“This Nigga’s Crazy!”
My Life as an NYC Teacher
Preface: The anti-Freedom Writer
I’ll be brief.
This is a “memoir” but it’s not about me. The experiences related are all true and happened to me during a decade of teaching high school in the Bronx between 2001 and 2011. But it’s not about what happened to me. It’s about what is happening right now to the best and the brightest kids in the Bronx, New York City under the “school reform” movement that began with “No Child Left Behind” at the outset of the 2nd Bush’s administration. In fact, education reform in NYC is not only leaving children behind – it’s leaving the best children behind, sacrificing the best for the worst.
Teacher memoirs commonly tell the story of how a caring teacher turned around some kid or some group of kids’ lives. Those books are more about the teacher / writer than about the students. Most memoirs are nothing more than the musings of the self-obsessed who have nothing of substance to say – see the chapter below “Why I Hate Memoir”. We inner city teachers often get responses from civilians that go something like this: “I don’t know how you do what you do;” or “I couldn’t do that;” or “I really admire you” or something else along those lines. How could you not attempt a memoir with that sort of adulation, given the strange things you’ve no doubt seen during your teaching career? So teachers write memoirs with happy endings because everyone loves a happy ending.
But if all it took was a caring teacher, there would be no problem. There would be nothing but happy endings because the school system is filled with caring teachers. This story has no happy ending as of the summer of 2011 but it’s not for a lack of caring teachers with dreams of memoirs. It’s more complicated; it’s bad and it’s getting worse – not for inner city teachers. Most of them could get out of they wanted, especially the ones who score nice book deals for their “memoirs”. No, it’s not us (we – sorry). It’s the kids and it’s not all the kids. It’s the good kids. They can’t get out. They’re stuck in their cities and neighborhoods and schools and classrooms (literally).
The good kids don’t need “caring” teachers. They don’t need to be saved from their background or their surroundings, bad as those may be. They’ve already learned how to deal with that. They come to school to work and to learn. What they need is competent teachers and a school environment where learning can take place and this is something that even the most caring teacher cannot provide for them given the school system as it is. This book isn’t about saving a needy child. It’s about saving the kids who aren’t needy by freeing them from all of the “needy” kids who make the caring teacher the star if his or her own memoir. While those kids are being saved one at a time, good kids are being lost by the roomful.
So read this “memoir” if you’re interested in what is happening to good kids. Read it if it breaks your heart that a good kid is stuck in a classroom where most of the instructional time is wasted on these “needy” kids who are in search of their own Freedom Writer project. Read it to discover how the educational “reform” movement – see chapter “Reform” School – has funneled 80%  of its resources to these “needy” kids who squander and waste it rather than to the good kids who would be putting it to good use. Read it if you are aware that the DOE budget increased by more than 100% during the Bloomberg years and want to know where that money went and how it could turn out to be a boondoggle on a grander scale than even the “CityTime” fiasco, which as of this moment has cost NYC upwards of $760 million.
But don’t read it to find out about teachers. “It’s about the kids.” (Quotation marks an inside joke.)
NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the entire book.
NOTE: For My Own Protection: All statistics are anecdotal estimates, based on 10 years of experience teaching high school in the Bronx unless otherwise sourced. During this time I worked at 2 different high schools under 4 different principals of both genders and various ethnicities, two of whom I never met, and under six different A.P.’s of both genders and various ethnicities. I estimate that I taught between 1200 and 1400 different students during these ten years primarily in English classes but also in various Special Education classes, music, art, even science classes that I had to cover at various times for various reasons. The demographic makeup of the groups that I taught is consistent with the demographics of the Bronx in general. While all events are true and all people are real, no one is named other than myself.
Chapter One: The Fan
“Yo! This nigga’s crazy!”
The 10th grade Dominican kid who screamed this half at me, half at the class didn’t know how right he was. Yes, I had to be crazy to find myself in this situation in the first place – in a 10th grade classroom in the Bronx on a hot day, that is. But he was talking about a fan.
