Crazy is Normal: A Classroom Exposé by Lloyd Lofthouse by Lloyd Lofthouse - Read Online

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"Public school teachers will relate well to this book, as well other professionals who work with teens in challenging situations. This book is perhaps a strongest fit with college students who are interested in the teaching profession; it gives a sense of the challenges ahead and how to face them." - Judge, 2nd Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published eBook Awards

"His portrayal of life in the class room is stunning, realistic, and even a little scary. You really get the feeling your are that little fly on the wall." - Dr. William L. Smith, Professor Emeritus status, Emporia State University

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appreciated!

Crazy is Normal

a classroom exposé

a memoir

Lloyd Lofthouse

Dedicated to public school teachers

Thanks for your sacrifice:

abused,

overworked,

under attack by false reformers

& still dedicated to our children.

Many of the names in this book have been changed to protect the privacy of persons involved. However, the locations are real.

Copyright © 2014 by Lloyd Lofthouse

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Three Clover Press, P.O. Box 4221, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-0221

Published by Three Clover Press, California, USA

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day;

teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." - Confucius

Introduction

A loud voice: Mr. Lofthouse, I hate you.

I was leaving my classroom a few hours after school let out. I looked around.

Nothing; then, a familiar face with no name attached. He was standing at the far end of the building by the back gate, holding a paperback book and shaking it for emphasis.

When I was in ninth grade, I hated you, he said. I hated reading. I hated those essays and book reports you made us do, over and over until we got them right. You even got my mom to sit by me at home to make sure I read those books and finished the homework. Now I'm hooked. These fucking books are like drugs. I can't stop reading them. He delivered all this with an expression of disgust. Then his face blossomed into a smile. And I still hate it.

He turned and walked off campus and into the barrio where his family lived. It was then I remembered who he was. Four years earlier, Fabio had been nothing but pain-in-the-ass full of verbal irony and sarcasm. He'd fought me every inch of the way, but his mother became my ally. She was one of the few parents who listened to my advice, ditched the self-esteem movement, and learned to say no.

Yes, I was no-nonsense; yes, I was a hard-ass; yes, I was a teacher who practiced tough love without the physical punishment many identify with that term. That doesn’t mean I was against a good spanking when a child deserved it. God knows I was spanked as a child when I earned it, and the punishment was for my own good.

I was born into poverty, and the climb out was not easy for our parents. My older brother and sister; my Bible-toting mother; my alcoholic-gambling father; the U.S. Marines; and serving in the Vietnam War as a field radio operator were responsible for the way I saw the world and who I was.

Church bells rang nationwide the day I was born, and my high school dropout father was drunk and soon to be unemployed from his job at the Long Beach shipyards. The bells weren't for me. They rang for World War II, which ended that day.

Then, a few years later, when I was in first grade, my mother, also a high school dropout, heard, Mrs. Lofthouse, our tests show that Lloyd is retarded. He will never learn to read. We’re sorry, but there's nothing we can do for him.

I remember the tears in my mother's eyes as she drove us home, and I couldn't understand why she was crying.

I'm not going to let this happen—not to both of my sons, she said, determined, while I sat in the passenger seat of the used Buick and retreated into my imagination. 

She was talking about me and my brother Richard, sixteen at the time, who ran with a motorcycle gang and had already spent time in jail. By the time he was twenty, my brother's arms would be covered with colorful tattoos that wiggled when he flexed his muscles.

The men he worked with—when he had a job—were mostly Latino and called him El Caballo, the horse.

When Richard was seven—a few years before my arrival—similar experts told my mother that he’d never learn to read, either. My parents tried to teach him, but he fought them, won, and stayed illiterate. Because my parents had both dropped out of high school at age fourteen during the Great Depression to find work, they didn’t know the importance of literacy until it was too late.

The first house I remember living in was more of a tar-paper shack than a house. My parents bought the small, three bedroom dwelling at a bargain price and moved from Pasadena to Azusa to live near the quarry of a concrete company. The house was framed and had a roof but no windows, doors, or siding—other than the tar paper. The only room that offered privacy was the one bathroom with plywood nailed to the two-by-four framing.

