It is standard-issue humor amongst education professionals that the three reasons teaching is a great job are “June, July and August,” and throughout a 13 year career, I wouldn’t have disagreed. I’ll never understand the “two weeks vacation for your first five years” insanity of most professions in the States. Madness. Complete and utter madness. And Americans willingly do it, which proves that, as a nationality, we’re not very smart, or at least not terribly introspective about what’s actually important in this life.
As a teacher, I enjoyed every minute of my summer vacations, not to mention my winter and spring breaks and, since I worked in New York City, a Jewish holiday or two every few months, even for the goyim. Go Purim! But since we did have to spend some 9 months of the year in contact with the students, it helped if you enjoyed their company, too. And for the record, I really did.
I taught high school, so the kids ranged in age from 15 to 18, with the exception of a few outliers who couldn’t quite seem to graduate before their unemployment checks began rolling in. I loved teaching that age and could never get my mind around teaching the really little ones. All the drooling, the paste eating, the odd classroom vomiter, the crying, the cubby holes and the lice… Eggggghhhhh. Not in this lifetime, Bub. Even worse was the idea of taking on a middle school classroom. Not a chance; not even with reincarnation.
The late teens, however, is an age range when the hormone-to-humanity ratio starts to click back into a range of tolerability, but also before the reinforced fears of being judged by other people have hardened like concrete around their souls. I knew a number of colleagues who either didn’t give a damn about the students, or actively disliked them. They were the teachers who claimed that, “You can’t teach these kids anything,” which was total bullshit. If you paid attention to their lives, if you listened to their needs and didn’t give them grief about their diction or their previous life decisions, then they were generally cool with learning a few things. Some of them even worked at it. The elusive key was actually caring about their lives.
In my department there were a few teachers that really did love their kids, and we tended to gravitate towards one another. In fact, a few of us created a kind of bi-weekly ritual we called “Great Kids Nights.” Those nights, typically at a local dive bar in either Brooklyn or Manhattan, always picked us up. Matt and Brendan and I would get together and talk some shop, but as we’d managed to ferret out the downers of our department who would just rag on the kids no matter what, we’d end up trading stories about some of the funny or brilliant stuff that our kids came up with that week. The night got its unofficial name when we noticed that almost every story started with one of us asking the others, “Hey, do you know so-and-so? Great kid. Great kid.”
Those “Great Kids Nights” always put me in a better mood, and as it’s been a pretty rough month or so down here in Antigua, I could use a better mood right about now, so let me introduce you to Lady Macbeth Rios. I changed her last name in a pretty lame attempt to protect her privacy, but the Lady Macbeth part is completely true. She had a brother named Hamlet and another named Shakespeare. I don’t know why. Maybe the parents were admirers of the Bard. Maybe they were functionally illiterate and thought that the big ole book on the shelf was the Bible and they just pulled names at random. I can’t say, I never met them. You might say they were like ghosts.
She went by Lady, and she was hard like a James Bond nemesis — tall, lean, beautiful and with an air of danger around her that shut most of the other kids right up. She was always surrounded by a posse of riot girls, and it was generally assumed they were armed with, at least, blades. Possibly lasers or poison injection units hidden in hairpins. I loved having Lady in class. She was smart as hell, even though her grades were in the toilet, and she always made the situation just half a degree more tense than it otherwise would have been. She kept everyone on edge, which, if you like the edge, is fantastic. At the same time she was honest and loyal, and as long as you didn’t cross her, she was cool, even protective. Bottom line, Lady was an alpha female and she knew how to work it.
I’d had Lady in several classes over the years and always got on well with her. Again, great kid. And I kinda felt like if I was ever in trouble after dark in her neighborhood, she’d somehow swoop in like Cat Woman and make it all good. By this time she was in her senior year and I had her for Participation in Government, which by the late Spring amounted to a giant helping of inattentiveness, a side of half-hearted academic effort and the ice cream promise that graduation day couldn’t come soon enough so we could all go hit the beach. I like to think I did an excellent job preparing them for their role as citizens in the 21st Century version of American Democracy.
That day I’d shown the School House Rock video, I’m Just a Bill. Strangely, it made less of an impact on my charges than it had on a young Mr. Tallon back in the early 70s. Still, they got a bit of a chuckle out of it, and Kaseem did join in with me on the chorus. And though we were under strict orders by the principal NEVER to end class early, I was out of material and steam and they were out of any semblance of giving a hoot about Congressional committee selection, so I gave my stern command to “just keep it down to a dull roar. Cool?”
“Cool, T.” was the generalized response.
Most of the kids clustered into groups for the 10 minutes before the bell. Kaseem had his crew. Tae Kwon Dan had his, and in the back corner, Lady held court.
But there was one student who held herself apart from the rest of the kids. Wendy Martinez. Wendy was a sort of physical doppelganger to Lady. Where Lady was smooth, long, lean and flashy, Wendy was rough, stout, powerful and rugged. But Wendy was also a serious alpha in her own right. In the unwritten rules of the school, no one messed with Wendy.
Wendy was, in so many ways, the student with the greatest potential and the poorest record I ever instructed. When Wendy liked a class, or a teacher, she would ace it without breaking a sweat. When she couldn’t be bothered, she just wouldn’t show up. Her report card read like an EKG. High 90s for three classes, low 20s for the other four; consistently for four years.
Two of the courses Wendy liked that term were my Participation in Government class, and Ms. Abbot’s English class. For a tough street kid, one could write off that they liked me. I was never known as a hard ass, but Ms. Abbot was considered to be the single toughest teacher in the whole school in classroom discipline, expectations and grading. Even kids in my Advanced Placement classes complained about her, but Wendy could see that Ms. Abbot was hard for a reason, and she gave the class her all. That semester they were staging an in-class production of Macbeth and Wendy was chosen to play The Queen. The day when we finished class early Wendy (middle row, front seat) leaned forward and asked, “Mr. Tallon, could you help me analyze this passage. I just don’t get what I’m supposed to be saying.”
She handed me the book; I looked at the passage and said with the most general of directorial suggestions, “Remember who’s talking here; you’ve got to bring all of her to the scene. You’re Lady Macbeth.”
At which point, Lady Macbeth Rios in the back of the room piped up, “Yo! . . . What you two talkin’ about?”
Wendy responded, “Back up, girl. We’re talking about a play.”
“Then why you say my name?”
Wendy responded, “Girl, cause the play’s Macbeth, by Shakespeare. The character in the play is Lady Macbeth. I’m playing Lady Macbeth. Now sit your ass down.”
Lady paused for a second. Generally, NO ONE would talk to her this way, but Wendy was an X-Factor. Young Ms. Rios didn’t sit down all the way, but rather settled herself on top of the desk and said, “Yo . . . What’s she like?”
And without missing a beat, Wendy wheeled around and said, “Girlfriend, she’s a tough-ass bitch that controls her man.”
At which point, Lady’s eyes opened up and she positively sang, “Dammmmmmmmn…. I guess I am Lady Macbeth. You lemme read that when you done?”
Wendy said she would, and that day they actually left class together, Wendy explaining some of the basic structures of Shakespearean drama to her character’s namesake. I can’t say that either one of them ever grew up to rattle the academy, but on hot Spring days in Brooklyn, you took what you could get for life-changing experiences, particularly if no one got hurt.
And that day, no one did.
Great kids. Great kids.