You Can’t Say That In Here

I was constantly shocked by what came out of my students’ mouths. In the same way foreigners learning a new language can scoop only a few familiar words out of the conversation soup, during my first few months at a public high school in South Central Los Angeles, I could hear only the curse words, sometimes strung together five deep. Jacked-up motherfucker. Fucking asshole. Crazy-ass bitch. To their friends, they said, “Shut the fuck up,” with as little venom as I might say, “Oh, come on.” Then the insults—mostly misogynistic—filtered through: skank, ho bag, hood rat, tramp.

“Go to hell, you Cambodian muskrat,” I heard Joseph tell Craig. Neither boy was Cambodian.

“That’s not appropriate,” I said, which seemed to me (as their twenty-four-year-old English teacher) the right thing to say, even if it sounded like a line I’d cribbed from a script about teaching. Secretly I marveled that Joseph knew the word Cambodian. Our student body was African American and Latino, with a smattering of Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. The day I was hired, before I’d even taught a class, I was walking in an otherwise empty hallway behind a teacher who was unaware I was there, when suddenly she yelled out, “I am so fucking sick of this place!” To say it seemed a bad omen would be an understatement. 

Whenever I heard a curse word I would stop class, call the student out, and . . . what? My plan ended there. What did I want? An apology? To kick him out? To string her up by the toes and make an example of her? I was not sure what I wanted, so I usually ended up with a power struggle. The student would mutter, “Damn, why you gotta be such a bitch?” or regale me with the other forty-three raunchy words she knew.

Teachers in inner-city schools like these are often said to be “on the front lines” or “in the trenches.” Some districts even offer “hazard pay” for positions at these schools. The obvious implication is that teachers are soldiers. The less obvious implication concerns the enemy. Is it ignorance? Poverty? We teachers would like to think so. But all too often, the enemy becomes the students. After all, it is their ignorance and poverty we are up against. The fact that teaching in a hostile classroom feels like fighting in a war zone will come as no surprise to any two-year-old’s parent, who knows how the person you love and strive to help can be so maddening as to become your de facto enemy.

In this battle, language becomes a weapon. A teacher, like an outnumbered general, clamps down on her power, overreaches, makes threats she cannot deliver on and perhaps wishes she could retract. Students who are forced into submission, captives at the mercy of their overlord teacher, trudging en masse through filthy hallways when the bell tones—well, they revolt. Deprived of so many freedoms, uninhibited by the middle-class norms that would have made such profanity unthinkable in my own high school classrooms, my students call a spade a spade, saying, mildly even, “This is some bullshit!”

It took several years of teaching before I respected the sentiment, if not the colorful expression, of their outrage.

• • •

It doesn’t work simply to tell a student he can’t say fuck, because in fact he can. He can say, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck . . . you!” to your face and then cross his arms to observe how you deal with him. Students like that must be disciplined, but how? There are logistical problems in bodily removing them from your classroom.

You cannot touch a student. This is one of the most important lessons taught in the five-day training the LA Unified School District provided in July 2003 for new teachers like me who did not have an education degree or any experience student-teaching. We reviewed this point each day. Can you hug a student? No. Can you touch a student on the shoulder to say good job? No. Can you tap a hand to remind a student to get on task? No. And you most definitely cannot grab a student by the ear, as a retired schoolteacher once confided to me was her favorite approach. The trainers, retired teachers themselves, spent the rest of the week teaching us how to take roll and do our grades on elaborate Scantron sheets. On the last day, they served us cake and ice cream, as if we were the second graders whose classroom we had inhabited for the week. But we still did not know what to do with a defiant, disrespectful student.

Students who will say fuck you to your face probably won’t leave the room when you tell them to. They will leave only if it serves their purpose, if they are bored or perhaps can’t read and are embarrassed to be in an English class lest they be called on. In that case they’ll flounce out with a haughty “Fine!”—often before you can fill out the referral slip for the deans. If the students do wait long enough to take the referral slip, they will just tear it up in the hallway and hang out in the stairwell for the rest of the period. If they have the misfortune to be caught by a security guard, they will say, “My teacher kicked me out.”

