Current Occupation: English Teacher
Former Occupation: Landscaper
Contact Information: Matt Morello grew up one block from NYC where he currently teaches English in Queens. He is writing about his first-year teaching experiences, or, what was really going on while everyone was busy worshipping Holden Caulfield. He has been published in Ozone Park Journal.
Who Killed Atticus Finch?
They told me never accept candy from students. Vengeful little bastards were spiking soft chocolates with ecstasy before offering this sublime disguise to unsuspecting substitute teachers. Much of Monday morning was therefore spent scanning hallways for pierced, jaded teens that might offer such a sunny confection. I even left my coffee cup plainly visible in an empty teachers’ lounge with the door wide open. Nothing.
Ironically, last month, two sophomores in New Jersey died from smoking rabbit weed, a green, spiked plant that grows wild in swampy areas. Jesus, in high school we used to mix rabbit weed with librium, smoke it until our throats bled, then chase the burn with Yago Sangria. Instead of daily S and M sessions with these smarmy videojunkies, a better occupation would be traveling through the tri-state area teaching teenagers proper drug usage, sort of a community outreach for addled ravers and post-modern pubescents.
Period 3 English class would soon begin. English was my college major. People once asked, “What are you going to do with an English major?” My usual bit of bile was, “Become a shepherd.” Prancing through verdant pastures while sodomizing sheep would immensely trump substitute teaching. Certainly Miss Dickhead’s junior English class could hardly wait to scrawl profanities on some Ethan Frome ditto.
“Wear a tie, kids will respect that.” You know what they respect? People with piles of money and lots of hot ass, not educators who give homework or tell them what to do, especially if that person looks like the bastard child of Frodo Baggins, assigns Act One of Macbeth, and wears a tie celebrating “The Menagerie” episode of Star Trek.
During college, my less prurient fantasies involved enraptured students who passionately argued Fisher King symbolism in pre-Christian Eliot. My mythical classroom was a short jaunt from the manse grounds, which had been neatly converted into a one-bedroom mission style apartment. Evenings would include dinners with young female colleagues followed by brandy at the Old Boys’ Club.
“Say, Morello- excellent questioning technique regarding Whitman’s Calamus poems.”
“Thank you, Dr. Freep. I find that if you initially place students upon a proper pedagogical path, their cognitive leaps invariably lead down trails of discovery.”
“Inspired, Morello! More Armagnac?”
Miss Dickhead’s classroom quietly sat across from Oceanside High School’s Language Arts Office, formerly called the English Department until one day in the 1980’s when some college professors decided to save Western Literature from Westerners. The heavily varnished door was slightly opened while morning sunlight shone upon rows of beige Formica desks neatly fixed into rows like infants in an abandoned nursery.
Torn blue construction paper hung from chipped corkboards along with the usual icons- Shakespeare, Poe, and Twain- authors whose words could change lives, now lost among a stagnant fen of entitled brats and dying dreams. “English Sucks” was already emblazoned on the chalkboard, a rallying slogan of disenfranchised empowerment. As they skittered into class, jackets smelling of morning joints wildly mixed with strawberry body spray. Lupine howling at the moon amid cherry-red squeals of happiness shot through room 187. The bitch was absent.
Sacred moments exist in teenagers’ lives when Dame Fortune, replete with teased hair and black pumps, smiles upon these Stygian suburbanality captives and grants unchained reprieves into pleasure’s kingdom. Such revelry occurs, for example, when mom and dad have reservations at the new downtown bistro, enabling Johnny to toke sensimilla upstairs while donning his sister’s underwear. This gleeful irreverence continues when spray painting “Principal Resnick Sucks Cock” on a brick wall outside of the boys’ gym. Today, Fortune’s grin gaped upon a particular English class when their real teacher slept late, leaving Mr. Fuckface as proxy.
“Here’s the deal, kids, finish this ditto in forty minutes. Your teacher is going to grade it. Any questions?”
