Classroom Management

 

 

By Andrew Lawrence Crown

July, 2010

 Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown 2010. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

“Don’t you put me out again Mr. Robertson. How am I ever gonna learn nothing when you be suspending me all of the time? Damn straight Mr. Robertson, you hand out those discipline referrals like they was pieces of candy.”

           Sitting at my desk, calmly filling out the disciple referral slip, I listened to Tanikwa defend herself, again, with that same defiance and impetuosity I had heard for the better part of the first semester of my regulars level Law in American Society class, and while I was at a loss for how to respond to her insolence and insubordination, I once again patiently and calmly filled out the discipline referral form which I knew would result in a least a two day in-school suspension.

            “Student refuses to refrain from disrupting class. Will not follow instructions. Defiant, disrespectful, and disobedient. Disrupted class and prevented me from teaching my lesson.”

            That is what I wrote on the discipline referral form before I rang the buzzer to notify the office on the first floor that they should send a security guard to my room on the third floor to escort Tanikwa to in-school suspension. It was important to use the phrase “disrupted class” at least twice on the discipline referral form if the discipline office was to take this seriously.

            “Yes Mr. Robertson,” the voice of the office secretary, Ms. Williamson, droned over the intercom. “What is it this time?”

            “Please send security to Room 302 to escort Tanikwa Williams out of the room to in-school suspension. She has been disrupting class this period.”

            Again, it was important to remember to say the student had been “disrupting” the class.

            “Tanikwa again?” the voice of Ms. Williamson asked without emotion. “Hold on a moment Mr. Robertson. The principal is telling me something. Yes. Okay. I’ll tell him. Mr. Robertson, the principal says you must call Tanikwa’s mother in addition to the write up. The principal says this is a classroom management issue. Yes. Alright, I’ll tell him. Mr. Robertson, the principal also says she wants to talk with you after ninth period in her office.”

            “After ninth period today?” I asked loudly back into the intercom which was an old grey dust filled speaker above the door.

            “Yes Mr. Robertson,” Ms Williamson answered impatiently over the intercom. "The principal will want to see you today after ninth period in her office. The principal just told me to tell you to get back to your lesson and teach your class. That is all Mr. Robertson.”

            With a wide grin on her face Tanikwa gathered up her things, i-pod, digital camera, cell phone, and her school work (she always completed her assignments on time, even while shouting and yelling across the room to her friends about her weekends full of debauchery and girl fights on the grounds of the Cabrini Green housing projects) and the impetuous one sauntered up to my desk and audaciously stood in front of me in her tight black t-shirt with the plunging v-line exposing far too much of her large breasts for any decent setting, not to speak of a classroom in a public high school, and she leaned forward as far over my desk as she could while I sat there with a tired and worn expression on my face, and she leaned over my desk on purpose to tempt me into looking at the bubbly young chest practically bursting out of her shirt, and she glared at me silently for a moment before she broke into an ecstasy of uncontrolled and uncontrollable laughter.

            ‘Ha!” she shouted in my face. “Mr. Robertson the principal’s gonna put you out.”

            So laughed my most intractable senior, who also had the highest grade in the class, because somehow in some inexplicable manner she managed to complete her assignments on time while she disrupted my class and prevented me from teaching with her impertinent antics and endless stories about the weekend’s sexual escapades and gang fights.

            “You done put me out again, but now you gonna get yours too. That principal’s gonna put you out after ninth period today. We all heard what the secretary Ms. Williamson said over the speaker intercom thingy. You gonna get fired today Mr. Robertson.”

            I considered for a moment whether or not Tanikwa was on to something regarding my meeting with the principal so hastily scheduled only a few moments before over the intercom for after ninth period today, and I thought for a moment that perhaps the audacious girl was right in spite of all of her rudeness, and that I should prepare for the worst. With my wife Suji out of work and looking for a teaching job herself I would certainly be unable to afford the monthly mortgage payment, and would have to put the condo up for sale if the principal fired me after ninth period. I would certainly have to try to sell our place or else fall into foreclosure, I thought to myself, and I would probably not make much of a profit selling the condo and might even lose money on the sale of the home Suji and I had saved and struggled for during the past ten years. Then while Tanikwa seemed suspended in space and time, frozen before me with her wide angry scowl transformed into a cherry grin in slow motion, I considered how nearly impossible it would be to find another teaching position or any other suitable job in this miserable labor market, and I sank into a thinly concealed bought of depression so poorly hidden from my students that pregnant, fifteen year-old Tamara noticed and was so drawn into sympathy by my expression of pathos that she decided to try to say something to cheer me up.

