First Person

A Career Worth Fighting For

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According to a recent news item, 2,000 beginning teachers quit the Los Angeles schools each year. Small wonder. All of the ills of society--unemployment, broken families, teenage pregnancies, youth gangs, and drug abuse--are bound to be reflected in the classroom.

When I tell people that I survived 40 years of teaching in the New York City schools, they usually comment, "Things were different in your day.'' Different, yes, but hardly easy.

When I began teaching, 56 years ago, the Great Depression was still festering. It wasn't a time for dreams. You grabbed any available job. For beginning teachers in New York City, openings were mainly in vocational schools, the runts of the educational litter. Three weeks into the 1938 winter term, the board of education assigned me as a substitute teacher of English to the New York Vocational School in the heart of Harlem.

Harlem, even in 1938, was spelled T-O-U-G-H. As I climbed the stairs of the prison-gray building, noises exploded through the windows. I had to steel my nerve before I pushed open the front door.

The principal, a worried-looking man with an eye tic, advised me: "Don't be too ambitious. Keep them quiet, in their seats, and pushing pencils. As for teaching, do what you can.''

The school was supposed to train students for jobs in the building trade, but none of the shops had up-to-date equipment. Besides, what future was there in the building trade for these mostly African-American youngsters? The industry was rife with nepotism, and there was little or no new building going on. Students dropped out in droves.

In a rear closet, some battered grammar books shared space with readers chronicling the lives of flaxen-haired children in an idealized middle American town at the turn of the century. I provoked a near-riot the day I distributed these out-of-date, condescending books. I resolved to teach English despite the obstacles. To hell with textbooks; I would improvise day by day.

I began by reading aloud favorite stories of mine, such as "Haircut,'' by Ring Lardner, and "The Killers,'' by Ernest Hemingway. Amazingly, my students sat quietly and listened. Discussion afterward was sluggish at first; I asked and answered my own questions. But once they unlocked their thoughts, the kids came up with insights as keen as those I'd heard in my honors English seminar at the College of the City of New York.

Not long ago, I read that some schools were using newspapers as a reading tool. I stumbled on the usefulness of newspapers many long years ago. Copies of the New York Daily News regularly showed up on my students' desk tops. The News was in disrepute because it carried lurid headlines over stories filled with sex and gore. But its style was punchy, its comic strips addictive, and its cost only two pennies. Since I couldn't lick the News, I joined it. Whatever some of my former New York Vocational students know about usage, spelling, and vocabulary, they most likely learned from the pages of this obstreperous tabloid.

These small feats of coping, though, by no means amounted to a triumphant success story. I was no disciplinarian. At age 22, I looked 19 (even with a wispy mustache), and, like Herman Melville's Billy Budd, I stammered under stress. But my vulnerability proved to be an asset. It evoked compassion. In every class, at least one student, usually the one with the most street smarts, appointed himself my protector. My calls for attention were ignored until a stentorian "Hush up! Let's hear the man!'' rolled over the ranks. Then I could almost touch the quiet in the room.

Though I became more confident as a teacher, I still felt a wide separation from my students. How could I move closer to them? Once I shot baskets with a few of my students in the school playground, but I was so inept that I gave up straight away. That was hardly the way to close the gap.

In mid-April, I hit on a plan. Since most of my students had never been outside of their own neighborhoods, they were hardly aware that they were living in one of the most exciting cities in the world. One Friday, I told my classes I would be at the Staten Island ferry house at 11 Sunday morning. Everybody was welcome to join me for a nickel ride across the New York Bay.

Half a dozen kids showed up. We gawked from the ferry at the Manhattan skyline, which many had never seen from a distance. We took in the smells of the ferry, sniffing spices, cattle, and pigs. Students watched intently as gulls plunged into the wake of garbage scows. And we blinked at the midday sun reflecting on the wind-whipped water. At the ferry park on the other side of the bay, we roasted hot dogs and played Kick The Can. By the time we got back to Manhattan, I felt that I had ripped a small hole in the curtain between us.

My students and I had two more Sunday outings--one to the Bronx Zoo, the other to hear folk singing in lower Manhattan. I got at least as much as I gave by devoting some leisure time to these kids.

The atmosphere in my classes slowly changed during the course of the year. I no longer felt like an overseer. I had gotten to know these kids, and they me. I could turn my back and write on the blackboard without risking being hit by flying projectiles.

Now, there's something I've held back. A month after I arrived at New York Vocational, I felt that I had taken all that I could. I wrote a letter of resignation. If I had sent that letter, it might have ended my teaching career. Instead, I taught for 40 mostly happy years. I learned that teaching is a career worth fighting for. It was then, and it still is now.

Vol. 06, Issue 06, Pages 48-49

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