My Stinking Student

 

Once I had a “stinker” in class. A stinker is a kid who stinks. This particular kid’s name was Melvin Charles Palomius, but he was known around the high school as Mel Odious.

Now Mel smelled as if many small, nasty creatures had met their Maker in, on, under and throughout his body. He did not have that normal, everyday odor of rancid chicken soup that several days of not bathing can produce in people. No, I’m talking serious dead-animal smell for Mel.

I first realized I had Mel in my class on the very first day of school when I walked into the classroom and was appalled by the fact that the custodians hadn’t cleaned out my garbage can all summer – for what else could cause such a stench? Some of the custodians at my school had the reputation for cleaning up on the job but not cleaning up anything else, if you get my meaning. But when I looked in the garbage can, expecting to see the rotted remains of the last lunch I had eaten just before summer vacation, I found to my surprise that it was relatively clean. If it weren’t for the wads of fossilized gum, the bottom of the can could have passed for almost new.

So what was causing that horrible odor?

I looked up from the garbage can and there was Mel. I knew immediately that the scent from hell came from him. It was elementary my dear reader. The rest of the kids stood in the back of the classroom, pushing themselves against the open windows, all wondering where they were going to sit in relation to Mel when I gave them their seating assignments. If I followed the usual policy of seating them in alphabetical order the students mathematically calculated where their desks would be in relation to the stink of the century.

“If King Scobe seats me next to that stinker, I’ll kill myself,” said one boy, whom I later learned was named Phillip Peters. [Many students called me King Scobe.]

I could see the mixture of terror and revulsion in their eyes as I lifted my computerized class list. What should I do? I had a choice. It was simple really. Do I seat them alphabetically or don’t it? I quickly did a check of my list and realized that if I seated them that way; Mel would be in the very first seat – right in front of me – where he sat right now. He smiled at me when I looked at him, and I saw his yellow and black teeth. The only other time in my life that I saw black teeth was in the casinos of Mississippi and at the Horseshoe in Las Vegas when I became an advantage-player in the casinos – but that would be many, many years in the future.

“I figured where I would be sitting,” he said.

“Very clever,” I said, holding back the nausea that rocketed through me when I caught the stench of his breath. “Are all the windows opened?” I asked the students crammed in the back of the room.

“All the way,” they chorused. They knew that I knew that they knew that this was going to be a rough period with such a stinker in the room.

The decision was made.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “I don’t think it’s an educationally sound policy to seat kids in alphabetical order.”

A huge cheer went up from the students whose lives and noses I’d saved by not following the standard policy. But I could also hear the loud groans that came from the kids who originally thought they wouldn’t have to be near Mel and now their fates were up in the (stinking) air.

Now I had to come up with a foul-proof, I mean, fool-proof plan of seating in order to get Mel as far away from me as possible and simultaneously spare as many of the kids as I could from the horror. Letting the kids choose their own seats would be a disaster since all of them would struggle to get into the last seat of each row now that they saw Mel making himself comfortable in the first seat. The thought of five students squeezed per last desk of each row conjured images of fistfights and foreplay. Think quickly, Scobe, I thought.

I went to the window, stuck my head all the way out, took a deep breath and then went back to the lectern next to my desk. I lifted the class list. Wonder of wonders – I placed Mel in the last seat of the last row over by the DO NOT OPEN: FIRE EXIT window, which I told Mel to open as wide as it would go. This was a window that opened wide enough for you to get out of the building in case of fire.

“But you’re not supposed to open it,” he said.

“That’s not this year’s fire exit window,” I lied. “This year’s is the one in the front of the room. They just haven’t painted the sign for it yet.”

“But the new one is so small, no one could get out of it,” said Mel.

“Uh, they’re going to expand it too,” I said.

That mollified Mel. Actually, he wasn’t a bad kid; he was just a bad-smelling innocuous kid. He even did all his homework but I never read any of it because I didn’t want to touch something that he had touched. His homework also had a lingering scent to it, Mel’s dead-animal scent. I just gave him straight B’s, which was higher than the C average he ran in all his other classes. When he took a test, I’d have the kids mark each other’s papers. But many kids did not want to touch his paper either, so finally I said to Mel, “You know Mel I trust you so much I am going to let you mark your own tests from now on.” A cheer went up from the class. I had brilliantly handled the dilemma of how to handle something that Mel handled without having to handle it.

Now, on the second day of class I brought in a gigantic fan, placed it in the aisle blowing on Mel and out the opened DO NOT OPEN: FIRE EXIT window. In that way I saved the class. Mel’s odor went sailing out the window – perhaps killing birds – but at least we humans were safe. I believe in being loyal to your species.

Of course, I hadn’t really fully saved myself.

Perhaps I should have taken Mel aside and in an adult and sensitive and humane way addressed his particular problem. I should have used the finesse God gave me as a teacher to start a conversation on some trivial topic and slowly bring it around to his particular problem. “Hey, Mel, that was a very lively essay you wrote the other day. Your use of metaphor is quite unusual for a kid your age and oh, by the way, do you know you smell like hell?”

But I didn’t do that. I couldn’t. I just kept that fan blowing on him and prayed for Mel to set the all-time record for absences. He didn’t. He was present every day, every stinking day. Maybe germs just died when they got close to his body.

And then came parents/teachers night.

My plan was well thought out. I would greet his parents as if nothing was untoward.  I just prayed that his parents didn’t stink too. I would tell them about a good composition he just wrote, which I hadn’t read because I didn’t want to touch it, and then I would subtly work in the fact that Mel smelled as if he were decomposing.

But the best laid plans of mice and lice often go astray.

It was a quick meeting.

“Mr. Scobe,” said Mom as she and Mr. Odious entered my office.

“Hi, won’t you sit down,” I said cheerfully and sniffed subtly. Thank you, God! Thank you! Thank you! They didn’t stink!

“We’re a little concerned about Mel,” said Mom.

“Really?” I figured they knew about his problem. Or maybe he told them about the huge fan blowing on him every day.

“Yes,” said Dad. “He isn’t participating in extra-curricular activities. Don’t you think it’s important that a child should?”

“Uh…yes…yes,” I said flustered.

“What team do you think he should join?” asked Dad.

“How about the swim team?” I said.

“He hates the water, even as a baby he always hated taking baths,” said Mom.

“No kidding?” I said, innocently.

“The school doesn’t have a swim team does it?” asked Dad.

“Ah, no, but maybe we could start one for him,” I said.

“The school doesn’t have a pool, does it?” asked Dad.

“No, but he could use the pool at Hewlett High – it’s only about a mile away,” I said.

“I think Mel needs something a little less strenuous,” said Mom.

“How about a shower team?” I mumbled.

“What?” asked Dad.

“Nothing,” I said.

“I think Mel would like to join your Science Fiction Club,” said Mom. “He says he gets along with you. He wants a closer working relationship with you. Another student, Simon Michael, told Mel that your club is the best.”

“I think he identifies with you,” said Dad.

Aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!! I thought. Could it be I stink? I started to smell myself. How could I stink? I showered every day.

“What are you doing?” asked Dad.

“What?” I looked up from under my armpit. “What?”

“What are you doing?” he repeated.

“Nothing, nothing,” I said. Then I had an inspiration brought on by desperation. “Gee, I hate to tell you this, but I am quitting all my clubs this year.”

“When?” asked Mom.

“Tonight,” I said.

Just then my student monitor came in and told me their five minutes were up and my next appointment had arrived.

“Well, Mr. Scobe, it was nice meeting you,” said Dad.

I stood up and shook his hand. “Same here,” I said.

Then I shook Mrs. Odious’s hand.

They started to leave. Then Mom turned around. “Oh, by the way, what classes are you teaching next year? Mel wants to sign up.”

“What?”

“Yes, Mel wants to have you for English again next year,” said Dad.

“Uh, ah, um, that might be…impossible…because – ah, I’m switching departments!”

“Really?” said Mom.

“Yes, I’ll be teaching something Mel would find very boring next year,” I said.

“What?” asked Dad.

“Hygiene,” I muttered.

I don’t think they heard that last remark as my student monitor again came in to say my next appointments were outside waiting for me. Mr. and Mrs. Odious were delighted that their darling had finally found a teacher that he liked and wanted to get closer to.

That year was interesting. In winter I couldn’t use the fan or keep the DO NOT OPEN: FIRE EXIT window open, especially after the first snowfall covered Mel with an inch of white. Within a week of closing that window for winter, half the class dropped out – the half closest to Mel.

Of the kids that remained, most seemed to suffer from allergies because they were constantly holding handkerchiefs to their noses. As for me, I learned an important educational lesson from Mel – sometimes your class stinks through no fault of your own.

And Mel? I’ll never forget that little stinker.

The Principle and the Principal

 

My second and last almost-year of teaching in junior high (1970-71) was no more pleasant than my first. Oh, I got along well with my students but I had a really strained relationship with the principal and some of my colleagues, one of whom thought I was an “arrogant, athletic scumbag.” In fact that quote comes from my former English department chairman, Mr. Jonathan Moody – who was just like his name, moody.

I never said anything to him that would lead him to believe I thought I was great. He was kind of like Sullivan [my epic high school fight to be told sometime later] – he took an instant dislike to me. After school we used to play basketball and he was not very good at that. Somehow [I’m guessing at this] he must have felt that as my chairman he should be a better athlete than I. He wasn’t.

But he also thought he should be a better teacher than I as well. I have no idea if he was a good teacher or one of the legion of bad teachers, but I do know he sent a lot of disciplinary referrals which tells me many of his students were tough for him to control.

The fact that I never had to send in a referral drove him nuts.

“You think you are a better teacher than I am?” he said to me one day at the copy machine.

“What?” I said.

“You heard me. As your chairman I want to know why you don’t send in any disciplinary referrals. Why don’t you?”

“I don’t because I haven’t had to,” I said.

“You really expect me to believe that?”

“You’ve been in my class a dozen times, you walk by my class, I mean, you see what I’m doing. It’s not like the kids are being bad or anything.”

“Something is wrong here,” he said. “I teach the same type of kids you do and all the English teachers do and you are the only one who has never sent in a referral in two years.”

“There was Gerry,” I said. “I had to drag him to the nurse.”

“He was a psychopath, he doesn’t count,” said Mr. Moody.

“What’s the point of this conversation?” I asked. “Shouldn’t you be happy that I can control my students?”

“I know you think you are a better teacher than I am,” he repeated. “But you are not. Just because you majored in three subjects just remember that teaching is not college, smart boy.”

“Listen, I hate to tell you this Mr. Moody, but I don’t think about you and I know teaching is not college,” I said. Now, I know I said this with my voice dripping with sarcasm because I tended to get sarcastic with authority figures when I was young. I did think Moody was an idiot. As an adult, long gone from the teaching profession, I have to admit I have no idea if Moody really was the idiot I thought he was. But he certainly was uptight as I recollect his conversations quite well.

“The principal is fully aware of what a fuckhead you are,” he concluded, walking away from the copy machine.

