Excerpt from There is Only Here: “Lessons Learned”
On a blinding September afternoon three weeks after the start of school, Assistant Principal Winston met me in his office. He stood behind his desk as if keeping it between us.
“Son, what’s your approach to classroom management?” He bared his teeth when he spoke, and seemed perpetually about to say something simultaneously cruel and amusing. I wasn’t sure about being called “son,” baby-faced as I was, by a man also in his twenties, but there seemed little choice but to accept his terms of address. I thought about how to answer the question. According to the notebook we received in training, classroom management cannot be separated from student interest. Children who were learning behaved well. Children not learning behaved poorly. Teach well, and you’d succeed, for as one particularly inspired passage had noted, “Children incline toward the light.” I wanted to be prepared, and had read the materials several times.
“Sir, it’s my philosophy that good teaching is good management.”
“Well,” Winston said. “There’s other philosophies.” He slid open a drawer in his desk and pulled free a paddle, three feet and laminate, a slim handle and the long, flat striking surface. He whistled it through the air and struck the desk with a crack. Then he handed it to me. It had a solid, balanced weight, made you want to swing despite its purpose. We had been warned during orientation that we might encounter corporal punishment, that it was still common in the Delta, even “culturally appropriate.” One teacher who had stayed past her two years, who’d been here five years now and adopted a Southern lilt even though she was originally from Maine, had said, “These days, I just send them to get whupped good if that’s what it takes to make them behave,” and I had shook my head at her callous zeal for such abuse. When one of my college friends who was concerned with human rights had found out I was headed to the Delta, he’d sent me Amnesty International’s report on corporal punishment in Mississippi, which it condemned as appallingly violent.
“Hope you won’t need this for my students,” I said, grinning to suggest a joke.
Winston met my eyes, spoke with disturbing intensity. “I do not spare the rod.”
In the first weeks of school I committed to a strategy of parental contact, a lynchpin of good classroom management according to the manual. I called every student’s home once a week, sometimes several times, hoping to create a web of accountability, to give kids the sense that everyone around them insisted on their best effort. The suggested strategy was to avoid only calling home when students behaved poorly — it was essential to validate good behavior too, so that students associated the teacher with positive consequences. I liked this idea, pictured students beaming with pride as their parents spoke my name into the phone.
In practice, however, this strategy was hard to execute. So many students were behaving poorly that there were no purely positive calls. Many parents were skeptical if I claimed their child had done well, imagining I was holding something back.
“That don’t sound like the boy at all,” Tarvis’s grandmother said when I finally reached her. “That devil-child ain’t done no right since he was born. You sure you got the right boy?”
Other parents stopped taking my calls. “Why is you gone waste my time talking bout this child done right?” asked an impatient mother when I called a bit late on a Friday night, before hanging up the line. Often, I reached a younger or older sibling or grandparent. I stopped asking to speak to the father; there were few fathers.
“Mama already asleep, but I can take a message,” Melody’s thirteen-year-old sister told me at six in the evening.
“I’m glad you called, but I can’t do nothing with that boy. He’s too big for me to whup,” Tymedrick’s grandmother said.
“Why you keep calling us when the problem is you can’t get them children to mind they manners?” said Irvin’s seventeen-year-old brother before hanging up the phone.
One student, Antiquarian Herring, actually ordered me not to call. “Why you gone call my mama?” he said in class, and later, with clenched fists, “Don’t call my mama no more!”
Antiquarian was a special case. Thin-shouldered and sharp-chinned, with great dark eyes, he had a furtive and twitchy manner, was prone to fits. Some mornings he refused to do work, would at the slightest insult leap from his seat with clenched fists to fight whomever was meddling him. “I gone kill that big-mouth girl Talika, she say more bout my mama,” he’d say, straining against my grip as Talika smiled. He had a habit of glancing nervously over his shoulder. Whenever I disciplined him, gave even a gentle request to get to work, he’d lock his jaw and cross his arms, shake with defiance. I praised him for anything I could — his work was so poor it was difficult to find anything he’d done well, so I gave him classroom tasks like sweeping the room and cleaning the boards, complimented him on his efficiency. He looked suspicious at first, but took pride in the work, even stayed after school to complete special tasks. He wet a paper towels and wiped the dusty corners, where the broom wouldn’t pull; he shone the desks until they glowed. He seemed to enjoy the single-mindedness of work, would look disappointed for a moment when he finished and was again in a world without immediate purpose.
