The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 64 Mister

In multicultural teacher training, they told us that if we wanted professional status, then we must dress professionally. Too many teachers wore tennis shoes, blue jeans, and T-shirts and then complained about low pay and lack of respect. I thought it shouldn’t matter; an effective teacher’s an effective teacher. Now I know that we absolutely do judge each other by appearances. People who claim to be totally nonjudgmental aren’t very psychologically savvy. Perhaps they are overly idealistic and like to think of themselves as someone who would walk into a maximum-security prison and see only strangers who are not yet friends. I’m not saying to be racist or intolerant or unloving; I am saying be careful until you know who you’re dealing with. But I like that we aspire to loftier ideals. The thing is, being able to predict danger from a person’s appearance is helpful until we know how he or she plans to treat us; it’s evolutionarily adaptive, albeit defensive and politically incorrect. We should judge each other on initial appearances to determine who’s safe or who’ll club us over the head. Humans acting like predators is common, even when the manifestation is to seek money, sex, social status, and a myriad other personal goals. In the meantime, we can all get indignant about stereotyping each other. I think we should pay attention when our “Spidey sense” tingles, and only let down our guard as the other person proves him- or herself safe. It’s an evolutionary fact that human beings are not only predators but mammals that either want something from us or have little concern for us, in general, because there are so many of us. Of course, it helps to have an extroverted approach if you wish to connect to more people. To be clear, I am wholeheartedly for all seven billion of us currently alive to practice peace, love, and understanding, but until we can get everyone on the same page, I recommend a balance between openness and defensiveness; I’m suggesting commonsense ways to stay safe as we connect to safe others and satisfy our emotional intimacy needs.

      I wanted to look like a competent, conservative teacher to whom parents could entrust their children’s education, and I wanted the kids to see me as an authority figure, even though inside I still felt a bit like Timmy Two-Mile when I was surrounded by all those teens. So, to better fake confidence, I spent a couple hundred bucks at Kmart on an entirely new wardrobe. Which meant that I looked the part of an educator. I even wore psychedelic neckties, which meant that I’d joined the game but still had hippie passion.

      On my first day at Manzano High School, three gangsters—sophomore boys—cornered me in the gym lobby. They talked tough, acting like Ramon and me in junior high. By then I knew to show no fear, but I hoped they were bright enough to consider the consequences if they escalated the confrontation. I’d changed a lot since I got jumped outside the Circle K by the tenth-grade freaks; I wasn’t some skinny freshman lost in his Cook’s Special letter jacket any longer (I reminded myself). If it were another choice between fight, flight, or freeze, I would not run or freeze this time. So, I acted authoritative until the gangsters figured out that I wasn’t a victim and did their best “I am somebody” swagger away. One dropped a candy wrapper to test me. I told him to pick it up. He sheepishly did, and he looked like a boy again, someone’s out-of-control son and not a gangster at all. For me, it became sort of a Circle K do-over. I know it sounds petty, but please keep in mind that the only thing anybody saw was me acting professionally and confident. Now I think of those boys as my Manzano High School welcoming committee, as there was no other.

***

As a cinephile, I was influenced by those movies where an idealistic young teacher inspired gangsters and poverty-stricken kids to overachieve. They won academic decathlons and state championships. In reality, there were repetitive days of student and administrative apathy, and I struggled to keep my classes from disintegrating into mob rule; the kids wanted to sit on the seat backs and wobble down the aisles.

      My classroom was in a steel barrack behind the gym, on the other side of campus from the art room where Mom had taught. Remember, I was trying Mom’s way—except for the religious fanaticism—and was finally on her bus and sitting politely in my seat. No, now I was the bus driver, and I wanted to bond with my students, to have them say that I’d inspired them or even saved their lives. But too many kids saw no reason to read The Catcher in the Rye, and I impotently watched them run toward the figurative cliff, the same cliff that I’d run headlong toward at their age. When I turned my back, chalk was thrown at me. One failing boy threatened to “off” me. (This was before Columbine, so I ignored it.) I was strict, I admit it, but my parents in the 1960s, my teachers in the 1970s, and the NCOs in the 1980s had been strict with me. It was stressful to be in the center of chaos and the object of disrespect; it was weird to be the authority. In this new environment, I became a rigid chameleon, a corporal again, which wasn’t the manifestation I’d envisioned or wanted, but it felt necessary to control my classroom and to survive the year. Even though I was a thirty-year-old, six-foot-one, one-hundred-seventy-pound, male infantry veteran and karate instructor, fight-or-flight kicked in daily. Some belligerent boy would stand too close to me with squinty eyes and a frown, and I felt the blood rush to my arms and legs as I prepared to defend myself from a physical attack—which never occurred, but still, c’mon! Who does that to a teacher? How tough did I have to be to control a high-school classroom? No wonder Mom came home from Manzano unappreciative of the sight of me. But the kids didn’t even see me; they just saw the Man. How ironic that they treated me like someone to rebel against. Truthfully, I wanted to join in their rebellion, but a larger part of me wanted to guide them through the chaos and help them discover the wonder of books. They called me “Mister” or “Coach” (because I also coached the cross-country and track teams) as well as some less appropriate things—“asshole” springs to mind. One boy used that term after I’d tossed out his pack of cigarettes. Then I tossed him out of my class just as that junior-high math teacher did me after I challenged her for calling me out for staring at that fox’s upper butt crack. Who was I becoming? In a bizarre way, I didn’t even totally blame the kids; it was the school’s culture. You get into an environment, and then everybody just acts the same. I saw Timmy Two-Mile in their faces and felt bad that gangs controlled certain hallways. It reminded me of the Freak Wall at Eldorado, except they weren’t just freaks but real gangsters, and they didn’t carry just knives but handguns. Even one of my distance runners was expelled for bringing a pistol to school. He was scared. I was disappointed, sure, but I understood. Boy, did I understand.

***

Then the English department prepared to vote on a new department head. The incumbent lobbied to disallow new teachers’ votes because we’d been hired to catch the census overflow and might not be rehired the following school year. There were already enough people trying to shut me up. Remember, this was on the near edge of the Cold War. Communist repression had been a daily threat to me just a couple years earlier in the army, where they’d trained me to kill those who wished to take away my voice. Add to that the military censorship and oppression I’d experienced, and no, I didn’t vote for the incumbent department head. I’d originally planned to, but after her skullduggery, I voted for her opponent, who then won. I’m sneering, not because I’m heartless, but because there are some things worth standing up for; our voices are one of them. Bullies and those who abuse try to keep their victims quiet, of course. Me? I just squawked louder and hit back harder.

***

Then the principal was trampled during a student melee. My teaching idealism crumbled just a little bit more, along with the Berlin Wall, and then it was winter break. It bummed me that yet another career wasn’t working out. Daily, I ate a sad-sack lunch in my road-hazard 1978 Chevette that had 130,000 miles on it and brakes that I had to pump in order to stop. I listened to R. E. M.’s “Stand” and dreaded the second half of the day—the rowdier fourth and fifth periods and then an unruly track team. Across the parking lot, a boy who ran cross-country smoked a cig. He was one of those three wannabe gangsters who tried to intimidate me on my first day. The head track coach removed boys from the team who were caught using alcohol or drugs. Man, I could really get payback; it certainly occurred to me. But the thing was, I was conflicted about narcing him out. If I’d been caught pulling some of my crap at Eldorado and then kicked off the team, my life would’ve played out differently, way worse differently. I wanted to grant the kid grace the way others had granted grace to me. I wanted distance running to save him.

      I didn’t tell the head coach what I saw.

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