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Archipelago of Social Islands | 2017 | Citizen of the Sacred and Mundane


When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself.  

-Isak Dinesen

Not a Bad Gig on a Bad Day

When I mention my job to new people, there is a common misconception that teaching English to adjudicated minors is difficult. Surely, they are so violent, so obnoxious, so challenging that I am constantly emotionally drained and hate every second I am there. Without a doubt, I must always be looking for any other job just so the toll on my soul is not so heavy.

Let me disabuse you of this notion by taking you through my worst, composite day. I am ignoring the extremities I have encountered over the years, the times students have shoved me or thrown furniture in my direction. Yes, there are days I get to work and hear that one of my former residents has committed a brutal rape or is in prison for attempted murder, but these happen so infrequently that I can go for years without any such unwelcome news. There are also days when I hear that a boy who came to me shiftless and surly has gotten off his mother's couch and is working a full-time job on the right side of the law or had been accepted to college. (The wins are never as significant at the losses, but that is to be expected.)

I arrive to my job only minutes before my shift starts at 7:30. The former education coordinator drilled into me that I will not be paid for any extra time I spend here and I shouldn't give the state free labor, so I don't. While I might get dinged for being late (a memo that goes into my employee file, there to never been seen by anyone), I won't be applauded for being early. There is no reason not to be punctual.

The property, down a rural, residential street, has no fence. Most people who have passed it take no notice of it, even though there is a sign in the front stating that it is a residential facility (that might be too euphemistic to prick their attention). Without a fence topped with barbed wire like other facilities have (and which we would have, except the town declared it an eyesore decades ago and refused to let us), it looks like it is just a government office, the sort of place where you get your license renewed or request a copy of your birth certificate. If you were to come up our driveway, you would see signs proclaiming this private state property and would then come to a tan brick building that seems almost welcoming. If you were to come around the Christmas season, it is decorated with plywood Santas and snowmen and every edge has a string of lights. In the center of the courtyard, between twin flagpoles - one for the American and one for the New York flag - would be a tall pine tree wrapped in lights and tinsel. To be honest, we don't take the lights down, but we don't bother maintaining them or taking them down between Novembers. If you stand at the entrance of building one and look to your left, you can see our pool, open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, if we have a lifeguard. Directly in front of you and across the parking lot is a little used obstacle course - little used because we shouldn't teach these boys to get better at escaping. (They do not try to escape, even though the only limitation is a panic bar on the doors that would release them after fifteen seconds and their own swiftness; once outside, they have no idea how to get away.) If you walk to the far edge of the building, you will see a few smaller buildings, one of which has a chicken coop attached. If you peeked inside this room, you would see thousands of dollars of musical instruments and recording equipment. Behind the building is a garden hundreds of square feet in area. (Owing to government regulations and our disinterest in becoming FDA certified, the residents are forbidden from eating the eggs or vegetables, which is fine with them, since neither are deep fried and tossed in sweet and sour sauce.) You would not be wrong to think that this doesn't look as though is functions as a prison because it doesn't. We are rehabilitative. We want to make these boys feel safe enough to educate before sending them back to their towns, hoping they will make better choices and we won't see them again.

Statistically, the Office of Children and Family Services sees between eighty and ninety percent again, but that is a systemic problem we try to stem; I do not blame my facility for more than, say, fifty percent of that.

I walk a hundred feet from car to the door, then wave until the youth division aide in CSU, our enclosed command center, chooses to acknowledge me and push a button that lets me into the vestibule. This can take several minutes, sometimes in the bitter cold, and I have learned to dress in layers to protect myself on those days when access is not immediate. Last year, there was a frequently changed, numeric code to enter on a keypad, but the state decided this was a security risk. They trust us with the children (in that they have cameras on us always to legally protect all concerned from accusations and misbehavior), but not with four numbers that would let us into the vestibule.

Once in the vestibule, I print and sign my name in a book. In CSU, in another book, the YDA signs me in and puts the time. Then, I use a personal code to open the key box. Inside, green lights alert me where I must turn the capture key attached to my car key to surrender them, which releases my work key ring. One of my keys opens the door to the education wing - it opens most things around the facility and I become irritated when confronted with a lock it won't open - but I am to wait for the YDA to lets me in. As I wait, I remove my belt. When YDA lets me in, I place my belt on a table, empty my pockets and turn them inside out, place the clear bag containing my lunch beside it, and slip off my shoes. Prior to starting at this job, I was unaware that most shoes set off metal detectors because they contain shanks - and, oh boy, do people who work security not love when someone makes a joke about the shanks in their shoes. I used to have shoes with laces and grommets, but it's dehumanizing to daily have someone waving a wand all over you, so I stick with slip-ons at work.

