- Near the end of my Americorps year, I went as a chaperone with a group of high school kids I’d never met to Alex Haley’s “farm” in Tennessee (really more of a training center) as part of a summer program the School District of Philadelphia was organizing with the Children’s Defense Fund, where high school kids would be trained to act as tutors for elementary kids for summer school. The kids had obviously been chosen to be the kind of poor 16-year-olds you could take on a plane and have stay in a hotel without havoc breaking loose; only a few of the kids were a bit more adventurous, and me and the other chaperone camped out in the hall and turned back a few boys making a run for the girls’ rooms in the middle of the night; there was also one graffiti incident (I think it was Marian Wright Edelman yelling at us about it the next morning and telling us how disappointed she was, but I’m not sure).
What was more interesting was the design of the two day training itself, which had zero to do with how you help a seven year old learn to read, but had a mesmeric focus on the Civil Rights movement (the theme was that the high-schoolers were going to be running “Freedom Schools” through their tutoring, analogous to the 1964 Freedom Summer), and an insistence on Afrocentric elements (there was a Swahili call-and-response with hand gestures the kids, many of them Mexican-American, resolutely refused to do), as well as an odd focus on the KKK. It was a way of frightening the kids, who mostly hadn’t been out of Philly, into not wandering off (“This part of Tennessee is a national center for the KKK, and we know for a fact that there have been rallies just a mile from this farm,”) as well as an all-purpose historical explanatory tool.
The next day, we had some good biscuits and gravy, heard another lecture about the KKK, and caught the plane home. I’m not sure how the summer tutoring program went.
- That summer, I got a job as a “lead counselor” for a summer camp where kids would come to a science museum for a couple days and then we’d take them on a two-night camping trip in a different state park every week. Being “lead counselor” meant I drove the 15-person van (in spite of belatedly getting my license the previous month), which was fine enough as it went, though I had a lot more trouble parking the van in the tiny parking space behind the museum, giving it another scrape or ding after every two-night trip.
The kids were almost all white boys from the suburbs who were pretty easy going and interested in digging for fossil shark teeth or going to see an owl show or whatever we did at the state parks. One time, coming down from a hike at Rickets’ Glen, a 9-year-old decided he didn’t want to go any further and stood there and screamed continuously like a klaxon for twenty minutes. Other than that, these were the kinds of kids for whom yelling worked.
I was subletting a nice one-bedroom from a Penn law student who’d be moving in in August. The apartment was spotless, and my friends from Americorps had mostly left when the year was up, so I’d spend a lot of time when I wasn’t on the weekly camping trip lying on the floor of the apartment (I didn’t have any furniture) reading, or walking all around the city by myself. One day, I ran into a sort of hip-hop white guy I knew from Americorps who told me he was now homeless and asked me if I had a place to stay. He moved in, and brought a somewhat dilapidated TV he found on the street, and sat watching TV and eating Cocoa Puffs for the next couple months. The day I had to turn in the keys to the Penn law student, he was still sleeping next to the TV at noon when I finally got him awake. He shuffled off, with his TV and his sleeping bag, and I manically wiped the walls and vacuumed the floor for the next two hours.
I think that was the day I decided to move to New York.
3. We didn’t go on any field trips my first year teaching until the last week of school, when we went a few blocks south to Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees play the Red Sox. Arthur, Lavonne, Owen, almost all the kids who’d driven me crazy all year (Franklin wasn’t allowed to go on the trip) laid aside their grievances with one another to boo the Red Sox and cheer the Yanks. It was the Peaceable Kingdom, for a couple hours there in the cheap seats. I forgot to pack myself a lunch, and Danny J’s silent Salvadoran mother, who remembered the water rocket I’d made with him the previous month, kept smilingly passing me one baloney sandwich after another through the seventh inning stretch.
It was a happy ending to what I was sure would be my most exhausting year.
4. My second year turned out to be much more exhausting; two thirds of my students were back, well-remembering all the insanity from the previous year; the BOE was making me go to grad school at night to keep my alternative credential, and my grad school adviser was telling me to do a variety of crazy things in my class; the school was more chaotic than the previous year, after losing two administrators at the end of the previous year and being taken over by the state; and I was just less conscientious and energetic than I had been the year before. In October, my Teach for America project director, executive director, and TFA’s vice-president showed up in my class one 8th period and stood in the back of the room while 31 13-year-olds ignored both the visitors and my explanation of how sedimentary rock formation was like the plot of Apollo 13, and instead talked steadily among themselves.
