My cynical, chain-smoking superior had one of those ruined faces that many over-qualified teachers end up with. A lifelong backlog of unimparted knowledge must corrode the flesh. He seemed glad to present me with at least one morsel of wisdom: ‘The inmates and the COs in here are exactly the same people. Exactly. Switch the jumpsuits for the uniforms – you’d never notice any difference. It makes me want to puke when I hear military types or cops talk about “the bad guys”. Self-serving crap.’ In fact, the COs – don’t call them ‘guards’ if you want to get along – were much less sympathetic than the prisoners. Petty obstruction and malice were their only amusements. None ever smiled except at somebody else’s misfortune, and even then it was a brief, pinched smile, full of self-loathing.As soon as you’ve crossed the causeway to Riker’s Island you feel the oppressive lethargy hanging over the place. It’s as thick and as isolating as the fog around Skull Island in King Kong. Only instead of the bellowing of a giant ape, you get the roar of the planes going in and out of LaGuardia. Lessons, conversations, thoughts, words of wisdom all come to a stop until the noise fades. My superior made a sarcastic grimace and stubbed his cigarette out on the yard’s immaculate concrete. He nudged the butt through a drain with his toe. ‘If you smoke, make sure you get rid of the butt or they’ll come down really hard on the poor kid who was supposed to sweep up.’
Our school was a tinny double-wide trailer. Students were issued a stub of a pencil which had to be turned in after class. If anybody got out of hand I was authorized to have them do push-ups, boot camp style. I never did, but knowing I could piqued a sadistic streak in me which I suspect all teachers have.