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.

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,]

 

Thirty-Three Years Before the Class

Teachers are going back to school now and on the Facebook pages so many of them are expressing great joy about going back and great joy about meeting their students. What is wrong with these people?

Now I taught for 33 years. Since I’ve started posting on Facebook, many of my former students have written or emailed me saying that I was a good teacher (actually “great” is the word many of them used but I am a humble man; kind of like Moses who was the “humblest man in the world” so I won’t brag).

One former student mentioned that I really never had discipline problems in my class.

Well, that is true and not true. In 33 years, I never had to send a kid to the Dean of Students; I never wrote a disciplinary referral on a kid; and I don’t think I ever yelled at a kid. Of course, I did have some kids that were not easy to handle; two of whom I must say honestly I despised; a Neanderthal beast of a girl and a jittery, demented, poisonous snake of a boy.

The monstrous brute of a girl always tried to take the class away from me.

If you think of your class as a string orchestra, then I was the lead string instrument. I wanted everyone to follow my rhythm. A disruptive student, your average, everyday shit head in other words, would try to take that rhythm from you. If such a ploppy did that, you would lose control of the class and, perhaps, have a battle on your hands all year. No teacher wants to battle students though many feel as if they are forced into such battles.

I always felt that my problem students were my problems and I never wanted any administrators to ever (ever, ever) be involved with me. For two reasons, if I couldn’t handle a student, how could someone who fled the classroom handle that student? I also felt it was a sign of defeat to allow a student to defeat me. Two simple reasons.

So this bulbous female barbarian would always make comments and try to take the classroom rhythm from me and bring it to her. Keep this in mind. I never worried about a kid who cracked a joke at my expense. If the joke were funny I laughed. If it weren’t funny I just rolled my eyes, looked at a few other kids in the class as if to say, “God is he an idiot!” (That, of course, connected me to those particular students; gave us a bond so to speak.)

She — S-H-E — was hard to contain. I didn’t crush her until February. That was a long, long time. I was teaching something or other and she just shouted out, “Scobe, you’re a dick!” I could feel the tension shoot through the students. Would this be the moment I sent a disciplinary referral for being so insulted by such a hellhound? Hell no. When she said, “Scobe, you’re a dick!” I just turned to her and said casually, “Use my first name, Big!” The class exploded in laughter and this beast was finished for the rest of the year. (These were seniors, not little kids.) She could find no one who wanted to listen to her after that slaughter.

You can read more about her in my book “The Virgin Kiss” as well as some other interesting (and insane) students I taught.

The boy was off the wall. The brute of a girl picked her shots to go after me, but this guy was wired at all times. Tall and skinny, eyes blazing, he had no control over himself. Luckily, his string instrument was broken so he could not even attempt to dominate the class. In addition, not only did I despise him but so did every student in the class. Usually students enjoy watching maniacs acting like maniacs but no one enjoyed this creep.

Finally one day just before the Christmas holiday one of the football players in my class – a big and I mean a really BIG kid – turned to slinky and said, “You open your fucking mouth again and I am going to rip your fucking heart out of your fucking chest.” He meant it too because this football player had a reputation for being violent. He and I got along great. And what happened to wired-up slinky? He started cutting and finally never showed his face. No loss.

I will say that I did like most of my students – and I taught around 6,000 of them. There were only a few I truly disliked. I never let them know it. But in the car on the way to school I would act out scenarios so I wouldn’t act them out in class. “Timmy, you are the stupidest fucking jerk I have ever seen. Is your mother an ape or something?”

Of course, I never said this to Timmy. I never “looked it” to Timmy. As far as Timmy was concerned, I liked him. Generally the Timmys liked me or, at least, they were neutral towards me.

I do not deny that I now feel I had a meaningful teaching career thanks to my former students who have written to me. I didn’t always feel that way. Often I thought, “What the hell am I doing here? I’m throwing sand into the wind. I’m supposed to be a famous writer; not some teacher slogging through a mundane career.” Well, that sand seems to have had an effect.

