Dress-Code Demerit Prepares Floyd For Life At Chicken-Processing Plant

JE NE PENSE PAS; DONC, JE SUIS

Floyd, a chunky twelve-year-old blubbering inconsolably over the shame of being sent to in-school suspension, was sputtering an excuse through tell-tale grammatical indicators of blue collar-dom. Caught and incarcerated for the crime of no belt, he desperately needed to air his side of the story.

The morning had been chaotic as his father had “overslept for work and was in a big hurry because this is his fourth demerit.”  I thought Floyd was headed into a complex cause-and-effect relationship: a description of how his father’s hasty departure for work affected his ability to put on a belt. But the causal chain abruptly snapped, and Floyd suddenly began to track the intricacies of his father’s work at a chicken processing plant.

His father had done little to shield his family from the dire consequences of the dread chicken plant demerit system:  at seven demerits he would be required to meet with the plant manager to “discuss his employment future.”  Floyd knew disturbing stories of people “let go” during such meetings.

Unsure of his twelve-year-old narrative powers, Floyd seemed anxious that I fully grasp the import of these harsh disclosures.  He decided to add some needed details.   His father made “only $14.50 per hour” and his stepmom was only able to supplement this with an additional $700.00 a month, a sum instantly consumed by a seven-hundred-dollar-a-month duplex rental.

The more Floyd verbally controlled the facts and figures of the family economy, the calmer he became.  I let him ramble on.  He wiped away his tears with a chubby little paw and snuffled and choked his way through a rather tedious inventory of the food currently available in the seven-hundred-a-month duplex’s cupboards.  Right then they had “mostly canned stuff and noodles…and chicken”…of course.

These revelations about food prompted other important memories about tenuous parental and step-parental employment and, more importantly, its immediate effects on the quality and quantity of food he would soon be eating.  One particularly chilling story involved the sudden firing of a close family friend caught stealing chicken from the plant. Floyd’s defense of this fellow seemed a little too practiced: “But it was because his family didn’t have nothin’ to eat for a while and he only done it once or twict.”  Or, so I thought I heard him say.  My head was starting to spin. What was he in here for?  Oh, yeah, the f’in belt.

Floyd intuited how drawn I was to his narrative abilities and launched into the genre reserved for moments requiring major audience impact:  juicy, gory industrial accident stories.  Nothing could eclipse the time-tested Dickensian dismemberment and industrial snuff story.  Unfortunately, omissions of important details contributing to rising action and denouement hinted at overfamiliarity with his subject.   Floyd rushed the narrative of the extra skinny construction worker sent into the tight place, the ominous jammed dozer scooper.  (Oh, no!  What’s going to happen?)  He tripped the scooper-support levers, was crushed, but survived.  “Good thang he war so skinny,” Floyd grinned upon the hasty delivery of the O. Henry-esque punch line that no-one could have anticipated.

I was in love with this kid and had to hear more—even if in doing so I jeopardized the proper execution of my own somber job, a job which involves its own cruel little system of demerits, strictly enforced silence and isolation which, when violated, land kids in full, boot-in-the-arse suspension. I was this school’s version of getting fired from the chicken plant. The creepy similarity between chicken factory and school flittered briefly across my mind, but I quickly repressed the evil thought so I could attend more fully to Floyd’s endless disclosures.  With no prompting, he returned to his detailed report of the grim economic situation at home, a tedious comparative accounting of the contents of cupboards relative to the employment status of parents.  I drifted off.   I tried to remember if I had been this conscious of the nuances of family finances at age twelve…or any age for that matter.

No doubt there were moments when things were tight– with seven mouths to feed on a preacher’s pay.   As an adult, I once asked my mother how she prepared one of my favorite meals, jarred chip beef in flour gravy on toast.  Instead of giving me the recipe, Mother rather bitterly explained that it was what she had made to fill seven hungry mouths when the cupboards were bare.  She had only made such a big deal over what a special meal it was to disguise the desperation hovering at the edges of this meal’s marginally nutritious value. It was a recipe that came from her arsenal of poor-Appalachian, depression-era, filler meals.   She saw this particular meal as an indictment of her budgeting abilities.  My father, having grown up on a prosperous livestock farm, where freshly butchered meat was always on the table, was particularly insulted when jarred beef appeared on his dinner plate.  The insult was compounded by the fact that chipped beef jars made great juice glasses, the previous evening’s indictment of his provider abilities materializing as veiled threat at the breakfast table.  Thankfully, I was blithely unaware of all of this as a child…and felt a little pang of resentment at Mother troubling me with this information at this late date.

