Chapter Three: The Pole
Narcissism: egoism, excessive concern for oneself with or without exaggerated feelings of self-importance; inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity
On Tuesday, June 30, 2011 as I paste this book together, a wannabe rapper by the name of Raymond Velasquez climbed a pole at the corner of W. 44th St. and 7th Ave. in Times Square and clowned for about 2 hours, taunting the cops with pleas for a meeting with Alicia Keyes, who had just performed in the area. The cops decided not to get trapped into any suggestion of brutality though bystanders were calling for the taser. They merely watched, not necessarily rapt, as traffic ground to a halt for blocks in every direction. When he eventually came down of his own volition, he admitted, of course, that it was all a publicity stunt meant to draw attention to his beats and raps, which evidently were not doing it in and of themselves.
No, this wasn’t one of my former students as far as I know – although unlike some Freedom Writer-type teachers, I don’t remember every name or every face. In fact, I remember only a small fraction. I don’t know this Raymond Velasquez beyond what I read in the paper, which is evidently what he wanted me and everyone else in the city or preferably the country, world and known rap universe to know about him. I don't know if he can rap but his self-serving, thoughtless, narcissistic act is a good symbol for one of the big problems in the NYC schools. I do not use the word “narcissistic” lightly in this chapter. I’ve seen the symptoms all too often.
Once there was a “me first” generation. Now it’s “me only”. At least the “me first” generation admitted that there were other people behind them. Now we live in a narcissistic culture where being looked at is a goal in itself and it doesn’t matter what you do to draw attention to yourself. We live in a self-delusional world: the fake reality of “reality” t.v.; the fantasy lifestyles and “cribs” of the rich, famous and infamous; the use of the human body as a tenement wall; the incessant demand to “Listen to me!” through Twitter and “Look at me!” on Facebook and all the other “social” networks where “friend” is defined as any stranger with a link to you as though we were all three degrees from everyone else but especially from Lebron, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Justin Beiber and Rebecca Black. It’s a hyper-Lake Wobegone where everyone isn’t just above average; everyone is more important than everyone else. From this false sense of how important we are it is just a hop, skip and a jump to climbing a pole or racing across a baseball field or using a government helicopter to fly to your son's little league game as the NJ governor recently did or sexting lurid pictures of yourself even knowing that such an act will destroy your career if not you marriage. Self-expression comes in many forms.
But this is about the classroom and the impact of this culture on education. Every classroom I’ve taught in New York City has had its share of Anthony Weiner’s and Raymond Velasquez’s and incipient Lady Gaga’s. Once this type might have been called a class clown as the result of a joke whispered behind the teacher’s back or a note passed in class or purple hair. In the current age of the “me and only me” narcissist, however, a note in class isn’t even a battle worth fighting most of the time. In fact, in an English class, writing a note might be the best way to get a kid to do something that might impact a Regents score. We’ve encouraged self-expression as a means of empowering students but what power has this given them?
The class clown isn’t funny any more. He/she isn’t funny anymore because there are so many role models of poor behavior around that it is difficult for children to know where to draw the line for socially acceptable behavior, especially children who otherwise lack positive role models. There is now a rehab for every conceivable course of action that ends up having a detrimental effect on your life. Of course it’s not a problem until you get caught. Then that deliberate choice that you made knowing full well the possible, even probable consequences becomes a “mistake”. How is a 16-year-old supposed to know that throwing a book across the room is not only unacceptable but dangerous when the self-expression of the narcissist has become the rule of thumb for behavior in all situations?
“But that got me tight!”
“Mr., I know I could use some anger management.”
“You don’t say.”
This is self-expression, the self-expression of someone who in that moment can think only of his/her own feelings. Maybe it’s time to add narcissist rehab to the list.
I used to get by with just 3 rules for my class. Setting up rules and routines at the beginning of any course is very important. It lets the students in the class know what the teacher’s expectations are. I always let them know that all of the usual rules are in effect and that they ought to be self-evident by high school – respect others, don’t speak over others and so forth. It’s not that they don’t know these rules; it’s that a narcissist is incapable of recognizing that anyone else exists, that those other desks with forms sitting at them, forms that nevertheless resemble creatures not that different from what the narcissist sees in the mirror, that those other beings are real and deserving of whatever it is that the narcissist thinks he/she is entitled to. Need I add that reason is not a useful tool when confronted with someone who can’t see you though you are standing mere inches away?
