Sunday, March 11, 2007


When I charged into number three, Kevin already had the chair in his hands, raised up and back over one shoulder. Neil, an obese teacher in his fifties, stood on the other side of the room shouting "Back-up!" at the top of his lungs. Kevin saw me, knew it was on, and threw the chair.

I had never been hit with a chair before. In movies actors bat the chair out of the way, they flop backwards with graceful gracelessness, they collapse utterly as the chair comes down on their back. My reaction was a little more awkward. A chair leg hit me in the forearm and another poked me hard in the ribs. I fell back against the wall and slid to a sitting position.

Before I could get back up Kevin had dodged Neil’s poorly aimed dive and slammed head first into me. I nearly vomited.

Scott, a teacher’s assistant from number two, ran in, jumped over Neil’s sprawling form, hooked both arms under Kevin’s, and pulled him off me. I grabbed one of Kevin’s arms and followed Scott as he rolled Kevin onto his face.

"Mothafucka!" Kevin shouted, writhing beneath us. I heard other staff members stomping into the room. "Get off my head! Get off my mothafuckin’ head!"

According to regulations, the lead restrainer was supposed to lay across the student’s upper back with one edge of his chest close enough to the student’s head to keep the back of the skull from being used as a weapon. Looking up the length of Kevin’s back I noticed that Scott was actually lying directly on Kevin’s head. I was lying across his upper legs. Kevin clamped on to me with his lower legs for a second before Neil, huffing with exertion, pushed Kevin’s converse clad feet to the floor and came down on the backs of the boy’s knees. Kevin howled in agony. During restraint training for this job the other teachers had restrained me, so I knew what he was going through.

"Get off my head mothafucka!" He screamed.

"I’m not on your head, Kevin." Scott said in placid restraint tones. He sounded like an NPR news announcer. "I’m lying across your upper back. Now, if you show compliance with my instructions-"

"I’m gonna fucking kill you, bitch!"

"-and remain quiet and still for five consecutive minutes, we can begin the process of ending this restraint."

"You better get off my fuckin’ head, nigga!"

As two more teaching assistant’s entered the room Scott slid over onto Kevin’s back and continued the calm mantra of instructions until the student became quiet and still. Then he looked down the length of Kevin’s body at me. "You all right?"

"I think so."

"Neil can slide up under you and take your spot. If Kevin gives us more trouble we’ve got help handy. Go check yourself out and get back to Saul."

Neil took hold of the arm I was pinning down and started to slide up Kevin’s legs as I lifted up. Kevin grunted with discomfort but didn’t make a move.

Jim, the principal, stood in the doorway, eyeing the students. He had been a center in college football and hadn’t lost any size since then. I nodded at him as I passed.

"You all right?" He echoed, his voice a bass rumble.


He stopped me with one hand and whispered in my ear, his eyes still on the kids. "A policeman will be by to take your statement. Press charges."

I nodded and walked back to number four. Saul, the teacher that I assisted, was standing before the blackboard, explaining the concept of carrying in addition. He gave me a glance and a raised eyebrow. I gave him a thumbs-up. He went on with the lesson while I took my post, behind all the kids, and waited for the police so I could add my name to the list of people with assault charges pending against Kevin.

"Neil is a moron." Saul stated. The four of us were at Bentley’s, a bar we went to every Friday after school. It was mild for January in Phoenix, so we sat at a table outside. "He shouldn’t even be teaching regular school, let alone special ed."

"I’m surprised they let him drive a car." Scott said.

Jim looked away, as he usually did when we bad-mouthed fellow staff members. Saul ordered the first round.

Looking at us, you wouldn’t have thought I shared a workplace with these guys. Jim was a tall, heavy-set black man with deep-set eyes. Saul was shorter, but still taller than I was. He was also heavy-set, about 250 pounds, and wore a thick, black beard. Scott, not any taller than I, was much more muscular. I had begun the job in August at one hundred fifty pounds. By January I was up to one-eighty, eating and putting on weight in self-defense. My pregnant wife, Maria, had gained less weight than I had.

