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A World of Hurt

I was the one who got punched in the nuts, but in my second-grade class at Von Humboldt Elementary, the kids were the ones who suffered.



I had been teaching second grade at Von Humboldt Elementary in east Humboldt Park for a week when Kevin called me a "punk-ass bitch." He didn't say it in anger, but calmly, as if pronouncing judgment. Kevin was the worst-behaved of the 18 kids in my class, which I had taken over a week before spring break, but the same sentiment had already been expressed, in word or deed, by nearly all his classmates.

I knelt beside him, my knees aching under the weight of my 240-pound, six-foot-six frame. I knelt because Kevin (which is not his real name; all children's names in this story have been changed) would only have reached my waist if I were standing, and because I thought if I remained standing I just might lose control. I knelt and whispered to Kevin that time would tell who the punk-ass bitch was. His eyes flashed in anger, or maybe in anticipation of the challenge of proving it was me. Which, by the end of the next five weeks, he had.

I had taken the job because I was out of work, engaged to be married, and scared that if something didn't change I would stop brushing my hair and teeth and start buttonholing strangers on the el, chattering about the White Sox. I suspect my reasons for becoming a substitute teacher were like those of many people who drift, stumble, or land flat on their back in front of a roomful of children. One veteran sub told me he'd turned to subbing after alcoholism robbed him of his job, house, and family. Then he told me how he had tripped eighth graders who wouldn't sit down or listen to him. "Tripping them isn't hitting them," he said. "You can always say you and they were just clumsy."

As it turned out, I never considered tripping my second graders. I did think about hitting them, though. What happened in my classroom last April and May had been happening for months, according to every teacher, administrator, and parent I spoke with, and it continued after I quit, until the class was finally broken up near the end of the school year. I came to the job with the best of intentions and left one good decision away from a felony.

Von Humboldt Elementary is an imposing brick building occupying most of the west side of Rockwell Street between Hirsch and Pierce. My fiancee had lived on the corner of Hirsch and Rockwell in the mid-90s. At night we would lie in bed and count gunshots. Around that time, while I was hanging out at 14th Police District headquarters as a cub reporter for City News, a cop told me that that very corner, within spitting distance of the school yard, was disputed territory between the Spanish Cobras, a Puerto Rican gang that had ruled the neighborhood for years, and the Gangster Disciples, an African-American gang that had come north with the exodus of public-housing residents fleeing the CHA wrecking ball.

Sergeant Cliff Morland of the 14th said the same basic pattern still holds there today. "Western Avenue is a big dividing line. Go east and there's a different kind of kids going to school, different parents. There's more gentrification." Crime has gone down around Von Humboldt over the past year, he added, but the area remains a trouble spot. In two weeks this February, 35 crimes were reported within a quarter-mile radius of Von Humboldt--including seven assault and batteries and 11 narcotics violations. By contrast, the same-size area around Sabin Magnet School, an elementary school just on the other side of Western, reported five crimes in the same period--only one of them violent.

In 2002, Von Humboldt just missed, by less than one percentile, being placed on probation along with 45 elementary schools around the city where less than a quarter of the students met state standards. In what amounts to a tiny step up from the year before, the school now hangs by a finger onto the bottom rung of the category known as Schools of Challenge, meaning that only between 25 and 39 percent of the students meet state standards. There are 146 other elementary schools on that list.

Such numbers can numb the bleedingest heart. But when I stepped in front of the blackboard last spring, they got real very fast.

The official slogan of Bush's education department is "No child left behind." But here all of them had been. Maybe two of eighteen could read more than the simplest sentence. Only one could add or subtract with any consistency, and none could correctly name the city, state, and country where we lived. Some kids knew we lived in Chicago, but not Illinois. Some kids knew they were American, but didn't know what the United States was. When I gathered the kids around the pull-down map one day, the lesson disintegrated into a discussion of which project which child was born in, until I had to break up a fight between Keith and Bobby over which was tougher, ABLA or Robert Taylor.

When they tried to learn--sat in their seats, listened, concentrated, refrained from launching wooden blocks at one another's heads--most of them could do just that. But I was rarely able to ensure that that happened. It may be a cliche, but it's true that kids don't fail--teachers do. Adults do. My class, one veteran teacher told me, never should have survived past October. That it did is an indictment of everyone responsible for those kids' well-being, from Mayor Daley and President Bush on down to me. Spread the blame--there's plenty to go around.

