December 2010, a rainy day at Los Padrinos, and I was a roving teacher for the day. Plastic hoodies abounded, for the juvenile inmates wear these overgrown plastic sacks to stay dry.
For the latter part of the day, I assisted another substitute, who was assigned to the class long-term for Mr. T. Mr. M was a quiet Nigerian man, possessed of a grand eloquence, but when it came to classroom management, I feared the worst for him. I never saw him in action except for that one day, just before the Christmas break, and I could not believe the wicked rebelliousness that broke out from certain students that day.
That group was one jumpy group. The principal paid a brief visit just to keep the students at bay. The mid-morning class contained about seventeen students, one of whom gave me a real hard time. For about fifteen minutes, he contended himself to take extra papers and manila folders, while the long-term substitute teacher, Mr. T., said nothing.
I had confronted the kid about taking all of those supplies ten minutes earlier, but he had waved me off, a minor moment of disrespect that I was not prepared for. I confronted Mr. T. about the matter, and he told me plainly that the minor should not have been taking so much from the storage cupboard at the back of the room in the first place. Still, the assigned teacher did nothing.
"I can't let him get away with taking all of that stuff," I stated emphatically, confronting the kid, who was about to sit down, with a stack of lined paper and about ten manila folders on the desk.
"You cannot take so much paper," I started out, taking some of the supplies back. Flying into a rage, he became so argumentative that I had probation take him away:
"You four-eyed f-gg-t!" he shouted at me, getting up close, threatening to almost punching me, but I was not shaken up at all. In fact, I felt very strong, glad that finally someone was standing up to this kid, not letting him get away with anything.
After that mid-morning session ended, the students lined up to go to lunch. Cold and pouring rain, the whole hall looked drenched and dreary, yet not enough to persuade me in the slightest to feel sorry for any one of them. Everyone one of the minors lined up, covered in their make-shift plastic rainjackets. Then that one minor lined up, third in place, and quickly he stuck his middle finger up at me. I refused to let him get away with it. Right away I moved up to the front of that line and spoke to the probation officer in charge of the unit:
"That kid," I pointed him out, still smiling slightly, "He just flipped me off!"
"Alright, sir," the officer responded, making a note on his clipboard, "We'll take care of it." A minor triumph for me, and I was glad to do it. No one should get away with anything. At the time, after having suffered so many slights and setbacks in comprehensive schools in the South Bay, I just refused to be a punching bag for students' disrespect, and at Los Padrinos, I had to make sure that nothing slipped by.
The lunch hour was a worthy respite for substitute teachers like me, since I did not have to grade papers or plan for the next period, or the rest of the week, for that matter. Lunch at LP was nice, an hour and a half to take it easy. I would need as much pause and peace as possible to prepare for the afternoon session. For the next hour, Mr. T. gave me the scoop about how things can get really difficult at LP, every teacher has to keep eyes wide open, make sure that no one student attempts to attack another.
"These kids are all from rival gangs. One kid will attack another, and the kid who gets jumped will not say who hurt him. Some students will come up to you and try to distract you," he continued. "But you have to keep your eyes open all the time, all the time."
The next group of students marched in for the afternoon class. I kept in mind everything that Mr. T. had told me, but apparently he failed to follow his own advice. The teacher had prepared the lessons for the students to work on. I took the time just to move around the room, check up on students' work. Sometimes, students would share with me what school they had come from, and there were those students how offered to tell me why the got locked up.
One kid had stolen a teacher's cellphone -- grand theft. There as a Filipino student near the back, a quiet kid. I was surprised to see an Asian student in Los Padrinos, as the juvenile population was predominantly Latino or Black. I asked him why he was there.
"I got into a fight with my little brother," he started out. "I threw a knife at him to scare him away from something, but it cut his arm." He then explained how this tiff broke out after his family had eaten dinner at home." When my little brother went to school next week, his teacher asked about the cut on his arm, she reported it to the police. The cops came to my house and arrested me."
If this kid was telling me the truth, I could not think of a worse example of government overreach. This arrest made no sense at all! Then again, for anyone to throw a knife at someone else, even if just to scare somebody.
