This is a Saint Clement school story , the gone-now Catholic school in Venice, CA , where I began my teaching career . Another one of those deeply – stored memories popped up as I was walking in my neighborhood . Why do these memories emerge at any particular moment ? Does a sound similar to one I’d heard during the event trigger it , or a fragrance ? You know : sense memory . What was it that old Ebenezer Scrooge suggested ? Was it : ” You may be an undigested bit of beef , a blot of mustard , a crumb of cheese , a fragment of underdone potato ……..” Do ghosts of the past arise from a slight stomach cramp , a touch of indigestion ? Whatever . Here it is .
I remember sitting behind the Principal’s desk talking to Nicky’s mom . Her other son , Armando , was standing behind her . The issue was Nicky’s lethargic attitude toward schoolwork . Nicky was a student in my fourth grade class . Maybe I could get his mother involved . Maybe she could help.
This woman sitting across the desk from me was not the Nicky’s mother whom I had been talking to all year about Nicky’s progress in my class , not the Nicky’s mom who showed up for school Open House days , and report card conferences , and school events . Not the same woman .
I asked this new woman , of course , about my slight conundrum . ” I’m Nicky’s mom . ” Well , then , who’s the other woman who said she’s Nicky’s mom ? ” That’s my mother .” This mom was already irritated . Body language said : how dare you even ask ! Was she glaring at me ? Armando had his arms crossed across his chest , legs straight and feet spread apart . Dark shades covered his eyes and a bandanna folded just right was tied around his shaved head . His long flannel shirt was buttoned at the neck , open wide lower down . No doubt that Armando was glaring . He was mommy’s backup . He was there for moral support , I guess , and to jump in if a fight erupted . He could have been hired as an extra in a street gang movie with that look , only he wasn’t acting a part . Armando was shot and killed at a local gas station a year or so after that . The police called it : gang related .
I decided to approach a discussion about Nicky’s lack of academic achievement by emphasizing the fact that he never , ever , turns in homework . I know , I know —– homework ? Shouldn’t we be talking about more serious issues ? But , I was trying .
Just-out-of-prison-mother was assuring me that she always helped Nicky with his homework . Oh , yeah , she had just got out of prison . I didn’t know that at the time . Her body language said : how dare you say my boy doesn’t do homework ! But , he’s never turned it in , I insisted . ” Not true ,” she told me . ” If I don’t have a chance to help Nicky that day with his homework , then Armando helps him . ” I looked up at Armando . I wondered if that tightly buttoned shirt pinched his neck . Armando was about sixteen . He had been kicked out of Saint Clement , I think , three or four years before that . To paraphrase a line from Cat On a Hot Tin Roof : I could smell the mendacity in that room .
I thought : Yeah right ! Armando is helping Nicky with his fractions . How is Armando with decimals ? I told her again that , actually , Nicky has never turned in any homework assignment —- cards on the table . I emphasized again that he was a very cooperative kid , her Nicky , very helpful , but that we needed to find a way to motivate him to study .
She got mad about the homework thing . She insisted that he was turning in homework . ” Well , I know all about you ! ” she said . ” I’ve heard what you do ! I’ve heard what goes on here . I know how you pull the kids around by the hair ……………” It kinda went downhill from there . Hair pulling wasn’t really one of my teaching methods . I forget now any other accusations . She spit them out with rage . I was , what , twenty-three , twenty-four ? This was new teaching territory for me .
I stood up calmly ; had tried my best . ” This conference is over ” , I said , ” Thank you for coming ” , and I pointed to the office door . I had patience in those days . Armando stood firm , but followed his mother out when she decided to leave , she cursing as she went .
” Well , how’d it go ? ” the principal asked me later . Peachy . Just peachy .