"You better be as tough as you are tall," Von Humboldt principal Bessie Karvelas said to me as I walked into her office for my interview last April. That morning I had dropped off my resume in the front office, one of many stops at neighborhood schools. I came hurrying back when the school secretary called to say Karvelas wanted to see me right away. Within five minutes she had offered me the job of finishing the school year with a second-grade class. She added that if I wanted it, the job was mine for the next year too.

"You won't get another offer that good," she said. I agreed on the spot, for $75 a day and no benefits, to teach second grade from nine in the morning till two-thirty in the afternoon.

"You need to be tough with these kids," Karvelas reiterated. "They've run their regular teacher and a whole bunch of subs right out of there."

No problem, I said, and I meant it. Right after college, in the early 90s, I had taught third grade for two years in Houston. The school was rough, just like the neighborhood of crumbling ranch houses and postage-stamp lawns that surrounded it. By the end of my stint I'd gained an intimate understanding of how difficult it can be to teach the kids who've pulled the short straw and how suspicious a bushy-tailed young teacher can seem to a parent who's seen the type come and go. But I'd let that experience roll around in my memory for almost a decade, and I'd begun to remember the little scattered victories as one long drumroll of success. Houston's as tough as Chicago, I told myself. I know these kids, I've taught these kids. And second graders are just babies.

The following Monday morning I arrived at Von Humboldt with a tie around my neck and a freshly typed lesson plan in my briefcase. The security guards, grouped two to a floor, smiled and slapped me on the back. I reached my room--a dank, dusty space with bars on the windows and an old-fashioned coat closet piled high with 30 years of teaching materials discarded by the Chicago Public Schools veteran who had left two weeks before.

An older teacher stood watch on the stairs. "Just hang in there," she said. "These kids need someone to go the distance." I told myself I was that knight. I had time to make one last check of my armor before the bell rang.

That first day was something I wish I could have recorded. But I don't think videotape could have captured the absolute mayhem that prevailed in that room for the next five hours. I never even got the lesson plan out of my briefcase. My tie was yanked and twisted by flailing arms as I broke up about two dozen fistfights. Let me be clear: I'm not talking about kiddie fights--chest pushing, laughable roundhouse punches, and lame attempts at headlocks. These kids knew how to fight. They made their fists right, lining up their knuckles and not folding their thumbs into their palms. They threw punches from the shoulder, hard enough that I can still hear the deep comic-book thwoop of fist punishing flesh.

They fought constantly. They fought over someone calling someone else a name, or over someone calling someone's mother or grandmother a name. Over a look. Over nothing. As I rushed in to break up one fight, another would break out. Colored wooden blocks, pilfered from the old teacher's supplies, bounced off my head as I screamed for the kids to sit down and stop throwing--thwack!--blocks. At one point, ignoring my instructions to stay seated until I started calling their names to get their jackets and bags, the kids piled into the coat closet.

I got there in time to see four or five boys circled around a prone figure in a winter coat. They were kicking a little girl. She rolled left and right, trying to avoid their feet, her head hidden in a puffy hood. "Beat down, beat down, beat down," the boys chanted.

Gabriel, almost nine years old and unable to write anything other than his name, calmly wandered around the room, opening cabinets and meticulously destroying their contents. I found out much later that he was the principal source of the contraband blocks. He also ran a thriving black market in ancient filmstrips, the sort used decades ago to fill time and teach phonics. The peeling blue canisters became a sort of currency, highly prized by the children, who unrolled the brown squares of film to gaze at a Dick and Jane from another world learning their vowel clusters.

At two-thirty, I went home and collapsed. I had felt tired after rough days in Houston, but never like this. Near the end of the day, after more tears, fights, and projectiles than I could count, I came very close to walking out. The boys' chant kept echoing in my head: Beat down. Beat down. Beat down.

Over the next two weeks I got better acquainted with the kids. The four girls were largely interested in passing one another notes, laughing at the more audacious stunts performed by the boys, and occasionally encouraging the beating of a boy who had crossed them somehow. The boys had much less stable relationships. Constantly shifting alliances, most ending in fistfights, made it impossible to arrange the room in anything but the single-file rows of inkwell-era education.

