I’ve only been teaching for a couple of months, but in that time, I feel like I’ve had a disproportionally large number of students named Malachi. And, in each instance, Malachi has come with very specific forewarnings. Whether it’s a word of caution from the front office or a note in the lesson plans, it is made clear to me that those security buttons on the wall are installed for students such as Malachi.
The other day, I embraced the challenge of accepting a job at one of the roughest middle schools in the area. While I typically prefer the type of jobs where I can explain the lesson to the kids and prop my feet on the desk and read whatever I feel like while the students work, this assignment was for 8th-grade Spanish, and I always enjoy the opportunity to interact with the students in my second language, so I steeled myself for a long day in the jungle.
When I showed up to school, the secretary was surprised to see me.
“Oh, I wasn’t expecting a substitute for this class. The teacher has been out all week on a mental health break, and we haven’t been able to get anyone to cover, so the librarian has been filling in. The teacher isn’t responding to calls or e-mails and she didn’t leave any plans, so maybe talk to the French teacher and see if she has any ideas, but if not, just try to keep the kids from hurting each other and keep them as quiet as possible…”
I chuckled to myself as I walked down the hall to the classroom, thinking back on all of the Spanish lessons and techniques I had learned over the years, prepared to make the day as productive as possible.
And for the most part, it was.
Sure, there were a lot of girls more interested in braiding their hair than listening to what I had to say, and there were some boys who used their pencils not for writing, but for throwing at each other’s eyes, but, in general, the students were respectful and did what I asked of them. Most of the students were native Spanish speakers themselves, and they were impressed that they had a teacher who could communicate with them in their native tongue. We wrote some sentences, read some articles, and answered some questions.
And then the last period rolled around.
I was swarmed by an energetic mob of 13-year-olds, jumping up and down to get my attention. I was backed against the board as the excited mass behest me:
“Meester, Meester, can I push the button today?!”
“No, no, me, Meester, me!”
“Do you want me to push the button now?!”
Perplexed as to what the students were talking about, I tried to settle them down and clarify matters.
“Students, ¡calláte, por favor! Why are we screaming? What’s going on?”
“It’s Malachi, Meester!” they exclaimed with gravity. “We have to push the button on him every day, and I want to push it today! Me! Me! Me!”
The classroom in a full roar once again, I had to yell over the ruckus, “Nobody’s pushing a button! We’re going to give Malachi a chance!”
The class let out a deflated sigh and said, “Okay, Meester, we tried to warn you…”
He showed up in the middle of roll call, the only white kid among the racially diverse group. His sports wrap-around glasses made for the perfect complement to his sweet bowl cut, while his heavily stained polo was rebelliously untucked over his soft belly. He stared at me in confusion from the doorway and asked, aggressively, interrupting attendance, “Okay, why the BEEP is our teacher still gone, and what the BEEP is Superman doing here?”
This caused a loud stir of excitement from the students, and I quickly jumped in before matters got out of hand. “Good afternoon, my name is Señor Lane. Can you please have a seat for me?”
“I don’t care what your name is,” he returned defiantly. “I’m just going to call you ‘Superman.'” He walked to the back corner of the room and sat himself atop a table.
“Okay, class,” I voiced, not wanting to bother trying to get Malachi seated at a desk. “I know it’s kind of hard to have a class when there is no plan, but I know how to speak Spanish pretty well, and I’ve got some activities we’re going to go over today. These activities may be pretty easy for those of us that speak fluently, but let’s try to help those who don’t. First, though, I want to ask some questions to get to know the class. If you can answer in Spanish, please do so; if not, answer in English, and we’ll teach you the correct Spanish response. Ready? Let’s go.”
“¿Cuál es tu comida favorita?”
I went around the room, collecting responses to my question, the class energetic and excited to share their favorite foods. Finally, the question came around to Malachi.
“Malachi: ¿Cuál es tu comida favorita?”
He glared at me, eyes bulging from behind his glasses, and spat, “Do I look like a fucking Mexican to you? Speak English, Superman!”
This triggered the class, and the other students began to murmur, “We told you, Meester! Do you want us to push the button?”
Speaking over the other students, I admonished the belligerent pupil. “Malachi, do not use that kind of terminology in this classroom. Answer my question, please: ¿Cuál es tu comida favorita?”
At my repeated question, Malachi jumped off his table and started hitting himself in the bowl-cutted head in exasperation, shouting, “Oh my God, are you blind, Superman? I’m white! Speak English!”
The students started stirring once again and I asked, in resignation, “Okay, Malachi: I’ll just ask you in English, that way I can say you participated in class. What’s your favorite food?”
Hearing this, Malachi stormed to the front of the room and chested me up, lifting his fat little chin to the ceiling as he looked up at me through his thick eyewear and asserting, “That’s none of your fucking business!”
The class erupted at Malachi’s profane response, crying in abhorrence, “Oh my God, Malachi, what’s wrong with you? Why are trying to pick a fight with Señor Superman? He’ll throw you across the room! Are you crazy?”
Malachi allowed his actions to answer that question, as he proceeded to climb on top of the nearest desk and attempted to jump from desktop to desktop. This attempt failed miserably, and he banged his shin against a chair as he fell, falling to the floor and writhing in pain.
“Okay, push the button!” I screamed, and there was a dogpile of students as they rushed to the wall to perform the task.
“It’s always Malachi’s fault!” the young terror lamented aloud as security came and dragged him out of the classroom.
If I was Superman, then Malachi was Captain Obvious, and the rest of the period passed as peacefully as could be expected following such a disruption from the aforementioned personage. As I was walking to my car after the final bell, the secretary came running after me.
“Sir! Sir!” she huffed, and I turned in acknowledgment. “I just want to say that when our principal observed your class earlier in the day, he was very impressed with your lesson and Spanish-speaking ability. At this point, we’ve accepted that our Spanish teacher will not be coming back and would like to offer you the job full-time.”
“Oh,” I answered sincerely. “I’m not a licensed teacher. I wouldn’t be able to accept such a position.”
“No, there are ways that we can…”
“It would be against the law,” I cut her off. “CDE has deemed me unqualified.”
“But, but…,” she stammered as I got in my car and started my engine.
“Thanks for having me today,” I said as I pulled away, thankful that I could truthfully use the department of education as an excuse for avoiding round 2 with Malachi.