by: Art Rosch1
After seventeen years of a tobacco-free existence, nicotine’s unrelenting grasp returns…
I started smoking again.
I hate it when I do something so stupid there’s no excuse for it. It’s humiliating, and utterly asinine. I deserve a spanking, and I don’t mean the good kind.
In 1992 I quit a three pack-a-day cigarette habit. It was a huge exertion. I am not a cold turkey type of person. I’m more like a warmed-over chicken type of person. I have to do things in steps.
I used nicotine gum and the patch. In a month, I was down to half a pack a day. I know….I know….one is not supposed to smoke and wear the patch. I make my own rules. No cold Turkey. Luke-warm chicken, remember. That’s my pace. That’s my way. In only two weeks I reduced my intake to a mere two cigarettes a day. Finally I made that ultimate leap of faith and left the old demon for good. Or so I thought….
It was lovely, being free of tobacco for twenty-one years.
What drove me back to smoking, you ask? What could be so frustrating, so enraging to cause me to undo that effort, the dedication that I had given to ending my addiction?
I became a teacher at an affluent private high school. This teaching job evolved from a phone call I received from the Principal of Tech Arts Academy (name changed to protect the innocent and the guilty). Its Principal had read an article about my volunteer work with a school that was, shall we say, low on funds. I had done four years of mentoring at a tough school in the East Bay.
I negotiated a contract with Tech Arts Academy. I would teach three classes per week. Each class would last fifty minutes. Pay per semester: Five thousand dollars. I was delightfully stunned. What more could I want? The school was a short drive from home. I had a light schedule and a fat paycheck. Sweet! I thought. I didn’t realize at the time that I had consigned myself to walk through the jaws of Chaos.
I had loved working with my wild hip-hop kids in the East Bay. Beneath their thug veneer, they were hungry and grateful. During the holidays, each student would make a card for me using a personal photo project. Some of them were brilliant. Some were unintentionally sobering.
These students’ basic reading and writing skills hardly existed. For example, I received a photo card from a senior. It was a razor-sharp black and white shot of a street scene. It was a classic: the little girl jumping rope was in mid-air. The old men lounging in chairs were laughing as clouds of beer-spittle hovered before their lips, each globule perfectly stopped like a cluster of stars in space. As a photographer this kid was a real talent. The photo conveyed a deep comprehension of the work of Cartier-Bresson. The boy’s scrawled message read like this: “Thang yu m Rosh fore teeshng mu to shit photo.”
Back on the other side of the Bay I was about to be paid nearly five grand to teach a semester in a school where every student would have a Macbook and a digital camera. The school was set in the midst of parklands. There were benches under oak trees, little waterfalls, gentle rolling hills.
The East Bay school where I had mentored was built like a prison. It was all fences, high walls and right angles. There was no greenery, no plant life. Trash blew along its paved quadrangles, and empty Cheetos bags yawed in the wind. Every year there was a handful of murders. Memorial posters hung in the corridors. The posters were enlarged class photos of self-conscious teenagers with bad skin and confused expressions.
“Jerry Rodrigues, 1994-2012. We’ll miss you.”
“Nguyen Van Pham, 1995-2012. So much promise.”
Yet, I felt no fear. Wherever I walked students greeted me. I carried four thousand dollars worth of gear in my photo bag. I never had any trouble.
I hadn’t built any fantasies about students from wealthy families. In fact, I was a bit cynical. My goal was simply to ignite a love of photography in some of these kids. I wouldn’t get them all. I knew that. I thought I would get a few. I hoped. That’s all….I just….hoped.
On the first day of the semester I arrived at my classroom half an hour early and set up my tools. I had a laptop and my camera gear. The school provided a digital projector and a screen so I could show images and procedures on my computer.
Every student was to have a Apple laptop and a medium-grade Sony digital camera. The latest and best photo software would be installed on each computer. I would have loved to have this gear at Flying Bullets High School!
There were four rows of long tables with chairs in the classroom. They formed a square that was open at the ends. In the room’s center I had a small table to hold the computer and projector. I could stand outside the square and walk around the classroom to reach each student. I could see all twenty four of my students and they could see me.
I had been told that I could use basic forms of verbal discipline. There would be no shouting, no cursing and of course no corporal punishment. To back up my discipline I had the option of sending a student to the Principal’s office. This was a feeble deterrent. The Principal, Mrs. Forster, was as frightening as a bag of cotton candy. She used “therapy talk.” “What are your feelings, Trish? Why are you acting out? What can we do to resolve your issues?”
