Skip to content

02.03.06 8:34 p.m.

What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study.  

-Rabbi Hillel


Previously in Xenology: Xen had the wrong profession.

What have we learned?

I had never been to a Bardic circle before, but the rules are innately appealing. Everyone gathered must share something creative with the rest of the circle - emphasis on a song, poem, or story. This rule included the children as well as adults. One is only required to share once, but the circle keeps sharing, interspersed with food and drinks, until they just become too exhausted to be coherent. True, the entirely affair this night was consecrated to the goddess Bridgid and each creative act was greeted with a sacred word that sounded like Viscous, but it was fairly nonreligious all the same.

The woman holding this circle was the author Deborah Lipp. While she is primarily known for her books on Wicca, she is also apparently a scholar on James Bond and is soon to have a book out on that subject. It is a subject about which I know little, only that Sean Connery was the best Bond ever. I couldn't tell you in which movies he was Bond, or likely who the other Bonds were, but he was the best. Deborah's house contains a whole bookcase specifically for 007, with her framed article about the subject from the New York Times and collectables I did not dare to touch.

I read a Pablo Neruda poem during the first session of readings, though Emily is sad that this poem reminds me of Kate. I tried to infuse this association in my reading, to give the words passion and realism. I do not love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.

When the first session was drawing to its close, Emily's friend Orien read a poetical journal entry detailing his feelings about a dying father. I could feel the tears pooling in Emily's eyes before they made themselves apparent. I touched her wet cheeks and rubbed the back of her neck as Orien's voice grew tighter. This was all the consolation I can give her and it can never be enough.

When the second go around the circle began, I was tempted to read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, one of my favorite poems, but Emily suggested was too lengthy to share. However, Deborah beat me to it. As a slight digression, let me say that I am very particular how other people read poetry. I spent nineteen years of my life not really understanding poetry because people read it in artificial cadences, as though they were the sort of actors who call themselves thespians without cracking a smile. Bad reading, reading that shows only that the reader is painfully aware that this is a poem but which displays no comprehension of the words or meaning thereto, is a crime against the written word because it gives people the wrong idea about poetry. This results in people either disliking poetry immensely or writing the sort of high-minded tripe - full of "ye's" and "thee's" - that should never see the light of high school literary magazines, let alone polite society.

Instead, almost shivering according to Emily - who was sitting between my knees - I read the assembled group the second chapter of Delirious, where Shane is explained to the reader. The revelers laughed a few times in the right places, though the also did not laugh in the wrong places, which is more important. Emily insisted afterward that it was a very brave thing to have done, but I wasn't the one who test drove the poem she intends to read at a parent's funeral, ee cumming's "my father moved through dooms of love."

Isaac Bonewits, Deboroah's ex-husband and the grand high poobah of the American Druid Federation - and, yes, such a group exists - arrived in the middle of the first go around the circle. He is not as tall or stout as I imagined him, a thin Jewish man hidden behind a bushy gray beard. I persist in joking about taking issue with him because he is a letch and used to try to stick his tongue down Emily's throat at Beltane before I was in the picture. Emily tells me that, owing to an experimental drug he was given years ago, he no longer has any childhood memories. He does not really remember being any younger than thirty. I find this fascinating, since so much of modern psychology seems to be reliving primal traumas from infancy until they can be overcome. Isaac is tabula rasa, a being that only knows having been an adult. He is also, as far as I know, very financially well off from the settlement the drug company gave him, combined with the royalties from his voluminous writing.

As we left the event, we bid a goodbye to Orien, who was outside smoking. He pulled me aside and said that he would like to read the rest of my story sometime. I told him that he could find it on the internet and instantly felt a little awkward. Only so much as been polished and I wouldn't want to be judged too harshly on some of the newer chapters that have not been made sparkling under the pressure of future chapters. Orien is such an important person to Emily, like a big brother, that I would like him to think nothing but the best of me. I imagine he does just owing to his personal predilection toward such warmth, but I unabashedly proclaim people my friends because I like something they wrote. Perhaps I would feel like Sybil Vane, confronted with a furious Dorian Gray.


I am writing this from a windowed room over the Arlington High School library. The teachers are funny and friendly, genuinely pleased to be here. The students are well mannered and involved. The school is enormous. They are so well funded, the students formed a club dedicated to Harry Potter called Dumbledore's Army. This is heavenly.

Granted, perhaps it can only be equated to heaven in contrast to the utter hell I went through the first three days of this week. I tell you, friends, that hell has a name, and it is Newburgh. Though I have been on their substitute roster for the past five months or so, they operate by a system that involves an actual woman calling me and scratching absent teachers names out of her notebook. After I told her I could not sub for her twice, since Wappingers was occupying my time, she no longer saw cause to call me. I am now under the employ of four different school districts, which is more than enough to keep me on my toes. However, Newburgh had been my focus. Primarily, this is because they pay me ninety dollars a day in hazard pay.

