Monday, November 22, 2010

Third time is a charm

             I am free!

My third time getting suspended

Detention had become routine during my high school years. I found acting out in school was an appropriate payback for the conflict I was experiencing at home between my parents and me. Reunification with my parents was not going as planned. I was not adapting well to strict parental rules, a foreign culture, and lack of a cohesive extended family.

All communication between my grandmother and me had ceased. Not because I wanted it to but because I was not provided the avenue to by my parents. I missed my grandmother dearly. Much more than I thought I would.

And school did not fill the void left by my transplantation. If anything, school created a canvas for me to recreate myself in America. The result of that recreation was often detention.

I did not see detention as necessarily hurting me as a student. My grades were good and I was ahead of my classmates in terms of understanding the course material presented.

In fact, during my senior year in high school, I was granted special permission to take FORTRAN (an advanced computer programming language) at Pace University at night. There I was - a teenager in class with a bunch of grown-ups with full-time jobs and families at home.

Pushing the limits of rules and regulations were my focus.

The third time I got suspended was for breaking what I thought was one of the most stupid rules on the book. But of course I was young. I did not see the whole picture of how my actions could jeopardize the standing of the institution.

I lived a few blocks from school. It took me approximately 15 minutes to walk from door to door. I would walk in the snow, heavy downpours, and blazing summer heat. We did not have a bus to pick us up.

I was not allowed to leave school grounds once I entered the school gate. It was a regulation that no one tested. I was locked down for the entire seven hours.

One day I forgot my lunch and I had no money to purchase food from the cafeteria. So I did the next best thing, I left school to go home to get some food.

It was easy to leave school. There was a back gate hidden from the peering eyes of faculty and staff. I executed my plan to perfection. I went to the bathroom when my class was dismissed for lunch, slipped out the building when no one was looking, walked down the hill on the Southwest side, and out the gate.

It was my first time leaving the grounds without permission. I felt free, walking, swinging my arms, and whistling. Soon I would be home eating that tasty lasagna that my mother cooked the night before.

I had gotten three blocks away from my house. I stopped on the corner of a street and waited for the light to change. There was hardly any traffic on the roadway.

A light blue late model car was waiting across the street on the side of oncoming traffic. I was on the side with the flow of traffic.

I stepped down off the curb and onto the crosswalk as the light turned green for oncoming traffic and the walk signal facing me turned white.

The approaching car slowed down to a crawl as it passed through the intersection. I turned my head slightly to the left to see who was driving and caught the Dean of Students in his familiar black beard and matching habit looking dead at me from the driver side window.

As if it was a Saturday afternoon, excited, and with a broad smile, I raised my right hand and waved hello.

The Dean stared at me for a moment, scowled his face, turned forward, and continued driving.

It took me a millisecond to realize that it was not Saturday. That in fact it was a school day, at lunch time, outside school grounds, and I had just waved to the Dean as if he was my cousin.

I shoved the thought of trouble out of my head and kept on walking being guided by the rumblings of my stomach and thoughts of lasagna.

I got home, heated my food in the oven, ate in a hurry, and left back out. I had fifteen minutes to get back to school. I walked quickly and for fear of being late jogged back some of the way.

When I got close to the back gate, I noticed a teacher standing guard. He was looking up and down the street as if searching for someone. Obviously, a sentry posted by the now pissed Dean of Students who was certain of what he saw a little less than half an hour ago - Anthony Salandy playing hooky.

I decided I needed to take other measures to get on campus. I circled the block and came across a low part of the fence circling the school grounds. I hopped the fence and headed straight for the school nurse. That would be my only saving grace, I thought.

I could fake an illness and head to my class with a nurse’s pass. I was thinking that I probably could fudge the arrival time on the pass so it read sometime during lunch. I was desperate.

I entered the nurse’s office complaining of a stomach ache. To my surprise, she disposed of me quickly with some TUMS and a recommendation to use the bathroom. This was not what I expected.

