Teaching isn’t easy. Certainly not in Jersey City. I might as well say it at the start, I hate it. It’s hard to be among the young.
The first day is nerve-racking. It’s not just the paperwork and the chaos, it’s the know-it-all office staff who hesitate to look up when they’re speaking and the department chair in his blue blazer. No, it’s the entire abomination. It’s a circus before the ungrateful. Surly children of the privileged, if not by birth, then by training. They want it all right now. Social class is irrelevant.
I stand there like as ass, trying to teach writing. Ha. Twelve stupid girls demanding “A’s”. They are ready to put out, up to a point. “Does it have to be 1000 words? What about 950?” Blah, blah, blah. They are united in their contempt for me. They want the hunk teaching business administration in Room 113. He is known to do hand-stands in the corridor. I’d be lucky to stand on my head. At least they are fairly docile; there is no chatty-Cathy. I drone on. Blah, blah, blah. “Don’t forget to proof read.”
Day three, end of the first week. We are in full sail. I’ve learned their names, as if it matters: Kaylee, Allison, Mackenzie, Skylar, Piper are among them, not that they’re especially memorable. They more or less turn in the same papers. Where are the Vernas, Sarahs or Helens, I ask? Where do they study? These spend more money on their nails than on books. It isn’t that they lack intelligence. They lack innocence. They are already “married.” Like Alabama farm girls from before the war, they couple at the first sign of puberty. By 20 they are jaded. What could I teach them?
What is there to write about? Life isn’t a mystery to these youngsters. They’ve seen it all. What is the point? They have nothing to say. I’m all ears, but they’ve already said it. Education for them is a matter of going through the motions, like faking orgasms. “Yeah, right. Whatever.” The teacher stands in the way of people on their way. One girl said, “Oh, yeah? That’s just your opinion. My mother says it deserves an ‘A’.”
I feel sick. Suddenly, there is a loud knock and the classroom door swings open. In blunders an enormous lad who commences to rearrange the desks which have been set in rows. He moves the back seats in his effort to find one he likes. He must weigh 500 pounds. Eventually, he sits. I think to myself, why me? He is black.
So, okay. We speak after class. It is the final day of registration. He’s missed 3 classes. He could make up what he has missed. I give him the first assignment. I want some descriptive writing, a story. Something on the order of 1000 words, a draft. We will be doing peer editing, so if he could get the draft in to me by Wednesday, I could hand it to Cinderella or one of her sisters. Fair enough.
I like him immediately, but as pleasant as he seems, I have never gotten used to having students like him who never read a thing, never carry a book, never enter a bookstore, and seem totally uninterested in the theatre or film. Not unlike most of my students in New Jersey, Darryl’s idea of a good film seems to be Jaws or Star Wars. He calls them classics. But he surprises me. I am pleased when he says he loves “blacksploitation” films like Shaft. We even talk a little about that movie, one I had seen years earlier with Sharon Gold, a leading San Francisco activist, who once ran the People’s Law School in Haight-Ashbury. I remember that she and her friends believed the revolution was just around the corner – back in the 70s – and would be led by people like the “great” actor, Richard Roundtree. I tell Darryl that I agree with him that Shaft was ground-breaking. He tells me Tarantino is fantastic, too. His favorite is Jackie Brown.
As much as I had liked Darryl at our first meeting, I like him a lot more a few days later when he hands in his first assignment. He followed my directions. His paper looks good. Who knew? I am very big on getting kids to deliver the goods. It is well-formatted and over 1200 words. Its title is “Just Down the Block.” I make a record and pass it on to one of Darryl’s classmates, whose responsibility is to summarize the piece, check for spelling, and answer a few questions about the introduction and conclusion. When she has completed the task, she hands it back. I then take it home to read.
I read it that night and cry. It is about boys in Darryl’s neighborhood, a rough part of Jersey City, who pay $5 to line up at the door of an old toothless woman who provides drop-in sexual services. The boys are invited in one by one. When they get impatient or somebody tries to cut in line, she cries out, “Ya’ll stop that rough-housing, you hear? I won’t have it.” Each lad is in and out in less than fifteen minutes. The story is exquisitely crafted and very funny. I howl. The toothless granny is a hoot. The nervous kids make me laugh. He describes in hilarious detail the old lady’s bobbing head. “Down, down, down; up, up, up.” He even gives her a little her pipe.
