I was sitting on my chair when it happened. It wasn’t my fault. I guess, in hindsight, it wasn’t really anybody’s fault. But I was sitting on my chair when it happened.
It was the first day of Grade 9. There were two other westerners in the class, a mix of middle eastern kids and one girl. I was sitting on a hard wooden chair in front of a skinny desk that had metal legs and a metal drawer. I made small talk, I didn’t swear and I was a year too young for the class. My grades had barely let me pass the previous year. I was scared, angry and confused. Also, I was mostly ignored outside of the small talk. I was sitting on a wooden chair when it happened.
The bell had rung. The class had started. It was English. It was being taught by one of my many sarcastic English teachers. She stood at the front with grey hair and dead eyes. She had yelled at me the year previously for writing negative comments on a classmate’s essay during peer review time. I had cried when she had yelled at me. Then she had yelled at me once more for crying. ‘Harden up,’ she had told me. I did. I didn’t cry again for six years. Not when Grandad died. Not when Nana died. I just didn’t know how to cry anymore.
I was sitting on my chair when it happened.
The footsteps rushed up the hallway outside and screeched to a stop outside of the Grade Eight classroom. Our class stopped for a moment. A girl’s voice rang out, ‘Is this it? Holy shit I’m late.’ The Grade Eight door swung open and then shut. My English teacher started her lesson again. I was sitting on a chair when Anna entered my life.
I met her in lunch time. She told me that she was Canadian. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have much to say at that point in life. So I did what all boys at that age did, I tried to make fun of her. I was sarcastic, I was belittling and in the end, I was humbled.
She squared me up, took me on intellectually, physically and emotionally and…. I guess this is the point where I say she won. I think that’s wrong though. That makes it sound like humanity’s a two player game. It’s probably not. If anybody obtained anything of value, I did. Anna had probably dealt with arrogant losers like me before. She’d already proved herself. She already knew who she was. I was trying to take that from her and I’m glad Anna didn’t let me because I gained a friend. I started my education and I didn’t even know that was going to be the outcome when I was sitting on a wooden chair at the back of the room.
There’s only a handful of names I’ll carry with me to my grave. Anna’s one of them. She showed me, she forced me to see a world beyond my teenage boy eyes. She pulled me, kicking and screaming, into the world of equality and probably didn’t even know that she was doing it.
I wouldn’t say it was smooth. I was an arrogant kid with an inferiority complex that ran deep. But, in the end, I found myself leaning away from boys who talked about girls and sports. I found hijinks and insanity painful to listen to, I found relationships interesting and then I played basketball to keep the accusations of being gay away from me. I kept wishing that guys would talk more about history and video games’ narrative complexity instead of beer and sports. I would eventually meet guys who talk about the things I cared about years later in Japan.
A decade, three female bosses and a ton of lumps from my female friends later, I’m trapped in a classroom with at-risk students. There’s three of them the first day, they’re all young women. They’re all angry. They’re eyes flicker under the fluorescent lights and they mumble when I ask them questions. I ask them to move their desks together. They respond very slowly. I have six more hours with them. I take the clock down because they keep staring at it. When I try to see what the time is later in the day, they reply, ‘You took it down teacher.’
I’m called ‘Teacher’ all day. We survive by making small talk and everyone’s talking about someone called ‘Justine,’ who apparently knows everything. I smile a lot. They don’t smile back.
I try to teach them traditionally. Nobody listens, they speak over me. I drive for an hour and a half to make it home. I yell at my invisible students all the way there. I have to teach them again on Friday.
On Friday a student turns up for twenty minutes. She leaves because of a doctor’s appointment. I’ll never see her again. I tell them to take a break. They all go outside and have a cigarette. They’re just eighteen.
I don’t know what to do. I’m middle class, I wear a tie to teach, I read about social inequality on the Internet and I want to talk about economic injustice. I want to discuss management theory and workplace equality practices. They come back from their break. I ask them to assign themselves leadership positions according to a company structure. I’m scared that they’ll see straight through me. I have five more months. Their eyes are angry.
Justine arrives back and demands we work ‘independently.’ I agree. I give them all the responsibility of a workplace. They fail to self discipline themselves, I shrug my shoulders and offer to help when they ask. I have a couple of mini-fights with the program coordinator over resources. I don’t win. My students still don’t have access to quality teaching materials because no teacher in our organisation has. I ask my supervisor for help, she says I’m doing fine.
