It’s a Prank, Bro
A Story about Kids, Schools, and Second-class Citizenry
“Please. Pretty please. Pretty please with a cherry on top,” went my once-a-week spiel — although I knew the students didn’t understand the cherry on top part. “Please be nice to Molly.”
Molly was their full-time teacher, and she was struggling. She’d taken over for a man who’d retired upon reaching his 60th birthday in November. I was her assistant. I didn’t have many of the responsibilities of a full-time teacher; I met with no parents and graded no exams. But every hour, half the students (there were 30 in each class) came with me to a smaller classroom, and we had English class. The next day, the other half would come with me.
I always wondered if the students realized I was improvising. They’re more perceptive than we give them credit for, so they probably did. Still, I’d like to think they saw in me a kindred spirit — someone who, like them, rolled out of bed at the last possible minute and dashed through homework on the way to school.
But planning lessons and the other things that go along with being a real teacher weren’t part of my job. My job was to go through the textbook with them, help with their projects, define words and have fun with them — as long as it was in English. I approached it that way for the better part of two school years, and was never once supervised, evaluated, or asked to change my approach.
By far the most difficult moment came during my first year, while teaching students 11–14 years old. I had put this message on the board during all of my classes:
Months later, two (I should add incredibly thoughtful and bright) students told me a friend of theirs — they wouldn’t name her, and I never asked — had been sexually abused by a student from another school. The abused student didn’t want to tell her parents out of fear they’d react badly.
I thought all evening about what to do, and even called a sexual abuse hotline for advice. The next day, I wrote a letter and gave it to the two. My letter urged them to convince their friend of one necessity: that she tell an adult—a parent, an aunt, a priest — someone, anyone. I offered to be there for support while she did it.
These students had trusted me with the most important, and most frightening, secret they possibly could have. I didn’t want to betray that trust by telling the school principal or another teacher, but I also trusted them to handle the situation well. And they did. I was careful not to pry, but a week later, I asked for an update. Their friend had told her parents.
I remember all too well what it was like to be a student. I remember wearing hoodies to middle school and straining my back, hunching deeper into the hood, trying to hide the acne that popped up on my neck.
I remember the silliness; a friend once convinced me to hold a shoe over my head when I raised my hand to ask a question. I remember crossing the room in front of an old-fashioned projector to get a Kleenex, accidentally looking into the bulb, and, throwing my arms over my eyes, singing out, “Bliiiiinded by the light.” My normally calm math teacher, with whom I thought I was on good terms, was pissed like I’d never seen her. I thought she’d be mad at me forever.
I even remember a biology class in seventh grade: I drew a stick figure person with its hand near its groin and a penis ejaculating little dots of ink. The caption read, “Me after school. I need to relax!” The teacher saw me scribbling and grabbed the paper before I could tear it to pieces and swallow it. I can still feel my face flushing red; the fury of seeing her slip it not onto her desk, where I might be able to grab it as I left the room, but into a drawer. I remember my desperation to ask a question about biology so that our most recent interaction would be something else. Maybe she’d forget.
When I saw my students drawing little wee-wees on their workbooks, as teenagers tend to do, I remembered that story. I remembered my shame. I remembered my confusion. I remembered how damn bored I was in school, how all I wanted was something to laugh about.
Above all, I remembered feeling like I was playing a game I couldn’t win: Teachers vs. Students. Our team had strength in numbers. The teachers had the almighty grading pen. But boy, was it ever fun to try to beat them.
We could score a point by obtaining permission to go to the bathroom. What a relief, to stand up, to walk out of the classroom, and to have a moment alone to breathe!
We could win, in the short term, by entering into an unspoken game of dominoes: I would ask a somewhat-related question, someone else would ask an even-less-related question, then another and another until we had successfully run out the clock.
Maybe I was the only one who saw it this way. Maybe a lifetime of tying my identity to sports fandom made me think of it like a game. But I was never jealous when I saw a classmate cheating on a test; I was proud. That was a point for our team. I would get sent to the principal’s office for one thing or another and console myself by thinking, “If the principal is in here with me, calling my mom, that means he can’t be getting someone else in trouble right now.” I could handle whatever punishment they gave me. I was happy to take one for the team.
I also remember when my team abandoned me. I was a freshman in college, in Introduction to Journalism in a big auditorium. One day toward the end of the semester, the teacher announced that he was cancelling an assignment that would have been due in two weeks. Someone raised her hand to protest.