One Friday in December, in sublime stupidity, I put everyone’s chairs in a circle and said we were going to discuss our issues, as my grad school adviser had told me to do. This was pointless with first period, annoying with 3rd, a bad idea with 5th and 6th, and then came 8th period. Within a minute or two of sitting down and me beginning my “I notice we’ve had a lot of trouble focusing on our work recently, and that many of you have complained of people picking on one another” speech, Jacob had said something intolerable to Tiffany and she had stood up to start methodically punching him in the chest, while he stoically stared at the ceiling.
“Tiffany! Tiffany!” I yelled.
“He’s lying about me,” she said, continuing to punch. Claiming that people were lying about her was a frequent refrain from Tiffany, as I’d discovered in a recent parent conference with her mother and the vice-principal.
“I don’t care what he said, just siddown!” I said.
“You don’t care?” Tiffany asked, incredulous. The rest of the class began a long, low “Oooooooohhh!”-the universal sound of middle-schoolers instigating a fight.
“Just. Sit. Down. Over there. Away from Jacob.”
She sat down. “You don’t care?”
A few scattered shouts- “None of these teachers care, don’t you know? Just a paycheck to them.” Suddenly everyone was the New York Post editorial page.
I thought I’d redirect the topic to the lesson. “Of course, your teachers and I care very much, we just want you to make the best of the opportunities you’ve been given.”
“‘Don’t you care about your Education, ya lazy kids?'” someone yelled out, in a parody of a Serious Adult. Everyone laughed, and then started talking among themselves.
“Let’s try to listen to each other so everyone gets a chance to talk,” I tried, but everyone just talked to each other. “Listen,” I said louder. Everyone still talking.
Meanwhile, Jacob was mouthing various Unforgivable Curses at Tiffany across the circle of chairs. She stood up, took a deep breath, and began rushing toward him. I jumped up and placed myself midway in her trajectory; she started pushing me towards Jacob’s chair with both hands, yelling at him and me.
“Fuck you, Tiffany,” I said quite clearly.
Everyone stopped talking. Tiffany looked at me, stopped pushing, and rushed out the classroom door.
I sat back down, put my head in my hands for a second, looked back up. Everyone was watching me.
“I’m very sorry for saying that to Tiffany, and for using those words.”
A few scattered cries of, “we understand,” and “these kids today are intolerable.” Other people saying,”it’s going to be a law suit!” or “you talk about us picking on each other,” and “…fired…” I looked up at the classroom clock, which was very slowly making its way to 3:20.
Beeeeeeeeeeep. Everyone rushed out, leaving the chairs in a circle. I went looking for the union rep.
“You didn’t say it,” the union rep said.
“I didn’t say it? Everyone heard me say it. I apologized to the class for saying it.”
“Look, was she cursing at Jacob? Was she saying ‘I’m going to fuck you up?’ or something like that?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“So you just were repeating what she said, to make sure you heard it correctly.”
On Monday morning, during homeroom, the PA system came on, telling me to report to the office. Tiffany’s mom was there, and the principal.
“Did you say it?”
I said what the union rep told me to say.
“He’s lying about me,” Tiffany said. She and her mom left.
The principal stared at me silently for a while and said, “I wouldn’t get too comfortable.”
The union rep found me later that day. “You’ll stay until the end of the year, he’ll write you a recommendation if you need one, and you’ll leave.” I thanked him profusely.
“Hey, don’t mention it,” he said. “These fucking kids, huh? They’ll knock into you all day long, but as soon as you say anything, they’re so damn sensitive. Just try not to slip again. And don’t get in the way of any more fights.”
The rest of the year became steadily less miserable and steadily more surreal. One morning, I told 8-215, “Let’s go look at the moon.”
“The moon ain’t out, it’s daytime!”
“Let’s go out and look at the moon.”
We went to the schoolyard and looked at the last-quarter moon.
The next day, I told them, we were going to go find some crustaceans.
