An experienced journalist and filmmaker, David Andrew Stoler has been honored by The New York Times, the Smithsonian National Museum, and many others for his work in film, print, and in the classroom. He teaches writing to at-risk children and young adults through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and undergraduates at City College (CCNY) & Berkeley College in New York City, and is the founder of misanthropictures, a full service film production company.
Jon could imagine three possibilities as to why he had been called to Principal Minelli’s office, none of them good:
1. One of his students, most likely Jermille, had done something incredibly twisted and probably violent to another student, and Jon was in some way going to be blamed—he had missed the signs, the poor kid had been crying out for help, he had needed guidance, love, a firm hand, an open heart, and Jon had failed to give it to him, the result of which was this scarring event for which Jon had to pay, either through the simple loss of his job or through actual prison time;
2. One of his students, most likely Jermille, had done something incredibly twisted and probably violent to another teacher, and Jon was in some way going to be blamed while at the same time being called upon by the Board of Education to make it clear to the authorities that—although nearly every kid in his class had been shuffled from overpopulated room to overpopulated room, had been physically assaulted on school grounds by other students, were constantly being called retards, botards, douchetards, and couchetards by the other kids and sometimes even other teachers and staff at school, and were overly and improperly medicated—nobody could be blamed for the tragedy but the boy himself, or maybe the boy’s parents, and therefore the school or district could not possibly be held responsible for the massive medical bills and damages suit that were the result; or
3. Jon was being accused of sexual harassment.
Of the three, he didn’t know which he preferred. On the one hand, Jermille was a huge pain in the ass—at 14, he was the oldest and biggest boy in Jon’s small class of special needs kids, was bigger even than Jon, and the mixing of testosterone with Jermille’s total lack of impulse control made the constant stream of words coming out of his mouth so repulsively filthy it madeit nearly impossible for Jon to teach anything to anybody in the room at all. On the other, Jon did deep down despite all of that feel an incredible amount of sadness for Jermille. It wasn’t Jermille’s fault, after all. Born to a drug-addict mother, Jermille had stood little chance from the get-go, and those chances did not in any way improve as he got older: the one time Jermille’s foster mother showed up for parent-teacher conferences, she arrived in a plume of pot smoke that made Jon nearly high himself, and he could smell the alcohol oozing from her pores. It had been 9:00 in the morning.
No, to spend much time thinking of the actualities for Jermille—to spend too much time thinking about any of his kids—was to threaten oneself with permanent heartbreak. Jermille was incredibly difficult, but his odds were also incredibly slim. It pained Jon to think about what was to come for the kid, so although Jon often wished harm upon him, he didn’t, really, want anything but for Jermille to ultimately be okay.
As for sexual harassment, Jon hadn’t sexually harassed anybody, not that he knew of—he barely talked to anyone at school. But given the protocol the Teachers Union and the Board of Ed. had agreed to last year for when a charge was leveled (not only immediate suspension, without pay, for the accused but, more importantly, immediate out-of-class reassignment with pay for the accuser), that generally had little to do with the actual complaint. The union and the board were trying to cover their asses after some pretty unsightly oversights on both their parts the year before, but the language of the BOE/UFT agreement also included the proviso that false accusations result only in the accused being placed back in their original position and the option given to the accuser of returning to his or hers—this was to make sure nobody was afraid to come forward if they at all felt they were being harassed in any way. To create a safe space. The result was that there had been a slew of sexual harassment charges from teachers who simply wanted or needed out: seven complaints this year (one student-to-teacher, one teacher-to-student, and five teacher-to-teacher), four of which had, with investigation, been proven false. There would be a revision of the harassment clause in the contract toward the end of the coming summer, but it was barely June, there were three weeks left in the year, and teachers were walking around like shell-shocked soldiers coming home from WWI. The desperation everywhere was causing a run on the EEOC while there was still time left to get out. Jon only expected the number of allegations to get higher in the next few weeks, if only from the teachers who had, like him, dumbly signed on for summer school and its extra pay in the beginning of last fall. (The fall. Each summer he forgot, like the repressed memory of a trauma victim, what the school year was actually like, remembering instead something unanswered about his own school days that made him want to go back: the smell of new sneakers, the excitement of a new locker, schedule, possible life. As if school for Jon had been anything but social anxiety, bullying, and a fear of the boys’ locker room. He promised himself he would not make the same mistake again.)