That afternoon, my team beat his team in basketball 62 to 24. These were pickup games in the gym and there was one other player, besides me, who could dominate the game – Howard Dodd, a big guy, maybe 6’3” strong and powerful. I happened to get him on my team that day and when the two of us were on the same team, well, we were unbeatable. Midway through that second year, the other teachers decided that Dodd and I could not be on the same team and we always had to face each other. He got the better of it, overall, as a good big man can beat a good little man. But the games were exciting nevertheless.

Except that Moody got really angry every time he lost. When Moody was on my team (Dodd and I were the “captains”) he’d complain that I didn’t pass him the ball much. He was right; I didn’t, because he stunk.

The principal was also a pain in my ass. He didn’t like the things I taught. I did a section of poetry and lead it off with some lyrics from the Beatles “Sergeant Peppers” album. The students and I discussed drugs and my message was very clear – don’t do drugs. Please recall that 1970-71, the year I am writing about here, was the beginning of the big drug surge in America among junior high and high school students – following the college students’ example.

In the middle of discussing one of the lyrics, our principal Doctor Denton walked right into the room, shut off the record player, and told me to “get out into the hall so I can talk to you.” My students were as stunned as I was, but that might have also contributed to them liking me – I was in more trouble with the principal than any of them.

“What do you think you are doing?” he asked.

“I’m doing the poetry unit,” I said, faking innocence. I knew why he had dragged me out into the hall.

“You are doing stupid lyrics from the Beatles, who are communists,” he said.

“I don’t know if they’re communists but what I want to do is get the kids to see that what they listen to every day is a type of poetry. Then I will do real poetry with them.”

“I don’t like this drug stuff,” he said.

“Well, the lyrics I am doing are anti-drug stuff,” I countered.

“We are not going to discuss drugs in the classrooms,” he said. “It will only encourage them to take drugs.”

“You know I think you are wrong here. You have to realize that today’s kids are really getting exposed to drugs now. They need an anti-drug message.”

“We are not discussing drugs in the classrooms of this school,” he said.

“Look, you’re the principal…”

“I’m glad you realize that,” he said.

“But you are wrong on this. You’re going to catch kids sooner or later using drugs and you’re going to wonder how it all happened. You know ‘an ounce of prevention’ and all that.”

“No,” he said. “Not in this school. No lyrics. Go straight to the poetry section. I don’t want any of this modern education crap that you are doing.”

Just then Moody wandered by. As department chairman he only had to teach two classes so he had plenty of time to do whatever the hell chairmen in that school did – which was get paid to do almost nothing.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I am explaining to Mr. Scoblete,” said Doctor Denton, “that he is not to do Beatle lyrics about drugs or any lyrics for that matter as a part of his poetry lessons.”

“You call that education? Lyrics? What were you thinking?” asked Moody.

I didn’t answer. What was the use? Both of them stared at me.

“You’re the bosses,” I finally said, “but if I were a betting man I would wager that sometime this year or next year you are going to wake up and find you have some kids right in this school who are using drugs. I’d put a bet on it.”

“Not this school,” said Doctor Denton.

“You think you know everything?” asked Mr. Moody. “You have to realize that out here in the suburbs we don’t have that problem. We’re seventy miles from New York City. These kids are not like the kids you know in the slums of Brooklyn where you grew up, they are innocent. We don’t want you polluting their minds.”

You idiot, I thought, I didn’t grow up in the slums.

In April of 1971, the principal caught nine kids in the bathroom drinking booze and smoking marijuana. A couple of kids had some pills too – I never found out what those were. Doctor Denton took firm action. He suspended the kids for a couple of weeks. Then he got on the loudspeaker.

“This is Doctor Denton, your principal. As some of you know, we caught nine students using drugs in the bathroom today and they have all been suspended.”

I watched the faces of my students. Most of them looked truly shocked. There had been some truth to the assertions by Denton and Moody that these kids were largely innocent.

“Because drugs are dangerous to all of us, I am now telling each and every student in this school that there is to be no talking between classes or in the lunchroom during lunch. It must be total silence. You are all being punished. If any of you are thinking of using drugs in this school look around you and realize that what you do will affect everyone else. If you use drugs the whole school will suffer because of you! This punishment starts immediately. Anyone talking between classes or in the lunchroom will be paddled [yes, in those days in that school you could paddle students – and Mr. Moody was the school’s official paddler, something he seemed to enjoy immensely] and if it occurs a second time you will be suspended. This punishment will last five days. I hope all of you learn your lessons from this.”

I looked over the classroom. Darby Colton raised his hand. I nodded to him.

“Can we talk in class?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, of course.”

There was silence and then Chuck Smith raised his hand. I nodded to him.

“Mr. Scobe do you think this is fair? We’re all being punished for what some other kids did. There are a thousand kids in this school [actually 900] being punished for what a few did. Do you think it’s right to punish everyone?”

“Okay,” I said. “Do I think it’s fair? No I don’t. Do I think it’s right? No. I think it is stupid. But I also know in life a lot of people get caught up in situations where they are innocent of anything but take it – a punishment, a beating, whatever bad thing it is – because of what others have done. That’s a lesson you are learning right this minute but do I think this is fair? No.”

Being young, being idealistic, being perhaps stupid, I went on to teach a lesson about how innocent people get caught up in all sorts of horrible things – like the Holocaust, war in general, disease. I thought it was a pretty good lesson.

After class, as the students went silently into the hall – these kids were terrified of having Mr. Moody paddle them – I roared into the crowded teachers’ lounge, jumped on the table (I was always dramatic) and launched into a speech attacking Doctor Denton’s idiot punishment of all the students for what nine students had done. I compared him to Hitler and his running of the school to a gulag. Most of the teachers just looked at me silently. Maybe a small group agreed with me but they were all afraid of Doctor Denton, who did run this school with an iron fist. I told the teachers that even my students thought this was an unfair and stupid punishment and that I told my students I had agreed with them.

At this point, one teacher walked out of the teachers’ lounge and went straight to Doctor Denton’s office where he ratted on me. This teacher was taking courses so he could become an administrator and I guess he figured getting my scalp on his spear would help him achieve his goal.

After I finished my dramatic harangue in the lounge, to a crowd that looked at me as if I were a total idiot, I then went straight to Doctor Denton’s office to give him a piece of my mind, not knowing that Doctor Denton was already well aware of my opinion. I passed the future-administrator in the hall as I headed for Denton’s office.

“That was fast,” said Doctor Denton’s secretary.

“What?”

“Doctor Denton wants to see you,” she said. She rang Denton, told him I was there, and then said to me, “You can go in.”

I walked into his office.

“Sit down,” Doctor Denton said pointing to the chair in front of his desk.

“Doctor Denton,” I started but he cut me off.

“I don’t want to hear anything from you. I know what you did in the teachers’ lounge, trying to incite the teachers against me, and I know you did something that no teacher should ever do – you criticized me in front of your class. How dare you? Who do you think you are? I am now putting you on notice that if you do one more thing I don’t like, I am firing you. Do you understand that?”

I couldn’t deny I had disagreed with his policy in my class – how did he know that? How did he know what I had just said in the teachers’ lounge? Was this guy psychic – or bugging the school?

“I understand what firing means,” I said. “Do you understand what free speech is?”

“You can have all the free speech you want, Scoblete, but you don’t have tenure and I can fire you and not have to give a reason. So free speech away all you like young man but one more thing and you and your free speech are gone.”

That “one more thing” happened the very next day.

I had a lovely student named Jennifer Van Hatton, an honor student with a 98 average in my class. Today she might be about 60 years old but then she was as cute as a button 7th grader just on the verge of growing into a beautiful young woman. She was everything a parent could want in a child – smart, athletic, well behaved, and well mannered.

Jennifer’s locker was right across the hall from my classroom. At the end of the day, Jennifer realized that she had left her notebook in a friend’s locker and she whispered to her friend, “I need my notebook.”

Unfortunately Jennifer did not realize that Doctor Denton loomed right behind her.

“YOU TALKED!” he screamed so loud that every kid in the hall and all the teachers could hear him clearly.

Jennifer turned around, saw him, and froze like an ice sculpture. I was about five feet away from them, standing outside my classroom.

In one quick movement Doctor Denton grabbed Jennifer by the collars of her blouse and shook her. “YOU TALKED!” he screamed and then balled his hands into fists with her blouse inside them and lifted her right off the ground. Jennifer looked as if she were in a state of shock.

I wasn’t really thinking clearly – or maybe my subconscious was thinking clearly – I really don’t know. I just know in two big leaps I grabbed Jennifer away from Doctor Denton, ripping her blouse in the process, then turned and hit Denton a left hook on his jaw that sent him staggering. I followed that by stepping in with a straight right and then pushed Denton as hard as I could. He fell to the floor – knocking over a student who was standing close to him. I then yelled at him, “Don’t you ever manhandle one of my students!”

I could see that Jennifer was crying now.

“You stupid fuck!” I yelled at him again.

Some other teachers came running and got between Denton and me. Denton was standing now, still a little groggy, and he allowed himself to be lead down the hallway to the nurse’s office. I could see the kids eyeing me as they walked past me to go to the buses. One kid whispered to me, “He deserved it.”

Jennifer was helped to the buses by one of the hall aides and that is the last I ever saw of her.

When I got home I didn’t bother to tell my wife that I had just punched out the principal over this talking principle. She never liked my rebelliousness. I figured I would be fired – maybe even arrested for assault.

The next morning I never made it down the hall to my class.

“Oh Mister Scoblete,” said Mr. Moody in a great mood this morning and drawing out the word mister as if I were anything but a mister. “Doctor Denton wants to see you in his office.”

I walked down the hall to Doctor Denton’s office.

“Mr. Scoblete is here,” said his secretary into the phone. “Go ahead in,” she said to me.

“Doctor Denton,” I said as I entered. I had given this some thought and I wanted to apologize for hitting him when Mr. Moody walked into the office and brought a chair over to sit next to Doctor Denton. I could see Doctor Denton had a little bruise where my right had hit his cheekbone.

“Doctor Denton,” I started again.

“Please be quiet, meeeessssteeerrr Scoblete” said Mr. Moody. “Haven’t you done enough to disrupt this school?”

“Mr. Scoblete,” said Doctor Denton taking out a large folder from his desk. “As of today you are no longer working here. You are terminated.” Well there was no point in apologizing now. I was a goner. He pointed to the folder. “In this folder is a record of your behavior as a teacher in this school. Mr. Moody I would like you to read some of the highlights of Mr. Scoblete’s performance while he has been a teacher here for the past year and three-quarters.”

Mr. Moody happily took the folder, opened it, and began gleefully reading, Oh happy days – for him. Page after page of all the things I said which went against school policy, all the things I taught which I shouldn’t have taught, and page after page of statements written by Mr. Moody about my “lack of respect” for all the educational philosophies he and Doctor Denton believed in.

He delighted in reading the never-ending list of my educational character flaws but I had heard enough.

“Stop,” I said. “I get the picture. I’m leaving. You want me to leave right now? At least can I say goodbye to my classes?”

