Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Having a Bad Day


"Excuse me officer," I spoke to the security cop through the locked gate posts, "I'm supposed to teach here on Monday. Do you know when it might be ... reopened?"

He looked me up and down. "Campus is closed. Kids burned down their dorms."

"I saw the sign, so I figured  ... wait ... what? really? The KIDS burned down their dorms?"

"Yep."

"Oh man ... Well ... can I talk to ...um ...  " I looked at my notes, "Mrs. Cunningham?"

" 'Bout what?"

This fascinating discourse didn't appear to be going anywhere. "Here's my business card," I handed it through the bars.

He studied it for a loooonnnng time. "I'll get Mrs. Cunningham."

"Thanks." Rent-a-cop disappeared down the gravel road behind a row of buildings. He reappeared (in what seemed like) three hours. He slowly unlocked the gate and told me to hop on his golf cart. We drove past three buildings that looked like they held classrooms and pulled up next to the administrative building. I was escorted into Mrs Cunningham's office.

She greeted me and asked me to sit down.


I had that queasy feeling of being in the "pricipal's office". Mrs. C. had red hair, frizzed in a 70s style. She was probably in her 40s but what did I know? I was just 22 ... everybody older than me was in their 40s. She had been at that school for 15 years.

"Mr. Momberg ... can I call you Joel? Let me explain what is happenning here. The FBI is investigating a fire that was set in three dormitories. One of our students was arrested last year in another state for suspected arson and is a prime suspect. We'll be open on Monday for regular classes ... so you will have access in the evening to classrooms ....."

I was numb. What had I walked into?

She talked about the student population ... 90% black inner city kids from the northeast who were sent to BHMA in Camden because they couldn't be managed at home and their parents didn't want to deal with them. What made things worse was that the "nice" folks of Camden didn't want them here either so they were shunned when they went to town.

I was exhausted. I laid down in my tiny efficiency motel room staring at the ceiling. I fell asleep with my clothes on. The next sound I heard was the operator waking me up at 6AM with a sweet southern "Mornin'!" Sleepily I made my way to school, found the classroom and opened the door ... my heart racing a mile a minute. I looked at all the faces staring back at me (no smiles). I tried to be upbeat ... hip.

"Hi, guys. My name is Joel and I'm your new reading specialist."

Dead silence. There was one sound coming from the corner of the room. I couldn't make it out at first ... then I saw them. They had sunglasses, black berets, black teeshirts and staring right at me.


The sound was the paper cutter, sitting next to one of the students, slicing up and down ... the handle in his right hand.

I was having a bad day.

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