8:10 a.m. I get the call—the desk has been opened and the key is available. I rush down the hallway to the storage closet, unlock it (it takes two keys,) and pull out the digital projector. I have only 10 minutes to set it up and prepare myself for the beginning of the day. I recall the mantra all teachers have drilled into their heads the first year: “If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.”
DVD player set up and ready to go, the kids begin streaming down the hallway. They walk under two strands of origami cranes that my classes folded back in October. The fact that these 30 or so cranes, hanging on a thread from the ceiling, remain where I put them reminds me how much the school has changed in the past three years. Four years ago, nothing would have hung for long without being ripped down or tagged with a marker. At the end of the school day, the hallways looked like somebody had thrown a party and forgot to clean up: candy wrappers, paper, cafeteria food. When the old principal was removed and the guy we have now hired, things changed—for the better. We used to be known as one of the worst schools in the Bronx. Now parents want to send their kids here. And thanks to the No Child Left Behind initiative, it is now easier to transfer a kid into a school their parent chooses; this year we took in over 40 transfers from other neighborhoods. For the first time in five years, I have 32 kids in my class. I had to ask the janitor for an extra desk.
As the kids walk past me and into the room, some stop and respond to my “Good morning.” Some mumble and narrow their eyes, aghast that an adult would even talk to them. Others walk by silently, as if trying to sneak into the class unnoticed. One boy stops and puts out his hand. I learned years ago that no matter how adept I believe I am at the Masonic-style handshakes common to New York City schoolchildren, it’s not wise to engage a child in a game for which only he knows the rules. Instead, I grab the child’s hand, force him into the “businessman’s handshake” and greet him with, “Welcome to my company.”
Third period, I have the more difficult of my two groups. It includes many children who would have been in bilingual education had the school not cut that program last year. I have one student who arrived from Sierra Leone this summer and had never been in school before. The first day, I noticed that when he was asked to write things, he copied from whatever text he could find around the room. For example, Name: Fire Drill Exit 2. This tendency is common to ESL students. I don’t blame them; I would probably do the same if I was asked to write in Russian or Arabic. What was unusual was that his letters were not uniform. This indicated to me that he was not accustomed to using our alphabet. I referred him to the guidance department, who sent him to the ESL teacher. She still sees him one period a day and says he’s making some progress, but since he only speaks Fulani, and there is no Fulani translator in the school—or in the Department of Education, even—she feels hindered.
In this class, I also have two students who have been held back in the sixth grade twice. I taught both of them two years ago. They should be looking forward to graduation and high school; instead they are both 14 and looking at summer school. When asked about it, they say, “I don’t care,” a hardened response that is sadly common.
After lunch, the group returns buzzing with energy. A number of students never settle down enough to begin their journal entries. One boy, the one who explained to me that he can’t behave because he is angry, talks and sings uncontrollably. Surprisingly, he sings Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” (“I like big butts … “). That might have been provocative 10 years ago, but it doesn’t get a big response today. He follows his rendition with a hip-swiveling dance. I can’t put him into the hallway again, so I decide that I’ll call the dean and put him into the newly created detention room.
I’ve never put a child in the detention room. (It was just created sometime around the beginning of February. In fact, I don’t know any teacher who has sent a student there and honestly, it seemed too good to be true.) I call the dean to ask for the number. She tells me, “There is no detention room.” Well, there go the big guns. I hang up the phone, point at the kid, and say something weak, like, “You’ll be in the basement soon.” This has little to no effect. Children are great bluff detectors; they hear their parents and teachers bluffing all the time.
During a change of classes, a fight involving two large boys from my difficult class almost breaks out in the hallway. Mr. P, a first-year science teacher from Niagara Falls, attempts to break it up. I stand back. They don’t seem like they really want to fight. (For all their posturing, boys usually don’t.) Quickly, calm is restored, but later in the day I hear that one of the boys punched Mr. P in the back. Mr. P gets advice from Mr. S about which forms to fill out and who to call.
While some teachers and I are discussing this new assault, stories begin to circulate about another incident that took place the week before break. A teacher on the second floor, an Albanian guy who has been teaching here for years, was hit with a chair by a female student. I can’t remember a time since the new principal arrived that there has been so much violence in the school. I’m afraid that the school may be getting worse, even before he retires this June. I dread what might happen next year.
This morning, I read about how only 211 of the city’s 937 middle schools made Albany’s “Honor Roll” of “Most Improved Schools.” My school was not among them. But the first school I ever worked at in New York City—IS 318, in Brooklyn—is. In fact, IS 318 placed in the top five middle schools in both English and Math. I haven’t been to that school in five years, but what I remember best is the principal. He was a teacher advocate and would always support the teacher, even if he disagreed with him or her. He began every staff meeting by saying, “You are the finest staff of any school in New York City. This is the greatest school in New York, or anywhere.” Was this true? Who cares? Did he believe it? I have no idea. But it was good to hear. And since then, I haven’t heard anything like it.