Catholic High School. Saint Charles Avenue. New Orleans. I'm a school teacher. Yesterday, while teaching a lesson and facing the chalkboard, the noise stops. As soon as I return to the board, the noise escalates.
I immediately become angry. "Shit," I mutter, reaching for the call button on the wall that connects directly to the disciplinarian's office. I turn to the class. It's spring. We're all fatigued. It's time to go home, to build castles in the sand, to grow tired of school, to dive into summer. I see that, I know that. But damn, the noise must have been intentional. Who made that noise? I’m not a happy teacher.
"Somebody better fess up before the office responds," I say. Almost immediately, a boy in the front row meekly raises his hand. "It was, ummmm, me." He looks mortified, as if I had just told him he has a few seconds to live.
But I know this student: he's not malicious. He may have a penchant for destruction, but he's certainly not hell-bent on making my life miserable. "So," I say, "Why are you making those whooshing noises?! I can't think straight."
I feel like Ludwig Wittgenstein, the world-class philosopher who would easily get angry in the classroom and bop ignorant children on the head. But he was teaching kindergarten, and I'm a ninth-grade English teacher. A flawed one at that. The student says, "I didn't realize." I want to be like Wittgenstein and bop him on the head, but I don’t.
The intercom blares, "Yes? May I help you?" "No," I say. "I'm good. Got it under control." The intercom clicks off. The class sighs. The student perks up a bit, "I thought you were going to kill me, for a second." The kid looks at me with a sheepish grin. He’s one of those kids who wants to be badass, but he is too sweet to be truly malevolent. I laugh. In a good way. The class laughs. As if it had been a huge practical joke. The joke’s on me.
"That noise felt like it was destroying my thoughts."
"I didn't know I was making any noise," he says. I’m slightly suspicious. The kid smiles as if he knows what he's saying. Nods. The class is chatting. A classroom loves drama. Any kind of drama. It’s the inner logic of kids in a group. Any distraction will disarm their learning neurons — is there a version of docere et delectare — to teach and to delight?
I’m slowly losing control of this class. I never wanted to be a teacher of children. It should have been obvious at the job interview when I said, “I dislike bratty adolescents.” Maybe the teacher who interviewed me didn’t hear me when I thought it out loud and didn’t say anything.
I say to the class as a way to recover, "OK. As I was saying." We go on with the lesson. I'm over it. But the class isn't. The kid can't help himself. "You need a hug?" he asks in a slightly insouciant manner that adolescent boys are wont to do.
"No, I'm good. Just take your pen out of your mouth. OK?"
After class, I feel bad. Silly, even. "I'm sorry," I say. He smiles, puts on my prop that I use for Of Mice and Men.
"You scared me for a second, Mr. Roselli. I thought I was going to get in trouble. Usually, when you're mad, you still have a smile on your face. Here, Mr. Roselli, have a hand sandwich." He shakes my hand like I shake theirs, with both hands like a sandwich.
Even if he did mean it, I realize I reacted swiftly. I scared the kid. Good thing he really didn't mean it.
Well, now I know where that whooshing sound has been coming from all year. Maybe he'll finally stop. He picks up his slugger stick — an affectionate term the boys’ baseball team has given to what I would call a bat. He exits. He comes back in, with masking tape and a sign, "Please do not touch." He puts it over the intercom.
"Funny," I say. "Now, go home."
Tomorrow will be another fiasco. In a nightmare, they crowd me in like the demon in Children of the Corn. But today is a good day. A student tells me she likes poetry, thinks about the meaning of the lyrics. One student wrote a poem about being adopted.
Jim left me a note on my desk. It read:
Dear Mr. Rosselli [sic],
I know you must be stressed. I feel stressed sometimes too, especially because of all the homework you give. I think it would be best for all of us if you were less stressed. My mom and I visited the humane society the other day and we saw the cutest dog ever. I think you need a dog to love you and you can love back. I think if you had a dog you would be less stressed and we wouldn't feel so stressed neither.
Sincerely your student,
He wanted me to have a dog. So simple. From the mouth of babes. One observation about ninth graders: they remember in spurts. Just like me bolting for the call button. I spurt. One girl pipes up, "I remember what a hyperbole is?!" Good, I think; I feel like one right now. The boy with the pen makes sure he puts away his pen.
"You'll miss us when you're gone?" I don't answer. Just smile. "You know you love us."
And I guess I do. Let someone else mind the gap, teach tone and imagery, gerunds, infinitives, and first-person point of view. Today I want peace of mind. A kid laughs when another kid talks about "reading for pleasure." As if he's coding for a dirty word. "Y'all are sick," I say, instead of saying, stop being immature. I scan the classroom before the bell rings. I sometimes wonder why I am here. Where will they be?
Have seeds been planted? But, who needs a mentor? We need a teacher. But, who wants to be taught? The apple-faced kids? I turn out the lights, take my tie off. I hate wearing this stuff.
The hallways become quiet. I'm leaving soon. On to something else. I decide to stay at school later than usual because I'm giving a workshop to the faculty on how to use Google Docs in the classroom.
I feel conflicted because I know my time at this school will soon end. It's time. I knew this even before I began. I have given my two years. A few more weeks left. Finals. Summer. "Yes," I say. As I finish up the last remaining details for the presentation, I begin to be in my feelings. I will miss them. I am the last teacher to leave for the day. The Toyota Echo that has been mine for the past two years sits alone in the parking lot. I notice the gates have been shut which is odd, because usually, they are open. I am locked out. Or locked in. I call a teacher. A few. No one is around to help me - no custodians. No administrators. No kids. Using my key, I go back into the building and then exit through the front door that leads out to Saint Charles Avenue where I take the olive-green streetcar home to my nest; it arrives on time as if out of a dream, out of the night, under oak trees and nighttime amblers, the streetcar is an obvious symbol of journey, made more noticeable by how I feel at that moment, standing with a brown messenger bag, and ungraded papers. I have left the Toyota behind, to be a watcher of a school without kids, without me, because in a way I will miss teaching, but, I long for New York more. I leave for the Big Apple at the end of the school year. I wonder if I'll see my students in the future? I wonder what we'll learn? Are we home?"