But let’s be serious. Only a teacher knows the truth of the following statement: Teaching is a bitch! It is really, really hard work. It is draining. You are on the line every minute of every class – every second of every class.

One of my teacher friends, the late Gene Brown (who died way too young) used to say, “We are selling a product they don’t want.” For most kids that would be true. The kids on their way to Harvard often think of their teachers as stepping stones to good grades. The kids on the way to the streets thought of their teachers as idiots suppressing the students’ enjoyment of causing chaos.

The others? Just wandering through their teenage years which can indeed be very tough years.

I saw many people come from other professions into teaching; from business, law, nursing, law enforcement and then get their asses kicked. Kids can be sharks. They smell blood and the teacher gets eaten. It was not unusual to see some teachers – and some of these new teachers were prized at their former jobs – come into the teachers’ lounge and cry. Don’t think just women; mind you, men too – often real man’s man types of men.

You had to be damned good at teaching just to be competent. So those teachers expressing rapture at the thought of going back to the classroom also know, “Christ it is going to be some haul.” The best of the best teachers think this. Those who get daily buffets know this in a really, really profound way. Why? Because they can be torn apart and have been torn apart. They can be crushed by students just as I had crushed that brute of a girl.

So I do salute the teachers who are going back to one of the toughest jobs imaginable. I also know that many people who have never taught in a public school think what teachers do is easy. Well, come on folks, step into the lions’ den and see how you do.

I’ve spoken before audiences of 1,500 people. No sweat. I’ve written 35 books. No sweat. I’ve been on television plenty of times. No sweat. But I have also sat up on Labor Day weekend, knowing that the next week I would face young men and women that I had to teach; that I had to control; that I had to try to make their high school experiences worth their while. In short, I had some of their life in my hands. You bet I sweated.

So I salute all our teachers’ courage and dedication.

[Read my book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!]

Teacher Hiring

I am not sure if Lawrence High School still does it this way but here is what I had to do.

There were hundreds of applications during that time period (1971) and the Department Chairmen Greg Monahan (a great teacher by the way) selected about 10 applicants to come in to be interviewed by him and the Principal Edwin Krawitz.

I lucked out because I attended the same high school and Monahan taught there before I went there. He saw that and decided to interview me. More as a lark I think because I had been fired from my first teaching job and I never hid that. (I wrote the full story of my epic fight with the principal of that school in The Virgin Kiss.)

So I was interviewed. I evidently did okay and I was told I’d have to teach a lesson to Lenore Israel’s junior honors class (she was a great teacher). The night before my lesson I was called and given a poem to teach, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” — a bitch of a poem at first sight.

I read it; thought about it a little and went to bed early to let my “sleeping mind” figure out what the hell the poem meant and why it was structured as it was structured. (I write that way too. Later today I have a 2,000 word article to write for one magazine and a 1,000 worder for another. I’ll sleep on those and when I wake up those articles will be more or less written although right now I have no idea what the heck I will write about.)

So I taught the lesson. Principal Edwin Krawitz, Monahan, Israel and social studies teacher Gabe Uhlar (genius) watched it. The students obviously watched it. When I was done I was told they would be in touch with me one way or the other. Then Krawitz, the teachers and the students discussed my lesson. The students, a very bright group, had a strong impact on the discussion.

Monahan was a little hesitant to hire me. Hell, I had been booted from my first job. Did he really want to handle a firebrand? That’s when Israel and Uhlar told Monahan, a brand new chairman, to take a chance on me. They thought that the firing was actually a good thing and that (and I quote Israel) “we need teachers like him here.” Monahan took the chance; called me and gave me the job.

Thirty-one years of my life I spent teaching at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, New York. Yes, I wrote during that time; I acted during that time; I ran a youth center during that time. But I was (and am) “Scobe the teacher.” It defined me.

This section will be the stories from my teaching career and, perhaps, some commentary on today’s teaching profession.