My first four articles are geared around politics, because that is something that is important to me, especially during this past presidential campaign and after the election. However, with this post, I would like to step aside from my political viewpoints to share a narrative I wrote a while back. As I have said before, I really like my job and the students I get to teach, and I feel that this particular experience, though it spanned maybe an hour, is kind of a microcosm of what my whole career has been like, and it encompasses my emotions of teaching and working with kids. I hope you enjoy it.
An Unforgettable Assembly
I wove my way through the lingering clusters of teenagers who were prolonging their entrance into the gym. It didn’t matter that it was a gusty October afternoon; many of the students would have stood in a blizzard if they could have gotten out of the torture of another pep assembly for the football team, who had just won their second straight game. And I would have joined them, if I hadn’t been required to attend the school function and supervise the unruly crowds in the stands. Being that I taught all sophomore classes, I was assigned the Junior section during assemblies. That way I could be with all the students I had the previous year, the kids who could now ignore my requests and not fear any grading repercussions.
Once inside the gym, I greeted the teachers who were lined up, directing the incoming students along the sidelines and off the precious floor. All day long, students would tramp through the gym in their sneakers, sandals, high-heels, combat boots, and whatever else they wore, but during assemblies, the gym floor suddenly became the hottest commodity in the school. But then, in a small community like Moriarty, the quality of the school is often judged by the quality of the gym floor. Therefore, it got resurfaced at least three times per year. Who cares what the average ACT scores are, that our dropout rate has increased, or that students are getting sick from drinking water from the fountains. As long as the gym floor is sparkly and squeaks nicely under those sneakers, the community is happy.
I fell in line next to Henry Craven, a math teacher who’d been there for over fifteen years and was one of the most caustic people I’d ever met.
“Off the floor,” I called out to the herd passing in front of me, then to Henry said, “Don’t you just love these assemblies?”
“Shut the hell up, Roberts,” he responded. It was pretty much his conventional greeting. I smiled and continued with my floor duty until all the kids were crammed into the bleachers and the fight song started up. It was my cue to either sit amongst the juniors, as I was supposed to, or lean against the south wall with the majority of the other teachers and administrators, who would all enjoy the show and ignore any problems that might arise until they could slip out the doors at the end before getting trampled by the pepped-up student body.
Wanting to maintain my image of accountability, I reluctantly opted to sit in the bleachers. Besides, if I joined the other teachers, I wouldn’t legitimately get to complain about them to my wife that evening.
I nestled in next to a nerdy little guy with coke-bottle glasses and some electronic game. I probably should have confiscated it, but as long as it didn’t wind up on the gym floor or smacking someone in the head, I didn’t care.
“All right! Are you guys EXCITED?” Amy, the student council president, screamed into the microphone, accompanied by eardrum-piercing feedback from the sound system. I guess no one had told her that the purpose of a microphone is to project one’s voice. One-third of the students screamed, another third continued talking – not at all phased by Amy’s school spirit – and the rest just sat like zombies.
“SHUT UP, SLUT!” someone on the other side of the gym yelled. Thankfully he was out of my jurisdiction, and luckily for him, the lined-up teachers and administrators along the wall were using their tunnel vision to avoid seeing and having to deal with any conflicts.
“All right!” Amy screamed again. “We have a great assembly for you guys, and kicking it off is a performance by our cheerleaders! All right!”
Twelve girls in green miniskirts and pigtails ran to the middle of the floor, carrying pompoms. They proceeded with their routine of flips and cartwheels and spelling out go, fight, and win, and their performance was done well, but what they did best was ignore the whistles and catcalls from the boys in the stands.
When the cheerleaders finished, Amy ran back out. “All right! Let’s hear it for the cheerleaders!” One-third of the students screamed, another third continued talking, and the rest just sat like zombies. “All right! Now we have a performance by the dance team! All right!”
Oh no, I thought, remembering the last disastrous performance by the dance team. It involved waving and bouncing these gigantic green-and-white balls, which could have been interesting, had half of them not dropped their balls, losing them to the crowd and having to proceed ball-less. Seven balls were then batted around the stands for the rest of the assembly, and the administration was able to regain five. What happened to the other two, no one knows.
Luckily, this routine was just modern dance, no balls. When the girls were all in position, the lights went out, and a black light overhead came on, illuminating their white sleeves and legs with a purple glow. Now all the students screamed. All it took to impress them was turning out the lights. Shakespeare? Aerodynamics? Algebra? Nothing but drool.
Turn out the lights? “Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!”
This routine was much better than the previous one, but along with shouts and cheers, turning out the lights was also an open invitation for the laser-pointer kids to jump into action. As the girls moved around on the floor, they were aided by little red dots all over the place, the majority skillfully targeting the blacked-out breast and crotch areas. This brought a roar from the audience. As appalling as it was, I managed not to laugh, although I failed to keep from smiling.
