Peculiar advice

by Trina Allen


"Just teach them not to spit on each other."

As Scott Carter drove into the parking lot of T. L. Smith Middle School, he thought of that strange piece of advice his father had given him when he first began teaching. He had thought it peculiar then, but today, he simply prayed, "God, help me make it through the day."

"Scott, hey, how are you?" A plump technology teacher cornered him as he walked into the building.

"All right."

"We don't see enough of you in this part of the building. Stop by soon, and we'll discuss that graphing unit," she added.

"I can't today." Before she could reply, Scott was already half-way down the hall, using his running shoes as they were intended. If he reached the safety of his classroom without being ambushed by another teacher, he would consider it a good morning.

After school today, he had an appointment with his principal about Hakeem Landis. Ms. Phillips had assigned the boy to his math class under the erroneous conception that a male role model would cure his misconduct. The fact that the female teachers refused to have him in their classes after he used endearing adjectives such as, "Prostitute," "Miss Bitch" and "Motherfucker," probably helped with her decision.

Hakeem lived with his grandmother because his mom was serving a three-year sentence for selling cocaine. In the words of Hakeem's peers, his mother was a "crack ho'."

Scott had made a home visit to the Landis trailer soon after Hakeem was put into his class. Hakeem's grandmother didn't get up when she yelled, "Come in." Scott let himself in to find Grandma Landis sitting on a worn and dirty couch. He didn't even try to identify the amber colored liquid spilling from a glass onto the remnants of a partially eaten pizza next to her. And he chose to remain standing rather than sit in the torn, stained chair that was covered with animal hair. He didn't see any pets, but the pungent odor of cat urine gave evidence of the owner of the hair.

"My daughter doesn't even know which of the men she was seeing at the time is Hakeem's father. That girl always was a useless piece of garbage. I'm all the boy has." Mrs. Landis's bulk obliterated the pizza as she shifted on the couch.

Scott hoped the cat wasn't under her somewhere.

Grandma's lifeless eyes finally meet his as she finished, "I hope he doesn't turn out like his mother."

Or his grandmother, Scott thought. Still, the offenses Hakeem was punished for weren't his fault. His upbringing, or lack thereof, made him the malefactor that he was. He had been diagnosed with ADHD, but he didn't take his Ritalin. Grandma Wonderful was slow in following through with the necessary doctor visit to get the medication to the school. Off his meds, Hakeem floundered in the necessary rules and academics of the school setting.

Sighing, Scott took the math test that he'd written the night before out of his backpack and walked to the Xerox machine. While he waited for the machine to spit out the copies he clinched and unclenched his fingers.

"Damn it!" He knew the boy could turn himself around if he was just given a chance. If he could get him into the classroom without a scuffle on the bus or in the cafeteria before class he could teach the boy. Hakeem was bright and boredó the deadliest of combinations.

Hakeem needed Ritalin! Ms. Phillips would have to step in and take the necessary steps to force the medication issue. Other educators might speak about the misdiagnosis and over diagnosis of ADHD, attention deficit hyperactive disorder. They hadn't met Hakeem. He was a textbook case of the very real disorder and he needed treatment!

Copying done, he walked back to his classroom and glanced through his e-mail messages. There was a note from the assistant principal reminding teachers to monitor students in the halls between classes, duh, and the math department head called a mandatory meeting after school for all math teachers.

"For God's sake, not another unannounced meeting after school!" He pounded his fist on his desk so hard his computer monitor shook. If he didn't see Ms. Phillips after school today then Hakeem's problem would get pushed aside. The boy needed his medication.

Scott paced back and forth in front of his desk, glancing periodically at the e-mail announcing the math meeting. "Son of a bitch, I've got to do something now!" He ran out his classroom door and sprinted down the hall, his Reeboks again being put to their intended use.

The principal's door was shut. It was a well-known fact around the school that when her door was shut it meant, "Do not disturb," but he didn't wait. He pounded on the door.

"Come in." An uncharacteristic smile softened Ms. Phillips's face. She didn't seem at all disturbed by his abrupt invasion of her office. "Scott, I was just about to call you. I'm glad you came to see me. I would never have believed it." She shook her head and smiled again, the second time Scott had ever seen her smile in all of the years he had worked at T. L. Smith Middle School. He was struck that she was about his age, and a handsome woman. Distracted, he realized she was still talking. "But here it is in black and white. Look at this." There is was again, the uncharacteristic smile, out of place on her lizard-like face.