“That’s shit. The bitch never grades a fuckin’ thing.”
“Yea. Why do we have to do this shit?” Silver lips pouting beneath frosted hair stared through sullen eyes.
“All right. You can work on something else, anything, just stay busy and keep it down.” This was the usual bargain that generally worked. Last week, however, it went horribly wrong. Some vicious little fucker stabbed his friend’s ear with a disposable Bic pen. Amidst a cascade of overturning desks, a silver-plated Zippo ignited Ramones-styled hair, adding auricle gouging and immolation to the list of “Shit They Didn’t Teach You In College.” Like Sir Gawain, a substitute teacher must always expect the unexpected.
“Ew! You blew him?” I knew that it wouldn’t last. Subs develop an ability to size up a group of teenagers in less than ten seconds, and I had a feeling that the tart with machine-ripped jeans and dyed blue hair would eventually initiate testosterone time. Naturally, two girls discussing blowjobs sent the class into hormonal fury.
“Did you swallow, or spit?” shouted a sweaty simian kid donning a Pantera T- shirt. This wildfire would soon spread if left unchallenged.
“Back to work! Let’s go! Your teacher is grading this!”
“We told you, she doesn’t grade anything! The old bitch is half-dead! She doesn’t even know our fuckin’ names yet and it’s April!” Nightclub audience laughter filled the room. Half an hour left with this fueled bunch of assholes. Doctoral study was a logical escape route from this Inferno. Getting a PhD is the academic equivalent of running away to the circus. If you write a best seller, you’re a Barnum star like Johnny Eck, or maybe even Colonel Tom Thumb; if you don’t, you’re a shit-sweeper or the geek, but you’ll always have a home as you traverse obscure little colleges throughout the Midwest.
This whole gig is clearly karmic justice for my lurid behavior as a teenager. One particularly cloudless Friday, a group of us left school and ran to Vinny’s house where we ransacked his parents’ porno collection. The back of their walk-in closet housed a 16mm reel of brown-robed monks plowing a nun, some hardcore Swedish mags, and two Seka films. Although Vinny wasn’t exactly valedictorian material, he soon reached the application stage of Bloom’s Taxonomy as he stealthily approached Miss Steiner’s bile-yellow Dodge Dart upon our return through the teachers’ parking lot. Steiner taught algebra repeater math, technically known as Algebra Two, affectionately known as Frankensteiner’s Fuck-ups.
“Jesus Christ! Vinny! What the hell are you doing?”
“Suck… it…bitch!” With a cascading Parthian volley on Steiner’s driver side door handle, Vinny Prestianni, thereafter known as “One Shot,” yanked his way into Valley Stream Central High School folklore.
During a lull in the classroom storm, a curious hand arose near cream-colored signs explaining common writing errors. A look of sincere puzzlement behind greasy bangs beckoned my burgeoning inner Dewey, patron saint of American educators. Here was a chance to bring forth new life in this beautiful baby with a poet’s soul. I leaned in closely, showing my desire to affect a Socratic connection.
“Mr. Morello, do you get stoned?”
Amidst insidious cackling, visions of a thesis deconstructing moustaches in Dickens’ novels floated through my throbbing brain.
The dismissal bell clanged throughout silent hallways creating a fling concerto of tattered books into knapsacks. Voices chattered about a new kid from Wyoming (I heard his great-uncle’s brother was Billy the Kid), Amanda’s hideous gingham skirt (Did her mom wear it to Marsha Brady’s last party?) and dozens of other crucially important topics, which, after all, is why students attend school in the first place.
Overhead, florescent tubes coolly hummed laughter at my vain efforts toward even the most basic store-minding. A nagging need to take back the classroom had recently been forming; an arena where I won every fight. In college, feminists who bandied terms like “phallagocentric hegemony” were reduced to scullery wenches. Politically correct comparative literature majors who dared argue the literary importance of Medieval Latino Poets were soon reading Iceberg Slim while drinking Thunderbird. I could stalk any English classroom with the prowess of Grendel, yet today, a band of Ritalin-popping monsters tore off my arm and nailed it above the door of room 187.
