2007-09-23: What Shakespeare Wrote


Lee_icon.gif Portia_icon.gif


Lee's emotional breakdown leaves him weirdly receptive to his students' needs, and things begin to improve.

Date It Happened:

September 23, 2007 (and the day after)

What Shakespeare Wrote

Brubaker Secondary School - The Upper East Side

The group of kids Portia is standing with, waiting for the chance to get something from the snack machine, is making fun of Lee as he goes moping across the courtyard. "Doctah Jones." one calls him, and they all snigger. "What a loser, the other day did you hear what Millie Sensebrenner did in his class? She spit right in his face and called him a bitch." "Hey, you're in that class, right?" one addresses Portia. "What, do you not know how to read or something?" snarks another.

She is in that class - through accident of administration, as well as transferring in to a new school, and so on, she ended up with the kids being gossipped about.

Portia knows the truth of this story is both better and worse than it sounds, since she's actually /in/ the class. Yes, Millie spit. Yes, she called Mr. Jones a cowardly bitch. But that wasn't the most disruptive or awful thing in the fifth period civics class that has come to be a little slice of hell on earth for her and most of the other students, and the teacher.

There's a bit of a frown on Portia's face. If it weren't for the temptation of chocolate, she would have left the line long ago, especially with a barb like that. "Yes, I'm in the class. No, I already know how to read, thanks, but I've just transferred. I was abroad in France for a year." She states, casually.
"Well, I bet you're wishing you'd stayed there." moans one student.

"Yeah, I heard someone got stabbed in your class."

"At least in France they let you drink." one says.

"Who needs to drink?" scoffs another. "My mom's Valium…"

"Hey, hurry up, retard." one says to Portia now that she's at the front of the line. "So you can get on to your retard class and your retard teacher." The group laughs, some nastily, others merely chuckle out of peer pressure.

Moving to put her money in the machine and get her candybar, Portia glances towards the girl who just spoke. "Va te faire foutre, trouduc. D'verminage enfer." She quips, casually, moving out of the way now that she's got the candybar. The French is definitely well-spoken, smooth, and most likely entirely something the girls will not know, even if they've taken French. That's the sort of stuff you have to learn first hand.

"What did you say?" says one, aggressively. The bell rings for the next class and a teacher comes into the hall. "I'll see you after gym." the girl snaps. Maybe she will, maybe she'll forget, maybe she'll have one of her mom's Valium and calm down. Who knows. Between here and there, well, there's Mr. Jones' civics class.

The girl isn't worried, making her way towards the civics class. Portia's able to handle herself well enough. She doesn't bother anyone unless they start it first, she's a good student, does her homework, and just tries to keep out of the way of anything big.

The classroom, though it has a certain gravitas from the ornate wooden pillars and up-to-date whiteboards and desks with comfortable chairs, seems neglected, several bulletin boards empty. A few papers up on one board, a copy of the Constitution on another.

Lee was absent the previous day - the substitute teacher broke down crying halfway through class and the rest of the time was spent in a useless 'study period'. Mr. Jones is back today and there's a strange rawness to him, for those few students who actually pay attention to their teacher in this class. Normally he tries to wisecrack and be 'the cool teacher', flopping badly and having neither authority nor sympathy. Even paying attention isn't very rewarding, Lee puts so little into what he's doing. But today he seems different, he watches the kids come in as if he's seeing them for the first time. He doesn't smirk, he doesn't try to join in the boisterous babble of Portia's classmates - mostly discipline problems, slow students, and, well, the ones that use and sell drugs.

Today he just stands before the class as they come in and writes on the whiteboard: "Legislative Oversight" and beneath it, "Judicial" and "Executive", today's lesson, like any other teacher. "Okay, quiet down everyone…" he says as the second bell rings. "Quiet down, everyone take your seats, please. Please, everyone sit down…" At least /that/ hasn't changed.

Moving to take a seat, Portia sits in one of the desks to the front of the classroom. She glances around the classroom as Mr. Jones tries to call the class to order, silently wondering what might come up this time. Hopefully at least part of the class there would be some legitimate teaching.

The girl next to Portia, an attention-hog named Lisa, says, as she seats herself, "Hey, Portia. What's up?" She sees nothing wrong with launching a conversation just as Lee is trying to get the class together. "You're in advanced algebra, right? With Keith Chandler?"

Lee, louder: "Sit down, please. We need to get started, we have a lot to cover…" Two boys from the basketball team are still joshing around in the back. "Gentlemen?" Lee says. Well, that's odd, he /normally/ would say something like 'hey c'mon guys'. And, although he's speaking up, he's not /yelling/ like he normally is at this point.

Glancing to the back of the room momentarily, Portia lets her gaze focus back on Lisa. "Yeah. I am." She replies quickly, not wanting to interrupt at all. She gestures towards Mr. Jones as if to indicate that was the end of the conversation.

Lisa follows her gesture, seems to understand, and then a few seconds later, as Lee is saying, "/Gentlemen./ /Thank/ you." to the basketball players now finding seats, she turns and says to Portia, "So…do you think he'd go out with me? I mean…he's /so fine/.."