A security guard then has the choice of telling them to go back to class or escorting them to the deans, who yell at the security guards just like they yell at the teachers. “We can’t have fifty kids in the deans’ office! We’re not babysitters! Take them back to class!” The security guards don’t like being yelled at any more than I do. They also don’t like taking a kid back to class when the teacher refuses to accept him; both guard and teacher lose face haggling as the student stands off to the side, smirking. So the guards merely tell the kids wandering the halls to go back to class and the kids say okay, and then they walk off in opposite directions. These kids find each other and travel in packs as large as eight or twelve. There is always a new stairwell if they are forced to move on.

Recall for a moment—and most people can—a classroom where the students made the teacher cry. Remember that dynamic of power, shame, resentment, and schadenfreude. Students torture teachers casually, pounding the saltshaker over the slug, and teachers do the same. The potential for such brutality lurking in every classroom makes people on both sides feel fear or anger—two emotions that nearly always surface in our words.

• • •

Every faculty meeting during my first semester of teaching included a segment devoted to the number of children roaming the halls. During fifth and sixth periods, especially on Fridays, the administration estimated that as many as three hundred kids were out of class.

“Teachers,” the principal would exhort. “You cannot send a child out of your classroom without a referral slip.”

This was the equivalent of a teacher saying to a student, “You can’t say that in here.” An empty statement that holds no power; it was a Band-Aid rule. Some teachers were going to keep sending kids out of class, because they’d outlasted seventeen principals in their thirty years of teaching and they’d be damned if they were going to put up with a mouthy kid in sixth period on a Friday. Then there were other teachers, like me, who meekly followed the rules but suffered an internal collapse of discipline in their classes because kids had to do terrible things before they got kicked out. No matter where a teacher fell on that spectrum, none of us liked hearing we couldn’t send kids out of class. The subtext troubled us as well: the only reason kids flooded the campus was that teachers did not follow the rules.

A murmur of discontent would ripple through the teachers, slouched in our folding chairs with stacks of ungraded papers at our sides. Sometimes a veteran teacher would raise her hand and point out that a lot of these kids just walked out, or never came to class at all.

“Don’t you realize,” she would ask, “that some of these kids lie? They lie to the guards and they lie to the administrators and they lie to us. They are playing us all against each other, because there is no real system in place with real consequences for these roving students.”

“That, uh . . .” The principal would clear his throat nervously. “That is a real problem.” He would look for a minute as if he wanted to delve into it, wanted to hold a symposium where we could all contribute. You could almost see this look transform itself into mild panic as he grasped where such truth-telling might lead, staring out above our heads, a little sweaty, earnest and manic as a preacher. He would compose himself by looking at the agenda. Then he would announce, “Teachers, you have to send your attendance sheets for homeroom down by 10:30 a.m. No later. 10:30.”

The wave of discontent would roll through us with an audible groan and then settle someplace deeper, someplace that is the root of apathy and revolt.

We teachers forgot our own apathy and revolt, though, when confronted with it in our students. So a student has just said fuck you, to you. You can’t pick him up and hurl him out the window, much as you would like to, because the architects designed the windows to open only at an angle, a crack wide enough to drop an empty Capri Sun packet through and no larger. You have told the student to go to the deans’ office and he has said, in one form or another, “Make me.” You have no choice but to play your remaining card, if you are a skinny white woman with a maddening compulsion to follow rules. You move to the phone to call security, referral slip in your hand. For a few of them, this is enough. They will get up and leave when you put your hand on the receiver, as it’s their last chance to roam the halls unescorted. You can check on them later and see that they never went to the deans’ office at all, and you can call their house or write them up again, and very occasionally the deans will actually call the students in the following day.

The deans’ feedback: “Call his house.”

“I did,” I say.

“Then he’ll straighten up. Or call again.” Case closed.

Okay, I’ll dial that disconnected number again. Or I’ll talk to his seven-year-old brother who promises to translate for their mother. Or I’ll talk to a foster mother for twenty minutes and end up consoling her that Craig’s not such a bad kid, he’ll get through it, he’s actually smart when he bothers to do the work. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll come home sooner or later.

