Farewell, Jamaica High School

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08/19/2008

JB McGeever

Neighborhood: Across the River, Queens

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In New York, boy, money really talks--I’m not kidding...   Holden Caulfield Remarkable events have always had their place in the English wing of Jamaica High School, occurrences so uniquely American, happening at such a steady rate, that after awhile they almost seemed ordinary. This fall, for instance, I’m fully confidant that George will shoot Lennie for the one millionth time, that Gatsby will pay dearly for loving Daisy, and that Atticus will do everything in his power for Tom Robinson, but it just won’t be enough to sway that jury.

The only thing different about this year at Jamaica is the number of students the Department of Education will allow the school to teach. I’ve just been excessed from the regular faculty so I won’t be teaching the classics this year. I am now on Absent Teacher Reserve status, basically a substitute in my own building, and until I find myself a new school, the city will view me as a burden and a hanger-on. I should have ‘my classroom’ cleaned out by the end of the day.

Four years ago I was an adjunct instructor at Southampton College, teaching writing and literature to incoming freshmen, when slowly and then quite suddenly Long Island University halted the flow of students to its Southampton campus and shut the place down. LIU’s departure was swift and unnerving, like something out of Broadway’s Miss Saigon. The only thing missing was the choppers floating overhead before leaving us all behind.

I remember wandering the uncut grounds when it was over, peeking into the shuttered windows of my old classroom before security asked me to leave. We always assume that institutions will outlive us, that hospitals, schools, or places of worship are meaningful and untouchable. Whenever bureaucracy steps in with its procedures and quotas it just seems wrong and unnatural, like snuffing out a flame at someone’s memorial vigil.

The college left me one gift though. Those freshmen classes that tenured professors wanted no part of had been mine and many of the students were products of New York City. Growing up in Suffolk County, the city kid was a myth, something to read about in the paper or watch on a movie screen. My students were bright and charming and a pleasure to teach. That spring I crashed a Teach NYC job fair at the Brooklyn Marriot and had three offers in fifteen minutes.

I recall one school in particular that tried to woo me. I hadn’t even wandered into their vicinity before two attractive reps were waving me toward their booth like sirens. Come check out our brand new school, they said, only 150 students, and state of the art Dell computers provided by the Gates Foundation. It sounded too good to be true and was way up in the Bronx, clearly out of my commuting range, so I passed.

Had I shown up for the interview, I would have discovered that there was nothing new about the place. The ‘campus’ would have consisted of one or two hallways inside of some pre-existing, eighty year old building with imaginary borders instituted. Essentially, one of the DOE’s College Board ‘Boutique Schools.’ And perhaps their students would have been using brand new Dell equipment with smaller class sizes, but what about the others who went to school in the same building? How could these ‘boutique’ students have so many advantages within the same system? Did the Gates Foundation know their generosity was being handled in such a way? It appeared that a form of educational apartheid was being practiced. I shrugged it off, though, and interviewed at Jamaica, not realizing that I had just glimpsed the future.

When I arrived at Jamaica High School for the first time I was dumbstruck by its stature, the bell tower, cement pillars, and classic brickwork, those enormous wings stretching atop Gothic Drive like some majestic bird. The auditorium had these gorgeous chandeliers that custodians maintained with a sixty foot pole. The library hall was covered with black and white photos of the school’s past, students posing in letterman sweaters and slicked back hair like movie stars. Jamaica’s website even boasted Francis Ford Coppola and Bob Beamon as two of its famous alumni. I pictured the future auteur daydreaming out a window, while the future Olympian bounded up the steps to class. The place looked like something out of a movie, which made sense because three films were shot there in my first two years. Clearly, this was the stability and community that I’d been seeking, just layer upon layer of New York City history.

My classroom is almost bare now. Everything has been pulled from the walls, student essays and inspirational posters, even a playbill of a performance called Jamaica, Farewell, about a woman’s desire to emigrate to America. Fitting that it’s one of the last things in my hands as I prepare to leave. Just a few short story collections to return to the book room then poof. Like I was never even here.

