Monday, July 16, 2007

A story of poverty in the Bronx

I am a public school teacher in New York City. I
joined the New York City Teaching Fellows in 2003 in
order to help make a difference in the lives of
under-served children in America. I truly thought of
my work as public service, much like being in the
Peace Corps.

My encounters with poverty and its effects are too
numerous to list here. But I would like to share one
brief story with you. I thought of this student today,
as I read the New York Times report on Pres. Bush
stating that Americans do not need universal health
care because, "We have emergency rooms."

He was a small 9th grader. He had smooth dark skin and
neat braids. He often wore a green bomber jacket and
spotless white sneakers. He wasn't terribly interested
in school, but he came regularly if for nothing else
but to tease teachers and flirt with girls. He had an
infectious smile and was often successful at both

One day he was absent. Then another. And another. When
he returned to school he looked ashen, and sat quietly
in the back. Before the morning was up he put his head
on his desk and slept. Shortly before lunch I gave my
lesson and was circulating around the room helping the
students with their work, when we started to hear a
soft, but distinct sound of sobbing coming from this
boy in the back of the room.

The students looked at me. I, being an inexperienced
teacher, didn't really know what to do. But I
approached the boy, and sure enough, he was crying
quietly in the back. I was concerned the other
students would make fun of him, but they didn't.

After I dismissed the class for lunch, I asked the boy
why he was crying. He told me his tooth hurt. He had
an intense toothache and his mother did not have the
money to send him to the dentist. She had been out of
work for some time, lost her benefits, and couldn't
afford the $50 it would cost to pull the tooth.

I walked him down to the nurse's office, where he was
able to rest. I asked the nurse if there was anything we could
do. There wasn't much. Occasionally government
agencies will relent when it comes to medical issues,
but dental issues are ignored. She promised to try to
get in touch with his mother and find out if there was
some way she could help.

There is so much money in New York! How could this
boy's health and education be in jeopardy over a $50
dental procedure? No one deserves to be treated like this!

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Today my school had a meeting with a UFT representative.
It was so frustrating! I hate the UFT.
They are so condescending. Only the DOE
is more condescending. The guy was this
snazzily-dressed bald black dude. We only had 15
minutes for the meeting, and he answered every
question with a 5 minute bullshit response, as if he
were Jesse Jackson or something.

He basically said if we are not ready to strike we
should accept the new contract despite the fact that
the political winds have changed in our favor. In
other words, there is nothing in between. I was on the fence
before and now I am completely against the new
contract. The UFT is trying to scare us. I hate it
when they do that! There needs to be a whole new
paradigm for union negotiations--everyone should be
treated like an adult.

Anyway, I spoke my mind. I asked him to please phrase
his answers in 100 words or less because we have to
teach in 3 minutes. I am tired of the UFT trying to
tell us all the other teachers in the school district
are for this contract--using the isolation of our
profession against us, and resorting to thinly veiled
scare tactics. It is so disgusting.

He said that perhaps Bloomberg will seek higher
office, and that is why he wants to settle now. We
think it's because the city is supposed to get
billions of dollars in March and they don't want to
have to use that money to negotiate with. Or maybe
Randi Weingarten will seek a cabinet post or
something. I guess it does't really matter anyway. I
can't really see myself staying in this profession
forever, if another couple of years.

Over 200 people at the DOE are making more than
180,000 dollars per year.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

For Carlos

If I had first seen Carlos standing on the street corner with his baggy jeans and shaved head, I probably would have registered him as a dangerous person. I would have averted my eyes, held my bag closer to my side, kept my head down. Fortunately, I did not first meet him there. Instead, I met him in my first class, and in trying to be a good teacher, I worked at suspending those assumptions.

He seemed older than the other students and this fact turned out to be true. He was sixteen and in the ninth grade. He explained to me that he had not failed a grade. Instead, his immigration status kept him from enrolling in high school at the same grade level as the other students his age. He was tall, with broad shoulders and a round face. His skin was tawny and reddish and he had freckles speckled over his nose and face. His hair, a slight stubble spread over his skull, was also of a reddish tint. His eyes were a dark brown, and he walked slowly, his head held high.

On the first day of school, I struggled into the room carrying a box full of math books. I plopped them to the ground and asked for help to put them away. He volunteered immediately and brought in other boys to help. He had that quality. Other students listened to him. And I liked Carlos immediately.

Of course, at that time, I didn’t know anything about gangs. I thought the media and nervous teachers, who saw the bad in the students before they saw the good, over-amplified the whole gang situation. I didn’t recognize the signs. I imagined gang members to be older than the 9th graders I worked with. They had to be. My students seemed so young and naïve. And after all, just because they were black and Hispanic and lived in the South Bronx didn’t mean they were criminals.

