With five minutes left to go in class, the principal came on the loudspeaker to tell everyone that a rocket had exploded, releasing a poisonous gas cloud. No one was allowed to leave their classroom until the poisonous cloud passed. So there I was – perhaps the world’s most reluctant junior high school teacher – stuck with thirty-five twelve-year-olds, waiting for a poisonous gas cloud to pass. Since there were only five minutes left in class, all of our classwork for the day was done. Since I was a first-year teacher in a horribly under-funded school, I didn’t have my own classroom. I roamed from one classroom to another during the day, bringing whatever books and supplies I could carry. This meant that, in case of emergency, I had no back-up materials: no games for the kids to play, no books with stories that I could read to the kids, no movies to show. Just to aggravate matters even more, when the poisonous gas cloud showed up, I was teaching in a football coach’s classroom. He had no back-up plan either. He once told me, “When kids get bored and act up in class, just make them do jumping jacks. It tires the little bastards out.”
The only thing I had going for me when the gas cloud floated overhead (and on any other day that I taught junior high, for that matter) was that I was big and mean-looking. I kept my head shaved pretty close to the scalp and I wore Doc Martens to school every day and a few of my students had seen me at an all-ages US Bombs show earlier in the semester, going nuts in the pit and doing shots with Duane Peters, and those students told everyone in the school about it. So I wouldn’t say that the students feared or respected me, but I could occasionally intimidate them.
The principal had said that the gas cloud would pass in forty minutes or so, so I figured I’d just move on to the next day’s assignment. I stood up and told the students to quiet down and open their books. I opened my planning book and glanced down at my lesson plans for the next day. Prepositions. Jesus, I thought, as boring as grammar normally is, this may be the most boring part of it. I launched into the assignment anyway, talking about how a preposition is anything you can do _____ a cloud. You know: in a cloud, underneath a cloud, surrounded by a cloud, etc. – which probably wasn’t the best way to explain it, what with the poisonous gas cloud above us. I talked for a couple of minutes, then asked one student to give me an example of a preposition. He said, “Who cares?”
“No, ‘who cares?’ is an interrogative statement,” I said. “Who can give me an example of a preposition?”
Stacy, a pretty intelligent smartass, raised her hand. I gambled that she might actually be taking a shot at the question and said, “Yes, Stacy?”
“Are we going to die?” Stacy asked.
“You’re getting closer,” I said, undaunted and acting naïve. “‘To’ is a preposition, but not in that sentence. When you say, ‘Are we going to die?’, the ‘to’ in that sentence is half of the verb form, ‘to die’, which is actually an infinitive. Who can use ‘to’ as a preposition?”
Stacy’s friend Kia raised her hand, and though I felt like it was futile, I called on her anyway.
“Are we gonna die, Mr. Carswell?” Kia asked. And when Kia asked the question, it changed everything. Because I knew Stacy was just trying to stir up some shit, but Kia was genuinely scared. And Kia had every right to be scared. There was a poisonous gas cloud floating by outside, and the only thing that separated inside from outside was the quarter-inch-thick glass windows. The windows were shut. They were sort of weather proof. Not a whole lot of poisonous gas could creep in, but still. Some poisons are pretty strong. It doesn’t take a whole lot to fuck you up.
As I thought these thoughts and weighed the options of what type of gas this might have been and how far away the rocket had been when it exploded and how real this danger really was, the absurdity of my whole situation struck me. All of these kids were freaked out by the cloud, and I was trying to teach them about prepositions. I closed my book. “I’ll tell you what,” I said to the class. “Take out a sheet of paper and write about this cloud that’s passing over us. Write about what you think it is, and why you think it’s up there, and what you think of Kennedy Space Center taking chances with your life by sending a rocket full of poisonous gas up into the air above us.”
Most of the kids took out a sheet of paper and started writing. I sat back down at my desk, keeping an eye on the kids and thinking about rockets. At the time, I was living in Cocoa Beach, Florida, which is the town I where I was born. One town over from Cocoa Beach is Merritt Island. That’s where I grew up. And on the north side of Merritt Island is Kennedy Space Center, which is where, among other things, scientists designed the rockets that went to the moon. So I grew up with rockets. They were nothing new to me. When I was a baby, my mom would carry me out to the front yard so we could watch the Apollo rockets head to the moon. As soon as I could walk, I’d go out to the front yard on my own to watch the rockets. After I learned to read, I started reading the newspapers on the day of a launch. I’d memorize the crews’ names and their missions and which rocket it was: Apollo or Skylab or the Columbia Space Shuttle. I’d even read up on the test launches and satellites. I tried to learn about everything that the Space Center fired up in the air. Of course, by the time I was twelve or so and my hormones kicked in, I’d completely lost interest in rockets. And, yeah, I’ve heard all the arguments about rockets just being an extension of men’s penises, or a metaphor for man’s desire to stick his dick into everything, even outer space, but by the time I was in junior high, the only penis I cared about was my own. So I stopped thinking about rockets and stopped going outside to watch them shoot up into the air and started focusing more attention on girls.
