Afaa Michael Weaver
The life of the poet and budding playwright in graduate school was more of a paradise than I realized at the time. I could write a play in a weekend and have it produced the following weekend. Brown University has several theaters, and my favorite, of course, was the black box where we had our student showcase. Lynn Nottage was a classmate of mine in those years, from 1985 to 1987, as well as Teresa Church and C.B. Coleman. We were having the time of our lives and didn’t know it. I had the blessing of being under the tutelage of the late George H. Bass and Paula Vogel in playwriting and Keith Waldrop and Michael S. Harper in poetry. In the Rockefeller library I had a carrel loaded with all the things I wanted to read and think about, including some critical studies on Beckett’s non-relational art. I thought life would always sorta be this way, me looking out on the expanse of some park or otherwise green area and thinking the great thoughts of language and art the way poets and playwrights do.
Immediately after graduation, I headed back to East Orange, New Jersey. I had found a gig teaching remedial composition and composition at Essex County College, a community college in downtown Newark. That is where I learned the fundamentals of classroom control, how to pace myself during class meetings, and how to go at the most difficult challenges in teaching students with special needs. But it was not enough money. My semester’s salary was barely enough to pay two months’ rent.
Never mind the gaze over green expanses with great thoughts swimming in my cranium. I had to help my wife keep a roof over our heads and buy groceries.
There was no health insurance. The summer was difficult, and the fall threatened to be even tougher. I called my father in early October to say my wife and I were thinking of moving back to Baltimore. He was a tough love kind of parent.
“That won’t do much good. Try to stick it out.”
I was panic struck. My wife and I were struggling. So I fell back to basic survival techniques and went to the school boards in East Orange and New Jersey to sign up as a substitute teacher. I taught English composition at Essex in the evenings and, in the mornings, waited by the phone with my tuna fish sandwich for the call that would send me to a public school for the day. Adjuncts shared information, and the word was to stay away from Lincoln elementary school in Newark. The kids were supposedly uncontrollable. One day I got the call for Lincoln, and my wife and I needed the money badly. She was teaching art at a Ukrainian high school in Soho for a small salary. So I set out for Lincoln, which was within walking distance of our apartment, just across the city line dividing Newark from East Orange. Lincoln was everything adjunct lore rumored it to be and more.
My assignment was a second grade class. When one of the girls took out a makeup kit and began talking about what she did the night before, I knew why I had been warned. I began to hyperventilate when one of the boys stood on his desk and jumped up to the ceiling light, catching it by the edge and swinging. The climax was yet to come. Another boy bit his classmate and left teeth marks on the boy’s skin. I was standing by the door and reached for the emergency button. In a nanosecond the principal was in the doorway, and the entire class came to silent attention the way Marine recruits stiffen in the presence of the drill instructor. Whatever fear she carried in her presence was enough to keep them more or less in line for the rest of the day. I never went back to Lincoln elementary school. I decided I’d rather starve.
Looking back at graduate school, it seemed like paradise compared to the beginning of my teaching career, where I fought for my very being in the midst of these half pints who were experts in terrorism. Brown kept life’s harsh realities away from me. I had been spoiled.
In order to save money at that time in my life, I began cutting my own hair. I thought I had done a fair job of it. At least my friends said I looked acceptable. I had grown a beard while at Brown and was wearing that along with thirty-five pounds more than what I carried normally when I worked in factories, with all the walking involved in that life. So I had a fade haircut of my own design, a beard, and something of a Buddha belly. Aside from places like Lincoln, I was subbing at a middle school in East Orange. While walking down the hallway, I heard a group of boys behind me, taunting me.
“Hey Light Bulb! Where you get that haircut?”
They ran when I motioned to confront them, and all I could do for several days afterwards was struggle with the image of my head and neck as a light bulb of some unknown wattage. From there my self-image hit a downward spiral. I began to see my entire body as an organic light bulb, punctured by my Buddha belly. On subsequent assignments to that school, I tried to find the culprits, but to no avail. They were all in hormonal demon mode. However, I decided to scrape pennies together to get a haircut from a barber rather than trust my own clippers and the mirror. But in that fall of 1987, some good things also began to happen.
I signed on with Berda Rittenhouse and the New Jersey State Arts Council, and that allowed me to get residencies in two elementary schools in Newark so as to teach poetry to kids who might otherwise be chasing me in the hallways and taunting me.. It was rewarding work. I felt I had a chance to give some input to the kids that might be a catalyst for them at some point in their lives. I suppose they are in their early thirties now, if they have survived the dangers of urban life. Whatever the future held, I was so happy to be away from the monsters that named me after Thomas Edison’s invention. My head and hair were looking better and feeling better.
Later a guardian angel would appear and show me the mysterious secret ways of living adjunct life in the Big Apple. More on that in the next installment of adjunct chronicles…