Of History Class and Hooker Debts

New York Post Cover, Friday April 15, 1983

When I first started working in the New York City Public Education system, my father gave me a bit of advice. He said, “Whatever you do, don’t end up on the cover of the New York Post.”

That’s sound counsel for anyone, really, particularly if you are going to be working with minors. At FDR High School, the vast majority of our students were under eighteen, of course. Though we did have a few kids that couldn’t find their way to a graduation ceremony with a map, and a map of the map.

Still, working with kids means that you will, at times, find yourself in difficult ethical positions. Or simply positions that could be wildly misinterpreted by the headline writers of America’s leading tabloid newspaper. I remember flashing through alternate futures when I came out of the teacher’s lounge one day and saw a crazy-eyed kid sprinting full-steam down the hallway with two police officers in pursuit.

The ethical quandary I faced was simple:

Do I clothesline the kid or not. If I did, I might be hailed a hero!“Terrific Teach Tackles Teen Terror!!!”

Or it could end up more ambiguously. Maybe he was a gangbanger, but my considered clothesline would have snapped his neck and the following day the Post would have blared, “Teach’s Reach Cripples Crip!”

Or, possibly, he was noble, if agitated young citizen leading the police to the scene of a crime and my outstretched arm would give the real criminals enough time to toss the trigonometry teacher from a fourth-story window.

“Tallon’s Call Means Math Man Falls!”

In that moment, the probability of a New York Post headline echoed in my ears loudly enough that I let the wild-child pass. That decision was probably for the best. It turned out that the student, not a minor, was an eighteen-year-old sociopath who had just been released from jail on Riker’s Island.

But he had the right to a free public education, so after bouncing through four other schools in the week since he made bail, he ended up running down the hall outside the Social Studies office of my school. He was only at F.D.R. for a few hours, during which time he caused about $1000 of physical damage to and scared the hell out of our sweet and charmingly incompetent sixty-four-year-old school nurse by running into her office, grabbing a fist-full of the condoms she was required to keep on her desk. He then paused for half a beat, looked down at the rubbers in his hand, blew her a kiss and growled, “I’ll be back for YOU later,” and ran back out the door.

Yet, there were other times when the cost / benefit analyses of potential intervention weren’t as clear-cut, and while in the story I’m about to relate, I’m pretty sure I didn’t commit a crime, I most certainly could have ended up on being dragged to the public pillory of the modern world — the glorious front page of The NYPost.

It all started one afternoon, while I was grading papers in my office. I’d keep my door open, in case any of the kids who wandered by wanted to talk. I hated grading papers. My students knew that, and everyday kids came by to talk about college essays, get help with homework, to shoot the shit, or — as often as not — to ask for advice or help with some issue fully unrelated to their formal education.

I had a great relationship with most of my students. I was one of the teachers with whom they felt comfortable, one of the ones they liked. Happily, I was a teacher at the bottom of the toss-him-out-the-window list, and in Brooklyn, that sense of security was a welcome relief.

I was proud of my status. I really loved my kids and took the profession of teaching as a calling to help them out whenever I could. Because of the trust, I was on the receiving end of more lunacy than most of the other teachers with whom I worked. I was one of the few teachers who heard about the suicide attempts, the domestic violence, the weed smoking, the losses of virginity and the need for subsequent trips to the doctor to get the appropriate testing or medications. I was one of the teachers who heard about the bizarre parents, like the one father who saved his urine in peanut butter jars for a month and then took a bath in his own pee on the night of the full moon. I consciously had to force myself to push down a massive case of the willies in order to shake that particular parent’s hand at graduation later in the year. I was also one of the teachers who got the very odd questions after class. To this day I’ve not figured out what it was in our lesson about the War of 1812 that inspired one of my students to ask me when in her menstrual cycle she was most fertile. On the counsel of my mom, I bought her a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which she kept hidden in my office so she could sneak in and read it without catching hell from her conservative, Muslim parents.

Good God, now that I think about it, teaching in Brooklyn really was a crazy job.

I heard so much weird shit that I became expert at presenting a calm and protective visage to my students even in the midst of stories that would curl the hairs of my suburban colleagues. The kids would open up about deep pains, troubling questions or just the wacky stuff that comprised their lives, and I’d look back like a loving, streetwise Sphinx. Then we’d find a way to solve the problem.

I also became really good at knowing when a kid needed to talk, but couldn’t quite get it out. Their body language screamed it. They way they’d hang out, playing with papers on my desk, not saying a word but also not leaving, let me know when I had to push a little to get them to open up.

That’s how it started with Andy.

He came to my office door and said, “Yo, what up, T?”

I could code switch like a Harvard Educated gangbanger back in the day, so I said in my purest Brooklynese, “Chillin’. Why ain’t you at practice for, son?

“Awww . . . I got some shit goin’ on . . . But it’s cool. I got it.”

Then he just kept standing there, wavering in the door.

“ What the hell you got goin’ on? Close the door and sit’ya’ ass down. Spill it, dog.”

“Nawww, T. I got it. Chill.”