Unlike Long Island University’s withdrawal from Southampton College, the Department of Education’s abandonment of Jamaica High School was a carefully drawn out and demoralizing process. The first step was to pressure the former principal into instituting a zero tolerance policy in the building. The occasional fight was now an assault charge. Cell phone disappearances were reported as thefts. The building’s crime statistics exploded and Jamaica was branded an Impact school, one of the city’s most dangerous. This label brought constant NYPD presence in the building, everyday scanning with metal detectors, as well as camera surveillance in the hallways.

During this time, Far Rockaway High School was completing its own death throes orchestrated by the DOE. It was the usual routine: the school was marked as dangerous then shut down and completely restructured. Many of their students were then shunted to Jamaica, as well as teachers and administrators. Because security’s main concern was securing the lobby, large cavernous sections of the building were left unattended. There were puddles of urine in the stairways by first period and poker games on the steps in the afternoon. Any complaint made by faculty to a safety agent was met with stony indifference.

In just a year the atmosphere of the building had changed dramatically. We quickly evolved into the kind of school the DOE wanted us to become: undesirable. After the NYPD moved in and enrollment started to drop, the Far Rockaway staff now working at Jamaica took on the role of soothsayers. This is it, they would say. This is how it starts... They’re coming for Jamaica next. We laughed them off as ridiculous, a bunch of Chicken Littles telling us the sky was falling. Why in the world would our own system deliberately sabotage us? But they were absolutely right.

Jamaica’s feeder middle schools then advised their students to go elsewhere, which led to budget cuts, and excessed teachers. Words like ‘warehouse’ were used by DOE officials to describe the building, while other teachers from nearby schools would casually enquire on the subway, Are they done shutting you down yet?

The truly galling aspect was the role the DOE played throughout this entire process, pulling all the proverbial strings then acting like some innocent bystander with blood on its hands. It’s reminiscent of the way Don King promotes heavyweight title bouts, stirring up controversy then stepping aside to chuckle, Only in America.

Look at this beautiful building that you’re unable to fill, DOE officials eventually said without a trace of irony. You leave us no choice but to restructure. The next twist of the knife was the surreal experience of having our new principal introduce an even newer one- of the same building. The shell shocked-faculty just sat there, a tiny trickle of applause out of habit. The rest simply folded their arms and stared. There’s no reason why we can’t coexist under the same roof, said the newer principal, yet weeks later officials from her school interrupted Jamaica’s classrooms during instruction. Even though they wouldn’t open their doors, which were actually our doors, until the fall of ‘08, they couldn’t wait to measure for all those brand new computers of theirs. Here’s your hat, what your hurry? was an expression that came to mind, but maybe I was just being paranoid.

Throughout this lengthy ordeal, the Department of Ed never actually stated its intentions. It was obvious to everyone involved that a precise script was being followed, but because no one admitted that our building was marked for death, the immediate impulse was to try to rescue it. This past year Jamaica did everything it could to stay alive, reaching out to politicians and media, visiting middle schools, printing out t-shirts. There was even a face to face plea with the chancellor himself.

On April 14, Jamaica faculty and friends arrived to the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) meeting at Frank Sinatra High School to essentially ask Chancellor Klein for clemency, or at least a temporary stay of execution for Jamaica. In actuality, Frank Sinatra High School turned out to be two floors of a nondescript office building, the exact type of environment Jamaica was struggling not to become (Imagine the look on Ol’ Blue Eyes if he ever knew the truth about the school named in his honor). Astonishingly, the building claimed to house three other high schools, just press an elevator button in the lobby and there you are. Citizens of New York, beware of fetching that morning cup of coffee. You may discover that overnight the Department of Ed has set up a few desks, plugged in some computers, and is referring to your kitchen as a brand new, state of the art, smaller learning community.

As meeting time approached Jamaica personnel drifted into the building’s lobby. There were many of us so it took some time to wait for available elevators. No one quite knew what to expect. The buzzing exhilaration of seeing colleagues outside the workplace was swirling about. The last thing anyone anticipated was an appearance by a rock star, but that’s exactly what we got.