Antiquarian excelled on the kickball field at recess, loved the game and being out on the grass field in the sunlight. He went from child to child during lunch and insisted they hurry, that they’d eat through our time; when we reached the field and I let the children free, he sprinted off, bellowing and whooping, turning cartwheels and backflips like a tiny, crazed gymnast. He was everywhere on the field, diving for catches, turning singles to doubles, triples to homeruns. I played sometimes with the children, high-school soccer useful now, and Antiquarian became excited about my skill. “Man, shoot, Mr. Copperman, you can play!” he’d say. I showed him how to kick with the flat of his foot instead of toeing the ball, how it gave you a measure of control. I used the threat of losing kickball to keep his behavior in line — and it worked. I called Antiquarian’s home every night to report his success — how polite he’d been that day, how he’d stayed after school to vacuum the reading rug and mop the floors. I never reached anyone, and his mother had no message machine, but I was determined to connect with her, to do whatever it took.
One afternoon the secretary appeared at my door and told me Mr. Winston wanted to see me and Antiquarian in the office — she’d watch the class. Baffled, I went. Mr. Winston was filling in for Mrs. Burtonsen, who was out for eight weeks after surgery. I tried to put my hand to the boy’s shoulder as we walked, but he flinched from my touch.
In the Principal’s office, an old woman with carved cheeks and white, wispy hair glared from a corner. Antiquarian hurried to her, and she cradled him to her, a protective arm about his chest. Winston eyed me as if he’d confirmed some tawdry hunch about me. “This is Antiquarian’s grandmother, Mr. Copperman. Please, go on and tell Mr. Copperman what you told me,” he said.
“Sir, you got to stop calling the boy’s mama,” she said. “Ain’t you got no heart or sense? Don’t you care bout what happen to him?”
I must have looked astonished, for Mr. Winston cut in. “The boy’s mother has caller ID and has seen that you’ve called quite a bit.”
I nodded. “I have. Nearly every night.”
“And why were you calling every night?” Winston narrowed his eyes with confusion.
“I was just trying to talk to her about Antiquarian’s behavior.”
The grandmother cut in. “But the boy say he been good, that he ain’t been in no trouble.”
I smiled at Antiquarian. “That’s right. He’s made great improvement. I was calling to explain just how good he’s been, how well he’s doing. I never reached her.”
The grandmother looked horrified. “So the boy ain’t been bad?”
“A few times. But mostly, I was just trying to — communicate.”
She sighed. “Lord.” She put her hand on Antiquarian’s arm. “Go on and pull up that shirt, baby, and turn around.”
Antiquarian reluctantly turned and lifted his shirt. His wiry back was crossed with welts of pink and red and purple, scabbed blue-black with white wells of pus, and elsewhere slashed to open, angry flaps. I winced.
Winston spoke. “It’s my understanding that the boy’s mother, who works evenings out at Parchman Prison, has taken up with a guard out there. He has a mind that the boy needs discipline. When the couple would return home at midnight and see your number on the caller ID, well, they assumed —”
“With a fan belt,” the grandmother said quietly. “A fan belt. On a little boy like that. Night after night.”
She and Winston stared at me. Antiquarian let his shirt fall and turned with pleading eyes. “Tyrone say if I don’t mind my teacher, them po-pos gone take me away to Parchman, put me in a dark cell so I ain’t never gone see daylight. He say he got to learn me so I can learn.”
“But —” I began, looked at Antiquarian’s clenched jaw. What had I done? “I just wanted them to know you were trying.”
Winston spoke slowly, a hint of a smile on his lips. “You must mind your teacher, son. But I believe this will be the end of Tyrone’s — assistance — with Mr. Copperman’s discipline.”
When we were out of the office and back in the hall, I stopped, turned to the boy. “I’m so sorry, Antiquarian.”
He stared at the ground. “I been asked you not to call my mama, and you didn’t care.”
“I didn’t — I didn’t know.”
He looked at me. “You was calling my mama to say I did good?”
