Why I Started Smoking Again
After seventeen years of tobacco-free life, I started smoking again.
I hate it when I do something SO stupid there’s no excuse for it, SO asinine that the only way to absolve myself is to take a spanking by bending over and backing up into a wall really really fast.
In 1992 after huge exertion, I quit a three pack-a-day cigarette habit. I am not a cold turkey type of person. I’m more like a warmed over chicken type of person. I have to do things in steps.
To quit smoking I used nicotine gum and the patch. In two months I was down to half a pack a day. I know, you’re not supposed to smoke and wear the patch. Tough. I did. Then I made a big jump. I went to a mere two cigarettes a day.
I managed my craving by hiding cigarettes in plastic bags on the side of the road. I smoked them on my way to and from work. On Monday morning I bought a pack and spilled sixteen cigarettes into the trash. As I drove the rural twisting road to work I smoked my first cigarette. Then I paused at my secret stash place, took a baggie from my pocket and deposited the remaining three cigarettes under a bush. On the way back from work I stopped again and smoked the second cigarette.. On the day following, I stopped at the bag in the morning, took out a cigarette, then stopped again in the evening. Every other day I would buy a new pack and start the cycle again.
One day a motorist spotted me as I was putting my baggie under the bush. He drove past, pretending not to see me. I drove a bit further in the opposite direction and stopped. I could see the man through the trees. Sure enough, he was looking around for whatever I had put in the baggie. I don’t know what he was expecting. Was he hoping for an ounce of weed or a wad of hundreds wrapped with a rubber band? He found my bag, and I saw his shoulders slump in disappointment. The man was obviously a low character.
He lit the cigarette, tentatively at first, to test it. Maybe there was something “special” about it. Alas, there was not. He finished the smoke, (the nerve of the guy!) crushed it underfoot and returned to his car.
I understood at that moment that I had reached the height of the ridiculous. It was time to end the farce. No more cigarettes. I was done.
It was lovely, being free of tobacco for seventeen years.
What drove me back to smoking? What could be so frustrating, so enraging to cause me to undo that effort, the dedication that I had given to ending my addiction?
I taught a class of rich tenth graders about the marvels of digital photography.
I had been hired by a private school to teach one semester. The money was good. I taught three classes per week. The head of the board of directors had read an article about my volunteer work with a low-income high school. I had done four years of mentoring. Working with disadvantaged kids had given me deep satisfaction. They were respectful, hungry and grateful. At the holidays each student made a card for me using a personal photo project. Some of them were lovely. Some of them betrayed an appalling lack of literacy. The students’ basic reading and writing skills hardly existed. I got a photo card from a senior. It had a razor-sharp black and white shot of a street scene. The little girl jumping rope was in mid-air. The old guys loafing in chairs were laughing as clouds of beer-spit hovered before their lips, each globule perfectly stopped like a cluster of stars in space. Some were small white and foamy, some were clear and spherical, some were shaped like flying liquid bullets. This was a real talent in the making. The boy’s scrawled message read like this: “Thang yu m Rosh fore teeshng mu to shit photo”.
I was thrilled to have a chance to be paid nearly five thousand dollars to teach a semester in a school where every student would have a laptop and a digital camera.
The school was a beautiful facility. It was set in the midst of parklands. There were benches under oak trees, little waterfalls, gentle rolling hills. I saw kids skateboarding along broad walkways, wearing torn jeans and hoodies. Most of the students seemed attached to a Walkman or an Ipod.
I had done my mentoring in a public school built like a prison. It was all fences, high walls and right angles. There was no greenery, no plant life. Trash blew along its paved quadrangles, empty Cheetos bags yawed in the wind. Every year there were a handful of murders among the student body.
Memorial posters hung in the corridors: “Jerry Rodrigues, 1991-2006. We’ll miss you.”
The posters were enlarged class photos of self-conscious teenagers with bad skin and confused expressions.
“Nguyen Van Pham, 1992-2006. So Much Promise.”
I felt no fear. Wherever I walked students greeted me.
“Hey Mr. Rosch, how ya doin?”
“Mistah Rosch, ‘wots happenin? Everything’s cool, it’s all good, you know?”
I carried four thousand dollars worth of gear in my photo bag. I never had any trouble.
I will call my private school “Tech-Arts”. I was confident I could ignite a love of photography in some of these kids.
On the first day of the semester I arrived at my classroom half an hour early and set up my tools. I had a laptop and my camera gear. The school provided a digital projector so I could show images and procedures on my computer to the entire class. I would have loved a digital projector back at Flying Bullets High School.
Every student was to have a Mac laptop for my class at Tech-Arts. The latest and best photo editing software would be installed on each computer.
