BREAKING DOWN STEREOTYPES IN THE CLASSROOM: MIKE ARMINE—HARDCORE MUSICIAN & HIGH-SCHOOL TEACHER (SOCIOLOGY AND AMERICAN GOVERNMENT)
Mike is the frontman of Rosetta, a band that balances on the nexus of hardcore, metal and post-rock. He lives in Philadelphia with his skateboards and dogs, who he rescues from shelters and rehabilitates.
Mike put me and my band up after we played a tiny club show in Philly. We were utterly rinsed by the time we got to his house, but still managed to get pleasantly sidetracked drinking tinnies out of the boot of a car with him and his neighbour George. George’s wife kept calling him angrily from upstairs, asking him to come to bed. He said he would, but he never did.
A couple of years later Rosetta came to Australia and shared the floor with us in a tiny Perth record store called Fat Shan’s and rattled the CDs of the wall displays. It was there I noticed that he had given Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince a pride of place within one of his tattoo sleeves.
You met my my dog Miles Davis while you were here right? The real hyperactive little black dog? He’s a piece of shit sometimes, but I love him. Me and him will sit on nice nights at an abandoned property down the end of my street. We’ll see kids riding bikes in circles. When I first moved in I was sitting on this corner, and a kid came up to me. His name was Dupe, and he sat down next to me and asked:
Kid: “Are you a cop?”
Mike: “Nah, I’m not a cop.”
Kid: “Are you sure?”
Mike: “I’m pretty sure I’m not a cop.”
Kid: “…you want to buy some weed?”
Mike: “No, I’m good. But while you’re here: how old are you?”
Kid: “I’m fifteen.”
Mike: “Fifteen years old?!”
Mike: “How much… If you don’t mind me asking, what money do you make selling drugs?”
Kid: “Anywhere between $800 - $1000 per week”
Mike: “Dude, you’re bringing in more money than me.”
Kid: “What do you do?”
Mike: “I’m a teacher, but I’m obviously in the wrong profession.”
Kid: “I wish I was doing that. I wish I was in school.”
Mike: “You’re already making twice my salary.”
Kid: “Yeah, but you know as well as I do I won’t be out here forever.”
At fifteen, he knew that, statistically, he’s likely to be dead or in jail by the time he’s twenty-four. In the city of Philadelphia suburbs five miles apart are separated by a life expectancy gap of twenty years.
BACK TO SCHOOL
I teach sociology and a class on American Government in a suburban Philadelphia high school. As a guy who supports gay marriage, the medicinal use of cannabis, transgender rights—all the liberal things—I teach in an affluent, conservative district that doesn’t favour Democratic policies. The families my kids come from are strongly Catholic, pro-life, anti-gun control.
When we talk about race in America we often just talk about ‘black people’ and ‘white people’. Maybe ‘Native Americans’ too, but not often. But I try to convey to my students that the idea of race as they understand it is largely a construction. To look at the fact that just because you’re black doesn’t mean you’re predisposed to be a drug dealer and violent, and just because you’re white doesn’t automatically make you successful and a hipster. Your drug dealer, whether they’re black or white, never said to themselves: “Dealing seems like a great line of work, I want to get into that!”. It’s more like: “My school system sucks, I can’t get the education I need, I’m not going to have a job when I leave school. Out on the street is where I’ll make the money to feed my family.” What I try to argue is that this is not morally wrong. It’s strictly economics. It’s what people need to do to survive in the system that they were placed in against their will.
HOW TO BUILD A BROKEN SYSTEM
The Federal Government is not allowed to tell the States what to teach. The same way that Barack Obama couldn’t be like, “Look, North Carolina: I don’t care how much you believe in Jesus. Let this trans person pee in a bathroom!”, he can’t mandate what the curriculum is. So Washington can only suggest what the States teach. All of our textbooks come from Texas, because Texas is the biggest purchaser of them, population-wise. So the content gets geared towards Texas values. I kid you not: one of the last round of textbooks that came out had a section on the values of Islam that mentioned terrorism and 9/11. Fucked up.
But what creates the real inequality in the system is the way that any given school system gets funded. Our school districts are funded by local property taxes. Where I teach, in the suburbs, the houses are worth anywhere between $350,000 - $500,000. If you live in one of these more expensive houses, you’re giving the school district $6,000 a year in taxes, give or take. That’s just you and your one house. My house, in the city of Philly proper, is only worth $60,000, so I only have to give $468.72. My suburban school does way better than the city school. And there’s 30 (I did the math) times more people in the city of Philadelphia than in the district I teach in, yet those schools get and spend $4,300 less per student than my school does. My district spends $16,921.00 per year, per student. Each student gets a computer, new textbooks every year, access to printing and the internet and technology. And it pays my salary, which I’m not going to complain about. It’s a good salary, I just don’t know how to manage it properly. Because I do stupid stuff like play in a band.
