I grew up in a working-class Jewish community in the Bronx; attended Harvard University and then Teachers College, Columbia University, both overwhelmingly white institutions in the late 1950s and early 1960s; and did my student teaching and substitute teaching in schools that had a mixture of white and Puerto Rican students. However, during my first full year of teaching at P.S. 103, all 36 of my students were African American or Caribbean. The community was African American, bustling with all the complex and, to me, unfamiliar institutions of African American life. I remember a bounty of churches and mosques, some in storefronts or basements, others in imposing stone edifices. There were offices of antipoverty and community-based organizations, including the Harlem Tenants Committee, which during the 1964 New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, ran its own "World's Worst Fair" calling attention to the terrible living conditions in Harlem. There were beauty parlors and barbershops, bars, candy stores, small restaurants, coffee shops, a diner, and an occasional family-run supermarket or bodega. The community was poor but cohesive, and many of the families had lived there for several generations.
P.S. 103, however, was a monument to the 19th-century commitment to public education that had barely survived into the mid-20th century. My mother had attended the school sometime between 1915 and 1925, when the community was Jewish and Italian. By the time I got to teach there, the imposing five-story brick building was in a state of terminal disarray. The high ceilings of my classroom, which was on the top floor, were falling down in several places. The room had little alcoves where bay windows looked out over the brownstones below. In two places, you could see through the walls to the external structure of the building. The tongue-and-groove wooden floors looked as if they hadn't been cleaned in a half century, and the desks—35 of them for my 36 children—had once been bolted to the floor. Half of them had come unscrewed and slid easily across the room, leaving track marks in the floor. Pushed into the corner was an old grand piano with a fifth of its keys gone. It was soiled with plaster that had come down from the ceiling and piled with old and torn textbooks, wall charts, and the tattered remains of what must once have been beautiful cloth maps that could be hung at the blackboard. Half of the blackboard was usable. From my perspective as a 25-year-old first-year teacher, this classroom was very exciting. It may not have been much, but it was mine.
As it turned out, the piano, the alcoves by the bay windows, and the unbolted desks were blessings. They helped me overcome my biggest problems: getting to know the children and getting them to trust me. They provided some of the first experiences that led me to a critical understanding: that what often seem like obstacles to learning and potential distractions from it are in fact the keys to making connections with students.
Take the piano, for instance. At first, instead of thinking of all the wonderful music we could make in the classroom, I thought of how to keep it locked away from the children or how to use it as a reward for other, more "serious" learning, such as reading and math. I worried about students sneaking over to it and making noise to distract me and the rest of the class. I worried about control, about my planned curriculum, about what other teachers and my principal would think if they heard kids playing around with the piano during reading time.
During the first few weeks of school, my students put me to the test with the piano. It was irresistible to two children in particular: Alvin and Margie. Everything seemed irresistible to Alvin, except for sitting in his desk and working. During the course of a morning, he and his unbolted desk would migrate from one side of the room to the other and often stop next to the piano, where he'd sneak a tune.
As for Margie, the other children wanted her to sing for them; they begged me to let them come in the classroom at lunchtime and listen to music and sing and dance. They heard her in church and at parties and said she was fabulous.
I was not prepared for Alvin's tunefulness, Margie's singing, or the articulate way my students asked me to do reasonable things that nevertheless would offend the administration and were not part of the 6th grade curriculum. I was tested by my students before I had enough craft or experience to make informed decisions. Instead, I acted on intuition and curiosity and asked Alvin to play and sing a tune for the class and helped the students plan a time for Margie to sing and for them all to listen to music in the classroom. (I wasn't allowed to let the children into the classroom during lunch and was too new at the schooling game to know how to get around the rules.)
The piano became a center of learning and a social center for the children rather than a dumping ground for old textbooks. Over the first few months, the same thing happened with the alcoves. They became private areas for reading, for small-group work, or for gossip. As the school year developed, we became like an extended family for whom formal learning, informal learning, and just hanging out and sharing time and conversation filled the day. It was not chaotic, yet each step we took toward being relaxed with each other was shaky and clumsy, like a baby learning to walk.