There were four rows of long tables with chairs in the classroom. They formed a square that was open at the ends. In the room’s center I had a small table to hold the computer and projector while I spoke. I could stand outside the square and walk around the classroom to reach each student. I could see all twenty four of my students and they could see me.
I had been told that I could use basic forms of verbal discipline. There would be no shouting, no cursing and of course no corporal punishment. To back up my discipline I had the option of sending a student to the principal’s office. This was a feeble deterrent. The principal, Mrs. Forster, was as frightening as a stick of cotton candy. She used “therapy talk”. “What are your feelings, Trish?. Why are you acting out? What can we do to resolve your issues?”
At one o’clock the bell rang to begin fourth-period class. Within five minutes, fifteen of my students had drifted in and taken a seat. They were talking among themselves. They gave me a cursory glance. The boys continued pushing one another and laughing. Several were immersed in portable video games. The girls were listening to their Ipods, talking about boys and squealing at supersonic pitch.
By ten after one, another four students had arrived. They took their seats casually and looked around the room. They were either smirking or looking completely stricken and miserable.
I still had five missing students. I started the class.
“Hi, I’m Mister Rosch, and this is a class in digital photography. Would each of you answer when I call your name? I need a while to remember names, but I’ll know you guys soon enough.”
They looked at me as though a giraffe had suddenly materialized in the room, something completely out of place, exotic and impossible to ignore.
A girl wearing a soft white hoodie sat at the end of the rear table. Her eyes were unfocused. I knew she was listening to music. It was so loud I could hear it. I was amazed that her head didn’t turn to mush.
“Young lady, please take the hood down and turn off the Ipod.”
She didn’t hear me. I met the eyes of the girl next to her and cocked my head to the right. The girl poked her neighbor. The hoodie girl emerged from her trance. Her neighbor spoke with enough volume to be heard over the music.
“Off the hoodie! No Ipod!” she yelled, poking her thumb in my direction to fix the blame where it belonged. The girl’s face emerged from the shadow of the sweat-shirt’s hood. She was lightly freckled, her hair short and black. One of her cheeks was distorted by a huge wad of gum being masticated with large chomps of her teeth. Her mouth opened and closed like that of a lamprey.
“Your name is?” I asked. .
She removed the chunk of gum and put it into a tissue. “Stephanie,” she answered. She placed the gum and tissue in her backpack.
“Oh..uh.. Stephanie Blarney,” she said, and there was a titter of quiet laughter from the class.
I looked at my roll list and found one Stephanie, last name Hubbard.
I asked the girl in the next seat. “Is she Stephanie Hubbard?”
“Guess so,” the adjacent girl answered. She looked to her left. “Is that your name, Blarney?”
“Yeah,” Stephanie Hubbard grunted. The white ear buttons of her Ipod dangled from her dainty hand like the eye stalks of an insect she had just squashed.
I was about to resume roll call when a thin young gentleman appeared. His skin was conspicuously pimpled, his hair looked like a broom that had served as a target for shotgun practice. His eyelids were at half mast. Marijuana vapor rose from his clothing like mist from a rain forest.
As he took a seat I said, “Sir, you’re twenty minutes late.”
He looked up at me and said, “Huh?”
“Twenty minutes,” I said.
“Twenty minutes what?”
“You’re twenty minutes late,” I repeated. I wasn’t going to get angry. What would be the point?
“Oh well that’s cool,” he responded.
“Just take a seat, please.”
The boy looked around for a place of comfort, for a friend, an acquaintance, a safe spot. He stumbled to and fro until he found a seat that had no neighbor. His spot was padded with two empties on one side, and an empty on the other.
Some of the students were laughing at the boy. Little snorts gusted from their noses.
I continued the roll. Megan Ballantine. Anthony Candoli. Keith Eberhardt.
I had gotten that far when the door opened and a compact black student entered the room. He was the only black student I had seen on the campus. He walked with a combination droop and bounce, very loose in his knees. His hands were held with each index finger pointed out while the other fingers curled into a fist. His limbs moved with the swaying grooves of the hip hop gangsta. His head was thrust forward, his elbows locked, his arms kept criss-crossing his chest.
He went directly to a seat at the table nearest the door, scooched himself between two friends. There was a little rally of smacked hands, coded fingertwiddles and muttered incantations of “right on right on”.
When this was done the latter student squared himself to face forward and smiled at me with perfectly false sincerity and charm. His eyes twinkled with benevolent mockery.
“S’up man?” he asked rhetorically. “Everything ‘aight?”
I walked to the door and twisted the lock mechanism to the left, and then back to the right. I did it three more times, loudly, conspicuously.
It was 1:25.
