When I first started working in the New York City Public Education system, my father gave me a bit of advice. He said, “Whatever you do, don’t end up on the cover of the New York Post.” Sound advice for anyone, really. Particularly if you are going to be working with minors. And the vast majority of our students were under 18, though we did have a few kids that couldn’t find their way to a graduation ceremony with a map, AND a map of the map.

Working with kids means that you will, at times, find yourself in difficult ethical positions. Or simply positions that could be wildly misinterpreted by the headline writers of America’s leading tabloid.

I remember flashing through  alternate futures when I came out of the teacher’s lounge one day and saw a crazy-eyed kid sprinting full-steam down the hallway with two police officers in pursuit.

The ethical quandary: “To clothesline or not to clothesline.” If I did, I might be hailed a hero! “Terrific Teach Tackles Teen Terror!!!”

Or it could end up more ambiguously. Maybe he was a gangbanger, but my considered clothesline would have snapped his neck, “Teach’s Reach Cripples Crip!”

Or, possibly, he was leading the police to the scene of a crime and I would have just prevented them from stopping a math teacher from being tossed out a fourth-story window. “Tallon’s Call Means Math Man Falls!”

The probability of a New York Post Headline loomed large. I let the wild-child pass and probably for the best. It turned out that the student, not a minor, was an 18-year-old who had just been released from jail on Riker’s Island. Still, he had the right to a free public education and had ended up at F.D.R. High School after bouncing through four other schools in a week. He was only at F.D.R. for a few hours, during which time he caused about $1000 of physical damage to the school and scared the hell out of our incredibly sweet and charmingly incompetent 64-year-old school nurse by running into her office, grabbing a fist-full of the condoms she was required (scandalously, she believed) to keep on her desk, then paused from his marauding for half a beat, looked down at the rubbers in his hand, blew her a kiss and growled, “I’ll be back for YOU later,” before proceeding to make more mayhem in the hallways.

But there were other times when the cost / benefit analyses of potential intervention weren’t as clear-cut. And while in the case at hand I’m pretty sure I didn’t commit a crime, I most certainly could have ended up on the front page of The Post.

It all started one afternoon, while I was grading papers in my office. I’d keep my door open, in case any of the kids who wandered by wanted to talk. I hated grading papers. My students knew that, and everyday kids came by to talk about college essays, get help with homework, to shoot the shit, or — as often as not — to ask for advice or help with some issue fully unrelated to school.

I had a great relationship with most of my students. I was one of the teachers they felt comfortable with. One of the ones they really liked. One of the ones who was definitely at the bottom of the list for getting dangled out of a fourth-story window. And in Brooklyn, that security was a welcomed relief.

I was proud to maintain that status. I really loved my kids, and took it as a calling to help them out whenever I could. Because of the trust, I was on the receiving end of  more lunacy than most of the other teachers. I was one of the few teachers who heard about the suicide attempts, the domestic violence, the weed smoking, the losses of virginity and the need for subsequent trips to the doctor to get the appropriate testing or medications.

I was the teacher who heard about the bizarre parents, like the one father who saved his pee in peanut butter jars for a month and then took a bath in his own urine on the full moon. I consciously had to force myself to push down a massive case of the willies in order to shake his hand at graduation that year. I was the teacher who got the very odd questions after class. To this day I’ve not figured out what it was in our lesson about the War of 1812 that inspired one of my students to ask me when, in her menstrual cycle, she was most fertile. On the counsel of my mom, I bought her a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which she kept hidden in my office so she could sneak in and read it without catching hell from her conservative, Muslim parents.

I heard so much weird shit that I became really good at presenting a calm and protective visage. The students would open up about deep pains, troubling questions or just the whacky stuff that comprised their lives, and I’d look back like a loving, streetwise Sphinx. Then we’d find a way to solve the problem.