Fascinated at the proficiency with which Floyd inventoried the meat selections currently available in his seven-hundred-a-month duplex, I thought I detected special anxieties around the subject of chicken.   They ate a lot of chicken.  I guessed that chicken had become a reliable source of family protein for reasons that transcended its relative cheapness to other meats.

Little wonder this child had such an alarming over-reaction to the demerit he had received today at school.  Amassing demerits spelled certain disaster in Floyd’s world.  Demerits meant a dangerous focus on his father’s work behaviors.  Demerits spelled the end to a suspiciously dependable source of protein: Chicken.

I shifted uncomfortably as it dawned on me that I had ineluctably become part of the demerit-system reality that was preparing this kid for his future chicken-plant destiny. While I can’t really blame his parents for sucking Floyd into their mundane, quotidienne struggle for survival, I felt guilty complicity in priming him to fulfill Plato’s f’d up version of ideal Justice, knowing one’s proper place in society.  Apropos of nothing, it occurred to me that I had not been fully cognizant of how laundry got done until I was in my late twenties.  Suddenly I remembered recent hard times when understanding how to budget a meager income might have come in handy.

Why, then, had my depression-era parents so thoroughly shielded five children from the economic realities of life?  Was this a conscious, child-rearing decision, collaborated upon and jointly reinforced? Or, was it an unconscious banishment of worries they’d endured during lean depression years?  Only in my late twenties, when it appeared that I might be a hopeless dumbass, did my mother encourage me to acquire some job skills.   Until then, I had lived with the utterly confusing belief that I could achieve absolute success in virtually anything to which I set my mind.  I dabbled in philosophy, my father’s college major, and then acquired a master’s in English literature, my mother’s first love– year upon wonderful year spent wallowing around in abstract la-la land with nary a chicken concern on my mind.

Mystified by Floyd’s near hysteria over a missing belt, I began to look at the catalogue of fears his dress-code demerit point had triggered: fears of industrial accidents; fears of parental unemployment; fears over tenuous step-mom incomes; and, most importantly, fears over the suspicious frequency of chicken on the family menu.  Floyd’s ability to index the intricacies of this worrisome household economy both amazed and depressed me. What a mind for fact and figures he had.  What a waste of intellectual capital.  What a luxury to have had parents who shut down the noise about basic survival so that their five children could focus on the utterly useless, but intensely interesting abstractions of philosophy and literature.

I was heartbroken when my vice-principal arrived with a belt.  I’d fallen hard for this kid.  Without so much as a goodbye, he raced breathlessly after the VP because, even after two weeks of school, he had no clue how to find his classroom. As his noisy presence drifted off down the hallway, I drifted off into utterly useless philosophic abstractions: to Plato’s social “hive,” the Republic, replete with drones for whom ideal justice constitutes knowing one’s proper place in the social system; to thoughts of my complicity in an education system that shapes children for ineluctable, inescapable servitude; to my favorite J. Krishnamurti quote, “where there is fear there is no intelligence.”

And while I may have sometimes cursed my parents for leaving me so unprepared for the realities of existence, I felt sudden warmth in my heart that chipped beef on toast was so celebrated in my household.   It was a special meal for special occasions when special people were special enough to enjoy special poor-people food.   I also felt a growing appreciation that I had never once suspected my parents of risking unemployment by stealing chickens.

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT

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Annoying Gifted Students: Existential Inauthenticity of Romantic Posers

YOU AND THE RETARDED HORSE YOU RODE IN ON

There sits this year’s most annoying student, Boy Genius, predictably located somewhere near the rear of class in the de rigueur, semi-reclined posture that communicates his self-conscious, petulant rebellion. His carefully choreographed, adolescent pose of indolence is instantly recognizable: another—deep teacher sigh– rebel-without-a-clue. He must be endured like slow-drip waterboarding throughout the long, tedious year ahead.  Consider his insolent body language a kind of smoke-signal harbinger of what will be text and subtext to all future Genius Boy communication: “F all y’all and the retarded horses you rode in on.”