I breathe. I think of my wife and the bill payments. I think of white privilege and survival skills. I walk back into the class and try to engage them in a conversation about Twilight. No-one has read it. One might have watched the movie. She’s pretty amped about the next one. The other three look on. They’re on Facebook. They swear. Someone says something about Jesus. I try to tell them it’s offensive to use those kind of words. They tell me that I’m a prude. I install a swear jar. We will eventually collect enough ten cent pieces to order three pizzas, garlic bread and coke.
The program coordinator sends me three new students to baby sit. They will leave in a a couple of months. I have seven students come and go in the next twelve weeks. One of them just reads the entire time she’s in class. Another gets angry that her dole payments got cut because she never turns up. One more lies directly to my face and says that she will come back even though she just wants to use the phone.
I’m thankful that I haven’t been threatened with violence.
I keep teaching. We organise for a trip to White Water World (a water park), I have to chase the program coordinator for seven weeks so that she can organise the event because she won’t approve a budget. I find out all the information that I need to know about the trip with one phone call. We go to a jobs expo. My students are still proud that they haven’t been to the library since, well, ever. The library is fifty metres from our office.
When the class gets too big, just before Christmas, I’m squeezing two grown adults on a desk made for one. One of my students has green teeth. I still haven’t been threatened with violence. The girl with green teeth starts yelling at the others on a day I’m not teaching. I’m told, over and over and over again, that they are working on their assessments. Every time I walk past them, they close down their browsers and stare at me.
We play complicated financial games on Friday. They’re a big hit. Learning through play takes on a whole new meaning.
Days roll on, the program is coming to a close. Only four students are left. Two of them will graduate. I know all their stories. I know of their mother’s abuse, I know of the sister who lies and buys drugs. I know about the student who has a mum who is medicating. Hell, they both are. I know that the tall young woman has a boyfriend who is just over the road at the youth detention centre. I see her confidence grow when she ditches him and gets a new boyfriend. I see it disappear when the new boyfriend leaves her. I come home and try not to cry. I try to be angry at society instead.
A politician attends our graduation. He tells us all the wonderful things about the project. I try to smile. I try to encourage the bright kids to go to uni. I hope they listen. Secretly I wish that I could ask the overly smiley MP, who has just given me his business card, about giving at-risk youth more funding. ‘See,’ I would argue if I could, ‘they don’t have your upbringing. To change the way they confront issues takes more money. They use violence because their pride is threatened. We need a counselor. Some of them can’t read well. They hated school. They need a more simulated environment and we need capital to set that up. We need to help these kids and we’re not. You’re not. You just want numbers on a paper. I want them to burn with a desire to learn. I want to pull them kicking and screaming into the land of equality like my friends did to me.’
I don’t. I stay silent and add to the problem.
Then, months after pain, I get my first surprise. One student comes over with her boyfriend. She looks me up and down in her most professional wear: a worn white sleeveless blouse with frills and black pants, and says, ‘Thank you. Thank you for everything.’ I try not to cry. I smile again and wish her luck. I wish the boyfriend luck with his military application.
I read a popular young adult novel and laugh. I laugh at its characters. I laugh at their problems. They seem so small now. So tiny. I get angry. I drive home and beat the steering wheel of my car. I think of all the women I’ve known over the years, all the ones who have kicked, held and supported me through my learning years. I think of them and how they didn’t abandon me when they could have. When they should have.
I want to write something for my anger. I want to write something for angry girls. For the girl who is abused and screaming. For the kid in my class who kicks when she should laugh.
I sit down to write my perfectly pleasant YA novel for white middle class girls in Pittsburgh that features a boy they’d like to have sex with. It’s my sell out novel that’s going to make me thousands of dollars. I don’t make it through the first page before I kill him. I write about a girl who swears, has sex, is abused and confused. I write boys who are sneaky, sexist, self-righteous and smug. I put a lot of my old self into them. I read it to my wife. She tells me to re-write the last third.
I re-write it. Then she cries.
I’m scared that there’s a spelling mistake hidden away in the book and proof read it over five times. I put it up on Amazon. It doesn’t sell. It moves three copies, two of which were returned. When I start re-reading it for a Quality Audit, I find typos. I pull the book off the digital shelves until its better.
I really wish I had money for an editor.
Strangely enough, I’m calm and unworried because He was a hero, he shouldn’t have died is angry and wild. It’s probably not going to be perfect, but neither am I. I’m writing it for Anna. I’m writing it for my wonderful sister. I’m writing it for my wife who has a background that stays hidden behind the smiles. Above all though, I’m writing it for my students. I’m writing it for them to have a hero (a heroine really) that they can hold onto in the darkest moments.
I hope it works. I hope it does them justice because my hands are stained with chalk and the tears will not stop.
Somebody please yell at me because I don’t know how to make them stop anymore.