Nonfiction Second Runner-up: Hold Me Say You Will

I jumped on Mr. Curry’s back and held him. It wasn’t easy, possessed as he was by the animal fury of a man whose family was threatened. I’m 6’ 5” and weigh 200 pounds, but it was all I could do to keep the small, compact Mr. Curry from lunging at Mr. Johnson and probably killing him. We were in the nurse’s station at Priory High School in Kingston, Jamaica, and the room was in chaos—people screaming and crying and death threats stabbing the air. As I clutched the outraged Mr. Curry from behind, drenched with adrenaline, my mind stropped to the edge of omniscience, it struck me how odd it was to be a U.S. History teacher and a bouncer at the same time.

Jamaica is a strange place, nothing like the wide-smiling myth one sees on American television selling “One Love” fetes and Caribbean conviviality. I, too, once believed the myth. Languishing in Providence, RI, I often dreamt of lazy beaches and swaying palms and roots reggae. Smooth rum….Ja was on my mind. I had a friend in the State Department who was stationed there, and I was getting regular updates about a sylvan life so starkly contrasted to my own in the bitter Northeast, working construction and trying (unsuccessfully) to come to grips with the dissolution of a long-term relationship. I would often translate Jackson Browne’s song “Jamaica Say You Will,” about a woman who leaves Browne under full sail, into an ode about an exotic, melancholy country.

Then one day I got a letter from my friend saying that there was an opening for a U.S. History teacher at a local, private high school. The school required only that I have a college degree and be a U.S. citizen. I had no formal training as a teacher on any level in any field, and my only knowledge of U.S. History came from what little I remembered from my own high school career. My degree was in English. I wrote back and said I’d be there within a month.

I figured I’d read the textbook, give the students a few quizzes, and somehow muddle through. How hard could it be? As my first day approached, however, I became so nervous that I gave myself a tension crick in my neck, and I walked into my first class with my head bent over like a zombie, unable to look at anyone unless I turned my whole body in their direction. The kids immediately put me to the rack. I was the third history teacher they’d had in four months, and by the time I walked into class they weren’t taking shit from anyone, believing, probably rightfully, that they had caused the disappearance of the previous two. In addition, Priory was known as “Last Chance” Priory. My classes were filled with the progeny of Jamaica’s elite, familiar with money and the benefits of power in a near-lawless society. Many of them had already been kicked out of other schools, and most of them believed, also rightly, that if they failed this last chance their parents would take care of them.

The Jamaican “paradise” I envisioned existed only in the protected enclaves of all-inclusive resorts at Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, whereas Kingston was plagued by curfews and frequent power outages. Armed gangs roamed the streets. Food and gas prices rose weekly. Currency devaluations were commonplace. The police force, one of the worst in world, according to Amnesty International, literally shot first and asked questions later. There were scattered typhoid outbreaks.

At Priory, there was no Xerox machine, no computers, and no discipline, even though all three had been invented long before I arrived. The rooms were constructed of “decorative” concrete block, the kind with holes (for ventilation), and roofed with sheets of zinc which thundered so loudly when it rained I had to stop teaching. The desks and chairs were always covered with dust blown in through the open walls. Very early on I became embroiled in a mini-war between myself, Mrs. Rangachari, who taught General Science, and a woman named Kumkum, who taught computer literacy (without computers). The three of us taught in a section of Priory ironically named Salvation Alley, where there were never enough desks to fill the classrooms. We were constantly raiding each other’s rooms, often getting to school before the others to filch desks and chairs, then guard them until the students arrived.

On the other hand, I had the recently crowned, seventeen-year-old Miss Jamaica Universe sitting in the front row of my Sixth Form class.

Very quickly, far too early for a rookie, I succumbed to teacher’s malaise, exhibiting the unmistakable symptoms of distrust, cynicism, and ideology fatigue. My students had become brats and liars, were incapable of being taught anything, and I spent most of my time enforcing the rules, imposing discipline, and being The Man instead of a teacher. I was making $100 a week, at which I could only laugh. For some reason I found myself “volunteering” to be Priory’s Audio Visual specialist. The Powers That Be at Priory, like many Jamaicans I met, believed that because I came from America I knew everything about technology. I knew as much about electronics as I did about U.S. History.