My three rules were:
1. Everything on the board / screen goes in the folder.
2. Anything not completed in class becomes homework.
3. Anything in your folder is subject to test / quiz at any time.
This is one of the ways that I teach study habits. All work is collected in a folder. I can call for the folder at any time. The system evolved from my efforts to keep work from ending up on the floor at the end of the class. That was a big step.
Now I’ve got a 4th rule:
4. You do not have the right to interrupt another student’s education.
This rule is aimed directly at the narcissists in the room. I was proctoring a Regents exam once. It was June and it was hot. Fortunately there was an air conditioner in the room – a working air conditioner. The room filled up with 27 test takers whose bodies threatened to overwhelm the efforts of the single, window air conditioner.
As the test began, a student got up and turned off the air conditioner. “I’m cold,” she said as others began to object. This girl, whom I knew well, was not your run-of-the-mill narcissist. She was a bullying narcissist, a fact so well known by the others in the room that all it took was that one statement and the look that went along with it for the other 26 students to decide that a hot fate was better than no fate at all.
As proctor my job was to keep order in the room. If none of the others were going to object to the loss of comfort, I wasn’t going to object either. I learned during my first year of teaching in NYC that comfort was not something that I was going to expect. I had encountered the air conditioner battle many times – so many, in fact, that I am generally happier to sweat than to have to deal with it. I always prefer a non-working air conditioner to one that works. Then you only have to fight over how far to open the windows. At that moment I was just glad that no one made an issue of it. I didn’t want to have to start throwing people out of a Regents exam.
After a reasonable amount of time – about 20 minutes – a young man braved the wrath of the bullying narcissist, got up and reignited the air conditioner to the relief of many, including the bully, I suspect, because she made no move to stop him. By this time the heat was becoming stifling and you wonder how the new teacher evaluation system is going to factor in the conditions under which standardized tests are taken - but that deserves its own chapter or maybe a book called “I Was Fired by the DOE Because My Students Were Too Hot to Be Bothered”.
Fifteen minutes later the narcissistic bully decided that she was cold again, though it must have been about 85 in the room. She got up and turned off the air conditioner. This time the moaning and groaning was louder. They were in the middle of a three-hour exam. I had already sent 2 kids out for talking and there were others who at this point were growing frustrated with a difficult test that they had already failed and didn’t expect to pass this time around.
I offered what I thought was a reasonable suggestion. There was an empty desk across the room from the air conditioner. “Why don’t you move over here?” As I said, reason is not a useful tool in such situations.
“Because I don’t want to.”
Did I mention that I had attempted to seat her in a different place when she entered the room?
“You know I sit wherever I want,” was her response.
Indeed I did. I was trying to leave space between test takers but as it turned out the room filled up in part because while I had sent two students to other rooms for various infractions, four had been sent to my room for the same reasons. The bully ended up where she wanted to be, which was near the air conditioner, though she might have been perfectly comfortable further away from it. As I said, reason ….
At this point all eyes were on me rather than on tests.
“In other words,” I said to the narcissist, “you are more important than everyone else in this room.”
“I never said that,” she replied.
“Actions speak louder than words,” I ventured knowing that I was running the risk of observing pandemonium break out during a Regents exam.
“I didn’t say that! Don’t put words in my mouth!”
It was some sort of crossroads and the devil was certainly dwelling there. I could see she was getting “tight” because I had seen her tight on many occasions in the past. Tight was not what I wanted at this moment but I couldn’t help myself.
“I think you should be more considerate of the other people in the room.”
“I don’t care what you think!”
This was not unexpected.
She turned to face the rest of the class. “I don’t give a damn what any of y’all think,” she said, reading their minds.
And with that the air conditioner remained silent and no one objected. I said nothing more, happy for the moment that the rest of the class was too cowered by this to take it any further. Only the room heated up.
Which brings me back to the pole – not the pole in Times Square but the one sitting in the corner of many of these old classrooms in the old buildings where the only way to open the top window is to reach up with a pole. Some of the original wooden poles still exist; many have been replaced with more modern, light weight aluminum poles and like many other “advances” in education, the actual situation in the classroom wasn’t taken into account when the lighter metal poles were introduced. They bend and once bent are virtually useless for trying to grab onto one of those latches about 14 feet above the floor and pulling those ancient, wooden windows down. The old wooden poles were virtually indestructible.