            “Don’t you go worry yourself sick Mr. Robertson,” the pregnant teenager assured me. “You ain’t gonna get fired just because you put Tanikwa out again. Everybody, including the principal knows that Tanikwa gets put out by some teacher almost every day. Tanikwa always be locked up in detention or in-school suspension for one thing or another. It’s a wonder she gonna graduate on time and I still can’t figure out how she always get her work done down there in the dungeon with all the rest of them gangbangers and bad kids. Don’t feel bad about it Mr. Robertson. You done the right thing putting her out after she disrupted your class by swearing and talking at the top of her lungs about how she and her friends beat on that poor girl Juanita last weekend. They put the poor girl in the hospital emergency room she was beat up so bad. You done what you had to do Mr. Robertson, so don’t you regret nothing about it.”

            “Thank you Tamara,” I said while silently trying to figure out to myself just where in the scheme and ranking of girls from good to bad Tamara, who was fifteen years old and six months pregnant, placed herself. If pregnant Tamara was not a “bad” girl like Tanikwa, then what kind of a girl was this soon to be teenage mother?

            “That Juanita ain’t nothing but a crybaby,” Tanikwa shouted at Tamara. “I barely left a scratch on her and I know she didn’t need to go to no emergency room before the fuzz told her to go there. But you gonna need to go there if you don’t shut your big mouth about it Tamara. Talking about putting out. You the whore who done put it out for every greasy hair punk ass nigga in the junior class. That’s why you is pregnant now and don’t know who the father of your baby is.”

            Tamara’s show of support for me had only stirred up Tanikwa’s rage further and she launched into a profanity laden diatribe against Tamara and me who she accused of conspiring together to get her into trouble. I tried to calm both of the feuding girls down but my manner was far too staid and self-disciplined, the opposite of the excessive emotionalism that life in Cabrini had bred into the girls, all of my efforts to end the argument failing in vain, so distraught and discouraged I was at that moment, I gave up trying to stop the fight and hoped security would arrive soon enough to save me before someone threw the first punch. But as usual security took its time coming to my classroom while Tamara, who noticed I had given up trying to stop the argument since my measured voice could not be heard over all of the shouting and hollering, became incensed that I was not defending her after she had stuck her neck out for me and supported my decision to write the discipline referral for Tanikwa.

            “You see. Like I done told you before Mr. Robertson. Your problem is you ain’t got no kind of a backbone. If you had a backbone you would see the two of us, Tanikwa and me, arguing here right in front of you and you would try to stop us. But as usual you ain’t doing nothing but sitting at your desk holding that discipline referral and waiting for security to come up here to your classroom and solve all of your problems for you by putting both of us girls out. Meanwhile you ain’t teaching us nothing and we ain’t learning nothing. What’s the matter with you Mr. Robertson? Why don’t you try to stop us? Are you afraid of us Mr. Robertson? Are you too chicken to try to stand up to us and discipline us yourself without calling on no security so as we can learn our lesson? You is a grown man Mr. Robertson, and we is just some teenage girls. We know we is bad kids but you, you is a disgrace to your society Mr. Robertson.”

            Hearing the pregnant girl taunt me and mock me so openly and boldly, the rest of the class broke out into laughter so loud I knew my colleagues in classrooms up and down the hallway could hear them and were probably thinking, “There goes Robertson’s third period again. Poor guy has no control over that class.” Tanikwa laughed too, along with the rest of the class, and she immediately ceased arguing and bickering with Tamara. She turned toward me on her heels in a theatrical way like a dancer, and then she leaned over my desk again to show off what she had inside her tight black t-shirt, and she leaned as far over across my desk as she could. She dropped her cell phone, i-pod, and digital camera in front of me and in the most seductive manner she was capable of she almost lay herself atop my desk raising her buttocks up in the air so that her black t-shirt inched up her back revealing a large tattoo of two red angel wings right in the center of the small of her back atop the black skin.

She said with a sly grin, “I know you ain’t afraid of me Mr. Robertson.”

            She reached forward with both of her hands and tried to take my one of my hands in hers before I drew it away in mild disgust.

            “Why, Mr. Robertson. You don’t have to be afraid of me. Even though you put me out almost every day it seems like, you still is my favorite teacher. I like you,” she said while staring into my eyes and then glancing down at her chest and then back into my eyes to see if she could catch me admiring or at least acknowledging that she had something in her shirt that any man, especially a grown man with a backbone who was no disgrace to society, would be only too happy to look at.