I also became really good knowing when a kid needed to talk, but couldn’t quite get it out. Their body language screamed it. They way they’d hang out, playing with papers on my desk, without saying a word, but also not leaving, let me know when I had to push a little to get them to open up.

That’s how it started with Andy.

He came to my office door and said, “Yo, what up, T?”

“Chillin’. Why ain’t you at practice?”

“Awww . . .  I got some shit goin’ on . . .  But it’s cool. I got it.”

Then he just kept standing there. Kinda wavering in the door.

“The fuck you got goin’ on? Close the door and sit your ass down. Spill it, bitch.”

“Nawww, T. I got it.”

“Cool, you got it, but tell me what you got. Else I’m gonna call Coach and have him sit your ass next game for missin’ practice for some bullshit.”

“You buggin’, T?”

“I ain’t buggin. You spill or I shout.”

“Fuck it. But you don’t wanna know . . .  Remember I told you that . . . ”

He paused, then said, “I got jacked last night. Cop took my shit.”

“You got locked up?”

“Nahhh . . .  one a them bad cops. Just took my shit. Probably making bank on his own. Been doin’ it to all the runners on the block.”

“We talking weed?”

“Rock.”

“Fuck you doin’ in that life, Andy?”

“Gotta get paid.”

“So, what’s the plan?”

“Gonna get more, sell at a lower profit for a bit. Pay back my man. Get back on my feet.”

“No. You ain’t. I hear you, but you ain’t stayin’ in the life. Not on my watch.”

“You callin’ Cop?”

“Hells, no. I’m callin’ Coach. We’re gonna find a way out, but you gotta promise you out. How much you owe?”

“Two-Fifty.”

“Aaight. I’m calling Coach after practice. We meet back here end of the day tomorrow. Cool.”

“Cool. Thanks, T. You da man.”

“But one thing, Andy. You tell NO ONE about this. Feel me?”

“I feel you. T. I feel you.”

So, I called Coach. We did put together the $250. We made Andy promise that he would pay off his drug debt, and he would stop dealing. He was cool with it. Both his coach and I were tight with him. That was all based on respect, and honesty. His only question to me and Coach when we met after school to talk and give him the cash was, “Can I still smoke a little weed?”

We laughed and I said, “Yeah. You’re stupid, but you can still smoke a little weed.”

Andy was good to his word. He quit dealing and even graduated high school later that year. We got him into Sullivan Community College, outside of The City, hopefully away from the life. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but it was a moment when I felt it right to risk the “Crazy Teach Helps Drug Dealing Leech” headline. Andy was cool. Just a little misguided. Okay. A lot misguided. Life’s a gamble. Choose your odds.

I thought that was the end of it, until a few weeks later when Tae Kwon Dan showed up at my office door.

“Yo, Sensei.”

“Wassup, Dan?”

Tae Kwon Dan always called me Sensei and bowed when he came into my office. He was one crazy-assed kid, but I loved him.

“Sensei, I was talkin’ to Andy . . . ”

“Close the fucking door, Dan.” My voice was straining with rage. “And when you see him, tell Andy I’m gonna kick his muthafuckin, loud-mouthed ass.”

Dan gave a “why you yelling at me?” look, complete with upturned palms and a pained look on his face until I gestured at the chair next to the desk. He closed the door and sat down. I could just feel this was not going to be good.

“Okay, I AM gonna kick Andy’s ass, but wassup? You got problems?”

“Yeah, Sensei. Big problems. I need money.”

“How much?”

“Two.”

“Two what?”

“Two hundred.”

“You dealin’, too?”

“Nahhh, Sensei. My body is a temple. Never touch that shit.”

Dan was pretty serious about his physique. Maybe he was telling the truth. I asked him to continue.

“What you need two hundred for?”

“Sensei, I’m sorry. But I jumped my nigga’s hooker.”

Now, I’m from Upstate New York. My familiarity with urban slang, while conversational, is not fluent. I wracked my brain to try and decipher this gem.

“You what?”

