Calm Classroom, Sparkling Desks

Originally posted on Open Salon on February 22. 2012:

               “Kids today!”

                This hackneyed exclamation has been around for generations, and people of every generation think they invented it.

                “Our parents didn’t let us get away with things like that!”

                This is probably true.

                “My father used to take his belt to me!”

                I think the speaker is implying that the belt was a good thing.

                “Our teachers used to paddle us!”

                I’m not sure that was meant as a good thing.  It depends on the speaker.

                As a teacher, I hear interesting things from the younger generation—very interesting things.

                “You’re not allowed to hit us like teachers used to hit us in the old days.”

                That’s true, I reply, but why would I want to hit a student?  Even if I were allowed to, I could never bring myself to do it.

                Besides, I tell students, there are noncorporal consequences that are far more effective.

                “Does that mean psychological torture?”

                Oh, come now!  Torture is such a strong word.

                “Well, no one acts up in this class.”

                No one?  Are they really sure about that?

                “OK, no one besides you, Mr. Fornale.”

                Now how would I ever act up in my own classroom?

                “Well, there was the time you told us about the barbaric practice of producing and marketing baby oil!”

                Readers, please don’t get the wrong idea.  I merely explained one first of April that I found it unconscionable that in this day and age there would be any demand for such a product.  After all, what was vegetable oil made from?  What about canola oil?  Olive oil?  Well then, where did they think baby oil came from?

                I took out my handkerchief and dabbed my eyes until someone explained to me that the product was used on babies, not made from them.

                Now, come on!  Can any student claim that I would ever cause a disruption in my own class?

                “What about when Lynsey had the hiccups?”

                 Now that was another misunderstanding.  I happened to be walking by her desk when I sneezed.  Every student in the room leapt out of his or her seat.  Lynsey’s hiccups were instantly cured.

                What can I say?  I have a loud sneeze.

                “That was so not a real sneeze!”

                 Seriously, teachers are so misunderstood.

                “Yeah, well how about the time you and Mrs. Philip said that her brother played Little Lord Fauntleroy in a movie and got teased at school because of his haircut and ended up depressed and homeless on the streets of LA?”

                Well, that kid looked just like he could be Mrs. Philip’s younger brother.  Mrs. Philip is our school librarian.  She never said the kid wasn’t her brother.  How could I know?

                And anyone with that haircut will be teased.  It’s a basic law of physics!

                Just saying.

                And they know I would never intentionally lie to them.

                “Yeah, we know, we know, there’s a difference between lying and kidding.”

                I had to ask how we got onto this topic.

                “We were saying that the only person who causes disturbances in your class, Mr. Fornale, is you!”

                 How harsh!  That is so untrue!  Hadn’t I ever told them about Neftali?

                 “What’s Neftali?  Isn’t that a kind of cheese?”

                 No, no.  That would be Neufchatel.  Their question should be “Who is Neftali?”

                “Fine.  Who is Neftali?”

                Well, I had to tell them all about Neftali.  He was a student of mine at Hannah Penn Middle School in York, Pennsylvania.  I caught him writing on his desk in class one day.  Naturally, I assigned detention.  With a smirk on his face, he said he’d look forward to it.  As I yawned, I said the same.

                Make no mistake, Neftali was a great kid.  He was mischievous, but not malicious.  He was too clever and funloving to behave himself in his classes, so he often ran afoul of the conventions.  I could respect that, believe me.

                But you just don’t write on the desks in my classroom.

                 Neftali was smarter than the average bear.  Smarter than the average seventh-grader.  Smarter that the average rocket scientist, so when he swaggered into my classroom at 3:05 that afternoon, he had the same smirk on his face as when I assigned detention.

                And I yawned again.

                “You know you can’t do nothin’,” he said.  “All I have to do is sit here until you dismiss me.  I ain’t writin’ no sentences sayin’ I won’t write stuff no more on the desks.  You ain’t allowed to make me.”

                Now who would think I’d come up with such an inane, uninspired, uninventive—and patently coercive—punishment?

                I told him he didn’t have to write nothin’.

                I simply took out a spray bottle and a roll of paper towels and told him to clean off every desk in the classroom.

                “Ha!  You can’t make me do that!   You can’t make me clean nothin’!  That’s against school rules!  You’ll get fired!”