“No,” said Doctor Denton.

“You’ve had enough influence over them – too much,” said Mr. Moody.

“You know not one of those nine kids caught taking drugs came from my classes,” I said. Yes, that was a stupid thing to say because I was not responsible for the behavior of my students outside of my classroom, but I was looking for something to say to defend myself against this inexhaustible list of my not respecting this, that and the other thing.

“Take whatever materials are yours and leave,” said Mr. Moody.

“Mr. Scoblete, one last thing,” said Doctor Denton.

“Yes,” I said.

“If you go for another teaching job, if it is in the right district, I will give you a truthful recommendation. I think you should teach high school. You see, you are a good teacher, maybe even a great teacher; you just don’t fit in here. And I am not going to press charges because you hit me because I was a little out of line myself. So you see you can still have a career in teaching – if you pick the right district to go to.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Actually I appreciate that. And I am sorry that I hit you. I should never have done that.”

Doctor Denton nodded.

“I think you should find some other occupation because you don’t have the temperament of a teacher,” said Mr. Moody contradicting the principal.

I got up and left without a glance at Moody.

I took home all my belongings. I didn’t tell my wife about hitting the principal but I had to tell her that I had been fired. It was the end of April and I was out of a job. My wife didn’t work.

“What are we going to do?” she said to me. “You’ll never get another teaching job.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe you’ll have to work.”

She eyed me.

As a postscript to the above: I did get another teaching job. I went to 10 interviews at various high schools across Long Island and all of them said that because of my behavior on my last job they just didn’t want to take a chance hiring me – “and good luck.” I gave myself one more interview and figured if I lost out on number 11 I would have to look for another career. The 11th job interview, which was at the school where I experienced the Weird World adventures [to be addressed in the future], consisted of four parts – an interview with the department chairman, in this case Gregory Monahan, then an interview with the principal, in this case Edwin Krawitz, and if both of them liked what I had to say at the interviews then I would be asked back to teach a lesson in front of a class. Then the students and teachers who were watching me teach would have their say.

I made it through the interviews. I never lied. I told the truth about everything that happened at my last district – except I never said anything about punching out the principal. When they called Doctor Denton he affirmed everything I said and, thankfully, he also did not mention my landing two solid ones on his jaw. He also told them he thought I was a great teacher. In retrospect – I am looking a long ways back in the past now – I might have – in my youthful enthusiasm and stupidity – underrated Doctor Denton. He could have blackballed me from teaching after all and he didn’t. Mr. Moody on the other hand, even in retrospect, was an idiot.

I taught the class. I am good with an audience in front of me and I was the favorite for the job after my lesson. The teachers who saw me liked me and the students – the most important group – liked me too. Gregory Monahan, a new department chairman, now had to make a tough decision – hire a young firebrand that could give him enormous headaches if I turned out to be a maniac. Gregory Monahan spoke to two of his colleagues and dear friends, two of the best teachers I ever met and ever saw in a classroom, Gabe Uhlar and Lenore Israel. They both told Monahan to go for it. Hire me. “He’s the kind of teacher we want,” they said.

As a new chairman, as someone who could be inviting disaster by hiring me, Gregory Monahan decided to go for it. Now, I can’t say I was perfect for Mr. Monahan but any disputes we had I have to say – he was right. I went from being a kid to being an adult under the tutelage of Gregory Monahan, Gabe Uhlar and Lenore Israel.

I named my first child Gregory in honor of Gregory Monahan. I have no idea how my life would have turned out had he not taken a big chance with me. And for that I am forever grateful. I actually hope he reads this book and knows that I still have the utmost respect for him.

[Gregory Monahan died a couple of years ago. I did tell him how much I respected him when he retired. He was a great teacher and a great department chairman – a great man in my opinion.]

(The above is an excerpt from my book The Virgin Kiss.)

The Craziest Kid I Ever Taught

1969: GERRY, The Rat Boy

This is the story of the craziest kid I ever taught who also taught me a valuable lesson; that lesson being that I wouldn’t love every kid I ever taught – and some would be out of their damn minds. Getting your eyes opened in the very first year of your teaching career – starting on the very first day of your teaching career – was more of an education than I ever got taking the education courses that I needed to get certified in New York State.

Okay, let me set the mood. I came out of college with three majors (literature, history and philosophy) and decided that I didn’t want to work the business world where I had been fired many times and so I went into education. I wanted to be the best teacher that ever existed and also become a world famous writer. That’s a character trait of mine – I always want to be the best I can be at whatever I try – be it basketball, baseball, boxing, teaching, writing, and casino advantage play. I was filled with fire and with insane ideas I had learned in the education courses I took the summer before my first teaching assignment. I actually thought I could reach every kid I taught. It never dawned on me that there would be some kids I didn’t want to reach or even touch for that matter, Gerry being one.

That first class was huge, thirty-seven 7th graders. Now some of you may have forgotten what 7th graders look like. They’re a disconcerting amalgam of adult and infantile characteristics; mature bodies with elementary school heads sitting atop them; or little kid bodies with adult heads; or diminutive creatures with huge feet, or somewhat proportional bodies hosting teeth so monstrous that it’s a wonder any mouth could accommodate them. If a normal 7th grader is a wonder to behold, imagine what a wacko one looks like.

And Gerry was wacko.

He sat in the second seat of the middle row. I didn’t see him at first because he was so little even the little Korean kid (Peter Kim) who sat in front of Gerry actually obliterated Gerry from view.  Gerry tended to hunch over and he looked like a bizarre crossbred rodent – part rat, part ferret, and part squirrel – with teeth that would do a chipmunk proud. To this day I fondly recall him as “Rat Boy” because when I first glimpsed him I thought, “Jesus, that kid looks like a rat.”

I realized as I took attendance that first day that something was amiss. When I called out his name instead of the standard yo’s and here’s, I heard growling noises coming from his area. I looked over to see who it was and I saw Rat Boy growling into his notebook. Actually he was growling while eating the cover of his notebook.

“Excuse me,” I said, “notebooks are for writing in, not eating.”

“Ignore him,” said Peter Kim. “He’s crazy.”

“You shouldn’t say that,” I said in my best adult tone. Keep in mind I was a just-turned 22 year old and my mind was filled with the unreal educational idiocy that a 12-year-old kid couldn’t be Looney-Tunes. “We should respect each other,” I concluded.

“I respect him,” said Peter Kim. “He’s just crazy.”

I glanced at the rest of the class. No one seemed to care in the least that Peter called this poor, shriveled rat-kid crazy or that, in fact, the kid was crazy. Indeed, a few kids nodded in agreement.

I decided to move on.

“In any case, Gerry, I don’t think it’s a good idea to eat your notebook,” I said lamely.

Gerry looked up and I saw his eyes for the first time – beady, bloodshot, rodent little eyes. He looked at me as if I were a piece of cheese. Then he put his head down and continued eating his notebook. I didn’t really know what to do so I let it ride.

If Gerry had confined himself to only eating his notebooks and assorted other classroom products, this story would be about some other kid. As any veteran teacher knows, kids will eat assorted school supplies, sometimes in great quantities, including pen tops, pen tips, pencils of lead or graphite, paper, hard or soft book covers, book bindings of string or glue, and some kids will go as far as to nibble on film strips or the edges of their desks. In short, a kid’s culinary palate can easily handle the mundane aspects of the normal classroom menu. If a kid isn’t learning, he’s eating.

But Gerry took his Epicurean treats into the realm of the unique. Several days later, as I was teaching a particularly boring lesson on subject-verb agreements, I heard a snap, snap, snapping coming from his area. I figured he was eating another pencil since he had eaten several #2 soft pencils in prior days. So I didn’t pay it any mind. However, the snap, snap, snapping continued and occasionally I’d hear a little flutter, flutter, flutter – at least in the beginning of the snapping.

Finally I looked over Peter Kim’s shoulder to see what was going on. Gerry was eating a little bird – it resembled a destroyed Tufted Titmouse. He had snapped, snapped, snapped the little thing to pieces on his desk and he was devouring little snippets of wing and leg. There wasn’t much blood because he hadn’t yet gotten round to the underbelly, but his razor-sharp incisors gnawed away like mad. By this time the bird was mercifully dead.

The other kids in the class ignored him; an unusual thing as you all know because kids, even big, high school ones, will use anything as an excuse to justify an assortment of groans, whelps, catcalls, farts, burps and other noises in order to annoy their teachers and diminish work time. But not when it came to Gerry. No sir, Gerry could have been eating an African lowland gorilla and the kids would have pretended nothing was out of the ordinary. You see, Gerry the Rat Boy was truly, magnificently crazy and the truly, magnificently crazy can silence any forced craziness even 7th graders adopt. No one wants to mess with the truly crazy – that’s why we put many of them away in hospitals.

Of course, I didn’t let him finish his meal; it would have ruined his lunch. I took the bird away and threw it out the window. Being a first-year teacher, I thought the principal would be helpful. He wasn’t. He told me that all the students had “individual needs” and that I should try to meet those individual needs. I tried to explain to him that short of opening an ornithology workshop in the class, I didn’t see how the feeding frenzy of a Rat Boy came under the province of subject-verb agreements. I ended the conference by sarcastically showing the movie Rodan, about giant birds that eat Japan, to the class.

This principal, Dr. Denton, and I never got along after that. I alienated my first principal within a few days of starting my first teaching job, not a good thing to do.

In the following weeks Gerry ate an assortment of flora and fauna, furniture and fixtures that could have earned him a lasting spot in The Guinness Book of World Records. And all of us in the class ignored him.

Until he started eating himself.

That’s where I drew the line in the sand.

I’m not kidding, one day Gerry started to nibble away at himself. It would have been an interesting, albeit bloody, experiment to see how far he could have gotten. He was pretty skinny so he probably could have finished himself in a week. But I didn’t let it go that far. Even back then I had some standards.

He jabbed a Bic extra fine point pen into his hand and nibbled off the pieces of skin that separated. He slurped up the blood and ink as he did so. Now, him eating himself didn’t bother me the most but the noise did. Do you have idea of what it’s like teaching “The Tell-Tale Heart” and in the background there’s a constant gnashing and slurping? Not an easy feat, I’ll tell you.

So I walked over to him and grabbed his hand – not the one he was eating since that was all bloody – but the one he was eating with – and said, “Now, Gerry, it’s impolite to eat yourself in class.”

And with a fierce growl, he bit my hand!

I tried to continue with my lesson – since I was one of those teachers who thought his lessons were important – but Gerry had a strong hold. I guess I should have seen it from his point of view, which is what you learn in education courses; repeat after me, no one is responsible for his or her own behavior. Hey, I had this big, meaty hand and Gerry had this skinny, almost bony hand – which would you rather eat? But at the time the pain was rather intense for me to see his side of it. All I wanted was to get the Rat Boy to let go of me.

So I yanked and yanked again and yanked yet again as strong as I could and he released my hand from his mouth. I was bleeding. Even though my hand was no longer in his mouth, his teeth were chopping away – like those monsters in the movies that are killed but their skulls keep snapping away trying to eat the hero and heroine.

