Lessons from the Bronx

Lessons from the Bronx

Edward wasn’t doing his work.

I had given the twelfth graders in my summer school class the following writing assignment: “Have you ever done something that you regretted or that made you feel guilty?” We were reading John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, and I kept thinking that if ever there were a book more disconnected from my inner-city students’ lives than this tale of over-privileged youngsters at a private prep school, I had yet to see it.

Looking at Edward, a young, black seventeen-year-old who would remove his contraband doo-rag whenever his unfailingly accurate sixth sense told him that the deans were approaching the classroom (and put it back on as soon as they left), I knew I was in trouble. His paper was blank, his pen lay on his desk untouched. Instead of writing, he was making exaggerated yawning and stretching noises. His classmates, looking up from their papers, had already noticed that he was ignoring the assignment. In a moment, his influence would cause me to lose my hold over them as well.

I approached his desk. “Come on, Edward. Just try—don’t you have anything you want to write about?”

“Miss Garon,” he said, grinning slyly, “I’m a tough inner-city kid. Are you going to ‘reach me’ or what?”

Call it youthful idealism or liberal white guilt—whatever it was, Edward knew exactly what game I was playing. My decision to teach in the inner city had not been carefully thought out, but if asked, I probably would have echoed the feelings that Edward had attributed to me.

In March of 2003, I was riding the subway when I saw an advertisement for New York City Teaching Fellows—stark white lettering on a black background: “How many lives did your last spreadsheet change?”

The program seemed like a good deal. It would pay part of my tuition for a master’s in education. I would receive a teacher’s salary, and I would get to teach in a tough school where I could “make a difference.”

The job seemed like a challenge, which was what I was looking for. I enjoyed working with kids—all my résumé-building projects in high school and college had involved tutoring students. At Barnard, I had majored in English and psychology. I even had counseling experience from staffing the university’s crisis and suicide hotline; I thought this skill might prove useful working with high-needs kids, who, I imagined, would have a slew of emotional problems they would want to discuss with me in cozy hearts-to-heart after class.

Besides, with my college graduation two months away, I had no other plans.

I applied to the Fellows program to teach high school English. For the interview, I had to prepare a demo lesson, so I “taught” my favorite Wordsworth poem, “My Heart Leaps Up.” My demo ran over the allotted five minutes. I got flustered when the interviewers cut me off. I sat down red-faced, convinced I had failed. But whether from the sheer force of my enthusiasm for Wordsworth or, more likely, out of the need to fill teacher vacancies in the system, I was accepted to the Teaching Fellows program two days after my twenty-second birthday.

The most crucial component of Fellows training was supervised teaching of summer school classes. I did mine at “Explorers High School” in the Northeast Bronx. The school building was—and still is—all cold war-era architecture, with no adornment or decoration to define its plain, square pile of faded red bricks. From seven to ten every morning a metal detector and a scanner are placed at each of the school’s four main entrances, along with a cordon of security guards with walkie-talkies. Despite these efforts, the school would shoot to the top of the “Impact List”—a ranking of New York City’s worst schools—during the following year, when I taught there full time.

That first summer, my students were incoming and repeating twelfth graders like Edward. Some were nearly my age, having missed years of school due to pregnancy, immigration issues, parental illness, or truancy. Most were only a few credits shy of graduating. They needed this class badly enough to come to a stifling, graffiti-tagged classroom with undersized, wobbly desks. When the windows were open, which they had to be in the summer, they let in the smell of rotting garbage.

“Why are you guys here?” I asked, on the first day I taught a lesson all on my own. I was hoping to inspire some revelation about the value of education and perseverance.

“Because second period English was too early,” said a football player, knees stretched out three feet in front of him.

“Like my momma said, because I fucked up.”

I tried to clarify: “C’mon guys. Can anyone tell me what makes the people sitting here different from the ones who also flunked English but are hanging around on the block?”

“We’re stupider?” said one girl. Scattered giggles came from the back of the classroom.