Lee is moving around to the front of the desk with his book in his hand. "Chapter three, everybody, did everyone read chapter three as assigned during yesterday's study period? Everyone get your books out and turn to chapter three." About a fourth of them do.

Portia is one of that fourth. She moves to open the book, stealing only a glance to Lisa. "I'll tell you after class." She murmurs, proceeding to focus on the book. She's not going to dignify another reply. She'd like to prove that she doesn't belong in that class.

Lisa is cool with Portia's answer, she is. And she even follows Portia's lead - gets her book out and starts flipping through it, but before she gets to Chapter 3, she addresses Portia again, whispering, "He's smart, too. He gets super-high grades? So I'm…kind of worried, do you think we'd have anything to, you know, talk about?"

Lee says, "Let's begin."

Ignoring Lisa, Portia seems to have no problems focusing on Lee and the book. It's almost as if Lisa isn't there. She's had a lot of practice tuning people out. She /does/ have a twin brother, after all. If that's not practice for having to ignore people sometimes, then nothing is.

Lisa again follows Portia's lead, focusing on Lee as best she can. It's clear she respects the more attentive student on some level, not even minding being ignored.

And maybe for the first time since the beginning of this horrible year, Mr. Jones delivers. He doesn't josh around when students crack wise to each other in the back, he doesn't provoke things to get worse by responding to every little thing that happens, he lets it go, and as a result, the lesson hangs together much better. The students that are paying attention are…actually engaged. The ones that aren't, well…as the hour drags on, they get further behind. They get frustrated that their fellow classmates are ahead of them. The whispered and murmured conversations in the classroom grow in volume, and threaten to overtake the discussion of the material. Lee is still letting it go, like a tightrope walker realizing that it's not that hard after all. "What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the legislature having the impeachment power over judges? Portia, can you address that?"

Lisa, distracted, is leaning over to the girl on the other side and whispering with her about something or other.

Glancing up as she's addressed, Portia nods a little. She's actually enjoying the class for once, and she's definitely noticed the difference. "Well, it can be advantageous because if a judge is corrupt, say, through bribes or something, then he can be removed. It can be a disadvantage, though, because conversely, if the legislature is corrupt, they could impeach a judge who may be actually enacting justice, or even remove a judge for political reasons."

Lee says, "Good." instead of over-praising like he has been doing. A hand goes up. "Questions? Yes, Adam."

Adam: "But nobody elects judges, why should we let them make decisions about what the laws should be, it's not democratic."

Lee: "Well, /some/ judges are elected, we'll get into that when we talk about the judicial branch more, but your point is a good one. It isn't democratic. The judicial branch is the least democratic branch there is. That's going to turn out to be very important later, so keep it in mind. Write it down, that'll be on the quiz. Other questions? Yes, Rudy."

Rudy, leaning slovenly in his desk with his book not even on it, says, "Why do we have to learn this shit?" The line gets a laugh from most of the classroom, including Lisa. Lee stands there a moment, uncomfortable, his confidence somewhat shaken.

Looking up from her chair, Portia scowls a little bit. "Well, when you turn 18, you've got the opportunity to vote. And when you vote, that means you get to decide what goes on in the government. And the government is the one that puts important systems in place. If you don't know this kind of stuff? When you vote, if you do, it'll be your fault if you choose someone who doesn't know how to run things. If you don't know what's going on in the governement? You could very well get someone who says a lot of things that seem good but really aren't. Hitler was a great example of that. Would you really want someone like Hitler making the rules?"

"Shut up, you fucking bitch." is Rudy's considered reply. Lisa says, "/You/ shut up, Rudy, you don't know shit." The class 'oooohs' with the implication that soon there will be a fight, boisterous conversation lighting up the room. Lee intervenes, not by yelling as he normally would, or by throwing detention at Rudy or Lisa either.

"Rudy," Lee says, tossing the book behind him onto the teacher's desk with a light, graceful 'thud' that nevertheless silences the class. "Are you seriously asking, or are you just trying to score points with Josh and Marshall? Because if you're just trying to score points, okay. You scored the points. Look, they're laughing." Josh and Marshall stop laughing, uncertain. "But if you want to know, if you really want to know why you have to learn this. Portia gave you a good clue, and she's right, she's completely right, but Rudy…" He steps forward. Mr. Jones has long legs, and is very tall, and it's only now that the class really realizes this. "…I can tell you the whole story. If you really want to know. If you actually wish, in your own mind, right in there, to /know/, Rudy. I will tell you why you /have/ to learn this. Not why it's a good idea to learn it. Not why it will be advantageous to you, or to society, for you to learn it. But why you /must/ learn it. If that is what you want."

A few students try to titter, a few try murmured punchlines to a joke Lee isn't telling, but he's completely stonefaced and absolutely calm. Lisa looks nervously to Portia. This is not what she expected to have happen and she doesn't know how to react.

But Portia? Portia is /thrilled/. This is interesting, for once. Mr. Jones is standing up for himself. And there's real teaching. And for once, people aren't being entire idiots. She leans against her desk watching quietly. She doesn't look nervous at all, but genuinely interested. She wants to see what he says, what the reactions will be. Her mind's already churning with interesting ways it could play out, and she fights the urge to scribble down notes. Song ideas are everywhere.

