By Davon Loeb
It was tragic seeing a man fall apart the way he did. In every sense of falling—him pirouetting above the school and the sagittal-tightrope walk across the edge of roofing, and each student and teacher—like hundreds of fingers—pointing and all saying something like—jump.
I remember his classroom like this very living artifact. Historic antiques of what he thought was American Social Studies—something strictly and undeniably American—like jazz and the Black American—the Black Experience—the transitional process from Africa, to slavery, to freedom—his America when given the chance to narrate history. African tribal masks, pictures of Malcolm and Martin, replication of the Proclamation, signs for coloreds only, Jim Crow, Mancala, Paul Collins’ ‘Underground Railroad’, and Downey himself—somewhere between telling history and taking on history, like these quantum leaps into bodies and tongues and stories only footnoted in textbooks. So when walking by his classroom once, I overheard him recite a Frederick Douglass speech, and it gave him this new restorative quality—a flash of life—fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? He trotted around the room, speaking to each student, giving him or her his undivided attention, looking from pupil to pupil, trying to reach inside their minds. It was fascinating.
And yet, he slept during department meetings. Richard, Richard, Richard one of us was delegated to say, and each, Richard became more irritating and assertive until his shiny bald brown head languorously wiggled, like a turtle—briefly and attentively, and then back into its shell of a suit collar. There was exhaustion in the other teachers’ faces that had been brimming for years. This was only my second year; unlike everyone else pushing twenty years and over—those who worked with Richard Downey their entire career—whose frustrations were always moments away from exploding. Once Richard left the room, the babbling critics let loose. He should retire. He doesn’t even teach. He slept through the whole meeting. The kids don’t learn.
I never defended him. But, why should I? He was a bad teacher—forgetful, unorganized, stubborn, temperamental, negligent, subjective—and often hateful to students he did not like. So, it was all justifiable—maybe everything they said was deserving—maybe Richard Downey really was the big problem with education. And even so—even if he was a disservice to hundreds of students’ learning—I still felt some civil responsibility for the man.
I’d like to think I was compassionate because it’s the right thing to do, like holding the door or helping people with groceries. There’s just this certain level of respect for elders, and Richard Downey pushed into his late sixties. Yet, my empathy was rooted somewhere deeper. Richard and I were the only men of color in the entire school—the only Black men in this community within a community; and in this way, I felt accountable. His behavior reflected me. And in the same way—I felt an unwritten bond of brotherhood with Richard. This created an expectation from the staff and students and even from myself that Richard and I were in constant comparison, juxtaposition: you don’t act Black, like him—sometimes I even forget you’re Black—you actually worked hard for your job, his was Affirmative Action.
Richard and I didn’t speak to each other much; we were mostly passers-by in the hallway or faculty lounge. I tried to always be judgment-free—good morning, Rich—enjoy your day, Rich—thank you and you’re welcome. I was always polite and welcoming and so was he. I think my politeness was subconscious guilt because they say that silence is just as dangerous as insult—and there I was, pardoning for indifference—a bystander to the same mob mentality of ridicule—the very same thing us teachers were trying to teach students how not to be.
But I didn’t know what to believe about Richard Downey. I had heard so many stories. It becomes a problem when we narrate other peoples’ lives; there’s a misconception of what we think we know and the actual very real story of someone’s life. The story goes like this: the only reason he earned a teaching degree was because of a free Black scholarship; he was a terrible third grade teacher, but instead of firing him, they sent him to middle school; he taught three different subjects and was equally bad at each; he was one of the highest paid teachers; he wasn’t a teacher; he’s crazy—a Black old fool, never fired because being Black—only hired because being Black; we think we saw him once, roaming the streets; we think we know him; we write his story; we watch him fall.
Richard might have been handsome when he was younger. He had a proclivity for dressing well: iron-pressed pants, straight-pointed collar shirts, ties, suspenders, and single-breasted jackets. For being sixty-three-years-old, his body was obsidian rock and very soldierly—walking chest first, head high, and back taut. But if you looked at Richard Downey—really sat and touched eyes with the man—you could tell something wasn’t right. There was this absence inside of him—like he was never really there. His deterioration wasn’t the breakdown of muscle and bone; it was more intimate—the mind leaving the body, just a constant tremble, like being shut on and off.
Students are wolves to weakness. They watch teachers more than teachers watch them. Students know what they can get away with—they’re exploitative and manipulative—and they could feel Richard Downey’s slow death, and they took full advantage of his decay.
I don’t blame them. I did the same thing as a kid. I remember when we used to collect straws from milk boxes as artillery rifles to defend ourselves against lectures. I remember ripping pieces of paper and putting them in my mouth. Then, like ramrods, using mechanical lead to stuff the plastic-straw muzzle with ammo. I remember unloading on the bloated backs of teachers, the little wet globs of spit and old quiz scrapping, and how our teachers never knew, and how we felt like rebels getting back at the educational monarchy. I remember being cruel and how our Lyme-diseased music teacher didn’t know the difference between our claps and our well-orchestrated mouth-farts. She’d sing along—we’d fart even louder.
