The Cage

The Cage

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Cage

It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.

A. C. Carlson

I remember hearing their voices all the way down the hallway—passionate and loud, threatening and unforgiving. Barely twenty-two, fresh out of college and headstrong (though some might say inexperienced, opinionated and stubborn), I was prepared to face the challenge before me. I was escorted by a security guard, armed only with a walkie-talkie and a sincere smile. It was a smile of sympathy.

I had received the call the night before. The Portsmouth City Schools needed a long-term substitute immediately. The class, a “bridge” class, consisted of students with discipline problems. The term “bridge” was a euphemism for students too young to drop out of school and too old to keep back. It was a school built in the early 1940s for a suburban community that eventually became urban. The regular teacher had a nervous breakdown in February. It was not March, and I was the sixteenth teacher. After the first thirteen teachers quit in eight school days, school security and an assistant principal took over the job of baby-sitting. I didn’t know it then, but other teachers in the school had christened the classroom“The Cage,” a place where wild animals lived, and no one stayed long enough to be eaten alive.

Room 211 was a classroom situated at the far end of the enormous school, next to the stairwell. I thanked the security guard and entered. Twenty-eight pairs of eyes surveyed me. Some of the eyes were hazel green, but mostly they were dark, the color of burnt cinders in a fireplace. They were the eyes of adults in the faces of children. Not children really. Some were twelve, most were thirteen, but there were some fourteen-and fifteen-year-olds in this sixth-grade classroom.

I stood by the door. Two panes of glass were broken, and the metal vent at the bottom of the door was missing. This allowed students to crawl through it even when it was closed. The bulletin boards were bare, save for some old, faded crepe paper in the corners. Some of the students watched me, watching them. Others ignored me completely and carried on as if I did not exist. The noise continued. I watched them, and then I looked at my watch: 8:19 it read. I didn’t say a word. I looked at my watch again. I learned a few names and noticed on which desk they placed their belongings. Finally, in what I call my teacher voice, I said, “For as long as you keep me waiting, I’ll keep you waiting after school.” And then I looked at my watch again. Some rolled their eyes at me. Others continued to ignore me. None really settled down. The security guard walked past the classroom. “Do you need any help?” he asked me. I said, “No,” though my stomach was in knots, and I wanted to run home. And he left, but I don’t think he went very far.

After looking at my watch for the last time, I said, “So far you’ve kept me waiting for six minutes, therefore, you will wait after school for six minutes. Quentin, I want you to sit in the second row, first seat. Abdul, first row, third seat. The rest of you have exactly thirty seconds to settle down. Upon which I will introduce myself and will memorize your names by 8:45. We will begin with spelling. And on Friday, I will give you a test.”

By the time I had finished and heard the usual “How’d she know your name?” or “She think she gonna be our teacher now?” and other, more colorful parts of speech, I had their attention. The stage was mine. I pulled out a large neon yellow poster board and a roll of gray duct tape. With exaggerated effort, I taped the poster to the chalkboard. In big, black letters, the poster read, “MS. CLANCY’S RULES: GOD HAD TEN COMMANDMENTS, I HAVE TWELVE.” And slightly smaller but equally important were two columns of six rules. I then turned to the class and began: “My name is Ms. Clancy. I’m twenty-two, and I just moved here to Virginia. I’m from New York. I’m going to be here until June. And now I’m giving you two choices: (1) you do as you’re told and you follow my rules; or (2) you don’t do as you’re told and you don’t follow the rules. Either choice, however, will not get rid of me. If you choose option number two, I can assure you a miserable existence. Because anything you think you can do to me will not work. And anything you can do has already been tried, or I’ve tried it myself less than two years ago. Now, I will take attendance.”

At 2:36 that afternoon, I dismissed the class. By 2:37, I sat at the desk and cried. I had before me students who did not know what a noun was, couldn’t name the vice president of the United States and could read only at a third-grade level. I didn’t even get to math, science or social studies because I had to break up two fights and send another four students to the office. No one had left lesson plans, and half the class didn’t have books.

I gathered myself together and was about to go to the main office and tell them to get another substitute for tomorrow when I picked up an essay by a student named Tameisha. I had given them an essay (translation: busy work) while I tried to figure out what I was going to do after lunch. The title of the essay was “The Most Important Person in My Life.” Tameisha wrote about her aunt. When Tameisha was six, her mother died of a brain aneurysm in the family’s kitchen, forcing Tameisha, her older sister and two younger sisters to live with their aunt and her four children. Tameisha’s father was in prison, and she didn’t remember meeting him. Tameisha’s essay, while not grammatically the greatest, spoke volumes about perseverance and self-sacrifice. She wrote about how hard her aunt worked. She talked about how she struggled to feed and clothe eight kids. She said that her aunt could have let Tameisha and her sisters become wards of the state, but, instead, she insisted that some things were more important than nice clothes and fancy meals.

I felt guilty. I looked down at my college ring. To me, it represented the culmination of sixteen years of education. It represented hard work and sacrifices to pay my own way through college. But then, we always had plenty of food and nice clothes in our home.

I tried to rationalize my decision to not come back. After all, I was educated in private, Catholic schools; I was white and came from a “regular” nuclear family in suburban Long Island. My father went to work, and my mother stayed home to care for my two brothers and me. What could I teach them? I questioned the importance of adverbial clauses in a world where metal detectors at the school’s entrance were a reality. I questioned my ability to teach American history when many of these children wouldn’t leave the streets of their city, let alone leave the state. Two girls in the class were pregnant. I don’t have the slightest clue as to what they were going through. But I read again about Tameisha’s aunt. I went up to the blackboard and wrote the next day’s date. I also wrote five spelling words and, in big block letters, “AS SOON AS YOU WALK IN, WRITE THE WORDS 5X’S EACH, GET A DICTIONARY, WRITE THE DEFINITIONS, THEN PUT EACH WORD IN A SENTENCE. AND, OH YEAH—GOOD MORNING CLASS.” I left my poster taped to the board.

I finished out the school year at Hunt-Mapp Middle School. We played grammatical bingo using prizes bought at the dollar store. We diagrammed sentences from rap songs. We had the strangest-looking bulletin boards in the school. We had extra help sessions after school. I learned all the street names in the projects by driving home anyone who got a ninety percent or better on a test. With a full carload, I was rarely home before 3:30.

I don’t know if I made an impact on any one student’s life. I don’t know if it’s possible to even make an impression in three months. But I do know that I learned more in those three months than I ever could have sitting in a classroom studying the problems of the inner city for twenty years. I can’t say that there was a happy ending. For every one day I came home late because I drove a car full of students home, there were three days I came home frustrated and angry. But at the same time, for every one student who made me angry, there was another who earned my respect.

Regina Clancy-Hiney

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