“I want everyone to know that from now on this door is closed at three minutes after one. Class begins at one. You’ll have three minutes grace. That’s it. I’m cutting you slack.. Don’t even bother coming through this door after that time. Go straight to the principal’s office.”
I repressed my desire to start a “when I was your age” speech. No good, no good, utterly useless and stupid.
I booted up the computer. The screen at the front of the room lit up to display its desktop. I sat in the chair next to the computer and projector. I moused onto the icon of Photoshop, so I could open the program.
“There were supposed to be twenty four computers here,” I said to the class at large. “Does anyone know where those computers might be?”
A hand shot up. It belonged to a young man with a broad forehead and the faint beginnings of a moustache. He wore glasses and was dressed neatly in a short -sleeved shirt and belted khaki pants.
“Your name is?” I began.
“Damian,” he said. “I think the computers are still being checked out by Jeff in the tech lab. He’s supposed to bring them here when he’s done.”
There’s always a kid in class who wants to help the teacher. Sometimes he’s the smart kid, the geek. Sometimes he’s the kid with the worst grades. He becomes a helper out of desperation. I had a feeling that Damian was the-geek. He spoke with a quick enthusiastic tone. He knew everything, had all the answers. Damian nudged the boy next to him. “Bock,” he said confidently, “Why don’t you go down to tech lab and get those laptops, or find out why Jeff hasn’t brought them up ?”
Bock was a chubby frazzle haired person whose shirt buttons weren’t properly aligned.
The division of labor had already been apportioned. I had one of each, the geek and the helper with the low grades.
Without referring to me or looking in my direction, Bock rose from his chair and loped out the door.
“He’ll take care of it, Mr. Rosch,” said Damian with calm familiarity. “Jeff is notoriously slow.” He pantomimed the act of inhaling marijuana. The air hissed through his lips. “He gets the job done but he loses track of time.”
First day problems, I thought. At least the projector was there, and it worked.
“I’d like to finish calling the roll, so at least I can put some names to faces,” I requested. I tried to keep my tone calm.
Then a pert little girl wearing denim overalls and a Pendleton raised her hand and waved it like a semaphore.
“Okay,” I said fatalistically. “What’s your name?”
“Um…I’m Kate…and…um…I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Kate,” I answered, looking towards the wall clock. It said 1:30. “This class is over in twenty minutes. Can you possibly wait until then?”
“I …um….well…it’s you know…girl problems, a real emergency.”
What was I going to say? No, you can’t replace the leaky tampon in your snooch? I didn’t entirely believe her but I couldn’t be sure. I made the worst tactical error of the entire semester.
“Kate, just go,” I shook my thumb as if it had a mild burn. “Please come back here immediately. Don’t dawdle in the hall.”
Kate vanished in a whiff of pleasant soapy odor. I didn’t see her until the next class, two days later.
Immediately another girl waved her hand in the air. I held my silence for a couple of minutes. The girl in her seat kept waving. I held the silence until the room acquired an uncomfortable muttering edge. There was a hole where a response should be and no one wanted the hole to continue existing. Words began to spout from students’ mouths, random words, like “Man,” or “Hey”, or “Jeez. Finally the girl said, “Fuck, man, I gotta go too!”
I nodded. Three other girls rose with her, and all of them fled the classroom as if a plague-carrying stink had arisen somewhere in the room’s bio-mass. They were fleeing this stink as if it would otherwise stalk them the rest of their short lives.
Vizz! The door opened and closed. The class was down to fifteen again.
No sooner had the three girls vanished than a handsome young lad with the look of James Dean entered the room. The students were suddenly quiet. This young man, keeping his back to the wall, slid the entire perimeter of the classroom until he found the seat closest to me, the seat at the very end of the table next to the windows. He stuck out his hand and said, “Woodleigh. Atherton Woodleigh.” I shook his hand.
“Most people call me Lee. They tried calling me Woody but I cut them up a little and put a stop to that real fucking quick.” This was delivered with clear sincerity and humility. It wasn’t a boast. It was a fact.
I found the name of the sociopath on the roll list and marked it with a check and the time: 1:36.
The conversational volume in the room now grew until it was a general melee. Everyone was talking.
I found a phone book under the teacher’s desk near the windows. I raised it and slammed it down on the desk.
“Goddammit!” I shouted. “Will you shut up?”
They shut up. Now they were all watching me.
At that precise moment there was a clatter at the door and it pushed open as if by its own volition. I saw a long double tiered metal cart forcing its way into the room. The one called Bock slid past it and took its front end. He pulled with his back towards the class. Half his shirt tail hung over rumpled brown pants. At the other end of the cart, facing me, was a tall man with a long pony tail. He wore a black leather vest with a Hell’s Angel logo done in elaborate beadwork.