At one o’clock the bell rang to begin my first class at Tech Arts. Within five minutes, fifteen of my students had drifted in and taken a seat. They were talking among themselves. They gave me a cursory glance. The boys continued pushing one another and laughing. Several were immersed in portable video games. The girls were listening to their iPods, talking about boys and squealing at supersonic pitch. By ten after one, another four students had arrived. They took their seats casually and looked around the room. They were either smirking or looking completely stricken and miserable. I still had five missing students. I started the class.
“Hi, I’m Mister Rosch, and this is a class in digital photography. Would each of you answer when I call your name?”
They looked at me as though a giraffe had suddenly appeared in the room, something completely out of place, exotic and impossible to ignore.
A girl wearing a soft white hoodie sat at the end of the rear table. Her eyes were unfocused. She was listening to music. It was so loud I could hear it. I was amazed that her head didn’t turn to mush.
“Young lady, please take the hood down and turn off the music.”
She didn’t hear me. I met the eyes of the girl next to her and cocked my head to the right. The girl poked her neighbor. The hoodie girl emerged from her trance. Her neighbor spoke with enough volume to be heard over the music.
“Off the hoodie! No iPod!” she yelled, poking her thumb in my direction to fix the blame where it belonged. The girl’s face emerged from the shadow of the sweatshirt’s hood. She was lightly freckled, her hair short and black. One of her cheeks was distorted by a huge wad of gum. Her mouth opened and closed like that of a snapping turtle.
“Your name is?” I asked. She removed the chunk of gum and put it into a tissue.
“Stephanie,” she answered. She placed the gum and tissue in her backpack.
“Oh….uh….Stephanie Blarney,” she said, and there was a titter of quiet laughter from the class.
I looked at my roll list and found one Stephanie, last name Hubbard.
I asked the girl in the next seat. “Is she Stephanie Hubbard?”
“Guess so,” the adjacent girl answered. She looked to her left. “Is that your name, Blarney?”
“Yeah,” Stephanie Hubbard grunted. The white ear buttons of her iPod dangled from her dainty hand like the eyestalks of a squashed insect.
I was about to resume roll call when a thin young gentleman appeared. His face was pimpled and his hair looked like a broom that had served as a target for shotgun practice. His eyelids were at half mast. Marijuana vapor rose from his clothing like mist from a rain forest.
As he took a seat I said, “Sir, you’re twenty minutes late.”
He looked up at me and said, “Huh?”
“Twenty minutes,” I said.
“Twenty minutes what?”
“You’re twenty minutes late,” I repeated. I wasn’t going to get angry. What would be the point?
“Oh, well that’s cool,” he responded.
“Just take a seat, please.”
Some of the students were laughing. Little snorts gusted from their noses. I continued the roll. Megan B. Anthony C. Keith E. I had gotten that far when the door opened and a diminutive student entered the room. He was the only black student I had seen on the campus. He walked with a combination of a droop and bounce, and was very loose in his knees. His hands were held with index and pinky fingers pointed out while the other fingers curled into a fist. His limbs moved with the popping grooves of a hip hop gangsta. His head thrust forward, his elbows locked, his arms kept criss-crossing his chest. He went directly to a seat at the table nearest the door and scooched himself between two friends. There passed a little rally of smacked knuckles, coded fingertwiddles and muttered incantations.
One of the students squared himself to face forward and smiled at me with perfectly false sincerity and charm. His eyes twinkled with benevolent mockery.
“S’up man?” he asked rhetorically. “Everything ‘aight?”
I walked to the door and twisted the lock mechanism to the left, and then back to the right. I did it three more times, loudly and conspicuously.
It was 1:25 pm.
“I want everyone to know that from now on this door is closed at three minutes after one. Class begins at one. You’ll have three minutes grace. Don’t even bother coming through the door after that time. Go straight to the Principal’s office.”
I repressed my desire to start a “when I was your age” speech. No good. It would be utterly useless and stupid.
I booted up the computer. The screen at the front of the room lit up to mirror its desktop. I sat in the chair next to the computer and projector. I moused onto the icon of Photoshop, so I could open the program.
“There were supposed to be twenty four computers here,” I said to the class at large. “Does anyone know where those computers are?”
A hand shot up. It belonged to a boy with a broad forehead and the faint beginnings of a moustache. He wore glasses and was dressed neatly in a short sleeved shirt and belted khaki pants.
“Tell me your name,” I began.
“I’m Damian,” he said. “I think the computers are still being checked out by Jeff in the Tech Lab. He’s supposed to bring them here when he’s done.”
