I’m standing on one foot; leg quivering slightly, the sweat is no longer just in my pits, it’s a wet ring expanding to the size of a sand dollar, darkening my Arrow shirt. On the board in my handwriting, Violence is the answer. The words simply arranged to spur discussion, debate. We are moving towards Sherman, the scorched earth policy, total war, weeks later we’ll compare Grant to Truman, and the dropping of the A bomb, but I always start with psychology, especially with this class, my basic section. When friends ask what I teach, I reply, United States History, AP, College Track, Basic. Basic basically means that the students show up, sometimes stoned, sometimes with weapons (knives, brass knuckles, that kind of stuff), rarely focused, a few barely literate. Raymond is also sweating, we’re 20 minutes into class, his leg looks wobbly. Raymond is the center for the football team; he keeps coming to class late, my pleas falling flat. 11th grade, 16, 17 years old, they’re all systemized, stigmatized; I’m the public school bureaucracy, handing out tardies. He’s a tough, kinesthetic kid; I needed to lose the script. I bet you put your foot down before me, I say when he comes in late. I wanted him to do push-ups, but that seemed like a step too far, now we’re in this one-foot thing together. Violence is the answer, if Gandhi got shot, he’s dead, then what? says Patricia. I hop over towards Brian who has his hand up. People talk about peace, but what about us making nukes? Only peace because we might blow someone up, he says. How many of you could burn someone’s house down in front of them, watch a child’s teddy bear become smoke, you holding the torch yourself? I ask. No one says they could do it, they’ve almost forgotten about Raymond and me, we’re all in the moment, thinking about destruction’s role in history. There are no rules in war, Phil says. So, if you could, you’d poison the water supply for the entire South? Kill all the toddlers, dogs and horses? I ask. Phil starts to squirm. No, no, there should be rules against that. But why? I counter. 35 minutes into class and Raymond is puffing, flushed, swaying, about to topple. He finally puts his foot down, gives me a grin, sits at his desk. My face is dripping sweat, I jump over, shake his hand, please don’t be late again. I won’t, he says. I stay on one foot for the rest of the 55-minute class, the bell rings, they walk out still debating, I hear one of them say, violence isn’t the answer.
October 16th, 1997, I arrive at Malcolm X Elementary in Hunter’s Point to sub a 4th grade class, I’m the 19th substitute they’ve had in nineteen days. The original teacher quit after being punched by a student. I don’t have a credential; I haven’t been in a 4th grade classroom since I was 10. I hear them before I open the door, the shouts, the taunting, the loud fuck yous. When I walk in, they momentarily pause, look me up and down, then ignore me. There is Brandy whose grandmother recently died, sullen. Herman, who has already been drunk, has the nickname Bad Boy. Randy, a former crack baby, has impulse control issues, hits other kids, then forgets why. Gabe, who will look me in my eyes, ask me if I can find his father. Ralphie, who came into 4th grade unable to read and will leave the same way. June, whose mother I will stop from whoopin’ Ralphie’s little butt. Jasmine, who I let sleep for the first two hours of school, because she stays awake during the late night drug deals at her apartment. Rachel has a dad who fights pit bulls, he threatens to bitch slap one of my colleagues. Bevaun, who I take hiking on Mount Diablo, likes to sing doo-wop with me. Thuy stays in my class for one week before her parents have the foresight to get her transferred out. Gene, who will threat to kill me, throws chairs, eventually is sent to another school. Then there is Ozzie, he is homeless, lives in a car, will fight anyone, fearless. There are a total of 23 kids, five barred windows, and one me. I start by being bigger, louder, but they know that one, that is all they know. One day I just close my eyes, sit in the center of the room, quiet. The mornings get better, math, language arts, multiplication, some writing, except for Ralphie, he sits singing to himself. Before Christmas we practice our song for the show, I hear love in my voice, in some of their voices too. The rain, the rain, the rain, we have recess inside, everyday. When it is wet out, they sit next to me at lunch, ask why I eat tomatoes. Spring, I take them to Glen Canyon Park and Mount Diablo, we do solo sits, some fall asleep, curled up by oak trees. Summer arrives and they leave, what have they learned? I will never know, I’m off to Paraguay and grad school. Years go by and I start to google them. Thuy is a teacher, Brandy graduated from SF State. Gabe is in lock up for drug distribution, Aamir for assault and battery. And Bevaun, my Life Could Be A Dream doo-wop partner; he’s dead, shot in a drive by. Most of them have probably forgotten me years ago, but I will never forget them, my first class.
-All the names in this piece have been changed.