• • •

January. Second semester at our year-round school. A new start. At least half of my students I had never seen before. In the intervening two-month vacation, students had moved, teachers had quit, classes had been collapsed. I stood at the door at the beginning of the period, greeting students and directing them to their assigned seats, just like the discipline books suggested. I had vowed to redefine my role to be a good-humored, exacting, encouraging teacher, which seemed a real possibility until fifth period. Just as the tardy bell rang, William slouched in, six feet of attitude, smacking his lips and looking down his nose at me.

“Okay, everybody, let’s get out a sheet of paper!” I said after obligatory introductions. I tried not to acknowledge William’s scowl. I was going to stay upbeat. Fast-paced. Keep ’em busy.

“I hope we’re not going to do something boring!” William announced, looking around for support. The class tittered.

“Sometimes people say something is boring because they just don’t get the subtleties of it, or they haven’t given it a chance,” I said, a serrated edge to my voice. “So let’s get out a sheet of paper.” Even I, who unlike my students understood the word subtleties, wasn’t sure what I meant by this. But William got the gist.

“Are you calling me stupid?” he demanded.

“Nobody said anything about stupid, William. Let’s just try to—”

“Man, fuck this,” William said, and put his head down.

We were three minutes into class, and I was as angry as ever. How dare he come in and mess with my new start?

“William, this is not a good way to begin your semester,” I said, knowing it was true for me too.

“Don’t talk to me,” he said, his voice muffled.

“And there’s no cursing in here. So you’ll need to stay after class.”

“Don’t. Talk. To. Me.”

I was losing ground fast. “Fine, get a zero on the first assignment—that’s a great start to your year.”

I turned back to the class, ready to sacrifice William for the rest of them. The students were still quiet, awaiting further direction, but the scent of my desperation must have been strong because the possibility of mutiny now hung in the air. It would be months before I realized that in our first few minutes together, I had lost William for good.

The day before, I had hung a hand-lettered poster in my classroom that read, “Language is power. Use it wisely.” I thought it was a message for my students. In retrospect, the message was just as much for me.

• • •

One afternoon that February, from my classroom, I heard the beginnings of a commotion. Since I’d grown accustomed to a baseline level of noise (shouting, cursing, thumping sneakers, and the occasional backpack dropped down two flights of stairs), it took a while for the sounds to register as anything out of the ordinary. It was late enough that most of the regular students were gone, but those who attended the evening adult school held in our classrooms—many of whom had previously dropped out or were parents—were arriving. I heard the words echo again and again until their individual meanings formed a whole sentence that finally penetrated my brain: I’m going to kill you, motherfucker.

I stepped into the hall to see a huge guy pressing a girl against the wall, his massive hand clamped around her throat. It wasn’t the strangler who was threatening to kill, but the girl, sobbing and shouting and delivering quick, hard jabs to the stomach of her assailant.

My strongest emotion, even stronger than my horror, was the seed of relief that two teachers, both males, were already running toward them. The guy and the girl were much bigger than me. They loomed like giants against the dirty light passing through the opaque window behind them. The girl’s fist pumped in silhouette, as practiced as a boxer’s.

One teacher—whom students unaffectionately called Super Mario—barked, “Break it up! Break it up immediately! I’m calling the police right now! Do you hear me, young man? I’m calling the police!”

The teacher wasn’t actually calling the police. He was tugging at the boy’s sleeve, and the boy was paying him no more attention than an elephant does a fly. The girl stopped forming words and began making choking sounds, though they sounded more angry and hostile than desperate.

The other teacher, Mr. P, always had kids in his room at lunch and after school. Kids had nicknames for him, affectionate ones, and pounded his fist in the halls. Mr. P stepped up to these two people and somehow put a hand on each of their writhing bodies. “You’re gonna get in trouble,” he pleaded in a soft, mournful voice. “Listen, you guys, this is not what you want to do. You’re gonna get in trouble!” He sounded so sad, like he wasn’t scared or mad about their actions, but had seen beyond and knew how it all turned out: the cops, the handcuffs, the sentencing. “You’re gonna get in trouble,” he repeated, not as a threat but as advice. “You don’t want to do this.”