The first round of beers arrived. As I opened mine I felt the first wave of primal relief wash over me as it did every Friday afternoon. I had survived another week.

"To your son." Scott said, raising his bottle. Everyone echoed the toast and bottles met over the table. My wife’s last ultrasound had revealed that our first child would be a boy.

"To my son." I said.

"You know, asking this will make Saul angry," Scott said before belching through a grimace, "but, why do you stay in this job?"

"If you convince this boy to leave I will kill you." Saul said matter-of-factly. Jim rumbled laughter.

"I haven’t been able to figure that out." I replied.

Certainly I could have gone elsewhere for a job that paid just as well. And any other job wouldn’t have been so dangerous. But working at the Arizona Educational Institute, a private school that handled all the kids that the local districts gave up on, did have some advantages. I drove a school van that I was allowed to park at my apartment. In the morning I got in the vehicle and was already at work and on the clock. Picking up students was part of the job, since they were unlikely to get on a bus. In the afternoon I dropped them off and was still at work until I pulled into my own parking lot, usually around 3PM. I didn’t pay for gas to get to and from work. At work, I ate free breakfasts and lunches with the students. Additionally, the school had a program to pay for half of any class a staff member took to advance his teacher training. Since a federal loan was already paying my tuition, the school’s money turned into rent money.

None of that kept me there, however. After all, there was a teacher shortage. Schools were hiring people like me, with bachelor’s degrees, as emergency teachers all over the metropolitan area. My long-term plan was to become a high school history teacher in Tempe, near the University where I lived with my wife. I wanted to be in a suburban school, like the one I had gone to only a few years before. Saul was always trying to dissuade me.

"So have you given it any more thought?" Saul asked.

"Yeah," Scott jeered, "after being hit with a chair he really wants to stick around."

Saul wanted me to stay on at the school after I got certified. He had outlined a future for me. After getting certification I took over a class next door to his while continuing to go to school, taking classes in special education, until I also dedicated my life to teaching the unteachable.

"Think of what it would do for the kids." He’d say. "You would double the number of good teachers in the building!"

"I like assisting you, but I can’t do it forever." I said. "And I really want to teach history." And I really wanted to teach kids who wouldn’t even think about hitting me with a chair. Everyone knew that I would leave at the end of the year after I took my certification exams.

Jim shook his head. "I’ll hate to lose ya."

"Well, if he goes," Saul said, "then you’ve got to transfer Scott to my room."

"He’s Charlotte’s assistant now, in number two." Jim reminded him.

Saul shook his head. Scott smiled. "It’s nice to be wanted." He patted Saul on the knee.

"I just want someone in the room that I can count on." Saul said. "Not Bob."

Bob was Neil’s assistant. He’d gone to the bathroom that morning for a long time and Kevin had chosen then to attack Neil. Bob always had an excuse for being late and otherwise unreliable.
And maybe it was the reliability of the men around me that made me stay. I couldn’t put my finger on it then, though, and was being honest when I told Scott that I hadn’t been able to figure it out.

As usual, the talk turned to reminiscing about our own exploits or those of other teachers and students. An hour later I mentioned that Maria would be home from work soon and I had to go. My colleagues, all unmarried, made whipping sounds as I walked away.

That weekend was no different than any other. It started out well. Maria made enough spaghetti Friday night. We watched movies. On Saturday we strolled down Mill Avenue and talked about the baby. On Sunday morning we went to mass. As usual, the fear began to set in there. Free of distractions, my mind returned to work. By evening I was at war with myself. I considered other jobs and imagined quitting, not even going to work the next day, telling Jim to send someone to pick up the van.

Monday morning I couldn’t shake the bad feeling. I was tempted to call in sick. In late September I actually had called in sick, saying that I had a bad cold. I even told Maria that I was sick. It was an easy condition for me to fake since I have bad allergies. I don’t know if my wife understood that I was just afraid.

