A Highly Effective Science Lab

A Highly Effective Science Lab

By D.F. Wharton

It was a cold and snowy day in the Bronx, one of those days where a teacher curses the mayor in his heart. School should’ve been canceled. He always woke early, long before the day began, to prepare for school because he never could get any decent planning done in the evenings. The school day slaughtered all brain power, leaving him a kind of zombie during post school hours. Only in the early hours of the morning, when the land was dark and quiet, could Brody Hayward think clearly.

On this morning, Mr. Hayward knew it going to be a bad day. The date was deep into the midst of January, mid-week, and the snow had fallen heavy the prior evening from eight pm until three am. That evening he had scoured news channels and texted colleagues with dreams of school closing until the bastard of a mayor announced THERE WILL BE SCHOOL tomorrow in New York City, as if it were a platform he could run a campaign on, the jerkoff. Mr. Hayward knocked back a slug of bottom shelf bourbon because New York City imposes an additional excise tax on the sale of liquor containing more than 24% alcohol by volume. Top shelf was out of the question. He got into bed and read himself to sleep.

When Mr. Hayward woke up, it was a cold and snowy day in the Bronx. Brody would not be planning any lessons this morning, no, this morning would consist of manual labor. He had to deal with the snow because he was a driver. He almost called in sick but thought better of it. If he was going to take a sick day then he would bang-out in May or June when the weather was nice and the classroom miserably hot, students on worst behavior. No, today he would suck it up and go to work.

To dig out his car he needed a shovel. Not a snow shovel but an earth moving shovel, a construction tool, the kind used for digging, lifting, and moving bulk materials: soil, coal, gravel, sand, ore… snow and ice. Digging out a car in the city streets after a big snow was not a matter of shoveling, it was a matter of demolition—the tearing down of a wall formed by angled plows throughout the night, continually sliding and pushing all debris against vehicles parked street side, mounting a solid wall of ice and snow, a formidable bulwark. As the trucks plowed they also spread the salt like shrapnel from a claymore. The snow on the street turns to sludge and mixes with the still falling snow and filth of the streets, and when the next plow comes through it packs the goulash into the wall. It was a kind of mortar that would harden and solidify the wall.

It took him almost an hour to dig out his car. It was about six now and the sun was working its way toward the horizon. When he got to school there was no place to park. He couldn’t find a parking spot ready to park in, but he did find a location where he could dig out a place to park. He got out of the car and spent about fifteen minutes breaking a hole big enough in the wall and then another ten minutes digging out a place to park the car. It was about 6:30 am when he was all set and walking toward the school. He had no idea what he was going to teach. At this point, he was just moving through the day.

He was still early, so he still had time to prepare for his students. School did not start until eight. He had some time to get his thoughts together and that gave him some peace. As he was walking toward the front doors of the school he noticed a figure by the doors. Was that a student? It was. Wait, was that who he thought it was? It was. Not good. He put his head down and walked briskly toward the door. Maybe Monique wouldn’t know it was him. It was still a little dark and he did have his hood on. Maybe… just maybe.

“Mr. Hayward,” said Monique. He stopped and looked over.

“Monique?” he said. “What are you doing here so early?”

“Are you going to the classroom?” asked Monique.

“I’m not taking you to the classroom, Monique. It’s an hour till school starts. I’m not even allowed to do something like that. Talk to school safety. Maybe they will let you sit somewhere in the building.”

He started walking past her toward the door and she said, “She already told me I couldn’t come in till 7:45. You got to just bring me in and tell’em I’m with you and it will be ok.”

“Says who?”

“Says me,” with the anger starting in her voice.

“Bye, Monique, I’ll see you first period,” He moved quickly through the door. As he was moving, she was yelling.

“Fuck you then, you bitch ass motha fucka. I got somethin’ fo yo bitch ass, nigga, you gon’ see.”

He found Ms. Adams, the school safety officer who told Monique she could not come in until 7:45. “Is there any place Monique can sit and wait until it’s time to let the students in?”

“Good morning to you to, Mr. Hayward,” said Ms. Adams.

“Sorry, good morning, how are you this fine morning?” he smiled.

“You think I’ma let that crazy bitch into this building one second before I got to? You musta lost yo damn mind. That crazy ass girl.”

“I know. I’m with her all day,” he said.

“Sorry for you. You musta done some bad shit in another life.”