“This is the Bronx, where you gonna find shrimp?”
“We going to the beach?”
We walked to the vacant lot two doors down from the school. I had seen the huge rats that lived here at night, but I figured it was safe enough during the day. Most of the kids stood along the sidewalk, while me and David L. and Jossani walked in and started flipping over the pieces of cardboard I’d left on the ground a couple hours before. All of them were covered in pill bugs, isopods.
“See,” I said? “Crustaceans.”
After school once or twice a week, I’d bring little groups of kids on the train down to the Natural History museum, to go see dinosaurs or the space exhibit. It was free for us to take the train, and free to get into the museum.
In class, one day in May, I brought in my guitar and tried to make up a song about the moon:
The moon is the second brightest object in the sky
after the sun
384,000 kilometers away
My third year, at my new school, we went upstate to the state park I’d worked at on Saturdays for the previous year. My friend who ran the nature center there, just beginning to slow his speech and movement, thanks to the brain cancer that would kill him the following year, brought the kids up to the frog pond, and then found a goose that had been run over on the road going through the park and suggested dissecting it. I had been looking for spiders with a group down on the little bridges going over the lake, and we came back up to see Amy and Jack beaming, their latex gloves splattered with bright red blood, holding goose livers and hearts up to a magnifying glass.
The next year, we decided to do an overnight trip with the whole 7th grade, and so we went way out on Long Island to an old mansion that was falling apart but had been used for school trips for the previous fifty years (this was the last year before it was shut down.) There was an aviary next to the mansion filled with hawks and eagles, and a path that went down to the shore. In a moment of great stupidity, at sunset I waded out into the water with a bunch of kids until the water was over our hips, tried to see the crabs scuttling over the rocks at our feet.
But sometimes stupidity isn’t punished, and we all walked back into the beach, back up to the mansion and had dinner in the cafeteria, where we could still hear the shrieking hawks.
The next year, the mansion was shut down, so we went out to a real summer camp site, even further out on Long Island. A kid broke his collarbone playing baseball and lay on the ground with tears streaming down his face for what felt like hours before a nurse came and set the bone; his dad borrowed a car and showed up near the middle of the night to pick him up.
8. Every year, in my second school, we’d take the seemingly endless train trip from the East Village to the Bronx Zoo, and go to Jungle World (before heading to the gorillas). The gibbons would shriek at one another, and slap the tapir that lived in their enclosure on its butt, and the black leopard who looked like Bagheera, would pace back and forth exactly like in the Rilke poem:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
9. A colleague and friend once left most of her students on the subway platform and went on by herself with just a few kids. Luckily, the rest of us were there (we’d come from ice-skating at the park) and could pick up the rest of the kids.
The colleague, who was young and beautiful, left the school early that year, and died early the following year, most likely of an overdose. Her mother came to the school and gave a beautiful speech to the kids about working hard at school, to remember their teacher’s memory.
10. Our colleague had died two weeks before our wedding (she was good friends with my wife), and by the memorial service the word had gotten out, through a loose-lipped guidance counselor, that my wife and I (who were teaching at the same school) were married. The next day, a pencil-drawn card showing two hands– one black and one white, entwined– showed up on my wife’s desk, with dozens of signatures.
11. Somehow, my last year teaching, I ended up teaching AP Environmental Science. One of the required labs was a census of plants in an area. We went up and down, counting the species, and I kept telling the students to watch out for poison ivy and to be careful. None of them got poison ivy, I did.
12. One of my former students, a white kid with a Puerto Rican family and major learning issues, ended up in trouble with the law a couple years later, in 9th or 10th grade. He agreed to testify against some people involved in a robbery. He was murdered in broad daylight on a busy street in the Lower East Side. I suspect the police didn’t pursue the investigation because they didn’t want it to be clear that they should have protected him.
At his funeral, his cousin, another former student, a sharp-tongued, smart and funny girl, rushed to me and hugged me.
“You can’t cry,” she said. “He’s in a better place, and at peace.”
13. I went with my family to some national parks in the Southwest last Fall. On one perfect, crystalline day, we climbed around Arches National Park; through the arches you could see the snow-covered Rockies in perfect, crystalline clarity.
To see, not to learn, is in the end the purpose of every trip.