I nodded. “You’ve done great. You’re making progress, and soon you’ll be one of the best students in the class. In the whole school.”
The words sounded thin.
“I just want to play kickball.” This admission seemed to get to him, and he looked at the ground, sniffled and blew his nose on his sleeve, shook his head. “Don’t worry, Mr. Copperman. It don’t matter what you do, good or bad, right or wrong. It don’t matter.”
I thought of his mother’s boyfriend, the fan belt cutting already abraded flesh, night after night, these weeks Antiquarian had done as I’d asked. All for twenty minutes on the kickball field, under the open sky. “It matters, Antiquarian.”
He looked past me, down the dim hall to the square window bright with sunlight. “If you say so, Mr. Copperman. You the teacher.”
I was the teacher. I went home every day that week and tried to remember what I’d come to do, to offer opportunity and inspiration and change. I thought of finding Tyrone, and taking a fan belt to him; I thought of going back to Winston, and protesting that this wasn’t my damn fault, that I’d meant well, and what was the difference anyway between his paddle and Tyrone’s fan belt? I thought of how, finally, all my anger sought to deflect guilt that was mine alone — I had done this to Antiquarian — and if I accepted it, I had two choices: I could quit, and leave my classroom without a teacher, like the fifth grade class on the next hall where Mr. Brooks, a man with a Delta High School education, was a “permanent substitute” who made no attempt at instruction, patrolling the aisles with a yardstick, forcing the misbehaving to get in pushup position and stay there until he said they could return to their seats. I could leave my classroom to that fate, or I could accept what I’d done and do better.
I was determined to make it up to Antiquarian, to prove to him that making good choices mattered. The next week I wrote a series of stories for the class’s guided reading group that featured Antiquarian as the hero, a “young, strong boy with great skill in the game of kickball and sharp mind.” In the story, a fictional class taught by a “Mr. Coppertes” in room twelve at Stanford-Upper Elementary faced a series of crises grounded in events from class — invasions by a plague of monster cockroaches, a stifling heat-wave and no air conditioning, a kickball launched beyond a field’s fence and lost. Only Antiquarian could solve each problem, which snowballed into a dilemma that required intelligence and pluck: The cockroaches were defeated by special traps created from a mastery of acute and obtuse angles folded from paper, the heat-wave was beat back by cleverly covering the windows of the classroom with students’ jackets and writing a story about icy popsicles so vivid that every student was chilled to the bone. Other stories contained a moral dimension: The hero went beyond the fence in search of the kickball, and found another kickball that wasn’t his but would do. His decision to seek out the owner yielded not only the original ball, but the gift of a car from a rich, kickball-loving car dealer.
Antiquarian liked that story a great deal, and as he finished reading it his hand waved in the air. I went to him at his desk and leaned over him. “Yes?”
“What the car was, Mr. Copperman? It were a Cadillac on twenty-twos, weren’t it? A white Caddy rolling on twenty-twos!”
Though mis-conjugated past tense and spinning rims on Cadillacs were not exactly the lesson I was trying to teach, I was pleased enough with his enthusiasm to smile, clap him on the shoulder, and say, “Yes. Yes, for Antiquarian’s good choices and honesty, I believe it was a white Cadillac with twenty-twos. I believe that’s exactly right.”
A week later, Antiquarian started it. I’d been up until one a.m. the morning before preparing the lesson, and was excited about it, but the children were listless and disinterested. I called on Antiquarian because his eyes had a glazed look. “Antiquarian!”
He returned from whatever dream he’d been in, and said, “Woof?”
A few boys in the back made whispered woofs of their own; Antiquarian’s face turned red. “Sorry, Mr. Copperman,” he said.
From the back, someone mewled, then crowed. “Stop!” I said.
And it did for the moment — until I started the lesson. Now a gorilla grunted, a cat purred, and we were done with my teaching strategy for acute and right angles. It wasn’t any one child, but many. Antiquarian held his hands to his mouth to keep in the laughter. I faced them, hoots and howls filling the room, and broke the chalk in my hand. When I erased the recess-minutes they’d earned, calls of protest blended with the animal noises.