It was a hot day, a very hot day. Someone had moved a large fan into the back of the room. By “large” I mean one of those stand-up metal machines with a fan diameter of about 4 feet. This thing, which is designed for auditoriums, creates a wind tunnel in a classroom and a noise level to drown out the occasional boom box passing by on the street. In short, it makes teaching impossible although it does ease the heat factor a bit. I was crazy to imagine that education was more important to the kids that count in the NYC schools – the bottom of the barrel, that is – than keeping cool.
The fan was turned on when I entered the room at the bell. (Teachers do not have their own rooms but migrate like nomads from room to room over the course of the day.) I left it on for a few minutes as the students got out their folders, which are held together by brass fasteners and therefore not susceptible to high wind conditions – in fact, this is one of the reasons I instituted this folder system. Another reason for this folder system was so that each day’s work wasn’t left on the floor to be blown away or swept up and discarded at the end of each day by the custodial staff, who had more interest in sweeping it up than many students had in dropping it onto the floor. I was crazy to think that a majority kids cared enough about their work to hang onto it.
I had unplugged this gigantic fan in order to pass out some papers regarding work on Julius Caesar. Just as I had laid out these papers on a desk for distribution, I heard the big fan engine start up. Disaster, needless to say, was imminent.
The kid in question had come into the room ten minutes late, which was early for him, and had gone immediately to the fan in the back of the room. He was standing there with a big grin in his face when I turned around.
I dropped the papers in my hand, ran to the back of the room. As luck would have it, there was a desk right in front of the plug. I threw this desk to my left – away from the student, who was still standing there grinning in anticipation of the incipient wind – grabbed the plug off the floor – extension cord – and doused the tornado.
“Yo! What the fuck! I’m hot, ma nigga!”
Thus was his disappointment expressed.
“Yo! This nigga’s crazy!”
I stood guard over the plug. I had pointed out on many occasions to this student that my name was “Haverstock” and not “Yo” but to no avail.
His next reaction had to do with some vague realization that something out of the ordinary had just occurred. “Yo, you coulda hurt me, motherfucker!”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, but that shit coulda hit me.”
“No but yo, ma nigga! I’m going to the dean’s office, motherfucker.”
I was always glad for any excuse this kid came up with to leave the room and encouraged to him to go the dean’s office and write this “incident” up as carefully and thoroughly as he was capable of doing. That was the best English assignment I could have given him.
“Yo, if that shit had hit me, I would have clocked you,” he said before leaving.
“You want to hit me, go ahead.” I took off my glasses. “But I will hit you back.” At six feet, three inches, he was one of the few who could look me in the eye.
A standoff of sorts ensued. I didn’t think he would hit me but there was some bit of truth at that moment to even his definition of “crazy”. It didn’t last long. He headed for the dean’s office, which was close by.
At that moment an LTA walked in. It’s funny how students who are rarely seen in class are always present at the scene of an incident – anything from a hallway fight to a sex act in an otherwise empty auditorium to a drug deal in a stairwell to a teacher, student, students or some combination thereof flipping out in a classroom. Not confined as are other students to his designated classroom, the LTA will appear. The LTA appears to be a good argument for spontaneous generation.
“LTA” stands for “long term absence” and refers to students who go for weeks without showing up for school and yet remain on the official roster. They show up just enough to fulfill various legal requirements in order to ensure financial security. Out of 25 on this particular roster, there were 4 LTA’s. Attendance, therefore, at best was starting out at 21 out of 25 but that’s before discounting suspensions and there were 2 or 3 of those on any given day but more about that later.
This particular LTA had missed 58 out of a possible 71 classes. He was considered a sophomore after spending nearly 3 years in the school although he had accumulated only 8 credits in that time. Normally about 38 credits would have been accumulated.
As I walked away from the plug, he picked it up and began to plug the fan in again. I walked back to where he stood and told him to drop it. He dropped it but as I turned away again, he picked it up again. This time I pulled the ends of the cords from his hands.
“Yo! You coulda broke my finger, nigga!”
“Is your finger broken?”
“Yo! Shit! Motherfucker!”
“Did I not specifically tell you not to plug in that fan? And please don’t use that language.” This last was said almost unconsciously, such is the routine.
“Yo, ma nigga!” In spite of the efforts of a dedicated English department, after three years of high school his vocabulary had hardly expanded beyond this. Of course, most of those 3 years had been spent not in a classroom but God knows where.
