Is a hellacious student just a thief and a liar or the true son of the devil?
|A Temporary Exorcism
The devil has two sons and both of them are named Damien. Unfortunately, the more malignant of the two once abided in my sixth-grade homeroom class. Juvenile records get erased at 18, and the Bible ends with the book of Revelations, so until Nuremburg convenes another war crimes tribunal, it’s hard to think of a proper way to document the sins of Damien Thomas. But for my sanity and my safety, I feel I must commit his iniquities to paper.
Now evil takes many forms, a plague of locusts, a murder of crows. Perhaps even the fortieth president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. But for ten months, evil took the form of a twelve year old boy who screamed, yelled, fought, and sometimes even sat in my class room. Damien was possessed of a truly glorious signing voice. And since we all served at a school dedicated to the money that could be made from children’s choral music, Damien should have been the schools’ star pupil. Instead, each teacher experienced passing class time with Damien as they would have passing a kidney stone.
Like mold and crawling insects, Damien liked to do some of his best work in dark and quiet spaces. A coat rood held all manner of hidden mysteries in the form of coat pockets to finger and back packs to open and explore.
But even public enemy number one can hide in the noise, confusion, and odor of a sixth grade room. And persistence can sometimes be evil’s most useful tool. Damien might be caught sneaking into the coat room twelve straight times and sent back to his seat. But on the thirteenth time the devil’s son would have his due and the sandwich that Blake’s mother made this morning, or the cell phone that Dominique snuck into the classroom, or the PSP that Conan brought to school that day, all of these items were brought to school solely for Damien’s consideration. Contraband became contribution.
As much as the children hated Damien for his theft, they revered him for his rebellion and loved him for his anger. Sixth graders tend towards screaming and punching and farting and tattling and not bathing and crying and trying desperately to fit in and be part of the crowd while at the same time claiming as much attention from their classmates as they possibly can. In sixth grade there is no good or bad attention. Any time that learning is stopped and all eyes are on you is a moment as close to rapture as sweaty, developing bodies can know. Better than masturbation, having the whole class’s eyes on you is more like mass communion with yourself on the cross staring in the role of Jesus Christ. In this liturgy of ego and disorder, Damien was their biological patron saint.
His high, almost girlish voice might be singing the Negro spiritual of flight from slavery and capitalism “Wade in the Water”. Damien’s song had no pretense of exodus or racial solidarity, or any other emotion besides angry self-expression. When Damien sang in the choir room, it was a clarion of vanity and competition, the mock innocence of a false childhood. When Damien sang in the classroom, it was a prelude to war.
There actually was a no singing rule for the academic classrooms, which might sound a bit like instituting a prohibition against water at the aquarium or banning Black folks from a barbeque rib restaurant. But much like prison, the rules of most schools are codified for a reason. Vocal talent and vanity must be found on the same chromosome, as those students who were the best singers jealously guarded their rank on the vocal hierarchy. Unchecked, singing in class became a way to steal attention and taunt those students who could not reach high octaves or maintain breath control. A song that most of the class could not yet learn would be sung with relish. A solo that a student won would be recited in order to mock the vanquished.
For Damien, singing became another weapon of aggression. Damien would sing over students and teachers as they talked, drowning them out with volume and verve and suggested violence. And until a teacher came to realize how repulsively malevolent, how insect-like and territorial Damien could be, more than one instructor allowed Damien to interrupt the lesson on ratios or topic sentences, in order to let Damien sing all three verses of Lift Every voice and Sing—could you stop the little boy from singing the Black National Anthem without being guilty of racism or self-hate?
Other times, Damien’s singing was less about distraction and interruption, and more about the shameless joy of inflicting pain. Before Damien threw a stolen orange at the back of a kid’s head, he might roar through a line or two of R. Kelly. “You remind me of my jeep. I wanna ride it”, might be the words a student half heard before thick and wet and orange thudded against his head. Far from soothing the savage beast, music became hate speech for Damien. Negro spirituals and classical choral music were the veneer that the short-horned devil tried to hide behind at times—who could be completely suspicious of a boy who sung deeply to the Lord? But the sex and innuendo of “Today’s R&B” became for Damien the theme music of abuse and intimidation. It was as if Damien had his own inner ratings board, an internal FCC. Those songs that were merely suggestive became the accompaniment for lighter misbehavior. Hearing Damein sing “Unpredictable, we’re gonna do something that you’ve never done before.” Could be the boastful announcement that Damien had already the contents of two students’ lunch bags—evil-doing required no small amount of heavy lifting and a young malefactor had to keep his strength up.
