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Incident in a Harlem School

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All school, teacher, and student names in the following have been changed. But the story is a true one.

My cab moved North on Malcolm X Boulevard, traveling at a fast clip against the morning traffic. As we slowed toward 117th Street, I noticed the remains of what must have been a very large rat before being run over. The tail appeared to be about 12 inches.

On the fourth floor of the elementary school that is its home, the Yosemite Middle School was beginning to come alive. Teachers hustled in, greeted colleagues, and dropped into chairs around the worktable that is the gathering place. Norman was the main topic of conversation; yesterday he had "gone berserk,'' so anxious to commit mayhem on Troy that an ex-athlete teacher had been tested by the effort to separate the two. The teacher--a new and struggling young black science teacher--was upset by the student rumors afterward that he had roughed up Norman in the attempt. Later, after Norman had waited to jump his adversary at lunchtime, the boy's rage had grown. It took four teachers and, finally, an armed policewoman, to tear him away from the hapless Troy.

Norman has been a problem. Two days earlier he had threatened another new male teacher with after-school annihilation at the hands of a gang of his friends, causing most of the school's nine teachers to leave school together en masse at the end of the day. (By the next morning, Norman had either forgotten it or thought better of it and became something close to cordial toward the young man he had threatened.) The close, friendly staff had joked about it together, but the young teacher--father to an infant son--confessed that when he left home the next morning it had crossed his mind that it could be the last day of his life.

The teachers'-room group soon separated and the school day began. No sign of Norman. But at about 11 A.M., as I sat in the deserted room chatting with the school's director, Marie Curran, a uniformed policewoman strolled in. Marie recognized her right away as the officer who had finally torn Norman away from his target the day before. Marie, who does daily lunch duty, had been one of the four teachers who had tried unsuccessfully to separate the two (and had been slammed against the school's brick wall for her efforts). The policewoman was concerned about the incident, and those involved, and had stopped in to offer cooperation and support.

Marie told of her 15-month effort to save Norman, and of the odds he battled at home: a mother struggling to break away from drug addiction, a series of foster homes, and in all probability a long history of physical abuse. The officer--an attractive, softspoken Hispanic woman--responded with stunningly unexpected compassion as Marie described her efforts to save Norman. He had come to the school last year as so disruptive and unruly a 7th grader as to sometimes make classroom instruction all but impossible. His classmates had even spoken openly about not wanting him in classes--a remarkable rejection for a group not known for classroom diligence. And they had occasionally ridiculed and laughed at him as well. Yet despite his behavior, and the peer rejection, Marie was convinced that the school was a place Norman really wanted to be--the least hostile oasis in an otherwise totally bleak young life.

Marie shared her reluctant conclusion that Norman would have to go elsewhere--that the school just couldn't handle him--but it was clear that she was finding it personally difficult even to suspend him, despite the previous day's events. "There's no place he could go, other than the streets.'' Last year she had recommended the Elgin Project for him--a small alternative school with a program and staff targeting disturbed youngsters--and Elgin officials were ready to receive Norman. But his mother's signature on the application had proved impossible to obtain, despite repeated efforts, and the transfer could not proceed without it.

As the two women exchanged comments about the tragedies of the children of Harlem, a small, slight, very dark boy appeared in the doorway. Just as Marie said, "What a coincidence, here's Norman,'' the slim figures of a man and a woman appeared behind him. The three entered stone-faced and sat down in the chairs Marie pulled up for them around her desk. The officer remained standing, leaning against the desk.

Norman's mother opened the conversation with a belligerent "I don't think a grown man has the right to pick up a boy and slam him on the floor.'' There was a moment of silence while Marie looked at Norman and then said slowly, "That's not what I understand happened.'' She told the story--without rancor or embellishment, with concurring nods from the policewoman as the final segment unfolded. At that point, the mother, who had stiffened visibly, whirled on Norman and erupted with, "that's not what you told me.'' Not a word from Norman, who looked at her expressionlessly. "I've told you again and again to tell me the truth,'' she said heatedly. "I can't stand a liar.''

In the minutes that followed, Marie tried valiantly to turn the conversation to the question of what was to be done, but it was difficult. Again and again, the mother re-articulated her utter rejection of the boy: "You've made us look like fools.'' "You don't git along nowhere.'' "You have no friends.'' The boy--and the man we assumed to be his father--sat silent and expressionless. Only the body language occasionally betrayed the 14-year-old's wish to be elsewhere.

After Marie had reviewed Norman's history, and the options she saw for him, she turned to the boy and asked "Norman, what do you want to do? Where do you want to be?'' There was no reply. Throughout the half-hour conference, he volunteered nothing and answered only the briefest and least revealing of questions. He recited his phone number (having previously, it seems, consistently denied having a phone). He reiterated his belief that he lived in Brooklyn--on the grounds that he lived within sight of the bridge--and listened impassively to the explanation that one must live across the bridge to live in Brooklyn. But he would not respond to Marie's pleas that he express his preferences.

Marie probably correctly construed his silence as suppressed rage--or as something likely to erupt as rage soon again, despite Norman's desire to remain in this least hostile environment, a place where most teachers offer a great deal of support and manage to control whatever desires they may have to be rid of the students who are most difficult.

Marie's ambivalence and dismay were written on her face as she tortuously reached the conclusion that Norman's silence augured poorly for his future performance--and hence for the safety of the rest of the school. The part-time guidance counselor who had appeared during the conference moved to the telephone and made an interview appointment for Norman with the Elgin office. Marie looked stricken and guilt-ridden. Expulsions are extraordinarily few at Yosemite and are experienced by the compassionate staff as in some way their failures. Norman's only expression of desire was revealed in his wish to be out before the changing of classes required facing his peers. He left without expression and with no goodbyes. His parents followed him out, confirming the appointment time at the Elgin office and promising to be there. The policewoman and Marie exchanged consoling comments--and both looked in need of them.

On Malcolm X Boulevard, as I left, the dead rat's tail was still visible--but the flesh and bone and fur had been all but obliterated by the traffic.

Mary Ann Raywid is in the administration and policy-studies department of Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

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