Every Princeton senior experiences the same dilemma when searching for a post-graduation: to go to Wall Street or not to go to Wall Street. The lure of a New York finance job is difficult to resist, with its high salary and desirable location, plus “everyone is doing it” – or so it seems.
At an information session in fall 2005, Princeton in Asia representative Anastasia Vrachnos made her best case for why Princetonians should ignore the call of Goldman, Morgan, and McKinsey in favor of a less lucrative after college job.
“If you do this,” she said, “your friends will be telling your stories over fifteen dollar cocktails in the Meatpacking district.”
In other words, if you eschewed the corporate world in favor of an Asian adventure, you would gain experiences worth writing home about. If you took that job with Morgan Stanley, you would be doomed to a live vicariously through your more daring friends – albeit on a handsome salary.
Teach for America, like Princeton in Asia, is a post-college path in which participants exchange a fat paycheck for rich “experiences.” We may not receive eye-popping year-end bonuses, but get paid in stories about the joys and challenges of teaching.
My brother, a business major who will certainly be taking the finance path when he graduates in two years, is my best audience. He has an insatiable appetite for my classroom stories. Since I began teaching in August, nearly all of our conversations – on Instant Messenger, on the phone, in person – begin with his asking me, “How are the kids?” When he asks about my students, he’s not looking for uplifting tales about student achievement; he’s looking for a laugh. He wants to be entertained, not inspired.
My responses to that question never fail to make him erupt with laughter. When I told him, via IM, that my students had started to ask me if I’m pregnant to get on my nerves, he replied with several rows of “hahahahaha”’s. During one of our phone conversations, I mentioned that my students routinely break out in song during class. He had to put the phone down. His favorite stories are about Kareem Boyd, a student in my third block class who walks into class every day bellowing, “For the hooood.” When I asked Kareem what exactly he means when he says, “For the hooood,” he replied, “I’m addicted to the streets.”
My brother finds the Kareem stories so amusing that he relays them his fraternity brothers over watery beers in their chapter house basement. According to my brother, the stories are so popular that his friends have begun adopting some of Kareem’s habits. Jewish frat boys at Washington University in St. Louis now claim that they are “addicted to the streets” and going to class “for the hoooood.”
Despite my brother’s preference for Kareem Boyd tales, my biggest payout has come from my stories about Branden Johnston. Every day, Branden Johnston comes into my fourth block class and, instead of collecting his handouts and finding his seat like the rest of his peers, stands in the front of the room and enacts what I call (never to his face, of course) The Branden Johnston Dance.
Branden Johnston is very tall and lean with seemingly elastic joints; he resembles an adolescent Gumby. His namesake dance consists of wiggling his long, lanky arms in a motion that resembles a sine curve, with his chin jutted out and eyes narrowed, as he bends and straightens his knees. I allow him to continue the dance until the bell rings, when I place both hands on his shoulders and attempt to push him toward his desk. Within twenty minutes, he is out of his seat again, doing the dance for an audience of fellow students whose responses to his gyrations range from indifference (Jessica Thompson sighs and rolls her eyes whenever the Dance begins) to exasperation (last month Akeem White roared at him, “sit down, you big brontosaurus!”).
My students may have tired of the Branden Johnston dance, but everyone else can’t get enough of it. The Branden Johnston Dance is infectious. While my roommate and I are making dinner in the evenings, I take breaks from my vegetable-chopping to flap my arms bounce up and down. Laura cackles with delight and shrieks, “Branden Johnston, what are you doing in my house?” I taught my college roommates the Dance before we went out for New Year’s Eve, and they insisted that we showcase the move to the fellow revelers we encountered.
Not surprisingly, my brother has proven to be the most appreciative observer of my impression of the Brandon Johnston dance.
“That shit is so funny,” he exclaimed when I first demonstrated the dance to him. The pitch of his voice neared a squeal. “You gotta show that to my friends the next time they come over.”
If a new dance craze sweeps the WashU campus in a few weeks, you’ll know who started it.
These stories come with a price, however. I have found that the funnier the story, the sadder the back story. At a mandatory college fair in October, Kareem Boyd – whose proclamations of being “addicted to the streets” have inspired copycats – told me that he doesn’t see the point of going to college because he figures he’ll be dead in five years anyway. On Tuesday, a hall monitor came to my room to ask for Kareem’s average in my class because he was “unenrolling.” Kareem Boyd, the cause of so many fits of merriment, dropped out of high school with a grade of 37 in 10th grade English.