The two of them, in a burst of arms and torsos, hurled themselves apart. The guy must have stepped back and released the girl’s throat. She immediately lunged for him, red braids swinging, but now there was time for the teachers to throw themselves in between them. Super Mario pushed the guy toward the stairs. Just before he disappeared, the guy turned to survey the hallway, a young man coursing with adrenaline, so hot he couldn’t see anything in front of him. The light caught the ridges of three small scars on his cheek, and then he was gone.

The girl, whimpering and cursing, huddled against the wall. Mr. P still had his hand on her arm, murmuring to her.

“Now I’m calling the police!” Super Mario announced and stomped into his classroom.

The girl glared after him and then heaved herself off the wall to run the length of the hall, past me in my demure suede skirt and sensible shoes, and shoot down the opposite staircase.

Security came ten minutes later and left, shrugging. Only we three teachers remained.

“Those kids are not our kids,” Super Mario declared. “They are from the adult school, and they are crazy. Some of them have been to prison. That’s why we always have to lock up the TV and VCR every afternoon, so no one from the adult school steals them.” He looked pointedly at Mr. P, whom he repeatedly accused of not sufficiently securing their department’s audiovisual materials.

“They were our kids, though,” Mr. P said, still with a hint of accent from his childhood in Mexico. “They were our kids until they got in trouble and got kicked out, for something exactly like what just happened.” The way he bent the word trouble made my heart heave, it was so heavy with feeling and suggestion.

Super Mario gave him a haughty look and said, “Of course our kids are crazy, too. Our kids steal. Some will never learn . . . But they’ll learn one day. They’ll learn when they’re locked up for thirty years.”

“And what good will that do any of us?” Mr. P asked.

The two men looked at each other. Super Mario stalked into his room. Maybe they’d had this argument so many times over the years there was no need to continue. But it was new to me. Were these kids ours or not? This question framed everything I’d been grappling with in my classroom. When the students were foul-mouthed, violent, disrespectful, or lazy, the easiest thing to do was write them off, get hostile, deliver a reprimand, and feel self-righteous. I saw some of myself in Super Mario.

Mr. P and I talked in the hall a minute longer. I apologized for not doing more to help. My new friend shrugged and said it all happened so fast, we just got lucky it wasn’t worse. I remembered the English department chair telling me that she’d once solicited Mr. P to come speak to her class about how he’d crossed the border illegally as a child. During a unit on the book The Crossing by Gary Paulsen, she had observed prejudice in her African American students toward illegal immigrants and she wanted them to be more compassionate. “He talked for an hour, giving details like how his jacket got caught on the fence as his family ran ahead of him. By the end of his story,” she said, “kids were crying.”

Super Mario, on the other hand, back in the fall had told me gruffly, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” The kids toed his line, because he did not hesitate to kick them out. He’d been known to kick kids out for the rest of the semester or go to their counselor and demand to have their classes switched without even telling the students. They may have feared him, but they didn’t respect him. Super Mario’s students were my students and were Mr. P’s students, yet they behaved differently for each of us. They respected Mr. P. They feared Super Mario. They didn’t seem to respect or fear me, perhaps because I did not know myself which side of the battle line I was on.

Are you scared of your students? people asked me. Not really. Yes, it’s true that Destiny did try to set me on fire one day, but that was an isolated incident. The students who wore parole anklets so that the police could keep track of their whereabouts tended to stick to themselves. I did not ask about the acts that earned them their anklets. In general, I was less scared of them being in my classroom than I would have been to meet them on the street, a truth that is shameful to admit. No, what scared me were the ways in which our interactions confirmed biases in me that I did not want to see. One reason idealistic young people give for quitting teaching is that they don’t like the person it is turning them into. Another way to look at it is that we don’t like the person that teaching reveals us to be. Many of us have found that in order to keep teaching, we have to change. I did.

• • •

Teachers cursed in the hallways and in faculty meetings. It alarmed me even as my own language outside of school began to include lots of cursing, which I attributed as much to my increased levels of frustration as to the osmotic effect of hearing so much profanity. Words like hood rat and gangbanger and tramp appeared in my lexicon, words my students used with so little animosity that I occasionally used them myself to describe my students, though never to their faces. Perhaps I should clarify that this is not something I am proud of.