But I knew that I couldn’t make a habit out of that. I was twenty-two years old, with plenty of mistakes behind me. It was time to do things right. So, that Monday in January, I crawled out of bed and into the school van and headed back into combat.

My first pick-up was Marlene, a mildly retarded fifteen-year old. She would have been in a special-ed class in a regular school if she hadn’t gone nuts and attacked her teachers on two occasions. The district had given up and sent her to us. She was rarely a problem once she was on the van. She climbed in, ignored my good morning, and sat scowling in the first row of seats behind me.

Alex was second on my route. His father had molested him until he was seven years old, before abandoning wife and child. Now fifteen, Alex was quiet, almost wordless. His problem, besides the voice in his head, was that he ran away. A lot. He just ran away, to no place in particular. The district hoped we could keep him in one place long enough to learn something. His assigned seat was the back corner, farthest from the door.

My third and final stop, before heading on to school, was at the group home where Mike Castillo lived.

"Shit." He said as he climbed in. He slammed the door shut behind him and fell angrily into the seat beside Marlene.

I grabbed a clipboard from the passenger seat and pulled a red pen from my shirt pocket. "That’s a swearing fine, Mike. You know that." Points on the chart turned into pennies. Kids could save up points and buy things over time, even earn special privileges and field trips with appropriate behavior. Mike had decided to start the morning in negative territory.

"Dumb motherfucker." He whispered, loud enough for me to hear it. I marked a disrespect-to-staff fine on his chart and looked at him in the rearview mirror.

"Mike, open the door and take a time out." I was telling him to sit on the door ledge, hands on his knees, back straight, for five minutes.

"Fuck you." He said as calmly as I spoke the restraint mantra.

I picked up the radio handset. "Office, this is van three. I need back-up for a hands-on at Seventh and Wilson. Over." I shook my head. I knew it was going to be a bad day.

I wasn’t worried about Mike. I knew he would take it all the way to the ground without trying to hurt anyone. He wanted to be restrained. Why, I don’t know. Some kids seemed to need a restraint every now and then. Staff floated theories about need for physical contact, unaffectionate parents, and so on. I just knew that it spooked me, kids practically begging you to drop them so they could lie underneath you for five minutes, heads turned to one side, staring at nothing. It was like taking down a department store mannican.

I had taken Mike down several times, both at school and in front of his home. But every time I took him down at home, his mother got involved.

"Office, this is Scott." The radio crackled. "I’m near van three’s twenty with some real tranquil passengers." Scott drove some of our more catatonic clients. "I’ll assist. Over."

"Okay." Jim answered from the school. "We’ll send out Pete as back-up."

"Thanks, Scott." I interjected before putting the radio to rest.

I wasn’t able to wait quietly for Scott. Adriana Castillo came out after we had been sitting there just a minute. She was a short, heavyset Mexican woman. She wore a tan skirt and a red, short sleeve blouse that was tight on her ample frame. Her upper arms were immense and brown. Every time I saw her I wondered if Maria would ever look like that.

She walked around to my side of the van. I rolled down the window, but only slightly.

"Why you wait?" She frowned at her son through the window.

"Mike needs to take a time out, Adriana." We had this conversation every few weeks. She knew I was going to take him down.

She raised her eyes to heaven and said something too fast in Spanish for me to understand. Then, "Why you do this?" Tears welled up in her eyes. "He my baby. He no hurt nobody." The tears rolled. Wrinkles and blemishes diverted the tears as they flowed. In moments Adriana’s face resembled a flooded field. Again I thought of Maria.

"He my baby!" Adriana wailed in the street as a car passed by, swerving to avoid her. I had long ago given up on trying to make her understand. I just rolled up the window and kept an eye on Mike.