One afternoon, Damien was leaning back in his desk, singing “You must not know ‘bout me, you must not know ‘bout me.” I’d been forcing students to learn paragraph structure for the fourth time and calling it remediation, so I fixed one of my better scowls on Damien and opened my mouth to upbraid him not only for singing Beyonce Knowles while I was teaching, but for having his feet up on one of my desks. It was then that noticed that Damien had the strong scent of McDonald’s French fries on him. I let Damien continue to sing, as the Mickey D’s was on his breath and I wanted to be sure my nose didn’t have Damien twisted. “I can have another you in a minute. Matter fact he’ll be here in a minute.” And as I was trying to decide if I had probable cause to chew the boy out for some undiscovered misdeed laying just below the surface, I saw inside Damien’s unzipped bag. In his backpack was the entire class set of Merion Webster’s pocket dictionaries that had been sitting on my bookcase at the front of the room. How he got the entire set to fit in his bag when I could barely fit them all on one long shelf was beyond my kin. I’d learned not to ponder too long upon the workings of the satanic arts. And did the method of the crime matter much at this point, now that I had caught him red-horned and red-handed with the stolen property stuffed inside his book bag?
“Damien, I’ve seen you steal a lot of things, but I never thought I’d see you steal knowledge.” I thought to make a joke about Damien’s thirst to be a life long learner, but decided such a joke would only appeal to frustrated professional educators.
“Mr. Rayon said I could take them.”
A shark has to be in state of continual motion in order to breath. Water passes over its gills as it swims. If the shark stops swimming, it stops breathing. I wondered if Damien had some kind of unique breathing structure that relied on constant lying instead of constant motion for respiration.
“Damien, why would the school choir director be giving you permission to take dictionaries out of my room? What, is he planning on putting the English language to song, lyrically, alphabetically, and phonetically? I know this is a music school, so we more or less cater to the music director. But of all the students Mr. Rayon could send, why would he send you?
“What’s wrong with me Mr. Cosby? Why can’t he send me?”
Could I grab him and hold him upside down and shake him? What kind of treasures and objets d'art would fall to the floor? Other students’ money, a half eaten stolen apple, some poor teacher’s house keys, Jimmy Hoffa. Maybe I wouldn’t even look at the floor to see what fell. Just shaking Damien, forcefully, almost criminally, for a minute or two or twenty might be reward enough.
“What’s wrong with you, Damien? Maybe the principal can cancel class for the rest of the day so that I can get through the first half of the list. You lie. You steal. Not one dictionary. Not two. A whole doggone class set. What are you going to do, Damien? Walk around to prisons and hotels and pass them out like Gideon bibles? Give them away at Christmas time? Drop them behind you, one at a time, as you walk home, like you were some kind of nappy headed Hansel and Gretel? And you just don’t steal books or food or cell phones. You steal education and learning from your classmates. The time I waste dealing with you and your thieving little scavenger hunts, that’s time that could be spent helping your classmates maybe learn to read at grade level.
“It’s not my fault they can’t read,” countered Damien. “If they dumb, it’s their fault. Or their mommas’ fault.”
“You hear that, Dekwante,” teased Noah. “Damien says it’s your momma’s fault that you can’t read.”
Dekwante just scowled and muttered to himself, not really out of protest but more out of annoyance. Noah seemed more than a little annoyed himself that his efforts at instigation seemingly went nowhere.
“You’re right, Damien. I’m giving you too much credit. You’re not the source of all evil in the world. You’re not even the source of all the evil in this classroom. But you are the source of the fact that I’m not teaching right now, I’m just playing games. So I’m just going to let you go stand in the corner for a while, until you remember how to act.”
“But Mr. Cosby, that’s not fair. I just…”
“Don’t worry about it, Damien. No need to get upset. You can just stand in the corner and crawl the walls, or change into the form of a bat and fly around in circles for all I care. Just so long as you don’t disturb my class. I guess god had one son and the devil did too. We know which one you are.”
“You can’t say that about me. I know what you’re trying to say. I’m a Christian!”
“And you’re an outstanding Christian too, Damien. You lie, you steal. Now all you need to do is start stealing other people’s girlfriends and we can call you a preacher in training.”
Damien moved his jaw back and forth wordlessly, working his throat as if trying to generate enough foul stomach juice to spit forth like cobra venom.