First came the whispers and head turns, giving way to an eerie silence as this strange force of nature moved past us toward the elevators. I remember taking a tentative step forward when an open palm immediately stiff armed me right back into place, a disembodied voice saying, PLEASE STEP BACK... Did I get off at the wrong stop? Maybe I was really in Times Square, staring up at the Mtv windows. No. It was just the chancellor of schools and his entourage making their way to the PEP meeting.»

There was no acknowledgment of any kind. No Good afternoon, folks, no See ya upstairs, just the ding of the first floor and the chancellor and his people commandeering the first available elevator. The only thing missing was the Darth Vader theme music as we stood in the lobby watching them go. And with that, any notion of being on the same team as the DOE, separate entities united for a common goal, was completely obliterated.

Once inside the Frank Sinatra auditorium, Jamaica parents, students, and faculty got in line and waited their turn to speak behind a contingent of school psychologists who felt burdened by too much paperwork. The psychologists pleaded their case for over an hour, and they had every right to do so. By the time they were through, though, it was apparent that these PEP meetings were nothing more than gripe sessions for school employees, an opportunity to vent disappointments and frustrations, one person right after another, while the chancellor and his staff did everything in their power not to look bored and hungry. I got the impression that if I grabbed hold of a microphone and asked if there was any way of bringing the Dodgers back to Brooklyn, no one on the panel would have batted an eye.

Overall, Jamaica High School represented itself well. We didn’t come close to saving the building from restructuring and budget cuts, but it was a touching show of solidarity.

All that’s left is to stack these last remaining books and my connection to Jamaica as a full-time faculty member is through. There are countless ways of gauging history on this campus, but this English department book room is a time capsule in itself. The old wooden shelves that house the books are covered in graffiti. Each mark looks like it was done just an hour ago, scribbles done quickly so a teacher wouldn’t see. There’s an entry done weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked. There’s one for the year Kennedy was assassinated. If you stand still you can almost hear the kid breathing as he stretches beneath a shelf to leave his mark. Imagine the chain rattling that takes place inside this room every time a student is frisked at the front door or a surveillance camera is secured to an eighty year old wall. But I digress... I leave my own mark and the year I was here just above a stack of Huck Finns then shut the door behind me.

About eight weeks after attending the PEP meeting I was handed an envelope in a crowded hallway between classes: Please be advised that you have been placed in excess in our school. I sincerely regret the need for this action and thank you for the professional blah, blah, blah... With nothing but rumors and a strict DOE quota, the building was fortunate to get an incoming freshman class at all. We were unable to bring in enough students to sustain our budget and envelopes were delivered to faculty and staff all over the building. Quite frankly, it was a blood bath. So the t-shirts didn’t work and neither did the cardboard boat race. The same goes for attending PEP meetings, and of course, the writing of essays. You see, the funny thing about Absolute Power, it tends to have deaf ears and sharp claws.

And what exactly is the mayor’s take on this rash of teachers placed on Absent Teacher Reserve, an unfortunate trend that he helped create? “We are spending tens of millions of dollars, which we are struggling to come up with, and the taxpayer [money] would be better spent on the classroom [than] on supporting these teachers,” was his last official quote on the subject. Interesting. He and his First Lieutenant Klein labeled my building dangerous in order to free up space for some educational experiment then would like nothing more than to simply scrape away the excess once it’s through. I rearranged my life for this job. Just four short years later it’s as though the Department of Ed is inviting me to flee to the suburbs the way the city’s cops do.

As I complete this goodbye note, the mayor and his chancellor are beaming in all the newspapers. Apparently, the city’s charter schools have performed well on New York State achievement exams so the air is ripe for high fives all around. One paper even described the two men as “crowing” with enthusiasm. Please note, NYC, that there is nothing human about numbers, especially numbers that can be cooked so easily. When you see these men rejoicing in the press, it’s not for the sake of your children. It’s simply because everything is going according to plan. When the mayor took over the city’s schools and formed the DOE, he and Chancellor Klein vowed to teach those civil servants a thing or two about the real world, invoking practices like corporate downsizing, layoffs, and full-scale restructuring. That pesky union may have frustrated them at first, and the concept of tenure baffled them, but they were determined to find a way around this.

