Readin’, Writin, And Armageddon
On Friday morning, October 26, 1962, Fred Markowitz pulled his Chevy into the last open space in the tiny parking lot at P.S. 428. He killed the engine as the radio newscaster was saying “Cuban missile crisis” for the twentieth time.
Fred grabbed his briefcase, got out of the car, and sighed as he trudged toward the school building and his thirty or so sixth-graders.
Thirty or so sixth-graders just about described it. He’d never had full attendance, which was a good thing, since his classroom had only twenty-seven desks. Even worse, there were only eighteen reading textbooks (third-grade level, since none of them read any higher), so if everyone ever showed up at once he’d be in major trouble. He was grateful for the city’s truancy problem.
Also, the fewer the kids, the better the chance of maintaining even the illusion of control during these next five interminable hours.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He and his two college friends, Walter and Brad, were going to be the next Kingston Trio. They’d even gotten some interest from a record label.
Then Walter got drafted and Brad had his banjo stolen from the trunk of his car, an event Brad interpreted as a sign from God, and he announced to Fred that he’d found Jesus and was quitting folk music.
Suddenly faced with no means of gainful employment, Fred reluctantly turned to the list of public schools in need of emergency substitute teachers, a list that appeared in the paper every day. There were dozens upon dozens of them, all in poor neighborhoods. The teachers in these schools had either quit, been fired, or served their time and moved on to greener pastures in better, more affluent areas.
The word “substitute” was really a misnomer. No teacher who’d ever left this job was coming back. When you took over a class, it was yours for the rest of the year. If you didn’t get fired. Or if you could stand it.
That’s the situation Fred had found himself in six weeks before, when he was escorted by the principal to his new classroom. As they climbed the stairs, Mr. Greenwald told him he’d be replacing a teacher who’d quit after the first week, but to not let that bother him. “The man wasn’t really suited for it,” he said ominously.
As they got to the third floor and emerged from the stairwell, there was a riot in progress. A large group of boys and girls were pushing each other, yelling in each other’s faces, chasing each other up and down the hallway.
“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?” Mr. Greenwald thundered. “GET IN LINE AND BE QUIET!”
The noise suddenly stopped and they complied.
He unlocked the door and they silently trooped into the classroom and settled into their seats, where they sat fidgeting, like a restless force waiting to be unleashed.
“Class, this is your new teacher, Mr. Markowitz,” Greenwald informed them. He ceremoniously handed the classroom key to Fred. “Anything you need, just let me know,” he said.
Then he departed.
The door closed behind him, and three things happened: The room exploded into a torrent of Spanish and English cuss words with shrieks of insane laughter, the gates of Hell opened, and Fred was yanked into the inferno.
Two days into this, Bob Polanski, the teacher next door, stopped by to give him some advice. Not because he cared about Fred, but because the noise was disturbing his class.
No one knew how long Bob Polanski had been teaching at the school, but they did know that the kids were scared shitless of him. The mere mention of being sent to Mr. Polanski’s room was enough, most times, to turn the most feral kid into a model of saintly decorum. At least, for a minute.
No one ever had the guts to actually carry out this threat because the teachers were nearly as afraid of Bob Polanski as the kids were. A curtain obscured the see-through portion of his classroom door, and not even the principal dared to pay him a surprise visit. Dark rumors circulated about what went on in there.
At the particular moment he showed up in Fred’s classroom, there were two fights in full swing, one on each side of the room. Fred stood, paralyzed, between them.
The combat ended abruptly when the kids saw Polanski’s linebacker-sized shape filling the doorway. The participants dove back into their seats, and the room became absolutely still.
“Can I have a word with you?” said Bob Polanski.
They stood in the hall, just outside the open doorway. The kids, still sensing Polanski’s presence, were relatively quiet.
“Listen,” Bob said, “I don’t know who you are or how much experience you’ve had, but all that stuff about a teacher standing in front of a class and talking while they pay attention to you is bullshit. Maybe you’ll see it on TV shows, or in one of those so-called good schools, but it doesn’t work in a place like this. The only way to keep order in that room is to keep them writing.”
Fred thought he had misheard him.
“Writing? You mean, these kids? They can’t even spell their own name, some of them. I’m supposed to keep them writing? For five hours a day?”
Polanski nodded. “Every minute. Even if it’s gibberish, that’s what they have to be doing. They’re not going to just sit there and listen to you, because they’re incapable of it.”
Fred tried to imagine the scene and couldn’t. “I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Well, you’d better. If I keep hearing your problems through that wall, I’m filing a report on you.”
He turned and went back to his room.