The boys mostly followed the lead of Dimitrius and Kevin, paradoxically the smallest and youngest in the class. I had heard horror stories about both of them in the teachers' lounge. Kevin had been pulled away by a substitute just before kicking a younger boy senseless on the playground. Dimitrius had been suspended after grabbing a janitor's mop and swinging it at a 65-year-old female substitute's legs, according to a discipline slip I found in my desk.

They were both seven years old, dark-skinned and slight, and incredibly violent. Kevin was fond of raising both fists above his head and running around the room, throwing real or fake punches as his mood dictated. If someone looked at Dimitrius wrong, he would jump out of his seat, thump his chest into the other kid's, and, rising to his tip-toes so that he could place his head on his opponent's shoulder, begin his tough-guy dance.

The expletives tumbled out of his bucktoothed mouth: You going down, crack-whore bitch. I usually got to him before he started swinging, but in the first week he dropped the two biggest, oldest boys in the room with vicious hits to the head. I never ceased to be amazed at how quickly this tiny boy, with his long, curly lashes, could turn into a dead-eyed thug.

As soon as I realized what I was dealing with I tried to stay roughly right in between Kevin and Dimitrius at all times, so that I could reach either one quickly. But as they could not be seated within three desks of each other, that proved difficult. As soon as I turned to the blackboard, one of them was out of his chair, heading for trouble. If I went to restrain Kevin, Dimitrius bounced out of his seat. If I kept my eyes on both of them, one of the other boys took it as a sign that the block bombardment could commence.

Neither Kevin nor Dimitrius lost any time in letting me know that my attempts to take control of the classroom weren't appreciated. And they rallied the other boys to their cause. When I told Dimitrius to sit down, he would yell at me to shut up--with his thumb stuck in his mouth. But thumb sucker or no, he had the complete adoration of Oscar, a timid Puerto Rican boy newly arrived from Philadelphia. Oscar was a constant target of Kevin and his band. Dimitrius, the only boy Kevin regarded with anything resembling respect, offered Oscar his conditional protection. "We're brothers, Mr. Frago," he would tell me with a magnanimous smile, his arm around Oscar's neck. Oscar looked at him with puppy-dog eyes. This lasted for a few days, until Dimitrius, suspecting Oscar of having revealed the hidden caches of wooden blocks, threw a large block as hard as he could at his head from less than a foot away.

"I want to go back to Philadelphia!" Oscar screamed as I tried to pry his hands away from his face to see if there was blood or swelling. "I don't blame you," I said.

Several times each day I had to fall back on the box--an antiquated gray intercom that summoned the security guards. When all else failed, when yelling, scowling, desk pounding, and squinty-eyed pronouncements didn't get the job done, I pressed the panic button.

The guards were mostly big, muscular men. It was strange to see them deal with the boys, cajoling and threatening but never using those muscles to bodily remove them from the room. To gaze upon a man built like a linebacker trying to cow a 60-pound boy into accompanying him to the office was like watching a construction worker do needlepoint. "I ain't going to put my hands on you. You have to go," a guard named Bird told Kevin one day. "You lost your right to be in here." Kevin refused, sassing Bird, making his case for staying, the eyes of his peers glued to his every move. It was an artful performance.

"I ain't going with you," he insisted. "You can't touch me. If you touch me, my mama will sue your ass and my daddy will kick your ass, too."

How Bird kept his temper I'll never know. Kevin's father wasn't around, and his mother, who'd been arrested several times for drug possession, hardly seemed the litigious type. She came to see me one day, her eyes bleary, her clothing and hair disheveled. "My boy can't read," she whispered. I told her I knew.

One of the many unfair things about a situation like this is that the good kids suffer. The old saw is that they "slip through the cracks," but it might be more accurate to say their young spirits are slowly crushed. Each day they spring back a little less quickly, until one day they don't spring back at all.

Leonel, newly arrived from Mexico, came to school every day in freshly ironed clothes. His English was still poor, but he begged for extra work. He wanted to be a cop when he grew up and volunteered to be the coatroom monitor.