The first student returned with a dean. I had already picked up the overturned desk. He was disappointed to find that his evidence no longer existed.
But I admitted that I had overturned the desk and once again suggested that the incident be written up by both of us. The wise dean – a young woman with much experience in these matters – simply told him forcefully to sit down, be quiet and not cause any more trouble. This he did before leaving about half an hour later – well before the end of the class. Neither of us ever wrote this up (other than in my journal).
Meanwhile the LTA was complaining that it was too hot to stay in that classroom and, indeed, it was very hot, although there were no complaints from that side of the room where the functioning students were sitting and waiting to get to work. The one inadequate air conditioner had long ago given out. Even with the tall, aging windows open at the top and the door open so that some breeze could flow through, it was hot. About 8 years ago they nailed shut all of the high windows that open into the hallway in these old buildings, the very windows that were designed to allow the air to flow across the entire width of the building along the ceilings on days like this. No reason was given but presumably it was to prevent items from being tossed into and out of classrooms through these windows. The result, however, was very hot rooms.
Recognizing an LTA when she saw one, this wise, young dean encouraged him to leave if he was that uncomfortable. She knew that he wouldn’t leave just then but knew that he probably would after a socially acceptable length of time. She left; a few minutes later this LTA went back to wherever it is that he spent his days, and I was able after about 20 minutes to get on with class. During this 20 minutes, of course, the kids who were there to work were mostly just witnesses to another “incident”. Their learning time had been taken from them.
Yes, I was crazy at that moment even in the way that the kid meant. Something out of the ordinary had, indeed, happened, although these things happen more than you would imagine. But beyond that, I had to be crazy to think that the school system was functional. I did have an image in my mind of a school system attempting to help disadvantaged kids when I started this part of my teaching career. What I found is a system that is deliberately dysfunctional and has been devastated by Bloomberg’s “reforms”.
I had to be crazy to think that teachers got support in attempting to “manage” a classroom. Classroom management is a big issue because the behaviors we encounter are so outrageous that it is impossible to draw a line anywhere. Every once in a while you hear the term, “zero tolerance” and that sounds good but 30-40% of students in schools like these would be suspended daily if that were really the standard. Since schools and buildings are rated in part on the number of “incidents” reported, administrators want to report as few as possible. Therefore they say that we should not tolerate bad behavior but what they mean is for us to deal with anything short of criminal acts in the classroom no matter how much time that takes away from the education of the functioning kids. These kids’ learning lives are being stolen.
I had to be crazy to think there would be some appreciation for what I did. On the one hand I hear all the time that teachers are saints and the most underpaid of all professionals. On the other hand there is a daily drum beat – not hip-hop, more like swing - about how the only things teachers care about are their pensions and benefits and that in this economy we can no longer afford that – as if people making an average of about $65,000 a year and paying taxes on that, steep taxes, are busting the economy.
Most of all, I had to be crazy to think that I could make a difference. The problems are so far beyond anything that a classroom teacher can do that it is tragically laughable in spite of all the heart-warming, bleeding-heart-wrenching stories told about how all that’s needed is a caring teacher. I’ve worked with hundreds of teachers, worked closely with 60 or 70 of them. Virtually all of them are caring. If that were all it took, there would be no problem. Teachers cannot change the social conditions that create the problems in the schools. Teachers could, however, if anyone would listen, describe the actual changes that need to be made in order to free up the well-behaved, functioning students, the 40-50% who come to school to work and learn so that up to 50% of their classroom time isn’t wasted. The tragedy isn’t the dysfunctional kids who need a chance and a second chance and a third chance and a forth, and a fifth, sixth, seventh – ad infinitum. The real tragedy is the functional kids who are having their time and opportunity literally stolen from them as they come to school every day hoping to learn, only to discover that the environment doesn’t permit that.
Teachers know what to do about that. Maybe that’s why the media, the DOE and especially the pundits – mostly people who have never seen the inside of a classroom – are paid to discredit and ridicule us. One way to conceal the truth is to ascribe an ulterior motive to those who are telling it. The big media lie: teachers only care about protecting their jobs, keeping their seniority and getting as much for as little as possible. No doubt there are some who think like this. But the vast majority does not. This is a red herring told and retold to keep you from seeing what is really going on. I was crazy to think that our society had more interest in education than in political, social and mostly economic exploitation.
