The Battle for Reading High School by Jon Bennett

JonBennett
It’s a pleasure to welcome Jon Bennett to the site today. I had the honor of working with Jon on his novel Reading Blue Devils (Open Books). In the book, Bennett uses a fictional student rebellion at Reading High School in Ohio to tackle serious topics such as bullying and racism, the struggling American educational system, and the very nature of good and evil, yet manages to do so with his tongue planted firmly in cheek throughout most of it. Today, Bennett shares a secret about American high schools that helped inspire his novel: bathrooms are where you get the true pulse of a school.

The Battle for Reading High School

“The battle for Reading High School began with bathroom graffiti.”

In my novel Reading Blue Devils, the student revolution to take over the school percolated in the bathrooms. The setting was where the rebellious writings and the treasonous whisperings could promulgate discontent without punishment. Here’s why. In most schools, the bathrooms are segregated by hierarchy: students and staff. This separation of church and state is a double-edged sword. On one hand, unmonitored teens rarely lead to a pattern of good decisions. However, privacy for teachers to relieve themselves is a blessing that those outside the education field can only barely understand. It’s a fun conundrum to consider: faculty bathrooms or integrated commodes (forget the gender bathroom debate for a moment).

Here’s my position: if I am ever to seek a position at a new school, a faculty bathroom immediately takes precedence over dental (like I need to pay for bloody gums and condescending glares when I say I only floss at night). I can manage awkward interactions and direct challenges to my authority in the classroom. But in the stinky-place, my influence is negated. After all, teachers and student all do the same thing in the restroom.

The bathroom is my biggest source of uncertainty at school. Imagine if you were in my shoes. Sometimes the bathroom vignettes go like this:

It’s your free period. You are going. You assume it’s all clear since the kids are in class and can only go to the bathroom after the first ten minutes—the window of time in which you are currently crouching. But after one of your more potent products slides out, a gym class of freshmen barge into the bathroom to change. Immediately a chorus of groans pollutes your previously sacred (albeit stinky) space. You wait for ten more minutes until all the boys leave.

Or you are finishing up, and a student recognizes your shoes (after all, who would ever wear multiple types of shoes when only one pair has gel insoles?). Said student rattles the door and says, “Mr. B? You ridin’ dirty?”

***

The bathroom, public as it may be, is where the criminal underground operates in schools. Even the purest of students will sneak in to check their phones for juicy gossip. Inappropriate stories are told. Fights happen. And the candy trade opens its doors when the bathroom’s closes. It also serves as a locker for stolen items.

When a rash of computer thefts occurred at my first school, a janitor happened upon a stashed computer hidden under the liner bag of the trash can. And as it so happened, I stumbled upon my own goods that had been stolen one time.

At my first school, which was an all-boy school, there was a freshman with the stickiest of fingers. He had stolen my crummy school issued cell-phone (twice). After the first time, his dad turned it into school since he knew he didn’t give his son the phone. The second time I didn’t report it. Partly because I never used it, but mostly because I was ashamed to admit it happened again.

Teachers had to stand in the hallways during passing periods, and my desk was well out of sight. Also, I thought I had decent enough rapport with my students that they wouldn’t steal my stuff. For 99% of them, I was right. But, it only takes one.

During my lunch break, I went to grab my wallet, but ended up finding that sinking feeling when a valuable is not in the place it was assured to be. Thinking it may have fallen out on the train (and being the catastrophist I am), I immediately called the credit card companies to halt activity. This assuaged my fears and allowed for me to take a post-stress poop break.

Knowing that students were roaming the halls, I went to a bathroom that was rarely visited by students since it was on the other end of the building and on the second floor. I slid into the stall, sat down, and did my business. But as I went to prepare to wipe, my hand slid over soft leather. Could it be?

My wallet.

