The Russian Army

By Justin Wolf

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of my memoir entitled Treatment, about the years I worked as a teacher for a juvenile treatment center in the Boston area. The events described take place on Tuesday afternoon in September, 2002. This is for my dear friends, and former colleagues, Jim and Charles.

At 11:35, once the three morning classes had come to an end, Joseph approached me in the hall.  “Hey guy, we’re stepping outside for a butt.  You wanna join us?”  Adam was waiting at the end of the hall, keys in hand.

I was twenty-five when I arrived at the facility.  Joseph was thirty-six, and Adam was his senior by just under a year.  I sensed that Adam was a little suspicious of me.  There was something about his gaze or stance when in my presence, although we hadn’t exchanged many words at this point.  After all, I was the one who got the social studies job and he was still teaching math.  I was young and cocky.  His eyes were distrustful, but in a way that also expressed excitement, like he wanted to prove his suspicions correct, that I had charmed my way through the job interview and that alone sealed the deal, that I had no right to be here.

Adam had a history teacher’s aura, if there is such a thing.  Unkempt hair and outdated patterns of plaid, hyper body language oddly matched with a high intonation.  Adam had all of these.  He moved all over the place and talked all over the place, never keeping his feet planted for more than a couple seconds.

“So Justin,” Adam bellowed in a half-accusatory tone, “you’re the new history teacher, right?  I have a question for you.  Actually it’s more of a little test.  Of all the wars in history … all the battles and skirmishes and such, let’s call them military engagements,” his tone had become somewhat playful, “… what is the one engagement you would absolutely not want to be a part of … the war or battle where you would absolutely dread being one of the foot soldiers?”

Joseph was visibly uninterested.  I was on my own here.  I gave myself five seconds to come up with an adequate response, which I felt could determine my personal or professional relationship with Adam.  “Huh.  Ok, let’s see.  I would have to say, I would not want to be in the Russian Army in any war.”

“Ok.  Wow!  Good response, well done!” said Adam.  “I did not see that one coming; that is an excellent answer.  Joseph, this guy knows his history.”  Joseph responded with an impatient nod.  He finished his cigarette last and was becoming antsy.  He wanted to go back inside, and only Adam had a set of keys.  Adam lit another cigarette, and I soon followed.  “Russian Army in any war, I like that.  All those goddamn German blitzes, like when they just cut the Soviets in half through the Caucuses … those harsh winters!”

“Right right, that was around the time of the Battle of Stalingrad, I think.”  I knew that the Red Army had actually defeated the Germans at Stalingrad, but I also knew that the circumstances were unfavorable for everyone involved.  Adam’s air expressed that he had a deeper catalogue of knowledge than I did.

“Around that time, yeah,” Adam continued “’41 or ’42.  They’ve always had such large numbers that their generals became notorious for just sending full frontal attacks into suicide, just making pawns of their foot solders.  Just thousands of lives wasted.  The Battle of Tennerberg, in the first war, right?  When Nicolas II ordered a full attack on the Germans and they marched right through East Prussia.  This guy he put in charge, Samsonov, had never led a full army before.  They ended up being slaughtered by almost 2 to 1, and with, it was something like a 100,000 captured.  He didn’t know how to command his flanks and the entire army became surrounded.  You know what happened to Samsonov?”

“I think he shot himself.”  This was a complete guess on my part.

“Yeah, he just marched into the woods alone and blew his brains out.”

*

My first day teaching was Monday.  Ed-Clinical meetings took place every Tuesday afternoon, immediately following morning classes.  After our second round of cigarettes, the three of us stepped back inside the lobby, through the little maximum-security box room, and found Frank already there to greet us in the hallway, standing motionless up against the wall, as if he’d been idling for twenty solid minutes.

“Gentlemen,” said Frank, “it is time for our Ed-Clinical meeting up on the third floor.  The clinicians are a-waiting.  Joseph, would you like to join us?”

Joseph declined.  His manner had a natural abrasiveness that I found endearing.  “Afraid I can’t,” said Joseph.  “I need to grab some stuff out of my classroom and head home for a minute and take care of a few things.  You guys have a good meeting.”  This confused me.

“Oh, you don’t have to come to the Ed-Clinical?” I asked as he began to turn away.  I hoped this wasn’t too direct.

“No no, I don’t work for the state.  I’m like the Special-Ed guy.”  Funny.  I wasn’t even aware that I worked for the state.  I let my silence imply understanding.  With a jerk of his head, Frank sent Adam and I upstairs to get started.  He said he would wait a few minutes for Joseph to gather his things and let him out of the building.  He didn’t act inconvenienced or impatient.  Not one bit.