So what chance in hell does this book have of getting published?
A Note on the "N" WordWhen it came time to title this story, I searched around for both something sensational to draw attention to the blog - so far that hasn't happened - and something that was real experience for NYC teachers. There is nothing more sensational and nothing more common in Bronx classrooms than the "N" word. For this reason I used it but put it not in my own mouth but in the mouth of a student. The "N" word is ingrained common parlance in the Bronx and there is no way for teachers or a school to eradicate it. I've watched teachers attempt to do this for years and have a rule against in all of my classes at all times. It's as common now as it was 12 years ago. I do not use the word myself and would never refer to anyone by that term, especially someone of African descent. I'm old enough to remember the origins of the slur.
Students, however, are not. When the student in Chapter One called me by the "N" word, he did not mean it in any derogatory sense. It was just his normal mode of communication. This was a Hispanic teenager referring to a 58-year-old white male by the "N" word in the 21st century. To him it had nothing to do with the plight of the African-American in the U.S.A. I chose his expression and the entire episode, which contains quite a bit of obscenity from 2 different kids, as the title of this story to give an example of the sort of speech that Bronx teachers frequently encounter in the classroom. To me the scene was half comical and half horrifying. My idea was to emphasize the fact that a school cannot counteract a culture. The culture is much, much larger than the school.
The original title came from another student. I was covering a class when a student asked if he could go to the bathroom. There was already another student out with my hall pass. I told this 2nd student that he would have to wait for the first to return. "Suck my balls," he said to me and walked out without a pass. Thus my original title for this memoir was "Suck My Balls: My Life as a New York City Teacher". Then I heard that "suck my balls" had already been used. "This Nigga's Crazy" then took center stage. [June 2, 2013]
Chapter Two: The Box
I became famous within the building one year for my hall pass. The hall pass is an important part of school life because the hallways are the streets. The classrooms are the small, crowded, often stifling apartments and the hallways are the streets. People in the Bronx “chill” on the streets, especially during the warm months but all year. Kids in school “chill” in the halls.
So hall passes disappear. They are a “get-out-of-class” free card. I’ve confiscated hall passes that have dated back years sometimes, which is why schools often will change the look of the hall pass from year to year, from semester to semester even but will the deans, aides, security staff, administrators, teachers and other hall monitors always care that the student is carrying the old green pass rather than the more current blue one? In many cases it’s a battle that is too time consuming and exhausting to fight, especially for teachers who are trying to devote as much of that short 45 or 50-minute period as they can to the day’s lesson.
When my hall pass disappeared toward the beginning of the year, I knew it was tucked away in some kid’s pocket, desk, locker, book bag or maybe it was just forgotten somewhere. There were a lot of possibilities. They can be dropped places from where they are impossible to retrieve and after “X” number of trips to the bathroom, how badly do you want to retrieve it anyway – no matter how vital to a well-functioning classroom?
When I discovered it a week later stashed inside a desk and it was impossible to determine who had stashed it because desks and seating arrangements shift from class to class, I figured it was time for one of those innovative teaching techniques that all of the pundits are always praising. They’ve got short attention spans; you’ve got to try new things. I’ve heard this for 10 years. It’s like those diets that allow you to eat anything you want or those exercise routines that don’t ask you to exert yourself. Get them to learn without reading or writing or studying. There must be a way.
It so happened that books had been delivered to this particular classroom at some misty, hazy past moment. This, of course, wasn’t my classroom because in both high schools that I’ve worked, teachers don’t have rooms. Kids do. Kids are put in a room and stuck there all day long. This is, in part, to keep them out of the halls, thereby creating even greater demand for the hall pass.
So there was an empty cardboard box sitting on the floor near the front of the room that evidently had not impacted the instruction of the several teachers who had been in that room before I walked in at the end of the day. In fact, the box had not negatively impacted the instructional situation for at least a week. I realized myself when I put two and two together that that box had been sitting there for a while. Other things, I guess had distracted our attention.
