during the romantic period in 19th-century France, a group of poets led by Chateaubriand (a particularly whiny, self-involved poet in a movement based on whining and self-involvement) were dubbed the "enfants terribles." The person who conferred this term on these wordsmiths had obviously never worked as a French teacher.Among the careers I've imagined for myself (chef, ambassador, cultural critic and gentleman of leisure), public school teacher -- and perhaps the most loathed permutation of said profession, that is to say core French teacher -- was not an option I had considered. However, since my wheels have been spinning for some time in the sands of office temp work, I assumed that a change might be good for me.
Because of the dire circumstances at the board of education, I'm unceremoniously thrust, mid-year, into one of Toronto's inner-city schools. I will be responsible for teaching four classes a day in grades 4, 5, 7 and 8.
I grew up in North Toronto, and as much as I feel that I've seen a lot, the first couple of weeks in this school show me that in some ways I've seen shit all. My first day, a couple of young people finish up a crack deal right beside me at the streetcar stop. The next day, a man breathes in some aerosol substance from a plastic bag while I wait for the streetcar.
Other days the smell of piss from alleys and drunken men staggering around at noon while students walk home for lunch make for a sad scene.
My first day, I get to school around noon and look for my classroom on the second floor of the newly built school. Aside from the assault to my aural sense, I almost pass out from the positively noisome air in the seniors' corridor, where my classroom is.
I never realized how potent the bouquet of pre-deodorant-use sweat and adolescent hormones can be.
My first class of the day is a fairly large group of 10-year-olds who have opinions about everything. Once they get used to me, which takes about five minutes, I'm waist deep in a sea of whining ids and superegos. "Monsieur, can I sit with Bulawaji today?" "Monsieur L, he budded in front of me."
I soon realize that there is absolutely no personal space in the teaching context. One afternoon in the office, a place that still inspires unease in me since my own time as a minion in this system, I can see a staff member who's sitting on a chair in the foyer. In her lap is a wiry little boy of 7 or 8. She has his arms crossed over his chest and firmly grips each hand, a position that locks him solidly in her lap. He squirms and emits an animal-like howl. His face is twisted in rage at being subjected to such perfidious treatment. She merely counts in a motherly tone from 1 to 20, and whenever she's interrupted by his feral outbursts she starts again. Looking at them, I sense it's a familiar routine for both.
It says something about how chaotic this environment is for students who are trying to do well. Still, many do. Some of my most demanding students are the smartest. One girl, who speaks in quick staccato bursts that make all statements seem like questions, can be one of the most challenging. "Um, Monsieur L? I took the livre home last night? I did all the work I didn't finish in class? And I translated it all into English? And I drew pictures for each sentence? So what can I do today, Monsieur?"
Invariably, this student has worked through all of my lesson plan for the two following days, and I'm left scrambling to come up with something she can do while the other kids and I plod through the scheduled work.
My next class is my split grade 4/5. They prove a pricklier handful. Some display open disdain, others a studied and unfailing indifference. All show a wisdom that contradicts their short time on this earth.
In the beginning I feel like I'm drowning in an all-encompassing wave of frenetic pre-adolescent hysteria. I'm unable to distinguish the wall-climbers from the ceiling-swingers, much as I'm unable to distinguish student from student.
I soon realize that knowing their names is the only sure way to control, or attempt to control, this waist-high mob. But this fact presents another singular problem in this multicultural neighbourhood school.
I remember when I went to school that faces of the pinky-white variety were the norm. Those of us of more "ethnic" heritage were easily identified. Here, however, where white is the exception and not the rule, I'm obliged to remember names like Shanewaz and Nafeeula. I haven't heard them before and for me they lack the comfort of familiar names like Mohammed, John, Ali or Sarah.
During the first couple of weeks, I spend an inordinate amount of time on roll call so I can internalize these names. Where once I might have used a trait like "veil-wearing" to distinguish a particular girl, here I'm forced to use more esoteric mnemonic devices, as there is a group of veil-wearing girls who travel in a flock, and they don't wear the same veils every day.
