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.

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