I burst through the double doors back at the top of the stairs. I mean to stop and open the door for what will hopefully be the arrival of a merely late, not absent sub next door to me, but I see a large, dark head in front of the classroom. His stylish goatee, almost regal bearing, and dark blue uniform mark him as a man among the boys even before I can see the actual word, security, stenciled across his back. Ahead of him a group of tightly packed minor trouble makers whisper to each other and walk quickly past me to get out of his line of sight. As if to erase all trace of doubt about who is in charge, he booms out in a deep, manly voice that cuts right through the hallway noise. “Let’s go,” he says. “Keep moving. Put your things in your lockers and get to class. Put away those hoodies and get going. The bell’s about to ring.”
His name is Tydell and all the kids have shortened Mr. Tydell into Mr. T. Even with the fairly recent reboot movie, they and he too are all too young to connect that nickname to a certain gold chain wearing, mohawk sporting muscleman, but I chuckle at the irony. “Good morning Mr. E,” he says and shakes my hand in a traditional handshake.
I grasp his hand warmly and echo back, “Good morning Mr. T.”
Keys jangle, the door opens, and kids are entering the still sub-less English teacher’s room as Mr. T is already in fluid motion. The moment he turns the corner, as if they were hiding behind the wall waiting for him to leave, a new group of miscreants comes around the other corner pushing a frail looking sixth grader in front of them. I fold my arms across my chest, make my face impassive, and take one, then two, then three slow measured steps towards them. One of the pack is a wild card, a new transfer student from the DR – we get a lot of these. He is tall with a wild mane of black shiny hair swept up into a fauxhawk making him seem even taller. He sneers as he steps forward in my direction, but I hear a whispered murmur from a familiar face and the words, “karate teacher” and they turn back the way they came leaving the skinny kid they were taunting to me. I sigh at the reference as Karate is one of the few martial arts I have never studied, but I since am built more like Mr. Miyagi from the original Karate Kid than Bruce Lee, I accept the honorific. Besides, it gets the gang moving away from me and my new little friend.
The kid is a sixth grader, a good student who is not in one of my math classes so I don’t know his name. He is visibly shaking and making groaning noises that he doesn’t seem to be aware of. I put my hand lightly on the kids’ shoulder. “Are you ok?” I ask, concerned.
“No,” he says with equal parts relief and anger.
I find it in me to laugh gently and pat his shoulder gingerly, removing my hand quickly as he glares at me. “I mean are you hurt? Do you need to go to the nurse?”
Getting it now, he rewards me with a half-smile. “No,” he repeats, “I’m fine.” But there is something in his eyes that makes me keep talking to him.
“You don’t have to take that you know,” I say. “Nobody should have to come to school scared. We have rules against bullying. You should talk to one of the guidance counselors. I could come with you if you like.”
“No,” he says again but he seems to be thinking about it. He starts moving his head back and forth and I can almost hear his inner dialogue as he weighs his desire for revenge against the real or implied threat of being branded a snitch against whatever pseudo-mini-gang those boys belong to. His mouth starts working and then stops and I know what he’s going to say before he says it. “No,” he says with finality. Then, more warmly, “Thank you Mr. E.” I may not know him but it seems he knows me. The bell rings and he hurries off to class, not wanting to be marked tardy.
“That’s the bell,” I say in my loud, strict teacher voice to the far too many kids who could care less about being marked tardy that are still in the hall. “Go to class.” I stop in front of the dark grey door to my homeroom and an image of a huge maw, like a whale comes unbidden to my brain. This place is eating at my soul. I can’t even count how many of my former colleagues it has already taken from me and I don’t know how long I can hold it off. The door seems cold and forbidding before me like it will swallow me up if I enter, and I will lose myself forever in the deepening quagmire that is our school. It is overwhelming me with so many state tests to grade and prepare for, ever changing lesson plan formats, 504s, IEPs, and more and more until it feels like an ocean of quicksand from which there is no escape.
As I swallow my feelings and step into my room I scan the faces for a trace of a smile to help lift me up, but I do not find it. I feel lost and alone, but I try to mean it as I loudly give voice to what’s left of my optimism, say “Good morning” to my homeroom class, and steel myself for the rest of the day.