Not surprisingly, as the only student who was not black or Puerto Rican, Leonel was marked early on. On his first day as monitor, I bodily kept the kids from the closet until he had hurried around the corner and turned on the light.

"Ready?" I called. "Yes, Mr. Frago," came the thin, excited voice. Leonel had begged to be let into school early that morning, so he could prepare.

I let the first two kids walk in, then two more. I'm not sure when the rest of the pack, led by a whooping Dimitrius and Kevin, swept past the blackboard and swarmed in. As I ran after them, I heard Leonel imploring them to "follow Mr. Frago's rules" before his voice was buried in an avalanche of mayhem. I turned the corner to see him flat on his back, furiously trying to keep Kevin's hands off of his throat.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Frago," he said, his eyes searching mine for forgiveness. "I try to tell them."

Eric, a lanky, wiggly black kid, ran in circles excitedly, shouting gibberish laced with "adios" and "taco." To say that feelings between the black and Latino students were tense would be an understatement. Wilson, the most popular Puerto Rican boy, who came to school immaculately dressed in the latest fashions, a gold tennis bracelet dangling from his brown arm, called a black student "slave boy" several times a day. The black kids responded mostly with their fists, but also with slurs against Puerto Rico. "You the monkeys, man," Roderick said calmly to Juan one afternoon. "You worse than us."

Though in the big picture all the kids in my class were victims, it became increasingly difficult to see Kevin and Dimitrius as such. Eric picked up most lessons with amazing rapidity--as long as I hovered near him, keeping his mind on task. Of course in practice that almost never happened. While I stood guard over Kevin and Dimitrius, he was free to run from desk to desk. He was rarely violent but always up for mischief. Marta, with her sad eyes and easy tears, was eager to please but rarely got the opportunity, and sat out the year like a prisoner waiting for her sentence to end.

Freddie was the only kid who wouldn't take the squandering of his education without a fight. Although small and somewhat effeminate, he stood his ground against Kevin and Dimitrius, both of whom passed him by in favor of easier targets. Freddie knew how to subtract double-digit numbers, putting him light-years ahead of his classmates, and he could read at something approaching a second-grade level. By the time I arrived, he was already royally pissed off.

"I shouldn't be in this class," he informed me during my first week. "I got stuck in here and it's not fair."

Freddie's mother told me the same thing when she came to pick up his report card. "This class should have been busted up a long time ago," she said. "My son is wasting his time in here. I've gone to the principal and she told me there was nothing she could do, that I would have to wait until next year. It's a crime what they're doing to these kids."

She was right. According to several teachers at the school who did not want their names used, the class had been designed as a "dumping ground" for the lowest-performing students.

Karvelas admitted as much when I called her for this story last month, but said she'd inherited the problem when she took over as principal in August 2001. "It was my first year, I wasn't going to make any changes," she said. "But the classes were all grouped 'gifted,' 'intermediate,' and 'low,' and that's not how I do things....I heard people say [the class] was a dumping ground, and I said that I didn't want to see it happen again. And this year, it hasn't."

The Chicago Public Schools has no official policy on whether kids are "tracked," or grouped by ability, according to spokeswoman Lucy Ramirez. "We recommend that schools group heterogeneously, but it is up to the principal," she says.

For the 2002-2003 school year, Karvelas said, she has made sure each class is a mix of "bright kids" and "low kids." She said she couldn't remember the specifics of my experience, but also said that after I left, a certified teacher with three years of experience took over and "things got much, much better."

The rhythm of the school day became agonizingly predictable. In the early morning, the kids did fairly well, but by ten o'clock things started to unravel. The first bathroom break of the day often ended up in a protracted struggle to get the boys out of the johns without them pissing all over the floor and one another. By lunchtime the kids were out of their minds with pent-up energy, which made the walk to the basement cafeteria--down steep flights of stairs and around the blind 19th-century corners of the subterranean labyrinth--the most nerve-jangling five minutes of the day. Try keeping kids in a straight line, fists unconnected to their neighbors' faces, when it's impossible to see all of them at one time.

The shrieking roar of the lunchroom announced our collective 20 minutes of freedom from each other--the only 20 minutes of free time the kids had all day, as recess had been eliminated years ago. Once I got them settled, I would hoof it back upstairs and eat my packed lunch on a stomach that got more nervous by the day. In six weeks I lost 20 pounds. My only exercise was teaching.

