The SMITH Diaries Project

Goodbye, Mr. Thompson

Monday, July 24th, 2006

By Jason Thompson

The night for the eighth grade dance arrives and, never having attended a school function before, curiosity inspires my wife and I to attend. Young ladies in silky evening gowns totter on high heels beneath an illuminated floral archway to join the suited boys, invariably shorter, at circular tables around a temporary dance floor in the school assembly hall; a handful of bolder students bump and grind to the loud Oaktown rap music blasting from the speakers on either side of the stage; small groups huddle together to have their portrait snapped by a professional photographer; pink sherbet punch flows liberally. Spotting me enter the hall, the only staff member present aside from the principal, 10 or so of my students run up to me beaming and shake my hand. I have never been welcomed so enthusiastically. I introduce them to my wife, “Mrs. Thompson” (a name, until this point, by which she has never been known.) My students smile and ask us to pose in pictures with them. They love me. “Are you coming back next year?” asks Eva, one of the brightest students in the year (she wants to be a psychiatrist when she grows up; she’s a girl for whom anything seems possible.) I can’t bring myself to tell her.

A few days pass and it’s time for the middle school promotion ceremony. Overwhelmed by paperwork, I’ve missed the rehearsal, which means I don’t get to present any of the awards. Most of my straight-A students win prizes for their distinctions, curricular and personal, with Eva winning the “Lionel Wilson Award” in honor of her all-round brilliance. Dillesha, a bossy, athletic black girl so respected by her peers that some of her teachers have devolved a measure of disciplinary authority to her, wins awards for dancing and leadership. Her teacher chokes back a joyful tear as she announces Dillesha’s honor. It strikes me that the only time I have been moved to tears as a teacher was when one of the students shocked me with an electric biro. I envy the depth of her pride.

It’s the last week of term, or “Passion Week.” Students sign up for a range of supposedly fun activities offered by teachers in line with staff passions. There’s wiffleball and woodland field trips; a Playstation soccer tournament and sex education. Based on my five years experience as a documentary film researcher and producer in London back in the ‘90s, I offer documentary filmmaking. Based on a student’s suggestion, I assign my 30 aspiring auteurs to make a movie about the Bay Area “Hyphy” movement. What is Hyphy? How do you go Hyphy? Is Hyphy a good or a bad thing? These are the questions the film will attempt to answer. Some of the students, led by prize-winning Dillesha, will perform a Hyphy dance, while others take turns recording the action on my handycam. The rest are variously assigned the roles of writer, producer, presenter, and poster designer. There aren’t enough jobs to go round. I have drastically miscalculated the scope of activities required to engage 30 energetic teenagers for an entire week, but, not knowing what else to do, and half my mind already checking my bags at San Francisco International Airport, I press on regardless.

After a day spent planning and getting into groups, we go into production. Day Two goes well. Dillesha is a formidable lieutenant and the students essentially march to her tune; we film some dances and interviews. By the end of Day Three we have shot everything and the administration clamps down on the chaotic state into which Passion Week has by this point degenerated, with wiffleball players and video gamers wandering into the documentary team and vice versa, many students simply strolling the halls at their leisure: from now on, all students must stay in their assigned Passion Week classroom for the duration of the day. Returning to Room 131, my students hot and bored, I struggle to devise a schedule for the next day, planned for the edit (in which I can envisage involving perhaps three or four highly motivated students at most), wondering how, without the freedom of the corridors to absorb the attention of the indifferent, I am possibly going to survive Thursday trapped in Room 131 with the remaining 27 members of my team. I call Los Angeles. The rep assures me my passport will be ready in Washington, D.C. by the following morning, leaving them 24 hours to FedEx the document to me in San Francisco in time for my scheduled departure four hours after the final assembly of the school year.

I arrive at school at eight in the morning on Thursday, the last day of Passion Week, to discover that my editor has not shown up. Nor has Dillesha. The UK Consulate, where my Los Angeles expediter’s D.C rep has supposedly camped out since it opened at 9am, eastern time, will close at 2pm, leaving me three hours to wait until I can hear definitively whether I will indeed be making good my escape to London the next day. I ask a colleague, friendly with some television people, to track down an editor at the last minute. I put on the beatbox and ask Dillesha’s crew to dance. “Only if you dance first,” says one. I do my best to imitate their frenetic gyrations and the students laugh hysterically. Time passes. The students run out of tracks they like dancing to. We discover that students have erased a large section of the previous two days’ footage by students rewinding the video to watch what they had shot and then pressing record when they were done, despite my constant warnings about this very risk.

Tick, tock: the call comes from LA. No passport. I want to cry. Two students are making out at the back of the class; Dillesha’s crew have given up; a parent calls complaining that her son has been reprimanded for going AWOL from my production and wandering the halls and wants to know what he was supposed to be doing because from what she can gather his assignments amounted to approximately nothing; I tell the parent hesitantly that her son is welcome to help the camera crew and she immediately bridles at the word “welcome” (“What do you mean, ‘welcome’ “ Isn’t he supposed to be engaged in a constructive activity every hour he’s in your building? Because if he isn’t, I have no problem taking him home, and he knows that.”); with a jolt of embarrassment I recognize the obvious truth of the parent’s words, because, yes, I am supposed to have engaged her son in a constructive activity every hour he was with me. This is no less than every child deserves; no less than the task of teaching demands.

This blindness to obvious responsibilities is why my production has gone to hell and why I’m not going to London, and although I have been here before, it seems — running up credit card debt, drinking too much, locking my keys in the car with the engine running — this pathological tendency towards self-sabotage seems unabated, the lessons of grown-up life unlearned. Like the student who kept getting detentions and was eventually expelled for smoking grass on campus, I am trapped in a self-defeating cycle, yet I don’t have poverty to blame. I call my wife in search of succor, but she is far too angry to requite my self-pitying need. “No, you’re not having a meltdown now,” she says, alluding to the panicked crises that punctuated my depressive episode on a more or less daily basis. She hangs up offering to call the UK Consulate on my behalf.

Amazingly, the Consulate agrees to grant me an emergency passport, a concession normally granted only to the bereaved, out of sympathy for my plight at the hands of the fraudulent Los Angeles agency (who return my check a week later), but I must leave for the Consulate in downtown San Francisco immediately. I ask a colleague to cover for me while I drive into the city, leaving the students going Hyphy in Room 131, my laptop switched on with the grading program running, a half-eaten blueberry muffin atop my stack of papers. I get my passport, feeling as if I’ve been granted a miraculous reprieve from a perfectly just sentence (“If you don’t fucking learn from this,” my wife warns, “this marriage isn’t going to work long-term”), returning to school the final day of the year to find that my colleague, despite having agreed to cover for me, had not effectively conveyed this message to the vice-principal who, drawn to the noise in Room 131 and the chaos unfolding therein, sent all the students home early. And where was Mr. Thompson? The principal wants to know. “We thought you’d left the country,” he says. I apologize for the confusion I’ve caused and we shake hands, a more formal goodbye than I had hoped for.

I return to my room and type in the rest of my grades, stack the desks and chairs in the middle of the room, take the student art off the walls and clear my desk. The last assembly is beginning. The principal announces, to cheers, the school’s 100 percent college acceptance rate for its seniors for the second year in a row: somehow the system is working, it seems, despite rather than because of me. As the students are dismissed, I say goodbye to the few staff members and students I know I will miss. “Goodbye, Mr. Thompson,” says Eva. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for us.” I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve the remark but I smile and say, “You’re welcome.”

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