I grabbed Gerry by the throat, gently of course as he was a student and I was a teacher, and said, “I think you should see the school nurse.”

Before I could utter another syllable, Gerry jumped up and out of my grasp. “I’ll die first!” he screamed and ran to the window and before anyone could stop him, he opened it and jumped out.

Unfortunately, my classroom was on the first floor. Gerry plummeted all of three feet. I could see the top of his little rat head at the windowsill. I reached out, grabbed him, and hauled him back into the classroom. I then carried him to the nurse’s office, right across the hall from my classroom.

Now the nurse, Mrs. Delaney, was a kindly woman, always on a diet. She was eating her lunch at her desk, her daily custom, from an assorted array of Tupperware containers. I informed her that Gerry had been eating himself, then tried to commit suicide by jumping out the window. She looked kindly at Gerry, put her fork into her Tupperware container, and rang for the principal.

By this time, Gerry sat in a chair, growling softly, and eyeing the nurse’s Tupperware container. Could he still be hungry? What an appetite this kid must have, I thought.

Seconds later the principal arrived. He asked me what was going on. I related the story. The principal looked at Gerry, no longer growling and looking innocent as a lamb (well, innocent as a lamb that looked like a rat) then back at me. “It seems you didn’t heed my advice,” he said. “You have to individualize instruction and meet the needs of the students.”

“The kid was eating himself, Doctor Denton, eating himself! Should I have given him some salt? And then he bit me!” I held out my left hand to show him where Gerry had taken a small piece of my hand. (If you ever meet me, ask me to show you the scar.)

“You probably provoked him,” said Doctor Denton knowingly.

“He’d eat you if given half a chance,” I said.

“I am sure it is not half as bad as you make it sound,” he said.

Gerry saw his half a chance. He grabbed the fork from the nurse’s Tupperware container and in one, smooth, swift motion plunged it through Doctor Denton’s gray, thin, pinstriped, polyester suit jacket and into his back, just next to the shoulder blade.  The one thing you should know about polyester is that it doesn’t absorb blood as well as good old-fashioned cotton or corduroy. A big, red blot appeared almost immediately on the principal’s back, the fork still embedded there.

The principal picked Gerry up – and none too gently I might say – and carried him down the hall to his office. What a sight – the principal barreling down the hallway, Gerry hissing as he hung over Doctor Denton’s shoulder, with the fork sticking out of the other side of Doctor Denton’s back.

Then the bell rang and hundreds of junior high kids streamed into the hallway with Doctor Denton making his way through them – and none too gently either – as he finally staggered into his office.

I wish I could tell you that the story ended here. It didn’t. Of course, Gerry did not come back to class that week, or the next, or the next. The following week, Doctor Denton told me to meet him in his office after school. We had some clashes in the three previous weeks, even without the presence of the Rat Boy, and I thought he would read me the riot act as he had every week since I started teaching there – or fire me (which he ultimately did during my second year at that school). So I went to his office after school.

“Mr. Scobe,” he said (everyone called me Scobe or Mr. Scobe and when I taught in high school two years later I was called King Scobe – a title I feel I deserved). “I think I’ve been wrong about you – well, somewhat wrong, not totally wrong. But in some things I might have been wrong. Well, in one thing I might have been wrong.”

“And that one thing is?” I asked.

“I thought you weren’t able to reach each and every student – for example that Gerry child. But evidently you do.”

“Thank you,” I said. What the hell was he getting at?

“Yes, I was just on the phone with Gerry’s mother. She says Gerry has really taken a liking to you.”

“God, really?”

“Yes,” he replied. “A real liking. That’s why we want you to home tutor him.”

“Excuse me?”

“Gerry’s mother says that he can relate to you.”

“We’re both mammals (a rat, a human),” I said, then added, “Well, I guess that’s nice but…”

“Oh, no buts about it. We’ve had our problems, you and me, but for me to ask you back for next year, I have to see some evidence…”

“That I’m crazy enough to go to that maniac’s house?”

“I would not put it that way,” said Doctor Denton.

“What way would you put it?”

“To be an educator requires a true commitment to the students.”

“I should be committed if I went to his house,” I said. I think one of the reason’s Dr. Denton didn’t like me is that I said what I said without too many “educationese” filters blocking out what I really felt. Also I had a fistfight with him – but that came in the second year, when he fired me. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

“Okay, I will ask you one more time, will you home tutor Gerry?”

We eyed each other over his desk. I didn’t want to get fired and Doctor Denton could fire me just like that since I had no tenure. After all, my wife didn’t work – in fact, she only worked for a couple of months in all our 18 years of marriage because she didn’t like to work. I knew she was home, reading a murder mystery where some husband who lost his job was probably brutally slaughtered by his wife, and I knew that there was only one answer to Doctor Denton’s question.

“Hell, no,” I said.

“Then I am going to terminate your employment here,” he said.

“Just kidding,” I said. “I’d be delighted to do it seeing as you’ll let me finish out this first year and start a second year, yes?

“Of course,” he said. “We always want to see fine, young teachers get a chance to establish themselves. And you will also get fifteen dollars per hour to tutor him too.”

I nodded yes and shook the principal’s hand, thus sealing my fate. I would actually enter the lair of the craziest kid I would ever teach.

When I returned home that evening, I informed my wife that I was going to the house of Gerry the Rat Boy to home tutor him the next day. After checking to see that our insurance was paid up, my wife said, “Sure, fine, go. We could use an extra fifteen dollars a week.”

I didn’t sleep well that night. I realized that I might have made a very big, perhaps fatal, mistake. This kid had shown himself capable of eating anything – including himself. What would his parents be like? A rodent doesn’t crawl too far from the family tree, does it? Maybe this family did this every year. Maybe they were cannibals and once a year ordered out for a teacher to dine on. Maybe they wanted me as a snack? Yes, please send over Mr. Scobe as we would like to dine on him tonight.

I woke up in the middle of the night in a profound sweat. The next few hours might very well be my last on earth.

I then woke my wife up. “Honey,” I said. “I might be facing death tomorrow.” She mumbled something. “What was that? What was that you said?” I asked.

“Increase your life insurance,” she mumbled and then fell back into a deep sleep.

That day I taught my classes but my mind was elsewhere. It didn’t really matter because my students’ minds were elsewhere too – as they almost always were every day anyway. I kept thinking I had never had a book published – or even an article – and now I would die never having completed my destiny to be a great writer. Damn! The hour was approaching when I would go to Gerry’s house.

And the fatal last bell of the day rang.

After the students exited the building, I went to my car. Doctor Denton stood proudly in the parking lot waving goodbye to the buses, then he saw me, and shouted, “Good luck today Mr. Scobe!” His smile looked as if he were hoping I would be killed and eaten!

I turned the key in the ignition and then prayed. At that time I was an atheist but that didn’t matter. I prayed to every god whose name I had ever heard of because maybe one of them was up there listening and would see me through this ordeal.

Now Gerry lived in a relatively rural area of Long Island with no sidewalks, no street lights, houses tucked into the woods so you couldn’t see your neighbors and they couldn’t hear you if you screamed as a knife was being plunged into your heart because you were stupid enough to show up to tutor the Rat Boy who was now ripping away at your body, tearing large chunks of your stomach out and eating them raw and Oh, my God! I thought to myself, as these visions passed through my mind. Then I said in a whisper, “Scobe get a hold of yourself.”

I found his house. It looked almost normal if you ignored the little gravestones on the front lawn; yes, little grave markers covered parts of the front lawn of the property. Each one had a little something written on it in Gerry’s weasely scrawl. I read one. “Here lies Ralphie, a good puppy.” I read more. “Here lies Dino, a good lizard.” “Here lies Bubba, the good blue bird.” “Here lies Alphonse, a good friend.” I hoped Alphonse hadn’t been a human. A thought flashed – would a grave marker say next week: “Here lies Mr. Scobe, a good English teacher”?

Put this out of your mind, I said to myself. I took a deep breath and went to the front door. I lifted my hand to ring the bell and saw that my hand shook like mad. What am I doing here?

Then I heard a man singing, beautiful singing too, “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Beautiful singing; great voice.

I rang the bell. Several heartbeats later, the singing stopped, and several heartbeats after that the door opened. I don’t know what I really expected to see – probably some demented looking adult with wild, unkempt hair and pointy teeth wiping his face with claws – so it surprised me to see a normal looking man of about 40, maybe five-foot six inches tall, dressed immaculately in a tuxedo jacket, frilly tuxedo shirt, and black bow tie. Probably this must have been the man I heard singing. I later found out that this man was a professional nightclub singer of some renown which was unfortunate because he was shot dead in a mob hit while he sing “My Way.” Indeed, before me stood Gerry’s father.

He smiled, “Mr. Scobe?”

I had almost relaxed as I smiled back (Whew! He’s normal!) and almost uttered hello when I realized something was wrong, seriously wrong. Oh, yeah, this nightclub singer, immaculately dressed from the waist up – but if you looked lower, from the waste down he was naked – he’s stark naked! – with his, with his…microphone hanging there for all to see and that “all” was actually only me.

Now I don’t know about you but when someone is exposed in front of me I want to look. Well, I don’t mean I want to look, I mean I have an irresistible urge to look. It can be a man, a woman, a wildebeest – if their naked self stands before me my eyes keep going to you know where. I fought it this time. But my damn eyes wanted to look down. So instead I put my head up and kept looking at the sky.

“You Mr. Scobe?” he said once again.

“Uh, yes,” I said, looking at the sky.

“Come on in,” he said, swinging the door wide open. “Gerry’s waiting for you.”

I started to walk in but bumped into the side of the house because I was still looking at the sky. It’s hard to see where you are going with your head pointed heavenward. So I angled my head down a little, just a fraction, so I could get through the doorway.

“You got a stiff neck?” Gerry’s father asked.

“A stiff what!?” I reacted terrified.

“I asked if you had a stiff neck,” he said calmly.

“Neck, God, great,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“No, no, my neck is fine…I have…a…a nosebleed,” I lied. “I get them all the time. It’ll go away.”

“You know what’s good for a nosebleed?” he asked.

“No, what?”

“Singing,” he said.

With his microphone hanging there like that I wasn’t about to sing a duet with the man, so I said, “No, no thanks, I’m in a bit of a rush…ah…I have to pick up my wife at work.”

“My wife is in the kitchen. She wants to meet you before you go upstairs to Gerry’s room.”

“Okay,” I said, “which way?”

“To your right and down the hall,” he said and I could see out of the corner of my upturned eye that he was indicating the direction with his hand.

“Thanks,” I said, then turned right and walked into the wall.

“No wonder you get nosebleeds,” he said, “you’re always bumping into things.”

“Yeah,” I forced a laugh, and thought, And as long as you don’t bump into me, I’ll be all right.

            Get a hold of yourself, one part of me thought, the man is normal, almost. He has a wife, a kid, he’s normal.