I walked to my Science class and did not notice any sentries at the classroom door. Maybe I had beaten it. This was good luck, I said to myself. Although I was late, the teacher did not ask for a late pass - more good luck!

Ten minutes after class started, the Dean opened the door, excused himself, and asked if I could step out of class with my things. I was busted. I knew right there when he asked me to bring my things that I was going home.

“What did you do now Salandy?” whispered my friend seated next to me.

“I will call you later. I think I am on my way home.” I replied as I gathered my things slowly.

I walked to the Dean’s office where I took a seat in his all too familiar office. He looked at me for what seemed like an entire minute and then said, “now you must be an idiot or just brazen. I saw you off school grounds a few blocks from here and you waved to me. You did not turn your head or try to hide. You waved as if I was blind or one of your long lost relatives.”

There are times when a confrontation needs the least number of words to be exchanged. I thought that this was one of those times. I said, “yes it was me. I had to leave campus to go home.”

“Why?” he asked.

“I had to take a dump.” I replied.

“Why didn’t you do it here?” He pushed.

“Because I did not want to.” I said with a sarcastic tone. I wanted this over as soon as possible.

“How did you get back on school grounds?” he said curiously waiting for my answer.

There was no need to lie. I knew he had put teachers at all the entrances. I was going home anyway.

I said confidently and determined to save face by being bold, “I hopped the raggedy fence on the southeast corner of the grounds.”

I knew this would rub him the wrong way. I saw his anger grow.

He had warned students over the loudspeaker during homeroom not to jump that fence. Especially ones that used it as a shortcut to get on school grounds.

He quickly reached for the suspension pad. “Well you will be suspended for two days for leaving school grounds without permission.”

I tuned out the rest of his speech because I had heard it before. It was always something about taking responsibility, keeping up with my school work when I am gone, and how could I be so stupid. I was ready to leave. I knew my mother would be getting a call alerting her of my dismissal. And of course she and my father would be angry. But they always seemed angry at something I did. This latest suspension would be just another drop in the bucket that seemed to be filling rapidly.

I gathered my things and headed out the door, down the stairs, down the same hill I traveled earlier in the day, across the very street where I had waved at the Dean, and into my house.

I was home. I poured a bowl of cereal with milk, grabbed a spoon, went into my parent’s room, flipped on the only television we owned, turned the channel, and started watching Luke and Laura on General Hospital.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Second Suspension: Lessons learned

The second time I got suspended

My disdain for school officials and penchant to battle injustice bled into my freshman year in high school. It was a combination of these two factors that landed me my second suspension at Mount Saint Michael.

It was around 11am as I sat in Algebra class along with my fellow classmates taking a test. The morning had started innocuous. The blue skies offered unfettered passage to the sunlight that flooded the inside of the second floor classroom. 

I had studied the night before and was doing relatively well in the course. Relatively well for me meant I was earning a B average. My anxiety level was low and my leg had not shook up and down as it had when I was not prepared for a test. Many of my colleagues had already finished and sat with their paper turned over waiting for the bell to ring.

There were usually two bells. The first bell indicated the end of class. After five minutes, the second bell would ring that indicated the start of the next class.

Anyone entering class after the second bell was subject to after school detention. Detention was seen mostly as an annoyance to some students who routinely had disciplinary problems. Being that I had been suspended before and often was slow in getting to my next class - I mostly saw it as a VERY BIG annoyance.

Students in detention were usually held for one hour being babysat by a teacher who was getting a few dollars above his regular pay to read the newspaper or grade papers. The regular routine was to get our books out and complete homework or read. The worst detentions occurred when we had some anal retentive teacher who found pleasure in having us write 200 times “I will not misbehave.”   

After awhile, some detentions became a cool way of making time to study. Other times, it was pure hell knowing that you were missing a sunny afternoon playing tag football after school with friends.

But on this day, detention for staying late to complete a test did not worry me. The first bell rang and students jumped to their feet, gathered their test and belongings, dropped of their test on the teacher’s desk, and rushed out the door. I could hear quiet question of students asking how each other performed on the test. However, chatter was at a minimum partly out of respect for those still taking the exam. 