“I’ve done too much in this life. But look, you know she’s been living in that shelter on 153rd. That place is a war zone. Her sister is supposed to be looking out for her but she’s a damn junky. The girl is only thirteen. No parents, no foster parents will keep her, no placement will take her, and her sister only keeps her for the check. It’s cold out and who knows how long she’s been outside the school.”

“You want to take her to your classroom with you?”

“Come on, you know I can’t do that. She’s already made accusations against me. Her counselor got her to admit she was lying and was only trying to extort me for some money. No way I can be alone with her.”

“I rest my case,” said Officer Adams.

“Well, what can you do,” said Mr. Hayward, shrugging his shoulders, and moved on to his classroom.

Mr. Hayward got ready quickly. He was teaching a Special Ed self-contained class. His students were emotionally disturbed. They all had IEP’s (Individual Education Plans). It was a bridged class, meaning there were 6th, 7th, and 8th graders on the roster—twelve students and a paraprofessional.

The students were with Mr. Hayward and Mr. Akram 75% of the school day. Mr. Akram was the paraprofessional. He was the best: always peaceful and able to calm Mr. Hayward down when he lost his temper and was about to get into it with a student. Mr. Akram was a stoic, a rock of sobriety, void of emotion, a devout Muslim. He could take endless verbal abuse from the students and not be moved, as if they had said nothing. Because they could not get a rise out of Mr. Akram, the students did not mess with him that much. He would look at whoever he was talking to over the rim of his glasses and speak reasonably, always calm. Even if he was giving some type of rebuke, it came across smooth, as if talking to a friend.

Together, Mr Hayward and Mr. Akram taught the four major subjects: ELA, math, social studies, and science. Not that Mr. Hayward would exactly call what they did teaching, at least not teaching the specific academic subjects. They contained the students as best they could and tried to take advantage of any teachable moments that came along. Any subject or topic would do, and they would stick with it until the students would lose interest and cooperate no more.

When Mr. Akram walked into the classroom that day he said, “Good morning.”

“Good morning, sir,” said Mr. Hayward.

“I have a concern.”

“It wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain student named Monique would it?”

“It would.”

They looked at each other soberly, knowing that they were about to have a big problem on their hands. Just earlier, on his way into the building, Mr. Akran walked past the students outside the main doors. It was time to let the students into the building for breakfast, so Mr. Akram was walking in with the students. Mr. Akram saw Monique and knew that something was wrong, bad wrong.

“Good morning, Monique,” he said.

“Fuck you, don’t fuckin’ talk to me,” she said.

“Now, now, that’s no way to talk. A pretty girl and a child of God should never use ugly language.” Mr. Akran always knew what to say. He was a mastermind.

“It’s over for Hayward. When I get to the room I’m turnin’ it up.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Mr. Akram, “I am looking forward to class with you today,” he said pleasantly.

At that point, Monique, with the rest of the students, was directed to the cafeteria for breakfast. Mr. Akran moved quickly to find the assistant principal that was the supervisor for special education.

“Good morning, Mr. Brewer,” said Mr. Akram.

“Whattaya want, Akram,” said Mr. Brewer.

“I just spoke to Monique and I have reason to believe that she might try to attack Mr. Hayward first thing this morning.”

“It’s too early for this shit,” said Mr. Brewer.

“It is early sir, yes.”

“Did she say that? That she was going to attack him?”

“She said she was going to turn-it-up on him.”

“Look, I don’t have time for this right now.”

“Maybe you could talk to Ms. Fuller, her social worker, and have her go straight to her. You could intercept Monique in the cafeteria, during breakfast, and take her to Ms. Fuller, keeping her away from Mr. Hayward until we find out what is going on.”

“Look, Akram, nothing is going on. Monique is running her mouth. What’s new about that? But I’ll see what I can do.”

But Mr. Brewer did nothing because he wanted no part of Monique. Nobody in the school wanted any part of Monique because she made trouble wherever she went, and with the tone of politics in education, as it were, it was not the fault of Monique. It was the fault of the school. School was not so much about solving and avoiding problems and more about finding somebody to blame when problems arose, and documenting. But whose fault was it that Monique was a problem? She never knew her parents. Her older sister knew their mother and told Monique she wasn’t worth knowing. Monique didn’t know if she were alive or dead. Monique grew up between city agencies and foster care placement until her sister got custody. But her sister was a user. She was a functioning user, but a user all the same. Tension and emotions were always running high and volatile. If you had something, you had to protect it from being taken, and if you didn’t have something, you had to take it from somebody else. Such was the culture, the pressure never letting up. Monique was always in a combative state of mind.

