Archive | March, 2012

The Wrong Hood

27 Mar

Of all the clichés I have heard in my life, the one I will defend until I am RED in the face is “Sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees.” Find me a person who can disagree with the sentiment of this statement: that sometimes people get caught up in the small or easy to see and identify things, and lose the big picture matters that surround the real issue? I know I do it all the time. I get worked up about the Jets signing Tebow (a second string quarterback) and I talk about what a dumb signing it is. And then I fluctuate back and forth on how I feel about that until I lose track of the big picture: I am talking about a football team here! And a backup quarterback on that team! This isn’t the big issue. The big issue is the fact that this is major news and I am buying in to it. Seriously!

Let’s up the ante a bit. You know by now from reading this blog that I am a teacher in a transfer school in a major city. In this capacity I have seen more cases of blatant neglect and abuse of kids than I think any reasonable human would be comfortable with. My primary and primal reaction? If I could punch the person who did that to my kid, I would drop them in a heartbeat. I never think about the long-line of neglect and abuse that leads to more and more neglect and abuse and the social constructs that do not nearly enough to intercept it. Even if I have known and seen it all my life. In cities. In suburbs. Everywhere. You see a tree that you want to knock down you grab your axe and go for that tree. The forest? It’s too much to take on. And it ain’t the tree.

And if we up the ante even more? A kid is minding his own business (or what he thinks is his own business) and someone who considers himself to represent the law is troubled by something that young man is doing. He Pursues the unarmed young man against all logic and reason. He invades the young man’s space. Shots are fired and the young man is dead. The name of that young man? Ramarley Graham.

This isn’t the name you were expecting. If you don’t live in New York City and regularly read the news you have no clue who Ramarley Graham is. And I can’t blame you. The name that came to your mind, and should have come to your mind is Trayvon Martin. That should be the case. Trayvon is the tree. Ramarley is in the forest. Along with the rest of us.

Ramarley Graham was shot two weeks before Trayvon Martin. He was shot by an armed, on-duty police officer. He was shot in his grandmothers bathroom. He was unarmed, and the officer had no warrant. Ramarley’s grandmother wants everyone to know that not only did he not resist or throw a fight, but the police did not announce themselves as police before coming into her apartment and shooting her grandson dead. The New York Post and Ray Kelly would like you to know that Ramarley was flushing a Baggie of weed down the toilet when he was murdered.

What happened to Trayvon Martin is a travesty. What his parents are going through–a feeling I cannot imagine, and I assume most people who are so outraged by this incident cannot fathom, either–is a deep and private pain that should be reserved for NOBODY in this world. I wouldn’t diminish it for a moment. But what Ramarley Graham’s family has been suffering through during this same period is no less severe. And in my opinion, the fact that his tragic killing is not as widely mourned and protested as Trayvon Martin’s speaks a very sad truth about how we want to view ourselves as a society. The killing of an unarmed young man in a gated community is and should be cause for national alarm, especially when there is strong reason to believe race was a factor and when there is no question the gun is being raised in the name of the law. But the fact that young men are being shot at in the name of the law (or of any goddamn thing else)
in the Bronx, in the broken neighborhoods of Cincinnati, in East St Louis and in many other poor and dangerous neighborhoods across America, not to mention anywhere else, is equally troubling.

In the past few weeks as the Trayvon Martin case has grown national attention, I have watched the support evolve from bleeding heart liberal friends (I love you guys!) on Facebook, to Jesse Jackson, to religious southern black women claiming Trayvon could be their grandson, to Obama claiming his son would look like Trayvon, and eventually even the NY Post saying “Jesse Jackson is Right” (can you believe that?) And, I have also heard so many opinions on the case: this generation’s Emmit Till; a hate crime; a misunderstanding; a Latino male being scapegoated by race-baters; a political opportunity; the kid never should have worn a hood; all we need to know about “post-racial” America. And none of these people are wrong to feel the way they feel. None of these ideas, no how matter how much I want to dispute them, is unfair. But they all fail, I believe, to hit the nail on the target. They don’t want to. The concept of what happened in Sanford, FL (a “white” man killing an unarmed black kid in a gated community) is a tree we are willing to chop away at as a people. We have entered into a contract to accept that simplicity: race in our nation CAN be a problem of one person not being able to see or understand another because of the color of one’s skin. And the only complexity that gets added into the mix is that people will protect their own (George Zimmerman’s white cop buddies will take his word for what happened, even if he killed a young man solely for being black.) It might be a growing tree, but judging by the hard line stance people are taking on all ends of the Trayvon Martin case, we have indeed decided to take our social, political and personal axes to this tree. It’s much, much easier than turning our eyes upward toward the forest.