Routinely teetering on the precipice of a 65 average, Boy Genius waits ‘til semester exams roll ‘round to finally coral his vast intelligence, at which time he passive aggressively pulls the only perfect score from his ass. This, as he has already mentally calculated, raises his barely passing semester average to a richly undeserved “C”—and, as he has also calculated, sends the teacher into paroxysms of abject rage.

Upon enduring his hostile takeover of her class for an entire year, she’ll get to see him only once more before graduation, when he briefly pops in the following year to rub her nose in a perfect SAT score or an acceptance letter to MIT.   He’ll be embarrassed at his uncontrollable urge to do something so pathetically obvious, but he just can’t stop himself. This sociopathic turd’s need to assert superiority eclipses the risky delayed gratification of letting you enjoy his undeserved success through… say… a school newspaper article.  You might miss it!  No amount of public recognition will abate the narcissism of his adolescent superego gone wild.  Long ago, his id discovered the backdoor accesses to socially appropriate expressions of violence, including Freud’s tour de force:  violence against himself. Rubbing everyone’s nose in his perfect SAT induces the inevitable self-loathing of the existentially inauthentic, psychological violence to others becoming violence to self.  May the circle be unbroken.

Stealing teachers’ thunder is yet another favorite passive-aggressive pastime for this little shit…that is, when not openly belittling slower classmates and, of course, the teacher for being something as pathetic as…a teacher.  One kid, who designed computer programs in his head, while not pretending to listen or participate in class, went out of his way to inform me that he already made twice my salary–not any great shakes, though damn good money for a high-school senior.   One arrogant punk liked to stand during group projects so he could better belittle his team members, lording his intelligence over kids who were later expected to do all the actual work.  Admittedly he had bigger fish to fry, like the upcoming gallery opening he had in NYC for his utterly amazing portraits.  Little Miss Brainiac, finding a way to explode my lesson with a pre-emptive drone strike, quoted from memory a stanza in the poem I’d read a week earlier– the very stanza I’d later planned to ask slower students to link to themes in our current readings.  She snorted with disgust when another kid excitedly offered, “That’s just like the poem we read!”

“That’s because it IS the poem we read,” was the brutally condescending reply.

I had to admit, furious though I was, that it was a brilliant double play: the teacher’s lesson-plan thunder stolen with a simultaneous shut down of all future contributions from the now blushing girl of mere better-than-average intelligence and shit-hot work ethic.

Thunder theft is usually a one-on-one, genius-teacher transaction:  a quick notification or warning of what might later be—should Genius Boy so choose– the source of ruin of your utterly facile lesson plans geared towards the middle performers. You’ll notice the smug grin and direct gaze that communicates “You’ve been served.” However, thunder theft, while satisfying to the genius, lacks the beauty of complete and total annihilation of classroom dialogue.  Getting the answer right before anyone even sees the question coming has usually lost its luster by about 9th grade, perhaps because it lacks the full-scale insurrection that silences the entire class.  The genius excels in shutting down class dialogue, especially in advanced classes in which at least a fourth of the students have been parent placed over the recommendations of teachers and another fourth are just plain ole run-of-the-mill hard workers.  The genius has the unfair advantage of having already earned a PH.D. –in making other kids feel like earthworms and teachers, pack mules of received knowledge.

I would be remiss were I not to offer up the special shout out to all those colleges and universities that reinforce such shitty behavior by recruiting the worthless genius in spite of …EVERYTHING!  Congratulations for finding a way to invert such pedestrian fables as “The Tortoise and the Hare.” New Moral:   tortoise loses, hare wins, fuck you.  He wins precisely because he detected the absurd, futile activity designed to make him run: the putative race. He’ll NOT be jumping through hoops, over hurdles, or across finish lines set in place by those pedestrian thinkers called TEACHERS! That’s for damn sure!  Many colleges willingly risk the inevitable spike in dropout statistics to lure these obstreperous hares to their hallowed halls.  In the unwritten cost-benefit analysis, having Einstein or Jobs as alumnus outweighs the occasional hit to dropout stats that, after all, only form one part of the reports by which colleges are ranked.  Let’s all welcome Little Miss, Little Miss Couldn’t be Bothered with the C Average and perfect SATs.   In fact, give her a full ride so she can continue doing whatever she was already doing while not pretending to constructively participate in high school. Even the occasional Unabomber outweighs no Unabomber in the Kardashian, image-over-substance calculus of college-admission policies.