The teacher announced that he would not give late passes for the next class so we should finish up and rush to our next class. No late pass would certainly mean detention if I arrived at the next class after the second bell, I thought to myself. Undeterred, I continued to scribble numbers on my paper. I still had a question to complete.

My teacher was a competent mathematician. He was a friendly man that liked his students. He took pleasure in helping students and often asked me how I was doing in my studies. I always felt good about that. I often wished more of my teachers took an interest in how I was coming along in my other classes. I thought of him as I sat trying to make certain that my test score did not disappoint him.

Algebra is not a thing one can rush especially when a question has several steps. One could be at the second step in a five-step problem and stopping in the middle of solving it was not an option. That was my dilemma. Should I continue and finish this problem and risk going to detention for being late to my next class or stop now and risk getting this answer incomplete. I chose to stay and finish. I could do detention but I could not and would not disappoint my math teacher. It is one of those decisions that you make at the spur of the moment, which you regret a few hours later, and much later in life you see how insignificant that decision was in the myriad of all life decisions.

I finished the question and looked up at the boy that was standing over me waiting for me to vacate the seat. His facial expression looked like a store owner that came upon a vagrant sleeping in front of his storefront gate in the early morning.

“Yo! you need to get up!” He said.

“Ok! Hold on damn, it’s not like you are about to get mugged while standing there.” I said as I stood up from the desk.

I gathered my things and handed in the test. As I walked out the door, I realized I was not the last person. A White boy named Jimmy had just finished and he was in the next class with me. The second bell sounded as both of us exited the class.

“Man we are late!” I said to Jimmy in an alarmed tone as both of us sprinted down the hallway, our black heeled shoes clacking on the linoleum floor. Lockers flashed by as we neared the door leading us downstairs to the first floor. Jumping four steps at a time, I landed on the first floor in no time.

Both of us ran across the quad to the brown brick building next the dormitory where the Brother’s lived.

I flung open the door to the building and entered with Jimmy close behind. I was panting hard already. My shirt tail had already made it out of the back of my khaki pants. Thoughts of running home trying to make curfew crossed my mind. I thought to myself - same situation different day.

We climbed two flights of stairs swinging our arms wildly. I was in front and Jimmy brought up the rear. We got to the landing on the second floor and made a left turn around the corner.

The door to the classroom was less than 20 feet away. We dashed down the off-white colored tiled floor. I passed the water fountain and stopped to get a drink. Jimmy whizzed by me coming to a complete stop in front of the classroom door down the hall. With my head facing him, sipping the arch of spewing cold water, I saw him open the door and walked in. Damn, I thought. He is walking in. I released the button on the fountain, dashed towards him and as I got to the door it slammed in my face. BAM!

Stunned, I opened the door and looked at Jimmy heading for his seat. The teacher had not said a word yet or at least I did not hear her if she did. The other students were seated and looking at me and Jimmy. I wondered why everyone was so silent.

The female teacher erupted in a stern voice, “Mr. Salandy, please go and get a late pass.”

I replied as I continued walking, “I was taking a math test. Sorry I am late.”

She reiterated, “I do not care if you were getting CPR. You are late. So please go to the main office and get a late pass.”

Student chuckled at her comment.

Maybe she did not understand what I said. Maybe my sweet Trinidad accent was not clear.

I offered my argument, “Jimmy who just came in was taking the same test. How come he does not have to get a late pass?”

Again she said as she stood, “I will not say it again. Please get a late pass.”

I blew a gasket. She had refused to acknowledge the injustice in her decision to allow Jimmy to sit and me to get a late pass.

Frustrated, I turned to her and said, “This is bullshit!”

A chorus of “Damns!”, “Ooohs!”, and “Oh Snap!” erupted from the class. The outburst made my words seem like daggers being thrown at the teacher.

She quickly came from behind the desk, whisked by me in a huff, opened the door, and left the classroom.