I loved my parents, and I didn’t know any other way to live. They overcame many obstacles to earn their stable, blue-collar, middle-class lifestyle before I was fourteen—not the least of which was their own upbringing.

My mother was abused by her father after her mother had divorced him, and my father's mother died soon after he was born causing his father to turn to booze and abandon him to an aunt.

When I was five and she was nineteen, my sister married a truck driver who belonged to the Teamsters Union. He drove eighteen wheelers coast to coast and rescued her from poverty. My brother never escaped it, and it was him that I thought of almost every day of my teaching career.

When my mother and I returned home the day she heard I was retarded like my brother, she told my dad, I'm going to teach him to read. I won't let this happen to both of my sons.

With help from my teacher, Mom bought the right books, took a wire coat hanger from the closet, and sat me at the kitchen table. I'd stare at the one-and two-syllable words and say, I can't, Mom. It's too hard. All I wanted was to escape outside and play.

Whack! The coat hanger stung. I sat at that table every day in fear of the next blow, learning to read, and my mother made liars of the experts.

When I was seven, another teacher told my mother to have my eyes examined. That resulted in thick plastic-framed lenses. The blurry world vanished.  Mom, look at the trees, I said. I can see the leaves. They're beautiful!

But at school, the bullies called me a four-eyed freak.

Next, a virus—an executioner with a samurai sword—declared war on the valves in my heart. The third doctor we saw—the only one who offered hope—said, He has a fifty percent chance to beat this, but you must do everything I say.

Mom did.

I was not allowed to take PE classes or be involved in sports, which made me undesirable to many of my peers. Now, besides being a four-eyed freak, I was also a fag and a wimp. The library became my refuge and books, my salvation.

We visited the doctor's office twice a week for the shots, and I grew to hate needles.

Although I never saw my dad drunk, he often tumbled off the sobriety wagon and fled the house to go boozing for weeks or months at a time. I don’t know how he did it, but he always managed to show up for work and kept his job. During one of those episodes, Mom sold the house to pay the property tax. By age ten, I pledged to never drink—that lasted until Vietnam.

When Dad was too sick to keep swilling booze, he returned to the moldy apartment my mother had rented in a shabby part of Azusa. By then, to feed us and pay the rent, she was working in the laundry at The City of Hope.

Threatened with divorce, dad stopped drinking, and they managed to buy another house in Glendora across the street from an orange grove.

Uncle James, Dad's older brother—also an alcoholic—came to visit, and said, Al, you need to get away from this woman and that idiot of a kid and make a life for yourself.

My mother wasn't supposed to hear that, but she did. I watched her take a cast iron skillet and chase Uncle James down the street, beating the back of his shoulders and head with the skillet and warning him to never return.

He didn't.

The years passed, and I learned to hate school, not because of the teachers—but because I was invisible to the girls I was attracted to.

When my teachers ignored the four-eyed, faggot, wimpy retard in the back of the classroom, I took advantage of it by reading all the fiction I wanted—Norton, Heinlein, Asimov, Louis L'Amour, Tolkien, Hillerman, Dick Francis, and many more. Books were my friends. By now, I have read thousands.

When I graduated high school, I was six-foot-four and a hundred twenty-five pounds—a straw. From the side, I was almost invisible. The last three years of high school, I worked thirty hours a week on nights and weekends washing dishes in a shopping mall coffee shop.

Before the end of high school, my parents sat me down and said I either had to go to college or pay rent. I didn’t want to go to college, so I made an appointment to see my doctor and asked a few questions about my heart health and what limitations it may pose.

The doctor said, You're cured. You can live a normal life. And in a moment of insanity—maybe one of the best decisions I have ever made—I joined the Marines to prove something.

It was at MCRD that the Marine Corps pounded discipline into me, and, in Vietnam, when a sniper came close to blowing my head off, I changed my mind about college. The Marines had put thirty pounds of muscle on my bones, and, after an honorable discharge from active duty in 1968, I enrolled in a community college on the GI Bill.

While pursuing an AS degree at Citrus Community College in Glendora, I learned for the first time how much hard work it took to actually learn something in class. Then I went to an author event at Citrus to hear Ray Bradbury talk. I walked away from that lecture changed and dreaming of becoming a writer. The next semester, I signed up for a creative writing class and started writing my first novel.

