Ms. Annette Kalin, a young teacher, leaves the relative security of her midwestern community to take on the challenge of teaching in New York City. From day one, a student named Leon challenges her for control of the class. Day after day she comes to school armed with a lesson plan, hoping to make a breakthrough, but each day her hopes are dashed by a class that has mastered the art of the "lesson kill."
The end of the semester approaches, and almost all the students are failing. Annette clings to the naive belief that by making a home visit to talk with Leon's mom, who never made the scheduled parent-teacher conference, she could change the dynamic in her favor. Instead, she walks into a trap, with tragic consequences.
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A Lamb to the SlaughterHope and Defeat in a High School Classroom
By W. Lionel Williams
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 W. Lionel Williams, EdD
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn the morning of January 20, 2006, nature frowned, wept, scowled, and hissed. The day dawned cold. Winds whipped and lashed as if to tear concrete sinews from the steel skeletons of urban giants that scraped the skies. Snow dunes banked about every door and entrance, daring any to find now invisible paths to rail, car, and subway. But the "City That Never Sleeps" was fighting back. Commuters battled with persistent waves of biting winds and got to work. Teachers and students, in an unlikely coalition, damned the Board of Education for not closing school. At 8:45, fifteen minutes after classes began, there were such rumbles of bedlam in Room 301 at Fort Green Academy High School that Rose Shepard was compelled to take account of the evolving tumult emanating from across the hall. Even behind closed doors, the sound of unrestrained ebullience caused the walls to dance.
She had been trying to ignore the distraction but was somewhat baffled that the teacher in Room 301 had taken so long to get her class to settle down. When Ms. Kalin first came to the school, Ms. Shepard had had to go across several times a day to help her put down disturbances and stop fights. As the semester progressed, however, she gradually wrested control and imposed a measure of order that, until today, seemed to have won a grudging tolerance from the worst offenders. But from the sounds Ms. Shepard was hearing, whatever gains her colleague had made were suddenly reversed. The uproar was making her class restless. With the giggling, oohs and aahs, and rhythmic drumming in sync with the sounds of music seeping through to her room, Ms. Shepard had had enough.
The door to the front of the class was locked. Not so the back door. The portal that allowed so many unwelcome visitors and ended Ms. Kalin's few lessons of promise opened to touch. As expected from such incongruous revelry, the students had breached the bounds of discipline. Some danced to hip-hop; some argued over checkers; some were wrapped about each other; some vented pent-up anger in coded scribbles on the board. And a few, caught in the maelstrom, watched it all, afraid.
"Where is your teacher?" demanded Ms. Shepard.
"She's not here!" someone yelled back. She spotted Rochelle poised at the door as if ready to escape the turbulence into the hallway.
"Rochelle, go call the principal!"
Ms. Shepard knew that Rochelle DeSantos had knitted a friendship with Ms. Kalin and that she had tried to help her teacher by lending quiet support. She consistently completed her work and maintained good conduct. Ms. Kalin had confided to her that Rochelle was the kind of student that every teacher wishes to have. It was natural, therefore, for Ms. Shepard to call on her to get Mr. Jones.
With an eye on the subdued mob, she watched Rochelle sprint toward the school office, ignoring the many posted warnings against running in the hallways. Within minutes, Mr. Jones appeared with a walkie-talkie in hand and two security officers in tow. Ms. Shepard, who had secretly worried about Mr. Jones collapsing on a stairway on account of his great girth, wondered how he managed to get to the class so quickly. One glance at the three angry men who exploded into the classroom was enough to end the impromptu carnival. The torturous climb and his anger as the kids scattered to find a seat, choked Mr. Jones's effort to sound in control. Ms. Shepard sort of felt sorry for him.
"Ms. Garafolo, please come to Room 301 immediately," the principal barked into his walkie-talkie, which magnified the stress in his voice. The assistant principal, sensing that something was terribly wrong, arrived shortly, breathing noisily. "Please supervise this class until I locate Ms. Kalin," Mr. Jones ordered.
As she returned to her room, Ms. Shepard thought about her missing colleague and hoped she was all right.
* * *
Sadie Moskowitz, the school secretary, confirmed that Ms. Kalin had not called to say she would be late. Perhaps she, too, was contending with the elements and making strenuous efforts to get to school. Thirty minutes went by, long past the interval the school had allotted to hear from Ms. Kalin. In the personnel file Sadie found a home number and one to dial in case of an emergency. She telephoned Ms. Kalin's home first. Although she wasn't expecting an answer she wanted to be able to say yes when someone asked, "Did you call her house?" Next, she tried the emergency contact. Ms. Moskowitz's heart skipped a beat as someone picked up the telephone.
"This is Fort Green Academy High School. I am trying to reach Ms. Kalin. She listed you as an emergency contact."
