The Wudder Summer Reading List Presents...Project English: Hello Goodbye, Mr. Tips
Chapter One: Welcome to The Blackboard Jungle
It was the fall of 2003 when Mr. Tipping began his brief but eventful foray into an educational career as a High School English teacher at Badlands Institutionalized Learning Charter Correctional Bureau School of North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
BILCC-BS-N-PPA as it was also known in its uninspired, still-way-too-long-to-be-convenient acronym nickname form.
The school’s idenity was more accurately described by Malik, one of Mr. Tipping’s sophomore English students in an assignment he turned in at Mr. Tipping’s request during the first week of school.
Malik wrote that BILCC-BS-N-PPA was “basically a dickhead school”.
And basically Malik was right.
Mr. Tipping was tempted to give Malik an “A” for the astuteness of the observation but knew Malik was also sharp enough to understand that no grade Mr. Tipping gave him mattered.
Mr. Tipping was merely another in a long line of dickheads Malik would encounter pretending to be in charge.
Instead Mr. Tipping checked the "satisfactory" box in his book indicating Malik had completed the task, adding no commentary or correction for his coarse language.
His father read Malik’s paper while parsing his son's stack to get an idea of the classroom culture.
A culture and school that had his son crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge every morning thinking "I could just turn around" coming and “Thank God that day’s over" going.
Both of them had a good, long laugh upon hearing his father's reading of that line during commercial break of their routine father/son 7 PM Jeopardy competition.
While like most times you shared a good, long laugh.....guffaws aside you usually will find some gut-gnawing truth underneath.
Chapter Two: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Mr. Tipping knew several teachers at the school, like his BILCC-BS-N-PPA colleague Joe Steamrolle across the hall in History, who would handle Malik's language transgression differently.
Joe’s classes were in the same pod of study-halls-masquerading-as-classrooms past the Gate 4 metal detectors as Mr. Tipping's English classes.
It was outside in the back hall between their two classrooms that Joe had surprised Mr. Tipping with an offer.
Joe was a mid-20’s-looking linebacker type with a Johnny Unitas haircut, back for his second full year at the school, making him a seasoned veteran there by default.
Seemingly in an effort to be helpful Joe said “Let me know if you have any trouble keeping these kids in line, they know not to mess with me. 'Cause I'll take them back in that janitor supply closest and toss 'em around a bit if they don't mind their p’s & q’s”.
He was also fairly certain Joe Steamrolle had done less pondering on the phrase's etymology than he had.
Steamrolle seemed like the most dangerous form dickhead a kid like Malik could encounter: a hulking, aggressive authority figure who didn't realize how little he knew or care to find out.
But they both knew in this context what p’s & q’s meant.
Or did they?
Why did he seem so cavalier about sharing?
Did Steamrolle size up Mr. Tipping as a pushover who could be punked or physically overpowered by 16 year olds?
Maybe Joe wasn't smart enough to figure out how to handle it any different way?
Did he believe he was espousing hard-won wisdom?
Was this school really that rough, rugged and raw?
Had Steamrolle’s offer been based on shared pigmentation?
Did he mention whooping ass to see if Tipping would snitch?
Mr. Tipping was taken aback by Mr. Steamrolle’s forwardness.
He tried not to let that show on his face tho.
This was after all, his first day on the job.
One more in a laundry list of that day's red flags.
Still Mr. Tipping felt he could do some important things here.
He could be a positive force of change at Badlands Institutionalized Learning Charter Correctional Bureau School of North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
At least that was his hope...or his hunch...and where do employees here go to eat lunch?
Chapter Three: The Pleasant Principal
You may be wondering how a novice educator like Mr. Tipping arrived at the point of becoming the English teacher on his very first day at BILCC-BS-N-PPA.
That answer is fairly simple, although nothing ever really is.
The man responsible for Mr. Tipping's hire was Jeb Federico, the avuncular school principal.
At the end of the interview Mr. Federico asked Mr. Tipping a question:
“What was your major in college?”
“Perfect, you can be our new English teacher!”
Surely there had to be more to the vetting process than this.
“I’ve never taught English before……..
actually I’ve never taught before" he told Federico with a hint of quiver in his voice.
