Thursday, January 21, 2010

Desensitization of a Teacher

It all happened on a Wednesday.

"I'm going to shoot you in the head!"

"You didn't mean that."

"Yes I did! I'm going to shoot you!"

Fucking Wednesdays.

My first day teaching was a Wednesday. I was a mid year replacement, taking over for an exhausted vet who was headed for a much needed leave of absence. First day on the job, and a kid threatens to hit me.

I was nearly constipated for a month.

Six years later a kid threatens to shoot me in the head and I'm not even fazed, not even remotely worried. Now I just sneer and fire off a soul searing gaze that would wither a cactus in Death Valley.

The police ask if I want to press charges. The Dean asks if I want to have the girl who threatened me, this mean mouthed little yap dog of a kid, expelled. One snap of my fingers, and I could smear this kids life over the pavement, have her tossed in Juvee, transform her existence into a Pablo Picasso painting.


But what I do want is for her to feel fear, overwhelming wrath of God biblical style terror - the kind of dread reserved for people trapped in a cave deep under the earth with only a few hours left of breathable air. I want her so frightened that her heart races if she even thinks about threatening another teacher again.

"I want you to scare her."

The school police nod. "We can do that Mr. Leiken."

"You sure you don't want me to expel her?" the Dean asks. "Say the word, it's done."

I shake my head. This kid was stupid, but did she mean it? Do I have the right to wreck her life over a moment of pure idiocracy? No. "Suspend her for a day. Let her spend the weekend wondering if she's going to be expelled. That should be enough."

That night I make a tactical error and tell my sister what happened. She freaks out. "Brian, could you please leave that school. Please. Just get out of there. It's not worth it."

I try to put it in context, to explain that the threat was the nip of a Chihuahua, a poodle - not the bark of a Rottweiler.

But it doesn't work. This story shocks my sister so bad even I begin to question my judgement. Am I so desensitized that I can't perceive the danger? My father's first night in Vietnam he nearly freaked when he heard an artillery barrage, leaping to the floor like a cat.

None of the other soldiers even moved, all of them fast asleep, mouths open.

Phil has a critique as well. "You should have waited for a few weeks before publishing this blog, it contradicts the story you had in "Blink" about the kids coming to thank you for helping them graduate."

He's right. The stories do contradict each other. The truth is, they both happened in the same day. In the morning two of my former students came to express their gratitude, and that afternoon another threatened to shoot me.

Teaching in the inner city is a roller coaster, a formula one race track with hair raising turns and bursts of raw acceleration.

The only difference is that by now, I can barely feel the shifts. It isn't the ride that's changed, it's my attitude. I don't take the work home with me, and when I have an altercation, it's never personal.

Desensitization. That's the only way you'll make it.

Monday, January 18, 2010


If a terrorist was going to threaten to blow himself up, you'd be frightened.

If a sock puppet dressed to look like a terrorist was threatening to blow itself up in a hail of wool and fluff, you'd laugh.

It's all about context. We judge people not only by what they say, but who is saying it. Words taken in by themselves without context can be horrifying. How often have parents uttered, "I'm going to kill my kids!"

This does not literally mean the parent is going to murder their children. "I'm going to kill my kids!" is slang, an expression for "My kids are in deep trouble!" We understand the parent is frustrated and is uttering a colloquialism, an idiom, exaggerated hyperbole.

I'm in biology, sitting on a table as we discuss evolution. It's a hell class, a class where I'm paid to babysit, play nanny as much as teacher. It's a big room, and I sit on a black lab table so the entire class can both see me and so I can keep an eye on them. Some of the kids are having a hard time accepting the idea of evolution when one of them decides to become a punk.

"Mr. Leiken, you are setting a bad example!" a girl cries out. She's a cute little thing with a mean little mouth...if she had a spirit animal it would be the poodle. "You don't allow us to get on the tables, you should stand!"

"My, my," I intone, "feeling feisty today, are we?"

The girl stands up and sits on a table, defiant. I ask her to sit down. After about half a minute I ask her again, this time with a touch of steel. "Get down."

She starts to comply, but not before getting in the last word.

"I'm going to shoot you in the head!"

I blink. I didn't just hear that, did I? "You don't mean that." I state calmly.

"Yes, I do! I'm going to shoot you!"

The class titters. No one takes it seriously. That's understandable. This girl isn't a gang banger, she isn't tough, she doesn't throw down or get in fights. She dresses in pink and spends hours putting on make up, she is a girly girl. A girly girl with a big mouth.

Being threatened by her is like being barked at by a poodle.

Unfortunately, we live in the post-Columbine age, where guns are a serious problem and teachers do end up getting shot. Any threat by a student to shoot someone has to be immediately reported to the police.

Even if the student is more like a sock puppet then an actual terrorist. Once the threat is uttered, it can't be taken back.

"Go to the Dean." I order.

"For what!" she exclaims. "I didn't do anything wrong!"

"You threatened me. Go. Now."

"No! I was just kidding. Can't you take a joke? You are always clowning on us."

The entire class is muttering now. C'mon, mister. Can't you take a joke. She didn't mean it. Everyone can see that. She doesn't deserve to get in trouble for that.