Now, six weeks later, Fred inserted his card into the time clock in the main office and said yet another silent prayer for low attendance. As he’d gotten to know the kids better, he realized there were just four who had really serious problems. If only two of them were absent today, or maybe three, please God, it would be so much easier.
There was a notice in his mailbox that, at some point this morning, teachers had to conduct a “take cover” drill.
“Isn’t it scary about this missile crisis thing?” Linda Cavarotti, a plump, usually good-natured second-grade teacher, was looking at her own notice. “We could all be dead tomorrow.”
“Do you really think so?”
Like everyone else, he’d been hearing the news for the last week. But he’d been fighting for his own survival every day. The survival of the human race was something that was out of his hands.
“I heard on the radio just now,” Linda went on, “that the Russian ships aren’t slowing down. They’re approaching our blockade full speed ahead. If we shoot at them, they’ll shoot at us. We’re on the verge of a nuclear war.”
“I guess it could happen.”
“Makes you wonder what we’re doing here.” She moved toward the door. “I mean, if this could be the last day of my life…”
She let it trail off as Fred followed her into the gym, where all the classes were lined up and lying in wait.
He immediately knew it wasn’t going to be good. All four of his tormentors, Carlos Narcisco, Willie Washington, Luis Rodriguez, and Francine Wilson, were there. Carlos and Luis were giggling and trading arm punches, Francine was glaring angrily at the two girls in front of her, and Willie had his right hand cocked in the shape of a gun. He was pointing it at other kids and going, “Pow, pow, pow!” under his breath.
Fred chose to ignore it. “Okay, let’s go!” he barked. “If I hear any talking on the stairs, you can forget about gym today.”
This was one of the many threats he used. The kids looked forward to gym because it got them out of the classroom for forty-five minutes. Fred looked forward to it even more than they did. In gym all he had to do was watch the boys play basketball and the girls jump rope and make sure no one tried to kill anybody.
He knew if he took gym away he was punishing himself as well, which was why he only did it once or twice. Just enough to keep the threat going, and it usually worked.
Another reason they were quiet walking up the stairs, at least in the back of the line, was Bob Polanski right behind them with his class. Fred was grateful for small favors.
He unlocked the door and stood stern-faced as they filed past him, a facial expression he’d actually worked on in front of a mirror.
He’d learned that the best chance to do anything was in the first hour, when they were still too tired from sleep to get their full destructive rhythm going. He opened the social studies textbook to the latest chapter. Ironically, they actually had thirty brand-new social studies books available to the class, but they were sixth-grade level, so no one in the class could read them.
“Get out your notebooks,” he said, quickly scanning the first paragraph about the Aztecs. The kids groaned, as always.
“Cortez conquered Mexico in 1519,” Fred announced. He wrote it on the blackboard, watching to make sure they were all copying it. They weren’t, of course, not nearly.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” he ordered them. “If I don’t see everyone writing in ten seconds, I’m giving you a slime ball.”
They hated those words. A slime ball was a demerit, in the system he had going. It was his fragile lifeline to sanity. They feared slime balls because if they got ten of them, denoted by little circles on the blackboard, there’d be some kind of punishment, like no gym or no folk singing.
Yes, even folk singing was part of this bizarre carrot-and-stick world. He’d brought his guitar in one day, and it was like a miracle. He’d sung them a couple of songs and taught them a couple of others, and they totally loved it.
It was like a movie scene, where the teacher has a sudden breakthrough, and joy and order reign supreme from then on.
Right. He got slightly less of a reaction the next time he did it. And the time after that, it was like old news. But threatening to take it away, he discovered, made them want it.
“Eight. Nine…” He moved toward the slime ball section of the blackboard as most of the kids scrambled to open their notebooks and get out their pens.
He’d learned to keep the count climbing early. You didn’t want them to get cocky as the day wore on, just because there were only a couple of slime balls up there. You had to keep them on edge or it meant nothing.
He picked up the piece of chalk, to the growing consternation of the class, preparing to draw the first circle of the day. As he did, he looked over his shoulder at the “fearsome foursome” to see how they were reacting to this.
Three of them were doing more or less what he expected. Carlos and Luis, sitting as far away from each other as he could possibly put them, were making faces across the room and trading obscene gestures, while Willie Washington hadn’t moved. He was just staring out the window.
Francine Wilson, to his amazement, actually had her notebook open and her pen in hand.
“Carlos, Luis, and Willie!” he said, holding the chalk against the blackboard. “Get those notebooks open right now or everyone will blame you for this.”
He’d found that setting the rest of the class against them once in a while got results. But like everything else, he had to be careful not to overdo it. This time it happened to work.
“Come on, come on!” the others whined at them. “What’s-a-matta wit’ you? We gon’ get a slime ball!”