A few minutes later Scott pulled up. As Adriana walked back and forth nearby we carefully took hold of Mike and extracted him from the vehicle. Though we knew that he wouldn’t struggle we each kept our guard up and played it by the book. You never knew when a situation would go bad, when a kid would turn on you. He was a good-sized seventeen-year old and could have put up a hell of a fight. He did resist a little, but actually helped us move outside just by not going deadweight or hooking a leg around anything. This was something else that unsettled me. When it came time for a restraint, some kids would, without being asked, move furniture aside with free leg rather than kick you with it, in order to facilitate the restraint.

Once outside, Scott and I stood Mike up and took position at his sides, holding his arms. Our waists were nearly touching his hips, so that he couldn’t swing a leg up into our balls. Adriana stood a few feet away, looking into Mike’s face and asking God why. "Porque?" She cried, "Porque hacen esto a mi bebe?" Why do they do this to my baby?

"Mike," I began in the placid restraint tone, "we had to go hands-on with you because you didn’t take a time out as requested. You can work your way out of this by remaining still and quiet and following all my instructions."

"Fuck you." He said, almost sadly. Adriana shrieked, knowing what came next.

I slipped behind Mike, my arms encircling him and holding his right arm against his chest. I placed my knees near the backs of his. My head close behind his, so that he could not hit my face with too much force and break my nose or teeth, but far enough away that he could not turn and bite me. Scott still held Mike’s left arm.

"Mike, to work your way out of this restraint you need to respond only when spoken to and keep your responses appropriate." I had to raise my voice and talk over Adriana’s shrill pleas for mercy.

"Fuck you."

I pushed my knees forward, buckling his, and fell backwards onto my ass. This brought him down, sitting between my legs. Scott followed, moving right and kneeling while maintaining his grip on Mike’s left arm. Adriana was screaming now. Once seated I had only begun to speak when Mike repeated his inappropriate reply. I rolled right, bringing his arm away from his chest so that I could put him face down. Scott followed Mike’s left arm across the boy’s backside. The end result had me perpendicular across Mike’s back, his right arm bent at the elbow around his head. Scott lay across his legs, pinning his left arm to the ground, parallel to Mike’s body.
I heard someone running nearby.

"There he goes." Scott said, giggling. Alex was running like lightning down Wilson street.

"Alex!" I bellowed, even though I knew that he wouldn’t come back. "Alex!"

"Look both ways before you cross the street!" Scott called after him.

I shouted at Marlene in the van. "Stay where you are!" She ignored me but stayed in her seat, staring at her hands.

"Mine couldn’t run away if they tried." Scott said. We called his route the drool ride; four kids, all from Charlotte’s class and all more than moderately retarded.

Once we were prone, Mike always became compliant, knowing that the method specified five minutes of still, quiet obedience before the process could be reversed. Often, when we had to do this in public, somebody would call the police and the cops would come along wanting to now why we were lying on top of our students. Sometimes they listened to us and dug in our back pockets to find the hoky Health Department licenses issued to our teachers and assistants after they were fingerprinted. Other times they told us to get off the kids and treated us like suspects until a cop who knew us showed up, or our principal arrived with a sheaf of paperwork and permits.

Adriana sat down on the yard a few feet away, hands over her face, moaning her baby’s name. After a few minutes, again convinced that God would not strike her son’s tormentors dead, she got up and went back inside the house without comment. For a few moments, as the door was opened, I heard a Mexican soap opera that Maria liked. Then the door was shut and we were alone with Mike.

"They’re all somebody’s baby." Scott said suddenly. I didn’t know if he was trying to be funny or not. I didn’t reply.

A few minutes later Pete rolled up, his van empty. He got out and stood between the vans that Scott and I had driven. We told him what had happened and he reported to Jim over the radio. The rest of the kids stayed in the vans and listened to Pete, who attended Mesa Community College and occasionally crossed the line between firm and brutal.

As we were coming out of the restraint I worried about Saul. I knew that some students would already have arrived. Though he was considerably bigger than I it was always dangerous to be alone in the classroom.