Shelter life reinforced this battle field existence. To Monique, you were either a friend and gave her what she wanted, an enemy and standing in the way of her getting what she wanted, or useless and couldn’t give her what she wanted. Between city agencies, foster care, school, and her sister, Monique got more than enough food and clothing. She was a big girl. She was on a football team at the Boys and Girls Club in Soundview. Boys her age were scared of her, and she bullied them. When she was eleven she broke the nose of a thirteen-year-old boy and cut the skin above his eyes, causing stiches to be needed. She used her fists. He had called her a fatass.

Not that Mr. Hayward knew that much about her. She was Special Ed, he was a Special Ed teacher. That was their relationship. He heard things, some of it true and some of it false. It didn’t matter to him. She was one of his 7th graders. He had met the sister a few times and knew that it was a waste of time trying to deal with her. He liked Monique. She brought her football helmet to school. Mr. Hayward had never seen a girl do that before. “What are we doing today?” he would say to her. “We having class or not?” As long as it was up to Monique, Mr. Hayward was allowed to teach. He let her feel like she was in charge, which she really was if you get down to it. If he just tried to tell the class what to do, without first talking to Monique, there would be no class. Monique would destroy the room, tear up the papers, erase the board, throw some things, curse, fight, whatever. There was no question who’s class it was: Monique’s—a thirteen year old girl from the streets of the Bronx.

The time had come. At this point, the students had been dismissed from breakfast in the cafeteria. Mr. Brewer was not thinking about Mr. Hayward. He was just thankful because he didn’t have to write up any incident reports concerning Monique during breakfast, on his watch. She usually caused havoc at breakfast. It was as if through bullying others she built up her self-esteem, taking it from others, like a vampire takes blood. On this morning she mostly sat at a table by herself, a look of anger on her face and in her posture. Nobody dared to say a word to her. Mr. Brewer looked at her and thought to himself, too bad for you, Hayward, better you than me.

When Monique exited the cafeteria, she was marching, backpack snug, fists balled at the end of swinging arms, legs reaching forward on an extended stride. Sparks flared when her heals struck the floor and the role of sticks on a snare drum sounded the cadence of war. The path was clear before her. Such singleness of purpose, intensity of focus, gave the lie to all the psychologists who diagnosed her with ADD. There was no deficit in this soldier’s attention span. It was simply a matter of mission. She was evaluated when she was off duty, without mission, siting solitary in a psychologist’s office. Now she was on duty with a mission and her attention stretched to the ends of the earth and perhaps to worlds beyond, and that attention would stay firmly set until she slammed her fists into the face and body of Mr. Hayward.

Back in the room, Mr. Hayward and Mr. Akran were waiting. There was an eerie silence in the room. They knew it was the quiet before the storm. Mr. Hayward had written up agendas for the four subjects he taught on the white board in back of the classroom that spanned the wall. He was exhausted. The day had yet to start and already it was a long and hard day. The commute this morning had been a nightmare and he was sore all over his body from the shoveling. He had worked hard and worked through all the obstacles so he could get to school early and be ready for class. He wasn’t all that worried about Monique because he dealt with her every day. She would be in a rage but she would eventually calm down.

Mr. Akram was straightening things, in general, with nervous energy. If one looked at his arm with a magnifying glass, his hair could be seen standing up, like a cat when the predator is lurking near. At every sound he looked at the classroom door over the rim of his glasses. Mr. Hayward tried to ignore this, took deep breaths, and exhaled slowly through pursed lips.

Outside the classroom door, Monique picked up her leg and slammed the sole of her boot into the door by the handle like she had done it a few times before. The door burst opened, ripping away part of the door jamb by the handle. The door slammed into the classroom wall and stayed opened because the handle broke through the drywall and stuck. At first Mr. Hayward and Mr. Akram stood still. Mr. Akram was paralyzed but Mr. Hayward had taken enough shit for one day and there was something of a snarl on his face and the burning of fire in his eyes. The eyes of Monique found the eyes of Hayward and vice versa. The drum roll continued and the fog of war filled the room. Seeing something fierce and alien in Mr. Hayward’s eyes, Monique changed her plan. That was fine. She fought her wars on impulse anyway. She did not attack him with her fists. She let out a war cry and charged the white board and began furiously erasing all the agendas that Mr. Hayward had written up and knocking over anything in her path. Mr. Hayward narrowed his eyes and dropped what was in his hands and charged Monique like the bull he had become. He lowered his shoulder and plowed into her, knocking her off her feet and to the floor. The sound she made was a cross between a cry and a roar.