I didn't plan to become a teacher. While finishing up college coursework at The University of Fresno for a BA in journalism in 1973, a third-grade teacher in my apartment building, invited me to read one of my creative writing class’ short stories to her students, and they loved it. After the reading, she said, You should consider teaching—you're good with kids.

I was polite and refrained from laughing—me, a teacher! I was the guy who grew up hating school because of bullies and girls who didn’t see me. But the idea stuck.

After working in the private sector for a few years, I returned to college to earn a teaching credential. By 1975, I was in the classroom. Along the way, I learned I wasn't retarded—I was dyslexic—something the experts didn't know about in the 1950s. Later, when I recognized the same symptoms in some of my students, I doubled my efforts and used every method possible to reach them. I didn’t want any of them to inherit my brother’s lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, low-paying jobs, and long stretches of unemployment.

In the 1990s, I was on my way home from an educational seminar at Cal Poly, Pomona. As I walked through the rose garden toward the parking lot, a voice called: Mr. Lofthouse. A college-age man was headed my way accompanied by an older woman.

He stopped in front of me and asked, Do you remember me?

Most of my former students ask that question when I run into them—even in e-mails after they find me through Google. Don't be disappointed if I don't remember, I replied. It bothers me that I can’t, but I’ve taught thousands.

You were my seventh-grade English teacher at Alvarado Intermediate in the early 80s. He turned to the older woman. Mom, I want you to meet Mr. Lofthouse. I hated him in seventh grade. He was the hardest teacher I had—but I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him.

I remember, she said. You never stopped complaining. I thought about having you transferred to another teacher, but decided against it.

My former student said, "I was the only student in my freshman-comp class at Cal Poly who knew what the professor was asking us to write for our first college essay. The reason I knew what he wanted was because all of the book reports and essays Mr. Lofthouse had us write.  

Those were the hardest assignments I did before high school graduation. No other teacher demanded that kind of work from us, and I hated him for it. He held out his hand. Thank you for being such a hard-ass.

We shook hands, and his grip was firm—just right. You taught us how to shake hands too, he said.

Wow! How about some fireworks to celebrate?

Prelude

Ending one year; starting another

At the sound of the boom, the editors—all girls—rushed the portable classroom’s door to see what was happening outside. It was 7:00 pm and the high school campus was empty—except for us and a few custodians, who were probably nowhere nearby. 

Alarmed, I said, Don’t touch that door knob.

The Scrollies—an affectionate nickname for the high school’s journalism students—stood in a pack by the only door to the windowless, portable classroom. The future editor-in-chief, a slender Asian named Amanda had her hand on the knob.

Why, Mr. Lofthouse? she asked. We want to see.

That wasn’t a car backfiring or an accident. It was a shotgun blast. I suggest you get under the desks until the police arrive, in case someone on the outside decides to use the classroom for target practice.

That night, the student editors and I worked until after ten. The school newspaper had to be out on time—it was a source of price for the students that the paper had never been late. For five consecutive years, Scroll won first-place International Awards for School News Media from the International Honorary Society for high school journalists. One year, the staff was nine points from the prestigious George H. Gallup Award—the Pulitzer for high school journalism.

҉

The high school where I taught English and journalism was an oasis in a barrio of simmering street-gang violence.

For seven of the thirty years I was a teacher, I was the faculty adviser for a student-run high school newspaper. In the early ‘90s, as the school year ended at Nogales High School, I wanted to move to another classroom because I had witnessed two drive-by shootings from the portable classroom where I taught. The only thing between my students and the shooters was a thin plywood wall, some foam insulation, and a chain-link fence.

The floor of that coffin-like portable classroom bulged like a malignant tumor, sending the desks in the center—with students in them—sliding into the surrounding desks.

The first drive-by shooter aimed at a house across the street when school was letting out, and the street was full of parents and children.

The San Gabriel Valley Tribune quoted an unidentified district administrator, who said the shooting had taken place several blocks from campus since there were no shell casings near the school. Of course there weren’t, because revolvers don’t spit them out like an automatic weapon does. I was an eye witness.

The second shooting was with the journalism girls.

