Someone You Didn't Know
This school where I once taught writing is located in the South Bronx, surrounded by a police station, a Salvation Army, McDonald’s and White Castle, a methadone clinic, a Spanish restaurant, and a combination sporting goods-gun store. So. You could gobble down a couple of Egg McMuffins before swallowing your dose of methadone, slap a few bucks on the counter for a raincoat previously worn by a well-meaning Park Avenue matron, grab a few cuchifritos for lunch, purchase a football and a rifle, throw off a few shots into the air, and obtain a free trip around the corner courtesy of the New York City Police Department before the last bell rings signalling the end of another school day.
For me to get to this utopia, I traveled down to the George Washington Bridge via the A train and climbed the sticky stairs out to the bus stop across the street and walked under a cloud of exhaust from the endless cars, buses, trucks, and mini-vans that cross the bridge each day. The BX36 would swing around the corner in a sort of bloated pirouette and stop on its toes. I was the first or maybe the second person to board the bus on that run. By the time we reached the third stop just a few blocks away, it was filled with girls in Catholic school uniforms, adults crossing from Manhattan into the Bronx for their mundane jobs, and public school students chewing chips and donuts for breakfast who pushed and shoved each other and left their trash on the floor. I had to wrestle my way off the bus by pushing past them like I was spit out of the crowd and onto the sidewalk. I couldn’t tell if I was terrified at where I was or relieved at where I’d been.
I landed on that sidewalk to teach fourth graders or, as the arts program that hired me advertised, “to inspire to reach greater challenges”. The idea was to wheedle writing out of kids in one of the lowest performing schools in the city. You partnered with the classroom teacher who assisted or tried to assist by reinforcing your lessons, passing out papers, and working alongside the students with you. Many times they wound up breaking up fights, asking kids to be quiet, sit down, don’t touch, don’t hit, don’t spit, don’t push your desk out the door, yes, you may go to the bathroom, no, you may not, pay attention, yes, you have to do this, no, you can’t call your friend on the phone, put your nail polish away, I’m calling your mother, do not write on the desk, put away the scissors, take the Walkman out of your ears, if that isn’t yours you have no business touching it, what’s your problem?, if your mother doesn’t care, then I will find someone who does, same to you and let’s move on.
The office that hired me was run by two wealthy women whose husbands were attorneys and even after 20 years, they still led business meetings in the living room of one woman’s apartment. Although they had a maid, the kitchen area was littered with breakfast crumbs and a incontinent dog wearing a diaper stuck his nose into meetings by knocking over piles of paper. The two women were attached to their desktop phones, always distracted and offering advice on dealing with people in a kind, abstract manner. “Just tell the teacher they have to work with you” and “THIS always works.” Of course, that rarely happened.
These women never dealt with the stress of disorganized schools on a daily basis, with teachers who gave up or gave in to their distracted pupils, fourth graders who cursed at you and teachers who sat at their desk eating yogurt while you tried to mold their young people. They had no control over who sat in their class and many times the mixture was combustible, improbable and impossible. The goal I learned was to get the project over with within the allotted five or eight week time period, even though you might only meet a few times because the teacher called in sick or forgot that you were to arrive and scheduled some other activity. There was always testing or a class trip which the teacher wasn’t aware of or didn’t bother to tell you. I never dumbed down my expectations but realized that not everyone was capable of meeting them. There were smart kids and great teachers and it was only by great good luck that they met. You could blame it on a system that puts students with probation officers or on serious medication for mental illness in the same classroom with intelligent, impressionable children I had to pluck out of the crowd. And there were the parents who purchased French manicures, pedicures, hair weaves, cell phones and SUVs but not pens and pencils for their kids.
After passing the lineup of parents and kids holding soda bottles and chips for breakfast, I signed in for the day and found myself assigned to working with four teachers. The first was a tiny teacher with a voice twice as grating as Rosie Perez’s. Born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, she married a Jewish man and adopted the Joan Rivers-like intonations of a middle-aged Jewish mother-in-law where nobody has eaten enough or calls her enough. Every one of her students must have his or her desk precisely arranged. It was almost as if she had drawn an invisible placement where a notebook should go - center of the desk - pencils on the right, water bottles on the left. “Mar-vin,” she would complain. “Hon-ey. Marv-in? Remember? I told you? Your notebook should be open and in the cent-ah.” I winced and so did the students.
Another teacher sat, almost invisible, in the back of her classroom with crumpled up looseleaf papers, graffitied-over textbooks, and the stubs of pencils and lunch bags strewn all over the floor. I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore. So I took a broom and started cleaning. A large mound of garbage rose in the middle of the classroom and four kids pitched in, thrilled that someone else acknowledged these distractions. I don’t think the teacher noticed the clean room. She was too busy playing with a student’s Game Boy and happy not to be interrupted. This same classroom held a girl who stabbed the class gerbil to death with a pencil. The kids stayed away from her. So did I.
