By Jared Alan Smith
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My hand shakes fumbling for the keys to my 2nd period classroom. I already asked my co-teacher if I could take the first thirty minutes of class for an improvised exercise. I then realized I had left my lunch at home and beat a hasty retreat back to my house to get it before 1st period planning ended. Crossing the intersection in front of the school, I walked in front of a large white box truck with the county logo on the side; the driver honked and rolled past me, the words “Community Enrichment” and “Graffiti Abatement” written next to each other in big black letters on the side of the cargo hold.
I have taught graffiti in my classes. The book I used said on its back cover that tags were the “last stronghold of refined penmanship,” so I recommended it to an artist I met last month after I’d gotten it back from one of my students. My behavior management system, a non-negotiable instructional tool required by my administration, is written on the walls of my rooms in the handstyle of Freedom, an artist out of New York City. He pioneered Broadway-style tags in the seventies and eighties from the depths of the subway. I was drawn to his work by the disconnected horizontal of his “TOPCAT T,” and when I read that he liked it “when things transcended the movement—like school kids would use it and not know why,” I was sold.
“There you are,” my co-teacher says, pointing at me as she steps closer. “Did you get your lunch?”
“It was in the fridge in the TPA the whole time,” I say. “I’m losing my fucking mind.” Her stare back at me is blank. She has just lost so much more than I have; I cannot imagine the thoughts crawling like reanimated hair plugs along the interiorities of her skull. She tells me she will be back after she has made some copies. I nod and open the door to the classroom, where a geometry class is still in session.
“Hey mister! Mr. Smith!” It is Destiny, a student from my 6th period class. I walk over to her desk and squat beside it, whispering my apologies to the instructor behind the projector. “Can you believe Donald Trump is the fucking President?” she asks. She is making no effort to be quiet, and she pats the back of her head gently to stifle an itch. I can only see it out of the corner of my eye, as I am having trouble looking up. How do I tell her anything when it seems like every planet we reach is dead?
“No, no I can’t,” I say. She starts to respond, and I raise my hand to stop her. This is not my class. “We can’t talk about it now,” I say. “We’ll write about it in class.” My co-teacher for 6th period is going to end up disallowing that.
“I ain’t got shit to write Mr. Smith. I ain’t got nothing to say about this bullshit.”
“We both know that isn’t true,” I say. The power of art for me is that I know Destiny has not read Omi and Winant’s “Racial Formations,” but I do know she has seen and heard Beyoncé’s “Formation.” I do not tell her that I believe music to be the ultimate expression of mathematics. I say instead to pay attention to the projector screen. We all still have a job to do, and it’s our job to do it: it’s the “Patriot Way.” The other teacher and I are the only white people in the room, and I burn inwardly with my consciousness of our empowered positions.
It is quite possible that the man behind the projector voted for Trump. I have seen his holy-crossed neckties and know that, like me, he is strong in his opposition of the Common Core Standards our new President-elect supposedly seeks to abolish. Those standards drive a great many quality instructors into the abject poverty of adjunction. I take a seat at the dated particleboard desk in the back of the room and try to take in the other teacher’s lesson. He is dressed in fitted slacks and his coat hangs over the chair I am sitting in; it is “Dress for Success Day” and this man never fails to impress in that regard. I am not ashamed of my black jeans and battle-damaged Adidas. This day is not adding up for me: all I see is long division, with smaller and smaller numbers spitting out the bottom and ass ends of the equation until we are so far beyond the point it no longer matters.
“Which theorem proves congruency?” the teacher asks, hovering his cursor over the projected game board’s hashed sides and banded angles. “Angle-side-angle? Angle-angle-side?” The class remains silent. This teacher isn’t very popular, as he is not shy about failing kids. Maybe they’re just weak like me, and they don’t want to see any congruency today.
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The bell has rung, and my own students are now filtering into the classroom. I see a lot of empty seats. All I hear in the conversations are curses, “Trump” scattered among them.
“Alright people, listen up!” I hope to myself that they do not explode. “Quiet down, guys, quiet down and listen up!” Eventually, they do. My head buzzes for a moment, and I stare down at the wristband of my Citizen watch before continuing. “Everybody knows what happened last night,” I say. A few nod, and one in the back who goes by Scooby breaks into a chant for the victor. I hold up my hand to silence him, but I think it’s the stares of the other students that actually does the work.
“Man, fuck ya’ll,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest. The rest of the class giggles back at him.
“Okay, so . . .” They can see me searching for words. I rub the bridge of my nose and exhale. “Now, look. I have to admit that I’ve talked down about ya’ll to my other classes—“
“We know,” a small one in the front replies. I smile at him. Everybody knows each other here.