Some teachers cursed in front of the kids. My students told me they appreciated that I never did.

“So-and-so, they always be cursing at us. F-this and F-that,” they told me. “That’s not right!”

While I agreed with them, it was odd to me that some of the students with the foulest mouths were the most scandalized that their teachers cursed.

“What,” I asked cautiously, “makes it okay for you to curse at school and not teachers?”

“They’re at work!”

“We’re teenagers.”

“It’s not right for us to curse, but it’s worse when the teachers do it.”

I agreed with this double standard. It was worse when the teachers cursed. No teacher who cursed could ever say You can’t say that in here with any authority. Because I was interested in this issue, and because my students were interested, I began talking about cursing with my classes.

At the beginning of my second year, we talked about how coming to school is a student’s job, and if it was wrong for teachers to curse at work, then it must be wrong for students as well. We talked about it being a sign of disrespect and hostility to curse at someone. We talked about cursing in the context of tone and slang. The students liked to talk about cursing almost as much as they liked to curse. It helped to talk overtly about these issues. I was no longer saying, “No cursing in here!” We were discussing ideas about language that were interesting to all of us; we were developing ground rules for our community. I began to glimpse how there could be functional pockets in a dysfunctional system, and how these pockets could be the saving grace in a life punctuated by chaos and violence and arbitrary uses of power. I tried to stop calling my students hood rats.

I began to differentiate between offensive cursing and inoffensive cursing in this culture where three-year-olds used the word shit. Fucking could be an adjective, or it could be a challenge. My students cursed as a way to make their language colorful, though I did try to point out to them via a sign on the wall that excessive profanity indicates a profound lack of vocabulary. They cursed to show frustration, or if they dropped something. I decided to settle for just making them aware that they were cursing in inappropriate places. It wasn’t a sudden insight, but somehow I realized that what I wanted when a student cursed was recognition of the fact that it could be objectionable. I quit yelling and began raising my eyebrows when I heard cursing. Like magic, I began to get apologies. To stop and be silent, with eye contact, was so much more powerful than to reprimand.

Every time they cursed, I also required students to get a vocabulary word from a box. After finding the definition and writing a sentence, they tacked it up onto a bulletin board that functioned (in my mind, if not in reality) as a wall of shame. The students liked to make their classmates do vocab words and, so, listened for each other’s cursing. Sometimes students would get up and extract a vocab word for their friend, and I wouldn’t be involved at all. Sometimes I hadn’t even heard the offending language, but I would always nod knowingly, and the kid with the dictionary would groan and hunker down. I wasn’t mad anymore. It was sort of funny to all of us. The kids didn’t even realize how tuned in they’d become to swearing. Most days, they did my work for me.

Offensive cursing was different. It required more than a vocabulary word exercise. It was hostile and malicious and directed at someone, either me or another student. It still occurred and had to be dealt with as defiance. I still had my stack of referral slips, and I still sometimes moved to the phone to call security. But I didn’t let them see me mad. Even when I was boiling inside, I tried to look pleasant. I didn’t take it out on the class as a whole. And somehow, this difference meant there was a lot less cursing in my classroom. The power dynamics shifted, so that if one student was out of line, it was her and me, rather than me against the whole class. By the end of my second year, it was rare for a student to curse at me. I tried to remember those first few weeks of teaching when I was called a bitch so many times each day that I would go home stunned that I was still standing. Now, if a student cursed at me, they had to go to the deans’ office, and since it wasn’t happening all that often, I could follow through on that threat. I called their houses. I separated students who cursed at each other, and sent the provoker out in the hall for a few minutes to chill out. When the rest of the class was working quietly, I would slip out to where he was prowling, pounding lockers, or sitting slumped over. I’d talk to him a bit, one on one. Sometimes all these students wanted was a little attention, some respect, a person on their side.

They just had really fucked-up ways of showing it.

* Illustration by Anna Hall

This essay originally appeared in What I Didn't Know: True Stories of Becoming a Teacher. Buy the collection ››