When Adam and I arrived at the clinical meeting room, everyone was already seated and waiting.  There were now four teachers and four clinicians, all seated across from one another in adversarial fashion.  The two in charge were Sharon and Richard.  Richard was in his mid-fifties.  He wore a bland neck tie and a face that smiled when it damn well pleased.  His sat cross-legged, almost upright, arms neatly folded, cast in stone.  He introduced himself as the facility’s head clinician.  Sharon was the assistant head clinician; a few years younger than Richard, sharply dressed and physically fit, with a head of cropped hair that had gone prematurely gray.  They took brief turns welcoming me to the facility; these were the most gracious welcomes I had received thus far.  The room was comfortable, carpeted, furnished with padded chairs and couches.

Sharon began the meeting by informing the teachers that in conjunction with the end of summer and the imminence of another school year, youth offenses tended to rise.  Therefore we would be receiving quite a large number of intakes over the next week.  Five beds were currently open on our floor; I was informed this was an unusually high number, and all of them would be filled within the next few days.  Sharon proceeded to call off the list of new residents’ names, followed by their respective offenses and educational histories:

“Manuel Carrillo.  He’s sixteen years old, from Roxbury.  Adjudicated in July on one count of assault and battery, and one more for armed robbery.  Seems he attacked someone with a knife and stole his bicycle.  Received twelve months, one of which he’s already served at Metro in Dorchester.  Lives with his mother and grandmother.  As best we can figure Manuel is still in the 8th grade.  Attended Roxbury Middle until ’99, but there appear to be no records that go any later than that.  He does have a history of I.E.P.’s but obviously his will have to be updated … is Frank coming?” she appeared to be asking all of us.  Frank was the Ed Director, and it was his duty, first and foremost, to take account of all lapsed Individual Education Plans and take the appropriate steps to see them renewed.  I didn’t utter a word.  I didn’t want to be a snitch.  Adam was staring off into nothingness.  When her question didn’t receive a response, Sharon handed a legal pad to Lisa the science teacher and asked her to take notes on Manuel.  Lisa appeared tired already.  The school days can feel especially long in early fall, particularly the mornings, and most teachers didn’t spend their Tuesday afternoons in this way. This fall marked her third year working at the facility.  She was a veteran who looked spare and worn and barely a day over twenty-five.  This was all in her face.  Early burnout setting in fast.

“We’re not sure what reading level Manuel is currently at,” Sharon continued, “but since he hasn’t received any formal schooling in the past three years or so, we’ll assume for now he’s still operating at an 8th grade level at best.  He may be a possible candidate for the G.E.D.”  Adam asked Lisa to take note of that last detail.

Ed-Clinicals struck me as calm affairs, but the topics discussed called for anything but.  Stabbings and rapes and assault and batteries, and every face in the room absorbed these facts like mundane details being read from a laundry list.  I can’t recall a single eyebrow, other than my own, twitching even a bit when phrases like ‘attacked someone with a knife’ and ‘8th grade level at best’ were spoken.  These kids, these ‘residents’ as they were known here, were society’s garbage.  We were all deckhands on the trash barge, organizing and categorizing each piece of rubbish as it entered our midst.  These people, my new people, took careful notes; they mentally registered facts and legalities; they kept a cool and eerie objectivity in their eyes.  I studied their collective mannerisms and mimicked them as best I could.  I nodded like one does when receiving old news.

“Next up we have Brian McKeon; fifteen years old, from Everett.  He supposedly is a formal member of the Bloods.  With that in consideration, he will most likely end up on the West side since the East is already crawling with Crips.  Then again, there are already two known Bloods on the West side, so we’ll have to assess the risk factor later on.  His case is a fairly high-profile one; you may have read about it.  I know there was coverage in the Herald a few weeks back.  He was adjudicated for unarmed robbery of a convenience store pretty close to his home…”

“Oh yeah,” Adam interrupted.  “I heard about this.  This kid in Everett had an unloaded gun and he dropped it right in front of the clerk or something?”

I thought Sharon might have become displeased by the interruption, but it actually elevated her mood some.  She appeared happy to let someone else have the floor, even briefly.

“Yes.  He walked in with an unloaded gun, waited in line before getting to the counter, then put on a ski mask, and when he reached in his pocket for the gun it fell on the floor.  After this he panicked and ran off, leaving the gun behind.  The police picked him up just a few blocks away.”  We all had a reserved chuckle at this detail.  She continued, “For the robbery charge he should be here for the minimum of six months, but he also has another case pending, which involves an assault charge of some kind.  We don’t have the file on that one.  Depending on how that goes he could be here a little longer.  Brian is a sophomore.  His school records are pretty up-to-date, no history of I.E.P.’s, and he was truant at the time of his arrest.”

I hung on every detail.  ‘I love this job,’ I thought to myself.  ‘I get to teach American history to that kid.’

“Next one is Henry Benders …”  Lisa let out a cackling, bird-like laugh.  Taunting but playful.  Adam simultaneously sighed.  Maureen and I made eye contact for the first time, silently empathizing with each other for not getting the apparent joke.  Maureen was the new English teacher, hired shortly after me.  She was roughly my age as well.  Shy and mousy; the petite librarian type with horn rimmed glasses.  She probably kept pressed flowers in her diary.  So who’s Henry Benders?

Frank entered the room.