When I began at this job, this process with the YDA didn't exist. The metal detector didn't exist. I don't know if someone brought in contraband or it this came down from the state. I am sure for all this talk of open communication, no one would tell me the truth. We operate almost by magical thinking, assuming there is a reason for the things we do, other than that someone told us to. The YDAs do not love this process, since it is uncomfortable to them and they are always getting memos because they are not following some aspect of the procedure that didn't exist prior to last week. They look at the teachers and do not see security threats. If someone desired to, it would be simple to get contraband into the facility, since most things the residents shouldn't get their hands on won't trigger a metal detector. To the best of my knowledge - and as far as I ever want to know because I would not savor snitching - no one tries.

I walk through the detector in my socks, lifting my pants cuffs, and sign that there is no contraband in my bag. Unless I return to my car for any reason - at which point the process starts again - I do not have to experience this process again until the next day. Most days, getting checked in can take under four minutes, but there are days that, because of kids getting medication and lack of coverage, it can stretch into ten minutes.

I enter my classroom and greet my coworker, who uses this room in the afternoon. Since we are assuming my worst day (and because she chooses to be early every morning), she fills me in on the facility crises since yesterday. Two residents have attacked one another and were restrained in the library, after throwing books everywhere. One boy was arrested for an outstanding warrant - the police don't have any trouble realizing when we have someone they are seeking for another case. Another attempted suicide and was transferred to the hospital. A former resident got his girlfriend pregnant while AWOLing from a group home and is on the run, but will be returned to us upon his coming arrest. A new boy had a mental health crisis and will not be coming to school today. Since we now do not have enough coverage, the trips that were supposed to be going out today won't and those surly students, who had been looking forward to this and behaving for weeks, are being told just before being brought to school today. Restraints are expected and the YDAs would prefer if they didn't happen on this shift, even to the extent that they would prefer we not teach. Because of the coverage issue, our education coordinator is being made the administrator on duty, so he will have to focus on keeping the whole facility moving instead of just his teachers.

My coworker then vanishes to take care of her paper work. I log onto the computer, take my presumptive attendance given the suicide watch and temporary regrouping, open two or so SmartBoard files for my coming classes (I have all of my lessons prepped as SmartBoard files, which is why I am permitted a contraband flash drive, since they number in the hundreds) and go off to make my packets in the other building, since that copy machine staples.

Since this is the worst day, freezing rain is pouring. I arrive to Building 2 soaked to the bone. I unlock the closet that contains the only computer attached to a printer and send the jobs. The business office, the location of the printer, is locked. I spent the twenty minutes until someone opens the office putting away the videogames - our library has three large flat screens, two PlayStation 3, one PlayStation 4, and a Wii and the boys literally never put their games away and that shift doesn't ask them to - and dozens of books thrown everywhere and then ignored. Then, I check the news and see if there are any interesting but nonpartisan articles to share with my students. On this worst day, there are not.

Someone opens the office. I stow my lunch (the teachers' refrigerator and microwave were taken from us for reasons that remain unclear) and grab my copies just in time to get back to Building 1 before my class. I hide my papers under my jacket to protect them from the deluge.

When I arrive to my first class, one of the students is refusing to leave the unit for reasons unclear even to him. They sometimes just get into snits. If he is doing it alone, the remaining student - yes, there were only two - resists my every attempt to reach him with the curriculum, so the class turns into a therapy session interspersed with occasional suggestions that he try my work. He does not, so the period was a waste to me. However, from the YDAs perspective, he did not have to call a code or restrain an emotionally dysregulated student, so it was not a bad class.