“Here’s the Macs” Bock said triumphantly.
Everyone began to rise from their chairs.
“Sit down!” I commanded, and I was obeyed. “Bock, will you hand out the computers, please?”
The Tech Man, Jeff, said, “Sorry about the lateness, man. These lops are a little creaky from last semester. The Essential Theater Arts class used ‘em and those guys don’t care about their gear at all, no way. Had to reformat every one of ‘em. Not the kids, I mean. The computers. You know what a bitch that is?”
Each computer had a number taped to its bottom. The first student to get a computer was a bulky boy with light curly hair. He occupied the seat nearest the door. He looked under the computer and said, “Uh uh, this computer’s bunk, number zero one three six, uh..uh..it crashes every two minutes.”
He thrust the computer back onto the cart and reached for another. Jeff slapped his hands away.
“Ain’t no computer good enough for you, Rick, you do this every time I give you a lop, every fucking time.”
There followed a general rumble as students vied for computers with known reputations. These laptops weren’t the latest, greatest Mac Powerbooks. They had less RAM, smaller hard drives, and for two years they’d been in the hands of careless students. Some had scratches and dings but they still made an impressive pile of laptops.
I had been mentoring on the other side of the bay at Drawn Dagger High School. There was one computer per fifteen students and that computer ran with Windows 95 and might crash every time it tried to digest a large photo file. There were three printers in the photography room, ancient Hewlett Packards that printed only black and white. By dint of my own efforts soliciting photographers I had attracted six good but obsolete digital cameras, four or five monitors and a very old copy of pirated Photoshop. The software wouldn’t install properly on half the computers. I had gotten some refurbished Epson color printers but there wasn’t money for the ink. The teacher and I pooled our own funds and bought some ink.
This wrangling at Tech Arts over Mac Laptops was too much for me. I felt as if someone had opened my chest and tied a square knot in my esophagus, then put it back inside me. Now I was expected to swallow.
I couldn’t swallow this. I couldn’t.
Every day was like the first day. Some were worse. A few were better. Mostly, they were like this: chaos, petty wrangling, disappearances to the bathroom without return, lateness accompanied by staggering indifference. There were rolled eyes, concealed music players, giggling, fights, reading comic books, animal noises and farts.
I tried really hard but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d failed in some obvious way. If I had been a better teacher I could have controlled these kids. I had two students who cared. One was mister geek, Damian. He had it all down. Technically he knew the subject better than I did. He needed counsel in the creative side but at least he cared. There was a girl named Lizzie. She was a big country girl with long straight reddish hair. She worked hard. She didn’t know anything, but she wanted to know. She worked, and she learned. Her photography was dreadful! Her photos looked like very poor snapshots. How could a person who learned what she had learned, worked as she had worked, still be incapable of making good images?
Some people have it, and some don’t.
I had promised that the student who showed the most progress would win a nice digital camera. It was a donation from other photographers. Liz won the camera. Damian didn’t need it. He already had a good digital camera and would probably end up at Harvard in a couple of years.
I projected the material on the screen while the students sneaked around in the dimmed classroom, plotting ways to disrupt their own educations. Their literacy was no better than that at Murder Incorporated High School. There was a difference. The kids at Murder Inc were trying but lacked the opportunity. The kids at Tech Arts had the opportunity but were trying not to.
I assigned essays. I spoke about the work of historic geniuses like Steichen and Halsman. I showed presentations of images on the screen. I assigned homework. I asked the students to read up on Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The latter was a French photographer who shot witty and profound black and white photos. He used a Leica, a small camera with which he could catch the spontaneity of Paris street scenes. I asked the class to turn in essays on the great Frenchman.
This was the one that sent me to buy a pack of cigarettes. This “essay” was scrawled on half of a torn piece of lined notebook paper in handwriting worthy of a four year old.
My student had written the following: “Henry Carter Beast was a great photographer. He was a genius. He took a lot of pictures. They were all in black and white. They had some greys too I think.”
That was three years ago. I haven’t been able to stop smoking. I don’t buy tobacco. I have a friend, a retired lawyer, who has some farm land in North Carolina. He’s a tobacco connoisseur. He loves to play with blends, tweaking this and that, walking through his curing sheds inhaling every fragrance. I’m a member of his research team. He sends me a pound bag every few weeks. I make the cigarettes on a machine. The tobacco is without additives or adulterants. It’s a long long way from Marlboros. That doesn’t change the fact that I am, again, a tobacco addict. I don’t smoke nearly as much as I did before. Maybe half pack a day.
I stopped once. I know I can stop again.