Sharon raised her eyes slightly towards Richard, who reciprocated with the subtlest of shrugs.  No one acknowledged Frank’s entry with words.  She continued, “Henry is coming back to us after a brief vacation in the real world.  Just so Justin and Maureen know the context here, Henry has had the pleasure of our hospitality before.  He was released a few months ago but appears like he got himself in trouble again.”

“Is that common,” I inquired, “residents coming back?”

“Recidivism is fairly common,” Sharon replied, “but there’s never any guarantee that they’ll serve their time in the same facility.  Henry’s from Roxbury, he’ll be seventeen next week …”

“Happy Birthday,” Frank said with a good-humored smirk.  Sympathy laughs followed, but only from the teachers’ side of the room.

“Yeah, happy birthday,” Sharon replied, minus Frank’s joviality.  “So … Henry is coming back for a pretty similar offense as last time.  He was adjudicated on a single count of assault and battery.  No weapon this time, but it appears he and some friends attacked another teenaged boy late at night and stole his skateboard and, according the court transcript, he’s the only one serving any time for the offense.  This is probably because he has priors, but we have no way of knowing if any of the other boys he was with were even arrested or charged.”

“They might have rolled over on him,” Adam said, “you never know.  I used to work in Roxbury when I was a street worker, and I’ve seen a lot of that.”

“Well, we’ll never know.”  These were the first and last words out of Richard’s mouth all morning.  Adam nodded in agreement.

“How much time is he doing this time?” Adam asked.

“Uuuuh …” Sharon leafed through her papers.  “Says he’ll be serving twelve months.  Little steep considering, but also, probably due to the recidivism.  For his school records, nothing suggests he returned to school in the interim between his last release date and now, should still put him somewhere in his sophomore year.  Still no I.E.P., but as some of you already know he could definitely benefit from one.”  Lisa handed the legal pad to Frank, who lit up like he was receiving a gift.

“Our next intake is Mr. William Barnes.  He comes to us from Mattapan, and he is our newest sex offender.”  Sharon leaned forward in her chair, as if bracing herself for an oncoming gust of wind.  “William raped a young woman who attends his school.  We’re not sure what the nature of their relationship is, but we know the two were not dating.  William and the girl were at a mutual friend’s house and it appears he invited her into a bedroom to smoke a joint with him, and the account of what happened subsequently is pretty disturbing.

“This looks to be pre-meditated.  Some friends or acquaintances of William’s were in the room when the rape occurred, which might suggest that the whole things was planned in advance.  There are some additional assault charges on top of the rape.  She was left unconscious.”

A few silent seconds passed.  The only sounds in the room were of Frank scribbling away on the notepad.

“And what grade is he in?” Frank asked.

“Well, that’s a little tricky,” replied Sharon.  “He was attending William Lloyd Garrison in Mattapan, yet strangely enough his records look out of date.  Should be a senior … he is a senior for all intents and purposes, but there’s no record of his taking the PSAT’s or LSTAT’s.  I can’t think of a reason why a senior wouldn’t have at least taken one high school standardized test.  May have slipped by.  Regardless, he’ll have some catching up to do.”

“So when is our next round of LSTAT’s scheduled for?”  Frank looked around the room for a response.

“Well, I believe that’s your territory,” Lisa said.  There was a satisfaction in her response.  Frank scribbled something down and didn’t utter another word.

“And last but not least we have Adrien Caputo.  Adrien is a Crip.  His gang affiliations run pretty deep.  A member since he was ten … he’s fifteen now; he lives in Dorchester with his grandmother, who’s been his guardian for just under a year, and it looks like he’s been tossed around from home to home for a while.  His grandmother testified at Adrien’s adjudication that he’s always been a troubled kid, never had much family.  He was born addicted to cocaine, that much we know for sure …” Sharon leafed through an inch-thick stack of papers, “… foster home, foster home … foster home.”

Exhaustion was setting in.  Everywhere.

“Why is he here?” I asked.  I noticed that I was leaning forward; not a conscious choice.

“Aggravated assault and attempted murder.”  She flipped a page over.  “Oh, we also have theft and … yeah, I guess that’s it.  He stabbed a rival gang member and stole his necklace.  Not a neck- uh, you know a gold chain.”

“Schooling?” Frank asked.

“Well, there’s not much here in terms of records.  He’s something a blank slate in that department.”

“Well then,” Frank said as he clicked his pen and secured it his shirt pocket, “we can just place him according to age at this point I suppose.” Frank said.  “Does that sound alright with everyone?”

Without looking around, I gave a slight nod, feigning solid input.  Adam, Lisa and Maureen all followed my lead, or so I imagined.

Richard casually slapped a hand across his knee, and with that, my very first Ed-Clinical meeting came to an abrupt close.

***

Justin is currently writing his thesis about his experiences teaching in the Boston juvenile justice system, which he plans to turn into a full memoir and publish in the coming years. He will graduate in December 2008 with an MA in Liberal Studies, the pièce de résistance of intellectual masturbatory achievement.