The next time I see Darryl we have a long private talk, a real heart-to-heart. The head of the creative writing program, he explains, has placed him on administrative probation. He is soon to be kicked out because Dr. Cynthia Armstrong warned him about his choice of topic and told him that if he ever wrote about explicit sexual matters again, he’d be thrown out. His work, she said, was “inappropriate” for the university. The department would not allow the use of profanity in student writing. There were to be no more “four-letter” words in any assignments or else.
Darryl asks me for advice. I tell him how much I enjoyed his story and praise him. As a part-time teacher, I explain, I can do little for him. I will certainly not enforce any of those rules in my class. I think, I say, such matters should be left to the discretion of the teacher. I knew of no such rules in the university proper. Perhaps I was wrong. I go on to suggest that he continue to write freely but consider submitting his work to commercial outlets. I tell him I assume there is a market for such skillful writing. We are together for about an hour. He strikes me as a serious young man with real talent. He speaks as he writes, in a distinctly urban voice, which is colorful but rough. I tell him I will look forward to reading his next assignment. I give him an “A.”
In class the following week, Darryl is a no-show. I have to say I am a bit disappointed. I have the other students work in pairs and do some brain-storming in preparation for their next assignment. It must be said the girls are being cooperative enough and are making an honest effort. They come to class, go through the motions but, now that I look back, were probably copying from the internet. I was not sufficiently alert to this problem at this stage of my career.
The next time I see Darryl he looks dreadful. As before, he enters late and makes a commotion in his effort to find a seat. And, again, he sits in the back all by himself. I try to engage him, but he is nonresponsive. He does hand in his assignment though, and I am glad to get it. He turns in a rather long piece. Eight of the pages are type-written and there are two more stapled to the back, both hand-written in pencil. He tells me later he finished the piece on the bus.
I read it while sitting in my car in the university parking lot, as I down a cold pastrami sandwich. The piece has no title. In fact, he has written “Does It Need a Title?” across the top of the page. It’s about a policeman who demands sexual favors from female drivers in exchange for his promise to ignore their driving violations. He threatens them with reckless-driving in addition to whatever else might pertain – speeding or running a red light – so that their tickets amount to close to $400 plus points. All this the cop promises to make disappear if the woman agrees to follow him back to an abandoned building in Journal Square not too far from Loew’s Jersey Theatre.
What is particularly striking about this piece is the absence of the sort of sex-talk that often accompanies such practices. Darryl does have the cop speak throughout the exchange but instead of talking filth, he has the cop talk about his childhood. He tells her all about his mother who often forgot to pick him up after school when he was a child or about the time she turned out all the lights in the house while he was sitting alone in the bathtub. The policeman, the author points out, never raises his voice. He always speaks in a loud whisper. In the end, one of his victims tells her boyfriend and he takes her down to the police station. The cop is arrested and gets kicked off the force. The story ends with the ex-cop returning to his favorite parking lot near the old movie palace. He sits in his car masturbating, talking about a childhood outing to the local shopping mall. Something happened in the men’s room and as a result he can no longer bring himself to stand at a public urinal. This too is said in a whisper.
After the mid-term Darryl and I meet one last time. I never see Darryl after that. He just stops coming to class. I never find out what happened. We talk this time about his third assignment. I accept the piece, but I am curious as to why he has ignored my rather specific instructions. I am struck by the young man’s honesty. He has in fact not written the piece for me, he confesses. The play he turns in was in fact written for another class, but his teacher refused to grade the piece because of the appearance in it of the N-word. This word rendered the piece unacceptable according to the instructor whose name Darryl prefers to keep to himself.
The play although not as interesting as his other submissions nonetheless catches my eye.
In it, the main character who is black is asked by one of his teachers to accuse his white teacher of sexual molestation. (“Just tell Mrs. Jackson she always be at you.”) The boy refuses, and his black teacher calls him “a lazy nigger.” (“You can’t do nothing right.”) The dialogue is a little stilted, but what stands out is the boy’s affection for his white teacher and his willingness to suffer humiliating insults from his math teacher rather than betray her, “Miss Portrayal,” who was the first teacher to ever show the boy kindness. In its own way, the piece packs a punch.
Toward the end of the term, I receive my termination notice. I will not be reassigned classes for next semester. No explanation is offered. The office secretary reminds me that adjuncts are never guaranteed renewal. Perhaps, somebody has spoken against me. Of course, I wonder if I might have said the wrong thing to Darryl. Who knows? That’s just the way it goes, as they used to say, or in today’s parlance, “fuck it.” Teaching is, as I said before, not an easy job.
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