19 June 2008 11:37 AM

Steve and the Cigarette

by Dr. Rick
When I was a brand new teacher – couldn’t have been in the classroom more than a month or so – I learned a valuable lesson about violence and how to avoid it. We faculty were trying mightily (and vainly) to curtail student smoking on our high school campus. It was 1970, and smoking was okay for faculty in the lounges. Illogical, but that’s another story. Students could not smoke anywhere on campus, we decreed.

My classroom faced the front of the building, where the school buses lined up each day several minutes before the dismissal bell rang. The buses became the de facto dismissal bell. As soon as the buses roared up, the students packed up.

I noticed Steve at the back of the class, ready to leave. His books, if they had ever been opened, were now closed. He had a cigarette tucked behind his right ear. This is where I lost all common sense.

I was new at this teaching thing and I wanted to prove myself. I was a teacher, and I must enforce school rules. Before I could think, I said, “Steve, give me the cigarette.” I held out my hand, palm up.

Ever have one of those moments when as you’re saying something, you want to reach out, grab the words, and shove them back in your mouth before anyone hears them? This was one such moment.

Suddenly, for the first and only time that year, I had the full and undivided attention of the entire class of tenth graders - mostly boys. I had stupidly and in an instant set up a confrontation between teacher and student. A clueless new teacher had just given a foolish ultimatum to a teenager intent on saving face in front of his buddies.

It was a public school, and we weren’t allowed to pray, at least not formally and aloud, but I broke that rule quicker that it would have taken for Steve to light up his Marlboro. “Lord,” I said, “get me out of this situation, and I promise if I ever do anything so dumb again I won’t come looking to you to bail me out. But, just this once, help me out here, huh?”

There I stood, with my hand out. There Steve stood, staring at me. There they were, the other students, eyes wide with a burning interest that grammar lesons and Great Expectations could only dream of igniting.

The buses outside the window idled. The clock ticked.

Neither of us moved. This couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, but it was an eternity in my mind. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure my knees were shaking.

Then my prayer was answered. By Steve.

Slowly, deliberately, coolly, he took the cigarette from behind his ear, reached toward me, and with a Steve McQueen sneer (look him up, youngsters), crumpled it in my palm. He saved face, I got the cigarette. The tension broke.

I was so grateful, I wanted to hug him.

Steve understood on some level – surely not intellectually, this being Steve, but somewhere deeper, more powerful, more elemental – that old law of physics and Johnny Mercer (look him up, too), about an irresistible force meeting an immoveable object. Something’s gotta give. He was smarter than me that day. I’ll always be grateful for the lesson he taught me: you can avoid lots of unnecessary unpleasantness by not backing an adversary into a corner.

I think of this incident because of all the news lately about violence in schools. In Baltimore, where I live, a high school art teacher was beaten by a girl in her class whom she had just asked to take a seat. While some in the class loudly egged the beater on, the whole shameful incident was captured on video by another student who was presumably too busy pretending to be a cheap version of Quentin Tarantino than a modern version of the Good Samaritan.

We now learn about “cyber aggression,” a new form of violence made easier by the millions of teens who have cell phones with cameras and computers with Internet access. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied this new phenomenon and says that there’s been a huge increase in the numbers of teen victims of it. Apparently, it’s a mark of some kind of twisted honor to “star” in a video that shows you humiliating an “enemy.” Girls and boys alike are drawn to it.

It’s a disgusting social phenomenon, humiliating, physically dangerous, and demeaning. There are no winners, only losers. Losers get beat up; losers do the beating. Much can be said about the “coarsening of our culture,” and that’s probably correct in a time when we’ve put the word “rage” behind just about any activity now. Road rage, mall rage, sports rage, family rage, now school rage.

“Steve and the Cigarette” is nothing in comparison with this heinous incident, but I shudder to think of what could have happened if my near-dismissal-time students had had cell phones, if they had urged Steve to physical action and if my illegal prayer in the school hadn’t worked.


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