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Chicago East India Company

by Christopher Lyke

Four men sat at a balcony table overlooking Magazine street. They’d been at it for a day and a half and had twenty-four hours before their flight back to Chicago and fatherhood and forty-something. Their skin was ruddy and they were pie-eyed, but they couldn’t stop laughing and telling stories. Every couple of minutes the men would pause and watch the rain that had been falling all morning before one of them launched into another bit they’d been working on for twenty years.

“Tom Sawyer is a drunk.”

“Oh lord. Here we go,” Chris said.

They all started laughing.

“You know what,” said Mark, “everyone wants to be Huck Finn, but you’re Tom Sawyer, man.”

“I still mix it up all the time.”

“Yeah, but there’s always a net…except for the war, you didn’t have a net then…but even still, you volunteered to go a-conquering in Afghanistan. Traipsing around those mountains trying to prove yourself. That’s totally something he would do.”

They all laughed again.

“And now nothing is how you thought it would be and you’re drinking yourself into oblivion and you keep paintin’ that fuckin’ fence.”

“Well, at least I’m not a quitter.”

“No. You’re not a quitter.”

The men were silent for a moment.

“You came back though,” said Jim, “Afghanistan is nothing like Missouri, Huck would have stayed. You came back.”

The waitress dropped off another pitcher of beer. Two of the men lit cigarettes, blowing the smoke out into the rain that fell just out of reach of the balcony. They poured drinks and looked out onto the street.

“Hey Tom Sawyer.”

“Yes, Mark?”

“Tell us about the Black Worm. I love that story.”

“That one’s not so funny. He called me a racist.”

“You’re not?”

“No, Mark. I’m not.”

 

Arthur Bennett called me a racist. Well, it was implied. He was a black dude, sure, and the principal at Andrew Jackson Career Academy, yes, fine. But I wasn’t a racist and he called me one. Fucking work.

“Why are all the black kids sitting in one corner of the classroom and all the Latinos in the other?”

“Uh, I don’t know, I don’t use a seating chart once I learn their names. They’re sitting with the people they want to sit with.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because it’s an ownership thing. They like it.”

I started to talk about natural selection, which didn’t sound great, and then about how tribalism played a huge factor in the creation of nation states as well as where students sit in a lunchroom. That didn’t go over either. He waved a long, skinny finger in my direction.

“No. No. No. No. No. No. No. This won’t do. You’re treating them differently and I want to know why!”

I started to answer and to stick up for myself, but he didn’t want to hear an answer. He was beating the bushes for a devil. He was rooting in and out of caves. Behind him on the shelf were pristine copies of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Koran. He had books on Slavery, teaching, Malcolm X, and a good looking bible.

“What would you like for me to do about it? Move them all back to their old seats?”

“Yes, I would. Yes. Move them all back. All of them!”

“Okay.”

“I won’t have the brown kids marginalized, no sir.” He waved a long finger in front of me again.

I’m sure the office girls heard him through the door. He was loud, and emphatic, and liked to pound on the desk. When he pulled a teacher into his office the girls spoke in hushed voices and put fingers to lips when anyone came in to ask for something.

“There’s another thing.” His eyes widened. “I heard you said something about the students to Murphy. Something about them being selfish, or how they can’t learn.” He paused. “He said you compared them to the Afghans.”

Fucking Murphy.

“I can’t keep you on if these things are true.”

This was a lie. They could barely fire a teacher for fucking a student. And maybe not for punching one either. They usually pretended it hadn’t happened.

“No. It isn’t true. I was just lamenting about how hard we try, and about how we’re here for them, and they don’t seem to care at all.”

This was a rookie mistake. It was the same feeling as passing out free supplies on patrol in Afghanistan. I’d only been back in the states for about a year at that time, so it made sense that I’d conflate the two. Free beans and wind-up radios. “Thank you, thank you. We’re gonna try to kill you in about twenty minutes, but thanks for the free stuff.” God dammit. It’s frustrating. I’d been looking for a confidant and opened my damn mouth about it to Murphy. I had been trying to talk about the quality of crusades. But all he heard was a coworker comparing students to boogeymen. My lens was different than his. It’d been shaded or bent or maybe more focused, but the way I saw things didn’t make any sense to him. This kind of thing happened a lot at that school. And then at some point in the conversation I laughed at the students. It was too much for him, and as soon as I left the room he ran to tell the boss. Or maybe he just liked to gossip and told the boss to gain some favor for himself. Anyway, that was the day before and now, there I was, on the carpet in front of the man.

The whole thing is a gas really, it’s a put on. The city wasn’t honest about the schools. Not about these schools anyway. At least the Afghans were scared of us when we were trying to be nice. At least they didn’t confuse it all.

Nice. Fuck. Who cares about being nice. Scared is useful. Scared can be enough. Being fed and clothed and paid makes arrangements happen. Nice doesn’t mean anything when you have total control over someone. With that kind of power, nice makes it worse. But scared counts. It gets the local bossman to send his young men to work at the outpost. It gets them to smile and talk about where bombs are planted in the road. They grin and ask for cigarettes. They’ll bring stacks of flatbread. They’ll even sidle up next to you and shoot their own countrymen. That’s goddamn invaluable.