When we were done with Mike, all three of us drove down Wilson and found Alex standing outside a Burger King. He didn’t run when we got out of our vans. I told him to take a time out. He did his five minutes sitting on a bench near the plastic playground equipment. When the time out was over he got back into my van and we went to school.

Once at school we hustled the kids inside. In the lobby Scott and I had the kids empty their pockets and patted them down. We sent the first group off to Neil’s room, number three. Scott took kids to numbers one and Pete escorted his to number two. I took Alex with me to number four.

There were doorways but no doors to each classroom. If staff members shouted for back-up there was nothing between them and the rest of the staff. It also kept students from closing the door and trapping teachers. School regulations stated that there were no doors so that everything staff did was visible and public.

Saul welcomed me with a nod. Kids were presenting what they had written that morning. I got Alex seated and gave him a pencil and his journal. As Jennifer presented what she had written I updated everyone’s charts, giving them full points up to the present time if Saul gave me a thumbs-up. Only once, with Danny, did he give me a thumbs-down sign. I brought Saul the chart. He marked down a fine for swearing.

"Are you okay?" He mumbled as William, a fifteen-year old boy, read from a journal entry that sounded like a first-grader had written it.

"Yeah, it was just Mike doing the usual."

Saul smiled and gave me back the chart. "He took it to the floor?"


He turned to William and asked him to speak in a louder voice so that the whole class could hear. William screamed the next few words of his entry and Saul instructed him to take a time out. I set a chair to facing the wall and stood next to the boy while he sat with his back straight and his hands on his knees, staring straight ahead. Saul began the day’s Math lessons.

Five minutes later I brought William back to the fold. Saul looked at me, arched an eyebrow, said "Breakfast?"

I nodded and went to the back of the room where breakfast supplies were still sitting. I poured a bowl of cereal for myself and scarfed it up. When I was done I got up to update charts and monitor behavior, while Saul sat down to eat. He hadn’t been able to eat while alone, of course. As Saul ate and the kids worked, I thought of my history lesson coming up and thought this wouldn’t be such a bad day after all.

At ten o’clock, Saul and I switched roles. Most teachers in the building didn’t do this but Saul knew I was going to be a teacher in less than a year and wanted to help me get used to leading a class. He had given me some pointers on simplifying the lesson for our students.

Five minutes after I began my lesson Neil shouted "back-up!" in his classroom and we heard the usual clatter of furniture as we both began to run out of the room.

"You’re teaching." Saul said over his shoulder. "I’ll go."

I stopped in the doorway. Teachers in regular schools were not supposed to leave their students alone. Teachers in this school were absolutely prohibited from doing so. I turned back to the class and continued the lesson, ignoring the obvious sounds of struggle next door. Ten minutes later Scott came in.

"Saul’s gonna stay and watch Kevin."

I rolled my eyes. "Can’t Neil and Bob handle it?"

He smiled and shook his head. "Jim sent me to help you in here."

I was glad to have the help but I was really not worried physically anymore. With my own students it would be okay. There might be a restraint, but it would only be an attention-getter. They would struggle and twist and turn and shout obscenities, but they wouldn’t even attempt to hit me or claw an eye out. They just liked to fight sometimes and knew that, as long as they didn’t really hurt anyone, no one was going to call the police.

What did frighten me was having to lead the class. Any new teacher is jittery about standing in front of a group of people for so long, making decisions, giving orders and instructions. I had gotten over most of that as Saul’s assistant. But I was still not used to leading them academically. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to teach the science lessons Saul had planned so I had to improvise.

Since lunch didn’t begin until 11:30, I extended the lesson and gave an improvised grammar lesson to fill the time. I had to put William in time out once but he didn’t take it any farther than that.

Pete and a student brought lunch to the room: Turkey and cheese sandwiches with baby carrots and an apple. No utensils for the safety of all involved.

I peeked into the hallway and saw Saul standing in the doorway of number three, facing in and talking to Pete. I felt relief. He was coming back. I turned my attention back to my students.

