“This is just about retarded,” James said throwing his paper down.
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“Words are thoughts Mr. Marshal,” I said, “please pick up your vocabulary worksheet and start over.”
“I ain’t gonna do it,” James replied.
“If you don’t pick up your vocabulary worksheet and begin again, I’m going to send you to the principal’s office,” I said.
“Don’t make me no difference,” he said getting up out of his chair.
I stared at James’s back as he walked out of the class to the sound of his peer’s laughter. I wanted to say something back to the kid but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. He wouldn’t understand a witty come back if it jumped up and bit him on the ass. Which, I supposed, was the reason I was here to begin with; to try and teach him things like that. Most of these kids couldn’t find their privates with both hands when it came to English, and that was just what I was trying to remedy.
“Alright, that’s enough,” I said to silence the laughter trailing James Marshal down the hall. “We’ll begin again, Sandra, would you care to start from number five.” She was one of only three females in my Remedial English class.
“Sure Mr. Allen, but I have a question,” Sandra said.
“I have an answer, you go first,” I said in an attempt to lighten the mood and get their collective attention. A few scattered chuckles answered my attempt.
“What do you mean when you say ‘words are thoughts’? You say it all the time and it don’t make no since to me,” she said.
“Doesn’t make any Sandra, don’t make no is a double negative,” I said with a sigh.
“Fine, it doesn’t make any sense,” she said with exaggerated slowness.
“It’s something I heard once when I was student,” I explained, “words are how you express your thoughts. You think something, and then you say it. That’s why we do these vocabulary work sheets, so that we can expand our vocabulary and thus, our thoughts are enriched. That’s all I meant.”
“What’s ‘thus’ mean?” she asked.
“Never mind,” I said with yet another sigh.
“Some people need to do a little more thinkin and a little less talkin if you ask me,” someone drawled in the back drawing laughter from the class and a glare from a red-faced Sandra.
“Enough people,” I said, “let’s get back to the vocabulary worksheets please.” The bell rang just then and everyone began to stand up.
“We’ll pick this up tomorrow,” I shouted over the noise, “be sure that you read the first part of chapter six. There may be a pop quiz tomorrow and there may not…live in fear people.” This drew a parting laugh from everyone and I was left standing in silence wondering again what the hell I was doing in this or any other part of Arkansas.
It’s a not-very-well-kept-secret that teachers in the South smoke in the teachers’ lounge. This is one of the few “charming” traditions that I’ve grown to enjoy since I moved here. I was sitting at the corner table in the back of the room with a Newport hanging off my lip when the principal walked in and caught my eye. Tim Mason was a man of average height and thick slabs of fat over good old corn fed muscle. I think “built like a brick outhouse” is the term of endearment I’ve heard used to describe him. The florescent lights of the lounge reflected off of his balding head giving it that waxed look. He was a down-home country boy that was raised on a horse farm and he learned everything he ever needed to know there to hear him tell it. All of that country common sense didn’t stop him from getting a Masters in English-Lit with a Minor in Creative Writing from Purdue. Despite my distain for most of the “educators” in this school district, I actually liked and respected the man. However, I was in no mood today for what I was certain he wanted talk about.
“I need to talk to you Jeff,” he said without preamble.
“Have a seat Tim,” I said forcing a smile, “what can I do for you?”
“Why did you send James Marshal to my office?” he asked not disappointing me on his choice of conversational topics. He lit a smoke of his own and looked at me through the haze.
“He was being disruptive in class. I asked him to read off his answers on the vocabulary worksheet but instead he threw it on the ground and said…let me see if I can capture the moment for you, ‘this is about retarded’ I believe it was,” I said doing a fair imitation of the mid-south accent that just about everyone spoke with here. “What’s the problem?”
“Well, what do you expect me to do with him?” Tim asked.
“I don’t know Tim, do whatever you think is necessary to stop this from happening again,” I said.
“You know damn well there ain’t nothing I can do to him Jeff,” he began.
“And just why the hell not Tim, and don’t give me that good-ole-boy crap either. Just because you played cards with his Dad doesn’t mean he should get away with anything he wants.” I said.
