BY JEFF DEENEY If Room 315’s teacher, Mr. McMonigle, can keep his students attention on school work for even 45 cumulative minutes of the day it’s a miracle. On many days no schoolwork gets done whatsoever; the entire six hours spent in this one room comprises a battle to simply control and contain the children so that they don’t hurt each other, hurt a staff member or spill out into the hallway and disrupt the neighboring classrooms. Today is turning out to be a banner day for education in Room 315: For 30 consecutive minutes the group’s attention has been maintained by a rudimentary lesson from a third grade social studies textbook on ancient Greece and a Xeroxed black history tract about the Revolutionary War hero Crispus Attucks.
Mr. McMonigle uses a check system to keep track of which children deserve penalties and rewards. Penalties might include phone calls home to the childrens’ guardians and rewards range from time in the computer room to little prizes McMonigle pays for out of pocket like Topps football cards. Tony and Corey, who have struggled to follow along with the readings due their functional illiteracy, have been on good behavior and racked up the checks this morning; they have more than one hundred each. Mr. McMonigle tries to encourage Diquan, who still refuses to open his text book, by informing him that if he starts participating he might earn enough checks to merit a trip to the computer lab with the rest of the group later in the day.
“Diquan, you have negative 40 checks for the day so far. If you start participating you can get those back; I’ll give you ten checks right now just for opening your text book.”
“Yo, man,” Diquan shoots back, grabbing his crotch, “check deez nuts.”
“That’s another negative ten checks, Diquan.”
When the subject matter turns to math it becomes clear that the group’s academic deficiencies are even worse in this area. Corey and Tony appear willing to keep working, so the teacher’s aid Miss Patterson and the behavioral health worker Mr. Thompson take seats beside their desks to individually tutor them on a handout McMonigle passes around the room. Diquan crumples his handout into a ball and lofts it towards the trashcan like a basketball. Eric, the most intelligent student in the group, takes a glance at the paper between rounds of Final Fantasy on his handheld game system and says snidely, “Why you got to give me that baby shit, man, I did that shit when I was like eight.”
The handout consists of simple addition and multiplication problems. Both Corey and Tony do single digit addition by counting on their fingers. In order to complete multiplication problems they have to squint at the times table that Miss Patterson taped to the far wall. Miss Patterson and Mr. Thompson patiently coach them, giving them hints when they get stuck and gently correcting them when they come up with the wrong answer.
Corey’s math skills are so poor that it makes even playing games with his classmates during structured free periods nearly impossible. For example, when the group was playing Monopoly yesterday Corey had to painstakingly count the number of black spots on the dice with each roll. He couldn’t figure out the right amounts of money with which to buy properties or make change. This slowed the game’s pace to a crawl, which spurred his short-tempered, mean spirited peer Eric to hurl a constant stream of abuse at him.
“Nigga, you like my asshole,” Derek yelled, slamming an open palm repeatedly on the tabletop while Corey fumbled with his messy pile of dollar bills, “You always holdin’ shit up. Goddamn, from now on just tell this dumb motherfucker to pay you in colors so we ain’t sittin’ here all day.”
When Corey completes his math worksheet he brings it up to Mr. McMonigle’s desk so the teacher can review his work. Corey is secretly starving for praise and encouragement and often approaches Mr. McMonigle for one-on-one attention when the others are at lunch. But too often he succumbs to negative peer pressure when class is in session. Mr.McMonigle knows this so he leans in close to whisper his feedback to Corey so the others can’t hear what he says.
“This is the Corey we know,” McMonigle says, pointing at the completed math problems on the page, “You can do this, Corey.”
But Corey’s eyes are already wandering around the room to see if his classmates disapprove his seeking out the teacher’s attention.
“Don’t look at them, Corey, look at me,” Mr. McMonigle says aloud now, trying to redirect the child’s focus.
“Yeah, keep kissin’ ass, fat boy,” Diquan says with a derisive sneer.
And with this, Corey’s spree of constructive behavior is shattered. His face hardens as he looks down at Mr. McMonigle and says, “Fuck you, nigga, I ain’t talkin’ to you.” He struts back to his desk and flips it over, spilling school supplies and scattering papers across the floor. The move takes Mr. Patterson by surprise and he has to hop up out of the chair he’s been sitting while helping Corey with his math to avoid getting hit by the desk. Corey rushes at Mr. Patterson, pushing him and telling him to back the fuck up. Mr. Patterson grapples with the child, easily restraining him while shouting, “You were doin’ so good! You were doin’ so good, Corey! Why you got to go and do this now?”
Corey’s susceptibility to negative influence extends to his life outside the classroom. Over the summer a friend of his stole a brand new Mustang GT off a dealership lot and invited Corey to cruise around the city with him. The friend pressured Corey into driving the car because he knew if they were caught the charges would be pinned on the driver. Corey, wanting his friend’s approval, eagerly jumped behind the wheel. An hour later they were pulled over and Corey was charged with auto theft and joyriding while his friend in the passenger’s seat plead ignorance to any wrongdoing. Corey has a court date pending; if convicted he’ll likely be sent to the juvenile corrections system; upon release from incarceration he’ll be diverted toCEP, the city’s privately run discipline school, if he returns to school at all.
Corey breaks Mr. Patterson’s loose hold and heads for the door. Mr. Patterson lets the boy go. As Corey sprints past Mr. McMonigle’s desk the teacher shakes his head, clearly discouraged by how quickly an entire morning’s worth of work was undone. Out in the hallway, school security moves to capture Corey and herd him back to the classroom. There’s a flurry of heavy footsteps as the gigantic guard posted at the head of the hall gives chase; from inside the classroom a huge voice can be heard booming,
“GET BACK IN THAT CLASS. GET BACK IN THAT CLASS.”
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