“Ahh that’s…ok! We’ll walk you through it...” said Mr. Federico with a tinge of deceit in his tone while trying to wrap this up before either of them said more.
“I’m also not certified to teach” Mr. Tipping said.
At this point it sounded like he was campaigning against his own potential employment.
“We’re funded by the state Mr. Tipping but we are not a public school, so we are not beholden to those types of requirements”
Principal Federico had found his new English teacher.
They shook hands and walked out to the faculty parking lot.
They took a door out thru the empty cafeteria to get there.
Chapter Four: Bad Meaning Bad Not Bad Meaning Good Will Hunting
Despite making multiple objections to his own candidacy during his interview with Principal Federico, Mr. Tipping was excited about this new opportunity.
He spent the weekend before his much-anticipated Monday debut watching the Edward James Olmos teacher flick “Stand & Deliver” for inspiration.
Where is Lou Diamond Phillips at these days, anyway?"
He had never been a fan of the reworded Stevie Wonder "Pastime Paradise" hook that served as theme of the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle “Dangerous Minds".
But when "Gangsta's Paradise" came on Power 99 during the old-school lunch hour, he took it as a sign.
Soon Mr. Tipping had adjusted the driver’s seat settings down, leaned back in his seat while maneuvering the steering wheel with just his outstretched right hand, left elbow resting outside the window, car radio blasting to the point of nearly blowing out its tin-can-speakers.
It briefly feeling like the 1992 GEO Prizm he inherited from his grandmother had hydraulics as Coolio fatalistically said:
They say I gotta learn, but nobody's here to teach me
If they can't understand it, how can they reach me
I guess they can't, I guess they won't
I guess they front, that's why I know my life is out of luck, fool
Mr. Tipping counted two churches, sixteen boarded-up row-homes, three graveyards (one directly across the street) and five liquor stores all within a stone's throw of Badlands Institutionalized Learning Charter Correctional Bureau School in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Rome was not built in a day.
But this region of the city that birthed Mr. Hibbing, in the bicentennial year since birthing of the USA had since the crack era become a symbol of urban decay.
The job he was starting tomorrow would not be easy but would be far easier than being raised in the Badlands.
Mr. Hibbing wondered how many of his friends crew would be dead or incarcerated by age 25 had they been brought up there.
Hempfield was only seven miles (or 11-minute train ride) from the Ben Franklin bridge entering the City of Brotherly Love.
Five from Camden, New Jersey in the county bearing its name.
But a world apart.
Hempfield was near the top of South Jersey statistical leaders in “binge-drinking” and “recreational drug use”.
Yet there was no bars or liquor stores in Hempfield.
There were no areas where you could openly buy drugs outside.
In Camden or North Philly, you’d be hard-pressed to find two straight blocks not containing one or both.
By Fall '03, neither area contained a single supermarket.
In places like this, it’s not just closed mouths that don’t get fed.
Mr. Hibbing wondered how difficult it would be to get these books he'd be assigning read.
Maybe if the books didn't work at first he could utilize music.
Mr. Tipping considered himself to be in the top 1% of America's music nerds.
He did know yet what the kids were listening to but was pretty sure that he’d familiar once he found out.
Chapter Five: Cooleyhighcacophony
Anyone remember the opening scene of Lean On Me, prior to Morgan Freeman aka Principal Joe Clark's arrival?
“This ain’t a movie, dawg”©Jay-Z
And Principal Jeb Federico was not Crazy Joe.
Not even on Halloween would anyone be calling him Batman.
There would would be no dramatic assembly where the “bad seeds” of this charter institution got expelled.
For the students of this “dickhead school”, their prior high schools had already determined they were the bad seeds.
Each student sent here had been thrown out of their North Philadelphia public high school.
Since none had reached the age of 18, by state law they could not yet be permanently expelled from the public school system.
In short this was a “last stop” before real trouble started.
But most would tell you they’d long ceased being a carefree kid.
Not coming from where they came from, seeing the things they’d seen and for some doing the things they'd done.
BILCC-BS-N-PPA wasn't an juvenile detention center but felt like one all the same.
The kids walk thru a metal detector before walking inside.
Before home room, they were subject to a personal pat down including removal of shoes while socks were checked for weapons.
Here if you got kicked out of class it was not off to the principal’s office you'd go.
