The Asylum - An Urban Journey

by David Rambeau

The sun shone brightly as I walked toward the school. Along the way young black men in wheelchairs in startling numbers rolled about their business. Soon Detroit's snow- drifts would impede their movement and relegate most of them to a wintry hibernation.

They reminded me of the television new footage of Angolan victims of land mines. Like many African countries, urban America also has its civil war and it is just as lethal.

I greeted the elephantine security guard at the entrance and passed through the metal detector. My keys set the buzzer off but he didn't even ask what I had on me. This nonchalant acceptance let me know I had become one of the in-crowd. I liked that but at the same time hoped this privilege was not extended to any of the students. Better safe than sorry.

As I went up the stairs to my class a trio of burly female students, poster children for the hormone overload and fattening effects of fast-food, created an obstacle course that I wove through.

"I need me some dick," one girl of maybe eighteen boisterously told her companions. "So do I, one answered, "but I just don't fuck anybody. I'm particular." I'll bet you are, I thought as I eased past them. We were mutually invisible to each other. Me probably more so than they. Any untoward intrusion on my part into their world would have put my ass at risk of being kicked into the Middle Ages and that wasn't in my lesson plans for the day.

Soon I was standing in the hallway along with other teachers and a mob of student rabble. Our classrooms were locked and everyone was milling around cursing and complaining. One hulk of a senior student bulled up to me and said, "What'sup? The door be locked and shit. You want me to open it? I got my tools and shit in my pocket."

I gazed at him, cautious yet curious. I probably should have let his bravado go, but dumb me, I take up the challenge. "Yeah, it's locked, go ahead, open it." So I step aside and he stepped forward, tried the doorknob but made no move into his pockets for his "tools". "I can't do that. I open the doe and then your shit be missin' and you have Five-Oh come lookin' for me to have me arrested."

Why did I bother when the front is always present. This "student" was in my class for a couple of weeks when I was covering a class without a teacher. I had presented a quiz and asked everyone to put their names at the top of the page. As I was going through the class to see how they were progressing I walked by his desk and spied his test. At the top of the page was his nickname, "Pooh Bear". With complete deference I asked him to put his "real" name at the top of the page. "This is my real name", he replied earnestly. Again I had to plow through the reality of the 'hood. "No, I mean the one you were given at birth". "Oh that one?" He wrote something down that looked like a name which would more comfortably fit a member of the British parliament. "Yeah, that's the one I'm looking for."

Achievement in an inner-city teaching situation comes in small doses. When I moved on down the aisle the conflict of values and cultures enveloping his so-called names became clear. Both contained a ridiculous irony. I had succumbed to one, he to the other.

Eventually our guest speaker arrived. He could have spoken on the importance of toast and cream cheese so long as I could lean back and relax. Shouting over the chaos blew out my vocal chords by the end of the first week of school. Since then guest speakers had helped me recover. They were more valuable to me than diamonds to DeBeers.

While I used guest speakers to solve my dilemma, a neighboring teacher evolved his own solution. After a week or two of surveying the battlefield, Cap (he was in the Army Reserve) brought in movies on video and a monitor. I, my guest speakers, and my students could hear the sound tracks blasting through the plasterboard wall, though his students still managed to set their decibel levels substantially above that of the monitor. We listened to everything from "Gunga Din" to "Buck and the Preacher". By the end of the term I suspect his video rental tab will be substantial.

In the middle of my speaker's presentation he commenced asking students about their vocational ambitions. Half of my consciousness was in class; the other half was on a Martiniquen beach in the Caribbean. This student down front replies that he wants to be a nuclear physicist. He might as well have jolted me with a cattle-prod. My beach reverie disintegrated into oblivion and I was totally back in the classroom eyeing this dude to see if he's about to go into a seizure. To my regret he's serious. Well, I never got back to the Caribbean, but class ended without incident. I had survived another day.

When I exited the building, the usual suspects were loitering on the corner and the young black men in wheelchairs were still disturbingly present.

The Asylum - An Urban Journey by David Rambeau

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