            Oh, yeah, right, he’s normal, the other part of me thought, sure he’s normal. You idiot! His son is Gerry the Rat Boy. The man probably doinked a giant rat to produce him!

            Shut up, my first part said to my other part, Get this over with by just walking down the hall into the kitchen and meet his wife.

            Oh, Lord, and what a wife she was! She could have been four wives. She was a tall woman because even though she was kneeling on the kitchen floor praying she seemed almost as tall as me. She had to weigh 500 pounds if she were an ounce. Five hundred pounds in all directions too – a Mount Kilimanjaro but with this molehill of a head (there’s that rat theme again), a teeny-tiny head sitting atop a flesh mountain. She chanted incantations about Satan and his demons swarming around her. “Get away! Get away! The Lord Jesus Christ of the Last Supper and the Cross and the Resurrection says to get away from me Satan!”

I coughed.

Her mole-head turned to look at me. At first it was as if I weren’t there. Maybe she thought I was one of Satan’s demons, but then she smiled and struggled to lift her mountainous bulk. She sweated profusely, with some little flecks of foam in the corners of her lips. Gerry had eaten pens, pencils, furniture – his mother had eaten a house!

“Mr. Scobe?” she panted.

Please don’t eat me! I screamed inside my head. Please don’t eat me! God, don’t let her eat me! I’ll believe in you if you get me through this!

            She trundled towards me. “Are you okay?” she asked. Her voice coming from that monstrous body was soft and feminine. I came out of my trance.

“Yeah, yes, I’m okay, yeah, fine, okay,” I said.

“Have Satan’s hordes and legions gotten to you?” she asked sweetly.

“No, no, I think I have indigestion,” I said.

“I have that sometimes,” she cooed and then she angled her mole-head heavenwards, “but the good Lord cleanses me as does a physic I take each night.”

“I’m in a bit of a hurry. I have another kid to tutor after Gerry,” I lied and for effect looked at my wrist. I wasn’t wearing a watch but I looked at my wrist as if I were. Actually I didn’t know what I was doing, but as I looked at my wrist I thought: My time is running out.

            Then I heard loud singing coming down the hall, which meant Gerry’s father was heading this way.

“Can’t I go tutor Gerry?” I pleaded.

“I must first rid you of all the demons that surround you. You have many demons in you young man,” she chanted.

“I really don’t have time for that,” I said looking at my wrist again.

“Everyone has time for the Lord,” she answered sweetly.

Just then Gerry’s father entered the room. My eyes shot to the ceiling.

“Still have that nosebleed?” he asked.

“No,” said Gerry’s mother, “he is looking to God to rid him of his demons.”

“Oh, ho! ho! ho!” guffawed the father.

“James,” said Gerry’s mother, “how many times have I told you not to walk around the house like that?”

Oh, good, I thought, she’s going to make him put on the rest of his clothes.

“Now take off your good clothes immediately,” she said.

“Yes, dear,” he said and left the room.

“My husband doesn’t believe,” she confided in me.

“Oh,” I said. I wanted to say, you mean he doesn’t believe in wearing pants?

“He doesn’t believe in Satan and his onions,” she whispered.

Onions? Satan and his onions? She meant minions, but I didn’t bother to correct her. If a woman that big wanted Satan with onions who was I to argue?

“Gerry? I’m here to tutor Gerry,” I said.

“First, we must pray,” she said and before I could respond, she wrapped her giant tree limb of an arm around me, squeezed me tightly into her bloated body, and started screaming, chanting and praying as if the world were about to end. I can’t remember what she said, what she shouted, what she chanted, but as she shouted and chanted her mouth became full of spit and she spat in my face a Baptismal fount of saliva. When she finished, she released me and I staggered into the kitchen table. Just then Gerry’s father re-entered the room.

“Boy, you really do bump into things,” he said.

I closed my eyes. Why had I come here? Oh, yeah, to save my job.

“I’m here to tutor Gerry,” I said. Actually I think I croaked it.

“He has to pick his wife up soon,” said the father.

“I thought you had to tutor someone else?” asked the mother.

“Both,” I said. “I pick up my wife and then I go and tutor someone else.”

“Gerry’s room is upstairs,” she said.

“Okay,” I said and started to walk. Where? I had no idea, since my eyes were closed, as Gerry’s father was totally naked now. I slammed into the refrigerator.

“Maybe,” said Gerry’s father, “you bump into things because your eyes are shut.”

“I’ll lead you,” said Gerry’s mother grabbing my hand, “as the Lord leads me away from carnality and into the light!” Gerry’s father rolled his eyes and itched his balls. Yes, I had looked!

At the bottom of the stairs she let go of my hand. I noticed that she had a chair seat on a metal railing that went up the side of the staircase. She sat in the chair. It creaked like crazy. She pressed a button and up she went. God, don’t let the whole staircase fall down! I climbed the stairs behind her.

We walked down the hall to Gerry’s room. The hall was dark and musty. Things have died in this hallway, I thought. We stopped at Gerry’s door.

“I will knock three times,” said Gerry’s mother. “On the third knock he will open the door and you count to six and then go in.”

“Count to six,” I repeated.

“Six,” she repeated.

Gerry’s mother knocked once, paused, then knocked twice, paused, and then knocked the third time. She turned around and ambled down the hallway back to the stairs. She walked much faster going away from Gerry’s room than she had walked going to Gerry’s room.

Gerry’s door swung open slowly. I was alone, alone and entering Gerry the Rat Boy’s room. Maybe I should have let Doctor Denton fire me.

He had huge furniture in his small, cramped, foul-smelling room – a giant armoire with swinging doors, an oversized desk from the 1940s, a large, murky fish tank that hadn’t been cleaned since Noah’s flood, and on the walls hideous pictures from newspapers and magazines of traffic accidents and murders.

I was standing in the center of the room, but where was Gerry? “Gerry?” I asked hesitantly. No answer. “Gerry, are you here?” I heard a movement behind me and just as I turned, a body came hurtling from the top of the huge armoire.

Gerry landed half on my shoulder and half on my back; his mouth open and about to take a chunk out of my arm – the same arm whose hand he had previously bitten. I spun around fast and grabbed him by the throat – none too gently I must say – and then pulled him off me and held him at arm’s distance. The kid couldn’t have weighed more than seventy pounds. With my hands on his throat, with his feet dangling in the air, Gerry smiled. “Hi,” he growled. “He ha, ho, ho, who.” (What the hell was that?)

“I’m going to let you go,” I said. “But if you attack me I am going to beat the shi…I am going to beat you to a pul…you get the idea?”

Gerry nodded as best he could and I released my grip on him as I put him down so his feet were on the floor. Gerry smiled (he looked even crazier when he smiled); this was the happiest I had ever seen him. Maybe he liked to be strangled?

His beady, blood shot, rat eyes looked at me strangely.

“Wanna see my skull collection?” he asked.

“Not now,” I said.

“Wanna see my dead fish?” he asked. “They are all skeletons.”

“Not now,” I said.

“Wanna see my moth collection?” he asked.

“No, no,” I said, “I am here to tutor you.”

“You hungry?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Let’s get this over with, okay?”

“You wanna play?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“I like you,” he said. “You’re the best teacher I ever had.”

“Get your books and let’s get started,” I said.

“I don’t have books,” he said with a slight smile.

“The school was supposed to send you two copies of all the books on a list I gave them,” I said.

“They did,” smiled Gerry. God, his teeth were sharp. Did he go to the dentist and have them filed? Would a dentist do that – file some kid’s teeth like that?

“So where are they?” I asked but I knew where they were. They were where other books, pens, birds, bugs, frogs and assorted pieces of furniture were – digested.

Gerry the Rat Boy now started growling in very low volume. His cheeks started to twitch and his eyes started to glaze over. “So what you wanna do,” he asked in a whisper.

I wanna get outta here, I thought and then I said, “I want to get out of here!” And I literally leapt out of his room and ran down the hall to the stairs. I didn’t turn around to see if Gerry was chasing me – I certainly could outrun a rat. I ran down the stairs. I could hear Gerry’s mother praying in the kitchen – a mountain praying to Mohammed (okay, to Jesus). I could hear Gerry’s naked father singing into his microphone in the living room.

I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I just catapulted out the front door, through the front graveyard, and jumped into my car. I drove off like a demon – or Satan and his onions.

Three months later, Doctor Denton called me into his office. “Good news, Mr. Scobe. Gerry’s coming back to school.”

“Shit,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” said Doctor Denton, “he’ll be drugged.”

“Strong drugs I hope,” I said.

 

My Three Best Teachers

 

Today, May 8th is National Teachers’ Day. I had three teachers who helped me set the course of my life.

My 5th grade teacher at Our Lady of Angels Grammar School was Sister Patricia Michael of the Sisters of Charity. I hated this woman! She would not let me get away with anything. I sat in the back with the other dumb kids – that was considered proper seating in those days, smart kids upfront and dumb kids in the back. I enjoyed being with the idiots.

“Francis,” she would say to me. “You are not stupid. You are one of the smartest kids I know. You belong up front. If you don’t get there by the end of the term you will be in great trouble. Do you hear me, young man?”

And she had this damn thing about writing. “You can be a good writer but you are lazy. You better learn the rules before you bend them, young man.”

So my early essays for her came back coated in what looked like blood. Slowly (and surely) I learned to write a decent essay because of her falcon-like hovering over my work.

By the end of the year I was upfront with the smart kids. It was uncomfortable but what could I do? She was beating me into the submission of being smart. Damn her!

I went back some years later to tell her how much I appreciated her for what she did for me. That she was a great teacher and I wanted her to know it. She cried.

I dedicated one of my books to her.

In 6th grade I had a true poet as a teacher, Franciscan Brother Jonathan. He was very interested in my writing and he gave me a tremendous amount of advice. He wrote in my yearbook that I would be a published writer, just wait and see!

He also told me that I had a way with public speaking. He didn’t call it that; he’d say I had a way with crowds.

I dedicated one of my books to him.

And finally my 8th grade teacher and basketball coach Franciscan Brother Barnabas.  We had the best 8th grade basketball team in New York City. I wrote about this in my book The Virgin Kiss.

I had backslid a moment and my grades were in the low 80’s. He told me that if I didn’t get them over 90 there would be no basketball for me. I got them up.

In basketball I had two roles; to cover the best player on the other team (I was one of three who covered Lou Alcindor – now known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar – and my job was to irritate the hell out of him since I was a foot-and-a-half shorter than he was). I also had to handle the ball if the game was within 10 points at any time. We tended to defeat teams by huge scores and 10 points close to us was considered too close.

He once told me that if there were ever a problem the ball would go to me and I would take care of it. I took care of it. We went undefeated.

I dedicated a book to him.

I enjoyed my career as a teacher and what made it worthwhile was joining Facebook and discovering that I had not wasted my time in education. I appreciated those former students who told me that 33 years of my life had real meaning to them.

Students Are Sharks

 

Students are sharks, no doubt about that. When they scent blood in the water, many will unite and attack. The object of that attack will be the teacher.

