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,]