said Dekores. "If they've got the guns, they could take them out and then they wouldn't be any more problems."

"You can't do that," said Byron. "You can't kill all them kids." 

"What do I care about them kids?" said Dekores. "We should end it right now so I don't have to go over there. They're killing us, aren't they?"

"Not them kids," said Lester. 

"I done tole you I don't care about no kids. It's me I care about. They kill kids here, all the time. Those kids didn't ask for it neither. And they send us over there with no protection. You know those soldiers don't have no vests. And they could make 'em, too. They just don't, because they don't care.  They don't care cause they're not fighting that war.  They gonna make us fight that war.  You watch.  And I'm not going to go over there with no damn armor."

"What they should do," said Byron, "Is send over more guns. George Bush has got a whole basement full of guns. Like ten thousand. He could end this war and then none of us would have to go. But he doesn't. He likes this war."

"I ain't going over there," said Lester. "I don't want to shoot nobody." At this I grinned, because Lester's favorite activity is stealth paper bombs.  Unsuspecting classmates are always finding themselves pelted in the head.  He's good, too.  It took me a while to figure out who was doing it.  Now I'm always making him stay after to clean up the classroom floor.

They all watched the movie for a while longer.  Something exploded.

"Shit," said Dekores. "Like I said, if they had weapons like that, there'd be no wars.  Everybody would be too scared."


"Did you hear about the cougar?" This from one of my boys, a regular group who hangs out in my classroom because they can't stand the kids in the lunchroom. I had, but only on the radio this morning. Sometimes I can't stand to watch the news at night. In a city with a crime rate as high as Chicago, it's too depressing.

"Where?" said Marlon. I pulled up the story in the newspaper. Roscoe Village, I said. (North Side. It might as well be China.) "Did it bite anyone?" said Marlon. No. "I don't care then. If it didn't kill anybody, no, scratch that: if it didn't bite me, I don't care. Just another thing in the white people's neighborhood." This was a typical reaction from Marlon. I've been trying to get him to care about things all year. His grades, for instance.

I looked at another article and saw they had a picture. The boys immediately gathered round. They never pass up the chance to see some blood. "Yo, yo, yo!" said Maynor. "You never told me it was a brown cougar."

What does that matter?

"A brown cougar in the white people's neighborhood? Course it got shot."

The police said it was charging at them. "That's what the police always say," said Marlon.

"Yeah," said Maynor. "The po-po are just looking for an excuse. That's just another Mexican to them. That's it! A Mexican cougar!"

"Why the brown cougar always gotta die first?" said Marlon. Now, he was outraged. I shook my head. They stared at the picture for a minute longer, shrugged, then sat down.

"Yo," said Maynor. "When's lunch over?"