Of course, all eleven dollars of my treasure was gone (I rarely carried cash after that day). Disconcertingly enough, my credit card and driver’s license were still missing. I ran through all the worst-case scenarios. Could they find my house and stalk me? Well, it was my Ohio license and I was teaching in Illinois. Sucks to be my parents. Could they open a loan? I’m sure the bank would laugh at such a request since my money was going to Potbelly and Einstein bagels with such regularity that they’d deny any loan over $100.

I was stuck. The issue weighed my mind until the last period of the day when a student I had taught the previous year came in with my credit card and driver’s license squeezed between two fingers.

“Yo, Mr. B. Saw these and thought you’d want them.” Kids are smooth.

“Thanks, _______. I really appreciate your integrity.” Teachers are not.

“Uh, yeah, no problem. Be safe, Mr. B.”

He gave a quick upward nod, then turned to leave.

“Hey, um, where’d you find these?”

“Third floor, women’s bathroom.”

He sauntered out of sight, and I never asked what he was doing in there.

***

The other weird dynamic that happens when faculty and teen share bathrooms is teachers become privy to the student mind via graffiti. Gang signs, Twitter handles, calls to follow someone on Snapchat, all scribbled in the stalls. Sometimes teachers get treated to very well drawn, but very profane images of various actions no teenager should be aware of. Other times there are sentences professing love for female staff.

During my first year of teaching, in one of the stalls there was a ranking for best teachers. I took immense pride in seeing my name in the 10th slot, right next to an unrelated drawing of a penis.

However, a few weeks later, and in a different stall, I saw the words “Mr. B like Ms. F” emblazed in black permanent marker. Now, I was single at the time, but such feelings for the teacher I did not have. Since the words jumped from the wall right at my eye level, I had to address this salacious accusation. Grabbing my red pen that I always carried (I am, of course, an English teacher), I shifted to the spot on the wall and clicked the pen to action. At first, I wanted to correct the subject-verb agreement error, but my ink did not stain the space between ‘like’ and ‘Ms.’ When a minute passed without my correction finding permanence, I tried simply crossing out the sentence. Some small red lines faintly formed, but the prominent, thick black words dwarfed my diddly little red lines.

With a summative flush, I pushed open the door and went to find maintenance to take care of the problem I could not remedy on my own.

***

These are some of the hidden dynamics in teaching that many people don’t get to see. And there are many others outside the urine-scented walls (seriously, guys, aim and flush). Teaching is a profession that toes the line of involvement in students’ lives and distancing them from our own. It’s an art form inaccurately portrayed in media, ranging from the idiotically idealized (i.e.: Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers) to insultingly inept (i.e.: any comedy set in a high school).

So, yes, the school bathroom is a key detail to include when describing a school. I wanted to write a book that set realistic representations of the American high school (which is why I had Satan show up as a Twinkie for his first manifestation). I also wanted to share the joys and struggles of working with adolescents—those freakin’ goofy, hilarious, problematic, inspiring, pathetic, resilient, moody, angelic, frothing beasts, who have greyed my hairs and wrinkled my face over eight years in the classroom, much like ’08 turned ’16 Obama.

If we can examine more honestly the high school experience, for students and teachers, then maybe we’ll craft policy and culture that actually prepares our students for the future. And maybe, just maybe, we can supply our schools with the resources they so desperately need…faculty bathrooms being a top priority.

A born and bred Midwesterner, Jon Bennett graduated from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati and went on to Miami University. After receiving his Masters Degree in Teaching Language Arts, he student-taught at a secondary school in Belmopan, Belize. From there, he spent 6 years teaching in Chicago’s public schools. He currently lives and works in Southern California.

2 Comments

  • Nate

    November 26, 2017 - 9:18 PM

    This is great. So much truth, but given with just enough levity to make it go down smoothly.

  • Emil Pulido

    November 20, 2017 - 12:12 PM

    That certainly was a hook I gladly swallowed. It starts to portray some of a teacher’s angst in a very authentic way- with courage, determination and acceptance. Even humor.

    I want to read more. Congratulations Jonathan Bennett.

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