Guess that’s why I loved Dwight, the young gang-banger genius encountered early in my career, long before making the move to greener (i.e., whiter) suburban-school pastures. Sure, Dwight played the same dissimulating pranks as my suburban geniuses. Sure, he had the same ability to predict where I was heading so he could pull the rug out from under me, or pin me to the wall and watch me squirm.   Oh, hell yes, he was full of piss and vinegar–and the occasional Dionysian frenzy of gratuitous violence–but at least he never dreamed of being rewarded for his shitty performance.  It never occurred to him that a poverty stricken little turd in stolen Nikes, with both father and brother in prison, might actually be courted by colleges for merely pulling an amazing SAT score out of his ass. Even ITT Tech looked like a fool’s mirage.  Like I said, the kid wasn’t stupid—just terminally pissed at having so many closed doors that he’d never had the opportunity to arrogantly slam shut all by himself.

Turns out, burning everything to the ground is more a game for the privileged, bourgeois genius than one who has long endured a scorched earth policy that is his urban birthright. The organization of my advanced English class appealed less to the burn-down-the-house genius than, say, the OCD/ Asperger’s genius.   The class offered OCD-like categorical imperatives, regimenting experimentation with a variety of literary critical models—more appealing to Asperger Boy than young Dionysus.  To the bourgeois Dionysus, this ploddingly binary splicing and dicing of literary critical models into bite-sized chunks for the advanced high school student merited nothing less than a thorough razing.   True genius explodes rules before they’ve even been fully established; hence, the ongoing attempt to dynamite all that fearful, neo-Classical symmetry teachers seem hell bent on imposing on obviously random knowledge. Genius embraces the Romantic pose, dismantling any codified structures that might constrain free-ranging intellect.

The Romantic genius possesses almost instinctive radar for reductio-ad-absurdum exceptions to spurious systems or structures teachers gratuitously impose on information… in the service of those kids without a clue.  True genius, however, has Roderick Usher’s desire to bury his identical twin, Poe’s eerie symbol for the all-too-orderly Enlightenment Project and the bullshit neo-Classical aesthetic of symmetry that undergirds it.  True genius likes to attend ORDER’s muffled screams in some distant, sealed chamber while dabbling in the narcissistic and “wildly improvisational” inventions only those momentarily freed from rules can enjoy…or even understand. In fact, as Poe well knows, it is precisely the muffled screams of the twin which inspire the most fruitful improvisation.  Poe’s aesthetic is the Romantic genius’s aesthetic: tear down social convention so you can build something utterly new…and better.  Genius prefers Nietzsche’s precarious acrobatics on the tightrope between Apollonian order and Dionysian frenzy: one absurdly ordered and arbitrarily limited, the other bordering on what Poe calls “the kingdom of disorganization.” It’s a dangerous little Romantic game that often ends badly.  Just ask Poe and Nietzsche.

The fact that Dwight toyed with following father and brother to prison added a certain je ne sais quoi to his quickly fading attraction to the Dionysian genius’s posture of Romantic self-destruction: he grasped that playful prodding of the abyss had consequences far less inviting than finding oneself waitlisted at Yale.   Sure, he could wax as eloquent as the bourgeois genius on his love affair with Romantic ruin.  He writes, “I once was a man who cared about peace, but now I seek only war.  I want to feel the destruction and kill the construction, and tell the world I know not what for.  I want to see the dark and dim the lights so that the night will become me.  And pour out my vanity and my purity so that my body is left empty.”  However, Dwight’s affair with Romantic destruction was short lived.   His one-sentence analysis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde recognizes the need for compromise lest the path of destruction prove calamitous:  “Neither id nor superego was willing to give up a piece of themselves. It was inevitable that both would be destroyed.”  For those who suffer under the delusion that “gang banger” and “genius” are mutually exclusive identities, I’m here to wake you from your dogmatic slumber.

