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The Teacher Dead Pool of Hellhole Middle School

December 5, 2021

I was ready to quit teaching until I found out I was #1 in the teacher dead pool.

It was 1989. I was 23 years old and in the middle of my first semester of teaching eighth grade English at Hellhole Middle School. The school wasn’t named after anybody named Hellhole. That actually would have been cool. The students called the school a hellhole, so the name Hellhole Middle School just fit.

I know, all students think their schools are hellholes, but this one really was.

The school grounds were surrounded by a ten-foot high chainlink fence topped with wire. The teacher parking lot was was gated shut when school started, but the sidewalk gates were left open, so students could leave and enter campus at will while the teachers were stuck inside.

The school was spread out with four different buildings and lots of space between them and too many places for students to hide. The campus had probably been nice in 1950, but it hadn’t been maintained, and by 1989 it had turned into a hellhole.

The school was considered “academically challenged” in a community with a lot of violence that would often spread onto the campus. There would be two or three fights every day. A large percentage of students were too old to be there, with a range of 17-year old eighth graders and 10-year old sixth graders. The hallways were always crowded, even during class. Teachers weren’t allowed to lock their classroom doors, so students in the hallway would fling open the doors, yell something profane or insulting, and then run, and then students in the classroom would run out into the hallways.

I won’t get into all my classroom struggles, but I was having a disastrous rookie year. I was young for a teacher, I didn’t fit in demographically, and I wasn’t used to a constantly high-charged environment. And every once in a while, kids in my classroom would out of nowhere say to me:

“You’re next, Mister.”

I had no idea what they were talking about. It would happen a few times each week in different classes with different students. It was kind of annoying. Nobody would tell me what they meant by it. This went on for weeks and then months.

“You’re next, Mister.”

What was that supposed to mean? Nobody would tell me.

One day I was passing out packets and a burly kid said to me,” You’re next, Mister.”

“Your mom’s next,” I replied and walked off.

The class jeered the kid way too loudly, and he looked like he wanted to fight me, but he stayed in his desk, and I waited for the noise to subside naturally before I continued class. I didn’t win many exchanges in those days, so I let the moment last.

My sixth period class finally told me about the teacher dead pool one day in November. That class was the most challenging, but they were funny when their energy was directed the right way. I think it was a Friday, and I’d gone easy on the classroom assignments for a couple days, and in a moment of weakness they decided to tell me what was going on.

The teacher dead pool had been going on since school started in late August, they said. Students were betting on which teacher they could run out next. Classes took pride in running off their teachers. Not every teacher was in the dead pool; it was reserved for new teachers, teachers who didn’t demographically fit in, and extremely unpleasant teachers. Being #1 meant that I was considered the teacher most likely to get run off. “You’re next,” meant that students had bet on me to quit next.

I’d been #1 on the list since the beginning of the year, but I hadn’t quit. Not yet. Meanwhile, a bunch of other teachers ranked below me had already been run off:

* One teacher had quit mid-day in September without telling anyone. The school staff spent that afternoon searching lockers, just in case he’d been knocked unconscious and stuffed inside. We found out later that he’d called for a ride from the front office and had walked out a student gate with a bunch of skippers after first lunch.

* Three teachers quit on the same Friday later that month.

* One teacher faked an injury while breaking up a hallway fight and tried to collect a settlement from the district, so he was gone.

*One female teacher yelled at her seventh period class that EVERYBODY IN THIS ROOM HAS DETENTION EVERY DAY NEXT WEEK!!!! The class cheered, and she never came back.

* Another first-year teacher declared that these were the worst kids he’d ever taught. I told him, to be fair, it was his first year teaching, so these were also the best kids he’d ever taught. That guy didn’t show up the next day. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut.

* A bunch of other teachers whom I don’t remember dropped out just because.

By the end of November, I was one of three dead pool survivors and the only one who didn’t demographically fit the school. One was a woman who had grown up in the area. Once students realized that, they dropped her from the dead pool. The other was a young guy who demographically fit the school but took everything the students did personally. He was planning to quit at the end of the semester and find another job during the Christmas break.

I thought about quitting at the end of the semester too. Every surrounding suburban school district would have understood my reasons. They would have respected a guy who’d gone a full semester at Hellhole Middle School. But that dead pool ticked me off. I didn’t want to reward students who were betting on me to fail. And I didn’t want to merely be the last teacher to get run off; I wanted to beat the teacher dead pool, and to do that, I had to go the full year.

I had a couple advantages over the other fallen teachers. I was a tall male. I wasn’t confrontational, so I usually didn’t escalate bad situations. I had a sense of humor. I didn’t take things personally. I was disliked by a lot of students but not universally hated. In teaching, there’s a huge difference between being disliked and being universally hated.

To be honest, in order to survive that first year, I had to do a bunch of stuff that the other teachers weren’t willing or able to do:

* I found one assistant principal who agreed to help me with a few of the most disruptive students.

* I talked the front office secretary into making class sets of copies for me every day after school so that I wouldn’t have to use the time-consuming leaky purple ink mimeoograph.

* I actively asked for advice from all the experienced teachers who would talk to me.

* I tried almost every strategy that was suggested to me; most of them weren’t effective for me, but I’d occasionally find something that worked for me, and I added it to my small but growing list of worthwhile classroom activities.

* When I failed students for a grading period, I’d give them a high failing grade like a 65, so that they’d be able to recover ground later in the year.

Things started to come together for me during the second semester. A bunch of new replacement teachers got targeted in the teacher dead pool instead of me, and I was usually left alone. Nobody was saying “You’re next, Mister,” anymore. I kind of missed it. I don’t know; maybe I liked the attention.

At some point, it became obvious that I’d make it to the end of the school year. Once those 8th graders realized that I wasn’t leaving and that they had to pass my English class to get out of Hellhole Middle School, their attitudes changed, and my classes calmed down and became productive.

One day in April, some kid from my rough 6th period blurted out, “This feels like a real class now.”

“Damn right it’s a real class,” I said. “Now shut up and get back to work.”

I could get away with saying stuff like that by then.

Don’t get me wrong: I was no Jaime Escalante. We didn’t cover four years of material in the last two months of school. We covered maybe two months of material in the last two months, but that was considered pretty good at Hellhole Middle School.

I was the only teacher to survive both semesters of the teacher dead pool at Hellhole Middle School that year. As we teachers on the after-school ramp duty watched that last school bus exit campus in early June of 1990, I felt a twinge of disappointment. I should have gotten a plaque for surviving the dead pool. Then I realized I was about to get something even better, a summer break. I felt pretty good about things.

“Hey, Mister!”

I saw an unfamiliar kid in the back of the bus sticking his hand out and flipping me off, and I heard a bunch of kids cheering him on.

It wasn’t a plaque, but at least it was recognition.

3 Comments
  1. Wow fair play to you sticking that out. I’d probably be one of the run out teachers, which is why I’m not a teacher 😁

  2. That’s a great story. You should get a double retirement pension for teaching middle school – any middle school. But Hellhole Middle? Sheesh.

  3. That was a well-told story. Kind of like a nice twist on the white-savior schtick — more about survival than than savioring.

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