            Just then security arrived to the room. It was Rodriguez this time, a dour short little man who was constantly harassed by students and disliked his job probably as much as I disliked teaching my third period regulars law class on a day like this one. He was somewhat shocked by what he observed in my room at precisely that moment with Tanikwa practically crawling towards me atop the desk, and he hesitated and chuckled a moment before he spoke. But he quickly returned to his dour form because as a security guard in our school for ten years he had seen it all before at one time or another.

            “Let’s go Tanikwa,” Rodriguez blankly ordered her as I got up from the desk and walked over to the door to hand him the discipline referral slip. “Anyone else you need to send down with me Mr. Robertson?” he asked me.

            I thought about sending Tamara down to the dungeon with Tanikwa since she had completely lost control of herself during her argument with Tanikwa, and since she had openly mocked me in front of the entire class, but I decided to let it slide this time since originally her intention had clearly been to defend me and she was pregnant after all and had more than enough to worry about in her life.

            “No. Just take Tanikwa with you this time,” I said as I watched the girl slowly lift herself from off the top of my desk, gather her things, and slowly saunter past me out the door. Before she left down the hall with the security guard who would escort her down to in-school suspension she turned to look at me with a wry smile on her face and she said seductively, “Don’t you be afraid of that principal Mr. Robertson. Don’t you let her put you out now.”

            After Rodriguez took her away to in-school I tried as best as I could to resume my lesson with the rest of my law class who were somewhat cowed now that security had actually visited the class and taken one of their own away to the dungeon, but I was so exhausted and exasperated by the ordeal that my heart was not in it and the lesson fell flat.

            After the bell rang and the students silently exited themselves into the hallway full of boisterous noisy teenagers, Ms. Smithman met me outside of my classroom to ask me what had happened since it had sounded from her room next door like all hell had broken loose in my room third period. Smithman and I were friends, but I knew she had once wanted us to be more than friends.

In fact once at a Halloween party Smithman hosted in her condo in Hyde Park the twenty-six year-old had enticed me, twelve years her senior, into her bedroom after both of us had had one or two drinks too many. Ostensibly she had lured me into the bedroom to show me her collection of stuffed animal dolls. There were lions, and puppies, a half dozen rabbits of all colors, and one especially large brown bear, as big as I was almost, which she said held a special place in her heart since it was given to her by her father who was the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation. There the two of us stood in her bedroom looking at the shaggy brown bear, which appeared to be looking back at us with fatherly concern through his glassy black eyes, after she closed the door and locked it with the rest of her guests still loudly talking and dancing in the next room. Her costume was that of a high school cheerleader in a hiked up mini skirt revealing her long thin dark legs and after she made certain the door was really locked she ordered me to take off my shirt while she struggled to twist her way out of the mini skirt. At the time my wife and my three-year-old son were overseas in South Korea visiting their Korean relatives while Smithman’s fiancé was away in Germany teaching English on a Fulbright grant. I refused her of course and kept my dark plaid shirt on (I came to the party dressed as a country bumpkin) while she continued to attempt to twist her way out of the outrageously tight and tiny cheerleader’s outfit which was just tight enough to make her attempt to undress herself in front of me fruitless. She thought that if she could only reveal what was underneath the outfit I would be unable to refuse her but the skirt would not budge an inch and soon I grew a bit angry with her because she knew I loved my wife and I was ashamed at myself for even continuing to watch as Smithman tried to capitalize on the frustration resulting from my wife’s three month absence. It was not that I thought Smithman was unattractive. She was in fact beautiful but I disliked the way she used her beauty in that calculating, manipulative sort of way to get what she wanted from men. She was used to getting what she wanted in life because her father the wealthy CEO had given her almost everything she had wanted growing up, everything that is but his undivided attention since work monopolized most of his time and robbed him of the opportunity to share in her childhood which was dominated by three overarching themes: winning at all and any cost, achievement to make father proud, and scholarship to show the white world what the daughter of a leading African-American CEO could do. But I refused to give her what she wanted from me and so she was furious with me as I fumbled with the doorknob in an attempt to unlock it while she continued to try to wrestle her way out of the costume. Finally I was able to unlock the door and before I opened it to return to the party I had to speak my mind.

“You know I’m married Michelle,” I said. “To a good woman who trusts me. What do you think your fiancé would have to say if he found out about this?”

