ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL: We Don’t Get No Education
BY JEFF DEENEY Room 315 is a dumping ground of sorts; here are sent the students nobody else can or wants to teach. They are chronically truant, emotionally damaged, academically stunted and so disruptive that their presence makes mainstream classes unteachable. They haven’t yet offended badly enough for the School District to send them to Community Education Partners, or CEP, as the city’s three privately run discipline schools are called. CEP has a reputation for its hard-nosed student body and is sometimes less favorably referred to in the neighborhood as “Children En-route to Prison.” The kids of Room 315 aren’t welcome in the mainstream and yet can’t be shipped off somewhere else. Room 315 is where education makes its last stand in the lives of a small group of troubled children who slipped through the cracks, and are on the verge of drifting off the map entirely.
The school itself is an archetypal aged and ailing big inner city high school. One of the building’s major problems is noted in black spray painted letters scrawled on one of the walls surrounding its vast concrete playground: This school don’t get no money. The condition of Room 315 reflects this statement; there’s a gaping hole in the wall where a clock should be and paint and plaster are flaking in big chunks from the walls and ceiling. The room’s windows can only be lifted about eight inches and this space is enclosed by thick metal mesh. There’s a dust covered, broken television attached to the back wall that dangles loose wires and looks like it hasn’t been touched since the early 90s.
The children of Room 315 get a lot of attention; besides the teacher there’s an aide and a behavioral health worker, in a class that’s usually no larger than seven students. There are more than seven students assigned to Room 315, but at three weeks into the school year a handful of these have only showed up once or twice, and aren’t expected to return. Two of 315’s students are girls, but one of them is too pregnant to attend school and intends to return next year. Even with such a small class size and low student-to-staff ratio the struggle to maintain some vague semblance of an orderly classroom is constant and usually failing.
Four students make up the core of Room 315; these are the regulars who actually attend class on a daily basis. Eric* is tall and skinny, wears metal-rimmed glasses and keeps his hair a bit shaggy. His look is a little nerdy but his tongue is razor sharp and there’s nothing timid about him. He’s arguably the most socially maladjusted of the group; he has an almost pathological inability to keep quiet and often erupts in temper tantrums that can become confrontational.
Diquan is a sullen boy with luminous green cat-like eyes who seems burdened by a heavy load of unspoken pain. His internal struggles are etched on his face; his bottled up emotions frequently surface as inexplicable rage. On some days he shows up to school already angry enough to start punching walls the minute he walks in the door. Some days he comes to class with eyes red rimmed and full of tears. On those days he won’t talk to anyone; he pulls his hood up over his head and hides his face in his arms for hours.
Corey is overweight and unkempt, his face is all chipmunk cheeks and he changes his school uniform maybe once a week. He’s been mercilessly ridiculed all his life by classmates for being fat and since he’s fallen well behind academically he gets called stupid, too. His hygiene is poor and his peers pinch their noses when he walks by. Corey makes girls uncomfortable by inviting himself into their space; he frequently gets told off for standing too close in the hallway and making unwanted advances.
Tony is the mellowest of the bunch, a tall and stocky kid who mostly lays back and listens to his classmates’ clowning between long naps at his desk. But every now and then all the noise and chatter gets to him. When it does, his face clouds over and he starts shouting for motherfuckers to shut their mouths. Sometimes he hops up out of his chair unexpectedly and menaces his classmates nose-to-nose, daring them to say something that would justify his taking a swing.
There’s a constantly revolving cast of minor characters in Room 315, depending on who the truancy officers are able to snatch off the streets on any given day. We’ll get to them later.
Mr. McMonigle leads this volatile and occasionally explosive group. He’s a retired teacher, a 30-year veteran, on a per diem contract with the outside social service agency that staffs the class. He has wild gray hair that stands up at angles and thick metal framed glasses that look like they haven’t been replaced in at least two decades. He wears the same ink-stained baggy khakis, pale blue polo shirt and beat up running shoes to work each day. He’s quick to tell you that he’s been taken out of school on a stretcher no less than four times in his career. But he returns to class, undaunted, to teach again. Mr. McMonigle is a devout Catholic cast in the Catholic Worker Movement mold; teaching the underprivileged is God’s work, a calling. When he’s not in school Mr. McMonigle is frequently at church, where he says prayers for his students and seeks the counsel of the parish priests about the stress of being a big city public school teacher.
Miss Patterson is the teacher’s aide, a thirty-something single mom from the neighborhood who spends much of the day in her “office,” which is really just an oblong desk at the back of the room. There she crafts the lesson outlines for the following day and provides extra one-on-one time for students who want the attention. Mr. McMonigle calls her “the Earth Mother” of Room 315; she has long and lush woven locks that fall about her shoulders like one of Alfons Mucha’s Art Neuvo damsels. Her classroom dress is consciously modest; she favors pantsuits and blouses that she buttons to the neck. She tells you that a lot of these kids never encounter professional black women outside the school building.
“These boys need to understand that every woman’s not some rap video ho,” she says forcefully with a wave of the hand, explaining her part as a role model in the classroom.
When the kids arrive in the morning the volume level immediately shoots up a couple dozen decibels as they begin battling Mr. McMonigle about taking their seats and getting to work. The first assignment of each day is to write a journal entry, whose topic is written on the board by Miss Patterson before school starts. Topics range from favorite foods to heroes and inspirations. The kids are given a couple minutes to eat a breakfast that usually consists of sugary buns and little plastic juice cups from the cafeteria. Miss Patterson looks at Eric tearing into a bag of chips he brought from home and in her typically maternal tone says, “You got to eat some fruit.”
“This school ain’t got no fruit,” Eric snaps, sounding stand-offish, his tone characteristically cutting, “And if it do, it rotted.”
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*All names have been changed to cover our ass