“I like you Jeff, Yankee though you be, I think you’re an alright dude; but we’ve got a way of doing things down here that you’re just going to have to get used to. My playing cards with Jack Marshal has nothing to do with why I’m not going to punish James. If his Dad was still around and I told him that he was showing his ass in your class, Jack would stomp a mud hole in him and walk it dry. Either that, or he’d kick my butt for not doing it for him.” Tim said
“Then why don’t you…” I started.
“It’s not that simple. James is the leading scorer on the basketball team. If he gets in trouble in class, he could get kicked off the team. I’ve got a lot of pressure coming at me from the school board and the PTA to make sure he’s at every game and leading us to a state championship,” he said.
“Tim, the kid can barely grasp the concept of sentence structure. That’s why he’s in my class. We are not going to do him any favors if we just let him skate through high school on his skill at putting a ball through a hoop. If he’s going to have any chance at getting into a good college we have to teach him scholastic discipline now,” I said.
“Why don’t you go teach your grandmother to suck eggs Jeff,” he retorted.
“What the hell does that mean?” I said thinking he was making fun of me. Tim laughed a great booming laugh that I found condescending and slightly offensive.
“Sometimes I forget that you weren’t raised ‘round here. It just means ‘tell me something I don’t know’ Jeff. Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” he said.
“Look, all I’m saying is that we have duty as educators to prepare these kids for the real world. If we just let James slip through the system he’s going to have a harder time once he graduates. This isn’t about me wanting respect from him. It’s about making sure we’ve done our jobs so that he can succeed when he moves on from here,” I said.
“I know Jeff, and I know that you really mean it. That’s why I came in here to talk to you personally instead of letting you find out through the grapevine that I didn’t do anything to punish him. Believe it or not, I have a lot of respect for you. I respect the job you’re trying to do and I respect your time in the Service. It’s one of the main reasons I hired you. I know that you’re just trying to do the best you can with these dumb-assed rejects I keep sending you…”
“They’re not dumb-assed or rejects Tim. They just need extra help, and what does my time in the Service have to do with anything?” I interrupted.
“OK, OK,” he said patting the air to put me at ease, “all I mean is that you’ve gone from a tough job to another tough job and I know you mean well. There are just something’s you’re going to have to except about this school district. One of those things is you don’t mess with the school board when they ask you for something or you don’t work here anymore. I like my job. I want to keep it. So that means that I’m going to let James Marshal get away with whatever and so are you if you want to continue working here. Alright?” he said with his voice heating at the end.
“Did you just threaten to fire me?” I asked quietly.
“No, I wouldn’t fire you. I meant what I said about respecting you Jeff, but if you screw around with the school board’s plans they’ll fire you and there wouldn’t be a damned thing I could do about it,” he said.
“Wait a minute, all I wanted was to get the disruptive kid out of my class room so I could teach the ones actually trying to learn and now you’re saying that the school board might fire me for it?” I couldn’t keep the incredulity out of my voice.
“If he is that much of a problem, just send him my way and I’ll calm him down and try and talk to him, but I’m not going to punish him and I don’t want you bringing anything over my head about him,” Tim said.
“You know me well enough by now, I think, to know I wouldn’t do that,” I said.
“I do, I do. I just know that you’ve had problems with him in the past and wanted to talk to you about it. That’s all,” he said.
“Fine, we’ve talked and I’m not going to do anything with the kid except try and teach him something before he goes off to be a gas station attendant, OK?” I said. That got Tim to laughing and we spent the next 20 minutes or so talking about some of the other students in my class and how they were coming along. He made me promise to stop by his house one night that week for dinner so I could tell him some of my old “war stories” that he loved so much. Aside from being a writer, Tim was also a huge history buff.
“Remember what I said Jeff,” he said before walking out, “I really do like you and I think you could do well here, but everybody knows everybody in a small town like this and word travels fast,” and with that parting shot he walked out of the room leaving me to wonder what the hell had just happened. Why would something as simple as sending a kid to the principal’s office for a talking to merit all of this attention?
“Forget it,” I muttered, “let the kid do what he wants. It’s not my problem.” The thing was; I just wasn’t built that way. If you give me a job, I do it…or die trying.
'But I don't want to go among mad people,' said Alice. 'Oh, you can't help that,' said the cat. 'We're all mad here.'