As a New Orleans substitute high school teacher, I am often afforded that pesky-insect opportunity – for better or worse. As the school year winds down, I have noticed the conversational tones have shifted a bit. To be sure, there are the typical accoutrements of teenagers winding down the school year in most any American public high school – graduation shirts adorned with classmates autographs, the obligatory who-signed-where, what-did-he-write giggles as they’re read; the relief that state testing is done, the anxiety as they wonder when the results of said tests will be in. For a few, it is the completion of college applications, teacher letters of recommendation, bragging rights about the ‘better’ high school they have been accepted to for next year, water park or beach trips, other entertainment plans for the summer.
Plans for the summer.
That’s where my New Orleans public high school experience deviates significantly from the typical, as-seen-on-TV, middle class American experience; this is not a culture of music camps, college move-in plans, enlistees heading to boot camp and of summer jobs stocking supermarket shelves…this is a street culture; a staking out turf and defending it culture. This is a culture that is all about ‘doing what you have to do’ to make a buck.
It is an ethos that is very limited in its ability to see beyond today.
At one school I was at recently, I overheard a conversation between a group of six young men who were relieved that the school year would be over for them sooner than some of the other schools in the area, as the few extra days could be used to establish, their quote, “presence on the block” while their chief rivals for said turf were still going to school. This statement was answered with knowing nods from group, punctuated with a few mumbled ‘right-ons’ and a series of fist bumps.
Another group of young men was talking about the corner where they would be setting up shop to sell their bootleg DVDs – a business apparently in steep decline due to downloads, but a business they feel they can squeeze one more summer’s income from – especially since they can supplement it with their ‘almost-ready-to-harvest’ crops.
Farmers market denizens, not.
To be sure, there are games to be played and money to be made playing them. Pickup basketball is apparently a good way to earn some cash – until your team becomes too good and opponents scarce. Card games offer an opportunity, but as I heard one senior boy said to a sophomore; “Don’t play with them old men at the bar; they will clean. You. OUT”!
Craps, apparently, is thought of in much the same way, though I am befuddled by the notion that dice are more ‘straight up’ than cards, and offer a more equal playing field. Or playing slab of concrete, I suppose.
Casually interjecting myself into conversations with inquiries about summer plans including a job of some sort only gets me blank stares, suppressed laughter or an incredulous, “Job? What the f*** you talkin’ about, Mr. Lucker? We gonna make some reeeeeall money this summer”! Asking “How?” just gets me an even more disbelieving look.
A question few weeks back from a baby-faced young man sticks with me; “Mr. Lucker…you ever fired an A-K? Me and my brother got one”.
I have no doubt that they do.
When I overhear two young men excitedly bragging to their teen colleagues about getting a chance to deliver a load “All the way to Houston, man” with the whispered addendum, “He wants to see if we can get there and back without f***ing it up”.
I’m guessing they haven’t both landed jobs with FedEx.
Listening to students while spending some extended hall duty today, a sobering thought occurred to me; it is quite possible – even likely – that some of these young men won’t be around once the new school year rolls around. By the time we start getting classrooms ready for the 2010-11 year, some of these young men will have traded in their school uniforms for orange jumpsuits, or possibly even more permanent, formal attire.
It would not surprise me at all to see a student or two of mine from the past two years on the ten o’clock news – as suspects or victims sometime this summer.
I would like to think that two years of teaching in New Orleans has not made me as jaded an as cynical as this seems in black and white on my computer screen. I would also hope that I haven’t become as lackadaisical and matter-of-fact about weekly weapons of choice updates from students and periodic offers to supply me with a joint or two; “I’ll give you the teacher discount, Mr. Lucker” is mildly humorous when the kid making the fake sales pitch strictly for shock value can’t keep a straight face. It is sobering when it is said in all earnestness by a kid who has not cracked a smile or joke in my presence all year.
So much for the carefree days of youthful summer.