I'm not the only one who has a problem keeping the names straight. In the beginning I allow my students the freedom to call me Monsieur, Monsieur L or Monsieur Lezama. What I get is "Monsieur What's Your Name Again?," "Monsieur Whatever," "Mister Lemon" and "Mister Limousine."
Some of the sentimental truisms I've been fed by colleagues don't always hold water. I'm told it's worth the worst of it to connect with just one student, and I leave school at the end of every day asking myself if this is true. Sometimes it is. But I have to get used to the trade-off: while I'm communing with one bright-minded soul, 29 others are telling me to fuck myself.
My friends tell me that the students will test me and that I have to maintain firm discipline. But it's virtually impossible to maintain an even-handed justice system, because while I try to admonish one student, three others are simultaneously acting even worse.
My senior classes offer other problems. My seniors are more sophisticated and seem marked by weltschmerz. I can sense their little antennae probing me. For some of them I am a singular experience, even anathema, especially for my students of Caribbean descent.
I'm also Caribbean, a fact they're aware of because the first question they ask on the first day is where I come from. However, I do not dress like it, in their eyes, and I definitely don't sound it. They ask me if I put styling gel in my hair, why I wear such tight pants and why I walk so weird.
To some, I'm an object of curiosity, to others revulsion. They can smell gay the way I can smell their prepubescent sweat, and the stink is worse for them.
In my grade 8 class, I hear words like "battiman" and "pantibwoy" tossed around just loud enough for my benefit but not loud enough to disrupt the class. When I ask if anyone has a question that should be shared, a thick silence muffles the class.
A week before March break, one of my more reluctant students pipes up. She throws out the homophobic comments typical of Caribbean culture, and I'm forced to confront her head on. She says she doesn't want to learn from a battiman, that she hasn't done a thing in my class since the beginning because she could never learn anything from someone who takes it up the ass.
I tell her she shouldn't worry, then, because she won't be in my class any more. She laughs at me and jeers. She swears and yells and throws things for 10 or 15 minutes without leaving, until I'm forced to chase her to the office.
She's quickly suspended, and the principal suggests tersely that she should change schools after March break. The principal tells the girl's mother that she won't be readmitted unless she's accompanied by a parent.
The girl's mother hems and haws about coming in. She's unavailable this day, that day she can only make it in the afternoon.
Since the incident, I haven't seen this girl. I don't know what will become of her in the education system and what her lack of self-control will cost her in the long run. What has changed for me, though, is that this last paroxysm has made my students like me more, or at least feel more sympathy for me. They're gentler with me, more attentive, less dismissive.
Not all the seniors are such a handful. In the eyes of quite a few I see a thirst for success. Every student with whom I've come in contact knows very well what surrounds him or her and what obstacles await. Where some have given up the fight already, others grasp that learning may offer a way out. They work very hard, with the concrete goal of high school looming. French isn't necessarily a big priority for these particularly motivated students; I see the occasional math text or science notebook peeking out from behind a cahier.
Among the grade 7s, my most notorious class, the number of children with attention deficit disorder is inconceivable. The kids are uncontrollable in ways that make it impossible to teach. I turn to write something on the board and an ear-piercing scream lasers through the class. One student seems perpetually on the verge of telling me to fuck myself. A veil-wearing girl will use anything she can fit in her palm as a projectile.
Another student seems to be either the village idiot or an idiot savant. He has never really shown that he's aware of the world around him. He comes into class yodelling some strange, tribal sounds, almost in time with the metronomic regularity of the basketball he dribbles.
He's unresponsive to common courtesies like "Bonjour" or "Ça va?" I've never once seen him react in a comprehending way to any of my instructions. Some have whispered to me that he's a lost cause, others take him on like a cause célèbre. When he feels misunderstood, he enlists the help of another teacher to put forward his case, and when we are both satisfied with the arrangement, he invariably reneges on his part of the bargain.
I've learned a sad lesson about hard-core recalitrants: to survive, a teacher has to ignore those who would sap every last bit of energy. Something must be left for those who can be enticed into learning.
For my own sanity and for the greater good, I leave some students to their own devices as long as they don't disrupt the rest of the class. If I can get them to do some rudimentary work, then we are all the happier. It's a kind of happiness that is ephemeral at best.