“Damn it, Paul,” she pleaded. “I haven’t had any for seven months. That’s how long Michael has been gone on his damned Fulbright. Wait a second here. Help me with this zipper so I can look presentable again for my other guests after you open that door.”

I moved back from the closed door and sharply told her to turn around so I could pull up the zipper on the back of her outfit, trying hard not to notice the fine dark skin of her shapely upper back and shoulders or her elegantly thin neck. But of course it was impossible not to notice.

“Thank you,” she said as she turned to me and looked at me with searching eyes which were saying to me, pleading to me, “Just give me a chance, I’ll prove to you what kind of a woman I am.”

“I’m such a slut,” she said repentantly, but then immediately she attempted to justify herself. “I just know Michael probably has already got some large breasted girlfriend he’s shagging in Germany. How can I be certain I can trust him when he is so far away for such a long time? Paul, how do you know you can trust your wife? How do you know she doesn’t have some Korean lover back in her own country?”

I thought about my answer to Michelle’s question for a moment and then I reassured myself in my mind that I could indeed trust my wife as I always had, just as I could trust myself to be locked in the bedroom of this thin elegant black beauty and not flinch.

            “I do trust Suji and I know she can depend on me. I do not really know whether or not your fiancé is shagging some large breasted German student of his as we speak. Why don’t you call him on the phone more often and try to place yourself more firmly at the forefront of his mind so he will find it to be impossible to let himself forget about you like I am going to have to try very hard now after seeing you like this to forget about you.”

I turned away from her and joined the rest of the party, leaving her alone in the bedroom unsatisfied and angry at me for my noncompliance with her desire. I hoped she would call her fiancé long distance that night and sincerely wished the best for the two of them.

            That was over two years ago. Now Ms. Smithman was standing in front of me again, this time outside my classroom instead of locked together with me in her bedroom, while the loud boisterous students swirled around us in the hallway. She was five months pregnant with the child of the fiancé to whom she was now married and she said she was concerned for my welfare as she knew how I was struggling with the girls in the third period law class.

            “Paul. You had better get a handle on that class. I’ve heard from the department chair that the administration, and especially the principal Dr. Hellena, is not at all pleased with your progress in there, third period.”

            “What can I do Michelle?” I asked rhetorically. “If they try to strip me of my tenure and fire me for it, I guess I’ll have to sell the condo and take Suji and my son back to Korea. My college students were much better to me there anyhow. Apples and a drink of canned coffee on my desk in the morning, hiking in the mountains on the weekends and holidays, Korean barbecue, soju, and Karaoke in the evenings to celebrate with the honored professor. My students did honor me in Korea Michelle. A deep, reverent traditional kind of honor they showed me. Things are so different there.  A Korean university is not at all like this place.”

            “And there you married your favorite student before I had the chance to get to you first,” she said with regret in her voice as she looked past me and over my shoulder to glare down at Tamara who was laboriously ambling out of my room with the weight of her six months pregnancy. Now that she was pregnant Tamara was routinely the last of the students to leave the classroom.

            “Goodbye Mr. Robertson,” Tamara said kindly. “Don’t worry so much. I feel just like Tanikwa does about you. I like you too Mr. Robertson.”

“Get to your next class before the tardy bell rings,” Smithman snapped sharply at the pregnant girl. Tamara slowly walked away from the two of us teachers, down the hall to her next class, afraid to respond to Smithman whose reputation for strict disciple was known and feared by students throughout the school. Smithman got as close to me as she could with her five months and impatiently spoke to me in an annoyed whisper.

“Don’t be so nice to that little slut Paul,” Smithman rebuked me. “If the rest of your girls see you favoring her they will all run out and go get themselves pregnant thinking that is the best chance they will have to receive some of your warmth and consideration.”

            I immediately sensed the frustration in her hushed voice. Frustration with me for not being able to control my class even though I had been teaching in some capacity for fifteen years, frustration with Tamara and the state of her people in the inner city, and frustration with the discomfort of her own pregnancy and the feelings for me which lingered on stubbornly in spite of her pregnancy and in spite of her marriage.

            “And get a grip on the discipline in your law class, will you? I don’t think you’ll be fired. They won’t want to go through all of the trouble, the paperwork, observations, and red tape, to strip you of your tenure. But the chair asked me to recommend someone to take over my gifted U.S. history classes while I go on maternity leave next year. I want to put your name forward as my first choice, but I don’t think they’ll choose you if they think you can’t control your students.”

