The Silver Lining in the Cinderblock Cage

A few years ago, the governing idea about urban education, if you picked up a magazine or newspaper or just paid attention to what states and districts were doing, was that the reason that school I taught at in the Bronx was fucked up was because the teachers were all lazy or stupid, reading the newspaper instead of teaching, if you believed Waiting for Superman, for example. But the teachers I knew best and who taught the same students as me- Gutterman and Flucus, Moskowitz and Hogquist, Hernandez and Israel, all worked hard, all tried to understand the kids on their own terms as well as to communicate Rikki-Tiki-Tavi and the Revolutionary War and math proportion problems in the kids’ terms, as best as they could, and to communicate what it was to be a reasonable, thoughtful adult as best they could as well. There were times they no doubt felt themselves to be in a war against the kids who ran through the halls, peeking into a quiet, studious classroom to yell out “Wassup, Wessssssst-Side!” and then running away, and times they, like I, took things too personally with this kid or that. But mostly, they did their best, and it was hard to see that substituting another person in the room instead of them- someone younger or who had gone to Yale instead of Lehman- would make an appreciable or positive difference on average, Teach for America’s modestly/possibly positive effects notwithstanding. Putting me in there certainly wasn’t changing the world.

Well, if it’s not the teachers, is it the kids, the community, the parents?

Well, yes and also no. That school in the Bronx also had a lot of smart, studious kids, who in a way seemed extra-smart and extra-studious because of all the bozos acting up around them. I’ll never forget Marcos raising his hand the first day of school to explain why he wanted to be a chemist, or Jose, only a few months after arriving in the country, working through a persuasive essay explaining the evidence for continental drift, or Joeni’s raised hand and precisely-worded answers, day after dreary day, as the rest of her goofball class hooted and hollered and laughed and tossed paper balls. And I’ll never forget the days that this kid or that decided it was time to get their act together, Eric staying after school day after day to finish the stupid worksheets I gave as homework, eager for me to call his mom and tell her how good he was doing, or the soda-bottle water rocket that Danny J. made after school in the classroom, carefully cutting out the wooden fins and painting it all silver, that he and I then launched with a bicycle pump in the middle of recess, the silver rocket plopping up four or five feet before it splashed down in a fountain of bubbly water, the other kids who had assembled in an enormous circle around the rocket falling over with laughter, crying with mirth.

It was, in a way, easy for a kid in that school to decide that it was time to make something of him or herself, in part because once you did, no one could mistake you for the kids wandering into school at noon without a bookbag or getting hauled off to Juvie in the middle of the year. The serious kids at that school were, in a way, more serious than the serious students when I taught in more affluent schools later on, since their identity was such a clear contrast to the near-chaos all around. Do I think they held onto that identity for good, once they made it out of middle school? It’s unlikely; once they made out of that ugly mass of cinderblock in the Southwest Bronx, it was going to be harder for them to stand out from the crowd. I’ve kept in touch with one or two, and they are genial and well-mannered adults now, holding onto their Bronx identity with wry amusement as they’ve moved and changed. As Jennifer Lopez, who grew up a few blocks from the school I taught at, sang:

Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got
I’m still, I’m still Jenny from the block
Used to have a little, now I have a lot
No matter where I go, I know where I came from (South-Side Bronx!)

Feeling different from where we’re from, and longing for it once we’ve left, are the modern condition, and even if we stay on the block where we’re from, it will change and leave us behind. My second year teaching, the veterans of my crazy homeroom the year before, now aged and venerable 8th graders, would sometimes speak of 7-221 with nostalgia and a note of pride, (“we were the best!” they’d say to me, contrary to all evidence) for even the worst pieces of our lives are precious to us if they are ours.

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