In the next class, half of my students failed the essay I gave them and the other half didn't bother doing it. I give them a chance to make up the work. They refuse. In a couple of months, they will be furious that their grades are so low and will demand explanation, but that day is not today. One student has not showered for days because we cannot make them. There are few things more rank than a teenage boy who refuses to shower and I am sympathetic because showering is likely when he was sexually abused in the past (though never here). Another student does everything he can to try to get the class off-task, describing graphic sex crimes and viciousness in which he was not a participant but wishes to pretend he was. The YDAs, who find obscenity more interesting than the content of my lessons and understanding that no one is going to reprimand them for a bad restraint if they never had to do one, guffaw and encourage the boy, offering him the pungent food they eat because they are not contractually permitted meal breaks. One YDA sighs every few minutes that she is bored and asks me to put on videos. I do not. The students get irritable and claim the room is either too hot or too cold. Because of an overly rich breakfast of eggs, cheese, and sausage, the students loudly pass gas to disgust one another, apparently ignorant of the fact that they will have to smell their own effluence. They complain that the room stinks as though this is a surprise to them. I open the door. A fight immediately breaks out in the hallway, so the door has to be closed again. Safety and security will always trump a nauseous room. A student tears up his paper because the work was "too hard," even though he wrote swear words and racial slurs instead of attempting the work or asking for help. CSU doesn't call the movement, so the students whine as the minutes after my lesson accrue. As they are lining up to leave, two boys get into a playful shoving match that turns serious. The YDAs separate them and call them idiots.

These are my upperclassmen.

The next class comes in. They have no energy. They complain that the room reeks and decide it is my fault. They have managed to watch rap videos in the class prior to mine and mutter the lyrics at a conversational level for the rest of the period, sounding like they are auctioning off slaves. There are four of them, each at a very different educational level, from barely literate to nearly advanced. Because former teachers socially promoted them to get them out of their classes, the curriculum states they are all in the same grade and must do the same work. Two students who have been dependably friendly for weeks and who have made my life easier by getting answers together have decided that they now loathe one another. One talked to the other's girlfriend, bearing in mind that there are no teen girls in this facility and the only way this could have happened is if one offered up his phone call to the other for this exact purpose. A boy, out of nowhere, thrusts the desk to the ground and throws his plastic chair at the SmartBoard, leaving a dent that will stay with it until we get a new one in some unknowable future. He refuses to be escorted from the room and escalates further owing to the encouragement of his peers, ripping down the map and trying to tear the television from the wall, so the YDAs shove the remaining tables out of the way to restrain him. I direct the other students from the room so that they do not interfere with the restraint. They only move once threatened with levels.

We sit in the cafeteria until the restraint is over, which it is not for a while. The class got almost no work done and I will have to repeat the lesson tomorrow.

Then it is lunch. While I would like to eat in peace, there is a phone conference with a parent, who has never been involved with her son's life, but wants to lay all the blame for his crimes on OCFS in general and my facility in particular. She screams herself hoarse contradicting every observation we have about her son, shouting that she will sic lawyers on us to prove every failing grade and write-up. We calmly tell her we have all the records and would of course give her lawyer any information she could desire. She calls us a bunch of cussing slurs and slams the phone down.

There is no time to prep before afternoon classes.

For the remainder of the afternoon, I am in our library. The students have access to thousands of books, a hundred documentaries, and five to six computers, so of course I spend the rest of the afternoon keeping them focused on job or academic skills instead of playing the sort of Flash games that would surely give you viruses on your cellphone. Since this is my worst day, one of my calm reminders of what we should be doing is met by a student slamming a keyboard into a monitor, shattering the LCD screen. As he is led from the room, he throws a tantrum at what he had done and how it will impact his commissary and future trips, throwing plastic chairs around and hurling books from their shelves. I continue working with the other boys, thanking them for keeping it together. They curse at me and I have to again remind them that a Candy Crush clone teaches them nothing and to use this time productively if they want to get a sticker. (This is an ungraded elective, so we bribe them that ten stickers equals a milkshake.)

Then the students leave. I spend ten minutes preparing for the next day, then read the news, write a bit, or take a walk around the property until it is time to leave.

The whole day has never happened, just bits and pieces of it. Very rarely do I feel physically threatened and their insults are so juvenile that it would take a very insecure person to feel offended. My blood pressure rarely rises because there is no need. I am not in danger of losing my job because half my students fail for the semester. If anything, I keep my job because I get half of them to legitimately pass fore the first time in their academic lives. I work for the state and have permanency; it would be tricky to fire me for anything short of hitting or hitting on a student, neither of which are ever going to happen. Despite my job security, I tend to work as hard as seems practical, revising my lesson plans and trying to improve how I teach whenever something goes particularly pear-shaped. My job is strangely easy, for what it is. I never take grading home. I rarely do lesson planning after work, unless the educational websites are blocked. Then, I take several months off every summer and write, still getting a biweekly paycheck because I opted to have it spread out.

It is not a bad gig and does give me fun stories at parties.

Soon in Xenology: Adventures.

last watched: Under the Skin
reading: Another Roadside Attraction
listening: Temple of the Dog

Archipelago of Social Islands | 2017 | Citizen of the Sacred and Mundane

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.

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