Colleagues and Friends

I was hired at my first school in late August, about ten days before the beginning of school. The hiring for the district in the Southwest Bronx was happening in a single room in the district office, a small storefront under the elevated 4 train where the walls would shake periodically as a train went by overhead. My TFA project director, a round-faced, California hippy with short-clipped blond hair (she would later tell me she got through her first year teaching with the help of a lot of high-quality chronic bud) guided me over to a set of four desks pushed together, where two overweight men were seated in too-small desks: a white guy in his early 60s with a steel-gray beard and cold, detached blue eyes, sweating profusely in a shirt-and-tie with the sleeves rolled up, and a younger black guy with long dreads in a dark suit.  The white guy introduced himself as Forman, the black guy as Heyliger, and the white guy started in on a speech he had clearly made several times already that day.

“We’re reorganizing the school into professional learning communities where the students will be guided into curricula that are targeted to their individual interests and project based learning opportunities for exploration matched to areas in the arts and future careers these small learning communities will allow for a smaller and more intimate school within a school experience” he said, without audible punctuation. He switched off the robotic patter, and said, in a more normal tone of voice, “I’ve been in the school system for thirty five years, and I’ve been an administrator for twenty years.” He paused, as if he expected me to say something.

“Has it changed a lot in that time?” I said.

Heyliger, the black guy, laughed. “Thirty five years, I’d think it’s changed a lot.”

Forman, the white guy, half-smiled. “There’s…more attention on the schools than there used to be, from the public and from parents. Which is good, even if it makes things harder sometimes. But the kids are the same as they ever were.” And he looked at me meaningfully, as if he expected me to protest that the kids were much different thirty five years ago. He looked down at my resume. “You’ve worked in schools before?”

I explained what I’d been doing in Philly, the good parts at least. Forman looked at Heyliger and shrugged in a, “sounds good enough” type of way. It was summer 2000, unemployment was the lowest it’s ever been in New York. I was good enough.

“What would I be teaching,” I asked.

“Earth science…or physical and life science. 6th grade and 7th grade, or 7th and 8th grade, or maybe all three. We’ll have the assignments in the next two weeks.” (School started in less than two weeks.) “Five classes, or six. You’d be the main science teacher for one of the new academies.”

I said yes, since I assumed that’s what I was supposed to do when somebody offered me a job, and they both shook my hand, Forman’s handshake bone-crushing and Heyliger’s huge hand soft, barely clasping mine.

“You feel good about this?” my TFA project director asked me, as I walked away from the cluster of desks. I shrugged, in a “sounds good enough,” type of way. “You’ll be fine,” she said, with a wide smile, her short blond hair bobbing.

Then it was down the hall, to get fingerprinted and get assigned an emergency teaching credential. The guy reading through our college transcripts to see if we had enough science credits to teach science stopped and shook his head as he scanned mine.

“You need at least four credits of physics,” he said.

I pointed to my freshman year grades.

“Auto mechanics doesn’t count as physics,” he said.

I explained that mechanics was a pretty hard introductory physics class at my school, and agreed with him that they should fix the name since it was confusing. He handed me a slip of paper that said that I could teach as a permanent substitute for the year but would need six credits of instructional methods courses if I wanted to keep my credential at the end of the year. I was a teacher, more or less.

I took the subway down to the 63rd street YMCA, where TFA was putting us up while we got jobs and found apartments. My roommate had just gotten back from an interview elsewhere in the Bronx.

“I got a job.”

“Me, too. 6th grade math and science. Or 6th and 7th grade math. They don’t know.”

“Yeah, me, too. A bunch of classes, they don’t know which ones.”

It was still early afternoon: a dull, hot August New York day. I decided to go look for an apartment, and took the A train up to 181st street, and walked into the first real estate office I saw.

An Italian guy with a round, clean-shaven face introduced himself as Louie, how much was I looking to spend.

“I got a place that’s just perfect. It’s 550 and the heat’s electric so your electric bill’s gonna be crazy, but it’s 550 for your own apartment. Penthouse- well at least it’s on the top floor.”

The apartment, a tiny studio with a strange plasticky smell from the thick layer of sealant covering the floor, was on the seventh floor, but because it was below Fort Tryon’s huge hill, it was actually below the bottom floor of the apartment building behind it.

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

The next day was Saturday. I spent a while going from bookstore to bookstore, looking for middle school science textbooks, trying to figure out what I’d be teaching the following year. Then the rest of the New York TFAers were meeting at the apartment of the TFA board president, a telecom executive, and her famous nonfiction writer husband.

This was a real penthouse, looking out at the sun setting over the Hudson from the West Side, and waiters in cummerbunds circulated, offering us shrimp and little mushroom hors d’oeuvres speared on toothpicks. I saw my round-faced, blond program director.

“This is making me a bit nervous, like you guys wouldn’t be wining and dining us like this if this weren’t a big mistake, ” I said.

She smiled. “Not a mistake, just hard.”

The famous nonfiction writer husband was holding forth to a group of four or five male corps members.

“You gotta ask yourself, is this something I love? I mean, I was a lawyer, and I hated being a lawyer. But hell, when I became a parent, I didn’t know any seven year olds.”

The telecom exec gathered everybody together in the center of the enormous living room, said a few words about how proud of our (not-yet-begun) service she and the famous nonfiction writer husband were, and, probably eager to get rid of us, had the waiters hand out tickets to the Circle Line cruise that night.

One of the other guys had a bottle of wine but no corkscrew. We managed to cork the bottle and pass it around to take a swig while looking at the lights of the city, as the boat circled around the island.

Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic

The First Law of Educational Inefficacy

Section Sheets

Home Visits


The Talent Show


All-American High School

13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip


2 thoughts on “Colleagues and Friends

  1. I love the way you write. There’s powerful feeling of nostalgia which is strange, because really why would I care about the career of a high school teacher an ocean away from me, but it works. Somehow I am compelled to read more. Any plans for a book? Maybe there is one and I missed it…


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