I learned a valuable lesson my first year of teaching, when I saw the lasers being abused. I vowed to confiscate them and teach the students some respect. From my side of the gym, I could see the core of many of the problems in the bleachers opposite me. Stealthily I sneaked to the upper level of the other side and surprised the unsuspecting culprits who thought they had gone undetected. As I descended the stairs, proud of my handful of confiscated laser pointers, I suddenly realized I was a target myself, with a small cluster of red dots in the vicinity of each nipple, my crotch, and my nose and forehead. No matter how quickly I moved down the steps, the little bastards kept them right on me.
Since then, I’ve given up the fight for laser-free assemblies and have actually grown to appreciate them. It’s always funny, however, to see that new, eager teacher with ten red nipples and the brightest freckles you ever did see. It’s a battle you only attempt to fight once.
When the dance performance/light show was finished, the assembly proceeded as usual, with the fall sports teams being introduced, athletes pouring down from the stands to gather on the floor, jump up and down, and shout out their team cheers. The football team – since they were on such a role – did something special. As they were introduced, they came storming into the gym from the lobby with . . . their shirts off! It was definitely a dress code violation, but this was an assembly, they were popular athletes, and anything went. The funniest thing was watching the fat ones suck their guts in – hardly breathing the entire time – or the skinny ones holding their arms out from their sides, as if they had muscles so large it was impossible to put their arms down.
Amidst all the grunting and growling of the football players, I heard a kid behind me yell out, “STUPID FAGGOTS!” Since this was in my jurisdiction, I had to turn around and take action. Little to my surprise, it was Michael Dominguez, a six-foot-two, three-hundred-pound jelly doughnut who thought he was “Biggie Big, O.G. of the McGarrity Locos”. I had the pleasure of having him in English the previous year.
“Michael!” I said, as I got up and turned around.
“T’sup, Mr. Roberts!” he said. He had the most annoying “innocent” act of any student I’d ever met. “I’m just chillin’ like a villian, sayin’ hey to my homies out there!” The obnoxious grin between his hefty cheeks made my stomach turn, but since the previous September, I’d learned how to deal with the big kid. “T’sup homies!” he yelled to the football players again, who were all still being manly and very muscular on the gym floor.
“Save it, Michael,” I said. “Sit down and scoot over.”
“What? You wanna sit by me, Mr. Roberts?” He pushed against one of his little followers, making the kid scoot down the bleacher. “Move over, eh! Mister Roberts ‘n me’s homies.” Then he sat down, leaving about ten inches of the bleacher next to the stairs open for me. I managed to fit and immediately felt Michael’s heavy arm thump down across my shoulders, behind my neck.
“Thanks, Michael, but let’s save the cuddling for the second date. What d’ya say?”
After a solid squeeze, pulling me into him and nearly crushing me, he removed his arm. “Whatever you say, homeslice.”
And there I sat, uncomfortable and aggravated as the assembly droned on.
As usual, the bell ending the assembly rang well before all the chaos was over, so we had to sit longer than the excruciating forty-five minute period. Finally, however, the last event arrived, and it was always my favorite to witness. The class competition.
This consisted of some ridiculous race between the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, usually things the student council members thought up, like who could duct tape a class member to the wall the fastest, or who could knock a basketball down the court and back using only a grapefruit dangling in a pair of pantyhose that was tied around the students’ waists. That one was always a winner, just because of the not-so-subtle phallic overtones with what looked like a two-foot long penis. Last year’s most memorable competition was a relay race that entailed running from one end of the gym, eating something like a candy bar, a bag of chips, a snack pie, or drinking an entire Coke as fast as possible, then running back to tag the hand of the next team member. Several kids wound up slipping when they tried to stop running on spilled Coke, one sliding right into the percussion section of the band. He did manage to get up, though, to eat his Twinkies before the other kids could finish their food. All but one student who had to drink the Coke wound up puking on the gym wall after they finished sprinting back to the line. It was quite an event to behold; I just pray the Olympics board doesn’t catch wind of it.
I watched, nervous to find out what the task would be, as the competitors made their way to the floor. To my surprise, it turned out to be a pretty mild competition, as far as puking or sexual innuendoes went, of course. It was a relay race, but the students had to do things like the crab walk, the wheelbarrow, and the bear crawl. The sex, blood, and puke-thirsty spectators in the coliseum would not be amused, but at least there would be no pending lawsuits. Hopefully.
Just before the race began, Amy took the microphone again. “All right! We need one more senior!” she screamed.
Before any seniors could emerge from the crowd, a hand flew up from off to the side, and a boy trotted out to her. Upon seeing who it was, my anxiety came back.
Moriarty High School had a strong program for mentally handicapped and special-needs students. There were six kids who often attended assemblies and other school functions, but the most known among them was Danny, a boy with Down syndrome. I would see him often on campus, always running and waving. “Hey-hi there,” he’d say as he passed everyone, and many of the students would reciprocate with, “Hey Danny.” There were, however, those obnoxious jackasses who would mock him and call him “retard” or other such imaginative names. I had chewed out my share of them over the past few years, but it never did much good, only made me wish corporal punishment could be reinstated for that one purpose. And those particular jackasses were the reason I was now dreading this competition.
