Thursday, December 22, 2005

"We Weren't Poor. We Just Didn't Have Any Money."

Yesterday, I walked from 170th Street in the Bronx to 70th Street in Manhattan. It was day two of the transit strike, and I needed to get from my school to my second job. I could have taken a taxi at least part of the way, but once I'd walked 50 blocks, I got stubborn and figured why not walk 50 more? The best part about the walk was that I took some side streets and saw a whole different side of the South Bronx. It didn't seem so harsh without all the buses and above-ground trains roaring past. Pedestrians were everywhere, and there almost (almost) seemed to be a brotherly love on the sidewalks. I even walked past the building on Willis Avenue that my dad grew up in over half a century ago. It was recently renovated and actually looked really cute. There's a barbershop on the ground floor with old-school red, white, and blue barber poles. I emailed my dad about my visit to his old home, and he sent me this:

Thanks for the trip through time ... I lived on the 5th floor of 372 Willis Ave. with my Uncle Rich and Aunt Sadie from 1943 to 1949. There was no heat except for the big kitchen coal stove and no elevator of course. The building originally had no electricity. My Jr high was on 147th and grade school on 138th, both between Willis and Brook Ave. Started Stuyvesant while still living there. The rent was $28 per month until central steam heat was installed, when it went to $35. We weren't poor. We just didn't have any money. I was categorized as underprivileged but didn't know it. The store in the building was a toy store. Feliz Navidad.

My dad now lives in a much different environment - a nice house with a Pacific Ocean view in California, where I grew up. How did I end up back on the sidewalks of the South Bronx, gazing up at that old brick building, imagining that I'd been transported back to 1940's NYC? It all seemed somehow beyond my control. I chatted with a few men who were hanging out on the sidewalk outside the building. They were super-impressed that my dad lived there so long ago. A sweet kid walking into the building overheard me, stopped at the front door, and looked on with interest. I wondered how similar his childhood has been to my dad's. He probably goes to the same middle school on 147th. Hopefully, he'll get a chance to go to a good high school and college like my dad did.

I had been getting off the subway in the Bronx every day for a year without realizing that I was just six blocks away from my dad's childhood home. I was always in such a rush to get to work, and I still had to transfer from the subway to a bus to get to my school. When I came to Willis Avenue during my strike-induced walk home, the name of the street rang a bell. I got out my notebook, where I'd scribbled my dad's old address months ago, intending to someday pay a visit. I always knew that my dad grew up in the area, but visiting the actual building he lived in really made history come alive for me. So even though I don't agree with this transit strike, something positive did come of it for me.

It all feels fateful. My dad's older sister - my late aunt - actually graduated in 1941 from the high school at which I now teach. I didn't know this before taking the job. My dad would have gone to the same school too if he hadn't passed the test to get into Stuyvesant, which is New York City's finest and most competitive public high school. Getting accepted there was my dad's first real shot at making something of himself outside of the ghetto.

It really seems like more than a coincidence, literally following my dad and aunt's footsteps. There are hundreds of schools in New York City that I could have ended up in. Why did I end up here?

(Props to Carl Hurley and Hazel V. Hall, both of whom wrote little-known books entitled We Weren't Poor, We Just Didn't Have Any Money. Both are on Amazon.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Transit Strike (Day One)

I usually take the 6 train to the 5 train to the 21 bus to get to my school in the Bronx each morning. Today, the city's transit workers, many of whom make more than the city's teachers, decided to essentially hold the people of NYC hostage by striking. The strike also essentially shut down the city's schools. I may as well throw away all my lesson plans for the week. To get to work this morning, I began walking from 67th St. and Second Avenue to 97th St. and Madison to catch a ride from Nadine, one of my teaching colleagues. Meanwhile, two other car-less teachers were walking from different parts of the city to meet her as well.

Nadine couldn't drive below 96th Street to pick us up because the city implemented a traffic control rule that cars needed to have at least four passengers to drive below 96th Street in Manhattan. Never mind that she was trying to get below 96th Street to pick up three teachers, then turn around and take us up to the Bronx. All of the traffic rules were focused on streamlining things for people who work in downtown Manhattan. As I was walking, Nadine called to inform me that she could only cross from the West side of Manhattan to the East side at 110th St., so I kept walking up to 110th to meet her. She got completely stuck in bottleneck traffic on 110th, so I just started walking west to find her. In the end, I walked over 40 blocks on a frigid December morning. By the time I reached Nadine, my face and fingers were numb.