Other kids shoved desks at each other. And seated quietly on the left side of the room were four students who soaked up everything I had to offer - the poetry of Carl Sandburg, the humor of James Thurber, the photographs of William Wegman and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Overlooked by the system, they were neat, quiet, well-spoken, excellent writers - what were they doing here? I asked one small boy with curly hair and expressive eyes and lowered my voice.
“How DO you put up with this every day?,” I whispered.
“Well,” he said, “I have no choice.”
I moved to the front of the class and clapped my hands.
“Okay, everyone! We’re ready to go!”
Somehow I overlooked a chunky kid standing to my left holding on to the broom. He threw it like a javelin and missed his target. It hit me on the forearm and I was black and blue for about a week.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, “I meant to hit that kid over there.”
I reported it to the principal who sat expressionless in front of me. I wondered how parents felt when they met her. She would be retiring in a few months and stayed as far away from complaints and controversy as she could. So she sat immobile in her office, hearing nothing or just nodding to everything and departed at the end of the school year. But I don’t know how she couldn’t hear the howling coming from the third floor, like a horror movie with vampires or demons in the attic.
“That’s nothing, “ said one teacher, not breaking stride. “Those are all the kids who haven’t taken their medication today.”
Another teacher - the sister of the Rosie Perez sound alike - proudly controlled her class, she said, with an iron ruler and only she and she only could control them. Running a classroom without teaching your students how to behave with other adults seems rather narcissistic, arrogant and irresponsible. I saw this firsthand when she called in sick one day. The substitute struggled to control the class. I made my move and announced our writing project. The kids ignored us.
“We don’t have to do that.”
They turned their backs, laughed and moved together in clusters to talk. The substitute yelled to get their attention. So did I. I waved my arms like I was at a football game. A few listened to our useless exertions. One girl did pay attention to us.
“Fuck you!”, she called out.
Another one girl imitated our hopeless voices and yelled at us to leave. I reported it the next day to the teacher who was reunited with her darling angels.
“That’s because I wasn’t there,” the teacher said proudly.
I didn’t know who to feel more sorry for. She pointed out a particulary troublesome student.
“This kid has problems,” she said, standing next to a short, wiry boy who stood about four feet tall but with the posturing of a basketball player.
I passed him in the hallway in between classes and called out a friendly hello as I did to every student I struggled to recognize. The next thing I knew he ran to report to his teacher that I had cursed at him. The principal wearily called me into her office.
“We’ve already had the parents in and he lied to them,” she said, looking at a spot on the wall above me. “He has a history of punching several kids and then lied and said he didn’t do it. Don’t worry about it.”
But I did. I wondered what it was like to be a kid bullied by this troublemaker and now I was one of them. It was fourth grade all over again. My last class of the day was with a teacher named named Diane Newton. This being the Bronx it was pronounced “New-in”. She knew the quirks and strengths of her students and didn’t insult, yell or talk about them while they were sitting in front of them as some other teachers did. She knew which kid was having a bad day and who needed to be separated from another. She was also a mother raising a son.
The floors were swept clean, her desk and closets organized, no one chewed gum or threw anything at me. There weren’t any papers on the floor and there were no howling kids. That was a good sign. Five years later, I can see and feel that classroom. The coat closets were on the left and the square desks were arranged in small groupings of six or eight. Her regulation wooden teacher’s desk was in the front of the room.
I remember the tall and neatly dressed Carl whose voice was changing so he sounded like a honking vintage Volkswagon. Another student, a girl, looked like she was in high school. She had to weigh a solid 200 pounds and at five feet seven was four inches taller than I am. She sat at her desk with her eyes closed, weary from a long day at the job. The girls in this class were larger and more developed than the boys who - with the exception of Carl - looked like they could be in the second grade. One girl kept calling out my name so eager for attention that Ms. Newton would remind her: “Ms. Schulman has to work with others in the room. Let’s give everyone a chance.” Another young man sat at his desk, folded his arms, and announced that he wasn’t “doing this crap.” Ms. Newton advised me to move on.
Ms. Newton never called in sick on the days I was scheduled as I pushed open the classroom door, perspiring, my damp hair scratching my back, drinking from a large bottle of water, and lugging what amounted to a suitcase full of books and papers. She looked me in the eye when I spoke and listened to my idea about having her students write autobiographies.
“That’s a great idea,” she said. “We can use the assignments for their writing folders. And since some are being interviewed for charter schools, this would really be a big help.”
