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Tomarken.com > Research > Where College is not an option (Part 3) (03-28-03)
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Where College is not an option (Part 3)

A. B. H.
11.03.02-Da’ Bronx, NY
Subj: Where “college is Not an option”
Date: Sun, 03 Nov 2002 8:35:35 PM Eastern Standard Time
From: A. B. H.
To:

Dear friends and family,

I am long overdue for another update, mass-email style, I know. Let me try to fill you in…

The simple explanation is that I am a 6th grade English teacher at in the South Bronx (for those of you not familiar with New York public schools, they have both names and numbers, but generally are known by their numbers). The real truth, however, is much more complicated. Much more than a teacher, I am counselor, friend, enemy, mother, preacher, performer, salesman, zookeeper, and the strictest little white girl disciplinarian Beaver Dam, Wisconsin has ever produced. My “job,” as those naive to the lifestyle that is teaching call it, has taken me higher than I have ever been before, and yes, also lower than I ever hoped to go. These past two months have challenged me, pushed and pulled me, depressed me, motivated me, angered me, and enlightened me more than a midwestern girl recently shoved into the real world can often handle. And believe it or not, my summer training institute, of which I wrote with such drama a few months ago, was a walk in the park compared to what I do, see, and feel now. But I am trying, every day, and unearthing tiny nuggets of success along the way.

I have two classes, each with 28 students, about half African-American, half Hispanic (Dominican and Puerto Rican, mostly). Most of them live in the housing projects that surround my school. Most have seen, felt and experienced hardships that make this email full of my struggles seem pathetic and whiny. Leeygie (pronounced Lee-wa-jee, don’t ask how they came up with that), my pet, my baby, my sidekick, nonchalantly asked me on the first day of school as they were filling out a personal questionaire, “Hey Ms. H., how do you spell incarcerated?” Both of his parents are in prison. But at least they’re still alive, at least he knows where they both are. On my good days I recognize that the grief and frustration my students can cause me is only because they live in filth, poverty, and instability. On my bad days I think that it’s because they’re little shits with one, unified goal: to make Ms. H’s throat hoarse and blood boil. But I find that I can say with about 95% honesty that I love them all, even Jon, my schizophrenic student whose uncontrollable behavior makes me feel like George Costanza’s father: “SERENITY NOW!!!” Even Niko, who cannot write because he broke his knuckle on Keith’s face a couple weeks ago, so instead sits in class doing nothing other than distracting, disrupting, and all-around pissing me off. And I can say with about 95% honesty that they love me too. Even though I’m more strict and even mean than I would ever want the teachers of my children to have to be. But I teach in a totally different world than the one in which I grew up, and the children here know that in the South Bronx the toughest, strictest, meanest people are the ones that care the most, because rigid structure and control create the only paths out of this chaotic and shaky environment. I feel like I have multiple personalities, because Ms. H is someone that none of you know. I didn’t even know her until she surfaced on September 5th, wielding a teacher glare that scares even me, and a “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” sack full of consequences including but not limited to: phone calls home (in the middle of class from my cell phone if need be, and then you can tell your mother, Jessenia, why you can’t keep your pretty little mouth shut), surprise home visits, detentions, and for anyone who chooses to act like a baby, you can hold Ms. H’s hand as we walk down the hall (this works best on the boys). But Ms. H also tries to inspire. She expects nothing but the absolute best, because her class can and will be the best. She pours on the love and drama, with quotes like “You can hate me all year, but know two things; I will love you, and you will learn.” You see, the phone calls and surprise home visits can be for the good stuff too, to tell a grandmother how hard her baby has been working, or to tell a single father that Fantasia passed that test that she was so worried about. All of my kids have my cell phone number too, and I get phone calls from “what was the homework?” to a simple “hey Ms. H, how are you?”