            In this manner she continued to reprimand me out in the hallway for some long minutes, and her arrows always stung more sharply than mine when she turned disciplinarian, and I was more browbeaten from her stern discipline than my lawless law students had been from my failed attempts to restore order and sanity to my classroom. She began to steadily raise her voice, sounding exasperated, even angry with me, while all I could do was to promise her that I would try harder next time, not really believing that trying harder would have much of the desired effect on a class full of students who lacked all sense of a moral compass. I tried to say something, anything to lighten her mood.

            “Well I’m glad at least that you think my job is safe. I don’t know how I could pay for the condo or support Suji or five year-old Joseph without my income from this job.”

            “My father could have bought you ten condos if you had left Suji when I asked you to. You wouldn’t have had to work after that if you hadn’t wanted to. You could have just stayed at home and written your stories all day long to your heart’s content while the Smithmans took care of all of your financial needs. But you chose Suji over me so now you continue to struggle and are always worried about your finances and so many other things. Don’t you get it yet Paul? Suji’s not working now and she never will work for you. She’s dead weight you’re carrying around with you like she is your penance. I could have taken better care of you Paul. I have enough funds to provide you with whatever it is in life you could ever want or need.”

            “There is more to life than money,” I stated. “Suji came to me with nothing, but I knew I loved her and I knew I had to marry the woman I loved.”

            “Don’t be so afraid of my money Paul,” she said as she turned away from me slowly and returned to her classroom where she labored like a workaholic not for the modest public school teacher’s salary, but more out of a sense of duty to her people and that old Smithman need to be first, to be the winner, a hyper-competitive modern spin on noblesse oblige. She was far away from me now and not talking directly to me but I heard her mutter underneath her breath, “I could have given you everything you wanted. Everything Paul.”

            The bell rang and I entered my classroom to face my next class which thankfully was full of honor students who were energetic but pliable and never gave me the kind of discipline problems I had to deal with on a daily basis in the lawless law class. If only Dr. Hellena would focus on this honors level class in her evaluation of my teaching ability, then perhaps I really did stand a chance of being selected to take over Smithman’s gifted classes next year. But unfortunately it seemed like every time someone in the administration came to my classroom to observe my teaching they came to observe during the third period class at just about the time when a student like Tanikwa was in the middle of a temper tantrum.

            The principal, Dr. Hellena, observed me skeptically as I sat down across from her where she sat glaring at me from behind the large, polished oaken desk in her office. I had arrived to her office as quickly as I could after ninth period was over, and after she glowered at me for some long uncomfortable silent moments, shaking her head with its mane of dark frizzy Greek hair back and forth in disapproval, she began to ask me some questions about my law class.

            “Mr. Robertson,” she began. “How many times have you written-up Tanikwa this semester?”

            “I don’t know,” I replied. “Too many times to count.”

            “How is Tanikwa, your student Mr. Robertson, I want you to tell me just how she is going to learn anything this year if she spends more time in suspension than she does in your classroom?”

            “I don’t know,” I replied honestly. “She is disruptive almost every day. She won’t allow me to teach the class. She is always talking loudly, disrespectfully. I cannot lecture, I cannot get anything accomplished in my class. There is no direct instruction, while she carries on with her antics.”

            “Well then, are you going to flunk her?” the principal asked curtly.

            “She is turning in all of her work. Somehow, some way, she gets it all turned in on time. I don’t know how she does it, but she does it, so she will pass and probably graduate on time.”

            The principal continued to glare at me, after I answered these initial questions, shaking her head back and forth with its mountain of frizzy black hair thrown this way and that way.

            “Mr. Robertson. How are your college classes coming along this term? I have heard from several people that you are still teaching graduate school in the evenings. Is that right?”

            “Yes, that is right,” I confirmed. “My graduate level teaching is going superbly well. So different from my law class.”

            “Well now Mr. Robertson, adults are very different from adolescents and teenagers, now aren’t they? Mr. Robertson, tell me honestly. Do you enjoy teaching our young people in this high school? Are you happy here?”

            “Most of the time I am,” I answered as honestly as I could. “When I’m not struggling with discipline issues day in and day out I would say I positively enjoy this job.”

            “But you are struggling now then, aren’t you Mr. Robertson,” Dr. Hellena countered. “So many write-ups you can’t remember how many you’ve filled out this semester. But she is passing your class nonetheless?”

            “Yes. She’s passing.”