"I am Ms. Rogers, her next-door neighbor. Is something wrong?"
"We don't know. Ms. Kalin didn't show up for work today. She hasn't called. Did you see her leave for work this morning?"
"No. I last talked with her Wednesday evening."
"She left here at 3:30 yesterday."
"God ... I hope nothing bad happened to her. I'll go over to her place and knock on the door. Maybe she overslept."
"Will you call us back?"
"Yes. In a few minutes."
Fifteen minutes later Ms. Rogers called back to say that Ms. Kalin wasn't at home. She was quite sure she wasn't there.
The snow had picked up again. Blizzard conditions extended citywide. Old Man Winter had set his sight on demolishing a century-old record.
Another thirty minutes went, but Sadie had no success reaching Ms. Kalin. By that time Mr. Jones had asked a "float" teacher to take over the class and keep order until Ms. Kalin arrived.
During her free period, Ms. Shepard went to the office to check if the secretary had heard from Ms. Kalin.
"We haven't heard anything," explained Sadie. "That's not like Annette not to call. Even if she is going to be ten minutes late, she calls to say she'll be late. I called her neighbor, a Ms. Rogers who we have on file as an emergency contact. She said that she checked and nobody's at Annette's place."
"Does she drive to work?" asked Ms. Shepard.
"No. She takes the subway. She said it only takes her about thirty minutes to get here from her place."
Ms. Shepard frowned and shook her head as if to suppress an awful thought. "I'll check with some of the other teachers to see if they've heard from Annette."
At lunch break, Ms. Shepard asked the teachers in the faculty lounge if anybody had heard from Ms. Kalin. No one had. She decided to ask Sadie to call her house again and headed for the office.
"Sadie, did you try calling Annette's again?"
"No. I'll try now." The secretary dialed Ms. Kalin's home number. The phone rang four times, and then the answering machine picked up.
"This is Annette Kalin. I am not here now, but please leave a message and a phone number and I'll call you back as soon as I come home."
After the beep, Sadie left another message. "Annette, this is Sadie in the school office. We are worried about you. Please call us as soon as you come home."
* * *
At two o'clock, thirty minutes before dismissal, Mr. Jones decided that he could not leave for the weekend not knowing what had happened to one of his teachers. He paged his secretary.
"Ms. Moskowitz, please get me the police."
"The police, sir?"
"Yes. The police."
Chapter TwoIt was Sunday morning in Crown Heights. The time for their weekly ritual had arrived, so the DeSantos family was getting ready for church. Earlier that morning, Mr. DeSantos had read a brief report in The Daily News under the headline "Brooklyn High School Teacher Missing." He had asked Rochelle about it and she had confirmed that the report was about her English teacher. The reporter wrote that the school had notified the authorities Friday afternoon after repeated attempts to locate her, but since many people didn't show up for work that day on account of the weather, it was too early to speculate about what had happened to her.
As she got ready for church, Rochelle couldn't get her teacher off her mind. Ms. Kalin's disappearance had wrapped such shrouds of apprehension around her that she wished she could think about something else. The more she pushed against the offending thoughts, the more intrusive they became. She remembered hearing awful reports about young women who were abducted and later found to be victims of unspeakable cruelty. She wondered if her teacher, due to the bad weather, had taken one of the dollar taxis that constantly go up and down streets looking for riders. She had heard that it wasn't safe to use them because criminals find them a cheap and convenient way to spot potential victims. Several of the operators had been robbed and shot.
She wandered over to the window and pushed up the lower half. Maybe some fresh air would help to clear her thoughts. The bustling Eastern Parkway of Saturday night had quieted down. A brisk wind whistled sharply among the naked branches of sycamore, maple, and wild cherry trees. The quiet struggle between the natural freshness of a winter's dawn and the acrid odor rising from sewer drains beneath the street mocked persistent efforts to gentrify this Brooklyn neighborhood. Not many were about except the pious few. Amid the whirl of impulses, Rochelle heard her father calling.
With some persuasion she joined the procession to find a storefront church wedged between an East Indian fruit market and a Walgreens pharmacy. Her family was a reliable presence at Sunday meetings, and though Rochelle would rather be at home, a creeping dread haunted her quest for solitude. She realized that she feared being alone as much as she wanted to be alone.
The sign with the sermon title at the entrance to the small church seemed designed to raise her anxiety. Usually it offered a more comforting message, such as "A Balm in Gilead," "The Good Shepherd," or "Beside Still Waters," something to soothe troubled souls and invite them in. But this sign was different. It read, "Welcome. Rev. Brinklo, Pastor. Today's sermon 'Perilous Times Shall Come.'" Some welcome, she thought.