In 2009 there were 3 murders in Sanford, FL. Quick research on court records shows that 2 of 3 were apparently relative-on-relative murders (the third goes unsolved but is believed to have been drug-related). That very same year there were 299 murders in New York City, the VAST majority in the Bronx and Brooklyn (and this was the lowest in decades, in 2003 it was nearly 600.) Bronx and Brooklyn have the highest population of people below the poverty line in all five boroughs. More than 3/4 of the public housing in New York City is in those two boros. There are three secure juvenile centers in NYC. Two are in the Bronx. One is in in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The commissioner of police in New York City, Ray Kelly, once boasted that The Soundview and Wakefield area of the Bronx would be getting more police foot traffic than any other area in America: track em down! Earlier this year a student told me police were coming through his neighborhood (on the border of these two communities) pronouncing, “We have martial law here, now!” He even verified this to a civil rights lawyer. Weeks before he met with that lawyer his friend and neighbor, Ramarley Graham was chased into his own grandmother’s apartment by people he must have believed were police. But, as students have told me, “how could he know?” Even if he did, he was busy flushing baggies of weed down a toilet. The most incriminating thing the officer who murdered him said about Ramarley that day: “I thought I saw the butt of a pistol. I feared for my life.”

I don’t want to stop talking about Trayvon Martin. Ever. I just don’t want our conversations about race and violence in this nation to ever become about one young man being shot (with or without any threat) by another man. I also don’t want it to be about cops just killing kids. Even the most stubborn of my students know the police are not the biggest threat they face day today. I want our conversations about race and violence in this country to be about the forest, not the trees.

I sincerely hope America keeps wearing their hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin. But more sincerely I hope we talk as a people about what, exactly, we are supporting. And I hope, though I know it is a long way off, we can one day discuss Ramarley in the way we discuss Trayvon. These are two young men, who did what I did at their age, weed bags and all. And they could have grown up to become educators or police officers or damn good interior decorators for all we know. But we won’t know. And whether that sad and sickening interruption to their own possibilities happened in a palm fronded alley of a gated community or in Bronx Project bathroom should not be the difference between their legacy. If it is, we have much bigger problems in this country than a few racist lawmen.


Hope Springs Eternal, Even in the Concrete Jungle

21 Mar

I’ve taken a couple weeks of breathing and “me time” since the last post, and that’s probably a good thing.  Coming off what was certainly the roughest week of my teaching career (at least since my first year) I had to make a quick rebound to prepare for the beginning of the third trimester, in which I am teaching two entirely new curricula.  Also, I  just plain had to refocus my priorities.  But a funny thing happened.  Spring has sprung.