After talking with that student, I noticed that most of the other inmates had finished their work. Some of them were getting restless. I took out my French sheets to share with the students, and I began sharing with them some pithy French phrases that they could say to their girlfriends. Most of what they wanted to know how to say, I cannot write here for public perusal, of course.
Still, some of the students started getting more agitated, upset, two or three students were moving around the room as they pleased. The class was getting out of hand. The teacher had not prepared any supplemental work, so I started drawing for the students. Some of them were pretty skilled at graffiti art, writing out their names or the names of loved ones. Still, the class was getting noisier, and assigned probatioon staff outside stepped in for quiet.
"You guys need to keep it down," one of the lady staff said to some of the minors from her unit. "You guys are getting too loud." I was surprised to hear these kids responding to her, as if they had the authority to answer back at all. For the first time, I noticed that some probation staff took a friendly, conciliatory approach to dealing with the students, one which I would later deem was completely inappropriate.
When another student started getting out of hand, I pulled him outside briefly, telling him to get his act together, He smiled briefly and promised to quiet down. By then, however, the Filipino kid started break-dancing on the ground. The point of no return hit, however, when one of four students took a video tape and tossed it at Mr. T. hitting the bookcase right behind him.
At that point, a stocky probation officer stormed in, a sudden rush that shook me for its surprising suddenness.
"What the hell's going on in here?!" He barked out. Quickly he turned to the back of the room, near one of the windows, where one of the minors had been laughing it up with another minor:
"Now you KNOW what I'll do to you if you don't get your act together!" he bellowed, pointing him out, almost stabbing. The little gang-banger turned into a timid kitten, and meekly cried out, "Yes Sir!" He was still cowering quietly in the corner, when he turned on the one student whom I had redirected a few minutes earlier."
He crouched up to him like a tiger pouncing on easy prey, "What's the matter with you, boy! I'm Old School! I ought to slap every tooth out of your mouth, because your Momma didn't raise you right!" He then started poking the kid in the face, who grimaced with humiliation, then quieted down. The whole class shut down into silence. Another probation officer entered the room, called out directly: "Unit L, let's go. Unit P, move." Slowly, students filed out of the room, but not before "Old School", who lurched out, practically swinging his heavy arms like dumbbells ready to drop on any student who threatened to get out of line.
The whole scene shook me from top to bottom. At first, I was definitely shocked because he pressed his index finger in one of the kid's faces. I was taught from Day One: "Don' Touch the Kids!" "Ever!" It was the cardinal rule, not to touch a student for any reason. But "Old School" did not care about such fussy little rules, especially when minors were getting out of hand. He was a pro, worked at Los Padrinos for many years, and he was not going to let one minor, whether it was his or some other staff member's responsibility, get away with anything while he was on watch.
I felt really bad -- the class should never had gotten so turned up, I told myself. Briefly, I confronted Mr. T: "You need to have something planned for them to work on when the finish. You cannot let students sit and idle away the time. They will get into trouble, and fast." Mr. T. nodded, packing up his belongings. He was not really listening, it seemed. I think that like me, he was just glad that he could get out of there with his body in piece.
While driving home in the rain, I still thought over "Old School's" lightning take-down of that afternoon class. I was offended, in a way, that he would burst in so violently. Sadly, I reacted in so condescending a manner in large part because I was beaten down, conditioned to put up with students disrespect for so long, so full of self-doubt after so many mistakes and mishaps over the past two years of my life. At that point, I found myself just floating through life, putting up with whatever life was throwing at me.
"Old School" taught me the importance of outrage. Student misconduct and outright rebellion cannot be tolerated. These kids do not get the boundaries or the follow-through from their parents or their public schools. Then they come to juvenile hall, where most teachers are more afraid for their paychecks than the inmates' future. The last thing that these students need is more pity, or another chance. Teachers need to get angry again, they need to muster their own "Old School", not take any nonsense from students. Instead of worrying about hurting the students' feelings, or breaking a law or two, every adult in the public education field needs to focus on the long-term: are we serving these kids, whether free or incarcerated, by letting them get away with anything, with everything?
"I'm Old School!" that stocky probation officer had thundered. We need more people like him in the juvenile centers, in our public schools, who are not afraid to meet the challenge and mete out severe justice with reprobate brats who can be salvaged.