Overall, it took me two and a half hours to get to work this morning. It took one of my colleagues four hours to get to work from Brooklyn. (Good thing I don't live in Queens anymore - that would have been a nightmare.) Attendance was abysmal today. Most of our students depend on public transportation. Others simply took advantage of an excuse to miss school. Still, it was worth it to get to work because I got to help one of my students finish her scholarship essay about how music changed her life.

When school ended, I then had to figure out how I was going to get down to the Upper West Side of Manhattan by 3:30pm for my second job working with Justin, a four-year-old boy with autism. Nadine usually works late in the Bronx, but there was luckily a "rapid dismissal" drill at our school today, so Nadine left early and gave me a ride to Justin's. Still, I was 20 minutes late with all the traffic. I don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow when Nadine can't give me a ride until 4pm. I guess I'll either walk from the Bronx to Manhattan or fork over a huge taxi fare.

This transit strike is just crazy. Kids were out there wandering around the city's streets in the freezing cold, trying to figure out how to get to school and back. School was completely disrupted for over a million kids. There's no way I can support this strike, especially not after reading in the New York Times that the average base salary of NYC's transit workers is $47,000, and $55,000 with overtime. Yes, the cost of living in NYC is crazy, but should the city's ticket booth clerks and train conductors really make as much as (and in some cases more than) a teacher with a Master's degree? And teachers don't get overtime for hours spent at home preparing lessons, grading papers, and calling parents. Now the NYC transit workers are striking for more money? This strike is really going to hurt their already poor images. It's no secret that NYC's transit workers aren't exactly the most courteous of employees, which is one reason why so few New Yorkers can find it within themselves to support this stike.

The NYC teacher's union (UFT) recently negotiated a new contract and long overdue raise with the city after teachers worked for years without a contract. We still don't get paid maternity leave or a salary befitting our job responsibilities and education levels, but we did not strike. How could we possibly justify leaving already under-served kids without teachers? We knew what the salary was when we took the jobs, and although most of us feel that we deserve more, we're not going to hold our schools hostage by striking. I don't understand how the transit workers' union can justify their action. The International Transit Workers' Union is even speaking up against this strike.

I will walk for three hours if I have to to get to work with Justin after school tomorrow. He was a little angel today. When I said goodbye to him, he said "I love you so," which made me forget about all the craziness and injustices of the day. I walked home through Central Park feeling elated. What a day. Now Maureen from Brooklyn is sleeping on my couch so she can at least start from Upper Manhattan with me tomorrow, when we'll do it all over again.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


After cutting classes three days in a row, Darryl made an appearance during English today. He stormed in 20 minutes late and proclaimed, “Holla’ out for Purpleville!” Three boys responded, “Purpleville!” in unison, and they made a cryptic symbol above their heads. Darryl then jumped around the room, shook everyone’s hand, and bolted right back out the door. I managed to get in a quick, “Nice to see you Darryl,” just before he left, then I went on with my lesson.

Hmmm. Purpleville. Not sure, but I think it has something to do with “Purple Haze,” which is written inside one of the girls' bathroom stalls next an astute sketch of a marijuana leaf.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Those Z Authors

I was thrilled today when two of my struggling readers expressed an interest in reading the works of Zora Neale Hurston.

"Will you really let us read Zora in class Miss?!"

"Of course! She was one of the major writers of the Harlem Renaissance!"

"Oh. She was? But do we need a note from our parents?"

"To read Zora Neale Hurston?"

"Because, you know, it's porn."

Screeching halt. Huh?

Turns out, they were confusing Zora Neale Hurston with Zane, modern erotica writer. Definitely not one of the major writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

How Do I Explain ...

I can't even begin to describe what I've been through with one of my emotionally disturbed students over the past few days. For now, I will only say that she ended up having to be physically contained by a guard, and she was brought to the 42nd precinct. I'll try to describe the incident in more detail later. I survived the incident with no physical injuries. The emotional injuries, however, will linger for a while. The thing about emotional pain is that you can't see it; you can't show it to other people for sympathy. There's no bruise or broken bone to prompt "what happened" or "are you okay?" Emotional pain is easy to tuck away and ignore until one day it comes back to haunt you in ways you never expected.

This particular student has not been getting the counseling she needs and deserves. Her pain is only getting worse, and she is taking it out on me. When I became a special education teacher, I was not prepared for the amount of verbal abuse I would be subjected to from emotionally disturbed kids. There are always deep reasons for their behavior, but it is sometimes hard to keep that in mind when they are screaming at me and threatening me. I've been thinking lately that I'd rather take a punch in the face over emotional abuse any day.