The organist played softly as they waited for the message. She hoped for one of those boring sermons, the sign outside notwithstanding. A good nap was the best gift the reverend could bestow. She was aware however, that Pastor Brinklo was always searching the papers for some horrific happening to stir his hearers. The sudden disappearance of Ms. Kalin, an occasional visitor whom the good reverend had welcomed in the recent past, was just the type of terrific realism that energized him. In due course, Rochelle discovered that she knew her pastor better than she realized. The brief news report about her teacher provided a convenient platform from which he launched his Sunday homily.
"It was all prophesied," he thundered. The apocalyptic message of Paul the Apostle to Timothy, his youthful protégé, was perfectly suited to the reverend's purpose as he painted a stark picture of societal instability. "There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good," he warned. His customary flights of rhetoric, crafted to elicit loud amens, soared with winged eloquence. "Take heed," he cried. "What you are witnessing are signs of the times. There is no other reason why violent crimes roll like tidal waves upon this cityscape. Our days and nights are fractured by the incessant wail of sirens hurtling to the scenes of crime and mayhem. Predators slink about to rob us not only of our valuables, but also of our very humanity. Look at us. We are forcibly caged behind steel bars, bolts, locks, and haunted by oppressive fear."
Having been thus safely launched, Pastor Brinklo could survey the wreck of all humanity below his expansive gaze. He could see clearly the shriveled remnants of society leeched by greed and the incessant quest for "filthy lucre." He could see heaps of leprous carcasses ravaged by drugs and sex. Before him was the stench of blood spilled by murder and violence, and beneath it all was the collapsed foundations of society that caused the home, the school, and even the church to crumble.
Rochelle noted that the reverend was more than a little disturbed by "the sham they called education" in the city schools. He rehearsed a litany of damaging reports about failing schools, terrible test scores, poor discipline, and an interminable fight between the Board of Education and the teachers union. Then he held up the Sunday paper as tangible evidence of his indictment.
"Now look here," he implored as he held up the morning paper for all to see. "'Brooklyn High School Teacher Missing.' If you didn't know it, that person is Rochelle's teacher. They said she left home for work this past Friday and hasn't been seen since. Let's hope and pray that she is all right." Pastor Brinklo added some closing remarks and ended his sermon.
* * *
Rochelle left the church with an agitation of spirit. Reverend Brinklo's sermon did nothing to quell the rising tempest. Thoughts she'd been trying to bury came rushing in, unwelcome intruders, urgent and insistent. Memories of one semester in that ninth grade class returned, fresh and disturbing. She remembered the struggle for control, the disruptions, and the chaos. She recalled the arguments, the defiance and rudeness, the fooling around and refusal to do work. She also remembered how her teacher struggled by herself to control the class and to make the kids behave, so much so that she often wondered what was the use? They had a principal and all those security guards and deans in the school. She remembered with regret the slow, steady drain on Ms. Kalin's energy and drive. She could see her slowing down, being less willing to insist on rules and principles. It was there, as she thought about it, that she had seen a last, faint glimmer of hope swallowed up by a fear that left its cruel mark on her teacher's face.
It seemed as if the ninth grade class at FGA was where the school put the kids who got thrown out of class for causing trouble. In the discipline room, they pretended not to care that they got kicked out. So they would joke constantly, masking a smoldering anger. The unfortunate teacher, forced by duty to wrench some productive effort, would be ignored or reviled. When the store of vitriol had exhausted and the teacher tired of cajoling compliance, a couple or two would relinquish their inhibitions and, in an awkward effort to stem the tide of raging passions, frisked and clawed each other like cats in heat. Others not so engaged turned to electronic gadgets-iPods, portable PlayStations, and cell phones-to compensate.
On days when things in the class hit bottom, Rochelle could picture what her Sunday school teacher had taught about life in hell. In a transparent effort to scare them straight, he insisted that they read a frightening story. It was the tale of a land where kids who couldn't obey the rules of society were exiled. Challenged by their disdain for system and order, they eventually destroyed themselves.
At the beginning, the book described what hell was like:
That place. A cauldron of anger, hate, lust, and helplessness, where power, twisted to perverted ends became lethal. Where order was despised and values long esteemed were deemed contemptible and trashed. There was violence. It struck the body and percolated deep into the soul. There were the scars visible and hidden. There were bruises to the psyche such that victims were made more vulnerable and perpetrators congealed with obstinacy. Sensibilities calcified as hope desiccated like fallen flesh in a desert. Violence flourished as energies were focused to destroy respect, smother reason, strangle ambition, enforce conformity, and engender distrust for authority. There prevailed the dark reality of life as lived where the law of tooth and claw held sway. Where order and discipline were forces to be battled and conquered ...
Excerpted from A Lamb to the Slaughter by W. Lionel Williams Copyright © 2010 by W. Lionel Williams, EdD. Excerpted by permission.
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