In my effort to create a proper field guide to all the critters and flitters and animals you find in the modern schoolroom, I can’t neglect to talk about the Monkey House. I was, after all, a middle school teacher for 24 of my 30 years in teaching. One simply cannot take that many blows to the back of the head from spit-wads and other assorted classroom projectiles without going a little bit ape-happy. (I once knew an eighth grade science teacher who liked to use the ape-happy expression to describe student behavior. But he didn’t actually say “happy”. He substituted the magic s-word. It is magic because no matter how many times the teacher hears, or over-hears, or gets assaulted by that word in the classroom, the teacher can never say it himself… It will make him disappear… permanently. I know it’s true. It happened to my friend the science teacher.) Sorry, I digress sometimes. Too many spit-wads to the back of the head.
In the Monkey House, especially the seventh grade version of it, there are certain essential behavioral characteristics that you have to be aware of. First of all, and with malice aforethought, the monkeys like to throw poop. Now, I don’t mean that literally… (Although in one case I remember about fourteen years ago… No, wait, I don’t really want to go back there again.) It is only in the figurative sense. The monkeys have big monkey eyes. They see everything. And what they see, they will TELL you about… in all capital letters. If your fly is open, especially if you’re the teacher, they will tell you about it, loudly, “YOUR FLY IS OPEN!” at precisely the same moment that the gung-ho lady principal and the curriculum director with the scary glare walk in together to view this innovative teaching style they’ve heard so much about in faculty lounge. In a Texas Monkey House like the ones I’ve taught in, kids will tell each other to be quiet in the rudest possible way in the loudest possible voice. They say it Spanish, which of course, both the principal and the curriculum director spoke as their first language. They say it in words that literally mean “shut your dog-mouth”. And they add the magic p-word in Spanish for good measure. (The students will all tell you that the magic p-word really just means “stupid person”, but to translate it more accurately, it means “one who routinely thinks only with that body part that only boys have access to”, or possibly, “your brains are full of poop!”) And they don’t only throw their poop out of their mouths. They can also fling it with fingers, especially that one magic finger, but also in rude gestures, using both hands, the elbow, and even throwing around gang signs that can get you killed in the wrong parts of San Antonio or Dallas.
The second behavioral characteristic in the Monkey House is the ability to be the dumbest dumb monkey in the classroom. Nobody wants to be smart. That is the kiss of death. Bullies beat you relentlessly throughout the school day and for the rest of your natural life (as short as that will probably be) if they learn that you are a smart monkey. Even the girl monkeys adhere to this rule. To be smart makes you a “teacher’s pet” and a potential stool pigeon. To be smart makes you radioactive, and likely to get anyone around you killed as well. A smart girl will never have the necessary boy friend because what boy wants to hang around with a girl that knows too much and can probably out-think him? A smart boy had better keep his head down, and in the classroom, his hand down. The universal truth is this… the big monkeys EAT the smart monkeys.
The third, but most important characteristic in the Monkey House is that somebody has to love the monkeys. Monkeys don’t thrive in a pack, or left to their own devices. They don’t just live in the Monkey House at school. Their home life is just as crazy. The monkeys at home throw just as much poop, and they also EAT the smart monkeys (all in capital letters… truly). Somebody has to be willing to talk to the monkeys, to learn their language… to deal with them one on one. They need somebody to understand them and sympathize with their horrible monkey lives. Somebody has to show them how not to be a monkey… even if they’re one of the big ones who eat other monkeys. Monkeys have value. They make you laugh and they make you cry. (Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry too. You weren’t ever a monkey, were you?) So you teach in the Monkey House and the principal doesn’t fire you for having no proper classroom discipline and for having monkeys who misbehave, because if the principal is any good at her job, she realizes that you are the kind of teacher who loves the monkeys and the monkeys need you.