During the school day, the back parking lot gate next to the portable I taught out of was closed and locked, and the front was guarded. The high school had several campus police officers (CPOs) linked with walkie-talkies, and the CPOs patrolled the campus on ten speeds. When school let out, the back gate was unlocked, opened, and left that way for several hours with no one guarding it.

A teen on suspension, waiting for his expulsion hearing, took a shortcut by climbing the east fence and crossing the forty-acre campus. As he reached the open gate next to my classroom, he took a blast from a rival gang’s twelve-gauge shotgun and died.

Because none of us witnessed the incident, we had nothing to relay to the police. However, an English teacher leaving late was in her car at the gate when the victim walked in front of her and was shot.

That teacher didn’t return for a week, and the principal had to visit her home and persuade her to come back to work.

I was no stranger to violence. The Marine Corps and a tour in Vietnam had conditioned me to deal with it. I didn’t think my journalism students could cope, but on another night they proved me wrong when one of the local street gangs invaded our academic oasis.

It was hot, the air conditioner wasn’t working, and I’d left the classroom door open. I heard the fence outside rattling as if someone were climbing it, so I went to the door and found half a dozen teenage gangbangers inside the fence a few feet from the door, staring at me. They wore white T-shirts and baggy, sagging pants.

Leave, I said. They didn’t budge, their eyes saying, hey, we know you’re alone in there. You can’t stop us.

The homeboy closest to me looked inside the room and saw the girls; his eyes widened. I shoved him back and started to close the door. Hands reached for the outside knob, and a tug-of-war ensued. Desperate, I forced the door shut, almost smashing a few of their fingers. The gangbangers pounded on the outside walls, cursed, threatened, rattled the door, and occasionally kicked it.

One of the girls crawled under a desk. With fear-filled eyes, the others kept working. What else could we do? The only phone was an intercom to an empty front office—cell phones weren’t common then. We were trapped. For once, I was glad the room didn’t have windows, but I still worried that they might set the plywood portable on fire and attempt to roast us. I glanced at the room’s one fire extinguisher hanging on the wall by the only door.

Mr. Lofthouse, Amanda asked, what should we do next year? Should we start training the cub reporters in July—the week before I go to leadership training—or the first week in August after I return? The way the tension dissolved, it was as if she had brought out a chocolate cake and sliced it.

I wondered if she had started the conversation to diffuse the fear and decided to play along and act as if nothing was happening outside the classroom.

You’re going to leadership school? I asked. I didn’t know that. Where?

At the University of Santa Barbara, she said.

Why are you suggesting we do staff training before you go?

I'm in Academic Decathlon, and we study all summer, three nights a week. Our coach (another teacher at the high school) has us working until midnight sometimes.

The Academic Decathlon classroom was in a brick building deep inside the campus in a safer location—one I coveted.

The other editors left the layouts they were working on and gathered around my desk. I had been correcting papers and recording grades from the four ninth-grade English classes I taught.

By then, the gang had stopped banging on the walls and shouting, but I had no way of knowing whether or not they were hanging around, waiting for us to open the door.

If we had a textbook, Amanda said, we could train the cubs better.

Academic Decathlon is studying in August, aren’t they? I asked, hoping stupid came with short attention spans and the gangbangers would soon leave. It pissed me off that I had survived Vietcong snipers taking shots at me, and was here now in an American public school at 7:00 PM with a gang of angry, teenage thugs outside wanting in. I should have been armed like I’d been in Vietnam.

Yes, she replied.

The girl who had been under a desk was out and working on her page layouts again. How many of you are in Decathlon? I asked.

Three raised hands.

Amanda, I said, we’ll train the cub reporters in August. There’ll be enough editors to do the job. We also have enough money left from this year’s advertising revenue to buy that set of journalism textbooks you want.

Really? Lisa, the feature editor, asked.

We might even be able to squeeze in two new computers and a scanner. Because you seven are in charge of the newspaper next year, why don’t you find the textbook you want. You have my phone number. When you’re ready, call me, and I’ll fill out the purchase order.

You want us to select the textbook we’re going to study from? another editor asked, as if she couldn't believe what she'd heard.

Why not? I replied.

Once we have the textbooks, you don’t mind if I plan the training exercises? Amanda asked. After all, I’ll only be a few buildings away.