You read that right: someone raised their hand to protest the elimination of an assignment. “My grade is right on the line between B and B+,” she reasoned.
The professor put it to a vote: “Hands up if you want to do the assignment.” I ground my teeth as I watched hands rise. I turned left, then right, then spun around to look behind me. It was a blow-out. “Ok then, that’ll still be due on the 29th.”
The hands went down; mine went up.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Am I understanding correctly? Did you all just vote for homework?”
I looked around in horror. The auditorium was silent. I borrowed a line from Mr. Deeds. “I bet if you ran into the sixth-grade versions of yourselves right now, they would kick your asses all over the place and put bubblegum in your hair for even thinking about this.” I scoffed, stood up, and left.
Two months before the end of my second year teaching, I was told I couldn’t continue at the school.
Not long before, Maria, a high school freshman, had called me over to her desk while she was working on an assignment. “I have six brothers and sisters,” she said.
“Oh, very nice. That’s good to know.”
Quickly, she responded, “It’s a prank, bro!”
I laughed, guessing that she had seen some video on Youtube, Instagram, or Netflix that featured a practical joke with that punch line.
“That’s not exactly a prank,” I said. I proceeded to show the class a video of pranks to illustrate the difference between a prank and a mere joke. A whoopee cushion. A water bottle with the top slightly unscrewed. An exploding golf ball.
Every day before entering the classroom, I made the students shake my hand. When someone gave me a dead-fish grip, or if the webs of our palms didn’t meet, I made them re-enter with a better handshake. I figured that even if they ignored every word I said (and they surely did), at least I could help them develop a valuable life skill.
But Maria would sometimes walk into the classroom and hold out her left hand instead of her right. Even though she now understood what a prank was, it became our little inside joke: “It’s a prank, bro!” she’d say. When she asked me some time later if I knew what grade she’d gotten on a recent exam, I said, “You failed. [Pause.] It’s a prank, bro!”
It was a prank, bro, that led to my dismissal. I was not scheduled for the last English class of the day on Mondays, which meant the teacher, Molly, was with all 30 students for the entire hour. On Tuesdays, she would tell me, “Ugh, they were impossible yesterday,” or, “I almost lost my voice yelling at them.” She had tried punishing them; she had tried bribing them with less homework and by putting on movies. Nothing worked.
I came up with an idea. When each half of the class came with me on Thursday and Friday, I pitched it to them: “Once, just once, let’s be perfect for Molly on Monday. She’ll flip! We’ll raise our hands,” I said, capturing their attention, and getting some giggles, by waving both hands over my head. “We’ll listen attentively, we won’t interrupt, and for once, she won’t have to yell. Just think how happy she’ll be!” Then I added, “Someone can even try to take a quick video of her reaction; it wouldn’t be a prank without a video, after all.”
It was to be more than just a pleasant surprise for the teacher; I wanted the students to see that they were in complete control of their behavior — that they couldn’t just blame it on the fact that it was the last class of the day, or the beautiful weather outside, or the boringness of the class. I wanted them to see that they could do just about anything if they had the proper motivation.
It was the video comment that got me. Cellphones are strictly not allowed at the school.
I don’t know what incensed the teacher so. I should have told her about the idea, included her in the prank. Perhaps she felt that I was teaming up with the kids to betray her. And she was horrified that the video would end up on the Internet. “Who knows what they could do with it?” she said, I think under the assumption that the kids are malicious and would digitally alter the video to make her look villainous. More likely, she said or did something she was ashamed of. “I said some silly things,” she told me on the phone, declining to elaborate on the word “silly.”
But she reported me up the chain and I, having encouraged the breaking of a school rule, was told by the headmaster that I was no longer welcome. In the same murmur with which he told me I couldn’t continue, he said he was impressed that I was able to get 30 teenagers to buy into my little scheme, to be on their best behavior for a whole hour, with the late-afternoon sun and the end of the school day glaring in through the windows. I had a connection with the kids; they really trusted me, he said.
What I’ll remember most about the teenagers I taught is how eager they were to laugh. The redeeming powers of a “child’s laughter” is a cliché, but there’s a reason it became one: They really do laugh a lot. They laughed when someone farted. They laughed — and I mean lost their shit, cracking up laughter — when I sent a kid out of class and he looked in at us through the window with a goofy grin. They laughed at whatever stories they whispered to each other. They laughed at everything except my dad jokes (What does the elevator operator say when someone asks him how he likes his job? “It has its ups and downs!”)