I saw some teachers destroyed by students when I was in high school. Even in Catholic schools, teachers were fair game if you could rip them to shreds and not get in trouble (or too much trouble). Few teachers wanted anyone in the school to know that their students swarmed them, sometimes daily, and made them tremble in the face of disdain or vicious attacks. Many teachers would just hold it all in and not share their torment with others. Some of these teachers broke down and quit the profession. That was a true victory for the sharks.

It didn’t matter if the teacher was a nice person; if he showed some fear, or lost his temper and yelled, or trembled; he was dead meat. As a student, I never joined the sharks in their blood-letting. It was too easy; a weak teacher, belittled, and getting his ass chewed; I didn’t want anything to do with that. But you only needed a few students to set up the shark attack. Three or four and the class could be thrown into chaos.

Dealing with Possible Destruction

As a young teacher, losing control scared the hell out of me. It terrified me. I did not want to show any weakness on any day that would open me up to attack.

In 1969, before I entered my first classroom to teach my very first class, I had nightmares of the students turning against me and making me bleed so much that the front of the room was bathed in red. After teaching for 33 years and being out of the game for the past 16 years – I still have nightmares (which I call schoolmares) about not being in control.

In my teaching career I have strong memories of the teachers who lost control; who would cry, females and males, weeping shamefully, after their sharks’ devoured their soft flesh with delight.

I remember a former Marine, a big, strong guy who could rip a student to pieces in a physical fight, brought to blubbering in the teachers’ lounge. He didn’t last a full year on the job. I remember one teacher who was being observed by our department chairman crying as the lesson unfolded because the students became uncontrollable. He lasted two years before he gave up the job. There were plenty more.

Now some teachers can maintain discipline by being bastards or being scary or being both. Students can be rightfully afraid of strong-willed, mean, unrelenting teachers. And many of these teachers actually taught well. A good teacher is a good teacher even if he is a prick or she is a—(well you can supply an accurate descriptor here).

I didn’t want to be a scary, nasty teacher; that’s not me. I wanted to enjoy the classroom and have a good relationship with my students. I wanted to like my students and I would prefer that they liked me. Admittedly there will always be kids you dislike and, yes, some kids would dislike you. That’s the human condition.

Just prior to entering the classroom at the age of 22, I wondered: How do I circumvent the possibility of ultimately facing a school of ravenous adolescent biters looking to chomp on me?

I recalled both good and bad teachers I had encountered when I was a student. One started the very first lesson on the very first day by saying, “People, people let’s begin.” Nothing happened then but he had unknowingly lumped all his students together into one grouping (“people, people”) and many of those “people” in a relatively short time had formed a school of sharks and ripped this guy apart.

Okay, lesson one, don’t let the students think of themselves as one group. Keep each one thinking of him or herself as an individual. They had to think of the relationship with you as a dual relationship – me and Scobe – between two distinct individuals. If a kid liked you that probably would stop that kid from kicking your ass in class.

So no kid represented a group. No kid was the leader of the classroom. No kid represented his race or religion or ethnicity. The kid was the kid and nothing more. It was the student and me, period. Easy to say but how do I put that into effect?

I would face close to 30 kids per class on that first day. I figured that I’d meet them at the door and try to say something personal to as many of them as I could. The administrators of the schools want you to stand at your door to make sure the kids in the hall are behaving. No, it would be better for me to set up the future conditions in my classroom on that first day at the door.

So I would stand in the doorway those first few days and say silly things. If the kid had a tan I’d say something such as “Well, at least we don’t have to go swimming and have fun anymore now that school has begun.” Or “I’ll bet you can’t wait to do a lot of homework.”

To kids who swaggered and looked tough, I might say, “Okay, you are in charge of protecting the nerds. They need someone like you or they are dead from… ” and I’d wave my hand at the students rushing through the halls to their classes. I think most students, like most adults, think other people are idiots. I’d play on that with the tougher kids.

I’ll admit that what I had to say was never all that clever. I just wanted a word with the kid; that’s all, just a lightning-fast personal word, one-to-one.

In class I could build a one-on-one relationship even if I hadn’t gotten to the kid at the doorway. If some student said something really stupid, I would look at another kid in the class and do a quick eye-roll that only he or she could see. We made a connection at that moment. Then I would tease the kid who said the stupid thing— never nasty, just in fun. A little humor and a quick one-to-one with an individual student during class could go a long way in establishing a personal relationship and a classroom tone.

I also knew never to do the same lines or actions over and over. That could get boring.

Okay, that was one idea to employ, a truly personal relationship.

The Humor Trip

Some teachers don’t have much of a sense of humor in their classrooms. If a student got off a good line at your expense, how should you react? Get angry that a kid would dare say something funny about you, the paragon of education? No. For God’s sake, just laugh. What the hell? I enjoyed teasing my students, so why can’t they tease me? There were only a few times when I really wanted to kill the kid who said something mean to me, but I never let the #$%^&* know that.

Or come back with a funny remark of your own. But never nasty, “Timmy, your mother is a smelly ape!” That achieves nothing.

Okay, so have a sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoy what you are doing. If you like what you are doing, the kids should like it too. I called that emotional transference.

Classes didn’t have to be dry, dull and deadly. I would do the literature I liked, that I enjoyed, that I could get excited about when I taught it. I would teach writing the way I wanted to teach it.

So this was the plan I put into effect the very first day of my career. Did it work? I think so. In 33 years I never had to throw a student out of my class; or write a disciplinary referral on anyone. I never had to yell at a kid. Don’t get me wrong; there were times when I wanted to walk down the aisle and belt a kid in the nose. No teaching day is perfect even for the best teachers. That is something all teachers know. That’s why most days you see the teachers dragging their asses out of the school building.

Liking My Students

Did I like all of my students? Just about. I did have a few that I couldn’t stand and a couple I can honestly say I hated.

People might think it is wrong for me to say I had a couple of students I hated but I did. Why lie? Out of the approximately 6,000 kids I taught, I think hating two of them is pretty good. Some will say the word hate is too strong a word. If it is then feel free to change it to a word that means hate but doesn’t sound like hate. I’ll have a section about these two creeps in the future. You might hate them too.

And one seemingly weird thing, which will probably sound totally idiotic to many of you, but I remember from my little sister and my cousins when they were toddlers that they liked to have the same books read to them over and over; that they liked to eat the same food night after night. I remember an uncle who shaved his beard and his daughter cried as if he had died because she had never seen him clean shaven.

A certain sameness creates calm.

So I dressed basically the exact same way day after day after day. Each year I tended to have a different uniform (after all my uniform would wear out with such extensive use over one school year). I figured it would be easier for the students to basically see the same Scobe day after day. A leopard doesn’t change his spots and my clothes were my spots.

I remember one year when a PBS station was doing a show about my classroom and that year I wore a burgundy sweatshirt every day. So for the show every student wore a burgundy sweatshirt. It was fun to see all of us looking alike. And we did not give in to telling the producer of the show what we were doing. I just taught my regular class and the students were just great. It was a fun day!

The Attention Span Problem

Here is another situation that concerned me, the attention span of students. I found in my elementary and high school days, in college (even in high-level honors programs), in graduate school and in the mind-numbing education courses to which would-be teachers were subjected, that many students could not concentrate for prolonged periods of time. You could see legs beginning to vibrate; faces lost in dream-states, eyes drooping, and big yawns.

I knew you couldn’t teach a kid if that kid couldn’t pay attention. How do you solve that problem?

Over my years of teaching there have been many idiotic attempts by educators to find methods to engage students for prolonged periods of time. One such was called cooperative learning, where you put students in groups and they teach each other. The smart kids did all the work, achieved all the grades for the group, and the lazy kids did nothing, but they still achieved success through their hard-working peers. Of course that nonsense was not around in 1969.

So what did I do? I watched television. The kids I would teach had been brought up with television. So what held their interest for a half-hour or hour-long show? Something did because we had a nation of kids addicted to this form of entertainment. It took me a while but I got it. Commercials!

Every 10 minutes or so, the show was interrupted with a commercial that did two things; it introduced something new, maybe some product or food or cigarette brand and it gave a break from the program that the kid could get back into when the commercial was over.

How could I introduce the commercial aspect into my lessons? Every 10 minutes or so, I would interrupt the lesson and go on a short riff, something funny or unusual. Then I would get back to the lesson but first I’d say something such as, “Wait, wait, I’ve forgotten what we were talking about. Can anyone help me?” Of course, the kids would raise their hands and tell me what I had taught. Okay, that was a sneaky way to do a review and it also gave the kids the idea that I had a pretty poor memory.

The Students I Taught

In my career I taught every type of student—from advanced placement to regents to non-academic. I once had a class comprised of six felons who had taken someone’s life when they were in junior high school. I had some students who were—even at the young high school ages—far smarter than I would ever be. But a kid is a kid, no matter how brilliant. If a kid taught me something by something he said I had no problem saying, “Excellent. I never thought of that.”

I taught kids from all races and many ethnic groups. I treated them all the same—I’d tease, cajole and praise kids if what they had just accomplished was worth it. I was never overly-critical. I was not an easy grader.

My department chairman won a bet against a teacher who said my popularity was based on my giving out high grades. He told the guy to bring his grade book in and he’d compare the grades, especially when we taught the same students. This teacher’s grades were far higher than mine. My chairman won the bet.

So I had my plan and I put it into effect from day one. I might still have schoolmares so long after retiring but I did accomplish what I set out to do—that was, being the best teacher I could be and to never lose control.

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

School Days

 

The Beautiful AP and I were coming back from swimming on Tuesday morning. It was the first day of school for kids on Long Island, New York. AP was driving. It was 7:45. We swim weekday mornings from 6:30 to 7:30. It’s a great way to start the day.

“Look at the four of them,” I said.

“Off to school they go,” said AP.

“Look at the little guy,” I said.

She laughed.

Two of the four kids were in high school; they were chatting with each other. The third kid, probably in eighth grade, was buried in his phone. The little one had to be, maybe, sixth grade? My, my, my did he strut!

“The poor kid has to show he is something special, walking with all these older kids. So he has that exaggerated strut, ‘Look at me!’ his strut says. ‘I’m not just a little guy. I’ve got it!’”

“First day of school is nerve wracking,” said AP.

“Especially for the teachers,” I said. “The day before the first day of school, Labor Day, that night’s sleep—if you do sleep—can be filled with horror. If you teach high school, you will be meeting 130 to 160 kids. You know some of them will be PITAs [pains in the ass]. The high schoolers are only meeting about nine teachers. Teachers have it tougher.”

“I feel sorry for the kids,” said AP. “I mean they all have to act cool or at least most of them do. They could be shaking inside.”

“True,” I said. “But I do think the teachers have more to fear.”

We were on Ocean Avenue, with the High School on our right and the Middle school on our left. About 10 teachers were heading for the Middle School.

“Look at that group,” I said. “Which of those teachers will be destroyed this year? Which will go home many a night and cry? Which will go home after a good day of teaching only thinking of the kid or two who gave them trouble that day? At times it’s hard to even enjoy the good days.”