I pull out my cell phone and text the Dean. It's the fastest and most direct way to get a hold of him. The class gasps. You're bluffing, mister. You're just trying to scare her. You wouldn't call the Dean for that!

"I guess we are going to find out." I reply simply.

The Dean arrives and the class grows quiet. He escorts the girl from the room. For a moment it is silent, but after he leaves, there is a brief uproar.

We can't believe you did that mister! Can't you tell she was joking! We thought you were cool, Leiken. What the hell is your problem? We say stuff like that to each other all the time.

The class gang banger shakes his head. He is a lost soul, the kid on parole, one step away from expulsion and two steps away from incarceration. He was a student transferred in the middle of the year from South Gate, an "opportunity transfer".

We give South Gate one of our worst, and they trade us one of theirs. It isn't an opportunity transfer. It's a prisoner exchange.

He is legitimately angry. "You are all just stupid!" he barks. "You can't threaten a teacher! You all want to go to prison?"

The class quiets down. I thank him with a polite nod, which he returns, silent.
I gather my belongings and prepare to head down the office, leaving the class with the general Ed teacher. "If you'll excuse me, I have to go see the school police."

"Why are you leaving, Mister?"

"I need to decide if I want to press charges."

For the first time all day, this nasty rambunctious, ornery class, the class that refuses to shut up, pay attention, or be quiet. For the first time all day....

.....they're silent.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Phil's making a short film.

The premise is simple: a terrified bee keeper runs wildly through a park while being chased by a man dressed up as a bee.

Phil wants me to play the bee.

Like all performers, I can't pass up the chance to star in a film, even at the cost of looking ridiculous. Phil has also enlisted a group of friends: Rich, Paul, and Ben. Together we are a crew of five. There's no budget, no catering, no script, and only one professional camera - the rest of us have to make do with small handheld phone cameras.

It's called guerrilla film making.

Phil imagines the entire sequence being just over a minute. When I arrive I'm expecting a full on bee ensemble, something a mascot at a game would wear. A full on black and yellow body suit, complete with a fluffy head, antenna and stinger.

Instead Phil hands me a bee outfit meant for a girl. It's a sexy costume, a Halloween costume, complete with a pair of cute little wings, a costume meant for an hour glass figure.

My figure resembles something more like a bell, festively plump with a thick middle that would make any mid-westerner proud. I put on the yellow and black corset top, it barely fits around my waist. Phil hands me a pair of black shorts, then places a pair of antenna on my head.

He declares I'm perfect!

I change back to street clothes and we head outside. Phil wants to film in a small park near his apartment, during the day its full of retired Russians playing cards. On the first take he wants to run through the park in his bee keeper outfit while the rest of us take positions with our hand held phones to get reaction shots.

I edge towards a table, pretending to be interested in the elaborate diagram the Russian men have before them as they play cards . The men finish a hand, showing each other their cards before proceeding to write down a series of cryptic numbers on the diagram. They say little, studying the diagram like soothsayers obsessed with finger bones and chicken gizzards.

Could be a game of cards, could be a formula for Viagra, could be the secrets of the universe.

From behind me Phil shouts, "Bees, bees, bees!"

Phil dashes out from behind a corner in a bee keeper outfit. He runs past me, screaming, waving his arms like he is being stung by hundreds of imaginary insects. He circles the table of Russians, then darts over to a second table, making a full circlet of the park.

I film the men circumspectly. Any second now they will glance upward, startled, stunned by the maniac running past them.

Phil scrambles past us a second time before running behind the building from which he came.

One Russian looks up. He scratches his nose, shrugs, goes back to his cards. One of the Russians gets up, points a finger at Paul and his large camera. "Excuse me!" he shouts. "You have permit to shoot!"

We ignore him. Rich blows him off. "Don't worry, he probably only knows that word from TV."

We shift to a different area of the park and Phil runs around in circles again. This time a few of the Russians look up, a couple point, one laughs, but most stare intently at their cards. They can't be bothered.

Why aren't they reacting? Have their souls been ripped out after living for years under Communism, or is it just that we're in West Hollywood and men running around in bee keepers outfits are nothing worth getting worked up over?

What would impress them? A naked woman? Getting mugged? A bomb?

Phil tells me I'm up. "What's my motivation?" I ask.

"You are a bee."

"What kind of bee?"

"The black and yellow kind. I want you to run around, stop, and dart back and forth like bees do. Stop at a bush or tree and circle it, then run off again."

"Should I flap my arms?"

"No, hold them back behind you."

I give Rich, Ben and Paul time to take positions, and a minute later run out into the park. I flit across the grass, scurrying randomly.

Somewhere a little kid starts crying.

The Russians don't look up. Card games beat a weirdo in a bee outfit anytime.

I run back around the corner, glad I haven't been arrested.

Phil offers to buy us lunch, it's a wrap.

I show the film to my roommate the next day. He says nothing, doesn't laugh, doesn't smile. I ask him what he thinks.

"Never show this to anyone. Ever."