What separates Dwight from his wealthy, suburban-genius counterparts and, of course, his dumb-as-fuck gang banger peers, is the speed with which he sorted through all the possibilities for escape from, destruction of, oblivion to, or participation in received social structures.  His Romance with raging against the machine had been brought into critical focus by an abusive and criminal father.  One can’t help wondering if  Bourgeois Genius Boy might benefit from a similar beat down.

Unlike Dwight, Bourgeois Genius Boy luxuriates in cagey existential inauthenticity.  Escape, destruction and oblivion are merely  inauthentic rebellious pretenses to the bourgeois genius, whose real purposes ooze from the edges of his half-assed,  passive-aggressive obstruction of all efforts to keep him within striking distance of the unearned rewards he knows await him… for merely existing. In short, his pose of “dangerous” indifference comes with full awareness of the social safety net that wealth and privilege has in place to catch him, embrace him, and send him off to the Ivy League.  Again, he’s not stupid.  At times, he is frustrated … even enraged by his own inauthenticity.  But ultimately he embraces inauthenticity with a petulant shrug… and a latte from the college bookstore.

Dwight had already peered into Poe’s “kingdom of disorganization” and found it…lacking.  He both admired his brother’s willingness to fuck with chaos and fretted over the excessively ordered environment his brother’s Dionysian frenzies had earned him: PRISON TIME. In the following poetic summary, Dwight almost envies the structured life prison has finally imposed on his brother: “I remember me and my brother used to sleep a few feet from one another.  Now we sleep miles apart.  Some people say he’s on the inside and I’m on the outside, given that he’s in jail.  But, what if he’s got the good end of the stick, free from the worries of the world?  We used to steal clothes, shoes…just whatever.  We drank booze to lose the pain of a broken home, and smoked pot to breath out the smoke caused by the burning down of our hearts.”   Dwight had had plenty of time to evaluate the bitter-sweet prison problem. In an extended metaphor poem, he digs further into the conundrum, comparing prison life to death:

The music’s loud, my ears are ringing

I hear the angels singing.

They sing the same songs Devils do,

With slightly different tones.

Now dead in hell, confined by bars,

Told when to eat and sleep.

I see that life is death disguised,

In the form of a labyrinth.

Gee, I wish I could have written like that as a high school senior…or even now.

Dwight’s exploration of the Greek meaning of his name is particularly revealing:

My Name

In Greek my name is Dionysus,

The tyrant of Syracuse.

An Abusive, highly Intelligent man,

Who was known for being cruel.

                                 My father named me after him,

Continuing his legacy.

Now he’s smiling; I’m cursed like him,

And laughed at regularly.

Six demonic numbers create

That of my name.

My father’s work I can’t escape,

It’s driving me insane.

                           Dwight, Dwight, is what I’m always called.

I hate this name, and it hates me, too,

And both of us shall fall.

But poetic reverie is just that, a dreamscape in which one can safely explore possibilities…and then reject them. I watched as Dwight rejected the possibility of falling. Fully comprehending that there would be no safety net of wealth or privilege to cushion this fall, he simply willed not to fall.  Because, in Dwight’s chaotic world, to fall is…to fall. Fall into a high-school dropout–like 52% of your friends. Fall into a 20% homicide victim rate.  Fall into a 40% homicide perpetrator rate.  Fall into prison—like 32% of your literal and figurative brothers.  Fall into a BIG, DUMB STATISTIC.