“Cool, you got it, but tell me what you got, else I’m gonna call Coach and have him sitch you ass next game for missin’ practice for some bulllllshit.”

“You buggin’, T?”

“I ain’t buggin. You spill or I shout. Word.”

“Fuck it, T. But you don’t wanna know . . . Remember I told you that . . . You DON’T wanna know.”

I did wanna know. I could tell he was in trouble. Still, Andy needed assurance, so I said, “Aaaaight,” the word of ultimate absolution.

Andy paused for a few seconds then said in a tumble of words: “I got jacked last night. Cop took my shit.”

Fuck. This was bad. Still, I sat as peaceful as a cow in New Delhi traffic and said quietly, “You get locked up?”

Andy shook his head and said, “Nahhh . . . One a them bad cops. He just took my shit. Probably making bank for his own self. Been doin’ it to all the runners on the block.”

“We talking weed?” I asked hopefully.

“Nahhh . . . rock,” he responded.

Andy was dealing crack. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

“What the hell you doin’ in that life, Andy?”

“Gotta get paid, son.”

That was the rational. It has been forever. It likely will be forever. Still, we had a problem. Andy was gonna come out of this owing somebody money. A lot of money by his standards.

“So, what’cha gonna do?”

“Ain’t go no choice. Gonna get more product, break my profit low for a bit. Pay back my man. Get back on my feet.”

I gave Andy my best “teacher look,” which made him squirm. You know the one. My head looking down at the desk and my eye staring out past my own brow ridge with intense disapproval. Immediately Andy knew that his plan was not going to happen under my aegis.

In case he didn’t get the message, I told him as much straight.

“No you ain’t, son. I feel you, but you ain’t stayin’ in the life. Not on my watch.”

You callin’ cop, T???” he asked with a tone of real disbelief.

I smiled and said, “Helllllls, no. I’m callin’ Coach! We gonna find a way out, but you gotta promise you out out. Real out. No more slinging. How much you owe?”

“Two fiddy,” he confessed.

“Two Fifty? Two-hundred and fifty dollars,” I doubled checked.

He nodded.

“Two fiddy.”

Aaight. I’m calling Coach after class. We meet back here end of the day tomorrow. Can you hold you man off til tomorrow?”

“Cool. Yeah, I can do that. Thanks, T. You da man.”

Half switched back to my normal diction for emphasis that this was his teacher talking, I said “But one thing, Andy. You tell NO ONE about this. Feel me?”

He looked honestly relieved and said, “I feel you, T. I feel you.”

So, I called Andy’s basketball coach. He was another one of those teachers who did more than teach. Together we put the $250 together out of our own paychecks. We met with Andy the next afternoon in my office, closed the door and had a private talk. We made him promise that he would pay off his drug debt, and he would stop dealing.

And was cool with it. Both his coach and I were tight with him. That was all based on respect and honesty. His only question after we gave him the cash was, “Yo, can I still smoke a little weed from time to time?”

We laughed and I said, “Yeah. You’re stupid, but you can still smoke a little weed. But no more slingling rock, got it!”

Andy was good to his word. He quit dealing and even graduated high school later that year. His coach and I made sure that he landed in Sullivan Community College, outside of The City and hopefully away from the life. I don’t know what happened to him after that. I’ve tried to find him through social media a few times, but no luck. Every once in a while I really miss that crazy, beautiful bastard. I hope he landed on his feet, something he surely would not have done had I followed the rules and turned him into the principal, or worse — the cops.

The moment he walked into my office, I felt that my boy Andy was worth risking the headline “Crazy Teach Helps Drug Dealing Leech.” He was a great kid, just a little misguided. Well . . . okay, he was a lot misguided, but life’s a gamble. Choose your odds.

Normally, that would be the end of the story, but this happened in Brooklyn, so it wasn’t. Not even close. Things quieted down for a while, then two weeks later another one of my kids showed up at my door and said, “Yo, Sensei.”

It was Tae Kwon Dan.

“Wassup, Dan?” I said.

Tae Kwon Dan always called me Sensei out of some weird fascination with martial arts movies. Whenever he came into my office, he bowed. He was one crazy-assed kid, but I loved him.

“What’chu need, my man?”

“Sensei.” He said it verrrrrry gingerly and I knew something big was coming. Something was wrong, wrong.

“Sensei . . . I been talkin’ to Andy and . . .”

I cut in, my voice straining with rage, “Close. The. Fucking. Door. Dan. And. Sit. Your. Ass. Down. Now.”

He did, a bit flustered. I continued to shout as quietly as I could, “When you see him, tell Andy I’m gonna kick his muthafuckin, loud-mouthed ass.”

From his chair, Dan gave a why-you-yelling-at-me look, complete with upturned palms and a pained expression on his face. I knew this day was only going to get worse, so I focused myself. I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, I AM gonna kick Andy’s ass, but wassup? You got problems?”

“Yeah, Sensei. Big problems. I need money.”

“How much?”

“Two.”

“Two what?”

“Two hundred.”

“Two-hundred dollars???”