Naturally I ignore him:


The great moments, the moments that make teaching worthwhile, are not moments of grandeur. The rewards that make the job worthwhile are both subtle and precious, jewels in time that vanish like birds feet in falling snow. The magic in teaching is forever fleeting, brief, a flash of lightning that burns vividly in memory before vanishing into the ether.

Blink, and you'll miss the magic completely. Be inattentive, and the magic burns away before you had a chance to catch it.

But whenever the magic occurs, its always a delightful surprise.

Today the magic strikes in the most unlikely of all places: the counselor's office. I spot a former student, newborn sitting in her lap. For a second, I don't recognize her, her baby surprises me. "Hey, Mr. Leiken," she cries out happily, "I'm getting my diploma!"

If there was ever a student that deserved a diploma, this girl was the model. After school, every day, often until five o'clock, studying for tests, finishing assignments - this girl refused to give up. At times it seemed hopeless, her disabilities hindered her from passing the exit exam, even the most basic assignments were time intensive, labors worthy of Hercules.

Step by step, word by painstaking word, holding her hand through essays and tests, we pushed the student through.

After four long years, she finally completed all of her core class requirements. At graduation she walked with the rest of her class, and was handed a certificate of completion.

But no diploma. That's reserved for those who can pass the exit exam.

But I'm just a stand in. Ms. Garcia deserves the lion's share of the credit. As much as I helped, Sara is the one this kid owes her diploma.

But now the rules have changed. The state is granting students with disabilities an exemption. The exit exam, at least for the time being, is no longer a requirement. The kid is getting her diploma, and I'm the one being thanked.

I feel awkward. I don't really deserve the thanks. Sara is the one that should be here. I give the kid Sara's number. "Call Ms. Garcia." I state firmly. "She needs to know."

"I will Mr. Leiken."

Four grueling treacherous years, four years of negotiating with teachers, rearranging schedules, dozens of meetings, talks with parents, countless hours tutoring - all for a brief moment of thanks.

Ironically, the person who deserves it most isn't even here. I have to accept the gratitude on her behalf.

The moment is over. I almost blinked and missed it.
Later in the day another former student shows up, a hard worker who was also unable to pass the exit exam because of his learning disabilities with math.

"Look, Mr. Leiken," he proclaims, beaming with pride, "I got my diploma."

The class looks at him with something akin to awe. "You see kids, you can do it!" I start clapping and everyone applauds him. He blushes, not sure how to handle the abundance of praise.

Poof! Another brief flash, an instant of joy. It's over.

Some teachers can go years without a moment of magic. They've stopped looking. I've gotten two moments in a single day.

I'll never blink.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Years

I dislike New Years.

Everyone is supposed to be in a good mood, fake their cheerfulness, and embrace strangers like they were life long friends in a mass delusional shared experience. That you barely know these people, will never see them or meet them again: irrelevant.

The fact that you happen to be in the same geographic location at the same moment in time, midnight on January 1st, obligates everyone to believe they've achieved communal harmony. Reality disappears and suddenly you are in a Budweiser/Miller/Coors Light commercial.

Some alcohol is required to achieve this higher state of transcendence. It should be noted that New Years does not come with a warning label. I say screw the label! If I'm going out, I'm getting blitzed.

This year I had a couple of different options.

1. Join Varga at a hotel downtown for an all you can puke, mass trance rave party packed with a crowd in a drug induced haze.

2. Join Phil for a more low key night at a local karaoke club with Nafeesa, her sister, and her boyfriend, for cheap well drinks in Burbank.

I opted for two. I'm a low key kind of guy.

The karaoke club is the kind of place I like to drink. Dark, with worn tables and cracked seats. There is no cover, and we have a table reserved. There is a book of songs as thick as a telephone directory, and I'm immediately overwhelmed by my musical choices.

LA in general is a terrible place to karaoke, there are far too many professional singers who are trying to sign record deals in this town. If talent goes up to sing, it's like watching a professional on their day off, or the final auditions of American idol. If you have to follow one of them you'll suck twice as bad in comparison.

I settle on a monotone song, a song that doesn't have a lot of pitch or a complex melody, a song where the only necessity is one: you have to be loud.

I sing Metallica's Enter the Sandman.

Fortunately, I've had about enough to drink I'm convinced I can bring the house down.

No one pays attention. My voice isn't strong enough to be heard over the deep thrums of Metallica's base. That and everyone is getting drunk.

Somewhere around the second chorus the audience looks up. I croon into the microphone, finally I'm getting some respect!

Exiiit Light!
Enn-ter Night!
Take myyyy hand!
We're off to never, never land!

Then I notice that Nafeesa is gyrating next to me. I've become Prince, and she's my back up dancer! The audience isn't checking me out, they are checking her out.

When you have a former Miss USA beauty contestant dancing next to you, people wake up.
See the picture above if you don't believe me.

Thanks for the assist Nafeesa.

The next day Varga starts to describe the party downtown. It sounded like a psychedelic mind blowing experience. Did I make the right decision?

That's the problem with New Years, you always feel like you are missing out on something.

But upon reflection, I had a moment where I got to act like a rock star, complete with a hot back up dancer.

New Years was a blast.