Save being nice for the deacon, or the park league soccer coach. Nice. Jesus. Bennett and I were having a conversation about something I’d thought about for a long time. How was I supposed to explain it all in the four minutes this conversation was supposed to last? I didn’t want to talk about race. At least not directly. He’d damn sure thought about that for a long time though. I’m sure he had something figured out, too. He was smart, and he was pushing fifty at the time. But race was his lens, and I am white and a straight guy and I’m fond of history and people don’t really like it for me to weigh in on that stuff. But aren’t we more than that? Aren’t we the sum of our parts? We split the atom and we built Constantinople. We defied gravity. We can get out of our own way and empathize if we try.

But I wasn’t talking about race. I was talking about giving, and service. I’d thought a lot about giving, and of being “the other.” I’d thought a lot about power. What it means to have the power of life and death over another person, or even a whole village. I was a Roman in Judea or a Brit in Palestine. I was a GI in central Asia; the white-boy teacher on the west side of Chicago. I’d thought a lot about foreign people and their lives and how the powerful drop in and ruin everything. They don’t even see it coming. The powerful do it to get the right outcome for themselves. It’s ugly and it’s devastating even if it’s the right thing for you and yours. It’s dehumanizing for everyone involved and should be undertaken only when necessary. And if you never opened a book you’d think we invented this shit in the Philippines in 1900, but we didn’t. This was the old magic.

In the Army, we always tried to keep the end result in mind. The military was good at that. They teach the “commander’s intent.” We got it from the Germans. No matter how you do it, you get it done. Now my job was to educate the kids on the west side of Chicago. And we were doing a poor job. We were not getting it done. We were being set up for failure. We weren’t being given a clearly defined goal. In fact, the goal was muddied and pulled this way and that by a city that was corrupt, broke, and avaricious.

 

You see, what the teachers need is a backstop. A fence to stop the fucking ball. You can push and push, but if there’s no backstop, you’ll just keep pushing the ball and it will just keep rolling until you’re too fucking exhausted, and too jaded, to continue. Bending down to pick up the ball over and over as you keep kicking it on down the road, like a clown. It’ll ruin your back.

It was like that overseas. The ammo and fighters would come in from Pakistan, we’d have some kind of fight, and they’d just head back across the border. We were kicking the ball on down the road and calling it a win. We needed a backstop.

Parents could be the backstop for the schools. But there are decades of very real strife and anger to wrangle. Plus, if you’re working from morning to midnight every weekday it’s hard to keep on top of your kid’s homework. Safe neighborhoods could be a backstop. But that isn’t a regular event these days, and the successful are usually off to where the work is instead of moving back home after college. A school with a culture that didn’t fail its students could be a backstop too. But teachers are humans. They become exhausted and though most have built up bulwarks against feelings of impotence, it does seep through and they up and leave at three-thirty for sanity’s sake. If those ideas are impossible, then the whole endeavor is fucked from the jump. It’s a haunting. And without a society telling students that education is important, it won’t work. Most teenagers don’t work that way. They don’t care. Those around them need to make it important. And all of that is true.

 

So, Bennett stared at me from across his desk. He was bald and tall and had pitchfork hands. He tried very hard to be enigmatic and to speak in psalms. A shit boss for a glacial tomb like Chicago Public Schools, but he’d have been a dynamite entrepreneur. He certainly had a motor.

“I didn’t mean they couldn’t learn.” I said.

“What did you mean?”

“I meant it’s frustrating when the kids are disrespectful. Especially when we’re trying so hard and getting nowhere.”

Bennett exhaled. “See, that’s not a good answer. That’s when we need to get back in there and try again. You must get back in there and keep working, for them. Keep pressing, and with rigor, and know that you are making a difference.” He spoke with his hands and made a motion as though he were screwing in a light bulb when he made a point.

“I agree. I agree.” I didn’t agree. I didn’t really care, not at that time. Not at all. I was as big of a mess as Chicago. I just needed the dough. “I’m not quitting or anything. I wasn’t being malicious either. I guess I was just venting. It had been a rough day.”

“Well, clear it up.”

“I will, Mr. Bennett. I’m glad we’re on the same page.”

He stared at me for a while without looking away. It was another silly game he must have learned at a management seminar. A year before, people had been trying to kill me. These tricks meant nothing. Maybe both of us were alien and trying to fit into this world. Maybe he recognized something of himself in me and he hated what it looked like. He needed me to be better. His students were so often the butt of the joke that he guarded tight against threats and mercenary behavior that he saw on the horizon and out the corner of his eye. He railed against that version of ourselves that lurks in the night, grabbing children to drag back into the woods. He saw that in me.

The phone rang and he looked away, motioning to the door like the Pasha of Cairo. I left and went back to my classroom and the students who were being babysat by a security guard.

 

“Well, he certainly hated you.” Mark said.

They all laughed again.

“Great story, Chris. You’re awful.” Said Jim.

Chris smiled. “Yeah, he tried to be nice when the faculty would go for beers, but he hated me. I think he smelled a rat. I also think I look like people who picked on him in high school.”

“Tom Sawyer is a bully.”

“Goddammit.”

“He just hated you.” Said Mark.

The rain had stopped during the story. The men paid the bill and left. Walking a few blocks to Tracey’s Bar to watch basketball and get some lunch. Greg had been quiet throughout the whole thing. They walked slowly and looked at the mansions.

He said, “He was right though, to be wary. It’s a good thing that he cares so much.”

“Yeah,” Chris said, “I told you it wasn’t such a funny story.”