“There are plenty of teachers who love what they do and enjoy teaching,” said AP.

“Yeah, that may be so, but just about all of those teachers here and across the country are going to be emotionally stripped and whipped on given days. They’ll know what pain is.”

In my 33 years of teaching I never had to send a disciplinary referral for a kid or even yell at a class but I was well aware that at any moment I could be hung out to dry by my students.

I used to have schoolmares. I’d dream that I had suddenly lost control of a class and the kids were now tearing me to pieces. I’ve been retired going on 16 years and I still have schoolmares! As it turns out, all teachers have schoolmares at one time or another.

I saw horror visit many teachers; their careers painted in the colors of torment. I don’t know how they did it; year after year, students mocking them, baiting them, and ganging up on them. Some of these teachers were true experts in their subjects—but devastated almost daily.

There were quite a number of new teachers who couldn’t make it into their second year—or even their second semester. I saw a big, strong Marine come back to the teachers’ room and cry. He left soon after this. A former cop took up teaching in his retirement. On the third week of school, he jokingly asked me, “How do you do this without a gun?” He left after his first year to enjoy his retirement from the police force.

I knew teachers who had only honors classes because they couldn’t survive “regular” classes. And how were those honors classes? Pandemonium.

“What about teachers who say they look forward to a school year?” asked AP.

“I’ll place a bet that often enough they will write referrals; they will have dreadful days. Their mouths say they are looking forward to the year but their hearts? No. They will have tough times.”

Ah, yes, the first day of school! When that bell rings before each period, it ushers in the next round—and that bell rings day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year and…how could I still have schoolmares?

“So are you saying that you hated your teaching career?” asked AP.

“I loved it,” I laughed. “I loved it.” Yes, I did.

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

Only You

 

It was my first year of teaching at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, New York and I was finishing my first master’s degree. I would drive into the City to meet my advisor and this particular trip was to discuss my thesis on Ernest Hemingway titled “Hemingway Mystic.”

We met at a restaurant and got down to business. We discussed this, that and all the other things about Hemingway and I showed the professor point by point and line by line why I thought Hemingway had a strong mystic streak in his writing. When we were done my professor said, “Frank, is it true that every Italian has someone in his family in the Mafia?”

“What?”

“I heard that all Italians have at least one member of their family in the mob,” he said. “I just want you to confirm that.”

“No, no, my family doesn’t and none of the Italian families I know have Mafia guys in them,” I said.

“Ah,” he said. “But you really don’t know about them do you? You only know what you think you know or what people lead you to believe.”

“Doctor Carlson, I’m sorry, but give it some thought. There are so many Italians in America that if every family had at least one person in the mob, and maybe even more, there would be hundreds of thousands or a few million Mafia in America. It just isn’t so.”

“So you don’t know about the ones in your own family? You are not a good representative of your people” he laughed.

I shook my head. This guy was dense. Obviously I couldn’t change his mind, but the fact that his information was wrong, that I knew I didn’t have Mafia members in my family, didn’t seem to sway him in the least.

And what was this idea about me being a “representative” of my “people”? I didn’t speak for the Italians in America, nor the Germans nor Irish who also made up my heritage. I didn’t actually speak for anyone but myself.

“Italians get really offended when people make jokes about them don’t they?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Come on, you’re Italian, you should know.”

I learned something from this guy. No one represents his or her group, especially in the classroom. Yes, you might want to have fun with students, crack jokes at a kid’s expense as kids will cracks jokes at your expense; you do have to have a sense of humor about yourself, after all.

I realize that I can crack jokes about Jim and June and Bob and Jaime as Jim and June and Bob and Jaime – but not on what race, ethnicity, or religion they are.

Sometimes a stereotypical trait exists in the person with whom you are dealing. Fine. But that stereotype does not dictate all the traits of such an individual. And that stereotype is not that individual and, worse, that individual will feel slighted if he or she is made to feel you are stereotyping him or her. (“You people are all alike.”)

I am a man but I don’t represent men. (“All men are alike,” she says.)

Because she is a woman she does not represent women. (”All women are alike,” he says.)

Because a kid is Italian, he doesn’t represent Italians.

Because a kid is Jewish, she doesn’t represent Jews.

Because a kid is black, he doesn’t represent blacks.

And so on.

In the classroom; in the school; in professional or personal contact, then, it is just me and the other person, no matter who that person is.

Stand in front of your classroom; look at each and every student and say, “Only you.”

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

My Education as a Teacher

I graduated college in 1969. For three years I had three majors, literature, philosophy and history. In my senior year I stuck with literature and gave up the rest. I married that year.

So what would I do after I graduated? I could go into the Navy as was my first plan before I received a scholarship to college.

It was the time of the Vietnam War and I figured I would have to serve my country and the Navy seemed the part of the armed forces I’d like the best. After all, I was a strong swimmer. (Why I ever thought that had anything to do with the Navy is beyond me.) Also, I would continue my writing career while I sailed the seven seas. I knew I would become a famous writer as did everyone who put pen or typewriter to paper.

But this Navy plan changed when a friend of mine, Lucy Winiarski, suggested I become a teacher in Suffolk County on Long Island. She had already secured herself a position.

“All you have to do is go in for an interview and take twelve credits of education courses in the summer. They need teachers,” she said.

I never considered being a teacher. Essentially I thought of teachers as people who had the impossible job of controlling kids. As a kid I looked at other kids, I knew how hard it was to control us. Secondarily, these poor schnooks had to educate the students as well. That seemed like trying control a mob of monkeys.

Throughout my schooling, I did have some good teachers, no doubt about that, and many competent ones, no doubt about that either, but the majority were either passible or bad. College professors tended to be somewhat dull with a few exceptions, so joining the ranks of teachers didn’t exactly thrill me. Still I needed money to pay my living expenses.

I went for the interview, got the job on the condition that I get those 12 education credits over the summer, and that was that. I was to become a teacher. Would I even survive this? I’d be teaching seventh grade in an all-seventh-grade school. I figured those kids would probably kill me. But what the hell? Nothing ventured, nothing killed.

I could swim in the Navy or sink in the classroom. I’d try the classroom first and if I drowned there, I’d swim over to the Navy.

So I had to get those education credits. I enrolled in four classes, two each summer session, and there I was the first day of the first class with my notebook opened on my desk awaiting the professor of education who would open the wonders of teaching to me and to all of the education students.

She didn’t. She was awful. She was the worst teacher I had ever had in a college course, or so I thought, until I met the next education teacher. He was worse. He was – in short – an idiot. He and the course had no substance, so I was left dreaming of the high seas. Every eye of just about every student in this guy’s class was droopy within a minute. The class was 90 minutes long!

I took almost no notes. There was no information in the courses, just silly theories about how students act and react. Hadn’t these professors ever gone to school? Were either of these professors ever kids?

And the students in their education classes? A few seemed intelligent and even more than a few seemed like nice people. The rest? Not too impressive. I figured they would be eaten alive when they got into a classroom. I also figured I’d be eaten alive. Perhaps cannibalism awaited all of us, the smart ones and the dumb ones. I didn’t kid myself into thinking that my students would welcome me with loving arms as I entered their classroom.

Their classroom? The professor droned on about their classroom. No, no; my classroom. Yes, the battle – the very first battle – would be in defining whose classroom this was. It had to belong to me, not the students, but if the students took control, they would be the main force in the room. I already knew that some teachers owned the classroom; some teachers were always teetering on the edge of doom and others were devoured by the school of sharks. Yes, I thought, as the professor droned on, a classroom of students could be a school of sharks.

I made it through the first two education courses. Actually, I think an ape could have done that. In my 33 years of teaching the worst level of education came in education courses, usually taught by people who couldn’t teach, offering scant information that at best belonged in comedy clubs. My first six credits instilled in me a disdain for my new profession.

The next six credits taught me a lot, not about education, but about one aspect of teaching that stayed with me for my whole career. One of my two professors was a master teacher, a true master. His curriculum, as with all education curricula, was a waste of time, talent and money, but this professor could teach a class!

He was energetic. He was pleasant. And he was funny. I enjoyed watching him as he taught. I enjoyed how he goaded and brought out ideas in the students – even if the ideas were silly. He could nudge but he was never mean even if he were teasing a student.

I quickly took a seat at the side of the class so that I could watch him teach and learn how he interacted with the students. The guy was no spring chicken; I’m guessing he was about 65 or so – an age I now consider young!

While I didn’t learn anything of merit in the curricula of those two classes, I did see a great teacher in action. His humor was a key ingredient. The students stayed awake because they didn’t want to miss what the guy would say. He also never took offense at anything a student said. He looked as if he enjoyed every minute in the classroom.

I left there knowing that I had to be funny, entertaining, energetic and engaging. Would I be able to do that? Only time would tell.

I also had to tame the sharks.

[Read Frank Scoblete’s books I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack, I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps and Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! All available from Amazon.com, on Kindle and electronic media, at Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]

Teachers: The Great and the God-Awful

Most of us probably remember the teachers who were bad or so awful that calling them “bad” would be a compliment. I had a nun in third grade who called me up to the front of the class to cut my tongue out of my mouth for talking. I really thought this was about to happen so I gave it some logical thought, If I just put my tongue out a little she won’t be able to stop me from speaking in the future. It will be just a little snip. I was actually more worried about telling my parents I had been punished. (Oh, by the way, she did not cut any part of my tongue but as a kid I didn’t doubt she meant business.)

I had one biology teacher at St. John’s Prep who never hesitated to throw his heavy textbook at one or another of our student’s head for misbehaving according to his definition. Sometimes he hit them with that ponderous tome, once breaking a kid’s nose. He’d call us “monkeys” and say that “Your parents are monkeys too.”

I was always able to duck in time and was never wounded.

In seventh grade at Our Lady of Angels grammar school, I was taught by a Franciscan Brother Lucian, a red-faced, six-foot five mega-monster who would bring a misbehaving kid to the front of the class and wallop him. He did this in a unique way, holding one hand against the student’s check and walloping the other side of the kid’s face with his other massive hand. No one wanted to get hit by Brother Lucian. It was devastating and such walloping even made some of the tough kids cry.

He’d also fake a slap and if the kid flinched, “Well now sonny, you get two slaps for flinching.” The side of the face that was slapped usually had a big, red imprint of Lucian’s hand on it. That imprint would last almost all day.

He once brought me up to the front of the room and I was thinking quickly about what I could have done to merit this guy’s animosity. He laughed at me when I was standing trembling before him; he was looking down his high body at the small kid before him. “You did nothing wrong except fake me out in the basketball game last night.” He laughed. “Don’t do that again Scoblete. Now go sit down.”

Brother Lucian coached our seventh-grade basketball team. I was on that team but I never got to play. I just sat on the bench. I didn’t know what the hell that guy had against me but he evidently had something. I was the best player on the team.