I rang my bell and it went silent, spoke in a quiet, tight voice: “There will be no more of this.” The children’s eyes widened at my intensity — months and months now I’d been working for them, and now here they were, unappreciative, unwilling to learn. The quiet held for a moment. Then a single bark came from the back of the room. I slammed my palm to the desk so loud Talika nearly fell from her desk. Then I reached to the stack of referrals and began to write, glancing up with a danger that kept them silent. I wrote ten referrals, the pencil cutting to the desk; I sent every child who could have made the menagerie. I sent Antiquarian, too — he’d started it, and thought it funny. If they got licks, they deserved it.
Ten minutes later Assistant Principal Winston was at my door with the line of boys in tow, paddle in hand. “Some problems in the classroom today?”
“These boys acting the fool?”
He leaned from the waist and clapped me — cuffed me, nearly — on the shoulder. “Since discipline has gone, let me return it.”
He unbuttoned his jacket and slid it off, pit stains beneath his arms, his tie askew. He held out the coat; I took it. He ran a caressing hand up and down the length of the paddle. “How did this start?”
Talika thrust up her hand.
“Yes, Ms. Johnson,” Winston said.
She smiled sweetly. “It was that boy Antiquarian making a barking noise.”
Winston eyed the line of them, picked Antiquarian out. “Is that true, son?”
Antiquarian lowered his head.
Winston cocked his head toward the board. “Hands to the wall,” he said. “Go on, now.” He adjusted his grip on the handle. An anticipatory shiver ran the back of my neck.
Winston looked to me and said, “Now, boy, learn to mind your teacher.”
He swung, a blurred arc and a solid, thick crack of contact. I winced.
Antiquarian didn’t flinch.
“Hands to the board,” Winston said, pushing the boy to the wall, though Antiquarian hadn’t moved. A vein throbbed in his thick neck, a single thread of sweat ran from his forehead to jaw. He set himself again. Winston looked to me again, and smiled. “If you act like animals, we’ll treat you like animals. Now, mind your teacher, boy.” He swung from the hips with a batter’s break to the wrist, the whirr through the air and the snap of wood to flesh startlingly athletic.
Antiquarian’s lip twitched with the force of the strike, and a trail of mucus came from his nose. His expression didn’t change.
“Hands to board!” Winston said. “You gone learn, or I gone learn you better.”
Each blow, Winston swung harder, and Antiquarian grew calmer. He seemed to welcome each strike, as if here, in punishment, was a place he was most comfortable. It wasn’t that the blows weren’t painful: When the second boy came up, he let out a scream and began to blubber, and later, to choke on his own phlegm.
It took pain to keep standing there — I shoved my thumbnail through the skin of my index finger, stained my khakis with blood. I don’t remember the wounds, just the begging of children, the whistle of Winston’s swing.
A hundred licks.
Here I was, found now in the fall of a paddle, the snap of wood to flesh and a child’s cry. When Winston was finished he took back his jacket, slid it on, and took my hand and drew me close, pounded my back as if we were brothers or teammates. His palm was wet, sweaty from the paddle. I said nothing, could neither push him away nor accept his embrace. When Winston was gone and the children were back in their seats I turned to the chalkboard. The surface was wet with tears and snot wiped from the boys’ hands, and the lesson was still there, angles and letters smeared to broken lines and malformed shapes, like some new and terrible language.
The children had to go to P.E., and so I walked them to the gym. Antiquarian was last in line, and he turned to me as the children filed in. His body shook, but he didn’t say a word, just stared with as pure a hatred as I’ve ever seen.
I watched with guilty eyes until he was inside. I was glad when he was gone — it was a relief to have him out of sight.
I made my way out the school gates on foot. We weren’t supposed to leave the school grounds, but I couldn’t care. I turned on Felicity Street and walked. It was hot, the air dry and still. I’d never known the smell of these streets — the school was kept clean, the litter cleared each afternoon and the concrete hosed down each Friday. That air smelled like dried grass and bodies and dust. Felicity in this sun had a baser reek: Diapers folded and left on the roadway baked and baked in the sun. Garbage piled in front yards. At a corner, a package of raw chicken gone bad, a twisting of maggots at the wet center and the edges dried. Three mangy dogs fought for the right to eat it, flies circling about them as they turned and bent for each other’s necks. Three men in yellowed wife-beaters egged them on; it seemed they might have bet on the winner, or at least, it seemed to matter that the battle persisted. They eyed me but had no attention to spare, as one dog got a bite on the other’s stringy leg. The victim screamed, an urgent keening. The whole world stood by and enjoyed the suffering. I felt bile rise in my throat, bent over a fence and hocked and spit into a yard.