Their aim was to run education like a business or run it into the ground. So what if a few hundred teachers were treated like refugees when their historic buildings were chop shopped and closed under false pretenses, forced to wander job fairs with resumes in tow. So what if your child and thousands like him were deemed dangerous, scanned and frisked each morning so that space could be made for these charter and boutique schools. As with any business, the bottom line was all that mattered, and the bottom line came in the form of standardized test scores. For if these numbers were to somehow go up, even just a little, that would be the stuff of dreams. With all those digits falling into place, folks might forget all about the DOE’s union busting, as well as its dehumanization of minority students. Once those magical scores hit the newsstands, well, it’s what press conferences are made of. Smile for the cameras, gentlemen.

Incidentally, now that the first academy is on its way, guess which building was just taken off the Impact list of most dangerous schools? It turns out Jamaica wasn’t so dangerous after all, or perhaps it wasn’t good business to open a boutique academy inside an allegedly unsafe building so our scarlet letter was removed.

But what about the student who just spent two and a half years getting frisked each morning, the one who quietly went along with the DOE’s ruse because he had no choice? Maybe he grew up in a home that didn’t trust law enforcement to begin with. Now he was greeted by it every morning, the police van barking orders on the loudspeaker as he approached the building, the long winter lines waiting to get in- Hey, what’s that on your backpack? Gang colors? No just a flag from home. Well, get rid of it.

Perhaps during this time tragedy struck less than a mile away from his school, at some creep joint called Kahlua, and this kid thought, Hey, what else is new? Same old, same old. And the next day at school he was scanned and frisked and the day after that and the one after that until, Hey, don’t you guys know me by now? Step to the side, please... Lay your backpack on the table, and remove your belt...

After a while he came to the conclusion that maybe there were really two cities: Us and Them. Then he found this really cool t-shirt that said exactly how he felt, a parody of the Warner Brothers’ WB logo: If you see a cop, Warn-a-Brotha.... Get it? He started putting pro-Sean Bell stickers all over his school after that, on textbooks, windowsills, and radiators that said something to the effect that the city itself was the one who was really guilty.

Then maybe, when no one was looking, the kid took a nice long whiz on the staircase each morning to show his disgust for the disgust his city showed him every time he entered his school building. To hell with it, he thought. To hell with this whole damn place. Then he graduated- another member of NYC’s walking wounded, another generation of cop hater.

Where I grew up, in all white, suburban high school on Long Island, the only law enforcement I ever saw in the building was on Career Day. In fact, if I dust off the photo of my high school football team, I can easily spot over a dozen future cops, troopers, and deputies. It’s as if one community is telling its young, This is what you can be one day, while the other says, This is who’s keeping an eye on you- constantly. Only the mayor and his chancellor of schools can explain why such strong arm tactics are necessary to create space for their precious boutique academies.

With the windows closed and the walls completely bare, my classroom no longer looks the same. It’s just some hot, foreign place with no trace of me left. But for anyone still interested, the lessons of the day are as follows: George shoots Lennie because he loved him and because you never let someone else do your dirty work for you. Gatsby turned out all right in the end, it’s what preyed on Gatsby that we must be aware of, and no matter where we are in American history, it will always be a sin to kill a mockingbird.

The only other item left is in the right hand drawer of what used to be my desk, a DVD of the last film shot here, We Own the Night. By the time Jamaica High School makes its cameo the mobsters have all been killed and the two stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, are licking their wounds after the big shootout. The camera pulls back to reveal our lobby, minus the portable metal detectors, of course. Inside, our auditorium doubles for a NYPD award ceremony, which unfortunately makes a kind of demented sense. There’s those beautiful chandeliers hanging overhead, illuminating a sea of movie cops. There hasn’t been a play on that stage in over two years. Our auditorium is nothing more than a weigh station for kids to adjust their backpacks and belts after morning scanning, yet there’s Phoenix and Wahlberg at the podium, looking brave and heroic. The wonders of movie magic, I guess...

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