Carlos was quickly moved out of my class and into an ESL class where he flourished. Busy with other matters, other students, I barely noticed a growing layer of beads around his neck, a symbol of gang life. One band of necklaces was earned after each apparent act. The first string of beads is earned when you are “jumped in” or initiated by a beating. I can only imagine what subsequent beads are earned for.

The following September Carlos was in the tenth grade. He was not in any of my classes, but I frequently saw him around campus. One day I saw him standing looking melancholy outside the principal’s office. He was often in trouble, and was frequently suspended. More and more fights were in the hallways. He was a regular figure, if not in the fights, in the dealings behind them.

“Are you waiting to talk to the principal?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I guess so.”

“What happened? This isn’t like you.”

“Miss,” he began, shaking his head. ”You don’t know. I just want to pass math.”

I was puzzled. “What do you mean? What does that have to do with your fight?”

“That kid. He never shuts up. I can’t think in that class.”

“Is it a rough class?”

He sucked his teeth and shook his head. “Nobody can do their work. They never listen to the teacher. I just want to pass this class.”

“You’re not going to pass if you keep getting into fights. Who started it?”

“I told him to shut up. He didn’t like that so we took it outside.”

“You can’t solve your problems like this.” Did I actually believe that?

“You don’t know how it is, Miss. This here is the way things are.”

I went to the counselor to see if he could get transferred to another school. I certainly wasn’t the only teacher to take up his cause; most teachers who knew him saw the goodness in him that I saw. He was intelligent, talented, compassionate. I often talked to him about writing, as he considered himself to be a poet, like his rap idol, Tupac Shakur. The counselor was intimate with the details of his case, and was certain he could not be transferred. Seventeen, a gang member, an absent parent, a file in the dean’s office two inches thick. Of course he could never get a transfer.

Carlos suffered through several suspensions that year--some deserved, some not. He gained a reputation with the principal and other administrators that he was undesirable, a negative impact on the other students. “He is a gang member,” they’d say, as if that alone was enough incriminating evidence to have him kept away from their school.

And he was a gang member, a part of the Bronx “Bloods.” But this alone was difficult for me to take seriously. These “gang members” wear red bandanas and enjoy the privilege of being protected from one another. The gang members that I know are usually shorter than me, experienced in petty crimes, obsessed with ordinary high school gossip, but rarely any real trouble in class. Few know how to read or write, at least not well enough to have any power outside of their own neighborhood. Most are like Carlos, unfailingly polite, on their own in the world, and utterly lost. Sometimes I try to imagine them in other New York neighborhoods. On the street corners of the Bronx they may be feared, but if transported to Union Square or Wall Street, they would be small kids dressed thuggishly, like some inner city cartoon.

The last time I saw Carlos was in September. He was back in school, and he seemed fine. Everything was quiet in our hallways. Even gang activity seemed to be still. We were hopeful, like you should be at the beginning of a school year.

On September 17, 2005, Carlos shot a rival gang member and a ten-year-old girl who was walking next to him. I have to preface this by saying he was never arrested, he was never tried in court or found guilty. I didn’t see him do it. But the students, the teachers, the administrators, the police, the word on the street all feel it. We feel it to be true. The gang member was shot in the hip and shoulder. The girl was sped to a nearby hospital where she spent a very long recovery.

The principal held a meeting and told us about the incident. “One of our students shot someone,” he said.

“Allegedly shot someone,” a young teacher reminded him.


And I immediately thought to myself, his life is over. If Carlos did it his life is over. If he didn’t--his life is still over. The police were after him now, and the gangster thugs would be looking for him too. I also knew Carlos well enough to assume that even if he felt little remorse for the shooting of the 19-year-old rival gang member, he would feel something about that little girl. He couldn’t live with that, could he?

“If anyone sees him,” the principal continued. “They should let us know right away.”

We never saw Carlos again.

He remained at large until he was shot to death on December 30th. He was killed by five shots on the basketball court near an inner city housing project. According to the New York Times, two youths wearing red bandanas fled the scene.

I guess it would be easy for me to moralize about the danger of gangs, but that isn’t what I want to do. I want to just remember Carlos, and not pretend he is so different from me, or the kids I grew up with, or the other kids I teach now. I want to remember him in his new school clothes, baggy jeans, and bright polo shirts. Forever he will sit in my first classroom with his fresh notebook, thoughtfully poised to discuss literature. Because even murderers were innocent at one time.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Very First Day of School

I barely remember the first day of school. Seasoned teachers tell me that this isn’t uncommon. Still, I find it disconcerting considering the effort it took to get to that beginning. But like many firsts, it was relatively uneventful and utterly forgettable. Except that it was my first day and they were my first class, so I can’t forget them.