The following year in eighth grade I not only started on a team that went undefeated, even beating Lew Alcindor’s team St. Jude in the LaSalle Christmas Tournament but I dominated every game along with our awesome center Pat Heelan. (Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar and became one of the greatest players in NBA history.) That year I received several basketball scholarships to Catholic high schools in New York City. I was one of the best players in the city at that time. [You can read the full story of “The Real Dream Team” in my book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic.]

Fortunately, those abhorrent, angry, abusive teachers I had weren’t the ones to leave an indelible mark on my life. Instead, there were three others who gave me the tools and encouragement to equip me for success. They all taught at Our Lady of Angels grammar school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

In fifth grade I hated my teacher, Sister Patricia Michael of the Sisters of Charity, who seemed to have a real hatred of me too. “Francis, this essay is awful. You make statements you can’t prove. You keep writing this poorly and you’ll work as a garbage man – and be lucky to get that job.”

Every time I handed in something I wrote she would keep me after school to show me where I went wrong. “Francis, no one can be a good writer who doesn’t prove his case to the reader. I don’t want these statements unless you can back them up. You say here that Lincoln made very anti-Negro statements in some of his speeches but you do not quote any line from a speech. Where is your proof?”

And sometimes she would hit my hand with the strap if it looked as if I were daydreaming. She didn’t hit too hard – nothing like Brother Lucian.

In sixth grade I had Franciscan Brother Jonathan. He was a young man but a kind guy who never once hit a student. He was delighted by my writing and told me that “Francis, you will become a professional writer someday. Never give up writing. Just keep practicing.”

He knew a lot about theatre and never stopped praising the performance arts. We actually got to read real plays with real meaning. He would often be told by his superiors not to have his students read “adult” literature. He finally left the brotherhood, married a former nun, and pursued his love of theatre.

My third great teacher was Brother Barnabas, who demanded that I achieve an average of 90 or I would not be allowed to play on the basketball team. In those days you were seated according to your academic performance: the top students in the front of the class and the failures in the back. “You are too smart to be sitting in the back of the class with the idiots. You’d better get those grades up or you will remain a nobody.”

Barnabas was the coach of the eight-grade basketball team and I really wanted to be on that team so I brought my A-game to my academic life.

He also once told me, “Scoblete, you are going to be the guy to guard the best player on the other team. I expect you to shut down these great players. And kid, you are going to be the guy who will take the last shot in a close game and dribble to stall for time.”

I was even one of the three players guarding Lew Alcindor from the front, conveniently stepping on his feet as often as I could get away with. Alcindor was 6’10” at the time! I was 5’7”!

So my three elementary teachers put thoughts in my head. Thanks to Barnabas I was never afraid to put myself on the line. My father also had that philosophy and it stuck.

Jonathan was right, I did become a professional writer. He had seen a talent in me and told me about it. He also got me to love theatre. In 1978 I started my own theatre company with a fellow teacher. We worked the boards for a dozen years. I enjoyed performing before audiences. I considered teaching a performance before an audience – an audience that didn’t pay to get in and some who really didn’t want to be there (toughest audience in the world!).

My family was poor when I was graduating high school. I was lucky that I had a scholarship that paid my St. John’s high school tuition. Would I go to college? No one in my extended family, all of us from working-class parents, had gone to college. If I did, I would be the first.

I didn’t even know what the SAT exam was; just that one of the priests at the high school told me, “Scoblete, you are taking an exam tomorrow. Get a good night’s sleep. Bring a pencil.”

I applied to Ithaca College because it had a special program for 12 students called Triplum where you would major in three subjects, literature, history and philosophy. If I could get into that honors program a scholarship was possible.

My parents had no money, so I had to get a scholarship or go into the navy. I also knew that even if I got a scholarship I’d have to work, maybe full time, to send money home to my parents. But first things first: that scholarship.

On the entrance test you were given a topic and the honors committee would read your essay and let you know if you made the program and whether you’d be one of the three to get a free ride at the college.

I knew that if I didn’t get a scholarship I’d never make it to college. I journeyed to Ithaca, took the test, journeyed back home to Brooklyn and waited. Several days later I received my results. Yes, I had made Triplum and, yes, I did get the scholarship. I would become a college student.

That September I went to college and on the first day of the first Triplum seminar the professor said, “We had a remarkable essay handed in for entrance into the program. It had everything an essay should have; strong statements of opinion and facts to back up those opinions. I was quite impressed by it.”

I looked around the conference table at the members of the seminar. They all looked so intelligent. Which of them had written such a great essay?

“Mr. Frank Scoblete [holy shit!], you should be applauded for such a fine example of writing. You should be proud of yourself and you absolutely deserve the scholarship to our college. Keep up this good work.”

At that time I was so Brooklyn-born, that I used “yous” as the plural of you. I said “terlet” instead of toilet. When I first opened my mouth at the seminars I would get looks and some of the students would snicker at me. It didn’t matter. I was in college on a free ride!

On the winter break I went back to the convent of Our Lady of Angels. I asked to speak to Sister Patricia Michael. She met me in the lobby.

“I don’t know if you remember me,” I started.

“Oh, yes, I do, Francis,” she said.

I then told her how grateful I was that she took the time to teach me how to write a proper essay. I told her about Brother Jonathan liking my writing and then I told her about the scholarship based on writing a single essay and how it was considered an excellent essay.

I then told her that I had done this because of her. She had taken the time to develop my talent. I thanked her.

She cried.

 

[Read Frank’s book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! Available on Amazon.com, on Kindle and other electronic media, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]

The Making of a Teacher (1): Mr. Grillo

He sat in the top section of the Brooklyn to Staten Island ferry. We were halfway across the Narrows on our way to Bay Ridge’s 69th street pier. I should add that this particular ferry service no longer exists. When the Verrazano Bridge was completed there was no need for that particular ferry service.

This was my junior year of high school and Mr. Grillo was my social studies teacher.

On this day, a few days before Halloween, Mr. Grillo looked awful. There were dark spots under his eyes and he was quite pale. He looked sick.

“Good morning Mr. Grillo,” I said.

“Good morning Mr. Scoblete,” he said. Mr. Grillo always called his students “mister” followed by their last name.

He looked out at the skyline of Manhattan. His eyes were distant and a little dull.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m tired,” he said. “I have a long day ahead of me.”

A long day? It was just a regular work day.

“Can I ask you something Mr. Scoblete?”

“Yes, yes, sure,” I said.

“Why do the students hate me? I can’t even get a lesson going and all of a sudden there are spitballs thrown at my back and weird noises when I am not facing the class. Why?”

He was right. When his back was turned as he wrote notes on the board, chaos ensued behind him. Yes, spitballs flew across the room and some hit him and stuck to the back of his suit, and half the class raised their hands in the air with their middle finger prominently displayed.

There were sneezes that only slightly covered the word “fuck” and loads of derisive laughter. You could see the back of Mr. Grillo’s neck getting redder as the chaos behind him increased in intensity. (For your information, this was a Catholic high school— one of the very best in the city!)

Once in a while Mr. Grillo would whip around trying to catch someone doing something, anything, but he never nailed anyone. In fact, the pimply-faced Sullivan, the one I thought of as “Captain Disgusto,” once had the audacity to say, “Mr. Grillo, someone threw a spitball at me.” Sullivan held up the spitball – a dripping spitball he had just taken out of his own mouth.

“Oh, ho, that’s a wet one,” laughed Sullivan’s best buddy, a kid known as black head because of the number of black heads he had on his face.

“You should control the class,” said Jimmy DiResta. “I’m here for an education.” DiResta was a moron of the first order and another of Sullivan’s followers.

Then Mr. Grillo would lose whatever reserves of calm remained and he’d start yelling at everyone and everyone he yelled at snickered and laughed at him.

“Why do they hate me so much?” Mr. Grillo said to me. I thought to myself that Catholic saints all supposedly experience the dark night of the soul. Perhaps that’s why Mr. Grillo looked so sick. He was experiencing the dark night of teaching. I wondered how many other of my teachers went through such a trial.

I tried to analyze Mr. Grillo’s problem. The very first day of class in September, Mr. Grillo had lost the students even before he knew he had lost them.

I came into the room and his back was towards me. That was fine by me. I took what I figured would be an area close to where he would seat me since the teachers tended to seat students in alphabetical order.

Then the mob came in, meaning Sullivan and his gang of eight, but Mr. Grillo did not turn to look at them, instead he wrote his name – Mr. James W. Grillo – on the board. Sullivan did an exaggerated middle finger behind Grillo’s back. His gang roared with laughter and Grillo turned around. “Yo, Mr. Brillo!” someone loudly whispered.

“What is going on here?” Mr. Grillo asked in what I took to be his disciplinary voice.

Sullivan’s gang remained silent but one of them finally said, “It was that kid over there. Balloon Head. He’s a troublemaker,” pointing to Lynch, a top student, the short, big-headed chain smoker whose only friend was me. Lynch’s face pulsed red. He was afraid to speak against Sullivan’s mob.

I wasn’t. Since I had bested Sullivan in a schoolyard fight two years before, he and I had an awkward truce. He left me alone; I left him alone. But on this one, with Lynch about to have a heart attack, I decided to take up his cause.

“Mr. Grill,” I said.

“Grillo, young man,” scolded Mr. Grillo.

“Sorry, Mr. Grillo,” I said. “Lynch here did not make any comments. He’s one of the top students in the school.”

Sullivan’s mob threw me looks. Then Sullivan said, “Naw, Balloon Head didn’t do nothing.”

So that took Lynch off the hook.

“Take seats young men,” said Mr. Grillo.

“But we don’t have assigned seats,” said Sullivan pretending to whine.

“I’ll assign seats when class begins,” said an irritated Mr. Grillo and just then the bell rang. Sullivan’s mob laughed as did most of the rest of the class who had come in during the Lynch episode.

The line had been drawn between students and teacher just like that. Grillo was the enemy and an easy one to torture and get a rise out of. Bringing blood from a teacher was fun and even “good” kids would join in the fun. With a few exceptions, Lynch and me being among them, the class had turned on Grillo. At first, Grillo didn’t have any idea but then he learned the sad news quickly.

What had he done wrong? He allowed the students to get him early by turning his back on them. You never turn your back on sharks, I thought. They are looking to devour you. These kids, none older than 17, had become man eaters and Grillo was their man. They knew they would be going at him before he could even introduce himself. He showed he was uptight from the very beginning. And his disciplinary voice carried no discipline in it.

Students don’t just go to school, they are schools—schools of predators. The Lynches of the world are exceptions. Students are sharks; that truth I had learned early in my student career. Even good kids often can’t resist the temptation of torturing a teacher.

Mr. Grillo awaited my answer. I was looking at Manhattan. I was looking at the water. Under that water might be real sharks. Sharks can smell blood. Students can smell the blood of teachers. Once they smell such blood they will often go after that teacher unmercifully.

“Mr. Grillo,” I ventured. “I don’t know what you did wrong.” I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Mr. Grillo left teaching after Christmas vacation. The sharks had eaten the bloody chum.

 

[Read Frank Scoblete’s Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! Available from amazon.com, kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores,]