You would be heading to the police station in cuffs instead.
Kids could not graduate from BILCC-BS-N-PPA.
A year of good behavior and passing a state-issued test simply allowed them to go back to their old school.
There was a myriad of problems with this scenario.
For Mr. Tipping first and foremost was that Principal Jeb Federico hadn't mentioned any of this during the process.
Not the shoe/sock search, the police station as punishment, the test/re-entry program or even any type of curriculum.
The lack of curriculum discussion during the hiring process struck Mr. Tipping as odd.
He was neophyte teacher hired to teach English simply because that had been his major.
That was where the details and direction ended.
While the cannon had a different connotation ‘round here.
Grades, take-home assignments, classroom books…
Who needs all that?
Stick to checking off each box.
Keep the kids busy.
Busy with work everyone knew they weren’t accountable to know.
Suddenly Joe Steamrolle’s broom seemed almost in a bizarre way humane.
Because at least that didn’t come with iron bracelets and fingerprints, with probably an ass-kicking behind it anyway.
Stick to practice tests for their exit exam on June 3rd was the message.
It was September 5th.
Mr. Tipping’s first day on the job.
By the time that day ended he realized it was a set-up.
But maybe he and these kids could find some way to upset the set-up.
Chapter Six: To Offi-Sir, With Love
Mr. Tipping was one of those people that had been given nicknames throughout most of his life.
In some cases related to appearance, last name or sometimes no literal reason at all besides his friends could at times be assholes.
This had been the case since at least sixth grade.
So now as Mr. Tipping stood in front of his new English class, the girls and boys at Badlands Institutionalized Learning Charter Correctional Bureau School of North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania decided that they wanted in on that action.
By the end of Week One they had a growing list of nicknames going:
Mr. Bean (leading vote-getter)
Officer Doofy (a photo-finish in second place)
Jumanji (dark horse candidate with a respectable showing)
Tips (his personal favorite both for the brevity and its closest-to-approaching-some-vague-level-of-respect affect)
Each day the list of nicknames grew while his amateurish, overly ambitious lesson plans increasingly began shrinking.
Meanwhile across the hall Mr. Steamrolle seemed to be keeping things in check with the mere threat of violence rather than taking actual trips out of the hallway.
So far this fall past the Gate 4 metal detectors had been sent to "the office" down the street "accompanied by a chaperone" yet.
Two very different methods while stuck in this madness.
On a surface level it could almost look effective in achieving the school's objectives.
A student in Mr. Tipping's afternoon class named Trevor had called Mr. Steamrolle "a big, nut-ass dude……a real weirdo....ole-McBain-lookin-motherfucka...”.
Most of Trevor's peers in the class including Angelica, a hoop-earring-wearing girl that never stopped flirting with Trevor, all shared in a good, long laugh after that one.
Mr. Tipping could not join in on the joke but secretly agreed with Trevor's assessment and was laughing on the inside.
By now Mr. Tipping's brief interactions with Steamrolle either before or after the homeroom search were becoming painful.
To keep things safe the topic was usually the Phillies game from the night before.
Still after a couple weeks of listening to Steamrolle say "we need to get rid of Jimmy Rollins" because he didn't hustle or listen to Larry Bowa, Mr. Tipping was working hard just to give a fake smile and a nod without grinding his teeth.
This could be why Mr. Tipping let the good, hard laugh continue for longer than other teachers might have.
Chapter Seven: Lead Poet’s Society
Friday was Music Day in Mr. Tipping’s English class.
The kids seemed to enjoy the break from the monotony of the writing/reading classroom assignments.
More than that it kept them from filling out those practice tests designed to prepare them for the big state test in June.
The test that would spring them from the shackles of their sock-&-shoe-searched mornings at this pseudo-school.
Conversely, Mr. Tipping genuinely enjoyed some the post-listening-session group discussions where he would get to hear the kids’ responses to a variety artists.
Trevor's assessment of D'Angelo:
"He ain't doing nothing but mumble but I'd fuck to this"
Angelica gave a wide "ooooh" face, laughing nervously while blushing a little.
The classes were approximately 70% Black and 30% Puerto Rican while the male/female ratio was about 3 to 1.
Tastes leaned heavily towards rap/hip-hop with a bit of R&B/pop presence.
