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A Teacher’s Education

My view from inside the city’s troubled schools.

Farid Nassif May 31

Issue 236

Ms. Wang’s 10th-grade physics classroom is a furnace. There is no air conditioning. A certain sickening heat rises from the lower floors of the building and lingers in the air here on the top floor. When I arrive, an English Learning teacher, Ms. Vladi, is helping Ms. Wang deal with residual dramatics from yesterday when a fight broke out in the hallway. Ms. Wang has retreated to a can of ginger ale, holding it close to her lips as though it will prevent her from taking the neural wear of too much stimuli on the chin.

The classroom degenerates into a ballistics training camp gone awry. Balled paper and other detritus rocket overhead. Ms. Wang flinches and nearly ducks behind her desk. Ms. Vladi is left stranded, playing the futile role of aerial traffic cop as trash flies about. “Is math the language of the universe?” Ms. Wang delicately mumbles in an effort to regain order, but the room has become a starship vessel, penetrating the stratosphere in a nosedive toward utter anarchy. It takes an inordinate amount of control to keep myself dissociated from the melee. I’m not aware when class ends because it never seemed to begin.

   

Brooklynites learn and teach atop the noxious strata of industrial waste in Gerritsen Beach, above massive expressways in Sunset Park, amid the ongoing inland circuitry of a roaring city.

There is a green hippopotamus always stalking teachers’ minds.

Rife with de facto segregation and barely-veiled discrimination, Brooklyn’s schools, and New York City’s for that matter, are underfunded and poorly equipped, yet are held to the cookie-cutter standards of the state. Black children are incarcerated for loitering outside of schools, often brutally subdued for petty infractions. From outdated textbooks to poor access to special needs instruction, the uneven distribution of and access to knowledge is disgraceful.

I started teaching at CUNY community colleges five years ago but soon became convinced that I had to visit the former schools my students named, from which they arrived, often unable to read beyond a grade school level. I became a part of a city program that gave me the opportunity to observe and teach several classes throughout Brooklyn.   

   

In a school near Gerritsen Beach, one that will be shut down this summer due to the discovery of hazardous waste in the surrounding soil, Mr. Mike pitches several scenarios in his 11th-grade math class to help his students understand the real-world utility of his lesson. He decorates the whiteboard with geometric figures. He compares the measure of a tangent to the shapes that form when we skip rocks in water. He explains that secants are useful if a patient in an emergency room has been pierced by a bullet. Then he asks the entire class, “How can you find the circumference of Earth?” A few students pull up to the board, consorting, cross-referencing informal equations to dispel diameters from radii. They’re determined to know the size of the planet they live on and perhaps how much room is left for them.

Meanwhile, this sinking school is soon to be drained of its students. Real-world lessons are not limited to math. Toxic water fountains in the halls are covered with garbage bags and students carry old plastic bottles full of water from home. Paper is in short supply, so teachers bring their own reams. Students learn first-hand about asbestos abatement and termite infestation, and the teachers do as well. Hungry students learn to steal lunch from the fridge in the teachers’ lounge. They come from cold housing projects where they care for siblings while their parents work the night shift. There is so much to learn.   

   

Teachers are so surfeited with such realities that they retreat to familiar things. A shifting tide of male and female teachers enters and exits the catacombic teachers’ lounge every day.

Conversation morphs to baseball lineups when the influx of men charge the dungeon, and then there’s chatter about child-rearing and dieting when the women take over. Everyone seems very comfortable with the stereotypes that surface: locker room man-speak and vanity-counter gossip make the day a little less mean. And holy mackerel are there sweets — chocolates, taffy, crackerjacks, candy corn, horribly stale Peeps, cans of Mountain Dew. This is a time to let things rip, to make the most of the morning respite ahead of the school day. Expletives are passed around the table like condiments. I tend to shift my weight awkwardly in the lame kids’ corner, my own high school hauntings resounding within me. A Global History teacher is sitting uncomfortably close, tearing at a nectarine as she explains that she’s moving to New Jersey but “wouldn’t ever change schools because kids out there are doing hard stuff.”

It had crossed my mind that suburbia might be home to more rigorous instruction while city schools do nothing but exact pain and corral students into fetid cells, but I never expected to come across such laziness, especially at a school like this, relatively well respected even if it is in the city. It was my comfort to believe that some good schools were immune to this thinking. I fear my sudden paralysis and a prolonged silence may have revealed where I stand on the matter. I consider grabbing a Peep from the table as some sort of defensive strategy. I want to argue on behalf of those who have a genuine passion for teaching. I want to change her, but given the unanimous laughter at the table, I wouldn’t touch that responsibility with tongs.