I’ve shared with my readers, in a post a few months back, my dreaded feelings on the winter months.  But spring in schools is a different story.  The mood–in a matter of days–can shift drastically.  For everyone’s own and personal reasons, each person working in a school, begins to just act different as the weather warms up.  Administrators in schools throughout the city begin to change their tone and focus to prepare for the annual reviews they will receive from the state, the city, their network leaders, parents, and staff, even the students themselves, which will dictate the future of their schools and many people’s careers.  Teachers can see the much-needed rest of spring break and eventually summer approaching, and they look forward to some of their students graduating and moving on.  Kids…well, its nice out, and they get to be kids again, less time locked indoors, graduation approaching for some, and one more notch in the belt for the rest.  They can see progress.  And so we all start acting differently.  Anyone who is familiar with sports radio or ESPN programming has certainly heard the old cliché “You are never as good as your best game, and never as bad as your worst.”  I hate clichés but this is as true as it gets for teaching, as well.  You are NEVER as bad, overall, as you feel when you are reflecting on the worst classes, days, weeks.  And as much as I hate to admit, you are never as good as you feel reflecting on the best ones.  As a Jets fan, and a teacher who has worked in schools that all too often operate as the Jets equivalent of educational institutions, I also know that so often the best weeks are followed by the worst weeks.  And then, if you’re lucky the opposite is true: a week where you feel like worthless shit can be followed by the euphoric “holy hell, I must be doing something right, these kids are killing it!” type-of-moment.  The last couple weeks have been one such blessing.  And man did we need it.  Like the warming of the weather (and the beautiful breezes, budding trees, and wonderfully dressed women that accompany spring in New York) this new beginning has been a godsend.

A little more than two weeks ago, I was absolutely dreading what my students’ term presentations and defenses were going to look like.  So many factors were clouding my opinion of the progress we were making as a class (or classes really…all 4 of them) that I had very little faith.  And then, magically, I was incredibly impressed two weeks ago when it came to the actual presentations and defenses.  Students, in crunch time, were able to produce essays and visual presentations (iMovies for the most part) that showed a lot of deep thought about the themes and topics we had covered and the issues and questions the assignment asked them to address.  One particular essay was a well-thought out, wonderfully humorous examination of how the student related to the main character of Catch-22, Yossarian.  Best of all he heeded my insistent advice to “write with your own voice” and not the thesaurus-heavy nonsensical writing that “formal” essay writing has made far too popular in high school (I know this has been going on forever, I was guilty of it 15 years ago, myself.)  But in addition to the formal essays, other students produced wonderful projects that showed similar literacy skills using digital media instead of traditional essays, and defended their projects by answering challenging questions from their peers and teachers.  Everyone really elevated the level of discussion to a place that I wasn’t certain we would be able to take it.  It was the first time in too long that I felt like those edu-buzzwords “Rigor” and “Differentiation” were dancing arm-in-arm in my classroom.  I was incredibly proud of a number of my students for the awesome results they created.

Last week we began our third trimester.  Inspired by the results from the Term Projects and Defenses from term two, I am eager for something even bigger and more consistent from my students this spring.  My class sizes are small (a result of a number of students moving on to Senior English finally, as well as an unfortunately dwindling population, and a little bit of “luck”.)  The new students who were admitted between trimesters appear to have that excited and exciting energy of a fresh start (something that teachers at a transfer school learn to cross their fingers and pray won’t dwindle with time.)  Some long-term students are looking forward to graduation.  Kids are acting like kids again, teachers like teachers.  The zombies have gone to hibernate.  Spring has sprung.

This was supposed to be a less journal-style post than the last, getting back to topical blogging.  And I promise, the personalized nature of what I have written so far is heading towards something more topical.  The near three-week break since my last post has seen something very interesting happen in the hyper-connective-Facebook-focused-digitally-driven lives in which students, and the majority of the adults in their lives now live.  A couple weeks back, the self-same kids who would often tell me they didn’t want to read about a book that didn’t take place in their neighborhood because it had nothing to do with their lives, were asking me to tell them about Uganda.  The viral Kony2012 video that has been both celebrated (by most) and vilified (by many recently, including myself) has at the very least achieved one of its major goals: it has us talking about the way in which the hyper-connective world can be a positive for humanity; it can, with the right message, the right approach, and the right people behind it, unite people across the globe, young and old, to discuss, care about, and fight to change problems that we face universally.  These problems that we may know little about because they don’t take place in our own neighborhoods, may now matter.  We may no longer keep asking, so what does it have to do with us?