There’s always a kid in class who wants to help the teacher. Sometimes he’s the smart kid, the geek. Sometimes he’s the kid with the worst grades. He becomes a helper out of desperation. I had a feeling that Damian was the geek. He knew everything, had all the answers. Damian nudged the boy next to him. “Bock,” he said, “Why don’t you go down to the Tech Lab and get those laptops?”
Bock was a chubby person whose shirt buttons weren’t properly aligned.
The division of labor had already been apportioned. I had one of each; the geek and the helper with the low grades. Without referring to me or looking in my direction, Bock rose from his chair and shuffled out the door.
“He’ll take care of it, Mr. Rosch,” said Damian with calm familiarity. “Jeff the Tech is notoriously slow.” He pantomimed the act of inhaling marijuana. The air hissed through his lips. “He gets the job done but he loses track of time.”
First day problems, I thought. At least the projector was there, and it worked. A freshly shipped box of cameras sat in a corner of the room, still sealed with transparent tape. It informed the world: Made In China. 24 units. A Sony Product.
“I’d like to finish calling the roll, so at least I can put some names to faces,” I requested. I tried to keep my tone calm. Then a pert little girl wearing denim overalls and a Pendleton raised her hand and waved it like a semaphore.
“Okay,” I said fatalistically. “What’s your name?”
“Um….I’m Kate….and….um….I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Kate,” I answered, looking towards the wall clock. It said 1:30 pm. “This class is over in twenty minutes. Can you possibly wait until then?”
“I….um….well….it’s you know….girl problems. A real emergency.”
What was I going to say? I didn’t entirely believe her but I couldn’t be sure. I made the worst tactical error of the entire semester.
“Kate, just go,” I shook my thumb as if it had a mild burn. “Please come back here immediately. Don’t dawdle in the hall.” Kate vanished and I didn’t see her until the next class, two days later.
Immediately another girl waved her hand in the air. I held my silence for a couple of minutes. The girl in her seat kept waving. I held the silence until the room acquired an uncomfortable muttering edge. There was a hole where a response should be and no one wanted the hole to continue existing. Words began to spout from students’ mouths, random words, like “Man,” or “Hey,” or “Jeez.” Finally the girl said, “Fuck, man, I gotta go too!”
I nodded. Three other girls rose with her, and all of them fled the classroom. The class attendance had shrunk back to fifteen.
No sooner had the three girls vanished than a handsome lad with the look of James Dean entered the room. The students were suddenly quiet. This young man, keeping his back to the wall, slid the entire perimeter of the classroom until he found the seat closest to me, the seat at the very end of the table next to the windows. He stuck out his hand and said, “Woodleigh. Atherton Woodleigh.” I shook his hand.
“Most people call me Lee. They tried calling me Woody but I cut them up a little and put a stop to that real fucking quick.”
This was delivered with clear sincerity and humility. It wasn’t a boast. It was a fact. I found the name of the sociopath on the roll list and marked it with a check and the time: 1:36 pm. The conversational volume in the room now grew until it was a general melee. Everyone was talking. I found a phone book under the teacher’s desk near the windows. I raised it and slammed it down on the desk.
“Goddammit!” I shouted. “Will you shut up?”
They shut up. Now they were all watching me.
At that precise moment there was a clatter at the door and it pushed open as if by its own volition. I saw a long double-tiered metal cart forcing its way into the room. The one called Bock slid past it and took its front end. He pulled with his back towards the class. Half his shirt tail hung over rumpled brown pants. At the other end of the cart, facing me, was a tall man with a long pony tail. He wore a black leather vest with a Hell’s Angel logo done in elaborate beadwork.
“Here’s the Macs,” Bock said triumphantly.
Everyone began to rise from their chairs.
“Whoa! Whoa! Sit down!” I commanded, and I was obeyed. “Bock, will you hand out the computers, please?”
Jeff the Tech said, “Sorry about the lateness, man. These ‘laps are a little creaky from last semester. The Essential Theater Arts class used ‘em and those guys don’t care about their gear at all, no way. Had to reformat every one of ‘em. Not the kids, I mean. The computers. You know what a bitch that is?” He giggled with his hand over his mouth. “That would be cool, if we could reformat the kids, wouldn’t it?” He didn’t expect an answer.
Each computer had a number taped to its bottom. The first student to get a computer was a bulky boy with light curly hair. He occupied the seat nearest the door. He looked under the computer and said, “Uh-uh, this computer’s bunk. Number zero one three six, uh-uh….it crashes every two minutes.”