   

In a Mill Basin school, Ms. Kelly asks her 11th-grade students to write a paragraph about a piece of furniture or object that holds memories for them. The class is reading Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye. In the “Autumn” section of the novel, Cholly Breedlove’s self-loathing manifests itself in several ways: his alcoholism, the abuse of his family and the rape of his daughter, Pecola. The family sofa provokes this feeling further — a physical representation of his inadequacy. Its fabric is split down the center on the date of purchase and Cholly is unable to convince the store to replace it — yet another reminder of his inferiority.

In a brainstorming session before writing their paragraphs, many of the students name old toys, necklaces, video game controllers (ugh) and even restaurants — an assortment of things that they hold dear. One student hands in a story I find disturbing. Marina says she dislikes all the objects in her home because they remind her of her father, who she also considers an object, one that brings nothing but “evil and hate.”

“He means nothing to me, but he has such an impact on my life,” she writes.

Marina has not spoken a single word in the classroom in months. Always polite and composed but never a contributor to discussions, she sits in the far corner of the room despite Ms. Kelly’s pleas to move closer. She is stocky and sports an androgynous quiff. There is a steely expression of tolerance frozen on her face. I imagine the weight of that tolerance is a heavy load to hoist aloft through eight periods each day, especially in this particularly boy-heavy class where whispers of “faggot” and “homo” are routine. Many of these kids are often in on some confidential joke that seems to be pointed in her direction.

“What are you trying to start here?” Ms. Kelly asks Marina after class is over.

“I’m going to therapy about it already,” Marina says and marches away.

What is my responsibility here? This is not my classroom. Where is the book titled, How to Become the All-purpose Teacher? Very little instruction was necessary to give Marina a sense of the humiliation and degradation that haunts Cholly Breedlove.

   

In Sheepshead Bay, Mr. Josh begins by asking the students in his 9th grade English classroom to try to avoid thinking of a green hippopotamus for a minute. A tame laughter envelops the room. Very few admit to resisting the thought. Josh transitions into a discussion of mind control and Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies, a novel about the psychological and physical torment Dominicans faced living under Rafael Trujillo’s autocratic reign. He asks the students to reflect on the notion of attempting to abandon all thought of a terrorizing dictator who is forever looming like a foul odor, or a green hippopotamus, that relentlessly invades their consciousnesses.

“What might be the psychological effect on a nation living under such control?” Josh asks.

Pencils start moving and hands are raised, but a quarter of the room seems adrift. Josh’s lesson plan has already anticipated the need for reinforcements in just such a circumstance. For those who are still struggling with the concept, Josh plays a brief clip of The Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life.” The story tells of provincial townspeople who must put on airs of contentedness or be exiled into the cornfields in a small town ruled by a megalomaniacal young boy. The concept of Trujillo’s reign takes a concrete form for all of the students.

There is, in fact, a green hippopotamus always stalking teachers’ minds. The Brooklyn classroom is a tiny ecosystem while in the macro world the Regents and the Common Core exams, and the general Department of Education bureaucracy, loom ferociously. The approaching gale of reckoning that comes during testing season gives students and teachers alike a sense that a greater inhuman force will be making a full inspection of them.

But bureaucrats aren’t the only ones with expectations of success.

   

While parent-teacher conferences are often uneventful, I did observe one mother’s malfunction after a fellow teacher relayed a tale about her son. Throughout the evening I’d mostly seen different variations of jumpsuits and gray sweat wear, but this mother was dressed like a Mardi Gras float. Her neck was a purple-feathered lei. She had very recently shampooed and teased a variegated panic of hair. There was a harlequin patchwork on her shirt. Her lips were painted red like rare meat. She looked beyond cheerful, almost tipsy.

“I’m heeeeoorre!” she proclaimed, in an accent I couldn’t decipher. Once they were seated in two tiny tablet arm desks normally reserved for the students, both she and Ms. Carlin seemed apprehensive. I pretended to thumb an errant piece of tape dangling from a poster of “The Roaring 20s” while I listened intently from the other side of the classroom. In short order, Ms. Carlin recounted the story of the woman’s son’s savage path to a week’s suspension. The story ended when Carlin landed on, “that’s when he called me a bitch.”

The sudden rush of tears on the woman’s face as she emitted a snore-like sob told me what heartbreak looks like. As a new father, I felt the weight of this more than I’d expected. What crushing news. Her life’s work had just been dragged through the mud. Carlin did her best to convince the mother that the suspension was no big deal. But the woman abandoned her seat and marched out of the classroom, shaky but resolute. What that young man had in store was all too real.