I looked across the classroom at my students. About half of them were busy writing on their papers. The other half had given up on the assignment, but they weren’t misbehaving yet. I watched Kia, who was kind of a punker in the sense that she wore black t-shirts a lot and dyed her hair crazy colors and was a free-thinker (well, for a twelve-year-old), but was mostly not a punker in the sense that her favorite band was No Doubt. The combination of her blue hair and the rocket that had just blown up reminded me of Angie Huber, a punker girl who I’d dated for about a week in junior high. Angie’s stepfather, a guy named Fred Haise, had been an astronaut. I only knew this because Angie’s mom always made a big deal about it. She’d always say his first and last name together, even though he was her husband, like everyone should know who Fred Haise was. According to Angie, though, he was just an asshole. The one time I met him, I could see her point. Not that he really did anything all that bad. He just criticized Angie a lot and looked mean when he did it. But Fred Haise had been on the Apollo 13 mission. He was one of the guys who had been in the rocket when they supposedly reported back to Mission Control, “Houston, we have a problem.” Then, of course, they made a Tom Hanks movie about the Apollo 13 mission, but I didn’t see the movie, and I never really did give much of a shit about Fred Haise. I did give a shit about Angie, though. I gave a shit about any girl who was goodly enough to make out with me behind some school busses when we were thirteen. I sat at the front of that classroom and thought about Angie and wondered what ever happened to her and if she still hated her stepdad and what she thought of that Tom Hanks movie.
I couldn’t do this for long, though, because the poisonous gas cloud was still floating over us, and most of my students had given up on their writing assignment. They were gradually working themselves up. It started with a few students talking quietly at their desk. I never did much to stop this, and I was too busy thinking about Angie, anyway, to stop anything. The talking got louder as they tried to hear themselves over the other voices talking. I made idle threats about sending them outside into the poisonous gas cloud if they didn’t shut up. My heart wasn’t into my threat, though, and the kids sensed it. They kept talking, and when it got too loud for them to hear the person who was three seats away and talking to them, they started to leave their seats and walk around. This was the point where, as a teacher, I was supposed to stand up and do something. Shut the kids up and stick them back in their seats. But I didn’t do anything. I’d always stopped them before they got to this point, and I was curious to see how far they would go. Pretty soon, more than half of my students were out of their seats and walking around, chatting with each other. Their voices echoed off the concrete walls of the classroom, and it almost seemed like a party. A few students even walked up to my desk to chat with me. I asked them if they’d seen Apollo 13. They said that they had, so I told them about Angie Huber.
“Which one was Fred Haise?” Laura – one of my pets – asked me. “Was he Tom Hanks or Kevin Bacon?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t see the movie.”
“I think he was the other guy,” said Travis, another of my students. “I think Fred Haise was the funny looking one.”
“The one with the wife and the little baby?” Laura asked.
“I think so. Maybe not,” Travis said, and he was about to explain why Fred Haise might not have been the funny looking one when two kids started fighting in the back of the classroom.
I watched the two kids go at it, but didn’t do anything. Laura pointed out the obvious by saying, “Mr. Carswell, Billy and Glenton are fighting.”
“Yes, they are,” I said. I thought about getting out of my seat, walking across the room, and breaking up the fight, but decided instead to let it go. Billy had been asking to get his ass kicked for the past couple of weeks, and Glenton’s mom was a hooker. I figured it would do Billy some good to be humbled and it would do Glenton some good to let out some of his rage. Besides that, there was a fucking poisonous gas cloud outside. Deep down inside, I felt like all bets were off. I felt like, if society’s gotten to the point where Kennedy Space Center is sending poisonous gas into outer space in one of those great, big, explosive hunks of metal that they call a rocket, and if that explodes and that gas floats over me and the junior high school where I teach, and if the best thing they can do after sending that gas cloud over my hometown is to say, “Uh, you guys need to stay inside for a half hour until it passes,” then, obviously, this society has no rules. So fuck it all. Let ‘em fight.