“Oh, no, you didn’t,” I heard a female voice call. I wiped my mouth and met the judging eyes of a white-haired woman sitting in the weak shade of a porch on a couch that sank to the ground at the middle.
“Sorry,” I said.
“You gone clean that up?” she said.
I looked into the dirt yard, a scatter of cans and cardboard the only decoration.
There was no place to hide the spit, and soon enough it would sink into the dirt. I wasn’t going to do anything. I turned my eyes to the road and walked away, the woman hollering something at my back that had to do with China and her fitting to beat my yellow ass. The fence lines queued but never met. The dog cried and cried behind me; the men bellowed encouragement; I continued until the keening was only an echo in my ears. Now I came on two teenage boys fighting in the street, throwing punches from the hips, the muscles of their shoulders and arms rippling as they turned circles on the dusty road. One boy caught his feet, fell cursing, and the other boy jumped on him throwing blow after blow, the boy on the ground cowering with his hands about his head. He was going to be hurt. With a cry I charged in, grabbed the boy on top about the chest and tore him off. He twisted in my arms, finally threw me off with a yell. “Get off me!” he yelled, spinning away. “Get off me!”
I turned to the boy on the ground, who’d sat up. “Are you all right?”
Eyeing me warily, the boy stood and brushed his hands on the back of his pants. He was unmarked except a little dirt on his cheek. “We was just — playing.”
They backed away together, turned and jogged to put some distance between us. “Crazy fucking China-man,” one boy muttered. Fifty yards down the road the boys stopped, turned to one another. The boy who’d fallen flexed his arms and popped his neck, lowered his chin and lifted clenched fists. Then they began again to circle, a dance of steps and harmless blows, voices echoing along the asphalt.
I would like to say that I returned from that walk down Felicity and protested, that I reported Assistant Principal Winston to Mrs. Burtonsen when she returned or that I lodged a complaint with the district or state. I would like to say that I told anyone at all. I would like to say that I found a way to make it up to Antiquarian, that I was kind to him; I would like to tell a story about how both of us were fine, how we finally stood together against an unfair world. I would at least like to say that I never again sent a child to the office knowing they were going to be paddled. But I had to get up the next day and teach, and the next day after that, and I believed that the ends justified the means, that if I didn’t teach well I was failing those children. I thought I had no choice.
The days I was forced to send children to the office and I knew Assistant Principal Winston was on duty, I comforted myself with the studies that say that corporal punishment, if calmly and fairly applied, is as effective as other means of punishment. Many of us teaching in the Delta discussed the study, repeated its findings in what now seems a strange circle of denial: we thought we wanted to be justified in participating in a system where children were routinely beaten. Really, we were overwhelmed; what we really wanted was to be forgiven. I told myself that sending children to be paddled was necessity, but somewhere buried, I knew it was indefensible.
As for Antiquarian, I had taught him that the world was unjust, the spoils went to the bully with the biggest stick; once taught, some lessons can’t easily be corrected. Every time I saw him I was reminded of what I had done, which I did not want to remember or know how to face, and so I kept my head down and persisted, pretended nothing had happened at all. I avoided him as best I could, never said his name or looked his way for fear the shame would fill me anew. One day after school, I noticed his green camouflage jacket still hanging on a hook, and I found I couldn't remember if he had even been there. The jacket was still there the next morning and afternoon and the next days and weeks after, and Antiquarian was not. Eventually word came from the Office that he had moved to Memphis with his mother and stepfather. Only months later did I hear the rumors from the children about how he was in juvenile hall now, the story being that he woke late one night after arguing with a cousin earlier in the day who was staying over at his apartment. He rose, found his baseball bat, and delivered nearly a dozen blows to the boy’s head while the boy screamed and begged. Here is what I imagine some nights when I try to sleep, and conscience harries me in the turning dark: that each time, before Antiquarian swung again on his helpless victim, he chanted, “Now you gone learn!”about the author