BY JEFF DEENEY By the time the group returns to room 315 from the computer lab the day is nearly over. It’s well into the afternoon by now and both the staff and students are visibly worn down from the day’s grind. The students move at a slow, shuffling pace and keep their voices at a low mumble as they return to their seats. Miss Patterson slumps into her chair at the desk in the back of the room that she refers to as her “office” with an audible sigh. Hakeem, the hardened young corner hustler who comes to class only when the truant officers drag him there, is still splayed sleeping across the tops of four desks that he pushed together shortly after he arrived this morning. He’s been asleep the entire day and now has his hand down the front of his pants while snoring loudly. The students stop just shy of their chairs when they notice their classmate.
“Hak all holdin’ his dick and shit,” Diquan snickers.
The other boys join in, pointing and laughing at him. The noise causes Hakeem to rouse; moving sluggishly he pulls himself up off the desktops he’s been laying across and onto the classroom’s hard, age-worn floor. Mr. McMonigle looks on expectantly, waiting for some explanation for his behavior as Hakeem straightens out his hoodie and pulls up his pants. The students are clearly dying to hear what outrageous statement Hakeem might make; they can barely contain their giggling as Hakeem picks up his book bag and slings it over his shoulder. The boy pulls his hood up over his head and starts towards the door in his characteristic slouching swagger, turning his head to shoot his last words at the group as he leaves the room.
“I’m goin’ the fuck home.”
The room erupts in laughter while Mr. McMonigle stands with his hands on his hips, shaking his head in disappointment at Hakeem as he disappears down the hallway.
Mr. McMonigle is quick to point out that Hakeem’s leaving early for the day is aberrant behavior; despite all the difficulty he has keeping kids in the classroom during lessons Mr.McMonigle never has a problem keeping them in the building until the end of school. In fact, contrary to what you might imagine, Mr. McMonigle has such a hard time getting the kids to go home at the end of the day that he sometimes has to lock the door to keep them from returning. As the final period gets closer to ending the children invariably start to get agitated, and during the last fifteen minutes of school they start making panicky excuses for why they have to stay late. When the dismissal bell rings the children, who are frequently taunted and bullied by their peers, wait to leave until there’s nobody left in the halls but the school’s Air Force Junior ROTC group that stays behind to practice marching formations.
Once the coast is clear, the students of room 315 pick up the schoolbags and go, but five minutes later they all return. Miss Patterson tries to shoo them back out the door but they resist. They cling to Miss Patterson’s suit coat, tugging at its fabric and pleading with her to play Monopoly with them for a little while. When she refuses, telling them that it will be dinnertime soon and she needs to get home to her own children, the students become resistant. On some days Mr.McMonigle has to herd the children together and push them out the door. On some days the students are so bent on staying that Mr. McMonigle has to call school security and have the students physically removed.
“This is the safest place these kids have,” Mr. McMonigle explains. “No matter how crazy it gets here, no matter how bad the school is, it’s still better than what’s waiting for them out there when they leave. The irony is that after all the bitching and the moaning about how they don’t want to be here, at the end of the day you can’t get them to go home!”
Towards the end of the final period the school’s intercom system springs to life and the principal’s loud voice comes crackling through the speakers.
“Ugggh,” Mr. McMonigle groans, “this is my least favorite part of the day.”
The principal launches into her daily closing monologue, recounting the significant issues from this school session. Usually she cites incidents of good and bad student behavior that she either lauds or lambastes, calling out the students involved by their first names.
“Shakia, girl, you know I saw that pack of cigarettes you snuck in your pocket when you saw me comin’. Next time, it’s mine, believe that.”
“Donald, you had your hood on in class and you know the rule about that. I’m gonna be lookin’ out for you tomorrow, so you best take it off when you come through the front door.”
“Now, Tiffany and Ebony had a great day, it was nice to see how they were helping their classmates with their homework and they even straightened up the room between periods. That’s the kind of effort we like to see, ladies.”
“Desmond, don’t sass me. You give me that sass mouth one more time and we are going to have a major problem. Don’t even look at me funny, you heard?”
She goes on and on, ticking items off the list she’s been preparing in her head over the past seven hours. After a few more minutes Mr.McMonigle has his head in his hands, as if listening to the woman causes him acute pain. The principal’s closing monologue is an unorthodox practice that the old Irishman clearly doesn’t identify with, culturally.
As she concludes her monologue the distorted thump of an R&B slow jam’s beat sounds tinnily over the intercom.
“Dear God,” Mr. McMonigle cries, rolling his eyes, “I can’t stand this part, I can’t believe she does this.”
The song is Jaheim’s “Fabulous” and the principal plays it at the end of every day. The song’s message is positive, warning children against the dangers of the streets and the consequences of teen pregnancy. Its tone is uplifting; each verse ends with a chorus of little children gaily singing the refrain, “Don’t hate on us, we’re fabulous.”
“That’s right, children,” the principal chimes in over the music, like a hip hop radio DJ talking over a mix, “you are all so fabulous. Don’t forget that, now, let me hear you all sing it.”
From the rooms adjoining 315 a chorus of young voices rises up, singing along.
“Don’t hate on us, we’re fabulous!”
“That’s right,” the principal calls out over the loudspeaker, “That’s right, you know the rest of the words, let’s hear y’all.”
“Cause U-N-I-T-Y is all we need
To get our R-E-S-P-E-C-T
And never G-I-V-E U-P
And keep your H-E-A-D U-P
And never G-I-V-E U-P
And keep your H-E-A-D U-P
And never G-I-V-E U-P.”
Even the students in room 315 can’t resist singing along with the final verse. It is a song of hope that spells out a message of strength and resilience that the principal sends them, like a note from their teacher, to take back to their foster parents and group homes at the end of each day.
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