The kids gathered around the fight, but no one stepped in to break it up. Glenton wrestled Billy to the ground and his fists rained down on Billy’s face. Billy managed to cover his face with his forearms. Glenton whaled on Billy’s forearms and ears and the side of Billy’s head. A few girls told me that I had to stop the fight. One girl started crying. Some of the boys cheered for Glenton or encouraged Billy. Most of the boys just watched. They seemed hesitant, as if they didn’t know whether or not they should stop the fight. Still, I did nothing. I let them fight. Part of me thought that surely another teacher would hear the commotion, rush into my classroom, and break up the fight. But, of course, that couldn’t happen because no teachers could leave their rooms and come into mine because there was a poisonous gas cloud floating through the halls.
Then, something strange happened. It was almost like a realization spread across the room. I think it started with Glenton. I think Glenton was on top of Billy, pounding his fists into Billy’s head and getting really tired when Glenton realized that I wasn’t going to stop the fight. And if I wasn’t going to stop it, no one was. And if no one was going to stop the fight, what was gonna happen now that he was too tired to punch Billy anymore? What was Billy gonna do? And if no one breaks up a fight, how does the fight end? I think Glenton realized this because he stopped punching Billy, got up, walked to his desk, and sat down. Billy stood up, too. His face was bright red and his hair and back were covered with dirt and debris. A paper clip clung to his cheek. He didn’t go anywhere for a few seconds. He just stood there, taking deep breaths. Then he, too, went back to his seat and sat down. The rest of the kids just stood around, not talking, not doing anything. Just standing there. Gradually, they all sat down, too. I can’t really explain it. Maybe they reached the end of their rebellion, and they had nowhere to go but back to the beginning. Or maybe I scared them by not breaking up the fight. Maybe they realized that, with the freedom to do whatever you want comes the responsibility to respect others, or else those others might kick your ass. Or maybe the fight just wore them all out like so many jumping jacks.
When they were all in their seats, Kia raised her hand again and finally asked the question they all should’ve asked right from the beginning. She said, “Mr. Carswell, if it’s so dangerous to everyone, why do they put poisonous gas in rockets?”
“Because the people at the Space Center – and the US government, too – take a lot of chances with our lives,” I said.
Kia nodded. She seemed to want to ask me more, but she didn’t. Justin picked up where she left off and said, “What do you mean?”
“Kennedy Space Center does all kinds of crazy stuff,” I said. “Have you guys ever heard of the Cassini Space Probes?” A few students shook their heads, so I explained that it was a rocket with plutonium in it. The class didn’t know what plutonium was, so I told them that it’s a radioactive substance. I also explained how dangerous it was for KSC to put a radioactive substance in a metal container on top of tons of very explosive fuel, then to set that fuel on fire. I explained how it was very different from, say, launching a nuclear missile, but the mechanics of the Cassini Space Probe and the mechanics of a nuclear bomb weren’t all that different.
Another student raised her hand. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I thought the Space Center just made the shuttle and stuff?”
“Oh no,” I told her. “Mostly what the Space Center makes is bombs.” This seemed to interest the kids even more than Glenton and Billy’s fight did, so I decided to go on that tangent. I told them that rockets were first made by the Nazis in World War Two so that they could kill a lot of people from a long way away. And that the top two Nazi scientists who developed the rocket bombs, Werner Von Braun and Dieter Huzel, came to America after World War Two and headed up the space program. I told them about all the different weapons they developed out at the Space Center, like various Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, nuclear submarines, and the SCUD missiles that the US Army used to kill a bunch of non-violent Iraqi civilians. And I just kept going. I was all worked up, partly because of that damn poisonous gas cloud, and partly because I hated the whole idea of the Space Center. It killed me that I had only two real employment opportunities in my hometown. I could either take a shitty job in an under-funded school, making lousy money and struggling to teach thirty-five twelve-year-olds about prepositions; or I could go out to the Space Center, where I would get paid twice as much to develop more efficient ways to kill as many people as possible from as far away as possible.
I knew that most of my students’ parents worked for the Space Center, and that I’d probably get into a lot of trouble when these kids went home and told their parents what I’d said in class. But I didn’t care. I figured that people who dump a poisonous gas cloud on their kids’ heads don’t have a lot of room to complain. So I went on and on about the problems with bombs and rockets and missile defense programs, and, for once, my students really listened to me. Not one single student talked while I talked. No one passed notes or kicked the kid in front of him or put trash from a spiral notebook into a young girl’s hair. They just sat there and listened and actually learned something useful.
Finally, the principal came back on the loudspeaker and told us that the poisonous gas cloud had passed. We were all allowed to leave our classrooms and go outside. I stopped talking and a few of my students actually groaned because they wanted to hear me slander the Space Center even more. I packed up my stuff, too, and got ready to head off to my next classroom and to teach my next group of kids. As I did this, I watched my students file out. And I thought, damn, these kids would be good students if the Space Center threatened to kill them every day of their lives.
Author’s note: This is the fifth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #10. For more information about the collection, read this post.