I don’t remember exactly what I wore, but it was some attempt at professionalism, some asserted try at dress slacks and dress shoes, with my hair pulled back into a tight ponytail hopefully impressing upon them that I was serious. Serious. They wouldn’t overwhelm a serious educator. They would have no other choice but to respect me. I wanted to appear as someone who knew what she was doing. Someone quite unlike myself.

I barely slept the night before, but as I readied myself in the morning I realized I was not tired. I was prepared. Lesson plan ready, paperwork in order. Everything was in place, or the best that it could be under the circumstances I was handed.

The classroom I was assigned was of slightly lesser quality than dismal. It was on the fourth floor of an ominous brick and mortar Bronx monstrosity that probably should have been burnt down in 1965. Still, the teachers of our tiny school (we took up only half of the fourth floor) made the best of it and I had one of the better rooms. It had served as the old school’s art room, twice as long as it was wide. It held weird cupboards and shelves stuffed with oddities: faded scraps of construction paper, unfinished paintings from past students, futuristic art posters form the 1970s, homemade dream catchers, yardsticks, tongue depressors, reams of green paper. I only had one day to bring this into some kind of order.

I threw out bags and bags of debris and kept anything I thought might be useful someday. In terms of supplies, the school provided very little. The day before classes began the Assistant Principal handed me a manila envelope filled with my new school year supplies: one pack of pencils (12), one box of chalk (I had a white board on stands in my room), one board eraser, one pack of red pens. Later they also gave me a packet of faded construction paper to help me decorate my room.
I had nothing but a room full of junk and practically no money considering I had yet to draw a paycheck. I began to frequent the local 99 cent stores in the neighborhood, buying generic Windex to clean the desks, paper towels, a broom and a dust pan, a stapler, and other odds and ends needed to form-- if not a sound classroom environment---at least a clean one. All the new teachers worked feverishly, scrubbing desks, emptying out old lockers, hanging paper. We could not make up for the peeling paint, the graffiti lining the buildings leading up to the school, the lead in the water of the drinking fountains, the lack of air conditioning in a hot building, but we made every effort possible to build a respectable place for students to learn.

There was still one thing that had me worried. Over the summer I did a brief tour of student teaching. I was placed in a middle school in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, and as I watched the teachers in action, I noticed that the most effective teachers loved their classes. They loved them. This is not to say they were blinded by love, or that the teachers were not occasionally cranky, impatient, or exasperated. But they had a spark, a connection of light with the kids, and the children shared this understanding that the teacher wanted what was best for them. I learned that teaching was about love.

During the scrubbing, organizing, decorating, I began to think I might not be capable of loving my class. Why did I think this? Did I underestimate myself? Did I not trust them? Did I not think that they were lovable? I guess I figured I would be locked in that sweltering classroom with 35 urban youths who would view this white woman from California as a pathetic do-gooder who knew nothing about teaching and who would then make every effort to ruin my precarious teaching career. This is what kept me up the night before school started.

And then it started. I remember them sitting in their seats, staring at me. I soon found out that many of them were terrified to be at this old high school, as its reputation in the neighborhood was very, very bad. I, on the other hand, was surprised to find my power as a teacher. When I asked them to write something, they wrote. When I asked them to read something, they read. I must have been yammering on a mile a minute, because I ripped through two days of lesson plans in one day. After lunch, a tough girl popped her gum loudly in class. Calmly and clearly I said, “Please throw your gum away.” She snickered. “Throw it away,” I restated. All the fourteen-year-old eyes were on us, to see what kind of teacher I would be—soft or hard. I repeated myself once more, “Throw it away.” She popped off, “I don’t have to do anything, bitch.”
Bitch? She called me a bitch? After I spent so many days, so many months, cleaning, studying, sacrificing myself for this class, she calls me a bitch?

I forget what I said after that, but I hope I didn’t say much. I sent her to the dean’s office, limped through the rest of the day. Somehow I got home, and I cried and cried myself to sleep. I knew I wouldn’t love them.

The next day my nerves were not rested. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept waiting for the students to revolt, squirm out of control. I did not know what to do other than just keep working. When one lesson was finished, I’d start another. Free time was my enemy. Finally, on Friday afternoon, I had them write. I hope I didn’t have them write something as trite as “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” but it might have been exactly that. When our last bell of the week sounded off, I colleted my things and slunk back home to grade them and do lesson plans for the upcoming week.

I finally set aside time to read my students’ essays on Saturday afternoon. The afternoon was hot, as no one had told the late summer that school had started. I read their papers. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t utterly shocked at their writing skills. Most could barely pound out a paragraph, and many of the students declined to turn in their work at all. But, as I read, I began to learn something. I began to meet my new students. I began to see them as individuals. And then there was Eddie’s essay.
Eddie was 16 and in the ninth grade for the second time. He had a skimpy mustache he was proud of, liked to dance, and liked school despite the fact he did little work. His handwriting was small, and carefully printed out. Few students knew how to write in script.

