The following is an excerpt from Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx by Ilana Garon, which will be released on September 1 by Skyhorse publishing. More information on the book may be found here.
Eric Evans wasn’t doing his work.
I had just given the twelfth-graders in my summer school class a writing assignment: “Have you ever done something that you regretted, or that made you feel guilty long afterwards? Discuss.” 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 overprivileged youth at a thinly veiled fictionalization of Phillips Exeter, I had yet to see it. Or was it so disconnected? Couldn’t themes of loss and guilt be relevant to even the most jaded, world-weary teens?
I hoped maybe they could. Otherwise, my lesson would be shot to hell.
But looking over at Eric, I knew I was in trouble. His paper was blank and his pen lay on his desk untouched. He was making exaggerated yawning and stretching noises, reclining his seat back against the lockers in the rear of the classroom. His classmates, looking up from their own work, had already noticed that he was not doing the assignment. I knew that in a moment his influence would cause me to lose my hold over them as well.
I came over to him. “Come on, Eric,” I said. “Just try—don’t you have anything you want to write about?”
“Miss Garon,” he said, grinning at me slyly, “I’m a tough inner-city kid. Are you going to ‘reach me,’ or what?”
Explorers High School stands four stories tall, all Cold War–era architecture with no adornment or decoration to define what is otherwise a plain, square pile of faded red bricks. There are rusting “fall-out shelter” signs on some sides of the building and bars on the windows. Generations of students have remarked, not incorrectly, that the place looks like a prison.
Explorers is flanked on two sides by housing projects, and on a third side by the gated, incongruously plantation-style campus of a school for the deaf. 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 slew of security guards with walkie-talkies. On particularly slow days, the gender-separated lines for “scanning” stretch around the corners of the school.
For my first four years and a summer, I took the 2 train from the Ninety-Sixth Street station in Manhattan all the way up to the northeast Bronx to get to Explorers. The trip lasted close to an hour door to door, and that was on a good day, when the train didn’t become stuck (as it did, all too often) for twenty minutes in between 149th Street Grand Concourse and Third Avenue. On those days, I would find myself sprinting the half-mile from the subway station to the school, my backpack thumping against my back. If I were late enough, I’d figure “What the hell?” and stop to buy a sixty-cent coffee at one of the bodegas along the way. Then I would come up the steps to the school, past the metal detectors and the line of students who looked as though they were at the airport, patiently holding the belts and sneakers that they had taken off to speed up the scanning process.
It was an ad on a subway train that first gave me the idea to become a teacher. In March of 2003, my senior year of college, I was riding along listening to my MP3 player when I looked up and saw an advertisement for New York City Teaching Fellows—a black background with stark white lettering: “How many lives did your last spreadsheet change?”
The Teaching Fellows program seemed like a good deal. It would pay for me to get a master’s degree in education (I only later found out that due to budget cuts relating to the Iraq war I would have to pony up half the cash); I would receive a full 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, and that was what I was looking for. I liked kids—all my token transcript-building projects in high school and college had involved tutoring students in my upper-middle–class suburban community in everything from swimming to bar mitzvah preparation to arts and crafts. At Barnard, I had majored in English and psychology. I even had a couple years of counseling experience on a university crisis and suicide hotline; I thought this 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 during cozy heart-to-hearts after class.
Plus, my college graduation was two months away and I had no other plans.
I applied to the Fellows program, hoping to be assigned to teach high school English. I had spent so much time dawdling that by the time I heard that I had been granted an interview, in early May, the last round of the application process was drawing to a close. The program was trying to fill all its available spots as soon as possible. I had to prepare a demonstration lesson for the interview. I “taught” my favorite Wordsworth poem, “My Heart Leaps Up.” I had always liked the line “The child is father of the man”—it seemed somehow appropriate for someone embarking on a career working with children. I ran over the allotted five minutes, got flustered, and started rambling about a hypothetical quiz that I would give were I teaching a real course instead of a mock lesson. Afterward I sat down, red-faced with embarrassment. I didn’t feel that I had done very well. But due to the sheer force of my enthusiasm for Wordsworth, or more likely out of the hiring committee’s desperation to fill the staggering number of teacher vacancies in the system, I was accepted to the Teaching Fellows program two days after my twenty-second birthday.
I interviewed at Explorers, a public high school of 4,700 students, at the beginning of our summer training. Due to subway block-ups, I arrived half an hour late for my interview. I ran into the English department office, which contained a small anteroom, at the end of which the assistant principal sat behind a Plexiglas wall. Of course, I was flustered and apologizing left and right. But the head of the English department seemed too immersed in the charts on his computer screen to care. He swiveled his chair toward me, asking in an almost bored tone of voice, “So, what are your views on education?”
I am not certain what he expected me to say, since I was fresh out of college and had never officially taught anything. But whatever I told him must have been what he wanted to hear. “Well,” he said, after a few minutes, “the principal of the school is out today, but I’d basically like to ‘sign you’ now.”