This being fall of 2003 in North Philly, if Mr. Tipping had to guess he’d say G-Unit and State Property were the two rap crews really running things.
And also a lot Terror Squad love among the Puerto Rican students.
In Fall 2003 Mr. Tipping’s tastes were greatly informed by his recent liberal-arts college graduate experience.
The other contributing factor being the last four years frittering away the hours in an offhand way the message boards of Okayplayer.
He tried to spoon-feed the kids what he saw as some substance but not much of it seemed to connect.
In retrospect, perhaps a lot of it wasn't all that good.
Mr. Tipping looked forward to putting a few of them onto Prince but hesitated to try until he could find the ideal entry point for them.
He was still reeling despite managing to mask his hurt when his attempt to introduce them to Stevie Wonder class was dismissed by the class as “grandma music”.
He would not have been able to take that level of disrespect in that conversation when it came to The Purple One so he decided to avoid it for now.
They went thru some early '98/'99 staples:
This was after all the year 50 Cent had famously stated on "Love Me":
“I used to listen to Lauryn Hill, and tap my feet/
then the bitch put out a CD didn’t have no beats”.
This was “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” Young Gunnaz era.
“All of y’all need to run yourselves” Beans & Free's time to shine.
The Cam & Juelz “Oh Boy” Dipset heyday.
Yet none of the above was playing the day that Mr. Tipping had to kick his first student out of class.
Instead it's been in retrospect, the prophetically titled “Set It Off” by Juvenile from 2001's Project English album.
A song based around the early Cash Money Records regional classic “Drag Em In The River” by U.N.L.V.
Woadie, Wassup, Woadie, Wassup, Woadie, Wassup
Set it off in this mother…
Edited or not, much like p’s and q’s, we knew what Juvie was saying.
However if Mr. Tipping had known a bit more of the backstory that day, he probably would have left that song off the playlist.
Instead he was half-paying attention listening to Mannie Fresh’s cuts when Trevor rose from his seat to begin his slow creep.
Reynaldo aka Rey-Rey was nodding his head in time to the music, oblivious to what would happen next.
Meanwhile Trevor had crept around the back of the room moving from the right to left.
He was now just a few rows behind from where Reynaldo was seated.
Mr. Tipping was not sure what any of the other saw beforehand.
Luckily Mr. Tipping’s line of vision connected with Trevor's movement just as he was gaining more purposeful ground towards Reynaldo at his desk.
He quickly broke from his New Orleans banger-induced slumber.
Then popped up from where he’d been leaning atop the front of his teacher’s desk and made a break for it a few paces away.
This movement coincided with Trevor now raising his clenched hand above his shoulders.
There was something pointy in his hand and he now seemed poised to bring it down on Reynaldo in one stabbing motion.
Rey-Rey suddenly noticed Mr. Tipping rushing towards him.
For a split second he was confused but then quickly knew what to do: duck and cover.
There was no time for him to really do much else.
Turning your body around in one of those tight desks with the built-in elbow rest was not something you could do in enough time to counter-attack.
He would need to duck-and-cover while also hoping Tips could intercede.
Lucky for all involved, Tips got there with just enough time to catch Trevor's right arm at the elbow with his left hand.
This helped to neutralize motion as he then pried open his clutching fist with his right.
In it he found a freshly sharpened #2 pencil.
Ticonderoga was one weapons-manufacturer whose wares weren’t outlawed here.
They didn't set off any detectors at the door either.
By now most of the class was up hooting and hollering.
The three principles involved had simultaneously met at Rey-Rey's desk in a collision you might see at a football game.
Many desks slid and skid loudly across the floor.
A moment later, Joe Steamrolle darted over from across the hall.
The police were summoned to take Trevor to the place with bars and a door that clinks loudly.
In the background as the dust settled you could hear Juvie's plaintive wail on the third verse:
Mr. Officer, Mr. Officer
Take these mother------ cuffs off of us
Before the city's bracelets got brandished but after the threat of impending pencil-weapon-wielding violence had been thwarted, Mr. Tipping did have a moment to privately ask Trevor what he was thinking.
“Tips, that bitch shot my cousin, so either in here or outside, he gotta get filled with some lead”
Tips thought he couldn't be more shocked.
