Photo by Library of Congress
In the spring of 1980 I was a cocky new teacher of English as a Second language, fresh from education grad school, with innovative pedagogy that I couldn’t wait to try out on students. My first job in New York was a gem: “Vocational ESL.” It was funded by the feds and I’d gone to the French Quarter in New Orleans for training. By night I’d visited blues clubs to see Professor Longhair. By day I’d studied how to teach foreigners words like “key punch card, “on-off switch” and “transmission.”
Back in Manhattan my new workplace was called Solidaridad Humana—Human Solidarity. It was a giant shipwreck of a public school on Suffolk and Rivington Streets, long abandoned and vandalized before being commandeered by militants and mural painters with barely enough funds to clean the graffiti. The temperature inside was ridiculous even in March: we had no heat from oil. But there was plenty of heat from enthusiasm. The students were all recent arrivals from the Dominican Republic. Their population in New York was still small then, and they were breathtakingly ambitious. I had the vague sense they worked in shady places for illegal alien wages, and I knew they wanted clean labor in bright offices and big auto repair shops run by Americans. I knew because those were the jobs whose vocabulary I was supposed to teach them. And these were the words we used. We never talked about how they made a living in the meantime.
I was young and cute with Jewish chick hippie body hair, and the female students kept saying, “Miss! You need to clean your eyebrows!” They didn’t mean it as an insult; the overarching vibe at Solidaridad Human was that everyone was beautiful—and since everyone was so hopped up on the place, that sentiment was heartfelt. The girls were curvy and had names like Leydy. The boys were polite and adorable. Even the old people were sexy, the men in their baggy tango suits on Fridays when we all stayed late and ate big squares of Dominican cornmeal pudding—majarete—and put salsa music on a boom box and danced; the matron-aged, worried women with makeup nonetheless, and heroically bared old cleavage.
I ran a tight ship but a fun ship. “Teacher,” a student said once when I had them sing Joni Mitchell, “In this class it’s not just about how to work or how to buy a subway token. Teacher you love the English language!” Once during a punch-card lesson, I was thinking about last night with my boyfriend and the students saw my face and started laughing. Then Leydy announced she was marrying Joanny. Maritza started going with Rafy. It was hot in my class—there were even rumors that the hottest girl of all, a gloriously tall, rouged-cheek-boned 22 year old named Altagracia, was very ardent about Elvis and Emmanuel, and the class was so warm and mellow that the guys weren’t fighting over her but instead were sharing. A triangle? “Wow,” I thought, “The Lower East Side is burning!”
One day in late March I got a new pedagogy idea. I would tape-record some stuff off WNYC, bring it into class, and play it—over and over and over if need be—so the repetition would drum my students with gradual and indelible comprehension.
We started with the weather. “Blah blah blah blah blah rain blah blah,” I imagined them hearing at first, and I was right. “Rain teacher,” Elvis said. “I hear ‘rain.’
“Good, class!” I chirped. “Let’s listen again.
“Today, March 25!”
“Good, class! Now let’s rewind and replay.”
Blah rain blahblahrainyforty-oneblah blah.
“Rain today windy forty-one degrees!”
And so on, through about 14 repetitions, until they had the whole report burned in their brains, complete with grammar points like the future tense and even a few modals such as “should carry your umbrella.”
“OK, great!” I chirped again. “Now let’s try something more interesting. The news!”
“An anniversary, teacher!”
“Women in factory, teacher!”
Blah blah blah.
“Women in factory fell.”
Blah blah. I was really into it, with my eyes scrunched up, feeling like such a good, innovative teacher. Then I looked. And listened. There was no more English and Altagracia was crying.
“Ay dios mio todas murieron calcinadas?” she was saying, over and over in Spanish, just as I’d wanted everyone to do in their new language. “They all burned to death? They jumped? They burned! They jumped!”
Everyone was weeping, and not just from sympathy, I suddenly realized. On the faces of the women I saw stark fear.
“Teacher,” Altagracia said, and her tears rolled down. “We work in these places. We sew clothes. The doors are still locked! We ask for them to be unlocked and we’re refused!” She broke into sobs.
Elvis and Emmanuel moved toward her. Till now, whatever they had done to her or with her had been out of class and merely rumored. Now, wanting to comfort her, they risked mutual exposure and their cool. They stared at each other. The class stared at them. Everything felt dampened as it never had before.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, feeling like a terrible teacher and desperately wanting to redeem myself. “Shall we talk about the danger and what to do about it?”
“There is nothing to do,” one of the older women said frostily in Spanish, as though I was a nice teacher but an idiot one. “Nothing except to improve ourselves. No more news tonight. Let’s do the lesson about data-entry words.”
I felt terrible for the duration of the class, and terrible when I walked in next day. The students, though, seemed fine. Leydy and Joanny were planning their wedding, mostly in Spanish but a little in English, too. Maritza was making eyes at Rafy. Altagracia, as usual, was holding court with her flushed cheekbones and smoldering rumors.
Debbie Nathan lives in Upper Manhattan. Her book, Sybil Exposed, about the making of the 1970s bestseller Sybil, is due out in October from Free Press.