Branden Johnston is no exception to my dark flipside maxim.
A few weeks ago, my mentor teacher, a soft-spoken history teacher named Mr. Reilly, came to watch me teach during fourth block. Branden spent most of the class rocking side to side in his chair, his hands gripping the sides of his desk. Though he did not pick up a pen once during the ninety-eight minute period, he remained in his seat the entire time. I thought it was a good day.
After class, Mr. Reilly met me in the hall to debrief. He complimented my clear, well-organized lecture but recommended that I spice up my teaching style a bit – several students had their heads down on their desks during class. I nodded and thanked him, then prepared to return to the classroom to clean up for the day. Before I could do so, Mr. Reilly asked me a question.
“Who was that tall young man who was sorta,” Mr. Reilly paused, apparently searching for the correct word, “wiggling all through class?”
I smile leapt to my face as I answered automatically, “Branden Johnston.”
Mr. Reilly did not return my amused expression.
“Does he do that every day?” he asked, frowning.
I nodded, then told him about the Branden Johnston Dance. To illustrate, I did a scaled down version of the impression of the Dance that I show my friends and family. Mr. Reilly’s frown only deepened.
“You need to make parent contact,” he told me. “If he’s not doing his work, if he’s,” Mr. Reilly paused again, “wiggling during class, you need to tell somebody.”
Mr. Reilly is the only person so far who has not laughed when confronted with the Branden Johnston Dance.
That night, I dialed the number that Branden had written down on his student information survey on the first day of school. The number was disconnected. The next day, I asked Coach Kent, Branden’s homeroom teacher, for a working number. Coach Kent did not have one, either.
“That kid wrote the book on weird,” he said, shaking his head, a faint smile on his lips. “He came out for track last year, and he couldn’t run twice around the track without getting lost.”
I laughed heartily and made a mental note to use the phrase “wrote the book on weird” the next time I told a story about Branden Johnston.
“What is his deal?” I asked, the laughter still in my voice.
Coach Kent’s smile disappeared.
“His mother died a few years ago, and I don’t think he’s ever really recovered. He used to be a decent student – not a great one, but decent – and then, after she died, all of a sudden it was fifties, sixties. He lives with his grandmother.”
I nodded, all traces of my earlier laughter disappeared from my face.
Later that week, students received their report cards for the first grading period. Not surprising considering his preferred class time activities, Branden failed the quarter.
At the end of the day, Branden ran up to me.
“I can’t believe you failed me!” he said, his eyes wide with panic. “My grandmother is going to throw me out the house!”
For the first time, I had nothing to say on the subject of Branden Johnston.
When I was home over winter vacation, I performed the Branden Johnston dance for my brother. As usual, he laughed until he was gasping for breath. A few moments later, his chest still heaving, he asked the same question I had posed to Coach Kent weeks earlier.
“Man, what is that kid’s deal?” he asked, his voice rising to a cracking pitch.
I told him. I told him about his dead mother and his grandmother who was threatening to throw him out of the house for failing and his apparent inability to even run twice around a track.
My brother kept laughing.
“I’m sorry,” he said, between deep breaths. “I know it’s not funny, but I just can’t stop laughing.”
Perhaps my brother’s response to the full Branden Johnston story is inappropriate. Perhaps he should have gasped with horror instead of hilarity when he heard the sad details of Branden’s life. But a good horror story has to have a glimpse of hope. There has to be at least a hint that there will be a happy ending. The spate of inspirational teacher movies exemplify this rule. “Based on a True Story” films like Lean on Me and Stand and Deliver and Freedom Writers show the dark stories of underprivileged students, but only so they can portray their eventual triumph. A drug-infested high school transforms thanks to the determination of an unorthodox teacher. Students on the brink of dropping out stay in school so they can take A.P. Calculus. Violence-obsessed gang members find empowerment through writing. Sad stories become happy ones. Bad turns into good.
But there is no “stand up and cheer” ending to the Branden Johnston story, at least not yet. In the first ten minutes of class on the first day back after winter break, Branden amassed an hour’s worth of detention for refusing to follow any of the directions that I issued to him. He spent the rest of class with his head on his desk. The only times he lifted it were to hurl insults in my direction: “You make me hate school!” and “I’m gonna fail because of YOU!” There is nothing funny about this. But when I returned home that night and recounted the events of fourth block to my roommate, we both laughed.
All names of students and teachers have been changed