In any given class there are anywhere from 6 to 12 (out of 30) narcissistic personalities for whom adjusting the temperature in the room is more important than whatever lesson might be in progress. These are the people who will get up at any time during a class, grab the pole and open or close the window and if the teacher does not want to steal another 10 or 15 minutes from the good kids, it is usually in the teacher’s interest to overlook it and then overlook it again when narcissist #2 gets up to adjust and then narcissist #3 and so on. If it so happens that the room is poleless, the narcissist will go in search of one and will always return with a pole from another room because it’s not worth the time it would take to stop them.
These are the same people who refuse to open a book and who refuse to look at the book after you’ve placed it in front of them open to the correct page. These are the same people who demand the hall pass no matter what point in the lesson or test and will not take no for an answer. They will not take anything for an answer other than yes but generally they don’t even wait for that. These are the same people who hold loud conversations during class with one another while a lesson is in progress or group work is in progress. In many cases these are the same people who have been socially promoted because there is no other option.
These are the same people who refuse to sit in assigned seats. I have on many occasions instituted seating charts only to find it necessary to bring in deans at the start of every class in order to get that accomplished. Invariably there will be one or two who prefer to be given detention or suspended rather than sit in an assigned seat. In other words, in order to have assigned seats in many classrooms requires devoting the first 10 minutes of class to that and nothing else, 10 minutes that ought to be devoted, of course, to instruction. Teachers cannot afford to devote that amount of time to something that ought to take no time at all. For the students who don’t need saved from anything other than this sort of environment, it is a complete waste of time. It is a great injustice. Hence my rule #4 but as I said, reason ….
Teachers are frequently put into the position that the cops were in that day as they discussed what action, if any, to take against the pole climbing rapper. In the end, they took no action, opting to wait it out for fear of doing more damage, I guess, in trying to correct the situation. Never mind that traffic was snarled for blocks in every direction for hours. Never mind the amount of money it cost the city. Never mind the meetings and appointments that were missed by people stuck in the traffic. Never mind the other duties those officers might have been doing during that time. Never mind the lives that might have been saved but for the act of a failed rapper.
If that sounds extreme it’s only because the negative consequences of the rapper’s “me and only me” behavior are difficult to gauge. The time, money, energy, personnel and resources of the city were directed at someone who was doing nothing with them but wasting them but it is very difficult to quantify just how much of each was wasted, how many opportunities were lost, how much good might have been done.
By declaring that every student must graduate with a Regents diploma and be “college and career ready” whether they want it or not, whether they are even capable of it or not, the DOE has decided to direct the great majority of time, money, energy, personnel and resources toward the narcissist who will waste it rather than toward the good kids who would put it to best use. They have decided to allow the good kids to sit at desks waiting for class to begin while resources are wasted on the narcissists just as the cops decided to allow good people to sit in their cars waiting to get to their destinations while city resources were wasted on this one self-absorbed pole rapper.
But unlike the negative consequences of snarled traffic, missed appointments, personnel poorly deployed, the negative consequences in the classroom are evident and heart-breaking. The difference between the cops in Times Square and the teacher in the classroom is that a teacher can see the negative consequences of this waste. They are sitting right in front of us. They are the kids who could be sitting in advanced placement classes, in art classes, in specialty courses like poetry writing or debate or Italian and Russian classes or drama – courses that once existed but which have been removed from Bloomberg / Klein’s reform schools in order to throw good money after bad behavior. As a result these good kids who don’t need saved are stuck in classrooms with narcissists who have no intention of graduating at all, let alone prepare for college or a career. Rather than free up these motivated kids to progress at their own rapid pace, the DOE has decided to try to use them like so many miniature Freedom Writer teachers to help save the narcissists through schemes called “the workshop model” and “differentiated instruction” where kids are supposed to teach kids – see chapters below. This is a great injustice to the very kids who ought to be getting the most justice. (Get used to it – this will be the mantra of every chapter in this memoir.)
As a brief postscript to the Regents air conditioner story above, two hours into the test, I looked up to see the narcissistic bully casually reading through a yearbook with her test paper on the desk in front of her. That, of course, is against the rules. As far as I was concerned this was grounds for disqualification and I took steps to have her test disqualified only to find that trying to increase the pass rate on the exam was more important than obeying the rules.
“Was she cheating?” I was asked.
“She was reading a yearbook during the test.”
“Then she wasn’t cheating.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t look inside the yearbook.”
“Then you don’t know that she was cheating.”
“Well, but she broke ….”
“You don’t have the authority to disqualify the test.”
“I assumed you would back me ….”
Reason, as I said, is a useless tool when confronting a narcissistic bully.