The reaction many of my teacher and education-oriented buddies had to the viral film and its aftermath was similar to my own: excited to see the kids talking about something like this, but concerned that issues about the invisible enemies they face in their own lives still aren’t being heard, shared, made “viral.” I have spent the early days of this trimester sharing ideas with some educators, and especially with my Senior English students (who happen to be working in an inquiry research course) about using similar types of media, and other outlets, to begin to share messages that are meaningful to us as students, teachers, and citizens.  The thing is, it’s fine to vent in our classrooms, or during staff lunches, or on Facebook and blogs about issues in the modern education climate that bother us.  But if we can’t take the energy of spring, and try to make something awesome, something meaningful out of our reactions, we are looking at a lot of much longer, colder winters ahead.  So in that light, I am feeling a true excitement about working with students and teachers in my classroom and from a host of different schools to make something awesome this spring; something that addresses the concerns of American Education that I address in conversations and on my blog, and in venting, rambling Facebook posts each day.  Anyone interested in joining in on the work, you know where to reach me.

Lastly, the writing in this post sucked, and I am aware of that.  But it’s hard to put the energy of hope into words.  You just have to ride it. Who wants to ride with me?

I Am Gonna Make It Through This Year If It Kills Me

4 Mar


The greatest teacher I ever had was Bart Burgess.  He was 27 and could a bit of a clown. But he treated me like I was a human being and not a human-being-in-training.  I couldn’t tell you anything about the content he taught me, or any literal test he ever prepared me for, but he taught me more about how to be a good and thoughtful person than anyone in my life up to that point (at 16 you are too young to realize all the great things your parents have given you.)  For four months of my life–I was learning that semester on a sail boat, which I am now convinced was as much a last-ditch effort by my parents to get me to pull my shit together before the big “tests” of college, and this whole real life thing.  I suppose in some ways it may have worked.  Not just because it opened my eyes to a world much bigger than myself and my tiny little school that seemed like the whole world up to that point.  But mostly because I met Bart, and others like him who were real and who cared about what kind of people they were.  The teachers were young and went by their first name, or nicknames.  They realized that whatever content they could give us as we sat on the deck of a 127-foot Schooner, sailing from St. Thomas down to Venezuela and then all the way up to Halifax, Nova Scotia, stopping at the different islands and port cities along the way, was very much ancillary to what we could learn by opening our eyes and looking around.  Examining the hugeness of the world when you are the lone light bobbing on the surface at night, and you look around for miles in any direction and all you see are stars millions of miles away.  Or that sometimes the best thing a teacher can do for you, is hand you a scavenger hunt sheet in Charleston, South Carolina, and send you off in small groups.  On the list: a cup of grits (up until a few years I still had the cup…not the grits) and taking a shower at the local manual car wash.

Bart was living proof that you have to learn to love the life you get at some point, no matter how incredibly awkward and difficult it feels to do so when you are 16 or 18 or 29.  I really believe that.  In order to leave even the slightest bit of positive impact in this world, you have got to learn how to appreciate the ways you can teach the world, and the world can teach you; and the ways you can make the world your playground as well.  If you’re not having fun, and you’re not happy, I’m not sure it matters how smart you are.

I changed careers after 2.5 years, ostensibly because I felt my career was unfulfilling (I worked in Research for a Reference Publishing company, mostly on Sports topics) and I was spending the majority of my waking hours in a lonely cubicle doing something unimportant.  More so than that, if I am being honest, I wasn’t having any fun.  I didn’t get to interact with many other people on a meaningful level, and smile and laugh.  The highlight of my day was typically checking deadspin.  I saw the fulfillment and enjoyment my parents and brother have gotten out of careers in education, and I thought, “Why not?”  I didn’t have any great epiphany that this is my calling, or even self-righteousness about it.  It was probably as much a selfish act as anything else: here’s a job where I can focus on things I care about, like reading and writing, and feel good about it, too.

But I did decide, somewhere along the first year of my teaching that I was going to be a teacher like Bart.  I had a lot of great teachers I could have chosen to emulate: my English teachers in High School are almost certainly the reason I became an English teacher, myself.  But I was realistic, and I saw where my strengths were.  I was never going to be some kind of organized super-planner, like some teachers were.  I was never going to have so much knowledge about the content, like my teacher Ms. M. that it practically oozed out of me, and it was impossible for the kids not to sop it up.  I wasn’t going to have the patience, like Ms. R., to sit with kids and literally strangle-hold them into learning to appreciate what it means to be a good reader and writer.  I didn’t have that in my personality and my style.  But I definitely felt that I had it in me to follow Bart’s model.  Just keep leading the horses to water.  Just keep insisting it is worth trying something even if it makes you a little uncomfortable.  Not because you say it, and you are older and have some kind of authority, but because you’re living proof.  Be open, be honest, and just be you.