            “You’re not passing,” the principal stated with a frown.

            “Dr. Hellena,” I pleaded while trying my best to keep from losing my composure, “Please do try to remember that I graduated at the top of my class in college, and that I hold an illustrious graduate degree. If only you would permit me to teach more of the upper level classes, I am certain I could demonstrate to you that I am in fact an excellent, a superior teacher.”

            “Anyone can do a good job teaching the upper levels,” she countered. “Those gifted students are so advanced they can almost teach themselves. The true test of a good teacher is whether or not he can succeed at all levels and reach all of his students, including students who are struggling like Tanikwa is. You think you want to show me that you are an excellent, no; you said you can demonstrate that you are a superior teacher. Your graduate students think you are a great teacher, a great professor Mr. Robertson, or so I have heard from my friends who work at the university. Those graduate students are your upper level students.”

            “That is precisely my point,” I attempted to drive home my argument. “I can teach and teach well when placed with the appropriate level of student.”

            “I could not agree with you more,” the principal countered. “This is precisely the point. Mr. Robertson, I do not think high school is an appropriate level for you. Why don’t you put your illustrious graduate degree to use and find yourself a full-time college teaching position? I am sure you would be much happier and more successful in a college teaching position.”

“Do you think I am overqualified for this job?” I asked, knowing full well beforehand that was exactly the position she and several other administrators who liked to give me a hard time had adopted. I was trying to appear cooperative without being contrite.

            “Honestly Mr. Robertson, I think you are throwing your resume in the garbage by staying here.”

            “But there are a number of Ivy Leaguers teaching here,” I countered. “People like Ms. Smithman who graduated from Carlton, and Srinivasan who like me graduated from The University of Chicago; there are many of us with prestigious degrees teaching in this school. This is a highly ranked high school, among the top high schools in the city and in the nation. I think this school is a good fit for someone like me.”

“But this is not a graduate school Mr. Robertson. You are a professor teaching graduate school when you leave here in the evenings. Think about that for a moment if you will.”

            The principal was silent for a moment to let me think about it. Then she continued.

            “Did you talk to Ms. Smithman about your law class Mr. Robertson? What advice did she give you?”

            “She agreed that the law class is lawless and that I had better get my act together in there quickly or else lose them for the rest of the year.”

            “Yes. I agree with Smithman. She mentioned to me that she wants you to take over her gifted classes when she goes on maternity leave. I told her I would think about it and take your name into consideration as her replacement, but that you would have to demonstrate to me that you really are a high school teacher, that you are committed to teaching teenagers and young people, before I placed you in the gifted classes.”

            “But I am committed,” I declared. “I genuinely like high school students.”

            “Then why are you driving hours upon hours at night in heavy traffic to teach your graduate level classes?”

            “I want to keep my options open.”

            “You have more options than do most of us here at this high school Mr. Robertson. I want you to think about that.”

“Yes Dr. Hellena,” I respectfully answered. “I will.”

            I hoped to avoid setting her off on a tirade against me for my purported elitism. Her invective could be worse than Tanikwa’s when her authority was directly challenged. I knew this only too well from previous experience when she had chewed me out much more severely than she had on this day. Fortunately I had caught the principal in one of her better moods.

            “Mr. Robertson,” she continued now smiling thinking she had my respect and admiration. “Paul, tell me how are your wife and son doing?”

            “They are doing just fine, thank you. Suji is still looking for a job and Joseph is in preschool.

            “I heard from Ms. Smithman that your wife is homesick for Korea. Is that right?”

            “Yes, she is, in a dreadful way.”

            “And you told Ms. Smithman that you were afraid your wife might not return to Chicago the next time she visits her family in Korea?”

“Well, I was not feeling myself when I said that. I’m sure everything is fine with my wife even though it is true that she is terribly homesick.”

“And then Paul, you told Michelle Smithman that your wife might even leave you here alone with your five year-old son for good when she flees to Korea because she is so homesick.”

            “Did I say that? I don’t remember,” I said even though I did remember saying that at least once to Michelle.

            “Paul. You have made a certain impression on Michelle. Are you aware of this?”

            “Have I really? I hadn’t really noticed,” I said thinking silently to myself about the Halloween party and the cheerleader’s outfit.

“Mr. Robertson,” the principal warned me. “Watch out for Michelle Smithman.”

            “She is pregnant and married,” I reminded the principal.

“Watch out,” Dr. Hellena repeated.

            “You’re not serious, are you,” I said in a fake show of surprise.