Newburgh, for those teeming billions of you who are not residents of the Hudson Valley, is a ghetto. Specifically, it is the ghetto of the valley. I had worked for their library system for a year, but working in their schools was wholly another matter. The first day I was there, I was in a special ed classroom. It was cramped and the materials had seen better decades, though all of this was eclipsed by the fact that the room had a fire alarm pull box hanging on the wall with Scotch tape. If that were not enough, their disciplinary referral forms horrified me. Most schools list things like "running in the halls" or "abusive language". The first two boxes on Newburgh's referrals - and I need you to understand in advance that this isn't hyperbole in the slightest - are for homicide and rape. Oh, and I have only subbed in the middle school. Maybe I am reactionary, but I wouldn't want my kids in a school district where people are killed and raped often enough to necessitate checkboxes.
Oh my god! You killed... my vague interest in teaching! You bastards!

The Newburgh kids have, by and large, given up already. Most feel that they are unteachable and are just waiting until they can drop out legally. I have yelled at the students for wasting the time of their more academically minded pupils, who I tell to get out of Newburgh as quickly as possible.

Still ninety dollars a day is awfully nice after having received more than twenty dollars less a day in Wappingers. I find it very telling that this school cannot afford to fix a fire alarm, but they have to resort to inflated per diem salaries to even get teachers to come here to sub.

The difference a bridge makes is tragic. Beacon, at its worst, is a little rambunctious, but even those students know their place and most have aspirations that are not illegal and immoral. Most of them want to learn in some capacity or at least will endure the process of being taught. The Newburgh students try their damnedest to be the criminal element as early as possible. My first day in Newburgh, a kid no older than twelve bragged to me about being of the kids that broke into my car when I worked in the library. There are a few who wouldn't be horrified at raping some sixth grader just to improve their street cred amongst their unscrupulous peers. The quiet joy of subbing before was seeing the potential in the students. I look out into this sea of inner-city faces and, frankly, I don't see hope. I see children working their hardest to epitomize and propagate the very worst in the human condition. I shudder to say this, knowing that any rational being would choose to be otherwise and that the wrong forces impressed them upon since birth, but I feel disgust. Sloth, avarice, greed, willful ignorance are taken as virtues. To know what a man can be and then see these creatures is worse than disappointing. They aren't even fourteen, but they have made the choices that will shape and eventually end their lives much too early. They talk about going to prison the way I used to about college, the inevitable end of my academic career.

I try to remind myself that the world would be less for the absence of these children, but it is hard when I see smooth brown swastikas proudly displayed on arms. Senseless hatred even against one's own warm skin. Dr. Maslow made a hierarchy of need; if one's most basic needs are not being met, one can hardly be expected to care about the Allegory of the Cave. Their living conditions must be such that the rote memorization is simply not applicable. But reveling in being basic and trying to arm those capable of something greater, as objectively understandable as this is from my windowed faculty lounge above the Arlington library, is abhorrent.

All of this reminds me in no small way of an analogy I once heard. If one has several crabs in a shallow buckle, one can leave them alone, safe in the knowledge that - though the crabs should be physically able to individually escape a fate that will end in a pot of boiling water - the crabs will pull down any of their peers trying to leave. I do not think I need to explain further.

I could not sleep a few nights ago knowing that I had to return to Newburgh to continue an assignment made hellish by some wholly offensive children. Emily told me that I needed the money, and she is certainly not wrong - particularly if the bank does not approve my forbearance based on poverty. I just don't know that ninety dollars a day is worth the strain Newburgh can put on my health.

The teachers at Newburgh are largely dead, like they have long lost or killed something very crucial inside of them. These are for the most part the dregs of the profession. If they weren't before, they seem so now. Even being around them is draining. I try not to speak to them if I can help it. I tried being light and joking with them my first day, as I did in my other schools, the mutual respect of adults. But they are too lost and hardened by this place. This is a fairly immediate touchstone of the school. I never want to be like them.

I want to get as far away from this godforsaken hellhole as I can. I yell at the children that they should want more than a life in Newburgh, but they cannot hear me. My worst class at Wappingers was still better than these kids, whose future is in great doubt just because they were born in the wrong town. Twenty miles away, and they could be in a well-funded district where the teachers glow with the joy of being there and teaching and where the students are so well mannered that they can be trusted to go to the cafeteria without guidance. Where they could not conceive of a classmate being brutally raped between English and biology.

There is always hope for some, those that will learn and try despite their condition. These people always push out from the rubble. After one lecture from me, a boy came up to me after class and said, "I'm sorry for how we behaved. I want to get out of Newburgh. I care." I thanked him and told him that, just by wanting it, I knew he would escape.

Soon in Xenology: Job prospects hopefully. Dives Dives's show.

last watched: American Beauty
reading: Flowers for Algernon
listening: Tender Buttons

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

eXTReMe Tracker