He thrust the computer back onto the cart and reached for another. Jeff slapped his hands away.
“Ain’t no computer good enough for you, Rick, you do this every time I give you a ‘lap, every fucking time.”
There followed a general rumble as students vied for computers with known reputations. Some had scratches and dings but they still made an impressive pile of laptops.
When I had been mentoring on the other side of the bay at Drawn Dagger High School, there was one computer per fifteen students and that computer ran Windows 95 and might crash every time it tried to digest a large photo file. There were three printers in the photography room, ancient Hewlett Packard’s that printed only black and white. By dint of my own efforts soliciting photographers, I had attracted six good but obsolete digital cameras, four or five monitors and a very old copy of pirated Photoshop. The software wouldn’t install properly on half the computers. I had gotten some refurbished Epson color printers but there wasn’t money for the ink so a teacher and I pooled our own funds and bought some.
This wrangling at Tech Arts over Mac Laptops was too much for me. I felt as if someone had opened my chest and tied a square knot in my esophagus, then put it back inside me. Now I was expected to swallow.
I couldn’t swallow this. I couldn’t. I reached into my camera bag and took out a film camera, a 1976 model Pentax. It was hefty. I threw it against the wall. It shattered with a dramatic cacophony of flying parts. This brought the rumble to a sudden stop. Students froze in place and looked at me as if I were a cobra who had suddenly slithered into the room.
“SIT….DOWN.” The class scuffled back to their seats. They bumped into one another. They refused to take their eyes off of me.
“I don’t know you as individuals,” I said. Throwing the camera had released my rage. My heart beat had returned to normal. “But collectively you act like a bunch of spoiled little fucks.” I tried to meet as many eyes as possible. I saw fear, contempt, apathy and a small dose of provisional respect. I had an intuition that it wouldn’t be enough. I was right.
The Principal came to talk to me before the next class. I could not shout. I could not throw things. I could not use foul language. If I wanted my job I would have to be more respectful towards the student body. Their parents were paying a lot of money to send their kids to Tech Arts Academy. A lot of money.
Let me break this down for you: the school was not really an educational institution. Its purpose was to warehouse spoiled and unruly kids whose parents had no time for their children. Therefore I had no power. The people who really suffered were the few students who actually wanted to learn something and were stifled by their peers.
Every day was like the first day. Some were worse. A few were better. Mostly, they were like this: chaos, petty wrangling, disappearances to the bathroom without return, and lateness accompanied by staggering indifference. There were rolled eyes, concealed music players, giggling, fights, video games, reading comic books, animal noises and farts.
I tried really hard but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d failed in some obvious way. If I had been a better teacher, I could have controlled these kids. I had two students who cared. One was mister geek, Damian. He had it all down. Technically he knew the subject better than I did. He needed counsel in the creative side but at least he cared. There was a girl named Lizzie. She was a big country girl with long straight reddish hair. She worked hard. She didn’t know anything, but she wanted to know. She worked, and she learned. Her photography was dreadful! Her photos looked like very poor snapshots. How could a person who learned what she had learned, worked as she had worked, still be incapable of making good images?
Some people have it, and some don’t.
I had promised that the student who showed the most progress would win a nice digital camera. It was a donation from my friends in the photography community. It was a major upgrade from the Sony cameras in the big box. Lizzie won the camera. Damian didn’t need it. He already had a good digital camera and would probably end up at Harvard in a couple of years.
I projected my class material on the screen while the students sneaked around in the dimmed room, plotting ways to disrupt their own educations. Their literacy was no better than that at Murder Incorporated High School. But there was a difference. The kids at Murder Inc. were trying but lacked the opportunity. The kids at Tech Arts had the opportunity but weren’t trying.
I assigned essays. I spoke about the work of historic geniuses like Steichen and Halsman. I showed presentations of images on the screen. I assigned homework. I asked the students to read up on Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The latter was a French photographer who shot witty and profound black and white photos. He used a Leica to catch the spontaneity of Paris street scenes. I asked the class to turn in essays on the great Frenchman.
This was the essay that sent me to buy a pack of cigarettes. This masterpiece was scrawled on half a torn piece of lined notebook paper in handwriting worthy of a four year old. My student had written the following: “Henry Carter Beast was a great photographer. He was a genius. He took a lot of pictures. They were all in black and white. They had some greys too, I think.”
That was two years ago. I just bought a box of nicotine patches.
I stopped smoking once. I know I can stop again.
- Header art by Lucas Zoltowski. [↩]