On the day Mr. Curry showed up I had set up the PA system for a recital of the junior and senior choral groups, which took place outside, near the administration building. I somehow managed to put the right plugs in the right holes, and the concert went off smoothly. After school let out, and I was coiling a microphone cord, I saw a girl walk by. She had come out of the Activities Center and was moving slowly, head down, beneath the large, spreading mango tree that stood in front of the pick-up/drop-off cul-de-sac that curved around in front of the administration building. The tree was the unofficial social center of Priory, perpetually sheltering like a mother hen flocks of chattering children beneath its broad, generous branches. A single student walking beneath it was a rare sight, and I set down the mike and went over to her. She was crying, holding one hand to her face, and between sobs told me that a boy had grabbed her breast, then punched her. So deeply and quickly had my cynicism infected me, so many times had I already been lied to and witnessed so many false traumas, that I demanded to see her face. A purple bruise was swelling around her eye, and with it my shame.

Her name was Rachelle, and she was, like so many of her classmates, like all of the women in Jamaica, luxuriously beautiful. The girls explode with a full-grown woman’s sexuality so early in their lives. And it never seems to leave them. It clings to everything in that country, as if it’s an extra molecular component of the mountains, sea, and heat that the women exhale from every crevice of their bodies. They all had that extra…what? Smell? No, it was more in their voices, more in their skin, more in their eyes and smiles and lips and shoulders and hips, as if, at the earliest of ages, all of their young, not-yet-formed body parts joyously knew what they’d become. And there in Rachelle’s lovely face the dark side of Jamaica, too.

I took her to the nurse’s station, which was, like the rest of the school, deserted. I managed to find a small towel, which I took to the canteen to get filled with ice, and brought it back to Rachelle. I told her to put it on her eye. Then I left her, thinking that someone, hopefully the nurse, would eventually show up to attend to her.

I didn’t know what else to do. I hadn’t been trained to respond to or received a single memo about beat-up girls wandering the grounds after school.

 

*

 

Barely a month into my new job, one day I was surprised by a whole new group of students sitting in my classroom. The Priory principal was standing in the doorway and merely said, “Do with them what you want,” and left.

They were in the lower Sixth Form, preparing for their A-Levels. I had no idea what A-Levels were, what the students needed to know for them, or how to prepare them. I eventually learned that A-Levels were similar to the SATs, used to assess a student’s ability to enter University. Sixth Form was a two-year, post-secondary training program divided into lower (grade 12) and upper (grade 13). A student first had to pass O-Levels (Ordinary Level) with a minimum C to get out of high school, then sat for A-Levels (Advanced Level). I knew none of this. “Just teach them,” the principal told me when I inquired about my role with these students.

What does one do with a group of young minds sitting there waiting to be taught—something? What does one do with any group of people expecting instruction without curriculum? Where does one even start? It seemed absurd, especially given the revelatory draw of life showing me that the older I got the less, not more, I knew. With no guidance and no mandate, I called up every trick and exercise I could remember—stolen from former teachers, English primers, even television. I gave them writing exercises, word games, moral dilemmas, visualization exercises, even asked them as jurors to try a Mr. Salacious B. Crumb (Jabba’s monkey-lizard sidekick in Star Wars), who I turned into a pornographer from Slimeball, MO. By anyone’s definition, I was experimenting with them, without a clue as to what hypothesis I was testing for. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of what I’d later call “teaching unknowing.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that since that first teaching gig so many years ago, having moved on to college, I now consider myself a success in the classroom only if I can convince at least one student per semester to drop out. (Why I consider this the mark of a successful teacher is a topic for another time.) That being said, after seeing the result of rote/regurgitation pedagogy in waves upon waves of freshly minted high school graduates, I’ve instinctively veered away from that type of knowledge instruction. It’s not easy. Because, in addition to twelve years of Call & Response, Teach-to-the-Test brainwashing, they all now have magic boxes filled with the answers. I used to be able to ask questions which demanded independent thinking. Now, in response to almost any inquiry I put to them, there is an automatic, almost reflexive bowing of heads to laps where they punch in the question on the magic box and—voilà, the answer is revealed. They seem quite pleased with this, and consider themselves smart. But facts are not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.