Yes, as cruel as we were, we responded in response to incompetent authority, and Richard Downey was incompetent. Why not fire him? Why not encourage retirement? Where is the authority above the authority? Where was the accountability? Maybe the administration problem-solved by avoiding the problem. Maybe it took more work to reprimand Richard Downey than to just let him continue teaching. Who really knows what was happening behind the scenes, and it’s not really my place to say. Though it is easier to point fingers up, rather than back to ourselves. Or maybe, Richard Downey’s career was inseparable from his race, hired because being Black and not fired because being Black. They said that every principal wouldn’t touch the stove top of race. They hovered around the burner. Firing him would put the faculty minority male population at zero; maybe that’s why they hired me.
Richard Downey and I taught the same students. While I taught English, I also became their confidant—and not really by choice. Students vented every day, and I tried to channel their frustrations rather than invalidate them. Mr. Downey has been calling me the wrong name for three months—our last test had all the answers still circled—he talks to himself in class—he falls asleep during videos—we haven’t learned anything past 1865. I was uncomfortable because I was deeply torn between role-modeling compassion and understanding while also being in complete agreement with students’ concerns and Downey’s lack of teaching. He did talk to himself. He never called me by name. The kids never seemed to be learning anything but Black History.
Students retaliated. Our class conversations turned from concern and frustration to vengeance and malevolence. Every instance started the same: guess what happened to Mr. Downey today? And those students, who confessed, weren’t the students committing the pranks; it was the students who felt guilty for what they witnessed. Students would move things around in his room, like his historical figurines or dry-eraser markers. They’d put things in drawers, on top cabinets, or under desks. Students would get his attention while another ran to the projector and shut it off. He’d lecture and then realize the screen was blank. He’d walk back to the computer and turn the projector on. They’d keep this up, until he’d curse at the computer—heavy and above his breath. Sometimes he’d just stop teaching; he’d just sit at his desk and stare blankly—his eyes just rolling and looking for a way out. And at the end of the day, I would see Richard Downey prowl around the room—mumbling, searching, slamming, and defeated.
If any students were reprimanded, it was a lunch detention or an after-school detention. But nothing was really being done. And it seemed everyone knew; it was the talk of the faculty lounge and the hallways. And yet, Richard Downey was never reprimanded. He was failing the education system as much as the education system was failing him.
Sometimes Richard Downey used the boys’ bathroom instead of the one in the faculty lounge—just because it was closer to his classroom. Male students would joke that they saw Mr. Downey using the urinal, but I never thought anything of it. No one did. And you’d see the man in a six-piece suit waltz out and shake his hands dry.
Teachers are not to use student lavatories—we received an email about not using the students’ bathrooms. We then had a grade-level meeting to further discuss the issue. We were told that a student photographed a teacher urinating in a stall. The student snapped the photo on his phone and speculation was that he posted the picture online. Maybe ten minutes later, the boy realized the severity of the prank and deleted the photo. Rumor was, the photo was screen-shotted and mass-messaged. The boy’s parents were contacted, and a further investigation would ensue.
We all knew they were talking about Richard Downey, and he had no idea what happened. During the meeting, he just trembled and nodded his head. In that moment, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I could have cried. I could have screamed at everyone in the room that half-smiled like this man wasn’t dying alive right in front of us. Maybe I could have saved him with a hug—with some resuscitative measure—something humane and sincere. I could have balled my fist and yelled—my brother—and stood with him—our brown skin together in testament. I could have told him I loved him, because maybe no one else had said it. I could have said I was sorry. And I was so sorry then, and I still am.
Part of me, besides being regretful, also was scared of Richard—scared of how tragic, and yet, real his story felt—how far and yet, still intimate his tale was—how I could be the token Black guy, and how I will one day experience the same effects of old age—and depredation of workmanship, of ineffectively educating—of losing myself to whatever the world has thrown and will throw at me—that I could not only replace him but also become Richard.
* * *
Richard Downey put in for his retirement that year. He spent the remaining months of school packing his antiques. After the bells rang and students left and custodians cleaned, I’d see him walking from classroom to car, carrying boxes—his silhouette eclipsing and escaping above the hallway lockers, almost as if it were weeping, as if a ghost. And no one threw him a retirement party, gave him a card, or even asked the man—what’s next Richard? Rather, he was dried and dusted.
Not long after he left, I saw Richard Downey walking along a busy highway. I beeped and gestured my hand. I wanted to stop and give him a ride. He was carrying handfuls of groceries in plastic bags. I wanted to help, but the way he stared—his deep lost eyes looking at me as if I were something new, like he was seeing me for the first time—and there, his nerves might have been pulleys, tugging at each other, trying to drag meaning and make sense, but there was really nothing left in the man—so he continued, like I never even existed.
Davon Loeb is the author of the lyrical memoir The In-Betweens (Everytime Press, 2018). He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Camden. Davon's work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net and is featured in Ploughshares Blog, PANK Magazine, University of Nebraska Press, CRAFT, Pithead Chapel, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Besides writing, Davon is a high school English teacher, husband, and father living in New Jersey. Currently, he is writing a YA novel. His work can be found here: davonloeb.com and on Twitter @LoebDavon.