ALEXANDER HAMBONE WAS AN UNREALISTIC JERKWAD—the precise hue of hopeless honkey in which the world hated. He was working now in fictional Texatronic as a substitute teacher. What kind of substitute?
Since he had little training, no affection, no insight into matters psychological, being that he was a Magazine Engineer with the personality of a GD&T tolerance zone, he went to the least affluent communities where a solid, capable teacher was needed most.
This morning Hambone would teach his first class: Remedial Physics. The school was on the southwest side of Texatronic which he had been told was a rough place to teach; possessed of grounds where seasoned teachers feared tread.
He would teach these hard cases to appreciate the sciences. After all, he had graduated in Magazine Engineering from Ohiowah State University with a cumulative GPA of 3.29.
Once in the classroom, seated behind a big steel desk, looking out at an ocean of nearly forty, seventh grade faces of every race and ethnicity, he began by announcing his name to the class and writing it with strained confidence on the huge, white dry erase board. “I am Mr. Hambone.”
“How old you is, Hambone? You don’t look like you’re outta highschool, mister.”
“That’s none of your concern. Let us begin by taking roll: Enrique, P—Pena?”
Riotous laughter. “Nice yellow tie, suckah. You know not everyone carries they wallet in they back pocket, mister. I’m gonna get that.”
Unfortunately, there were a great deal of students named Pena. Next, they took out pieces of paper, wadded them up and threw them back and forth; they milled about; students walked in and out of the classroom—“Are you in this class? Are you—are you—look—look at me—are you in this class?”
“No, mister. I’m just sitting here talking to my friend.” And then something in Spanish and laughter.
“Where do you need to be? Where do you need to be? Get where you need to be? Do you want me to call the office?”
“I’ll go, mister. You don’t have to be a dick about it, Jesus Christ.”
“What’s that in your hand,” said Hambone. “I see that!” He was circling all the tables like a cagey warden now—sleeves rolled up, thin hands wringing. “Is that a twenty gig or a forty gig?” asked Hambone. “I been wanting one of those. I won’t even give it over to the office.”
She slipped the iPod back under her desk and smiled. Someone started texting.
“If I see any more electronic devices,” said Hambone, “Any iPods, iPhones, iPads, cellphones, laptops, kindles—I’m just going to take them on sight.”
“You can’t take this, mister,” a girl said, clutching her laptop. “It ain’t yours!”
“Back in your backback,” said Hambone. “We are working on section one of our density worksheets. If anyone has any questions, I can come around and help you.” He went over to the dry erase board and started explanatory diagrams of the concept of density. Something small clicked to the floor and the classroom burst out laughter.
“What is that…? A miniature skateboard?”
A paper airplane glided to the floor before his desk.
“Can we use the internet, mister?”
Hambone replaced the cap on his marker and walked out from behind the desk. “What is it with you kids,” he said.
Some of them stopped yelling and playing and turned to listen.
“You kids think you’re bad or something. You kids think you got it bad, so you don’t have to learn or something.”
More of them turned to listen.
“Well—well you ain’t bad. You ain’t bad. YOU AIN’T NOTHIN’!” (And he thought of the Michael Jackson video.)
“We bad, mister,” a girl said. “Cortez Middle School is the worst in southwest Texitronic. Honest.”
“No,” insisted Hambone, “I’ve been around a little. I’d rather be in southwest Texitronic alone at midnight then in my car driving through east Native American-apolis. I almost got carjacked once on the eastside. Scary stuff kids—” he was getting their attention now “—One time, when I was living in Native American-apolis they killed eleven people downtown over a weekend. That Monday some dudes outside my apartment were talking about a Tech Nine and dealing at six in the morning and I had to walk past them and they tried to get me to stop. That’s scary stuff. But its scarier afterwards; right? Or how about Bad News, Virginia? You kids want to live in a city named Bad News?”
“What’s so bad about Bad News, mister?”
Hambone pecked. “What’d you just say to me?”
“What’s so bad about Bad News, mister?”
“Oh no,” said Hambone. “You don’t want that. When that starts, I—I can’t stop it. It gets away from me—”
“When what starts, mister?”
“FOOLS!” Hambone shrieked. “Do you not see it begins already?” He felt dizzy and his leg twitched. “The quickening, pretentious wit—the self-narration of my own life. It—it begins.” His eyes rolled back in his head; he caught himself on the desk before shaking off something and attempting to compose himself: “He’d rented a room on the third-floor, servant’s quarters of a colonial mansion on the bay. It was the last beautiful house in a row of colonial beauties surrounded by poverty. The house faced the cold, blue bay without waves and in the distance on the horizon the huge steel columns of the shipyard stood up out of the water. The road in front of the house edged close to the black and gray rocks of the bay with the empty winds and an osprey cawing above the grey still waters in search of meat. Every once in a while a police officer would roll by and stop a black couple from looking at the waters or from fishing and, later in the night, handguns popped sadly from behind our tall, beautiful, ancient houses. All the greyness of the sky had been collected in those waters and it was a shame that the place had been so marred by its mysterious past sins and—with no waves or sound or smiles—it felt like the end of time and the end of the line. He’d go jogging north past the beautiful houses with rich doctors and lawyers walking towards him for their exercise, carrying their hammers or knotty walking sticks or small, toy wooden bats for their protection and the blacks would carry them too—all of them armed and coming towards his empty hands with everything so unspoken, and, to his right, on the horizon, the shipyards towered where men welded rusty iron in the sun for nickels while in the middle of the cold grey waters the yachts and schooners frolicked with glasses clinking and cameras flashing as if a swath of Olympus could float on the surface of the Styx.” Hambone collapsed onto the desk. He jerked up drowsily.
“That ain’t so bad,” someone said.
“Where—where am I?” asked Hambone.
“Can we use the Internet?” someone asked. “Mr. Thompson always lets us use the Internet.”
“Ahhhhh?” quavered Hambone. “No. No, you cannot use the Internet.”
“But Mr. Thompson—”
“I don’t care,” a boy said; he slid his chair back. “I’m just going to use it.”
“Hey!” Hambone rushed over and snatched the boy’s hand off the mouse.
“You touched me!” the boy cried. “You touched me. You can’t do that.”
“I don’t care,” said Hambone—slumped, defeated. “I don’t care. I told you not to do it.”
The boy slit his eyes. “Do you like black people?”
Hambone slit his eyes. “They’re okay, I guess. Sit back down.”
After the day was finished, Mr. Thompson came back from coaching his basketball tournament to ask Hambone how his class had behaved.
“I’m not sure,” said Hambone. “They were pretty bad. But I think I wasn’t able to earn their respect. I suspect—I suspect that perhaps I wasn’t able to yell at your kids loud enough.”
“Yes,” Mr. Thompson said. “They’re pretty limited. They’re used to being yelled at in a certain way. If you don’t yell at them with the right authority, it’s like you don’t exist. Try this: SIT DOWN IN YOUR SEAT, BOY!”
“Whoah!” Hambone’s ears ringed. “That’s powerful stuff. You might bottle that up and sell it back for something.” He looked around. “I’ll tell you what I did do, though.”
“What’s that, Hambone?”
“I—I touched one of them. I touched one of them kids when they wouldn’t do what I said.”
“What? What did you just say?”
“I touched one of them: on the wrist.”
“No,” Mr. Thompson said sternly. “No. You must never—one must never, ever…touch them kids.”