As it turns out, I was in an accident after school, and I have to remember to be careful what I wish for. I've begun working with children with autism after school. Yesterday evening, I was working with a four-year-old girl, and she accidentally knocked over her art easel. An edge slammed right in my eye, so now I have a bruised, swollen eye with a deep cut under my eyebrow. Funny how for the past few years, I've been working in two high school buildings in the South Bronx that are considered dangerous, yet I've never been physically injured. Then a sweet, four-year-old girl on the Upper West Side comes along and takes me down.

It may sound bizarre, but now that my physical appearance matches what I've been feeling inside, I feel better. People can see that something is wrong. Strangers on the subway and at the deli have been giving me sympathy. "Ooooh. What happened to your eye? Are you okay? I'm so glad you're going to be okay." The fact is, I really haven't been okay for about a year now, but no one other than the friends I vent to about my job have noticed.

Watching the news, I wonder about the emotional pain of soldiers returning from Iraq. We know there is suffering when we see a soldier return with physical injuries, but we so easily overlook the emotional suffering that inevitably results from witnessing violence, death, and injustice. Violence. Death. Injustice. Too many of my students have witnessed these things right here at home.

Du-Rag Protest

Dear Students,

Want to wear a du-rag to school to tame your hair? Okay. Not gonna' argue. Want to put on a du-rag, call it fashion, and start acting gangsta at school? Not okay. You don't look gangsta. You look like you have panty-hose on your head. So do 50 Cent and Eminem, and you shouldn't be emulating them anyway. The du-rag trend was cool for maybe a month. Why is it still running strong? Even the Wall Street Journal, in a pathetic attempt to be cool, published a front-page feature about kids wearing du-rags. That right there should be your cue that it is no longer cool. Besides, most of you have straight hair, and your du-rags just give you hat-hair. Do me a favor and put your Yankees caps back on. I'll waive the no-hats-at-school rule. Anything to never again have to teach a lesson while gazing at a sea of panty-hose clad heads.

Concerned for Your Fashion Senses,

Miss Dennis

Monday, December 12, 2005

Word-of-the-Day: Condescending

Student sentence: Cops are so condescending to me.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The New Kids

A new student, Kevin, was placed in my special ed English class last week. There are three weeks left of the semester. Kevin immediately announced to the class that he'd been "locked up." He seemed proud of it. It was as if he were announcing to the class that he was their new leader. So last week was pretty much about Kevin screaming at me, trying to assert his power, while no one learned. Some of Kevin's comments were personally abusive toward me. At times like this, it's hard to find a positive side, but I finally found it yesterday.

Before Kevin arrived, Tanysha was my most challenging student. Tanysha had arrived half-way into the semester. After a month of yelling, Tanysha finally settled down when I told her she could use the class computer. She began typing away. She typed for hours. When I printed her writing and read it, all the yelling made sense. She had written about her mom's recent murder. Troubled kids sometimes make things like this up, so I checked out the story, hoping it wasn't true. Sadly, it was.

I gave Tanysha an A on her writing, and she walked around clutching the paper for weeks. She would show everyone the A, but I was the only one she would let read the paper. I asked her if she wanted to write more, and she said she did. I recommended Tanysha for counseling, but our school building has one part-time counselor for over a hundred students who are mandated for counseling. Since Tanysha is not on the list of students mandated for counseling, she may not get seen. This school system is infuriating. I went to the assistant principal's office distraught over the situation. He told me that I needed to "toughen up," and he has yet to do anything to attempt to get Tanysha counseling. "Toughen up." This from a man who's never taught special education students and who called one of my students a "throwaway kid."

Oh yeah, back to trying to find the positive side of Kevin entering the class (it's so easy to get lost in the negative here). Well, Kevin's screaming could have gone on for a month, just as Tanysha's had. I quickly learned that Kevin spent most of his childhood moving from home to home within the Bronx foster care system, so I thoroughly expected more screaming from him. But on Friday, Tanysha quickly put Kevin in his place when he started screaming at me again.

"You can't yell at my teacher," she yelled. "Only I can yell at my teacher!"

For the first time, Kevin shut up. Tanysha went on, "My teacher helped me! If you stop your screaming she can help you too 'cause you obviously got issues!"

Wow. Pretty powerful what can happen when you give a troubled kid a keyboard.

For the first time in a week, we got through our English lesson.