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.

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.]

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!]