It’s very hard to do that in today’s teaching climate.  Perhaps, I am finding, impossible.  Teachers are fired and ridiculed in the NY Post for admitting to past indiscretions in judgment, or for blowing off steam on Facebook.  They are told to keep the kids at a distance (unless you work in a Charter School, in which case, make sure they have your cell phone and a personal pager!) If the wrong people read this blog and knew that many of my students read it, that would probably be enough to warrant me getting a serious talking to.  A student who was feeling really shitty about some things and concerned about college asked me and two fellow teachers (female) to take her out for dinner last week just to talk and provide advice.  I seriously had to think twice about it.  That’s absurd.  More and more you are told by union leaders and administrators that it’s just not safe to care.

I banged out last week for the first time this year, when I wasn’t sick, just because I felt like shit.  Because I couldn’t convince myself on a Thursday that it was worth it to be in the classroom.  I couldn’t come up with a single reason why it would be better for me to be the adult in that room than anyone else, even a stiff corpse.  A stiff corpse might have been less likely to snap.  It’s the kids and it’s not the kids.  It’s the administration and it’s not.  And it’s the teachers and it’s not.  Unless you work in a school that is absolutely dysfunctional, it’s impossible to understand what it’s like.  And when schools like this are being scrutinized by know-it-alls who never actually step foot in the school (outside of a highly rehearsed two-day review where they see some caricature of the school, and not the school itself) well all of it can be disheartening.  Beyond disheartening.

I came home Wednesday night, and I tried to make a t-chart list of things I have given up over the last five years of my life (left column) and things I have gained.  I have no idea why I thought this was a good idea.  The list on the left took up the whole page.  And then I just sat there and stared at the column on the right.  And kept staring.

Kismet, or whatever it is, is a life-ring.  I was weeding through some Facebook messages on Saturday morning.  A message from a few weeks ago came up.  A former student when I taught in the Juvenile Centers, asking if I used to teach there.  I said, I did, and I remembered her well.  “A very good writer. And a bit of a handful.”  She said she still had a book of poetry we had made as a class, and that she was out and in a great school now.  And then she thanked me.  “Thank you for helping me while I was in there I don’t think I would have made it if my grades weren’t so good.”  I didn’t know how to respond to that, without telling her that the writing itself means so much more than the grades.  I guess I didn’t respond because I didn’t see that as a thank you meant for me until I re-read it this weekend.  Maybe I just need it to be a thank you meant for me to make me feel like I can keep doing this.

I made a promise five years ago that I was going to be the kind of teacher Bart is.  And all there is to it is that I have to be.  I don’t need to be affirmed by people who really don’t know what goes on in my school, or in my classroom.  Sometimes I wish I got more feedback from the kids: “Schmidt, you sucked this week.”  Or, “Schmidt, you killed it today.”  But I guess I don’t need that either.  I just need to keep leading the horses to water.  Keep insisting it is worth it to keep trying.  Keep being living proof.  Be open, be honest, and be me.  I can’t be any other kind of teacher, and if a school or a city demands another kind of teacher, at the end of my commitment this year, they can have it.  The world needs more teachers like Bart, even if I have to provide it somewhere else.

Bart, thank you man, and ten years later I miss you tremendously. Rest in Peace and Fair Winds.

Everyone else, please do the “bad” teachers of this world a favor and read this fantastic op-ed my dad just sent me.  And sorry for the self-absorbed journaling.  Back to topic blogging in a couple days. For now, I leave you with the words of my friend and teacher, Bart, in the last letter he wrote to his friend, Fuz:

“A strange and wonderful classroom is life, and all of us teacher and student alike learn from it as we learn from each other. I hope I make the most of it. […]”