Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yankee Parade Brings Back Memories

This must be "student gets out of prison" story week. (See "So, You Get a Phone Call, Revised").

The Yankee parade reminded me of the parade 10 years ago. I was in a district job at the time and asked for the morning off. I stopped by my old school on the way. In one of those coincidences that seem so crazy, in walked a former student looking for me. Call him "M". He had just been released from a 7-year prison term, which he had served after a parole violation from a previous 7-year term. He must have been about 31 or 32 years old. He went in at 15. Half his life in jail.

We chatted and I told him I was on the way to the Yankee parade. "You took us on a trip to the Yankee parade," he said. Memories came flooding back. It was 1978. I was teaching a 6th grade class and we had a trip planned that day. So we made a pit stop to see the parade. We stood at the barriers on lower Broadway and waited for the Yankees to go by. Crowds were sparse, but loads of ticker tape was floating down. Everyone was so friendly and the kids had a blast rolling in the masses of paper. Three or four flatbed trucks sent zipping by and we barely saw Reggie Jackson. Maybe 30 seconds.

These trips were the cement that glued relationships together between the kids and myself as the shared experiences created bonds that created a true classroom community. That was a special class because I had moved up with them from the 5th grade, so knowing all the kids and them knowing me made the opening of school particularly easy. Except for "M", who had not been in my class the year before. He wasn't a bad kid but just never shut up and was constantly calling out and making wise-ass comments. The first couple of weeks were rough for us and I had to get control of the situation. So one day I told him to tell his mother I was coming over the next afternoon to talk about his behavior. They lived in the projects. M opened the door when I knocked with a look of shock and surprise on his face. Surprisingly, rather than be unhappy, he seemed pleased that I came. That gave me some important insight into his character. I sat down in the living room with his mom, a very big woman. I told her that there was a lot to like about M, who could be very funny – when you weren't trying to teach – but he had to get control of himself. M sat there grinning ear to ear.

After that day we were pals. It wasn't only his behavior that changed. Mine did too. I began to tolerate his remarks and laughed openly at them. I often retorted and the kids loved what became a sort of routine between us. M became one of my favorite students of all time.


  1. __________________________________


    Norm Scott has now hit a second "Memories of Students"- Home Run. Now just 17,981 "home run" memories to go.

    This one reminded me of a related student memory but with a poignant twist.

    My teaching career, like Norm's, began in the late 60's.

    While the Viet Nam war raged on the other side of the globe, Norm and I were trying to win the Hearts and Minds of inner City, at risk children on the front lines, and in the trenches, of New York City's most impoverished neighborhoods, often referred to as "Ghettos".

    Those crumbling, often burnt out neighborhoods could certainly have made good use of all those countless billions of dollars being spent on a war without end.

    I also had my share of troubled children- what child would not be troubled growing up in a neighborhood that looked for all the world like a war zone.

    The part of the South East Bronx where I spent the first decade of my Teaching career, looked just like a bombed out area of Berlin must have appeared to the liberating troops in 1945.

    I was teaching in a make-shift trailer that had been placed in the center of a "bombed out" block near St. Anne's Ave near 145 th Street. That area had come to be known as "Fort Apache".

    That trailer always reminded me of a large moon landing vehicle that had just descended into a large crater on the Moon. It was surrounded on three sides by burned out, totally leveled tenements which served as the neighborhood playground for the children when they were not in school.

    Against such a background, did I meet "Freddie".

    I will never forget the day "Freddie's" Father came storming into my classroom. Freddie was one of the more active "terrors" of the class who ate up so much of my time and energy, it was as if a whole extra class had been dropped into my room.

    The Father stormed up to me, in the middle of a lesson, ready to give me a strong tongue lashing for all the "bad" things Freddie had likely told him I was doing to pick on "poor little Freddie" who stood a little taller than my waistline.


    End - part One of Two

  2. __________________________________


    part Two of Two

    As so often happens to we Teachers on the "front lines" who work with the City's most challenging kids, I actually had grown quite fond of Freddie despite the fact that dealing with his antics could make climbing Mt. Everest seem easy by comparison.

    Long experience teaches an observant Educator that the students who seem to cause the most problems in the classroom are also the students who are so often in the most emotional pain.

    By sheer coincidence I had redecorated the back wall of my windowless trailer classroom the day before and had decided to hang one of Freddie's large wildly Expressionistic tempera paintings in the place of honor right in the center of the display board.

    I thought it might give Freddie a morale boost and make him realize I appreciated his artistic talents.
    Before Freddie's Father had a chance to explode like Mount Vesuvius, I said: "Mr. Sanchez", you picked the perfect day to visit the school. Freddie has earned the distinction of having his latest artistic creation hung in the place of Honor on our classroom Bulletin Board".

    The painting was quite large so that even from across the room one could easily see the huge letters used by his Son to sign his Masterpiece.

    In very large wildly writhing heavy red brush strokes, one could clearly make out the letters: F-R-E-D-D-I-E.

    The Father stood transfixed as if frozen in time and space. He seemed to stare in disbelief that his little Freddie had attained such a place on Honor, among all the other paintings, on the classroom Bulletin Board.

    And then it happened- something I can recall as though it happened yesterday.

    Huge droplets of tears began to well out of the eyes of Freddie's Father. They rolled down his well lined cheeks, etched deep from a life of worries and hardship. The frequent and telling marks of a lifetime condemned to the galleys of never ending poverty and hopeless despair.

    He said nothing as he tried to hold back the tears and apparently a mixture of shock and yes- Pride -in his Freddie, the little boy no one could control.

    And I observed something quite touching, - that as the Father gazed at Freddie, (who had likely never in his short life seen his Father, who worked 18 hours per day in a "bodega", display any signs of emotion), I noticed that Freddie gazed back at his Father in a manner that indicated a certain magical bond or connection had just been made between these two people.

    Two fragile human beings, just trying, each in his own way, to somehow survive in one particular war zone in the South East Bronx in a City called New York.

    I never met Freddie's Father again, nor Freddie either for that matter, after the end of that school year.

    As in most wars, I was "redeployed" at the end of that year to a new "war zone".
    Actually it was the part of Brooklyn where Norm Scott had worked Educational miracles for 37 years, becoming in the end a living Legend- (as opposed to our faux former Federal Prosecutor Chancellor, who is only "A Legend in his own mind" - God pity him).

    But for almost 40 years I have recalled that moment in time when in some strange and mystical way- I had been the catalyst for bridging a gap between a Father, who had his own share of troubles and his very troubled, but well worth Loving, little Son- called Freddie.

    Can any person say that such memories are not the reflection of a well spent Life ?


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