I stood halfway between the door and my seat not knowing exactly what to do. Students were looking at me or claiming to their friends that I had lost it. I am certain I heard crazy at least three times. A classmate said to me, “Hey Salandy. You should start walking home now because I do not think you will survive the rest of the day at school.”  

I turned and looked dead at Jimmy and said, “Jimmy you are an asshole for slamming that door in my face. You could have held it open for me. Shithead!” I turned and walked out the classroom.

I thought about going home but decided to hit the cafeteria. They had staggered lunches and one class was in there at the moment. The cafeteria was located in a large building on the quad. It was a fairly large cafeteria with a capacity of 300. Students could purchase lunch or bring one from home. I often brought my lunch from home. I entered the building and looked for my friends. The cafeteria as always was buzzing with chatter and laughter. Groups of boys were discussing everything from girls to sports. Mount’s football team was always a topic of conversation.

I found a group of friends sitting together in the center of the room. I sat down, said hi, and unpacked my ham and cheese sandwich from the brown paper bag my mother had so deftly packed.

One of my friends immediately asked why I was out of class. I explained that I had gotten kicked out and followed with a thorough description of my indiscretion and Jimmy’s asinine behavior. My friend’s jaws dropped as they looked at each other and then back at me. 

“You did what?” one asked.

I knew then that I was in serious trouble.

I ate my lunch thinking of my possible punishment. I thought my behavior required punishment that was way beyond detention but who knew. Maybe I would just get detention for a few weeks and the situation would blow over.

Just then I looked up and into the eyes of my friend sitting directly across from me. His eyes were opened wide and his gaze was focused above my head. At that very moment, I felt a hand grab me by the collar of my jacket and ripped me from my seat. My sandwich fell between my legs as I scrambled to catch my balance.

I glanced behind me only to see the Dean of Students with his black beard and matching color habit. Students stopped eating and watched me being dragged across the cafeteria as if I had stolen some fruit from a corner store.

“What is this all about?” I asked as we got out the building and into the quad.

“Don’t act like you have an IQ of 60. You know what you did.” was the response from my captor.

I was man handled all the way to the office without another word being exchanged between me and the Dean. I was placed on the seat outside his office and told to stay there.

Moments later, the Dean opened the door to his office and asked me to come in. My teacher who I blatantly disrespected was seated in the office. I sat down in the chair next to her. For the next couple of minutes, I listened as she told every excruciating detail of my outlandish behavior.

I dropped my head. My behavior seemed totally egregious hearing someone else recant the incident. I was truly ashamed. I turned to my teacher and said sorry. I truly was sorry at that point. But I still could not shake the fact that there was an injustice done. I just took the incorrect approach in addressing it. I learned a valuable lesson that day.

I got suspended for two days, detention for three weeks, and my mother had to escort me back to school when I returned from suspension.

The lesson I learned that day stuck with me. Sometimes, in the face of injustice, we have to be strategic in our response. Outlandish behavior or insensitive words could weaken one’s position regardless how morally right that position may be.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Suspended three times in high school

         Mount Saint Michael Days

I got suspended in high school three times. I often look back at my adolescent years and conclude that I was in pain. The pain I felt was difficult to verbalize. But it manifested itself in my outlandish behavior and contempt for authoritative figures.

I believe to this day that the pain I felt was associated with the trauma I experienced as a result of being separated from my parents and later my grandmother. It was the pain of missing one’s parents and later being ripped from the only mother you truly knew. The pain grew like a cancer coloring various aspects of my life. My relationship with my parents suffered. My school work deteriorated like an unattended plant sapling in soil void of water on a mid-summer’s day – it slowly withered.  Sometimes, however, I would rebound with vigor from a supportive word and an empathetic ear.

It sometimes is difficult to grasp that I have a Ph.D. and that I had been an at-risk teen failing academically. My poor behavior had encroached onto my academic playing field and was ruining the game of life for me. I was creating a trajectory for myself, which if not derailed, would land me in a world of trouble.

