BY JEFF DEENEY If there’s real concern that a physical confrontation between the students and staff in room 315 might arise the behavioral health worker steps in. Mr. Thompson’s official function falls somewhere between teacher’s aid and social worker; he’s supposed to help students with their work during those rare moments when they’re actually working, try to build a therapeutic bond with them when they have structured free time and de-escalate their behavior from the brink of violence if it reaches that stage. In reality, Mr. Thompson’s function is more like a security guard; he provides the muscle necessary to protect the teacher. Mr. Thompson’s a thirtysomething black man who judging from his build likes to spend time in the gym. He dresses in loose fitting casual clothes, which is the sort of attire suggested to social workers who deal with volatile, potentially assaultive clients. If you do this kind of work you never wear unnecessary accessories like neckties that a client could use to choke you.
The first confrontation of the day doesn’t materialize until 9:20am, when Diquan, who’s been verbally taunting Mr. McMonigle since the minute he walked in the door, finally hits a nerve by telling McMonigle he wishes the class could have its old teacher back. Room 315’s last teacher was a real burnout case who never challenged the kids and would even occasionally let them blow off steam by pushing the desks to the edge of the room so they could freely swing on each other Fight Club style. The administration learned of the teacher’s unorthodox classroom stress relief tactics after videos he was making of the brawls found their way onto the Internet; the teacher was immediately dismissed.
“Man, what happened to our teacher from last year, we don’t want no old-ass faggot like you.”
The slight causes McMonigle, who until now has been gently prodding the children towards school work with a constant stream of positive reinforcements, to momentarily lose his cool.
“Oh, you want your old teacher back, Diquan? Is that supposed to be a ‘dis’?” McMonigle makes mocking finger quotes in the air, showing his disdain for the street language the kids bring into the classroom. He gets up from his behind his desk and stands in front of Diquan, who looks away and refuses to make eye contact.
McMonigle repeats the question,
“Is that a dis, Diquan? Are you dissing me?”
Diquan’s nose wrinkles up in disgust as he replies,
“You smell like cheesesteaks.”
McMonigle leans down, getting eye level with the seated child, and says more calmly, softly,
“I didn’t ask you about that Diquan, I asked you if you’re disrespecting me.”
Diquan waves his hand in front of his nose,
“Damn, dude, you breath stink.”
Now Mr. Thompson hops up out of his chair, clearly angered by the child’s defiance. McMonigle steps aside and Thompson grabs Diquan’s desk. He picks the desk up and slams it to the ground repeatedly; Diquan’s head rocks back and forth as he rises and falls in his seat.
“Do your work, man!” Thompson shouts, “Do your work! Stop clownin’. Stop runnin’ your mouth.” He taps hard on the cover of Diquan’s unopened journal with his index finger.
“Fuck this, man,” Diquan shouts, and jumps up out of his seat.
Anticipating the student’s next move, Mr. Thompson is quickly at the door, blocking Diquan’s path to the hallway. The students aren’t allowed to leave the room unaccompanied by a staff member under any circumstances. Violating this school-wide policy is a favorite pastime of the students in room 315. They like trying ditch out because they know it places the staff in an awkward position. Trying to ditch out elevates the student’s defiance of authority to its outer limit, confronting the staff member with the decision to either stand down from an altercation and allow the student to leave or block the student’s path and escalate the scenario to a potentially serious physical confrontation.
Mr. Thompson skirts the line of forceful restraint; he grapples with Diquan, who yells and writhes and tries to slide past him. Diquan’s not a small kid, and now he’s got his shoulder lowered and is driving it repeatedly into Thompson’s chest. At this point, when the only thing left for Thompson to do in order to keep the child in the room is put him in a headlock and drag him back to his seat, he relents. Besides, Mr. Thompson made his point; he sent a clear message to the students that there’s someone in the room who’s not physically intimidated, who won’t be pushed around and wantonly disrespected, who will stand nose-to-nose and brawl if that’s where the student wants to take it.
“That’s okay, just let him go,” Mr. McMonigle calls out in Diquan’s direction as he leaves the room, “I guess they’ll have to send him to CEP.”
Evoking the specter of discipline school is the teacher’s threat of last resort. It can be a surprisingly effective deterrent; the students of room 315 act hard but know they’re not cut out forCEP. CEP is run by a corporation in Nashville whose slogan is “the Three B’s: Be Here, Behave, and Be Learning.” CEP contracts with school districts around the country to handle the real-deal hard cases who previously assaulted school staff or are returning to school from incarceration. On Myspace CEP students argue back and forth over which CEP branch has the hardest students; they identify themselves by the color of their school uniforms as if signifying gang affiliations. One student says the Green Shirts of the West PhillyCEP are the baddest and the other schools are “dry as shit” because they “chill reading math books all day watching Barney.” A female student who reps the Red Shirt ofCEP’s infamous Hunting Park branch in North Philly counters by bragging, “FUCK U TALKIN BOUT WE THROW!!N BITCHEZ OUT DA W!!NDOW.”
Diquan doesn’t get very far, nor does any student who leaves class without permission. Outside the classroom is a martial environment enforced by gigantic, blue uniformed school security officers that are posted at the head of every hallway. Any doors a student might try to duck through once he’s left class – to the student bathrooms, staff offices or faculty areas – are kept locked at all times. Students found wandering the hall without a pass and not accompanied by a staff member can be immediately suspended without further cause.
“Get back in that class,” shouts the school security officer, who locks his eyes on Diquan and storms down the hallway towards room 315.
Diquan tries a lame, half-hearted stutter-step dodge around the officer, who easily lays his big hands on Diquan’s shoulders and herds him back towards the open door where Mr. Thompson still waits. Diquan gives Mr. Thompson a narrow-eyed, sour look as he passes him in the doorway; Mr Thompson gives Diquan a light shove in the back to let him know that they can go at it again right now if he’s still feeling defiant.
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