I started over. “So, has anyone read any good books lately?”

They erupted in laughter.

I was genuinely befuddled. When I was growing up in Virginia, my mother had brought my brothers and me to the local public library every three weeks to get new books. I couldn’t fathom an existence in which reading wasn’t central—and now the kids were looking at me as though I were from another planet.

In hindsight, I see a couple of things: one, a more open-ended question, such as, “What kinds of things do you guys like doing when you’re not in school?” might have yielded more thoughtful responses and two, even if they were reading volumes at home, no power on earth could have compelled them to give me what they perceived as a sycophantic reply. This would be the first of many times the students would show me that everything I thought I knew was basically incorrect.

I remain grateful to those first summer school students who, having been saddled with a young and inexperienced teacher, didn’t use the opportunity to make my life hell. That said, their deference to me—in realization of my naïveté, no doubt—was what damned me the following year.

I had ninth and tenth grade classes that either didn’t know or didn’t care that I was new. One incident still makes me cringe. We were reading To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I assumed the kids would like partially because I liked it, but also because I thought the book’s condemnation of the Jim Crow South would appeal to their moral sensibilities.

I’m still not sure whether they didn’t understand the book or whether they wanted to pretend they didn’t because they thought that would be more entertaining. Regardless, someone asserted that the book was “racist,” and the rest instantly went along with it. “What the hell is wrong with this book? It has the word ‘nigger’ in it,” they shouted at me. My attempts to explain that the author was criticizing racist attitudes, as opposed to espousing them herself, went nowhere.

Ironically, the next book I taught, Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night—which I worried would seem remote—worked perfectly. The class was fascinated by the issues the book raised; knowing that, like Wiesel, I was Jewish, they peppered me with questions. But the book itself was also a novelty for them: a straightforward, totally unsanitized version of events they had only heard about in history class. They didn’t feel they were being talked down to. “Dead ass, this book gave me chills,” one guy said reverently after reading a particularly tense scene aloud.

I attributed this unforeseen success to improvement in my daily instruction; I didn’t understand at the time that the change was in my view of the students themselves. In walking out on a limb and exposing them to something I wasn’t sure they would like, I had gained points.

IT WOULD BE awhile before I understood what had happened in that tenth grade class, though in retrospect, I see that the kids tried to show it to me all along. A month or two after my summer school experience, a handsome young man flagged me down a couple of blocks from the school building. He was wearing shiny new wire-rimmed glasses, so it took me a moment to recognize him.

“Miss Garon! Don’t you remember me?”

“Edward!” I sputtered. “How are you? What are you up to these days?”

He gave me the rundown: having passed summer school English with a 65, he was done with high school. Now he was living with his mom, working at McDonalds. He was considering enrolling in community college.

“You’re smart! You should do it!” I said.

He burst out laughing.

“Edward, what’s so funny?”

“Miss, you’re always, like, mad happy,” he told me.

“Is that bad?”

“At first we thought it was annoying, but now . . .” he reflected, “I don’t know. We like it. You just gotta learn to be more strict—otherwise, those little punk-ass freshmen will be walkin’ all over you.”

“So, I should be meaner?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow. “Nah, not meaner . . . just . . . ‘do you,’ Miss. Don’t front. Do you.”

Later on, when I watched movies like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers and was revolted by Hollywood’s version of my job—the teacher (almost always white) as savior and moral hero—I finally understood the wisdom in Edward’s advice. My notion of “reaching” the students was irrelevant. To get anywhere with them, I had to approach them palms open, offering my own experience and accepting theirs.

But that fall day, when I hugged Edward before we headed in our different directions, I hadn’t learned this lesson. It took a few more years of trial and error before I realized how right he was.

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Ilana Garon was born in Washington, D.C. in 1981. After graduating from Barnard College, she became a New York City Teaching Fellow in 2005. She earned her M.A. in Secondary English Education from the City College of New York. Names in this essay have been changed.


Lima