With so many answers at their fingertips, I’ve deemed it necessary to introduce not knowing into their lives. This drives them crazy. I see genuine anger, sometimes even hatred in their eyes when I refuse to give them the answer to a question I’ve asked. What’s the good of this? What they, and we in the profession, don’t seem to understand, and what seems to be getting drained out of not only the educational system but the Insta-answer culture as a whole, is the large, messy, and uncertain (thus scary, the reason for abandoning it?) space between question and answer. The muscles needed to get from point A to point B are atrophying, when those are the very muscles needed for an enlightened populace to not only maintain a vibrant democracy but to solve present and unforeseen problems. Those muscles need exercise, which active unknowing can provide.

For instance, at the beginning of my Literature survey courses I give my students the short poem “Advice from the Experts” by Bill Knott:

 

I lay down in the empty street and parked

My feet against the gutter’s curb while from

The building above a bunch of gawkers perched

Along its ledges urged me don’t, don’t jump.

 

It’s a riddle poem, I guess, like most poems are on some level, but more so. I then tell them that the “answer” to this poem is the reason why I think people should read poetry. So, not only do they have to figure out what the poem “means,” they have to link that meaning, its “answer,” to why people should read poetry. They won’t find the answer in the magic box, and I don’t mention the poem or its riddle ever again.

One of the more human characteristics of being human is curiosity. It drives us nuts when we can’t figure out a puzzle or answer a question. And my students really don’t like it when I don’t tell them the answer. They want to know, even as their facades of ironic, post-modernist apathy are telling me to fuck myself. I can survive that, as long as they walk out the door at the end of the semester with at least some unknowing in their lives. Which is different from “I don’t get it.” With Knott’s poem, as opposed to “getting” poetry in general, there’s a question in the air. And they know that there’s an answer, somewhere. They can function perfectly fine without ever getting or even liking poetry. But to not know means there’s the possibility of knowing.

I’m not trying to teach them humility in the face of ignorance. I just want them to walk out the door not knowing, with persistent not knowing, the ache instead of the itch so easily relieved by the magic box. Not knowing triggers questioning, which is the real rubric I want them to carry into the world—a gnawing nescience, a worm of uncertainty, a nagging unease, which is the default position of the seeker. Unknowing demands inquiry and more questions. It demands the all-important why and how. These are the archaic medicine balls one must toss around the brain’s gymnasium in order to exercise the quest for knowledge. The answer acquired by genuine inquiry is the water found by thirst, not by GPSing the nearest water fountain.

In that Sixth Form class of eager A-Level aspirants, however, I was unknowing, the unknower, and a charlatan.

 

*

 

I returned to collecting the AV equipment and there, near the Activities Center, was Rachelle’s mother. She was visibly shaking and turning her head around, as if looking for the answer to a question she shouldn’t have asked in the first place. When she was finally able to speak, I learned that she had tracked down the boy who had attacked her daughter, a Fourth Former named Devon, and hit him. She lost control, she said. She was all nerves and no wits. She didn’t know what to do, she said, confounded, it seemed, not only by the atrocity of her daughter’s attack but the shameful wonder of how she could then attack a child herself. I suggested she leave with Rachelle and wait everything out until the next day. Calmer heads might then prevail. She thought that was fine, except….Her husband was coming to the school, and she didn’t think things would go well when he arrived. I then suggested that she go be with her daughter, and I went to gather up the rest of the AV equipment.

I had a bad feeling. After putting away the PA system I went down to the nurse’s station, which was in the Junior School section of Priory, a little off the main campus, to check on Rachelle and her mother. I was the only teacher around, and I didn’t want to be. Rachelle and Mrs. Curry were sitting together, and everything seemed to be fine. So I went to the Junior Staff room get a cup of coffee to calm my not yet cracking but slowly roiling nerves. I was already late for a teacher’s seminar I’d been attending every day after school that week, and I wanted out. But I felt I had to stick around. Mrs. Curry said there might be trouble, and by the tone of her voice I could tell she knew her husband.