He glanced impatiently at the sheet containing IOWA math test scores. Ms. Phillips's voice droned on. He drummed his fingers on her desk. Couldn't she see he wasn't listening? He had come here to discuss Hakeem and damn it he wouldn't be put off. He was about to interrupt the woman when she said, "Look at Landis's score." She shook her head; the smile making its miraculous appearance again. "By God if you weren't right about the boy. I would never have believed it. All those discipline referrals, all those days suspended. How did he do it?"

Scott looked at the paperó understanding dawning. Hakeem had scored 187, the highest score of any sixth grade student this year, or any other year that he remembered. Hakeem could skip seventh and eighth grade math. Unbelievably, he qualified for Algebra in the seventh grade. "I knew he was bright," Scott said. "He's the reason I'm here."

Hakeem's intellect was the driving force behind his delinquency. Scott had seen it before. Now the boy had a chance for a better future. Still, it would be only a slim chance. So many like Hakeem had fallen to the easier life of fast money that the street offered. But it was a chance. It was all he could give him.

The eight o'clock bell tonged ominously, signaling the beginning of homeroom. "Let the games begin," Scott thought as he ran back to his classroom. He joined the noisy sixth graders gathered in the hall, acting as if they hadn't seen each other for a whole summer recess.

"Good morning, Hakeem. Go to homeroom," Scott warned the boy, who was sparring with a student from another class.

"Don't rush me!" Hakeem's said.

"Pull those pants up on your way in," Scott added, ignoring Hakeem's comment. Hakeem's pants sagged below his shorts, showing all of his checkered boxers.

Hakeem complied, but said loud enough for Scott to hear "Are you telling me what to do? I'm gonna bust ya!" Scott ignored this remark also. From experience, he knew confrontation would end with Hakeem in the office, then placed in ISS, In-School-Suspension, or suspended. It would cost Hakeem a day or more of learning. He allowed him to save face in front of the others.

"Good morning, Morgan."

"Hello, Mr. Carter." Morgan was one of Scott's finest students. Without the few like her, who did their homework, followed his directions, and seemed to genuinely like his classes Scott could not have survived. Morgan was a breath of fresh air.

Scott taught on a block schedule so his classes were ninety-minutes long. He had the honor of taking his third block class to lunch. They ate, if you could call it that. Cookies, Gatorade, pizza, and nachos were gobbled within seconds. Scott didn't eat; he refereed. Food was thrown, and then cleaned up. Arguments ensued. He moderated.

He took the students outside for break, where adolescent energy exploded exponentially. On their way to the break field students knocked on windows where other teachers were trying to teach. Students threw rocks, pinecones, or any other missiles available. Their target was anything that moved and anything that did not. They argued and they whined:

"He's talking about my mama."

"John just broke up with me and Kristen is telling everyone."

"She just called me a 'MF.'"

"He called me a 'B' first."

It continued for the entire thirty-minute break, one complaint after another. Scott put his running shoes to use again when he raced across the field to stop a fight. Two boys were holding Dwayne while another kicked and hit him. Scott lined the four boys up and forced them to confess to what he had just seen, and then delivered their sentences. The three holding and kicking Dwayne would spend their break tomorrow writing him an apology. In addition, they would clean tables and sweep the cafeteria after lunch for one week. The interrogation and ensuing judgment took ten minutes. Scott breathed heavily. He hadn't planned on the 20-meter sprint.

He struggled through his math class after lunch. Students were tired. They had social studies and language before lunch and were as interested in math now as Scott was in having a root canal. Having already taught two ninety-minute classes before lunch, Scott was actually considering the root canal as an alternate to teaching this class. It took everything he had to keep his students in their seats. They asked to get water, go to the bathroom, sharpen pencils, and go to the nurse. If even one of them came up with an interesting excuse to get out of class, one he hadn't heard, he would let them out of class just for making his day.

Then it happened. With five minutes to go before his last class ended a student from his morning class ran into the classroom yelling, "You mother fucker!" Then, she pounded one of his students with her fists before Scott could pull her off him.

"Into the hall, now!" he commanded. He prepared to lecture Latasha on fighting and cussing in class, but the spittle running down her temple in little rivers and into her hair changed his course of action.

"Eric, get out here!"

As Eric dejectedly and very leisurely crept out of the classroom, Scott was reminded of that peculiar piece of advice his father had given him.

"Son, some days you'll see the spark of knowledge shining right in their eyes and you'll know you had a good day. Most days though, it will seem that you haven't taught them anything and that you wasted your time. Don't get discouraged. Just remember that if you have taught them not to spit on each other then it was a good day."


Publication Information
"Peculiar Advice." Dana Literary Society. December, 2004