All Jon knew was that at 3:50, right as he was packing up to leave for the weekend, he was informed that he was to stop by Minelli’s for a little chat, and now it was 4:20 (Jon could only dream!), and he was sitting across from Minelli as Minelli, feet up on his desk and turned half away, read the Post as if Jon wasn’t there.
Anthony Minelli. He made Jon wonder if there wasn’t a larger corporate scheme at play in principal’s school than anyone knew of. How else could principals be so consistent across the board? Incredibly liberal in their views of the possibilities of education and yet so incredibly fascist in the implementation of those views. Minelli had brought Jon in as a creative writer, for god’s sake—had lauded Jon to the PTA as a working artist who was both symbol and synecdoche of Minelli’s dedication to Arts in Education. Jon was going to help students engage in their own educative process through the exploration of their potential as thinkers outside of standardized test preparation. Minelli had quoted statistics showing the increase in literacy, math skills, and (ka-ching!) retention and graduation rates when students were allowed to express themselves creatively. He had hit on all the magic key words, and Jon knew he believed them. Until the first time he had observed Jon teaching his class slam poetry and called him into his office, telling him he had better start teaching the kids “real poetry and shit—you know, things that rhyme,” or he was going to be dodging mashed potato grenades in the roach-infested cafeteria as a “permanent lunch-shift steward” before he could blink.
Jon didn’t think Minelli could actually do that, but he wasn’t going to push the guy. Minelli looked like he’d make a perfect union rep for the Teamsters: he was five inches taller and probably a hundred pounds bigger than Jon, he wore slick double-breasted suits, chromatographic ties, and his hair greased back, and he prided himself on “straight talk,” which meant, when he wasn’t dealing with aggrieved parents or the school board or the commissioner, his Bronx accent came out in full.
Sometimes Jon wondered if the whole thing—his life—wasn’t some massive subconscious psychological attempt to relive the periods of his childhood that were most painful. Or not even the whole thing—what if in fact everything we did, in some way, was just a way of rehashing and reliving the most traumatic events of our formative years? Every relationship a way to reconnect with our distant dad, every trip to a bar an attempt to fit in during high school, every work conflict a way to finally win the nursery school battle for who got to play with the toy fire truck.
For Jon it was perhaps even more obvious than those incredibly obvious things. He could not think of a more painful time in his own life than the seventh and eighth grade, and now he found himself every single day walking through the halls of MS 212x, the Roberto Clemente Junior High School, Morris Park, Bronx, NY, asking himself how he had gotten there. This time of course he was not a gangly seventh grader, but a teacher—something he never ever intended to be, ever, and really didn’t want to be now, either. And yet still, every time he walked into the building he was instantly transported back to that earlier time: to a body that was developing slower than everyone else’s, to a mind that simply couldn’t grasp the social nuances of the seventh grade, to a self that had no idea when everyone but him had made the leap from grade-schoolers playing with G.I. Joes and Barbies to petty criminals and petite Tralalas acting out the physical, emotional, and sexual violence that would define the rest of their lives.
And not simply that: just like when he was actually a seventh grader finding it impossible to deal with any of that and so acting out constantly, Jon was also always in trouble now, either with an angry parent, an angry PTA member, an angry teacher, or, like today, an angry principal.
“If the MTA doesn’t squash this shit it’s gonna be our asses,” Minelli said, staring at the paper.
“Huh?” Jon said.
“This jumping thing. Union shit like this spreads like herpes, believe me.” Then, seeing Jon’s non-expression: “Forget it,” he said, putting down the paper and shaking his head. “Turn on the goddamn news some time.”
He turned then and faced Jon fully. “Mr. Brooks, you gotta right now cut the bullshit when it comes to cursing in front of the fucking kids—”
“Don’t try it, Brooks!” Minelli said, nearly exploding out of his seat at the gall Jon had shown in not simply agreeing with whatever he said and begging for his job right then. Jon had to shrink back nearly entirely into his own mouth just to avoid getting soaked by Minelli’s spittle. “I got a call from Malik Jabbie’s mom yesterday, so don’t even fucking try it!”
Malik Jabbie. Of course. He was by far the smallest kid in Jon’s class, and also the most annoying. He wore thick glasses, his voice had the pitch of an insect’s, and he was on the exact opposite end of the puberty spectrum as Jermille. But instead of realizing, as Jon had by this point in his own seventh grade experience, that his best bet was to put his head down and just survive the thing, Malik thought of himself as the class comedian, constantly chattering away and miming the other boys, egging them on, even threatening them at times if it would get a laugh from the others. They ignored him as long as they could, but eventually, always, inevitably, they lost it—the results were never good for Malik (or the boys he antagonized: more crap on their disciplinary records was exactly the last thing they needed). Worse: Malik was an incredible, incredible snitch. Anything any boy did, Malik would yell out about it. It drove everyone in the room, especially Jon, nuts.
