Laurel Sturt taught for eleven years in the Bronx. Her new book, Davonte’s Inferno, Ten Years in the New York Public School Gulag, shares in close detail her experience working in a high poverty school under the Bloomberg regime. Here is an excerpt:
As ever, there was never a dull moment. One afternoon I arrived to teach a large third grade “inclusion” class (consisting of some regular and some special ed students) who were returning from lunch; while I was handing out materials I noticed a faint acrid aroma. I remarked to a couple kids that it smelled kind of like burning leaves. But anyway, it could not be burning leaves because it was not autumn, plus the windows were closed. I did not think any more about it because the kids got to work on a project we had started the previous week.
I was going from desk to desk checking their work when all of a sudden a girl screamed, “Look, doodoo!” She was looking into the wall-length closet with open sliding doors which extended down one side of the room. Inside the closet were hooks with the students’ jackets and backpacks hanging from them. Her scream inspired three kids sitting next to the closet to jump up from their seats and peer into the closet as well. “Look, look!” they cried, beside themselves with excitement. The entire class, twenty-eight children, rushed towards the closet.
My heart pounded. This was the scenario from my worst nightmare: a huge, out-of-control class.
“Eeeeeew!” they exclaimed in unison.
Using my best impression of a drill sergeant I boomed, “Sit down!” and half of them did.
The other half required my fist pounding on a table, plus an even louder command, to get back in their seats. I looked in the closet and there, on the floor behind one of the open sliding doors, was a fresh pile of s--t.
This was, without a doubt, the most challenging moment of my teaching career. If I were not so panicked, I might have appreciated the metaphor of being dumped on. I had to pretend perfect tranquility, to not do so risked a bedlam that would reach a new low, as this time any chaos would involve human feces. After banishing the horrified rictus from my face, I warned the students there would be no raffle unless everybody behaved. Then calmly (they bought it), I walked over to the classroom phone and called the assistant principal and the custodian. I told both of them there was an emergency in the classroom, never mind the details, they would just have to see for themselves. Amazingly, the class was perfectly quiet: they seemed intrigued to know how this situation would be handled. Though the kids were anxious to get their coats and book bags out of the infested closet, I succeeded in getting them to remain seated.
While I waited for the cavalry to come, I serenely (they bought it again) stepped into the closet pulling jackets and bags out one-by-one and flinging them on the carpet in a tangled, but s--t-free, heap. Then I picked a name out of the raffle envelope and awarded the prize, earlier than usual in an attempt to keep the kids quiet and away from the dreaded closet. As help arrived, all those called insisted in all their years they had never seen such a thing, and between all of us we had almost a hundred years of experience. The closet mopped, we resumed our art.
Grateful beyond gratitude that I had avoided a literally s--tty catastrophe that would have most definitely ended in my crucifixion, I moved around the students sitting at the tables near the closet, subtly questioning them. One, Roberto, had always been very immature and might have been the guilty one. He denied the deed, as did the prime suspect, Tysheed, a particularly disabled child. But I did not really think either one of them was guilty, anyway--they would have had to have done it when the class came in from lunch and was sitting down. To step into the closet behind one of the partially-closed sliding doors, still mostly visible to everyone, pull your pants down and let it rip--it was impossible. What third grader would risk discovery and certain social annihilation?
I was convinced that while the class had been at lunch and the door open, one of the fifth grade boys from the floor above (out with permission to go to the bathroom) had come in and left a snarky adolescent calling card. Though that would have been a new low even for them, it was the only explanation, and not totally off the mark considering their wicked ways. At the end of the class the two teachers returned to the room, flabbergasted when the kids swarmed them to tell them what had happened. They, too, were bewildered, powerless to comprehend how such a deed had been perpetrated.
“Function in disaster, finish in style.” That was the motto of my alma mater, The Madeira School, as declared by Lucy Madeira at the school’s inauguration in 1906. In Room 309 that afternoon, I knew I had made Miss Madeira proud.
A couple hours later I saw Principal Dearest up ahead in the hallway. Without question she had been apprised of the situation which had transpired. I braced for the inevitable tirade of blame, though in fact I had handled the situation to professional perfection. I had made sure no child had been affected, so no parent would be complaining. Safety had been maintained: the s--t had not hit the fan. But I had been blameless before and that had not stopped her. Approaching from several yards away, I stared defiantly, my jaw set, daring her to attack. As I came closer she eyeballed me right back; in the distance I heard the whistle of a Sergio Leone soundtrack. As I passed, her lips parted as she struggled to say something--still we did not take our eyes off each other. I glided by, unmolested, the Spaghetti Western receding into the background. Principal Dearest had not said a word. Boom.
That moment I knew I had survived a five-year rite of initiation. Whatever karma I was balancing through my ongoing clash with Principal Dearest, it was finished. The rest of the year passed delightfully uneventful, at least in terms of interactions with the administration. The kids themselves continued unchanged with their business as usual. But at least their unpredictability, after all, was predictable.
Laurel Sturt explains a bit more:
This anecdote illustrates the stress of teaching children damaged by toxic stress in an unsupportive, in fact assaultive, atmosphere of like toxicity, thanks to a sociopathic, Leadership Academy principal with power issues and zero accountability to the mayor who enabled her. When it was determined who was guilty in that classroom, it turned out to be a symptom of abuse at home, according to one of the guidance counselors.
This book is unlike the usual heroic teacher tributes. It is an unvarnished, sharp-tongued revelation of the realities of classrooms in an era of misplaced accountability. It is available for purchase here.
What do you think? Have you experienced such tribulations in your classroom?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.