If the students were the only challenge I faced, then this job, this lifestyle, would be manageable. But let me tell you a little about public education in New York City. Upon entering my school, students are immediately greeted with a big, bright banner proclaiming our school motto, “College is not an Option.” Yes, that’s right. The other Teach For America (from here on out known as TFA) teachers and I hope and pray that what they really meant to say was, “College is the Only Option,” or “Failure is not an Option,” but if you’ve lived in a place where college truly is not much of an option, you most likely interpret it in the negative. I find that this example aptly represents the irrationality, lack of thought, and glaring contradictions that define the entire school system. Student success here is measured almost entirely in standardized tests, to the degree where all my kids know if they are a 1, 2, 3, or 4 (3 and 4 mean that you are on grade level). About 80-90% of my school is below grade level in one or both tested areas (math and english). The school district recently decided that all teachers must make bar graphs charting the test scores of our students and display them prominently in the classroom, so I was forced to put up a bar graph that basically says “YOU’RE STUPID!!!” to my below-grade level classes. I am constantly being fed requirements such as these, that someone has decided offers the key to success. Success has nothing to do with smaller class sizes or adequate funding and supplies, but if you have a bar graph in your room, damnit, your kids will get smarter!

And did I mention that school here has more in common with prison than with any school I ever went to? Kids go through a metal detector on their way in, their bags are scanned, and sometimes they’re searched. There are no lockers, and classes are escorted by their teacher in two, single-sex, single-file, silent lines to and from each class. The only non-academic class is gym, which they get twice a week. No music, no art. I recently started an afterschool dance program, and got an overwhelming turnout because extracurricular programs of any kind are so rare.

And then there’s Ms. L, my assistant principal and boss (I have little to no interaction with the principal). Ms. L is an absolute ogre of a woman who, for the first month of school, threatened our jobs on a daily basis, told us she would absolutely not support us in anything, and basically did everything in her power to make our lives as stressful and difficult as she could. Fear and intimidation are her only tactics, and she uses them equally on students and staff, often using them on staff in front of students, thus stripping the teacher of any dignity, respect, or authority with the kids. Then she had the audacity to ask me last week, after two TFA teachers quit, if people were unhappy at the school, and if so, “Why on earth?” “Don’t they feel supported?” she asked, in all sincerity. I wanted to slap her. Luckily, she likes me, because I’m tough with my kids, and classroom management is her only gauge of success. I could be playing barbies with my kids for all she knows, but as long as they’re in line and therefore out of her hair, I’m a good teacher in her eyes. This mentality pervades, which is the primary reason I have had success in dealing with my superiors (which, unfortunately, most of my tfa colleagues have not). I leave them alone. I never ask questions, I never turn to them for help or support (even if the sole purpose of their job is to provide support, such as our staff developer), I deal with behavior problems myself, and I walk around like I know what I’m doing, even when I don’t, especially in terms of curriculum. But I will figure it out on my own before ever turning to anyone at my school for assistance, because to them that is a sign of weakness, and they prey on weakness.

I could spend hours listing example after example of the absolute idiocy that daily reaks havoc in my students’ education, but I think you get the idea. As you can imagine, the issues I deal with make my head spin with both inspired ideas on how to reform it and feelings of hopelessness that the problems are too huge to fix. My head spins too from the work load, the responsibility, the pressure, and the knowledge that, just like every first-year teacher, I am making mistakes, I am achingly imperfect. I’ve never in my life worked this hard, I’ve never felt both so competent and incompetent at the same time, I’ve never been so consumed and overwhelmed by responsibility, and it is weighing down on me heavily right now. My current existence extends only as far as the distance between my apartment and my school, and at a time in my life when I wanted to feel well-rounded (cheesy, I know, but true), my narrow plane of being threatens my happiness. BUT, somehow, I cannot really think of anything that I would rather be doing. Because if I can survive 58 6th graders in the South Bronx needing me, I really believe in a very melodramatic manner that I can survive pretty much anything. And that will someday feel really good, I know. Besides, if I wasn’t here I wouldn’t know Leeygie’s great dance moves, Isiah’s giggle, Jasmine’s constant need for hugs and just human touch, or Daniel’s hysterical look of “What did I do?”

I think about and miss all of you more than my lack of communication would ever tell you. Please write, call, and visit. New York City can be a lonely place.

Love,
A. B. H.

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