A few seconds later I heard Kevin yell. I spun toward the doorway as if they had already called for back-up. I saw Kevin’s hands slamming hard into Saul’s back. Saul literally flew forward, his feet coming off the floor. His face collided with the corner of the front desk and the sound of the impact struck me physically. I moved, and heard nothing after the sound of his skull cracking, until I grabbed hold of Kevin’s shirt as he ran for the front door.

It was an illegal takedown. I did it alone, and not by any rules. After grabbing his shirt I fell. His shirt tore but he still fell back, on top of me. His hand grabbed my face and I bit a finger. He screamed. I wrapped one arm around his neck and squeezed. He grabbed my hair.

Scott landed on us. For a moment Kevin was helpless and we assumed the proper restraint position. I took the lead, my chest pinning the kid’s face to the floor. He started to struggle and I lifted myself up and brought by entire weight down on his head, hoping for that sound Saul had made moments before. I didn’t hear it. Kevin screamed.


"911! 911! Somebody call 911!" Scott shouted. For a moment I thought he wanted an ambulance for Kevin, since we were going to hurt him so badly. Then I noticed Saul, lying on the floor a few feet away, his head turned toward us, blood pouring out of what used to be his face. A fragment of tooth lay a few inches away. When the pool of blood was about to engulf it I looked away.

Just then Alex came running out of number four, leapt over all the bodies, and ran out the front door. Jim came running out of his office a second later and cursed.

Kevin was restless beneath me, breathing in gasps. I lifted myself up again and came down on his head.

"That’s enough!" Jim barked. He knelt down and whispered in my ear, "Easy, kid."

He turned to Saul and bent over him. Then he shouted for someone to bring him a first aid kit. When Bob brought one Jim opened it, gently placed a wad of bandages against Saul’s face with one hand, and placed the other one carefully on the back of Saul’s head.

A few minutes later the police arrived and pulled me off Kevin. I answered their questions sitting against a wall. Paramedics took Saul out on a stretcher. Eventually they were all gone, except for Jim standing over me.

"Do you want to go back to class, or go after Alex?"

I said I’d go after Alex. I knew all his hiding spots.

"Take Scott with you. I’ll take over your class until you get back."

Scott and I chased down Alex in my van. He was at a gas station just down the street. He took his time out and we didn’t have to restrain him. On our way back I started planning the afternoon lessons in my head.


Fr. V said...

Any chance this is based on experience? Wow.

Rob said...

Yes, when I came back from Honduras and started to arrange papers for my family to come here as well, I worke din a place like this and the event is, more or less, true. The teacher I assisted was injured in this same way. Catching the assailant is a wish/dream. He was gone long before I got there, but I always fantasized about catching him and beating his head into the floor.

(Forgive me, father. It took about a year for me to get over my anger for that. Rereading the story while posting it I had flashbacks. I had forgotten about the bit of tooth on the floor and the pool of blood.)

Still, it was my year of combat. My brothers were in the military and I did this. I never regret it. It was quite a thrill, the first time someone called "back-up!", to throw myself into the fracas and and realize, "Hey. I'm not a coward."

The next story is a sequel

Rob said...

Oops! Hit enter by accident.

The next story is a sequel, about the same main character outside the workplace.

Fr. V said...

I can say I admire the teachers (you) in the story. What love (as a decision, not an emotion) it takes to do something like that. I can't imagine . . .

Fr. V said...


The story stayed with me all night and thought this morning. Sign of good writing. Thank you.

Rob said...

-What love (as a decision, not an emotion) it takes to do something like that.-

Actually, I needed the job. My wife and children arrived from Honduras the week after this incident and, like the character in the story, I was usually terrified to go to work and even faked illness once to avoid it.

I did stay on, perhaps, longer than I had to, but can't verbalize as to why.

I have fond memories of it, but it was a dangerous way to live and I am glad it is in my past.