The writing was upbeat and I remember helping them format and focus paragraphs about dreams of becoming veterinarians and shortstops, secretaries and politicians. Carl wrote about being either a politician or a preacher. I can’t remember which one. Ms. Newton helped me pass out papers and worked on their writing on days when I wasn’t there. There was one computer for thirty students and no one knew how to type. A student typing one paragraph with one finger could take over an hour. So we worked out a system: once a student finished writing, they would sit at the computer, type it out, and I would format and correct the typing errors. Ms. Newton even found the time to type up some of these herself.
Once we assigned the writing, she and I split up and worked one by one around the room. I tried pushing the heavyset girl but she was immovable. She did open her eyes a couple of times and rolled them; just a reaction was progress. Ms. Newton told me to move on. I pushed the boy who sat and sulked.
He was smaller than the rest and shrunk into his seat.
“Oh, c’mon,” I said, “This is easy. I know you have something to say. Let’s get going. You can do it.”
That little push was all he needed. Somehow, he and I made some headway. I don’t know what broke the ice but he turned into one of my best students.
“Can I help you pass out the papers?” “Could you all pay attention so we can begin?” he would call out, stamping his feet.
I wished I had made copies of their papers but I didn’t. His writing improved and he sat and watched my pencil circle verbs used incorrectly and words with creative misspellings. He would be the first one finished and he walked around the room to see how his colleagues were shaping up.
But he had an obstacle that blindsided him, Ms. Newton, and me. I spotted him sitting silently and sullenly in the back of another classroom, his legs stretched out and his head leaning on his hand. He barely looked at me, sitting slumped in his seat. He paid no attention to his teacher. I waved and mouthed hello. He looked away. When I arrived in class, his seat was empty. Ms. Newton took me aside.
“What happened?” I asked. “Something must be wrong.”
She explained that she was under investigation. The girl who craved attention reported that she had sex in the classroom coat closet with this boy while Ms. Newton was teaching the class. I must have made a face at the improbability of it. This was the fourth grade so the girl was ten or eleven. She seemed older, not sophisticated, but more physically developed than the boys. But I couldn’t figure out the logistics. The kid seemed, well, like a kid, not aggressive or even aware that they were girls. How could he possibly reach her body parts or know how they worked, let alone have sex standing up in a dark, narrow coat closet full of hooks with a girl a good foot and a half taller? But the police and the Board of Education had to investigate. He was pulled out of the classroom, his accuser remained to face Ms. Newton every day.
“What? Are you kidding me?” I asked.
Ms. Newton put her hand on my arm.
“Let’s look at the facts,” I said. “First of all, this kid doesn’t even notice the girls yet. He wouldn’t even know what to do. You have to have a certain amount of sophistication to have sex standing up in that coat closet with the hooks sticking out. How could this happen with everyone in the room?”
I walked around in circles.
Ms. Newton was calmer than I was even though she said that she was being investigated. She felt the girl, who had other documented problems, was making this up and possibly covering up a relationship with an older uncle. In the meantime, the girl was allowed to remain in the classroom and the young man removed.
“I’ll get through this,” Ms. Newton said, “because we know it didn’t happen. And it couldn’t happen. But these kids have problems”, she said sadly. “She’s created a situation for the rest of his life. This will scar him. She doesn’t care. I wish I could do something for him but my hands are tied.”
This was the last day of class and I never would find out what happened to the two. I said goodbye to the class and Ms. Newton and received a round of applause from the class, including one standing ovation from Carl. I exchanged telephone numbers with Ms. Newton, promising to keep in touch. We never did. I don’t know why.
A couple of years later, I said goodbye to teaching. When I left, I wondered the fates of her students and the ones who soaked up Thurber and Sandburg. I wonder if kids are still howling from the third floor. I wondered if Ms. Newton was still teaching the fourth grade in the South Bronx in the same school surrounded by a police station, a Salvation Army, McDonald’s and White Castle, a methadone clinic, a Spanish restaurant, and a combination sporting goods-gun store.
I hadn’t thought about them for a good while until I opened the newspaper just after July 4th. The headlines read “Crash kills teacher. Parked, hit by joyriding teens.” I would usually skim a story like this but since I worked with quite a few teachers in the city, it caught my attention.A public school teacher sat in her car in Harlem waiting for her fiance, a city sanitation worker she was set to marry in September. They had just spoken on her cellphone and they were meeting so they could travel home together. A teenager ended all that at 2:45 in the morning. He took his stepfather’s SUV, picked up a couple of friends and sped up Seventh Avenue. Hitting a speed of 9o miles per hour, he lost control of the vehicle and hit three cars. One was occupied by the teacher. The impact of the crash broken seven of her ribs including one that pierced her heart. She died several hours after the crash, killed by a kid who was the same age as her son. Once, he could have been one of her students. I looked again at the black and white photograph of a smiling, attractive black woman facing the camera with her arm around the fiancee she would never marry. It looked familiar.
I looked again.
It was Diane Newton.
Someone you didn’t know.