I had barely poured my coffee when I heard yelling from the nurse’s station. Mr. Curry had arrived, and I ran into the room just as he and Devon’s father were shouting at each other like ferocious, snarling beasts. Their faces were contorted and wrinkled with sweat. Teeth were bared. They were already beyond reason, and their anger and swift rise of brutal emotion had translated their threats into Jamaican patois, spit vehemently at each other. Hah gwonna mash up de face! Bloodclot! Each said that he was going to stab the other. Hah gwonna kill ee! No knives had yet been drawn, and I saw my chance.

I jumped on Mr. Curry’s back.

What also crossed my hyper-vigilant mind as I embraced Mr. Curry’s barrel chest was the reason why I had never been a good bouncer. I felt too much. Not in the over-emotional sense of a swooning Southern belle with the vapors, but in the sponge sense. Human beings in tense situations of imminent threat do not emit pleasant auras—I didn’t like what I soaked in. And finally, I thought—the second hand on the large clock in the nurse’s station didn’t move, every object vibrated with luminescent clarity, each sound was megaphonic: I’ve seen more violence as a teacher than I encountered during nine months as a bouncer. That’s what I had become at Priory, nothing more than a very large hall monitor. I wasn’t a teacher, I was The Man. The meat. The muscle. The law.

It was exhausting. What overwhelms you isn’t just your own emotions—anxiety and fear and confusion—but everyone else’s singular pain and anxiety and fear, also, as if they’re your own. It’s a stressful way to spend eight hours a day, at a bar or a school. The bucket isn’t big enough. Any moment of every day at Priory, like the country itself, was potentially explosive, every encounter a chance for conflict.

Every day—pump it up. Right up to the edge, but don’t let it go. Control it. Hone the knife. Keep it sharp. But never use it. Put the flame under the kettle, get it to boiling, but don’t let it blow. You’re a fleshy bag of molecules one degree away from changing shape and steaming full force into the air. Foam and bubble. But keep it liquid.

They want to let it go. But you can’t. They can get loud and obnoxious; they can swear and yelp and sing. But you can’t. At school, your only advantage is being smarter than them; at a bar, being sober. If someone is going to start something, there are signs. Extra loudness. An edge to the epithets. Drawing attention to themselves when they don’t know it. Things only a sober person in a room full of drunks notices. That’s a head start. The bartender can shut him off, but that usually makes the situation worse. Be on his case before he knows it. Watch him. Get the water boiling….

Keep it hot. Keep it cool. It’s like being on the edge of a very bad orgasm for eight hours. As time goes by you want it more and more. The release. The explosion. The final stroke that will send you over the edge and ease the tension.

But don’t let it happen. That’s what it’s all about. Posture. Image. Bring it up and use it to make yourself appear invincible. Get knocked down just once, just one insult you don’t respond to, one shove you shrug off, and you’ve had it. Compromise is defeat. Lose once, lose everything.

Power. They give you power just by seeing you on that stool at the club’s entrance, the way students give you power just by walking to the front of a classroom. They assume so much—you’re an expert in karate or U.S. History; you’re an ex-con; you’re an accomplished killer. But that’s all theory. Use it.

Get close to the guys who are about to blow, who are about to smash something or someone. Every instinct tells you otherwise, but your job is to seek out not only the worst people, but the worst in them.

Breathe in the fumes of violence.

The most dangerous case is the loner muttering to himself in the corner, cursing the invisible assholes in his life for all the real or imagined wrongs he’s incurred. He wants to go over the edge. Like you, he wants the release. He seeks it. But he never telegraphs his schedule. He waits until the last possible moment to show his hand. Hang around, breathe him in, soak up his anger, smell the sweaty odor of rage, feel the juice like an electric current looping through both of you, waiting for the circuit breaker to trip.

The heart beats quicker with him. Hot face and dry tongue. There is no handbook. Only response. The fight-or-flight blueprint comes up on the big screen. Flight is not an option. He’s yours. Stick with him. Eyeball him.

