Part 1 of Jason Arment’s 5-part series provides an insider’s view of a broken public school, like so many across our nation. (All names and locations have been changed.)
Jason Arment was a Denver transplant, having just graduated from his low residency MFA program. He needed a job and found an ad to tutor math at suburban schools on Craigslist. Even though he wasn’t licensed or trained to teach children, Jason liked the way tutoring was pitched as a vocation where one gave back to the community. The offer turned into teaching a remedial math class at an urban middle school, but Jason was eager and ready to rise to the challenge.
He was even willing to ignore the red flags.
- Denver Middle School
I should have been more cautious when I learned the position had first been abandoned by a similarly overqualified woman from New York. She’d been extensively interviewed weeks before boarding a plane to Denver; each member of Denver Middle School’s remedial math lab had spoken with her privately over the Internet, and Maureen had conversed with her a number of times on the phone. Or so I assumed, because that’s what they told me.
I’d come to speak with Maureen several times on the phone after replying to an online ad for English tutors that morphed into an offer for employment as a math tutor for small groups of students, grade sixth and eighth. When I met Maureen in person for the first time in the math lab, she waited until we were alone to proffer up what seemed at the time strange non sequiturs.
“If I hire you, you have to promise not to write about this,” my soon-to-be employer said.
I declined to promise anything of the sort.
“If you do write about it, you have to make us all look like heroes,” Maureen said.
“Those aren’t the kind of stories I write,” I said.
Maureen, from Texas, was perplexed, and even worried, that I’d brought up writing a few times during the interview process. She had her teaching license and was willing to let us all operate underneath its umbrella, which seemed the crux of why she was in charge as far as I could ever tell. I do feel, now, that I should have looked a little bit further into her intentions and motivations before I signed on. I have this weird thing about giving Texans the benefit of the doubt, even after George W. Bush.
And I went to war for that guy.
I job shadowed Mr. White before accepting the position. He tried to shame me for moving to the fringe of Denver’s suburbs, not knowing I’d come from Iowa’s slums; meanwhile, his credentials listed a master’s program in Rome. He’d at one time been very religious, and sometimes told stories about growing up in strict Catholic schools, but now was a man mostly of myths. He’d tell people that he’d been involved in banking prior to becoming a math tutor, this being his second year at Denver Middle School—he’d attest his first year had been worse. He’d also mention bygone businesses he’d tried to start. I came to know well his command of money lingo while he talked on the phone to realtors about purchasing a house with his Vietnamese wife who ran a local nail salon—Mr. White, the silent partner.
Whatever Mr. White was, or had been, he was the only person I met at Denver Middle School who was determined to show me how crazy things actually were. I had a hard time parsing out the warning from his general smarminess and bitterness, a confusion he sensed. So Mr. White abandoned words altogether, instead opting to take me to the math teacher who was quitting after umpteen years because of her fifth period class. He didn’t tell me any of this at the time, though. Instead, he filled me in on the finer details, just like he would tell the math lab about her therapy and subsequent job teaching at Vail, after the fact.
When he took me to her fifth period I first thought she was just having a bad day. But as I watched her move about the room, screaming shrilly for disobedient children to listen, I realized we were witnessing a caged animal crack. Children ran wild, swore, or sat sullenly.
“You’re a crybaby,” a black girl said to a crying white girl. “How long you been here?”
“Eighty-three days,” the crying girl replied, like she’d been carving tallies on the wall.
Tiana lived with her mother and brother at the local shelter. I didn’t know this at first, but it wouldn’t have affected our relationship. She was a bright kid with a good heart, who wanted more than anything to make her peers laugh; the older and more notorious the peer, the more she wanted to impress them. Tiana came to school in patched clothes zigzagged by stitches, her speech always peppered with vulgar, common talk about shoes, weed, rap, and fighting. When she called me racist, or lied and said someone punched her in the face or touched her with their dick, it was the attention-seeking behavior of a homeless, fatherless, little girl.
School didn’t engage Tiana, but she was approaching the age where her absence from class, accumulated by many ejections for disciplinary reasons, had intuitive and obvious affects on her understanding. Tiana fell behind, and made a concerted effort to disrupt class and order whenever the opportunity arose, but I was determined to do something. Classroom ejections, daylong referrals to in-school suspension, lunch detentions … nothing worked. So I turned to an old standby—writing.
Every day for six weeks I emailed Tiana’s mother and articulated my concerns, my heart bleeding on the page. The emails, the only form of communiqué her mother would acknowledge, included many people in the various positions in the school via carbon copy: my immediate supervisor, the school sociologist, Tiana’s school-assigned shrink, and others who were involved in Tiana’s school experience. Because, unbeknownst to Tiana or her mother, the school was working on processing her out for failing to adapt to the school environment. The daily report was more than just letters of desperation to her mother, but documentation for the state.
The day I resigned, Tiana started her first out-of-school “renorming” session.
- Hey, Mister
Mannerisms of Denver Middle School students reminded me a great deal of children I’d worked with during my time in the Marine Corps. One little boy, Frederick, always asked me why I didn’t want students to call me mister. I’d told him more than a few times, but he kept asking. Maybe he liked to hear the story.
“When you call me Mister, I think of all the little kids that used to run up to me in Iraq, barefoot and swollen-bellied. How they screamed like they were starving as they fought over candy.”
I always paused and looked him in the eyes before I finished the explanation with my own question.
“Do you understand?”
Frederick always looked so sad when he replied.
“Yes,” he’d lie. “I understand.”
- Hunger Games
The remedial math teachers and I—three young women in their early twenties and thirty-seven-year-old Mr. White, all on AmeriCorp contracts—had a planning period each Monday morning with Maureen, our immediate supervisor. I’d sit quietly and listen because I didn’t have much experience creating lesson plans, and initially believed our jobs would require lesson plans. Maureen told us we’d each start playing a game with our group where the students would coach each other through an exercise.
Bite-sized candy was sold at the local supermarket by the pound. It wasn’t the cheapest way to get the kids to cooperate, and some instructors frowned on the idea of using sweets to entice the children to do the right thing, but I knew from experience how hungry kids could get. Some of the kids who walked the middle school halls were obviously impoverished, wearing threadbare or ill-fitting clothes. That meant they probably didn’t get enough to eat, something I realized when I lent a student a twenty for lunch and never got any of it back despite a five-minute conversation meant to deter theft.
I called it “Hunger Games” not realizing it bore the name of a popular science fiction movie series where children fought to the death for food. My ninth period loved it the most—all sixth grade boys. Once I’d established it in their minds, I started exploring how I could use the game to put peer pressure on certain students that didn’t want to participate. I had to be careful though, so to avoid unnecessary confrontation between students everyone got candy after I worked them to a crescendo.
I eventually had to stop when two of my students got in a fistfight in their regular math class before mine. My other kids had been there as well and reported an escalation from talk of fighting to name-calling, then thrown fists and the fifty-five-year-old substitute getting put on his ass. It ended when the bigger boy used the other’s head as a doorknocker.
“I’ve seen so many fights,” one of my kids said. “It’s like real life Hunger Games!”
[Read Part 2]