For a week in early May, things improved, mostly because Kevin and Dimitrius had finally been suspended for fighting. Without the two ringleaders, some of the boys who had been on the brink of real delinquency could be reeled back to safety. There were days when almost four hours were productive. That Wednesday there were no fights at all. The kids were calmer, happier. One day we brainstormed about what makes a hero, and then wrote a group story, which the kids all copied and illustrated. As I walked around the room, the gentle rubbing of crayon on manila paper sounded like victory. I imagine fools the world over have felt similarly just before gunning the motor on the sharp curve or deciding to slalom through the forest.

But the next day Kevin came back to school (Dimitrius was still out, sick), and he was not happy. A week's worth of trouble had built up inside him, and he proceeded to kick ass and take names all morning long. Every manufactured fight, every curse, every glare conveyed the same simple message: this is my classroom. My tolerance for Kevin had evaporated in his absence, and now when he hit Leonel in the face, I lost it. I grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him away in midcrow. As I bent down with my best don't-mess-with-me face, I saw his eyes narrow. Seconds later, I felt a white-hot pain shooting from my groin to my brain. Kevin had thrown a sucker punch to my balls.

As the pain morphed into anger, I wanted nothing more than to smack him hard, to wallop every ounce of defiance and rudeness out of him. But I didn't hit him or even shake him. I looked around and saw all the kids looking at us, their eyes shifting from me to him and back. Calmly, I told them to line up for lunch. Normally this would mean a full five minutes of shoving, pushing, and screaming, but they lined up silently, eyes wide. "Kevin hit the teacher, Kevin hit the teacher," they whispered back and forth.

After I dropped off the kids in the lunchroom, I charged up the stairs to Principal Karvelas's office. I told her I had exhausted my reserves of patience and understanding. I told her I felt I could not reach these kids. I told her I was quitting.

"You can't do this to me," she said. "You've done a great job. Everyone says so." After a few minutes, Karvelas persuaded me to stay through the following week, when the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was to be administered to the second graders. She promised that Kevin would not be allowed back into the classroom.

"We'll figure out something to do with him," Karvelas said. "He can't stay in the room after hitting you."

From Karvelas's office I went down the hall to wait for a police officer to come and take my statement for a report. The school administration felt it was good policy to get kids like Kevin help by getting his outbursts on record. A youth officer sat and tried not to smile when I related the punching incident. "Lord, what will these kids do next," she said. "He's too small to arrest, but we'll stop by the house and see if there's anyone around we can talk to."

The Monday after the tests, Kevin and Dimitrius were back. They entered the room punching each other, stopping occasionally to acknowledge the cheers of the other boys. I yelled at them to stop and they broke out laughing. Then they went back to fighting. I don't know if I literally threw up my hands at that moment, but I might as well have. By midmorning I had told Karvelas I was resigning. I spent the rest of the day saying my good-byes as the classroom was systematically destroyed before my eyes. Some of the kids seemed sad to see me go, but most had seen so many teachers give up that they were unfazed.

Toward the end of the day I walked over to Kevin, who was engaged in a tug-of-war with Freddie over a pencil. He stopped, dropped his hands to his sides, and said, "Good luck, teacher."

I wished him the same and turned my back on his completion of the pencil theft. Gabriel was busy dumping out containers of teaching materials. Lucy was singing. Principal Karvelas walked in and looked around, but she didn't even ask me to stop Gabriel from ripping up flash cards. She did ask me to come back on Monday and "help the other teachers work on the transition, as a professional courtesy." I said I would, but I had no intention of ever setting foot in Von Humboldt Elementary again.

I thought a lot about luck during the last hour of class, as I broke up the last fights and tried to buck up the spirits of the kids who would greet their umpteenth substitute of the year the following day. Luck was a scarce commodity in the economy of Von Humboldt, so I took my portion and skipped out. The sad thing, the thing that's no less tragic for being so obvious, is that the kids I left behind had no such option.

When I spoke to Karvelas last month, I asked after Kevin, but she hadn't heard about any problems with him lately. "He's not a name that is on my desk of names," she said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Wesley Bedrosian.

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