“I rebuke you, Cosby. I rebuke you.”
I walked towards Damien smiling.
“You’re going to rebuke me? Keep it up Damien and I’ll put garlic around your desk and sprinkle you with holy water. And why does your breath smell like fries. We haven’t even had lunch yet, so why are you wearing Ronald McDonald cologne?”
“It’s not Damien’s fault, Mr. Cosby,” blurted out Noah, grinning as if he couldn’t wait to get to his punch line. “It’s Ms. Blacks fault for not locking her door.”
“You a lie! Noah. You a lie!” Damien seemed to feel that animosity could take the place of honesty and somehow make his declaration more convincing.
“So now you’re stealing food from teachers, Damien? What do you need with burgers and fries? I thought you fed off of flies and human souls, or the misery of your teachers.”
“You need to stop calling me a demon.” Damien balled up his fists and stepped towards me, his face contorted in an expression intended to demonstrate ferocity but looked more like constipation. “You call me a demon one more time…”
“Damien, you wanna take a swing at Mr. Cosby?” Damien was half my height, a little on the small side for his age. He had a face that might have been described as boyish on a less out of control child.
I stepped towards him, partly as an invitation, partly as a return to his challenge, calling his bluff and raising the stakes a bit.
“I know you’re full of fire and brimstone right now, but if you stay on this road, I’ll have to put a stake and detention through your heart. How about I make a phone call, before you get hurt. We’ll call Ms. Black, who’s probably hungry right now. Let’s see what kind of names she’d like to call you.”
That by itself seemed to calm Damien a bit. There always did seem to be this odd dynamic at work, in where most students and parents, parent singular in the case of most individual students, seemed much more receptive to suggestions, criticisms, corrections, and even loud talk, when they came from a female teacher. The children were used to being admonished by their home mothers and their school mothers and had built up thicker skins.
But a Black male teacher became the wolf, the beast that lied and left, or worse, stayed and shit on the rug, the bed, and even the dinner table. Black male teachers were the proxy for the husband that liked to cheat and beat, and for the daddy that spread his time, attention, seminal fluid all over town, everywhere but at home. The lead weight of all that disappointment and the heat of those years of resentment, all that was heaped upon the most convenient phallus. And all I wanted was for students to turn in their vocab cards and learn how to write a decent paragraph.
I was thinking about these truths when Ms. Black knocked on my classroom door.
“Is that food-stealing, little sneak thief still in here, or did he crawl under the door and down the hall like a roach?”
“Ms. Black, not only is the roach in question still here, but he still has your lunch on his breath. I entrust him to your tender mercies Ms. Black. He’s all yours.”
“Come here you nasty little hemorrhoid,” Ms. Black said with distain and a bit of humor in her voice. “I don’t know who told your greedy little butt that my room was some kind of soup kitchen, but I don’t appreciate you stealing my lunch.”
Damien grinned, glad to have feminine attention, even if it meant being called a cockroach and a hemorrhoid.
“I was hungry, Ms. Black.”
“No. Your mother sends you with a bag of lunch each day. And she tells everybody that will listen how she doesn’t trust the school to feed her baby. You’re not hungry. You’re just greedy, like a tick. Hopping from person to person, biting them in the neck and sucking their blood.”
The class laughed and chuckled and pointed. Damien smiled, forgetting more of his former anger, glad just to be the subject of the whole room’s concentration.
“Let’s go, Damien,” Ms. Black said. We’re going to the principal’s office so you can tell him and then your mother how you like breaking into classrooms and stealing.”
A grinning Damien followed Ms. Black out into the hallway. Most students wouldn’t have been able to generate that large a grin while heading to the principal’s office. But Damien, far from being most students, made enough weekly trips to the main office that he had a favorite chair in Principal Stylez office. Damien also knew from experience that meaningful punishments would not be forth coming. Mom would be called, Styrofoam threats would be made, and Damien would spend the next hour helping the office secretary, Ms. Rustler, staple, fold, and sort. Not only would Damien not be banned from the school choir that gathered the best voices and the most donations, but Damien might even get more McDonald’s that evening for dinner.
And I had a few minutes of relative peace, time to think about how angry I had been at Damien and to remember some of the names and invectives I had thrown his way. I told myself that even this collision between good and evil was a teachable moment. My students still struggled with topic sentences, but they had several vivid examples of simile, metaphor, and allusion.