She was seventeen.

Amanda, because of tonight, we won’t be in this room in August. We’ll be in another classroom, behind a brick wall away from this gate and street. I’ll talk to the principal tomorrow. If he wants a school newspaper, he’ll have to move us to a safer location.

By the time we left a few hours later, the gang was gone.

I had to be careful how I talked to the principal so it wouldn’t sound like a demand or blackmail. But another reason to move was the dead stray cats in the crawl space under the classroom. The rotting carcasses smelled, and the atmosphere in the room gave me headaches and a wheeze—I bought three HEPA air filters that helped with the stench. I turned in the paperwork requesting that building services remove the dead cats, but it wouldn’t be easy. The crawl space was big enough for small animals, but not people.

҉

The U.S. poverty rate in 2012 for children under age 18 was 21.8% (16,073,000).

http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf

It is well documented that poverty decreases a child’s readiness for school through aspects of health, home life, schooling and neighbourhoods. Six poverty-related factors are known to impact child development in general and school readiness in particular. They are the incidence of poverty, the depth of poverty, the duration of poverty, the timing of poverty (eg, age of child), community characteristics (eg, concentration of poverty and crime in neighborhood, and school characteristics) and the impact poverty has on the child’s social network (parents, relatives and neighbors). A child’s home has a particularly strong impact on school readiness. Children from low-income families often do not receive the stimulation and do not learn the social skills required to prepare them for school. Typical problems are parental inconsistency (with regard to daily routines and parenting), frequent changes of primary caregivers, lack of supervision and poor role modelling. Very often, the parents of these children also lack support.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2528798/

Then there is the violence.

The CDC reported that, In 2009, about 20% (5 million) of students 12 –18 reported that gangs were present at their school during the school year ... 5.9% (1.45 million) did not go to school on one or more days because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school ... 7.4% (1.82 million) reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property one or more times in the 12 months before the survey...

Exposure to youth violence and school violence can lead to a wide array of negative health behaviors and outcomes, including alcohol and drug use and suicide. Depression, anxiety, and many other psychological problems, including fear, can result from school violence. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/school_violence_fact_sheet-a.pdf

These facts reported by the U.S. Census, the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the CDC should concern everyone in America, but the federal government, Congress, and Presidents G. W. Bush and Obama demanded that America’s public schools and teachers successfully teach one hundred percent of these children anyway or risk job loss and replacement of the school with one run by corporations or private sector non-profits, where the CEO administrators are already paid hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for running a school that often performs no better or worse than the public schools. The biggest difference—so far—has been that these private sector schools do not have to be successful with one hundred percent of the students, and their teachers do not have to be highly trained or certified.

҉

From 1975-76 I was a full-time, paid intern working toward my teaching credential in a fifth-grade class at Yorbita Elementary in Rowland Unified School District. My master teacher, who supervised my progress and guided me, said that it was best to start out strict and lighten up later.

In her soft, calm voice—the same she used with her students—she said, If you start out mean, it will be easier to get strict again if the situation in the classroom calls for it.

She was right. I learned through the years that teachers who started out trying to be friends with the kids later struggled to keep control of their classes. Translation: if the tougher kids discovered you were a softy, they would usually eat you alive.

She also told me to speak in a low voice and only show anger if the situation required it. Never lose control of your temper, she said. It’s our job to teach and to maintain a learning environment where kids can learn—not to be their best buddy. If you lose control of your temper, then some of the kids will think they won because they made you angry.

That advice was the reason I did nothing to stop the rumor that went around for years that I’d had a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) flashback in the classroom. I didn’t attempt to correct that rumor, because it might help me maintain my learning environment, but I didn’t do anything to cultivate it, either. When a kid wanted to know if I had killed anyone over there, I refused to talk about it.

I was asked by at least one student each year if the rumor was true. I replied every time that I didn’t know.

But that was a lie—my Vietnam flashbacks took place at night, never in daylight or in the classroom.

The rumor might have started with an incident that happened in the early 1980s when I was teaching seventh-grade English at Giano Intermediate.

A boy in one of my classes was talking loudly to a friend while I was giving instructions for an assignment—they were sitting in opposite corners of the room.

I’m not talking, the student said when I told him to stop.

