A cell phone rings, faintly, but I still hear it. The whole class turns around to look at me, wondering what I'll do about it and hoping not to give away the person with the phone. I zero in on her anyway.
"Give me the phone," I say.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know it was on. I'll turn it off."
"No, that's OK, don't turn it off. Let me answer."
Reluctantly, she hands it over. I answer: "Hello?" A boy's voice, confused, asks for the girl. "No," I say, "she doesn't want to talk to you. She's ... a little busy right now." Behind me I hear some kids starting to laugh. On the phone, there's momentary silence, then a demand to talk to the girl. "Listen, buddy," I say. "She doesn't want to talk to you. She's with me now, got that? And don't bother calling back!"
I hang up, turn the phone off, and tell the girl she can pick it up after school.
The girl shows up right at the end of the day. By then I've forgotten what happened earlier and think she's just visiting. "What's going on?" I ask. "You need help with that essay?"
"Stop playing," she says. "Can I get my cell phone back?"
Of course. I know this by now. If I want kids to stop by after school or during lunch to make up a quiz or conference about an essay, they conveniently forget. But if I have their electronic devices, they show up. No excuses.
I suppose it's fair that if kids can't use cell phones in class, neither should teachers. But I use mine from time to time. As a weapon. Kids fear my phone.
Students are working and I'm taking attendance. "Where's Amanda?" I ask. A couple of kids shrug. "Wait, I saw her in the hallway earlier," I say, loud enough to be heard. "Why isn't she here?" A few more shrugs. So I pull out my cell phone. I make a spectacle of myself, wanting everyone to see me dialing, hear me leaving a message: "Hi, this is Amanda's English teacher calling. I just want you to know that I saw Amanda earlier and she's supposed to be in my class right now, but she's not here. I hope she's OK, not just hanging out with that boyfriend of hers. Thanks."
Kids hate that. Amanda will be in class the next day, and so will all the other good kids who want so badly to be bad.
Better yet is to call home when the kid is in class in front of me. Last week, a tough kid showed up when he was supposed to be taking a practice ACT. There were five other kids in class. Everyone else was gone. So, these kids thought they'd get a free day, but I pulled out a short story and asked them to read. The tough kid, Tony, put his head down.
"Tony, do me a favor and read page one of this story." No response. "Tony, talking to you."
"I don't feel like reading."
"Hey, listen, this is your first time here in a week. I'm not asking if you feel like reading, I'm telling you to read. So, go ahead."
The other five kids were getting restless. A couple volunteered to read to avoid this confrontation. Maybe they're afraid of Tony and his temper, but I felt like pushing it. None of them should've been in class. They should have been taking the practice ACT, and I was the one who was supposed to have a free period.
"I don't know how to read."
"Yes, you do. You're one of the better readers in this classroom."
"I'm telling you I don't know how. And I don't feel like reading."
"Well, if you don't know how to read, now's a good time to learn. This is English class. So, start, and I'll help."
This could have gone on for the next 30 minutes, but instead, I pulled out my cell phone and called his house. Surprisingly, his mom answered.
"This is Tony's English teacher. Tony is refusing to read."
"I'm so sorry," she said. "I don't know what to do with him. I'm a single mother, doing my best. But he just doesn't listen to me. I've been praying for him."
"I know it's not easy," I lied. I don't really know how hard it is, but I could imagine. "But here's the thing. Tony is saying he doesn't even know how to read. Is this true?"
She was on the verge of tears. "He's a wonderful reader," she said. "He used to read all the time. Now, he just wants to hang out with those friends of his." Then, the magic words: "Can I talk to Tony?"
Absolutely. I handed the phone over to this tough kid, who all of a sudden was mumbling into the phone, "I'm sorry, mama."
When he hung up he read. Did an OK job. The rest of the kids read, too, but the bell rang before we finished, and I knew none of them would ever ask how the story ends. But I hoped that Tony would show up the next day and not attempt to derail yet another lesson. I hoped I had reached him. "Reach out and touch someone," the phone company ads used to say.
The next day there was a note in my mailbox: Tony has a ten-day out-of-school suspension. Drop off some work in the discipline office. I toyed with the idea of dropping off that short story. But I didn't.