I went on my first visit to a kid’s house a few weeks before the fight between Franklin and Danny, my first year teaching. Lavonne was a big, muscular kid, 15 in the 8th grade, who would assiduously copy down whatever was on the board, his head leaning down over his notebook to make sure he got the letters right, a football held in his lap, and earnestly raising his hand high to answer whatever questions he knew the answers to. He lived in Harlem, unlike all the other kids (who lived in the school’s immediate neighborhood in the Bronx), and while he certainly wasn’t unique in living with his dad, he probably was unusual in expressing more fear of his father catching him out for not working at school or getting in trouble than of his mom. Then, sometime in December, he started getting in not-quite-fights every day as he entered or left the class, usually with Owen, a tall, lanky kid with a big smile and lots of jokes who was always getting in trouble (and the only genuinely talented basketball player among my students that year), also 15 and the only one of the 8th graders who might possibly been a fair fight for Lavonne. Lavonne would get up from his desk, carefully putting away his notebook and one of his treasured, fancy metal ballpoint pens, and Owen would swipe his football from his seat or tap his shoulder or create a distraction and then swipe one of the pens still on his desk, and then we’d have the usual “Hold me back, hold me back” and chest bumping of boys who have no real intention of fighting but don’t want to make that too obvious. Eventually, Owen would just have to look in Lavonne’s direction and Lavonne would get angry, standing up in the middle of class and creating uproar among the kids who were only too happy to stop copying from the board or making notes on the igneous and metamorphic rocks they were observing. (8th grade was Earth Science, and the curriculum I had the most trouble with .) It was Owen’s fault, at some level, but blaming Owen for creating uproar was like blaming the ocean for knocking you down at high tide– it was just the way it was going to be.
I had tried holding Lavonne after class, moving his seat, writing his name on the Section Sheet, confiscating his football, but nothing made any difference; in any case, the phone number on his blue emergency card hadn’t worked since September, and so I couldn’t call his home. Then Lavonne threw over a desk in exasperation one day, and I decided it was time to try visiting his house. (Everyone lived in apartments, of course, but everyone equally called it their “house.”) Home visits were one of the only techniques generally endorsed both by my 40-year-veteran colleagues and my 2-years-of-experience Teach for America program director– “when nothing works, showing up at their door’ll put the fear of God into them,” as Mr. Israel, the math teacher down the hall, had said.
I lived not too far from the address on his blue card, and that Sunday I went down from Washington Heights to east 147th street and rang his top floor bell. It was pouring rain, and I waited at the door for a few more minutes, soaked, when finally a voice from the intercom asked who it was. I said it was Lavonne’s teacher from school, and they buzzed me in.
When I came in, Lavonne was perched on the armrest of a couch, next to at least six of his male relatives or neighbors, watching the NFL playoffs on a tiny color TV. It was raining inside the apartment. There were at least five buckets all over the quite large but dark and dank living room, and the rain was pouring down from the ceiling in almost continuous streams into them, as well as a few leaks that weren’t being caught.
“We’re having some trouble with our roof,” Lavonne’s dad said apologetically, as he came to the door with Lavonne’s uncle, to shake my hand. Lavonne suddenly seemed like a tiny five year old boy, his eyes huge as he stared in terror from his perch on the couch. “Get away from that television set,” Lavonne’s uncle snapped back at him, and Lavonne stood up, uncertain whether he was supposed to come over to us, and just stood where he was, looking at his hands.
I explained the desk throwing, Lavonne having trouble controlling his anger.
“But Owen-” Lavonne interjected in a strangled voice.
Lavonne’s mom arrived, to hand me a working phone number to contact them with.
“Please contact us any time at all,” his dad said. I apologized for disturbing their Sunday and went on my way, as someone added a sixth bucket to catch another leak.
The next day, Mr. Israel’s second prediction– “they’ll give you a bunch of free advertising afterward,” came true: I walked past Lavonne’s homeroom and he was with great melancholy recounting the story of the visit, “right in the middle of the football game!”
After that, I went on half a dozen visits in the next few months, whenever I couldn’t reach parents on the phone: Franklin’s mom seemed far too young to have a middle-school-aged son; Shanequa’s grandmother(or great-grandmother?) was gracious but seemed very tired, the apartment neat and orderly but every surface seeming aged and worn; Eric’s mom was as loud and boisterous as him, hugely obese in a wheelchair, the TV blaring behind her. And so on. There was only one home that seemed like it might have been unsafe; Samantha’s mom had gone to back to the Dominican Republic for three months, leaving her in care of a high-school aged cousin, the kitchen and floor a disgusting mess. But I didn’t call anyone higher up the chain of official trouble to report the place; at the time I figured if I was going to show up at these people’s homes uninvited and unexpected, I should try not to invoke more than just a request to start behaving in my class.
It didn’t make all the difference in the world, but it made a difference. Many of my problems were my own making– shouting too much and at the wrong times, losing the quizzes and never handing them back, the freakish piles of paper on the front desk and the illegible handwriting on the board. One day, I showed up for 5th period after my lunch break and “He makes home visits!” was written neatly in the corner of the board. It was a victory of sorts.
Near the end of the year, the principal- my perpetual adversary- had a mild heart attack and left the school for the rest of the year to recover. The next day, something undisclosed was discovered in the back staircase, and the vice-principal (and acting building principal) was called to the central district office to be held accountable. So two of the three administrators in the always-barely functional building were gone, and the halls became a highway of wandering kids all through the day, who’d wander it your room to scream “Wassup, West-Side!” and saunter away. Then, our state test scores came back, and we went from “in Danger of State Takeover” to “Under State Jurisdiction.” This meant they automatically fired all teachers without tenure and then we had to reapply for our jobs.
When he told me I was getting rehired for the next year, the final remaining administrator, a youngish Caribbean guy with long dreads who always wore a dark suit, said, “this is for two reasons– first, that water rocket that you set off with Danny Jiminez in the middle of recess, which I thought was hilarious even though it didn’t work, and second, because the kids all say you make home visits.”
There were probably worse reasons he could have given.