If I had been eighty and deaf, I might have doubted myself. At the time, I was thirty-six, and my hearing worked fine.

If I hear one more word out of you, I said, you’re going to the office.

You can’t make me go, he said, and resumed the loud conversation.

Okay, you’re out of here. I reached for a referral.

I didn’t do anything! He shouted, and leaped from his seat. You don’t like me!

He locked eyes with mine and curled his hands into fists.

That’s when my blood pressure spiked and anger swept aside the teacher, replacing him with a one hundred ninety-pound grizzly bear, who shoved occupied desks aside to reach this student.

Halfway there, the teacher realized that he could lose his job and end up in jail if the grizzly ripped this student's tongue out. Heart pounding, the teacher calmed the bear down, using the fear of communal prison showers and dropped soap.

Did I hate to turn back around? Yes! In Marine Corps boot camp, no one talked back to the drill instructor because we’d get our asses kicked somewhere north of our ears.

It was a long walk to the room's intercom. Once the student with the mouth realized what was happening, he crossed the room to his friend’s desk and sat on it to continue the loud conversation—the one that, according to him, still wasn't happening.

Eventually, ten or fifteen minutes later, the CPO arrived and escorted the mouth out of the classroom.

I had a difficult time getting to sleep that night. There would be many sleepless nights over the years, thanks to kids like that scrawny gangbanger.

The next day, the mouth was back as if nothing had happened. He didn’t challenge me again, but he also never brought a textbook to class or did any of the work. Day after day, he sat there and filled one piece of paper after another with gangbanger graffiti.

As long as you’re writing, I said one day, you might as well do an assignment once in a while.

He ignored me as if I were a bug. When class ended, he carefully put each piece of graffiti-filled paper inside his binder as if they were diamond-studded platinum sheets. I tried to call his parents, but all of the listed phone numbers on the family contact card were disconnected.

҉

The new school year at Nogales High School in the early ’90s started early during the summer, and I worked for free. In this school district, teachers were paid a monthly salary from the end of September to the end of June. We had ten monthly paydays a year and then ten weeks of summer without pay, but many districts divide the annual salary into twelve payments, one a month.

It didn’t matter how many hours a teacher worked each week—forty, sixty, eighty, a hundred—the money stayed the same. True, coaches and advisors were paid a stipend for the extra duty, but the stipend wasn’t much for the added hours we worked.

After I talked to the principal about the tug-of-war with the gangbangers that took place near the end of the previous school year, he moved us out of that portable classroom to a room in a real brick building.

It was the first real classroom I’d taught in since transferring to the high school in 1989 from the intermediate school.  For several years, I was a gypsy, teaching out of five different classrooms and constantly on the move from period to period.

It was during my second year at the high school that I ended in that windowless, portable, dead-cat dungeon. It had heat and a noisy air conditioner, but using it meant the students and I couldn’t hear each other. But without it, we breathed stale, rotten air. In hindsight, I think someone in administration—maybe at the district level—wanted me to leave and was torturing me, hoping I would quit.

҉

On my first visit to that brick-and-mortar classroom in a real building, I discovered that my room, A1, was next to one of the few faculty restrooms. Inside A1, the furniture was piled against the far wall. Later, I learned the reason for the mess was that the room didn’t get deep cleaned until after summer school, which had just recently ended. I was in the Marines. I've done deep cleaning and we would have scrubbed that room with toothbrushes several times before it would have passed an inspection.

Here, deep cleaning meant the carpet was shampooed, the desks scrubbed of graffiti that wasn't carved into their surfaces, and the shelves were dusted. When you consider that there were about a hundred classrooms (counting the portables) at the high school to clean and never enough custodians, I doubt they could’ve done much more than what they did.

So, a few weeks before that deep cleaning, I picked up the paper airplanes, spit wads, and crumpled paper that littered the floor before I vacuumed the room. I pulled stick pins and paper cones out of the ceiling. Some of those ceiling tiles were warped and stained brown from the flat, leaky roof. A few had cracks in them or chunks missing and the cork bulletin boards were covered in generational layers of graffiti.

I imagined one of my gangbangers finding graffiti that his father or grandfather had left behind.

