Detroit Diary September 19
Upon ending The Diaries back in 2005. I embarked on an elementary student-teaching experience at an American military base in Okinawa, Japan. Here I was teamed up with an angry and obese Catholic woman who immediately informed me that men should not be allowed to teach in elementary schools, and so I should remain three feet away from the children at all times. Then she introduced me to her teacher’s assistant, a young army brat, assigned by my mentor to the name Chocolate Swirl. Needless to say this young lady was, like my own children, an incredibly beautiful and highly intelligent, mutt.
Teaching with this lady was Hell. She liked to tell me that Asian women were sluts, and that she knew I was drinking her abusive alcoholic husband’s booze, which I was. However, I soon moved out of her house and onto base, where Grolsch was only two-dollars a pint, and my cohort was a hippie anthropologist like myself. I drank a lot and enjoyed a few nights with some Japanese absinthe, camped out in local fig trees with the fruit bats.
This mentor teacher confronted me with one challenge which set me back a few years. She insinuated I could never succeed with at-risk students. In Okinawa there were plenty of at-risk children, military brats. One boy in my class, half-black and half-Mexican, had been in an L.A. ghetto until he was four. In this ghetto his big brothers and sisters frequently nailed him. In other words, they beat him with sticks with nails in them. So, he was in bad shape. He trusted no one, and assumed he should tear the heads off of everyone, so as to keep himself safe. I tried real hard with this student, but his dad was a marine, and talked to me like he would tear my head off himself.
Between the challenge from my mentor and the challenge from my student’s father, I decided that I should set my passion for TESOL on the back burner, and instead go for working with emotionally impaired and at-risk students.
I worked at a few ghetto schools in Battle Creek. One school was what I like to call, where the farms meet the factories. It was urban black, and yet corn-fed trailer trash. And so a larger portion of the children were mixed, German-Irish and black. Carrhardt clad old men with bent mustachios and work boots escorted in grandchildren with golden-black afros streaming down their backs and skin with cinnamon complexions.
White or black, however, this was a ghetto school, and before leaving I saw some impressive fights. I saw two little white girls hold down one large white girl and kick the shit out of her. Why? She’d received a scholarship.
The one redeeming thing about working at this school was that there was a high population of Burmese Chin refugees. These kids came in to the schools poorer, tougher, and way smarter than most of the regular ghetto kids. Regardless of the suffering they’d endured in Burma, India, Malaysia or Thailand, they had one thing that their American classmates did not have, which is respectable families and family values.
After working at this school I went to an inner-city alternative high school. I recognized some of the students as the children and grandchildren (38 and a grandfather) of some of my old neighbors and classmates. I introduced myself as friends of their fathers, and went to shake hands, but received kicks to the groin.
From there, I decided to take a full-time position at a school in inner-city Detroit. I remember thinking to myself that with this job, if this didn’t teach me how to manage a classroom, then at least I’d get some interesting stories out of it.
It did teach me how to manage a classroom, and I did get some interesting stories out of it. I got enough interesting stories out of it that it left me with a two-year writer’s block. Essentially, I was too scared to write about it. Scared and ashamed, scared and embarrassed, wondering whether writing and public school teaching can coexist. Because to write about it is to risk reputation, and public school teachers in the United States need an impeccable reputation. Because it is likely there may be some student who is out to get you, and more than willing to try and see if they can get you.
Also, because what I saw in Detroit in particular, went on in an all-black ghetto, with mostly black teachers, and I am not black.
Any way you slice it, I was not prepared for Detroit, and I left the city with a wave goodbye from six cop cars, including two sheriffs’ cars. The cops told me to leave Detroit and never come back, and for three years I wouldn’t go within 30 miles of it without wincing.
The school I worked at in Detroit had some incredible teachers and still does. It has a robotics program that is top in the nation, run by an ex-marine techie with a brain just bloated with brilliance, and a fifth of Five-O’clock. I’ll get back to him later maybe.
First, let me describe my first encounter with a girl name T. T came to class about two hours late, and when she did the whole class moaned, “She crazy! Send her out Mr. Moley!” She was dirty, covered in what looked like dried snot. She also had thick glasses and a deep squint. She looked scared. She seemed innocent enough, but she was just sizing me up.
A boy name Maleek came to my desk. As I was helping him T came up as well. Before I could blink she climbed across my desk, got a bottle of board-cleaner and squirted Maleek dead in the eyes with it several times. While this happened, I told her to stop, but it was like shouting at an untrained spaniel – she wasn’t listening at all! Her classmates made a rush for her, and she retreated underneath a pile of coats. Some of the students made a rush for the coats, but others knew better and stayed back. Those that didn’t stay back got splattered with her vomit, which she squirted at them as if it was faucet water.
I took Maleek down to the office of the principle. If you want to call her that. The principle had no business running a school. She was a real-estate lawyer, working for a private company that runs private juvenile delinquent facilities all over Detroit. Keep in mind that this school, that I was working at, was not a school for delinquents. It was, according to the parents, a safe alternative to the public schools. The public schools in Detorit, they said, were real crazy.
The principle drilled me for coming to her office, and did nothing about the student who’d attacked him. Looking back, I understand why she didn’t. The answer is simply, why? Why bother? Mom won’t show up, neither will auntie, or grandma, or grandpa, or cousin, uncle, whoever. This is school time and she was for the school to keep, a free babysitter for child-rearing child-hater parents.
Somehow I did get a hold of T’s grandma, but it was with much effort. Her grandma was mean, and rude, and sounded like she’d like to cut me. I’ve no doubt in my mind that she would’ve cut me. I met her later, and she looked to be rather dangerous. Actually, she’d once been a Detroit public school principal. She had a master’s degree from Wayne State, just down the block. This woman was not stupid, just cruel.
Mom was no better. T would come to school with stories of sitting in the car at 2 a.m. and watching her mom bludgeon somebody with a steering wheel lock. Later into my time at this school, her mom would try to scare me, saying I was mean to her daughter and could get in trouble. I responded, that T had told me she slept in a car, and had watched her mom beat some man with a car-lock. Her response was, “No, that’s not true! It was a piece of pipe, but it did look like a car-lock!”
Filed under: American Economy, Asia America, burma, myanmar, Poetry, southeast asia, teaching in america, TESOL, Travel Vignettes and Advice, travel writing, walt kowalski