“Sign you”—it sounded like I was a basketball star. “Can I think about it for a couple of days?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t think that’s a very good idea, because we’re trying to fill our spots pretty quickly so that we don’t run short. You probably won’t have a position if you wait much longer. . . .”
I was flattered that someone was so interested in hiring me that they’d push me into a contract on the spot. I signed.
Teaching Fellows summer training involved a combination of classes, observations, and supervised student teaching. Mrs. Walker, my cooperating teacher, was in her last summer before retirement. She was about five feet, five inches tall and slender, with smooth, almost black skin and a seemingly infinite wardrobe of elegant summer dresses. She couldn’t have been older than fifty, but her approach to education was traditional, tough-love. “Everyone’s too concerned with making things fun for them,” she said, with just a trace of a Haitian accent in her otherwise impeccable English. She pronounced the word “fun” as though she’d been forced to swallow detergent. “And that’s stupid—they just need to sit still and do the work, whether they like it or not!”
Mrs. Walker cut an imposing figure, despite her small size. Looking back, I admire her ferocity. She was a tough grader. Very tough. During my first week assisting her that summer, one of the brightest students in the class got a 72 on a test. “Miss, a 72? Why’d I get that?” Then he paused and said, “Wait . . . but that’s good, coming from you, isn’t it? Never mind.” He sat down, looking defeated.
Another time, a student didn’t answer when I took attendance because he wasn’t paying attention. “Just mark him absent,” Mrs. Walker snorted. Then later she said, “Did you mark him absent? Good!” The student was sitting right there. Her teaching methods motivated the students to write, in an essay on the theme of responsibility in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, that the character Gene should be forced to sit through Mrs. Walker’s English class as a punishment for pushing his best friend Phinneas out of a tree. I laughed out loud when I read that, and then exhorted them to hurry and write something else before Mrs. Walker caught on.
The summer school class contained incoming and repeating twelfth-graders. Some were nearly my age, having missed years of school due to pregnancy, immigration, multiple academic failures, or parental illness. Most were only a few credits shy of graduating. They needed this class badly enough to come to an un-air-conditioned, graffiti-tagged classroom with undersized, wobbly desks. When the windows were open, which they had to be in June and July, they let in the smell of garbage rotting in the heat of the Bronx summer.
“Why are you guys here?” I asked on the first day Mrs. Walker let me teach a lesson 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 one of the football players whose knees stretched out three feet in front of him. Scattered giggles came from the back of the classroom.
A pudgy kid by the name of William Williams, whose hair was in neat cornrows, lifted his head up from the desk and said, “Like my momma said—’cause I fucked up.” Then he put his head back down on the desk.
That’s one way of putting it, I thought. But I said to the kids, “Can anyone tell me what makes the people sitting here in summer school different from their peers, who also flunked English, but are hanging around on the block instead?”
“We’re stupider?” one girl replied.
This line of questioning wasn’t going where I had intended.
“Has anyone read any good books lately?” I asked.
They all cracked up laughing.
“You mean over the summer?”
A small, shy girl named Hazel, with light brown ringlets and delicate bone structure, raised her hand. “Miss, I read a book,” she said tentatively.
“Great! What was it about?”
“Well, it’s about how not to get pregnant, and how to deal with smooth players who have lots of money.”
“That sounds informative. Anyone else?”
“I read Sports Illustrated,” offered a tall, amiable-looking kid named Alcides, sitting near the front.
No other students raised their hands.
“Well, okay, what do you guys do in the afternoons, when you go home?” I asked.
One of the students in the back, a hulking boy named Igor who had a perpetual grimace (and, I would later learn, was the head of the local Albanian gang) deadpanned, “I smoke a fat blunt.”
The students around him laughed. I stared, disbelieving.
I told them to take out a piece of paper and write a paragraph explaining their motivation for coming to summer school. “Motivation is why you’d want to do something,” I told them.
“Yes, what’s your name?”
“I can’t concentrate.”
“Because I keep lookin’ at your pretty face, Miss.”
I blushed, and muttered, “Come on, Kevin, do you work.” It had not escaped any of these kids that I was only a couple of years older than they were.
“Okay, this poem by Robert Frost . . . what’s it about?” I asked them a couple of weeks later. I was teaching “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” an eight-line poem about the impermanence of beauty. There was no response.
“Guys?” I tried again. Still nothing. They were all sleeping, doodling, or staring out the window. It was Monday. They’d obviously had a long weekend.
So I did what Mrs. Walker always did in these situations—told them to take out a piece of paper and write an essay. Eric Evans, a tall black kid who would take his contraband do-rag off whenever his unfailingly accurate sixth sense told him that the deans were approaching the classroom, but would put it back the moment they left, wrote one long, graphic sex scene. “I touched my girlfriend’s ebony body in ecstasy, she moaned in ecstasy . . .” it read.
“Very interesting piece of creative writing,” I scrawled in red pen at the top of his paper, “But I’m unclear on its relevance to the theme of ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay.’”
