by Frank Banton

Many years ago I was teaching for a jobs program in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There was a plan to resume ship building there, and young men from the area were being trained to become welders and ship fitters. Nothing ever came of it, and I still wonder if the whole thing was just a scam.

There were some GED classes, and I was teaching reading and grammar. There was also a math class of several young men who had already earned a high school diploma. The specific goal of this class was to get them to master fractions, decimals, and percents. This they needed to qualify to become ship fitters. The men in this class ranged in age from about twenty to the early thirties. Their teacher was younger than many of them, and they were walking all over him. So one day the director of the program asked me to take over the class.

I knew that my first encounter with them would be crucial. After all, they had already trampled one teacher, and now they had a new one to stomp on. I decided to risk everything on the opening salvo. It began innocently enough with a question.

“How far have you gotten?”

“We’re still working on fractions.”

“Fractions? You’ve been here nearly three weeks, and you’re still on fucking fractions? You’ve got to be kidding. This shit isn’t that hard. So let’s get to work.”

And get to work they did, but the tone had been set, and the language. It was loud, furious, and punctuated with expletives. I loved every minute of it.

Toward the end I was told that we would be getting a visit from a committee that had the final say on future funding. With this information came the suggestion that we clean up our language. On the day of the visit I explained this to the class.

The room we were in was huge, easily a hundred feet square and with high ceilings. We sat around a small circle of tables set in the center. The door opened, and three very elderly people began drifting toward us. We were in a flurry of activity, and it seemed as if numbers were flying through the air, visible. The visitors stayed only for a couple of minutes. Then they nodded their approval and drifted out again. When they finally closed the door behind them, Tony Torrez, who was six foot three and all hair and muscle, softly asked, “Frank, are they gone?”

“Yes, they are gone.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Well then, FUCK YOU, Frank.”

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