"Is it pretty quiet tonight?" I ask the campus monitor as I roll my portable classroom--my rolling cube cart--onto the sidewalk in front of my night school.
"Quiet," he replies with a note of relief, and perhaps a little surprise. "Very quiet."
"That's good," I say as I roll past him, hoping that my students would be somewhat calm and cooperative for our class that doesn't even start until 8:00 p.m.
As it turns out, my students are far from quiet. The writing lesson is lost on many of the students, particularly those who had not come to the prior class. Two tables are loud and unfocused. I hate not having regular desks in rows. I opt to ignore their requests for help when they are rude, and I spend my time with students who are genuinely interested. Added to that, the temperature in the classroom is as suffocating as the noise.
There is, of course, the typical drama which occurs with these at-risk students. Typical actually means you never know what to expect, but you should expect the drama of issues you may not think real people deal with outside of Jerry Springer or Maury.
One of my sassiest students thrusts her admit slip for me to sign--she is apparently excused from being absent from the last class because her son had been in the hospital. I'd left her make-up work in the office, yet she hadn't bothered to pick it up. She seems unconcerned that her teachers were concerned enough to leave her work for her--as she and her mother had requested. She is also blase about her son's illness--like it's no big deal that he had such a severe asthma attack he had to go to the hospital. She's raising her son to be "straight-up G", who at the age of two, is already man enough to not boob about anything--even the inability to breathe, I guess.
Two students appear to have fresh tattoos--one I see (it unfortunately looks like he'd done it himself), but the other I notice is the topic of the other student's journal entry. His close friend had died in a neighborhood shooting a few weeks back, so he had just had his memorial tattoo done. The way he writes about it, it's like everyone has memorial tattoos done when someone dies. I've seen people who have so many memorial tattoos I wonder if they have any living friends or families, but this kid doesn't seem like he's like that. Nevertheless, I understand how sacred the act is to him although it is bizarre to me. I treat his tattoo as though it is reverent to me, too.
I juggle answering the same questions over and over about what students should be doing--particularly for those students who had missed the previous class. I'm pretty sure one of the girls has missed enough days to be kicked out of the class, but I can't remember for sure and I can't log into the system to check her absences, so I say nothing. I'm such a chicken shit, but I don't feel like a confrontation, and she'll be gone soon enough because I had just submitted the paperwork for the students who had enough absences to be dropped. Fortunately, 80% of the class is producing the product I have assigned them to complete, but only a few have done it really well. These are all students who know how to write, but it's functional writing, not wonderful writing. What a slow process. These two hours at night school are often harder than the six hours at my day school.
"Thank goodness," I think when the bell rings for the end of class. For other students in the school, the bell means it is the end of the school day, but our class lasts for two full periods, so that bell is only for a break. But it is a welcome relief—even if it only lasts three minutes until class starts again.
Two students want to leave for the night. One student claims he has to leave to go home and care for younger siblings because his mother has an appointment with an attorney. What attorney has office hours that late at night perplexes me, but it is Las Vegas. I talk him out of leaving because he’s already missed too many days in the class. The other student, who had made a call on his cell phone during the break, tells me he needs to leave to go the hospital—it’s an emergency. I ask if someone is dying, afterall, I try to be a hard-ass. Nobody is dying, but someone is going to give birth. I try to discourage him because someone giving birth is not an emergency, but when he admits that it's his baby that is about to be born, what can I say?
The bell signaling the end of break rings, and fewer than half of the students have made their way back to class. We start without them, of course. But I am irritated. The counselor returns a student she has held during the break for a short meeting, and I thank her and ask her to usher any students she sees back to class. The last half of the class actually occurs after the regular school day ends for most students, so there are few students actually on campus at this time of day.
Fifteen minutes later half the class is still missing, but one of the students finally joins us with the news of a huge fight outside. At first, I thought she meant there was going to be a fight, but quickly as her story unfolded in jagged pieces and pantomime, I realize there had been a fight--a mob scene as she described it. A huge fight in the parking lot that included such exciting pieces as the principal rushing out into the parking to break it up, gunfire, and a prostrate body left in the middle of the road as the mob scatters from the scene.
I'm not afraid to hear this news as some might think. (Exactly how a small town girl like me is teaching at night in a bad neighborhood in Las Vegas seems rather surreal to me most of the time. I know it's a bad neighborhood, but usually when I am arriving or leaving, the streets are quiet and deserted.) I do wonder where my students are and how many of them were involved. I'm not fearful that the injured/dead gunshot victim is a student of mine because the student reporting to the class would have certainly known that detail if one of her classmates was bleeding on the street. I'm exhausted, though. I wonder if my car is okay. It seems so petty, but I don't want to be stuck at the school all night. And then I wonder if I'll be able to leave campus at all when the class is over.
I am useless in dealing with my students. I try to get them back on task, but who really cares about learning new vocabulary words? "Laconic...lackluster...blah..blah...blah..." The best I can do is to try to settle them down and convince them that leaving campus right then was not the best idea. The classroom door is locked and we are safer inside that standing outside. Plus, if they could hold out until the end of our class period, enough time would have passed for things to calm down outside. Some students bought this, but it seems more students than normal claim they needed to leave early to catch the bus.
The students who end up staying for the remainder of the class accomplish no work. After all, there are only six students left. They gather all together at one table and chat about whatever, of course including the events outside. I finally give up and pull up a chair to join them. They are an interesting combination of students, most of whom don’t normally associate with each other. It’s the longest 25 minutes as I wait for the final bell to ring. What compels us to stay, I am not sure. I suppose most of them had rides coming at the regular time and had no place else to be. A couple of them may even have felt compelled to stay in class because it is the right thing to do. As their fearless leader, my best idea was just to carry on a usual. As if this incident were usual.
After school is released, the short walk to the parking lot seemed almost normal except the block is lit with flashing lights and many people milling around the parking lot. Luckily, I am able to leave campus with relatively few problems except that I had to drive the long way around through an unfamiliar neighborhood to reach the freeway. The streets were quiet and unaware of the chaos that had occured a few blocks over.
As I am driving through deserted streets, I try to muster some feeling. Should I be afraid? Should I say, “Enough of this crap. Why should I come back to teach at this school at night, when I know this kind of stuff can happen?” I guess I assumed that kind of stuff could happen before I started teaching there. That, and I just don’t feel it in my heart that I might die a violent death from being a teacher. Even if I do teach in edgy neighborhoods. Should I feel remorse for the violence my students see or experience? I do feel remorse for environments most cannot control and anger for the environments they can control and choose to pollute with useless violence.
Mostly, I feel numb. And the numbness is what brings the tears as I drive onto the freeway ramp, heading toward the safety of my home. Safe only because I tell myself that it is. Violence happens everywhere. It happens all the time.
The realization of my indifference hurts more than anything.
I can handle the crazy lives my students live. They’ve seen death. They’ve brought new life into the world. Drug abuse is normal. Drunken weekend parties are a way are harmless recreation. Gangs mean friendship and family.
What I can’t handle is that all of this is typical.