The next day I returned the papers. A minute later, Eric called me over. “What does this mean?” he asked, pointing to my comments.
“It means I didn’t understand how your essay has anything to do with the poem,” I told him. “You talk about sex with your girlfriend for one and a half pages, and then you just tack on a random line from the poem at the end.”
“Miss.” He grinned slyly. “You know what I mean.”
I did not, but it didn’t seem wise to press for further explanation.
Later, when we read “The Road Not Taken,” I explained about Frost’s message of sometimes having to make the more difficult or less popular choices. “The ‘road not taken’ is the decision fewer people make, guys,” I said. “Do you know what that’s like?”
Eric raised his hand. “Miss, could this poem be about a woman?”
I misunderstood him. “You mean, could it apply to a woman as well?”
“Well yeah, sure. Women also have to make difficult choices….” I stopped and look at him, confused.
“No, I mean, the poem is about women. You choose the one not ‘taken’…and that makes all the difference,” he said. The class laughed, saying, “Ohhh, yeah.”
Sexual interpretations of the poems became rampant. Listening to them, one might think that Robert Frost had written an entire anthology of erotic poetry—“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for instance, was met with enthusiastic discussion about the “gay horse” that is trying to figure out its sexual preferences.
“What?” I asked, bewildered by a reference that seemed to come out of nowhere.
William Williams appraised me with sympathy. “You know, ‘My little horse must think it’s queer….’ He hasn’t decided if he’s a fag or not, Miss.”
A chorus of “Yeah, this poem is mad gay,” resounded throughout the room.
I opted not to miss out on what we call, in education, the “teachable moment.”
“Okay, first of all, when we’re reading about something that you guys think is ‘gay,’ I want you to say it has ‘homosexual undertones.’ Can you say that?”
“Homosexual under…what?” they said, almost in unison.
“So this poem has homosexual undertones?”
“Yeah…well, no, not really, but…well, I guess that’s one interpretation.”
When I wasn’t in Mrs. Walker’s English class, I was attending FA, or “Fellows Advisory,” a special class taught by an experienced teacher wherein all the new fellows were supposed to learn lesson planning and classroom management skills. What it ended up being was more akin to group counseling. We, the new teachers, would all sit around bemoaning the injustices of our respective summer school programs.
“My students don’t have any books!” one teacher would cry.
“You think that’s bad? We have kids sitting on the windowsill because there aren’t enough desks!” another would yell.
“Yeah, well our kids have to take the exact same English class two periods in a row, because they failed both English 7 and 8, but the school can’t be bothered to create two different level summer school classes! These children aren’t learning!”
“Why do you always call them ‘these children,’ like they’re some sort of aliens? You have to get over your latent racism!”
It would go on like this until the lead teacher would call us to order, causing us to shift our focus toward lesson planning instead of complaining—much in the manner of our own students—about our schools, our fellow teachers, or our classes.
I remain profoundly grateful to those first summer school students who, having been granted a young and inexperienced summer school teacher, didn’t use the opportunity to make my life a living hell. They sometimes slacked off, but they were never rude or disrespectful to this wide-eyed suburban kid from Virginia. I knew other teachers in the Fellows program who dropped out before completing summer school, citing horrific working conditions. One teacher I knew had his classroom set on fire. Thankfully, I never experienced anything like that.
Months after summer school ended, when I was well into my first year of teaching, a handsome young man flagged me down a couple of blocks from the school building. He was about a foot taller than I was, and sported a shiny pair of wire-rimmed glasses. Because of this, it took me a moment to recognize him.
“Miss Garon! Don’t you remember me?” he asked.
“Eric Evans!” I sputtered, as everything zoomed into focus. “How are you? What are you up to these days?”
He gave me the rundown: Mrs. Walker had passed him with a 65—one of her more generous acts, I couldn’t help thinking, since he’d done none of the work as far as I could tell—and so he was done with high school. Now he was living with his mom and working at McDonald’s. He was thinking of enrolling in community college.
“You’re smart! You should do it!”
He burst out laughing.
“Eric, what’s so funny?”
“Miss, you’re always, like, mad happy,” he told me.
“Is that bad?”
“No, at first we thought it was annoying, but now…” he paused. “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.”
He was right, of course. Despite my best efforts to fashion myself as a disciplinarian, the punk-ass freshmen were eating me for lunch.
“So, you’re saying I should be…like…meaner?” I asked him, resisting the temptation to whip out a pen and take notes.
He furrowed his brow. “Nah, not really meaner…just…‘do you,’ Miss. Don’t front. Do you.” He said this with finality.
I nodded. He gave me a hug and continued on his way. I didn’t see him again after that.
Looking back, I realize he was giving me good advice. However, it took several years before I trusted myself enough, both as a teacher and a person, to know that he was right.
Ilana Garon is an English teacher at a public high school in the Bronx, New York. She holds master’s degrees in both secondary English education and fine arts, and has taught every level of high school English, from ESL to AP. She has written about education for Dissent, Huffington Post, and Education Week.