“Did your wife ever actually threaten to leave you alone with your son and return to her family in Korea?” she asked.

            “Maybe, once or twice in the middle of a heated argument when she was positively distraught with homesickness,” I confessed truthfully.

The principal was silent for a moment swiveling back and forth in her comfortable chair behind the large oaken desk. I could see she was mulling something over in her mind. She pick up a framed photograph of her family which she kept close to her on her desk and looked at the photo for a few moments before she placed it carefully back down upon the desk and addressed me once again.

“Paul. Now I know I’ve asked you to do this for me before and you have always refused my request. But I am going to try again one more time. Are you ready to meet my daughter yet?”

“Dr. Hellena. I am a happily married man.”

“My daughter needs a man like you in her life Paul. Please, just this once say you will go out on one date with her. No one else has to know about this. I know this fabulous Greek restaurant run by my uncle George in Greektown. I’ll call him up to tell him you and my daughter will dine there this Saturday night. My uncle George will tell his staff to treat you like family there.”

“Dr. Hellena. I must say I am flattered by this but I have to refuse your offer once again.”

“She’s twenty-five and beautiful Paul. She needs your help the way a young woman needs a young man’s help”

“I’m not so young anymore. I’m already forty. I’m sorry I can’t. Married.”

The principal sank back into her chair distraught and sighed a deep frustrated sigh and she spoke to me brusquely now, much as Smithman had spoken to me in the hallway after third period earlier in the day.

“That is all. Mr. Robertson. Don’t forget to call Tanikwa’s mother tonight. You are dismissed.”

I left the principal’s office thankful I had not been fired yet and wondering what the principal’s twenty-five year-old daughter looked like since I really did not know, but I quickly dismissed her from my thoughts the same way the principal had dismissed me from her office. I walked down the hallway and up a short flight of stairs to the teacher’s prep room where I knew there was a phone for me to use to call Tanikwa’s mother. As I entered the prep room I immediately noticed several young female teachers sitting around a table in the back talking loudly at first, but then after they saw me enter the prep room they reduced the volume of their gossip to hushed tones and whispers. In spite of their attempts to conceal the content of their nattering it was obvious they were talking about me. One of them, the assertively loud Ms. Bruscadora, blurted out across the room several questions so that everyone could hear her. Was I okay? Had I been chewed out by the principal? Did I think my job was safe? Why had Smithman been angrily scolding me outside my classroom after third period? I told the scandalmonger not to worry, that I was okay and everything was fine.

I walked over to another table on the other side of the room to call Tanikwa’s mother whose number I had memorized by now since I had called her so frequently over the course of the semester, only before I could make the call I became aware suddenly that there she was, Tanikwa’s mother, already sitting in front of me by the phone. She was dressed in what looked like Sunday’s church clothes and she smiled warmly but shyly at me as I greeted her like we were old friends.

“I was just about to call you, again, Ms Williams. Today was another bad day for Tanikwa. But here you are already, ready to meet me for a conference I suppose.”

“Mr. Rodriguez called me earlier today and told me what happened in your class this morning. I was so upset and sorry about all of it that I decided to come on up here to talk to you in person. Mr. Robertson, I am afraid for my daughter, worried about her future.”

After eavesdropping on the beginnings of my conversation and conference with Ms. Williams, the female teachers in the corner resumed their hushed conversation, and I knew they were chattering on about me, and while I could not hear the entirety of what they said I could detect the gist of snippets and individual words here and there dispersed throughout their not so clandestine banter.

“Lost them again as soon as the bell rang. Smithman’s pissed. Pregnant. Sweetheart, but no backbone. Homesick. She wants to abandon him and his son. Hellena’s daughter. Said no again,” is what I heard as I tried to ignore the gossip and focus on the woman in front of me, Ms. Williams, Tanikwa’s mother.

Although her daughter was already a senior and intended to graduate from high school in the spring, she looked to me to be still a young woman herself, at least four or five years younger than I was, and built like her daughter, thin and attractive, but darker and more reserved, not quite shy, but purposefully and self-consciously polite. I could tell from her youthfulness that she must have given birth to Tanikwa when she was very young, something like Tamara’s age, because she still held about her in a way that was more modest than the allure of her daughter, that enthusiasm and attractiveness of youth.

            “I’m worried about my daughter,” she confided in me again. “I want her to graduate from high school. I don’t want her to end up like me. Cabrini ain’t no place for a pretty girl like Tanikwa to make a happy life for herself, and I want my daughter to be happy, happier than me at least.”

