Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Memories and Tragedies

About 10 years ago I go a call on Thanksgiving night from a former student from a correctional institution upstate. He was serving life (and is still in the system). After chatting for a few minutes, he said "Wait! Some people want to talk to you." And there were two more of my students. Six or seven from my school were in the same cell block. My fault, I guess. You see what happens when you have under performing schools? What was missing from their lives was probably a charter school.

One of the things about teaching in certain neighborhoods, and a reason some teachers eventually must leave, are the all too many dismal stories – more of the above than successful college graduates. If you stay in one place, you see generations of devastation – drugs, prison, you know the drill. Probably due to the low quality teachers according to the Joel Kleins of this world.

You could have feast or famine in alternate years - if the contract, which gave you the right to move from bottom of the grade to top, was followed, which it often wasn't. The favorites of the principals got the top every year unless you grieved – which I had to do twice. Oh, that darn union contract, which was so weak even in this obvious area (my principal declared a heterogeneous "experiment" for my grade only that year only.) Some teachers would knife you in the back to stay on the top and do all sorts of favors for the principal. Now I hear they have supposedly eliminated tracking.

How are teachers affected by so many stories of death and destruction? Some get worn out; for others it's like water off their backs. That was why the UFT's willingness to remove the ability to transfer, often the only way out, was such a sell-out. I mean, there comes a time when people need to see some success stories.

Here is something I wrote in my chapter leader report in November, 1996. I was teaching computers, so A... wasn't in my class, but over a few years we got to hang out together, go to basketball games and my wife and I even had him and a friend stay over at at the house a few times. One of the major hoodlums in my school, feared by students and even some teachers, despised by the principal, my wife couldn't believe the stories, he was so unfailingly polite - and made his bed, which was a major point for my wife. I had had many members of A...'s family in my classes over the years, his uncle and even his mom (I won't even go there) for a time when she was in the 4th grade and knew his grandmother well. She was raising him, as were many other grandmothers in the neighborhood, one of the serious issues that lead to worn out older women having to do it all over again and just not having the energy to keep tight control over the kids.

When he was 12 or 13 I took him to Gleason's boxing gym in downtown Brooklyn to introduce him to a trainer a friend was working out with. We got him a locker and he worked out. Everyone treated him great and I thought this could save him. We went once or twice and I urged him to keep going. But he didn't. A major lost chance.

When A... was arrested in Pennsylvania when he was around 14, I received a call from the social worker there. "We don't know what to do with him," she said. "His grandmother says it is too far to visit and wants us to send him home." "Keep him there as long as you can," was my advice. They didn't listen. Within a year he had shot up the door to an apartment in his building, got a 24 year old woman pregnant and was sent away for 3 years.

When he got out he called and we made plans to get together. It never happened. One November morning his little sister tapped me on the shoulder as the classes were lining up. As calm as she could be, she said, "A... was shot 5 times in the head in Pennsylvania." What makes it all so tragic is that no one was surprised at the news - like watching someone standing in the middle of the road with a truck coming and you're helpless to stop it.

PS XXX Chapter Report, Nov. 1996

A..., a graduate of P.S. xxx, was shot to death on November 8, 1996. He was 18 years old. Our condolences go out to A...’s grandmother, his mother (also a former student), his sister, (currently a 4th grade student at P.S. xxx) and the rest of the family.

Some people were not surprised that A..’s life ended at such an early age, given the hard life he led. No matter how often we read similar stories in the paper, there’s no accounting for how people will react when they see a young man they’ve known since the 3rd grade laid out in a coffin; especially a young man who died such a seemingly senseless death. But as one of his relatives said after the funeral, A... was willing to risk danger because the life he was destined for seemed so bleak.

In spite of all this, he was still one of our kids. P.S. xxx provided A... with a nurturing environment in spite of the fact he was never easy to deal with. He had a certain stubborness that often drove teachers crazy. But many of us developed a rapport with A... that went beyond the normal teacher-student relationship. He had a hard reputation on the street, but he could be extremely responsible and trustworthy when he respected you and his situation moved many of us. We saw the road he was on. At times he reached out for help, but there was no stopping this train.

A...’s last months were spent at home in Brooklyn getting to know his three year old daughter (who had just started calling him “daddy.”) He started school and had a nighttime job. This was not the kind of life he was used to. We urged him to hang on. Maybe the routine would break him of bad habits. He knew his weaknesses. He had hoped to find a sports program to keep him occupied until he could play baseball in the spring. But the temptations must have been too great. He went back to Pennsylvania where he had been in trouble before. That was where he died.

His short life left something to be desired. He was a 7th grade dropout (his school career lasted about 2 months after he left us); he had multiple problems with the law (he just finished serving 3 years in prison); there were ugly rumors about some of his street activities.

A...’s funeral was attended by many parents and former students from the P.S.xxx community. His cousin N... (another former student at P.S. xxx) read a moving eulogy, which expressed the all too common and disturbing attitude ("A..., you did what you had to do as a man"). Many of his friends wrote poems in his memory. A... clearly had the respect and admiration of many of his contemporaries.

Postscript: N..., a cousin who made the eulogy, was attending college at the time of the funeral. We hope she made it out. But even if she did, the needs of the family would have always pulled her back.

A teacher at PS xxx told me a few years ago that A...'s daughter was a student at the school, most probably being raised by that same grandmother. I guess she would be about 14 now. We can only hope she also breaks the pattern.

1 comment:

  1. Norm

    This one brought back some memories for me....I remember the day we found out!
    How sad...


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