“That the best you got!” yelled Mr. Hayward. “Get up! I’m sick a your bullshit! You wanna piece a me? Come get it!” Knees bent, pounding his chest. He kicked over a desk for good measure and the student supplies scattered along the floor.

Mr. Akram yelled, “No, Hayward! Stop!”

Mr. Hayward did not hear this.

Monique got up and fired her backpack at him. He dodged this projectile. He was in defensive position, athletic stance. “You missed,” he yelled.

Monique charged.

Hayward made a juke move and slid to the side of Monique as she reached him and pushed her in the direction she was going and she tripped and hit the floor hard. She had hit Hayward on the side of the head but he felt nothing.

“AAAAAHHHHH,” yelled Hayward. It was a glorious victory. “Get up,” he yelled. “I’m not scared a you.”

She got up and with her right hand she grabbed a chair and hurled it at Hayward. This projectile almost got him. It went by his head and knocked a hole into the drywall, clamoring to the floor with pieces of the wall. Her left hand had another chair and hurled it. Hayward caught this chair, let out a war cry of his own, and flung it into the wall, tearing into more drywall, a bit out of his mind, but somewhat in control of himself. He wasn’t going to actually hurt her, was he? But this was no average thirteen-year-old. Now she was going to his desk, making the sound of dying horses on the battle fields of Gettysburg. But Mr. Hayward was not to be outdone today. “Not today,” he yelled, and charged, but before he had tackled her, Mr. Akram blindsided him, tackling Hayward to the floor. He had come out of nowhere. Mr. Akram was a big fellow.

“Get out, now!” roared Mr. Akram in Haywards face. Hayward was paralyzed for a moment. What had just happened? Akram picked Hayward up and drug him to the door and into the hall. Hayward was looking at Akram with a terrified look in his eyes. “You’re going to walk around the building for ten minutes, get yourself together, and come back,” he said, “and not before then.”

Hayward started walking. His heart was pounding in his chest. Oh God, he thought, what just happened? Oh God, oh God, oh God. Ok. Breath. Just Breath. Relax. He quickly got himself together, saying, “Good morning,” to students and faculty, walking with a purpose, as if he was on an errand. He wondered if the people around him could tell that he was, in fact, out of his mind this very moment. Be cool, he told himself. Just be cool, play it off. He looked at his wrist watch. Ok, ten minutes. He wouldn’t make a next move just yet. He would do what Akram said and see what he would come up with. He was a clever bastard, that Akram.

Akram was not much of an athlete, but in this moment, he was in an athletic stance. He had played a little soccer in Morocco back in the day but even as a kid he preferred to calculate numbers on a work sheet or a lab in science class. He liked finding solutions and working out problems. But all the problems in academia could never prepare him for this. If there was a child like Monique back in Morocco, she certainly would not be allowed in school. Back there, Special Education was non-existent—not that there weren’t disturbed people. The difference was that the political culture in Morocco did not believe that every person could be “fixed.” In New York City, people seemed to believe that all emotionally unstable and severely troubled students would be stable and scholarly if only those students had the “opportunity” to succeed, if they only had “qualified” teachers, or better trained teachers, anyway. Akram didn’t mind because there were benefits to this irrational, American thinking. The existence of Mr. Akram’s job, for example, and all the other jobs “needed” in the Special Education department. As long as there were highly dysfunctional students, there would be the jobs accordingly. The disturbed students might destroy any chance of a disciplined culture, or high academic performance level in the classroom, but whoever said life was fair? It always amazed Mr. Akram when he would hear American educators talk about how education was better in other places, attributing the superiority to policy and leadership, as if all the well-behaved students had been transformed from a disorderly and recalcitrant constitution. Nothing could be further from the truth. If there was a school that was well ordered and well disciplined, it was because the students that were ungovernable were not allowed in the building, or anywhere near it for that matter. In New York City the disruptive and disorderly students were required to go to school and a central recipient of the expenditure of the budget. In other words, dysfunctional students in New York City were an economic engine, a franchise that people could make a living and retire from—all the while trying to “fix” the problem.

