Dear John: Saying Thanks and Good Luck to One of the Three Teachers I admire Most

4 Jan

I owe an incredible amount of “career debt” to three people I have worked with over the years. One is a shaker-and-a-mover, one is a mad-scientist, and one is a true-G. For the first two years of my career I was blessed to work with all three. For five years, just the last two. I have learned endless amounts from all three: how to navigate the system and teach what you think is valuable and important and right, while still speaking the language of the policy-men; how to create meaningful projects that can both assess students’ knowledge and skills, AND address things that are valuable and meaningful to them as individuals; how to work in multiple modes of media; and how to go out for a beer on a Friday night and say ‘Well this, that, and the other sucked, but how ‘bout what happened here!’ In any career path, connections and networking are important. I have had innumerable job opportunities, and extra-curricular opportunities presented to me through my friendship and common philosophies with these men. I was able to work with the high-security dorms in the juvenile centers (something that was actually an honor at the time, as odd as that sounds), to find a job as an English teacher at a Transfer High School when I needed a break from the jails, and work with an incredible group of students in an afterschool program eventually taking part in conferences in California and a film showing at the Queens museum celebrating their work. I have no doubt that when my run at my current school ends there will be other opportunities out there thanks to these three. Anybody who has worked just about anywhere, one would imagine, understands how phenomenal it is to partner with people whose work you respect. In any job I have ever had, from painting houses during my high school summers, to sports research, through my teaching career there have been people whose work philosophies I simply couldn’t tolerate and others who inspired me daily to keep par.

When I sat down for dinner Monday night, at a fun little pizza spot in Union Square, I looked down the table through a crowd of the students whose work at my school has made me the most proud over the course of these last two years. And at the other end was the man most responsible for their success. Next week he hops a plane to California, where his career continues to rocket upward, and where other students are going to be blessed with what the gift of a good mentor and teacher can mean.

My boy John is not a traditional teacher. He won’t get a “rating” from a principal at the end of the year (shit, not a single administrator or policy-man came to the film showing he and the Famous Nameless crew—his afterschool conglomerate—held at the Queens museum this September.) He doesn’t get paid to do what he does, and often pays out of pocket for food, or Metrocards, for his students. He doesn’t dress like a traditional educator, doesn’t act like one or speak like one. Sometimes people mistake him as a student. Here’s a guy who didn’t get into education to be a preacher/teacher, but did it to make meaningful connections with kids who needed that “semi-adult” influence in their lives. He works with kids, often tirelessly, and cantankerously (kids can be frustrating sometimes) but always kindly because he believes it is what’s right. Because he wants them to have the opportunities and life-fulfillment that art and education and philosophy have given him. And I imagine because he agrees with me that it doesn’t matter if you are facing 15 years in a cell, or growing up in the posh Jersey suburbs: you deserve an education that values you and your experiences, and gives you the opportunity to grow into the best person you can become, day-by-day. That’s not bleeding-heart liberal bullshit, and it isn’t No Child Left Behind delusion—it’s a philosophy that is necessary to survive in a system that is not about the teachers, and definitely not about the students (in fact, I am sure he will be embarrassed about this post because it is so much about him and not the Famous Nameless…but I will get to that.) I don’t think I could ever get into the Research/Academia thing, not as it applies to studying Education, anyway. But I think very few people have the style, the intelligence, the flair and the ability to connect with kids that John has. And for that reason, it is hard to imagine that his “research”, writing, and more importantly his impact on individual students’ lives won’t be rewarded greatly down the line. I could see in the faces of some of my students last night that it already is.

Maybe John lucked out with the crew he pooled together (an often amorphous gathering of some of the quirkier students from our school and a neighboring school.) I know I count myself lucky to have taught each and every one of them formally and informally. But I think there was something more special than lucky about how that particular crew came together, the things they were able to create, the conversations they were able to have, and how they applied it to their more traditional schooling. To be sitting Monday night at a table filled with unique individuals, each with different styles and personalities, and stories to tell was a bittersweet moment. John raised a toast and assured his students that the best was yet to come, and he was still their family: new opportunities will open for them, and they have each grown up an incredible amount over the past 18 months, or so. And that was undoubtedly true. On one side of the table I was looking at one of my absolute favorite kids to work with (and watch grow up) over the past year, a completely changed young man from the one I met 18 months ago; and his girlfriend, a few short months away from graduating thanks to help from her teachers and her own improving self-confidence. On the other end, kids from a different school who used to stop by my class even though they were from a DIFFERENT SCHOOL just to spend the period tutoring my own students in Macbeth. On one end a student who was (probably illegally) pushed out of our school but still comes back on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to meet with the Famous Nameless. On another end a student working on a documentary comparing-and-contrasting the story of students in a graduate program for dance at NYU with his own boy, a dancer, who can’t keep himself out of jail long enough to give his dreams a true shot. I don’t think it can be expressed the changes in attitudes, approach to school, confidence, and just plain valuing of their own lives that these kids have made. And, listen up Famous Nameless, it isn’t because of John (although he’d love for you to believe that 😉 It’s because you had a little luck, and pressed on it with a lot of energy, and a bit of motivation from a great mentor. But it ain’t all about the teacher. It rarely is.

So in two years these kids will all be sitting in college classrooms, or ‘Raymond’ will probably be sitting in his basement, playing death metal and staring at a fractal screen-saver (but that’s a different story.) And I guarantee if you asked them what educational experience influenced them the most, and brought them to this point in their academic career, they would say “The Famous Nameless” without skipping a beat. So why does this stuff go unnoticed? How is it possible that a guy who went out of his way, spent his own time and money, took kids to places they had never been and created the type of art they had never before fathomed gets to leave without a single “Thank you” from anybody beside his kids and a few co-teachers? I am not sure. I guess there is no rubric at the Dept Ed to evaluate the meaning and worth of such work. I guess if it cannot be privatized and corporatized: measured with the traditional forms of “data” it isn’t meaningful. The irony here is that the data is right in front of our eyes. About a dozen pieces of indisputable data: one dozen kids whose lives were greatly impacted and whose schoolwork improved, who forged bonds they never would have otherwise, and created art and discussions and film that most kids could not create (I don’t care what school they are from.) Johnny, my man, if you never get a single meaningful “Thank You” from an administrator or Dept Ed Big-Whig, you know that the showing at the Queens Museum, the dinner Monday night, the memories of the Famous Nameless, and the meaning of this experience will be with them moving forward…all this is a much more powerful thanks.

Johnny: Sean, Andy and I are going to miss you man. The Famous Nameless will miss you. Safe travels, and teach those kids in Oakland how we do.

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One Response to “Dear John: Saying Thanks and Good Luck to One of the Three Teachers I admire Most”

  1. Bobby January 7, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

    John will always be a big influence in my life. From all of the hard work and dedication we did, every moment is worth it and The Fameless Nameless will never forget.

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