“EAT SHIT AND DIE, Brooks. Eat shit and die. That’s what she said you said. She said it was written all over her son’s bedroom wall in gold fucking Sharpie that she says she scrubbed with bleach and could not get rid of. She says they’re gonna bill us for the new paint job, Brooks. Malik Jabbie can barely write his goddamn ABCs, but now he’s scrawling ‘Eat shit and die’ all over his walls?! And he says he learned it from you?!”
Oh, Jon thought. Well, there was that. He had almost forgotten about that.
“Ah,” Jon said.
“Ah,” Minelli said, leaning now back again in his chair and tenting his hands up on his belly, apparently satisfied. He had his man. Jon thought the best advice he could give Minelli was to stop watching cop shows on TV.
“I can explain,” Jon said.
A week earlier he had found Cristián in a corner of the room, just sitting there by himself, turned toward the wall and rocking back and forth. Cristián—he was one of the ones that pained Jon the most: 12 years old, deeply withdrawn, his huge brown eyes constantly betraying the fact that he was totally overwhelmed by the chaos of school and the world around him as a whole. Misdiagnosed with ADHD at seven years old, he had been veering wildly between over- and wrongly-medicated ever since. Jon never knew which Cristián would be in the room on a given week, depending on which drugs the doctors were trying out on him: the zomboy-Cristián who couldn’t or wouldn’t respond to a thing Jon said, who followed his class from room to room but moved so slowly, only opening his textbook when the others had finished with theirs, who even on occasion would let fall from his mouth, unknowing, a small elastic stream of drool; or boyboy-Cristián, who was quiet, charming, extremely shy, wide-eyed, and would not do a single thing Jon asked him to do, ever, but would only sit either reading the same book over and over or drawing and writing in a journal he would also not ever let Jon, or anyone else, see.
Jon had learned very early why or how that initial misdiagnosis might have occurred, when boyboy-Cristián had attacked another kid during the class’s first visit to the library, when Jon had asked everyone to go pick a book for the new term. Out of nowhere, Cristián had become vicious, had made shrieking cat noises and had gone at the boy’s hair and face with his nails. It had taken Jon and a burly security guard to pull him off. The kid Cristián had attacked was nearly twice Cristián’s size, but had so not expected it that he had just kind of stood there staring while Cristián attacked. And afterward, his chest hitching with his tears—brutal as they could be, they were still just kids, Jon often forgot—he said that Cristián had attacked him because he had gotten to “the boat book” before Cristián had. “He always do the boat book!” the boy had said, breaking down.
The next week zomboy-Cristián was back, but a month later, when they switched meds again and boyboy-Cristián returned, Jon saw that, as long as he didn’t expect him to follow his instructions exactly when he said them and as long as he didn’t interrupt his journal-writing, he could count on Cristián to pretty much be the sweetest, if the quietest, boy he had ever met. At the bar, late at night or early in the morning, Jon would often talk about Cristián, and about what little possibility of “getting out” he had, and how, if Jon could change anything, it would be that one fact.
But now Jon had found Cristián—boyboy-Cristián, lately—rocking to himself in the corner of the room after free reading and just before the boys were to go to gym. He could not get him to stop. When Jon reached for him, he flinched away and increased his rocking, but Jon caught a glimpse of his journal then and saw, scrawled across a page in pen so harshly used it was tearing through the paper in some places, the words “EET SHIT N DI”.
Jon had had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Cristián was clearly upset. On the other, Jon was pretty sure that, after some investigating (Malik did have his uses), he was going to find out that Jermille had done it. And while it wasn’t exactly an expulsion-worthy, or even suspension-worthy, offense, it would certainly buy Jon maybe two or three days of relative peace while Jermille spent his time in in-school suspension.
Except that, even though he was quaking in a way that made Jon think he might explode with rage at any moment, even though he had clearly been violated in a deeply troubling way, Cristián would not give up the book to Jon. He would not give him his journal. And without the journal, the proof of the crime, Jon could punish nobody.
He had looked at Jermille, and Jermille—much smarter in certain ways than anybody would have given him credit for—smiled a guilty slack-jawed smile back at Jon, then looked away. He knew there was nothing Jon could do, but that he could do nothing only barely, and that he still needed to be careful.
