Editor’s note: This is a piece by Jonathan Holt about his experience as first year TFA teacher in a public New Orleans school. NolaVie will be running a few creative-nonfiction pieces about his experiences in the coming weeks, as NOLA’s schools go back in session.
Monday, August 6th was the first day for the students at Westfield High. The morning was surprisingly quiet, since not many kids were present. As a young male teacher, my before-school duty post was outside on a busy corner. My assignment was to stand there in the wet, early heat and make sure no cars turned right, just in case they missed the huge sign that says “DO NOT TURN RIGHT.” It must have been hazing.
When the bell rang, my freshman physical science class began to slowly stumble in. The off-yellow uniforms differentiated the freshmen from the rest, so walking tall down the halls of Westfield carried little weight for the insecure adolescents.
Five minutes after the bell rang, only three boys had shown up. I pulled a chair close to them and struck up a conversation with the slouching teenagers, not wanting to waste my valuable first lesson on one-tenth of the roster. A fourth student, smeared in tattoos and hidden behind a curtain of dreadlocks, swerved sheepishly into the classroom. He landed heavily into a seat on the other side of the room and immediately put his head down.
“Hey, umm, can you please take a seat over here?” I asked as I approached his table, dreading the prospect of hostility on the first day.
“Hey, I would really appreciate if you joined us, just so we’re all together as a group.”
“I’m good right here.”
“I just think that if we all sat together it would make things a lot easier.” I tried to muster a mix of authority and empathy; it came out as an awkward childish plea. I was blessed with a stroke of luck, and he picked up his backpack and begrudgingly fell into a seat closer to his classmates.
“Devin? Is that your name?” I prodded.
“Where the females at?”
“You tell me.”
The three other boys began recalling the most memorable fights from years past and anticipating the biggest ones of the new school year.
“He knocked him out on the first punch, son, the FIRST PUNCH.”
“He got shot a couple months ago.”
“The girls be the worst though,” they declared, looking at me. “You gotta watch out for ’em up in here.”
With each detail, Devin’s head picked up slightly more, until he was a participative commentator on the matter. I learned that he was a junior in school but had failed physical science before. He also revealed that he did not want to go to college and hadn’t heard of technical or trade school.
Fifteen deaths later, it was almost time for class to end, so I had the students fill out a brief survey. Devin called me over when he finished and pointed to his last answer:
“Is there anything else I need to know about you?”
I have anger management problems (this is important).
I was struck by his neat, sophisticated cursive handwriting.
“Um, yeah, you want to meet after class for a second?” I asked. “Why don’t you hang around and we can talk about it real quick.”
When the bell sounded Devin half-heartedly picked up his backpack and headed slowly for the door.
“Wait up, let’s just chat for a second. What’s the situation?”
He began, “Well, like, I just have really bad anger problems, you know? Like, ever since my brother got shot last year, I’ve been, like, really messed up in the head, you know? And my uncle just died two weeks ago, so it’s kinda tough right now. Sometimes I just snap. I can’t really work in groups, like, I like to sit on my own, you know. Sometimes I just get really upset when I don’t, like, understand something, you know? I have medication to take in the morning, and if I don’t take my medication, I get all upset and start actin’ crazy.”
“Yeah, that sounds rough… It sounds like you and I’ll need to work together to make this class productive for you. You need to let me know what I can do to help you. I’ll make some changes in the seating chart and adjust some group activities. But I also think you should meet with the counselor and talk about your options after you graduate, because I can tell you’re a smart guy.”
“I’ve gotta do something. If I don’t…” He tightened his tattooed fingers around the edge of the desk. “I’m going straight to prison, and that’s it.”
Later that day I was running through Audubon Park when it began to rain. I was thinking intensely about something at the time, not realizing it was down-pouring until I was already soaked. I crossed from the dirt path to a parallel road, passing two girls practicing for their private school cross-country team. They buzzed with back-to-school energy.
“Yeah, like, our class wasn’t really that rowdy last year either,” one confided to the other. “I mean, like, one day, someone turned off the lights in the hallway and everyone, like, freaked out. Then they made an announcement that if someone did that again, they would get in BIG trouble. So no one really did anything bad after that.”
Ah, the contrast was beautiful. It occurred to me what the difference was between Westfield High and affluent schools. In the latter, being a student is a profession. It’s your job, your sole responsibility. No one wants to lose their job, so everyone follows the rules. At schools like Westfield, however, school is an inconvenience that is seemingly incongruent with the rest of life. If kids like Devin are at the mercy of retribution on the block, why should they care about physical science? And how in the world was I going to be the one to motivate these kids?
I don’t even have myself together yet. This year is going to be crazy.
This piece is by Jonathan Holt. Please e-mail comments to editor@NolaVie.com.