The guy who’s been saving up all week for this. And if things don’t work out, if the woman rejects his advances or the man steps on his shoes, he’s go­ing to blow. He doesn’t want to control it. He’s letting the rage, along with the alcohol and all the slights he’s ever received, big and small, seep into every muscle. They work together. The rage pumps him up, the alcohol makes him feel good about it.

You’re one step behind him. He sees you, knows you’re there—he’s got to deal with you. Let him know there’s a price. Follow him as he makes his last circuit, acting like he’s looking for someone, sipping his beer, making it last. Going to the front door, stopping, hanging by the wall—

He puts his beer down and walks out, checking one last time to see if anyone is going to cross him, looking for that sap who’s minding his own business or the woman who might have one last kind eye for him. And he’s gone.

The odor of rage doesn’t leave with him. It clings to everything. It’s on your clothes and inside the walls of your brain. It’s heavy, like syrup. So pump it up even more, turn the flame up in order to keep from dropping off the edge either way. Either sit down and fall asleep, or get taken over by the adrenaline and flip out. Stay up. Stay hyped. Stay cool. Don’t daydream. Don’t give any of it away. Don’t lose it to some normal act, like conversation.

Go find the next one.

It was too much.

I opened up, not of my own volition, and let everything in. It’s always been that way, always been a part of my physiology. Just walking through the world is being on the verge of overdosing on the world.

I could feel everything Mr. Curry was feeling, every boiling molecule of rage, his pure destructive lust, the wrath quivering in his spine like a high voltage current transferred through his back directly into my chest.

I could feel everything Mrs. Curry was feeling, too, who was standing a few feet away crying and pleading with her husband to stop.

And I could feel everything Rachelle was feeling. Beautiful Rachelle. Bruised Rachelle. She was curled up on the floor in a corner, clutching her knees, crying and screaming at her father. No Daddy! No Daddy! Please no Daddy! In her wide, very terrified eyes I could tell—the awful, heightened clarity—that she had never seen her father like that. And at that moment, as I was so close to him and she so far, when he was abdicating his supreme duty as a parent in favor of his own heart of darkness, I could feel some part of Mr. Curry leave his daughter forever.

*

There were so many ways I eventually left Jamaica. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. To this day, at random, usually very inconvenient moments in my life, I feel as if I’m still holding onto Mr. Curry, my arms wrapped around his thick chest, silently pleading with him not to let his daughter’s bruise swell into her heart. And there’s some part of me that has never left, and never will. The paradoxical mythology of Jamaica still holds me, possesses me, has seeped into my thoughts and actions until, like its music, I’m moving to a psychological rhythm that edges my sight and reverie and even my mundane steps over mundane curbs just a little off center. Its gnawing contradictions are still unfathomable—the times of pure, simple joy I experienced amidst so much orthodox brutality. Its redolent sexuality and impetuous violence. Its sensuous, Caribbean coastline surrounding like an emerald necklace the cur of its endemic privation.

There’s a certain amount of delusion attached to myths and memories. Jamaica, that place of incongruous realities, of beauty and caducity, was a “comfort and a mercy” but also “hiding from the world,” as Browne mournfully wrote. I’m fairly certain I coached the debate team, served as advisor to the Drama Club, and was (in some dreams, still am) perpetually embattled with Mrs. Rangachari and Kumkum for desks and chairs. I know that I did, eventually, reach a truce-like state with my students, and by the end had fallen in love with half a dozen of them and saw another dozen expelled.

I don’t have many physical mementos of my time there. The only picture I have of anyone I knew at Priory is of my Fifth Form class. On the last day of my last semester I gathered them at the back of their classroom. Even after all that time they intuitively resisted instruction, and I kept telling them to get closer, get closer. I was at the front of the room trying to magically wand them together with my palms, but they were restless and diffident. Finally, when they were as tightly collected as they were going to get, I quickly knelt down in front of the camera and said, Give me the finger! Click. Never had I seen them smiling so widely, unanimously, and enthusiastically in any of my classes, fingers raised triumphantly in my direction.

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