            “She’ll graduate,” I reassured Tanikwa’s mother. “Quite amazingly she has the highest grade in her class even though she is my most troublesome student.”

            Looking down into her lap and refusing to look at me directly in the eyes Ms. Williams said, “I’m so sorry she gives you such a hard time. I can’t control my daughter myself. The girl is just wild. I have kicked her out of my house several times already this year for all the dirt she’s bringing into her life, always going around with these gangbangers until God knows what time is it at night, even on school days and not just during the weekends. But I always let her come back home after a few days because I don’t want her to have to live and grow up on the streets like I did. But I know she is growing up in a bad environment Mr. Robertson, just like I did, and just look at me now, thirty-six years old without no man in my life and still living in the projects where I grew up. With no man like you to help me and provide me with something strong to lean on.”

            “Yes, I see,” I said. “Well, we’ll have to work together then to try to modify Tanikwa’s behavior and encourage her to set her sights on college after she graduates from this school. Now I am fairly certain she will graduate, and afterwards perhaps she can attend a junior college for two years, maybe one of the city colleges. If she grows up a bit during junior college perhaps she can even go further on with her education. Who knows, maybe even graduate with a bachelor’s degree from a four year college.”

            “I don’t know how we will be able to afford all of that schooling. I’ll be happy enough if she makes it out of high school with a diploma. But thank you for offering to work with me on Tanikwa’s behavior.”

“Not at all Ms. Williams,” I responded. “It’s my job.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” she confessed now raising her eyes and looking directly into mine, “To working with you that is. You’ve already called me so many times this semester I feel like we was old friends.”

“I felt I needed to keep you informed about Tanikwa’s progress in my class. I was concerned about her behavior.”

“I can feel your concern,” my student’s mother told me looking directly at me now forcing me to notice that she was as pretty as her daughter, prettier in fact. “And you have called me so many times this year and I just now saw the way you looked at me after I looked at you, and I feel like you are concerned about me too. I want you to know Mr. Robertson that I appreciate your concern and that I feel the same way about you as I hope you feel about me.”

I could sense where the conversation was going so I tried to head it off before someone, one of us, would embarrass ourselves, but it was too late for that. Ms. Williams continued to talk to me in the teacher’s prep room with the cluster of young female teachers in the corner continuing to gossip lead by the strident Ms. Bruscadora.

“And I heard Ms. Bruscadora in the corner over there while you was still in your meeting with the principal, I heard Ms. Bruscadora tell all them other teachers over there in the corner that you gots yourself a Korean wife you brought back with you to Chicago from your travels overseas, but that she don’t want to live in America no more, and she might even leave you here all alone with your five year-old son because she just can’t stand her life in this country no longer.”

            While Ms. Williams continued her confession I feebly attempted to smile politely while grappling inside with whatever amount of truth might underlie Bruscadora’s rumor, a rumor which I knew I was partly responsible for spreading since it was true that I had discussed this rather delicate personal matter with Smithman on at least one occasion previously that I could remember. Nonetheless, in spite of the dilemmas which came part and parcel with my international marriage, I had no intention of leaving Suji and was prepared to make great sacrifices to prevent her from leaving me and our son Joseph.

            “Now I know it’s a terrible situation you’ve gotten yourself into,” Ms. Williams continued. “But don’t you worry yourself sick about it. You are still young and handsome, and you is so accomplished in life, I know you can find yourself a more suitable wife when your Korean woman does leave you to return to her people because, like she told you and like Ms. Bruscadora said you told Ms. Smithman, life in this country just saps her of all hope and optimism for finding the kind of togetherness she knows when she is home with her brother and sister. When that day comes, as I believe it will soon, I want you to think about me Mr. Robertson, and to remember that I have experience raising children and I can help you raise your Joseph because, with all of my experience on my side, I just know we won’t let little Joseph turn out like no Tanikwa done turned out.”

            And so continued my conversation and conference in much the same vein with Ms. Williams, the mother of my most troublesome student, as the troublesome gossip Ms. Bruscadora continued to carry on loudly and undeterred with all of her boorish business before her cloistered audience in the corner which continued to hum and haw over my misfortune, while I sat quietly and stoically listening, taking it all in seeming contentment and grace, as silently inside, my brain, which had gotten me into this predicament in the first place, was working double time to figure out a way I could come up with enough money for another family vacation to Asia over the summer holiday.