Yet on the way home replaying the incident in his mind, the thing that he marveled at the most was how in the midst of a melee Trevor managed to deliver another hot line.
Chapter Eight: American Bomb Graffiti on the Tomb of Nefertiti
In the weeks following Trevor’s pencil-pushing, Mr. Tipping grew more tired of the voice in his head saying “You could just turn around”.
Meanwhile the voice was growing louder.
Rolling past boarded up houses, liquor stores, graveyards and gang-note-soaked building walls.
All just to get inside to a place both he, the faculty and the kids in it all knew to be a sham.
It was all just too much to take after awhile.
That mighty healthy check wasn't worth the stress.
Music Day on Friday’s had been eliminated from the school’s nonexistent English class curriculum.
This came per Jeb Federico’s mandate.
The kids didn’t even seem to be trying anymore when it came to the jokes.
Either that or Tips had begun to lose his sense of humor.
Within eight weeks we had witnessed the Miseducation of Mr. Tipping, the man hired to help provide the educating.
Things had devolved into a complete dissolution of hope.
One weekend on the way home from a wild wedding weekend he and his buddy Ray made a stop in Boston.
The plan along the way was to see Miguel and Catalina “Lina” Sanchez, the two oldest of a five-sibling family who along with Mr. Tipping were the “Centre Street Crew (you know how we do)”.
This last-minute reunion led to a cocktail or two bar hopping through the Bean while watching Randy Moss torch the Packers on ESPN's Sunday night football game.
By then asking Ray who was driving to rush back so he could get back in time for work seemed unreasonable.
As did doing a morning drive passing by multiple graveyards, trying to keep kids occupied or maybe have to forcibly remove one for not minding their p’s and q’s?
It all had started to feel like one long bad song someone needed to mercifully turn off.
Mr. Tipping went to bed that night with a head full of booze, cozying up on the couch in Lina’s third-floor walk-up apartment in South Boston.
He figured he'd simply wake up early in the AM to leave a convincing sick call voicemail from a horizontal position on Lina’s couch.
Instead the combination of being on the road for long hours after a hard school week, sharing a musty motel room with Ray and partying too much over 48-hour period resulted in him being so exhausted he slept right thru the alarm he set.
When he did become consciously, it was already 10:45 AM.
Jeb Federico had already called twice and left one message.
But Mr. Tipping couldn’t call him back yet, at least not until he gathered his wits.
He couldn’t even bring himself to play the voicemail on his Motorola Razr.
When he and Ray made their way back to South Jersey early on Monday evening, Mr. Tipping contemplated pulling a George Costanza by just showing up the next morning like nothing ever happened.
Mr. Tipping figured he could have pulled this off fairly easily.
This was a work environment that had so much turnover that by the end of this school year Joe Steamrolle would be the sophomore class’ current longest-tenured instructor with two years under his belt.
However even easier than turning around is not starting the drive.
So Mr. Tipping did not do so that Tuesday or any day since.
He had checked that box off on his life grade book as complete.
He was not particularly proud of this fact.
He felt bad, not for Federico or Steamrolle but for a few of the kids who just saw another person slip right out of their lives.
Yet Mr. Tipping wasn't arrogant enough to think he had formed any kind of meaningful bond in less than eight weeks anyway.
He did feel guilty that his college buddy Gil Tripos who'd gotten him the gig was now stuck having to answer for him at schoolto Jeb Federico and Joe Steamrolle about his buddy who had abandoned his post.
But that could be forgiven later and likely had occurred many times before or since.
They could discuss it sometime after Gil was out of Badlands Institutionalized Learning Charter Correctional Bureau School of North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as well.
Which Gil was after that year ended.
As far as Mr. Tipping’s resume is concerned his career in “education” never existed.
And he’s sure Trevor, Rey-Rey, Angelica or Malik would never recognize him if they passed each other in the street.
Nor would he recognize them.
But he hoped they were all well, tho the odds were already against most of their stories ending well.
And none of them had the luxury to just stop showing up or check off any particular box to save them the troubles they'd see.
Mr. Tipping promised to himself to always be aware how much good luck he had been blessed with all throughout his life.
And to strive to appreciate to appreciate the humanity and honor those who hadn't been once he found his voice and his purpose, which he now knows is to write.