But Eddie told me a story about his first love. He wrote about how he met her at his job, and how pretty she was. He got her phone number and they dated for a year and a half. She was “his girl” for a long time. Then, she started spending time with her friends, and left him behind. He wrote, “I still think we are good friends. I hope she thinks so.”

And something happened to me. I understood Eddie. I had been a teenager too, and I related to his story. And I was so thankful to him for sharing his story with me. So overwhelmed that he trusted me with his story of his first true love. And hen I looked at the other students’ papers, and I realized that they all trusted me a little bit. And I liked them. In fact, I loved them. I felt dizzy, realizing that I did love my class. I held their papers to my heart, and breathed in.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Most Ineffectual Man in New York City

I am only doing this in an attempt to ensure my ability to sleep tonight, but I think I need to get this off my proverbial chest. It is so fucking absurd I don’t think anyone will believe me.

Flashback to September: The weekend before school started my husband and I went to my building to clean up a room that had been trashed. We unpacked boxes, cleaned desks, swept, put up paper and decorations, fixed bookshelves, put books on shelves and so on, making sure the students had a decent place to learn. By the way, I paid for all the cleaning and decorating supplies and did NOT get paid to clean that room on a Saturday.

Flashback to October: On open school night, when the parents come to look at our school, I cleaned up two rooms, my regular room and the trashed out room. No other teacher helped. Certainly no administrators helped. The only people who helped were some very sweet students.

Flashback to last week: I get a memo in my box that there is a “team meeting” in that room. I go, and the flakey American History teacher has read a book called “Feng Shui in the Classroom.” He wanted me to help him get rid of our novels. I insisted on keeping the library.

Today: Spongebob the idiot Administrator thanked Mr. Flakey in front of a staff meeting on his “amazing results” and his “outside reading.” What a joke. The whole room is totally disgusting, just as it was before. The only difference is that some books we didn’t need are now in a cupboard.

Does Spongebob have any idea how alienating he is? Why do I work there? How can I get out? What the fuck is wrong with me for working there in the first place? Why doesn’t he just quit and become a stay-at-home loser? Why do stupid people stay in education?

This, exactly this, is why the general public thinks lowly of the field of education. All smart people leave the industry because it is so fucking ridiculous.

I quit.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Yet another sleepless night over a job, that at least existentially, does not matter at all. I include this website as my title as a service to anyone who might recognize themselves in any of my posts. In addition, my blog belongs to the well-established genre of "job haters." Clearly I am not alone and, although not breaking new ground, still have the opportunity to express the ridiculous nature of my present employment.

Today we have a holiday and tomorrow too. I should be enjoying my time off and recuperating from the regular grind. However, I am preoccupied with the nefarious meddling of one evil co-worker who from now on will be dubbed, Ms. Jesus-Freak. Ms Jesus-Freak, combined with the slack jawed spinelessness of new Assistant Principal Mr. Spongebob make the English department more like a small gulag squad rather than an egalitarian forum of intellectual inquiry.

Hmm. Later I may list all the endless and undermining things Ms. J-F and Mr. Spongebob do to make me sleep deprived and possibly in need of various forms of anti-depressants (interfering in the 9th grade curriculum, condescending one-up-man-ship, etc.). However, I prefer to end this entry with a question:

Why do we all suffer with jobs we hate? How did we get caught in this trap? When will it ever end? Why does commerce take precedence over mental and social stability, let alone self actualization and creativity? And more personally, since when did I ever care about a regular paycheck (and a miserable one at that)? I barely recognize myself.

For all of us who dream of winning the lottery and sending a man dressed in a middle finger costume to our boss to convey the message that we will no longer be an employee, I ask this question: What motivates you to keep going?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Overnight Obsessions

Last night I learned about Bill Bennett the former Secretary of Education's remarks about reducing crime by aborting "every black baby in this country." Read it for yourself:

Certainly one bigot doesn't speak for all of America, but after watching the bereaved and bereft of New Orleans plea for help that did not come and after watching so much suffering right here in New York City, I think that perhaps I was naive about the depths of racism in my country.

As some kind of reaction to this, my other obsession is the sweet little book The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Cisneros is in complete opposition to the brash cruelty of Bennett and his ilk. She is charming, writing in the voice of a bright, sensitive, and thoughtful Chicana girl named Esperanza.

Esperanza tells us about a day in her neighborhood when she says: "You can never have too much sky. You can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky, and sky can keep you safe when you are sad. Here there is too much sadness and not enough sky. Butterflies too are few and so are flowers and most things beautiful. Still, we take what we can get and make the best of it."