“Hey,” Willie answered, “don’t you give me no orders!” But he took out his notebook anyway, as did the other two. Whether or not they wrote in those notebooks would be another thing.
Fred glanced down at Francine, who was busily copying the sentence from the board, and wondered what had come over her. Why was she behaving today?
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, he warned himself as he scanned the rest of the page in the social studies book.
“Okay, Cortez conquered Mexico in 1519,” Fred continued, starting to write the next sentence on the board. “In July of that year, he took over the city of Veracruz.”
“Move!” said an angry voice behind him.
He turned in surprise. It was Francine Wilson. She was glaring at him.
“What?” he said, stunned. “What did you say to me?”
“I said, ‘Move!’ I can’t see the board! You’re in my way!”
“Oooh,” went the class.
Fred looked into her furious eyes. He’d never seen such pure, primal rage. This twelve-year-old girl, he realized, would actually kill him if she could. It was a frightening thought.
“Francine,” he said gently, trying to keep his voice steady, “just wait until I’ve moved to the side. It’ll be okay.”
It did not calm her in the least.
“You told me to write down all this stupid stuff!” she yelled at him. “That’s what I’m tryin’ to do! Then you stand right in front of me so’s I can’t do it?” She closed her notebook. “You know what? Screw you!”
“Oooh,” went the class, even louder.
“Watch your mouth,” he said. It was all he could think of.
“You tell him, Francine!” yelled Carlos Narcisco.
“You tell him!” echoed Luis Rodriguez.
Then Willie Washington put his two cents in. “Yeah, why do we have to keep writin’ all this stupid crap all the time? Who says we have to? She’s right. Screw you!” With a sweep of his hand, he knocked the notebook off his desk.
Now everyone was murmuring, like a lynch mob in a western. Two other boys knocked their notebooks to the floor.
These were big kids, some of whom outweighed him. Half of them had been in sixth grade the year before and had been left back, so they were really junior high school kids, physically if not mentally.
He had the crazy urge to bolt from the room, to run and get Bob Polanski. It seemed less crazy by the second.
A chant was starting now, led by Willie Washington. “Screw you! Screw you!” Some of the kids began pounding their desks and stamping their feet.
His panicky eyes darted about the room. Then he saw the notice on his desk, the one he’d picked up at the mailbox.
“TAKE COVER!” he screamed. “NUCLEAR ATTACK! TAKE COVER!”
“Take cover” drills had been part of their lives since kindergarten. Whenever the teacher said, “Take cover!” it was instinctive. They dove under their desks and hunkered down, which is just what they did now. Everyone, including Willie, Carlos, Luis, and Francine.
The room became silent, except for some squirming and a few nervous giggles. Linda Cavarotti’s words came back to him. “We could all be dead tomorrow.”
Was this what it had come to? Was this how he was going to spend his last few, precious hours on Earth? He wanted to weep in self-pity.
But instead, he got angry.
“All right,” he said, drawing out the words, “listen up and listen good. In case you haven’t noticed it, there isn’t a single person in this school who wants to be here. Not the principal; he’s already submitting applications to get himself transferred. Not the teachers; they’re doing this because they have to put in the time before they can get hired by a better school.
“Certainly not me. I was supposed to be a famous folk singer, not a glorified prison guard.
“Maybe Mr. Polanski likes it here, but that’s because he’s a sadist. That’s a word you probably don’t know, but you can look it up sometime in that big dictionary we keep in the back of the room. The one we taught you to hate because we teachers are stupid enough to make you look up words as a punishment.
“We do lots of stupid things like that. And we do them because you, and especially you, don’t want to be here either. And I don’t blame you one bit.”
He realized what he was actually doing. He was talking to them and they were listening. Is this what it took?
“But now it all might not matter. The Russian ships are approaching our ships, and we’re closer at this moment to a nuclear war than we’ve ever been. So it’s possible that school will be over for good today. Along with everything and everyone else.”
He could hear some of the girls starting to cry.
“But in case we all happen to find ourselves alive on Monday morning, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to appreciate it. I’ll be overjoyed to come in here, to this cruddy job in this ignorance factory. That’s how glad I’ll be. Glad to be alive!
“We may not like what our lives are, but they’re the only lives we’ve got.”
He couldn’t see their faces. The room was completely quiet.
“And we’re the only ones who can make our lives better. Parents can’t do it for us, teachers can’t do it, and especially not wise-guy friends. We have to do it for ourselves.
“And I’ll tell you a secret: If that’s the only thing you learn in this place, you’ll be a lot smarter than most people.”
He looked around the room for a final time.
“Okay, all clear.”
They slowly crawled out from under the desks.