When Danny ran up to Amy, she looked at him for a moment then glanced over to Ms. Chavez, the activities director, who shrugged.
“All right! Danny’s our final senior! Let’s get started! All right!”
Danny ran to the back of the senior line, excited as could be.
I took a deep breath, trying to ease the knot that had developed in my stomach. I had always been a patient and laid-back teacher, but if there was one thing that enraged me, it was seeing kids humiliated. And sitting right next to me was one of the biggest (literally), obnoxious humiliators in the entire school. As I watched the race, I clenched my fists, determining that if Michael cried out one cruel comment when Danny was out there, I would grab him by his fat earlobe and drag him down the stairs, out of that gym, and directly to the principal’s office. It didn’t matter how big he was or what his mouth could spout out.
I swallowed hard and said a quick prayer for mercy when the senior before Danny finished his task and slapped Danny’s hand. The bear crawl was last, and Danny bent over, putting his palms to the floor, his shaggy blonde hair dangling down while his rump stuck up in the air. Then he started his excruciatingly slow crawl down the gym floor, struggling to maintain his balance as he secured each movement of his hands and feet. He wasn’t even to half-court by the time the rest of the kids finished. I could hear the laughter and groans starting to work their way through the crowd, and I shook my head.
“All right!” screamed Amy. “The sophomores win!” The sophomore class cheered at the meaningless victory, and their small group of competitors jumped all over each other. In the meantime, Danny kept on, all by himself out there. Amy again looked to Ms. Chavez for directions, but Ms. Chavez seemed unsure herself. So Amy did what she did best and filled in the awkward moment of watching Danny with another “All right!”
Were they going to wait for him to go down the floor and back, or were they going to end the assembly right there? Part of me wanted it all to end for the poor boy, someone stopping him and confirming that he’d done a great job, but I also wanted him to be able to finish the task. I just sat and watched, as did everyone.
And then it happened.
Next to me, Michael stood up, causing my body to go on full alert, ready to grab him and yank him down if he made one stupid comment. I watched in what seemed like slow motion as Michael raised his hands out in front of him. Then he brought them together with a loud clap, shouting, “DAN” as he did so. Then he clapped them together again. “-NY!”
Then he repeated it. “DAN-NY! DAN-NY!”
Then students around him stood up and joined in. “DAN-NY! DAN-NY!”
Then a few students across the gym did it, then more near me, then across the way again, until all the students in that gymnasium were standing up, clapping their hands in rhythm and chanting Danny’s name. Every jock, skater, preppy, gangster, goth, rocker, emo, nerd, and every kicker joined in and were cheering the boy on.
I slowly rose to my feet and began clapping my hands with the rest of the students.
Danny was now almost to the end of the court, and he stopped and stood up, breathing heavily but not taking his eyes from the line that was his halfway point. Without moving a step, he caught his breath, bent over, and continued. He touched the line with his right hand, keeping it on the floor, and did a slow, steady pivot around it. I know he was making sure he didn’t cheat at all. Then he had one length to go.
“DAN-NY! DAN-NY! DAN-NY!”
My mouth was moving, and I wanted to join in with the chant, but no words came out, and I fought hard to keep back that first tear. The last thing I wanted was to be caught crying during a pep assembly. But my attempts were in vain, and a tear streamed down my right cheek, followed by one down my left. Chills ran through my body as I stood there and cried, clapping my hands and mouthing Danny’s name, my breathy chant drowned out by that of the crowd.
Not one person in that gym stopped the chant until Danny finally made it to the last line. When he did, the loudest roar I’d ever heard within the walls of that gym burst out, and Danny threw his arms up in victory, staggering on his feet. Then some of the shirtless football players ran out to him and boosted him onto their shoulders, while he still held his pose, looking like the statue from Rocky, and they carried him out of the gym like that.
The stands then emptied, even without our principal’s official: “You have five minutes to report to your second-hour class. Five minutes!” – meaning there would be students wandering the halls for at least another fifteen. The cheering subsided and turned into the drone of gossiping chatter and complaining about having to go back to class, but I found myself not wanting to move from my little spot on the bleacher, only wanting to stare at that soon-to-be-resurfaced gym floor, holding on to what I’d just witnessed for a little longer.
Those damn teenagers can drive you absolutely crazy; one moment you want to strangle one kid, and the next you want to hug every last one of them. I couldn’t fight the tears, but I did resist reaching out and bear hugging a few of the juniors. Instead, I just sat there and let the stampede exit without me. Finally, when the last of the freshmen were walking through the doors, I made my way down the bleachers and out of the gym.
As I passed our campus security guard in the doorway, my eyes were still watering, and I had a grin stretching from ear to ear, looking like a complete doofus, I’m sure. I know he was thinking, Yep, that one cracked. He didn’t say anything, though, just nodded.
I nodded back, and then stepped out into the fresh autumn air, destined for my classroom but stopping for just a moment to warm my hands above a trashcan fire that someone had just lit. Those damn teenagers.