Lee leans over Rudy like Rudy is eight and he is a grownup. Rudy finally says, "Y…yeah."

"The reason you must know this, Rudy, the reason you must know this, and algebra, and how to conjugate verbs, and what Shakespeare wrote, is because your parents, and your teachers, and adults everywhere are frightened. Even me." Lee says, low-voiced. He doesn't sound frightened, exactly, but it does have the sound of a confession, and silence falls on the class like a shroud: "We're frightened we're not doing a good enough job and when you come around to run things - and you'll be running them soon, you personally, Rudy, you will be responsible for things a lot sooner than you or I think…. We're all afraid we're not going to leave you with much, and what we do leave you with is not that great. Some of it, maybe most of it, is pretty awful, but what really scares us are the changes that we can't even imagine, let alone teach you how to handle. No one can teach you how to handle something they can't imagine. No one here can. No one on Earth can. And so, Rudy, it's not just for your benefit that we're bringing you here and putting you in this chair. It's not for 'society's' benefit. It's because without you, you /personally/, Rudy, we don't stand a chance. None of us stand a chance without each other." The bell rings and nobody moves, not one person. "Our parents had the same fears for us. And you'll have the same ones someday when you have kids. And if I've let you down, Rudy…if I've let any of you down…" He looks around the class. "…then I want you to know right now that I apologize. And I promise that I will do better." Lisa looks like a deer in the headlights. "Read chapter four part A and be prepared to discuss it tomorrow. Class dismissed." Lee says, his words bearing an antique grace, like the classroom he is in, his hands trembling with his own fear.

Slowly getting to her feet, Portia can't help but smile. That was pretty impressive. Especially considering how tough the students usually were on him. She lets most people clear out before her, gathering up her stuff before she starts to move out slowly herself. She does stop near Lee's desk for a moment, offering a smile. "Brilliant, Mr. Jones." She states to him as she makes her way to the door.

Lee was slumped in his chair, wide-eyed, like he couldn't quite believe what came over him. He says, shakily, "Thanks, Portia." As she into the hall, she hears him leap up behind her as he thinks of something else, poking his head into the hall. "Portia, hang on a second. Thank you for helping Lisa. I know she has a hard time paying attention. She looks up to you." He noticed? "Do you mind helping her with the assignments? At least until she gets caught up."

Wow. He's more perceptive than Portia anticipated. She gives a little bit of a nod. "Yeah. I can do that. It's not a problem." She offers, cheerfully.

Lee says, "Good. I know you probably think this material is really basic, but I intend to get a lot more deeply into it than we have been. You'll get that challenge you're looking for." and he almost sounds confident. No, not confident: eager. Like it's a challenge for him too, one he's been looking for.

That causes a bit more grin out of Portia. "I'd really like that, Mr. Jones." She states, glancing back over at Lee. "Not many teachers would give that a shot."

Lee is about to say one thing, then he stops himself and says, "Well, that tells me where my next stop should be, doesn't it?" He ducks back inside the classroom and grabs his briefcase, closing the classroom door behind him. "Get to your next class, go." As they part, he is headed up the stairs… to the lavish administration offices.

The next day at the vending machines, the same group has gathered. "Hey retard, it's /eighty cents/, that's three quarters and a nickel." one says to Portia.

"I heard Jones had a complete meltdown yesterday." says another. "Crying in your class and saying the world was going to end or something?" Rumors, sheesh.

Another, more seriously: "I was up in the principal's office? And he was having it /out/ with Assistant Principal O'Donnelly next door. I mean /yelling/, you could hear him right through the wall, all the teachers and secretaries could. Right after your class, too. He must be getting fired."

The first goes ignored as she puts in her money, though Portia glances back to the second and third to pipe up. "He didn't cry in class. Scared the shit out of a few people, I think, cause they didn't quite expect him to genuinely answer their questions, but definitely no tears." She frowns a little at the idea of him yelling at the Assistant Principal. That must be a bad thing. "Well, who knows what he was doing. I'm sure if he got fired we'd find out about it pretty soon.." She doubts it, though. She tries pretty hard not to listen to rumors.

"Oh yeah," one replies, laughing as Portia describes the class as 'scared'. "Marshall came out of there and went straight into the bathroom on the third floor to shoot up, I heard? Then flipped and left without even scoring! Jones really scared that little fiend good." She clearly likes Portia's version of the rumor. Wait, or was it 'the truth'?

Lee is not fired. In fact, his classroom looks different - the old raggedy papers pulled from the bulletin boards, the Constitution now supplemented with a big Bill of Rights poster, and several other banners with phrases from the book: "Limited Resources" "Who Decides?" "What Goes Wrong?" and so on. And Lee himself looks sharper, dressed in a full, albeit somewhat retro, suit, dark coat buttoned up high on his slender frame. He smiles at his students, nods to them in greeting as they enter, giving handouts, making notes on the board.

Nothing really changes overnight. It's still a struggle. But at least now someone is actually fighting it in Basics of American Civics.

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