Today’s a half-day so it’s an easy morning, but it’s Open School night, which means I won’t be home until 9:30 this evening. We also have two sessions of parent-teacher conferences scheduled, noon to 2:30 and then again from 6 to 8:30. I’ve enjoyed parent-teacher conferences ever since I learned the secret to a productive meeting: Leave the kid in the hallway. There’s a reason they’re not called “parent/teacher/student” conferences. If the kid is sitting there as you’re detailing all his or her failings and misbehaviors, you then have to sit and listen to the parent lecture and yell at the kid, repeating the same. You have to watch the kid turn on the waterworks. You have to sit, tapping your pencil uncomfortably, while other parents hover around the door, awaiting their turn.
Third period, I decide to dispense with my lesson plan and give the kids a chance to write about things they think people should know about their school and their neighborhood.
An 11-year-old girl who wants to be a chef and an author writes: “My neighborhood has such a bad reputation, that when I go to order food over the phone they say, ‘Sorry we can’t send your order.’ “
“My neighborhood is messed up, it’s not a good neighborhood. One day this man got stabbed in the neck, ” writes a 10-year-old aspiring poet.
“If you walk outside, you have to watch your back because you just can get jumped, mugged, killed,” writes a 12-year-old girl who wants to be a lawyer.
And another 12-year-old lawyer-hopeful writes, “I like this school a lot. The Principal comes to classes to see how they are going.”
As the students work, the principal walks down the hallway. If he has a foot out of the school already, he still acts like he owns the place. He spots a lanky kid, probably a foot-and-a-half taller than he is, wearing a throwback Nuggets hat. “Hey you very hungry tonight?” he asks the kid. “You wanna eat hat?” The kid quickly snatches the hat off his head and the principal keeps walking.
Out of 59 students, I see 32 parents. Not bad. About six of them are Spanish speakers, so I have to dust off the old college Spanish. I spent a semester in Granada and used to speak pretty well, but nowadays I only use it on Open School night. It helps. Some parents won’t admit to preferring Spanish, and it has happened that I finish a five-minute speech on a child’s disrespect, disruptions, and academic shortcomings, only to have the parent pause and say, “So the work is good?” I’ve learned to inquire up front, “Spanish or English?”
The conferences are an event. Extended families fill the hallways. Friends embrace, strollers are pushed by 8-year-olds, grandmothers hold toddlers on their laps. Add a grill and it would feel like a Saturday barbecue. But many children leave in tears. Sometimes even the parents leave in tears, or fuming. Others leave with wide, proud smiles on their faces. Security guards and deans watch the halls, on the lookout for anything that might go wrong. But tonight nothing happens, thankfully.
After the evening session, the teachers who ride the subway gather to walk together to the station. It is past 8:30, we’ve been at the school for over 12 hours, and we are punchy with exhaustion.
We walk together out into the brisk night. The streets are eerily deserted, stores closed and gated, windows of homes barred up to the second story. On the subway, we trade stories about parents, kids, what will happen after the principal leaves. Some of my colleagues are nodding off. When I step out of the train I say, “See you in the morning,” and it seems like a joke that we have to return so soon. But we know we’ll see each other every day for as long as we work at this school, on good days, bad days, half-days, days before vacation and after break. Sometimes we’ll see each other doing the right thing, sometimes doing the thing that get us through the day.
One of my students wrote, “I want people to know that not all public schools are violent. Some are, but we can change that by working together, and cooperating with each other.” She’s 11 and wants to be a writer—she’s also right.
(Thanks to Fatima, Jeiry, Ana, Sasha, and Cynthia for their thoughts.)