by Jerry Robbins
Add up all my surveying
days in the blistering sun in dense woods amidst
carnivorous jiggers and ticks, and my days as a
construction worker laying a roof with locusts
buzzing in the oppressive August heat, and
evenings shoveling three feet of heavy, compacted
frozen snow off my sidewalk and those labors don't
even come close to the pain and exhaustion
brought on by one day as a substitute teacher in
the Baltimore City school system.
A dear friend who happened
to spend her time as the Superintendent of
Baltimore schools needed a replacement for a sick
teacher and she thought as a young pastor and
youth worker, I would be just right for the job.
I thought she was a candidate for sainthood to
work at her job, but I had no idea how close she
was to beatification until I agreed to be the
lamb led to slaughter at a downtown(i.e.urban)
My assignment was simple.
Take care of the boys shop classes for the day,
and do my best to keep them from killing each
other. Having grown up in safe and serene
suburban Baltimore, I had no idea what she was
"You mean these are
violent kids ?" I asked Superintendent
"Three boys were badly
beaten up just last week," she answered.
"But I am sure you can handle it."
Saints may have a good
heart, but that sometimes gets in the way of
their sound judgment. I was not at all sure
I could handle it. No church camp experience I
had included any beatings. Some bullying,
but no violence. I felt like an alien coming from
another planet to save Eorg, the Kingdom of Death.
My intuition was not far
from the truth. Shop class in downtown
Baltimore schools had one purpose, to trick the
teacher into thinking you are doing what he asks,
while all the time you are making a lethal knife
out of an iron rod.
This was not clear to me.
All I knew was I was supposed to help these
youths learn how to use a lathe. The lesson plan
was complicated. It read like instructions
for assembling a nuclear-armed missile.
Besides, there were not enough lathes to go
around. This meant a pile up at each lathe.
I should have known this was a formula for
trouble. By huddling around the lathe
the kids could hide what it was they were
actually working on.
So in order to look like
they were working obediently, one kid would read
the manual, "Insert one and one half inch
stock into a spindle, and tighten. Round one end."
Then there would be a rustle of activity and the
screeching of the cutting blade. Young men
with very large geeky goggles hovered over the
activity. I could not see exactly what they
were making, but they weren't punching each other,
so I let it be.
But not all the lathes were
humming productively. The farthest from the
desk had rattled to a halt and there was some
pushing and shoving among the boys. Just then a
loud scream pierced the air, and one of the boys
fell to the floor. "You dirtbag,"
one boy yelled and proceeded to kick the prone
body which rolled around helplessly "You %#*^%!!scum,"
he said, as if to clarify the charges. The
victim raised himself up on one elbow and was
swiftly kicked back down. All the time, the
other boys were jumping up and down and hollering
loudly, their goggles bouncing oddly on their
faces. It looked like a scene out of a horror
movie, "Attack of the High Hopping Shop
Monsters With Big Eyes."
Although I did not want to
get into the middle of this drama,I decided
something had to be done. I asked the nearest
lathe crew what was going on. "That dude on
the ground was talking about taking a girl out,"
one kid said. "Happened to be the
sister of the guy who was kicking him around. It's
"No I don't think so,"
I said and immediately five ridiculously goggled
boys turned to stare at me which was a lot of
funny goggles looking at me at once. "Go
over there and break it up," I said in my
best authoritative voice.
"No way," he said,
"if you want them to quit, you will have to
stop them yourself."
I had to think about that.
I thought of all the defense courses I had taken
in my life. None. How would I fair in the
midst of these boys? Poorly.
So I had to come up with a
non-violent strategy. Warn them that I knew
the Superintendent of Schools and she wouldn't
like this behavior at all. Too weak.
Threaten them with expulsion if they didn't stop.
Too strong. Who was I, a lowly substitute
to bring that off? Try a little reverse
psychology? "O.K. go ahead and injure, maim
and kill each other, what do I care? I'll be out
of here by the end of the day." But they
might actually do it.
I decided to try to make a
deal with a the rabble-rouser. I swaggered over
to the fracas slowly so as to not seem too
shocked or inexperienced at this. They didn't
seem to notice. All the boys encircled the
kicker and the kickee and shouted not nice words.
Finally, when I huruuummmphed loudly
they parted and I confronted the violent one.
"OK. Stop that," I said.
"Go drown in the
harbor, old man, who are you?" he said.
"I am your teacher,
and what you are doing here is unacceptable,"
"You can't tell me
what to do, you have no authority," he said.
I thought for second.
He was right. I was just a fill-in, and a
bad one at that. But I still had my wits. "OK
let's make a deal," I said.
"Oh, sure," he
"Here's the deal,"
I said. "You quit this stuff and I'll let
the class out ten minutes early."
Surely a win-win.
"Dude, make that
fifteen minutes," and he eased back from one
last swing at his prey.
The rest of the class
period went as expected. A slight scuffle
at Lathe#3, allegedly between two rival gang
members. One student asked to be excused
because he felt sick from the punch in his gut
that his "friend" had given him. Much
looking out the window at the girls below. Three
excuses to go to the bathroom (e.g., take a smoke).
There was more covert activity at the lathes.
As the time rolled around
for their early dismissal, the abusive class
leader marched up to me and demanded, "OK,
your part of the deal." I checked the clock
on the wall and listened to the class countdown.
Precisely on the dot, they bolted for the door.
It was the hardest day of
my life, but I considered it a moderate success.
No one was killed in class, and I collected 15
newly made knives at the door. I also
smuggled out a pair of goggles which I proudly
mounted over my office desk.