Tuesday, November 3, 2009

So, You Get a Phone Call, Revised

Revised Nov. 11, 2009

Last week I received a phone call from J, a former student who was in my 6th grade class in 1973-74. He had just been released from a NY State prison after serving 27 years for murder and was in a shelter (not a good thing) until he finds a place to live. We stayed in touch all these years. I visited him twice in various prisons (he seemed to be in just about every state prison possible). He has been denied parole at least 6 times and he was somewhat shocked when it was granted so suddenly on the 7th try. He was released with just about nothing and with little time to notify people (though it turns out that the weird phone numbers popping up on out caller id were from the prison).

His family was even more shocked. Why was he is in a shelter? At first I thought the family forgot he existed. But it turns out that is a requirement of his release for a few weeks.

I knew lots of people in his family. I taught his brother and his nephew and knew his older sister, who was a political activist associated with a socialist party. In the 1975 teachers strike, she came with a bullhorn to rally community support for us.

A political note: These type of family associations are only possible when a teacher spends many years in one school, something that seems to be out of style with the ed deformers.

J had taken up a hobby in prison of building a miniature farm out of popsicle sticks. He sent me the entire farm, which I still have in my basement. Beautiful work.

He was one of the more difficult kids to deal with and had disrupted many classrooms in the past years (that was before special ed). That class was very difficult, with more than a few kids ending up dead or in prison. I took his behavior issue off the table by buying lizards and some math manipulatives and freeing him from his seat or having to do any formal work in class, though he was free to join us when he wished. He had already been held back twice I think – the maximum possible - see BloomKlein, we didn't have automatic social promotion - but it was enough. You couldn't do it a third time and have a 13-year-old sitting in 6th grade forever.

He dropped out at 14. He studied acting and used to come to my classes in later years and do acting exercises. At times he went on trips with us. Then came drugs. And murder. One time he called me on Thanksgiving from jail and said there were 9 guys from the projects in the same cellblock. He put some of them who knew me on the phone. (One of them is featured in the Yankee parade story below.)

His scores on the test the year I had him were probably not great, as expected (though I maintain that if I tried to force him into a traditional setting he might have done even worse). Obviously, my fault. No merit bonus for me. And maybe even a firing for being such a bad teacher as to not get good results, other than to get a child who had disrupted every class to function effectively in a social setting. How do you measure that?

I can't tell you what he learned in class that year academically (though free to roam, his curiosity took him into many areas of interest). Maybe to trust a teacher enough to stay in touch for 35 years. Obviously, the long-term results were not good. But I can only look at that year and I rate that pretty high. What would I have done if I had been offered more money for getting his score up? Or if threatened with being fired for not?

We've been in touch over the past week. I'm dropping off his "farm" at his sister's place. He has a daughter and once he gets out of the shelter, he has a place to stay. I try to imagine the impact on someone who goes to prison in 1982 at the age of 21 and gets out at 48. How does he see the world today? Cell phones, computers, a world really changed in almost 30 years. "What is the biggest change you see," I asked? "The number of women with big butts," he answered.


  1. Norm Scott and I both entered teaching in the late 1960's, at a time in History when the world had gone Mad- the horrendous and unnecessary carnage and human slaughter of the Viet Nam War."

    Of course we have since learned that Viet Nam was not some exception or aberration in time or place, but rather the rule.

    Every generation seems to have its "Legend in his own Mind", some "Great Decider" who knows what is best for the rest of the people in the world, or perhaps just one City, or just one particular schools system, in one particular East Coast City.

    "L'histoire se repete" like a turning wheel. And how many countless times do things end up where they started- except worse than before.

    The final paragraph of "So, You Get A Phone Call" is sufficient to tear one's Heart out and leave one in tears.

    In my almost 40 years teaching in New York City and working in some of the toughest inner City schools, I have been priviledged to work with countless thousands of very hard working, very competent and very dedicated teachers. And some were far above competent and far beyond dedicated who saw and treated their students as if their own flesh and blood.

    Bone of their bone- flesh of their flesh- blood of their blood. And all blood is the same brilliant red when people are bleeding and in need of help and hope and some healing when injured and in pain.

    But once in a while you encounter that very rare and exceptional Educator like Norm Scott who does not simply go the proverbial extra mile but those extra one hundred thousand miles for his students.

    People like Norm Scott never asked for or required "Merit pay", perks and carrots dangled before their face to push themselves to the limit.

    They did that instinctively, automatically, because they were not in Education for the money but because it was a driving mission to even the playing field for all people- regardless of the color of their skin or their ethnicity or where they were born or whether they spoke with an accent.

    It is a shame the present Chancellor chose to always place his own children in elite private schools, isolated from "bad influences". His children might have learned something about Life in the real world and also something called humanity and triumphing over impossible odds when all seemed hopeless.

    As I said there are many ultra dedicated teachers in the NYC Public Schools System. And then there are the Norm Scott's.

    They are in a class by themselves.

    This short article is long on Wisdom. Indeed could any teacher in this world ever do as much for God's children, whether rich or poor, as Norm Scott did for almost 37 years.

    Bravo and Bravo encore, Norman, for penning one of the most poignant, powerful and relevant statements that has ever appeared on Education Notes.

    It should be reprinted in the millions and distributed worldwide like the famous esaay "A Message to Garcia" about another man who had an impossible mission assigned to him and fullfilled that mission valiantly and without so much as questioning was it really all that important.

    Sme people in this world never need to be told what do. They know it before they are even asked.

    Thank the gods for the Norman Scott's of this world. Where would all God's innocent children be without such rare human beings.


  2. Absolutely Excellent! Thanks, Norm

  3. Norm,

    Despite the sadness of the story you tell, your humanity and commitment radiate off the page.

    The students were lucky to have you, and we are lucky to have you working and fighting for us now.

  4. Norm,
    Very touching story. Brought tears to my eyes. Your dedication to each child when you were in the classroom and outside the classroom is worth more than any merit or bonus pay. It made me reflect even more about my goals as a teacher. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Just sounds to me like you were a crappy teacher... pushing your politics on students instead of bringing them along in the world to find their own path.

    Perhaps if you had not let this kid run wild in your class - instilled some disipline in him - he wouldn't have ruined his life and taken someone elses.

    Stop teaching self-esteem and start teaching what kids need to know. Self-esteem will come from that, nothing else.

  6. Did I say he ran wild in class? Just the opposite. He was stable for the entire year in a volatile class, one of the most difficult I ever had. No special ed placement for lots of potential spec ed kids in a room of 28 with one teacher. You're spouting political theory, not me. And where did I spout my politics? His sister was the one. Your teachers must have let you run wild as your reading skills seem challenged.

    He entered with no discipline and left with some discipline. I was surprised at how often he willingly joined the class. Yes, I do believe in some sense of empowerment of children if possible. It worked with him that one year. But I had to adapt and keep the rest under control.


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