But as I stared at this box with my recently reclaimed hall pass – a sheet of red, 8 ½ by 11, laminated paper – I put two and two together. It was one of those “teaching moments” although there were no kids in the room at the time. I grabbed my tape and taped the hall pass on one side of the box. The box was approximately one foot by one foot by one foot. I taped it shut, taped a loop of string to the top so that you could pick it up with one finger, and there it was – a hall pass that would not fit into a desk, a locker, pocket, book bag, purse, toilet, sink, under a hat, inside baggy pants, within the sleeve of a bubble jacket. Just as importantly, if you hit someone with it, it wouldn’t hurt.
The first kid who asked to go to the bathroom, of course, was given permission.
“Where’s the hall pass,” she asked when she noticed that it wasn’t in its usual spot.
“Right there,” said I. In fact, it was in it’s usual spot on an empty desk near the door. But it was disguised.
“Right in front of you.”
Her glance must have flitted over the box a dozen times before she realized that that was what I was talking about and what she was looking for, even though the original pass was right there, staring right at her from the side of the box.
“I’m not carrying that!”
“No, not if you don’t have to go to the bathroom.”
In fact, she liked it. Most liked it. Only a few refused to carry it around. It quickly became one of my trademarks in that school. It took no time at all for word to get around that the big, square hall pass was Haverstock’s. There was never any doubt when one of my kids was hanging out, chilling, in the hallway.
For me, however, the hall box became a symbol for the situation these kids were in. It’s called the “enclosed classroom” and it’s part of the “reform” movement – or maybe reform lack-of-movement in this case. Once upon a time a teacher had a room, made it his/her own, organized it so that anything you might need during a class was at hand. The students migrated from class to class.
Now it’s the teachers who migrate and remember that I’m talking about high school, not elementary school. A group of kids is scheduled into a room and there they stay from 1st period until 9th or 10th with very little alteration to the group other than seniors dropping in from period to period to try to make up a class they failed in the past. Yes, that means that there are seniors sitting with 9th graders and 10th graders but that’s another story. This story is about the box.
Each period a different teacher visits the room, visits the class. The teacher is essentially a guest of the students since it’s their room. It’s their box – I’m sorry, “enclosed classroom”. It’s said that the enclosed classroom is meant to create a community of students, lasting friendships, a sense of ownership of their “space”, a comfort zone. In fact, what it is meant to do is keep kids out of the hallways during those 3 or 4 minutes between classes when they would otherwise be going to their next class. Now the teachers scurry to their next class hauling their own boxes or pushing carts or dragging satchels full of teaching materials and hoping that they haven’t forgotten anything. I actually pushed a shopping cart through the halls for 2 years because there was only one set of English books (and I’d gotten my hands on it first). A wire shopping cart meant for the lighter weight of groceries will last on average 4 months under that sort of strain.
But is it a good idea to keep kids cooped up like this? In any classroom you will find kids who run the gamut from ADD to ODD to ADHD to disinterested to sleep-deprived to depressed, angry, hostile, introverted, learning disabled in many different ways and even well-adjusted. How would you feel if you were made to sit in the same room from eight o’clock in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon with breaks only for lunch and gym (twice a week) and maybe an occasional lab? After a few weeks or a few days, would you feel as though you were in a box?
One day the box came back and it was entirely red. The other 5 sides had turned the same color as the original hall pass. This was a mystery to me since I hadn’t done it – hadn’t even thought of doing that. My “teaching moment” had come and gone before that light went off. I didn’t give it much thought although I had to admit that it looked better. It didn’t exactly look like a box any more. I didn’t look like anything anyone had ever seen before.
It turned out that hall monitors of all kinds appreciated the box because it was impossible to conceal and they knew where the kid belonged. There was no pretending that they didn’t have a hall pass or that they’d forgotten it in the bathroom or that the teacher had lost it and therefore hadn’t provided it. Many battles were averted. They just had to haul the kid back to Haverstock’s class, no questions asked. I was even able to put out bulletins with the deans saying that if such and such a kid were ever seen with the hall box, it was to be confiscated immediately and some sort of disciplinary action initiated. If the same kid was seen with the box too many times over the course of the day, it was clear that something wasn’t right. It was one of the administrators who had gone to the trouble of taping red paper on the other 5 sides of my hall box. While the old hall pass had often been an accessory to some sort of rule infraction, the hall box had become just an accessory.