“I jumped my nigga’s hooker.”

Still nothing on my end.

“The fuck that mean?”

And he told me the story. Dan, while a well-built, stout young fella, with charm as deep and eyes as dark as the Gowanus Canal, was not one of the best looking kids I’d ever met. Yet, he was 18 and wanted, needed, to get laid. He was always on the hunt, but the sweet gazelles of Bensonhurst were too swift for his skills. So, he and a friend decided upon the simplest, and perhaps the oldest solution to their problem: hire a couple hookers.

They saved their money, I chose not to inquire from whence that money came, and arranged for a party the previous weekend, as Dan’s parents were out of town.

“Yo, Sensei, they was HOT. I’m talkin’ Porn Star HOT. One was Shantel. The otha just went by Peach. And I mean, Damn, Sensei!”

Tae Kwon Dan, being Tae Kwon Dan, took to the action swiftly upon the ladies’ arrival. He brought his prostitute up to his room, and received her services. But when he’d finished, he came out to find his friend nervously smoking a cigarette in the living room, the young man being of a more indecisive make. So, Dan went into the kitchen, gathered the other hooker, took her to his room, and completed their transaction.

Ahhhh, it dawned on me . . . He jumped his nigga’s hooker. Just like it sounds.

Unfortunately for Dan, and his nervous friend, it turned out that the women worked on a fee-per-service basis, not an hourly rate.

Penny wise, pound foolish, Lads.

The hookers packed up and left under the charge of a very large, very unfriendly looking body guard.

To put it mildly, Dan’s friend was seriously upset. Not only was he out $200, but he felt humiliated and STILL hadn’t gotten laid. Bottom line, he wanted Tae Kwon Dan to pay him back.

I could see the friend’s point, actually.

“So, Dan, you’re asking me to pay your hooker debt?”

“Yeah, like you hooked up Andy.”

I tried to explain to Dan that the situations were a bit different, ethically.  That the deal with Andy was made with his assurance, and at least the hope, that he would get himself out of a dangerous life of crime and violence. Dan promised he’d stop going to hookers. I again tried to convince him that, still, even with his promise to never again pay for sex, there was a difference.

After another half an hour of profound argumentation, Dan finally gave up trying when I told him, “It’s all about finding your ethical boundaries. I didn’t know it before, but mine is right in-between paying off Andy’s drug debt and your hooker debt.”

And I have my father’s counsel to thank for that decision. It’s all about the front page of The New York Post, and I was not going to go down as “Terrible Teach Buys Brooklyn Boy a Peach.”

Thanks, Dad.

  1. Mike..great stories!
    You are not lying when you said you were one of the most trusted teachers in FDR. I remember sitting in your classroom after school a couple of times! Thank you for being you! ;)

  2. very well presented, still seems there’s something missing as I’m reading this…oh that s right that would be kicking back with the teller of the sensational story, the ambiance of the back porch with a mikes or two….looking forward to next month my friend and more of the same….

  3. Funny. How are you mister T? It’s been a long time. Did you hear that FDR is to be closed this year? I just can’t imagine what my life would have been without the life training from FDR.

  4. where were you when I went to high school in Brooklyn? Oh, yeah – non -yet on this planet :-)). I would have loved to be in your class. great piece!!

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About the Author

Michael Tallon, Editor-in-Chief, head writer and delivery boy, of La Cuadra Magazine, expatriated from the States 11 years ago. After spending a year in Antigua gasbagging about wanting to start an English Language magazine, he hit the road and wandered about South America, India and Nepal before finding himself sipping tea in Darjeeling and realizing that maybe it was time to head home and pick up the career path. That ill-fated adventure in New York lasted about 6 weeks before he headed back to Antigua, Guatemala, where John Rexer had actually started the magazine in his absence.

After a few months, Mike took over the magazine and has been going slowly broke since. On that note, Mike would like to invite advertisers, readers and potential patrons to send him free money.
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