I think the constant tee-hees and ha-ha’s lead adults to think of the kids as inferior, in a way. It’s a sign of immaturity, supposedly.
I realize now, though: It wasn’t immaturity that drove me to hold a shoe over my head, and I don’t think it was “immaturity” or anything of the sort that drove my students to laugh all the time.
It’s now clear to me just how damn bored I was in school, and how bored my students were, and surely still are. They want to move and to talk to each other, and yet practically from 8:00–3:00, they’re made to sit still and be quiet. They don’t like rules, don’t understand rules, and rebel against them just because they are rules. It’s no secret why education works this way:
I’ll put a finer point on it: Kids are treated as less than human. I’m told their brains are still developing. They’re emotionally fragile, or something. They don’t think rationally, I suppose (although take one look around the world and tell me how many “grown ups” think rationally).
Here’s Will Leitch, writing about college students — technically “adults” — in his October 27, 2018 newsletter. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but is it not patronizing as hell? Could we get away with talking about any other group of people in this condescending way?
What the adults who’ve been entrusted with educating kids don’t know, and in fact are motivated to ignore, is that today’s young people are smarter and more mature than any group of young people has ever been. They’ve had the entirety of human knowledge on a piece of metal in their pockets since they could read.
But so successful has the smear campaign been against kids that even they themselves are drinking the venom designed to knock them down a peg. When I asked a class of 15-year-olds what the voting age in Spain is, and they told me it’s 18, I asked: “Do you think that’s unfair?” Almost all of them responded no, we’re not capable of handling the responsibility of deciding the fate of millions of people. (Which, for my money, is exactly the humility that would serve the rest of the voting public, and the rest of the world, pretty well. But that’s another essay.)
This is, I’m sure, the only instance in human history where one group of people has been denied the right to participate in and shape their own futures because a different group of people considered them to be intellectually inferior.
Never mind: “For students, as for black people, the hardest battle isn’t with [the slave-owner] Mr. Charlie,” Jerry Farber wrote in “The Student as Nigger,” an essay I read in middle school and have found to be as true in modern times as it would’ve been in 1967. The hardest battle, he wrote, “is with what Mr. Charlie has done to your mind.”
Maybe I’m still living in a world that only existed in my 12-year-old mind. Maybe I have for too long revered the wisdom of baseball manager Bob Lemon, who said “Baseball was made for kids; grown-ups only screw it up.”
Maybe I’m nuts, but I trust kids. I trust them unequivocally.
I trust them because I’ve given a kid a bite-sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and watched her get chocolate all over her fingers trying to break it in half to share.
I trust them precisely because they are what we might pejoratively call “gullible.” They can be exposed to new information, interpret it, and change their minds. I rarely see the same capacity in adults.
What I learned from the adults — the teachers and administrators — in this whole mess is that the business of education is about one thing: self-preservation. Above any interest they have in kids, in learning, or in anything, their interest is to keep their jobs (and to keep their email inboxes free of complaints from parents).
I thought the vigilance against phones was because the teachers and administrators didn’t want them to disrupt the learning environment. That’s not it at all.
“We have to protect ourselves,” the director told me as I was being informed of the decision to move me out. In the same way police officers are surely uncomfortable when civilians record traffic-stop conversations, teachers don’t want any record of what they do behind the closed doors of the classroom.
If I could say one last thing to my students, what would it be? What final, heavy wisdom would I try to impart?
I would tell them how easy it would have been for me to save myself by lying — by blaming the kids. “I didn’t say anything about a prank. Certainly never mentioned taking a video. It was their idea” would’ve gotten me off the hook. When it’s a teacher’s word against a student’s — even if it’s a teacher’s word against 30 students’ — the teacher’s word will always win. Teachers are adults, after all; students are just kids.
I would tell them that as I was being fired, in my dying breath, when asked if I had any last words, I fought for them. Fought for them to be treated as human beings, not some subclass of creature that must be “raised” like chickens, coddled like puppies, shielded from the “real” world as if their world didn’t count. I’m not eloquent in Spanish, so I doubt I punctuated the conversation as I would have liked. But I said, “This philosophy of protection toward the students — it consists in a philosophy of mistrust. And if we don’t trust the students, they won’t trust us.”
I would read them the quote from Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes: “My heart will always be with the drunk, the poet, the prophet, the criminal, the painter, the lunatic, with all whose aims are insulated from the humdrum business of life.”
And I would tell them I’m adding one to the list.
My heart will always be with the kids.
If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.