Jon was frustrated, angry. It had been a long week, a long year, a long life. He carried his wounds poorly, he knew. He looked around at his kids, who were all also grinning, looking from Jon to Jermille to Cristián and back.
“Everybody get back to your seats and take out your notebooks!” Jon said. “Not a one of you is going to gym.” This was the ultimate punishment—not just for the boys but for Jon, too, who counted on the 42 minutes of peace for his very sanity—and the boys groaned and protested and begged and cried, but Jon would not budge. Soon they were seated, morose or angry, at their desks, pencils in hand, while Jon stalked up front at the blackboard.
“E-A-T,” Jon said, writing it out in big letters. “Eat.” Then he wrote out “shit” and “and.” The boys, whom he had told to copy exactly what he was writing in their notebooks, had mouths nearly bursting with barely repressed laughter, but they knew he was too pissed for it to end well for them if they did. “D-I-E,” Jon said, writing that out, too.
“First of all, get your spelling right,” he told them. “‘Eat’ and ‘die’ aren’t exactly high school level words here.” And then he launched into a lecture, maybe now in hindsight a bit too enthusiastically, about how the phrase “eat shit and die” was in fact a perfect example of how important precise punctuation was re: meaning—punctuation being testable and No-Child-Left-Behindable and Common Coreable and bankable when it came to ameliorating Minelli, et. al. So Jon had them copy out all the different possibilities in their notebooks, turning the whole thing into a lesson on usage, explaining how “Eat shit and die!” was the simplest, dullest command or insult, but that just the difference between a period and the exclamation mark there affected a wonderful shift in tone: how with the period it become much more likely a warning, much like those they would find on the side of a bottle of the meds each of them took every morning and afternoon, and how it was a keen warning at that, one that they should indeed heed, because if they did make that mistake—if they did eat shit—death would likely follow, or if not death, a really bad time of it in the hospital.
But then the magic, Jon said, the real magic of the phrase, and therefore the magic of punctuation itself, was when you added commas into the mix, making the phrase “eat, shit, and die”—et voila: a simpler, deeper existential truth, a more honest appraisal of human life, than any French philosopher could ever have come up with.
Then Jon had turned toward Jermille and shouted at him, “Which one did you mean?” And when Jermille hadn’t responded Jon repeated the question, this time bending in toward him, and then he repeated it again, now pounding with a finger into Jermille’s notebook, closer and closer and louder and louder—“Which. One. Did. You. Mean?”—until Jermille, nearly in tears, whispered under his breath, “I’m sorry.” At which point Jon felt just about as low as he had ever felt in his life.
Still, thinking back on it, the lesson was sound. And, in fact, over the course of the next few days, Jon had seen an actual and marked improvement in the use of punctuation, at least as far as periods and commas went. So much so that Jon wondered if he could repeat the lesson again the next year, if perhaps a bit less aggressively.
None of which he got to tell Minelli. Because when Jon said, “I can explain,” Minelli’s eyes got so wide and bulged so far out of their sockets they looked like something made from glazed sugar in a Paris confectioner’s display window. His body seemed unable to contain his fury, his face turned beet red, his neck ballooned against his collar—Jon could see the veins beating there, and he worried, suddenly, for the overweight man’s health.
“Do not even fucking try it, Brooks! I am not asking, this is not a discussion, I am not looking for your goddamn pansy opinion right here! I. Am. Telling. You: Cut. The. Shit. I got the Board, the chancellor, the union, Sanitation, Health and Human Services, the OOC, the BOC, the NYPD, and every goddamn teacher in this building up my ass about one thing or another, and now I gotta get a call from Malik Jabbie’s mother, who has not showed a goddamn speck of interest in her child’s education up to this point, complaining about how the language he is learning from his teacher at school offends quote the ear with which she hears the [goddamn] Lord’s Name in prayer?! Cut. The shit. One more fuck up and you are gone. Out. Done! Do you understand, Mr. Brooks?” he said.
Jon wasn’t sure if he was supposed to respond or not. He gathered not, but Minelli was waiting there, meaty hands pushing his huffing torso from the desk, leaning forward.
“I do,” Jon managed to say.
“Good,” Minelli said. “Have a good weekend.” And with that, he was done with Jon, had turned toward his phone and was on to the next problem he had to solve. Jon skulked out of his office. And it wasn’t until he was out the door and down the hall that he began to wonder: Did Malik use a period? An exclamation mark? A comma? And if so, where?