Sunday, June 13, 2004

Bravery

While sipping white wine and admiring the decorated ceramic dogs at Hector Vega's new cafe/gallery opening Saturday night, I was introduced to a well dressed, quietly refined and obviously cultured woman. Just the sort of woman one would expect to meet at such an event.
When she learned that I was a high school teacher in the Cleveland Schools, her face clouded momentarily, and she exclaimed "You must be very brave."
"Huh?" was my very uncultured response.
"Oh yes. You are so brave to work with those kinds of kids."
"Oh no. They're just kids. My job is great. I get paid to make fun of boys. It's my childhood fantasy come true...you see, I was raised with brothers."
She continued to insist on my heroism, which forced me to strain my memory to recall any moment in my career when I was afraid.

I can only remember one.

I was teaching an eighth grade art class at Garrett Morgan Middle School, in Ohio City, on Cleveland's near West Side. At that time, there was a school policy stating hats must not be worn inside the building. That day I noticed a black leather baseball cap perched on the bent over head of Eugene as he worked on his drawing assignment.
Eugene was a big, over-aged kid, with a surly countenance and a bad complexion. I must have asked him three or four times a week for the last four months to take his hat off in class. His usual response was to either ignore my request, or take off the hat for a few moments and then put it right back on. This time I walked up behind him to remove it from his head personally.

When I lifted off the hat, Eugene spun around and snapped angrily at me, "Give that back!"
"Pick it up after class." I retorted, as I walked to the open door of the storage closet, and tossed the hat on a shelf. The locked clicked as I shut the door behind me.
"You can't take my hat!" he bellowed, "That's my brothers cap! You can't have it!"

Eugene ran to the closet and pulled at the door. As he cursed, ranted, and raved, I noticed his eyes. They had the unmistakable glassy appearance of the chemically impaired.
"With this behavior, you can forget about getting your hat back from me after class. You'll have to pick it up from the principal's office." I said, and pulled out the pad of referral forms.

Eugene leaned across my desk, and glaring, leveled his face with mine.
"I'm gonna off your white ass!"
"Excuse me?" I asked, eyebrows raised.
"You heard me. I'm gonna off your ass!"
"Hmmm...Just wanted to be accurate." I said, and continued to write.

The bell rang, signaling the end of class. When the students got up to leave, Jannessia, a quiet girl with a head full of beaded braids, stayed behind. In a voice barely audible she whispered, "He said he's gonna kill you. That's what that means."
"Thanks Hon'. I'm not worried."
After all he was just a kid. Fifteen, maybe sixteen, tops; and it was just a hat.
This time she raised her eyebrows, and shaking her head, left the room.

I finished writing the referral, and with the baseball cap in hand, headed downstairs to the office. On my way back to the third floor, I met Bruce Edwards, a retired Army captain, who'd taken the position as our school/community liaison. He walked with me to the art room and I related the baseball cap incident, expressing my concern that drugs might be a factor in this student's overreaction to a trivial situation.
Suddenly, the captain's attention turned to the hallway.

Eugene came bounding up the stairs, his face contorted in anger. He paused for a moment at the top and growled, "I'll kill you!"
Then he lunged at me where I stood just inside the doorway.

Before he could reach me, Captain Edwards jumped onto Eugene and wrestled him towards the stairwell. The two of them were nearly matched in both height and weight. At the edge of the top step, Eugene lost his balance and tumbled down the thirteen stairs to the landing.
Upon hearing all the commotion, two security guards came running up towards the third floor. When they reached the landing, Eugene stood up, pushed past the guards and ran out of the building. Security radioed for the police.

My heart was racing as I walked over to the window and stared out over the parking lot. For the first time in my life I was truly scared.
A young man had just tried to kill me...and he was still out there. Somewhere.

I'd experienced a few close-calls with death before; accidents and near misses. This was different. Someone tried to kill me. Somebody wanted me dead.
If not for Captain Edwards, the police may have been investigating a teacher homicide rather than an assault.

The next day, Eugene was arrested on assault charges, suspended for 10 days, and removed from my class.
I would pass him in the hallway from time to time throughout the remainder of the school year, always avoiding eye contact.

Everyday teachers are assaulted in the Cleveland schools. Most of us come back to the classroom.
Are we brave?

Yes, I believe we are.



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