Wednesday, February 21, 2007

No Smorking on the Subway

One of the best parts of living in NYC is waiting over a week for someone from Time Warner to come to my home and repair my internet.

Anyway, I’m back and with a fabulous story of my wonderful kids.

It was the end of a pretty average day, I was tired and a little hoarse from shouting…but generally no worse for wear. I was leaving the school and hopping onto an uptown train when I saw a pack of female students from my school a little farther down the car. I knew better than to initiate contact with the kids while outside school grounds, knowing that:

A. I’m not cool at all.
B. I have little authority in the classroom, and absolutely none in public.
C. Even I would have been a little weirded out being hailed by a teacher outside of the high school environment. (Think of that scene from Mean Girls where Tina Fey bumps into her students at the mall.)

So while my antennas were out and I knew the girls were there, I played my cards close to my chest and sat distant from them. (See diagram below)

Now, most of the girls in my school smoke; in the hallways, in the bathrooms, in the stairwell…they’re pretty blatant about it, and on the train several of them had cigarettes out. There was a very stodgy old woman sitting across from me on the train casting disgusted looks over at the students while they laughed and caroused raucously.

“Don’t you dare light that cigarette!” she shouted at the girls in a stern voice.

Oh, brother! I thought. I was seriously feeling pretty defensive towards my kids, of course they know better than to smoke in the subway. Maybe I have been working with minority students too long, but I can get real uppity when I sense irritating injustice…would the lady have spoken up if it were just some white kids instead? Mentally, I rolled my eyes at the elderly woman but said nothing. At least I did until one of the students acknowledged my presence with a hearty hale “Sup, Ms. C?!”

Of course the old lady equated me as their teacher and made a bee-line for the empty seat next to mine.

“Do you TEACH these kids?” she demanded, looking me up and down. I nodded and said yes, not seeing any way out of the conversation.

“HOW?” she snuffed emphatically. And let me add, indignant facial frowns add wrinkles.

How could I respond to this question? I felt loyalty towards these students, hell-bent as they may be. “With patience, understanding and sometimes with prayers,” I told the older woman, hoping that my Yoda-esque response would sate her and make her go away. I just wanted to go home.

“God bless you!” she said to me. Sadly, after that I couldn’t hold onto my moral outrage any longer and explained how the children can’t have all the blame…that the environment and bad/no parenting all mix and create the problem behaviors. I then confidently told her that the girls were good kids at heart, and conspiratorially told the old bag that the kids wouldn’t really start smoking on the train.

So of course, because of my pride, I’m wrong and the girls light up. And not just one or two, but FIVE cigarettes are being passed around. As the subway car grew dusky with the smoke I sighed, working up the resolve to live up the term TEACHER and admonish their behavior. (I felt like such an idiot, and if the lady wasn’t there to judge me, or if I hadn’t come off as the Holy, Helpful teacher I probably would have just changed cars.)

“Guys, that’s really not a good idea. Someone’s gonna end up calling the cops. You guys can’t wait to smoke until you get outside?” I tried calmly appealing to their common sense, meanwhile I’m thinking: Oh god, I’m such a loser…these girls aren’t going to listen to me, I’m going to look impotent and lame. Great.

And the girls laugh, like I knew they would. Though, they didn’t specifically blow smoke in my face like I assumed they would. I ended up hailing a cop upon my exit, partially because the smoke was stinging my eyes and partially out of frustration for my inability to do anything.

Moral of story: If you’re caught practically bragging about being a teacher in poor, urban areas…prepare to back it up with actions, even if it ends up with you looking like a fool.



Blogger CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

Sometimes we teachers fall into the trap of (secretly) believing that we are both omniscient and omnipotent: Of course our students will listen to us; we're the teacher for goodness' sake! And then we are confronted with situations over which we have absolutely no control--such as your students lighting up in the subway. Those experiences are sometimes painfully humiliating, occasionally humbling, and almost always humanizing. So don't be too hard on yourself. You did what you could (which wasn't much), and proved that you are human--just like the rest of us. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007 6:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I envisioned the Mean Girls scene when I was having a meeting with my supervisor today. We were discussing the likelihood of me getting an earth science teaching position after I get certified. He mentioned something about getting a part-time gig to establish myself in the school... I was thinking, "Aw cripe. I'm going to have to work two jobs... PJ Calamity's here I come!"

Eventually I want to teach in urban schools... so I'll keep reading your blog to see if I can learn a few things from you, or at least, have a better idea of what I'll eventually be getting myself into.

Have a good one!

Thursday, February 22, 2007 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Schoolgal said...

I really believe this woman would have made the same comment to white students.

I agree with her 100% when she said, "God bless you!" (or have you forgotten about Mark?)

Monday, February 26, 2007 1:33:00 PM  

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