“Yeah.”

“You dealin’, too, fool?”

“Nahhh, Sensei. My body’s a temple. I never touch that shit.”

Dan was pretty serious about his physique. Maybe he was telling the truth. Maybe not. I had no idea, but it seemed a useless thread to follow so I gestured for him to continue and said, “What you need two hundred for?”

“Sensei, I’m sorry, but I jumped my nigga’s hooker.”

As mentioned above, I when I was teaching in Brooklyn, I could code-switch with the best of them, but “jumped my nigga’s hooker” left me utterly, completely blank. I had no idea what he meant.

“You what?”

“I jumped my nigga’s hooker.”

Still nothing on my end. No comprehension at all.

“The fuck does that mean?” I finally asked him.

And he told me the story:

Dan — while a stout, young lad with charm as deep and eyes as dark as the Gowanus Canal — was was not one of the best looking kids I’d ever met. He was rather . . . pocky. He was also eighteen and full to the brim with the raging hormones of youth.

He both wanted and needed to get laid. As such, he was always on the hunt in school, but the sweet gazelles of Bensonhurst were too swift for his skills. And so, he and a friend decided upon the simplest — and perhaps the oldest — solution to their problem:

They hired a couple of hookers.

Dan said they’d both saved their money (I chose not to inquire from whence that money came) and arranged for a party the previous weekend. Dan’s parents were out of town and this was their shot.

I thought about just cutting him off, but he was too quick with the story.

“Yo, Sensei, they was HOT. I’m talkin’ porn-star HOT. One was Shantel. The oth’a just went by the name Peach. And I mean, damn, Sensei!”

Dan was nearly climbing out of his seat with excitement while recalling the tale.

I’ll cut to the chase here, though it took Dan a while to arrive at the point. He was full of superlatives, adjectives and descriptives of Shantel and Peach. But once they got the sex workers inside his parents’ row house, Tae Kwon Dan wasted no time. He grabbed Shantel by the hand and showed her to his room where he received her services.

I told him I didn’t need the details.

When he had finished, he came downstairs only to find his friend nervously smoking a cigarette in the living room. As it turns out, Dan’s friend less decisive, more frightened or perhaps possessing of an actual moral compass.

Peach lingered in the kitchen, staring out the back window.

Sensing an opportunity, Dan excused himself, stepped into the kitchen and invited Peach upstairs whereafter they completed the second transaction of the evening.

Ahhhh, it dawned on me . . . He jumped his nigga’s hooker.

Just like it sounds!

Unfortunately for Dan — and even more unfortunately for his hesitant friend — the women worked on a fee-per-service basis, not an hourly rate.

Penny wise, pound foolish, lads. Live and learn.

Having completed their end of the bargain, the women packed up their belongings, grabbed the $400 off the kitchen table and left Dan’s home under the charge of a very large, very unfriendly looking, bodyguard.

As he saw Shantel and Peach walk out the front door, Dan’s friend got miffed.

“Yo, Sensei, he went flat buggin!”

Flat-buggin, I interpolated, was an agitated state that placed Dan in significant danger.

Thus, Dan sat in my office telling me this story. His friend was seriously pissed off. Not only was he out $200, but he felt humiliated and STILL hadn’t gotten laid.

Bottom line, Tae Kwon Dan had to pay him back — and Tae Kwon Dan didn’t have any money left.

I could see the friend’s point, actually, but I wasn’t at all convinced this was my problem.

Switching back into professional-speak I said, “So, Dan, basically you’re asking me to pay your hooker debt?”

“Yeah, you know, like you hooked up Andy.

I tried to explain to Dan that the situations were a bit different, ethically. That the deal with Andy was made with his assurance, and at least the hope, that he would get himself out of a dangerous life of crime and violence.

Dan, for his part, promised he’d stop going to hookers.

I again tried to convince him that, still, even with his promise to never again pay for sex, there was a difference in the circumstances.

After another half an hour of profound argumentation, Dan finally gave up trying when I told him, “Dannyboy, It’s all about finding your ethical boundaries. I didn’t know it before, but mine is right in-between paying off Andy’s drug debt and your hooker debt. Sorry. You’re on your own.”

I can’t say Dan was happy about it, but I think he understood.

Even after all these years, I’m good with my decisions and I have my dear father’s counsel to thank for the wisdom.

You see, in the end, it’s all about the front page of the New York Post. I could risk my career to get a kid out of the world of drug dealing, corrupt cops and gang banging, but there was no way I was going down in forty point font as “Terrible Teach Buys Brooklyn Boy a Peach.”

Thanks, Dad.

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Michael Tallon is an independent writer currently living and writing in Antigua, Guatemala, where he moved in 2004 after leaving Brooklyn — at least physically. He is working on a nonfiction book detailing his experiences with a rare genetic disorder than nearly cost him his life in 2015. Follow him on Twitter.com/MichaelXTallon. Now go tell someone you love them.

Once a history teacher in Brooklyn, Mike took a sabbatical in 2004 to travel through Latin America. He never returned. He lives and works in Guatemala.