BY JEFF DEENEY After lunch the students return to room 315 for a structured free period. On an average day the group spends structured free period playing board games like Battleship and Monopoly, but on a good day they might get to go to the computer lab. On a bad day the free period isn’t so structured and the behavioral health worker Mr. Thompson spends the hour breaking up shoving matches and trying to keep furniture from being thrown across the room. The school has a total of 6 aging Dell PCs for roughly 1500 students. Getting a reservation for the computer lab is harder than getting a table at a hot new Center City restaurant. Despite a couple minor behavior incidents this morning, Mr. McMonigle decides that today the group deserves a reward so he calls down to the computer lab betting on the long odds of a getting in on a last minute cancellation.
At the start of each structured free period Mr. Thompson takes out a copy of the day’s newspaper and reads an article aloud. Sometimes the kids follow his lead and he’s able to get a roundtable style discussion going about current events, though on most days his efforts are either mocked or ignored. The articles Mr. Thompson reads are usually related to violence in the black community, a theme that the kids strongly relate to and don’t tire of discussing. Today he’s reading an article off the front page about a man who was shot and killed by police after he pointed a gun at a patrol officer.
“They was shootin’ down my way last night,” Diquan chimes in at the mention of a shooting incident.
“You heard that, too,” Tony asks; the two boys live only a few blocks apart.
“Yeah, man, sound like a machine gun to me.”
“Maybe a Tec or somethin’.”
Despite their educational deficiencies and long histories of bad behavior the kids of room 315 aren’t incapable of grappling with moral dilemmas, and they perceive one in the newspaper story. On one hand, they’re willing to admit that the victim’s actions were indefensible if only for their foolishness.
“That nigga stupid,” Derek says with his typical sarcasm, “nigga point a gun at a cop and he askin’ to get blasted.”
On the other hand, the children describe the police in their neighborhood as “trigger happy” and corrupt. Any shooting involving a police officer, even when the newspaper reports that the officer’s life was in danger, is suspect in their eyes.
Tony cites an example of police corruption in the neighborhood to support the group’s position, telling a story about a well known shake down artist on the police force whose family and friends have been for decades outfitted with all the latest technological gadgets courtesy of the local corner hustlers.
“The old heads around the way warn all the young boys about this one cop, he been rippin’ off motherfuckers in the ‘hood for that long. You better not have your iPod on you when he come around, he’ll line four or five dudes up against the wall and take everything off ’em. That nigga will take your Game Boy, take your cell phone, take all the cash out your pockets; he’ll lock you up and take a sack full of your crew’s shit home to his kids like he Santa Claus or somethin’.”
Mr. McMonigle hangs up the staff phone on the wall near the door and cries, “Success!”
“Tell me you’re not kidding,” Miss Paterson says in disbelief, raising her eyes skyward and clasping her hands together as if offering thanks for divine intervention.
“Isn’t it unbelievable? They actually had a last minute cancellation. This is the first time all year I’ve been able to get us in.”
The computer lab occupies a small corner room in the building’s basement and consists of folding tables against one wall where six computers sit side-by-side. The walls are grey-painted cinderblocks hung with colorful posters touting the benefits of computer literacy. The computer lab has swinging doors that were likely installed because this popular destination gets such heavy foot traffic throughout the day as kids duck in and out, hoping to find an open machine to hop on. Email is the most common use of the computer lab, but really most of the kids are just checking their email to see if they have any Myspace messages. The school district blocks access to Myspace so the kids have to reroute their correspondence to email if they want to stay in the loop during the school day.
At a desk by the door a heavily tattooed student with a thick Muslim’s beard is staring at a line of red brick row houses on Google Streetview with a mix of awe and consternation. His friend in the chair next to him points at a house he recognizes with almost breathless excitement.
“This motherfucker chases fiends off his front step, chase ’em all the way down the block yellin’ and wavin’ a baseball bat and shit.”
“Daaaaaaamn, man, they got the whole block on there, man, that crazy,” the Muslim boy says, pulling on his beard as he ponders the implications of the image. He’s clearly troubled by the revelation that his block is now online for anyone to see.
When the students from room 315 arrive the computer lab gets crowded so the staff members move their paperwork to the large, round table at the center of the room to allow a couple extra kids to sit at their desks and continue working on resumes. Mr. McMonigle and Miss Patterson join the staffers at the round table and settle into writing daily progress notes that are sent home to the students’ guardians.
For the first time today the kids are eager to engage in constructive activity; you’d think they were playing musical chairs from their mad scramble to take seats at their respective terminals. The children are more respectful to each other in the computer lab, amiably coaching each other on how to best search for information and recommending their favorite websites. Derek goes directly to an online gaming site that he likes, while Diquan uses Google Image Search to look for pictures of exotic snakes. Tony has a minimal grasp on the rules of chess and isn’t very good at the game but he likes playing it online anyway. Corey is typing the names of his favorite rappers into Google and clicking links somewhat arbitrarily, mostly looking at the pictures that appear as the pages load.
Mr. McMonigle watches the children dutifully busying themselves on the computer and beams with pride. He considers this moment a monumental win in his hard fought battle against his student’s chronic academic disinterest and classroom disobedience. For Mr. McMonigle this confirms that his teaching strategy of unrelenting praise and encouragement is slowly transforming his students. He turns to the computer room staff and says, “How about that?”
The computer lab ladies nod vehemently.
“They’re much better this year than they were last year,” the lab’s administrator says.
The look of abject horror on her face as she remembers the previous year’s visits from the students of room 315 speaks volumes about how far they’ve come.
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