No, Dwight had had his fill of his father’s name, opting instead for the Apollonian order his vast intelligence could create upon a whim.  He notes that “when surrounded by changing variables, you create a constant. I created within myself both father and mother, and continue to raise myself.”  Later, Dwight explores the physical abuse he endured for years at the hands of his tyrannical father, Dionysus, Sr.: “I’ve been beaten until pain felt like comfort. I’ve been scarred for life with bites from fights and scared to sleep when it turned night.  I thought he’d kill me or I’d kill him. His fist fit comfortably with my face. He hit me until I had different personalities, and some of them I hate.   Those days of torment made me into the man I am now:  strong, self-reliant, independent, ambitious, and destined for success.  Do I hate my father?  No. He was a confused man.  And even though he chose the wrong path of discipline, it was vital to make me into a person who cared about his future.”  La voila!  Therein lies the difference between the upper-middle class and urban-poor genius:  Bourgeois Genius Boy’s existentially inauthentic Romantic pose is jettisoned in favor of something akin to unabashed, Dale-Carnegie optimism. Dionysus be damned! Apollo be praised! Let the sun shine in.

     Ran into Dwight at the thrift store a couple of years back.  Always knew I’d see him again.  He had a little boy who was clever like his dad.  And, he was obviously a doting father, looking for used children’s books to read at night when he came home from classes at the local tech college where he studied computers.  May the circle be …broken.

Ousting the New Black Superintendent

Good luck with that!

More than a few eyebrows rose when the relatively new black superintendent’s contract was bought out to the tune of a couple-a-hundred g’s.  Aside from the irritation over gross mismanagement of already dwindling education dollars, some also felt it reflected negatively on the county school system’s prestige when the black interloper from out of state was swiftly replaced by a white insider, a local good ole boy without a PH.D.  In fact, the Board had suspiciously waived the PHD as well as the nation-wide job search requirements as they steamrolled their boy into high office.  But as a new teacher to the system, I vowed to keep my nose clean of rage and stress-inducing internal politics for as long as possible. No, I would not have been tempted to research any of the tedious past history of internecine wars …had the superintendent’s wife not been a teacher right down the hall, had she not had a voice like a fishwife, and had she not given frequent voice to racist shit– most of it directed toward black kids bussed into this white, middle-class, suburban school under some obscure clause in No Child Left Behind.

Most teachers on the hall at least had the good graces to huddle confidentially when whispering their convictions that this new demographic were proof positive that blacks were subhuman.  Of course, as a new employee, I experienced  the usual significant looks and low-level racist comments that vetted my racial sensitivities before entrusting me with access to the group.  I was sadly reminded of my first job, thirty years ago, as floater teller for an Alabama Savings and Loan.  Every day I would be called to a different branch office.  Every day I was subjected to a racist comment or joke that would determine whether I’d be included or excluded. I was surprised to find myself again in the hot seat.   It had been a long time since I’d been vetted in this way.  I did what every spineless employee with a mortgage and car payment would do:  I pretended not to hear.

But that was well-nigh impossible given the screeching volume of the superintendent’s wife.   The stridency with which she’d address some fleeing black kid was deafening:  “Go ahead and run!  You’ll be running from the police in about ten years.”  Gasp!  Did she not understand there had been a Civil Rights Movement?  Did she assume everyone had her back here?  Did she have a clue how damaging this could be to a child?  Did she not realize that this made us all imagine ugly, racist dinner table conversations and pillow talk with her superintendent husband?

It didn’t take much research through the archives of local newspapers to unearth the roots of her seemingly reckless empowerment:  an entire county and state that had watched in virtual silence the recent bloody coup de superintendent’s office. Unfortunately, it was an empowerment that would be played out in other significant ways besides mere abusive verbal harangues of powerless children.  Within a year of my arrival, the principal and vice principal were replaced by–you guessed it– the superintendent’s boys.  Both the new principal and his local educator brother had successfully weathered charges of racism levied at them by the NAACP and by individual black kids in the school system.  Both have risen in the system like some perverse version of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People…in the South.

Just as suddenly as the disappearance of my principal and African-American vice-principal, funding dried up for bussing kids from failing inner-city schools to the burbs.  Not that anyone had ever made it all that easy for them.  They’d had to get up an hour earlier than their peers, wait for the cheese wagon on some cold, dark, urban curb, and remain after school for at least an hour as they awaited the only available bus to drop off its suburban load before bothering to  pick them up.  But No Child Left Behind had said they could come, and so they would. ..until told otherwise.

As the school day ends, I watch the sea white children running toward their bus in the rain, thankful that my bills will be paid on time another month, another year… another eternity in this fucking hellhole.