But this wasn’t my home. I was merely Teacher X’s Friday afternoon stuntman, ready to blow his sixty dollars pay on chicken chow fun, Jack Daniel’s, and some besotted skank at The Back Door, a local dive that made Mos Eisley look like the Algonquin Round Table. In the relative safety of my’82 Mustang, a crippled nag living off the name of its gallant predecessors, I lit a meager but welcome bowl, and considered an English teaching job in September. A nearby high school offered me a position for the upcoming school year, which was my only prospect for real employment.
En route to my cruddy little cave, I decided to call Martin Van Buren High School and accept their offer before some freshly scrubbed, theory-spouting tart snatched it, leaving me with a clamdigger or barback gig for the fall. It was nearly 3:00pm, so two hours remained for marinating in an existential stew before gaining enlightenment at happy hour.
Stately Morello Manor still remained a disaster after Wednesday night’s soiree with remnants and dregs lying about my sordid apartment. Cases of Coors empties, Gino’s pizza boxes, and about two dozen slick plastic cups filled with varying levels of rotgut remained standing like a hive outbreak on that unreachable part of your back. Stepping over cracked jewel cases and sauce-stained paper plates, I placed all of the red cups in a line for determining their musical scale positions like those talented guys perform on holiday commercials. No matter how these were arranged, each vessel only thumped like a final heartbeat. The whole mess looked like a Soho gallery installation piece entitled “Vaseline Cathedral.” Missing were an 80lb. NYU philosophy major, originally from Sandusky, putting my creation into a socio-political context, accompanied by a Cold Spring Harbor chick with a tribal tattoo who recently christened herself, “Sequoia.”
Resolving to absolutely clean later, I called about the job.
“Peter Goldfien, English Department.” His voice was as sharp as a number two pencil.
“Mr. Goldfien, this is Matt Morello.” My steady professional inflections wavered like those of a kid explaining why a spicy-smelling purple wizard statue was found in the back of his closet.
“Matt, I’m glad that you called.” He didn’t exactly sound glad, but it sounded better than, “Matt, if you’re holding out for more money, go jump off a fucking bridge.”
Goldfien continued, “You have to make a decision regarding the upcoming school year. Several excellent candidates are willing to commit, so I need an answer.”
“Mr. Goldfien, I’d definitely like to teach at Van Buren in the fall.” Who the fuck was I kidding? The only definite reality was my need for marijuana and rent money, but sounding reasonably intelligent and self-assured did get me this far.
“I had a feeling that you’d accept the offer. Great! Stop by my office on Monday at 9:30 to finish some paperwork. You can also choose books for your sophomore and senior classes.” Jesus, slow down, man. Boo Radley and Holden Caulfield aren’t going anywhere.
“Sounds good. See you then. Thanks again, Mr. Goldfien.”
“You got it. See you Monday.”
This moment happened a bit sooner than anticipated, so a cold McSorley’s helped clarify next September. I knew the literature; I was an asshole teenager six years ago; there was an old briefcase somewhere in my father’s basement. Not bad. No teacher clothes hung in my closet, therefore a drive to the Gap was in order for purchasing whatever headless mannequins wore.
Records were getting scarce. Everybody owned CD players, and most recording companies stopped vinyl production altogether. Warm sounds from records always upstaged the cold sterility of compact discs, an innovation which, like its users, lacked any transcendent highs or suicidal lows. Rubber Soul on the Capitol rainbow label was more relaxing than Klonopin, and when the needle was cautiously placed upon side one, an instant cascade of tangible memory calmed my splintered nerves. Whiskey and Beatles washed away thoughts of teaching, and shunted me back a few years when my biggest problem was which snack cake I would procure at 7-11 after an evening of Thai stick.
Actually, until about five minutes ago, that was still my biggest problem.