I was suspended in a series of what would be attempts to fit in, lash out, and be clever. The last suspension at Mount had me close to being expelled two weeks before graduation. But I was unbowed. I wore my disdain for school officials throughout High School like a scarlet letter on my forehead. To this day, I still crinkle my forehead – a reminder of what was and how much the underpinnings of that crinkle have changed over the years.

The first suspension came shortly after transferring to Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx, New York from Sousa Middle school. I still had a heavy accent and felt a little out of place in a culture that screamed abundance and left little room for tolerance. Wearing uncool clothes seemed like a sin and I seemed to be the sinner’s poster child. I wore Buster Browns in 8th grade – really!

Mount, as it is fondly called, was a typical Catholic all boy school. It is nestled in the north Bronx, and used to be surrounded by predominantly white neighborhoods. It sat on the border of Mount Vernon. Mired in a milieu of testosterone, the school body’s ethos was “only the strong survive”. The student body was made up mostly of Italian boys with a smattering of Black males. Football, basketball, and track were the three main sports.

The school was divided into the high school and the junior high. The Marist Brothers ran the school and had a dormitory on campus. Most students lived close by with the majority hailing from the Bronx.

I lived fairly close to school. It took me approximately twenty minutes from door to gate. Some of my classmates lived in the neighborhood. Many times we would meet up at the corner and walk to school together. Other times we would walk and our group would grow to about ten kids by the time we reach the school gate.

My last classroom fight was a few months before at Souza. I had grappled with a young lad from Edenwald project. That was a scuffle to fit in. But on this day, I would be engaged in a fight for respect. Certainly, it was not lost on me that I was sitting in a class with four Black youth and twenty-five White kids. We were the minority and I was the biggest one.

Little did I know that the rhythmic cadence of my sweet Trinidad accent would land on intolerant air drums and ignite a torrent of racist words.

“Why don’t you go back to your country!” said a White kid sitting in the back of me.

I turned and faced him. His eyes revealed that he meant it – daring me to take action. He was heavier than me but I did not pay it much attention. His vicious words overshadowed the surrounding landscape and created a tunnel that focused on the bridge of his nose.

Half of me was in disbelief of what I just heard. The other half felt like an active pregnant volcano ready to spew its molten insides far into the sky.  I wanted to lash out and I did. My right hand came around, south of Alabama, and landed flush on the bridge of his nose. With one shot, I had quieted the boy and drew attention to the melee. The teacher had seen the punch.

I was quickly escorted out of the classroom by the teacher as some other boys tried to find a gym towel to put on the now bleeding nose of my tormentor.

“Quiet! I will be back!” said the teacher over the uproar that had ensued after my slug.

I was being dragged to the Principal’s office by a White, 100 pound, barely 5’ 2” nun in a habit. I could hear the Principal being told that I had hit another boy. I wondered if my story was going to be told. The way she made it seem to the burly Principal was that I had killed the poor boy or at least sent him to intensive care. What an exaggeration, I thought. She argued that I had started the fight.

I was ushered into the Principal’s office. He asked what happened in a tone that presumed I was guilty. I told him what the boy said and explained that I was sorry for hitting him. I noticed that the die had been cast. I was going home. There was no need in arguing. I kept my mouth shut.

“Regardless of what he said, fighting is not tolerated in this school. You will be sent home for the rest of the day. I would like to see your parents here tomorrow morning when you come in,” he said as he signed a letter to my parents.

I went back to class and gathered my books from my desk. The boy had gone to the school nurse. Dried blood from his cracked nose laid on the floor. I thought as I turned to the door – would I get my behind opened tonight by my father. I could be in intensive care right next to that bully come nightfall.

I was never bothered by that boy again and no one talked about me returning to Trinidad. No one even made fun of my accent. I look back at that time and wondered what would be the result if I took that same action in school today. I may have been charged with assault, sent to detention or worse a youth bootcamp. Maybe I would not have been the only boy from Trinidad in the class. Who knows! On that day, I had stood up against ignorance and bullying. Today, I still stand up but I use words and writing and I use them effectively!