If you want to see where I taught, go to Google Maps and search for Nogales High School, Nogales St., La Puente, CA. Once the map pops up, find Northam St., south of the high school campus, and move your eye west along Northam away from Nogales St.

Zoom in and look for the six portables that run between the street and the first brick building. Mine was near the last portable next to the back gate, where the shotgun shooting took place. Zoom in close, and the view switches from above to an eye view at ground level from the middle of Northam St. I understand the aerial view comes from satellites, but the eye-level street view from car-carried digital cameras that have logged more than five million miles—so the street view might be out-of-date.

In the early ’90s, there were twelve portables, but mine was removed several years later as attendance dropped below 3,000. The first portable blocks the view of room A1, where I taught for almost half of the thirty years I was a teacher.

The previous teacher who’d taught out of this classroom had retired after more than thirty-eight years—two years after I moved in, I heard that he’d died.

I refused to teach in a classroom that looked like part of a bombed-out homeless shelter. The dark spots where gum had been ground into the fibers stood out like malignant skin cancer. Before the first day of school that year, I crawled around on the floor for several hours, using ice to freeze the gum and a single-edged razor blade to scrape out those dark blotches embedded in the threadbare carpet.

The bottoms of the desks were worse—the gum was layered, waiting for cultural archaeologists. I turned each one over and scraped them clean.

After school started, I knew it wouldn’t take long for the students to replace the gum. The school district didn’t allow students to chew gum, eat candy, or drink soda in class, but it wasn’t usually enforced. I enforced it. Keeping it out of that carpet and off the bottoms of the desks would turn out to be a year-long battle. Whenever I caught a student chewing gum, the penalty was either a Saturday detention in the Behavior Intervention Center [BIC] or thirty pieces of gum scraped off the bottoms of the desks or from the sidewalk outside the room.

The previous year—the year of drive-by shootings—had been my first as the high school’s journalism advisor.

The seniors I inherited from the previous advisor ran an overt and covert operation against my expectations and rules—I wanted everyone to meet the assigned deadlines and write according to what I’d learned in my journalism classes.

One afternoon after school, when those seniors couldn’t stand me and my journalistic standards, they rebelled, pouring out of my classroom and into the counselor’s office to protest the mean son-of-a-bitch who expected them to publish a proper newspaper. 

To my relief, the principal supported me. He and I were at the front of the room while a dozen seniors sat in a carnivorous pack with crossed arms and stony expressions. If the look in their eyes had been napalm, the two of us would have been roasted.

If you don’t want to work with me as your advisor, I said, the principal has agreed to allow you all to drop the class without a penalty. If you decide to stay, this newspaper will be run professionally.

Only one of the seniors quit. If they had all quit, there would have been only seven underclassmen to keep the paper going, and only Amanda, a junior at the time, knew how to use the computer program, QuarkXPpress.

After that, the senior editors tolerated me until they graduated. Needless to say, I looked forward to my second year as the journalism advisor.

Now I had a new classroom in a real building and a new editor-in-chief who spoke softly, and had a beautiful smile instead of a rigid scowl.

Training the new staff started July twenty-fifth, earlier than I had expected. Amanda called me and asked for more time to teach her staff properly and introduce them to the new textbook she and the others had selected over the summer. I agreed. We started the training in the portable dungeon with the bulging floor until our real room was ready.

Half of the new staff had been recruited out of my ninth-grade English classes, and I had selected the best—every English class had a few great students who worked hard to learn. I also asked the other English teachers to recommend students, and the rest were recruited by Amanda and her editors.

We had one goal: to build a strong, hardworking, dependable, skilled staff. Every applicant was interviewed by Amanda and her editors. Amanda even assigned a timed news piece for them to write so she could evaluate their writing skills, and her editors rejected a few of the applicants.

On those training days before the regular school year started, Amanda put me to work teaching small groups how to size a story so it would fit into the column inches assigned. If the piece was too short, it would have to be rewritten until it was long enough to fill the space. If it was too long, it had to be cut.

On the last day of training in early August, I asked for volunteers to help me move the furniture from the old classroom. Many said they would help, but when the day came, only two appeared: Ethan and Tucker. Ethan, a new senior, had been on the staff the previous year. Tucker was a new reporter. With their help and a