   

My own experience teaching in Brooklyn public high school classrooms was very real itself. I was loud, idiotic and impressively knuckleheaded in front of thirty-seven lotus eaters in the 11th grade. They all looked like they’d pulled an all-nighter; some of them, in fact, are put to work in family bodegas until ungodly hours. And here we were at 7:15 a.m., discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald.

We had slogged through seven chapters of The Great Gatsby thus far this semester, and I sure as hell wouldn’t let them stall at this stage. It seems that they had relied so heavily on the 2013 DiCaprio film that the thinky parts in the seventh chapter were entirely incomprehensible. As the week neared an end, I decided to try a close reading with them, pausing after tiny passages and asking them how they might interpret each. I’d like to blame the encroaching spring vacation, the visions of days burning time or doing anything but reading the eighth chapter, but it was a futile exercise and my visible disappointment seemed to just roll off the porch.

I ask something about Nick Buchanan’s inability to reserve judgment.

“I don’t care!” Tavis barks at me. For a moment it was almost relieving to see him participate. Tavis is a walking wen, blemishes poke out of his cheeks like raviolis split open. He has the posture of an ailing city squirrel. As he lurks the hallways in the morning, awaiting the first bell, his breaths are labored and audible. A recent doctor’s note says he is asthmatic. On a daily basis, I try to rouse him with a spunky “Good morning, Tavis!” He replies with a dark moan.

After class I spoke to him in the hallway, expressing concern for his unusual outburst.

“I don’t like this book,” he says, eyes to the ground, adding with a resolute shrug: “It’s boring.”

To me it was a spit in the face. All this time I thought I’d been making Gatsby exciting.

   

At the beginning of an afternoon ELA class I scrawl on the board something taken from the writer Grace Paley: ‘’If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends you’ll probably say something beautiful.’’

My question for the students is fairly direct: “What do you think this means? Do you agree?”

I hope for a verbal firing squad, but get nothing but a few blue yawns and a distant “fuck you” from somewhere in the back of the room. Breakfast was four hours ago, and someone took my banana bread from the shared refrigerator — something that has happened several times this semester, the act, I suspect, of a desperately hungry student. The ghost of the purloined banana bread throws sand in my Wednesday eyes, and because it is so hot in this room, I’m nearly ready to faint.

After some prodding, one student says that she doesn’t really talk to people in person because she doesn’t need to. Social media has essentially wrung their use of language dry. Ridicule is their default mode of engagement. I hear it in the hallways and in the cafeteria; the base poetry of mockery. As long as social media scares children away from genuine human encounters, I’m afraid these kids won’t know how to measure the distance between love and fear. Paule Marshall and Toni Morrison consider the continued use of the language of their childhoods to be a gesture of survival, a way of guarding their memories and of carving out a sense of place in the face of adversity. I do hope this was just a dreary morning and not a sign of things to come, of a general forgetting.

   

Outside of my own stint in front of the chalkboard, I have seen some teachers succeed. In Sunset Park, at the start of Mr. Banes’s 8th grade ELA class, a raucous game of musical chairs settles to a pre-performance hush. This is clearly a tamed classroom. Banes tells me later that this was no accident. He spends the first weeks at the beginning of each school year working patiently to generate an atmosphere of respect in his classroom. When his students are not around he is applying for grants to fill his classroom shelves with volumes of literature or fielding long, often broken phone conversations with parents. He has a reserve of trivia that keeps the students on their toes. He explains that “scuba” is an acronym. He can tell spitting llama stories, how long a flying fish can glide in the air, how many postmen were bitten by dogs in Britain in 1968, where iced tea was invented. His compendium of unusual facts has knighted him in the eyes of his captors.

The walls are decked with quotes harvested from Of Mice and Men, drawings of Steinbeck and photographs of Salinas, California, Steinbeck’s hometown. The students begin a discussion of the themes in Steinbeck’s novel: the American Dream, loneliness, power. Art supplies and magazines are distributed and they begin creating a collage based on their own definitions of these themes.

A moon-faced boy in the back of the room holds up his copy of the novel and asks, “Why is this page ‘ix’?” Banes thoughtfully transitions into a lesson about Roman numerals. He has a swift, conscious command of the impromptu lesson afoot. He proceeds to compare Arab and Roman numerals, asking them to map out the year 1971 in Roman digits. It is refreshing to see these tiny grace notes of inventive serendipity in a classroom.

After school, Banes works with his students in an adjoining garden that he has created himself. Banes has sculpted a landscape for his students that out-shoots the overwhelming cascades of bitter incivility and snarkiness at large in New York City. The peace that comes with gardening and a concurrent understanding of agriculture is a rare thing in this city. The students till topsoil and prepare seedlings. I’m reminded of something Steinbeck once wrote, that he hopes “we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat.”

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Illustration by Gino Barzizza.