So here was Mr. Akram, in athletic stance, slowly and lightly stepping toward Monique. She was hyperventilating and sobbing and there was a string of drool between her lips and the floor flowing in slow and extended drips, like what rainfall might appear to the subject of an electric kool-aid acid test.

“Why did he do this to me?” she sobbed. “I was cold!”

“He is very concerned,” said Akram, “and wants to make this right. Mr. Hayward is very concerned about what happened. He wants nothing more than to have a good class with you today. But you need to think about how you came into the room and disrupted things. Mr. Hayward works very hard and this hurt his feelings. How would you feel if Mr. Hayward came into your room and destroyed things?”

Bad choice of words.

“I don’t have a room,” cried Monique, and thought of the shelter she had fled in the middle of the night, just hours before this incident.

“This is your room, Monique.” Well played. Akram had recovered. “This is your room.” Akram spread his arms palms up, as if showing Monique her great kingdom. “How would you like it if a student from another class came into your room and destroyed your classroom?” said Akram.

Monique seemed to be forgetting about what had just happened at the thought of this. It was an outrage! A preposterous proposal! She began to become enraged at the imaginary student that would dare to come into her classroom and destroy things. Akram saw this and pressed the momentum. He had something here.

“Destroyed your classroom and tried to hurt your teacher!” he said with arms out and palms up, as if such a scenario was unfathomable.

“They better not come in here and try no shit,” said Monique, “or I’ll fuck they ass up.”

“Now, Monique,” said Akram, “remember what we said about language in your classroom… what we were going to try to do?”

“Oh, right. Damn… Oops, I mean… shit… no… I’m sorry Mr. Akram.”

Some of the other students were standing at the door of the classroom. “Give us a moment,” said Akram and went to the door and yanked it from the wall. It wouldn’t snap into a closed position, the door jamb being broken, so he used a chair to prop it closed and told the students to stay in the hall for a moment. He talked to Monique quickly about the importance of their confederation and alliance against all the haters in the school. It was us against them, he reminded her. Hayward, Akram, Monique, the other students—they were a team, by God, and had to stick together. Right? Right, Monique had said, and did you hear about what so-and-so said about our class? Akram had said, still pushing. No way, Monique had said, and how we better get Hayward and the students in here and clean up this mess before our enemies get any dirt they can use against us because what happens in our class stays in our class, right? Right.

When Mr. Hayward looked through the window of the door fifteen minutes later, he was astonished at what he saw. Akram was pacing around the class and Monique was directing a clean-up effort. The students were sweeping, picking things up, and straightening up in general. He pushed open the door and stepped into the room. Hayward looked at Akram and Akram held a finger to his lips, letting Hayward know to keep quiet and then moved his hands down and up, palms down, letting Hayward know to be cool—let it happen. Monique looked at Hayward and chastised him for being gone for so long and that they need to get their room cleaned up because other faculty and students were talking shit about their class. She said she didn’t mean to say shit but meant to say trash and Mr. Hayward nodded his head in understanding. “Yes,” he said, “It was a problem we have to deal with.” He was outraged about the other faculty and students that were talking smack about our class and, come to think of it, there were certain plots being hatched against them around the school and we better get it together and come up with a plan quickly. Mr. Akram told him that he told Monique about what so-and-so had said, wide eyed, to be sure Mr. Hayward would catch on, but Mr. Hayward had already caught on and was running with the ball. “Well, we got somethin’ for them,” Mr. Hayward had said, and how he was glad Monique had finally learned about this unsettling and disturbing news.

Class started as if nothing had happened. If anything, they were all closer.

At the end of the day, Hayward still had damage in the classroom to think about. After the students had left, he talked to the custodian that came to the room to tell him to keep the damage quiet and that he would fix it himself the following day. Hayward wanted to keep this on the low. He was a homeowner and a handyman in general so he took all the necessary measurements and made a list of all the materials he would need to make all the needed repairs. He went to his car and it had not snowed anymore so he was able to pull out with no digging. Nice. At Home Depot he picked up the materials and at home he made all the cuts and preparations required for the fix. He packed a Husky tool bag with the hand tools he would need and loaded them in the car with the materials.

The following day all the periods were committed to science, the lab consisting of learning how to patch holes in drywall and replacing a broken door jamb. It was a fabulous lesson and everybody passed with an A plus, although it was hard to explain to Monique that it was not acceptable to destroy things for the sake of being able to fix it the next day.

It was a highly effective science lab.

D.F. Wharton