The students who live in my district are predominantly white. No prizes for guessing that the kids in the city district are predominantly black. This gives the white population a better chance of getting in to college, while excluding the black population from achieving their goals. The way this system is funded creates structural inequality. Rich areas do better, poor areas do worse. The argument goes that those who live in poorer areas just need to work harder to increase the value of the properties and the funding of the schools. But you stayed at my house, and you met my neighbour George. You know that it’s not the safest area. There’s not a corner store you could have gone to that night to get a forty where I would have been like “...yeah that’s safe, head on over”. There are no jobs in my neighbourhood, and the high school shut down in 2013, the year after you toured, because they literally couldn’t afford to keep it open. Yet my school has got more teachers, given raises and invested in technology.
Democrats and Republicans are alike blaming teachers for not doing enough. But they’re not talking about the funding regime that sets America up for increased racial tension, economic instability and straight-up inequality. Period. End of story.
I’m in the long haul as both a teacher and a musician. It’s quite an uncomfortable position. Both require quite a lot of time and they both conflict. If you choose one over the other, there’s going to be great disappointment on the other side. Rosetta is hamstrung by my teaching schedule and if the offers coming in are not profitable… I don’t mean just in the fiscal sense. Obviously the tours should make money. But are they going to get Rosetta in front of new people? We have to turn down quite a lot, because doing that kind of mental math we’ll often decide it’s just better to head out on our own during the summer.
When a tour offer does come that’s good, I have to dip into personal days. Or I have to be 'sick' for five days at a time. Everyone knows I’m not, but I still call in every day from wherever I am: “Yo, I’m ill. I’m not coming in today”. And they’re like: “Sure. Sounds good. We got your back”. And other weird, difficult conversations with my bosses:
Boss: “So… how many days are you going to be sick for, exactly?”
Mike: “Oh, about five.”
Because they know when I’m out on tour I’m not doing double-shots of whiskey and hitting on girls. I view touring through the lens of a sociology teacher. For example, when we tour Australia I’m thinking about Indigenous issues and comparing that with race relations back home. I’ve toured in places where there are more mosques than churches. We were driving to Turkey the day an airport there got bombed. We were Paris mere weeks after a terrorist attack, the show being watched over by French military police boasting camo and AR-15s. So when I’m in class, I’m not the kind of teacher who’s just giving kids a worksheet and then mentally checking out. The kids and the staff respect what I do and so I’ve earned some leniency in that regard.
My students all know where I am—I tell them well in advance that I’m gone and what I expect will be done when I’m back in class. The work has to get done or else everyone’s in hot water. I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t. I’m either behind in my band or I’m behind with my job. It’s not easy.
THIS IS HARDCORE
I suck at sports, but I love skateboarding with a passion. I’m not bad when I skate, but I’m not the best. Never was. And if you skated, you were usually into two other things. Punk rock and drugs. And while I liked drugs a whole lot, I didn’t know much about punk. If you’d taken my headphones off in the 90s, you would have heard Nirvana and Tool. Around then, I signed up with a community radio station that runs out the high school I currently teach at. All these cool music-loving punks would hang out at this station. I made a lot of friends, who said:
Punks: “Hey, we’re going to this show at a warehouse in West Philly. Ink & Dagger and Catharsis. Do you want to go?”
Mike: “Yes, I want to go.”
I fell in love with it. It was dirty and raw. It was underground and everybody was there. It was literally kids doing it for kids; some crazy DIY thing. Soon, I’m immersed in this culture I never knew existed. And walking out the venue there’d always been someone handing you a flyer for the next show. And I just made sure I was free. I didn’t care who it was or who was playing. I went because I was stoked on the environment and it felt fresh. I saw Isis play for six people in this same warehouse, in the dead of winter. It was 35 Fahrenheit outside—I don’t know what that is in Celsius—this was pre-Mosquito Control, and they were giving it everything for these six people (On the phone I told Mike that 35 Fahrenheit is ‘bloody cold’ in Australia. Later I did the math and it’s between 1 and 2 Celsius – Alex).
The early American hardcore bands told us that everyone of all colours and all creeds will be accepted at a show, because America at large is not that way. But what you will come to realise is that punk politics is not actually that accepting either. My takeaway from that time is to lesson that it’s not who people are that matter, but what they do. Actions matter.
THE LITTLE PRINCE
I re-read that book once a year. The underlying lesson in there is to not forget who you were, what you’ve done, who you’ve been involved with and what they mean to you. The fox came into the Little Prince’s life, and went out. The flower came into the Little Prince’s life, and left. This tattoo means that everyone that comes into my life is there to teach me something. I learn from my students every day. I’m having these reciprocal experiences, because the lives they live are meaningful. I don’t want to lose the feeling of vitality that young people have, and I learn that from them. Not how to be neglectful or naive. But as a soon-to-be-thirty-six-year-old man, they help me stay connected to humour, romance, anger and stuff like that. I have to be open to hear it, just like the pilot in the Little Prince needed to be open to what the kid had to say.
There are three things people want in life: they want to be right, they want to be liked and they want to belong. So when you can gravitate towards a group or an idea that gives you anyone of those three things… boom. Done. You’re in, and your position becomes inflexible. In the classroom we challenge all this. I tell the kids: “You might not be right, but whatever—I like you anyway. And you’re welcome in the classroom no matter what.”
Rosetta are currently off the road and working towards a new album. Their remixes/retrospectives compilation, A Dead-Ender's Reunion, and latest full-length album, Quintessential Ephemera, are out now.