BLACKBOARD JUNGLE: At Least They Spelled It Right
BY JEFF DEENEY You might be asking yourself, if Room 315 is designated as an educational no-man’s-land for the worst behaved kids in one of the city’s worst public high schools, where are the true hard cases? Where are the 15 year old stone killers that you saw holding corners down like trained infantry occupying a battleground hilltop on The Wire? The fact is that come high school many of those kids are already gone.
They’ve gone to juvenile detention facilities and privatized discipline schools. Some were so incorrigibly truant and their families so transient that eventually they were dropped from the roles and forgotten by the school district entirely. There are a couple kids assigned to Room 315 that could be characterized as hardened hustlers but they rarely come to class except when compelled to do so by law enforcement. The remaining students comprising the school’s worst behavior cases are emotionally disturbed but not sociopaths; they’re troubled and extremely difficult to connect with but not so far gone yet as to be completely out of reach. Nonetheless, the combination of persistent behavior problems and severe academic deficiencies makes heading Room 315 your average school teacher’s worst nightmare.
As a case in point consider Eric and Diquan’s almost daily routine of starting the day by attacking each others’ sexuality. They sit at their desks, loudly calling each other faggots, dicksuckers and cocklickers from across the room while the teacher’s aid Miss Patterson watches on in exasperation. There’s a set of handwritten rules on colored poster board that Miss Patterson taped to the wall; the rules forbid foul language along with other minor infractions like talking out of turn and major transgressions like carrying weapons and using drugs. The kids mostly ignore the rules because they know there are no repercussions for breaking them. In the past, the Principal has refused to suspend kids from Room 315 for such serious infractions as fist fighting. The administration’s position is that these kids have been so bad for so long that there’s no real meaningful way to discipline them for little things like using foul language. If you started enforcing all the rules in Room 315 there would be no students — everyone would always be suspended.
Mr. McMonigle starts each morning by assuring the students over top their obnoxious banter that they’re “getting off to a good start today.” Mr. McMonigle is constantly giving the students verbal positive reinforcement, even at times when they might not deserve it. His theory is that troubled kids act out in part because they received so few positive messages from their parents; in a way he’s attempting to subliminally improve their self-worth. With kind encouragements he attempts to gently prod them into opening their journals and writing a couple sentences, but there is resistance to even this soft assertion of authority. Corey responds to Mr. McMonigle’s entreaties by launching his empty juice container and balled up food wrappers across the room. When the students throw things Mr. McMonigle asks them to pick up their mess but doesn’t make a big deal about it when they don’t.
With the teacher’s requests for the morning class to commence ignored, talk among the students turns to the past weekend’s football games. The conversation gets increasingly heated with Eric and Diquan starting to argue over their favorite teams. Eric’s social maladjustment starts to really show, as his anger over this minor quibble with his classmate causes him to explode. He repeatedly slams his fists on his desk, then stands and screams at the top of his lungs,
“The Patriots suck! They fuckin’ suck! I hate them!”
Diqaun laughs in satisfaction at having pushed Eric over the edge. Mr. McMonigle still sits at his desk, patiently asking the boys to settle down and start writing in their journals. Diquan’s face goes from mischievous to serious and he calls out in the teacher’s direction,
“Yo, why don’t you suck my fuckin’ dick.”
Mr. McMonigle doesn’t even look up from the lesson plan he’s finalizing. He gets told to suck a dick at least ten times a day; the insult rolls right off him. In response McMonigle persists in sending the group positive messages, saying just loud enough to be heard over the din of laughter that follows Diquan’s insult,
“I see Tony has his notebook open. He’s getting off to a great start; he might get to go to the computer lab today.”
There’s an urge to label the students in Room 315 just plain bad kids from what you see on the surface, but when you delve into the details of their personal histories it explains things considerably. Most of Room 315’s students grew up in the system; abandonment and neglect define their formative years. Eric’s mother died in a car crash when he was two years old and he’s since bounced around a never ending array of foster homes. Diquan’s mother has drug problems and sometimes disappeared for months at a stretch when he was little, leaving him and his siblings to fend for themselves. Corey’s mother used drugs while she was pregnant with him; DHS placed later him in the custody of his elderly grandparents who spoil him rotten with pricey toys but have no capacity to control his increasingly volatile and abusive behavior. Tony grew up in group homes and never had any family at all. Mr. McMonigle has to be mindful when reprimanding Tony for acting up, remembering not to reflexively threaten to call his mother after school if he doesn’t settle down. Instead he says he might have to call Miss Pam, the night shift supervisor at the facility for orphaned children where Tony lives.
Somewhere along the way the kids in Room 315 learned that the only way to get attention in their endless shuffle through apathetic institutions was to scream and kick their feet. They also learned that one sure way to earn respect from their increasingly street hardened peers was to swing their fists. What they didn’t learn is basic reading, writing and arithmetic; on average the students in Room 315 function academically on a grade school level despite being only a year or two away from graduating. A couple of the students are functionally illiterate. This fact partly explains why mainstream classes amounted to little more than tedious torture, and why they acted out so inappropriately when forced to participate. To most kids that come through Room 315 high school textbooks are meaningless, their pages a jumbled soup of indecipherable letters and numbers. And yet time and again in the course of their schooling these same kids were passed along to the next grade.
The students are aware of the implications of their current situation; they know that the school district’s primary objective at this point is to simply contain them until they leave the system for good. Maybe they’ll leave school by dropping out when they become age-eligible to do so, maybe they’ll catch a criminal charge somewhere along the way and get shipped off to CEP, or maybe they’ll stay in the educational limbo of Room 315 until they eventually graduate despite their low learning levels. Corey and Eric sarcastically allude to the group’s conundrum in a mean-spirited clowning pantomime directed at Mr. McMonigle. Eric adopts a teacher’s pet tone and warns Corey that if he doesn’t follow directions and write his journal entry he might fail the class. It’s an ironic mock-threat that causes Corey to laugh.
“They can’t fail us, nigga,” Corey sneers, “You know, no child left behind and shit.”
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