                My God!  He was right!  I couldn’t make him do that!  I’d get fired!I told him to make himself comfortable.  I told him that I would clean all the desks.  It would be my pleasure, and as soon as I was finished, he would be allowed to leave.

                He smirked. 

                I yawned.

                I took a paper towel and sprayed some cleaning fluid on it.  I started to clean the spray bottle.  It was rather grimy, as it had been hanging for who knows how many months on the side of a custodian’s cart.  After a few minutes, Neftali looked up and asked what I was doing.

                I don’t think I heard him.  Maybe I did and ignored him.  I was too wrapped up in what I was doing.  How, after all, could I clean desks with cleaning fluid from a skuzzy spray bottle?

                “Hey!  You gonna clean the desks, or what?”

                Of course I was going to clean the desks!  That was the whole point of cleaning the spray bottle!

                 I started on the first desk at the extreme left of the class.  It already looked clean, but we know how deceiving appearances can be.  Haven’t we all seen the Stridex commercial?

                I don’t like to rush these things.  I figure that in order to clean a desk surface effectively, I ought to take it in quadrants.  And I would never want to use too much cleaning fluid—never.  Economy, you know.

                After five minutes, I had the upper left quadrant sparkling clean.  Or at least, I saw enough gray on the paper towel to see the Stridex effect.

                Neftali looked mildly irritated.“Yeah, real funny, man!  I ain’t sittin’ here all day.”

                These things took time, I told him.  Anything worth doing is worth doing properly.

                I sped things up a bit.  It only took another five minutes to finish that first desk.  Only twenty-four left to go.

                “I said that ain’t funny!  I got to go soon!”

                Who was laughing, I asked.  Really!  I don’t like to rush these things.

                 Neftali was fidgeting and clearly agitated.  I had never seen him like this.  I was becoming concerned.  I reassured him that I was getting the hang of things, and the rest of the desks would not take as long.

                “Can I go?”  he asked.

                I said his legs made it so he could, but it was important to use the correct helping verb.

                “May I go?”

                I wasn’t finished yet, I told him.  As I started to explain the need to work meticulously, I saw his face getting red.

                “Well, finish already!  I can’t stay here all day.  I said I got to go!”

                I yawned again, but I picked up the pace.  In ten minutes the next desk was clean.

                Now Neftali was only 12, so I was a little surprised to see his eyes bulging and a purple vein standing out in his forehead.  I asked if he was all right.  I was getting worried about him.

                 “You said you were going to clean the desks!”  he thundered.

                But I was cleaning the desks.

                “How long does it take to spray a desk and wipe it off?  You don’t have to scrub every inch!”

                I tried to explain that students sometimes write on the desks or stick gum and boogers underneath, but when I cursed myself for not cleaning the underside of the first two desks, he was on his feet, screaming and gesticulating.  I couldn’t make out what he was saying at first.

                I told Neftali he needed to calm down.

                “Give me that spray bottle!”  he said.

                I was incredulous.  Then he ran over and ripped it from my grip.

                I was too stunned to yawn.

                 Then he took the paper towels from me, too!  Then he started cleaning the desks.  The nerve!

                I told him to stop.  I told him I was not allowed to make him clean the desks.  I told him I could get fired!  He had no right to clean those desks!  I wanted to do it! 

                “No!  I’m doing it!  I ain’t gonna sit here until midnight while you scrape gum off the desks!”

                I told him the boogers were more of a health hazard and should be addressed first.

                “Leave me alone!”

                 Really!  He was working too fast—he was not even dividing each desk surface into quadrants!

                 After twenty minutes, not a desk had a trace of ink or pencil lead on it.  I asked Neftali if he felt any better.

                 “Oh, come on!   Am I allowed to leave or not?”

                But he hadn’t done the underside of the desks.  The gum!  The boogers!

                “Oh, stop it!”  I saw the vein again.  “Why don’t you just let me go?”

                 Perhaps I should take him to the doctor.

                 “No!  I want to go home!”

                I asked if he would ever write on the desks again.I couldn’t quite make out what he screeched as he ran out of my classroom. 

                *                                                               *                                                * 

                  Some weeks later, a new student, Edwin, was placed in our class.  Neftali saw out of the corner of his eye that Edwin was sketching a Raiders logo on the corner of his desk.

                “I wouldn’t do that, Yo,” he admonished.

                Edwin smirked.  “What’s gonna happen to me?”

                Neftali yawned.  “Some people need to find out for themselves.”

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