“Then you know I’ve taken to calling ya’ll savages,” I say. It’s the truth. I was just as savage when I was fourteen, if not more so. “I’m not going to act like this class happens in a vacuum, and that the stuff that goes on outside these walls doesn’t affect what we do on the inside.” Our shared teachable moment keeps them listening. “The point, I guess, is that this point right here, right now, is where you stop being savages,” I say, pointing at the ground with both fingers for emphasis, “. . . and start becoming citizens. Now, in the next election, every single one of you will be eligible to vote. Our entire curriculum this year is about ‘Coming of Age,’ which is a fancy white way of saying growing up.” The class allows itself a laugh, and I continue. “I think we all grew up a little last night, at least I hope we did. Does anybody need a stylo?”
“What’s a stylo?”
“A writing utensil,” I answer.
“We gonna write about this, aren’t we?”
“Yup.” The class moans in unison, smattered with cries of “I fuckin’ knew it!”
“Because we’re done talking about it. We can’t waste time arguing. This is a free-write, extra credit only. You cannot lose by writing. The more you put on the paper, the more points you get.” I go on to tell them that I will not be grading for spelling or punctuation. I tell them to write what they are thinking and feeling.
“Does it have to be like, school appropriate?” A young woman asks.
“No.” It is all I can do not to drop an F-bomb in the front of that sentence. Has Donald Trump ever been school appropriate? The next half-hour passes quickly, but the papers filter in nice and slow, and that allows me to read a few before we have to move on to our next exercise:
“I don’t like to disrespect elders, but I will disrespect him. I am happy that marijuana is legal, now my grandma can stop smoking cigarettes.” I hope it will steer her clear any potential opioid treatments in her future.
“I am still going into the military, not for him, but for me, my family, and the rest of the U.S. Citizens.” Will she fire on a U.S. citizen if her commander-in-chief says so? I think not.
“I am mad, agitated, frustrated, irritated, and just so overly pissed at this horrible decision. Because obviously our African-American / good-minded people’s votes don’t count.” Plus for vocabulary.
“God forgive me, but I hope he die because he’s no good . . . his name should have been “Donald Duke,” because that’s what he is.” That should be on Twitter. I’m not sure if that means I should add or subtract points.
“We all got to come together to make the U.S. a better place, we don’t need Trump!” Plus for accuracy.
“I don’t give a fuck about Trump . . . because he was talking about disabled people and making fun of them, I don’t give two fucks about Trump.” Check-plus.
“Excuse my texture, but these fucking people are stupid.” When I return his paper, I will ask him which ones. I will then try and explain why “texture” may have been a great choice of words.
“Even though people are playing and making jokes about the situation, I think we need to grow up and really take a better look at what just happened.” Double-plus good.
“He cannot deport us. We are legal American citizens. Everyone just sounds ignorant!” Points for accuracy.
“He wants to treat us like we are nothing, but I know we all are going to come up in life.” Points for precision.
“Why would you vote for a stupid, mean man that that dislikes people and wants to send them back where they came from? He’s not deporting absolutely no one, if he thinks people are playing with him, he better sit down somewhere.”
I laugh out loud at the last one, a cloud of unknowing settling over my troubled head. I collect the rest of the papers and tell the T.A. and co-teacher to pass out everyone’s books. We are right in the middle of To Kill a Mockingbird. Transition time between activities is always dicey, especially in a big class like this. Someone starts yelling “Trump!” and a student in the back rises from his seat.
“Come on muthafucka, we go outside and settle this right now!” he says. He is much larger than his opponent, and at least a year older.
“Man, it’s already over, I’mma beat you for fun! Leggo!” The co-teacher moves between them and raises her outstretched palms.
“Let’s go Scoob,” I say, motioning to the door. “Let’s go outside. Kee-Lo, sit down, you’re too old for this.” Scooby walks outside and removes his shirt. Neither would have dared swing with the co-teacher in the middle of them. She runs this show and they know it, just like the rest of us.
“I’ll kill him,” he says.
“Man, this is not something to fight over. You gonna do it, do it outside of school so ya’ll don’t get suspended. I need both of you in class.” He eventually relents and we return to the room.
“Okay, guys, beginning of chapter eight,” I say. A small smile cracks my face as I read ahead a line or two while they open to the proper page. I clear my throat and begin reading:
“For reasons unfathomable to the most experienced prophets in Maycomb County, autumn turned to winter that year . . . Mr. Avery said it was written on the Rosetta Stone that when children disobeyed their parents, smoked cigarettes, and made war on each other, the seasons would change . . .”
Some kind of nature that must be.
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Jared Alan Smith was born in Orlando and lives in Tampa, Florida, where he teaches Exceptional Student Education English Language Arts. His nonfiction has appeared in Burrow Press’ Fantastic Floridas series and his fiction in Issue 19 of Hinchas de Poesia. His chapbook Sure Shot: Collected Assays in Pulp is available here. He is easier to find on Facebook than in real life.